Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Part 10 out of 13
subjected to, might be possible there. Besides, in such a strait,
the natural inclination is to start search at the place where the
loss occurred, and he could not forget that his last sight of the
loved ones was as the guard pushed them along the street in the
direction to the Tower. If they were not there now, but had been,
some record of the fact must remain, a clew which had only to be
followed faithfully to the end.
Under this inclination, moreover, there was a hope which he could
not forego. From Simonides he knew Amrah, the Egyptian nurse,
was living. It will be remembered, doubtless, that the faithful
creature, the morning the calamity overtook the Hurs, broke from
the guard and ran back into the palace, where, along with other
chattels, she had been sealed up. During the years following,
Simonides kept her supplied; so she was there now, sole occupant
of the great house, which, with all his offers, Gratus had not
been able to sell. The story of its rightful owners sufficed
to secure the property from strangers, whether purchasers or
mere occupants. People going to and fro passed it with whispers.
Its reputation was that of a haunted house; derived probably from
the infrequent glimpses of poor old Amrah, sometimes on the roof,
sometimes in a latticed window. Certainly no more constant spirit ever
abided than she; nor was there ever a tenement so shunned and fitted
for ghostly habitation. Now, if he could get to her, Ben-Hur fancied
she could help him to knowledge which, though faint, might yet
be serviceable. Anyhow, sight of her in that place, so endeared
by recollection, would be to him a pleasure next to finding the
objects of his solicitude.
So, first of all things, he would go to the old house, and look
Thus resolved, he arose shortly after the going-down of the sun,
and began descent of the Mount by the road which, from the summit,
bends a little north of east. Down nearly at the foot, close by
the bed of the Cedron, he came to the intersection with the road
leading south to the village of Siloam and the pool of that name.
There he fell in with a herdsman driving some sheep to market.
He spoke to the man, and joined him, and in his company passed
by Gethsemane on into the city through the Fish Gate.
It was dark when, parting with the drover inside the gate,
Ben-Hur turned into a narrow lane leading to the south. A few of
the people whom he met saluted him. The bouldering of the pavement
was rough. The houses on both sides were low, dark, and cheerless;
the doors all closed: from the roofs, occasionally, he heard women
crooning to children. The loneliness of his situation, the night,
the uncertainty cloaking the object of his coming, all affected
him cheerlessly. With feelings sinking lower and lower, he came
directly to the deep reservoir now known as the Pool of Bethesda,
in which the water reflected the over-pending sky. Looking up,
he beheld the northern wall of the Tower of Antonia, a black
frowning heap reared into the dim steel-gray sky. He halted as
if challenged by a threatening sentinel.
The Tower stood up so high, and seemed so vast, resting apparently
upon foundations so sure, that he was constrained to acknowledge its
strength. If his mother were there in living burial, what could he do
for her? By the strong hand, nothing. An army might beat the stony
face with ballista and ram, and be laughed at. Against him alone,
the gigantic southeast turret looked down in the self-containment
of a hill. And he thought, cunning is so easily baffled; and God,
always the last resort of the helpless--God is sometimes so slow
In doubt and misgiving, he turned into the street in front of the
Tower, and followed it slowly on to the west.
Over in Bezetha he knew there was a khan, where it was his intention
to seek lodging while in the city; but just now he could not resist
the impulse to go home. His heart drew him that way.
The old formal salutation which he received from the few people
who passed him had never sounded so pleasantly. Presently, all the
eastern sky began to silver and shine, and objects before invisible
in the west--chiefly the tall towers on Mount Zion--emerged as from
a shadowy depth, and put on spectral distinctness, floating, as it
were, above the yawning blackness of the valley below, very castles
in the air.
He came, at length, to his father's house.
Of those who read this page, some there will be to divine his
feelings without prompting. They are such as had happy homes in
their youth, no matter how far that may have been back in time--homes
which are now the starting-points of all recollection; paradises from
which they went forth in tears, and which they would now return to,
if they could, as little children; places of laughter and singing,
and associations dearer than any or all the triumphs of after-life.
At the gate on the north side of the old house Ben-Hur stopped.
In the corners the wax used in the sealing-up was still plainly
seen, and across the valves was the board with the inscription--
"THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF
Nobody had gone in or out the gate since the dreadful day of the
separation. Should he knock as of old? It was useless, he knew;
yet he could not resist the temptation. Amrah might hear, and look
out of one of the windows on that side. Taking a stone, he mounted
the broad stone step, and tapped three times. A dull echo replied.
He tried again, louder than before; and again, pausing each time to
listen. The silence was mocking. Retiring into the street, he watched
the windows; but they, too, were lifeless. The parapet on the roof
was defined sharply against the brightening sky; nothing could have
stirred upon it unseen by him, and nothing did stir.
From the north side he passed to the west, where there were four
windows which he watched long and anxiously, but with as little
effect. At times his heart swelled with impotent wishes; at others,
he trembled at the deceptions of his own fancy. Amrah made no
sign--not even a ghost stirred.
Silently, then, he stole round to the south. There, too, the gate
was sealed and inscribed. The mellow splendor of the August moon,
pouring over the crest of Olivet, since termed the Mount of Offence,
brought the lettering boldly out; and he read, and was filled with
rage. All he could do was to wrench the board from its nailing, and
hurl it into the ditch. Then he sat upon the step, and prayed for
the New King, and that his coming might be hastened. As his blood
cooled, insensibly he yielded to the fatigue of long travel in the
summer heat, and sank down lower, and, at last, slept.
About that time two women came down the street from the direction
of the Tower of Antonia, approaching the palace of the Hurs. They
advanced stealthily, with timid steps, pausing often to listen.
At the corner of the rugged pile, one said to the other, in a
"This is it, Tirzah!"
And Tirzah, after a look, caught her mother's hand, and leaned
upon her heavily, sobbing, but silent.
"Let us go on, my child, because"--the mother hesitated and trembled;
then, with an effort to be calm, continued--"because when morning
comes they will put us out of the gate of the city to--return no
Tirzah sank almost to the stones.
"Ah, yes!" she said, between sobs; "I forgot. I had the feeling
of going home. But we are lepers, and have no homes; we belong
to the dead!"
The mother stooped and raised her tenderly, saying, "We have
nothing to fear. Let us go on."
Indeed, lifting their empty hands, they could have run upon a
legion and put it to flight.
And, creeping in close to the rough wall, they glided on, like two
ghosts, till they came to the gate, before which they also paused.
Seeing the board, they stepped upon the stone in the scarce cold
tracks of Ben-Hur, and read the inscription--"This is the Property
of the Emperor."
Then the mother clasped her hands, and, with upraised eyes,
moaned in unutterable anguish.
"What now, mother? You scare me!"
And the answer was, presently, "Oh, Tirzah, the poor are dead! He
"Your brother! They took everything from him--everything--even
"Poor!" said Tirzah, vacantly.
"He will never be able to help us."
"And then, mother?"
"To-morrow--to-morrow, my child, we must find a seat by the wayside,
and beg alms as the lepers do; beg, or--"
Tirzah leaned upon her again, and said, whispering, "Let us--let
"No!" the mother said, firmly. "The Lord has appointed our times,
and we are believers in the Lord. We will wait on him even in this.
She caught Tirzah's hand as she spoke, and hastened to the west
corner of the house, keeping close to the wall. No one being in
sight there, they kept on to the next corner, and shrank from
the moonlight, which lay exceedingly bright over the whole south
front, and along a part of the street. The mother's will was
strong. Casting one look back and up to the windows on the west
side, she stepped out into the light, drawing Tirzah after her;
and the extent of their amiction was then to be seen--on their
lips and cheeks, in their bleared eyes, in their cracked hands;
especially in the long, snaky locks, stiff with loathsome ichor,
and, like their eyebrows, ghastly white. Nor was it possible to
have told which was mother, which daughter; both alike seemed
"Hist!" said the mother. "There is some one lying upon the step--a
man. Let us go round him."
They crossed to the opposite side of the street quickly, and,
in the shade there, moved on till before the gate, where they
"He is asleep, Tirzah!"
The man was very still.
"Stay here, and I will try the gate."
So saying, the mother stole noiselessly across, and ventured to
touch the wicket; she never knew if it yielded, for that moment
the man sighed, and, turning restlessly, shifted the handkerchief
on his head in such manner that the face was left upturned and
fair in the broad moonlight. She looked down at it and started;
then looked again, stooping a little, and arose and clasped her
hands and raised her eyes to heaven in mute appeal. An instant so,
and she ran back to Tirzah.
"As the Lord liveth, the man is my son--thy brother!" she said,
in an awe-inspiring whisper.
The mother caught her hand eagerly.
"Come!" she said, in the same enforced whisper, "let us look at
him together--once more--only once--then help thou thy servants,
They crossed the street hand in hand ghostly-quick, ghostly-still.
When their shadows fell upon him, they stopped. One of his hands was
lying out upon the step palm up. Tirzah fell upon her knees, and would
have kissed it; but the mother drew her back.
"Not for thy life; not for thy life! Unclean, unclean!" she whispered.
Tirzah shrank from him, as if he were the leprous one.
Ben-Hur was handsome as the manly are. His cheeks and forehead
were swarthy from exposure to the desert sun and air; yet under
the light mustache the lips were red, and the teeth shone white,
and the soft beard did not hide the full roundness of chin and
throat. How beautiful he appeared to the mother's eyes! How mightily
she yearned to put her arms about him, and take his head upon her
bosom and kiss him, as had been her wont in his happy childhood!
