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Bulfinch's Age of Fable

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NISUS AND SCYLLA


Minos, king of Crete, made war upon Megara. Nisus was king ofMegara, and Scylla was his daughter. The siege had now lasted sixmonths and the city still held out, for it was decreed by fatethat it should not be taken so long as a certain purple lock,which glittered among the hair of King Nisus, remained on hishead. There was a tower on the city walls, which overlooked theplain where Minos and his army were encamped. To this tower Scyllaused to repair, and look abroad over the tents of the hostilearmy. The siege had lasted so long that she had learned todistinguish the persons of the leaders. Minos, in particular,excited her admiration. Arrayed in his helmet, and bearing hisshield, she admired his graceful deportment; if he threw hisjavelin skill seemed combined with force in the discharge; if hedrew his bow Apollo himself could not have done it moregracefully. But when he laid aside his helmet, and in his purplerobes bestrode his white horse with its gay caparisons, and reinedin its foaming mouth, the daughter of Nisus was hardly mistress ofherself; she was almost frantic with admiration. She envied theweapon that he grasped, the reins that he held. She felt as if shecould, if it were possible, go to him through the hostile ranks;she felt an impulse to cast herself down from the tower into themidst of his camp, or to open the gates to him, or to do anythingelse, so only it might gratify Minos. As she sat in the tower, shetalked thus with herself: "I know not whether to rejoice or grieveat this sad war. I grieve that Minos is our enemy; but I rejoiceat any cause that brings him to my sight. Perhaps he would bewilling to grant us peace, and receive me as a hostage. I wouldfly down, if I could, and alight in his camp, and tell him that weyield ourselves to his mercy. But then, to betray my father! No!rather would I never see Minos again. And yet no doubt it issometimes the best thing for a city to be conquered, when theconqueror is clement and generous. Minos certainly has right onhis side. I think we shall be conquered; and if that must be theend of it, why should not love unbar the gates to him, instead ofleaving it to be done by war? Better spare delay and slaughter ifwe can. And O if any one should wound or kill Minos! No one surelywould have the heart to do it; yet ignorantly, not knowing him,one might. I will, I will surrender myself to him, with my countryas a dowry, and so put an end to the war. But how? The gates areguarded, and my father keeps the keys; he only stands in my way. Othat it might please the gods to take him away! But why ask thegods to do it? Another woman, loving as I do, would remove withher own hands whatever stood in the way of her love. And can anyother woman dare more than I? I would encounter fire and sword togain my object; but here there is no need of fire and sword. Ionly need my father's purple lock. More precious than gold to me,that will give me all I wish."

While she thus reasoned night came on, and soon the whole palacewas buried in sleep. She entered her father's bedchamber and cutoff the fatal lock; then passed out of the city and entered theenemy's camp. She demanded to be led to the king, and thusaddressed him: "I am Scylla, the daughter of Nisus. I surrender toyou my country and my father's house. I ask no reward butyourself; for love of you I have done it. See here the purplelock! With this I give you my father and his kingdom." She heldout her hand with the fatal spoil. Minos shrunk back and refusedto touch it. "The gods destroy thee, infamous woman," heexclaimed; "disgrace of our time! May neither earth nor sea yieldthee a resting-place! Surely, my Crete, where Jove himself wascradled, shall not be polluted with such a monster!" Thus he said,and gave orders that equitable terms should be allowed to theconquered city, and that the fleet should immediately sail fromthe island.

Scylla was frantic. "Ungrateful man," she exclaimed, "is it thusyou leave me?--me who have given you victory,--who have sacrificedfor you parent and country! I am guilty, I confess, and deserve todie, but not by your hand." As the ships left the shore, sheleaped into the water, and seizing the rudder of the one whichcarried Minos, she was borne along an unwelcome companion of theircourse. A sea-eagle ing aloft,--it was her father who had beenchanged into that form,--seeing her, pounced down upon her, andstruck her with his beak and claws. In terror she let go the shipand would have fallen into the water, but some pitying deitychanged her into a bird. The sea-eagle still cherishes the oldanimosity; and whenever he espies her in his lofty flight you maysee him dart down upon her, with beak and claws, to take vengeancefor the ancient crime.


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