|If I could answer you,| Balthasar said, in his simple, earnest, devout way -- |oh, if I knew where he is, how quickly I would go to him! The seas should not stay me, nor the mountains.|
|You have tried to find him, then?| asked Ben-Hur.
A smile flitted across the face of the Egyptian.
|The first task I charged myself with after leaving the shelter given me in the desert| -- Balthasar cast a grateful look at Ilderim -- |was to learn what became of the Child. But a year had passed, and I dared not go up to Judea in person, for Herod still held the throne bloody-minded as ever. In Egypt, upon my return, there were a few friends to believe the wonderful things I told them of what I had seen and heard -- a few who rejoiced with me that a Redeemer was born -- a few who never tired of the story. Some of them came up for me looking after the Child. They went first to Bethlehem, and found there the khan and the cave; but the steward -- he who sat at the gate the night of the birth, and the night we came following the star -- was gone. The king had taken him away, and he was no more seen.|
|But they found some proofs, surely,| said Ben-Hur, eagerly.
|Yes, proofs written in blood -- a village in mourning; mothers yet crying for their little ones. You must know, when Herod heard of our flight, he sent down and slew the youngest-born of the children of Bethlehem. Not one escaped. The faith of my messengers was confirmed; but they came to me saying the Child was dead, slain with the other innocents.|
|Dead!| exclaimed Ben-Hur, aghast. |Dead, sayest thou?|
|Nay, my son, I did not say so. I said they, my messengers, told me the Child was dead. I did not believe the report then; I do not believe it now.|
|I see -- thou hast some special knowledge.|
|Not so, not so,| said Balthasar, dropping his gaze. |The Spirit was to go with us no farther than to the Child. When we came out of the cave, after our presents were given and we had seen the babe, we looked first thing for the star; but it was gone, and we knew we were left to ourselves. The last inspiration of the Holy One -- the last I can recall -- was that which sent us to Ilderim for safety.|
|Yes,| said the sheik, fingering his beard nervously. |You told me you were sent to me by a Spirit -- I remember it.|
|I have no special knowledge,| Balthasar continued, observing the dejection which had fallen upon Ben-Hur; |but, my son, I have given the matter much thought -- thought continuing through years, inspired by faith, which, I assure you, calling God for witness, is as strong in me now as in the hour I heard the voice of the Spirit calling me by the shore of the lake. If you will listen, I will tell you why I believe the Child is living.|
Both Ilderim and Ben-Hur looked assent, and appeared to summon their faculties that they might understand as well as hear. The interest reached the servants, who drew near to the divan, and stood listening. Throughout the tent there was the profoundest silence.
|We three believe in God.|
Balthasar bowed his head as he spoke.
|And he is the Truth,| he resumed. |His word is God. The hills may turn to dust, and the seas be drunk dry by south winds; but his word shall stand, because it is the Truth.|
The utterance was in a manner inexpressibly solemn.
|The voice, which was his, speaking to me by the lake, said, 'Blessed art thou, O son of Mizraim! The Redemption cometh. With two others from the remotenesses of the earth, thou shalt see the Savior.' I have seen the Savior -- blessed be his name! -- but the Redemption, which was the second part of the promise, is yet to come. Seest thou now? If the Child be dead, there is no agent to bring the Redemption about, and the word is naught, and God -- nay, I dare not say it!|
He threw up both hands in horror.
|The Redemption was the work for which the Child was born; and so long as the promise abides, not even death can separate him from his work until it is fulfilled, or at least in the way of fulfilment. Take you that now as one reason for my belief; then give me further attention.|
The good man paused.
|Wilt thou not taste the wine? It is at thy hand -- see,| said Ilderim, respectfully.