Where got she the strength to resist the impulse? From her love,
O, reader!--her mother-love, which, if thou wilt observe well,
hath this unlikeness to any other love: tender to the object,
it can be infinitely tyrannical to itself, and thence all its
power of self-sacrifice. Not for restoration to health and fortune,
not for any blessing of life, not for life itself, would she have
left her leprous kiss upon his cheek! Yet touch him she must;
in that instant of finding him she must renounce him forever!
How bitter, bitter hard it was, let some other mother say! She
knelt down, and, crawling to his feet, touched the sole of one
of his sandals with her lips, yellow though it was with the dust
of the street--and touched it again and again; and her very soul
was in the kisses.
He stirred, and tossed his hand. They moved back, but heard him
mutter in his dream,
"Mother! Amrah! Where is--"
He fell off into the deep sleep.
Tirzah stared wistfully. The mother put her face in the dust,
struggling to suppress a sob so deep and strong it seemed her
heart was bursting. Almost she wished he might waken.
He had asked for her; she was not forgotten; in his sleep he was
thinking of her. Was it not enough?
Presently mother beckoned to Tirzah, and they arose, and taking
one more look, as if to print his image past fading, hand in
hand they recrossed the street. Back in the shade of the wall
there, they retired and knelt, looking at him, waiting for him
to wake--waiting some revelation, they knew not what. Nobody has
yet given us a measure for the patience of a love like theirs.
By-and-by, the sleep being yet upon him, another woman appeared at
the corner of the palace. The two in the shade saw her plainly in
the light; a small figure, much bent, dark-skinned, gray-haired,
dressed neatly in servant's garb, and carrying a basket full of
At sight of the man upon the step the new-comer stopped; then,
as if decided, she walked on--very lightly as she drew near the
sleeper. Passing round him, she went to the gate, slid the wicket
latch easily to one side, and put her hand in the opening. One of
the broad boards in the left valve swung ajar without noise.
She put the basket through, and was about to follow, when,
yielding to curiosity, she lingered to have one look at the
stranger whose face was below her in open view.
The spectators across the street heard a low exclamation, and saw
the woman rub her eyes as if to renew their power, bend closer down,
clasp her hands, gaze wildly around, look at the sleeper, stoop and
raise the outlying hand, and kiss it fondly--that which they wished
so mightily to do, but dared not.
Awakened by the action, Ben-Hur instinctively withdrew the hand;
as he did so, his eyes met the woman's.
"Amrah! O Amrah, is it thou?" he said.
The good heart made no answer in words, but fell upon his neck,
crying for joy.
Gently he put her arms away, and lifting the dark face wet with
tears, kissed it, his joy only a little less than hers. Then those
across the way heard him say,
"Mother--Tirzah--O Amrah, tell me of them! Speak, speak, I pray
Amrah only cried afresh.
"Thou has seen them, Amrah. Thou knowest where they are; tell me
they are at home."
Tirzah moved, but her mother, divining her purpose, caught her
and whispered, "Do not go--not for life. Unclean, unclean!"
Her love was in tyrannical mood. Though both their hearts broke, he
should not become what they were; and she conquered.
Meantime, Amrah, so entreated, only wept the more.
"Wert thou going in?" he asked, presently, seeing the board swung
back. "Come, then. I will go with thee." He arose as he spoke.
"The Romans--be the curse of the Lord upon them!--the Romans lied.
The house is mine. Rise, Amrah, and let us go in." A moment and
they were gone, leaving the two in the shade to behold the gate
staring blankly at them--the gate which they might not ever enter
more. They nestled together in the dust.
They had done their duty.
Their love was proven.
Next morning they were found, and driven out the city with stones.
"Begone! Ye are of the dead; go to the dead!"
With the doom ringing in their ears, they went forth.
Nowadays travellers in the Holy Land looking for the famous place with
the beautiful name, the King's Garden, descend the bed of the Cedron or
the curve of Gihon and Hinnom as far as the old well En-rogel, take a
drink of the sweet living water, and stop, having reached the limit
of the interesting in that direction. They look at the great stones
with which the well is curbed, ask its depth, smile at the primitive
mode of drawing the purling treasure, and waste some pity on the
ragged wretch who presides over it; then, facing about, they are
enraptured with the mounts Moriah and Zion, both of which slope
towards them from the north, one terminating in Ophel, the other
in what used to be the site of the city of David. In the background,
up far in the sky, the garniture of the sacred places is visible:
here the Haram, with its graceful dome; yonder the stalward remains
of Hippicus, defiant even in ruins. When that view has been enjoyed,
and is sufficiently impressed upon the memory, the travellers
glance at the Mount of Offence standing in rugged stateliness
at their right hand, and then at the Hill of Evil Counsel over on
the left, in which, if they be well up in Scriptural history and
in the traditions rabbinical and monkish, they will find a certain
interest not to be overcome by superstitious horror.
It were long to tell all the points of interest grouped around
that hill; for the present purpose, enough that its feet are
planted in the veritable orthodox Hell of the moderns--the Hell
of brimstone and fire--in the old nomenclature Gehenna; and that
now, as in the days of Christ, its bluff face opposite the city
on the south and southeast is seamed and pitted with tombs which
have been immemorially the dwelling-places of lepers, not singly,
but collectively. There they set up their government and established
their society; there they founded a city and dwelt by themselves,
avoided as the accursed of God.
The second morning after the incidents of the preceding chapter,
Amrah drew near the well En-rogel, and seated herself upon a stone.
One familiar with Jerusalem, looking at her, would have said she was
the favorite servant of some well-to-do family. She brought with
her a water-jar and a basket, the contents of the latter covered
with a snow-white napkin. Placing them on the ground at her side,
she loosened the shawl which fell from her head, knit her fingers
together in her lap, and gazed demurely up to where the hill drops
steeply down into Aceldama and the Potter's Field.
It was very early, and she was the first to arrive at the well.
Soon, however, a man came bringing a rope and a leathern bucket.
Saluting the little dark-faced woman, he undid the rope, fixed it
to the bucket, and waited customers. Others who chose to do so might
draw water for themselves, he was a professional in the business,
and would fill the largest jar the stoutest woman could carry for
Amrah sat still, and had nothing to say. Seeing the jar, the man
asked after a while if she wished it filled; she answered him civilly,
"Not now;" whereupon he gave her no more attention. When the dawn was
fairly defined over Olivet, his patrons began to arrive, and he had
all he could do to attend to them. All the time she kept her seat,
looking intently up at the hill.
The sun made its appearance, yet she sat watching and waiting; and
while she thus waits, let us see what her purpose is.
Her custom had been to go to market after nightfall. Stealing out
unobserved, she would seek the shops in the Tyropoeon, or those
over by the Fish Gate in the east, make her purchases of meat
and vegetables, and return and shut herself up again.
The pleasure she derived from the presence of Ben-Hur in the old
house once more may be imagined. She had nothing to tell him of
her mistress or Tirzah--nothing. He would have had her move to a
place not so lonesome; she refused. She would have had him take his
own room again, which was just as he had left it; but the danger of
discovery was too great, and he wished above all things to avoid
inquiry. He would come and see her often as possible. Coming in
the night, he would also go away in the night. She was compelled
to be satisfied, and at once occupied herself contriving ways to
make him happy. That he was a man now did not occur to her; nor did
it enter her mind that he might have put by or lost his boyish tastes;
to please him, she thought to go on her old round of services. He used
to be fond of confections; she remembered the things in that line
which delighted him most, and resolved to make them, and have a
supply always ready when he came. Could anything be happier? So
next night, earlier than usual, she stole out with her basket,
and went over to the Fish Gate Market. Wandering about, seeking the
best honey, she chanced to hear a man telling a story.
What the story was the reader can arrive at with sufficient certainty
when told that the narrator was one of the men who had held torches
for the commandant of the Tower of Antonia when, down in cell VI.,
the Hurs were found. The particulars of the finding were all told,
and she heard them, with the names of the prisoners, and the widow's
account of herself.
The feelings with which Amrah listened to the recital were such
as became the devoted creature she was. She made her purchases,
and returned home in a dream. What a happiness she had in store
for her boy! She had found his mother!
She put the basket away, now laughing, now crying. Suddenly she
stopped and thought. It would kill him to be told that his mother
and Tirzah were lepers. He would go through the awful city over
on the Hill of Evil Counsel--into each infected tomb he would go
without rest, asking for them, and the disease would catch him,
and their fate would be his. She wrung her hands. What should she
Like many a one before her, and many a one since, she derived
inspiration, if not wisdom, from her affection, and came to a
The lepers, she knew, were accustomed of mornings to come down
from their sepulchral abodes in the hill, and take a supply of
water for the day from the well En-rogel. Bringing their jars,
they would set them on the ground and wait, standing afar until
they were filled. To that the mistress and Tirzah must come;
for the law was inexorable, and admitted no distinction. A rich
leper was no better than a poor one.
So Amrah decided not to speak to Ben-Hur of the story she had heard,
but go alone to the well and wait. Hunger and thirst would drive
the unfortunates thither, and she believed she could recognize
them at sight; if not, they might recognize her.
