A Question by Georg Ebers
Chapter III. Lysander.
As Xanthe approached her father's house, Semestre's call and the gay notes of a monaulus--[A musical instrument, played like our flageolet or clarinet]--greeted her.
A conjurer had obtained admittance, and was showing his laughing audience the tricks of his trained cocks and hens.
He was a dwarfish, bow-legged little man, with a short neck, on which rested a big head with a very prominent forehead, that shaded his small piercing eyes like a balcony.
The feathered actors lived in a two-wheeled cart, drawn from village to village, and city to city, by a tiny, gayly-decked donkey.
Three cocks and four hens were now standing on the roof of the cart, looking very comical, for their clever owner, who doubtless knew what pleases the eyes of children and peasants, had colored their white feathers, here and there, with brilliant red and glaring yellow.
Beside the cart stood a pale, sorrowful-looking boy, playing a merry tune on the monaulus. Lysander, Xanthe's father, had been helped out of the house into the sunlight, and, seated in his arm-chair of polished olive- wood, was gazing at the show.
As soon as he saw his daughter, he beckoned to her, and stroking her hair, while she pressed her lips to his forehead, said:
"An amusing sight! The two hens obey the little man as if they were dutiful children. I'm glad he came, for a person like me, forbidden by fate to enjoy the comical things to be seen out of doors, must be grateful when they come in his way. Your feet are twitching, Dorippe. Whenever a flute raises its voice, it moves young girls' limbs, as the wind stirs the leaves of the poplars. You would doubtless like to begin to dance at once."
At these words, Mopsus, keeping time to the music, advanced toward his sweetheart, but Semestre stepped before him, exclaiming half to the lad and half to her master:
"There must be no jumping about now. Whoever dances in the morning will break a leg at night."
Lysander nodded assent.
"Then go into the house, Chloris, and fetch this king of hens a jug of wine, some bread, and two cheeses."
"How many cheeses?" asked the housekeeper."
"Two," replied Lysander.
"One will be more than enough," cried Semestre.--" Bring only one, Chloris." The invalid smilingly shrugged his shoulders, clasped Xanthe's hand as she stood beside him, and said in so low a tone that the old woman could not hear:
"Haven't I grown like little thick-skull's hens? Semestre commands and I must obey. There she goes after Chloris, to save the second cheese."
Xanthe smiled assent. Her father raised his voice and called to the juggler:
"Well, my little friend, show what your actors can do.--You young people, Mopsus and Dorippe, for aught I care, can dance as long as the monaulus sounds, and Semestre stays in the house."
"We want first to see what the hens can do," cried the dark-haired girl, clinging to her lover's arm, and turning with Mopsus toward the exhibition, which now began again.
There was many an exclamation of astonishment, many a laugh, for, when the little man ordered his largest cock to show its skill in riding, it jumped nimbly on the donkey's back; when he ordered it to clean its horse, it pulled a red feather out of the ornaments on the ass's head; and finally proved itself a trumpeter, by stretching its neck and beginning to crow.
The hens performed still more difficult feats, for they drew from a wooden box for each spectator a leaf of a tree, on which certain characters were visible.
The scrawl was intelligible only to the conjurer, but was said to contain infallible information about the future, and the little man offered to interpret the writing to each individual.
This trainer of hens was a clever dwarf, with very quick ears. He had distinctly understood that, through Semestre, he was to lose a nice cheese, and, when the housekeeper returned, ordered a hen to tell each person present how many years he or she had lived in the world.
The snow-white bird, with the yellow head, scratched seventeen times before Xanthe, and, on reaching Mopsus, twenty-three times, which was perfectly correct.
"Now tell us this honorable lady's age too," said the conjurer to the hen.
Semestre told Chloris to repeat what the little man had said, and was already reflecting whether she should not let him have the second cheese, in consideration of the "honorable lady," when the hen began to scratch again.
Up to sixty she nodded assent, as she watched the bird's claw; at sixty- five she compressed her lips tightly, at seventy the lines on her brow announced a coming storm, at eighty she struck the ground violently with her myrtle-staff, and, as the hen, scratching faster and faster, approached ninety, and a hundred, and she saw that all the spectators were laughing, and her master was fairly holding his sides, rushed angrily into the house.