Balthasar drank, and, seeming refreshed, continued:
|The Savior I saw was born of woman, in nature like us, and subject to all our ills -- even death. Let that stand as the first proposition. Consider next the work set apart to him. Was it not a performance for which only a man is fitted? -- a man wise, firm, discreet -- a man, not a child? To become such he had to grow as we grow. Bethink you now of the dangers his life was subject to in the interval -- the long interval between childhood and maturity. The existing powers were his enemies; Herod was his enemy; and what would Rome have been? And as for Israel -- that he should not be accepted by Israel was the motive for cutting him off. See you now. What better way was there to take care of his life in the helpless growing time than by passing him into obscurity? Wherefore I say to myself, and to my listening faith, which is never moved except by yearning of love -- I say he is not dead, but lost; and, his work remaining undone, he will come again. There you have the reasons for my belief. Are they not good?|
Ilderim's small Arab eyes were bright with understanding, and Ben-Hur, lifted from his dejection, said heartily, |I, at least, may not gainsay them. What further, pray?|
|Hast thou not enough, my son? Well,| he began, in calmer tone, |seeing that the reasons were good -- more plainly, seeing it was God's will that the Child should not be found -- I settled my faith into the keeping of patience, and took to waiting.| He raised his eyes, full of holy trust, and broke off abstractedly -- |I am waiting now. He lives, keeping well his mighty secret. What though I cannot go to him, or name the hill or the vale of his abiding-place? He lives -- it may be as the fruit in blossom, it may be as the fruit just ripening; but by the certainty there is in the promise and reason of God, I know he lives.|
A thrill of awe struck Ben-Hur -- a thrill which was but the dying of his half-formed doubt.
|Where thinkest thou he is?| he asked, in a low voice, and hesitating, like one who feels upon his lips the pressure of a sacred silence.
Balthasar looked at him kindly, and replied, his mind not entirely freed from its abstraction,
|In my house on the Nile, so close to the river that the passers-by in boats see it and its reflection in the water at the same time -- in my house, a few weeks ago, I sat thinking. A man thirty years old, I said to myself, should have his fields of life all ploughed, and his planting well done; for after that it is summer-time, with space scarce enough to ripen his sowing. The Child, I said further, is now twenty-seven -- his time to plant must be at hand. I asked myself, as you here asked me, my son, and answered by coming hither, as to a good resting-place close by the land thy fathers had from God. Where else should he appear, if not in Judea? In what city should he begin his work, if not in Jerusalem? Who should be first to receive the blessings he is to bring, if not the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; in love, at least, the children of the Lord? If I were bidden go seek him, I would search well the hamlets and villages on the slopes of the mountains of Judea and Galilee falling eastwardly into the valley of the Jordan. He is there now. Standing in a door or on a hill-top, only this evening he saw the sun set one day nearer the time when he himself shall become the light of the world.|
Balthasar ceased, with his hand raised and finger pointing as if at Judea. All the listeners, even the dull servants outside the divan, affected by his fervor, were startled as if by a majestic presence suddenly apparent within the tent. Nor did the sensation die away at once: of those at the table, each sat awhile thinking. The spell was finally broken by Ben-Hur.
|I see, good Balthasar,| he said, |that thou hast been much and strangely favored. I see, also, that thou art a wise man indeed. It is not in my power to tell how grateful I am for the things thou hast told me. I am warned of the coming of great events, and borrow somewhat from thy faith. Complete the obligation, I pray thee, by telling further of the mission of him for whom thou art waiting, and for whom from this night I too shall wait as becomes a believing son of Judah. He is to be a Savior, thou saidst; is he not to be King of the Jews also?|
|My son,| said Balthasar, in his benignant way, |the mission is yet a purpose in the bosom of God. All I think about it is wrung from the words of the Voice in connection with the prayer to which they were in answer. Shall we refer to them again?|
|Thou art the teacher.|
|The cause of my disquiet,| Balthasar began, calmly -- |that which made me a preacher in Alexandria and in the villages of the Nile; that which drove me at last into the solitude where the Spirit found me -- was the fallen condition of men, occasioned, as I believed, by loss of the knowledge of God. I sorrowed for the sorrows of my kind -- not of one class, but all of them. So utterly were they fallen it seemed to me there could be no Redemption unless God himself would make it his work; and I prayed him to come, and that I might see him. 'Thy good works have conquered. The Redemption cometh; thou shalt see the Savior' -- thus the Voice spake; and with the answer I went up to Jerusalem rejoicing. Now, to whom is the Redemption? To all the world. And how shall it be? Strengthen thy faith, my son! Men say, I know, that there will be no happiness until Rome is razed from her hills. That is to say, the ills of the time are not, as I thought them, from ignorance of God, but from the misgovernment of rulers. Do we need to be told that human governments are never for the sake of religion? How many kings have you heard of who were better than their subjects? Oh no, no! The Redemption cannot be for a political purpose -- to pull down rulers and powers, and vacate their places merely that others may take and enjoy them. If that were all of it, the wisdom of God would cease to be surpassing. I tell you, though it be but the saying of blind to blind, he that comes is to be a Savior of souls; and the Redemption means God once more on earth, and righteousness, that his stay here may be tolerable to himself.|
Disappointment showed plainly on Ben-Hur's face -- his head drooped; and if he was not convinced, he yet felt himself incapable that moment of disputing the opinion of the Egyptian. Not so Ilderim.
