The caravan, stretched out upon the Desert, was very picturesque; in motion, however, it was like a lazy serpent. By-and-by its stubborn dragging became intolerably irksome to Balthasar, patient as he was; so, at his suggestion, the party determined to go on by themselves.
If the reader be young, or if he has yet a sympathetic recollection of the romanticisms of his youth, he will relish the pleasure with which Ben-Hur, riding near the camel of the Egyptians, gave a last look at the head of the straggling column almost out of sight on the shimmering plain.
To be definite as may be, and perfectly confidential, Ben-Hur found a certain charm in Iras's presence. If she looked down upon him from her high place, he made haste to get near her; if she spoke to him, his heart beat out of its usual time. The desire to be agreeable to her was a constant impulse. Objects on the way, though ever so common, became interesting the moment she called attention to them; a black swallow in the air pursued by her pointing finger went off in a halo; if a bit of quartz or a flake of mica was seen to sparkle in the drab sand under kissing of the sun, at a word he turned aside and brought it to her; and if she threw it away in disappointment, far from thinking of the trouble he had been put to, he was sorry it proved so worthless, and kept a lookout for something better -- a ruby, perchance a diamond. So the purple of the far mountains became intensely deep and rich if she distinguished it with an exclamation of praise; and when, now and then, the curtain of the houdah fell down, it seemed a sudden dulness had dropped from the sky bedraggling all the landscape. Thus disposed, yielding to the sweet influence, what shall save him from the dangers there are in days of the close companionship with the fair Egyptian incident to the solitary journey they were entered upon?
For that there is no logic in love, nor the least mathematical element, it is simply natural that she shall fashion the result who has the wielding of the influence.
To quicken the conclusion, there were signs, too, that she well knew the influence she was exercising over him. From some place under hand she had since morning drawn a caul of golden coins, and adjusted it so the gleaming strings fell over her forehead and upon her cheeks, blending lustrously with the flowing of her blue-black hair. From the same safe deposit she had also produced articles of jewelry -- rings for finger and ear, bracelets, a necklace of pearls -- also, a shawl embroidered with threads of fine gold -- the effect of all which she softened with a scarf of Indian lace skillfully folded about her throat and shoulders. And so arrayed, she plied Ben-Hur with countless coquetries of speech and manner; showering him with smiles; laughing in flute-like tremolo -- and all the while following him with glances, now melting-tender, now sparkling-bright. By such play Antony was weaned from his glory; yet she who wrought his ruin was really not half so beautiful as this her countrywoman.
And so to them the nooning came, and the evening.
The sun at its going down behind a spur of the old Bashan, left the party halted by a pool of clear water of the rains out in the Abilene Desert. There the tent was pitched, the supper eaten, and preparations made for the night.
The second watch was Ben-Hur's; and he was standing, spear in hand, within arm-reach of the dozing camel, looking awhile at the stars, then over the veiled land. The stillness was intense; only after long spells a warm breath of wind would sough past, but without disturbing him, for yet in thought he entertained the Egyptian, recounting her charms, and sometimes debating how she came by his secrets, the uses she might make of them, and the course he should pursue with her. And through all the debate Love stood off but a little way -- a strong temptation, the stronger of a gleam of policy behind. At the very moment he was most inclined to yield to the allurement, a hand very fair even in the moonless gloaming was laid softly upon his shoulder. The touch thrilled him; he started, turned -- and she was there.
|I thought you asleep,| he said, presently.
|Sleep is for old people and little children, and I came out to look at my friends, the stars in the south -- those now holding the curtains of midnight over the Nile. But confess yourself surprised!|
He took the hand which had fallen from his shoulder, and said, |Well, was it by an enemy?|
|Oh no! To be an enemy is to hate, and hating is a sickness which Isis will not suffer to come near me. She kissed me, you should know, on the heart when I was a child.|
|Your speech does not sound in the least like your father's. Are you not of his faith?|
|I might have been| -- and she laughed low -- |I might have been had I seen what he has. I may be when I get old like him. There should be no religion for youth, only poetry and philosophy; and no poetry except such as is the inspiration of wine and mirth and love, and no philosophy that does not nod excuse for follies which cannot outlive a season. My father's God is too awful for me. I failed to find him in the Grove of Daphne. He was never heard of as present in the atria of Rome. But, son of Hur, I have a wish.|
|A wish! Where is he who could say it no?|
|I will try you.|
|Tell it then.|
|It is very simple. I wish to help you.|
She drew closer as she spoke.
