By BARONESS ORCZY
"UNTO CAESAR" EL DORADO MEADOWSWEET THE NOBLE ROGUE THE HEART OF A WOMAN PETTICOAT RULE
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY NEW YORK
BY BARONESS ORCZY
AUTHOR OF 'THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL', 'ELDORADO'
"RENDER THEREFORE UNTO CAESAR THE THINGS WHICH ARE CAESAR'S; AND UNTO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD'S"
ST. MATTHEW XX. 21.
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
Copyright, 1914, BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
TO ALL THOSE WHO BELIEVE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER I. 1 CHAPTER II. 9 CHAPTER III. 19 CHAPTER IV. 30 CHAPTER V. 39 CHAPTER VI. 54 CHAPTER VII. 72 CHAPTER VIII. 83 CHAPTER IX. 107 CHAPTER X. 119 CHAPTER XI. 128 CHAPTER XII. 146 CHAPTER XIII. 155 CHAPTER XIV. 161 CHAPTER XV. 183 CHAPTER XVI. 193 CHAPTER XVII. 199 CHAPTER XVIII. 204 CHAPTER XIX. 209 CHAPTER XX. 212 CHAPTER XXI. 220 CHAPTER XXII. 226 CHAPTER XXIII. 233 CHAPTER XXIV. 239 CHAPTER XXV. 247 CHAPTER XXVI. 257 CHAPTER XXVII. 267 CHAPTER XXVIII. 277 CHAPTER XXIX. 286 CHAPTER XXX. 296 CHAPTER XXXI. 321 CHAPTER XXXII. 329 CHAPTER XXXIII. 343 CHAPTER XXXIV. 355 CHAPTER XXXV. 370 CHAPTER XXXVI. 376
"Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion...."—PSALM XLVIII. 2.
And it came to pass in Rome after the kalends of September, and when Caius Julius Caesar Caligula ruled over Imperial Rome.
Arminius Quirinius, the censor, was dead. He had died by his own hand, and thus was a life of extortion and of fraud brought to an ignominious end through the force of public opinion, and by the decree of that same Caesar who himself had largely benefited by the mal-practices of his minion.
Arminius Quirinius had committed every crime, sunk to every kind of degradation which an inordinate love of luxury and the insatiable desires of jaded senses had suggested as a means to satisfaction, until the treachery of his own accomplices had thrown the glaring light of publicity on a career of turpitude such as even these decadent times had seldom witnessed ere this.
Enough that the end had come at last. A denunciation from the rostrum, a discontented accomplice thirsting for revenge, an angry crowd eager to listen, and within an hour the mighty, much-feared censor was forced to flee from Rome to escape the fury of a populace which would have torn him to pieces, and was ready even to massacre his family and his womenfolk, his clients and his slaves.
He escaped to his villa at Ostia. But the Emperor Caligula, having duly enjoyed the profits derived from his favourite's extortions, hurled anathema and the full weight of his displeasure on the man who had been not only fool enough to be found out, but who had compromised the popularity of the Caesar in the eyes of the people and of the army. Twenty-four hours later the imperial decree went forth that the disgraced censor must end his days in any manner which he thought best—seeing that a patrician and member of the Senate could not be handed over to common justice—and also that the goods of Arminius Quirinius should be publicly sold for the benefit of the State and the profit of those whom the extortioner had wronged.
The latter phrase, though somewhat vague, pleased the people and soothed public irritation, and the ephemeral popularity of a half-crazy tyrant was momentarily restored. Be it said however, that less than a month later the Caesar decided that he himself had been the person most wronged by Arminius, and that the bulk of the profits derived from the sale of the late censor's goods must therefore find its way into the imperial coffers.
The furniture of Arminius' house within the city and that of his villa at Ostia had fetched vast sums at a public auction which had lasted three days. Everything had been sold, from the bed with the gilt legs on which the body of the censor had been laid after his death, to the last vase of murra that adorned his walls and the cups of crystal from which his guests had drunk. His pet monkeys were sold and his tame magpies, the pots of flowers out of the hothouses and the bunches of melons and winter grapes ripening under glass.
After that it was the turn of the slaves. There were, so I understand, over seven thousand of these: scribes and carpenters, litter-bearers and sculptors, cooks and musicians; there were a quantity of young children, and some half-witted dolts and misshapen dwarfs, kept for the amusement of guests during the intervals of supper.
The bulk of them had been sent to the markets of Delos and Phaselis, but the imperator had had the most valuable items amongst the human goods set aside for himself, and not a few choice pieces had found their way into the households of the aediles in charge of the sales: the State too had appropriated some hundreds of useful scribes, sculptors and mechanics, but there were still a thousand or so who—in compliance with the original imperial edict—would have to be sold by public auction in Rome for the benefit of the late censor's defrauded victims.
And thus, on this ninth day of September, a human load panting under the heat of this late summer's sun, huddled one against the other, pushed and jostled by the crowd, was exposed to the public gaze in the Forum over against the rostrum Augustini, so that all who had a mind, and a purse withal, might suit their fancy and buy.
A bundle of humanity—not over-wretched, for the condition of the slaves in the household of Arminius Quirinius had not been an unhappy one—they all seemed astonished, some even highly pleased, at thus finding themselves the centre of attraction in the Forum, they who had spent their lives in getting humbly out of other people's way.
Fair and dark, ivory skin and ebony, male and female, or almost sexless in the excess of deformity, there were some to suit all tastes. Each wore a tablet hung round the neck by a green cord: on this were writ the chief merits of the wearer, and also a list of his or her defects, so that intending purchasers might know what to expect.
There were the Phrygians with fair curly hair and delicate hands skilled in the limner's art; the Numidians with skins of ebony and keen black eyes that shone like dusky rubies; they were agile at the chase, could capture a lion or trap the wild beasts that are so useful in gladiatorial games. There were Greeks here, pale of face and gentle of manner who could strike the chords of a lyre and sing to its accompaniment, and there were swarthy Spaniards who fashioned breast-plates of steel and fine chain mail to resist the assassin's dagger: there were Gauls with long lithe limbs and brown hair tied in a knot high above the forehead, and Allemanni from the Rhine with two-coloured hair heavy and crisp like a lion's mane. There was a musician from Memphis whose touch upon the sistrum would call a dying spirit back to the land of the living, and a cook from Judaea who could stew a peacock's tongue so that it melted like nectar in the mouth: there was a white-skinned Iceni from Britain, versed in the art of healing, and a negress from Numidia who had killed a raging lion by one hit on the jaw from her powerful fist.
Then there were those freshly brought to Rome from overseas, whose merits or demerits had not yet been appraised—they wore no tablet round the neck, but their feet were whitened all over with chalk; and there were those whose heads were surmounted by an ugly felt hat in token that the State treasury tendered no guarantee for them. Their period of servitude had been so short that nothing was known about them, about their health, their skill, or their condition.
Above them towered the gigantic rostrum with tier upon tier of massive blocks of marble, and in the centre, up aloft, the bronze figure of the wolf—the foster-mother of the great city—with metal jaws distended and polished teeth that gleamed like emeralds in the sun.
And all around the stately temples of the Forum, with their rich carvings and colonnades and walls in tones of delicate creamy white, scarce less brilliant than the clouds which a gentle morning breeze was chasing westwards to the sea. And under the arcades of the temples cool shadows, dense and blue, trenchant against the white marble like an irregular mosaic of lapis lazuli, with figures gliding along between the tall columns, priests in white robes, furtive of gait, slaves of the pontificate, shoeless and silent and as if detached from the noise and bustle of the Forum, like ghosts that haunt the precincts of graves.
Throughout all this the gorgeous colouring that a summer's mid-morning throws over imperial Rome. Above, that canopy of translucent blue, iridescent and scintillating with a thousand colours, flicks of emerald and crimson, of rose and of mauve that merge and dance together, divide and reunite before the retina, until the gaze loses consciousness of all colour save one all-pervading sense of gold.
In the distance the Capitol, temple-crowned, rearing its deified summit upwards to the dome of heaven above, holding on its triple shoulders a throng of metal gods, with Jupiter Victor right in the centre, a thunderbolt in his hand which throws back ten thousand reflections of dazzling light—another sun engendered by the sun. And to the west the Aventine wrapped in its mantle of dull brown, its smooth incline barren and scorched, and with tiny mud-huts dotted about like sleepy eyes that close beneath the glare.
And far away beyond the Aventine, beyond the temples and palaces, the blue ribbon of the Tiber flowing lazily to the sea: there where a rose-coloured haze hung in mid-air, hiding with filmy, transparent veil the vast Campania beyond, its fever-haunted marshes and its reed-covered fastnesses.
The whole, a magnificent medley of cream and gold and azure, and deep impenetrable shadows trenchant as a thunder cloud upon an horizon of gold, and the moving crowd below, ivory and bronze and black, with here and there the brilliant note of a snow-white robe or of crimson head-band gleaming through dark locks.
Up and around the rostrum, noise that was almost deafening had prevailed from an early hour. On one of the gradients some ten or a dozen scribes were squatting on mats of twisted straw, making notes of the sales and entries of the proceeds on rolls of parchment which they had for the purpose, whilst a swarthy slave, belonging to the treasury, acted as auctioneer under direct orders from the praefect of Rome. He was perched high up aloft, immediately beneath the shadow of the yawning bronze wolf; he stood bare-headed under the glare of the sun, but a linen tunic covered his shoulders, and his black hair was held close to his head by a vivid crimson band.
He shouted almost incessantly in fluent Latin, but with the lisp peculiar to the African races.
