The Little Heracles.

(Idyl xxiv.) Ten months have rolled o'er Heracles,
And, save a single night,
'Tis now as long since Iphiclus
First issued to the light.
Alcmena Mideatis
Hath held them to her breast,
Hath washed them, and hath laid them
Within a shield to rest;
A brazen shield, a noble shield,
That Pterelaüs bore;
But, smitten by Amphitryon's arm,
He bears that shield no more.

And the mother, smoothing gently
Her children's silken hair,

  ― 185 ―
Spake thus: “Sleep, sleep, my little ones,
The sleep that knows no care!
Sleep, darlings, sleep, my treasures twin,
For ye are watched by me;
Sleep full of peace, and in the morn
Waken as peacefully!”
Then in the big shield-cradle
She rocked her treasures twin,
And Sleep, like noiseless dew, came down,
And softly entered in.

But when unto his setting
Circleth the weary Bear,
And broad Orion watcheth him
As he sinks into his lair:
At midnight, crafty Hera
Sent forth two monsters dire,
Two dragons rolling seablue folds
Bright-bristling in their ire;
Unto the chamber-threshold,
Where the door-posts grant them way,
She sent them, urging them with threats
Young Heracles to slay.

The ravenous pair uncoiling
Flowed swift along the ground,
Their hissing mouths spat poison,
Their eyes rained fire around;
But when, like flame, their forked tongues
Were flickering for the stroke,
Then (for Zeus knoweth all things)
Alcmena's babes awoke:
And a mysterious splendour
Flooded the silent room;
A splendour as of noonday
Had chased the midnight gloom.

When Iphiclus beheld the snakes
Above the hollow shield,
And saw the fangs so pitiless
Their gaping jaws revealed,
He shrieked, and with a hasty kick
Cast off the counterpane,
Striving to flee; but Heracles
Right-boldly grasped the twain,
Seizing each monster by the throat
His cradle arching o'er—

  ― 186 ―
The throat, where venoms foul are brewed
That e'en the gods abhor.

Around the child, the baby-boy,
Born but within the year,
The suckling hero from whose eye
Had never dropt a tear,
They wound themselves in double coils—
Quickly unwound again,
For in his iron grip they writhed
With labour and with pain,
A cry rang in Alcmena's ear,
She started in her bed,
And waking in a wild, vague fear,
Unto her lord she said:

“Amphitryon, rise; arise, I say;
I tremble—dearest, rise!
Wait not to put your sandals on,
List to our infant's cries!
And see, the walls are all a-glow,
Though yet 'tis early night;
All things, though day is distant far,
Are bathed in ruddy light!
Something has happened passing strange
Within the house, I know;
Arise, arise, Amphitryon,,
My dearest husband, go!”

She spake, and from the cedar couch
Darted her willing lord,
Lifting his hand where on its peg
Hung aye his well-wrought sword;
His new-spun belt he strained to reach,
And in the other hand
Lifted his scabbard, gaping wide,
Twined of the lotus-band—
When suddenly deep darkness reigned
Throughout the spacious room;
The awful ruddy light gave place
To still more awful gloom!

Unto his slumbering servants
He shouted, “Instantly
Snatch from the hearth a blazing brand,
And bring it unto me!

  ― 187 ―
The strong bolts force, swing back the doors
Against the chamber walls!
Arise, arise, wake up, my men!
It is your master calls!”
In breathless haste the servants came,
Each with a blazing light,
And crowding pell-mell in the room,
Once more drove back the night.

And when, I ween, they saw the babe,
The suckling Heracles,
And writhing in his tender hands,
The snakes in deadly squeeze;
Smitten with wonder at the sight,
They cheered with loud acclaim,
And clapping hands gave prophecy
Of the boy-hero's fame:
Who held his prey with child-like glee
Up to his marvelling sire—
Then leaping in a victor's dance,
Cast down the monsters dire.

All parched with fear, young Iphiclus,
In passionate distress,
Alcmena soothed upon her breast
With many a fond oaress;
But 'neath the coverlet of wool
He placed his other son
Once more, and straightway to his couch
Went back Amphitryon:
And when the cocks proclaimed the dawn,
Teiresias was called
To interpret the strange prodigy
That had the house appalled.

