BAUCIS AND PHILEMON

BY H. P. MASKELL

On the slopes of the Phrygian hills there once dwelt a pious old couple named Baucis and Philemon. They had lived all their lives in a tiny cottage of wattles thatched with straw, cheerful and contented in spite of their poverty. Servants never troubled them, because they waited on themselves, and they never had to consider the whims of other people, because they were their own masters.

As this worthy old couple sat dozing by the fireside one evening in the late autumn, two strangers came and begged a shelter for the night. They had to stoop to enter the humble doorway, where the old man welcomed them heartily and bade them rest their weary limbs on the settle. Meanwhile Baucis stirred the embers, blowing them into a flame with dry leaves, and heaping on fagots and logs to boil the stewing-pot. Hanging from the blackened beams was a rusty side of bacon. Philemon cut off a rasher to roast; and while his guests refreshed themselves with a wash at the rustic trough, he gathered what pot herbs could be culled from his patch of garden. Then the old woman, her hands trembling with age, laid the cloth and spread the board. It was a rickety old table. One leg was too short, and had to be propped up with a potsherd.

It was but a frugal meal, but one that hungry wayfarers could relish. The first course was a sort of omelet of curdled milk and eggs garnished with radishes and candied cornel berries, served on rude oaken platters. The cups of turned beechwood were filled with home-made wine from an earthenware jug. With the second course there were nuts, dried figs, and dates—plums too, and sweet-smelling apples, grapes, and a piece of clear white honeycomb. What made it the more grateful to the guests was the hearty spirit in which all was offered. Their hosts gave all they had to give without stint or grudging.

But all at once something happened which startled and amazed Baucis and Philemon. They poured out wine for their guests, and lo! each time the pitcher filled itself again to the brim! In alarm they knelt down and implored the pardon of their visitors, for they now saw that these were not mere mortals. They were indeed none other than Jupiter and Mercury, who had come down to earth in disguise. The old couple excused themselves; by reason of their poverty and the lack of time, they had not been able to provide them a better entertainment. And Philemon hurried out and gave chase to their single goose, who served them for a watch-dog, intending to kill it and roast it for their guests. However, these forbade him, saying: "We are from above, and we have come down to punish the impious dwellers of the plains. In mortal shape we came down, and at a hundred houses asked for lodging and for rest. For answer a hundred doors were locked and barred against us. You alone, the poorest of all, have received us gladly, and given us of your best. Now it is for us to punish those who treat strangers so churlishly, while you shall be spared. Only leave your cottage and follow us to the mountain-top."

So saying, the deities led the way up the hill, and the two old folk hobbled after them on their crutches. Presently they stopped to take rest, and, looking round, saw all the country round sinking into a marsh, their own hut alone left standing. And while they gazed, before their very eyes their cabin was changed into a temple. The stakes in the porch turned into marble columns, and the door expanded into a great carved and inlaid gate of bronze. The thatch grew yellow, till at last they saw that it had become a roof of gold tiles. Then Jupiter, regarding them with kindly eyes, inquired: "Tell us, good old man, and you, good wife, well worthy of such a husband, what boon would you crave of us?"

Philemon whispered for a moment with Baucis, and she nodded her approval. "We desire," he replied, "to be your servants, and have the care of this temple. One other favor only we would ask. From boyhood I have loved only Baucis, and she has lived only for me. Let the same hour take us both away together. Let me never see the tomb of my wife, nor let her suffer the misery of mourning my death."

The gods willingly granted both these requests, and endowed them with youth and strength as well. So long as their lives lasted Baucis and Philemon were guardians of the temple. And when once more old age and feebleness overtook them, they were standing, one day, in front of the sacred porch and relating to visitors the story of the temple. Baucis happened to turn her gaze on her husband and saw him slowly changing into a gnarled oak. And Philemon, as he felt himself rooted to the ground, saw Baucis at the same time turning to a leafy linden; and as their faces disappeared behind the green foliage, each cried to the other, "Farewell, dearest love"; and again, "Dearest love, farewell"; and trunks and branches took the place of their human forms.

For long years these two trees were pointed out to all who came to worship at the temple, and many loved to bring garlands and hang them on the trees, in honor of two souls whose virtue the gods had so signally rewarded.

And still, if you visit the spot, you may see an oak and a linden with branches intertwined. What more proof would you have that this tale is true?