SCARCELY was Ben-Hur gone, when Simonides seemed to wake as from sleep: his countenance flushed; the sullen light of his eyes changed to brightness; and he said, cheerily,
She went to the table, and rang a service-bell.
One of the panels in the wall swung back, exposing a doorway which gave admittance to a man who passed round to the merchant’s front, and saluted him with a half-salaam.
“Malluch, here—nearer—to the chair,” the master said, imperiously. “I have a mission which shall not fail though the sun should. Hearken! A young man is now descending to the store-room—tall, comely, and in the garb of Israel; follow him, his shadow not more faithful; and every night send me report of where he is, what he does, and the company he keeps; and if, without discovery, you overhear his conversations, report them word for word, together with whatever will serve to expose him, his habits, motives, life. Understand you? Go quickly! Stay, Malluch: if he leave the city, go after him—and, mark you, Malluch, be as a friend. If he bespeak you, tell him what you will to the occasion most suited, except that you are in my service, of that, not a word. Haste—make haste!”
The man saluted as before, and was gone.
Then Simonides rubbed his wan hands together, and laughed.
“What is the day, daughter?” he said, in the midst of the mood. “What is the day? I wish to remember it for happiness come. See, and look for it laughing, and laughing tell me, Esther.”
The merriment seemed unnatural to her; and, as if to entreat him from it, she answered, sorrowfully, “Woe’s me, father, that I should ever forget this day!”
His hands fell down the instant, and his chin, dropping upon his breast, lost itself in the muffling folds of flesh composing his lower face.
“True, most true, my daughter!” he said, without looking up. “This is the twentieth day of the fourth month. To-day, five years ago, my Rachel, thy mother, fell down and died. They brought me home broken as thou seest me, and we found her dead of grief. Oh, to me she was a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-Gedi! I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey. We laid her away in a lonely place—in a tomb cut in the mountain; no one near her. Yet in the darkness she left me a little light, which the years have increased to a brightness of morning.” He raised his hand and rested it upon his daughter’s head. “Dear Lord, I thank thee that now in my Esther my lost Rachel liveth again!”
Directly he lifted his head, and said, as with a sudden thought, “Is it not clear day outside?”
“It was, when the young man came in.”
“Then let Abimelech come and take me to the garden, where I can see the river and the ships, and I will tell thee, dear Esther, why but now my mouth filled with laughter, and my tongue with singing, and my spirit was like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.”
In answer to the bell a servant came, and at her bidding pushed the chair, set on little wheels for the purpose, out of the room to the roof of the lower house, called by him his garden. Out through the roses, and by beds of lesser flowers, all triumphs of careful attendance, but now unnoticed, he was rolled to a position from which he could view the palace-tops over against him on the island, the bridge in lessening perspective to the farther shore, and the river below the bridge crowded with vessels, all swimming amidst the dancing splendors of the early sun upon the rippling water. There the servant left him with Esther.
The much shouting of laborers, and their beating and pounding, did not disturb him any more than the tramping of people on the bridge floor almost overhead, being as familiar to his ear as the view before him to his eye, and therefore unnoticeable, except as suggestions of profits in promise.
Esther sat on the arm of the chair nursing his hand, and waiting his speech, which came at length in the calm way, the mighty will having carried him back to himself.
“When the young man was speaking, Esther, I observed thee, and thought thou wert won by him.”
Her eyes fell as she replied,
“Speak you of faith, father, I believed him.”
“In thy eyes, then, he is the lost son of the Prince Hur?”
“If he is not—” She hesitated.
“And if he is not, Esther?”
“I have been thy handmaiden, father, since my mother answered the call of the Lord God; by thy side I have heard and seen thee deal in wise ways with all manner of men seeking profit, holy and unholy; and now I say, if indeed the young man be not the prince he claims to be, then before me falsehood never played so well the part of righteous truth.”
“By the glory of Solomon, daughter, thou speakest earnestly. Dost thou believe thy father his father’s servant?”
“I understood him to ask of that as something he had but heard.”
For a time Simonides’ gaze swam among his swimming ships, though they had no place in his mind.
