'HOLLA, my brave fellows!' said Lepidus, stooping his head as he entered the low doorway of the house of Burbo. 'We have come to see which of you most honors your lanista.' The gladiators rose from the table in respect to three gallants known to be among the gayest and richest youths of Pompeii, and whose voices were therefore the dispensers of amphitheatrical reputation.
'What fine animals!' said Clodius to Glaucus: 'worthy to be gladiators!'
'It is a pity they are not warriors,' returned Glaucus.
A singular thing it was to see the dainty and fastidious Lepidus, whom in a banquet a ray of daylight seemed to blind—whom in the bath a breeze of air seemed to blast—in whom Nature seemed twisted and perverted from every natural impulse, and curdled into one dubious thing of effeminacy and art—a singular thing was it to see this Lepidus, now all eagerness, and energy, and life, patting the vast shoulders of the gladiators with a blanched and girlish hand, feeling with a mincing gripe their great brawn and iron muscles, all lost in calculating admiration at that manhood which he had spent his life in carefully banishing from himself.
So have we seen at this day the beardless flutterers of the saloons of London thronging round the heroes of the Fives-court—so have we seen them admire, and gaze, and calculate a bet—so have we seen them meet together, in ludicrous yet in melancholy assemblage, the two extremes of civilized society—the patrons of pleasure and its slaves—vilest of all slaves—at once ferocious and mercenary; male prostitutes, who sell their strength as women their beauty; beasts in act, but baser than beasts in motive, for the last, at least, do not mangle themselves for money!
'Ha! Niger, how will you fight?' said Lepidus: 'and with whom?'
'Sporus challenges me,' said the grim giant; 'we shall fight to the death, I hope.'
'Ah! to be sure,' grunted Sporus, with a twinkle of his small eye.
'He takes the sword, I the net and the trident: it will be rare sport. I hope the survivor will have enough to keep up the dignity of the crown.'
'Never fear, we'll fill the purse, my Hector,' said Clodius:
'let me see—you fight against Niger? Glaucus, a bet—I back Niger.'
'I told you so,' cried Niger exultingly. 'The noble Clodius knows me; count yourself dead already, my Sporus.'
Clodius took out his tablet. 'A bet—ten sestertia. What say you?'
'So be it,' said Glaucus. 'But whom have we here? I never saw this hero before'; and he glanced at Lydon, whose limbs were slighter than those of his companions, and who had something of grace, and something even of nobleness, in his face, which his profession had not yet wholly destroyed.
'It is Lydon, a youngster, practised only with the wooden sword as yet,' answered Niger, condescendingly. 'But he has the true blood in him, and has challenged Tetraides.'
'He challenged me,' said Lydon: 'I accept the offer.'
'And how do you fight?' asked Lepidus. 'Chut, my boy, wait a while before you contend with Tetraides.' Lydon smiled disdainfully.
'Is he a citizen or a slave?' said Clodius.
'A citizen—we are all citizens here,' quoth Niger.
'Stretch out your arm, my Lydon,' said Lepidus, with the air of a connoisseur.
The gladiator, with a significant glance at his companions, extended an arm which, if not so huge in its girth as those of his comrades, was so firm in its muscles, so beautifully symmetrical in its proportions, that the three visitors uttered simultaneously an admiring exclamation.
'Well, man, what is your weapon?' said Clodius, tablet in hand.
'We are to fight first with the cestus; afterwards, if both survive, with swords,' returned Tetraides, sharply, and with an envious scowl.
'With the cestus!' cried Glaucus; 'there you are wrong, Lydon; the cestus is the Greek fashion: I know it well. You should have encouraged flesh for that contest: you are far too thin for it—avoid the cestus.'
'I cannot,' said Lydon.
'I have said—because he has challenged me.'
'But he will not hold you to the precise weapon.'
'My honour holds me!' returned Lydon, proudly.
'I bet on Tetraides, two to one, at the cestus,' said Clodius; shall it be, Lepidus?—even betting, with swords.'
'If you give me three to one, I will not take the odds, said Lepidus: 'Lydon will never come to the swords. You are mighty courteous.'
'What say you, Glaucus?' said Clodius.
'I will take the odds three to one.'
'Ten sestertia to thirty.'
Clodius wrote the bet in his book.
'Pardon me, noble sponsor mine,' said Lydon, in a low voice to Glaucus: 'but how much think you the victor will gain?'
'How much? why, perhaps seven sestertia.'
'You are sure it will be as much?'
'At least. But out on you!—a Greek would have thought of the honour, and not the money. O Italians! everywhere ye are Italians!'
A blush mantled over the bronzed cheek of the gladiator.
'Do not wrong me, noble Glaucus; I think of both, but I should never have been a gladiator but for the money.'
'Base! mayest thou fall! A miser never was a hero.'
'I am not a miser,' said Lydon, haughtily, and he withdrew to the other end of the room.
'But I don't see Burbo; where is Burbo? I must talk with Burbo,' cried Clodius.
'He is within,' said Niger, pointing to the door at the extremity of the room.
'And Stratonice, the brave old lass, where is she?' quoth Lepidus.
