A Question by Georg Ebers
Chapter II. Xanthe.
"Xanthe, Xanthe!" called Semestre, a short time after. "Xanthe! Where is the girl?"
The old woman had gone into the garden. Knowing how to use time to advantage, and liking to do two things at once, while looking for her nursling and repeatedly shouting the girl's name, she was gathering vegetables and herbs, on which the dew of early morning still glittered brightly.
While thus occupied, she was thinking far more of her favorite's son and the roast meats, cakes, and sauces to be prepared for him, than of Xanthe.
She wanted to provide for Leonax all the dishes his father had specially liked when a child, for what a father relishes, she considered, will please his children.
Twenty times she had stooped to pluck fresh lavender, green lettuce, and young, red turnips, and each time, while straightening herself again by her myrtle-staff, as well as a back bent by age would allow, called "Xanthe, Xanthe!"
Though she at last threw her head back so far that the sun shone into her open mouth, and the power of her lungs was not small, no answer came. This did not make her uneasy, for the girl could not be far away, and Semestre was used to calling her name more than once before she obeyed.
True, to-day the answer was delayed longer than usual. The maiden heard the old woman's shrill, resounding voice very clearly, but heeded it no more than the cackling of the hens, the screams of the peacocks, and the cooing of the doves in the court-yard.
The house-keeper, she knew, was calling her to breakfast, and the bit of dry bread she had taken with her was amply sufficient to satisfy her hunger. Nay, if Semestre had tempted her with the sweetest cakes, she would not have left her favorite nook by the spring now.
This spring gushed from the highest rock on her father's estate. She often went there, especially when her heart was stirred, and it was a lovely spot.
The sparkling water rushed from a cleft in the rocks, and, on the left of the little bench, where Xanthe sat, formed a clear, transparent pool, whose edges were inclosed by exquisitely-polished, white-marble blocks. Every reddish pebble, every smooth bit of snowy quartz, every point and furrow and stripe on the pretty shells on its sandy bottom, was as distinctly visible as if held before the eyes on the palm of the hand, and yet the water was so deep that the gold circlet sparkling above the elbow on Xanthe's round arm, nay, even the gems confining her peplum on the shoulder, would have been wet had she tried to touch the bottom of the basin with the tips of her fingers.
The water was green and clear as crystal, into which, while molten, bits of emeralds had been cast to change them into liquid drops.
Farther on it flowed through a channel choked with all kinds of plants. Close by the edges of the rivulet, which rushed swiftly down to the valley, drooped delicate vines, that threw their tendrils over the stones and flourished luxuriantly in the rocks amid thick, moist clumps of moss. Dainty green plants, swayed to and fro by the plashing water, grew everywhere on the bottom of the brook, and, wherever on its course it could flow more smoothly, ferns, nodding gracefully, surrounded it like ostrich-feathers waving about the cradle of a royal babe.
Xanthe liked to watch the stream disappear in the myrtle-grove.
When, sitting in her favorite nook, she turned her eyes downward, she overlooked the broad gardens and fields of her father and uncle, stretching on the right and left of the stream along the gentle slope of the mountain, and the narrow plain by the sea.
The whole scene resembled a thick woolen carpet, whose green surface was embroidered with white and yellow spots, or one of the baskets young maidens bear on their heads at the feast of Demeter, and in which, piled high above the edge, light and dark-hued fruit gleams forth from leaves of every tint.
Groves of young pomegranate and myrtletrees, with vigorous shoots, stood forth in strong relief against the silvery gray-green foliage of the gnarled olive-trees.
Fragrant roses, glowing with a scarlet hue, as if the sun's fiery kiss had called them to life, adorned bushes and hedges, while, blushing faintly, as if a child's lips had waked them from slumber, the blossoms of the peach and almond glimmered on the branches of the trees.
Tiny young green leaves were growing from the oddly-interwoven branches of the fig-trees, to which clung the swelling pouches of the fruit. Golden lemons glittered amid their strong, brilliant foliage, which had survived the winter season; and long rows of blackish-green cypresses rose straight and tall, like the grave voices of the chorus amid the joyous revel. To Xanthe, gazing downward, her father's pine-wood seemed like a camp full of arched, round tents, and, if she allowed her eyes to wander farther, she beheld the motionless sea, whose broad surface, on this pleasant morning, sparkled like polished sapphire, and everywhere seemed striving to surpass with its own blue the color of the clear sky. Ever and anon, like a tiny silver cloud floating across the firmament, white sails glided by.
