A Question by Georg Ebers
Chapter I. The House-Keeper and the Steward.
"Salt sea-water or oil, it's all the same to you! Haven't I put my lamp out long ago? Doesn't the fire on the hearth give light enough? Are your eyes so drowsy that they don't see the dawn shining in upon us more and more brightly? The olives are not yet pressed, and the old oil is getting toward the dregs. Besides, you know how much fruit those abominable thieves have stolen. But sparrows will carry grain into the barn before you'll try to save your master's property!"
So Semestre, the ancient house-keeper of Lysander of Syracuse, scolded the two maids, Chloris and Dorippe, who, unheeding the smoking wicks of their lamps, were wearily turning the hand-mills.
Dorippe, the younger of the two, grasped her disordered black tresses, over which thousands of rebellious little hairs seemed to weave a veil of mist, drew from the mass of curls falling on her neck a bronze arrow, with which she extinguished the feeble light of both lamps, and, turning to the house-keeper, said:
"There, then! We can't yet tell a black thread from a white one, and I must put out the lamps, as if this rich house were a beggar's hut. Two hundred jars of shining oil were standing in the storehouses a week ago. Why did the master let them be put on the ship and taken to Messina by his brother and Mopsus?"
"And why isn't the fruit gathered yet?" asked Chloris. "The olives are overripe, and the thieves have an easy task, now the watchmen have gone to Messina as rowers. We must save by drops, while we own more gnarled olive-trees than there are days in the year. How many jars of oil might be had from the fruit that has dropped on the ground alone! The harvest at neighbor Protarch's was over long ago, and if I were like Lysander--"
"There would probably be an end of saving," cried the house-keeper, interrupting the girl. "Well, I confess it wasn't easy for me to part with the golden gift of the gods, but what could I do? Our master's brother, Alciphron, wanted it, and there was a great barter. Alciphron is clever, and has a lucky hand, in which the liquid gold we press from the olives with so much toil, and keep so carefully, becomes coined metal. He's like my own child, for I was his nurse. Here in the country we increase our riches by care, patience and frugality, while the city merchant must have farseeing eyes, and know how to act speedily. Even when a boy, my Alciphron was the wisest of Dionysius's three sons, and, if there was anything sweet to be divided, always knew how to get the largest share. When his mother was alive, she once told the lad to give her the best of some freshly-baked cakes, that she might take it to the temple for an offering, and what was his answer? 'It will be well for me to taste them all, that I may be certain not to make a mistake;' and when Clytemnestra--"
"Is Alciphron younger than our poor master?" interrupted Dorippe.
"They were sesame cakes with honey," replied the house-keeper, whose hearing was impaired by age, and who therefore frequently misunderstood words uttered in a low tone. "Is the linen ready for the wash?"
"I didn't ask about the cakes," replied Dorippe, exchanging a mischievous glance with Chloris; "I only wanted to know--"
"You girls are deaf; I've noticed it a long time," interrupted the house-keeper. "You've grown hard of hearing, and I know why. Hundreds of times I've forbidden you to throw yourselves on the dewy grass in the evening, when you were heated by dancing. How often I get absurd answers, when I ask you anything!"
The girls both laughed merrily.
The higher voice of one mingled harmoniously with the deeper tones of her companion, and two pairs of dark eyes again met, full of joyous mirth, for they well knew who was deaf, and who had quicker hearing than even the nightingale, which, perched on the green fig-tree outside, was exultingly hailing the sunrise, now with a clear, flute-like warble, now with notes of melancholy longing.
The house-keeper looked with mingled astonishment and anger at the two laughing girls, then clapped her hands loudly, exclaiming:
"To work, wenches! You, Chloris, prepare the morning meal; and you, Dorippe, see if the master wants anything, and bring fresh wood for the fire. Stop your silly giggling, for laughing before sunrise causes tears at evening. I suppose the jests of the vineyard watchmen are still lingering in your heads. Now go, and don't touch food till you've arranged your hair."
