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Nessus. Herculis mors.

NESSUS AND THE DEATH OF HERCULES

Loss of his horn had greatly humbled him,
it was so cherished though his only loss, —
but he could hide the sad disgrace with reeds
and willow boughs entwined about his head.

O, Nessus! your fierce passion for the same
maid utterly destroyed even you, pierced through
the body by a flying arrow-point.

Returning to the city of his birth
great Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
with his new bride, arrived upon the bank
of swift Evenus—after winter rains
had swollen it so far beyond its wont,
that, full of eddies, it was found to be
impassable. The hero stood there, brave
but anxious for his bride. Nessus, the centaur,
strong-limbed and well-acquainted with those fords,
came up to him and said, “Plunge in the flood
and swim with unimpeded strength—for with
my help she will land safely over there.”

And so the hero, with no thought of doubt,
trusted the damsel to the centaur's care,
though she was pale and trembling with her fear
of the swift river and the centaur's aid.

This done, the hero, burdened as he was
with quiver and the lion skin (for he
had tossed his club and curving bow across
the river to the other bank), declared,
“Since I have undertaken it, at once
this rushing water must be overcome.”
And instantly, he plunged in without thought
of where he might cross with most ease, for so
he scorned to take advantage of smooth water.

And after he had gained the other bank,
while picking up his bow which there was thrown,
he heard his wife's voice, anxious for his help.
He called to Nessus who was in the act
then to betray his trust: “Vain confidence!
You are not swift enough, vile ravisher!
You two-formed monster Nessus, I warn you!
Hear me, and never dare to come between
me and my love. If fear has no restraint,
your father's dreadful fate on whirling wheel,
should frighten you from this outrageous act:
for you cannot escape, although you trust
the fleet-foot effort of a rapid horse.
I cannot overtake you with my feet
but I can shoot and halt you with a wound.”

his deed sustained the final warning word.
He shot an arrow through the centaur's back,
so that the keen barb was exposed beyond
his bleeding breast. He tore it from both wounds,
and life-blood spurted instantly, mixed with
the deadly poison of Lernaean hydra.
This Nessus caught, and muttering, “I shall not
die unavenged”, he gave his tunic, soaked
with blood to Deianira as a gift;
and said, “Keep this to strengthen waning love.”

Now many years passed by, and all the deeds,
and labors of the mighty Hercules,
gave to the wide world his unequalled fame;
and finally appeased the hatred of
his fierce stepmother.

All victorious
returning from Oechalia, he prepared
to offer sacrifice, when at Cenaeum,
upon an altar he had built to Jupiter,
but tattling Rumor, swollen out of truth
from small beginning to a wicked lie,
declared brave Hercules, Amphitryon's son,
was burning for the love of Iole.
And Deianira—his fond wife—convinced
herself, the wicked rumor must be true.

Alarmed at the report of his new love,
at first, poor wife, she was dissolved in tears,
and then she sank in grievous misery.
But soon in angry mood, she rose and said:

“Why should I give up to my sorrow while
I drown my wretched spirit in weak tears?
Let me consider an effectual check—
while it is possible—even before
she comes, invader of my lawful bed:
shall I be silent or complain of it?
Must I go back to Calydon or stay?
Shall I depart unbidden, from my house?
Or, if no other method can prevail,
shall I oppose my rival's first approach?
O shade of Meleager, let me prove
I am yet worthy to be called your sister;
and in the desperate slaughter of this rival,
the world, astonished, may be taught to fear
the vengeance of an injured woman's rage.”

So, torn by many moods, at last her mind
fixed on one thought:—she might still keep his love,
could certainly restore it, if she sent
to him the tunic soaked in Nessus' blood.

Unknowingly, she gave the fatal cause
of her own woe to trusting Lichas, whom
she urged in gentle words to take the gift,
from her to her loved husband Hercules.
He, unsuspecting, put the tunic on,
all covered with Lernaean hydra's poison.

The hero then was casting frankincense
into the sacred flames, and pouring wine
on marble altars, as his holy prayers
were floating to the Gods. The hallowed heat
striking upon his poisoned vesture, caused
Echidna-bane to melt into his flesh.

As long as he was able he withstood
the torture. His great fortitude was strong.
But when at last his anguish overcame
even his endurance, he filled all the wild
of Oeta with his cries: he overturned
those hallowed altars, then in frenzied haste
he strove to pull the tunic from his back.
The poisoned garment, cleaving to him, ripped
his skin, heat-shriveled, from his burning flesh.
Or, tightening on him, as his great strength pulled,
stripped with it the great muscles from his limbs,
leaving his huge bones bare.

Even his blood
audibly hissed, as red-hot blades when they
are plunged in water, so the burning bane
boiled in his veins. Great perspiration streamed
from his dissolving body, as the heat
consumed his entrails; and his sinews cracked,
brittle when burnt. The marrow in his bones
dissolved, as it absorbed the venom-heat.

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