word by her, and here she has left me for half an hour kicking my heels together in the courtyard. And I might have stayed there forever, if I had not of myself found my way up. Even then, there were some who would have stopped me, deeming me, perhaps, too rough in appearance to be allowed to ascend. But I told them that there was a time when members of the house of Porthenus did not wait in antechambers, but stood beside the consuls of the old republic, and I touched the hilt of my dagger; and whether it was the one argument or the other which prevailed, here I am.'
With a grim smile the centurion then threw himself down upon a settee near the door, arranged as properly as possible the folds of his coarse tunic, drew his belt round so as to show more in front his dagger with richly embossed sheath—the sole article of courtly and ceremonious attire in which he indulged—and endeavored to assume an easy and imposing attitude. For an instant he gazed around the room, observantly taking in its wealth of mosaic pavement, paintings, statuary, and vases. Then, as he began to fear lest he might be yielding too much of his pride before the overbearing influence of so much luxury, he straightened himself up, gathered upon his features a hard and somewhat contemptuous expression, and roughly exclaimed:
'Yes, by the gods, the Portheni lived with consuls and proconsuls long before the house of Vanno began to rise from the dregs and become a house at all. And the imperator knows it, and is jealous of the fact, too, or else he would the better acknowledge it. What, now, is that?' he added, pointing to the central fresco of the ceiling.
'It is—I know not for certain, my father—but I think—'
'Nay, but I know what it is. It is the old story of the three Vanni overcoming the five Cimbri at the bridge of Athesis. No great matter, nor so very long ago, even if it were true. But why did he not paint up, instead, how the founder of the Portheni, with his single arm, slew the ten Carthaginians under the aqueduct of Megara? Is not now your family history a portion of his own? His jealousy prevented him, I suppose; though I doubt not that, when in his cups with his high associates, he often boasts of his connection with the house of Porthenus. And yet he would let the only relic of the family starve before assisting him.'
Ænone stood as in a maze of confusion and uncertainty. Were the trials of the day never to end? First her unsatisfactory strife and pleading with her husband; then the undignified contest with her own slave into which she had been betrayed; and now came this old man—her father, to be sure—but so much the more mortifying to her, as his vulgarity, querulous complaining, and insulting strictures were forced upon her ears.
'Are you not comfortable? What more can he or I do for you?' she said, with some impatience.
'Ay, ay; there it is,' growled the centurion. 'One person must have all luxuries—paintings, silver, and the like; but if the other has only mere comforts, an extra tunic, perhaps, or a spare bit of meat for a dog, what more can he want? But I will tell you what you can do? And it is not as a gift, I ask it. Poor and despised as he may be, no one can say that the centurion Porthenus is a beggar. It is as a fair matter of business that I offer it.'
'Well, my father?'
'It is this: I have two slaves, and can afford to keep only one of them, particularly as but one can be of use to me. Will the imperator purchase the other? I will give it for a fair price, and therefore no one can say that I have asked for anything beyond a proper trade, with which either side should be well satisfied.'
Ænone listened with a blush of shame for her father overspreading her face. It did not occur to her that the slave rejected as useless could be any other than the hunchback, whom her husband had bestowed upon the centurion a few days before; and for the receiver to try to sell back a gift to the giver was a depth of meanness for which no filial partiality or affection could find an excuse.
'I will show him to you,' cried the centurion, losing a little of his gruffness in his eagerness to effect a transaction, whereby, under the thin guise of a simple trade, he could extort a benefit. 'I have brought him with me, and left him below. You will see that he is of good appearance, and that the imperator will be pleased and grateful to me for the opportunity of possessing him.'
So saying, Porthenus strode to the head of the stairway, and issued his commands in a stern voice, which made the vaulted ceilings of the palace ring. A faint, weak response came up in answer, and in a moment the slave entered the room.
'Is this the one of whom you spoke?' faltered Ænone, unable for the moment to retain her self-possession as she beheld, not the angular, wiry form of the hunchback, but the careworn and slim figure of Cleotos. 'I thought—indeed I thought that you spoke of the inferior of the two.'
'Ay, and so I do,' responded her father. 'Of what use to me can this man be? The other one, indeed, is of tenfold value. There is no slave in Rome like unto him for cleaning armor or sharpening a weapon, while to run of an errand or manage any piece of business in which brains must bear their part, I will trust him against the world. But as for this man here, with his weak limbs and his simple face—do you know that I did but set him to polish the rim of a shield, and in his awkwardness he let it fall, and spoiled the surface as though a Jewish spear had stricken it.'
Ænone remained silent, scarcely listening to the words of her father, while, in a troubled manner, she again mentally ran over, as she had done hundreds of times before, the chances of recognition by the man who stood before her.
'But listen to me still further,' continued the centurion, fearful lest his disparaging comments might defeat the projected sale. 'I only speak of him as he is useful or not to me. To another person he would be most valuable; for, though he cannot polish armor, he can polish verses, and he can write as well as though he were educated for a scribe. For one favored of fortune like the imperator Sergius Vanno,' and here again the centurion began to roll the high-sounding name upon his tongue with obvious relish, 'who wishes an attendant to carry his wine cup, or to bear his cloak after him, or to trim his lamps, and read aloud his favorite books, where could a better youth than this be found?'
Ænone, still overpowered by her troubled thoughts, made no response.
'Or to yourself,' eagerly continued the centurion, 'he would be most suitable, with his pale, handsome face, and his slender limbs. Have you a page?'
'I have my maidens,' was the answer.
'And that amounts to nothing at all,' asserted her father. 'A plebeian can have her maidens in plenty, but it is not right that the wife of a high and mighty imperator,' and here again the words rolled majestically off his tongue, 'should not also have her male attendants. And the more so when that wife has been taken from an ancient house like that of Porthenus,' he added, with a frown in derogation of any tendency to give undue importance to her present position. 'But with this Cleotos—come forward, slave, and let yourself be seen.'
Cleotos, who, partly from natural diffidence, and partly from being abashed at the unaccustomed splendor about him, had, little by little, from his first entrance, shrunk into a corner, now advanced; and Ænone, once more resolutely assuring herself that, with the changes which time, position, difference of place and costume had thrown about her, she could defy recognition, summoned all her courage, and looked him in the face. It may have been with an unacknowledged fear lest, now that she saw him so freely in the broad daylight, some latent spark of the old attachment might burst into a flame, and withdraw her heart from its proper duty;