A Question by Georg Ebers
Chapter V. The Walk to the Sea.
While the priest of Aphrodite received Jason's gift, praised the pig's beauty, and promised to slay it immediately, but said he would only accept the lean animal Mopsus offered in Semestre's name for the sake of its ornaments and the giver, Xanthe came out of her father's house. She wore her handsomest garments, and had carefully arranged her beautiful fair hair reflecting as she did so on many different things, for maidens are fond of thinking when seated at the loom or spinning-wheel, or quietly occupied in adorning their tresses.
Semestre followed close behind, and gave her a small knife, saying:
"It is seemly to decorate the door of a welcome guest with flowers. The bushes are full of roses now, so go and cut as many as will be needed for a handsome garland, but gather only red or yellow flowers, no white ones, for they bring no good fortune. You will find the largest below near the bench by the sea."
"Wait and hear me out."
"The weather is delightful, there was a light breeze from the north during the night, so it may happen that the ship from Messina will arrive before noon."
"Then let me go down."
"Go and watch for the sails. If you see ours, hurry back and tell Chloris to call me, for I must go to the temple of Cypris."
"You?" asked Xanthe, laughing.
"I, and you are the last person who should sneer at the errand; nay, you can accompany me."
"No! I will cut the roses."
These words were uttered in a tone the house-keeper knew well. Whenever Xanthe used it, she insisted upon having her own way, and did what she pleased, while Semestre, who usually never admitted that her hearing was no longer so keen as in former clays, in such cases willingly pleaded her deafness, in order to avoid a retreat.
To-day she particularly shrank from irritating the easily-excited girl, and therefore replied:
"What did you say? Wouldn't it be better for you to go and cut the roses immediately, my dove? Make haste, for the vessel for which you are to watch bears your happiness. How beautiful the ornaments Leonax is bringing will look! We have never yet seen the like, I imagine. The people in Messina haven't forgotten poor me either, for I heard whispers about a robe such as matrons wear. It is--it might be--well, we shall see."
Tittering, and almost embarrassed, she fixed her eyes upon the ground, reminded Xanthe once more to have her called as soon as the ship from Messina appeared, and then, leaning on her myrtle-staff, tottered up the path leading to the temple of the goddess.
Xanthe did not go directly down to the sea, but approached her uncle's house to seek Phaon with her eyes.
As she could not see him, either in the stables, or the walk lined with fig-trees trained upon espaliers beside the house, she turned quickly away, repressing out of pride her desire to call him.
On her way to the sea she met her uncle's high-shouldered slave. Xanthe stopped and questioned him.
Semestre had told no lie. Phaon had not yet returned from a nocturnal excursion, and for several days had not reached home until just before sunrise.
No, he was not the man to offer support to her sick father. He was looking for a wealthy heiress, and forgot his relatives for the sake of dissolute young men and worthless wenches.
This thought hurt her sorely, so sorely that she wanted to weep as she had done by the spring.
But she forced back her tears; not one wet her cheeks, yet it seemed as if her poor heart had obtained eyes to shed them.
The little knife in her hand reminded her of her task of cutting roses, and watching for the ship which was to bring her uncle's son from Messina.
If Leonax was what Semestre described him, she would not repel him like the other suitors, whom she had rejected with laughing lips.
Yes, she would become his wife, not only for her father's sake, but to punish Phaon.
Sorrow and pain never felt before filled her heart after making this resolution. Wholly engrossed by these conflicting emotions, instead of going down to the sea, she walked straight on till she reached the great gate that led to her own home. There she remembered the object of her errand, and was just turning back, when the conjurer, who was resting outside the gate with his cart in the shadow of the fence, called:
"You are obeying my advice, beautiful Xanthe, and move as thoughtfully as a sophist."
"Then you must not disturb me," cried the girl, raising her head defiantly. "Pardon me if I do so," replied the other, "but I wanted to tell you that I might perhaps know of aid for your father. In my home--"
"Where is your home?"
"Messina!" exclaimed Xanthe, eagerly.
"A very experienced physician lives there," interrupted the conjurer.
"No one has helped my father."
"Then come in and speak to him."
"I'm afraid of the cross old woman."
"She has gone out, and you will find father alone."
"Then I'll go to him."
