Ben-Hur alighted at the gate of the khan from which the three Wise Men more than thirty years before departed, going down to Bethlehem. There, in keeping of his Arab followers, he left the horse, and shortly after was at the wicket of his father's house, and in a yet briefer space in the great chamber. He called for Malluch first; that worthy being out, he sent a salutation to his friends the merchant and the Egyptian. They were being carried abroad to see the celebration. The latter, he was informed, was very feeble, and in a state of deep dejection.
Young people of that time who were supposed hardly to know their own hearts indulged the habit of politic indirection quite as much as young people in the same condition indulge it in this time; so when Ben-Hur inquired for the good Balthasar, and with grave courtesy desired to know if he would be pleased to see him, he really addressed the daughter a notice of his arrival. While the servant was answering for the elder, the curtain of the doorway was drawn aside, and the younger Egyptian came in, and walked -- or floated, upborne in a white cloud of the gauzy raiment she so loved and lived in -- to the centre of the chamber, where the light cast by lamps from the seven-armed brazen stick planted upon the floor was the strongest. With her there was no fear of light.
The servant left the two alone.
In the excitement occasioned by the events of the few days past Ben-Hur had scarcely given a thought to the fair Egyptian. If she came to his mind at all, it was merely as a briefest pleasure, a suggestion of a delight which could wait for him, and was waiting.
But now the influence of the woman revived with all its force the instant Ben-Hur beheld her. He advanced to her eagerly, but stopped and gazed. Such a change he had never seen!
Theretofore she had been a lover studious to win him -- in manner all warmth, each glance an admission, each action an avowal. She had showered him with incense of flattery. While he was present, she had impressed him with her admiration; going away, he carried the impression with him to remain a delicious expectancy hastening his return. It was for him the painted eyelids drooped lowest over the lustrous almond eyes; for him the love-stories caught from the professionals abounding in the streets of Alexandria were repeated with emphasis and lavishment of poetry; for him endless exclamations of sympathy, and smiles, and little privileges with hand and hair and cheek and lips, and songs of the Nile, and displays of jewelry, and subtleties of lace in veils and scarfs, and other subtleties not less exquisite in flosses of Indian silk. The idea, old as the oldest of peoples, that beauty is the reward of the hero had never such realism as she contrived for his pleasure; insomuch that he could not doubt he was her hero; she avouched it in a thousand artful ways as natural with her as her beauty -- winsome ways reserved, it would seem, by the passionate genius of old Egypt for its daughters.
Such the Egyptian had been to Ben-Hur from the night of the boat-ride on the lake in the Orchard of Palms. But now!
Elsewhere in this volume the reader may have observed a term of somewhat indefinite meaning used reverently in a sacred connection; we repeat it now with a general application. There are few persons who have not a double nature, the real and the acquired; the latter a kind of addendum resulting from education, which in time often perfects it into a part of the being as unquestionable as the first. Leaving the thought to the thoughtful, we proceed to say that now the real nature of the Egyptian made itself manifest.
It was not possible for her to have received a stranger with repulsion more incisive; yet she was apparently as passionless as a statue, only the small head was a little tilted, the nostrils a little drawn, and the sensuous lower lip pushed the upper the least bit out of its natural curvature.
She was the first to speak.
|Your coming is timely, O son of Hur,| she said, in a voice sharply distinct. |I wish to thank you for hospitality; after to-morrow I may not have the opportunity to do so.|
Ben-Hur bowed slightly without taking his eyes from her.
|I have heard of a custom which the dice-players observe with good result among themselves,| she continued. |When the game is over, they refer to their tablets and cast up their accounts; then they libate the gods and put a crown upon the happy winner. We have had a game -- it has lasted through many days and nights. Why, now that it is at an end, shall not we see to which the chaplet belongs?|
Yet very watchful, Ben-Hur answered, lightly, |A man may not balk a woman bent on having her way.|
|Tell me,| she continued, inclining her head, and permitting the sneer to become positive -- |tell me, O prince of Jerusalem, where is he, that son of the carpenter of Nazareth, and son not less of God, from whom so lately such mighty things were expected?|
He waved his hand impatiently, and replied, |I am not his keeper.|
The beautiful head sank forward yet lower.
|Has he broken Rome to pieces?|
Again, but with anger, Ben-Hur raised his hand in deprecation.
|Where has he seated his capital?| she proceeded. |Cannot I go see his throne and its lions of bronze? And his palace -- he raised the dead; and to such a one, what is it to raise a golden house? He has but to stamp his foot and say the word, and the house is, pillared like Karnak, and wanting nothing.|
There was by this time slight ground left to believe her playing; the questions were offensive, and her manner pointed with unfriendliness; seeing which, he on his side became more wary, and said, with good humor, |O Egypt, let us wait another day, even another week, for him, the lions, and the palace.|
She went on without noticing the suggestion.
