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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER III |Iras, the daughter of Balthasar, sends me with salutation and a messageà

Ben-hur A Tale Of The Christ by Lew Wallace

CHAPTER III |Iras, the daughter of Balthasar, sends me with salutation and a messageà

|Iras, the daughter of Balthasar, sends me with salutation and a message,| said a servant to Ben-Hur, who was taking his ease in the tent.

|Give me the message.|

|Would it please you to accompany her upon the lake?|

|I will carry the answer myself. Tell her so.|

His shoes were brought him, and in a few minutes Ben-Hur sallied out to find the fair Egyptian. The shadow of the mountains was creeping over the Orchard of Palms in advance of night. Afar through the trees came the tinkling of sheep bells, the lowing of cattle, and the voices of the herdsmen bringing their charges home. Life at the Orchard, it should be remembered, was in all respects as pastoral as life on the scantier meadows of the desert.

Sheik Ilderim had witnessed the exercises of the afternoon, being a repetition of those of the morning; after which he had gone to the city in answer to the invitation of Simonides; he might return in the night; but, considering the immensity of the field to be talked over with his friend, it was hardly possible. Ben-Hur, thus left alone, had seen his horses cared for; cooled and purified himself in the lake; exchanged the field garb for his customary vestments, all white, as became a Sadducean of the pure blood; supped early; and, thanks to the strength of youth, was well recovered from the violent exertion he had undergone.

It is neither wise nor honest to detract from beauty as a quality. There cannot be a refined soul insensible to its influence. The story of Pygmalion and his statue is as natural as it is poetical. Beauty is of itself a power; and it was now drawing Ben-Hur.

The Egyptian was to him a wonderfully beautiful woman -- beautiful of face, beautiful of form. In his thought she always appeared to him as he saw her at the fountain; and he felt the influence of her voice, sweeter because in tearful expression of gratitude to him, and of her eyes -- the large, soft, black, almond-shaped eyes declarative of her race -- eyes which looked more than lies in the supremest wealth of words to utter; and recurrences of the thought of her were returns just so frequent of a figure tall, slender, graceful, refined, wrapped in rich and floating drapery, wanting nothing but a fitting mind to make her, like the Shulamite, and in the same sense, terrible as an army with banners. In other words, as she returned to his fancy, the whole passionate Song of Solomon came with her, inspired by her presence. With this sentiment and that feeling, he was going to see if she actually justified them. It was not love that was taking him, but admiration and curiosity, which might be the heralds of love.

The landing was a simple affair, consisting of a short stairway, and a platform garnished by some lamp-posts; yet at the top of the steps he paused, arrested by what he beheld.

There was a shallop resting upon the clear water lightly as an egg-shell. An Ethiop -- the camel-driver at the Castalian fount -- occupied the rower's place, his blackness intensified by a livery of shining white. All the boat aft was cushioned and carpeted with stuffs brilliant with Tyrian red. On the rudder seat sat the Egyptian herself, sunk in Indian shawls and a very vapor of most delicate veils and scarfs. Her arms were bare to the shoulders; and, not merely faultless in shape, they had the effect of compelling attention to them -- their pose, their action, their expression; the hands, the fingers even, seemed endowed with graces and meaning; each was an object of beauty. The shoulders and neck were protected from the evening air by an ample scarf, which yet did not hide them.

In the glance he gave her, Ben-Hur paid no attention to these details. There was simply an impression made upon him; and, like strong light, it was a sensation, not a thing of sight or enumeration. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet; thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away; for, lo! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land -- such was the impression she made upon him translated into words.

|Come,| she said, observing him stop, |come, or I shall think you a poor sailor.|

The red of his cheek deepened. Did she know anything of his life upon the sea? He descended to the platform at once.

|I was afraid,| he said, as he took the vacant seat before her.

|Of what?|

|Of sinking the boat,| he replied, smiling.

|Wait until we are in deeper water,| she said, giving a signal to the black, who dipped the oars, and they were off.