"Did you say you were from Messina?"
"That is my home."
"Do you know my uncle Alciphron, the merchant?"
"Certainly. He owns the most ships in the place."
"And his son Leonax, too?"
"I often saw him, for my hut stands opposite to the landing-place of your uncle's vessels, and the youth always superintends the loading and unloading. He, if any one, belongs to those spoiled children of fortune who disgust poor dwarfs like me with life, and make us laugh when people say there are just gods above."
"You are blaspheming."
"I only say what others think."
"Yet you too were young once."
"But I was a dwarf, and he resembles Achilles in stature; I was poor and he does not know what to do with his wealth; maidens fled from me as they seek him; I was found in the streets; and a father still guides, a loving mother kisses him. I don't envy him, for whoever enters life an orphan is spared the pain of becoming one afterward."
"You speak bitter words."
"He who is beaten does not laugh."
"So you envy Leonax his prosperity?"
"No, for, though I might have such excellent cause to complain, I envy no king, for there is but one person whose inmost heart I know thoroughly, and that one stands before you.
"You revile Fate, and yet believe it possible that we may all have more sorrow to bear than you."
"You have understood me rightly."
"Then admit that you may be happier than many."
"If only most of the contented people were not stupid. However, this morning I am pleased, because your father gave me this new garment, and I rarely need despair; I earn enough bread, cheese, and wine with the aid of my hens, and am not obliged to ask any man's favor. I go with my cart wherever I choose."
"Then you ought to thank the gods, instead of accusing them."
"No, for absence of suffering is not happiness."
"And do you believe Leonax happy?"
"Hitherto he seems to be, and the fickle goddess will perhaps remain faithful to him longer than to many others, for he is busy from early till late, and is his father's right-hand. At least he won't fall into one of the pits Fate digs for mortals."
"And that is--?"
"Weariness. Thousands are worse, and few better, than your cousin; yes, the maiden he chooses for his wife may rejoice." Xanthe blushed, and the dwarf, as he entered the gate, asked:
"Is Leonax wooing his little cousin?"
"But the little cousin has some one else in her mind."
"Who told you so?"
"Then remember me to them!" cried Xanthe, who left the juggler and ran straight toward the path leading to the sea.
Just at the point where the latter branched off from the broader road used by carts as well as foot-passengers, stood a singular monument, before which the young girl checked her steps.
The praise the conjurer had lavished on Leonax afforded her little pleasure; nay, she would rather have heard censure of the Messina suitor, for, if he corresponded with the dwarf's portrait, he would be the right man to supply a son's place to her father, and rule as master over the estate, where many things did not go on as they ought. Then she must forget the faithless night-reveller, Phaon--if she could.
Every possession seems most charming at the time we are obliged to resign it, and never in all her life had Xanthe thought so tenderly and longingly of Phaon as now and on this spot.
The monument, overgrown with blossoming vines, before which she paused, was a singular structure, that had been built of brick between her own and her uncle's garden.
It was in the form of a strong wall, bounded by two tall pillars. In the wall were three rows of deep niches with arched ceilings, while on the pillars, exquisitely painted upon a brownish-red ground, were the Genius of Death lowering his torch before an offering-altar, and Orpheus, who had released his wife from the realm of shadows and was now bearing her to the upper world.
Many of the niches were still empty, but in some stood vases of semi- transparent alabaster.
The newest, which had found a place in the lowest row, contained the ashes of the young girl's grandfather, Dionysius, and his wife, and another pair of urns the two mothers, her own and Phaon's.
Both had fallen victims on the same day to the plague, the only pestilence that had visited this bright coast within the memory of man. This had happened eight years ago.
At that time Xanthe was still a child, but Phaon a tall lad.
The girl passed this place ten times a day, often thought of the beloved dead, and, when she chanced to remember them still more vividly, waved a greeting to the dear ashes, because some impulse urged her to give her faithful memory some outward expression.
Very rarely did she recall the day when the funeral-pile had cooled, and the ashes of the two mothers, both so early summoned to the realm of shadows, were collected, placed in the vases, and added to the other urns. But now she could not help remembering it, and how she had sat before one of the pillars of the monument weeping bitterly, and asking herself again and again, if it were possible that her mother would never, never come to kiss her, speak caressing words, arrange her hair and pet her; nay, for the first time, she longed to hear even a sharp reproof from the lips now closed forever.