|And how is it I see you in that garb? Such is not the habit of governors in India or vice-kings elsewhere. I saw the satrap of Teheran once, and he wore a turban of silk and a cloak of cloth of gold, and the hilt and scabbard of his sword made me dizzy with their splendor of precious stones. I thought Osiris had lent him a glory from the sun. I fear you have not entered upon your kingdom -- the kingdom I was to share with you.|
|The daughter of my wise guest is kinder than she imagines herself; she is teaching me that Isis may kiss a heart without making it better.|
Ben-Hur spoke with cold courtesy, and Iras, after playing with the pendent solitaire of her necklace of coins, rejoined, |For a Jew, the son of Hur is clever. I saw your dreaming Caesar make his entry into Jerusalem. You told us he would that day proclaim himself King of the Jews from the steps of the Temple. I beheld the procession descend the mountain bringing him. I heard their singing. They were beautiful with palms in motion. I looked everywhere among them for a figure with a promise of royalty -- a horseman in purple, a chariot with a driver in shining brass, a stately warrior behind an orbed shield, rivalling his spear in stature. I looked for his guard. It would have been pleasant to have seen a prince of Jerusalem and a cohort of the legions of Galilee.|
She flung her listener a glance of provoking disdain, then laughed heartily, as if the ludicrousness of the picture in her mind were too strong for contempt.
|Instead of a Sesostris returning in triumph or a Caesar helmed and sworded -- ha, ha, ha! -- I saw a man with a woman's face and hair, riding an ass's colt, and in tears. The King! the Son of God! the Redeemer of the world! Ha, ha, ha!|
In spite of himself, Ben-Hur winced.
|I did not quit my place, O prince of Jerusalem,| she said, before he could recover. |I did not laugh. I said to myself, 'Wait. In the Temple he will glorify himself as becomes a hero about to take possession of the world.' I saw him enter the Gate of Shushan and the Court of the Women. I saw him stop and stand before the Gate Beautiful. There were people with me on the porch and in the courts, and on the cloisters and on the steps of the three sides of the Temple there were other people -- I will say a million of people, all waiting breathlessly to hear his proclamation. The pillars were not more still than we. Ha, ha, ha! I fancied I heard the axles of the mighty Roman machine begin to crack. Ha, ha, ha! O prince, by the soul of Solomon, your King of the World drew his gown about him and walked away, and out by the farthest gate, nor opened his mouth to say a word; and -- the Roman machine is running yet!|
In simple homage to a hope that instant lost -- a hope which, as it began to fall and while it was falling, he unconsciously followed with a parting look down to its disappearance -- Ben-Hur lowered his eyes.
At no previous time, whether when Balthasar was plying him with arguments, or when miracles were being done before his face, had the disputed nature of the Nazarene been so plainly set before him. The best way, after all, to reach an understanding of the divine is by study of the human. In the things superior to men we may always look to find God. So with the picture given by the Egyptian of the scene when the Nazarene turned from the Gate Beautiful; its central theme was an act utterly beyond performance by a man under control of merely human inspirations. A parable to a parable-loving people, it taught what the Christ had so often asserted -- that his mission was not political. There was not much more time for thought of all this than that allowed for a common respiration; yet the idea took fast hold of Ben-Hur, and in the same instant he followed his hope of vengeance out of sight, and the man with the woman's face and hair, and in tears, came near to him -- near enough to leave something of his spirit behind.
|Daughter of Balthasar,| he said, with dignity, |if this be the game of which you spoke to me, take the chaplet -- I accord it yours. Only let us make an end of words. That you have a purpose I am sure. To it, I pray, and I will answer you; then let us go our several ways, and forget we ever met. Say on; I will listen, but not to more of that which you have given me.|
She regarded him intently a moment, as if determining what to do -- possibly she might have been measuring his will -- then she said, coldly, |You have my leave -- go.|
|Peace to you,| he responded, and walked away.
As he was about passing out of the door, she called to him.
He stopped where he was, and looked back.
|Consider all I know about you.|
|O most fair Egyptian,| he said, returning, |what all do you know about me?|
She looked at him absently.
|You are more of a Roman, son of Hur, then any of your Hebrew brethren.|
|Am I so unlike my countrymen?| he asked, indifferently.
|The demi-gods are all Roman now,| she rejoined.
|And therefore you will tell me what more you know about me?|
|The likeness is not lost upon me. It might induce me to save you.|
The pink-stained fingers toyed daintily with the lustrous pendant at the throat, and her voice was exceeding low and soft; only a tapping on the floor with her silken sandal admonished him to have a care.
|There was a Jew, an escaped galley-slave, who killed a man in the Palace of Idernee,| she began, slowly.
