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- A Question - 2/13 -
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 voice:
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 harvest."
"And who shamefully killed my gray cat?"
"It entered Phaon's dove-cote and killed the young of his best pair of cropper pigeons."
"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 our barley."
"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 myrtle-staff, exclaimed:
"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
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