“Well, thou art a good child, Esther, of genuine Jewish shrewdness, and of years and strength to hear a sorrowful tale. Wherefore give me heed, and I will tell you of myself, and of thy mother, and of many things pertaining to the past not in thy knowledge or thy dreams—things withheld from the persecuting Romans for a hope’s sake, and from thee that thy nature should grow towards the Lord straight as the reed to the sun. . . . I was born in a tomb in the valley of Hinnom, on the south side of Zion. My father and mother were Hebrew bond-servants, tenders of the fig and olive trees growing, with many vines, in the King’s Garden hard by Siloam; and in my boyhood I helped them. They were of the class bound to serve forever. They sold me to the Prince Hur, then, next to Herod the King, the richest man in Jerusalem. From the garden he transferred me to his storehouse in Alexandria of Egypt, where I came of age. I served him six years, and in the seventh, by the law of Moses, I went free.”
Esther clapped her hands lightly.
“Oh, then, thou art not his father’s servant!”
“Nay, daughter, hear. Now, in those days there were lawyers in the cloisters of the Temple who disputed vehemently, saying the children of servants bound forever took the condition of their parents; but the Prince Hur was a man righteous in all things, and an interpreter of the law after the straitest sect, though not of them. He said I was a Hebrew servant bought, in the true meaning of the great lawgiver, and, by sealed writings, which I yet have, he set me free.”
“And my mother?” Esther asked.
“Thou shalt hear all, Esther; be patient. Before I am through thou shalt see it were easier for me to forget myself than thy mother. . . . At the end of my service, I came up to Jerusalem to the Passover. My master entertained me. I was in love with him already, and I prayed to be continued in his service. He consented, and I served him yet another seven years, but as a hired son of Israel. In his behalf I had charge of ventures on the sea by ships, and of ventures on land by caravans eastward to Susa and Persepolis, and the lands of silk beyond them. Perilous passages were they, my daughter; but the Lord blessed all I undertook. I brought home vast gains for the prince, and richer knowledge for myself, without which I could not have mastered the charges since fallen to me. . . . One day I was a guest in his house in Jerusalem. A servant entered with some sliced bread on a platter. She came to me first. It was then I saw thy mother, and loved her, and took her away in my secret heart. After a while a time came when I sought the prince to make her my wife. He told me she was bond-servant forever; but if she wished, he would set her free that I might be gratified. She gave me love for love, but was happy where she was, and refused her freedom. I prayed and besought, going again and again after long intervals. She would be my wife, she all the time said, if I would become her fellow in servitude. Our father Jacob served yet other seven years for his Rachel. Could I not as much for mine? But thy mother said I must become as she, to serve forever. I came away, but went back. Look, Esther, look here.”
He pulled out the lobe of his left ear.
“See you not the scar of the awl?”
“I see it,” she said; “and, oh, I see how thou didst love my mother!”
“Love her, Esther! She was to me more than the Shulamite to the singing king, fairer, more spotless; a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. The master, even as I required him, took me to the judges, and back to his door, and thrust the awl through my ear into the door, and I was his servant forever. So I won my Rachel. And was ever love like mine?”
Esther stooped and kissed him, and they were silent, thinking of the dead.
“My master was drowned at sea, the first sorrow that ever fell upon me,” the merchant continued. “There was mourning in his house, and in mine here in Antioch, my abiding-place at the time. Now, Esther, mark you! When the good prince was lost, I had risen to be his chief steward, with everything of property belonging to him in my management and control. Judge you how much he loved and trusted me! I hastened to Jerusalem to render account to the widow. She continued me in the stewardship. I applied myself with greater diligence. The business prospered, and grew year by year. Ten years passed; then came the blow which you heard the young man tell about—the accident, as he called it, to the Procurator Gratus. The Roman gave it out an attempt to assassinate him. Under that pretext, by leave from Rome, he confiscated to his own use the immense fortune of the widow and children. Nor stopped he there. That there might be no reversal of the judgment, he removed all the parties interested. From that dreadful day to this the family of Hur have been lost. The son, whom I had seen as a child, was sentenced to the galleys. The widow and daughter are supposed to have been buried in some of the many dungeons of Judea, which, once closed upon the doomed, are like sepulchers sealed and locked. They passed from the knowledge of men as utterly as if the sea had swallowed them unseen. We could not hear how they died—nay, not even that they were dead.”
Esther’s eyes were dewy with tears.
