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- Best Russian Short Stories - 24/56 -


and lead me, for I swear, by the dog, you let me go ahead in this darkness."

"Cease your scoffing, Socrates! Do not make sport, and do not compare yourself, your godless self, with a man who died in his own bed----".

"Ah, I believe I am beginning to understand you. But tell me, Elpidias, do you hope ever again to rejoice in your bed?"

"Oh, I think not."

"And was there ever a time when you did not sleep in it?"

"Yes. That was before I bought goods from Agesilaus at half their value. You see, that Agesilaus is really a deep-dyed rogue----"

"Ah, never mind about Agesilaus! Perhaps he is getting them back, from your widow at a quarter their value. Then wasn't I right when I said that you were in possession of your bed only part of the time?"

"Yes, you were right."

"Well, and I, too, was in possession of the bed in which I died part of the time. Proteus, the good guard of the prison, lent it to me for a period."

"Oh, if I had known what you were aiming at with your talk, I wouldn't have answered your wily questions. By Hercules, such profanation is unheard of--he compares himself with me! Why, I could put an end to you with two words, if it came to it----"

"Say them, Elpidias, without fear. Words can scarcely be more destructive to me than the hemlock."

"Well, then, that is just what I wanted to say. You unfortunate man, you died by the sentence of the court and had to drink hemlock!"

"But I have known that since the day of my death, even long before. And you, unfortunate Elpidias, tell me what caused your death?"

"Oh, with me, it was different, entirely different! You see I got the dropsy in my abdomen. An expensive physician from Corinth was called who promised to cure me for two minas, and he was given half that amount in advance. I am afraid that Larissa in her lack of experience in such things gave him the other half, too----"

"Then the physician did not keep his promise?"

"That's it."

"And you died from dropsy?"

"Ah, Socrates, believe me, three times it wanted to, vanquish me, and finally it quenched the flame of my life!"

"Then tell me--did death by dropsy give you great pleasure?"

"Oh, wicked Socrates, don't make sport of me. I told you it wanted to vanquish me three times. I bellowed like a steer under the knife of the slaughterer, and begged the Parcae to cut the thread of my life as quickly as possible."

"That doesn't surprise me. But from what do you conclude that the dropsy was pleasanter to you than the hemlock to me? The hemlock made an end of me in a moment."

"I see, I fell into your snare again, you crafty sinner! I won't enrage the gods still more by speaking with you, you destroyer of sacred customs."

Both were silent, and quiet reigned. But in a short while Elpidias was again the first to begin a conversation.

"Why are you silent, good Socrates?"

"My friend; didn't you yourself ask for silence?"

"I am not proud, and I can treat men who are worse than I am considerately. Don't let us quarrel."

"I did not quarrel with you, friend Elpidias, and did not wish to say anything to insult you. I am merely accustomed to get at the truth of things by comparisons. My situation is not clear to me. You consider your situation better, and I should be glad to learn why. On the other hand, it would not hurt you to learn the truth, whatever shape it may take."

"Well, no more of this."

"Tell me, are you afraid? I don't think that the feeling I now have can be called fear."

"I am afraid, although I have less cause than you to be at odds with the gods. But don't you think that the gods, in abandoning us to ourselves here in this chaos, have cheated us of our hopes?"

"That depends upon what sort of hopes they were. What did you expect from the gods, Elpidias?"

"Well, well, what did I expect from the gods! What curious questions you ask, Socrates! If a man throughout life brings offerings, and at his death passes away with a pious heart and with all that custom demands, the gods might at least send some one to meet him, at least one of the inferior gods, to show a man the way. ... But that reminds me. Many a time when I begged for good luck in traffic in hides, I promised Hermes calves----"

"And you didn't have luck?"

"Oh, yes, I had luck, good Socrates, but----".

"I understand, you had no calf."

"Bah! Socrates, a rich tanner and not have calves?"

"Now I understand. You had luck, had calves, but you kept them for yourself, and Hermes received nothing."

"You're a clever man. I've often said so. I kept only three of my ten oaths, and I didn't deal differently with the other gods. If the same is the case with you, isn't that the reason, possibly, why we are now abandoned by the gods? To be sure, I ordered Larissa to sacrifice a whole hecatomb after my death."

"But that is Larissa's affair, whereas it was you, friend Elpidias, who made the promises."

"That's true, that's true. But you, good Socrates, could you, godless as you are, deal better with the gods than I who was a god-fearing tanner?"

"My friend, I know not whether I dealt better or worse. At first I brought offerings without having made vows. Later I offered neither calves nor vows."

"What, not a single calf, you unfortunate man?"

"Yes, friend, if Hermes had had to live by my gifts, I am afraid he would have grown very thin."

"I understand. You did not traffic in cattle, so you offered articles of some other trade--probably a mina or so of what the pupils paid you."

"You know, my friend, I didn't ask pay of my pupils, and my trade scarcely sufficed to support me. If the gods reckoned on the sorry remnants of my meals they miscalculated."

"Oh, blasphemer, in comparison with you I can be proud of my piety. Ye gods, look upon this man! I did deceive you at times, but now and then I shared with you the surplus of some fortunate deal. He who gives at all gives much in comparison with a blasphemer who gives nothing. Socrates, I think you had better go on alone! I fear that your company, godless one, damages me in the eyes of the gods."

"As you will, good Elpidias. I swear by the dog no one shall force his company on another. Unhand the fold of my mantle, and farewell. I will go on alone."

And Socrates walked forward with a sure tread, feeling the ground, however, at every step.

But Elpidias behind him instantly cried out:

"Wait, wait, my good fellow-citizen, do not leave an Athenian alone in this horrible place! I was only making fun. Take what I said as a joke, and don't go so quickly. I marvel how you can see a thing in this hellish darkness."

"Friend, I have accustomed my eyes to it."

"That's good. Still I, can't approve of your not having brought sacrifices to the gods. No, I can't, poor Socrates, I can't. The honourable Sophroniscus certainly taught you better in your youth, and you yourself used to take part in the prayers. I saw you.

"Yes. But I am accustomed to examine all our motives and to accept only those that after investigation prove to be reasonable. And so a day came on which I said to myself: 'Socrates, here you are praying to the Olympians. Why are you praying to them?'"

Elpidias laughed.

"Really you philosophers sometimes don't know how to answer the simplest questions. I'm a plain tanner who never in my life studied sophistry, yet I know why I must honour the Olympians."

"Tell me quickly, so that I. too, may know why."

"Why? Ha! Ha! It's too simple, you wise Socrates."

"So much the better if it's simple. But don't keep your wisdom from, me. Tell me--why must one honour the gods?"

"Why. Because everybody does it."

"Friend, you know very well that not every one honours the gods. Wouldn't it be more correct to say 'many'?"

"Very well, many."


Best Russian Short Stories - 24/56

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