SCYLLA, THE DAUGHTER OF NISUS

BY MRS. GUY E. LLOYD

In Crete, the greatest and most powerful of the isles of Greece and the cradle of Jupiter, there once stood a splendid palace where lived the wealthy King Minos. To this palace came as guests one day Nisus, King of Megara, and his fair daughter Scylla; and there they abode many days, with every day fresh delights sought out by King Minos to give them pleasure. And Scylla, like a fond and foolish maiden, was dazzled by the pomp and by the flattery of King Minos, and he seemed to her the greatest and wisest of living men, and she would fain have tarried there forever, hearkening to his words and admiring all his riches.

But King Nisus would not longer stay, and they departed, bearing with them rich gifts from the generous king, and returned to their own castle at Megara. Very small and mean did her home seem to Scylla now, and often would she climb to the top of a turret that looked over the sea, and thence she would gaze and gaze towards the south, and her thoughts would fly back to the fair island of Crete with its cities and its palaces, and its strong and noble king, till she envied the birds that skimmed past her turret on swift, light wings. They could fly to Crete whenever they would, and settle on the palace eaves; but the princess must sit still in her high turret, and hide even her longing away within her heart.

The days passed by, and Nisus went no more to Crete, but Androgeos, son of King Minos, came to Megara and abode there some little space, and the king and the princess welcomed him kindly for his father's sake. After his visit Androgeos would not sail back straight to his father's halls; he was minded first to see the great city of Athens, the eye of Greece. King Nisus warned him that the road across the mountains was difficult and dangerous, and that many robbers hid among those hills; but the prince would not be warned. He went his way, and the next news of him that came was that he had been set upon by bandits and murdered.

"He should have hearkened to the counsel of older and wiser men," said King Nisus. "I grieve for the youth, but he brought it on himself."

But when Minos the king heard that his son Androgeos was dead, he was stricken with a great grief, and he sent to King Nisus demanding blood-money, since the prince was slain in the lands of the Megarians. But Nisus refused to pay.

"It was no fault of mine," he said; "and I shall make no reparation for the death of one whose blood is on his own head."

Then was King Minos wroth, and threatened to make good in person his rightful claim.

So it chanced on a day when the Princess Scylla looked forth from her turret over the sea, as her custom was, she saw great ships, with bellying white sails, drawing near from the south; and as they rose upon the heaving billows, the sunbeams glinted back from many a shield and spear, for they carried the mailed warriors of King Minos coming to wrest from King Nisus blood-money for the death of Androgeos, son to King Minos, who had been slain by robbers on the lands of King Nisus.

Then stepped forth from one of the ships the herald of King Minos, and he came into the palace of Megara and proclaimed his master's will to all that stood there.

But Nisus the king frowned upon the herald. "I will pay no blood-money," he said. "Go your ways to your master and tell him so. Better were it for him to be satisfied with this answer of mine and to turn and hie him home. Little use is it for mortal men to strive against those who are protected by the undying gods. I care not for the wrath of King Minos, and the spears of his warriors have no more power to hurt my people than the bulrushes that children gather in the fields and break in mimic warfare with each other."

"Thou speakest in riddles, King Nisus," replied the herald; "but my master is of kin to the immortals, and it cannot be that they will let him quail before a petty king like thee."

So the herald turned and went back to his ships; and when King Minos heard that King Nisus refused to pay the blood-money, he made him ready for battle.

Then the men of Crete fought stoutly against the men of Megara, and day after day the tide of battle surged around the walls of the town. But strive as they might the men of Crete won no inch of ground, but the men of Megara drove their foes before them like sheep.

At length the warriors of King Minos began to murmur among themselves and to repeat the words that King Nisus had spoken to the herald.

"If the city of Megara is indeed defended by the deathless gods," said they, "what avails it to fight and to strive?"

And Minos knew that his men murmured, and his heart was sore within him.

