WHEN Ben-Hur sallied from the great warehouse, it was with the thought that another failure was to be added to the many he had already met in the quest for his people; and the idea was depressing exactly in proportion as the objects of his quest were dear to him; it curtained him round about with a sense of utter loneliness on earth, which, more than anything else, serves to eke from a soul cast down its remaining interest in life.
Through the people, and the piles of goods, he made way to the edge of the landing, and was tempted by the cool shadows darkening the river’s depth. The lazy current seemed to stop and wait for him. In counteraction of the spell, the saying of the voyager flashed into memory—“Better be a worm, and feed upon the mulberries of Daphne, than a king’s guest.” He turned, and walked rapidly down the landing and back to the khan.
“The road to Daphne!” the steward said, surprised at the question Ben-Hur put to him. “You have not been here before? Well, count this the happiest day of your life. You cannot mistake the road. The next street to the left, going south, leads straight to Mount Sulpius, crowned by the altar of Jupiter and the Amphitheater; keep it to the third cross street, known as Herod’s Colonnade; turn to your right there, and hold the way through the old city of Seleucus to the bronze gates of Epiphanes. There the road to Daphne begins—and may the gods keep you!”
A few directions respecting his baggage, and Ben-Hur set out.
The Colonnade of Herod was easily found; thence to the brazen gates, under a continuous marble portico, he passed with a multitude mixed of people from all the trading nations of the earth.
It was about the fourth hour of the day when he passed out the gate, and found himself one of a procession apparently interminable, moving to the famous Grove. The road was divided into separate ways for footmen, for men on horses, and men in chariots; and those again into separate ways for outgoers and incomers. The lines of division were guarded by low balustrading, broken by massive pedestals, many of which were surmounted with statuary. Right and left of the road extended margins of sward perfectly kept, relieved at intervals by groups of oak and sycamore trees, and vine-clad summer-houses for the accommodation of the weary, of whom, on the return side, there were always multitudes. The ways of the footmen were paved with red stone, and those of the riders strewn with white sand compactly rolled, but not so solid as to give back an echo to hoof or wheel. The number and variety of fountains at play were amazing, all gifts of visiting kings, and called after them. Out southwest to the gates of the Grove, the magnificent thoroughfare stretched a little over four miles from the city.
In his wretchedness of feeling, Ben-Hur barely observed the royal liberality which marked the construction of the road. Nor more did he at first notice the crowd going with him. He treated the processional displays with like indifference. To say truth, besides his self-absorption, he had not a little of the complacency of a Roman visiting the provinces fresh from the ceremonies which daily eddied round and round the golden pillar set up by Augustus as the centre of the world. It was not possible for the provinces to offer anything new or superior. He rather availed himself of every opportunity to push forward through the companies in the way, and too slow-going for his impatience. By the time he reached Heracleia, a suburban village intermediate the city and the Grove, he was somewhat spent with exercise, and began to be susceptible of entertainment. Once a pair of goats led by a beautiful woman, woman and goats alike brilliant with ribbons and flowers, attracted his attention. Then he stopped to look at a bull of mighty girth, and snowy white, covered with vines freshly cut, and bearing on its broad back a naked child in a basket, the image of a young Bacchus, squeezing the juice of ripened berries into a goblet, and drinking with libational formulas. As he resumed his walk, he wondered whose altars would be enriched by the offerings. A horse went by with clipped mane, after the fashion of the time, his rider superbly dressed. He smiled to observe the harmony of pride between the man and the brute. Often after that he turned his head at hearing the rumble of wheels and the dull thud of hoofs; unconsciously he was becoming interested in the styles of chariots and charioteers, as they rustled past him going and coming. Nor was it long until he began to make notes of the people around him. He saw they were of all ages, sexes, and conditions, and all in holiday attire. One company was uniformed in white, another in black; some bore flags, some smoking censers; some went slowly, singing hymns; others stepped to the music of flutes and tabrets. If such were the going to Daphne every day in the year, what a wondrous sight Daphne must be! At last there was a clapping of hands, and a burst of joyous cries; following the pointing of many fingers, he looked and saw upon the brow of a hill the templed gate of the consecrated Grove. The hymns swelled to louder strains; the music quickened time; and, borne along by the impulsive current, and sharing the common eagerness, he passed in, and, Romanized in taste as he was, fell to worshiping the place.
Rearward of the structure which graced the entrance-way—a purely Grecian pile—he stood upon a broad esplanade paved with polished stone; around him a restless exclamatory multitude, in gayest colors, relieved against the iridescent spray flying crystal-white from fountains; before him, off to the southwest, dustless paths radiated out into a garden, and beyond that into a forest, over which rested a veil of pale-blue vapor. Ben-Hur gazed wistfully, uncertain where to go. A woman that moment exclaimed,
“Beautiful! But where to now?”
Her companion, wearing a chaplet of bays, laughed and answered, “Go to, thou pretty barbarian! The question implies an earthly fear; and did we not agree to leave all such behind in Antioch with the rusty earth? The winds which blow here are respirations of the gods. Let us give ourselves to waftage of the winds.”
“But if we should get lost?”
