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- A Question - 3/13 -
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 that day.
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. Go and call Xanthe to breakfast, Dorippe."
"I know what is in it," cried the girl, reluctant to part from her companion's brother, whom she loved, and who still had a great deal to tell her about his journey to Messina. "Mopsus has told us. Our master's nephew, Leonax, Alciphron's son, will accompany his uncle and stay for a week or longer as a guest, not over yonder with Protarch, but here in our house. He is a, handsome youth, even taller than Phaon, and Mopsus says Alciphron's wife, by our master's request, dipped deep into his purse at Messina, and bought from her husband's merchant friends gold bracelets and women's garments, such as matrons wear."
At these words a smile of joy and hope flitted over Semestre's wrinkled face, like a spring breeze sweeping across a leafless garden. She no longer thought of the harm a piece of news might do her empty stomach, and, while mentally seeing the flutter of a matron's beautiful blue garment and the flash of Xanthe's rich dowry, eagerly asked the welcome messenger:
"Does she speak the truth? And what is this about the robes?"
"I brought the clothes myself," replied Mopsus, "and packed them in a beautiful chest inlaid with ivory, like those newlywedded youths receive with the bridal dowry. Praxilla, the handsome sister of Alciphron's wife, also gave--"
"Go and call Xanthe!" cried Semestre, interrupting the messenger. She had laughed softly several times while listening to his tale, and, when the girls hastily withdrew with Mopsus, cast a triumphant glance at Jason.
Then, remembering how much was to be done to make fitting preparation for the young suitor Leonax, she called loudly:
"Dorippe--Chloris! Chloris--Dorippe !" Neither of the maidens seemed to hear, and, when obliged to resign all hope of an answer, she shrugged her shoulders, and turning to Jason said:
"So young and so deaf; it is sad. Poor girls!"
"They like Mopsus better than you, and don't wish to hear," replied Jason, laughing. "They can't," said Semestre, angrily. "Mopsus is a bold, good-for-nothing fellow, whom I've often wanted to drive out of the house, but I should like to see the person who refused me obedience. As for your proposal, you have now heard distinctly enough that our girl is intended for Leonax."
"But suppose Xanthe doesn't want Leonax, and prefers Phaon to the stranger?"
"Alciphron's son a 'stranger' on the estates of his ancestors!" exclaimed Semestre. "What don't we hear? But I must go to work to prepare the best possible reception for Leonax, that he may feel from the first he is no stranger here, but perfectly at home. Now go, if you choose, and offer sacrifices to Aphrodite, that she may join the hearts of Xanthe and Phaon. I'll stick to my spit."
"Then you'll be in the right place," cried Jason, "but you're not yet turning it for Leonax's wedding-feast."
"And I promise you I'll prepare the roast for Phaon's," retorted Semestre, "but not until the sacrifice of an animal I'm fattening myself induces the foam-born goddess to kindle in Xanthe's heart sweet love for Leonax."
"Xanthe, Xanthe!" called Semestre, a short time after. "Xanthe! Where is the girl?"
The old woman had gone into the garden. Knowing how to use time to advantage, and liking to do two things at once, while looking for her nursling and repeatedly shouting the girl's name, she was gathering vegetables and herbs, on which the dew of early morning still glittered brightly.
While thus occupied, she was thinking far more of her favorite's son and the roast meats, cakes, and sauces to be prepared for him, than of Xanthe.
She wanted to provide for Leonax all the dishes his father had specially liked when a child, for what a father relishes, she considered, will please his children.
Twenty times she had stooped to pluck fresh lavender, green lettuce, and young, red turnips, and each time, while straightening herself again by her myrtle-staff, as well as a back bent by age would allow, called "Xanthe, Xanthe!"
Though she at last threw her head back so far that the sun shone into her open mouth, and the power of her lungs was not small, no answer came. This did not make her uneasy, for the girl could not be far away, and Semestre was used to calling her name more than once before she obeyed.
True, to-day the answer was delayed longer than usual. The maiden heard the old woman's shrill, resounding voice very clearly, but heeded it no more than the cackling of the hens, the screams of the peacocks, and the cooing of the doves in the court-yard.
The house-keeper, she knew, was calling her to breakfast, and the bit of dry bread she had taken with her was amply sufficient to satisfy her hunger. Nay, if Semestre had tempted her with the sweetest cakes, she would not have left her favorite nook by the spring now.
This spring gushed from the highest rock on her father's estate. She often went there, especially when her heart was stirred, and it was a lovely spot.
The sparkling water rushed from a cleft in the rocks, and, on the left of the little bench, where Xanthe sat, formed a clear, transparent pool, whose edges were inclosed by exquisitely-polished, white-marble blocks. Every reddish pebble, every smooth bit of snowy quartz, every point and furrow and stripe on the pretty shells on its sandy bottom, was as distinctly visible as if held before the eyes on the palm of the hand, and yet the water was so deep that the gold circlet sparkling above the elbow on Xanthe's round arm, nay, even the gems confining her peplum on the shoulder, would have been wet had she tried to touch the bottom of the basin with the tips of her fingers.
The water was green and clear as crystal, into which, while molten, bits of emeralds had been cast to change them into liquid drops.
Farther on it flowed through a channel choked with all kinds of plants. Close by the edges of the rivulet, which rushed swiftly down to the valley, drooped delicate vines, that threw their tendrils over the stones and flourished luxuriantly in the rocks amid thick, moist clumps of moss. Dainty green plants, swayed to and fro by the plashing water, grew everywhere on the bottom of the brook, and, wherever on its course it could flow more smoothly, ferns, nodding gracefully, surrounded it like ostrich-feathers waving about the cradle of a royal babe.
Xanthe liked to watch the stream disappear in the myrtle-grove.
When, sitting in her favorite nook, she turned her eyes downward, she overlooked the broad gardens and fields of her father and uncle, stretching on the right and left of the stream along the gentle slope of the mountain, and the narrow plain by the sea.
The whole scene resembled a thick woolen carpet, whose green surface was embroidered with white and yellow spots, or one of the baskets young maidens bear on their heads at the feast of Demeter, and in which, piled high above the edge, light and dark-hued fruit gleams forth from leaves of every tint.
Groves of young pomegranate and myrtletrees, with vigorous shoots, stood forth in strong relief against the silvery gray-green foliage of the
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