Meantime Ben-Hur came, and they talked much. To-morrow Malluch
would arrive; then the search should be immediately begun. He was
impatient to be about it. To amuse himself he would visit the sacred
places in the vicinity. The secret, we may be sure, weighed heavily
on the woman, but she held her peace.
When he was gone she busied herself in the preparation of things
good to eat, applying her utmost skill to the work. At the approach
of day, as signalled by the stars, she filled the basket, selected a
jar, and took the road to En-rogel, going out by the Fish Gate which
was earliest open, and arriving as we have seen.
Shortly after sunrise, when business at the well was most pressing,
and the drawer of water most hurried; when, in fact, half a dozen
buckets were in use at the same time, everybody making haste to get
away before the cool of the morning melted into the heat of the day,
the tenantry of the hill began to appear and move about the doors
of their tombs. Somewhat later they were discernible in groups,
of which not a few were children so young that they suggested the
holiest relation. Numbers came momentarily around the turn of the
bluff--women with jars upon their shoulders, old and very feeble
men hobbling along on staffs and crutches. Some leaned upon the
shoulders of others; a few--the utterly helpless--lay, like heaps
of rags, upon litters. Even that community of superlative sorrow had
its love-light to make life endurable and attractive. Distance softened
without entirely veiling the misery of the outcasts.
From her seat by the well Amrah kept watch upon the spectral
groups. She scarcely moved. More than once she imagined she saw
those she sought. That they were there upon the hill she had no
doubt; that they must come down and near she knew; when the people
at the well were all served they would come.
Now, quite at the base of the bluff there was a tomb which had
more than once attracted Amrah by its wide gaping. A stone of
large dimensions stood near its mouth. The sun looked into it
through the hottest hours of the day, and altogether it seemed
uninhabitable by anything living, unless, perchance, by some
wild dogs returning from scavenger duty down in Gehenna. Thence,
however, and greatly to her surprise, the patient Egyptian beheld
two women come, one half supporting, half leading, the other.
They were both white-haired; both looked old; but their garments
were not rent, and they gazed about them as if the locality were
new. The witness below thought she even saw them shrink terrified
at the spectacle offered by the hideous assemblage of which they
found themselves part. Slight reasons, certainly, to make her
heart beat faster, and draw her attention to them exclusively;
but so they did.
The two remained by the stone awhile; then they moved slowly,
painfully, and with much fear towards the well, whereat several
voices were raised to stop them; yet they kept on. The drawer of
water picked up some pebbles, and made ready to drive them back.
The company cursed them. The greater company on the hill shouted
shrilly, "Unclean, unclean!"
"Surely," thought Amrah of the two, as they kept coming--"surely,
they are strangers to the usage of lepers."
She arose, and went to meet them, taking the basket and jar.
The alarm at the well immediately subsided.
"What a fool," said one, laughing, "what a fool to give good bread
to the dead in that way!"
"And to think of her coming so far!" said another. "I would at
least make them meet me at the gate."
Amrah, with better impulse, proceeded. If she should be mistaken!
Her heart arose into her throat. And the farther she went the more
doubtful and confused she became. Four or five yards from where
they stood waiting for her she stopped.
That the mistress she loved! whose hand she had so often kissed
in gratitude! whose image of matronly loveliness she had treasured
in memory so faithfully! And that the Tirzah she had nursed through
babyhood! whose pains she had soothed, whose sports she had shared!
that the smiling, sweet-faced, songful Tirzah, the light of the
great house, the promised blessing of her old age! Her mistress,
her darling-- they? The soul of the woman sickened at the sight.
"These are old women," she said to herself. "I never saw them
before. I will go back."
She turned away.
"Amrah," said one of the lepers.
The Egyptian dropped the jar, and looked back, trembling.
"Who called me?" she asked.
The servant's wondering eyes settled upon the speaker's face.
"Who are you?" she cried.
"We are they you are seeking."
Amrah fell upon her knees.
"O my mistress, my mistress! As I have made your God my God, be he
praised that he has led me to you!"
And upon her knees the poor overwhelmed creature began moving
"Stay, Amrah! Come not nearer. Unclean, unclean!"
The words sufficed. Amrah fell upon her face, sobbing so loud
the people at the well heard her. Suddenly she arose upon her
"O my mistress, where is Tirzah?"
"Here I am, Amrah, here! Will you not bring me a little water?"
The habit of the servant renewed itself. Putting back the coarse
hair fallen over her face, Amrah arose and went to the basket and
"See," she said, "here are bread and meat."
She would have spread the napkin upon the ground, but the mistress
"Do not so, Amrah. Those yonder may stone you, and refuse us drink.
Leave the basket with me. Take up the jar and fill it, and bring it
here. We will carry them to the tomb with us. For this day you will
then have rendered all the service that is lawful. Haste, Amrah."
The people under whose eyes all this had passed made way for the
servant, and even helped her fill the jar, so piteous was the
grief her countenance showed.
"Who are they?" a woman asked.
Amrah meekly answered, "They used to be good to me."
Raising the jar upon her shoulder, she hurried back. In forgetfulness,
she would have gone to them, but the cry "Unclean, unclean! Beware!"
arrested her. Placing the water by the basket, she stepped back,
and stood off a little way.
"Thank you, Amrah," said the mistress, taking the articles into
possession. "This is very good of you."
"Is there nothing more I can do?" asked Amrah.
The mother's hand was upon the jar, and she was fevered with thirst;
yet she paused, and rising, said firmly, "Yes, I know that Judah
has come home. I saw him at the gate night before last asleep on
the step. I saw you wake him."
Amrah clasped her hands.
"O my mistress! You saw it, and did not come!"
"That would have been to kill him. I can never take him in my arms
again. I can never kiss him more. O Amrah, Amrah, you love him,
"Yes," said the true heart, bursting into tears again, and kneeling.
"I would die for him."
"Prove to me what you say, Amrah."
"I am ready."
"Then you shall not tell him where we are or that you have seen
us--only that, Amrah."
"But he is looking for you. He has come from afar to find you."
"He must not find us. He shall not become what we are. Hear, Amrah.
You shall serve us as you have this day. You shall bring us the
little we need--not long now--not long. You shall come every morning
and evening thus, and--and"--the voice trembled, the strong will
almost broke down--"and you shall tell us of him, Amrah; but to
him you shall say nothing of us. Hear you?"
"Oh, it will be so hard to hear him speak of you, and see him
going about looking for you--to see all his love, and not tell
him so much as that you are alive!"
"Can you tell him we are well, Amrah?"
The servant bowed her head in her arms.
"No," the mistress continued; "wherefore to be silent altogether.
Go now, and come this evening. We will look for you. Till then,
"The burden will be heavy, O my mistress, and hard to bear,"
said Amrah, falling upon her face.
"How much harder would it be to see him as we are," the mother
answered as she gave the basket to Tirzah. "Come again this
evening," she repeated, taking up the water, and starting for
Amrah waited kneeling until they had disappeared; then she took
the road sorrowfully home.
In the evening she returned; and thereafter it became her custom
to serve them in the morning and evening, so that they wanted for
nothing needful. The tomb, though ever so stony and desolate, was
less cheerless than the cell in the Tower had been. Daylight gilded
its door, and it was in the beautiful world. Then, one can wait
death with so much more faith out under the open sky.
The morning of the first day of the seventh month--Tishri in the
Hebrew, October in English--Ben-Hur arose from his couch in the
khan ill satisfied with the whole world.
Little time had been lost in consultation upon the arrival of
Malluch. The latter began the search at the Tower of Antonia,
and began it boldly, by a direct inquiry of the tribune commanding.
He gave the officer a history of the Hurs, and all the particulars
of the accident to Gratus, describing the affair as wholly without
criminality. The object of the quest now, he said, was if any of
the unhappy family were discovered alive to carry a petition to
the feet of Caesar, praying restitution of the estate and return to
their civil rights. Such a petition, he had no doubt, would result
in an investigation by the imperial order, a proceeding of which
the friends of the family had no fear.
In reply the tribune stated circumstantially the discovery of the
women in the Tower, and permitted a reading of the memorandum he
had taken of their account of themselves; when leave to copy it
was prayed, he even permitted that.
Malluch thereupon hurried to Ben-Hur.
It were useless to attempt description of the effect the terrible
story had upon the young man. The pain was not relieved by tears
or passionate outcries; it was too deep for any expression. He sat
still a long time, with pallid face and laboring heart. Now and then,
as if to show the thoughts which were most poignant, he muttered,
"Lepers, lepers! They--my mother and Tirzah--they lepers! How long,
how long, O Lord!"
One moment he was torn by a virtuous rage of sorrow, next by a
longing for vengeance which, it must be admitted, was scarcely
At length he arose.
"I must look for them. They may be dying."
"Where will you look?" asked Malluch.
"There is but one place for them to go."
Malluch interposed, and finally prevailed so far as to have the
management of the further attempt intrusted to him. Together they
went to the gate over on the side opposite the Hill of Evil Counsel,
immemorially the lepers' begging-ground. There they stayed all
day, giving alms, asking for the two women, and offering rich
rewards for their discovery. So they did in repetition day after
day through the remainder of the fifth month, and all the sixth.
