The Tunic of Nessus
H ERCULES, passing through the land of Thessaly fell deeply in love with the Princess Iŏle, daughter of King Eurytus, whom her father, a famous archer, had promised in marriage to the man who should fly an arrow further than he.
This Hercules did with such ease that the king, angry at being surpassed, refused to perform his promise, so that Hercules went mad with rage and sorrow. In a sudden fury he slew Iphitus, a brother of Iole, and his own friend and comrade, and then, still more maddened by what he had done, wandered away again to Delphi to ask Apollo's oracle once more what he should do.
But this time the voice of Apollo was silent. It seemed as if, in spite of all he had done for men, the gods had turned away their faces from him, and had become deaf to his prayers, even to his repentance—for he would have given his own life if that would bring Iphitus to life again. Were they angry because he had saved Prometheus from their vengeance? Or were the labors of a life to be lost for one moment of passion? Then were the gods unjust, and Hercules, who abhorred injustice, broke forth against the gods themselves.
"I will no longer serve such wretches!" he cried. "Beings which bring man into the world only to torment him, and to be a sport and a jest for them! I will tear down their temples and destroy their altars; I will side with the fallen Titans; I will sooner bear the punishment of Prometheus forever, with none to save me, than serve monsters of injustice, who allow man to sin and to suffer without help, and then cast him away."
But Apollo was as deaf to his curses as to his prayers. So Hercules put forth his whole strength against the temple, and no doubt would have left it a ruin, when, from the clear sky there burst such flames and thunders that the Titans themselves would have been dismayed. And then spoke the oracle at last—
"Is this the free service you vowed when you chose between Pleasure and Duty? It is the justice of the gods that you go back into slavery again until you have learned how to be free."
The thunder and the lightning ceased, and Hercules saw beside him a young man who looked like a traveling merchant—at least for such he took him, until the stranger for one moment stood revealed as the god Mercury, with winged heels and cap, and bearing the rod round which two live serpents twined. It was only for a moment; the next, the god became the traveling merchant again.
"As we are to be fellow-travelers," said Mercury, "I will tell you at once that I am under orders from the Court of Olympus to take you to market and sell you for a slave. Do you submit? Or do you wish to learn from me the strength of heaven?"
"I wish I could learn its justice," said Hercules. "But I suppose I am too stupid to understand. Everything is so dark and so strange. But what does it all matter, after all? I would as soon be a slave as anything else, now that I have lost Iole and killed my friend."
"That is not the right mood," said Mercury. "It is better to rebel, as you did a minute ago, than to think that nothing matters, as you do now. However, let us go."
Mercury was always the most delightful and amusing of companions; and he was very good-natured also, and did his best to make the journey cheerful. But, though he was the god of Eloquence, and of Business besides, he could not persuade anybody to become the purchaser of Hercules either by auction or by private bargain. Nobody wanted a slave who looked so certain to become his master's master. Besides, people had forgotten all his good deeds, and only remembered that he had been a dangerous madman. But in time they came to a country in Asia called Lydia, which was then ruled by a queen whose name was Omphăle. And she, having seen Hercules, was brave enough to buy him.
Of course Hercules expected that she would make him outdo what he had done for Eurystheus; and nothing would have pleased him better than to be sent on the most impossible errands, so that, in toil and danger, he might forget his murder of Iphitus and his love for Iole. Instead, however, of treating him like the most glorious hero of his time, and employing him on services of honor, she amused herself by giving him a spindle and distaff, and setting him to spin among her women, while she robed herself in his lion-skin and tried to swing his club in her delicate hands. And whenever he was clumsy with the distaff, which was very often, she would laugh at him, and strike him across the face with her slipper.
For three long years Hercules sat and span among Omphale's handmaids; and then she, being tired of her amusement and of his submission, set him free, and gave him back his club and lion-skin. They had been three wasted, unwholesome years, and his strength had wasted with them; moreover, his fame was being forgotten, and nothing seemed left for him to do. How long it seemed since he had fought the Hydra and borne upon his shoulders the weight of the sky—it was as if he had become another and a feebler man.
While waiting to see what should happen, he abode at the Court of King Tyndărus of Sparta, the stepfather of the great twin brethren, Castor and Pollux, and of their sister Helen—the most beautiful woman in the whole world; of whom you will hear more some day. And it was while here that he heard of the fame of another beautiful woman, the Princess Deianira, daughter of King Œneus of Ætolia, whose hand was to be the prize of a great wrestling-match to be held at Calydon. Hercules, longing for some adventure to try his strength again, betook himself thither; and, weakened though he was, overthrew every one of his rivals with ease. Then, after his marriage with Deianira, he set out with her for the Court of King Ceyx of Trachinia, where he intended to remain a while.
But when they reached the river Evenus, which they had to cross on their way from Calydon to Trachinia, the water was so swollen with heavy rains that Hercules did not know how to bring his wife over. As they stood wondering what they should do without boat or bridge, there cantered up a Centaur, who saw the plight they were in, and said—
"I am Nessus. If this fair lady will deign to seat herself upon my back, I will swim over with her quickly; and then I will come back for you also."