Pleasant green hills framed this lovely view. On their well-cultivated slopes appeared here the white, glimmering walls of a temple; yonder villages, houses, and cottages, like the herds and single sheep that he half concealed by dense foliage.
Garlands of flowers surround the heads of happy mortals, and here the house of every wealthy land-owner was inclosed by a hedge or garden.
Behind the hills rose the sharply-cut outlines of the naked cliffs of the lofty, distant mountains, and the snowy head of sleeping Mount Etna gleamed brightly through the mist.
Now, in the early morning, sea and garden, hills and distant mountains were covered with a delicate veil of indescribable hue. It seemed as if the sea had furnished the warp of this fabric, and the golden sun the woof.
The scene was wondrously beautiful, but Xanthe had not gone to the spring to gaze at the landscape; nay, she scarcely knew that it was lovely.
When the sea shone with the hue of the sky and lay motionless, as it did to-day, she thought Glaucus, the god of the blue sea, was sunning himself in pleasant slumber.
On other bright days when the waves and surges swelled, white foam crowned their crests, and a never-ending succession of breakers dashed upon the shore, she believed the fifty daughters of Nereus were pursuing their sports under the clear water.
They were all lovely women, and full of exuberant gayety.
Some rocked quietly on the gleaming waves, others boldly swung themselves on the backs of the bearded Tritons, and merrily urged them through the flood.
When the surf beat roaring on the strand, Xanthe thought she could hear these creatures guiding their course with their scaly tails and blowing into shells, and many a glimmering foam-crest on a deep-blue wave was no transparent bubble-no, the girl distinctly saw that it was the white neck, the gleaming arm, or the snowy foot of one of Nereus's daughters. She believed that she clearly distinguished them sporting joyously up and down through the azure water, now plunging into the depths with their feet, and now with their heads foremost, anon floating gently on the surface of the waves. One held out her hand to another, and in so doing their beautiful, rounded arms often gleamed beneath the crest of a surge.
Every day they practised new games, as the sea never looks precisely the same; each hour it changed its hue, here, there, and everywhere, Light streaks, like transparent bluish-green gauze, often ran through the darker surface, which resembled a purplish-blue mantle of some costly Phoenician stuff; the waves could flash black as the eye of night, and white as Leucothea's neck.
Then Amphitrite appeared, with floating hair and resonant voice, and beside her Poseidon with his four steeds.
Frowning sullenly, he struck them sharply with his lash, which whistled through the air, and angrily thrust his trident deep into the sea. Instantly the waves took hues of lighter brown, deeper yellow, and cloudy gray, and the sea wore the aspect of a shallow pond with muddy bottom, into which workmen hurl blocks of stone. The purity of the water was sadly dimmed, and the billows dashed foaming toward the sky, threatening in their violent assault to shatter the marble dike erected along the shore. The Nereids, trembling, took refuge in the ever-calm depths, the Tritons no longer used their hollow shells to blow gentle harmonies; nay, they sent forth crashing war-songs, as if some hostile citadel were to be assailed; while Amphitrite thrust both hands into her long, fluttering hair, and with out-stretched head uttered her furious roar.
But to-day the sea was calm, and when Xanthe had reached the spring the edges of the milk-white, light, fleecy clouds, towering one above another on the summits of the loftier mountains, were still glowing with a rosy light. It was the edge of the garment of the vanishing Eos, the leaves of the blossoms scattered by the Hours in the pathway of the four steeds of Helios, as they rose from the waves.
To day and at this hour the morning sunlight fell serenely on the tall cypresses upon the hill, the trees in the garden swayed in the soft breath of the morning breeze, and Xanthe nodded to them, for she thought the beautiful Dryads living in the trees were greeting each other.
Often, with a brief prayer, she laid flowers or a round cake on the altar that stood beside her seat, and which her ancestor had erected to the nymph of the spring--but today she had not come for this.