The girls, nudging each other, left the women's apartment, into which the dawn was now shining more brightly through the open roof.
It was a stately room, surrounded by marble columns, which bore witness to the owner's wealth, for the floor was beautifully adorned with bright- hued pictures, mosaic work executed in colored stones by an artist from Syracuse. They represented the young god Dionysius, the Hyades surrounding him, and in colored groups all the gifts of the divinities who watch over fields and gardens, as well as those of the Nysian god. Each individual design, as well as the whole picture, was inclosed in a framework of delicate lines. The hearth, over which Semestre now bent, to fan the glimmering embers with a goose-wing, was made of yellow marble.
Dorippe now returned, curtly said that the master wanted to be helped into the open air, when the sun was higher, and brought, as she had been ordered, a fresh supply of gnarled olive-branches, and pinecones, which, kindling rapidly, coaxed the wood to unite its blaze with theirs.
Glittering sparks flew upward from the crackling branches toward the open roof, and with them a column of warm smoke rose straight into the pure, cool morning air; but as the door of the women's apartment now opened, the draught swept the gray, floating pillar sideways, directly toward Semestre, who was fanning the flames with her goose-wing.
Coughing violently, she wiped her eyes with the edge of her blue peplum, and glanced angrily at the unbidden guest who ventured to enter the women's apartment at this hour.
As soon as she recognized the visitor she nodded pleasantly, though with a certain touch of condescension, and rose from her stool, but instantly dropped back on it again, instead of going forward to meet the new-comer. Then she planted herself still more firmly on her seat, and, instead of uttering a friendly greeting, coughed and muttered a few unintelligible words.
"Give me a little corner by your fire, it's a cold morning," cried the old man in a deep voice. "Helios freezes his people before he comes, that they may be doubly grateful for the warmth he bestows."
"You are right," replied Semestre, who had only understood a few of the old man's words; "people ought to be grateful for a warm fire; but why, at your age, do you go out so early, dressed only in your chiton, without cloak or sandals, at a season when the buds have scarcely opened on the trees. You people yonder are different from others in many respects, but you ought not to go without a hat, Jason; your hair is as white as mine."
"And wholly gone from the crown," replied the old man, laughing. "It's more faithful to you women; I suppose out of gratitude for the better care you bestow. I need neither hat, cloak, nor sandals! An old countryman doesn't fear the morning chill. When a boy, I was as white as your master's little daughter, the fair-faced Xanthe, but now head, neck, arms, legs, every part of me not covered by the woolen chiton, is brown as a wine-skin before it's hung up in the smoke, and the dark hue is like a protecting garment, nay better, for it helps me bear not only cold, but heat. There's nothing white about me now, except the beard on my chin, the scanty hair on my head, and, thank the gods, these two rows of sound teeth."
Jason, as he spoke, passed his hard, brown finger over the upper and then the under row of his teeth; but the housekeeper, puckering her mouth in the attempt to hide many a blemish behind her own lips, answered:
"Your teeth are as faithful to you as our hair is to us, for men know how to use them more stoutly than women. Now show what you can do. We have a nice curd porridge, seasoned with thyme, and some dried lamb for breakfast. If the girl hurries, you needn't wait long. Every guest, even the least friendly, is welcome to our house."
"I didn't come here to eat," replied the old man; "I've had my breakfast. There's something on my mind I would like to discuss with the clever house-keeper, nay, I ought to say the mistress of this house, and faithful guardian of its only daughter."
Semestre turned her wrinkled face towards the old man, opened her eyes to their widest extent, and then called eagerly to Dorippe, who was busied about the hearth, "We want to be alone!"
The girl walked slowly toward the door, and tried to conceal herself behind the projecting pillars to listen, but Semestre saw her, rose from her seat, and drove her out of doors with her myrtle-staff, exclaiming:
"Let no one come in till I call. Even Xanthe must not interrupt us."
"You won't stay alone, for Aphrodite and all the Loves will soon join such a pair," cried the girl, as she sprang across the threshold, banging the door loudly behind her.
