Xena and Gabrielle meet a cross section of the traditional citizens and trades-people of Athens.
Note:— The following short character studies take their format from 'Microcosmographie, or a Piece of the World Discovered', by John Earle 1628.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and I have no rights to them.
'Microcosmographie, or Athens Discovered'
1. A Baker.
"Who's that, over there with the white apron and the, er, fat face?" Xena nodded off-handedly at a person standing at the entrance to a shop in one of the side-streets they were walking along.
"He's a baker. Got a reputation for being no better than he should be—if you catch my drift, Xena!" Gabrielle appraised the citizen with a casual glance. "They say it's always an act of charity when he, or others like him, are punished for breaking the rules."
"Breaking what rules, Gabrielle?"
"Oh, selling underweight or giving you 9 loaves instead of 10—that sort of thing." Gabrielle sniffed austerely, pretending not to notice the man as they passed. "His punishment is the prisoners good, as the saying goes."
"Well, I'm told that the last time a Clerk of the Market tested his scales and found them, er, incorrect the punishment was for some of his stock—bread, that is—to be confiscated and distributed free to prisoners in the local jail."
"Ha!" Xena was clearly tickled by the appropriateness of this punishment. "Lucky for him only his bread—an' not he personally—was sent to the lock-up. Bet he likes Charity an' Justice just about equally now!"
"Ask him what he thinks of the local pillory, and you'll be able to extend your vocabulary in a certain area, that's for sure." Gabrielle laughed and gripped her companion's wrist. "Come on. The leather-goods shop I wanna show you is down this street, somewhere. You'll love their stock."
"Lead on, darling." Xena chuckled as she increased her pace while Gabrielle led her quickly through the crowds. "Leather-goods—ya said the magic word!"
2. A Catch-pole.
There were a number of stalls, covered with a variety of common goods and some more exotic stock, on the left side of the narrow lane. In front of which were a multitude of people. Some, customers buying; some, casual passers-by shopping with their eyes and not their wallets; and some, disputatious people only too willing to cause a scene and affront the shop-owner with raillery and contempt of their goods. There were also a few who apparently felt safer in a crowd than by themselves—judging by their hangdog, wary, fearful manner. It was behind one of the latter that a large thickset man suddenly appeared, clapping a heavy hand on his victim's shoulder.
"Gotcher, damn yer!" The brawny man pulled a set of wrist-chains and cuffs from a capacious pocket and had the man secured before he could give more than a sharp whine of fear.
Xena made a motion to interfere, but Gabrielle's hand closed on her arm firmly.
"It's OK, let it be. He's a catch-pole—the Law!"
"Like a Centurion, or those sergeant-at-arms we've seen in other countries?" Xena pondered as the big man effortlessly guided his resigned prisoner away. "I heard them referred to as 'creditor's hawks' once."
"How's that, Xena?" Gabrielle turned an enquiring eye on the tall woman by her side.
"Because they seize flying birds, and fetch them in their talons to Justice." Xena sniggered at some memory. "Bet that guy thinks his captor's as bad as Hades himself. Arresting him, and bringing him to Tartarus itself, in the form of the Courts. He-He! I like that."
"Huh!" Gabrielle shook her head at Xena. "What will I do with you! Just as well it went off so quietly."
"Oh, without a fight you mean?" Xena nodded, yearningly. "Yeah, a fight would've been good. I feel like a little exercise."
"Well you ain't goin' to get it." Gabrielle's tone was firm, as they moved on down the street. "A lotta young city-blades, young tearaways—mostly those with a guilty conscience—go everywhere armed like they're going to war. Even just to stroll in the street."
"Armed to the teeth, eh." Xena nodded understandingly. "To escape being had up before a magistrate for their debts. Bet that's caused a few fights. Must be a hard life being a sergeant, or catch-pole. Getting knocked down and stomped on when some group of ne'er-do-wells try to make their escape. The injured parties probably hate the Senate an' its laws worse than Hades himself, I bet. Y'know, I'm beginning to like the sound of staying in Athens for a few days. Wanna go out for a stroll in the twilight this evening, Gabrielle? Among the late night crowds an' all."
"No chance." Gabrielle was implacable, holding her friend's arm and steering her away from another group of stalls. "Come on, we're heading in this direction. An' the only thing I'm doin' in the twilight is sitting on our balcony an' asking you to refill my wine-goblet every now and then, sister."
3. A Tavern.
"I'm dry." Xena suddenly stopped at the door of a disreputable looking establishment. "Let's go in here an' wet our whistles."
"Another dump." Gabrielle surveyed the exterior of the Tavern with a jaundiced eye. "Why'd you always pick such crappy places. Don't you have any taste at all?"
"Must've been my upbringing!" Xena laughed lightly, making a round-bellied man standing idly at the door jump nervously as they passed. "An' the only taste I wanna assuage at the moment is the taste for a big beaker of red wine. Young, rough, harsh on the tongue, an' overflowing with rich flavour and juices."
