Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – The Miraculous Pitcher

One evening in the long ago, old Philemon and his old wife Baucis sat at their cottage door, enjoying the sunset. They had eaten their frugal supper and were talking about their garden and their cows and their beehives and their grapevines, which clambered over the cottage wall and on which the grapes were beginning to turn purple.

A great clamor rose from the village below them. ” Ah, wife,” said Philemon, ” I fear some poor traveler is seeking rest, and our neighbors have set their dogs at him, as usual.”

” Welladay,” answered old Baucis, ” I do wish they felt a little more kindness.”

These old folks, you must know, were quite poor. Their food was seldom anything but bread, milk, vegetables, and now and then a bunch of grapes that had ripened against the cottage wall. But they were two of the kindest people in the world and would cheerfully have gone without their dinners any day, rather than refuse a slice of their brown loaf, or a cup of new milk, to a weary traveler.

” I never heard the dogs so loud!” observed the good old man.

” Nor the children so rude!” answered his good old wife ; for it must be explained that the people in the village even encouraged their children to run after poor strangers, and to shout at their heels and pelt them with stones.

The noise came nearer and nearer, and finally two travelers approached, the dogs at their heels. Once or twice the younger of the two men, who was slender and active, turned about and drove back the dogs with his staff. His companion, who was very tall, walked calmly on, as if disdaining to notice either the naughty children or the pack of curs.

” Go you and meet them,” said Baucis, ” while I make haste within doors, and see whether we can get them anything for supper.”

Philemon went, with hearty words of welcome on his lips, to help the strangers up the hill. But to his surprise the younger man seemed not at all wearied with a long day’s journey. He was dressed in an odd way, with a sort of cap on his head, the brim of which stuck out over both ears. He had on a singular pair of shoes, too, and his feet seemed wonderfully light and active, as if he could hardly keep them on the ground.

” I used to be light-footed in my youth,” said Phi-lemon, ” but I always found my feet grow heavier toward nightfall.”

“There is nothing like a good staff to help one along,” answered the stranger.

It was an odd-looking staff. It was made of olive wood and had something like a little pair of wings near the top. Two snakes, carved in the wood, were represented as twining themselves about the staff.

” Friends,” said the old man, ” sit down and rest on this bench. My good wife Baucis has gone to see what you can have for supper. We are poor folk, but you shall be welcome to whatever we have.”

The younger stranger threw himself on the bench, letting his staff fall, but presently the staff seemed to get up from the ground of its own accord, and, spreading its little pair of wings, it half hopped, half flew, and leaned itself against the wall of the cottage.

Before Philemon could ask any questions, the elder stranger spoke to him. ” Was there not,” he asked, “a lake, in ancient times, where yonder village now stands ? ”

” Not in my day, friend,” answered Philemon, ” nor in my father’s time.”

” It was so once,” said the stranger, in a deep, stern voice. “And since the people of yonder village have forgotten the affections and sympathies of their nature, it were better the lake were there again.”

The traveler looked so stern that Philemon was almost frightened. It grew darker suddenly, and there was a roll of thunder in the air, but a moment afterwards the stranger’s face became so kindly and mild that Philemon forgot his terror.

The three talked sociably together while Baucis was getting supper.

” Pray, my young friend,” said Philemon, after laughing at the witty remarks of the younger stranger, ” what may I call your name? ”

” If you call me Quicksilver,” answered the traveler, ” the name will fit tolerably well.”

” Quicksilver ? ” repeated Philemon. ” It’ s a very odd name ! And your companion there, has he as strange a one ? ”

” You must ask the thunder to tell it you,”- re-plied Quicksilver mysteriously. ” No other voice is loud enough.”

Philemon gazed in awe at the elder stranger. Never did a grander figure sit more humbly beside a cottage door. When he talked, it was in such a way that Phi-lemon wanted to tell him everything in his heart.

But Philemon, simple and kind-hearted old man, had not many secrets to disclose. He talked about his life. His wife Baucis and himself had dwelt in that cottage from their youth, earning their bread by honest labor, always poor but still contented. He told what excellent butter and cheese Baucis made, and how nice were the vegetables he raised in his garden.

He said, too, that because they loved one another so much it was the wish of both that they might die, as they had lived, together.

The stranger listened and smiled. ” You are a good old man,” said he, ” and you have a good wife. It is fit that your wish be granted.”

Baucis now came out and began to make apologies for the poor supper.

“Had we known you were coming,” said she, ” my good man and myself would have gone without our supper, but I took most of the milk to-day to make cheese, and our last loaf is already half eaten. Ah, me ! I never feel the sorrow of being poor save when a poor traveler knocks at our door.”

“All will be well,” replied the elder stranger. ” An honest welcome works miracles with the food.”