There was diligent scouring of the dread city on the hill by lepers
to whom the rewards offered were mighty incentives, for they were
only dead in law. Over and over again the gaping tomb down by the
well was invaded, and its tenants subjected to inquiry; but they
kept their secret fast. The result was failure. And now, the morning
of the first day of the seventh month, the extent of the additional
information gained was that not long before two leprous women had been
stoned from the Fish Gate by the authorities. A little pressing of
the clew, together with some shrewd comparison of dates, led to the
sad assurance that the sufferers were the Hurs, and left the old
questions darker than ever. Where were they? And what had become
"It was not enough that my people should be made lepers," said the
son, over and over again, with what intensity of bitterness the
reader may imagine; "that was not enough. Oh no! They must be stoned
from their native city! My mother is dead! she has wandered to the
wilderness! she is dead! Tirzah is dead! I alone am left. And for
what? How long, O God, thou Lord God of my fathers, how long shall
this Rome endure?"
Angry, hopeless, vengeful, he entered the court of the khan, and
found it crowded with people come in during the night. While he
ate his breakfast, he listened to some of them. To one party he
was specially attracted. They were mostly young, stout, active,
hardy men, in manner and speech provincial. In their look, the certain
indefinable air, the pose of the head, glance of the eye, there was
a spirit which did not, as a rule, belong to the outward seeming
of the lower orders of Jerusalem; the spirit thought by some to
be a peculiarity of life in mountainous districts, but which may
be more surely traced to a life of healthful freedom. In a short
time he ascertained they were Galileans, in the city for various
purposes, but chiefly to take part in the Feast of Trumpets, set for
that day. They became to him at once objects of interest, as hailing
from the region in which he hoped to find readiest support in the
work he was shortly to set about.
While observing them, his mind running ahead in thought of
achievements possible to a legion of such spirits disciplined
after the severe Roman style, a man came into the court, his face
much flushed, his eyes bright with excitement.
"Why are you here?" he said to the Galileans. "The rabbis and
elders are going from the Temple to see Pilate. Come, make haste,
and let us go with them."
They surrounded him in a moment.
"To see Pilate! For what?"
"They have discovered a conspiracy. Pilate's new aqueduct is to
be paid for with money of the Temple."
"What, with the sacred treasure?"
They repeated the question to each other with flashing eyes.
"It is Corban--money of God. Let him touch a shekel of it if he
"Come," cried the messenger. "The procession is by this time across
the bridge. The whole city is pouring after. We may be needed.
As if the thought and the act were one, there was quick putting
away of useless garments, and the party stood forth bareheaded,
and in the short sleeveless under-tunics they were used to wearing
as reapers in the field and boatmen on the lake--the garb in which
they climbed the hills following the herds, and plucked the ripened
vintage, careless of the sun. Lingering only to tighten their girdles,
they said, "We are ready."
Then Ben-Hur spoke to them.
"Men of Galilee," he said, "I am a son of Judah. Will you take me
in your company?"
"We may have to fight," they replied.
"Oh, then, I will not be first to run away!"
They took the retort in good humor, and the messenger said,
"You seem stout enough. Come along."
Ben-Hur put off his outer garments.
"You think there may be fighting?" he asked, quietly, as he
tightened his girdle.
"Whom else can a Roman trust?"
"What have you to fight with?"
They looked at him silently.
"Well," he continued, "we will have to do the best we can; but had
we not better choose a leader? The legionaries always have one,
and so are able to act with one mind."
The Galileans stared more curiously, as if the idea were new to
"Let us at least agree to stay together," he said. "Now I am ready,
if you are."
"Yes, let us go."
The khan, it should not be forgotten, was in Bezetha, the new
town; and to get to the Praetorium, as the Romans resonantly
styled the palace of Herod on Mount Zion, the party had to cross
the lowlands north and west of the Temple. By streets--if they may
be so called--trending north and south, with intersections hardly
up to the dignity of alleys, they passed rapidly round the Akra
district to the Tower of Mariamne, from which the way was short
to the grand gate of the walled heights. In going, they overtook,
or were overtaken by, people like themselves stirred to wrath by
news of the proposed desecration. When, at length, they reached
the gate of the Praetorium, the procession of elders and rabbis
had passed in with a great following, leaving a greater crowd
A centurion kept the entrance with a guard drawn up full armed
under the beautiful marble battlements. The sun struck the soldiers
fervidly on helm and shield; but they kept their ranks indifferent
alike to its dazzle and to the mouthings of the rabble. Through the
open bronze gates a current of citizens poured in, while a much
lesser one poured out.
"What is going on?" one of the Galileans asked an outcomer.
"Nothing," was the reply. "The rabbis are before the door of the
palace asking to see Pilate. He has refused to come out. They have
sent one to tell him they will not go away till he has heard them.
They are waiting."
"Let us go in," said Ben-Hur, in his quiet way, seeing what his
companions probably did not, that there was not only a disagreement
between the suitors and the governor, but an issue joined, and a
serious question as to who should have his will.
Inside the gate there was a row of trees in leaf, with seats under
them. The people, whether going or coming, carefully avoided the
shade cast gratefully upon the white, clean-swept pavement; for,
strange as it may seem, a rabbinical ordinance, alleged to have been
derived from the law, permitted no green thing to be grown within
the walls of Jerusalem. Even the wise king, it was said, wanting a
garden for his Egyptian bride, was constrained to found it down in
the meeting-place of the valleys above En-rogel.
Through the tree-tops shone the outer fronts of the palace.
Turning to the right, the party proceeded a short distance to a
spacious square, on the west side of which stood the residence of
the governor. An excited multitude filled the square. Every face
was directed towards a portico built over a broad doorway which
was closed. Under the portico there was another array of legionaries.
The throng was so close the friends could not well have advanced
if such had been their desire; they remained therefore in the rear,
observers of what was going on. About the portico they could see the
high turbans of the rabbis, whose impatience communicated at times
to the mass behind them; a cry was frequent to the effect "Pilate,
if thou be a governor, come forth, come forth!"
Once a man coming out pushed through the crowd, his face red with
"Israel is of no account here," he said, in a loud voice. "On this
holy ground we are no better than dogs of Rome."
"Will he not come out, think you?"
"Come? Has he not thrice refused?"
"What will the rabbis do?"
"As at Caesarea--camp here till he gives them ear."
"He will not dare touch the treasure, will he?" asked one of the
"Who can say? Did not a Roman profane the Holy of Holies? Is there
anything sacred from Romans?"
An hour passed, and though Pilate deigned them no answer, the rabbis
and crowd remained. Noon came, bringing a shower from the west,
but no change in the situation, except that the multitude was
larger and much noisier, and the feeling more decidedly angry.
The shouting was almost continuous, Come forth, come forth! The cry
was sometimes with disrespectful variations. Meanwhile Ben-Hur held
his Galilean friends together. He judged the pride of the Roman
would eventually get the better of his discretion, and that the
end could not be far off. Pilate was but waiting for the people
to furnish him an excuse for resort to violence.
And at last the end came. In the midst of the assemblage there
was heard the sound of blows, succeeded instantly by yells of
pain and rage, and a most furious commotion. The venerable men
in front of the portico faced about aghast. The common people in
the rear at first pushed forward; in the centre, the effort was
to get out; and for a short time the pressure of opposing forces
was terrible. A thousand voices made inquiry, raised all at once;
as no one had time to answer, the surprise speedily became a panic.
Ben-Hur kept his senses.
"You cannot see?" he said to one of the Galileans.
"I will raise you up."
He caught the man about the middle, and lifted him bodily.
"What is it?"
"I see now," said the man. "There are some armed with clubs, and they
are beating the people. They are dressed like Jews."
"Who are they?"
"Romans, as the Lord liveth! Romans in disguise. Their clubs fly
like flails! There, I saw a rabbi struck down--an old man! They
Ben-Hur let the man down.
"Men of Galilee," he said, "it is a trick of Pilate's. Now, will you
do what I say, we will get even with the club-men."
The Galilean spirit arose.
"Yes, yes!" they answered.
"Let us go back to the trees by the gate, and we may find the
planting of Herod, though unlawful, has some good in it after
They ran back all of them fast as they could; and, by throwing
their united weight upon the limbs, tore them from the trunks.
In a brief time they, too, were armed. Returning, at the corner of
the square they met the crowd rushing madly for the gate. Behind,
the clamor continued--a medley of shrieks, groans, and execrations.
"To the wall!" Ben-Hur shouted. "To the wall!--and let the herd
So, clinging to the masonry at their right hand, they escaped the
might of the rush, and little by little made headway until, at last,
the square was reached.
"Keep together now, and follow me!"
By this time Ben-Hur's leadership was perfect; and as he pushed
into the seething mob his party closed after him in a body.
And when the Romans, clubbing the people and making merry as
they struck them down, came hand to hand with the Galileans,
lithe of limb, eager for the fray, and equally armed, they were
in turn surprised. Then the shouting was close and fierce; the
crash of sticks rapid and deadly; the advance furious as hate
could make it. No one performed his part as well as Ben-Hur,
whose training served him admirably; for, not merely he knew to
strike and guard; his long arm, perfect action, and incomparable
strength helped him, also, to success in every encounter. He was
at the same time fighting-man and leader. The club he wielded was of
goodly length and weighty, so he had need to strike a man but once.
He seemed, moreover, to have eyes for each combat of his friends,
and the faculty of being at the right moment exactly where he was
most needed. In his fighting cry there were inspiration for his
party and alarm for his enemies. Thus surprised and equally matched,
the Romans at first retired, but finally turned their backs and fled
to the portico. The impetuous Galileans would have pursued them to
the steps, but Ben-Hur wisely restrained them.
