The fashionable day had begun; knight and lady were now making and receiving visits.
Five litters and some forty slaves, who bore and followed them, were waiting in the court of the palace of the Lady Lucia. Beyond the walls of white marble a noble company was gathered that summer day. There were the hostess and her daughter; three young noblemen, the purple stripes on each angusticlave telling of knightly rank; a Jewish prince in purple and gold; an old philosopher, and a poet who had been reading love lines. It was the age of pagan chivalry, and one might imperil his future with poor wit or a faulty epigram. Those older men had long held the floor, and their hostess, seeking to rally the young knights, challenged their skill in courtly compliment.
"O men, who have forgotten the love of women these days, look at her!"
So spoke the Lady Lucia -- she that was widow of the Praefect Publius, who fell with half his cohort in the desert wars.
She had risen from a chair of ebony enriched by cunning Etruscan art -- four mounted knights charging across its heavy back in armor of wrought gold. She stopped, facing the company, between two columns of white marble beautifully sculptured. Upon each a vine rose, limberly and with soft leaves in the stone, from base to capital. Her daughter stood in the midst of a group of maids who were dressing her hair.
"Arria, will you come to me?" said the Lady Lucia.
The girl came quickly -- a dainty creature of sixteen, her dark hair waving, under jewelled fillets, to a knot behind. From below the knot a row of curls fell upon the folds of her outer tunic. It was a filmy, transparent thing -- this garment -- through which one could see the white of arm and breast and the purple fillets on her legs.
"She is indeed beautiful in the yellow tunic. I should think that scarlet rug had caught fire and wrapped her in its flame," said the poet Ovid.
"Nay, her heart is afire, and its light hath the color of roses," said an old philosopher who sat by. "Can you not see it shining through her cheeks?"
"Young sirs," said the Lady Lucia, with a happy smile, as she raised her daughter's hand, "now for your offers."
It was a merry challenge, and shows how lightly they treated a sacred theme those days.
First rose the grave senator, Aulus Valerius Maro by name.
"Madame," said he, stepping forward and bowing low, "I offer my heart and my fortune, and the strength of my arms and the fleetness of my feet and the fair renown of my fathers."
The Lady Lucia turned to her daughter with a look of inquiry.
"Brave words are not enough," said the fair Roman maiden, smiling, as her eyes fell.
Then came the effeminate Gracus, in head-dress and neckerchief, frilled robe and lady's sandals. He was of great sires who had borne the Roman eagles into Gaul.
"Good lady," said he, "I would give my life."
"And had I more provocation," said Arria, raising a jewelled bodkin, "I would take it."
Now the splendid Antipater, son of Herod the Great, was up and speaking. "I offer," said he, "my heart and wealth and half my hopes, and the jewels of my mother, and a palace in the beautiful city of Jerusalem."
"And a pretty funeral," the girl remarked, thoughtfully. "Jerusalem is half-way to Hades."
The Roman matron turned, and put her arm around the waist of the girl and drew her close. A young man rose from his chair and approached them. He was Vergilius, son of Varro, and of equestrian knighthood. His full name was Quintus Vergilius Varro, but all knew the youth by his nomen. Tall and erect, with curly blond locks and blue eyes and lips delicately curved, there was in that hall no ancestral mask or statue so nobly favored. He had been taught by an old philosopher to value truth as the better part of honor -- a view not common then, but therein was a new light, spreading mysteriously.
"Dear Lady Lucia," said he, "I cannot amuse you with idle words. I fear to speak, and yet silence would serve me ill. I offer not the strength of my arms nor the fleetness of my feet, for they may fail me tomorrow; nor my courage, for that has never been tried; nor the renown of my fathers, for that is not mine to give; nor my life, for that belongs to my country; nor my fortune, for I should blush to offer what may be used to buy cattle. I would give a thing greater and more lasting than all of these. It is my love."
The girl turned half away, blushing pink. All had flung off the mask of comedy and now wore a look of surprise.
"By my faith!" said the poet, "this young knight meant his words."
"A man of sincerity, upon my soul!" said the old philosopher. "I have put my hope in him, and so shall Rome. A lucky girl is she, for has he not riches, talent, honor, temperance, courage, and the beauty of a god? And was I not his teacher?"
"My brave Vergilius," the matron answered, "you are like the knights of old I have heard my father tell of. They had such a way with them -- never a smile and a melancholy look in their faces when they spoke of love. I give you the crown of gallantry, and, if she be willing, you shall walk with her in the garden. That is your reward."
Vergilius, advancing, took the girl's hand and kissed it.
"Will you go with me?" said he.
"On one condition," she answered, looking down at the folds of her tunic.
"And it is?"
"That you will entertain me with philosophy and the poets," she answered, with a smile.
"And with no talk of love," the matron added, as Arria took his arm.
They walked through the long hall of the palace, over soft rugs and great mosaics, and between walls aglow with tints of sky and garden. These two bore with them a tender feeling as they passed the figures of embattled horse and host in carven wood, and mural painting and colored mosaic and wrought metal -- symbols of the martial spirit of the empire now oddly in contrast with their own. They came out upon a peristyle overlooking an ample garden wherein were vines, flowers, and fruit trees.
"You have a way of words," said she. "It is almost possible to believe you."
He stopped and for a long moment looked into her eyes. "I love you, sweet girl," he said, softly; "I love you. As I live, I speak the truth."
"And you a man!" she exclaimed, incredulously.
"Ay, strange as it may be, a Roman."
"My mother has told me," said she, looking down at her sandal, "that when a man speaks, it is well to listen but never to believe."
