THE fourth day out, and the Astrœa—so the galley was named—speeding through the Ionian Sea. The sky was clear, and the wind blew as if bearing the good-will of all the gods.
As it was possible to overtake the fleet before reaching the bay east of the island of Cythera, designated for assemblage, Arrius, somewhat impatient, spent much time on deck. He took note diligently of matters pertaining to his ship, and as a rule was well pleased. In the cabin, swinging in the great chair, his thought continually reverted to the rower on number sixty.
“Knowest thou the man just come from yon bench?” he at length asked of the hortator.
A relief was going on at the moment.
“From number sixty?” returned the chief.
The chief looked sharply at the rower then going forward.
“As thou knowest,” he replied “the ship is but a month from the maker’s hand, and the men are as new to me as the ship.”
“He is a Jew,” Arrius remarked, thoughtfully.
“The noble Quintus is shrewd.”
“He is very young,” Arrius continued.
“But our best rower,” said the other. “I have seen his oar bend almost to breaking.”
“Of what disposition is he?”
“He is obedient; further I know not. Once he made request of me.”
“He wished me to change him alternately from the right to the left.”
“Did he give a reason?”
“He had observed that the men who are confined to one side become misshapen. He also said that some day of storm or battle there might be sudden need to change him, and he might then be unserviceable.”
“Perpol! The idea is new. What else hast thou observed of him?”
“He is cleanly above his companions.”
“In that he is Roman,” said Arrius, approvingly. “Have you nothing of his history?”
“Not a word.”
The tribune reflected awhile, and turned to go to his own seat.
“If I should be on deck when his time is up,” he paused to say, “send him to me. Let him come alone.”
About two hours later Arrius stood under the aplustre of the galley; in the mood of one who, seeing himself carried swiftly towards an event of mighty import, has nothing to do but wait—the mood in which philosophy vests an even-minded man with the utmost calm, and is ever so serviceable. The pilot sat with a hand upon the rope by which the rudder paddles, one on each side of the vessel, were managed. In the shade of the sail some sailors lay asleep, and up on the yard there was a lookout. Lifting his eyes from the solarium set under the aplustre for reference in keeping the course, Arrius beheld the rower approaching.
“The chief called thee the noble Arrius, and said it was thy will that I should seek thee here. I have come.”
Arrius surveyed the figure, tall, sinewy, glistening in the sun, and tinted by the rich red blood within—surveyed it admiringly, and with a thought of the arena; yet the manner was not without effect upon him: there was in the voice a suggestion of life at least partly spent under refining influences; the eyes were clear and open, and more curious than defiant. To the shrewd, demanding, masterful glance bent upon it, the face gave back nothing to mar its youthful comeliness—nothing of accusation or sullenness or menace, only the signs which a great sorrow long borne imprints, as time mellows the surface of pictures. In tacit acknowledgment of the effect, the Roman spoke as an older man to a younger, not as a master to a slave.
“The hortator tells me thou art his best rower.”
“The hortator is very kind,” the rower answered.
“Hast thou seen much service?”
“About three years.”
“At the oars?”
“I cannot recall a day of rest from them.”
“The labor is hard; few men bear it a year without breaking, and thou—thou art but a boy.”
“The noble Arrius forgets that the spirit hath much to do with endurance. By its help the weak sometimes thrive, when the strong perish.”
“From thy speech, thou art a Jew.”
“My ancestors further back than the first Roman were Hebrews.”
“The stubborn pride of thy race is not lost in thee,” said Arrius, observing a flush upon the rower’s face.
“Pride is never so loud as when in chains.”
“What cause hast thou for pride?”
“That I am a Jew.”
“I have not been to Jerusalem,” he said; “but I have heard of its princes. I knew one of them. He was a merchant, and sailed the seas. He was fit to have been a king. Of what degree art thou?”
“I must answer thee from the bench of a galley. I am of the degree of slaves. My father was a prince of Jerusalem, and, as a merchant, he sailed the seas. He was known and honored in the guest-chamber of the great Augustus.”
“Ithamar, of the house of Hur.”
The tribune raised his hand in astonishment.
“A son of Hur—thou?”
After a silence, he asked,
“What brought thee here?”