A sun-tanned giant whose massive frame and fair hair, that gleamed ruddy in the sun, proclaimed some foreign ancestry was the praefectus in command of this tangled bundle of humanity.
He had arrived quite early in the day and his litter stood not far from the rostrum; its curtains of crimson silk, like vivid stains of blood upon the walls of cream and gold, fluttered restlessly in the breeze. Around the litter a crowd of his own slaves and attendants remained congregated, but he himself stood isolated on the lowest gradient of the central rostrum, leaning his powerful frame against the marble, with arms folded across his mighty chest; his deep-set eyes were overshadowed by heavy brows and his square forehead cut across by the furrow of a perpetual frown which gave the whole face a strange expression of untamed will and of savage pride, in no way softened by the firm lines of the tightly closed lips or the contour of the massive jaws.
His lictors, at some little distance from him, kept his person well guarded, but it was he who, with word or nod, directed the progress of the sale, giving occasional directions to the lictors who—wielding heavy flails—had much ado to keep the herd of human cattle within the bounds of its pens. His voice was harsh and peremptory and he pronounced the Latin words with but the faintest semblance of foreign intonation.
Now and then at a word from a likely purchaser he would with a sign order a lictor to pick out one of his wares, to drag him forward out of a compact group and set him up on the catasta. A small crowd would then collect round the slave thus exposed, the tablet on his neck would be carefully perused and the chattel made to turn round and round, to walk backwards and forwards, to show his teeth and his muscle, whilst the African up on the rostrum would with loud voice and profuse gesture point out every line of beauty on a lithe body and expatiate on the full play of every powerful muscle.
The slave thus singled out for show seemed neither resentful nor distressed, ready enough most times to exhibit his merits, anxious only for the chance of a good master and the momentary avoidance of the lictor's flail. At the praefect's bidding he cracked his knuckles or showed his teeth, strained the muscles of his arm to make them stand up like cords, turned a somersault, jumped, danced or stood on his head if ordered so to do.
The women were more timid and very frightened of blows, especially the older ones; the younger shoulders escaped a chastisement which would have marred their beauty, and the pretty maids from Corinth or Carthage, conscious of their own charms, displayed them with good-natured naivete, deeming obedience the surest way to comfort.
Nor did the praefect perform his duty with any show of inhumanity or conscious cruelty. Himself a wealthy member of the patriciate, second only to the Caesar, with a seat in the Senate and a household full of slaves, he had neither horror nor contempt for the state of slavery—a necessary one in the administration of the mightiest Empire in the world.
Many there were who averred that the praefect of Rome was himself the descendant of a freedman—a prisoner of war brought over by Caesar from the North—who had amassed wealth and purchased his own freedom. Indeed his name proclaimed his foreign origin, for he was called Taurus Antinor Anglicanus, and surnamed Niger because of his dark eyes and sun-tanned skin. Certain it is that when the sale of Arminius' goods was ordered by imperial edict for the benefit of the State, no one complained that the praefect decided to preside over the sale himself.
He had discharged such duties before and none had occasion to complain of the manner in which he did it. In these days of unbridled excesses and merciless outbursts of rage, he remained throughout—on these occasions—temperate and even impassive.
He only ordered his lictor to use the flail when necessary, when the bundle of human goods was so huddled up that it ceased to look attractive, and likely purchasers seemed to fall away. Then, at his command, the heavy thongs would descend indiscriminately on the bronze shoulder of an Ethiopian or the fair skin of a barbarian from the North; but he gave the order without any show of cruelty or passion, just as he heard the responsive cry of pain without any outward sign of pity.
"To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity."—PSALM LXII. 9.
As the day wore on, trade became more brisk and the work of the lictors more arduous, for the crowd was dense and the bargain-hunters eager to push to the front.
Now a bronze-skinned artisan with slender limbs and narrow tapering hands was attracting attention. He was standing on the platform, passive and indifferent, apparently unconscious alike of the scorching sun which bit into his bare flesh, as of the murmurs of the dealers round him and the eloquence of the African up on the rostrum, who was shouting himself hoarse in praise of his wares.
"A leather worker from Hispania," he thundered with persuasive rhetoric, "his age but two dozen years, his skill unequalled on either bank of the Tiber ... A tunic worked by him is softer than the fleeciest wool, and the sheath of a dagger becomes in his hands as hard as steel.... Good health and strength, two thousand sesterces were a poor price to pay for the use of these skilled hands.... Two thousand sesterces.... His lordship's grace, the censor Arminius Quirinius paid four thousand for him...."
He paused a moment whilst a couple of Jews from Galilee, in long dark robes and black caps covering their shaggy hair, turned critically round this paragon from Hispania, lifted his hands and gazed on each finger-tip as if trying to find traces on these of that much-vaunted skill.
"Two thousand sesterces, kind sirs, and you will have at your disposal the talent of a master in the noble art of leather working; pouches and coverings for your chairs, caskets and sword-hilts, nothing comes amiss to him.... Come! shall we say two thousand sesterces?"
The Jews were hesitating. With a rapid glance of their keen, deep-set eyes they consulted one with the other, whilst their long bony fingers wandered hesitatingly to the wallets at their belts.
"Two thousand sesterces!" urged the auctioneer, as he looked with marked severity on the waverers.
He himself received a percentage on the proceeds of the sale, a few sesterces mayhap that would go to swell the little hoard which ultimately would purchase freedom. The scribes stilet in hand waited in patient silence. The praefect, indifferent to the whole transaction, was staring straight in front of him, like one whose thoughts are strangers to his will.
"One thousand we'll give," said one of the Jews timidly.
"Nay! an you'll not give more, kind sirs," quoth the auctioneer airily, "this paragon among leather workers will bring fortune to your rival dealers...."
"One thousand," repeated one of the intending purchasers, "and no more."
The African tried persuasion, contempt, even lofty scorn; he threatened to withdraw the paragon from the sale altogether, for he knew of a dealer in leather goods over in Corinth who would give two fingers of his own hand for the exclusive use of those belonging to this Hispanian treasure.
But the Jews were obstinate. With the timid obstinacy peculiar to their race, they stuck to their point and refused to be enticed into purposeless extravagance.
In the end the wonderful worker in leather was sold to the Jew traders from Galilee for the sum of one thousand sesterces; his dark face had expressed nothing but stolid indifference whilst the colloquy between the purchasers and the auctioneer had been going on.
The next piece of goods however was in more pressing demand; a solid German, with massive thorax half-hidden beneath a shaggy goatskin held in at the waist by a belt; his hairy arms bare to the shoulder, his gigantic fists clenched as if ready to fell an ox.
A useful man with plough or harrow, he was said to be skilled in smith's work too. After a preliminary and minute examination of the man's muscles, of his teeth, of the calves of his legs, bidding became very brisk between an agriculturist from Sicilia and a freedman from the Campania, until the praefect himself intervened, desiring the slave for his own use on a farm which he had near Ostia.
Some waiting-maids from Judaea fetched goodly money; an innkeeper of Etruria bought them, for they were well-looking and knew how to handle and carry wine jars without shaking up the costly liquor; and the negroes were sought after by the lanistae for training to gladiatorial combats.
Scribes were also in great demand for copying purposes. The disseminators of the news of the day were willing to pay high prices for quick shorthand writers who had learned their business in the house of Arminius the censor.
In the meanwhile the throng in the Forum had become more and more dense. Already one or two gorgeously draped litters had been seen winding their way in from the Sacra Via or the precincts of the temples, their silken draperies making positive notes of brilliant colour against the iridescent whiteness of Phrygian marble walls.
The lictors now had at times to use their flails against the crowd. Room had to be made for the masters of Rome, the wealthy and the idle, who threw sesterces about for the gratification of their smallest whim, as a common man would shake the dust from his shoes.
Young Hortensius Martius, the rich patrician owner of five thousand slaves, had stepped out of his litter, and a way being made for him in the crowd by his men, he had strolled up to the rostrum, and mounting its first gradient he leaned with studied grace against the block of white marble, giving to the common herd below the pleasing spectacle of a young exquisite, rich and well-favoured—his handsome person carefully perfumed and bedecked after the morning bath, his crisp fair hair daintily curled, his body clad in a tunic of soft white wool splendidly worked in purple stripes, the insignia of his high patrician state.
He passed a languid eye over the bundle of humanity spread out for sale at his feet and gave courteous greeting to the praefect.
"Thou art early abroad, Hortensius Martius," quoth Taurus Antinor in response; "'tis not often thou dost grace the Forum with thy presence at this hour."
"They told me it would be amusing," replied young Hortensius lazily, "but methinks that they lied."
He yawned, and with a tiny golden tool he began picking his teeth.
"What did they tell thee?" queried the other, "and who were they that told?"
"There was Caius Nepos and young Escanes, and several others at the bath. They were all talking about the sale."
"Are they coming hither?"
"They will be here anon; but some declared that much rubbish would have to be sold ere the choice bargains be put up. Escanes wants a cook who can fry a capon in a special way they wot of in Gaul. Stuffed with ortolans and covered with the juice of three melons—Escanes says it is mightily pleasing to the palate."
"There is no cook from Gaul on the list," interposed the praefect curtly.
"And Caius Nepos wants some well-favoured girls to wait on his guests at supper to-morrow. He gives a banquet, as thou knowest. Wilt be there, Taurus Antinor?"
He had spoken these last words in a curious manner which suggested that some significance other than mere conviviality would be attached to the banquet given by Caius Nepos on the morrow. And now he drew nearer to the praefect and cast a quick glance around him as if to assure himself that the business of the sale was engrossing everyone's attention.