Then what brought her to the hill so early? Did she visit the spring to admire her own image in its mirror-like surface?
At home she was rarely permitted such an indulgence, for, whenever she looked in the polished metal-disk, Semestre used to say:
"If a girl often peers into such useless things, she'll certainly see a fool's image in them."
Forbidden things are charming, yet Xanthe rarely looked into this liquid mirror, though she might have enjoyed gazing at it frequently, for her figure was tall and slender as the trunk of a cypress, her thick fair hair glittered like gold, the oval of her face was exquisitely rounded, long lashes shaded the large blue eyes that could conceal no emotion which stirred her soul, and when she was alone seemed to ask: "What have the gods allotted for my future?" Yet in their gaze might often be read the answer "Something delightful, surely."
And yet Xanthe did not come to the spring to paint pictures of her future; on the contrary, she came to be sad, and shed tears unrebuked. She did not weep passionately, but the big salt drops welled slowly from her eyes and ran down her young cheeks, as drop after drop of shining sap flows down the trunk of a wounded birch-tree.
Yes, Xanthe felt very sorrowful, yet everything that surrounded her was so bright, and at her home laughter was rarely silent, while her own often rang out no less merrily than that of lively Chloris and dark- skinned Dorippe.
Her sick father, now slowly recovering, could refuse her nothing, and, if Semestre tried to do so, Xanthe usually succeeded in having her own way. There was no lack of festivals and joyous dances, and to none of her companions did the youths present more beautiful ribbons, to no one in the circle did they prefer to offer their hands. She was the fairest of all the maidens far and near, and Ismene, Phryxus's wife, had said that her laughter was gay enough to make a cripple dance. Ismene had a daughter herself just Xanthe's age, so it must probably have been true.
Then why, in the name of all the gods, was Xanthe sad?
Is any cause required to explain it?
Must a maiden have met with misfortune, to make her feel a longing to weep? Certainly not.
Nay, the gayest rattle-brain is the least likely to escape such a desire.
When the sky has long shone with unclouded splendor, and the air is so wonderfully clear that even the most distant mountain-peaks are distinctly visible, rain is not long delayed; and who can laugh heartily a long time without finally shedding tears like a mourner?
Whoever endures a severe though not the deepest affliction, whoever is permitted to reach the topmost summit of joy, and a girl who feels love- these three Heaven favors with the blessing of tears.
Had Eros's arrow struck Xanthe's young heart too?
It was possible, though she would not confess it even to herself, and only yesterday had denied it, without the quiver of an eyelash.
Yet, if she did love a youth, and for his sake had climbed to the spring, he must doubtless dwell in the reddish house, standing on a beautiful level patch of ground on the right of the brook, between the sea and the pool; for she glanced toward it again and again, and, except the servants, no one lived under its roof save the aged steward Jason, and Phaon, her uncle's son. Protarch himself had gone to Messina, with his own and her father's oil.
To age is allotted the alms of reverence, to youth the gift of love, and, of the three men who lived in the house on Xanthe's right-hand, only one could lay claim to such a gift, and he had an unusually good right to do so.
Xanthe was thinking of Phaon as she sat beside the spring, but her brow wore such a defiant frown that she did not bear the most distant resemblance to a maiden giving herself up to tender emotions.
Now the door of the reddish house opened, and, rising hastily, she looked toward it. A slave came cautiously out, bearing a large jar with handles, made of brown clay, adorned with black figures.
What had the high-shouldered graybeard done, that she stamped her foot so angrily on the ground, and buried the upper row of her snow-white teeth deep in her under-lip, as if stifling some pang?
No one is less welcome than the unbidden intruder, who meets us in the place of some one for whom we ardently long, and Xanthe did not wish to see the slave, but Phaon, his master's son.
She had nothing to say to the youth; she would have rushed away if he had ventured to seek her by the spring, but she wanted to see him, wanted to learn whether Semestre had told the truth, when she said Phaon intended to marry a wealthy heiress, whose hand his father was seeking in Messina. The house-keeper had declared the night before that he only wooed the ugly creature for the sake of her money, and now took advantage of his father's absence to steal out of the house evening after evening, as soon as the fire was lighted on the hearth. And the fine night-bird did not return till long past sunrise, no doubt from mad revels with that crazy Hermias and other wild fellows from Syracuse. They probably understood how to loosen his slow tongue.