Phaon was standing by the other pillar, his eyes covered with his right hand.
Never before or since had she seen him look so sad, and it cut her to the heart when she noticed that he trembled as if a chill had seized him, and, drawing a long breath, pushed back the hair, which like a coalblack curtain, covered half his forehead. She had wept bitterly, but he shed no tears. Only a few poor words were exchanged between them in that hour, but each one still echoed in her ears to-day, as if hours instead of years intervened between that time and now.
"Mine was so good," Xanthe had sobbed; but he only nodded, and, after fifteen minutes had passed, said nothing but, "And mine too."
In spite of the long pause that separated the girl's words from the boy's, they were tenderly united, bound together by the thought, dwelling uninterruptedly in both childish hearts, "My mother was so good."
It was again Xanthe who, after some time, had broken the silence by asking "Whom have I now?"
Again it was long ere Phaon, for his only answer, could repeat softly:
They were trivial words, but they expressed the deep wretchedness which only a child's heart can feel.
Scarcely had they found their way over the boy's lips when he pressed his left hand also over his eyes, his breast heaved convulsively, and a torrent of burning tears coursed down his cheeks.
Both children still had their fathers, but they forgot them in this hour.
Who, if the warm sun were extinguished, would instantly remember that the moon and stars remain?
As Phaon wept so violently, Xanthe's tears began to flow more slowly, and she gazed at him a long time with ardent sympathy, unperceived by the lad, for he still covered his eyes with his hands.
The child had met a greater grief than her own, and, as soon as she felt that she was less sorrow-stricken than her playfellow, a desire to soothe his sorrow arose.
As the whole plant, with its flowers and fruit, is contained in the sprouting seed, so, too, in the youngest girl lives the future mother, who dries all tears, cheers and consoles.
As Phaon remained in the same attitude, Xanthe rose, approached him, timidly pulled his cloak, and said:
"Come down to our house; I will show you something pretty: four young doves have come out of the shell; they have big, wide bills, and are very ugly."
Her playmate removed his hands from his eyes and answered kindly:
"No, let me alone, please."
Xanthe now took his hand and drew him away, saying:
"Yes, you must come; the pole of my cart is broken."
Phaon had been so accustomed to be always called upon whenever there were any of the little girl's playthings to mend that he obeyed, and the next day allowed her to persuade him to do many things for which he felt no inclination.
He yielded in order not to grieve her, and, as he became more cheerful and even joined in her merry laugh, Xanthe rejoiced as if she had released him from his sorrow. From that time she claimed his services as eagerly as before, but in her own heart felt as if she were his little mother, and watched all his actions as though specially commissioned to do so.
When she had grown up she did not hesitate to encourage or blame him, nay, was often vexed or grieved about him, especially if in the games or dances he paid more attention than she deemed reasonable to other girls, against whom there was much or little objection, nay, often none at all. Not on her own account, she said to herself, it could make no difference to her, but she knew these girls, and it was her duty to warn him.
She willingly forgave many things, but on this point was extremely rigid, and even allowed anger to carry her to the verge of rudeness.
Now, as she stood beside the sepulchre, she thought of the hour when she had comforted him, of her care for him and how it had all been vain, for he spent his nights in rioting with flute-playing women. Yes, Semestre had said so. He seemed to Xanthe lost, utterly lost.
When she wept in the morning beside the spring, it was not, she now thought, because of the heiress from Messina; no, the tears that had sprung to her eyes were like those a mother sheds for her erring son.
She seemed to herself extremely venerable, and would have thought it only natural if gray hair instead of golden had adorned the head over which scarcely seventeen years had passed.
She even assumed the gait of a dignified matron, but it was hardly like a mother, when, on her way to the rose-bushes by the sea, she studiously strove to misunderstand and pervert everything good in Phaon, and call his quiet nature indolence, his zeal to be useful to her weakness, his taciturn manner mere narrow-mindedness, and even his beautiful, dreamy eyes sleepy.
With all this, the young girl found little time to think of the new suitor; she must first shatter the old divine image, but every blow of the hammer hurt her as if it fell upon herself.