Gateway to the Classics: Good Stories for Great Holidays by Frances Jenkins Olcott
Good Stories for Great Holidays by  Frances Jenkins Olcott

Baucis and Philemon


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 content in spite of their poverty.

As this worthy 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 before the fire.

Meanwhile Baucis stirred the embers, blowing them into a flame with dry leaves, and heaped on the fagots to boil the stew-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 pot-herbs from his patch of garden. Then the old woman, her hands trembling with age, laid the cloth and spread the table.

It was a frugal meal, but one that hungry wayfarers could well relish. The first course was an omelette of curdled milk and eggs, garnished with radishes and served on rude oaken platters. The cups of turned beechwood were filled with homemade wine from an earthen jug. The second course consisted of dried figs and dates, plums, sweet-smelling apples, and grapes, with a piece of clear, white honeycomb. What made the meal more grateful to the guests was the hearty spirit in which it was offered. Their hosts gave all they had 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.

The old couple then knew that their guests were not mere mortals; indeed, they were no other than Jupiter and Mercury come down to earth in the disguise of poor travelers. Being ashamed of their humble entertainment, Philemon hurried out and gave chase to his only goose, intending to kill and roast it. But his guests forbade him, saying:—

"In mortal shape we have come down, and at a hundred houses asked for lodging and rest. For answer a hundred doors were shut and locked 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 these impious people who treat strangers so churlishly, but you two shall be spared. Only leave your cottage and follow us to yonder mountain-top."

So saying, Jupiter and Mercury led the way, and the two old folks hobbled after them. Presently they reached the top of the mountain, and Baucis and Philemon saw all the country round, with villages and people, sinking into a marsh; while their own cottage alone was left standing.

And while they gazed, their cottage was changed into a white temple. The doorway became a porch with marble columns. The thatch grew into a roof of golden tiles. The little garden about their home became a park.

Then Jupiter, regarding Baucis and Philemon with kindly eyes, said: "Tell me, O good old man and you good wife, what may we do in return for your hospitality?"

Philemon whispered for a moment with Baucis, and she nodded her approval. "We desire," he replied, "to be your servants, and to have the care of this temple. One other favor we would ask. From boyhood I have loved only Baucis, and she has lived only for me. Let the selfsame 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."

Jupiter and Mercury, pleased with these requests, willingly granted both, and endowed Baucis and Philemon with youth and strength as well. The gods then vanished from their sight, but as long as their lives lasted Baucis and Philemon were the guardians of the white temple that once had been their home.

And when again old age overtook them, they were standing one day in front of the sacred porch, and Baucis, turning her gaze upon her husband, saw him slowly changing into a gnarled oak tree. And Philemon, as he felt himself rooted to the ground, saw Baucis at the same time turning into a leafy linden.

And as their faces disappeared behind the green foliage, each cried unto the other, "Farewell, dearest love!" and again, "Dearest love, farewell!" And their human forms were changed to trees and branches.

And still, if you visit the spot, you may see an oak and a linden tree with branches intertwined.

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