This is a chapter of Evergreen Stories by W. M. L. Hutchinson. It includes the following stories: King Midas and His Strange Adventures — Alcestis, the Noble Wife — The Real Helen — Cupid and Psyche — The Vision of Er — Circe, the Island Witch — Bellerophon, the Rider of Pegasus — How Theseus Slew the Minotaur — Odysseus in the Land of Shadows — Heracles and the Poisoned Robe | The Story of Pheidippides — The Story of Solon, Croesus, and Cyrus
Heracles and the Poisoned Robe has the following chapters: 1. Deianeira Awaits Heracles’s Return | 2. Deianeira Receives News Concerning Heracles | 3. Deianeira’s Deadly Gift | 4. Deianeira Realizes What She Has Done | 5. Heracles’s Last Wishes
The midsummer moon, now in her full splendor, flooded the courtyard with her silver light and paled the glow of burning torches, held by a company of men-at-arms who were gathered near the gate. In the midst of that group stood a litter heaped with pillows, broidered coverlets, and pelts of wolf and bear, and among these wrappings lay a quiet form, over which Hyllus was bending in silent anguish.
“The fiery pangs are past,” said a faint voice from the litter, “but I am dying… The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit. My son, are you beside me still? I cannot see you…”
“Yes, Father, yes, I am here,” answered Hyllus, and, taking the languid hand that was stretched forth to him, he pressed it to his lips and bathed it in hot tears.
“I am dying,” said Heracles again, “and by foul treachery… which you must avenge, my son, if ever you loved your father. But no… I have strength enough left for a last act of justice… my hand shall slay the traitress… I shall die easier knowing she has paid the price of her sin… and gone before me to that dark bourne whence none returns. Your mother, Hyllus, your vile mother has undone me… Bring her to me, I say, this instant… Must I bid twice? Away with you, boy, and beware a father’s curse if you linger.”
“Father,” said the boy, white to the lips, and speaking with difficulty, “I would have spared you this, but, since you accuse my mother, you must know all. I accused her, too… The gods forgive me, I cursed her to her face. And she turned and left me without a word. But the old nurse was there and showed me the truth — alas, too late! Father, she was guiltless — the drug she smeared on that fatal robe was given her by an enemy, who made her believe it was a love charm… she used it only for that… you know why.”
And then, brokenly and briefly, he repeated the story of the centaur’s gift, which the nurse had drawn from Deianeira in those hours of anguished waiting.
When he had made an end, Heracles said, dreamily and low: “Nessus… art thou my slayer? Then the oracle of Zeus is fulfilled, that was given me at Dodona, long ago… The black ringdove uttered it from amid the boughs of the sacred oak:
Fear not living mortal’s blow;
a dead man’s hand shall lay thee low.
Then, rousing himself: “But Deianeira… I have wronged her… I would make amends. Hyllus, bid your mother come to me. Quick, why do you loiter? Tell her I know all… and forgive her. Nay,” more faintly, “tell her to come and forgive me… there is need.”
“O father, father,” said Hyllus, sobbing, “she has forgiven you, and me too, I know it, in her great love. But she cannot come to you — not ever again. She… when she left me, she went into her chamber and shut the door… And a little while after, they found her there, lying on her bed as if asleep… But there was a dagger in her heart. Too well, too well I see now what drove her to such an end.”
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“Dead, then,” muttered Heracles; “but I will overtake thee, Deianeira, on the dark road. Soon, very soon, will I be with thee again, true wife! But, woe is me, I feel the fiery poison pangs creeping over me yet again. I’ll not die so… raging… like a mad dog… I, Heracles, that have lived worthy of the faith that was in me that I am verily a son of Zeus. Ay, so they call me, and Helper of Men… ’tis true, I have done good service to many, ridding their lands of savage beasts and more savage tyrants… Yet I lie here, forsaken of Zeus and all the gods, and of all mankind——”
“Not of me, father,” broke in Hyllus passionately. “Look on me — here stand I, your son, devoted to your service. Command me what you will, and I will do it or die.”
Heracles raised himself, slowly and with pain, from his recumbent posture, and, leaning on one elbow, gazed long and hard on the youth’s glowing face. Calmly then he said: “My son, I read truth and loyalty in your face, and that is well — for in you lies now the burden of handing down untarnished the fame of Heracles. It is a great inheritance — may you prove worthy of it, and of the high fortunes destined to our house, for, at this last hour, I am given to know by some divine intimation that, in ages yet to come, the proudest states of Hellas shall be ruled by princes who boast descent from Hyllus, son of Heracles. But now, on your allegiance as my true and loving son, this is what you must do. Carry me straightway to the top of Mount Oeta, the hill that overlooks this town; there hew down pine trees and build a pyre of the logs, and lay me thereon — and set it on fire.”
“Alas!” said Hyllus to himself. “The poison now works like madness in his brain.” Aloud he said: “Sir, ask me anything but that. To lay you, yet living, on a funeral pyre, and set light to it you must see I cannot… ’tis too horrible.”
Then answered Heracles in a low voice — but never tone so thrilled through nerve and vein of the hearer: “Son, as thou art lief and dear, and as thou wouldst avoid a father’s curse, I charge thee to do my bidding, and with speed, for I am dying, Hyllus, dying — and I choose to die not cabined here like a poisoned rat in a hole, but out yonder on the hilltop, under the starry sky, amidst mounting flames… that perchance may bear the soul of Heracles aloft with them… even to the heavenly hall where Zeus sits throned. Methinks I enter there, and the assembled gods rise up and bid me welcome to their feast… sweet Hebe fills my cup with nectar… my father in his majesty smiles upon me… No, no, ’tis but a dream, bred of the poison in my veins. Zeus… if Zeus there be… had not left his son to perish thus… I can be none of his. But if I have no father, I have a son… it is to him I turn. My son, my son, will you fail me too, in my worst, last need?”
“I will not, indeed I will not,” Hyllus answered, weeping hot tears. “All your commands shall be obeyed on the instant. Only, my father, pardon me in this one thing — I cannot, I dare not, set the torch to the pyre where you are laid… yet alive. Someone else must do that… if indeed anyone can be found so steelhearted.”
“Content you, my son,” said Heracles, “for my trusty squire, Philoctetes, will do me that last service, I know. Call him… He stands yonder somewhere, among my men-at-arms. Is he here?… Promise him, then, the reward of my bow and arrows for kindling the pyre, for you must know, he is a good archer, and proud of it… Does he consent? That is well. Now bear me forth to Mount Oeta —and quickly, quickly— I can no more. Farewell, my son, farewell!”
Having thus spoken, Heracles fell into a trance so deep and death-like that it was ever afterward a question among eyewitnesses of the last scene, whether or no his spirit had passed before his body was laid upon the funeral pyre. Only they knew that his closed eyes opened no more on the world that through much toil and tribulation he had made better for his fellow men. Calm and deep peace was on his worn face as they looked their last on it — and calm of mind fell on them also as they stood, gazing in silence, until a great curtain of flame, rushing heavenward with sound as of a mighty wind, hid him from their sight.