"Caius Nepos," he said, trying to speak with outward indifference, "asked me to tell thee that if thou wilt come to his banquet to-morrow thou wilt find it to thine advantage. Many of us are of one mind with regard to certain matters and could talk these over undisturbed. Wilt join us, Taurus Antinor?" he added eagerly.
"Join you," retorted the other with a grim smile, "join you in what? in this senseless folly of talking in whispers in public places? The Forum this day is swarming with spies, Hortensius Martius. Hast a wish to make a spectacle for the plebs on the morrow by being thrown to a pack of tigers for their midday meal?"
And with a nod of his head he pointed up to the rostrum where the dusky auctioneer had momentarily left off shouting and had thrown himself flat down upon the matting, ostensibly in order to speak with one of the scribes on the tier below, but who was in reality casting furtive glances in the direction where Hortensius Martius stood talking with the praefectus.
"These slaves," said Taurus Antinor curtly, "all belong to the imperial treasury; their peculium is entirely made up of money gained through giving information—both false and true. Have a care, O Hortensius Martius!"
But the other shrugged his shoulders with well-studied indifference. It was not the mode at this epoch to seem anything but bored at all the circumstances of public and private life in Rome, at the simple occurrences of daily routine or at the dangers which threatened every man through the crazy whims of a demented despot.
It had even become the fashion to accept outwardly and without the slightest show of interest the wild extravagances and insane debaucheries of the ferocious tyrant who for the nonce wielded the sceptre of the Caesars. The young patricians of the day looked on with apparent detachment at his excesses and the savage displays of unbridled power of which he was so inordinately fond, and they affected a lofty disregard for the horrible acts of injustice and of cruelty which this half-crazy Emperor had rendered familiar to the citizens of Rome.
Nothing in the daily routine of life amused these votaries of fashion—nothing roused them from their attitude of somnolent placidity, except perhaps some peculiarly bloody combat in the arena—one of those unfettered orgies of lust of blood which they loved to witness and which have for ever disgraced the glorious pages of Roman history.
Then horror would rouse them for a brief moment from their apathy, for they were not cruel, only satiated with every sight, every excitement and luxury which their voluptuous city and the insane caprice of the imperator perpetually offered them; and they thirsted for horrors as a sane man thirsts for beauty, that it might cause a diversion in the even tenor of their lives, and mayhap raise a thrill in their dormant brains.
Therefore even now, when apparently he was toying with his life, Hortensius Martius did not depart outwardly from the attitude of supercilious indifference which fashion demanded. They were all actors, these men, always before an audience, and even among themselves they never really left off acting the part which they had made so completely their own.
But that the indifference was only on the surface was evidenced in this instance by the young exquisite's scarce perceptible change of position. He drew away slightly from the praefect and anon said in a loud tone of voice so that all around him might hear:
"Aye! as thou sayest, Taurus Antinor, I might find a dwarf or some kind of fool to suit me. Mine are getting old and dull. Ye gods, how they bore me at times!"
And it was in a whisper that he added:
"Caius Nepos specially desired thy presence at supper to-morrow, O Taurus Antinor! He feared that he might not get speech with thee anon, so hath asked me to make sure of thy presence. Thou'lt not fail us? There are over forty of us now, all prepared to give our lives for the good of the Empire."
The praefect made no reply this time; his attention was evidently engrossed by some close bidding over a useful slave, but as Hortensius now finally turned away from him, his dark eyes under the shadow of that perpetual frown swept over the figure of the young exquisite, from the crown of the curled and perfumed head to the soles of the daintily shod feet, and a smile of contempt not altogether unkind played round the corners of his firm lips.
"For the good of the Empire?" he murmured under his breath as he shrugged his broad shoulders and once more turned his attention to his duties.
Hortensius in the meanwhile had spied some of his friends. Gorgeously embroidered tunics could now be seen all the time pushing their way through the more common crowd, and soon a compact group of rich patricians had congregated around the rostra.
They had come one by one—from the baths mostly—refreshed and perfumed, ready to gaze with fashionable lack of interest on the spectacle of this public auction. They had exchanged greetings with the praefect and with Hortensius Martius. They all knew one another, were all members of the same caste, the ruling caste of Rome. Young Escanes was now there, he who wanted a cook, and Caius Nepos—the praetorian praefect who was in search of pretty waiting-maids.
"Hast had speech with Anglicanus?" asked the latter in a whisper to Hortensius.
"Aye! a few words," replied the other, "but he warned me of spies."
"Will he join us, thinkest thou?"
"I think that he will sup with thee, O Caius Nepos, but as to joining us in——"
"Hush!" admonished the praetorian praefect, "Taurus Antinor is right. There are spies all around here to-day. But if he comes to supper we'll persuade him, never fear."
And with a final significant nod the two men parted and once more mixed with the crowd.
More than one high-born lady now had ordered her bearers to set her litter down close to the rostrum whence she could watch the sale, and mayhap make a bid for a purchase on her own account; the rich Roman matrons with large private fortunes and households of their own, imperious and independent, were the object of grave deference and of obsequious courtesy—not altogether unmixed with irony, on the part of the young men around them.
They did not mix with the crowd but remained in their litters, reclining on silken cushions, their dark tunics and richly coloured stoles standing out in sombre notes against the more gaily-decked-out gilded youth of Rome, whilst their serious and oft-times stern manner, their measured and sober speech, seemed almost set in studied opposition to the idle chattering, the flippant tone, the bored affectation of the outwardly more robust sex.
And among them all Taurus Antinor, praefect of Rome, with his ruddy hair and bronzed skin, his massive frame clad in gorgeously embroidered tunic, his whole appearance heavy and almost rough, in strange contrast alike to the young decadents of the day as to the rigid primness of the patrician matrons, just as his harsh, even voice seemed to dominate the lazy and mellow trebles of the votaries of fashion.
The auctioneer had in the meanwhile cast a quick comprehensive glance over his wares, throwing an admonition here, a command there.
"That yellow hair—let it hang, woman! do not touch it I say.... Slip that goatskin off thy loins, man ... By Jupiter 'tis the best of thee thou hidest.... Hold thy chin up girl, we'll have no doleful faces to-day."
Sometimes his admonition required more vigorous argument. The praefect was appealed to against the recalcitrant. Then the harsh unimpassioned voice with its curious intonation in the pronouncing of the Latin words, would give a brief order and the lictor's flail would whizz in the air and descend with a short sharp whistling sound on obstinately bowed shoulder or unwilling hand, and the auctioneer would continue his perorations.
"What will it please my lord's grace to buy this day? A skilled horseman from Dacia?... I have one.... A pearl.... He can mount an untamed steed and drive a chariot in treble harness through the narrowest streets of Rome.... He can ... What—no?—not a horseman to-day?... then mayhap a hunchback acrobat from Pannonia, bronzed as the tanned hide of an ox, with arms so long that his finger-nails will scrape the ground as he runs; he can turn a back somersault, walk the tight-rope, or ... Here, Pipus the hunchback, show thine ugly face to my lord's grace, maybe thou'lt help to dissipate the frown between my Lord's eyes, maybe my lord's grace will e'en smile at thine antics.... Turn then, show thy hump, 'tis worth five hundred sesterces, my lord ... turn again ... see my lord, is he not like an ape?"
My lord was smiling, so the auctioneer prattled on, and the deformed creature upon the catasta wound his ill-shapen body into every kind of contortion, grinning from ear to ear, displaying the malformation of his spine, and the hideousness of his long hairy arms, whilst he uttered weird cries that were supposed to imitate those of wild animals in the forest.
These antics caused my lord to smile outright. He was willing to expend two thousand sesterces in order to have such a creature about his house, to have him ready to call when his guests seemed dull between the courses of a sumptuous meal. The deal was soon concluded and the hunchback transferred from the platform to the keeping of my lord's slaves, and thence to my lord's household.
"Fairer than the children of men."—PSALM XLV. 2.
"Hun Rhavas, dost mind thy promise made to Menecreta?" whispered a timid voice in the African's ear.
"Aye, aye!" he replied curtly, "I had not forgotten."
There was a lull in the trade whilst the scribes were making entries on their tablets.
The auctioneer had descended from the rostrum. Panting after his exertions, perspiring profusely under the heat of the noonday sun, he was wiping the moisture from his dripping forehead and incidentally refreshing his parched throat with copious drafts from out a leather bottle.
His swarthy skin streaming with perspiration shone in the glare of the noonday sun like the bronze statue of mother-wolf up aloft.
An elderly woman in rough linen tunic, her hair hidden beneath a simple cloth, had succeeded in engaging his attention.
"It had been better to put the child up for sale an hour ago, whilst these rich folk were still at the bath," she said with a tone of reproach in her gentle voice.
"It was not my fault," rejoined the African curtly, "she comes one of the last on the list. The praefect made out the lists. Thou shouldst have spoken to him."
"Oh I should never dare," she replied, her voice trembling at the mere suggestion of such boldness, "but I did promise thee five aurei if I succeeded in purchasing the child."
"I know that," quoth the African with a nod of satisfaction.
"My own child, Hun Rhavas," continued the pleading voice; "think on it, for thou too hast children of thine own."
"I purchased my son's freedom only last year," acquiesced the slave with a touch of pride. "Next year, an the gods will, it shall be my daughter's and after that mine own. In three years from now we shall all be free."
"Thou art a man; 'tis more easy for thee to make money. It took me six years to save up twenty-five aurei which should purchase my child: twenty for her price, five for thy reward, for thou alone canst help me, an thou wilt."
