THE FIRST PAYING GUEST.
Punch, June 14, 1905
[An attempt is here made to avoid classical pedantry, and to express the facts of antiquity in homely language suited to the needs of future generations of undergraduates, when Greek has ceased to be a compulsory subject.]
Ion Smithios the ratepayer arose from his early Grecian couch one lovely morning in April, b.c. 1004, feeling at peace with gods and men. In the first place, Troy had fallen on the previous day after a ten years’ siege, and he reflected with satisfaction that he had been one of the first to suggest the employment of guile in order to reduce the city. Under the signature of “Indignant Argive” he had written to the Argos Argus, the popular half-obol paper of the country, exposing the futility of frontal attacks. Then, again, he had worked off all arrears in the matter of sacrifices, and what a comfort that was! In short, as he went for his morning constitutional through the hall he felt that all nature smiled. Two minutes later his pleasure was entirely spoiled by the sight of a suppliant on the hearth.
The criminal law of Greece was at that time in a very imperfect state. Briefly the rules relating to murder and other offences were as follows. If A. killed B., then it became the duty of B.’s nearest relative, C., to kill A. The State declined to interfere in what it considered a purely personal affair. It was C.’s business, and he must manage it as he thought best. A.’s next move was to fly to the nearest hearth, and then the thing might be considered in Chancery. The Law was very strict on the subject of hearths. Once on a hearth a fugitive could neither be injured nor evicted.
“Morning,” said the suppliant brightly, as Ion Smithios appeared.
The ratepayer frowned.
“To what am I indebted?” he said.
“The fact is,” replied his visitor, “in strict confidence—I’m a god. Er—in fact, Zeus. I know I don’t look like it, but this a disguise. I am doing my celebrated imitation of the young man of the period. The fact is, I hope it won’t annoy you or upset your plans in any way, but I love your youngest daughter with all the warmth of a noble nature. The charms of the lovely—— Stupid of me! Can’t recall the name at the moment.”
“I’m not surprised. I have no daughter.”
“No, no, of course not,” said the suppliant. “Stupid joke of mine. But I see you have a feeling heart. You won’t be hard on a fellow. What’s really happened is that last night being Troy night, and me rather celebrating it, don’t you know, somehow or other—purely by accident—I cut a man’s head off. His brother chased me for three miles across difficult country, and—well, here I am, don’t you know. What?”
“Well,” said the ratepayer, “I wish it to be clearly understood that I in no way approve or sympathise. But——”
“Do you know,” interrupted the suppliant, “this cross-country running makes you awfully peckish. You couldn’t hurry breakfast along and tell me the rest afterwards, I suppose?”
From that day he became a regular member of the household. He turned out to be an unpleasant young man, and he did not scruple to find fault with the ratepayer’s domestic arrangements. Once they offered him cold mutton. He turned pale, and insisted on a devilled kidney.
But at last Ion Smithios hit on an idea.
The first the suppliant knew of it was when his breakfast was not brought to him at the usual time.
“Where’s my breakfast?” he thundered.
“Where, indeed?” said Ion Smithios, appearing from the adjoining room, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
“If,” said the suppliant hastily, “that breakfast is not ready in five seconds, there will be trouble.”
“And now listen to me,” said the ratepayer. “I have been looking up the law about suppliants, and it says the householder may not turn them out. There is nothing about feeding them. You take my meaning? If you like that hearth, by all means stay there. But you will pay from this moment for every meal you take, and also for attendance. Not to mention extras, and—lest we forget—fuel, lights, and washing. So now.”
“I’ll go this minute. I give you notice. I won’t stay a moment longer.”
Ion Smithios coughed.
“As I was coming through the garden just now,” he said, “I met a pleasant young fellow with a very large spear. He seemed to be waiting for someone. I shouldn’t be half surprised, do you know, if that was your man. The brother, you know.”
The suppliant’s jaw fell.
A week later it fell again. That was when Smithios presented the first bill ever made out for a Paying Guest.
Unsigned story as printed; credited to P. G. Wodehouse in the Index to Vol. 128 of Punch.
half-obol: An expensive newspaper indeed! An obolus was a silver coin, one-sixth of a drachma, so this paper would have cost one-twelfth of a skilled worker’s daily wage.