Ben-Hur entered the woods with the processions. He had not interest enough at first to ask where they were going; yet, to relieve him from absolute indifference, he had a vague impression that they were in movement to the temples, which were the central objects of the Grove, supreme in attractions.
Presently, as singers dreamfully play with a flitting chorus, he began repeating to himself, |Better be a worm, and feed on the mulberries of Daphne, than a king's guest.| Then of the much repetition arose questions importunate of answer. Was life in the Grove so very sweet? Wherein was the charm? Did it lie in some tangled depth of philosophy? Or was it something in fact, something on the surface, discernible to every-day wakeful senses? Every year thousands, forswearing the world, gave themselves to service here. Did they find the charm? And was it sufficient, when found, to induce forgetfulness profound enough to shut out of mind the infinitely diverse things of life? those that sweeten and those that embitter? hopes hovering in the near future as well as sorrows born of the past? If the Grove were so good for them, why should it not be good for him? He was a Jew; could it be that the excellences were for all the world but children of Abraham? Forthwith he bent all his faculties to the task of discovery, unmindful of the singing of the gift-bringers and the quips of his associates.
In the quest, the sky yielded him nothing; it was blue, very blue, and full of twittering swallows -- so was the sky over the city.
Further on, out of the woods at his right hand, a breeze poured across the road, splashing him with a wave of sweet smells, blent of roses and consuming spices. He stopped, as did others, looking the way the breeze came.
|A garden over there?| he said, to a man at his elbow.
|Rather some priestly ceremony in performance -- something to Diana, or Pan, or a deity of the woods.|
The answer was in his mother tongue. Ben-Hur gave the speaker a surprised look.
|A Hebrew?| he asked him.
The man replied with a deferential smile,
|I was born within a stone's-throw of the market-place in Jerusalem.|
Ben-Hur was proceeding to further speech, when the crowd surged forward, thrusting him out on the side of the walk next the woods, and carrying the stranger away. The customary gown and staff, a brown cloth on the head tied by a yellow rope, and a strong Judean face to avouch the garments of honest right, remained in the young man's mind, a kind of summary of the man.
This took place at a point where a path into the woods began, offering a happy escape from the noisy processions. Ben-Hur availed himself of the offer.
He walked first into a thicket which, from the road, appeared in a state of nature, close, impenetrable, a nesting-place for wild birds. A few steps, however, gave him to see the master's hand even there. The shrubs were flowering or fruit-bearing; under the bending branches the ground was pranked with brightest blooms; over them the jasmine stretched its delicate bonds. From lilac and rose, and lily and tulip, from oleander and strawberry-tree, all old friends in the gardens of the valleys about the city of David, the air, lingering or in haste, loaded itself with exhalations day and night; and that nothing might be wanting to the happiness of the nymphs and naiads, down through the flower-lighted shadows of the mass a brook went its course gently, and by many winding ways.
Out of the thicket, as he proceeded, on his right and left, issued the cry of the pigeon and the cooing of turtle-doves; blackbirds waited for him, and bided his coming close; a nightingale kept its place fearless, though he passed in arm's-length; a quail ran before him at his feet, whistling to the brood she was leading, and as he paused for them to get out of his way, a figure crawled from a bed of honeyed musk brilliant with balls of golden blossoms. Ben-Hur was startled. Had he, indeed, been permitted to see a satyr at home? The creature looked up at him, and showed in its teeth a hooked pruning-knife; he smiled at his own scare, and, lo! the charm was evolved! Peace without fear -- peace a universal condition -- that it was!
He sat upon the ground beneath a citron-tree, which spread its gray roots sprawling to receive a branch of the brook. The nest of a titmouse hung close to the bubbling water, and the tiny creature looked out of the door of the nest into his eyes. |Verily, the bird is interpreting to me,| he thought. |It says, 'I am not afraid of you, for the law of this happy place is Love.'|
The charm of the Grove seemed plain to him; he was glad, and determined to render himself one of the lost in Daphne. In charge of the flowers and shrubs, and watching the growth of all the dumb excellences everywhere to be seen, could not he, like the man with the pruning-knife in his mouth, forego the days of his troubled life -- forego them forgetting and forgotten?
But by-and-by his Jewish nature began to stir within him.
The charm might be sufficient for some people. Of what kind were they?
Love is delightful -- ah! how pleasant as a successor to wretchedness like his. But was it all there was of life? All?
There was an unlikeness between him and those who buried themselves contentedly here. They had no duties -- they could not have had; but he --
|God of Israel!| he cried aloud, springing to his feet, with burning cheeks -- |Mother! Tirzah! Cursed be the moment, cursed the place, in which I yield myself happy in your loss!|
He hurried away through the thicket, and came to a stream flowing with the volume of a river between banks of masonry, broken at intervals by gated sluiceways. A bridge carried the path he was traversing across the stream; and, standing upon it, he saw other bridges, no two of them alike. Under him the water was lying in a deep pool, clear as a shadow; down a little way it tumbled with a roar over rocks; then there was another pool, and another cascade; and so on, out of view; and bridges and pools and resounding cascades said, plainly as inarticulate things can tell a story, the river was running by permission of a master, exactly as the master would have it, tractable as became a servant of the gods.
Forward from the bridge he beheld a landscape of wide valleys and irregular heights, with groves and lakes and fanciful houses linked together by white paths and shining streams. The valleys were spread below, that the river might be poured upon them for refreshment in days of drought, and they were as green carpets figured with beds and fields of flowers, and flecked with flocks of sheep white as balls of snow; and the voices of shepherds following the flocks were heard afar. As if to tell him of the pious inscription of all he beheld, the altars out under the open sky seemed countless, each with a white-gowned figure attending it, while processions in white went slowly hither and thither between them; and the smoke of the altars half-risen hung collected in pale clouds over the devoted places.
