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By Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy
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.
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