Judah lowered his head, and his breast labored hard. When his feelings were sufficiently mastered, he looked the tribune in the face, and answered,
“I was accused of attempting to assassinate Valerius Gratus, the procurator.”
“Thou!” cried Arrius, yet more amazed, and retreating a step. “Thou that assassin! All Rome rang with the story. It came to my ship in the river by Lodinum.”
The two regarded each other silently.
“I thought the family of Hur blotted from the earth,” said Arrius, speaking first.
A flood of tender recollections carried the young man’s pride away; tears shone upon his cheeks.
“Mother—mother! And my little Tirzah! Where are they? O tribune, noble tribune, if thou knowest anything of them”—he clasped his hands in appeal—“tell me all thou knowest. Tell me if they are living—if living, where are they? and in what condition? Oh, I pray thee, tell me!”
He drew nearer Arrius, so near that his hands touched the cloak where it dropped from the latter’s folded arms.
“The horrible day is three years gone,” he continued—“three years, O tribune, and every hour a whole lifetime of misery—a lifetime in a bottomless pit with death, and no relief but in labor—and in all that time not a word from any one, not a whisper. Oh, if, in being forgotten, we could only forget! If only I could hide from that scene—my sister torn from me, my mother’s last look! I have felt the plague’s breath, and the shock of ships in battle; I have heard the tempest lashing the sea, and laughed, though others prayed: death would have been a riddance. Bend the oar—yes, in the strain of mighty effort trying to escape the haunting of what that day occurred. Think what little will help me. Tell me they are dead, if no more, for happy they cannot be while I am lost. I have heard them call me in the night; I have seen them on the water walking. Oh, never anything so true as my mother’s love! And Tirzah—her breath was as the breath of white lilies. She was the youngest branch of the palm—so fresh, so tender, so graceful, so beautiful! She made my day all morning. She came and went in music. And mine was the hand that laid them low! I—”
“Dost thou admit thy guilt?” asked Arrius, sternly.
The change that came upon Ben-Hur was wonderful to see, it was so instant and extreme. The voice sharpened; the hands arose tight-clenched; every fibre thrilled; his eyes inflamed.
“Thou hast heard of the God of my fathers,” he said; “of the infinite Jehovah. By his truth and almightiness, and by the love with which he hath followed Israel from the beginning, I swear I am innocent!”
The tribune was much moved.
“O noble Roman!” continued Ben-Hur, “give me a little faith, and, into my darkness, deeper darkening every day, send a light!”
Arrius turned away, and walked the deck.
“Didst thou not have a trial?” he asked, stopping suddenly.
The Roman raised his head, surprised.
“No trial—no witnesses! Who passed judgment upon thee?”
Romans, it should be remembered, were at no time such lovers of the law and its forms as in the ages of their decay.
“They bound me with cords, and dragged me to a vault in the Tower. I saw no one. No one spoke to me. Next day soldiers took me to the seaside. I have been a galley-slave ever since.”
“What couldst thou have proven?”
“I was a boy, too young to be a conspirator. Gratus was a stranger to me. If I had meant to kill him, that was not the time or the place. He was riding in the midst of a legion, and it was broad day. I could not have escaped. I was of a class most friendly to Rome. My father had been distinguished for his services to the emperor. We had a great estate to lose. Ruin was certain to myself, my mother, my sister. I had no cause for malice, while every consideration—property, family, life, conscience, the Law—to a son of Israel as the breath of his nostrils—would have stayed my hand, though the foul intent had been ever so strong. I was not mad. Death was preferable to shame; and, believe me, I pray, it is so yet.”
“Who was with thee when the blow was struck?”
“I was on the house-top—my father’s house. Tirzah was with me—at my side—the soul of gentleness. Together we leaned over the parapet to see the legion pass. A tile gave way under my hand, and fell upon Gratus. I thought I had killed him. Ah, what horror I felt!”
“Where was thy mother?”
“In her chamber below.”
“What became of her?”
Ben-Hur clenched his hands, and drew a breath like a gasp.
“I do not know. I saw them drag her away—that is all I know. Out of the house they drove every living thing, even the dumb cattle, and they sealed the gates. The purpose was that she should not return. I, too, ask for her. Oh for one word! She, at least, was innocent. I can forgive—but I pray thy pardon, noble tribune! A slave like me should not talk of forgiveness or of revenge. I am bound to an oar for life.”
