A Question by Georg Ebers
The rose-bush to which Xanthe went grew on the dike that belonged in common to her father and uncle, beside a bench of beautifully-polished white marble.
Many a winter had loosened the different blocks, and bordered them with yellow edges.
Even at a distance the girl saw that the seat was not vacant. The brook that flowed from the spring to the sea ran beneath it, and the maid- servants were in the habit of washing the household linen in its swift current.
Were they now using the bench to spread out the garments they had rinsed?
No! A man lay on the hard marble, a man who had drawn his light cloak over his face to protect himself from the rays of the sun, now rising higher and higher.
His sandaled feet and ankles, bandaged as if for journeying, appeared beneath the covering.
By these feet Xanthe quickly recognized the sleeping youth.
It was Phaon. She would have known him, even if she had seen only two of his fingers.
The sun would soon reach its meridian height, and there he lay asleep.
At first it had startled her to find him here, but she soon felt nothing but indignation, and again the image of the flute-playing women, with whom he must have revelled until thus exhausted, rose before her mind.
"Let him sleep," she murmured proudly and contemptuously; she passed him, cut a handful of roses from the bushes covered with crimson and yellow blossoms, sat down on the vacant space beside his head, watched for the ship from Messina, and, as it did not come, began to weave the garland.
She could do the work here as well as anywhere else, and told herself that it was all the same to her whether Phaon or her father's linen lay there. But her heart belied these reflections, for it throbbed so violently that it ached.
And why would not her fingers move; why could her eyes scarcely distinguish the red roses from the yellow ones?
The garden was perfectly still, the sea seemed to slumber, and, if a wave lapped the shore, it was with a low, almost inaudible murmur.
A butterfly hovered like a dream over her roses, and a lizard glided noiselessly, like a sudden thought, into a chink between the stones at her feet. Not a breath of air stirred, not a leaf or a twig fell from the trees.
Yonder, as if slumbering under a blue veil, lay the Calabrian coast, while nearer and more distant, but always noiselessly, ships and boats, with gently swelling sails, glided over the water. Even the cicadas seemed to sleep, and everything around was as still, as horribly still, as if the breath of the world, blooming and sparkling about her, was ready to fail.
Xanthe sat spellbound beside the sleeper, while her heart beat so rapidly and strongly that she fancied it was the only sound audible in this terrible silence.
The sunbeams poured fiercely on her head, her cheeks glowed, a painful anxiety overpowered her, and certainly not to rouse Phaon, but merely to hear some noise, she coughed twice, not without effort. When she did so the third time, the sleeper stirred, removed from his face the end of the cloak that had covered his head, slowly raised himself a little, and, without changing his recumbent posture, said simply and quietly, in an extremely musical voice:
"Is that you; Xanthe?"
The words were low, but sounded very joyous.
The girl merely cast a swift glance at the speaker, and then seemed as busily occupied with her roses as if she were sitting entirely alone.
"Well?" he asked again, fixing his large dark eyes upon her with an expression of surprise, and waiting for some greeting.
As she remained persistently silent, he exclaimed, still in the same attitude:
"I wish you a joyful morning, Xanthe." The young girl, without answering this greeting, gazed upward to the sky and sun as long as she could endure the light, but her lips quivered, and she flung the rose she held in her hand among its fellows in her lap.
Phaon had followed the direction of her look, and again broke the silence, saying with a smile, no less quietly than before:
"Yes, indeed, the sun tells me I've been sleeping here a long time; it is almost noon."
The youth's composure aroused a storm of indignation in Xanthe's breast. Her excitable blood fairly seethed, and she was obliged to put the utmost constraint upon herself not to throw her roses in his face.
But she succeeded in curbing her wrath, and displaying intense eagerness, as she shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed toward some ships that appeared in view.
"I don't know what is the matter with you," said Phaon, smoothing with his right hand the black hair that covered half his forehead. "Do you expect the ship from Messina and my father already?"
"And my cousin Leonax" replied the girl, quickly, putting a strong emphasis upon the last name.
