NISUS AND EURYALUS

BY F. STORR

Æneas was absent from the camp. Warned by Father Tiber he had gone with a picked band of followers to seek the alliance of his kinsman, King Evander, who with his Arcadians had settled themselves on the seven hills which now are Rome.

Whilst he was away, the camp was left in charge of his son Iulus, and as adjutant and counselor to the young prince he appointed his most experienced general, old Aletes.

But Juno, the implacable foe of Troy, had despatched to Turnus, the Rutulian Prince, her messenger Iris to tell him of Æneas' absence and bid him seize the occasion to storm the Trojan camp. So all day long the garrison, reduced in numbers and without its great captain, saw the tide of horse and foot, Latins, Rutulians, and Etruscans, gathering in the plain and sweeping onward to overwhelm them, like the Nile in full flood. As Æneas had bid them, they retired within their intrenchments, too strong to be carried at the first assault.

At nightfall the enemy withdrew, and the weary defenders lay down to sleep, but in fear of a night attack they ventured not to unbuckle their armor, and at each camp-gate was posted a strong guard of sentinels.

Conspicuous among the captains of the guard was Nisus, whom his mother, Ida, the world-famed huntress, had sent as squire to Æneas, no less skilled than his mother with javelin or with bow. With him as his lieutenant was Euryalus, the fairest youth, save Iulus alone, in all the Trojan host, the down of manhood just showing on his cheek, elsewise as round and smooth as a girl's.

The two were more than brothers-in-arms, inseparable as twin cherries on a single stalk; the one followed the other as his shadow, and their love was more than the love of man and maid.

And now as they kept watch together they thus conversed:

Nisus. I know not what ails me, brother, but to-night I feel a wild unrest, a strange prompting to be up and doing some doughty deed. What think you, brother? Is it an inspiration of heaven or only my own fiery spirit, pent up within these walls and fretting for the fray? Mark you, brother. The enemy's camp is silent as the tomb. Not a sentinel is stirring, and the rare watch-fires burn low. 'Tis plain to me that the captains, having driven us back to our trenches, have been celebrating their victory and are now buried in drunken slumber. Now I will expound to thee the plan that is working in my brain. At all hazards Æneas must be summoned back from the city of Evander—so our generals and men are all agreed. If only my proposal is accepted, methinks I have discovered a way to bear the message and work our deliverance.

Euryalus. Verily 'tis a glorious venture and well worth the risk, but thou speakest as if the venture were thine. Can I have heard thee aright? Truly, brother, the plan is thine, but the execution is ours. Thinkest thou, brother, alone to put thy head into the lion's mouth? Shall I not share thy triumph or thy death? In life we have been one, and in death we shall not be divided.

Nisus. Nay, brother, I never doubted thy courage or thy love. This thought alone, perhaps a selfish thought, was mine: if perchance I should fall—and sanguine as I am of success I know 'tis a perilous hazard—I would fain one sure friend survived to lay my body in mother earth, or if that grace is denied, at least to perform due rites at my cenotaph. I thought, moreover, that thou art the younger man and thy mother's only son.

Euryalus. Out on thy vain excuses! Only if thou takest me with thee will I forgive them. My mind is set. Let us to work.

So they called to the nearest sentinels to relieve them of their guard and hurried to seek Iulus. They found him in his tent presiding over a council of war, but the sentries let them pass on business that would not wait. It chanced that the captains were at that moment debating how possibly to convey a message to Æneas informing him of their pressing need, and when Nisus expounded to them his plan, assuring them that as a young hunter he had explored every inch of the ground and knew a secret forest path that would lead them to the rear of the enemy's camp, he was welcomed as a messenger sent from heaven. Old Aletes laid his hands on their heads and with tears in his eyes blessed the gods for sending such deliverers. "Young heroes!" he cried, "your virtue is its own reward, but Æneas, when he returns, will know how to recompense you." Iulus, with boyish generosity, promised them his choicest treasures, embossed tankards and two talents of gold, aye and the charger and arms of Turnus, whose fall was certain when Æneas returned; and he put his arms round Euryalus' neck (the youth was scarce older than himself) and called him his brother-in-arms.

