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"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.
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