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- A Question - 10/13 -
"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,
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