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By Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy
“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?”
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