"Stay, my men!" he said. "The centurion yonder is coming with
the guard. They have swords and shields; we cannot fight them.
We have done well; let us get back and out of the gate while
They obeyed him, though slowly; for they had frequently to step over
their countrymen lying where they had been felled; some writhing and
groaning, some praying help, others mute as the dead. But the fallen
were not all Jews. In that there was consolation.
The centurion shouted to them as they went off; Ben-Hur laughed
at him, and replied in his own tongue, "If we are dogs of Israel,
you are jackals of Rome. Remain here, and we will come again."
The Galileans cheered, and laughing went on.
Outside the gate there was a multitude the like of which Ben-Hur
had never seen, not even in the circus at Antioch. The house-tops,
the streets, the slope of the hill, appeared densely covered with
people wailing and praying. The air was filled with their cries
The party were permitted to pass without challenge by the outer
guard. But hardly were they out before the centurion in charge
at the portico appeared, and in the gateway called to Ben-Hur,
"Ho, insolent! Art thou a Roman or a Jew?"
Ben-Hur answered, "I am a son of Judah, born here. What wouldst
thou with me?"
"Stay and fight."
"As thou wilt!"
Ben-Hur laughed derisively.
"O brave Roman! Worthy son of the bastard Roman Jove! I have no
"Thou shalt have mine," the centurion answered. "I will borrow of
the guard here."
The people in hearing of the colloquy became silent; and from them
the hush spread afar. But lately Ben-Hur had beaten a Roman under
the eyes of Antioch and the Farther East; now, could he beat another
one under the eyes of Jerusalem, the honor might be vastly profitable
to the cause of the New King. He did not hesitate. Going frankly to
the centurion, he said, "I am willing. Lend me thy sword and shield."
"And the helm and breastplate?" asked the Roman.
"Keep them. They might not fit me."
The arms were as frankly delivered, and directly the centurion
was ready. All this time the soldiers in rank close by the gate
never moved; they simply listened. As to the multitude, only when
the combatants advanced to begin the fight the question sped from
mouth to mouth, "Who is he?" And no one knew.
Now the Roman supremacy in arms lay in three things--submission to
discipline, the legionary formation of battle, and a peculiar use
of the short sword. In combat, they never struck or cut; from first
to last they thrust--they advanced thrusting, they retired thrusting;
and generally their aim was at the foeman's face. All this was well known
to Ben-Hur. As they were about to engage he said,
"I told thee I was a son of Judah; but I did not tell that I am
lanista-taught. Defend thyself!"
At the last word Ben-Hur closed with his antagonist. A moment,
standing foot to foot, they glared at each other over the rims
of their embossed shields; then the Roman pushed forward and
feinted an under-thrust. The Jew laughed at him. A thrust at the
face followed. The Jew stepped lightly to the left; quick as the
thrust was, the step was quicker. Under the lifted arm of the foe
he slid his shield, advancing it until the sword and sword-arm were
both caught on its upper surface; another step, this time forward
and left, and the man's whole right side was offered to the point.
The centurion fell heavily on his breast, clanging the pavement,
and Ben-Hur had won. With his foot upon his enemy's back, he raised
his shield overhead after a gladiatorial custom, and saluted the
imperturbable soldiers by the gate.
When the people realized the victory they behaved like mad.
On the houses far as the Xystus, fast as the word could fly,
they waved their shawls and handkerchiefs and shouted; and if he
had consented, the Galileans would have carried Ben-Hur off upon
To a petty officer who then advanced from the gate he said, "Thy
comrade died like a soldier. I leave him undespoiled. Only his
sword and shield are mine."
With that, he walked away. Off a little he spoke to the Galileans.
"Brethren, you have behaved well. Let us now separate, lest we be
pursued. Meet me to-night at the khan in Bethany. I have something
to propose to you of great interest to Israel."
"Who are you?" they asked him.
"A son of Judah," he answered, simply.
A throng eager to see him surged around the party.
"Will you come to Bethany?" he asked.
"Yes, we will come."
"Then bring with you this sword and shield that I may know you."
Pushing brusquely through the increasing crowd, he speedily
At the instance of Pilate, the people went up from the city, and
carried off their dead and wounded, and there was much mourning
for them; but the grief was greatly lightened by the victory of
the unknown champion, who was everywhere sought, and by every
one extolled. The fainting spirit of the nation was revived
by the brave deed; insomuch that in the streets and up in the
Temple even, amidst the solemnities of the feast, old tales of
the Maccabees were told again, and thousands shook their heads
"A little longer, only a little longer, brethren, and Israel will
come to her own. Let there be faith in the Lord, and patience."
In such manner Ben-Hur obtained hold on Galilee, and paved the
way to greater services in the cause of the King Who Was Coming.
And with what result we shall see.
"And, waking, I beheld her there
Sea-dreaming in the moted air,
A siren lithe and debonair,
With wristlets woven of scarlet weeds,
And oblong lucent amber beads
Of sea-kelp shining in her hair."
THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH.
The meeting took place in the khan of Bethany as appointed.
Thence Ben-Hur went with the Galileans into their country,
where his exploits up in the old Market-place gave him fame and
influence. Before the winter was gone he raised three legions,
and organized them after the Roman pattern. He could have had
as many more, for the martial spirit of that gallant people
never slept. The proceeding, however, required careful guarding
as against both Rome and Herod Antipas. Contenting himself for
the present with the three, he strove to train and educate them
for systematic action. For that purpose he carried the officers
over into the lava-beds of Trachonitis, and taught them the use
of arms, particularly the javelin and sword, and the manoeuvering
peculiar to the legionary formation; after which he sent them home
as teachers. And soon the training became a pastime of the people.
As may be thought, the task called for patience, skill, zeal, faith,
and devotion on his part--qualities into which the power of inspiring
others in matters of difficulty is always resolvable; and never man
possessed them in greater degree or used them to better effect. How he
labored! And with utter denial of self! Yet withal he would have
failed but for the support he had from Simonides, who furnished
him arms and money, and from Ilderim, who kept watch and brought
him supplies. And still he would have failed but for the genius
of the Galileans.
Under that name were comprehended the four tribes--Asher, Zebulon,
Issachar, and Naphthali--and the districts originally set apart to
them. The Jew born in sight of the Temple despised these brethren
of the north; but the Talmud itself has said, "The Galilean loves
honor, and the Jew money."
Hating Rome fervidly as they loved their own country, in every
revolt they were first in the field and last to leave it.
One hundred and fifty thousand Galilean youths perished in
the final war with Rome. For the great festal days, they went
up to Jerusalem marching and camping like armies; yet they were
liberal in sentiment, and even tolerant to heathenism. In Herod's
beautiful cities, which were Roman in all things, in Sepphoris and
Tiberias especially, they took pride, and in the building them gave
loyal support. They had for fellow-citizens men from the outside
world everywhere, and lived in peace with them. To the glory of
the Hebrew name they contributed poets like the singer of the
Song of Songs and prophets like Hosea.
Upon such a people, so quick, so proud, so brave, so devoted,
so imaginative, a tale like that of the coming of the King
was all-powerful. That he was coming to put Rome down would have
been sufficient to enlist them in the scheme proposed by Ben-Hur;
but when, besides, they were assured he was to rule the world,
more mighty than Caesar, more magnificent than Solomon, and that
the rule was to last forever, the appeal was irresistible, and they
vowed themselves to the cause body and soul. They asked Ben-Hur his
authority for the sayings, and he quoted the prophets, and told them
of Balthasar in waiting over in Antioch; and they were satisfied,
for it was the old much-loved legend of the Messiah, familiar to
them almost as the name of the Lord; the long-cherished dream
with a time fixed for its realization. The King was not merely
coming now; he was at hand.
So with Ben-Hur the winter months rolled by, and spring came,
with gladdening showers blown over from the summering sea in the
west; and by that time so earnestly and successfully had he toiled
that he could say to himself and his followers, "Let the good King
come. He has only to tell us where he will have his throne set up.
We have the sword-hands to keep it for him."
And in all his dealings with the many men they knew him only as
a son of Judah, and by that name.
* * * * * *
One evening, over in Trachonitis, Ben-Hur was sitting with some
of his Galileans at the mouth of the cave in which he quartered,
when an Arab courier rode to him, and delivered a letter.
Breaking the package, he read,
"Jerusalem, Nisan IV.
"A prophet has appeared who men say is Elias. He has been in the
wilderness for years, and to our eyes he is a prophet; and such
also is his speech, the burden of which is of one much greater than
himself, who, he says, is to come presently, and for whom he is now
waiting on the eastern shore of the River Jordan. I have been to
see and hear him, and the one he is waiting for is certainly the
King you are awaiting. Come and judge for yourself.
"All Jerusalem is going out to the prophet, and with many people
else the shore on which he abides is like Mount Olivet in the last
days of the Passover.
Ben-Hur's face flushed with joy.
"By this word, O my friends," he said--"by this word, our waiting
is at end. The herald of the King has appeared and announced him."
Upon hearing the letter read, they also rejoiced at the promise
it held out.
"Get ready now," he added, "and in the morning set your faces homeward;
when arrived there, send word to those under you, and bid them be
ready to assemble as I may direct. For myself and you, I will go
see if the King be indeed at hand, and send you report. Let us,
in the meantime, live in the pleasure of the promise."
