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By Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy
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.
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