"They are not easy to understand -- these men and women," said he, thoughtfully. "Sometimes I think they would be nobler if they were dumb as dogs. Albeit I suppose they would find a new way of lying. But, O sweet sister of Appius, try to believe me, though you believe no other, and I -- I shall believe you always."
"You had better not," said she, with a merry glance.
"But you will doubt me soon, for I shall say that I do not love you."
For a little he knew not how to answer. She turned away, looking off at the Capitoline, where the toil and art of earth had wrought to show the splendor of heaven. Its beautiful, barbaric temples were glowing in the sunlight.
"Life would be too serious if there were no dissimulation." She looked up at him as she spoke, and he saw a little quiver in her curved lips.
"That bow of your lips -- I should think it fashioned by Praxiteles -- and it is for the arrows of truth."
"But a girl -- she must deceive a little."
They were now among the vines.
"I do not understand you."
"Stupid fellow!" said she, in a whisper, as she turned, looking up at him. "Son of Varo, lovers are not ever to be trusted. Shall I tell you a story? One day I was in the Via Sacra and a young man caught and held me for a moment and tried to touch my lips -- that boy, Antipater, a good-looking wretch!"
She gave her shoulders a little shrug and drew her robe closer. "He had come out of the Basilica Julia, and I am sure he had been over-drinking. I cried 'Help!' and quickly a man came and stood between us; and oh! young sir, as I live, it was our great father Augustus, and Antipater knelt before him.
"'Young man,' said the father -- and his eyes shone -- 'rise and look yonder. Do you see the citadel? Under its marble floor there is a grave. It is that of one who kissed a vestal and was buried alive. There are sacred people in Rome, and among them is this daughter of my beloved Publius. Go you to your palace, son of Herod, and, hereafter, forget not that you are in Rome.'
"He was angry, and I, so frightened! Then he took me home and said he would be my father, and that in good time he would choose a husband for me."
"The gods grant that he choose me."
"The gods forbid it, son of Varro."
Slowly and with assumed severity she spoke.
"Cruel one!" said he, turning and biting his lips. "Your words are as the blow of the pilum."
"Have they indeed wounded you?" She touched his hand with a look of sympathy.
"They have made me sick at heart."
"Then would I not believe them," said she, tenderly, slipping her slender fingers into his.
He pressed her hand. "And do you, then, love me?"
"No -- I -- do -- not -- love -- you."
"You are a strange people -- you maidens of the capital," said he, taking her hand in both of his. "Rome has conquered everything save its women."
She parted her tunic and stood looking down at her white bosom, and with her delicate fingers brushed off a bit of dust which had fallen from the vine above them.
"I do think much of love," said she, thoughtfully, still looking down at her breast.
"And of me," he insisted.
"Nay, not of you," she answered, without delay.
"I shall know," said he, wistfully, "for I shall consult the fates. I have here a sacred coin. An old dame found it when she was digging in the side of Soracte. See, it has on its face the head of Apollo, and opposite is an arrow in a death-hand. And the hag had an odd dream of this coin, so she told me -- that it fell out of the sky, and was, indeed, from the treasury of the gods, and had in it a wonderful power in all mysteries. And one might tell by tossing it in the air and noting its fall, if he were loved or hated by the first one he should see after learning its answer. I have never known it to fail. If the head is up you love me," said he, tossing the disk of metal.
It fell and lay at his feet.
"The head!" he exclaimed, with joy.
"Is it really blest of the gods?" she inquired, eagerly, her cheeks aflame. "Is it indeed blest?"
"So said the woman who gave it me."
"Now I shall toss it," said she, taking the coin.
"Ah! you would know if I love you," he answered.
The coin leaped high and fell and rolled along the marble walk. Both followed eagerly, he leading, and, as it stopped, he quickly covered the bit of metal with his hand.
"Let me see!" said she, her hand upon his wrist.
"Do not look."
"Let me see it!" she insisted.
"Sweet sister of Appius, I beg of you, here on my knees, do not look at the coin! I will give you the white steeds from Cappadocia, but do not look."
"Let me see it, I say, son of Varro!" She was tugging at his wrist, and now, indeed, there was a pretty pleading in her voice. The words were to him as pearls strung on a silken thread.
"Wait a little."
"I shall not wait."
"Sweet flower of Rome," said he, looking into her eyes, "I know that you are mine now! Your voice -- it is like the love-call of the robin!"
"Stubborn boy! Do you think I care for you?" She stopped and looked into his eyes.
"Else why should you wish to see the coin?" said he. "But, look! Upon my soul it is false!" A little silence followed.
"'Tis false!" he repeated. "I swear the coin lies, for I do love you, dearly."
"It does not lie," she whispered.
He put his arm about her.
"And I know," he answered, "why you think it cannot lie. It said, before, that you love me, and it was right."
She thrust him away gently, and, rising, as if stricken with sudden fear of him, ran a few paces up the walk. She turned quickly, and looked back at him as he approached. Her face had grown pale.
"I -- I shall never speak with you again," she whispered.
"Oh, have mercy upon me, beautiful sister of Appius!" said the young knight, and there was a note of despair in his voice. "Have mercy upon me!"
"Young sir," said she, retreating slowly, as he advanced, "I do not love you -- I do not love you."
She turned quickly, and ran to the peristyle, and, stopping not to glance back at him, entered the great marble home of her fathers.
He stood a moment looking at the sun-glow behind roof and dome and tower. A bridge of light, spanning the hollow of the city, had laid its golden timbers from hill to hill; and for a little the young man felt as if he were drowning in the shadows under it. He turned presently and hurried into the palace.