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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"And who shamefully killed my gray cat?"
"It entered Phaon's dove-cote and killed the young of his best pair of
"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
"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
"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
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.