He spoke frankly and courteously; so Hercules, thinking no harm, lifted Deianira upon the back of the Centaur, who plunged into the river, and soon reached the other side. But on landing, instead of performing his promise, he set off at a gallop; and it was soon clear enough that he meant to run away with Deianira, while Hercules stood helpless beyond the river.
He was almost out of sight when Hercules let fly an arrow, which had been dipped in the poison of the Hydra, with such force and so true an aim that it pierced the Centaur without touching Deianira. Nessus fell to the earth, and, feeling himself dying, said to her—
"I die for love of you; but I forgive you freely. Take my tunic; for it is of magic power. If your husband's heart ever strays from you, bid him wear it, and his love will return to you and never wander again."
So saying, he groaned and died; and Deianira, having taken from him his blood-stained tunic, waited there till Hercules, having found a ford higher up the river, was able to rejoin her. And so at last they reached the Court of King Ceyx, who received them with all kindness and honor.
Here they dwelt in great content; nor was there any cause why they should not have spent all their life to come in rest and peace, had not, by ill luck, a great war broken out between King Ceyx and King Eurytus of Thessaly. Hercules gained the victory for his host; King Eurytus was slain; and then—among the prisoners of war was the slain king's daughter, Iole; she on whose account Hercules had killed Iphitus, and cursed the gods, and been a slave.
Yet, seeing her again, all thought of Deianira passed away from him, and his love for Iole was stronger even than at first; while he found that her love had remained true to him and unchanged. He could not part from her, and so he took her with him to Mount Œta, where he was about to sacrifice to Jupiter in honor of his victory.
The altar was prepared, and the sacrifice was ready, when there arrived from Trachinia, the city of King Ceyx, his servant Lichas, who knelt before him, and said—
"The Princess Deianira, your loving wife, has heard of this great sacrifice, and sends you by me this tunic, which she prays you to wear for her sake, that she may have some part in your thanksgiving."
But in truth it was of her husband's love for Iole that Deianira had heard; and therefore she had sent him the tunic of Nessus, which was to bring his heart back to her again.
Little she guessed the cunning revenge of the Centaur, who knew that the arrow of Hercules, in piercing the tunic, had left upon it a drop of the poison of the Hydra. Hercules put on the gift of Deianira, and, accompanied only by Prince Philoctetes of Melibœa, ascended Mount Œta to celebrate the sacrifice. But no sooner had he reached the altar than the poison began to work, eating through his skin into his flesh, even to his bones, so that his agony was too great to bear.
He tried to tear off the fatal tunic; but the more he tore at it the more it clung. At last the agony began to gnaw his heart, and he despaired.
"Would," he cried, "that I had never been born! My strength has been my curse. I have labored to clear the world of evil; and pain and sin are still as strong as if the serpents had strangled me in my cradle. The Hydra is dead, but its poison goes on working; and open savage force is only changed into fraud and guile. Happier is Eurystheus, whom weakness and cowardice have kept from doing harm; wiser are they who choose peace and pleasure; who sit with folded hands, and let monsters and ogres devour whomsoever else they will. As for me, I have been a curse to those whom I have loved the best, and leave more evil in the world than I found. There is no use in strength, since it can be conquered by pain; nor in subduing others, when one cannot master one's own self; nor in duty without knowledge; nor in life, which is only blunder and misery and toil and sin. The best thing is never to have been born; and the next best thing is to die."
So he gave his bow and arrows to Philoctetes, whom he swore to bury his ashes in the earth, and never to reveal where they were laid. "For," said he, "I wish to sleep and forget and be forgotten. I will not that men shall pay me even so much honor as a tomb." Then he spread his lion skin over the altar, and laid himself upon it with his club for a pillow, and bade Philoctetes set fire to it, so that he might die, not of poison and treachery, but like a man, and of his own free will, making himself the sacrifice he had vowed.
Philoctetes mournfully obeyed. And thus miserably perished Hercules, the greatest and last of the heroes; for after him there came no more. Thus died the strongest of men, in the belief that all effort is useless, and that he had lived in vain.
But the gods knew better; for not once had they been unjust, in spite of seeming. They knew both his strength and his weakness; they saw the whole man—often foolish and sinful and weak; often failing and falling, but willing what was right, and loving it even when he fell into wrong. They judged him by his whole life, not by its wretched end, when he was maddened by passion and tortured by pain. The gods remembered how he had chosen between Pleasure and Duty; how he had striven with Tartarus for the life of Alcestis; how he had scaled Caucasus because he had heard a cry of pain; how, even when he cursed the gods at Delphi, it was because he thought them unjust, and because he loved justice and hated injustice with his whole soul and being. He might hold his own service cheap; but not they, for, with the gods, effort cannot fail: to fight is the same thing as to conquer. If Hercules had cut off ninety-nine of the Hydra's heads, and been slain by the hundredth, men would still have held him a hero. And so was it with the gods. They had watched his long battle with the Hydra of Life and Evil, and did not condemn him because he was slain before the end.
And so, in the fire of the altar on Mount Œta, his pains, his sins, his weaknesses, were purged away. And even as he was the only mortal who ever conquered Tartarus, so was he the only one who ever received such reward. Instead of being sent among the happy shades of the Elysian fields, he was received into the glory of Olympus, among the gods themselves, there, with strength made pure and perfect, to serve and help mankind forever.