Going into the cave, he addressed a letter to Ilderim, and another
to Simonides, giving notice of the news received, and of his purpose
to go up immediately to Jerusalem. The letters he despatched by
swift messengers. When night fell, and the stars of direction
came out, he mounted, and with an Arab guide set out for the
Jordan, intending to strike the track of the caravans between
Rabbath-Ammon and Damascus.
The guide was sure, and Aldebaran swift; so by midnight the two
were out of the lava fastness speeding southward.
It was Ben-Hur's purpose to turn aside at the break of day, and find
a safe place in which to rest; but the dawn overtook him while out
in the Desert, and he kept on, the guide promising to bring him
afterwhile to a vale shut in by great rocks, where there were a
spring, some mulberry-trees, and herbage in plenty for the horses.
As he rode thinking of the wondrous events so soon to happen,
and of the changes they were to bring about in the affairs of
men and nations, the guide, ever on the alert, called attention
to an appearance of strangers behind them. Everywhere around
the Desert stretched away in waves of sand, slowly yellowing in
the growing light, and without any green thing visible. Over on
the left, but still far off, a range of low mountains extended,
apparently interminable. In the vacancy of such a waste an object
in motion could not long continue a mystery.
"It is a camel with riders," the guide said, directly.
"Are there others behind?" said Ben-Hur.
"It is alone. No, there is a man on horseback--the driver, probably."
A little later Ben-Hur himself could see the camel was white and
unusually large, reminding him of the wonderful animal he had
seen bring Balthasar and Iras to the fountain in the Grove of
Daphne. There could be no other like it. Thinking then of the
fair Egyptian, insensibly his gait became slower, and at length
fell into the merest loiter, until finally he could discern a
curtained houdah, and two persons seated within it. If they were
Balthasar and Iras! Should he make himself known to them? But it
could not be: this was the Desert--and they were alone. But while
he debated the question the long swinging stride of the camel
brought its riders up to him. He heard the ringing of the tiny
bells, and beheld the rich housings which had been so attractive
to the crowd at the Castalian fount. He beheld also the Ethiopian,
always attendant upon the Egyptians. The tall brute stopped close
by his horse, and Ben-Hur, looking up, lo! Iras herself under the
raised curtain looking down at him, her great swimming eyes bright
with astonishment and inquiry!
"The blessing of the true God upon you!" said Balthasar, in his
"And to thee and thine be the peace of the Lord," Ben-Hur replied.
"My eyes are weak with years," said Balthasar; "but they approve
you that son of Hur whom lately I knew an honored guest in the
tent of Ilderim the Generous."
"And thou art that Balthasar, the wise Egyptian, whose speech
concerning certain holy things in expectation is having so much
to do with the finding me in this waste place. What dost thou
"He is never alone who is where God is--and God is everywhere,"
Balthasar answered, gravely; "but in the sense of your asking,
there is a caravan short way behind us going to Alexandria; and as
it is to pass through Jerusalem, I thought best to avail myself
of its company as far as the Holy City, whither I am journeying.
This morning, however, in discontent with its slow movement--slower
because of a Roman cohort in attendance upon it--we rose early,
and ventured thus far in advance. As to robbers along the way,
we are not afraid, for I have here a signet of Sheik Ilderim;
against beasts of prey, God is our sufficient trust."
Ben-Hur bowed and said, "The good sheik's signet is a safeguard
wherever the wilderness extends, and the lion shall be swift that
overtakes this king of his kind."
He patted the neck of the camel as he spoke.
"Yet," said Iras, with a smile which was not lost upon the youth,
whose eyes, it must be admitted, had several times turned to
her during the interchange of speeches with the elder--"Yet
even he would be better if his fast were broken. Kings have
hunger and headaches. If you be, indeed, the Ben-Hur of whom
my father has spoken, and whom it was my pleasure to have known
as well, you will be happy, I am sure, to show us some near path
to living water, that with its sparkle we may grace a morning's
meal in the Desert."
Ben-Hur, nothing loath, hastened to answer.
"Fair Egyptian, I give you sympathy. Can you bear suffering a
little longer, we will find the spring you ask for, and I promise
that its draught shall be as sweet and cooling as that of the more
famous Castalia. With leave, we will make haste."
"I give you the blessing of the thirsty," she replied; "and offer
you in return a bit of bread from the city ovens, dipped in fresh
butter from the dewy meadows of Damascus."
"A most rare favor! Let us go on."
So saying, Ben-Hur rode forward with the guide, one of the
inconveniences of travelling with camels being that it is
necessarily an interdiction of polite conversation.
Afterwhile the party came to a shallow wady, down which, turning to
the right hand, the guide led them. The bed of the cut was somewhat
soft from recent rains, and quite bold in its descent. Momentarily,
however, it widened; and erelong the sides became bluffs ribbed
with rocks much scarred by floods rushing to lower depths ahead.
Finally, from a narrow passage, the travellers entered a spreading
vale which was very delightful; but come upon suddenly from the
yellow, unrelieved, verdureless plain, it had the effect of a
freshly discovered Paradise. The water-channels winding here and
there, definable by crisp white shingling, appeared like threads
tangled among islands green with grasses and fringed with reeds.
Up from the final depths of the valley of the Jordan some venturous
oleanders had crept, and with their large bloom now starred the
sunken place. One palm-tree arose in royal assertion. The bases of
the boundary-walls were cloaked with clambering vines, and under
a leaning cliff over on the left the mulberry grove had planted
itself, proclaiming the spring which the party were seeking.
And thither the guide conducted them, careless of whistling
partridges and lesser birds of brighter hues roused whirring
from the reedy coverts.
The water started from a crack in the cliff which some loving hand
had enlarged into an arched cavity. Graven over it in bold Hebraic
letters was the word GOD. The graver had no doubt drunk there, and
tarried many days, and given thanks in that durable form. From the
arch the stream ran merrily over a flag spotted with bright moss,
and leaped into a pool glassy clear; thence it stole away between
grassy banks, nursing the trees before it vanished in the thirsty
sand. A few narrow paths were noticeable about the margin of the
pool; otherwise the space around was untrodden turf, at sight of
which the guide was assured of rest free from intrusion by men.
The horses were presently turned loose, and from the kneeling camel
the Ethiopian assisted Balthasar and Iras; whereupon the old man,
turning his face to the east, crossed his hands reverently upon
his breast and prayed.
"Bring me a cup," Iras said, with some impatience.
From the houdah the slave brought her a crystal goblet; then she
said to Ben-Hur,
"I will be your servant at the fountain."
They walked to the pool together. He would have dipped the water
for her, but she refused his offer, and kneeling, held the cup to
be filled by the stream itself; nor yet content, when it was cooled
and overrunning, she tendered him the first draught.
"No," he said, putting the graceful hand aside, and seeing only
the large eyes half hidden beneath the arches of the upraised
brows, "be the service mine, I pray."
She persisted in having her way.
"In my country, O son of Hur, we have a saying, 'Better a cupbearer
to the fortunate than minister to a king.'"
"Fortunate!" he said.
There were both surprise and inquiry in the tone of his voice and
in his look, and she said quickly,
"The gods give us success as a sign by which we may know them on
our side. Were you not winner in the Circus?"
His cheeks began to flush.
"That was one sign. There is another. In a combat with swords you
slew a Roman."
The flush deepened--not so much for the triumphs themselves as
the flattery there was in the thought that she had followed his
career with interest. A moment, and the pleasure was succeeded by
a reflection. The combat, he knew, was matter of report throughout
the East; but the name of the victor had been committed to a very
few--Malluch, Ilderim, and Simonides. Could they have made a
confidante of the woman? So with wonder and gratification he
was confused; and seeing it, she arose and said, holding the
cup over the pool,
"O gods of Egypt! I give thanks for a hero discovered--thanks that
the victim in the Palace of Idernee was not my king of men. And so,
O holy gods, I pour and drink."
Part of the contents of the cup she returned to the stream,
the rest she drank. When she took the crystal from her lips,
she laughed at him.
"O son of Hur, is it a fashion of the very brave to be so easily
overcome by a woman? Take the cup now, and see if you cannot find
a happy word in it for me"
He took the cup, and stooped to refill it.
"A son of Israel has no gods whom he can libate," he said,
playing with the water to hide his amazement, now greater
than before. What more did the Egyptian know about him? Had
she been told of his relations with Simonides? And there was
the treaty with Ilderim--had she knowledge of that also? He was
struck with mistrust. Somebody had betrayed his secrets, and they
were serious. And, besides, he was going to Jerusalem, just then
of all the world the place where such intelligence possessed by an
enemy might be most dangerous to him, his associates, and the cause.
But was she an enemy? It is well for us that, while writing is slow,
thought is instantaneous. When the cup was fairly cooled, he filled
it and arose, saying, with indifference well affected,
"Most fair, were I an Egyptian or a Greek or a Roman, I would say"--he
raised the goblet overhead as he spoke--"O ye better gods! I give
thanks that there are yet left to the world, despite its wrongs
and sufferings, the charm of beauty and the solace of love, and I
drink to her who best represents them--to Iras, loveliest of the
daughters of the Nile!"
She laid her hand softly upon his shoulder.
"You have offended against the law. The gods you have drunk to are
false gods. Why shall I not tell the rabbis on you?"
"Oh!" he replied, laughing, "that is very little to tell for one
who knows so much else that is really important."
