As Ben-Hur descended the steps of the stand, an Arab arose upon the last one at the foot, and cried out,
|Men of the East and West -- hearken! The good Sheik Ilderim giveth greeting. With four horses, sons of the favorites of Solomon the Wise, he bath come up against the best. Needs he most a mighty man to drive them. Whoso will take them to his satisfaction, to him he promiseth enrichment forever. Here -- there -- in the city and in the Circuses, and wherever the strong most do congregate, tell ye this his offer. So saith my master, Sheik Ilderim the Generous.|
The proclamation awakened a great buzz among the people under the awning. By night it would be repeated and discussed in all the sporting circles of Antioch. Ben-Hur, hearing it, stopped and looked hesitatingly from the herald to the sheik. Malluch thought he was about to accept the offer, but was relieved when he presently turned to him, and asked, |Good Malluch, where to now?|
The worthy replied, with a laugh, |Would you liken yourself to others visiting the Grove for the first time, you will straightway to hear your fortune told.|
|My fortune, said you? Though the suggestion has in it a flavor of unbelief, let us to the goddess at once.|
|Nay, son of Arrius, these Apollonians have a better trick than that. Instead of speech with a Pythia or a Sibyl, they will sell you a plain papyrus leaf, hardly dry from the stalk, and bid you dip it in the water of a certain fountain, when it will show you a verse in which you may hear of your future.|
The glow of interest departed from Ben-Hur's face.
|There are people who have no need to vex themselves about their future,| he said, gloomily.
|Then you prefer to go to the temples?|
|The temples are Greek, are they not?|
|They call them Greek.|
|The Hellenes were masters of the beautiful in art; but in architecture they sacrificed variety to unbending beauty. Their temples are all alike. How call you the fountain?|
|Oh! it has repute throughout the world. Let us thither.|
Malluch kept watch on his companion as they went, and saw that for the moment at least his good spirits were out. To the people passing he gave no attention; over the wonders they came upon there were no exclamations; silently, even sullenly, he kept a slow pace.
The truth was, the sight of Messala had set Ben-Hur to thinking. It seemed scarce an hour ago that the strong hands had torn him from his mother, scarce an hour ago that the Roman had put seal upon the gates of his father's house. He recounted how, in the hopeless misery of the life -- if such it might be called -- in the galleys, he had had little else to do, aside from labor, than dream dreams of vengeance, in all of which Messala was the principal. There might be, he used to say to himself, escape for Gratus, but for Messala -- never! And to strengthen and harden his resolution, he was accustomed to repeat over and over, Who pointed us out to the persecutors? And when I begged him for help -- not for myself -- who mocked me, and went away laughing? And always the dream had the same ending. The day I meet him, help me, thou good God of my people! -- help me to some fitting special vengeance!
And now the meeting was at hand.
Perhaps, if he had found Messala poor and suffering, Ben-Hur's feeling had been different; but it was not so. He found him more than prosperous; in the prosperity there was a dash and glitter -- gleam of sun on gilt of gold.
So it happened that what Malluch accounted a passing loss of spirit was pondering when the meeting should be, and in what manner he could make it most memorable.
They turned after a while into an avenue of oaks, where the people were going and coming in groups; footmen here, and horsemen; there women in litters borne slaves; and now and then chariots rolled by thunderously.
At the end of the avenue the road, by an easy grade, descended into a lowland, where, on the right hand, there was a precipitous facing of gray rock, and on the left an open meadow of vernal freshness. Then they came in view of the famous Fountain of Castalia.
Edging through a company assembled at the point, Ben-Hur beheld a jet of sweet water pouring from the crest of a stone into a basin of black marble, where, after much boiling and foaming, it disappeared as through a funnel.
By the basin, under a small portico cut in the solid wall, sat a priest, old, bearded, wrinkled, cowled -- never being more perfectly eremitish. From the manner of the people present, hardly might one say which was the attraction, the fountain, forever sparkling, or the priest, forever there. He heard, saw, was seen, but never spoke. Occasionally a visitor extended a hand to him with a coin in it. With a cunning twinkle of the eyes, he took the money, and gave the party in exchange a leaf of papyrus.
