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- A Question - 1/13 -


[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]

A QUESTION

By Georg Ebers

Translated from the German by Mary J. Safford

PRELUDE.

In the Art-Palace on green Isar's strand, Before one picture long I kept my seat, It held me spellbound by some magic band, Nor when my home I sought, could I forget.

A year elapsed, came winter's frost and snow, 'Twas rarely now we saw the bright sun shine, I plucked up courage and cried: "Be it so!" Then southward wandered with those I call mine.

Like birds of passage built we there a nest On a palm-shaded shore, all steeped in light, Life was a holiday, enjoyed with zest And grateful hearts, the while it winged its flight.

Oft on the sea's wide purplish-blue expanse, With ever new delight I fixed my eyes, Alma Tadema's picture, at each glance Recalled to mind, a thousand times would rise.

Once a day dawned, glad as a bride's fair face, Perfume, and light, and joy it did enfold, Then-without search, flitted from out of space Words for the tale that my friend's picture told.

A QUESTION

CHAPTER I.

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 Clytemnestra--"

"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 marble.

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 words.

"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 teeth."

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,


A Question - 1/13

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