If love and Ben-Hur were enemies, the latter was never more at mercy. The Egyptian sat where he could not but see her; she, whom he had already engrossed in memory as his ideal of the Shulamite. With her eyes giving light to his, the stars might come out, and he not see them; and so they did. The night might fall with unrelieved darkness everywhere else; her look would make illumination for him. And then, as everybody knows, given youth and such companionship, there is no situation in which the fancy takes such complete control as upon tranquil waters under a calm night sky, warm with summer. It is so easy at such time to glide imperceptibly out of the commonplace into the ideal.

|Give me the rudder,| he said.

|No,| she replied, |that were to reverse the relation. Did I not ask you to ride with me? I am indebted to you, and would begin payment. You may talk and I will listen, or I will talk and you will listen: that choice is yours; but it shall be mine to choose where we go, and the way thither.|

|And where may that be?|

|You are alarmed again.|

|O fair Egyptian, I but asked you the first question of every captive.|

|Call me Egypt.|

|I would rather call you Iras.|

|You may think of me by that name, but call me Egypt.|

|Egypt is a country, and means many people.|

|Yes, yes! And such a country!|

|I see; it is to Egypt we are going.|

|Would we were! I would be so glad.|

She sighed as she spoke.

|You have no care for me, then,| he said.

|Ah, by that I know you were never there.|

|I never was.|

|Oh, it is the land where there are no unhappy people, the desired of all the rest of the earth, the mother of all the gods, and therefore supremely blest. There, O son of Arrius, there the happy find increase of happiness, and the wretched, going, drink once of the sweet water of the sacred river, and laugh and sing, rejoicing like children.|

|Are not the very poor with you there as elsewhere?|

|The very poor in Egypt are the very simple in wants and ways,| she replied. |They have no wish beyond enough, and how little that is, a Greek or a Roman cannot know.|

|But I am neither Greek nor Roman.|

She laughed.

|I have a garden of roses, and in the midst of it is a tree, and its bloom is the richest of all. Whence came it, think you?|

|From Persia, the home of the rose.|

|No.|

|From India, then.|

|No.|

|Ah! one of the isles of Greece.|

|I will tell you,| she said: |a traveller found it perishing by the roadside on the plain of Rephaim.|

|Oh, in Judea!|

|I put it in the earth left bare by the receding Nile, and the soft south wind blew over the desert and nursed it, and the sun kissed it in pity; after which it could not else than grow and flourish. I stand in its shade now, and it thanks me with much perfume. As with the roses, so with the men of Israel. Where shall they reach perfection but in Egypt?|

|Moses was but one of millions.|

|Nay, there was a reader of dreams. Will you forget him?|

|The friendly Pharaohs are dead.|

|Ah, yes! The river by which they dwelt sings to them in their tombs; yet the same sun tempers the same air to the same people.|

|Alexandria is but a Roman town.|

|She has but exchanged sceptres. Caesar took from her that of the sword, and in its place left that of learning. Go with me to the Brucheium, and I will show you the college of nations; to the Serapeion, and see the perfection of architecture; to the Library, and read the immortals; to the theatre, and hear the heroics of the Greeks and Hindoos; to the quay, and count the triumphs of commerce; descend with me into the streets, O son of Arrius, and, when the philosophers have dispersed, and taken with them the masters of all the arts, and all the gods have home their votaries, and nothing remains of the day but its pleasures, you shall hear the stories that have amused men from the beginning, and the songs which will never, never die.|

As he listened, Ben-Hur was carried back to the night when, in the summer-house in Jerusalem, his mother, in much the same poetry of patriotism, declaimed the departed glories of Israel.

|I see now why you wish to be called Egypt. Will you sing me a song if I call you by that name? I heard you last night.|

|That was a hymn of the Nile,| she answered, |a lament which I sing when I would fancy I smell the breath of the desert, and hear the surge of the dear old river; let me rather give you a piece of the Indian mind. When we get to Alexandria, I will take you to the corner of the street where you can hear it from the daughter of the Ganga, who taught it to me. Kapila, you should know, was one of the most revered of the Hindoo sages.|

Then, as if it were a natural mode of expression, she began the song.

KAPILA.