As soon as she had vanished behind the doors, Lysander threw the man half a drachm, and, clapping his hands, exclaimed:
"Now, children, kick up your heels; we sha'n't see Semestre again immediately. You did your business well, friend: but now come here and interpret your hen's oracles."
The conjurer bowed, by bending his big head and quickly raising it again, for his short back seemed to be immovable, approached the master of the house, and with his little round fingers grasped at the leaf in Lysander's hand; but the latter hastily drew it back, saying:
"First this girl, then I, for her future is long, while mine--"
"Yours," interrupted the dwarf, standing before Lysander--"yours will be a pleasant one, for the hen has drawn for you a leaf that means peaceful happiness."
"A violet-leaf!" exclaimed Xanthe. "Yes, a violet-leaf," repeated the conjurer. "Put it in my hand. There are--just look here--there are seven lines, and seven--everybody knows that--seven is the number of health. Peaceful happiness in good health, that is what your oracle says." "The gods owe me that, after suffering so long," sighed Lysander. "At any rate, come back here in a year, and if your cackling Pythia and this little leaf tell the truth, and I am permitted to bring it to you without support or crutch, I'll give you a stout piece of cloth for a new cloak; yet nay, better try your luck in six months, for your chiton looks sicker than I, and will hardly last a whole year."
"Not half a one," replied the conjurer, with a sly smile. "Give me the piece of stuff to-day, that, when I come back in a month, I may have suitable garments when I amuse the guests at the feast given for your recovery. I'm no giant, and shall not greatly impair your store."
"We'll see what can be done," replied Lysander, laughing, "and if, when you return in a month, I don't turn you from the door as a bad prophet, in spite of your fine clothes, your flute-player shall have a piece of linen for his thin limbs. But now foretell my daughter's future, too."
The dwarf took Xanthe's leaf from her hand, and said:
"This comes from an olive-tree, is particularly long, and has a light and dark side. You will live to a great age, and your life will be more or less happy as you shape it."
"As you shape it," repeated the girl. "That's a real hen's oracle. 'As people do, so things will be,' my nurse used to say every third word." Disappointed and angry, she threw the leaf on the ground, and turned her back on the little man.
The conjurer watched her keenly and searchingly, as not without difficulty he picked up the leaf. Then glancing pleasantly at her father, he called her back, pointed with his finger to the inner surface, and said:
"Just look at these lines, with the little strokes here at the end. That's a snail with horns. A slow creature! It warns people not to be over-hasty. If you feel inclined to run, check your steps and ask where the path will lead."
"And move through life like a cart creaping down into the valley with drags on the wheels," interrupted Xanthe. "I expected something unlike school-masters' lessons from the clever hen that loaded Semestre with so many years."
"Only question her about what is in your heart," replied the little man, "and she won't fail to answer."
The young girl glanced irresolutely at the conjurer, but repressed the desire to learn more of the future, fearing her father's laughter. She knew that, when Lysander was well and free from pain, nothing pleased him so much as to tease her till she wept.
The invalid guessed what was passing in his little daughter's mind, and said, encouragingly:
"Ask the hen. I'll stop both ears while you question the oracle. Yes, yes, one can scarcely hear his own voice for the monaulus and the shouts of the crazy people yonder.
"Such sounds lure those who are fond of dancing, as surely as a honey-comb brings flies. By the dog! there are four merry couples already! Only I miss Phaon. You say the couch in my brother's house has grown too hard for him, and he has found softer pillows in Syracuse. With us the day began long ago, but in the city perhaps they haven't quite finished with yesterday. I'm sorry for the fine fellow."
"Is it true," asked Xanthe, blushing, "that my uncle is seeking a rich bride for him in Messina?"
"Probably, but in courtship one does not always reach the desired goal. Has Phaon told you nothing about his father's wishes? Question the conjurer, or he'll get his new clothes with far too little trouble. Save me the reproach of being a spendthrift."