The receiver made haste to plunge the papyrus into the basin; then, holding the dripping leaf in the sunlight, he would be rewarded with a versified inscription upon its face; and the fame of the fountain seldom suffered loss by poverty of merit in the poetry. Before Ben-Hur could test the oracle, some other visitors were seen approaching across the meadow, and their appearance piqued the curiosity of the company, his not less than theirs.
He saw first a camel, very tall and very white, in leading of a driver on horseback. A houdah on the animal, besides being unusually large, was of crimson and gold. Two other horsemen followed the camel with tall spears in hand.
|What a wonderful camel!| said one of the company.
|A prince from afar,| another one suggested.
|More likely a king.|
|If he were on an elephant, I would say he was a king.|
A third man had a very different opinion.
|A camel -- and a white camel!| he said, authoritatively. |By Apollo, friends, they who come yonder -- you can see there are two of them -- are neither kings nor princes; they are women!|
In the midst of the dispute the strangers arrived.
The camel seen at hand did not belie his appearance afar. A taller, statelier brute of his kind no traveller at the fountain, though from the remotest parts, had ever beheld. Such great black eyes! such exceedingly fine white hair! feet so contractile when raised, so soundless in planting, so broad when set! -- nobody had ever seen the peer of this camel. And how well he became his housing of silk, and all its frippery of gold in fringe and gold in tassel! The tinkling of silver bells went before him, and he moved lightly, as if unknowing of his burden.
But who were the man and woman under the houdah?
Every eye saluted them with the inquiry.
If the former were a prince or a king, the philosophers of the crowd might not deny the impartiality of Time. When they saw the thin, shrunken face buried under an immense turban, the skin of the hue of a mummy, making it impossible to form an idea of his nationality, they were pleased to think the limit of life was for the great as well as the small. They saw about his person nothing so enviable as the shawl which draped him.
The woman was seated in the manner of the East, amidst veils and laces of surpassing fineness. Above her elbows she wore armlets fashioned like coiled asps, and linked to bracelets at the wrists by strands of gold; otherwise the arms were bare and of singular natural grace, complemented with hands modelled daintily as a child's. One of the hands rested upon the side of the carriage, showing tapered fingers glittering with rings, and stained at the tips till they blushed like the pink of mother-of-pearl. She wore an open caul upon her head, sprinkled with beads of coral, and strung with coin-pieces called sunlets, some of which were carried across her forehead, while others fell down her back, half-smothered in the mass of her straight blue-black hair, of itself an incomparable ornament, not needing the veil which covered it, except as a protection against sun and dust. From her elevated seat she looked upon the people calmly, pleasantly, and apparently so intent upon studying them as to be unconscious of the interest she herself was exciting; and, what was unusual -- nay, in violent contravention of the custom among women of rank in public -- she looked at them with an open face.
It was a fair face to see; quite youthful; in form, oval: complexion not white, like the Greek; nor brunet, like the Roman; nor blond, like the Gaul; but rather the tinting of the sun of the Upper Nile upon a skin of such transparency that the blood shone through it on cheek and brow with nigh the ruddiness of lamplight. The eyes, naturally large, were touched along the lids with the black paint immemorial throughout the East. The lips were slightly parted, disclosing, through their scarlet lake, teeth of glistening whiteness. To all these excellences of countenance the reader is finally besought to superadd the air derived from the pose of a small head, classic in shape, set upon a neck long, drooping, and graceful -- the air, we may fancy, happily described by the word queenly.
As if satisfied with the survey of people and locality, the fair creature spoke to the driver -- an Ethiopian of vast brawn, naked to the waist -- who led the camel nearer the fountain, and caused it to kneel; after which he received from her hand a cup, and proceeded to fill it at the basin. That instant the sound of wheels and the trampling of horses in rapid motion broke the silence her beauty had imposed, and, with a great outcry, the bystanders parted in every direction, hurrying to get away.
|The Roman has a mind to ride us down. Look out!| Malluch shouted to Ben-Hur, setting him at the same time an example of hasty flight.
