Malluch stopped at the door; Ben-Hur entered alone.
The room was the same in which he had formerly interviewed Simonides, and it had been in nowise changed, except now, close by the arm-chair, a polished brazen rod, set on a broad wooden pedestal, arose higher than a tall man, holding lamps of silver on sliding arms, half-a-dozen or more in number, and all burning. The light was clear, bringing into view the panelling on the walls, the cornice with its row of gilded balls, and the dome dully tinted with violet mica.
Within a few steps, Ben-Hur stopped.
Three persons were present, looking at him -- Simonides, Ilderim, and Esther.
He glanced hurriedly from one to another, as if to find answer to the question half formed in his mind, What business can these have with me? He became calm, with every sense on the alert, for the question was succeeded by another, Are they friends or enemies?
At length, his eyes rested upon Esther.
The men returned his look kindly; in her face there was something more than kindness -- something too spirituel for definition, which yet went to his inner consciousness without definition.
Shall it be said, good reader? Back of his gaze there was a comparison in which the Egyptian arose and set herself over against the gentle Jewess; but it lived an instant, and, as is the habit of such comparisons, passed away without a conclusion.
|Son of Hur -- |
The guest turned to the speaker.
|Son of Hur,| said Simonides, repeating the address slowly, and with distinct emphasis, as if to impress all its meaning upon him most interested in understanding it, |take thou the peace of the Lord God of our fathers -- take it from me.| He paused, then added, |From me and mine.|
The speaker sat in his chair; there were the royal head, the bloodless face, the masterful air, under the influence of which visitors forgot the broken limbs and distorted body of the man. The full black eyes gazed out under the white brows steadily, but not sternly. A moment thus, then he crossed his hands upon his breast.
The action, taken with the salutation, could not be misunderstood, and was not.
|Simonides,| Ben-Hur answered, much moved, |the holy peace you tender is accepted. As son to father, I return it to you. Only let there be perfect understanding between us.|
Thus delicately he sought to put aside the submission of the merchant, and, in place of the relation of master and servant, substitute one higher and holier.
Simonides let fall his hands, and, turning to Esther, said, |A seat for the master, daughter.|
She hastened, and brought a stool, and stood, with suffused face, looking from one to the other -- from Ben-Hur to Simonides, from Simonides to Ben-Hur; and they waited, each declining the superiority direction would imply. When at length the pause began to be embarrassing, Ben-Hur advanced, and gently took the stool from her, and, going to the chair, placed it at the merchant's feet.
|I will sit here,| he said.
His eyes met hers -- an instant only; but both were better of the look. He recognized her gratitude, she his generosity and forbearance.
Simonides bowed his acknowledgment.
|Esther, child, bring me the paper,| he said, with a breath of relief.
She went to a panel in the wall, opened it, took out a roll of papyri, and brought and gave it to him.
|Thou saidst well, son of Hur,| Simonides began, while unrolling the sheets. |Let us understand each other. In anticipation of the demand -- which I would have made hadst thou waived it -- I have here a statement covering everything necessary to the understanding required. I could see but two points involved -- the property first, and then our relation. The statement is explicit as to both. Will it please thee to read it now?|
Ben-Hur received the papers, but glanced at Ilderim.
|Nay,| said Simonides, |the sheik shall not deter thee from reading. The account -- such thou wilt find it -- is of a nature requiring a witness. In the attesting place at the end thou wilt find, when thou comest to it, the name -- Ilderim, Sheik. He knows all. He is thy friend. All he has been to me, that will he be to thee also.|
Simonides looked at the Arab, nodding pleasantly, and the latter gravely returned the nod, saying, |Thou hast said.|
Ben-Hur replied, |I know already the excellence of his friendship, and have yet to prove myself worthy of it.| Immediately he continued, |Later, O Simonides, I will read the papers carefully; for the present, do thou take them, and if thou be not too weary, give me their substance.|
Simonides took back the roll.
|Here, Esther, stand by me and receive the sheets, lest they fall into confusion.|
She took place by his chair, letting her right arm fall lightly across his shoulder, so, when he spoke, the account seemed to have rendition from both of them jointly.
|This,| said Simonides, drawing out the first leaf, |shows the money I had of thy father's, being the amount saved from the Romans; there was no property saved, only money, and that the robbers would have secured but for our Jewish custom of bills of exchange. The amount saved, being sums I drew from Rome, Alexandria, Damascus, Carthage, Valentia, and elsewhere within the circle of trade, was one hundred and twenty talents Jewish money.|
He gave the sheet to Esther, and took the next one.
|With that amount -- one hundred and twenty talents -- I charged myself. Hear now my credits. I use the word, as thou wilt see, with reference rather to the proceeds gained from the use of the money.|
From separate sheets he then read footings, which, fractions omitted, were as follows:
By ships...............................60 talents. | goods in store......................110 |
| cargoes in transit..................75 |
| camels, horses, etc.................20 |
| warehouses..........................10 |
| bills due...........................54 |
| money on hand and subject to draft..224 |
Total..................................553 | |
|To these now, to the five hundred and fifty-three talents gained, add the original capital I had from thy father, and thou hast SIX HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THREE TALENTS! -- and all thine -- making thee, O son of Hur, the richest subject in the world.|
He took the papyri from Esther, and, reserving one, rolled them and offered them to Ben-Hur. The pride perceptible in his manner was not offensive; it might have been from a sense of duty well done; it might have been for Ben-Hur without reference to himself.
|And there is nothing,| he added, dropping his voice, but not his eyes -- |there is nothing now thou mayst not do.|
The moment was one of absorbing interest to all present. Simonides crossed his hands upon his breast again; Esther was anxious; Ilderim nervous. A man is never so on trial as in the moment of excessive good-fortune.