|By the splendor of God!| he cried, impulsively, |the judgment does away with all custom. The ways of the world are fixed, and cannot be changed. There must be a leader in every community clothed with power, else there is no reform.|
Balthasar received the burst gravely.
|Thy wisdom, good sheik, is of the world; and thou dost forget that it is from the ways of the world we are to be redeemed. Man as a subject is the ambition of a king; the soul of a man for its salvation is the desire of a God.|
Ilderim, though silenced, shook his head, unwilling to believe. Ben-Hur took up the argument for him.
|Father -- I call thee such by permission,| he said -- |for whom wert thou required to ask at the gates of Jerusalem?|
The sheik threw him a grateful look.
|I was to ask of the people,| said Balthasar, quietly, |'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?'|
|And you saw him in the cave by Bethlehem?|
|We saw and worshipped him, and gave him presents -- Melchior, gold; Gaspar, frankincense; and I, myrrh.|
|When thou dost speak of fact, O father, to hear thee is to believe,| said Ben-Hur; |but in the matter of opinion, I cannot understand the kind of king thou wouldst make of the Child -- I cannot separate the ruler from his powers and duties.|
|Son,| said Balthasar, |we have the habit of studying closely the things which chance to lie at our feet, giving but a look at the greater objects in the distance. Thou seest now but the title -- KING OF THE JEWS; wilt thou lift thine eyes to the mystery beyond it, the stumbling-block will disappear. Of the title, a word. Thy Israel hath seen better days -- days in which God called thy people endearingly his people, and dealt with them through prophets. Now, if in those days he promised them the Savior I saw -- promised him as KING OF THE JEWS -- the appearance must be according to the promise, if only for the word's sake. Ah, thou seest the reason of my question at the gate! -- thou seest, and I will no more of it, but pass on. It may be, next, thou art regarding the dignity of the Child; if so, bethink thee -- what is it to be a successor of Herod? -- by the world's standard of honor, what? Could not God better by his beloved? If thou canst think of the Almighty Father in want of a title, and stooping to borrow the inventions of men, why was I not bidden ask for a Caesar at once? Oh, for the substance of that whereof we speak, look higher, I pray thee! Ask rather of what he whom we await shall be king; for I do tell, my son, that is the key to the mystery, which no man shall understand without the key.|
Balthasar raised his eyes devoutly.
|There is a kingdom on the earth, though it is not of it -- a kingdom of wider bounds than the earth -- wider than the sea and the earth, though they were rolled together as finest gold and spread by the beating of hammers. Its existence is a fact as our hearts are facts, and we journey through it from birth to death without seeing it; nor shall any man see it until he hath first known his own soul; for the kingdom is not for him, but for his soul. And in its dominion there is glory such as hath not entered imagination -- original, incomparable, impossible of increase.|
|What thou sayest, father, is a riddle to me,| said Ben-Hur. |I never heard of such a kingdom.|
|Nor did I,| said Ilderim.
|And I may not tell more of it,| Balthasar added, humbly dropping his eyes. |What it is, what it is for, how it may be reached, none can know until the Child comes to take possession of it as his own. He brings the key of the viewless gate, which he will open for his beloved, among whom will be all who love him, for of such only the redeemed will be.|
After that there was a long silence, which Balthasar accepted as the end of the conversation.
|Good sheik,| he said, in his placid way, |to-morrow or the next day I will go up to the city for a time. My daughter wishes to see the preparations for the games. I will speak further about the time of our going. And, my son, I will see you again. To you both, peace and good-night.|
They all arose from the table. The sheik and Ben-Hur remained looking after the Egyptian until he was conducted out of the tent.
|Sheik Ilderim,| said Ben-Hur then, |I have heard strange things tonight. Give me leave, I pray, to walk by the lake that I may think of them.|
|Go; and I will come after you.|
They washed their hands again; after which, at a sign from the master, a servant brought Ben-Hur his shoes, and directly he went out.