“O thou timid! No one was ever lost in Daphne, except those on whom her gates close forever.”
“And who are they?” she asked, still fearful.
“Such as have yielded to the charms of the place and chosen it for life and death. Hark! Stand we here, and I will show you of whom I speak.”
Upon the marble pavement there was a scurry of sandalled feet; the crowd opened, and a party of girls rushed about the speaker and his fair friend, and began singing and dancing to the tabrets they themselves touched. The woman, scared, clung to the man, who put an arm about her, and, with kindled face, kept time to the music with the other hand overhead. The hair of the dancers floated free, and their limbs blushed through the robes of gauze which scarcely draped them. Words may not be used to tell of the voluptuousness of the dance. One brief round, and they darted off through the yielding crowd lightly as they had come.
“Now what think you?” cried the man to the woman.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“Devadasi—priestesses devoted to the Temple of Apollo. There is an army of them. They make the chorus in celebrations. This is their home. Sometimes they wander off to other cities, but all they make is brought here to enrich the house of the divine musician. Shall we go now?”
Next minute the two were gone.
Ben-Hur took comfort in the assurance that no one was ever lost in Daphne, and he, too, set out—where, he knew not.
A sculpture reared upon a beautiful pedestal in the garden attracted him first. It proved to be the statue of a centaur. An inscription informed the unlearned visitor that it exactly represented Chiron, the beloved of Apollo and Diana, instructed by them in the mysteries of hunting, medicine, music, and prophecy. The inscription also bade the stranger look out at a certain part of the heavens, at a certain hour of the clear night, and he would behold the dead alive among the stars, whither Jupiter had transferred the good genius.
The wisest of the centaurs continued, nevertheless, in the service of mankind. In his hand he held a scroll, on which, graven in Greek, were paragraphs of a notice:
“Art thou a stranger?
“I. Hearken to the singing of the brooks, and fear not the rain of the fountains; so will the Naiades learn to love thee.
“II. The invited breezes of Daphne are Zephyrus and Auster; gentle ministers of life, they will gather sweets for thee; when Eurus blows, Diana is elsewhere hunting; when Boreas blusters, go hide, for Apollo is angry.
“III. The shades of the Grove are thine in the day; at night they belong to Pan and his Dryades. Disturb them not.
“IV. Eat of the Lotus by the brooksides sparingly, unless thou wouldst have surcease of memory, which is to become a child of Daphne.
“V. Walk thou round the weaving spider—’tis Arachne at work for Minerva.
“VI. Wouldst thou behold the tears of Daphne, break but a bud from a laurel bough—and die.
“And stay and be happy.”
Ben-Hur left the interpretation of the mystic notice to others fast enclosing him, and turned away as the white bull was led by. The boy sat in the basket, followed by a procession; after them again, the woman with the goats; and behind her the flute and tabret players, and another procession of gift-bringers.
“Whither go they?” asked a bystander.
Another made answer, “The bull to Father Jove; the goat—”
“Did not Apollo once keep the flocks of Admetus?”
“Ay, the goat to Apollo!”
The goodness of the reader is again besought in favor of an explanation. A certain facility of accommodation in the matter of religion comes to us after much intercourse with people of a different faith; gradually we attain the truth that every creed is illustrated by good men who are entitled to our respect, but whom we cannot respect without courtesy to their creed. To this point Ben-Hur had arrived. Neither the years in Rome nor those in the galley had made any impression upon his religious faith; he was yet a Jew. In his view, nevertheless, it was not an impiety to look for the beautiful in the Grove of Daphne.
The remark does not interdict the further saying, if his scruples had been ever so extreme, not improbably he would at this time have smothered them. He was angry; not as the irritable, from chafing of a trifle; nor was his anger like the fool’s, pumped from the wells of nothing, to be dissipated by a reproach or a curse; it was the wrath peculiar to ardent natures rudely awakened by the sudden annihilation of a hope—dream, if you will—in which the choicest happinesses were thought to be certainly in reach. In such case nothing intermediate will carry off the passion—the quarrel is with Fate.
Let us follow the philosophy a little further, and say to ourselves, it were well in such quarrels if Fate were something tangible, to be despatched with a look or a blow, or a speaking personage with whom high words were possible; then the unhappy mortal would not always end the affair by punishing himself.
In ordinary mood, Ben-Hur would not have come to the Grove alone, or, coming alone, he would have availed himself of his position in the consul’s family, and made provision against wandering idly about, unknowing and unknown; he would have had all the points of interest in mind, and gone to them under guidance, as in the despatch of business; or, wishing to squander days of leisure in the beautiful place, he would have had in hand a letter to the master of it all, whoever he might be. This would have made him a sightseer, like the shouting herd he was accompanying; whereas he had no reverence for the deities of the Grove, nor curiosity; a man in the blindness of bitter disappointment, he was adrift, not waiting for Fate, but seeking it as a desperate challenger.
Every one has known this condition of mind, though perhaps not all in the same degree; every one will recognize it as the condition in which he has done brave things with apparent serenity; and every one reading will say, Fortunate for Ben-Hur if the folly which now catches him is but a friendly harlequin with whistle and painted cap, and not some Violence with a pointed sword pitiless.