"Well, I've done all I could for thee, Menecreta," retorted Hun Rhavas somewhat impatiently. "I've taken the titulus from off her neck and set the hat over her head, and that was difficult enough for the praefect's eyes are very sharp. Ten aurei should be the highest bid for a maid without guarantees as to skill, health or condition. And as she is not over well-favoured——"
But this the mother would not admit. In weary and querulous tones she began expatiating on the merits of her daughter: her fair hair, her graceful neck—until the African, bored and impatient, turned on her roughly.
"Nay! an thy daughter hath so many perfections, thou'lt not purchase her for twenty aurei. Fifty and sixty will be bid for her, and what can I do then to help thee?"
"Hun Rhavas," said Menecreta in a sudden spirit of conciliation, "thou must not heed a mother's fancies. To me the child is beautiful beyond compare. Are not thine own in thy sight beautiful as a midsummer's day?" she added with subtle hypocrisy, thinking of the ugly little Africans of whom Hun Rhavas was so proud.
Her motherly heart was prepared for every sacrifice, every humiliation, so long as she obtained what she wanted—possession of her child. Arminius Quirinius had given her her freedom some three years ago, but this seeming act of grace had been a cruel one since it had parted the mother from her child. The late censor had deemed Menecreta old, feeble, and therefore useless: she was but a worthless mouth to feed; but he kept the girl not because she was well-favoured or very useful in his house, but because he knew that Menecreta would work her fingers to the bone until she saved enough money to purchase her daughter's freedom.
Arminius Quirinius, ever grasping for money, ever ready for any act of cupidity or oppression, knew that from the mother he could extract a far higher sum than the girl could possibly fetch in the open market. He had fixed her price as fifty aurei, and Menecreta had saved just one half that amount when fate and the vengeance of the populace overtook the extortioner. All his slaves—save the most valuable—were thrown on the market, and the patient, hard-working mother saw the fulfilment of her hopes well within sight.
It was but a question of gaining Hun Rhavas' ear and of tempting his greed. The girl, publicly offered under unfavourable conditions, and unbacked by the auctioneer's laudatory harangues, could easily be knocked down for twenty aurei or even less.
But Menecreta's heart was torn with anxiety the while she watched the progress of the sale. Every one of these indifferent spectators might become an enemy through taking a passing fancy to her child. These young patricians, these stern matrons, they had neither remorse nor pity where the gratification of a whim was at stake.
And was not the timid, fair-haired girl more beautiful in the mother's eyes than any other woman put up on the platform for the purpose of rousing a momentary caprice.
She gazed with jealous eyes on the young idlers and the high-born ladies, the possible foes who yet might part her from the child. And there was the praefect too, all-powerful in the matter.
If he saw through the machinations of Hun Rhavas nothing would save the girl from being put up like all the others as the law directed, with the proper tablet attached to her neck, describing her many charms. Taurus Antinor was not cruel but he was pitiless. The slaves of his household knew that, as did the criminals brought to his tribunal. He never inflicted unnecessary punishment but when it was deserved he was relentless in its execution.
What hope could a poor mother have against the weight of his authority.
Fortunately the morning was rapidly wearing on. The hour for the midday rest was close at hand. Menecreta could watch, with a glad thrill in her heart, one likely purchaser after another being borne in gorgeously draped litter away from this scene of a mother's cruel anxiety. Already the ladies had withdrawn. Now there was only a group of men left around the rostrum; Hortensius Martius still lounging aimlessly, young Escanes who had not yet found the paragon amongst cooks, and a few others who eyed the final proceedings with the fashionable expression of boredom.
"I wonder we have not seen Dea Flavia this day," remarked Escanes to the praefect. "Dost think she'll come, Taurus Antinor?"
"Nay, I know not," he replied; "truly she cannot be in need of slaves. She has more than she can know what to do with."
"Oh!" rejoined the other, "of a truth she has slaves enough. But 'tis this new craze of hers! She seems to be in need of innumerable models for the works of art she hath on hand."
"Nay, 'tis no new craze," interposed Hortensius Martius, whose fresh young face had flushed very suddenly as if in anger. "Dea Flavia, as thou knowest full well, Escanes, hath fashioned exquisite figures both in marble and in clay even whilst thou didst waste thy boyhood in drunken revelries. She——"
"A truce on thine ill-temper," broke in Escanes with a good-humoured laugh. "I had no thought of disparagement for Dea Flavia's genius. The gods forbid!" he added with mock fervour.
"Then dost deserve that I force thee down to thy knees," retorted Hortensius, not yet mollified, "to make public acknowledgment of Dea Flavia's beauty, her talents and her virtues, and public confession of thine own unworthiness in allowing her hallowed name to pass thy wine-sodden lips."
Escanes uttered a cry of rage; in a moment these two—friends and boon companions—appeared as bitter enemies. Hortensius Martius, the perfumed exquisite, was now like an angry cockbird on the defence, whilst Escanes, taller and stronger than he, was clenching his fists, trying to keep up that outward semblance of patrician decorum which the dignity of his caste demanded in the presence of the plebs.
Who knows how long this same semblance would have been kept up on this occasion? for Hortensius Martius, obviously a slave to Dea Flavia's beauty, was ready to do battle for the glorification of his idol, whilst Escanes, smarting under the clumsy insult, had much ado to keep his rage within bounds.
"If you cut one another's throats now," interposed the praefect curtly, "'twill be in the presence of Dea Flavia herself."
Even whilst he spoke a litter gorgeously carved and gilded, draped in rose pink and gold, was seen slowly winding its way from the rear of the basilica and along the Vicus Tuscus, towards the Forum. In a moment all eyes were turned in its direction; the two young men either forgot their quarrel or were ashamed to prolong it in the presence of its cause.
Now the litter turned into the open. It was borne by eight gigantic Ethiopians whose mighty shoulders were bare to the sun, and all round and behind it a crowd of slaves, of clients, of sycophants followed in its trail, men running beside the litter, women shouting, children waving sprays of flowers and fans of feathers and palm leaves, whilst the air was filled with cries from innumerable throats:
"Augusta! Augusta! Room for Dea Flavia Augusta."
The retinue of Dea Flavia of the imperial house of the Caesars was the most numerous in Rome.
At word of command no doubt the bearers put the litter down quite close to the rostrum even whilst four young girls stepped forward and drew the silken curtains aside.
Dea Flavia was resting against the cushions; her tiny feet in shoes of gilded leather were stretched out on a coverlet of purple silk richly wrought with gold and silver threads. Her elbow was buried in the fleecy down of the cushions; her head rested against her hand.
Dea Flavia, imperial daughter of Rome, what tongue of poet could describe thy beauty? what hand of artist paint its elusiveness?
Have not the writers of the time told us all there was to tell? and exhausted language in their panegyrics: the fair hair like rippling gold, the eyes now blue, now green, always grey and mysterious, the delicate hands, the voluptuous throat, those tiny ears ever filled with flattery?
But methinks that the carping critic was right when he deemed that the beauty of her face was marred by the scornful glance of the eyes and the ever rigid lines of the mouth. There was those who had dared aver that Dea Flavia's snow-white neck had been more beautiful if it had known how to bend, and that the glory of her eyes would be enhanced a thousandfold when once they learned how to weep.
This, however, was only the opinion of very few, of those in fact who never had received the slightest favour from Dea Flavia; those on whom she smiled—with that proud, cold smile of hers—fell an over-ready victim to her charm. And she had smiled more than once on Hortensius Martius, and he, poor fool! had quickly lost his head.
Now that she was present he soon forgot his quarrel; neither Escanes nor the rest of the world existed since Dea Flavia was nigh. He pushed his way through her crowd of courtiers and was the first to reach her litter even as she put her dainty feet to the ground.
Escanes too and Caius Nepos, and Philippus Decius and the other young men there, forgot the excitement of the aborted quarrel and pressed forward to pay their respects to Dea Flavia.
The aspect of her court was changed in a moment. Her lictors chased the importunate crowd away, making room for the masters of Rome who desired speech with their mistress. The rough and sombre garments of the slaves showed in the background now, and all round the litter tunics and mantles of fleecy wool gorgeously embroidered in crimson and gold, or stripes of purple, crowded in eager medley.
All at once too the immediate neighbourhood of the rostrum was deserted, the human chattels forgotten in the anxious desire to catch sight of the great lady whom the Caesar himself had styled Augusta—thus exalting her above all women in Rome. Her boundless wealth and lavish expenditure, as well as her beauty and acknowledged virtue, had been the talk of the city ever since the death of her father, Octavius Claudius of the House of Augusta Caesar, had placed her under the immediate tutelage of the Caesar and left her—young and beautiful as she was—in possession of one of the largest fortunes in the Empire. No wonder then that whenever her rose-draped litter was perceived in the streets of Rome a crowd of idlers and of sycophants pressed around it, curious to see the queen of society and anxious to catch her ear.
This same instant of momentary excitement became that of renewed hope for an anxious mother's heart. Menecreta, with the keenness of her ardent desire, had at once grasped her opportunity. Hun Rhavas fortunately glanced down in her direction. He too no doubt saw the possibilities of this moment of general confusion. The five aurei promised him by Menecreta sharpened his resourceful wits. He signalled to one of the lictors below—an accomplice too, I imagine, in this transaction—and whilst a chorus of obsequious greetings round Dea Flavia's litter filled the noonday air like the hum of bees, a pale-faced, delicate-looking girl was quickly pushed up on to the platform.
Hun Rhavas very perfunctorily declaimed her age and status.
