Evening was hardly come upon Antioch, when the Omphalus, nearly in the centre of the city, became a troubled fountain from which in every direction, but chiefly down to the Nymphaeum and east and west along the Colonnade of Herod, flowed currents of people, for the time given up to Bacchus and Apollo.
For such indulgence anything more fitting cannot be imagined than the great roofed streets, which were literally miles on miles of porticos wrought of marble, polished to the last degree of finish, and all gifts to the voluptuous city by princes careless of expenditure where, as in this instance, they thought they were eternizing themselves. Darkness was not permitted anywhere; and the singing, the laughter, the shouting, were incessant, and in compound like the roar of waters dashing through hollow grots, confused by a multitude of echoes.
The many nationalities represented, though they might have amazed a stranger, were not peculiar to Antioch. Of the various missions of the great empire, one seems to have been the fusion of men and the introduction of strangers to each other; accordingly, whole peoples rose up and went at pleasure, taking with them their costumes, customs, speech, and gods; and where they chose, they stopped, engaged in business, built houses, erected altars, and were what they had been at home.
There was a peculiarity, however, which could not have failed the notice of a looker-on this night in Antioch. Nearly everybody wore the colors of one or other of the charioteers announced for the morrow's race. Sometimes it was in form of a scarf, sometimes a badge; often a ribbon or a feather. Whatever the form, it signified merely the wearer's partiality; thus, green published a friend of Cleanthes the Athenian, and black an adherent of the Byzantine. This was according to a custom, old probably as the day of the race of Orestes -- a custom, by the way, worthy of study as a marvel of history, illustrative of the absurd yet appalling extremities to which men frequently suffer their follies to drag them.
The observer abroad on this occasion, once attracted to the wearing of colors, would have very shortly decided that there were three in predominance -- green, white, and the mixed scarlet and gold.
But let us from the streets to the palace on the island.
The five great chandeliers in the saloon are freshly lighted. The assemblage is much the same as that already noticed in connection with the place. The divan has its corps of sleepers and burden of garments, and the tables yet resound with the rattle and clash of dice. Yet the greater part of the company are not doing anything. They walk about, or yawn tremendously, or pause as they pass each other to exchange idle nothings. Will the weather be fair to-morrow? Are the preparations for the games complete? Do the laws of the Circus in Antioch differ from the laws of the Circus in Rome? Truth is, the young fellows are suffering from ennui. Their heavy work is done; that is, we would find their tablets, could we look at them, covered with memoranda of wagers -- wagers on every contest; on the running, the wrestling, the boxing; on everything but the chariot-race.
And why not on that?
Good reader, they cannot find anybody who will hazard so much as a denarius with them against Messala.
There are no colors in the saloon but his.
No one thinks of his defeat.
Why, they say, is he not perfect in his training? Did he not graduate from an imperial lanista? Were not his horses winners at the Circensian in the Circus Maximus? And then -- ah, yes! he is a Roman!
In a corner, at ease on the divan, Messala himself may be seen. Around him, sitting or standing, are his courtierly admirers, plying him with questions. There is, of course, but one topic.
Enter Drusus and Cecilius.
|Ah!| cries the young prince, throwing himself on the divan at Messala's feet, |Ah, by Bacchus, I am tired!|
|Whither away?| asks Messala.
|Up the street; up to the Omphalus, and beyond -- who shall say how far? Rivers of people; never so many in the city before. They say we will see the whole world at the Circus to-morrow.|
Messala laughed scornfully.
|The idiots! Perpol! They never beheld a Circensian with Caesar for editor. But, my Drusus, what found you?|
|O -- ah! You forget,| said Cecilius.
|What?| asked Drusus.
|The procession of whites.|
|Mirabile!| cried Drusus, half rising. |We met a faction of whites, and they had a banner. But -- ha, ha, ha!|
He fell back indolently.
|Cruel Drusus -- not to go on,| said Messala.
|Scum of the desert were they, my Messala, and garbage-eaters from the Jacob's Temple in Jerusalem. What had I to do with them!|
|Nay,| said Cecilius, |Drusus is afraid of a laugh, but I am not, my Messala.|
|Speak thou, then.|
|Well, we stopped the faction, and -- |
|Offered them a wager,| said Drusus, relenting, and taking the word from the shadow's mouth. |And -- ha, ha, ha! -- one fellow with not enough skin on his face to make a worm for a carp stepped forth, and -- ha, ha, ha! -- said yes. I drew my tablets. 'Who is your man?' I asked. 'Ben-Hur, the Jew,' said he. Then I: 'What shall it be? How much?' He answered, 'A -- a -- ' Excuse me, Messala. By Jove's thunder, I cannot go on for laughter! Ha, ha, ha!|
The listeners leaned forward.
Messala looked to Cecilius.
|A shekel,| said the latter.
|A shekel! A shekel!|
A burst of scornful laughter ran fast upon the repetition.
|And what did Drusus?| asked Messala.
