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By Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy
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.
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