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.”