Ben-Hur was startled.
|The same Jew slew a Roman soldier before the Market-place here in Jerusalem; the same Jew has three trained legions from Galilee to seize the Roman governor to-night; the same Jew has alliances perfected for war upon Rome, and Ilderim the Sheik is one of his partners.|
Drawing nearer him, she almost whispered,
|You have lived in Rome. Suppose these things repeated in ears we know of. Ah! you change color.|
He drew back from her with somewhat of the look which may be imagined upon the face of a man who, thinking to play with a kitten, has run upon a tiger; and she proceeded:
|You are acquainted in the antechamber, and know the Lord Sejanus. Suppose it were told him with the proofs in hand -- or without the proofs -- that the same Jew is the richest man in the East -- nay, in all the empire. The fishes of the Tiber would have fattening other than that they dig out of its ooze, would they not? And while they were feeding -- ha! son of Hur! -- what splendor there would be on exhibition in the Circus! Amusing the Roman people is a fine art; getting the money to keep them amused is another art even finer; and was there ever an artist the equal of the Lord Sejanus?|
Ben-Hur was not too much stirred by the evident baseness of the woman for recollection. Not unfrequently when all the other faculties are numb and failing memory does its offices with the greatest fidelity. The scene at the spring on the way to the Jordan reproduced itself; and he remembered thinking then that Esther had betrayed him, and thinking so now, he said calmly as he could,
|To give you pleasure, daughter of Egypt, I acknowledge your cunning, and that I am at your mercy. It may also please you to hear me acknowledge I have no hope of your favor. I could kill you, but you are a woman. The Desert is open to receive me; and though Rome is a good hunter of men, there she would follow long and far before she caught me, for in its heart there are wildernesses of spears as well as wildernesses of sand, and it is not unlovely to the unconquered Parthian. In the toils as I am -- dupe that I have been -- yet there is one thing my due: who told you all you know about me? In flight or captivity, dying even, there will be consolation in leaving the traitor the curse of a man who has lived knowing nothing but wretchedness. Who told you all you know about me?|
It might have been a touch of art, or might have been sincere -- that as it may -- the expression of the Egyptian's face became sympathetic.
|There are in my country, O son of Hur,| she said, presently, |workmen who make pictures by gathering vari-colored shells here and there on the sea-shore after storms, and cutting them up, and patching the pieces as inlaying on marble slabs. Can you not see the hint there is in the practice to such as go searching for secrets? Enough that from this person I gathered a handful of little circumstances, and from that other yet another handful, and that afterwhile I put them together, and was happy as a woman can be who has at disposal the fortune and life of a man whom| -- she stopped, and beat the floor with her foot, and looked away as if to hide a sudden emotion from him; with an air of even painful resolution she presently finished the sentence -- |whom she is at loss what to do with.|
|No, it is not enough,| Ben-Hur said, unmoved by the play -- |it is not enough. To-morrow you will determine what to do with me. I may die.|
|True,| she rejoined quickly and with emphasis, |I had something from Sheik Ilderim as he lay with my father in a grove out in the Desert. The night was still, very still, and the walls of the tent, sooth to say, were poor ward against ears outside listening to -- birds and beetles flying through the air.|
She smiled at the conceit, but proceeded:
|Some other things -- bits of shell for the picture -- I had from -- |
|The son of Hur himself.|
|Was there no other who contributed?|
|No, not one.|
Hur drew a breath of relief, and said, lightly, |Thanks. It were not well to keep the Lord Sejanus waiting for you. The Desert is not so sensitive. Again, O Egypt, peace!|
To this time he had been standing uncovered; now he took the handkerchief from his arm where it had been hanging, and adjusting it upon his head, turned to depart. But she arrested him; in her eagerness, she even reached a hand to him.
|Stay,| she said.
He looked back at her, but without taking the hand, though it was very noticeable for its sparkling of jewels; and he knew by her manner that the reserved point of the scene which was so surprising to him was now to come.
|Stay, and do not distrust me, O son of Hur, if I declare I know why the noble Arrius took you for his heir. And, by Isis! by all the gods of Egypt! I swear I tremble to think of you, so brave and generous, under the hand of the remorseless minister. You have left a portion of your youth in the atria of the great capital; consider, as I do, what the Desert will be to you in contrast of life. Oh, I give you pity -- pity! And if you but do what I say, I will save you. That, also, I swear, by our holy Isis!|
Words of entreaty and prayer these, poured forth volubly and with earnestness and the mighty sanction of beauty.
|Almost -- almost I believe you,| Ben-Hur said, yet hesitatingly, and in a voice low and indistinct; for a doubt remained with him grumbling against the yielding tendency of the man -- a good sturdy doubt, such a one as has saved many a life and fortune.
|The perfect life for a woman is to live in love; the greatest happiness for a man is the conquest of himself; and that, O prince, is what I have to ask of you.|
She spoke rapidly, and with animation; indeed, she had never appeared to him so fascinating.