The Princess Scylla looked forth one day upon the host that was besieging the city of her home, and she chanced to see King Minos pass quite close to her casement. So near was he that she could see his face quite plainly. Pale and sorrowful he looked with grief at the death of his son and disappointment at the failure of his attack. He stood for a moment looking despairingly at the strong walls of his enemy's city, seeking and seeking as often before, and ever in vain, to find some way for his warriors to win passage into the town. At length he passed on his way, sad and dejected, for he saw no way at all of gaining the mastery in the strife.

But the heart of the princess beat fast with love and sorrow. "Alas!" she thought to herself, "King Minos is fighting a hopeless battle, for none may gain any advantage over my father, so long as he keeps safe the purple lock of hair that the gods have placed upon his head as a spell against every evil. Vain is the strength of the warriors of Crete, vain the wisdom of their king. The bright lock of King Nisus will hold him and his people safe through every attack."

The princess covered her face with her hands, and sat for a little space silent and miserable. Then on a sudden she raised her head and a new light was in her eyes. She was the only child of King Nisus, and when he died the city and the palace would be hers. The only man whom she had ever wished to wed was the stately King Minos. If he would but wed her all would be well; he should reign, as her husband, over the city against which he was leading his warriors in vain. And surely King Minos would willingly wed her as a reward if she put within his power the victory he had striven in vain to wrest for himself from the men of Megara.

There was feasting that night in the hall of King Nisus, and the princess herself poured out her father's wine, and he was well pleased that she should wait upon him, for of late she had moped in her chamber and refused to share his feasts. But when the banquet was over a strange drowsiness weighed down the eyelids of King Nisus, for Scylla had mingled the juice of poppy and mandragora with the wine. Then the king sought his bed and lay there as one in a swoon, and his guards, who had drunk of the poppied wine, slept also as they kept watch before the door of Nisus. And when all was dark and still the princess Scylla stole softly to her father's chamber, holding a pair of shears in her hand.

She drew back the heavy purple curtain that the moonlight might stream into the room, and then, kneeling beside the couch, she sought the bright lock on which depended the fortune of Megara, and with her shears she shore it off. Then, drawing the curtain close again that the moonlight might not awake the king, she hid the lock safely in the corner of her veil, and glided silently from the room.

The moon was making a glittering path across the sea that murmured softly on the rocks, and all was still and dark within the city, when the watchman of the Cretan host saw a woman drawing near. Her bent head was shrouded in a dark veil, so that he could see naught of her face as she came, but she called to him in his own tongue, praying to be led forthwith to King Minos.

"Nay, maiden, whosoever thou may'st be," replied the man. "The king is asleep in his tent at this hour, and none may have speech with him."

"I will hold thee blameless, friend," said the princess; and the man was awed by her imperial speech and manner, and turning he led her to the tent of King Minos, passed within the curtains, roused the king, and brought him forth into the moonlight.

"Who art thou who would'st speak with me?" asked the king, glancing keenly at the veiled woman.

"I must speak with thee alone," she whispered, for she was now overcome with shame, and her tongue clave to the roof of her mouth.

But the king recognized at once the voice, and bidding the sentinel go back to his post, he asked in amazement: "What would'st thou with me, Princess Scylla?"

Then the maiden flung back the veil from her head, and taking heart of courage, looked straight into the eyes of King Minos. "In the days that are gone," she made answer, "kind words were spoken between thee and me, O King. Remember now thy past affection, and look upon me gently, for through great peril come I to win happiness for both our peoples, and for thee and me, if thou wilt have it so."

And King Minos read her love in the eyes of the maiden, but in his own heart was naught but bitterness for the unatoned death of his son and for his many days of fruitless warfare. Nevertheless he spoke gentle words, for he hoped that the love of Scylla might bring him profit.

Then the princess took from her bosom her father's magic lock, and held it out to the king. "Behold the fortune of my father and of his people," she said. "This bright lock was placed on my father's head by the undying gods, and as long as it was safe no evil could befall him or his people; but I have shorn it off and brought it to thee, for peace is better than war, love is stronger than hate; and surely thou wilt look kindly upon her who plucks victory from defeat, and holds it forth for thee and thy warriors to take."