He laughed, and replied, lightly, |O Egypt! -- I came near saying dear Egypt! -- does not the sphinx abide in your country?|
|You are one of its riddles. Be merciful, and give me a little clew to help me understand you. In what do I need help? And how can you help me?|
She took her hand from him, and, turning to the camel, spoke to it endearingly, and patted its monstrous head as it were a thing of beauty.
|O thou last and swiftest and stateliest of the herds of Job! Sometimes thou, too, goest stumbling, because the way is rough and stony and the burden grievous. How is it thou knowest the kind intent by a word; and always makest answer gratefully, though the help offered is from a woman? I will kiss thee, thou royal brute!| -- she stooped and touched its broad forehead with her lips, saying immediately, |because in thy intelligence there is no suspicion!|
And Ben-Hur, restraining himself, said calmly, |The reproach has not failed its mark, O Egypt! I seem to say thee no; may it not be because I am under seal of honor, and by my silence cover the lives and fortunes of others?|
|May be!| she said, quickly. |It is so.|
He shrank a step, and asked, his voice sharp with amazement, |What all knowest thou?|
She answered, after a laugh,
|Why do men deny that the senses of women are sharper than theirs? Your face has been under my eyes all day. I had but to look at it to see you bore some weight in mind; and to find the weight, what had I to do more than recall your debates with my father? Son of Hur!| -- she lowered her voice with singular dexterity, and, going nearer, spoke so her breath was warm upon his cheek -- |son of Hur! he thou art going to find is to be King of the Jews, is he not?|
His heart beat fast and hard.
|A King of the Jews like Herod, only greater,| she continued.
He looked away -- into the night, up to the stars; then his eyes met hers, and lingered there; and her breath was on his lips, so near was she.
|Since morning,| she said, further, |we have been having visions. Now if I tell you mine, will you serve me as well? What! silent still?|
She pushed his hand away, and turned as if to go; but he caught her, and said, eagerly, |Stay -- stay and speak!|
She went back, and with her hand upon his shoulder, leaned against him; and he put his arm around her, and drew her close, very close; and in the caress was the promise she asked.
|Speak, and tell me thy visions, O Egypt, dear Egypt! A prophet -- nay, not the Tishbite, not even the Lawgiver -- could have refused an asking of thine. I am at thy will. Be merciful -- merciful, I pray.|
The entreaty passed apparently unheard, for looking up and nestling in his embrace, she said, slowly, |The vision which followed me was of magnificent war -- war on land and sea -- with clashing of arms and rush of armies, as if Caesar and Pompey were come again, and Octavius and Antony. A cloud of dust and ashes arose and covered the world, and Rome was not any more; all dominion returned to the East; out of the cloud issued another race of heroes; and there were vaster satrapies and brighter crowns for giving away than were ever known. And, son of Hur, while the vision was passing, and after it was gone, I kept asking myself, 'What shall he not have who served the King earliest and best?'|
Again Ben-Hur recoiled. The question was the very question which had been with him all day. Presently he fancied he had the clew he wanted.
|So,| he said, |I have you now. The satrapies and crowns are the things to which you would help me. I see, I see! And there never was such queen as you would be, so shrewd, so beautiful, so royal -- never! But, alas, dear Egypt! by the vision as you show it me the prizes are all of war, and you are but a woman, though Isis did kiss you on the heart. And crowns are starry gifts beyond your power of help, unless, indeed, you have a way to them more certain than that of the sword. If so, O Egypt, Egypt, show it me, and I will walk in it, if only for your sake.|
She removed his arm, and said, |Spread your cloak upon the sand -- here, so I can rest against the camel. I will sit, and tell you a story which came down the Nile to Alexandria, where I had it.|
He did as she said, first planting the spear in the ground near by.
|And what shall I do?| he said, ruefully, when she was seated. |In Alexandria is it customary for the listeners to sit or stand?|
From the comfortable place against the old domestic she answered, laughing, |The audiences of story-tellers are wilful, and sometimes they do as they please.|
Without more ado he stretched himself upon the sand, and put her arm about his neck.
|I am ready,| he said.