“A welcome you shall have,” cried Baucis, ” and likewise a little honey and a bunch of purple grapes besides.”

” Why, Mother Baucis, it is a feast ! ” exclaimed Quicksilver, laughing. ” I think I never felt hungrier in my life.”

” Mercy on us ! ” whispered Baucis to her husband. ” If the young man has such a terrible appetite, there will not be half enough supper.”

They all went into the cottage. And what should Quicksilver’s staff do but spread its little wings and go hopping and fluttering up the doorsteps ! Tap, tap, went the staff on the kitchen floor; nor did it rest until it had stood itself beside Quicksilver’s chair.

As Baucis had said, it was a scanty supper. There was a piece of a brown loaf, a bit of cheese, and a dish of honey. There was a pretty good bunch of grapes for each of the guests. A moderately sized earthen pitcher, nearly full of milk, stood at a corner of the board, but when Baucis had filled two bowls, only a little milk remained in the bottom of the pitcher.

The travelers drank all the milk in their two bowls at a draft.

” A little more milk, kind Mother Baucis, if you please,” said Quicksilver. ” The day has been hot, and I am very much athirst.”

” Now, my good people,” answered Baucis, in great confusion, ” I am so sorry and ashamed, but there is hardly a drop more milk in the pitcher. 0 husband ! husband ! why did n’t we go without our supper ? ”

” Why,” cried Quicksilver, taking the pitcher by the handle, ” matters are not quite so bad.”

So saying, to the vast astonishment of Baucis, he filled not only his bowl but his companion’s, from the pitcher that was supposed to be almost empty.

” But I am old,” thought Baucis, “and apt to be forgetful. I must have made a mistake.”

“What excellent milk!” said Quicksilver. ” My kind hostess, I must really ask you for a little more.”

Now Baucis knew there could not possibly be any milk left, but, to show him how the case was, she lifted the pitcher and made a motion as if pouring milk into Quicksilver’s bowl. What was her surprise when a cascade of milk fell bubbling into the bowl and filled it to the brim. And what a fragrance that milk had !

” Now a slice of your brown loaf, Mother Baucis,” said Quicksilver, ” and a little of that honey.”

The loaf, when Baucis and her husband ate of it, had been rather dry; now it was light and moist. Baucis tasted of a crumb ; it was more delicious than bread ever was before. And that honey ! Its color was of gold ; it had the odor of a thousand flowers, but of such flowers as never grew in an earthly garden !

Baucis found a chance to whisper to Philemon. “Well, well, wife,” answered Philemon, ” you have been walking in a sort of dream. If I had poured out the milk I should have seen through it. There was more in the pitcher than you thought, that is all.”

And when Quicksilver asked for another cup of the delicious milk, old Philemon himself peeped into the pitcher. It was empty, but all at once Philemon saw a tiny white fountain gush up from the bottom of the pitcher and fill it to the brim.

” Who are ye, wonder-working strangers?” he cried, bewildered.

” Your guests, my good Philemon, and your friends,” replied the elder traveler. ” And may your pitcher never be empty for kind Baucis and yourself any more than for the needy wayfarer ! ”

The next morning the guests were early astir.

Baucis and Philemon walked with them a short distance. As they looked toward the valley, where, only the day before, they had seen the houses, the gardens, the clumps of trees, and the wide street with children playing in it, they saw instead the broad, blue surface of a lake.

“Alas!” cried the kind-hearted people, “what has become of our neighbors ?”

” They exist no longer as men and women,” said the elder traveler, while a roll of thunder echoed at a distance. ” There was no use nor beauty in such a life as theirs. They are transformed to fishes. Look back, friends, at your cottage.”

They looked back. Instead of the humble cottage a palace of white marble, with wide-open portal, rose before them. “There is your home,” said the stranger. ” Be as kind to travelers as you were to us last evening.”

So Philemon and Baucis lived in the palace and made happy everybody who happened to pass that way, and the miraculous pitcher never became empty.

One day in front of the portal appeared two stately trees with intertwining boughs. One was an oak and the other a linden tree.

” I am old Philemon!” murmured the oak.

” I am old Baucis ! ” murmured the linden tree. –

It was plain that the old couple had renewed their age in these trees. What a hospitable shade did they fling around them ! Their leaves whispered ever, “Welcome, traveler, welcome ! ” Some kind soul built a circular seat round both the trunks, and there the weary and the thirsty used to rest and quaff milk abundantly out of the miraculous pitcher.

Adapted from “A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys ”

Philemon (fi’ le’mon). — Baucis (bau’sis). — Giovanni da Bologna (jovan’ne da bo lon ya).— a roll of thunder: the thunderbolt was the sign of Zeus (zus), or Jupiter, king of the gods. — Quicksilver : Mercury, or Hermes (her’mez), the messenger of the gods.