Now, after two years and more had passed in peace, there came one day to Ithaca an aged wanderer who had many things of great import to tell. For he had been in every land and in every clime, and had trod the streets of every city, even from Pylos to Iolcos by the sea; and he knew what deeds had been done by all the heroes, and what fortunes or misfortunes had befallen mankind in every part of Hellas. And Odysseus and the elders of Ithaca loved to sit around him in the banquet chamber of Laertes, and listen to his stories, of which there was no end. For in that wonderful Golden Age, these strollers--blind bards and story-tellers--were the people's newspapers, and oftentimes the only means by which those of one country could learn aught of what was passing in another.
"Alas! the world is no longer as it was in the days of my youth," said the old newsmonger, one morning, with a sigh. "The heroes are all passing away. Indeed, of the older race, I can now remember only three who are still living,--Peleus, the king of the Myrmidons; Nestor, of lordly Pylos; and Laertes, in whose halls we are sitting."
"You forget Cheiron, the wise master," said Odysseus.
"By no means," was the answer. "It is now seven years since Zeus took him from earth, and set him among the stars. Some say that Heracles, while fighting with unfriendly Centaurs, unwittingly struck the great master with one of his poisoned arrows. Others say that the master, while looking at an arrow, carelessly dropped it upon his own foot, thus wounding himself unto death. But who is right, I cannot tell. I only know that Cheiron lives no longer in his cave-hall on rugged Pelion, and that the old heroes are all fast following him to the land of the unknown."
"But what of Neleus, the old father of Nestor? And what of my dear friend Iphitus of Œchalia? And what of great Heracles? Surely the race of heroes still lives in them."
"Can it be that you have not heard the sad story?" asked the old man. "Can it be that no one has yet brought to you the strange news, over which all Hellas has been weeping? Two harvests now have passed since the noble spirit of Iphitus fled down the dark ways,--it may be to the gloomy halls of Hades, it may be to the dwelling-place of fair-haired Rhadamanthus in the Islands of the Blest. And old Neleus followed swiftly in his footsteps, his feeble life snuffed out by the mad hand of Heracles. Nor did great Heracles himself long survive the evil deed and the wrath of the eternal powers. But now he sits enthroned on high Olympus, and walks the earth no more."
"Pray tell us how it all came about," said King Laertes anxiously.
Then the old news-monger, prefacing his story with a sad, wild song, told how the greatest hero of the Golden Age met at last his master, even Death, the master of all earth's creatures. And this was the story that he told:--
"When Heracles fled from Calydon, as you already know, he went to Trachis in Thessaly, close by the springs of Œta; and there he abode a long time. Yet his mind was ill at rest, and dire forebodings filled his soul; for cruel Here was threatening him with madness, such as had once before darkened his life and driven him to deeds too terrible to think upon. And so, at length, he kissed his dear wife and his lovely babes, and went forth to wander once more in loneliness from land to land. He knew that he would not return; and, unknown to Deianeira, he left in his dwelling a letter, such as men write when they feel that the end is drawing nigh. In it he told how the doves in the old oaks of Dodona had shown him that within the space of a year and three months he should depart from this earth; and then he gave directions how his goods should be given to his children and his friends, and what they should do to hold his memory in honor.
"After this he took ship, and came by sea to his old home at Tiryns, where erstwhile he had served his brother and task-master, Eurystheus. There he sojourned many days; and there he met Iphitus of Œchalia, his friend in early youth, seeking twelve horses of great worth and beauty, which had been stolen from him.
"'Go you to Pherae in Messene,' said Heracles, his mind even then verging towards madness. 'It may be that the beasts have been taken by the lawless men of that country, for they live by robbery. But if you fail to find your horses there, come again to Tiryns, and report to me; and then I will aid you, even though we should have to seek them in the pasture lands of old Autolycus beneath the shadow of Parnassus.'
"So Iphitus, with a score of his bravest followers, went down into Messene and Laconia, and even to the gates of Lacedæmon, looking for his horses. But he found no traces of the beasts; and in time he came again to Tiryns, as the great hero had directed him.
"Sad, however, was the day of his return, for the mind of Heracles was shrouded in deep darkness. While Iphitus sat as a guest at his table, the mighty son of Zeus arose in his madness, and slew him; and Heracles cared not for the vengeance of the gods, nor for the honor of his own board. Moreover, the goodly horses of Iphitus were even then feeding in his stables at Tiryns, for Heracles himself had found them.
"But after this the light began to struggle feebly in his mind, and the thought of his crime bore heavily upon him. Then he remembered old Neleus, the most ancient of men, and knew that he sat in the market-place at Pylos dealing out justice to all who came to him. And straightway he went by the nearest road to Pylos, and besought Neleus the venerable to purify him for the evil deed that he had done. But Iphitus and his father, old Eurytus, had been very dear to Neleus,--comrades and friends, indeed, in the stirring days of their youth.
