Few houses in Rome contained so many fine works of ancient sculpture as this, for its master had been distinguished by his love of such things in a time when few cared for them. Some he had purchased at a great price; more than one masterpiece he had saved from oblivion amid ruins, or from the common fate of destruction in a lime-kiln. Well for him had he been content to pass his latter years with the cold creations of the sculptor; but he turned his eyes upon consummate beauty in flesh and blood, and this, the last of his purchases, proved the costliest of all.
The atrium was richly adorned. A colossal bust of Berenice faced the great head of an Amazon, whilst numerous statues, busts, and vases stood between the pillars; mosaics on the floor represented hunting scenes, the excellence of the work no less than its worn condition showing it to be of a time long gone by. Following his conductor, Basil passed along a corridor, and into a peristyle with a double colonnade. In the midst of a little garden, planted with flowering shrubs, rose the statue which its late owner had most prized, an admirable copy of the Aphrodite of Cnidos; it stood upon a pedestal of black basalt and was protected by a light canopy with slender columns in all but transparent alabaster. Round about it were marble seats, and here, shielded from the sun by little silken awnings, sat Heliodora and her guests. At once Basil became aware of the young Vivian, whose boyish form (he was but some eighteen years old) lounged among cushions on the seat nearest to Heliodora, his eyes fixed upon her beauty in a languishing gaze, which, as soon as he beheld the new comer, flashed into fierceness. The others were two women, young and comely, whose extravagant costume and the attitudes in which they reclined proved them suitable companions of the lady of the house. Whilst yet at some distance, Basil had heard a feminine voice rising to shrillness, and as he approached the group he found a discussion going on which threatened to become more than vivacious. The shrill speaker he had met here before, who she was, he knew not, save that she bore the name of Muscula.
‘You—you—you!’ this lady was exclaiming contemptuously. ’You say this, and you say that! Mother of God! What do you know about racing? When were you last in the circus at Constantinople? At eight years old you once told me. You have a good memory if you can remember as far back as that!’
She shrieked a laugh, which no one else joined in. Heliodora, to whom the speech was addressed, affected to smile as in lofty tolerance of infantine pettishness. At this moment Basil stepped up to her, and kissed her hand; As though for contrast with Muscula’s utterance, she greeted him in the softest tone her voice could compass, inviting him with a gesture to take a place at her side, or rather at her feet, for she was reclining on a long couch. Heliodora’s robe was of hyacinth blue, broidered in silver thread