Then the old woman described what occurred at such banquets, and when she mentioned the painted flute-players, with whom the dissipated city youths squandered their fathers' money, and the old house-keeper called attention to the fact that Phaon already wandered about as stupidly and sleepily as if he were a docile pupil of the notorious Hermias, Xanthe fairly hated her, and almost forgot the respect she owed to her gray hair, and told her to her face she was a liar and slanderer.
But the girl had been unable to speak, for Phaon's secret courtship of the Messina heiress had deeply wounded her pride, and he really did look more weary and dreamy than usual.
Semestre's praises of her cousin, the young Leonax, Xanthe had heard as little as the chirping of the crickets on the hearth, and before the house-keeper had finished speaking she rose, and, without bidding her good-night, turned her back and left the women's apartment.
Ere lying down to rest in her own room, she paced up and down before her couch, then began to loosen her thick hair so carelessly that the violent pulling actually hurt her, and tied so tightly under her chin the pretty scarlet kerchief worn over her golden tresses at night to prevent them from tangling, that she was obliged to unfasten it again to keep from stifling.
The sandals, from which she had released her slender feet, and which, obedient to her dead mother's teaching, she usually placed beside the chair where her clothes lay smoothly folded, she flung into a corner of the room, still thinking of Phaon, the Messina heiress, and her playfellow's shameful conduct. She had intended to discover whether Semestre spoke the truth, and in the stillness of the night consider what she must do to ascertain how much Phaon was concerned in his father's suit.
But the god Morpheus willed otherwise, for scarcely had Xanthe laid down to rest, extinguished her little lamp, and wrapped herself closely in the woolen coverlet, when sleep overpowered her.
The young girl waked just before sunrise, instantly thought of Phaon, of the heiress, and of Semestre's wicked words, and hastily went out to the spring.
From there she could see whether her uncle's son returned home from the city with staggering steps, or would, as usual, come out of the house early in the morning to curry and water his brown steeds, which no slave was ever permitted to touch.
But he did not appear, and, in his place, the high-shouldered servant entered the court-yard.
If the young girl was usually sad here, because she liked to be melancholy, to-day grief pierced her heart like a knife, and the bit of white bread she raised to her lips because, with all her sorrow, she was hungry, tasted bitter, as if dipped in wormwood.
She had no need to salt it; the tears that fell on it did that.
Xanthe heard the house-keeper's calls, but did not obey immediately, and perhaps would not have heeded them at all if she had not noticed--yes, she was not mistaken--that, in the full meaning of the words, she had begun to weep like a chidden child.
She was weeping for anger; and soon it vexed her so much to think that she should cry, that fresh tears streamed down her cheeks.
But not many, for, ere her beautiful eyes grew red, they were dry again, as is the custom of eyes when they are young and see anything new.
Two children, a vineyard-watchman's son and a herdsman's little daughter, approached the spring, talking loudly together.
They had decked themselves with fresh, green vines twined about their necks and bosoms, and were now going to sail a little boat made of bark in the tiny, walled pool into which the spring flowed.
The boy had been the owner of the boat, but had given it to the little girl the day before, and now refused to deliver it, unless she would give him in exchange the shining shells her big brother had found, cleaned, and fastened around her little brown arm with a string. The boy persisted in his demand, stretching out his hand for the shells, while the little girl, with sobs and tears, defended herself.
Xanthe, unobserved by the children, became a witness of this contest between might and right, hastily stepped between the combatants, gave the boy a blow on the shoulder, took the boat away, handed it to the little maiden, and, turning to the latter, said:
"Now, play quietly together, and, if Syrus doesn't let you keep the boat and the shells, come to me, poor Stephanion."
So saying, she wiped the little girl's eyes with her own skirt, seized her by the shoulder, grasped the boy's black curls, pressed the two little ones toward each other with gentle violence, and commanded:
"Now, kiss each other!"