Here, there, happy in flight, intoxicated in pause, from object to object, point to point, now in the meadow, now on the heights, now lingering to penetrate the groves and observe the processions, then lost in efforts to pursue the paths and streams which trended mazily into dim perspectives to end finally in -- Ah, what might be a fitting end to scene so beautiful! What adequate mysteries were hidden behind an introduction so marvellous! Here and there, the speech was beginning, his gaze wandered, so he could not help the conviction, forced by the view, and as the sum of it all, that there was peace in the air and on the earth, and invitation everywhere to come and lie down here and be at rest.
Suddenly a revelation dawned upon him -- the Grove was, in fact, a temple -- one far-reaching, wall-less temple!
Never anything like it!
The architect had not stopped to pother about columns and porticos, proportions or interiors, or any limitation upon the epic he sought to materialize; he had simply made a servant of Nature -- art can go no further. So the cunning son of Jupiter and Callisto built the old Arcadia; and in this, as in that, the genius was Greek.
From the bridge Ben-Hur went forward into the nearest valley.
He came to a flock of sheep. The shepherd was a girl, and she beckoned him, |Come!|
Farther on, the path was divided by an altar -- a pedestal of black gneiss, capped with a slab of white marble deftly foliated, and on that a brazier of bronze holding a fire. Close by it, a woman, seeing him, waved a wand of willow, and as he passed called him, |Stay!| And the temptation in her smile was that of passionate youth.
On yet further, he met one of the processions; at its head a troop of little girls, nude except as they were covered with garlands, piped their shrill voices into a song; then a troop of boys, also nude, their bodies deeply sun-browned, came dancing to the song of the girls; behind them the procession, all women, bearing baskets of spices and sweets to the altars -- women clad in simple robes, careless of exposure. As he went by they held their hands to him, and said, |Stay, and go with us.| One, a Greek, sang a verse from Anacreon:
|For to-day I take or give;
For to-day I drink and live;
For to-day I beg or borrow;
Who knows about the silent morrow?|
But he pursued his way indifferent, and came next to a grove luxuriant, in the heart of the vale at the point where it would be most attractive to the observing eye. As it came close to the path he was travelling, there was a seduction in its shade, and through the foliage he caught the shining of what appeared a pretentious statue; so he turned aside, and entered the cool retreat.
The grass was fresh and clean. The trees did not crowd each other; and they were of every kind native to the East, blended well with strangers adopted from far quarters; here grouped in exclusive companionship palm-trees plumed like queens; there sycamores, overtopping laurels of darker foliage; and evergreen oaks rising verdantly, with cedars vast enough to be kings on Lebanon; and mulberries; and terebinths so beautiful it is not hyperbole to speak of them as blown from the orchards of Paradise.
The statue proved to be a Daphne of wondrous beauty. Hardly, however, had he time to more than glance at her face: at the base of the pedestal a girl and a youth were lying upon a tiger's skin asleep in each other's arms; close by them the implements of their service -- his axe and sickle, her basket -- flung carelessly upon a heap of fading roses.
The exposure startled him. Back in the hush of the perfumed thicket he discovered, as he thought, that the charm of the great Grove was peace without fear, and almost yielded to it; now, in this sleep in the day's broad glare -- this sleep at the feet of Daphne -- he read a further chapter to which only the vaguest allusion is sufferable. The law of the place was Love, but Love without Law.
And this was the sweet peace of Daphne!
This the life's end of her ministers!
For this kings and princes gave of their revenues!
For this a crafty priesthood subordinated nature -- her birds and brooks and lilies, the river, the labor of many hands, the sanctity of altars, the fertile power of the sun!
It would be pleasant now to record that as Ben-Hur pursued his walk assailed by such reflections, he yielded somewhat to sorrow for the votaries of the great outdoor temple; especially for those who, by personal service, kept it in a state so surpassingly lovely. How they came to the condition was not any longer a mystery; the motive, the influence, the inducement, were before him. Some there were, no doubt, caught by the promise held out to their troubled spirits of endless peace in a consecrated abode, to the beauty of which, if they had not money, they could contribute their labor; this class implied intellect peculiarly subject to hope and fear; but the great body of the faithful could not be classed with such. Apollo's nets were wide, and their meshes small; and hardly may one tell what all his fishermen landed: this less for that they cannot be described than because they ought not to be. Enough that the mass were of the sybarites of the world, and of the herds in number vaster and in degree lower -- devotees of the unmixed sensualism to which the East was almost wholly given. Not to any of the exaltations -- not to the singing-god, or his unhappy mistress; not to any philosophy requiring for its enjoyment the calm of retirement, nor to any service for the comfort there is in religion, nor to love in its holier sense -- were they abiding their vows. Good reader, why shall not the truth be told here? Why not learn that, at this age, there were in all earth but two peoples capable of exaltations of the kind referred to -- those who lived by the law of Moses, and those who lived by the law of Brahma. They alone could have cried you, Better a law without love than a love without law.
Besides that, sympathy is in great degree a result of the mood we are in at the moment: anger forbids the emotion. On the other hand, it is easiest taken on when we are in a state of most absolute self-satisfaction. Ben-Hur walked with a quicker step, holding his head higher; and, while not less sensitive to the delightfulness of all about him, he made his survey with calmer spirit, though sometimes with curling lip; that is to say, he could not so soon forget how nearly he himself had been imposed upon.