Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)

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By Natasha Ginwala

His stature was little above the average of his countrymen, but his frame was cast in that mould of exact proportion which promises the extreme of strength combined with agility and endurance. Had he been caught like Milo, he would have writhed himself out of the trap, with the sinuous persistency of a snake.


There was something snake-like, too, in his small glittering eye, and the clear smoothness of his skin. With all its brightness no woman worthy of the name but would have winced with womanly instincts of aversion and repugnance from his glance.

With all its beauty no child would have looked up frankly and confidingly in his face. Men turned, indeed, to scan him approvingly as he passed; but the brave owned no sympathy with that smooth set brow, that crafty and malicious smile, while the timid or the superstitious shuddered and shrank away, averting their own gaze from what they felt to be the influence of the evil eye. Yet, in his snowy tunic bleached to dazzling white, in his collar of linked gold, his jewelled belt, his embroidered sandals, and the ample folds of his deep violet mantle, nearly approaching purple, Julius Placidus was no unworthy representative of his time and his order, no mean specimen of the wealth, and foppery, and extravagance of Rome.

Such was the man who now stood up in his gilded chariot at Valeria's door, masking with his usual expression of careless indolence, the real impatience he felt for tidings of its mistress. IT was customary with the more refined aristocracy of Rome, during the first century of the Empire, to pay great respect to Mercury, the god of invention and intrigue. Not that the qualities generally attributed to that power were calculated to inspire admiration or esteem, but simply because he had acquired a fortuitous popularity at a period when the graceful Pantheism of the nation was regulated by general opinion, and when a deity went in and out of fashion like a dress.

At Valeria's porch, in common with many other great houses, stood an exquisite statue of the god, representing him as a youth, of athletic and symmetrical proportions, poised on a winged foot in the act of running, with the broad-leaf hat on his head, and the snake-turned rod in his hand. The countenance of the statue was expressive of intellect and vivacity, while the form was wrought into the highest ideal of activity and strength. It was placed on a square pedestal of marble immediately opposite the door; and behind this pedestal, the slave retired in some confusion when a train of maidens appeared from within, to answer the summons of Julius Placidus in his chariot.

The tribune did not think it necessary to alight, but producing from the bosom of his tunic a jewelled casket, leaned one hand on the shoulder of Automedon, while with the other he proffered his gift to a damsel who seemed the chief among her fellows, and whose manners partook largely of the flippancy of the waiting-maid. The waiting-maid tried hard to raise a blush, but with all her efforts the rich Southern colour would not deepen on her cheek; so she thought better of it, and looked him full in the face with her bold black eyes, while she replied: "You have forgotten surely, my lord, that this is the feast of Isis, and no lady that is a lady, at least here in Rome, can have leisure to-day for anything but the sacred mysteries of the goddess.

Placidus laughed outright; and it was strange how his laugh scared those who watched it. Automedon fairly turned pale, and even the waiting-maid seemed disconcerted for a moment. The Roman ladies keep them somewhat jealously to themselves; and by all accounts it is well for our sex that they do so. Nevertheless there are yet some hours of sunlight to pass before the chaste rites of Egypt can possibly begin. Will not Valeria see me in the interval?

A very quick ear might have detected the least possible tremor in the tribune's voice as he spoke the last sentence; it was not lost upon Myrrhina, for she showed all the white teeth in her large well-formed mouth, while she enumerated with immense volubility those different pursuits which filled up the day of a fashionable Roman lady.

There's her dinner, 1 and her fencing-lesson, and her bath, and her dressing, and the sculptor coming for her hand, and the painter for her face, and the new Greek sandals to be fitted to her feet. Then she has sent for Philogemon, the augur, to cast her horoscope, and for Galanthis, who is cleverer than ever Locusta was, and has twice the practice, to prepare a philtre. Maybe it is for you, my lord," added the girl roguishly.

The evil smile crossed the tribune's face once more; perhaps he too had been indebted to the potions of Galanthis, for purposes of love or hate, and he did not care to be reminded of them. Valeria can do more with one glance of her bright eyes, than all the potions and poisons of Galanthis put together. Say, Myrrhina—you are in my interest—does she look more favourably of late?

She is not to be won by a smooth tongue and a beardless face, I know, for heard her say so to Paris myself, in the very spot where we are now standing. No; the man who wins my mistress will be a man all over, I'll answer for it! So far, she is like the rest of us for that matter. Arid Myrrhina sighed, thinking, it may be, of some sunburnt youth the while, whose rough but not unwelcome wooing had assailed her in her early girlhood, ere she came to Rome; far away yonder amongst the blushing vines, in the bright Campanian hills.

By the body of Hercules! Ay, there he is!

