Next night, about the fourth hour, Ben-Hur stood on the terrace of the great warehouse with Esther. Below them, on the landing, there was much running about, and shifting of packages and boxes, and shouting of men, whose figures, stooping, heaving, hauling, looked, in the light of the crackling torches kindled in their aid, like the laboring genii of the fantastic Eastern tales. A galley was being laden for instant departure. Simonides had not yet come from his office, in which, at the last moment, he would deliver to the captain of the vessel instructions to proceed without stop to Ostia, the seaport of Rome, and, after landing a passenger there, continue more leisurely to Valentia, on the coast of Spain.
The passenger is the agent going to dispose of the estate derived from Arrius the duumvir. When the lines of the vessel are cast off, and she is put about, and her voyage begun, Ben-Hur will be committed irrevocably to the work undertaken the night before. If he is disposed to repent the agreement with Ilderim, a little time is allowed him to give notice and break it off. He is master, and has only to say the word.
Such may have been the thought at the moment in his mind. He was standing with folded arms, looking upon the scene in the manner of a man debating with himself. Young, handsome, rich, but recently from the patrician circles of Roman society, it is easy to think of the world besetting him with appeals not to give more to onerous duty or ambition attended with outlawry and danger. We can even imagine the arguments with which he was pressed; the hopelessness of contention with Caesar; the uncertainty veiling everything connected with the King and his coming; the ease, honors, state, purchasable like goods in market; and, strongest of all, the sense newly acquired of home, with friends to make it delightful. Only those who have been wanderers long desolate can know the power there was in the latter appeal.
Let us add now, the world -- always cunning enough of itself; always whispering to the weak, Stay, take thine ease; always presenting the sunny side of life -- the world was in this instance helped by Ben-Hur's companion.
|Were you ever at Rome?| he asked.
|No,| Esther replied.
|Would you like to go?|
|I think not.|
|I am afraid of Rome,| she answered, with a perceptible tremor of the voice.
He looked at her then -- or rather down upon her, for at his side she appeared little more than a child. In the dim light he could not see her face distinctly; even the form was shadowy. But again he was reminded of Tirzah, and a sudden tenderness fell upon him -- just so the lost sister stood with him on the house-top the calamitous morning of the accident to Gratus. Poor Tirzah! Where was she now? Esther had the benefit of the feeling evoked. If not his sister, he could never look upon her as his servant; and that she was his servant in fact would make him always the more considerate and gentle towards her.
|I cannot think of Rome,| she continued, recovering her voice, and speaking in her quiet womanly way -- |I cannot think of Rome as a city of palaces and temples, and crowded with people; she is to me a monster which has possession of one of the beautiful lands, and lies there luring men to ruin and death -- a monster which it is not possible to resist -- a ravenous beast gorging with blood. Why -- |
She faltered, looked down, stopped.
|Go on,| said Ben-Hur, reassuringly.
She drew closer to him, looked up again, and said, |Why must you make her your enemy? Why not rather make peace with her, and be at rest? You have had many ills, and borne them; you have survived the snares laid for you by foes. Sorrow has consumed your youth; is it well to give it the remainder of your days?|
The girlish face under his eyes seemed to come nearer and get whiter as the pleading went on; he stooped towards it, and asked, softly, |What would you have me do, Esther?|
She hesitated a moment, then asked, in return, |Is the property near Rome a residence?|
|It is beautiful -- a palace in the midst of gardens and shell-strewn walks; fountains without and within; statuary in the shady nooks; hills around covered with vines, and so high that Neapolis and Vesuvius are in sight, and the sea an expanse of purpling blue dotted with restless sails. Caesar has a country-seat near-by, but in Rome they say the old Arrian villa is the prettiest.|
|And the life there, is it quiet?|
|There was never a summer day, never a moonlit night, more quiet, save when visitors come. Now that the old owner is gone, and I am here, there is nothing to break its silence -- nothing, unless it be the whispering of servants, or the whistling of happy birds, or the noise of fountains at play; it is changeless, except as day by day old flowers fade and fall, and new ones bud and bloom, and the sunlight gives place to the shadow of a passing cloud. The life, Esther, was all too quiet for me. It made me restless by keeping always present a feeling that I, who have so much to do, was dropping into idle habits, and tying myself with silken chains, and after a while -- and not a long while either -- would end with nothing done.|
She looked off over the river.
|Why did you ask?| he said.
|Good my master -- |
|No, no, Esther -- not that. Call me friend -- brother, if you will; I am not your master, and will not be. Call me brother.|
He could not see the flush of pleasure which reddened her face, and the glow of the eyes that went out lost in the void above the river.
|I cannot understand,| she said, |the nature which prefers the life you are going to -- a life of -- |
|Of violence, and it may be of blood,| he said, completing the sentence.
|Yes,| she added, |the nature which could prefer that life to such as might be in the beautiful villa.|
|Esther, you mistake. There is no preference. Alas! the Roman is not so kind. I am going of necessity. To stay here is to die; and if I go there, the end will be the same -- a poisoned cup, a bravo's blow, or a judge's sentence obtained by perjury. Messala and the procurator Gratus are rich with plunder of my father's estate, and it is more important to them to keep their gains now than was their getting in the first instance. A peaceable settlement is out of reach, because of the confession it would imply. And then -- then -- Ah, Esther, if I could buy them, I do not know that I would. I do not believe peace possible to me; no, not even in the sleepy shade and sweet air of the marble porches of the old villa -- no matter who might be there to help me bear the burden of the days, nor by what patience of love she made the effort. Peace is not possible to me while my people are lost, for I must be watchful to find them. If I find them, and they have suffered wrong, shall not the guilty suffer for it? If they are dead by violence, shall the murderers escape? Oh, I could not sleep for dreams! Nor could the holiest love, by any stratagem, lull me to a rest which conscience would not strangle.|
|Is it so bad then?| she asked, her voice tremulous with feeling. |Can nothing, nothing, be done?|
Ben-Hur took her hand.
|Do you care so much for me?|
|Yes,| she answered, simply.
The hand was warm, and in the palm of his it was lost. He felt it tremble. Then the Egyptian came, so the opposite of this little one; so tall, so audacious, with a flattery so cunning, a wit so ready, a beauty so wonderful, a manner so bewitching. He carried the hand to his lips, and gave it back.
|You shall be another Tirzah to me, Esther.|
|Who is Tirzah?|
|The little sister the Roman stole from me, and whom I must find before I can rest or be happy.|
Just then a gleam of light flashed athwart the terrace and fell upon the two; and, looking round, they saw a servant roll Simonides in his chair out of the door. They went to the merchant, and in the after-talk he was principal.
Immediately the lines of the galley were cast off, and she swung round, and, midst the flashing of torches and the shouting of joyous sailors, hurried off to the sea -- leaving Ben-Hur committed to the cause of the KING WHO WAS TO COME.