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Tales of the Romans : The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould

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WHAT THE FOREST LADY SAID

UP the path among the trees climbed the King. On each side of him, and overhead, the trees spread a thick shade. There was scarce a sound in the mountain forest except the sigh of the wind and the murmur of the brook.

[9] The King's name was Numa. He sat down on a boulder of rock, beside a big pool of water. From one point in the pool the stream ran out and splashed down the hill.

The water trembled. Numa watched it very closely. A lady, clad in forest green, rose up from the pool, and smiled at the King, and sat on one of the rocks. This was not the first time he had met her. Often he visited this spot, and sat talking with the nymph (nimf)  of the forest.

"Well, Numa," she said, "did you catch the two goblins?"

"Yes; I went to the fountain you told me of, and poured wine into it. When the two goblins came to drink—"

"What did they look like, Numa?"

"One looked like a funny little old man of the woods, with a goat's beard, and the other looked like a woodpecker. They drank of the water, and the wine got into their heads, and made them go to sleep. Then I crept up and caught them both, one in each hand."

"Did they get away?"

"Not till they had told me the charm against thunder, and also the magic way to see into the future, and know what is about to happen."

"What was the charm?"

"They said I was to mix up three strange things into a sort of paste—onions, hair, and the heads [10] of sprats; and if I ate some of it, I should be shielded from the harm of lightning and thunder, and be able to tell the future."

"Very good, Numa; and have the Pontiffs mended the bridge over the river Tiber?"

"Yes; they have set men to work, and had new beams of wood fixed in the bridge to make it strong against the rush of the water. And the Romans are not now afraid to cross the bridge."

"Do the people obey the Pontiffs?"

"Yes; the other day the Pontiffs said the Romans were to hold a holiday, and do no work at all; and every workman in the city stopped his hammer, saw, and other tools. And when they said it was time to sow seed in the corn-fields the people did so."

"That is right. And do the four Fire-Maidens attend to their duty?"

"They do. I have had them dressed in white, as you told me, and they keep the fire burning on the altar day and night, so that the Roman folk may always feel safe. And whenever the Fire-Maidens pass through the streets of the city, the officers carry the bundles of rods in front of them. And last week one of them was being carried in her chair through the city, and there passed by a man who was to be put to death for evil-doing. We spared the man's life because he had met the Vestal maiden."

[11] "That is what I told you to do. And have you built the house for the twenty Heralds?"

"Yes, Lady. If we have any quarrel with any tribe, we shall not think of going to war unless the Heralds give us leave."

"Have you made the eleven shields?"

"I have had them made by a clever smith. He copied very carefully the one which fell from the sky, and which the gods sent us. They look so alike, you could not tell which was the gift of the gods and which are copied. Well, I have chosen twelve lively young men to wear them, and to perform the dance. What did you tell me they were to do?"

"This is the manner of the dancing, Numa. You know it can only be done in one particular month—"

"Yes, the month of March, in honor of the great Mars, the lord of war."

"That is so, Numa. The twelve young men must wear purple jackets and shiny brass belts and brass helmets. They must carry short swords, and, as they leap along the street, they must keep time by beating the shields with short swords."

"The show will please the Romans."

"Yes, Numa, and it will cause them to remember that the city is strong, not by its walls, but by its brave men, who carry shield and sword for [12] the defence of Rome, and are ready to lay down their lives for their brethren."

"And now, Lady, I want to ask you how to stop the people from going on one another's lands, because they often—"

"Not to-day, Numa. I have talked with you enough this time. It is good to talk. It is also good not to talk. And you must now go and see the forest-maiden who puts her finger on her lip. You will find her under yonder fig-tree."

So Numa walked to the fig-tree, and sat under its shady boughs. A lady sat there with her finger on her lips, to show that no one must speak in her presence. She looked into the depths of the forest, as if she was very deeply thinking. Numa did as she did. He kept still, and thought of all the advice which the nymph of the pool had given him; and of the city of Rome; and of the Pontiffs, and the Heralds, and the Fire-Maidens, and the Leapers; and of the people in the many houses of the city, and of the best rules for keeping order, so that all men might be content and do their daily work in peace.

The woodpecker pecked at the trees, but Numa did not hear. And the squirrel jumped from bough to bough, but the sound it made did not reach Numa. At last the Lady of Silence rose up and went away, and the King of Rome also rose, and went down the hill and home to his royal house.

[13] Again Numa went to the pleasant nook in the forest, and again he met the Lady of the Fountain.

"You asked me last time, Numa, how to stay the people from going on each other's lands—from trespassing. Now I will tell you."

"I thank you, nymph of the forest."

"On the border-line between two farms or gardens a hole must be dug. In the hole let the folk pour the blood of an animal that has been slain for the gods. Sprinkle the hole with wine, and honey, and the seeds of plants, and sweet-smelling powders. Then let a big stone be dressed with ribbons and flowers. The stone must be placed in the hole so that it stands upright above the soil. Other stones are to be set at other points in the boundary."

"We will obey your command, Lady."

"And if, O Numa, any man tries to deceive his neighbor, and pulls up the landmark out of the earth, and moves it to another spot, so as to make his own plot of land larger, then a curse shall be uttered upon the man and upon his cattle."

"Yes, he shall be cursed."

"And whoso finds the man may slay him, and to kill the false person shall not be counted murder."

"It is dreadful, but it shall be done."

"And every year, in the month of February, a feast shall be held. The neighbors on each side [14] of the boundary shall come together, with their wives, their children, and their slaves, and shall lay flowers on the stones, and offer cakes to the god Terminus. It shall be a good thing for the folk to meet in peace, and pay respect to the landmarks, and bear in mind that no man ought to take his neighbor's property."

"There is another matter I wish to ask about. The Romans and the Sabines dwell in the same city, but are not always friends."

"Do this, Numa. Tell all the shoemakers to live in the same part of the town, whether they are Romans or Sabines. They will have a company or society of their own, and meet in a hall to make rules for the trade of the shoemakers. And likewise shall the musicians do, and the tanners, the goldsmiths, the masons, the dyers, the brass-workers, the potters, and all the others."

"I will do so. Besides this, Lady, I want to make a better reckoning of the days and months."

"How many months are there in a year, Numa?"

"Ten."

"Yes, but now you must have twelve. Up till now you began the year with March—the month of the Leapers; and the tenth month, or December, was the last."

"That is so."

"Well, Numa, tell the Romans to reckon this way: First month, January; second, February; [15] third, March; fourth, April; fifth, May; sixth, June; then the seventh and eighth; ninth, September; tenth, October; eleventh, November; and last, December."

"All this I will explain to the people of Rome."

"And now, Numa, go again to the Lady of Silence, and think of what I have told you. Farewell."

What I have related to you is only a myth or legend. Perhaps there never was such a man as King Numa, although tradition calls him the second King of Rome, 715&endash;672 B.C., and certainly there never was such a nymph as Egeria, the Lady of the Fountain in the Forest. But for many, many years the Romans believed that Numa was a King of Rome in very early times, and that he had learned wisdom from a nymph by the fountain. It does, indeed, need wisdom to govern cities and countries, for men have strong wills and are hard to rule. You know that persons who study how to rule are called politicians, and the rulers are called statesmen. The Romans were a great and wise people in many ways, and we may learn lessons from the history of their city and republic. Statesmen learn their business by reading history, and by listening to the words of other sage men, and by altering old laws and customs that are not [16] now useful, and making new ones. We should respect the names of good statesmen, such as Pericles, the Greek; Csar, the Roman; William the Silent, the Dutchman; Oliver Cromwell, the Englishman; George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.


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