Then she again gazed into the distance. Phaon shook his head, and both remained silent for several minutes. At last he raised himself higher, turned his full face toward the young girl, gazed at her as tenderly and earnestly as if he wished to stamp her image upon his soul for life, gently pulled the long, floating sleeve of her peplum, and said:
"I didn't think it would be necessary--but I must ask you something."
While he spoke, Xanthe rested her right elbow on her knee, drummed on her scarlet lips with her fingers, and clasped the back of the marble bench with her out-stretched left arm.
Her eyes told him that she was ready to listen, though she still uttered no word of reply.
"I have a question to ask you, Xanthe!" continued Phaon.
"You?" interrupted the girl, with visible astonishment.
"I, who else? Jason told me yesterday evening that our uncle Alciphron had wooed you for his son Leonax, and was sure of finding a favorable reception from old Semestre and your poor father. I went at once to ask you if it were true, but turned back again, for there were other things to be done, and I thought we belonged to each other, and you could not love any one so well as you loved me. I don't like useless words, and cannot tell you what is in my heart, but you knew it long ago. Now you are watching for your cousin Leonax. We have never seen him, and I should think--"
"But I know," interrupted the girl, rising so hastily that her roses fell unheeded on the ground--"but I know he is a sensible man, his father's right-hand, a man who would disdain to riot all night with flute-playing women, and to woo girls only because they are rich."
"I don't do that either," replied Phaon. "Your flowers have dropped on the ground--"
With these words the youth rose, bent over the roses, gathered them together, and offered them to Xanthe with his left hand, while trying to clasp her fingers in his right; but she drew back, saying:
"Put them on the bench, and go up to wash the sleep from your eyes."
"Do I look weary?"
"Of course, though you've lain here till noon."
"But I have scarcely slept for several days."
"And dare you boast of it?" asked Xanthe, with glowing cheeks. "I am not your mother, and you must do as you choose, but if you think I belonged to you because we played with each other as children, and I was not unwilling to give you my hand in the dance, you are mistaken. I care for, no man who turns day into night and night into day."
At the last words Xanthe's eyes filled with tears, and Phaon noticed it with astonishment.
He gazed at her sadly and beseechingly, and then fixed his eyes on the ground. At last he began to suspect the cause of her anger, and asked, smiling:
"You probably mean that I riot all night?"
"Yes!" cried Xanthe; she withdrew her hand for the second time, and half turned away.
"Oh!" he replied, in a tone of mingled surprise and sorrow, "you ought not to have believed that."
"Xanthe turned, raised her eyes in astonishment, and asked
"Then where have you been these last nights?"
"Up in your olive-grove with the three Hermes."
"How amazed you look!"
"I was only thinking of the wicked fellows who have robbed many trees of their fruit. That savage Korax, with his thievish sons, lives just beside the wall."
For your sake, Xanthe, and because your poor father is ill and unable to look after his property, while Mopsus and your fishermen and slaves were obliged to go in the ship to Messina, to handle the oars and manage the sails, I always went up as soon as it grew dark."
"And have you kept watch there?"
"So many nights?"
"One can sleep after sunrise."
"How tired you must be!"
"I'll make up my sleep when my father returns."
"They say he is seeking the rich Mentor's only daughter for your wife."
"Not with my will, certainly."
"I am glad you will give me your hand again."
"You dear, good, kind fellow, how shall I thank you?"
"Anything but that! If you hadn't thought such foolish things about me, I should never have spoken of my watch up yonder. Who could have done it except myself, before Mopsus came back?"
"No one, no one but you! But now--now ask your question at once."
"May I? O Xanthe, dear, dear Xanthe, will you have me or our cousin Leonax for your husband?"
"You, you, only you, and nobody else on earth!" cried the girl, throwing both arms around him. Phaon clasped her closely, and joyously kissed her brow and lips.
The sky, the sea, the sun, everything near or distant that was bright and beautiful, was mirrored in their hearts, and it seemed to both as if they heard all creatures that sing, laugh, and rejoice. Each thought that, in the other, he or she possessed the whole world with all its joy and happiness. They were united, wholly united, there was nothing except themselves, and thus they became to each other an especially blissful world, beside which every other created thing sank into nothingness.