"Of no known skill," he said, mumbling his words and talking very rapidly, "since my lord's grace the late censor had made no use of her. Shall we say ten aurei for the girl? she might be made to learn a trade."
As the auctioneer started on his peroration those among the crowd who were here for business, and not for idle gaping, turned back towards the catasta. But the little maid who stood there so still, her hair entirely hidden by the ungainly hat, her head bent and her eyes downcast, did not seem very attractive; the lack of guarantee as to her skill and merits represented by the hat and the absence of the tablet round her neck caused the buyers to stand aloof.
As if conscious of this, a deep blush suffused the girl's cheeks. Not that she was ashamed of her position or of her exposure before the public gaze, for to this ordeal her whole upbringing had tended. Born in slavery, she had always envisaged this possibility, and her present position caused her in itself neither pain nor humiliation.
She knew that her mother was there in the crowd, ready for this opportunity; that the present state of discomfort, the past life of wretchedness would now inevitably be followed by a brighter future: reunion with her mother, a life of freedom, mayhap of happiness, marriage right out of the state of bondage, children born free!
No! it was not the gaping crowd that mattered, the exposure on the public platform, the many pairs of indifferent eyes fixed none too kindly upon her: it was that hat upon her head which brought forth in her such a sense of shame that the hot blood rushed to her cheeks; that, and the absence of the tablet round her neck, and Hun Rhavas' disparaging words about her person.
Others there had been earlier in the day—her former companions in Arminius' household—on whom the auctioneer had lavished torrents of eloquent praise, whom for the first bidding he had appraised at forty or even fifty aurei, the public being over willing to pay higher sums than those.
Whilst here she stood shamed before them all, with no guarantee as to her skill and talents, though she knew something about the art of healing by rubbing unguents into the skin, could ply her needle and dress a lady's hair. Nor was a word said about her beauty, though her eyes were blue and her neck slender and white; and her hair, which was of a pretty shade of gold, could not even be seen under that hideous, unbecoming hat.
"Ten aurei shall we say?" said Hun Rhavas with remarkable want of enthusiasm; "kind sirs, is there no one ready to say fifteen? The girl might be taught to sew or to trim a lady's nails. She may be unskilled now but she might learn—providing that her health be good," he added with studied indifference.
The latter phrase proved a cunning one. The few likely buyers who had been attracted to the catasta by the youthful appearance of the girl—hoping to find willingness, even if skill were wanting—now quickly drew away.
Of a truth there was no guarantee as to her health and a sick slave was a burden and a nuisance.
"Ten aurei then," said Hun Rhavas raising the hammer, whilst with hungry eyes the mother watched his every movement.
A few more seconds of this agonising suspense! Oh! ye gods, how this waiting hurts! She pressed her hands against her side where a terrible pain turned her nearly giddy.
Only a second or two whilst the hammer was poised in mid air and Hun Rhavas' furtive glance darted on the praefect to see if he were still indifferent! Menecreta prayed with all her humble might to the proud gods enthroned upon the hill! she prayed that this cycle of agony might end at last for she could not endure it longer. She prayed that that cruel hammer might descend and her child be delivered over to her at last.
"Hope deferred maketh the heart sick."—PROVERBS XIII. 12.
Alas, the Roman gods are the gods of the patricians! They take so little heed of the sorrows and the trials of poor freedmen and slaves!
"Who ordered the hat to be put on this girl's head?" suddenly interposed the harsh voice of the praefect.
He had not moved away from the rostrum all the while that the throng of obsequious sycophants and idle lovesick youths had crowded round Dea Flavia. Now he spoke over his shoulder at Hun Rhavas, who had no thought, whilst his comfortable little plot was succeeding so well, that the praefect was paying heed.
"She hath no guarantee, as my lord's grace himself hath knowledge," said the African with anxious humility.
"Nay! thou liest as to my knowledge of it," said Taurus Antinor. "Where is the list of goods compiled by the censor?"
Three pairs of willing hands were ready with the parchment rolls which the praefect had commanded; one was lucky enough to place them in his hands.
"What is the girl's name?" he asked as his deep-set eyes, under their perpetual frown, ran down the minute writing on the parchment roll.
"Nola, the daughter of Menecreta, my lord," said one of the scribes.
"I do not see the name of Nola, daughter of Menecreta, amongst those whom the State doth not guarantee for skill, health or condition," rejoined the praefect quietly, and his rough voice, scarcely raised above its ordinary pitch, seemed to ring a death-knell in poor Menecreta's heart.
"Nola, the daughter of Menecreta," he continued, once more referring to the parchment in his hand, "is here described as sixteen years of age, of sound health and robust constitution, despite the spareness of her body. The censor who compiled this list states that she has a fair knowledge of the use of unguents and of herbs, that she can use a needle and plait a lady's hair. Thou didst know all this, Hun Rhavas, for the duplicate list is before thee even now."
"My lord's grace," murmured Hun Rhavas, his voice quivering now, his limbs shaking with the fear in him, "I did not know—I——"
"Thou didst endeavour to defraud the State for purposes of thine own," interposed the praefect calmly. "Here! thou!" he added, beckoning to one of his lictors, "take this man to the Regia and hand him over to the chief warder."
"My lord's grace——" cried Hun Rhavas.
"Silence! To-morrow thou'lt appear before me in the basilica. Bring thy witnesses then if thou hast any to speak in thy defence. To-morrow thou canst plead before me any circumstance which might mitigate thy fault and stay my lips from condemning thee to that severe chastisement which crimes against the State deserve. In the meanwhile hold thy peace. I'll not hear another word."
But it was not in the negro's blood to submit to immediate punishment now and certain chastisement in the future without vigorous protestations and the generous use of his powerful lungs. The praefect's sentences in the tribunal where he administered justice were not characterised by leniency; the galleys, the stone-quarries, aye! even the cross were all within the bounds of possibility, whilst the scourge was an absolute certainty.
Hun Rhavas set up a succession of howls which echoed from temple to temple, from one end of the Forum to the other.
The frown on the praefect's forehead became even more marked than before. He had seen the young idlers—who, but a moment ago, were fawning round Dea Flavia's litter—turning eagerly back towards the rostrum, where Hun Rhavas' cries and moans had suggested the likelihood of one of those spectacles of wanton and purposeless cruelty in which their perverted senses found such constant delight.
But this spectacle Taurus Antinor was not like to give them. All he wanted was the quick restoration of peace and order. The fraudulent auctioneer was naught in his sight but a breaker of the law. As such he was deserving of such punishment as the law decreed and no more. But his howls just now were the means of rousing in the hearts of the crowd that most despicable of all passions to which the Roman—the master of civilisation—was a prey—the love of seeing some creature, man or beast, in pain, a passion which brought the Roman citizen down to the level of the brute: therefore Taurus Antinor wished above all to silence Hun Rhavas.
"One more sound from thy throat and I'll have thee scourged now and branded ere thy trial," he said.
The threat was sufficient. The negro, feeling that in submission lay his chief hope of mercy on the morrow, allowed himself to be led away quietly whilst the young patricians—cheated of an anticipated pleasure—protested audibly.
"And thou, Cheiron," continued the praefect, addressing a fair-skinned slave up on the rostrum who had been assistant hitherto in the auction, "do thou take the place vacated by Hun Rhavas."
He gave a few quick words of command to the lictors.
"Take the hat from off that girl's head," he said, "and put the inscribed tablet round her neck. Then she can be set up for sale as the State hath decreed."
As if moved by clockwork one of the lictors approached the girl and removed the unbecoming hat from her head, releasing a living stream of gold which, as it rippled over the girl's shoulders, roused a quick cry of admiration in the crowd.
In a moment Menecreta realised that her last hope must yield to the inevitable now. Even whilst her accomplice, Hun Rhavas, received the full brunt of the praefect's wrath she had scarcely dared to breathe, scarcely felt that she lived in this agony of fear. Her child still stood there on the platform, disfigured by the ugly headgear, obviously most unattractive to the crowd; nor did the awful possibility at first present itself to her mind that all her schemes for obtaining possession of her daughter could come to naught. It was so awful, so impossible of conception that the child should here, to-day, pass out of the mother's life for ever and without hope of redemption; that she should become the property of a total stranger who might for ever refuse to part from her again—an agriculturist, mayhap, who lived far off in Ethuria or Macedon—and that she, the mother, could never, never, hope to see her daughter again—that was a thought which was so horrible that its very horror seemed to render its realisation impossible.
But now the praefect, with that harsh, pitiless voice of his, was actually ordering the girl to be sold in the usual way, with all her merits exhibited to the likely purchaser: her golden hair—a perfect glory—to tempt the artistic eye, her skill recounted in fulsomeness, her cleverness with the needle, her knowledge of healing herbs.
The mother suddenly felt that every one in that cruel gaping crowd must be pining to possess such a treasure, that the combined wealth of every citizen of Rome would be lavished in this endeavour to obtain the great prize. The praefect himself, mayhap, would bid for her, or the imperator's agents!—alas! everything seemed possible to the anxious, the ridiculous, the sublime heart of the doting mother, and when that living mass of golden ripples glimmered in the noonday sun, Menecreta—forgetting her timidity, her fears, her weakness—pushed her way through the crowd with all the strength of her despair, and with a cry of agonised entreaty, threw herself at the feet of the praefect of Rome.
"My lord's grace, have mercy! have pity! I entreat thee! In the name of the gods, of thy mother, of thy child if thou hast one, have pity on me! have pity! have pity!"