"I don't wish to do so; what is the use of such folly?" replied Xanthe, with flushed cheeks, preparing to go into the house.
Her father shrugged his shoulders, and, turning his head, called after her:
"Do as you please, but cut a piece from the brown woolen cloth, and bring it to the conjurer."
The young girl disappeared in the house. The tune which the boy drew from the monaulus again and again sounded monotonous, but the young people constantly grew more mirthful; higher and higher sprang the bounding feet.
The ribbons fluttered as if a storm had seized them; many a gay garment waved; and there was no end to the shouts and clapping of hands in time with the music.
When Mopsus, or any other lad, raised his voice unusually loud, or a young girl laughed in the overflowing joy of her heart, Lysander's eyes sparkled like sunshine, and he often raised his hands and swayed merrily to and fro to the measure of the music.
Your heart really dances with the young people," said the conjurer.
"But it lacks feet," replied Lysander, and then he told him about his fall, and the particulars of his sufferings, the danger in which he had been, the remedies used, and the final convalescence. He did this with great pleasure, for it always relieved his mind when he was permitted to tell the story of his life to a sympathizing auditor, and few had listened more attentively than did the conjurer, partly from real interest, partly in anticipation of the cloth.
The little man frequently interrupted Lysander with intelligent questions, and did not lose patience when the speaker paused to wave his hand to the merry group.
"How they laugh and enjoy themselves!" the invalid again exclaimed. "They are all young, and before I had this fall--"
The sentence was not finished, for the notes of the monaulus suddenly ceased, the dancers stopped, and, instead of the music and laughter, Semestre's voice was heard; but at the same time Xanthe, carrying a small piece of brown cloth over her arm, approached the sick man. The latter at first looked at his daughter's flushed face with some surprise, then again glanced toward the scene of the interrupted dance, for something was happening there which he could not fully approve, though it forced him to laugh aloud.
The young people, whose sport had been interrupted, had recovered from their fright and joined in a long chain.
Mopsus led the saucy band.
A maiden followed each youth, and the whole party were united, for each individual grasped the person in front with both hands.
Singing a rhythmical dancing-tune, with the upper portion of the body bent forward, and executing dainty steps with their feet, they circled faster and faster around the furious house-keeper.
The latter strove to catch first Chloris, then Dorippe, then some other maiden, but ere she succeeded the chain separated, joining again behind her ere she could turn. Mopsus and his dark-haired sweetheart were again the leaders. When the ring broke the youths and maidens quickly grasped each other again, and the chain of singing, laughing lads and lasses once more whirled around the old woman.
For some time the amused master of the house could not succeed in shaking his head disapprovingly; but when the old housekeeper, who had never ceased scolding and shaking her myrtle-staff, began to totter from anger and excitement, Lysander thought the jest was being carried too far, and, turning to his daughter, exclaimed:
"Go, rescue Semestre and drive those crazy people away. Fun must not go beyond proper bounds."
Xanthe instantly obeyed the command the chain parted, the youths hurrying one way, the maidens another; the lads escaped, and so did all the girls except dark-haired Dorippe, who was caught by Semestre and driven into the house with angry words and blows.
"There will be tears after the morning dance," said Lysander, "and I advise you, friend, if you want to avoid a scolding yourself, to leave the place at once with your feathered artists. Give the man the cloth, Xanthe."
Xanthe handed the brown woolen stuff to the conjurer.
She blushed faintly as she did so, for, while attempting to cut from the piece a sufficient quantity, Semestre had snatched the knife from her hand, exclaiming rudely:
"Half that is twice too much for the insolent rascal."
The little man took the scanty gift, spread it out to its full extent, and, turning to Lysander, said:
"At our age people rarely experience new emotions, but to-day, for the first time since I stopped growing, I wish I was still smaller than I am now."
The invalid had shaken his head discontentedly at sight of the tiny piece, and, as the conjurer was refolding it over his knee, loosed from his shoulders the chlamys he himself wore, saying gravely:
"Take this cloak, for what Lysander promises he does not perform by halves."
The last words were addressed to Semestre as well as the dwarf, for the old house-keeper, with panting breath and trembling hands, now approached her master.