Taking the roll, Ben-Hur arose, struggling with emotion.
|All this is to me as a light from heaven, sent to drive away a night which has been so long I feared it would never end, and so dark I had lost the hope of seeing,| he said, with a husky voice. |I give first thanks to the Lord, who has not abandoned me, and my next to thee, O Simonides. Thy faithfulness outweighs the cruelty of others, and redeems our human nature. 'There is nothing I cannot do:' be it so. Shall any man in this my hour of such mighty privilege be more generous than I? Serve me as a witness now, Sheik Ilderim. Hear thou my words as I shall speak them -- hear and remember. And thou, Esther, good angel of this good man! hear thou also.|
He stretched his hand with the roll to Simonides.
|The things these papers take into account -- all of them: ships, houses, goods, camels, horses, money; the least as well as the greatest -- give I back to thee, O Simonides, making them all thine, and sealing them to thee and thine forever.|
Esther smiled through her tears; Ilderim pulled his beard with rapid motion, his eyes glistening like beads of jet. Simonides alone was calm.
|Sealing them to thee and thine forever,| Ben-Hur continued, with better control of himself, |with one exception, and upon one condition.|
The breath of the listeners waited upon his words.
|The hundred and twenty talents which were my father's thou shalt return to me.|
Ilderim's countenance brightened.
|And thou shalt join me in search of my mother and sister, holding all thine subject to the expense of discovery, even as I will hold mine.|
Simonides was much affected. Stretching out his hand, he said, |I see thy spirit, son of Hur, and I am grateful to the Lord that he hath sent thee to me such as thou art. If I served well thy father in life, and his memory afterwards, be not afraid of default to thee; yet must I say the exception cannot stand.|
Exhibiting, then, the reserved sheet, he continued,
|Thou hast not all the account. Take this and read -- read aloud.|
Ben-Hur took the supplement, and read it.
|Statement of the servants of Hur, rendered by Simonides, steward of the estate.
1. Amrah, Egyptian, keeping the palace in Jerusalem.2. Simonides, the steward, in Antioch.
3. Esther, daughter of Simonides.|
Now, in all his thoughts of Simonides, not once had it entered Ben-Hur's mind that, by the law, a daughter followed the parent's condition. In all his visions of her, the sweet-faced Esther had figured as the rival of the Egyptian, and an object of possible love. He shrank from the revelation so suddenly brought him, and looked at her blushing; and, blushing, she dropped her eyes before him. Then he said, while the papyrus rolled itself together,
|A man with six hundred talents is indeed rich, and may do what he pleases; but, rarer than the money, more priceless than the property, is the mind which amassed the wealth, and the heart it could not corrupt when amassed. O Simonides -- and thou, fair Esther -- fear not. Sheik Ilderim here shall be witness that in the same moment ye were declared my servants, that moment I declared ye free; and what I declare, that will I put in writing. Is it not enough? Can I do more?|
|Son of Hur,| said Simonides, |verily thou dost make servitude lightsome. I was wrong; there are some things thou canst not do; thou canst not make us free in law. I am thy servant forever, because I went to the door with thy father one day, and in my ear the awl-marks yet abide.|
|Did my father that?|
|Judge him not,| cried Simonides, quickly. |He accepted me a servant of that class because I prayed him to do so. I never repented the step. It was the price I paid for Rachel, the mother of my child here; for Rachel, who would not be my wife unless I became what she was.|
|Was she a servant forever?|
Ben-Hur walked the floor in pain of impotent wish.
|I was rich before,| he said, stopping suddenly. |I was rich with the gifts of the generous Arrius; now comes this greater fortune, and the mind which achieved it. Is there not a purpose of God in it all? Counsel me, O Simonides! Help me to see the right and do it. Help me to be worthy my name, and what thou art in law to me, that will I be to thee in fact and deed. I will be thy servant forever.|
Simonides' face actually glowed.
|O son of my dead master! I will do better than help; I will serve thee with all my might of mind and heart. Body, I have not; it perished in thy cause; but with mind and heart I will serve thee. I swear it, by the altar of our God, and the gifts upon the altar! Only make me formally what I have assumed to be.|
|Name it,| said Ben-Hur, eagerly.
|As steward the care of the property will be mine.|
|Count thyself steward now; or wilt thou have it in writing?|
|Thy word simply is enough; it was so with the father, and I will not more from the son. And now, if the understanding be perfect| -- Simonides paused.
|It is with me,| said Ben-Hur.
|And thou, daughter of Rachel, speak!| said Simonides, lifting her arm from his shoulder.
Esther, left thus alone, stood a moment abashed, her color coming and going; then she went to Ben-Hur, and said, with a womanliness singularly sweet, |I am not better than my mother was; and, as she is gone, I pray you, O my master, let me care for my father.|
Ben-Hur took her hand, and led her back to the chair, saying, |Thou art a good child. Have thy will.|
Simonides replaced her arm upon his neck, and there was silence for a time in the room.