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Stand forth, my good fellow! While he spoke, the slave stepped forward from his lurking-place behind the statue, where the quick eye of Placidus had detected him, and presented to Myrrhina with a respectful gesture the offering of his lord to her mistress a filigree basket of frosted silver, filled with a few choice fruits and flowers—. The flowers are scarce yet dry from the spray that brawling Anio flings upon its banks; the fruits were glowing in yesterday's sun, on the brightest slopes of Tibur. My master offers the freshest and fairest of his fruits and flowers to his kinswoman, who is fresher and fairer than them all.

He delivered his message, which he had obviously learned by rote, in sufficiently pure and fluent Latin, scarcely tinged with the accent of a barbarian, and bowing low as he placed the basket in Myrrhina's hand, drew himself up to his noble height, and looked proudly, almost defiantly, at the tribune. The girl started and turned pale it seemed as if the statue of Hermes had descended from its pedestal to do her homage. He stood there, that glorious specimen of manhood, in his majestic strength and symmetry, in the glow of his youth, and health, and beauty, like an impersonation of the god.

Myrrhina, in common with many of her sex, was easily fascinated by external advantages, and she laughed nervously, while she accepted with shaking hands the handsome slave's offering to his master's kinswoman. But the slave excused himself, abruptly, almost rudely, losing, be sure, by his refusal, none of the ground he had already gained in Myrrhina's good graces. It chafed him to remain even at the porch. The atmosphere of luxury that pervaded it, seemed to weigh upon his senses, and oppress his breath. Moreover, the insult he had sustained from Automedon, yet rankled in his heart.

How he wished the boy charioteer was nearer his match in size and strength! He would have hurled him from the chariot where he stood, turning his curls so insolently round his dainty fingers—hurled him to earth beyond his horses' heads, and taught him the strength of a Briton's arm and the squeeze of a Briton's gripe. Placidus, however, scanned him once more, as he strode away, with the critical gaze of a judge of human animals. It was this man's peculiarity to look on all he met as possible tools, that might come into use for various purposes at a future and indefinite time.

If he observed more than usual courage in a soldier, superior acuteness in a freedman, nay, even uncommon beauty in a woman, he bethought himself that although he might have no immediate use for these qualities, occasions often arose on which he could turn them to his profit, and he noted, and made sure of, their amount accordingly.

In the present instance, although somewhat surprised that he had never before remarked the slave's stalwart proportions in the household of Licinius, whose affection for the Briton had excused him from all menial offices, and consequent contact with visitors, he determined not to lose sight of one so formed by nature to excel in the gymnasium or the amphitheatre, while there crept into his heart a cruel cold-blooded feeling of satisfaction at the possibility of witnessing so muscular and shapely a figure in the contortions of a mortal struggle, or the throes of a painful death.

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Besides, there was envy, too, at the bottom——envy in the proud patrician's breast, leaning so negligently on the cushions of his gilded chariot, with all his advantages of rank, reputation, wealth, and influence envy of the noble bearing, the personal comeliness, and the free manly step of the slave. Gently with that outside horse; dost see how he chafes upon the rein? Gently, boy, I say! As he settled himself among the cushions and rolled swiftly away, Myrrhina came forth into the porch once more.

She seemed, however, scarcely to notice the departing chariot, but looked dreamily about her, and then re-entered the house with a shake of the head, a smile, and something that was almost a sigh.

Article excerpt

A NEGRO boy, the ugliest of his kind, and probably all the more prized for that reason, was shifting uneasily from knee to knee, in an attitude of constraint that showed how long and tiresome he felt his office, and how wearied he was of Valeria's own apartment. Such a child, for the urchin seemed of the tenderest age, might be initiated without impropriety into the mysteries of a lady's toilet; and, indeed, the office it was his duty to undertake, formed the most indispensable part of the whole performance.

With a skill and steadiness beyond his years, though with a rueful face, he was propping up an enormous mirror, in which his mistress might contemplate the whole galaxy of her charms—a mirror formed of one broad plate of silver, burnished to the brightness and lucidity of glass, set in an oval frame of richly chased gold, wrought into fantastic patterns and studded with emeralds, rubies, and other precious stones.

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Not a speck was to be discerned on the polish of its dazzling surface; and, indeed, the time of one maiden was devoted to the task alone of preserving it from the lightest breath that might dim its brightness, and cloud the reflection of the stately form that now sat before it, undergoing, at the hands of her attendants, the pleasing tortures of an elaborate toilet. The reflection was that of a large handsome woman in the very prime and noontide of her beauty—a woman whose every movement and gesture bespoke physical organisation of a vigorous nature and perfect health.

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  5. While the strong white neck gave grace and dignity to her carriage—while the deep bosom and somewhat massive shoulders partook more of Juno's majestic frame than Hebe's pliant youth—while the full sweep and outline of her figure denoted maturity and completeness in every part—the long round limbs, the shapely hands and feet, might have belonged to Diana, so perfect was their symmetry; the warm flush that tinted them, the voluptuous ease of her attitude, the gentle languor of her whole bearing, would have done no discredit to the goddess, hanging over the mountain-tops in the golden summer nights to look down upon Endymion, and bathe her sleeping favourite in floods of light and love.

