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It was the day before the public games in Rome, in the year 123 B.C., and a tall man of magnificent appearance and strength was standing outside the Temple of Hercules, talking to a young girl whose face bore some resemblance to his own. The people passing by looked at them, and said, half aloud, "There stands the gladiator Naevus. I wonder how he will bear himself in the Public Games on the morrow?"
And another man, who was talking eagerly with his companion, stopped when he caught sight of the gladiator (who was a well-known figure in Rome), and said, in a loud voice, "That is the man I told you about, Fabricius. A fine fellow, is he not? To-morrow he will fight with the new hero, Lucius. And, of course, he will be victorious, as usual. If he disappoints my hopes, I shall lose a great deal of money."
"You have plenty to spare!" laughed his friend, as they passed on together.
The gladiator did not take the slightest notice of any remarks which were made about him; indeed, it was doubtful whether he heard them, being engaged in earnest conversation with the young girl, his daughter.
"Do not be anxious about me, Marcella," he said, seeing that the tears were falling from her eyes. "I shall be victorious, as I have always been, and then, child, I shall buy your freedom, together with my own, and we shall leave Rome, and return to Sicily."
"Nay, father," she answered, between her sobs, "I never doubted your strength, but my heart is full of fears for you; and yet I am proud when I hear every one praising you. Last night my master Claudius gave a great banquet, and when I came to hand round the ewer of rose-water, I heard the guests say that Naevus was the strongest and finest gladiator that Rome had ever known. My master Claudius and two of the guests praised the new man Lucius, but the others would not hear a word in his favour."
The gladiator smiled.
"You shall be proud of me to-morrow, Marcella," he said, "I have just been offering up my prayers to the god Hercules; and in the name of Hercules I promise you, child, that I shall conquer the new man Lucius, and that to-morrow's combat shall be my last fight. So you may go home in peace. You look tired, child. Ah! it is a bitter thing to be a slave! But courage, Marcella; a few days more of slavery, and then we shall be free. For this end I have fought in the arena; and this hope has given me strength and skill."
She took from her neck a piece of fine cord, to which was attached a tiny stone. She put it in his great hand.
"Father," she said pleadingly, "the Greek physician gave this to me. He told me it was an Eastern charm to keep the lives of those who wore it. Will you wear it on the morrow?"
He laughingly assented, and the two walked together as far as the Forum, where they parted.
But Marcella was not proud anymore; she was sad.
She had had many a dream of freedom, but she would have gladly given up all chances of realizing that dream, if only to feel that her father's life was not in danger. She would have gladly been a slave ten times over rather than that he should risk his life in those fearful contests.
Marcella, who was a slave in the house of Claudius Flaccus, a great Roman noble, now hastened home to her duties. Her little mistress Livia, Claudius' only daughter, wondered to see her looking so pale and sad.
"Why, you should be glad like I am, Marcella," she cried, as she showed the slave-maiden the necklace of pearls that she had just finished stringing. "See, Marcella! I shall wear these to-morrow when we go to the Circus Maximus. And what do you think? My father has promised me a brooch of precious stones if the new gladiator, Lucius, is successful to-morrow. Oh, how I hope he will be!"
Marcella tried to restrain her tears, but it was of no avail. She threw herself on the couch, and buried her face in the soft cushions, and wept as if her heart would break. Her little mistress Livia bent over her, and tried to comfort her.
"Marcella," she whispered, "it was unkind of me to say that. I forgot about your father. Please forgive me, Marcella, for I do love you, although you are only a slave. And I do not want the brooch; I should not like to wear it now. Please, Marcella, do not cry any more."
The slave raised her head and smiled through her tears.
"You did not mean to be unkind, dear little mistress," she said, as she kissed the hand which had been caressing her own golden hair. "I am sure you did not mean to be unkind; but I am in great trouble, and I have just said 'Good-bye' to my father, and I can think of no one else but him. When those we love are in danger we cannot help being anxious, can we?"
At that moment the curtains were drawn aside, and Claudius himself came into the beautiful apartment. Livia ran to greet him; she was a child of ten years old, bright and winning in her ways, in beauty and bearing every inch the child of a patrician. She was dressed in soft silk of dark purple.
"I do not want the brooch," she said, as she put up her face to be kissed. "I want Marcella's father to be victorious to-morrow."