I.

|Kapila, Kapila, so young and true,
I yearn for a glory like thine,
And hail thee from battle to ask anew,
Can ever thy Valor be mine?

|Kapila sat on his charger dun,
A hero never so grave:
'Who loveth all things hath fear of none,
'Tis love that maketh me brave.
A woman gave me her soul one day,
The soul of my soul to be alway;
Thence came my Valor to me,
Go try it -- try it -- and see.'

II.

|Kapila, Kapila, so old and gray,
The queen is calling for me;
But ere I go hence, I wish thou wouldst say,
How Wisdom first came to thee.

|Kapila stood in his temple door,
A priest in eremite guise:
'It did not come as men get their lore,
'Tis faith that maketh me wise.
A woman gave me her heart one day,
The heart of my heart to be alway;
Thence came my Wisdom to me,
Go try it -- try it -- and see.'|

Ben-Hur had not time to express his thanks for the song before the keel of the boat grated upon the underlying sand, and, next moment, the bow ran upon the shore.

|A quick voyage, O Egypt!| he cried.

|And a briefer stay!| she replied, as, with a strong push, the black sent them shooting into the open water again.

|You will give me the rudder now.|

|Oh no,| said she, laughing. |To you, the chariot; to me, the boat. We are merely at the lake's end, and the lesson is that I must not sing any more. Having been to Egypt, let us now to the Grove of Daphne.|

|Without a song on the way?| he said, in deprecation.

|Tell me something of the Roman from whom you saved us to-day,| she asked.

The request struck Ben-Hur unpleasantly.

|I wish this were the Nile,| he said, evasively. |The kings and queens, having slept so long, might come down from their tombs, and ride with us.|

|They were of the colossi, and would sink our boat. The pygmies would be preferable. But tell me of the Roman. He is very wicked, is he not?|

|I cannot say.|

|Is he of noble family, and rich?|

|I cannot speak of his riches.|

|How beautiful his horses were! and the bed of his chariot was gold, and the wheels ivory. And his audacity! The bystanders laughed as he rode away; they, who were so nearly under his wheels!|

She laughed at the recollection.

|They were rabble,| said Ben-Hur, bitterly.

|He must be one of the monsters who are said to be growing up in Rome -- Apollos ravenous as Cerberus. Does he reside in Antioch?|

|He is of the East somewhere.|

|Egypt would suit him better than Syria.|

|Hardly,| Ben-Hur replied. |Cleopatra is dead.|

That instant the lamps burning before the door of the tent came into view.

|The dowar!| she cried.

|Ah, then, we have not been to Egypt. I have not seen Karnak or Philae or Abydos. This is not the Nile. I have but heard a song of India, and been boating in a dream.|

|Philae -- Karnak. Mourn rather that you have not seen the Rameses at Aboo Simbel, looking at which makes it so easy to think of God, the maker of the heavens and earth. Or why should you mourn at all? Let us go on to the river; and if I cannot sing| -- she laughed -- |because I have said I would not, yet I can tell you stories of Egypt.|

|Go on! Ay, till morning comes, and the evening, and the next morning!| he said, vehemently.

|Of what shall my stories be? Of the mathematicians?|

|Oh no.|

|Of the philosophers?|

|No, no.|

|Of the magicians and genii?|

|If you will.|

|Of war?|

|Yes.|

|Of love?|

|Yes.|

|I will tell you a cure for love. It is the story of a queen. Listen reverently. The papyrus from which it was taken by the priests of Philae was wrested from the hand of the heroine herself. It is correct in form, and must be true:

NE-NE-HOFRA.

I.

|There is no parallelism in human lives.

|No life runs a straight line.

|The most perfect life develops as a circle, and terminates in its beginning, making it impossible to say, This is the commencement, that the end.

|Perfect lives are the treasures of God; of great days he wears them on the ring-finger of his heart hand.|

II.

|Ne-ne-hofra dwelt in a house close by Essouan, yet closer to the first cataract -- so close, indeed, that the sound of the eternal battle waged there between river and rocks was of the place a part.

|She grew in beauty day by day, so that it was said of her, as of the poppies in her father's garden, What will she not be in the time of blooming?

|Each year of her life was the beginning of a new song more delightful than any of those which went before.