|You had once a friend,| she continued. |It was in your boyhood. There was a quarrel, and you and he became enemies. He did you wrong. After many years you met him again in the Circus at Antioch.|
|Yes, Messala. You are his creditor. Forgive the past; admit him to friendship again; restore the fortune he lost in the great wager; rescue him. The six talents are as nothing to you; not so much as a bud lost upon a tree already in full leaf; but to him -- Ah, he must go about with a broken body; wherever you meet him he must look up to you from the ground. O Ben-Hur, noble prince! to a Roman descended as he is beggary is the other most odious name for death. Save him from beggary!|
If the rapidity with which she spoke was a cunning invention to keep him from thinking, either she never knew or else had forgotten that there are convictions which derive nothing from thought, but drop into place without leave or notice. It seemed to him, when at last she paused to have his answer, that he could see Messala himself peering at him over her shoulder; and in its expression the countenance of the Roman was not that of a mendicant or a friend; the sneer was as patrician as ever, and the fine edge of the hauteur as flawless and irritating.
|The appeal has been decided then, and for once a Messala takes nothing. I must go and write it in my book of great occurrences -- a judgment by a Roman against a Roman! But did he -- did Messala send you to me with this request, O Egypt?|
|He has a noble nature, and judged you by it.|
Ben-Hur took the hand upon arm.
|As you know him in such friendly way, fair Egyptian, tell me, would he do for me, there being a reversal of the conditions, that he asks of me? Answer, by Isis! Answer, for the truth's sake!|
There was insistence in the touch of his hand, and in his look also.
|Oh!| she began, |he is -- |
|A Roman, you were about to say; meaning that I, a Jew, must not determine dues from me to him by any measure of dues from him to me; being a Jew, I must forgive him my winnings because he is a Roman. If you have more to tell me, daughter of Balthasar, speak quickly, quickly; for by the Lord God of Israel, when this heat of blood, hotter waxing, attains its highest, I may not be able longer to see that you are a woman, and beautiful! I may see but the spy of a master the more hateful because the master is a Roman. Say on, and quickly.|
She threw his hand off and stepped back into the full light, with all the evil of her nature collected in her eyes and voice.
|Thou drinker of lees, feeder upon husks! To think I could love thee, having seen Messala! Such as thou were born to serve him. He would have been satisfied with release of the six talents; but I say to the six thou shalt add twenty -- twenty, dost thou hear? The kissings of my little finger which thou hast taken from him, though with my consent, shall be paid for; and that I have followed thee with affection of sympathy, and endured thee so long, enter into the account not less because I was serving him. The merchant here is thy keeper of moneys. If by to-morrow at noon he has not thy order acted upon in favor of my Messala for six-and-twenty talents -- mark the sum! -- thou shalt settle with the Lord Sejanus. Be wise and -- farewell.|
As she was going to the door, he put himself in her way.
|The old Egypt lives in you,| he said. |Whether you see Messala to-morrow or the next day, here or in Rome, give him this message. Tell him I have back the money, even the six talents, he robbed me of by robbing my father's estate; tell him I survived the galleys to which he had me sent, and in my strength rejoice in his beggary and dishonor; tell him I think the affliction of body which he has from my hand is the curse of our Lord God of Israel upon him more fit than death for his crimes against the helpless; tell him my mother and sister whom he had sent to a cell in Antonia that they might die of leprosy, are alive and well, thanks to the power of the Nazarene whom you so despise; tell him that, to fill my measure of happiness, they are restored to me, and that I will go hence to their love, and find in it more than compensation for the impure passions which you leave me to take to him; tell him -- this for your comfort, O cunning incarnate, as much as his -- tell him that when the Lord Sejanus comes to despoil me he will find nothing; for the inheritance I had from the duumvir, including the villa by Misenum, has been sold, and the money from the sale is out of reach, afloat in the marts of the world as bills of exchange; and that this house and the goods and merchandise and the ships and caravans with which Simonides plies his commerce with such princely profits are covered by imperial safeguards -- a wise head having found the price of the favor, and the Lord Sejanus preferring a reasonable gain in the way of gift to much gain fished from pools of blood and wrong; tell him if all this were not so, if the money and property were all mine, yet should he not have the least part of it, for when he finds our Jewish bills, and forces them to give up their values, there is yet another resort left me -- a deed of gift to Caesar -- so much, O Egypt, I found out in the atria of the great capital; tell him that along with my defiance I do not send him a curse in words, but, as a better expression of my undying hate, I send him one who will prove to him the sum of all curses; and when he looks at you repeating this my message, daughter of Balthasar, his Roman shrewdness will tell him all I mean. Go now -- and I will go.|
He conducted her to the door, and, with ceremonious politeness, held back the curtain while she passed out.
|Peace to you,| he said, as she disappeared.