The little girl dutifully obeyed the bidding, but the kiss the boy gave his playmate strongly resembled a blow with the mouth.
Xanthe laughed merrily, turned her back on the children, and went slowly down into the valley.
During her walk all sorts of little incidents flashed through her mind with the speed of lightning; memories of the days when she herself was a little girl and Phaon had played with her daily, as the curly-headed Syrus now did with the herdsman's daughter.
But all the scenes swiftly conjured up before her mental vision were very different from that just witnessed.
Once, when she had said that the brook couldn't bear to the sea all the leaves and flowers she tossed in, Phaon only smiled quietly, but the next day she found, fastened to an axis, a wooden cross he had carved himself and fixed between some stones The stream swept against the broad surfaces of the spokes and forced it to turn constantly.
For weeks both enjoyed the successful toy, but he did not ask a word of thanks, nor did she utter any, only eagerly showed her pleasure, and that was enough for Phaon.
If she began to build a house of sand and stones with him, and it was not finished at once, when they went to play next day she found it roofed and supplied with a little garden, where twigs were stuck in the sand for trees, and red and blue buds for flowers. He had made the seat by the spring for her, and also the little steps on the seashore, by whose aid it was possible to enter dryshod the boat her playfellow had painted with brilliant hues of red and blue, because a neighbor's gay skiff had pleased her fancy.
She now thought of these and many similar acts, and that he had never promised her anything, only placed the finished article before her as a matter of course.
It had never entered his mind to ask compensation for his gifts or thanks for his acts, like curly-headed Syrus. Silently he rendered her service after service; but, unfortunately, at this hour Xanthe was not disposed to acknowledge it.
People grow angry with no one more readily than the person from whom they have received many favors which they are unable to repay; women, no matter whether young or old, resemble goddesses in the fact that they cheerfully accept every gift from a man as an offering that is their due, so long as they are graciously disposed toward the giver, but to-day Xanthe was inclined, to be vexed with her playmate.
A thousand joys and sorrows, shared in common, bound them to each other, and in the farthest horizons of her recollections lay an event which had given her affection for him a new direction. His mother and hers had died on the same day, and since then Xanthe had thought it her duty to watch over and care for him, at first, probably, only as a big live doll, afterward in a more serious way. And now he was deceiving her and going to ruin. Yet Phaon was so entirely different from the wild fellows in Syracuse.
From a child he had been one of those who act without many words. He liked to wander dreamily in lonely paths, with his large, dark eyes fixed on the ground.
He rarely spoke, unless questioned. Never did he boast of being able to accomplish, or having successfully performed, this or that feat.
He was silent at his work, and, even while engaged in merry games, set about a task slowly, but completed whatever he undertook.
He was welcome in the wrestling-ring and at the dance, for the youths respected his strength, grace, dexterity, and the quiet way in which he silenced wranglers and boasters; while the maidens liked to gaze into the handsome dreamer's eyes, and admired him, though even in the maddest whirl of the dance he remained passionless, moving lightly in perfect time to the measures of the tambourine and double flute.
True, many whom he forgot to notice railed at his silent ways, and even Xanthe had often been sorely vexed when his tongue failed to utter a single word of the significant stories told by his eyes. Ay, they under stood how to talk! When his deep, ardent gaze rested upon her, unwavering, but glowing and powerful as the lava-stream that sweeps every obstacle from its still, noiseless course, she believed he was not silent from poverty of mind and heart, but because the feelings that moved him were so mighty that no mortal lips could clothe them in words.
Nevertheless, to-day Xanthe was angry with her playfellow, and a maiden's wrath has two eyes--one blind, the other keener than a falcon's.
What she usually prized and valued in Phaon she now did not see at all, but distinguished every one of his defects.
True, he had shown her much affection without words, but he was certainly as mute as a fish, and would, doubtless, have boasted and asked for thanks like anybody else, if indolence had not fettered his stiff tongue.
Only a short time ago she was obliged to give her hand to lanky Iphis, because Phaon came forward too slowly. He was sleepy, a foolish dreamer, and she would tell him it would be better for him to stretch himself comfortably on his couch and continue to practise silence, rather than woo foreign maidens and riot all night with dissipated companions.