HERCULES AND NESSUS

BY H. P. MASKELL

Fairest among the maidens of Ătolia was Deianira, daughter of Œneus, King of Calydon. From far and wide came suitors seeking her hand in marriage, but her father promised to give her only to him who could prove his strength and courage above all others. What lover, however ardent his desire, dare venture to try his skill against Hercules? And when the hero came to court only Achelous the river-god would enter the lists against him.

Long and fierce was the battle between these two as they rushed together, grasping each other foot to foot, fingers pressed upon fingers, and forehead to forehead. For some time they seemed equal in strength, but Hercules pressed harder, and seizing his enemy by the shoulders threw him to the earth. In vain Achelous changed himself into a serpent; his throat was grasped with a grip that would strangle him in spite of all his lithe, winding folds, and the hissing as he darted forth his forked tongue. In vain, too, he sought to change the issue of the fight in the form of a wild bull. The hero took him by the horns, and held him to the ground. One of the horns he tore off by main force. The Naiads took this horn, filled it with fruit and flowers, and offered it to the goddess of Plenty.

So Hercules was victor in the lists of love, and won for prize the king's fair daughter. Many years the happy pair abode in Calydon, and children were born to them. Deianira was a happy wife, and her only grief was that her lord was so often absent from home, for Hercules would never rest from his toils. On one of these adventures he had been persuaded by his wife to take her with him, and on their way home they came to a broad and rapid river. The stream was swollen with winter rains, and the eddies were deep and dangerous. Nessus the Centaur, who lived in a cavern close by, offered to carry Deianira over on his back. He knew the fords, and his strength was as the strength of ten. So Hercules trusted his wife to the Centaur, although she was almost as much afraid of Nessus as she was of the dark roaring torrent. He himself threw his club and crooked bow across, and plunged boldly into the stream.

Just as he reached the farther bank and was taking up his bow he heard a scream. Nessus had betrayed his trust, and was about to carry off Deianira in the very sight of her husband. Swiftly flew an arrow from the bow, which pierced the traitor's back. It was tinged with poison from the hydra, and the wound was mortal. Nessus, as he drew the barbed steel from his body, muttered to himself, "I will not die unavenged." Then handing his blood-stained tunic to Deianira, he cried, "I have sinned, and am justly punished. Pardon a dying man, and in token of forgiveness accept from me a dying gift. Keep this tunic as a talisman. If ever thy lord's love should wax cold, or he should look upon another woman to love her more than thee, give him this charmed tunic to wear, and it will rekindle his old passion."

Time passed by, and the feats of the mighty Hercules were known all over the world. Returning victorious from battle he was preparing a sacrifice vowed to Jupiter on Mount Œta, when he found he lacked the proper dress, and sent a messenger to Deianira for a robe. Meanwhile rumor had been busy, and a tale had reached the ears of Deianira that Hercules was in love with Iole, daughter of Eurytus, whom he had lately vanquished and slain. As she loved him, she believed it, and alarmed with the story burst into a torrent of grief. But soon she took comfort. "Why these tears? They will only flatter my rival. I must seek some means to keep my husband for myself." And then she bethought herself of the tunic that Nessus had given her. What if she gave this tunic to the messenger, so that Hercules should wear it, and so by its virtue her husband be restored to her again?

The fatal gift was sent. Hercules, not knowing whose it had been, put it on as he went to sacrifice. As he was pouring wine on the altars the venom from the garment began to work. He tried to tear the tunic from him, but it clung to him like a coat of pitch. He rolled in agony on the ground, he tore away his very flesh, he roared in agony like a wounded bull, and the hollows of Œta reverberated his groans. At last he fell exhausted, and his comrades bore him on a litter to the ships. Then Hercules knew that his end was come, and, preparing himself to die as a hero should, he gave his last injunctions to his son.

A pile was built with trees at the top of the mountain. To his friend Philoctetes he gave the famous bow and quiver. Then, when the fire had been kindled, he spread over all the skin of the NemŠan lion, and laid himself down upon it, with his head resting on his club, as calmly as a guest resting after the banquet.

Jupiter, looking down from heaven, saw the hero thus peaceful amid the flames of the burning pile. "He who has conquered all men," he cried, "shall conquer also these fires. Only that which is mortal and which he received from his mother can perish there. His immortal part I will receive into the realms above." And the other gods assented. Even Juno, who had pursued the hero so cruelly during his life, had no word to urge against their decision. The burning pile was shrouded in a mist of dark smoke; and while the mortal body of Hercules fell into ashes, him the great father, taking up among circling clouds, bore aloft to the glittering stars in his chariot drawn by four fiery steeds.