And directly she began:
HOW THE BEAUTIFUL CAME TO THE EARTH.
|You must know, in the first place, that Isis was -- and, for that matter, she may yet be -- the most beautiful of deities; and Osiris, her husband, though wise and powerful, was sometimes stung with jealousy of her, for only in their loves are the gods like mortals.
|The palace of the Divine Wife was of silver, crowning the tallest mountain in the moon, and thence she passed often to the sun, in the heart of which, a source of eternal light, Osiris kept his palace of gold too shining for men to look at.
|One time -- there are no days with the gods -- while she was full pleasantly with him on the roof of the golden palace, she chanced to look, and afar, just on the line of the universe, saw Indra passing with an army of simians, all borne upon the backs of flying eagles. He, the Friend of Living Things -- so with much love is Indra called -- was returning from his final war with the hideous Rakshakas -- returning victorious; and in his suite were Rama, the hero, and Sita, his bride, who, next to Isis herself, was the very most beautiful. And Isis arose, and took off her girdle of stars, and waved it to Sita -- to Sita, mind you -- waved it in glad salute. And instantly, between the marching host and the two on the golden roof, a something as of night fell, and shut out the view; but it was not night -- only the frown of Osiris.
|It happened the subject of his speech that moment was such as none else than they could think of; and he arose, and said, majestically, 'Get thee home. I will do the work myself. To make a perfectly happy being I do not need thy help. Get thee gone.'
|Now Isis had eyes large as those of the white cow which in the temple eats sweet grasses from the hands of the faithful even while they say their prayers; and her eyes were the color of the cows, and quite as tender. And she too arose and said, smiling as she spoke, so her look was little more than the glow of the moon in the hazy harvest-month, 'Farewell, good my lord. You will call me presently, I know; for without me you cannot make the perfectly happy creature of which you were thinking, any more' -- and she stopped to laugh, knowing well the truth of the saying -- 'any more, my lord, than you yourself can be perfectly happy without me.'
|'We will see,' he said.
|And she went her way, and took her needles and her chair, and on the roof of the silver palace sat watching and knitting.
|And the will of Osiris, at labor in his mighty breast, was as the sound of the mills of all the other gods grinding at once, so loud that the near stars rattled like seeds in a parched pod; and some dropped out and were lost. And while the sound kept on she waited and knit; nor lost she ever a stitch the while.
|Soon a spot appeared in the space over towards the sun; and it grew until it was great as the moon, and then she knew a world was intended; but when, growing and growing, at last it cast her planet in the shade, all save the little point lighted by her presence, she knew how very angry he was; yet she knit away, assured that the end would be as she had said.
|And so came the earth, at first but a cold gray mass hanging listless in the hollow void. Later she saw it separate into divisions; here a plain, there a mountain, yonder a sea, all as yet without a sparkle. And then, by a river-bank, something moved; and she stopped her knitting for wonder. The something arose, and lifted its hands to the sun in sign of knowledge whence it had its being. And this First Man was beautiful to see. And about him were the creations we call nature -- the grass, the trees, birds, beasts, even the insects and reptiles.
|And for a time the man went about happy in his life: it was easy to see how happy he was. And in the lull of the sound of the laboring will Isis heard a scornful laugh, and presently the words, blown across from the sun,
|'Thy help, indeed! Behold a creature perfectly happy!'
|And Isis fell to knitting again, for she was patient as Osiris was strong; and if he could work, she could wait; and wait she did, knowing that mere life is not enough to keep anything content.
|And sure enough. Not long until the Divine Wife could see a change in the man. He grew listless, and kept to one place prone by the river, and looked up but seldom, and then always with a moody face. Interest was dying in him. And when she made sure of it, even while she was saying to herself, 'The creature is sick of his being,' there was a roar of the creative will at work again, and in a twinkling the earth, theretofore all a thing of coldest gray, flamed with colors; the mountains swam in purple, the plains bearing grass and trees turned green, the sea blue, and the clouds varied infinitely.|
And the man sprang up and clapped his hands, for he was cured and happy again.
|And Isis smiled, and knit away, saying to herself, 'It was well thought, and will do a little while; but mere beauty in a world is not enough for such a being. My lord must try again.'
|With the last word, the thunder of the will at work shook the moon, and, looking, Isis dropped her knitting and clapped her hands; for theretofore everything on the earth but the man had been fixed to a given place; now all living, and much that was not living, received the gift of Motion. The birds took to wing joyously; beasts great and small went about, each in its way; the trees shook their verdurous branches, nodding to the enamoured winds; the rivers ran to the seas, and the seas tossed in their beds and rolled in crested waves, and with surging and ebbing painted the shores with glistening foam; and over all the clouds floated like sailed ships unanchored.