    Too fastidious a critic might have objected to Valeria's form that it expressed more of physical strength than is compatible with perfect womanly beauty, that the muscles were developed overmuch, and the whole frame, despite its flowing outlines, partook somewhat of a man's organisation, and a man's redundant strength. The same fault might have been found in a less degree with her countenance.

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    There was a little too much resolution in the small aquiline nose, something of manly audacity and energy in the large well-formed mouth, with its broad white teeth that the fullest and reddest of lips could not conceal—a shade of masculine sternness on the low wide brow, smooth and white, but somewhat prominent, and scarcely softened by the arch of the marked eyebrows, or the dark sweep of the lashes that fringed the long laughing eyes.

    And yet it was a face that a man, and still more a boy, could hardly have looked on without misgivings that he might too soon learn to long for its glances, its smiles, its approval, and its love.

    There was such a glow of health on the soft transparent skin, such a freshness and vitality in the colour of those blooming cheeks, such a sparkle in the grey eyes, that flashed so meaningly when she smiled, that gleamed so clear and bright and cold when the features resumed their natural expression, grave, scornful, almost stern in their repose; and then such womanly softness in the masses of rich nut-brown hair that showered down neck and shoulders, to form a framework for this lovely, dangerous, and too alluring picture.

    Even the little negro, wearied as he was, peeped at intervals from the back of the mirror he upheld, fawning like a dog for some sign of approval from his haughty, careless mistress. At length she bade him keep still, with a half-scornful smile at his antics; and the sharp white teeth gleamed from ear to ear of the dusky little face, as it grinned with pleasure, while the boy settled himself once more in an attitude of patience and steady submission.

    Nor was Valeria's apartment unworthy of the noble beauty who devoted it to the mysterious rites of dress and decoration. Everything that luxury could imagine for bodily ease, everything that science had as yet discovered for the preservation or the production of feminine attractions, was there to be found in its handsomest and costliest form. In one recess, shrouded by transparent curtains of the softest pink, was the bath that could be heated at will to any temperature, and the marble steps of which that shapely form was accustomed to descend twice and thrice a day.

    In another stood the ivory couch with its quilted crimson silks and ornamental pillars of solid gold, in which Valeria slept, and dreamed such dreams as hover round the rest of those whose life is luxury, and whose business is a ceaseless career of pleasure. On a table of cedar-wood, fashioned like a palm-leaf opening out from a pedestal that terminated in a single claw of grotesque shape, stood her silver night-lamp, exhaling odours of perfumed oil, and near it lay the waxen tablets, on which she made her memorandums, or composed her love-letters, and from which, as from an unfinished task, the sharp-pointed steel pencil had rolled away upon the shining floor.

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    Through the whole court for court it might be called, with its many entrances and recesses, its cool and shady nooks, its lofty ceiling and its tesselated pavement choice vases, jewelled cups, burnished chalices, and exquisite little statues, were scattered in systematic irregularity and graceful profusion. Even the very water in the bath flowed through the mouth of a marble Cupid; and two more winged urchins wrought in bronze, supported a stand on which was set a formidable array of perfumes, essences, cosmetics, and such material for offensive and defensive warfare.

    The walls, too, of this seductive arsenal, were delicately tinted of a light rose-colour, that should throw the most becoming shade over its inmates, relieved at intervals by oval wreaths wrought out in bas-relief, enclosing diverse mythological subjects, in which the figure of Venus, goddess of love and laughter, predominated. Round the cornices stretched a frieze representing, also in relief, the fabulous contests of the Amazons with every description of monster, amongst which the most conspicuous foe was the well-known gryphon, or griffin, an abnormal quadruped, with the head and neck of a bird of prey.

    It was curious to trace in the female warriors thus delineated, something of the imperious beauty, the vigorous symmetry, and the dauntless bearing that distinguished Valeria herself, though their energetic and spirited attitudes afforded, at the same time, a marked contrast to the pleasing languor that seemed to pervade every movement of that luxurious lady reclining before her mirror, and submitting indolently to the attentions of her maid-servants.

    These were five in number, and constituted the principal slaves of her household; the most important among them seemed to be a tall matronly woman, considerably older than her comrades, who filled the responsible office of housekeeper in the establishment—a dignity which did not, however, exempt her from insult, and even blows, when she failed to satisfy the caprices of a somewhat exacting mistress; the others, comely laughing girls, with the sparkling v eyes and white teeth of their countrywomen, seemed principally occupied with the various matters that constituted their lady's toilet a daily penance, in which, notwithstanding the rigour of its discipline, and the severities that were sure to follow the most trifling act of negligence, they took an inexplicable and essentially feminine delight.

    Of these it was obvious that Myrrhina was the first in place as in favour.

    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)
    Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series) Sensual Dynasty, Book 3: The Rite of Sensuality (Sensual Dynasty Series)

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