"What has Marcella's father got to do with you, little one?" he asked roughly. "Neither he nor she is anything to you, a patrician's daughter. Slaves both of them! Let me hear no more of them. And as for the brooch, it shall be a handsome one."
But when he had gone Livia turned to the slave and said, "I shall never wear that brooch, Marcella."
So the day wore into the night, and all through the night Marcella lay awake, wondering what the morrow would bring forth. When at last she fell asleep she dreamed that she was in the Circus Maximus watching her father, who was fighting with a new gladiator. She saw her father fall. She heard the cries of the populace. She herself, a girl of fourteen summers, sprang up to help him. And then she awoke.
"Ah, it was only a dream!" she cried, with a sigh of relief. "Father will win the fight to-morrow, and then he will buy his own freedom and mine, too."
It was a beautiful day for the Public Games. People had come from all parts of the country, and the streets of Rome were crowded with all manner of folk.
The AEdile whose duty it was to arrange the Public Games had provided a very costly entertainment, and great excitement prevailed everywhere to know the issue of the contest between the gladiators Naevus and Lucius. It was a wonderful sight to see the Circus Maximus crowded with the rich and luxurious patrician nobles and ladies arid their retinues of slaves, and the poorer classes, all bent on amusing themselves on this great public festival.
No doubt, amongst all those masses there were many anxious hearts, but none so anxious as that of the slave-girl Marcella. She sat behind her little mistress, eagerly expectant. At last a peal of trumpets and a clash of cymbals, accompanied by some wild kind of music, announced that the performance was about to begin. The folding-doors under the archway were flung open, and the gladiators marched in slowly, two by two. In all the pride of their strength and bearing they walked once round the arena, and then they stepped aside to wait until their turn came. The performance began with some fights between animals; for at the time of which we are speaking the Romans had learned to love this cruel bloodshed, and had learned to despise the less exciting, if more manly, trials of strength in which their ancestors had delighted. When this part of the cruel amusement was over the trumpets again sounded, and the gladiators made ready for their contest. Then it was that Marcella's heart beat wildly with fear. She saw her father advance together with the other gladiator; she saw their swords flash; she heard the people around her call out the name now of Naevus, and now of Lucius; she heard one near her say:
"He of the red scarf will prove the stronger mark my words."
Marcella's father wore the red scarf,
"Nay, nay," answered the speaker's companion. "He of the green scarf will win the day."
It was all that Marcella could do to prevent herself from saying, "The gladiator with the red scarf will prove the stronger--he must prove the stronger."
She sat spell-bound, watching for the event of the contest, which had now begun between the two in real earnest. The people encouraged now the one and now the other. At this moment it seemed probable that the new man, Lucius, would be the winner; at that moment the tide had turned in the favour of Naevus. But suddenly there was a loud cry, for Lucius had felled Naevus to the ground, and now stood over him with his sword ready for use, waiting to learn from the populace whether the favourite gladiator was to be spared or killed.
The slave-girl Marcella had risen from her seat.
"That is my father," she cried; "spare him--spare him!"
But no one heard her or noticed her, and the signal for mercy was not shown; on the contrary, the thumbs of thousands of hands pointed upwards; and that meant that the vanquished man, who had been the hero of so many contests, having now failed of his accustomed valour, was to die. So Lucius gave him a thrust with his sword, and he died while he was being carried away from the arena.
"You have won your brooch, little daughter," laughed Claudius, as he bent over and fondled Livia's hair. "And it shall be a costly brooch, worthy of a patrician's daughter."
But Livia's eyes were full of tears,
"I could never wear it," she sobbed; "I should always be thinking of Marcella's father."
Poor Marcella! and she thought the little charm which he had worn for her sake would preserve his life. Ah! it was cruel to think that she would never see him again, and that all their hopes of freedom and their plans for the future had ended. Well might she weep.
That was hundreds of years ago, you know, but still the same story goes on, and all through the centuries sorrow comes to us, just as we think we are grasping happiness, and we have to be brave and bear that sorrow. But sometimes we are helped by friends, even as Livia helped Marcella. For she did help her; she loved her as a sister, and treated her as such. And as time went on the little patrician lady claimed a gift from her father Claudius, a gift which was far more costly than any brooch--it was the freedom of the Sicilian slave Marcella, the gladiator's daughter.
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