'Why, she was here just before you entered; but she heard something that displeased her yonder, and vanished. Pollux! old Burbo had perhaps caught hold of some girl in the back room. I heard a female's voice crying out; the old dame is as jealous as Juno.'
'Ho! excellent!' cried Lepidus, laughing. 'Come, Clodius, let us go shares with Jupiter; perhaps he has caught a Leda.'
At this moment a loud cry of pain and terror startled the group.
'Oh, spare me! spare me! I am but a child, I am blind—is not that punishment enough?'
'O Pallas! I know that voice, it is my poor flower-girl!' exclaimed Glaucus, and he darted at once into the quarter whence the cry rose.
He burst the door; he beheld Nydia writhing in the grasp of the infuriate hag; the cord, already dabbled with blood, was raised in the air—it was suddenly arrested.
'Fury!' said Glaucus, and with his left hand he caught Nydia from her grasp; 'how dare you use thus a girl—one of your own sex, a child! My Nydia, my poor infant!'
'Oh? is that you—is that Glaucus?' exclaimed the flower-girl, in a tone almost of transport; the tears stood arrested on her cheek; she smiled, she clung to his breast, she kissed his robe as she clung.
'And how dare you, pert stranger! interfere between a free woman and her slave. By the gods! despite your fine tunic and your filthy perfumes, I doubt whether you are even a Roman citizen, my mannikin.'
'Fair words, mistress—fair words!' said Clodius, now entering with Lepidus. 'This is my friend and sworn brother; he must be put under shelter of your tongue, sweet one; it rains stones!'
'Give me my slave!' shrieked the virago, placing her mighty grasp on the breast of the Greek.
'Not if all your sister Furies could help you,' answered Glaucus. 'Fear not, sweet Nydia; an Athenian never forsook distress!'
'Holla!' said Burbo, rising reluctantly, 'What turmoil is all this about a slave? Let go the young gentleman, wife—let him go: for his sake the pert thing shall be spared this once.' So saying, he drew, or rather dragged off, his ferocious help-mate.
'Methought when we entered,' said Clodius, 'there was another man present?'
'He is gone.'
For the priest of Isis had indeed thought it high time to vanish.
'Oh, a friend of mine! a brother cupman, a quiet dog, who does not love these snarlings,' said Burbo, carelessly. 'But go, child, you will tear the gentleman's tunic if you cling to him so tight; go, you are pardoned.'
'Oh, do not—do not forsake me!' cried Nydia, clinging yet closer to the Athenian.
Moved by her forlorn situation, her appeal to him, her own innumerable and touching graces, the Greek seated himself on one of the rude chairs. He held her on his knees—he wiped the blood from her shoulders with his long hair—he kissed the tears from her cheeks—he whispered to her a thousand of those soothing words with which we calm the grief of a child—and so beautiful did he seem in his gentle and consoling task, that even the fierce heart of Stratonice was touched. His presence seemed to shed light over that base and obscene haunt—young, beautiful, glorious, he was the emblem of all that earth made most happy, comforting one that earth had abandoned!
'Well, who could have thought our blind Nydia had been so honored!' said the virago, wiping her heated brow.
Glaucus looked up at Burbo.
'My good man,' said he, 'this is your slave; she sings well, she is accustomed to the care of flowers—I wish to make a present of such a slave to a lady. Will you sell her to me?' As he spoke he felt the whole frame of the poor girl tremble with delight; she started up, she put her disheveled hair from her eyes, she looked around, as if, alas, she had the power to see!
'Sell our Nydia! no, indeed,' said Stratonice, gruffly.
Nydia sank back with a long sigh, and again clasped the robe of her protector.
'Nonsense!' said Clodius, imperiously: 'you must oblige me. What, man! what, old dame! offend me, and your trade is ruined. Is not Burbo my kinsman Pansa's client? Am I not the oracle of the amphitheatre and its heroes? If I say the word, break up your wine-jars—you sell no more. Glaucus, the slave is yours.'
Burbo scratched his huge head, in evident embarrassment.
'The girl is worth her weight in gold to me.'
'Name your price, I am rich,' said Glaucus.
The ancient Italians were like the modern, there was nothing they would not sell, much less a poor blind girl.
'I paid six sestertia for her, she is worth twelve now,' muttered Stratonice.
'You shall have twenty; come to the magistrates at once, and then to my house for your money.'
'I would not have sold the dear girl for a hundred but to oblige noble Clodius,' said Burbo, whiningly. 'And you will speak to Pansa about the place of designator at the amphitheatre, noble Clodius? it would just suit me.'
'Thou shalt have it,' said Clodius; adding in a whisper to Burbo, 'Yon Greek can make your fortune; money runs through him like a sieve: mark to-day with white chalk, my Priam.'
'An dabis?' said Glaucus, in the formal question of sale and barter.
'Dabitur,' answered Burbo.
'Then, then, I am to go with you—with you? O happiness!' murmured Nydia.
'Pretty one, yes; and thy hardest task henceforth shall be to sing thy Grecian hymns to the loveliest lady in Pompeii.'
The girl sprang from his clasp; a change came over her whole face, bright the instant before; she sighed heavily, and then once more taking his hand, she said:
'I thought I was to go to your house?'
'And so thou shalt for the present; come, we lose time.'