The lictors had sprung forward in a moment and tried to seize the woman who had dared to push her way to the praefect's closely guarded presence, and was crouching there, her arms encircling his thighs, her face pressed close against his knees. One of the men raised his flail and brought it down with cruel strength on her thinly covered shoulders, but she did not heed the blow, mayhap she never felt it.
"Who ordered thee to strike?" said Taurus Antinor sternly to the lictor who already had the flail raised for the second time.
"The woman doth molest my lord's grace," protested the man.
"Have I said so?"
"No, my lord—but I thought to do my duty——"
"That thought will cost thee ten such lashes with the rods as thou didst deal this woman. By Jupiter!" he added roughly, whilst for the first time a look of ferocity as that of an angry beast lit up the impassiveness of his deep-set eyes, "if this turmoil continues I'll have every slave here flogged till he bleed. Is the business of the State to be hindered by the howlings of this miserable rabble? Get thee gone, woman," he cried finally, looking down on prostrate Menecreta, "get thee gone ere my lictors do thee further harm."
But she, with the obstinacy of a great sorrow, clung to his knees and would not move.
"My lord's grace, have pity—'tis my child; an thou takest her from me thou'lt part those whom the gods themselves have united—'tis my child, my lord! hast no children of thine own?"
"What dost prate about?" he asked, still speaking roughly for he was wroth with her and hated to see the gaping crowd of young, empty-headed fools congregating round him and this persistent suppliant hanging round his shins. "Thy child? who's thy child? And what hath thy child to do with me?"
"She is but a babe, my lord," said Menecreta with timid, tender voice; "her age only sixteen. A hand-maiden she was to Arminius Quirinius, who gave the miserable mother her freedom but kept the daughter so that he might win good money by and by through the selling of the child. My lord's grace, I have toiled for six years that in the end I might buy my daughter's freedom. Fifty aurei did Arminius Quirinius demand as her price and I worked my fingers to the bone so that in time I might save that money. But Arminius Quirinius is dead and I have only twenty aurei. With the hat of disgrace on her head the child could have been knocked down to me—but now! now! look at her, my lord, how beautiful she is! and I have only twenty aurei!"
Taurus Antinor had listened quite patiently to Menecreta's tale. His sun-tanned face clearly showed how hard he was trying to gather up the tangled threads of her scrappy narrative. Nor did the lictors this time try to interfere with the woman. The praefect apparently was in no easy temper to-day, and when ill-humour seized him rods and flails were kept busy.
"And why didst not petition me before?" he asked, after a while, when Menecreta paused in order to draw breath.
And his face looked so fierce, his voice sounded so rough, no wonder the poor woman trembled as she whispered through her tears:
"I did not dare, my lord—I did not dare."
"Yet thou didst dare openly to outrage the law!"
"I wanted my child."
"And how many aurei didst promise to Hun Rhavas for helping thee to defraud the State?"
"Only five, my lord," she murmured.
"Then," he said sternly, "not only didst thou conspire to cheat the State for whose benefit the sale of the late censor's goods was ordered by imperial decree, but thou didst bribe another—a slave of the treasury—to aid and abet thee in this fraud."
Menecreta's grasp round the praefect's knees did not relax and he made no movement to free himself, but her head fell sideways against her shoulder whilst her lips murmured in tones of utter despair:
"I wanted my child."
"For thy delinquencies," resumed the praefect, seemingly not heeding the pathetic appeal, "thou shalt appear before my tribunal on the morrow like unto Hun Rhavas thine accomplice, and thou shalt then be punished no less than thou deservest. But this is no place for the delivery of my judgment upon thee, and the sale must proceed as the law directs; thy daughter must stand upon the catasta, thou canst renew thy bid of twenty aurei for her, and," he added with unmistakable significance, as throwing his head back his imperious glance swept over the assembled crowd, "as there will be no higher bid for Nola, daughter of Menecreta, she will become thy property as by law decreed."
The true meaning of this last sentence was quite unmistakable. The crowd who had gathered round the rostrum to watch, gaping, the moving incident, looked on the praefect and understood no one was to bid for Nola, the daughter of Menecreta. Taurus Antinor, surnamed Anglicanus, had spoken and it would not be to anyone's advantage to quarrel with his arbitrary pronouncement for the sake of any slave girl, however desirable she might be. It was not pleasant to encounter the wrath of the praefect of Rome nor safe to rouse his enmity.
So the crowd acquiesced silently, not only because it feared the praefect, but also because Menecreta's sorrow, the call of the despairing mother, the sad tragedy of this little domestic episode had not left untouched the hearts of these Roman citizens. In matters of sentiment they were not cruel and they held family ties in great esteem; both these factors went far towards causing any would-be purchaser to obey Taurus Antinor's commands and to retire at once from the bidding.
As for Menecreta, it seemed to her as if the heavens had opened before her delighted gaze. From the depths of despair she had suddenly been dragged forth into the blinding daylight of hope. She could scarcely believe that her ears had heard rightly the words of the praefect.
Still clinging to his knees she raised her head to him; her eyes still dimmed with tears looked strangely wondering up at his face whilst her lips murmured faintly:
"Art thou a god, that thou shouldst act like this?"
But obviously the small stock of patience possessed by the praefect was now exhausted, for he pushed the woman roughly away from him.
"A truce on thy ravings now, woman. The midday hour is almost on us. I have no further time to waste on thine affairs. Put the girl up on the catasta," he added, speaking in his usual harsh, curt way, "and take this woman's arms from round my shins."
And it was characteristic of him that this time he did not interfere with his lictors when they handled the woman with their accustomed roughness.
"Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days."—ECCLESIASTES XI. 1.
The fair-skinned Cheiron up on the rostrum now took over the duties of the disgraced Hun Rhavas.
The interlude had caused the crowd to linger on despite the approach of noonday, an hour always devoted, almost sacred, to rest. But now that decorum was once more restored and the work of the sale could be proceeded with in the methodical manner approved by the praefect, interest began to flag.
The crowd seemed inclined to wait just a brief while longer in order to see Nola put up on the catasta and to hear the bid of twenty aurei made for her by her mother—a bid which, at the praefect's commands, was to be final and undisputed. Just to see the hammer come clashing down as an epilogue to the palpitating drama was perhaps worth waiting for. The human goods still left for sale after that would have to be held over for a more favourable opportunity.
The praefect was preparing to leave.
Up on the platform Nola, the daughter of Menecreta, smiled at the world through a few lingering tears. She was very happy now that her golden hair was allowed to stream down her shoulders, and that it was only because the praefect had so ordered it that the low price of twenty aurei would be accepted for her.
"Nola, daughter of Menecreta," shouted Cheiron, the new auctioneer, "aged sixteen years, skilled in the art of healing, and the knowledge of unguents and herbs. Her health is good, her teeth perfect, and her eyes keen for threading the finest needle. Shall we say fifteen aurei for the girl?"
He recited his peroration quickly and perfunctorily, like one repeating a lesson, learned from the praefect.
"I'll give twenty," rang out Menecreta's voice, clearly and loudly. She, too, had learned her lesson, and learned it well, whilst gratitude and an infinity of joy gave her strength to overcome her natural timidity.
"Twenty aurei! twenty aurei! will no one bid more for Nola, the daughter of Menecreta," shouted the auctioneer, hammer in hand, ready to bring it down since no more bidding would be allowed for this piece of goods. "Twenty aurei! no one bids more—no one—no——"
"I'll give thirty aurei!"
It was a pure, young voice that spoke, the voice of a young girl, mellow and soft-toned as those of a pigeon when it cooes to its mate; but firm withal, direct and clear, the voice of one accustomed to command and even more accustomed to be obeyed.
The sound rang from temple to temple right across the Forum, and was followed by silence—the dead silence which falls upon a multitude when every heart stops beating and every breath is indrawn.
Cheiron paused, hammer in hand, his lips parted for the very words which he was about to utter, his round open eyes wandering irresolutely from the praefect's face to that of the speaker with the melodious voice.
And on the hot noonday air there trembled a long sigh of pain, like the breaking of a human heart.
But the same voice, soft and low, was heard again:
"The girl pleases me! What say you, my lord Escanes, is not that hair worthy to be immortalised by a painter's hand?"
And preceded by her lictors, who made a way for her through the crowd, Dea Flavia advanced even to the foot of the catasta. And as she advanced, those who were near retreated to a respectful distance, making a circle round her and leaving her isolated, with her tall Ethiopian slaves behind her holding broad leaves of palm above her head to shield her from the sun. Thus was the gold of her hair left in shadow, and the white skin of her face appeared soft and cool, but the sun played with the shimmering folds of her white silk tunic and glinted against the gems on her fingers.
Tall, imperious and majestic, Dea Flavia—unconscious alike of the deference of the crowd and the timorous astonishment of the slaves—looked up at Cheiron, the auctioneer, and resumed with a touch of impatience in her rich young voice:
"I said that I would bid thirty aurei for this girl!"
Less than a minute had elapsed since Dea Flavia's sudden appearance on the scene. Taurus Antinor had as yet made no movement or given any sign to Cheiron as to what he should do; but those who watched him with anxious interest could see the dark frown on his brow grow darker still and darker, until his whole face seemed almost distorted with an expression of passionate wrath.
Menecreta, paralysed by this sudden and final shattering of her every hope, uttered moan after moan of pain, and as the pitiful sounds reached the praefect's ears, a smothered oath escaped his tightly clenched teeth. Like some gigantic beast roused from noonday sleep, he straightened his massive frame and seemed suddenly to shake himself free from that state of torpor into which Dea Flavia's unexpected appearance had at first thrown him. He too, advanced to the foot of the catasta and there faced the imperious beauty, whom the whole city had, for the past two years, tacitly agreed to obey in all things.