"Sounds more like a harl—"
"Here's the Public Room. Grab that corner bench before anyone else does." Xena headed off towards the bar. "I'll be back with ale or wine, pronto. What's your poison—heavy ale?"
"Gods, no! White Etrurian wine." Gabrielle called back quickly. "How many times do I have'ta tell you. I ain't a dock-worker, y'know."
In a surprisingly short time Xena returned, with a large tankard in one hand and a delicate glass goblet in the other.
"The servant'll be over with an amphora in a moment." Xena settled herself comfortably beside Gabrielle and looked out over the small but crowded room. "That guy at the door came behind the counter to serve me. Reckon he's the owner. Should've known, by the bright red colour of his nose."
"Hey, girl, that ain't nice." Gabrielle had assumed her lady-like mode, as she often did when in drinking company. "Just because he may partake of more of his own goods than is strictly necessary doesn't mean he's a drunken sot."
"Never said he was, darling." Xena was un-offended and un-caring, as she continued taking stock of their company. "What a bunch! D'ya think the air's rather fruity in here. Maybe you were right about this place. Most of these—people—don't look as if they've washed in the last week."
"Whatever you do don't ask to rent a room upstairs." Gabrielle affected to moan dismally from behind her upturned goblet. "The bed'll probably still be warm from the last incumbents; and there'll only be a rickety table an' a pottery chamber-pot under the bed—that hasn't been emptied yet!"
"Uurgh!" Xena admitted the probable truth of this statement. "Look at these people chattering away—an' what about? Mostly exchanging dubious jests rather than real news. Judging from what I can see most of 'em have brains like sponges, or are gettin' on that way. Doesn't say much for the quality of the wine. Maybe ya'd better just stick to one goblet of that stuff, Gabrielle."
As the women sat in the corner they were enveloped in a swirling cacophony, made up of loud voices striving to be heard over each other and the tinkling of glass goblets and pewter tankards as the wine flowed freely. There were some groups who had obviously reached that point where everything seemed tinged with a rosy glow—and were becoming loud with raucous singing as a result. The noise was deafening; but also appeared to be the natural atmosphere in which the Tavern operated.
"I think the wine-drawers behind the counter are the soberest people here, Xena." Gabrielle seemed quite happy, grinning as she took note of her surroundings. "It's like being at a great open-air Theatre, with masses of people from all ranks an' occupations. From the lowest to the highest. You might think all the business of the world was being transacted here. If you were of a melancholy nature an' looked askance at people generally—no, I don't mean you Xena—you could imagine a great deal of matter to work on here."
"Yeah, ya could be right." Xena acknowledged the truth of this remark. "Some men I can see, like those over there, have had so much drink they've got heads like glass—an' just as easily broken. Some have come to make friends; and others to quarrel, I bet."
"A lot are just whiling away the afternoon, I think." Gabrielle pursed her lips in disapproval at a nearby group of rowdies.
"Or this is their way of spending a rainy day, entirely." Xena put in her two obols worth for fair measure. "An' the dry days in between too, just to keep their itineraries running smoothly. It's one way of gettin' through life."
"You might call it a house of sin—but hardly of darkness." Gabrielle giggled uncontrollably as the thought came to her. "Look at all these candles lighting up the room. Reminds me of the Northern Countries we've been to—where it's as clear at midnight as at midday!"
Xena nodded, glancing round good-humouredly at the interesting spectacle. Somehow she felt almost at home in taverns, and crowds, like this. As if she could name every person present individually, give their occupations, and divulge all aspects of their private lives if need be.
"I like places of this sort, Gabrielle." Xena grinned, and leaned comfortably back against the panelled wall. "See that guy over by the door? He's a business man—probably a merchant—who comes here for a kind of recreation. Then that gloomy melancholy man over by the table in the far corner—he finds a sort of sanctuary here, maybe from his private life! That well-to-do fella by the bar counter in the yellow toga—he's here for entertainment. Slumming it from his secretarial work in the Senate, probably. And those two at the table along on the right. No, don't look so obviously, Gabrielle! You're embarrassing me. The one with the patched cloak is maybe a schoolmaster; and the other's an Athenian citizen of some rank. They're probably old friends—notice the kindness of the one an' the courtesy of the other?"
"I think you may be right." Gabrielle agreed, as she too examined several individuals amongst the crowd. "And look at that man at the table across from us. And that other man along with the group who're eating a meal over there. Bet they're both regarded as sparkling wits, judging from their guffawing voices an' the way their friends are laughing like hyenas. Only instead of getting their witticisms from scrolls they get them from the wine amphora's in front of them. Not a prepossessing bunch—or are we just too picky, Xena?"