Then King Minos took the lock, and he smiled upon Scylla as he made answer: "I take thy gift, fair maiden; when the battle shall be ended we will speak of the requital."

So, wrapping her veil once more around her head, Scylla passed forth from the tent of King Minos, and took her way, not back to the towers of her home, but down to the sea-shore. Here she found a hidden nook among the rocks where she flung herself down, fordone and distracted by her own fierce hopes and fears.

She had thought to be very happy when she looked once more upon the face of King Minos and heard him speak kindly to her; but there was no joy in her palpitating heart: only a vague dread as she remembered the smile of the king and a vague hope as she repeated to herself his words of promise.

Lulled by the sound of the lapping waves and murmuring over and over to herself, "When the battle shall be ended we will speak of the requital," the wearied princess sank at length to sleep.

The sky above her head flushed crimson with the rising of the sun; the warriors of King Minos came forth from their tents and set themselves in battle array. All through that day the princess slept on, while the men of Megara rushed to defend their crumbling walls, and King Nisus, roused from his heavy sleep, discovered his loss and flung himself into the front of the battle, knowing that now he fought in vain, since the magic lock was gone that had brought victory to him and his people.

Sore amazed were the men of Megara to find that their foes were driving them backwards. At first they fought desperately, hoping that the Cretans were gaining the advantage only for a time, but presently it began to be whispered through the ranks that the favor of the immortals had deserted Megara, and men flung down their arms and fled headlong.

The sky was reddened again by the sunset when Scylla was roused from her long slumber of exhaustion by the tramp of armed men close to her hiding-place. Lifting herself up, she peered cautiously between the rocks, and saw the Cretan warriors, bearing the spoils of the plundered city, returning to their ships. For King Minos was in haste to journey on and make Athens share in the punishment of Megara, since it was on a journey from Megara to Athens that his son Androgeos had been slain, and both the cities shared in the guilt of the slayer. Scylla watched the hurrying ranks, at first not understanding what they did. Then, on a sudden, she saw approaching the stately form of King Minos, and she came forth from among the rocks, and waited, hoping he might look upon her. But seeing that he made as though he would pass by, the princess stood in his path.

Then said King Minos coldly: "What wilt thou with me, maiden?"

And a great fear caught at the heart of Scylla, and she clasped her hands to her bosom as though she were at her last gasp. Yet with a supreme effort she made her last appeal: "My home is desolate, my father slain. 'Tis I, his daughter, who gave the battle to thy hands. I come, King Minos, to claim my promised guerdon."

And King Minos made answer: "There is no gift in the world precious enough to make requital to a maiden who by her own deed has slain her father and laid her home in ruins and the pride of her people in the dust. I will not mock thee, princess, by striving to equal thy gift."

And King Minos passed on his way to his ship; and as they followed him his warriors gazed with horror upon the maiden who had given the life of her father into the hand of his enemy; for all men knew by now that the safety of Nisus and his city had depended upon the magic lock, and that his daughter had shorn it from him and given it to King Minos.

But Scylla stood on the rocky pathway where she had hearkened to the mocking words of King Minos, and the blue heavens seemed black above her head, and the silver sea black beneath her feet, and nowhere in the world was there for her any help or comfort.

The troops of warriors passed her by and embarked in the ships that waited for them there below the cliff. The sunlight faded and the moon came out, and still the stricken maiden leant against the rock where Minos had dashed all her hopes to ruin.

At length the song of the mariners came up from the sea, telling that the men were on board and the ships ready to sail, and with a cry of bitter anguish Scylla crept to the top of the rock that overlooked the sea. She saw the ship of King Minos moving slowly from the shore, and clasping her hands above her head, she leapt from the tall cliff.

And men say that the gods had pity on her, and changed her into a sea-lark. But her father was wrath with her even in death, and he craved of the infernal powers the boon of vengeance. Therefore he was turned into a sea-eagle, and still the father, with hooked hands and ravenous beak, watches from his mountain walls to swoop upon his feathered daughter, who flits along the shore and cowers in the crannies of the rocks.