"I will go further--I will go to the little Jewess who makes the
roses grow and the shadows flame in the house of the great merchant
over in Antioch. To the rabbis I will accuse you of impenitence;
"Well, to her?"
"I will repeat what you have said to me under the lifted cup,
with the gods for witnesses."
He was still a moment, as if waiting for the Egyptian to go on.
With quickened fancy he saw Esther at her father's side listening
to the despatches he had forwarded--sometimes reading them. In her
presence he had told Simonides the story of the affair in the Palace
of Idernee. She and Iras were acquainted; this one was shrewd
and worldly; the other was simple and affectionate, and therefore
easily won. Simonides could not have broken faith--nor Ilderim--for
if not held by honor, there was no one, unless it might be himself,
to whom the consequences of exposure were more serious and certain.
Could Esther have been the Egyptian's informant? He did not accuse
her; yet a suspicion was sown with the thought, and suspicions, as we
all know, are weeds of the mind which grow of themselves, and most
rapidly when least wanted. Before he could answer the allusion to
the little Jewess, Balthasar came to the pool.
"We are greatly indebted to you, son of Hur," he said, in his
grave manner. "This vale is very beautiful; the grass, the trees,
the shade, invite us to stay and rest, and the spring here has the
sparkle of diamonds in motion, and sings to me of a loving God.
It is not enough to thank you for the enjoyment we find; come sit
with us, and taste our bread."
"Suffer me first to serve you."
With that Ben-Hur filled the goblet, and gave it to Balthasar,
who lifted his eyes in thanksgiving.
Immediately the slave brought napkins; and after laving their
hands and drying them, the three seated themselves in Eastern
style under the tent which years before had served the Wise Men
at the meeting in the Desert. And they ate heartily of the good
things taken from the camel's pack.
The tent was cosily pitched beneath a tree where the gurgle of the
stream was constantly in ear. Overhead the broad leaves hung motionless
on their stems; the delicate reed-stalks off in the pearly haze stood up
arrowy-straight; occasionally a home-returning bee shot humming athwart
the shade, and a partridge creeping from the sedge drank, whistled to
his mate, and ran away. The restfulness of the vale, the freshness of
the air, the garden beauty, the Sabbath stillness, seemed to have
affected the spirits of the elder Egyptian; his voice, gestures,
and whole manner were unusually gentle; and often as he bent his
eyes upon Ben-Hur conversing with Iras, they softened with pity.
"When we overtook you, son of Hur," he said, at the conclusion of
the repast, "it seemed your face was also turned towards Jerusalem.
May I ask, without offence, if you are going so far?"
"I am going to the Holy City."
"For the great need I have to spare myself prolonged toil, I will
further ask you, Is there a shorter road than that by Rabbath-Ammon?"
"A rougher route, but shorter, lies by Gerasa and Rabbath-Gilead.
It is the one I design taking."
"I am impatient," said Balthasar. "Latterly my sleep has been
visited by dreams--or rather by the same dream in repetition.
A voice--it is nothing more--comes and tells me, 'Haste--arise! He
whom thou hast so long awaited is at hand.'"
"You mean he that is to be King of the JewsY' Ben-Hur asked,
gazing at the Egyptian in wonder.
"Then you have heard nothing of him?"
"Nothing, except the words of the voice in the dream."
"Here, then, are tidings to make you glad as they made me."
From his gown Ben-Hur drew the letter received from Malluch.
The hand the Egyptian held out trembled violently. He read aloud,
and as he read his feelings increased; the limp veins in his neck
swelled and throbbed. At the conclusion he raised his suffused
eyes in thanksgiving and prayer. He asked no questions, yet had
"Thou hast been very good to me, O God," he said. "Give me, I pray
thee, to see the Saviour again, and worship him, and thy servant
will be ready to go in peace."
The words, the manner, the singular personality of the simple prayer,
touched Ben-Hur with a sensation new and abiding. God never seemed
so actual and so near by; it was as if he were there bending over
them or sitting at their side--a Friend whose favors were to be
had by the most unceremonious asking--a Father to whom all his
children were alike in love--Father, not more of the Jew than of
the Gentile--the Universal Father, who needed no intermediates,
no rabbis, no priests, no teachers. The idea that such a God might
send mankind a Saviour instead of a king appeared to Ben-Hur in a
light not merely new, but so plain that he could almost discern
both the greater want of such a gift and its greater consistency
with the nature of such a Deity. So he could not resist asking,
"Now that he has come, O Balthasar, you still think he is to be
a Saviour, and not a king?"
Balthasar gave him a look thoughtful as it was tender.
"How shall I understand you?" he asked, in return. "The Spirit,
which was the Star that was my guide of old, has not appeared to
me since I met you in the tent of the good sheik; that is to say,
I have not seen or heard it as formerly. I believe the voice that
spoke to me in my dreams was it; but other than that I have no
"I will recall the difference between us," said Ben-Hur, with deference.
"You were of opinion that he would be a king, but not as Caesar is;
you thought his sovereignty would be spiritual, not of the world."
"Oh yes," the Egyptian answered; "and I am of the same opinion
now. I see the divergence in our faith. You are going to meet a
king of men, I a Saviour of souls."
He paused with the look often seen when people are struggling,
with introverted effort, to disentangle a thought which is either
too high for quick discernment or too subtle for simple expression.
"Let me try, O son of Hur," he said, directly, "and help you to a
clear understanding of my belief; then it may be, seeing how the
spiritual kingdom I expect him to set up can be more excellent in
every sense than anything of mere Caesarean splendor, you will better
understand the reason of the interest I take in the mysterious person
we are going to welcome.
"I cannot tell you when the idea of a Soul in every man had its
origin. Most likely the first parents brought it with them out of
the garden in which they had their first dwelling. We all do know,
however, that it has never perished entirely out of mind. By some
peoples it was lost, but not by all; in some ages it dulled and
faded, in others it was overwhelmed with doubts; but, in great
goodness, God kept sending us at intervals mighty intellects to
argue it back to faith and hope.
"Why should there be a Soul in every man? Look, O son of Hur--for
one moment look at the necessity of such a device. To lie down
and die, and be no more--no more forever--time never was when man
wished for such an end; nor has the man ever been who did not in
his heart promise himself something better. The monuments of the
nations are all protests against nothingness after death; so are
statues and inscriptions; so is history. The greatest of our Egyptian
kings had his effigy cut-out of a hill of solid rock. Day after
day he went with a host in chariots to see the work; at last it
was finished, never effigy so grand, so enduring: it looked like
him--the features were his, faithful even in expression. Now may
we not think of him saying in that moment of pride, 'Let Death
come; there is an after-life for me!' He had his wish. The statue
is there yet.
"But what is the after-life he thus secured? Only a recollection
by men--a glory unsubstantial as moonshine on the brow of the great
bust; a story in stone--nothing more. Meantime what has become of
the king? There is an embalmed body up in the royal tombs which
once was his--an effigy not so fair to look at as the other out
in the Desert. But where, O son of Hur, where is the king himself?
Is he fallen into nothingness? Two thousand years have gone since
he was a man alive as you and I are. Was his last breath the end
"To say yes would be to accuse God; let us rather accept his better
plan of attaining life after death for us--actual life, I mean--the
something more than a place in mortal memory; life with going
and coming, with sensation, with knowledge, with power and all
appreciation; life eternal in term though it may be with changes
"Ask you what God's plan is? The gift of a Soul to each of us at
birth, with this simple law--there shall be no immortality except
through the Soul. In that law see the necessity of which I spoke.
"Let us turn from the necessity now. A word as to the pleasure
there is in the thought of a Soul in each of us. In the first place,
it robs death of its terrors by making dying a change for the better,
and burial but the planting of a seed from which there will spring
a new life. In the next place, behold me as I am--weak, weary, old,
shrunken in body, and graceless; look at my wrinkled face, think of
my failing senses, listen to my shrilled voice. Ah! what happiness
to me in the promise that when the tomb opens, as soon it will,
to receive the worn-out husk I call myself, the now viewless doors
of the universe, which is but the palace of God, will swing wide
ajar to receive me, a liberated immortal Soul!
"I would I could tell the ecstasy there must be in that life to
come! Do not say I know nothing about it. This much I know,
and it is enough for me--the being a Soul implies conditions
of divine superiority. In such a being there is no dust, nor any
gross thing; it must be finer than air, more impalpable than light,
purer than essence--it is life in absolute purity.
"What now, O son of Hur? Knowing so much, shall I dispute with
myself or you about the unnecessaries--about the form of my
soul? Or where it is to abide? Or whether it eats and drinks?
Or is winged, or wears this or that? No. It is more becoming to
trust in God. The beautiful in this world is all from his hand
declaring the perfection of taste; he is the author of all form;
he clothes the lily, he colors the rose, he distils the dew-drop,
he makes the music of nature; in a word, he organized us for this
life, and imposed its conditions; and they are such guaranty to me
that, trustful as a little child, I leave to him the organization
of my Soul, and every arrangement for the life after death. I know
he loves me."