|Child was she of a marriage between the North, bounded by the sea, and the South, bounded by the desert beyond the Luna mountains; and one gave her its passion, the other its genius; so when they beheld her, both laughed, saying, not meanly, 'She is mine,' but generously, 'Ha, ha! she is ours.'

|All excellences in nature contributed to her perfection and rejoiced in her presence. Did she come or go, the birds ruffled their wings in greeting; the unruly winds sank to cooling zephyrs; the white lotus rose from the water's depth to look at her; the solemn river loitered on its way; the palm-trees, nodding, shook all their plumes; and they seemed to say, this one, I gave her of my grace; that, I gave her of my brightness; the other, I gave her of my purity: and so each as it had a virtue to give.

|At twelve, Ne-ne-hofra was the delight of Essouan; at sixteen, the fame of her beauty was universal; at twenty, there was never a day which did not bring to her door princes of the desert on swift camels, and lords of Egypt in gilded barges; and, going away disconsolate, they reported everywhere, 'I have seen her, and she is not a woman, but Athor herself.'|

III.

|Now of the three hundred and thirty successors of good King Menes, eighteen were Ethiopians, of whom Oraetes was one hundred and ten years old. He had reigned seventy-six years. Under him the people thrived, and the land groaned with fatness of plenty. He practised wisdom because, having seen so much, he knew what it was. He dwelt in Memphis, having there his principal palace, his arsenals, and his treasure-house. Frequently he went down to Butos to talk with Latona.

|The wife of the good king died. Too old was she for perfect embalmment; yet he loved her, and mourned as the inconsolable; seeing which, a colchyte presumed one day to speak to him.

|'O Oraetes, I am astonished that one so wise and great should not know how to cure a sorrow like this.'

|'Tell me a cure,' said the king.

|Three times the colchyte kissed the floor, and then he replied, knowing the dead could not hear him, 'At Essouan lives Ne-ne-hofra, beautiful as Athor the beautiful. Send for her. She has refused all the lords and princes, and I know not how many kings; but who can say no to Oraetes?'|

IV.

|Ne-ne-hofra descended the Nile in a barge richer than any ever before seen, attended by an army in barges each but a little less fine. All Nubia and Egypt, and a myriad from Libya, and a host of Troglodytes, and not a few Macrobii from beyond the Mountains of the Moon, lined the tented shores to see the cortege pass, wafted by perfumed winds and golden oars.

|Through a dromos of sphinxes and couchant double-winged lions she was borne, and set down before Oraetes sitting on a throne specially erected at the sculptured pylon of the palace. He raised her up, gave her place by his side, clasped the uraeus upon her arm, kissed her, and Ne-ne-hofra was queen of all queens.

|That was not enough for the wise Oraetes; he wanted love, and a queen happy in his love. So he dealt with her tenderly, showing her his possessions, cities, palaces, people; his armies, his ships: and with his own hand he led her through his treasure-house, saying, 'O. Ne-ne-hofra! but kiss me in love, and they are all thine.'

|And, thinking she could be happy, if she was not then, she kissed him once, twice, thrice -- kissed him thrice, his hundred and ten years notwithstanding.

|The first year she was happy, and it was very short; the third year she was wretched, and it was very long; then she was enlightened: that which she thought love of Oraetes was only daze of his power. Well for her had the daze endured! Her spirits deserted her; she had long spells of tears, and her women could not remember when they heard her laugh; of the roses on her cheeks only ashes remained; she languished and faded gradually, but certainly. Some said she was haunted by the Erinnyes for cruelty to a lover; others, that she was stricken by some god envious of Oraetes. Whatever the cause of her decline, the charms of the magicians availed not to restore her, and the prescript of the doctor was equally without virtue. Ne-ne-hofra was given over to die.

|Oraetes chose a crypt for her up in the tombs of the queens; and, calling the master sculptors and painters to Memphis, he set them to work upon designs more elaborate than any even in the great galleries of the dead kings.

|'O thou beautiful as Athor herself, my queen!' said the king, whose hundred and thirteen years did not lessen his ardor as a lover, 'Tell me, I pray, the ailment of which, alas! thou art so certainly perishing before my eyes.'

|'You will not love me any more if I tell you,' she said, in doubt and fear.