Minute after minute passed, nearly an hour had elapsed, and, instead of making garlands, Xanthe clasped her arms around Phaon's neck; instead of gazing into the distant horizon, she looked into his eyes; instead of watching for approaching steps, both listened to the same sweet words which lovers always repeat, and yet never grow weary of speaking and hearing.
The roses lay on the ground, the ship from Messina ran into the bay beside the estate, and Semestre hobbled down to the sea to look for Xanthe, and in the place of the master of the house receive her favorite's son, who came as a suitor, like a god.
She repeatedly called the girl's name before reaching the marble bench, but always in vain.
When she had at last reached the myrtle grove, which had concealed the lovers from her eyes, she could not help beholding the unwelcome sight.
Xanthe was resting her head on Phaon's breast, while he bent down and kissed her eyes, her mouth, and at last--who ever did such things in her young days?--even her delicate little nose.
For several minutes Semestre's tongue seemed paralyzed, but at last she raised both arms, and a cry of mingled indignation and anguish escaped her lips.
Xanthe started up in terror, but Phaon remained sitting on the marble bench, held the young girl's hand in his own, and looked no more surprised than if some fruit had dropped from the tree beside him.
The youth's composure increased the old woman's fury, and her lips were just parting to utter a torrent of angry words, when Jason stepped as lightly as a boy between her and the betrothed lovers, cast a delighted glance at his favorites, and bowing with comic dignity to Semestre cried, laughing:
"The two will be husband and wife, my old friend, and ought to ask your blessing, unless you wickedly intend to violate a solemn vow."
"I will--I will! When did I--" shrieked the house-keeper.
"Didn't you," interrupted Jason, raising his voice--"didn't you vow this morning that you would prepare Phaon's wedding-feast with your own hands as soon as you yourself offered a sacrifice to the Cyprian goddess to induce her to unite their hearts?"
"And I'll stick to it, so surely as the gracious goddess--"
"I hold you to your promise!" exclaimed Jason. "Your sucking-pig has just been offered to Aphrodite. The priest gladly accepted it and slaughtered it before my eyes, imploring the goddess with me, to fill Xanthe's heart with love for Phaon."
The house-keeper clenched her hands, approached Jason, and so plainly showed her intention of attacking him that the steward, who had assailed many a wild-boar, retreated--by no means fearlessly.
She forced him back to the marble bench, screaming:
"So that's why the priest found no word of praise for my beautiful pig! You're a thief, a cheat! You took my dear little pig, which all the other gods might envy the mother of Eros, put in its place a wretched animal just like yourself, and falsely said it came from me. Oh, I see through the whole game! That fine Mopsus was your accomplice; but so true as I--"
"Mopsus has entered our service," replied Jason, laughing; "and, if our Phaon's bride will permit, he wants to wed the dark-haired Dorippe. Henceforth our property is yours."
"And ours yours," replied Xanthe--"Be good-natured, Semestre; I will marry no man but Phaon, and shall soon win my father over to our side, rely upon that."
The house-keeper was probably forced to believe these very resolute words, for, like a vanquished but skilful general, she began to think of covering her retreat, saying:
"I was outwitted; but, what I vowed in a moment of weakness. I have now sworn again. I am only sorry for your poor father, who needed a trustworthy son, and the good Leonax--"
At this moment, as if he had heard his name and obediently appeared at her call, the son of Alciphron, of Messina, appeared with Phaon's father, Protarch, from the shadow of the myrtle-grove.
He was a gay, handsome youth, richly and carefully dressed. After many a pressure of the hand and cordial words of welcome, Phaon took the young girl's hand and led her to the new-comers, saying:
"Give me Xanthe for a wife, my father. We have grown up together like the ivy and wild vine on the wall, and cannot part."
"No certainly not," added Xanthe, blushing and nestling closely to her lover's side, as she gazed beseechingly first at her uncle, and then at the young visitor from Messina.
"Children, children!" cried Protarch, "you spoil my best plans. I had destined Agariste, the rich Mentor's only child, for you, foolish boy, and already had come to terms with the old miser. But who can say I will, or this and that shall happen to-morrow? You are very sweet and charming my girl, and I don't say that I shouldn't be glad, but--mighty Zeus! what will my brother Alciphron say--and you, Leonax?"