Arrius listened intently. He brought all his experience with slaves to his aid. If the feeling shown in this instance were assumed, the acting was perfect; on the other hand, if it were real, the Jew’s innocence might not be doubted; and if he were innocent, with what blind fury the power had been exercised! A whole family blotted out to atone an accident! The thought shocked him.
There is no wiser providence than that our occupations, however rude or bloody, cannot wear us out morally; that such qualities as justice and mercy, if they really possess us, continue to live on under them, like flowers under the snow. The tribune could be inexorable, else he had not been fit for the usages of his calling; he could also be just; and to excite his sense of wrong was to put him in the way to right the wrong. The crews of the ships in which he served came after a time to speak of him as the good tribune. Shrewd readers will not want a better definition of his character.
In this instance there were many circumstances certainly in the young man’s favor, and some to be supposed. Possibly Arrius knew Valerius Gratus without loving him. Possibly he had known the elder Hur. In the course of his appeal, Judah had asked him of that; and, as will be noticed, he had made no reply.
For once the tribune was at loss, and hesitated. His power was ample. He was monarch of the ship. His prepossessions all moved him to mercy. His faith was won. Yet, he said to himself, there was no haste—or, rather, there was haste to Cythera; the best rower could not then be spared; he would wait; he would learn more; he would at least be sure this was the prince Ben-Hur, and that he was of a right disposition. Ordinarily, slaves were liars.
“It is enough,” he said aloud. “Go back to thy place.”
Ben-Hur bowed; looked once more into the master’s face, but saw nothing for hope. He turned away slowly, looked back, and said,
“If thou dost think of me again, O tribune, let it not be lost in thy mind that I prayed thee only for word of my people—mother, sister.”
He moved on.
Arrius followed him with admiring eyes.
“Perpol!” he thought. “With teaching, what a man for the arena! What a runner! Ye gods! what an arm for the sword or the cestus!—Stay!” he said aloud.
Ben-Hur stopped, and the tribune went to him.
“If thou wert free, what wouldst thou do?”
“The noble Arrius mocks me!” Judah said, with trembling lips.
“No; by the gods, no!”
“Then I will answer gladly. I would give myself to duty the first of life. I would know no other. I would know no rest until my mother and Tirzah were restored to home. I would give every day and hour to their happiness. I would wait upon them; never a slave more faithful. They have lost much, but, by the God of my fathers, I would find them more!”
The answer was unexpected by the Roman. For a moment he lost his purpose.
“I spoke to thy ambition,” he said, recovering. “If thy mother and sister were dead, or not to be found, what wouldst thou do?”
A distinct pallor overspread Ben-Hur’s face, and he looked over the sea. There was a struggle with some strong feeling; when it was conquered, he turned to the tribune.
“What pursuit would I follow?” he asked.
“Tribune, I will tell thee truly. Only the night before the dreadful day of which I have spoken, I obtained permission to be a soldier. I am of the same mind yet; and, as in all the earth there is but one school of war, thither I would go.”
“The palæstra!” exclaimed Arrius.
“No; a Roman camp.”
“But thou must first acquaint thyself with the use of arms.”
Now a master may never safely advise a slave. Arrius saw his indiscretion, and, in a breath, chilled his voice and manner.
“Go now,” he said, “and do not build upon what has passed between us. Perhaps I do but play with thee. Or”—he looked away musingly—“or, if thou dost think of it with any hope, choose between the renown of a gladiator and the service of a soldier. The former may come of the favor of the emperor; there is no reward for thee in the latter. Thou art not a Roman. Go!”
A short while after Ben-Hur was upon his bench again.
A man’s task is always light if his heart is light. Handling the oar did not seem so toilsome to Judah. A hope had come to him, like a singing bird. He could hardly see the visitor or hear its song; that it was there, though, he knew; his feelings told him so. The caution of the tribune—“Perhaps I do but play with thee”—was dismissed often as it recurred to his mind. That he had been called by the great man and asked his story was the bread upon which he fed his hungry spirit. Surely something good would come of it. The light about his bench was clear and bright with promises, and he prayed.
“O God! I am a true son of the Israel thou hast so loved! Help me, I pray thee!”