Kind words were not to be expected from her mouth now, but even more bitter and vehement reproaches sprang to her lips as she saw her master give his scarcely-worn chlamys to a strolling vagrant, and also presume to reward her economy with taunts.
She had carefully woven the cloak with her own hands, and that, she cried, was the way her labor was valued! There was plenty of cloth in the chests, which Lysander could divide among the buffoons at the next fair in Syracuse. In other countries, even among wild barbarians, white hairs were honored, but here the elders taught the young people to insult them with jeers and mockery.
At these words the invalid's face turned pale, a dark shadow appeared under his eyes, and an expression of pain hovered around his mouth. He looked utterly exhausted.
Every feature betrayed how the old woman's shrill voice and passionate words disturbed him, but he could not silence her by loud rebukes, for his voice failed, and he therefore sought to make peace by the soothing gestures of his thin hands and his beseeching eyes.
Xanthe felt and saw that her father was suffering, and exclaimed in a fearless, resolute tone:
"Silence, Semestre! your scolding is hurting my father."
These words increased the house-keeper's wrath instead of lessening it. In a half-furious, half-whining tone, she exclaimed:
"So it comes to this! The child orders the old woman. But you shall know, Lysander, that I won't allow myself to be mocked like a fool. That impudent Mopsus is your freed-woman's child, and served this house for high wages, but he shall leave it this very day, so surely as I hope to live until the vintage. He or I! If you wish to keep him, I'll go to Agrigentum and live with my daughter and grandchildren, who send to me by every messenger. If this insolent fellow is more to you than I am, I'll leave this place of ingratitude. In Agrigentum--"
"It is beautiful in Agrigentum !" interrupted the conjurer, pointing with his finger impressively in the direction of this famous city.
"It is delightful there," cried the old woman, "so long as one doesn't meet pygmies like you in the streets."
The house-keeper was struggling for breath, and her master took advantage of the pause to murmur beseechingly, like a child who is to be deprived of something it loves:
"Mopsus must go--merry Mopsus? Nobody knows how to lift and support me so well."
These words softened Semestre's wrath, and, lowering her voice, she replied:
"You will no longer need the lad for that purpose; Leonax, Alciphron's son, is coming to-day. He'll lift and support you as if you were his own father. The people in Messina are friendly and honor age, for, while you jeer at me, they remember the old woman, and will send me a beautiful matron's-robe for the future wedding."
The invalid looked inquiringly at his daughter, and the latter answered, blushing:
"Semestre has told me. She informed me, while I was cutting the cloth, that Leonax would come as a suitor."
"May he fare better than Alkamenes and the others, whom you sent home! You know I will not force your inclinations, but, if I am to lose Mopsus, I should like a pleasant son. Why has Phaon fallen into such foolish, evil ways? The young Leonax--"
"Is of a different stamp," interrupted Semestre--" Now come, my dove, I have a thousand things to do."
"Go," replied Xanthe. "I'll come directly.--You will feel better, father, if you rest now. Let me help you into the house, and lie down on the cushion for a time."
The young girl tried to lift her father, but her strength was too feeble to raise the wearied man. At last, with the conjurer's help, he succeeded in rising, and the latter whispered earnestly in his ear:
"My hens tell me many things, but another oracle behind my forehead says, you are on the high-road to recovery, but you won't reach the goal, unless you treat the old woman, who is limping into the house yonder, as I do the birds I train."
"And what do you do?"
"Teach them to obey me, and if I see that they assert their own wills, sell them and seek others."
"You are not indebted to the stupid creatures for anything?"
"But I owe so much the more to the others, who do their duty."
"Quite true, and therefore you feed and keep them."
"Until they begin to grow old and refuse obedience."
"Then I give them to a peasant, on whose land they lay eggs, eat and die. The right farmer for your hens lives in Agrigentum."
Lysander shrugged his shoulders; and, as, leaning on his daughter, he tottered slowly forward, almost falling on the threshold, Xanthe took a silent vow to give him a son on whom he could firmly depend--a stalwart, reliable man.