"What did she say?" asked Semestre, looking suspiciously after the maiden. The vexations one has to endure from those girls, Jason, can't be described, especially since they've grown deaf."
"Deaf?" asked the old man in astonishment.
"Yes, they scarcely understand a word correctly, and even Xanthe, who has just reached her seventeenth year, is beginning to be hard of hearing."
A smile flitted over Jason's face, and, raising his voice to a louder tone, he said, flatteringly:
"Every one can't have senses as keen as yours, Semestre; have you time to listen to me?"
The house-keeper nodded assent, leaned against the column nearest the hearth, rested both hands on her staff, and bent forward to intimate that she would listen attentively, and did not wish to lose a single word.
Jason stood directly opposite, and, while thus measuring each other with their eyes, Semestre looked like a cautious cat awaiting the attack of the less nimble but stronger shepherd's dog.
"You know," Jason began, that when, long ago, we two, you as nurse and I as steward, came to this place, our present masters' fine estates belonged undivided to their father. The gods gave the old man three sons. The oldest, Alciphron, whom you nursed and watched through his boyhood, went to a foreign land, became a great merchant in Messina, and, after his father's death, received a large inheritance in gold, silver and the city house at the port. The country estates were divided between Protarch and Lysander. My master, as the elder of the two, obtained the old house; yours built this new and elegant mansion. One son, the handsome Phaon, has grown up under our roof, while yours shelters the lovely Xanthe. My master has gone to Messina, not only to sell our oil and yours, but to speak to the guardian of a wealthy heiress, of whom his brother had written. He wants her for Phaon's wife; but I think Phaon was created for Xanthe and Xanthe for him. There's nothing lacking, except to have Hymen--"
"To have Hymen unite them," interrupted Semestre. "There's no hurry about heiresses; they don't let themselves be plucked like blackberries. If she has scorned her country suitor, it may well seem desirable to Protarch and all of you that Xanthe should prove more yielding, for then our property would be joined with yours."
"It would be just the same as during Dionysius's lifetime."
"And you alone would reap the profit."
"No, Semestre, it would be an advantage to both us and you; for, since your master had that unlucky fall from the high wall of the vineyard, the ruler's eye is lacking here, and many things don't go as they ought."
"People see what they want to see," cried Semestre. "Our estates are no worse managed than yours."
"I only meant to say--"
"That your Phaon seems to you well fitted to supply my master's place. I think differently, and, if Lysander continues to improve, he'll learn to use his limbs again."
"An invalid needs rest, and, since the deaths of your mistress and mine, quarrelling never ceases--"
"We never disturb the peace."
"And quarrelling is even more unpleasant to us than to you; but how often the shepherds and vine-dressers fight over the spring, which belongs to us both, and whose beautiful wall and marble bench are already damaged, and will soon be completely destroyed, because your master says mine ought to bear the expense of the work--"
"And I daily strengthen him in this belief. We repaired the inclosing wall of the spring, and it's only fair to ask Protarch to mend the masonry of the platform. We won't yield, and if you--"
"If we refuse to do Lysander's will, it will lead to the quarrelling I would fain prevent by Phaon's marriage with your Xanthe. Your master is in the habit of following your advice, as if you were his own mother. You nurse the poor invalid like one, and if you would only--"
"Lysander has other plans, and Phaon's father is seeking an heiress for his son in Messina."
"But surely not for the youth's happiness, nor do I come to speak to you in Protarch's name."
"So you invented the little plan yourself--I am afraid without success, for I've already told you that my master has other views."
"Then try to win him to our side--no, not only to us, but to do what is best for the prosperity of this house."
"Not for this house; only for yourselves. Your plan doesn't please me."
"I don't wish what you desire."
"'I don't wish;' that's a woman's most convincing reason.
"It is, for at least I desire nothing I haven't carefully considered. And you know Alciphron, in Syracuse, our master's oldest brother, did not ask for the heiress, who probably seemed to him too insignificant for his own family, but wanted our girl for his son Leonax. We joyfully gave our consent, and, within a few days, perhaps to-morrow, the suitor will come from Messina with your master to see his bride."
