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By Baroness Emmuska Orczy Orczy
“Nay! an thy daughter hath so many perfections, thou’lt not purchase her for twenty aurei. Fifty and sixty will be bid for her, and what can I do then to help thee?”
“Hun Rhavas,” said Menecreta in a sudden spirit of conciliation, “thou must not heed a mother’s fancies. To me the child is beautiful beyond compare. Are not thine own in thy sight beautiful as a midsummer’s day?” she added with subtle hypocrisy, thinking of the ugly little Africans of whom Hun Rhavas was so proud.
Her motherly heart was prepared for every sacrifice, every humiliation, so long as she obtained what she wanted–possession of her child. Arminius Quirinius had given her her freedom some three years ago, but this seeming act of grace had been a cruel one since it had parted the mother from her child. The late censor had deemed Menecreta old, feeble, and therefore useless: she was but a worthless mouth to feed; but he kept the girl not because she was well—favoured or very useful in his house, but because he knew that Menecreta would work her fingers to the bone until she saved enough money to purchase her daughter’s freedom.
Arminius Quirinius, ever grasping for money, ever ready for any act of cupidity or oppression, knew that from the mother he could extract a far higher sum than the girl could possibly fetch in the open market. He had fixed her price as fifty aurei, and Menecreta had saved just one half that amount when fate and the vengeance of the populace overtook the extortioner. All his slaves–save the most valuable–were thrown on the market, and the patient, hard—working mother saw the fulfilment of her hopes well within sight.
It was but a question of gaining Hun Rhavas’ ear and of tempting his greed. The girl, publicly offered under unfavourable conditions, and unbacked by the auctioneer’s laudatory harangues, could easily be knocked down for twenty aurei or even less.
But Menecreta’s heart was torn with anxiety the while she watched the progress of the sale. Every one of these indifferent spectators might become an enemy through taking a passing fancy to her child. These young patricians, these stern matrons, they had neither remorse nor pity where the gratification of a whim was at stake.
And was not the timid, fair—haired girl more beautiful in the mother’s eyes than any other woman put up on the platform for the purpose of rousing a momentary caprice.
She gazed with jealous eyes on the young idlers and the high—born ladies, the possible foes who yet might part her from the child. And there was the praefect too, all—powerful in the matter.
If he saw through the machinations of Hun Rhavas nothing would save the girl from being put up like all the others as the law directed, with the proper tablet attached to her neck, describing her many charms. Taurus Antinor was not cruel but he was pitiless. The slaves of his household knew that, as did the criminals brought to his tribunal. He never inflicted unnecessary punishment but when it was deserved he was relentless in its execution.
What hope could a poor mother have against the weight of his authority.
Fortunately the morning was rapidly wearing on. The hour for the midday rest was close at hand. Menecreta could watch, with a glad thrill in her heart, one likely purchaser after another being borne in gorgeously draped litter away from this scene of a mother’s cruel anxiety. Already the ladies had withdrawn. Now there was only a group of men left around the rostrum; Hortensius Martius still lounging aimlessly, young Escanes who had not yet found the paragon amongst cooks, and a few others who eyed the final proceedings with the fashionable expression of boredom.
“I wonder we have not seen Dea Flavia this day,” remarked Escanes to the praefect. “Dost think she’ll come, Taurus Antinor?”
“Nay, I know not,” he replied; “truly she cannot be in need of slaves. She has more than she can know what to do with.”
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