"'The blood of good Iphitus be upon you,' said the old man to Heracles; and he would not purify him, neither would he comfort him with words of kindness.
"Then madness again overpowered the great hero, and in his wrath he marched through Pylos breathing slaughter. And he slew old Neleus in the market-place, and put his sons and the elders of Pylos to the sword, sparing only the knightly Nestor, most discreet of men. But the fury of the great hero was not to run unchecked. The ever-living powers can never look with favor upon that man who slays his guest in his halls or who deals harshly with old age. And so they caused Heracles to be sold to Omphalé, queen of Lydia, to serve her as a bond-slave for a year and a day. And in that far-distant land he toiled at many a thankless task until the days of his bondage were ended. Yet the great cloud was only a little way lifted from his mind, and he thought to himself that all the misery that had ever been his had come upon him through the house of Eurytus. So he swore with a great oath, that, when he had gotten his freedom, he would utterly destroy Œchalia, and would sell all its people into bondage. For, in a dazed, unreasoning way, he remembered fair Iole, and the slight which Eurytus had put upon him when he made trial of his skill in archery.
"Now, when he was set free, he remembered all too well the vow which he had made; and when he had overthrown Œchalia, and had taken captive all the fair women and children, he bethought him that he would go again to Trachis where his wife and children still dwelt. But on his way thither he stopped for a time in Eubœa to offer sacrifice to Zeus; and he sent his herald Lichas on before him, with certain of the captives. When Lichas came to Trachis, and made himself known to Deianeira, she asked him what word he had brought from Heracles his master.
"'He is alive and well,' said the herald, 'and he tarries for a while in Eubœa to build an altar to Zeus.
"'Why does he do that?' asked Deianeira.
"'He does it to fulfil a vow,' answered the herald,--'a vow which he made ere yet he had overthrown Œchalia and had led captive these fair women whom thou seest.'
"Then Deianeira drew nearer, and looked with pity upon the captives as they stood in sad array on the shore of the desolate sea. And she lifted her hands toward heaven, and prayed that the great powers would keep her from such a fate and would shield her children that so sad an evil should never overtake them. Then she saw that one among the captives was much more beautiful than the others, tall and very fair, with long golden tresses, and eyes as round as the moon and as blue as the deep sea. And Deianeira, wondering whether she were not some great man's daughter, asked her who she was; but the sad captive answered not a word. The tender heart of the queen was filled with pity; and she bade that the beautiful lady should be taken into the great hall of Heracles, and treated with the utmost kindness, that so she should not have sorrow heaped upon sorrow. Then she asked Lichas to tell her who the lady was; but he said that he knew not, save that she seemed to be well born.
"But now when Lichas had gone to the tents by the shore, there came to Deianeira in the palace a mischief-maker who told her that Lichas had not answered truly in this matter.
"'He knows, as well as I, who this fair stranger is,' said the mischief-maker. 'She is the daughter of King Eurytus of Œchalia, and the sister of Iphitus. Her name is Iole; and it was for the sake of her beauty that Heracles destroyed her father's city.'
"Then Deianeira was sadly troubled lest the heart of the great hero should be turned away from her, and his affections set upon this lovely captive. So she sent again for Lichas, and questioned him still further. At first he denied that he knew any thing about the fair lady; but afterwards, when hard pressed, he said, 'She is indeed Iole, the fair damsel whom Heracles loved in the springtime of youth. But why he has brought this great grief upon her, and upon her father's house, I cannot tell.'
"Sorely troubled now was Deianeira, and all day long she sat in her chamber, and pondered what she should do. And when the evening was come, she called her friends together, the women and maidens who dwelt in Trachis, and talked with them.
"'I have been thinking of what I can do to keep my husband's love,' she said. 'I had almost forgotten that I have a charm which will help me, or I might not have been so sadly troubled. Years and years ago, when we were fleeing from my dear old home at Calydon, we came to the river Evenus. The water was very deep, and the current very swift; but there lived on the banks of the stream an old Centaur, named Nessus, whose business it was to ferry travellers across to the other shore. He first took my husband safely over, and then myself and our little son Hyllus. But he was so rude, and withal so savage in his manners, that Heracles was greatly angered at him; and he drew his bow, and shot the brutish fellow with one of his poisoned arrows. Then my woman's heart was filled with pity for the dying Centaur, wicked though he was; and I felt loath to leave him suffering alone upon the banks of Evenus. And he, seeing me look back, beckoned me to him. "Woman," he said, "I am dying; but first I would give thee a precious gift. Fill a vial with the blood that flows from this wound, and it shall come to pass that if ever thy husband's affections grow cold, it will serve as a charm to make him love thee as before. It needs only that thou shouldst smear the blood upon a garment, and then cause him to wear the garment so that the heat of the sun or of a fire shall strike upon it." I quickly filled the vial, as he directed, and hastened to follow my husband.'