"Still, I stick to it: your Xanthe belongs to our Phaon, and, if you would act according to Dionysius's wishes, like fair-minded people--"
"Isn't Alciphron--the best and wisest of men--also Dionysius's child? I would give his first-born, rather than any one else, this fruitful soil, and, when the rich father's favorite, when Leonax once rules here by Xanthe's side, there'll be no lack of means to rebuild the platform and renew a few marble benches."
Angered by these words, the old man indignantly exclaimed:
"You add mockery to wrong. We know the truth. To please Alciphron, your foster-child, you would make us all beggars. If Lysander gives his daughter to Leonax it will be your work, yours alone, and we will--"
Semestre did not allow herself to be intimidated, but, angrily raising her myrtle-staff, interrupted Jason by exclaiming in a loud, tremulous voice:
You are right. This old heart clings to Alciphron, and throbs more quickly at the mere mention of its darling's name; but verily you have done little to win our affection. Last autumn the harvest of new wine was more abundant than we expected. We lacked skins, and when we asked you to help us with yours--"
"We said no, because we ourselves did not know what to do with the harvest."
"And who shamefully killed my gray cat?"
"It entered Phaon's dove-cote and killed the young of his best pair of cropper pigeons."
"It was a marten, not the good, kind creature. You are unfriendly in all your acts, for when our brown hen flew over to you yesterday she was driven away with stones. Did Phaon mistake her for a vulture with sharp beak and powerful talons?"
"A maid-servant drove her away, because, since your master has been ill and no longer able to attend to business, your poultry daily feeds upon our barley."
"I'm surprised you don't brand us as robbers!" cried Semestre. "Yes, if you had beaten me yourself with a stick, you would say a dry branch of a fig or olive tree had accidentally fallen on my back. I know you well enough, and Leonax, Alciphron's son, not your sleepy Phaon, whom people say is roaming about when he ought to be resting quietly in the house, shall have our girl for his wife. It's not I who say so, but Lysander, my lord and master."
"Your will is his," replied Jason. "Far be it from me to wound the sick man with words, but ever since he has been ill you've played the master, and he ought to be called the house-keeper. Ay, you have more influence under his roof than any one else, but Aphrodite and Eros are a thousand times more powerful, for you rule by pans, spits, and soft pillows--they govern hearts with divine, irresistible omnipotence."
Semestre laughed scornfully, and, striking the hard stone floor with her myrtle-staff, exclaimed:
"My spit is enough, and perhaps Eros is helping it with his arrows, for Xanthe no longer asks for your Phaon, any more than I fretted for a person now standing before me when he was young. Eros loves harder work. People who grow up together and meet every day, morning, noon, and night, get used to each other as the foot does to the sandal, and the sandal to the foot, but the heart remains untouched. But when a handsome stranger, with perfumed locks and costly garments, suddenly meets the maiden, Aphrodite's little son fits an arrow to his golden bow."
"But he doesn't shoot," cried Jason, "when he knows that another shaft has already pierced the maiden's heart. Any man can win any girl, except one whose soul is filled with love for another."
"The gray-headed old bachelor speaks from experience," retorted Semestre, quickly. "And your Phaon! If he really loved our girl, how could he woo another or have her wooed for him? It comes to the same thing. But I don't like to waste so many words. I know our Xanthe better than you, and she no more cares for her playfellow than the column on the right side of the hearth yearns toward the one on the left, though they have stood together under the same roof so long."
"Do you know what the marble feels?"
"Nothing, Jason, nothing at all; that is, just as much as Xanthe feels for Phaon. But what's that noise outside the door?"
The house-keeper was still talking, when one of the folding doors opened a little, and Dorippe called through the crack:
"May we come in? Here's a messenger from Protarch."