|'Not love you! I will love you the more. I swear it, by the genii of Amente! by the eye of Osiris, I swear it! Speak!' he cried, passionate as a lover, authoritative as a king.

|'Hear, then,' she said. 'There is an anchorite, the oldest and holiest of his class, in a cave near Essouan. His name is Menopha. He was my teacher and guardian. Send for him, O Oraetes, and he will tell you that you seek to know; he will also help you find the cure for my affliction.'

|Oraetes arose rejoicing. He went away in spirit a hundred years younger than when he came.|

V.

|'Speak!' said Oraetes to Menopha, in the palace at Memphis.

|And Menopha replied, 'Most mighty king, if you were young, I should not answer, because I am yet pleased with life; as it is, I will say the queen, like any other mortal, is paying the penalty of a crime.'

|'A crime!' exclaimed Oraetes, angrily.

|Menopha bowed very low.

|'Yes; to herself.'

|'I am not in mood for riddles,' said the king.

|'What I say is not a riddle, as you shall hear. Ne-ne-hofra grew up under my eyes, and confided every incident of her life to me; among others, that she loved the son of her father's gardener, Barbec by name.'

|Oraetes's frown, strangely enough, began to dissipate.

|'With that love in her heart, O king, she came to you; of that love she is dying.'

|'Where is the gardener's son now?' asked Oraetes.

|'In Essouan.'

|The king went out and gave two orders. To one oeris he said, 'Go to Essouan and bring hither a youth named Barbec. You will find him in the garden of the queen's father;' to another, 'Assemble workmen and cattle and tools, and construct for me in Lake Chemmis an island, which, though laden with a temple, a palace, and a garden, and all manner of trees bearing fruit, and all manner of vines, shall nevertheless float about as the winds may blow it. Make the island, and let it be fully furnished by the time the moon begins to wane.'

|Then to the queen he said,

|'Be of cheer. I know all, and have sent for Barbec.'

|Ne-ne-hofra kissed his hands.

|'You shall have him to yourself, and he you to himself; nor shall any disturb your loves for a year.'

|She kissed his feet; he raised her, and kissed her in return; and the rose came back to her cheek, the scarlet to her lips, and the laughter to her heart.|

VI.

|For one year Ne-ne-hofra and Barbec the gardener floated as the winds blew on the island of Chemmis, which became one of the wonders of the world; never a home of love more beautiful; one year, seeing no one and existing for no one but themselves. Then she returned in state to the palace in Memphis.

|'Now whom lovest thou best?' asked the king.

|She kissed his cheek and said, 'Take me back, O good king, for I am cured.'

|Oraetes laughed, none the worse, that moment, of his hundred and fourteen years.

|'Then it is true, as Menopha said: ha, ha, ha! it is true, the cure of love is love.'

|'Even so,' she replied.

|Suddenly his manner changed, and his look became terrible.

|'I did not find it so,' he said.

|She shrank affrighted.

|'Thou guilty!' he continued. 'Thy offense to Oraetes the man he forgives; but thy offence to Oraetes the king remains to be punished.'

|She cast herself at his feet.

|'Hush!' he cried. 'Thou art dead!'

|He clapped his hands, and a terrible procession came in -- a procession of parachistes, or embalmers, each with some implement or material of his loathsome art.

|The King pointed to Ne-ne-hofra.

|'She is dead. Do thy work well.'|

VII.

|Ne-ne-hofra the beautiful, after seventy-two days, was carried to the crypt chosen for her the year before, and laid with her queenly predecessors; yet there was no funeral procession in her honor across the sacred lake.|

At the conclusion of the story, Ben-Hur was sitting at the Egyptian's feet, and her hand upon the tiller was covered by his hand.

|Menopha was wrong,| he said.

|How?|

|Love lives by loving.|

|Then there is no cure for it?|

|Yes. Oraetes found the cure.|

|What was it?|

|Death.|

|You are a good listener, O son of Arrius.|

And so with conversation and stories, they whiled the hours away. As they stepped ashore, she said,

|To-morrow we go to the city.|

|But you will be at the games?| he asked.

|Oh yes.|

|I will send you my colors.|

With that they separated.

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