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- A Question - 6/13 -
woo foreign maidens and riot all night with dissipated companions.
As Xanthe approached her father's house, Semestre's call and the gay notes of a monaulus--[A musical instrument, played like our flageolet or clarinet]--greeted her.
A conjurer had obtained admittance, and was showing his laughing audience the tricks of his trained cocks and hens.
He was a dwarfish, bow-legged little man, with a short neck, on which rested a big head with a very prominent forehead, that shaded his small piercing eyes like a balcony.
The feathered actors lived in a two-wheeled cart, drawn from village to village, and city to city, by a tiny, gayly-decked donkey.
Three cocks and four hens were now standing on the roof of the cart, looking very comical, for their clever owner, who doubtless knew what pleases the eyes of children and peasants, had colored their white feathers, here and there, with brilliant red and glaring yellow.
Beside the cart stood a pale, sorrowful-looking boy, playing a merry tune on the monaulus. Lysander, Xanthe's father, had been helped out of the house into the sunlight, and, seated in his arm-chair of polished olive- wood, was gazing at the show.
As soon as he saw his daughter, he beckoned to her, and stroking her hair, while she pressed her lips to his forehead, said:
"An amusing sight! The two hens obey the little man as if they were dutiful children. I'm glad he came, for a person like me, forbidden by fate to enjoy the comical things to be seen out of doors, must be grateful when they come in his way. Your feet are twitching, Dorippe. Whenever a flute raises its voice, it moves young girls' limbs, as the wind stirs the leaves of the poplars. You would doubtless like to begin to dance at once."
At these words, Mopsus, keeping time to the music, advanced toward his sweetheart, but Semestre stepped before him, exclaiming half to the lad and half to her master:
"There must be no jumping about now. Whoever dances in the morning will break a leg at night."
Lysander nodded assent.
"Then go into the house, Chloris, and fetch this king of hens a jug of wine, some bread, and two cheeses."
"How many cheeses?" asked the housekeeper."
"Two," replied Lysander.
"One will be more than enough," cried Semestre.--" Bring only one, Chloris." The invalid smilingly shrugged his shoulders, clasped Xanthe's hand as she stood beside him, and said in so low a tone that the old woman could not hear:
"Haven't I grown like little thick-skull's hens? Semestre commands and I must obey. There she goes after Chloris, to save the second cheese."
Xanthe smiled assent. Her father raised his voice and called to the juggler:
"Well, my little friend, show what your actors can do.--You young people, Mopsus and Dorippe, for aught I care, can dance as long as the monaulus sounds, and Semestre stays in the house."
"We want first to see what the hens can do," cried the dark-haired girl, clinging to her lover's arm, and turning with Mopsus toward the exhibition, which now began again.
There was many an exclamation of astonishment, many a laugh, for, when the little man ordered his largest cock to show its skill in riding, it jumped nimbly on the donkey's back; when he ordered it to clean its horse, it pulled a red feather out of the ornaments on the ass's head; and finally proved itself a trumpeter, by stretching its neck and beginning to crow.
The hens performed still more difficult feats, for they drew from a wooden box for each spectator a leaf of a tree, on which certain characters were visible.
The scrawl was intelligible only to the conjurer, but was said to contain infallible information about the future, and the little man offered to interpret the writing to each individual.
This trainer of hens was a clever dwarf, with very quick ears. He had distinctly understood that, through Semestre, he was to lose a nice cheese, and, when the housekeeper returned, ordered a hen to tell each person present how many years he or she had lived in the world.
The snow-white bird, with the yellow head, scratched seventeen times before Xanthe, and, on reaching Mopsus, twenty-three times, which was perfectly correct.
"Now tell us this honorable lady's age too," said the conjurer to the hen.
Semestre told Chloris to repeat what the little man had said, and was already reflecting whether she should not let him have the second cheese, in consideration of the "honorable lady," when the hen began to scratch again.
Up to sixty she nodded assent, as she watched the bird's claw; at sixty- five she compressed her lips tightly, at seventy the lines on her brow announced a coming storm, at eighty she struck the ground violently with her myrtle-staff, and, as the hen, scratching faster and faster, approached ninety, and a hundred, and she saw that all the spectators were laughing, and her master was fairly holding his sides, rushed angrily into the house.
As soon as she had vanished behind the doors, Lysander threw the man half a drachm, and, clapping his hands, exclaimed:
"Now, children, kick up your heels; we sha'n't see Semestre again immediately. You did your business well, friend: but now come here and interpret your hen's oracles."
The conjurer bowed, by bending his big head and quickly raising it again, for his short back seemed to be immovable, approached the master of the house, and with his little round fingers grasped at the leaf in Lysander's hand; but the latter hastily drew it back, saying:
"First this girl, then I, for her future is long, while mine--"
"Yours," interrupted the dwarf, standing before Lysander--"yours will be a pleasant one, for the hen has drawn for you a leaf that means peaceful happiness."
"A violet-leaf!" exclaimed Xanthe. "Yes, a violet-leaf," repeated the conjurer. "Put it in my hand. There are--just look here--there are seven lines, and seven--everybody knows that--seven is the number of health. Peaceful happiness in good health, that is what your oracle says." "The gods owe me that, after suffering so long," sighed Lysander. "At any rate, come back here in a year, and if your cackling Pythia and this little leaf tell the truth, and I am permitted to bring it to you without support or crutch, I'll give you a stout piece of cloth for a new cloak; yet nay, better try your luck in six months, for your chiton looks sicker than I, and will hardly last a whole year."
"Not half a one," replied the conjurer, with a sly smile. "Give me the piece of stuff to-day, that, when I come back in a month, I may have suitable garments when I amuse the guests at the feast given for your recovery. I'm no giant, and shall not greatly impair your store."
"We'll see what can be done," replied Lysander, laughing, "and if, when you return in a month, I don't turn you from the door as a bad prophet, in spite of your fine clothes, your flute-player shall have a piece of linen for his thin limbs. But now foretell my daughter's future, too."
The dwarf took Xanthe's leaf from her hand, and said:
"This comes from an olive-tree, is particularly long, and has a light and dark side. You will live to a great age, and your life will be more or less happy as you shape it."
"As you shape it," repeated the girl. "That's a real hen's oracle. 'As people do, so things will be,' my nurse used to say every third word." Disappointed and angry, she threw the leaf on the ground, and turned her back on the little man.
The conjurer watched her keenly and searchingly, as not without difficulty he picked up the leaf. Then glancing pleasantly at her father, he called her back, pointed with his finger to the inner surface, and said:
"Just look at these lines, with the little strokes here at the end. That's a snail with horns. A slow creature! It warns people not to be over-hasty. If you feel inclined to run, check your steps and ask where the path will lead."
"And move through life like a cart creaping down into the valley with drags on the wheels," interrupted Xanthe. "I expected something unlike school-masters' lessons from the clever hen that loaded Semestre with so many years."
"Only question her about what is in your heart," replied the little man, "and she won't fail to answer."
The young girl glanced irresolutely at the conjurer, but repressed the desire to learn more of the future, fearing her father's laughter. She knew that, when Lysander was well and free from pain, nothing pleased him so much as to tease her till she wept.
The invalid guessed what was passing in his little daughter's mind, and said, encouragingly:
"Ask the hen. I'll stop both ears while you question the oracle. Yes, yes, one can scarcely hear his own voice for the monaulus and the shouts of the crazy people yonder.
"Such sounds lure those who are fond of dancing, as surely as a honey-comb
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