"Then Deianeira called the herald Lichas, and said, 'Behold, here is a fair white garment which I have woven with my own hands; and I vowed many days ago, that, if my husband should again come home, I would give him this garment to wear while offering sacrifice. Now he tarries, as you say, to do homage to the gods in Eubœa. Go back, therefore, to meet him, and give him this white robe as a gift from his wife. Say to him that on no account shall he let another wear it; and that he shall keep it carefully folded up, away from the light and the heat, until he shall be ready to clothe himself in it.'
"The herald promised to do as he was bidden; and in that same hour he hastened back to meet his master in Eubœa, taking with him his master's young son Hyllus.
"Not many days after this, a great cry and sad bewailings were heard in the house of Heracles; and Deianeira rushed forth from her chamber crying aloud that she had done some terrible deed. 'For I anointed the fair robe which I sent to my husband with the blood of Nessus the Centaur; and now, behold, the bit of woollen cloth which I dipped into the charm, and used as a brush in spreading it upon the robe, is turned to dust, as if a fire had burned it up. I have not forgotten any thing that the Centaur told me: how I was to keep the charm where neither the light of the sun nor the heat of the fire could touch it. And this I have done until now; only the bit of woollen cloth was left lying in the sunshine. Oh, fearful am I that I have slain my husband! For why should the Centaur wish to do well by the man who brought death upon him?'
"Hardly had she spoken these words when her son Hyllus came in great haste to the palace, even into the woman's hall where she stood.
"'O my mother!' he cried. 'Would that you were not my mother! For do you know that you have this day brought death and destruction upon my father.'
"'Oh, say not so, my son,' wailed Deianeira. 'It cannot be!'
"'But truly it is so,' said Hyllus. 'For when Lichas and myself came to Eubœa bearing the white robe which you sent, we found my father ready to begin his offering of sacrifices. And he was glad to see me and to hear from you; and he took the beautiful robe and put it upon him. Then he slew twelve fair oxen, and joyfully worshipped the ever-living powers. But when the fire grew hot, the deadly robe began to cling to him, and pangs, as if caused by the stings of serpents, shot through him, and the pains of death seized on him. He asked Lichas why he had brought that robe; and when the herald told him that it was your gift, he seized the wretch, and cast him over the cliff upon the sharp rocks beneath. And great fear filled the hearts of all who saw the sufferings of the mighty hero; and none of them dared come near him, so terrible were his struggles. Then he called to me, and said, "Come here, my son. Do not flee from your father in his great distress; but carry me from this land, and set me where the eyes of no man shall see me." And so we put him in the hold of our good ship, and brought him home with us to Trachis. And soon you shall see what you have done; for you have slain your husband,--a hero the like of whom the world shall never see again.'
"When Deianeira heard these words she made no answer, but, with one despairing cry, she hasted to her high-built chamber; and when, soon afterward, her maidens sought her there, she was dead. Then Hyllus came, also seeking her; for the women of the household had told him how she had been deceived by the dying Centaur. And when he saw her lifeless form, he wept bitterly, and cried out that now indeed the Fates had bereft him of both father and mother on the same day.
"Then they brought Heracles into his own broad hall, bearing him upon a litter. He was asleep; for the pain had left him a little while, and tired Nature was taking her dues. But the sad wailings of his son awoke him; and again he cried aloud in his agony, and besought those who stood around him that they would give him a sword wherewith to end his pain. Then Hyllus came into the hall, and told his father all about the terrible mistake which his mother had made, and how the Centaur had deceived her, and how she was at that moment lying dead, with a broken heart, in the chamber overhead.
"'Then, indeed, is my doom come,' cried Heracles. 'For long ago the oracles spake of me, that I should die, not by the hands of any living being, but by the guile of one dwelling in the regions of the dead. So now Nessus, whom I slew so long ago, is avenged; for he has slain me. Now, my son, carry me to the wooded summit of the hill of Œta, and build there a great pile of olive beams and of oak; and, when it is finished, lay me upon it, and set fire unto it. And shed no tear, neither utter any cry, but work in silence; for thus thou shalt prove thyself a son of Heracles.'
"The boy promised to do all this as his father wished, only he would not set fire to the pile. So when he had built the pile, and had put between the beams great stores of spices and sweet-smelling herbs, they laid Heracles upon it; and Philoctetes, the hero's armor-bearer, set fire to the pile. And Heracles, for this kindness, gave to Philoctetes his famous bow,--a weapon more marvellous even than the bow of Eurytus. Then the red flames shot high towards heaven, shedding brightness over land and sea; and the mighty hero was at rest. He had met his master."
Such was the story that the old news-monger told in the hall of King Laertes.