"The State," he said, speaking at least as haughtily as Dea Flavia herself, "hath agreed to accept the sum of twenty aurei for this slave. 'Tis too late now to make further bids for her."
But a pair of large blue eyes, cold as the waters of the Tiber and like unto them mysterious and elusive, were turned fully on the speaker.
"Too late didst thou say, oh Taurus Antinor?" said Dea Flavia raising her pencilled eyebrows with a slight expression of scorn, "nay! I had not seen the hammer descend! The girl until then is not sold, and open to the highest bidder. Or am I wrong, O praefect, in thus interpreting the laws of Rome?"
"This is an exceptional case, Augusta," he retorted curtly.
"Then wilt thou expound to me that law which deals with such exceptional cases?" she rejoined with the same ill-concealed tone of gentle irony. "I had never heard of it; so I pray thee enlighten mine ignorance. Of a truth thou must know the law, since thou didst swear before the altar of the gods to uphold it with all thy might."
"'Tis not a case of law, Augusta, but one of pity."
The praefect, feeling no doubt the weakness of any argument which aimed at coercing this daughter of the Caesars, prompted too by his innate respect of the law which he administered, thought it best to retreat from his position of haughty arrogance and to make an appeal, since obviously he could not command. Dea Flavia was quick to note this change of attitude, and her delicate lips parted in a contemptuous smile.
"Dost administer pity as well as law, O Taurus Antinor?" she asked coldly.
Then, as if further argument from him were of no interest to her, she once more turned to the auctioneer, and said with marked impatience:
"I have bid thirty aurei for this girl; art set there slave, to gape at the praefect, or to do thy duty to the State that employs thee? Is there a higher bid for the maid? She pleaseth me, and I'll give sixty or an hundred for her. This is a public auction as by law directed. I appeal to thee, oh Taurus Antinor, to give orders to thy slaves, ere I appeal to my kinsman, the Emperor, for the restoration of a due administration of the law."
Those who had cause to know and to fear the praefect's varying moods, were ready to shrink away now from the threatening darkness of his glance. He seemed indeed like some tawny wild beast, chained and scorned, whom a child was teasing from a point of vantage just beyond the reach of his powerful jaws.
She was so well within her rights and he so absolutely in the wrong as far as the law was concerned, that he knew at once that he must inevitably give way. If Dea Flavia chose to desire a slave she could satisfy the caprice, since no man's fortune could hold out against her own. This too did the praefect know. He himself was passing rich and would gladly have paid a large sum now, that he might prove the victor in this unequal contest but Dea Flavia had the law and boundless wealth on her side. Taurus Antinor had only his personal authority which had coerced the crowd, but was of no avail against this beautiful woman who defied him openly before the plebs and before his slaves.
"Have no fear, O Dea Flavia," he said, trying to speak calmly, but his voice trembling with the mighty effort at control, "justice hath never yet suffered at my hands. I told thee that 'tis not a case of law here but one of mercy. This girl's mother has toiled for years to save enough money with which to buy the freedom of her child. She hath twenty aurei to command, and the girl is not worth much more than that. The State would have been satisfied, for my own purse would have made up the deficiency. I had bought the girl myself and given her to the mother, but the poor wretch was so proud and happy to buy her child's freedom herself, that I allowed her to make the bid. That is this slave-girl's story, Augusta! Thou seest that the law will not suffer, neither shall the State be defrauded. What thou art prepared to give for the girl that will I make good in the coffers of the State. Art satisfied, I hope! Thou art a woman, and canst mayhap better understand than I did at first when Menecreta threw herself at my knees."
His rugged voice softened considerably whilst he spoke, and those who were watching him so anxiously saw the ugly dark frown gradually lighten on his brow. No wonder! since he was just a man face to face with an exceptionally beautiful woman, to whose pity he was endeavouring to make appeal. At all times an easy and a pleasant task, it must have been doubly so now when the object of mercy was so deserving. Taurus Antinor looked straight into the lovely face before him, marvelling when those exquisite blue eyes would soften with their first look of pity. But they remained serene and mysterious, neither avoiding his gaze nor responding to its appeal. The delicately chiselled lips retained their slight curve of scorn.
He gave a sign to Menecreta, and she approached, tottering like one who is drunken with wine, or who has received a heavy blow on the head. She stood before Dea Flavia, with head trembling like poplar leaves and great hollow eyes fixed in meaningless vacancy upon the great patrician lady.
"This is Menecreta, O Dea Flavia," concluded the praefect; "wilt allow her to plead her own cause?"
Without replying directly to him, Dea Flavia turned for the first time to the slave-girl on the platform.
"Is this thy mother?" she asked.
"Yes!" murmured the girl.
"Hast a wish that she should buy thy freedom?"
"That thou shouldst go with her to the hovel which is her home, the only home that thou wouldst ever know? Hast a wish to become the slave of that old woman, whose mind hath already gone wandering among the shadows, and whose body will very shortly go in search of her mind? Hast a wish to spend the rest of thy days scrubbing floors and stewing onions in an iron pot? Or is thy wish to dwell in the marble halls of Dea Flavia's house, where the air is filled with the perfume of roses and violets and tame songbirds make their nests in the oleander bushes? Wouldst like to recline on soft downy cushions, allowing thy golden hair to fall over thy shoulders the while I, mallet or chisel in hand, would make thy face immortal by carving it in marble? The praefect saith thine is a case for pity, then do I have pity upon thee, and give thee the choice of what thy life shall be. Squalor and misery as thy mother's slave, or joy, music, and flowers as mine."
Her voice, ever low and musical, had taken on notes of tenderness and of languor. The tears of pity which the praefect had vainly tried to conjure up gathered now in her eyes as her whole mood seemed to melt in the fire of her own eloquence.
Nola hung her head, overwhelmed with shame. She was very young and the great lady very kind and gentle. Her own simple heart, still filled with the selfish desires of extreme youth, cried out for that same life of ease and luxury which the beautiful lady depicted in such tempting colours before her, whilst it shrank instinctively from the poverty, the hard floors, the stewing-pots which awaited her in that squalid hut on the Aventine where her mother dwelt.
She hung her head and made no reply, whilst from the group of the young and idle sycophants who had hung on Dea Flavia's honeyed words just as they had done round her litter a while ago, came murmurs of extravagant adulation and well-chosen words in praise of her exquisite diction, her marvellous pity, her every talent and virtue thus freely displayed.
Even the crowd stared open-mouthed and agape at this wonderful spectacle of so great a lady stooping to parley with a slave.
The praefect alone remained seemingly unmoved; but the expression of hidden wrath had once more crept into his eyes, making them look dark and fierce and glowing with savage impotence; and his gaze had remained fixed on the radiantly beautiful woman who stood there before him in all the glory of her high descent, her patrician bearing, the exquisite charm of her personality, seductive in its haughty aloofness, voluptuous even in its disdainful calm.
Neither did Menecreta fall a victim to Dea Flavia's melodious voice. She had listened from a respectful distance, and with the humble deference born of years of bondage, to the honeyed words with which the great lady deigned to cajole a girl-slave: but when Dea Flavia had finished speaking and the chorus of admiration had died down around her, the freedwoman, with steps which she vainly tried to render firm, approached to the foot of the catasta and stood between the great lady and her own child.
She placed one trembling, toil-worn hand on Nola's shoulder and said gently:
"Nola, thou hast heard what my lady's grace hath deigned to speak. A humble life but yet a free one awaits thee in thy mother's home on the Aventine; a life of luxurious slavery doth my lady's grace offer thee. She deigns to say that thou alone shalt choose thy way in life. Thou wast born a slave, Nola, and shouldst know how to obey. Obey my lady then. Choose thy future, Nola. The humble and free one which I, thy mother, have earned for thee, or the golden cage in which this proud lady would deign to keep her latest whim in bondage!"
Her voice, which at first had been almost steady, died down at the end in a pitiful quiver. It was the last agony of her hopes, the real parting from her child, for even whilst Menecreta's throat was choked with sobs, Nola hung her head and great heavy tears dropped from her eyes upon her clasped hands. The child was crying and the mother understood.
She no longer moaned with pain now. The pain was gone; only dull despair remained. Her heart had hungered for the one glad cry of joy: "Mother, I'll come to thee!" It was left starving even through her daughter's tears.
But those who watched this unwonted scene could not guess what Dea Flavia felt, for her eyes were veiled by her long lashes, and the mouth expressed neither triumph nor pity. Menecreta now once more tried to steady her quivering voice; she straightened her weary back and said quite calmly:
"My lady's grace has spoken, and the great lords here assembled have uttered words of praise for an exquisite act of pity. My lady's grace hath spoken and hath told the poor slave, Nola, to choose her own life. But I, the humble freedwoman, will speak in my turn to thee, O Dea Flavia of the imperial house of immortal Caesar, and looking into thine eyes I tell thee that thy pity is but falsehood and thine eloquence naught but cruelty. By thy words thou didst take my child from me as effectually as if thou already hadst bought and paid for her. Look at the child now! She hangs her head and dares not look on me, her mother. Oh! thou didst well choose thy words, oh daughter of imperial Caesar, for thy honeyed words were like the nectar which hid the poison that hath filtrated into my daughter's heart. Thou hast said it right—her life with me had been one of toil and mayhap of misery, but she would have been content, for she had never dreamed of another life. But now she has heard thee speak of marble halls, of music and of flowers, of a life of ease and of vanity, and never again would that child be happy in her mother's arms. Be content, O Augusta! the girl is thine since thy caprice hath willed it so. Even though she chose her mother now, I would not have her, for I know that she would be unhappy in that lonely hut on the Aventine; and though I have seen much sorrow and endured much misery, there is none greater to bear than the sight of a child's sorrow. Take her, Dea Flavia! thine eloquence has triumphed over a mother's broken heart."