“Thy heart is good, Esther, good as thy mother’s was; and I pray it have not the fate of most good hearts—to be trampled upon by the unmerciful and blind. But hearken further. I went up to Jerusalem to give help to my benefactress, and was seized at the gate of the city and carried to the sunken cells of the Tower of Antonia; why, I knew not, until Gratus himself came and demanded of me the moneys of the House of Hur, which he knew, after our Jewish custom of exchange, were subject to my draft in the different marts of the world. He required me to sign to his order. I refused. He had the houses, lands, goods, ships, and movable property of those I served; he had not their moneys. I saw, if I kept favor in the sight of the Lord, I could rebuild their broken fortunes. I refused the tyrant’s demands. He put me to torture; my will held good, and he set me free, nothing gained. I came home and began again, in the name of Simonides of Antioch, instead of the Prince Hur of Jerusalem. Thou knowest, Esther, how I have prospered; that the increase of the millions of the prince in my hands was miraculous; thou knowest how, at the end of three years, while going up to Cæsarea, I was taken and a second time tortured by Gratus to compel a confession that my goods and moneys were subject to his order of confiscation; thou knowest he failed as before. Broken in body, I came home and found my Rachel dead of fear and grief for me. The Lord our God reigned, and I lived. From the emperor himself I bought immunity and license to trade throughout the world. To-day—praised be He who maketh the clouds his chariot and walketh upon the winds!—to-day, Esther, that which was in my hands for stewardship is multiplied into talents sufficient to enrich a Cæsar.”
He lifted his head proudly; their eyes met; each read the other’s thought. “What shall I with the treasure, Esther?” he asked, without lowering his gaze.
“My father,” she answered, in a low voice, “did not the rightful owner call for it but now?”
Still his look did not fail.
“And thou, my child; shall I leave thee a beggar?”
“Nay, father, am not I, because I am thy child, his bond-servant? And of whom was it written, ‘Strength and honor are her clothing, and she shall rejoice in time to come?’”
A gleam of ineffable love lighted his face as he said, “The Lord hath been good to me in many ways; but thou, Esther, art the sovereign excellence of his favor.”
He drew her to his breast and kissed her many times.
“Hear now,” he said, with clearer voice—“hear now why I laughed this morning. The young man faced me the apparition of his father in comely youth. My spirit arose to salute him. I felt my trial-days were over and my labors ended. Hardly could I keep from crying out. I longed to take him by the hand and show the balance I had earned, and say, ‘Lo, ’tis all thine! and I am thy servant, ready now to be called away.’ And so I would have done, Esther, so I would have done, but that moment three thoughts rushed to restrain me. I will be sure he is my master’s son—such was the first thought; if he is my master’s son, I will learn somewhat of his nature. Of those born to riches, bethink you, Esther, how many there are in whose hands riches are but breeding curses”—he paused, while his hands clutched, and his voice shrilled with passion—“Esther, consider the pains I endured at the Roman’s hands; nay, not Gratus’s alone: the merciless wretches who did his bidding the first time and the last were Romans, and they all alike laughed to hear me scream. Consider my broken body, and the years I have gone shorn of my stature; consider thy mother yonder in her lonely tomb, crushed of soul as I of body; consider the sorrows of my master’s family if they are living, and the cruelty of their taking-off if they are dead; consider all, and, with Heaven’s love about thee, tell me, daughter, shall not a hair fall or a red drop run in expiation? Tell me not, as the preachers sometimes do—tell me not that vengeance is the Lord’s. Does he not work his will harmfully as well as in love by agencies? Has he not his men of war more numerous than his prophets? Is not his the law, Eye for eye, hand for hand, foot for foot? Oh, in all these years I have dreamed of vengeance, and prayed and provided for it, and gathered patience from the growing of my store, thinking and promising, as the Lord liveth, it will one day buy me punishment of the wrong-doers? And when, speaking of his practise with arms, the young man said it was for a nameless purpose, I named the purpose even as he spoke—vengeance! and that, Esther, that it was—the third thought which held me still and hard while his pleading lasted, and made me laugh when he was gone.”
Esther caressed the faded hands, and said, as if her spirit with his were running forward to results, “He is gone. Will he come again?”
“Ay, Malluch the faithful goes with him, and will bring him back when I am ready.”
“And when will that be, father?”
“Not long, not long. He thinks all his witnesses dead. There is one living who will not fail to know him, if he be indeed my master’s son.”
“Nay, daughter, I will set the witness before him; till then let us rest the business with the Lord. I am tired. Call Abimelech.”
Esther called the servant, and they returned into the house.