"Admit him," cried Semestre, eagerly. The door flew wide open, and the two girls entered the women's apartment with Mopsus, the brother of the lively Chloris. The latter was clinging to his arm, and as he came into the hall removed the broad-brimmed travelling-hat from his brown locks, while dark-skinned Dorippe went behind him and pushed the hesitating youth across the threshold, as a boat is launched into the sea.
In reply to the house-keeper's excited questions, he related that Protarch had sold his master's oil at Messina for as high a price as his own, bought two new horses for his neighbor Cleon, and sent Mopsus himself forward with them. If the wind didn't change, he would arrive that day.
While speaking, he drew from the girdle which confined his blue chiton, bordered with white, around his waist, a strip of papyrus, and handed it to Semestre with a greeting from his master.
The house-keeper looked at both sides of the yellow sheet, turned it over and over, held it close to her eyes, and then glanced hesitatingly at Jason. He would know that she could not read; but Xanthe could decipher written sentences, and the young girl must soon appear at breakfast.
"Shall I read it?" asked the old man.
"I could do so myself, if I chose," replied the house-keeper, drawing her staff over the floor in sharp and blunt angles, as if she were writing. "I could, but I don't like to hear news on an empty stomach, and what is said in this letter concerns myself, I should suppose, and nobody else. Go and call Xanthe to breakfast, Dorippe."
"I know what is in it," cried the girl, reluctant to part from her companion's brother, whom she loved, and who still had a great deal to tell her about his journey to Messina. "Mopsus has told us. Our master's nephew, Leonax, Alciphron's son, will accompany his uncle and stay for a week or longer as a guest, not over yonder with Protarch, but here in our house. He is a, handsome youth, even taller than Phaon, and Mopsus says Alciphron's wife, by our master's request, dipped deep into his purse at Messina, and bought from her husband's merchant friends gold bracelets and women's garments, such as matrons wear."
At these words a smile of joy and hope flitted over Semestre's wrinkled face, like a spring breeze sweeping across a leafless garden. She no longer thought of the harm a piece of news might do her empty stomach, and, while mentally seeing the flutter of a matron's beautiful blue garment and the flash of Xanthe's rich dowry, eagerly asked the welcome messenger:
"Does she speak the truth? And what is this about the robes?"
"I brought the clothes myself," replied Mopsus, "and packed them in a beautiful chest inlaid with ivory, like those newlywedded youths receive with the bridal dowry. Praxilla, the handsome sister of Alciphron's wife, also gave--"
"Go and call Xanthe!" cried Semestre, interrupting the messenger. She had laughed softly several times while listening to his tale, and, when the girls hastily withdrew with Mopsus, cast a triumphant glance at Jason.
Then, remembering how much was to be done to make fitting preparation for the young suitor Leonax, she called loudly:
"Dorippe--Chloris! Chloris--Dorippe !" Neither of the maidens seemed to hear, and, when obliged to resign all hope of an answer, she shrugged her shoulders, and turning to Jason said:
"So young and so deaf; it is sad. Poor girls!"
"They like Mopsus better than you, and don't wish to hear," replied Jason, laughing. "They can't," said Semestre, angrily. "Mopsus is a bold, good-for-nothing fellow, whom I've often wanted to drive out of the house, but I should like to see the person who refused me obedience. As for your proposal, you have now heard distinctly enough that our girl is intended for Leonax."
"But suppose Xanthe doesn't want Leonax, and prefers Phaon to the stranger?"
"Alciphron's son a 'stranger' on the estates of his ancestors!" exclaimed Semestre. "What don't we hear? But I must go to work to prepare the best possible reception for Leonax, that he may feel from the first he is no stranger here, but perfectly at home. Now go, if you choose, and offer sacrifices to Aphrodite, that she may join the hearts of Xanthe and Phaon. I'll stick to my spit."
"Then you'll be in the right place," cried Jason, "but you're not yet turning it for Leonax's wedding-feast."
"And I promise you I'll prepare the roast for Phaon's," retorted Semestre, "but not until the sacrifice of an animal I'm fattening myself induces the foam-born goddess to kindle in Xanthe's heart sweet love for Leonax."