|And the man rose up happy as a child; whereat Osiris was pleased, so that he shouted, 'Ha, ha! See how well I am doing without thee!'
|The good wife took up her work, and answered ever so quietly, 'It was well thought, my lord -- ever so well thought -- and will serve awhile.'
|And as before, so again. The sight of things in motion became to the man as of course. The birds in flight, the rivers running, the seas in tumult of action, ceased to amuse him, and he pined again even worse.
|And Isis waited, saying to herself, 'Poor creature! He is more wretched than ever.'
|And, as if he heard the thought, Osiris stirred, and the noise of his will shook the universe; the sun in its central seat alone stood firm. And Isis looked, but saw no change; then while she was smiling, assured that her lord's last invention was sped, suddenly the creature arose, and seemed to listen; and his face brightened, and he clapped his hands for joy, for Sounds were heard the first time on earth -- sounds dissonant, sounds harmonious. The winds murmured in the trees; the birds sang, each kind a song of its own, or chattered in speech; the rivulets running to the rivers became so many harpers with harps of silver strings all tinkling together; and the rivers running to the seas surged on in solemn accord, while the seas beat the land to a tune of thunder. There was music, music everywhere, and all the time; so the man could not but be happy.
|Then Isis mused, thinking how well, how wondrous well, her lord was doing; but presently she shook her head: Color, Motion, Sound -- and she repeated them slowly -- there was no element else of beauty except Form and Light, and to them the earth had been born. Now, indeed, Osiris was done; and if the creature should again fall off into wretchedness, her help must be asked; and her fingers flew -- two, three, five, even ten stitches she took at once.
|And the man was happy a long time -- longer than ever before; it seemed, indeed, he would never tire again. But Isis knew better; and she waited and waited, nor minded the many laughs flung at her from the sun; she waited and waited, and at last saw signs of the end. Sounds became familiar to him, and in their range, from the chirruping of the cricket under the roses to the roar of the seas and the bellow of the clouds in storm, there was not anything unusual. And he pined and sickened, and sought his place of moping by the river, and at last fell down motionless.
|Then Isis in pity spoke.
|'My lord,' she said, 'the creature is dying.'
|But Osiris, though seeing it all, held his peace; he could do no more.
|'Shall I help him?' she asked.
|Osiris was too proud to speak.
|Then Isis took the last stitch in her knitting, and gathering her work in a roll of brilliance flung it off -- flung it so it fell close to the man. And he, hearing the sound of the fall so near by, looked up, and lo! a Woman -- the First Woman -- was stooping to help him! She reached a hand to him; he caught it and arose; and nevermore was miserable, but evermore happy.|
|Such, O son of Hur! is the genesis of the beautiful, as they tell it on the Nile.|
|A pretty invention, and cunning,| he said, directly; |but it is imperfect. What did Osiris afterwards?|
|Oh yes,| she replied. |He called the Divine Wife back to the sun, and they went on all pleasantly together, each helping the other.|
|And shall I not do as the first man?|
He carried the hand resting upon his neck to his lips. |In love -- in love!| he said.
His head dropped softly into her lap.
|You will find the King,| she said, placing her other hand caressingly upon his head. |You will go on and find the King and serve him. With your sword you will earn his richest gifts; and his best soldier will be my hero.|
He turned his face, and saw hers close above. In all the sky there was that moment nothing so bright to him as her eyes, enshadowed though they were. Presently he sat up, and put his arms about her, and kissed her passionately, saying, |O Egypt, Egypt! If the King has crowns in gift, one shall be mine; and I will bring it and put it here over the place my lips have marked. You shall be a queen -- my queen -- no one more beautiful! And we will be ever, ever so happy!|
|And you will tell me everything, and let me help you in all?| she said, kissing him in return.
The question chilled his fervor.
|Is it not enough that I love you?| he asked.
|Perfect love means perfect faith,| she replied. |But never mind -- you will know me better.|
She took her hand from him and arose.
|You are cruel,| he said.
Moving away, she stopped by the camel, and touched its front face with her lips.
|O thou noblest of thy kind! -- that, because there is no suspicion in thy love.|
An instant, and she was gone.