"Well, give me sense for not wanting to pick any of these—that's for sure!" Xena sniffed almost as ostentatiously as Gabrielle might have. "If I'm goin'ta get drunk with a bunch of deadbeats—I'd pick a better quality of deadbeat than any here."
"You know your trouble, warrior-woman?" Gabrielle reached over to collar the amphora that stood on their table. "You're too sensitive. You need a thicker skin, like I have. Oh look, this is empty. So, who's going to buy the next round, eh?"
4. A Shark.
While Xena was away replenishing their drinks Gabrielle took the opportunity to scrutinize several interesting individuals scattered at random throughout the long malodorous room. And there were more than a few worthy of examination, for a variety of reasons. At one point a scruffy looking ruffian, of some bulk, stopped at her table and made an ill-mannered suggestion with brutal frankness and crudity. In response Gabrielle merely bent to the shoulder-bag lying at her feet and produced an apple which she set on the table before her. Then she bent once more, to straighten again with a long-bladed sai which she ostentatiously used to cut the apple in pieces. Halfway through this exercise she paused to glance up at her beaux, and quietly raise one eyebrow enquiringly. Having already turned pale and stepped back out of harm's way the ruffian promptly took this opportunity to disappear hurriedly into the crowd.
"Another suitor lost." Gabrielle muttered softly to herself, as she returned to the apple. "Was it something I said—or should I change my perfume?"
"Ya smell divine, darling. Like a whole bunch of daisies and roses and honeysuckle." Xena sat back down, placing another goblet of wine in front of her companion. "What were ya up to in my absence? Nothing naughty, I hope."
"Nah, didn't get a chance." Gabrielle could keep up her end of this gentle to-and-fro repartee with Xena indefinitely. "But there was a guy who tried to make himself comfortable a short while ago. You just missed him."
"What, that big oaf with the sneer?"
"Nah, I got rid of him without any trouble." Gabrielle shook her head disparagingly, as if annoyed at being thought incapable of dealing with jerks. "It was another man, earlier. Look, he's sitting over there now. See, beside the man in the yellow cloak who's looking irritated. It's the chap who's talking to him I mean. The long-haired sorta nervous guy in the green leather leggings."
"Yeah, I got him." Xena gazed penetratingly across the room. "So, what was he up to with ya?"
"Oh, nothing." Gabrielle shrugged, as she offered a piece of apple to the dark-haired warrior. "The kinda person who's full of themselves, with no shame. I think he's the sorta guy who uses more stratagems and guiles to squeeze a meal out of a chance acquaintance than a general does to win a war."
"Urrh, I know the sort." Xena nodded compassionately. "Sometimes they just won't take no for an answer, an' ya can't get rid of them."
"Yeah, as if the whole World's cast him aside—like a drowning man—but he fastens on anything or anybody to hand, and won't let go." Gabrielle heaved a sigh. "What a nuisance. He came up, as easy as you please, called me 'Myrtle' and pretended to have met me at a party in a Senator's house three months ago. Then he sat down an' brazenly asked what was for lunch—and praised the grilled beef here! After which he sat back with that sort of expectant look, as if the next move was mine. Why are you sniggering, Xena?"
"No, no, sorry. Something in my throat. A bit of apple went down the wrong way." Xena tried to scramble back to the moral high ground. "The sort who'll offer you a pot of wine, then leave you to pay for it. He'll fumble with the strings of his money-pouch so long you just have to cough up the cost yourself! Yeah, been there."
Gabrielle looked across at the shark's latest victim with compassion. It was quite obvious he had settled at the far table for a long stay. The man with the yellow cloak, to whom he was speaking, had taken on the air of someone prepared to offer almost any amount of money; if he could only be sure it would make the man go away for good.
"I think if anyone was stupid enough to send him to a friend's house with a letter, he would take a kind thank-you as an invitation to stay on as a half-boarder for as long as he could." Gabrielle sniffed austerely. "I bet most citizens around here shun him in the street like a pestilence, crossing over the way to avoid him; or run down a side-alley!"
"He looks as if he's clung to those clothes he's wearing too long, as well." Xena gave the man one last contemptuous glance, as she brought the unsavoury topic to an end. "So, how'd ya get rid of him then?"
"Oh, that was easy." Gabrielle looked into Xena's blue eyes with her own orbs of innocent sea-green. "I nodded across towards that man in the yellow cloak at the far table an' told the shark the poor guy was someone important I knew, who'd expressed great interest in meeting a man he's heard so much good talked off from ever so many acquaintances!"
Xena coughed and spluttered uncontrollably at this astonishing confession.
"Fill my tankard from that ale-beaker, would ya. To the brim." Xena gave up the fight. She knew when she was beat. "I need a strong drink—or two, or three!"
Note:—My copy of John Earle's 'Microcosmographie' lists 78 character-studies, so there's plenty more to come if the above 4 meet with approval.