“And hide thou not,” Alcmena said,
“Whate'er of secret ill
It may portend, but faithfully
Thy prophet's task fulfil.
Wise as thou art, Eueris' son,
I tell thee, soon or late,
I know that man of woman born
Must bow before his fate;
So from no fond concern for me
The coming evil hide!”
Thus spake the queen, and unto her
Teiresias replied:

  ― 188 ―
“Be of good courage, lady, mother of noblest progeny,note
Of Perseus' blood; for, by the light these eyes no more may see,
Many a Grecian woman, with yarn 'twixt hand and knee,
Spinning at eventide, shall sing, O queen, of thee—
Unto the Argive women a glory thou shalt be.

“Star-studded heaven shall be the home of thine heroic son.
O'er men and monsters through the world a victor he shall run;
On the Trachinian pyre consumed—thus is his fate-thread spun—
Amongst the gods he shall recline when his twelve works are done!
E'en she who set these reptiles on shall claim him as her son;
The day will come when from the wolf the kid no more need run.

“But, lady, 'neath the ashes let the red embers glow;
Paliurus, and Aspalathus, and the bramble pile in row,
And eke the brittle wild-pear boughs that the winds wave to and fro;
And at midnight, at the very hour they aimed their murderous blow,
These dragons twain on the blazing logs of the cleft wild-wood throw!

“In the morning let thy servant sweep the ashes of the fire,
And bear across the river of the dragons' funeral-pyre
The remnants grey—yea, every whit—gathered right carefully,
And cast them on the rugged rocks beyond the boundary,
And then return with eye ne'er bent on that it should not see!

“But, first with sulphur, then with salt melted in water pure,
And sprinkled with a fresh green branch, to cleanse thy house be sure!
And to guard its peace from foes henceforth for evermore,
To Zeus supreme straight sacrifice the fierce and bristly boar!”

Teiresias spake, and from his seat
Of gleaming ivory
Rose 'neath the burden of his years,
(An old, old man was he!)
And as the budding plant grows up
Beneath the gardener's care,
So bloomed the life of Heracles,
Watched by Alemena fair:
Thus tenderly from day to day
She nursed her darling son,
Proudly acknowledged by her lord,
Argive Amphitryon!

  ― 189 ―
Old Linus brave, Apollo's son,
Taught letters to the boy,
And found in sleepless guardianship
A never-ending joy;
And Eurytus, of acres broad
By long-descended right,
Taught him to bend the stubborn bow,
And speed the arrow's flight;
Philammon's son, Eumolpus,
Taught him the minstrel's skill,
And on a boxwood cithern
Trained his young hands to trill.

And how the men of Argos
Their wrestling rivals throw;
How with the loaded cœstus
To give the heaviest blow;
The crafty tricks that boxers use
In falling as they fight;
He learnt from him of Phanote,
The man of matchless might,
Harpalycus, Dan Hermes' son,
Who e'en at distance awed—
So black a scowl, like thunder-cloud,
Loomed o'er his visage broad!

To drive his steed along the course,
Bent eager o'er the pole,
And, guarding still his axle box,
To sweep around the goal;
All this, with fond, paternal pride,
Amphitryon taught his son,
For oft in Argive chariot-race
Amphitryon had won;
So skilfully he drove his cars,
They still continued sound
E'en when the thongs that first they bore
Lay mouldering on the ground.

Sword-cuts to scorn, and buckler-screened
To hurl the whizzing spear,
The band to form, the snare to spy,
The cavalry to cheer,
Castor, the exile horseman bold—
Wafted o'er ocean foam
To be his teacher—taught the boy;
From Argos forced to roam,

  ― 190 ―
Whose vineclad realm King Tydeus held,
Deipyle's rich dower:
Castor, ere age had sapped his strength,
Of demigods the flower!

Thus with right manly training,
Mellowed by mother's care,
The boy grew up, a hero e'en
In his most manly fare;
Roast meat, and a huge Dorian loaf
(Such as the delvers deal)
He dined upon, and took at eve
A frugal uncooked meal;
Clad in scant homely garments,
He wandered through the day;
At night, on a loved lion-skin,
Beside his sire he lay.