Boldened by this signal favor of the prince, Euryalus, on bended knee, besought one parting boon. "Prince," he cried, "I have an aged mother who for my sake left her native home and the court of King Acestes to accompany me to the wars. I may not stay to bid her farewell and receive her blessing, nor could I dare confide to her our perilous errand. Thou hast deigned to call me brother: O prince, be to her a son. To know that thou wilt be here to solace and comfort her will give me fresh confidence." The prince swore to love and cherish her no less than his own lost mother, Creusa, and wishing him Godspeed he girt on his shoulder the sword of that famous Cretan swordsman, Lycaon, with hilt of wrought gold and scabbard of ivory. To Nisus, Achates gave his own helmet, that had borne the brunt of many a shrewd blow.

Thus armed and charged with many messages from Iulus to his father they left the camp, and the captains sent after them a parting cheer.

The night was dark, but Nisus could almost have found his way blindfolded through the familiar forest. In a short hour they had reached the camp unperceived, and then, as Nisus had anticipated, they found a scene of barbarous revelry. Amongst tilted war-chariots, tethered horses, and empty wine-jars men lay stretched in drunken slumber.

"Follow me," whispered Nisus, "and keep an open eye lest any attack me from behind. I will hew thee anon a path of blood by which we can both pass to our goal."

With drawn sword he rushed on Rhamnes, who lay snoring on a pile of broidered coverlets: an augur was he of royal blood, but little did his augury avail him that day. His three attendants soon followed their master to the shades. Like a ravening wolf who has leapt into the sheepfold he dealt havoc right and left, and all that Nisus spared the sword of Euryalus despatched.

"Enough," cried Nisus, at length sated with carnage; "our way through the enemy is clear, and the tell-tale morn is nigh at hand." Much rich spoil they left behind—flagons of gold and silver, gemmed goblets and broideries; but Euryalus cast longing eyes on a huge baldrick with bosses of gold, an heirloom of the dead augur, and he strapped it round his shoulder; nor could he resist (proud youth) the temptation to try on a bright helmet with flaming crest of Messapus, the Tamer of Steeds. With these spoils to attest their glorious raid, the pair left the camp and gained in safety the open.

Their task seemed well-nigh accomplished, but it chanced that a troop of three hundred horse, despatched from the Latin capital as an advanced guard for Turnus, were just then approaching the camp from the opposite direction, and espying in the twilight the glint of the helmet they challenged the pair. No answer was returned, and Nisus, who was leading, quickened his pace to gain the shelter of the forest. The horsemen wheeled round and sought to cut off their retreat, but they were too late, and Nisus was already speeding down a winding bypath that he knew full well, when he looked back, and to his horror perceived that Euryalus was not following. "Euryalus!" he shouted, but no answer came. He turned and painfully retraced his steps. Soon he heard the tramp of horses among the brushwood and broken branches, and guided by the sound in a clearing of the forest he saw Euryalus, his back against an oak, like a stag at bay, facing a ring of horsemen. What was he to do? To save himself by flight was unthinkable, but should he rush at once on certain death? In desperation he breathed a prayer to his patron goddess Diana. "Queen of the woods," he cried, "by the gifts I have offered on thine altar, by the vows I have daily paid, help me now in my utmost need and guide my aim!" So praying, he hurled with all his might a spear, and so straight and swift it flew that Sulmo was transfixed from back to breast, and the shaft snapped off short as the barbed head quivered in the wound. A second spear buried itself in Tagus's brain, and he too bit the dust. Volscens, the captain of the troop, saw his two comrades struck down as by a bolt from the blue, and with drawn sword he turned on Euryalus crying, "If I cannot reach the fiend who hurled those spears, thy blood at least shall atone the bloody deed."

At this Nisus could no longer restrain himself, and leaping from the covert he shouted, "I, none but I, am the guilty cause. Oh, spare this innocent boy and turn your swords on me! To love his friend too well, this was his only crime!" But his words were vain; while yet he spoke the sword of Volscens had pierced the boy's heart and stained with gore his white side, and he drooped his head like a poppy drenched with rain, or a harebell upturned by the plowshare.

At the sight Nisus hurled himself into the thick of his foes, scattering them right and left with the lightnings of his glaive, till he forced his way to Volscens, and with a dying effort smote the murderer of his sweet friend. Pierced with a hundred wounds he fell upon Euryalus' prostrate corpse, and a smile was on his lips, for in death they were not divided.

Such was the tale that Virgil sang, and the prophecy that he uttered nigh upon two thousand years ago has been fulfilled:

"O happy pair, if aught my verse avail,
Your memory through the ages shall not fail,
While on the Capitol Rome's flag is seen
And Rome holds sway, Italia's Empress Queen."