An outcry over about the door just then occasioned a rush to that quarter; and, as the noise there continued, and grew louder, even Cecilius betook himself off, pausing only to say, |The noble Drusus, my Messala, put up his tablets and -- lost the shekel.|
|A white! A white!|
|Let him come!|
|This way, this way!|
These and like exclamations filled the saloon, to the stoppage of other speech. The dice-players quit their games; the sleepers awoke, rubbed their eyes, drew their tablets, and hurried to the common centre.
|I offer you -- |
|And I -- |
|I -- |
The person so warmly received was the respectable Jew, Ben-Hur's fellow-voyager from Cyprus. He entered grave, quiet, observant. His robe was spotlessly white; so was the cloth of his turban. Bowing and smiling at the welcome, he moved slowly towards the central table. Arrived there, he drew his robe about him in a stately manner, took seat, and waved his hand. The gleam of a jewel on a finger helped him not a little to the silence which ensued.
|Romans -- most noble Romans -- I salute you!| he said.
|Easy, by Jupiter! Who is he?| asked Drusus.
|A dog of Israel -- Sanballat by name -- purveyor for the army; residence, Rome; vastly rich; grown so as a contractor of furnishments which he never furnishes. He spins mischiefs, nevertheless, finer than spiders spin their webs. Come -- by the girdle of Venus! let us catch him!|
Messala arose as he spoke, and, with Drusus, joined the mass crowded about the purveyor.
|It came to me on the street,| said that person, producing his tablets, and opening them on the table with an impressive air of business, |that there was great discomfort in the palace because offers on Messala were going without takers. The gods, you know, must have sacrifices; and here am I. You see my color; let us to the matter. Odds first, amounts next. What will you give me?|
The audacity seemed to stun his hearers.
|Haste!| he said. |I have an engagement with the consul.|
The spur was effective.
|Two to one,| cried half a dozen in a voice.
|What!| exclaimed the purveyor, astonished. |Only two to one, and yours a Roman!|
|Take three, then.|
|Three say you -- only three -- and mine but a dog of a Jew! Give me four.|
|Four it is,| said a boy, stung by the taunt.
|Five -- give me five,| cried the purveyor, instantly.
A profound stillness fell upon the assemblage.
|The consul -- your master and mine -- is waiting for me.|
The inaction became awkward to the many.
|Give me five -- for the honor of Rome, five.|
|Five let it be,| said one in answer.
There was a sharp cheer -- a commotion -- and Messala himself appeared.
|Five let it be,| he said.
And Sanballat smiled, and made ready to write.
|If Caesar die to-morrow,| he said, |Rome will not be all bereft. There is at least one other with spirit to take his place. Give me six.|
|Six be it,| answered Messala.
There was another shout louder than the first.
|Six be it,| repeated Messala. |Six to one -- the difference between a Roman and a Jew. And, having found it, now, O redemptor of the flesh of swine, let us on. The amount -- and quickly. The consul may send for thee, and I will then be bereft.|
Sanballat took the laugh against him coolly, and wrote, and offered the writing to Messala.
|Read, read!| everybody demanded.
And Messala read:
|Mem. -- Chariot-race. Messala of Rome, in wager with Sanballat, also of Rome, says he will beat Ben-Hur, the Jew. Amount of wager, twenty talents. Odds to Sanballat, six to one.
There was no noise, no motion. Each person seemed held in the pose the reading found him. Messala stared at the memorandum, while the eyes which had him in view opened wide, and stared at him. He felt the gaze, and thought rapidly. So lately he stood in the same place, and in the same way hectored the countrymen around him. They would remember it. If he refused to sign, his hero-ship was lost. And sign he could not; he was not worth one hundred talents, nor the fifth part of the sum. Suddenly his mind became a blank; he stood speechless; the color fled his face. An idea at last came to his relief.
|Thou Jew!| he said, |where hast thou twenty talents? Show me.|
Sanballat's provoking smile deepened.
|There,| he replied, offering Messala a paper.
|Read, read!| arose all around.
Again Messala read:
|AT ANTIOCH, Tammuz 16th day.
|The bearer, Sanballat of Rome, hath now to his order with me fifty talents, coin of Caesar.
|Fifty talents, fifty talents!| echoed the throng, in amazement.
Then Drusus came to the rescue.
|By Hercules!| he shouted, |the paper lies, and the Jew is a liar. Who but Caesar hath fifty talents at order? Down with the insolent white!|
The cry was angry, and it was angrily repeated; yet Sanballat kept his seat, and his smile grew more exasperating the longer he waited. At length Messala spoke.
|Hush! One to one, my countrymen -- one to one, for love of our ancient Roman name.|
The timely action recovered him his ascendancy.
|O thou circumcised dog!| he continued, to Sanballat, |I gave thee six to one, did I not?|
|Yes,| said the Jew, quietly.
|Well, give me now the fixing of the amount.|
|With reserve, if the amount be trifling, have thy will,| answered Sanballat.
|Write, then, five in place of twenty.|
|Hast thou so much?|
|By the mother of the gods, I will show you receipts.|
|Nay, the word of so brave a Roman must pass. Only make the sum even -- six make it, and I will write.|
|Write it so.|
And forthwith they exchanged writings.
Sanballat immediately arose and looked around him, a sneer in place of his smile. No man better than he knew those with whom he was dealing.
|Romans,| he said, |another wager, if you dare! Five talents against five talents that the white will win. I challenge you collectively.|
They were again surprised.
|What!| he cried, louder. |Shall it be said in the Circus to-morrow that a dog of Israel went into the saloon of the palace full of Roman nobles -- among them the scion of a Caesar -- and laid five talents before them in challenge, and they had not the courage to take it up?|
The sting was unendurable.
|Have done, O insolent!| said Drusus, |write the challenge, and leave it on the table; and to-morrow, if we find thou hast indeed so much money to put at such hopeless hazard, I, Drusus, promise it shall be taken.|
Sanballat wrote again, and, rising, said, unmoved as ever, |See, Drusus, I leave the offer with you. When it is signed, send it to me any time before the race begins. I will be found with the consul in a seat over the Porta Pompae. Peace to you; peace to all.|
He bowed, and departed, careless of the shout of derision with which they pursued him out of the door.
In the night the story of the prodigious wager flew along the streets and over the city; and Ben-Hur, lying with his four, was told of it, and also that Messala's whole fortune was on the hazard.
And he slept never so soundly.