Strangely enough, and to the astonishment of all those present, Dea Flavia had listened patiently and silently whilst the woman spoke, and now she said quite gently:
"Nay! thou dost wrong thine own child, Menecreta; see how lovingly she turns to thee!"
"Only because in her shallow little heart there has come the first twinge of remorse," replied the woman sadly. "Soon, in the lap of that luxury which thou dost offer her, she will have forgotten the mother's arms in which she weeps to-day."
"That's enough," suddenly interposed the praefect harshly. "Menecreta, take thy child; take her, I say. Dea Flavia hath relinquished her to thee. Be not a fool and take the child away!"
But with a gesture of savage pride the freedwoman tore herself away from Nola.
"No!" she said firmly, "I'll not take her. That proud lady here hath stolen the soul of my child; her body, inert and sad, I'll not have the while her heart longs to be away from me. I'll not have her, I say! let the daughter of Caesar account to the gods above for her tempting words, her honeyed speech and her lies."
"Silence, woman!" ordered Dea Flavia sternly.
"Lies, I tell thee, lies," continued the woman who had lost all sense of fear in the depth of her misery; "the life of luxury thou dost promise this child—how long will it last? thy caprice for her—when will it tire? Silence? nay! I'll not be silent," she continued wildly in defiant answer to angry murmurs from the crowd. "Thou daughter of a house of tyrants, tyrant thyself! a slave to thy paltry whims, crushing beneath thy sandalled feet the hearts of the poor and the cries of the oppressed! Shame on thee! shame on thee, I say!"
"By the great Mother," said Dea Flavia coldly, "will no one here rid me of this screaming vixen?"
But even before she had spoken, the angry murmurs around had swollen to loud protestations. Before the praefect's lictors could intervene the crowd had pushed forward; the men rushed and surrounded the impious creature who had dared to raise her voice against one of the divinities of Rome: Augusta the goddess.
One of Dea Flavia's gigantic Ethiopians had seized Menecreta by the shoulder, another pulled her head back by the hair and struck her roughly on the mouth, but she, with the strength of the vanquished, brought down to her knees, frenzied with despair, continued her agonised cry:
"A curse upon thee, Dea Flavia, a curse spoken by the dying lips of the mother whom thou hast scorned!"
How she contrived momentarily to free herself from the angry crowd of lictors and of slaves it were impossible to say; perhaps at this moment something in Menecreta's wild ravings had awed their spirit and paralysed their hands. Certain it is that for one moment the freedwoman managed to struggle to her feet and to drag herself along on her knees until her hands clutched convulsively the embroidered tunic of Dea Flavia.
"And this is the curse which I pronounce on thee," she murmured in a hoarse whisper, which, rising and rising to higher tones, finally ended in shrieks which reached to the outermost precincts of the Forum. "Dea Flavia, daughter of Octavius Claudius thou art accursed. May thine every deed of mercy be turned to sorrow and to humiliation, thine every act of pity prove a curse to him who receives it, until thou on thy knees, art left to sue for pity to a heart that knoweth it not and findest a deaf ear turned to thy cry. Hear me, ye gods—hear me!... Magna Mater, hear me!... Mother of the stars—hear me!"
Superstition, deeply rooted in every Roman heart, held the crowd enthralled even whilst Menecreta's trembling voice echoed against the marble walls of the temples of the gods whom she invoked. No one attempted to stop her. Dea Flavia's slaves dared not lay a hand on her. It seemed as if Magna Mater herself, the great Mother, had thrown an invisible mantle over the humble freedwoman, shielding her with god-like power.
"Menecreta, raise thyself and come away," said a harsh voice in tones of command. The praefect had at last with the vigorous help of his lictors managed to push his way through the crowd. It was he now who attempted to raise the woman from her knees. He sharply bade his own men to silence the woman and to take her away.
Dea Flavia had remained silent and still. She had not attempted to interrupt the frenzied woman who called this awful curse upon her; only once, when Menecreta invoked the gods, did a shudder pass through the delicate body, and her heavy lids fell over her blue eyes, as if they were trying to shut out some awful vision which the woman's ravings had conjured up.
Then in a sudden her mood seemed to change, her serenity returned, and when the praefect interposed she put out a restraining hand, warning the lictors not to approach.
She bent to Menecreta and called her by name, her mellow voice vibrating with tender tones like the chords of the harp that are touched by a master hand, and her blue eyes, veiled with tears, looked down with infinite tenderness on the prostrate figure at her feet.
"Menecreta," she said gently, "thy sorrow hath made thee harsh. The gods, believe me, still hold much happiness in store for thee and for thy daughter. See how they refuse to register thy curse which had been impious were it not the dictate of thy poor frenzied mind. See, Menecreta, how thou didst misjudge me; what I did, I did because I wished to test thy love for thy child. I wished to test its true selflessness. But now I am satisfied and Nola need no longer choose, for she shall have the luxury for which her young heart doth pine, but she shall never by me be deprived of her mother's love."
Even while she spoke, Menecreta struggled to her knees. Her wide-open eyes, over which a mysterious veil seemed to be slowly descending, were fixed on the radiant vision above her. But comprehension had not yet reached her mind. Her spirit had not yet been dragged from the hell of despair to this glorious sight of heaven.
"Menecreta," continued the gentle voice, "thou shalt come to my house. A free woman, thou shalt be my friend and thy daughter shall be thy happy bondswoman. I'll give thee a little home in which thou shalt dwell with her and draw thy last breath in her arms; there shall be a garden there which she will plant with roses. Thy days and hers will be one continuous joy. Come to me now, Menecreta! Take thy daughter by the hand and come and dwell with her in the little house which my slaves shall prepare for thee."
Her face now was almost on a level with that of Menecreta, whose hollow eyes gazed upwards with a look of ecstatic wonder.
"Who art thou?" murmured the freedwoman; "there is a film over my eyes—I cannot see—art thou a goddess?"
"Nay!" replied Dea Flavia gently, "only a lonely maiden who has no friends e'en in the midst of all her riches. A lonely maid whom thou didst try to curse, asking the gods that her every act of mercy be turned to bitter sorrow. See, she takes thee to her heart and gives thee back thy daughter, a home and happiness."
"My daughter?" murmured Menecreta.
"She shall dwell with thee in the house which shall be thine."
"A home?" and the trembling voice grew weaker, the hollow eyes more dim.
"Aye! in the midst of a garden, with roses and violets all around."
"And happiness?" sighed Menecreta.
And her head fell back against Dea Flavia's arm; her eyes, now veiled by the film of death gazed, sightless, up at the dome of blue.
"Menecreta!" cried Dea Flavia, horror-stricken as she felt the feeble body stiffening against her with the approaching rigidity of death.
"Mother!" echoed Nola, striving to smother her terror as she threw herself on her knees.
"The woman is dead," said the praefect quietly.
"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last."—REVELATIONS XXII. 13.
And after that silence and peace.
Silence save for the moanings of the child Nola, who in a passionate outburst of grief had thrown herself on the body of her mother.
Dea Flavia stood there still and calm, her young face scarce less white than the clinging folds of her tunic, her unfathomable eyes fixed upon the pathetic group at her feet: the weeping girl and the dead woman.
She seemed almost dazed—like one who does not understand and a quaint puzzled frown appeared upon the whiteness of her brow.
Once she raised her eyes to the praefect and encountered his gaze—strangely contemptuous and wrathful—fixed upon her own, and anon she shuddered when a pitiable moan from Nola echoed from end to end along the marble walls around.
And the crowd of idlers began slowly to disperse. In groups of twos and threes they went, their sandalled feet making a soft rustling noise against the flagstones of the Forum, and their cloaks of thin woollen stuff floating out behind them as they walked.
The young patricians were the first to go. The scene had ceased to be amusing and Dea Flavia was not like to bestow another smile. They thought it best to retire to their luxurious homes, for they vaguely resented the majesty of death which clung round the dead freedwoman and the young living slave. They hoped to forget in the course of the noonday sleep, and the subsequent delights of the table, the painful events which had so unpleasantly stirred their shallow hearts.
Dea Flavia paid no heed to them as they murmured words of leave-taking in her ear. 'Tis doubtful if she saw one of them or cared if they went or stayed.
At an order from the praefect the auction sale was abruptly suspended. The lictors drove the herds of human cattle together preparatory to taking them to their quarters on the slopes of the Aventine where they would remain until the morrow; whilst the scribes and auctioneers made haste to scramble down from the heights of the rostrum, the heat of the day having rendered that elevated position well-nigh unbearable. Only Dea Flavia's retinue lingered in the Forum. Standing at a respectful distance they surrounded the gorgeously draped litter, waiting, silently and timorous, the further pleasure of their mistress; and behind Dea Flavia her two Ethiopian slaves, stolidly holding the palm leaves to shield her head against the blazing sun which so mercilessly seared their own naked shoulders.
"Grant me leave to escort thee to thy litter, Augusta!" murmured a timid voice.
It was young Hortensius Martius who spoke. He had approached the catasta and now stood timid, and a suppliant, beside Dea Flavia, with his curly head bare to the scorching sun and his back bent in slave-like deference. But the young girl seemed not to hear him and even after he had twice repeated his request she turned to him with uncomprehending eyes.