The good man stopped and drank, and the hand carrying the cup to
his lips trembled; and both Iras and Ben-Hur shared his emotion
and remained silent. Upon the latter a light was breaking. He was
beginning to see, as never before, that there might be a spiritual
kingdom of more import to men than any earthly empire; and that
after all a Saviour would indeed be a more godly gift than the
"I might ask you now," said Balthasar, continuing, "whether this
human life, so troubled and brief, is preferable to the perfect
and everlasting life designed for the Soul? But take the question,
and think of it for yourself, formulating thus: Supposing both to
be equally happy, is one hour more desirable than one year? From
that then advance to the final inquiry, what are threescore and
ten years on earth to all eternity with God? By-and-by, son of Hur,
thinking in such manner, you will be filled with the meaning of the
fact I present you next, to me the most amazing of all events, and in
its effects the most sorrowful; it is that the very idea of life as a
Soul is a light almost gone out in the world. Here and there, to be
sure, a philosopher may be found who will talk to you of a Soul,
likening it to a principle; but because philosophers take nothing
upon faith, they will not go the length of admitting a Soul to be
a being, and on that account its purpose is compressed darkness
"Everything animate has a mind measurable by its wants. Is there
to you no meaning in the singularity that power in full degree to
speculate upon the future was given to man alone? By the sign as
I see it, God meant to make us know ourselves created for another
and a better life, such being in fact the greatest need of our
nature. But, alas! into what a habit the nations have fallen! They
live for the day, as if the present were the all in all, and go
about saying, 'There is no to-morrow after death; or if there be,
since we know nothing about it, be it a care unto itself.' So when
Death calls them, 'Come,' they may not enter into enjoyment of the
glorious after-life because of their unfitness. That is to say,
the ultimate happiness of man was everlasting life in the society
of God. Alas, O son of Hur, that I should say it! but as well yon
sleeping camel constant in such society as the holiest priests
this day serving the highest altars in the most renowned temples.
So much are men given to this lower earthly life! So nearly have
they forgotten that other which is to come!
"See now, I pray you, that which is to be saved to us.
"For my part, speaking with the holiness of truth, I would not
give one hour of life as a Soul for a thousand years of life as
Here the Egyptian seemed to become unconscious of companionship
and fall away into abstraction.
"This life has its problems," he said, "and there are men who
spend their days trying to solve them; but what are they to the
problems of the hereafter? What is there like knowing God? Not a
scroll of the mysteries, but the mysteries themselves would for
that hour at least lie before me revealed; even the innermost and
most awful--the power which now we shrink from thought of--which
rimmed the void with shores, and lighted the darkness, and out
of nothing appointed the universe. All places would be opened.
I would be filled with divine knowledge; I would see all glories,
taste all delights; I would revel in being. And if, at the end of
the hour, it should please God to tell me, 'I take thee into my
service forever,' the furthest limit of desire would be passed;
after which the attainable ambitions of life, and its joys of
whatever kind, would not be so much as the tinkling of little
Balthasar paused as if to recover from very ecstasy of feeling;
and to Ben-Hur it seemed the speech had been the delivery of a
Soul speaking for itself.
"I pray pardon, son of Hur," the good man continued, with a bow the
gravity of which was relieved by the tender look that followed it,
"I meant to leave the life of a Soul, its conditions, pleasures,
superiority, to your own reflection and finding out. The joy of
the thought has betrayed me into much speech. I set out to show,
though ever so faintly, the reason of my faith. It grieves me that
words are so weak. But help yourself to truth. Consider first the
excellence of the existence which was reserved for us after death,
and give heed to the feelings and impulses the thought is sure to
awaken in you--heed them, I say, because they are your own Soul
astir, doing what it can to urge you in the right way. Consider next
that the afterlife has become so obscured as to justify calling
it a lost light. If you find it, rejoice, O son of Hur--rejoice
as I do, though in beggary of words. For then, besides the great
gift which is to be saved to us, you will have found the need of
a Saviour so infinitely greater than the need of a king; and he
we are going to meet will not longer hold place in your hope a
warrior with a sword or a monarch with a crown.
"A practical question presents itself--How shall we know him at
sight? If you continue in your belief as to his character--that
he is to be a king as Herod was--of course you will keep on until
you meet a man clothed in purple and with a sceptre. On the other
hand, he I look for will be one poor, humble, undistinguished--a man
in appearance as other men; and the sign by which I will know him
will be never so simple. He will offer to show me and all mankind
the way to the eternal life; the beautiful pure Life of the Soul."
The company sat a moment in silence which was broken by Balthasar.
"Let us arise now," he said--"let us arise and set forward again.
What I have said has caused a return of impatience to see him
who is ever in my thought; and if I seem to hurry you, O son of
Hur--and you, my daughter--be that my excuse."
At his signal the slave brought them wine in a skin bottle;
and they poured and drank, and shaking the lap-cloths out arose.
While the slave restored the tent and wares to the box under the
houdah, and the Arab brought up the horses, the three principals
laved themselves in the pool.
In a little while they were retracing their steps back through
the wady, intending to overtake the caravan if it had passed
The caravan, stretched out upon the Desert, was very picturesque;
in motion, however, it was like a lazy serpent. By-and-by its
stubborn dragging became intolerably irksome to Balthasar,
patient as he was; so, at his suggestion, the party determined
to go on by themselves.
If the reader be young, or if he has yet a sympathetic recollection
of the romanticisms of his youth, he will relish the pleasure with
which Ben-Hur, riding near the camel of the Egyptians, gave a last
look at the head of the straggling column almost out of sight on
the shimmering plain.
To be definite as may be, and perfectly confidential, Ben-Hur found
a certain charm in Iras's presence. If she looked down upon him from
her high place, he made haste to get near her; if she spoke to him,
his heart beat out of its usual time. The desire to be agreeable
to her was a constant impulse. Objects on the way, though ever
so common, became interesting the moment she called attention to
them; a black swallow in the air pursued by her pointing finger
went off in a halo; if a bit of quartz or a flake of mica was
seen to sparkle in the drab sand under kissing of the sun, at a
word he turned aside and brought it to her; and if she threw it
away in disappointment, far from thinking of the trouble he had
been put to, he was sorry it proved so worthless, and kept a
lookout for something better--a ruby, perchance a diamond. So the
purple of the far mountains became intensely deep and rich if she
distinguished it with an exclamation of praise; and when, now and
then, the curtain of the houdah fell down, it seemed a sudden
dulness had dropped from the sky bedraggling all the landscape.
Thus disposed, yielding to the sweet influence, what shall save
him from the dangers there are in days of the close companionship
with the fair Egyptian incident to the solitary journey they were
For that there is no logic in love, nor the least mathematical
element, it is simply natural that she shall fashion the result
who has the wielding of the influence.
To quicken the conclusion, there were signs, too, that she well
knew the influence she was exercising over him. From some place
under hand she had since morning drawn a caul of golden coins,
and adjusted it so the gleaming strings fell over her forehead
and upon her cheeks, blending lustrously with the flowing of
her blue-black hair. From the same safe deposit she had also
produced articles of jewelry--rings for finger and ear, bracelets,
a necklace of pearls--also, a shawl embroidered with threads of
fine gold--the effect of all which she softened with a scarf of
Indian lace skillfully folded about her throat and shoulders.
And so arrayed, she plied Ben-Hur with countless coquetries
of speech and manner; showering him with smiles; laughing in
flute-like tremolo--and all the while following him with glances,
now melting-tender, now sparkling-bright. By such play Antony was
weaned from his glory; yet she who wrought his ruin was really not
half so beautiful as this her countrywoman.
And so to them the nooning came, and the evening.
The sun at its going down behind a spur of the old Bashan, left the
party halted by a pool of clear water of the rains out in the
Abilene Desert. There the tent was pitched, the supper eaten,
and preparations made for the night.
The second watch was Ben-Hur's; and he was standing, spear in hand,
within arm-reach of the dozing camel, looking awhile at the stars,
then over the veiled land. The stillness was intense; only after
long spells a warm breath of wind would sough past, but without
disturbing him, for yet in thought he entertained the Egyptian,
recounting her charms, and sometimes debating how she came by
his secrets, the uses she might make of them, and the course he
should pursue with her. And through all the debate Love stood off
but a little way--a strong temptation, the stronger of a gleam of
policy behind. At the very moment he was most inclined to yield to
the allurement, a hand very fair even in the moonless gloaming was
laid softly upon his shoulder. The touch thrilled him; he started,
turned--and she was there.
"I thought you asleep," he said, presently.
"Sleep is for old people and little children, and I came out to
look at my friends, the stars in the south--those now holding the
curtains of midnight over the Nile. But confess yourself surprised!"
He took the hand which had fallen from his shoulder, and said,
"Well, was it by an enemy?"
"Oh no! To be an enemy is to hate, and hating is a sickness which
Isis will not suffer to come near me. She kissed me, you should
know, on the heart when I was a child."
"Your speech does not sound in the least like your father's.
Are you not of his faith?"
"I might have been"--and she laughed low--"I might have been had
I seen what he has. I may be when I get old like him. There should
be no religion for youth, only poetry and philosophy; and no poetry
except such as is the inspiration of wine and mirth and love, and no
philosophy that does not nod excuse for follies which cannot outlive
a season. My father's God is too awful for me. I failed to find
him in the Grove of Daphne. He was never heard of as present in
the atria of Rome. But, son of Hur, I have a wish."
"A wish! Where is he who could say it no?"
"I will try you."
"Tell it then."
"It is very simple. I wish to help you."
She drew closer as she spoke.
He laughed, and replied, lightly, "O Egypt!--I came near saying dear
Egypt!--does not the sphinx abide in your country?"
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