"I?" asked the young man, smiling. "I came here like a dutiful son, but I confess I rejoice over what has happened, for now my parents will hardly say 'No' a second time, when I beg them to give me Codrus's daughter, Ismene, for my wife."
"And there stands a maiden who seems to like to hear such uncivil words better than Helen loved Paris's flattering speeches!" exclaimed Phaon's father, first kissing his future daughter's cheek and then his son's forehead.
"But now let us go to father," pleaded Xanthe.
"Only one moment," replied Protarch, "to look after the boxes the people are bringing.--Take care of the large chest with the Phoenician dishes and matron's robes, my lads."
During the first moments of the welcome, Semestre had approached her darling's son, told him who she was, received his father's messages of remembrance, kissed his hand, and stroked his arm.
His declaration that he wished another maiden than Xanthe for his wife soothed her not a little, and when she now heard of matrons' dresses, and not merely one robe, her eyes sparkled joyously, and, fixing them on the ground, she asked:
"Is there a blue one among them? I'm particularly fond of blue."
"I've selected a blue one, too," replied Protarch. "I'll explain for what purpose up yonder. Now we'll go and greet my brother."
Xanthe, hand in hand with her lover, hurried on in advance of the procession, lovingly prepared her father for what had happened, told him how much injustice he, old Semestre, and she herself had done poor Phaon, led the youth to him, and, deeply agitated, sank on her knees before him as he laid her hand in her playfellow's, exclaiming in a trembling voice:
"I have always loved you, curly-head, and Xanthe wants you for her husband. Then I, too, should have a son!--Hear, lofty Olympians, a good, strong, noble son! Help me up, my boy. How well I feel! Haven't I gained in you two stout legs and arms? Only let the old woman come to me to-day! The conjurer taught me how to meet her."
Leaning on Phaon's strong shoulder he joyously went out of the house, greeted his handsome young nephew as well as his brother, and said:
"Let Phaon live with Xanthe in my house, which will soon be his own, for I am feeble and need help."
"With all my heart," cried Protarch, "and it will be well on every account, for, for--well, it must come out, for I, foolish graybeard--"
"Well?" asked Lysander, and Semestre curved her hand into a shell and held it to her ear to hear better.
"I--just look at me--I, Protarch, Dionysius's son, can no longer bear to stay in the house all alone with that silent youth and old Jason, and so I have--perhaps it is a folly, but certainly no crime--so I have chosen a new wife in Messina."
"Protarch!" cried Lysander, raising his hands in astonishment; but Phaon nodded to his father approvingly, exchanging a joyous glance with Xanthe.
"He has chosen my mother's younger sister," said Leonax.
"The younger, yes, but not the youngest," interrupted Protarch. "You must have your wedding in three days, children. Phaon will live here in your house, Lysander, with his Xanthe, end I in the old one yonder with my Praxilla. Directly after your marriage I shall go back to Messina with Leonax and bring home my wife."
"We have long needed a mistress in the house, and I bless your bold resolution!" exclaimed Jason.
"Yes, you were always brave," said the invalid.
"But not so very courageous this time as it might seem," answered Protarch, smiling. "Praxilla is an estimable widow, and it was for her I purchased in Messina the matron's robes for which you asked, Semestre."
"For her?" murmured the old woman. "There is a blue one among them too, which will be becoming, for she has light brown hair very slightly mixed with gray. But she is cheerful, active, and clever, and will aid Phaon and Xanthe in their young house-keeping with many a piece of good advice."
"I shall go to my daughter in Agrigentum," said Semestre, positively.
"Go," replied Lysander, kindly, "and enjoy yourself in your old age on the money you have saved."
"Which my father," added Leonax, "will increase by the sum of a thousand drachmae.
"My Alciphron has a heart!" cried the house-keeper.
"You shall receive from me, on the day of your departure, the same sum and a matron's blue robe," said Lysander.
Shortly after the marriage of Xanthe and Phaon, Semestre went to live with her daughter.
The dike by the sea was splendidly repaired without any dispute, for the estate once more belonged to the two brothers in common, and Xanthe found in Praxilla a new, kind mother.
The marble seat, on which the young people's fate was decided, was called by the grandchildren of the wedded pair, who lived to old age in love and harmony, "the bench of the question."