The latter faced to the direction the sounds came from, and beheld Messala in his chariot pushing the four straight at the crowd. This time the view was near and distinct.
The parting of the company uncovered the camel, which might have been more agile than his kind generally; yet the hoofs were almost upon him, and he resting with closed eyes, chewing the endless cud with such sense of security as long favoritism may be supposed to have bred in him. The Ethiopian wrung his hands afraid. In the houdah, the old man moved to escape; but he was hampered with age, and could not, even in the face of danger, forget the dignity which was plainly his habit. It was too late for the woman to save herself. Ben-Hur stood nearest them, and he called to Messala,
|Hold! Look where thou goest! Back, back!|
The patrician was laughing in hearty good-humor; and, seeing there was but one chance of rescue, Ben-Hur stepped in, and caught the bits of the left yoke-steed and his mate. |Dog of a Roman! Carest thou so little for life?| he cried, putting forth all his strength. The two horses reared, and drew the others round; the tilting of the pole tilted the chariot; Messala barely escaped a fall, while his complacent Myrtilus rolled back like a clod to the ground. Seeing the peril past, all the bystanders burst into derisive laughter.
The matchless audacity of the Roman then manifested itself. Loosing the lines from his body, he tossed them to one side, dismounted, walked round the camel, looked at Ben-Hur, and spoke partly to the old man and partly to the woman.
|Pardon, I pray you -- I pray you both. I am Messala,| he said; |and, by the old Mother of the earth, I swear I did not see you or your camel! As to these good people -- perhaps I trusted too much to my skill. I sought a laugh at them -- the laugh is theirs. Good may it do them!|
The good-natured, careless look and gesture he threw the bystanders accorded well with the speech. To hear what more he had to say, they became quiet. Assured of victory over the body of the offended, he signed his companion to take the chariot to a safer distance, and addressed himself boldly to the woman.
|Thou hast interest in the good man here, whose pardon, if not granted now, I shall seek with the greater diligence hereafter; his daughter, I should say.|
She made him no reply.
|By Pallas, thou art beautiful! Beware Apollo mistake thee not for his lost love. I wonder what land can boast herself thy mother. Turn not away. A truce! a truce! There is the sun of India in thine eyes; in the corners of thy mouth, Egypt hath set her love-signs. Perpol! Turn not to that slave, fair mistress, before proving merciful to this one. Tell me at least that I am pardoned.|
At this point she broke in upon him.
|Wilt thou come here?| she asked, smiling, and with gracious bend of the head to Ben-Hur.
|Take the cup and fill it, I pray thee,| she said to the latter. |My father is thirsty.|
|I am thy most willing servant!|
Ben-Hur turned about to do the favor, and was face to face with Messala. Their glances met; the Jew's defiant; the Roman's sparkling with humor.
|O stranger, beautiful as cruel!| Messala said, waving his hand to her. |If Apollo get thee not, thou shalt see me again. Not knowing thy country, I cannot name a god to commend thee to; so, by all the gods, I will commend thee to -- myself!|
Seeing that Myrtilus had the four composed and ready, he returned to the chariot. The woman looked after him as he moved away, and whatever else there was in her look, there was no displeasure. Presently she received the water; her father drank; then she raised the cup to her lips, and, leaning down, gave it to Ben-Hur; never action more graceful and gracious.
|Keep it, we pray of thee! It is full of blessings -- all thine!|
Immediately the camel was aroused, and on his feet, and about to go, when the old man called,
|Stand thou here.|
Ben-Hur went to him respectfully.
|Thou hast served the stranger well to-day. There is but one God. In his holy name I thank thee. I am Balthasar, the Egyptian. In the Great Orchard of Palms, beyond the village of Daphne, in the shade of the palms, Sheik Ilderim the Generous abideth in his tents, and we are his guests. Seek us there. Thou shalt have welcome sweet with the savor of the grateful.|
Ben-Hur was left in wonder at the old man's clear voice and reverend manner. As he gazed after the two departing, he caught sight of Messala going as he had come, joyous, indifferent, and with a mocking laugh.