SHEIK ILDERIM was a man of too much importance to go about with a small establishment. He had a reputation to keep with his tribe, such as became a prince and patriarch of the greatest following in all the Desert east of Syria; with the people of the cities he had another reputation, which was that of one of the richest personages not a king in all the East; and, being rich in fact—in money as well as in servants, camels, horses, and flocks of all kinds—he took pleasure in a certain state, which, besides magnifying his dignity with strangers, contributed to his personal pride and comfort. Wherefore the reader must not be misled by the frequent reference to his tent in the Orchard of Palms. He had there really a respectable dowar; that is to say, he had there three large tents—one for himself, one for visitors, one for his favorite wife and her women; and six or eight lesser ones, occupied by his servants and such tribal retainers as he had chosen to bring with him as a body-guard—strong men of approved courage, and skillful with bow, spear, and horses.
To be sure, his property of whatever kind was in no danger at the Orchard; yet as the habits of a man go with him to town not less than the country, and as it is never wise to slip the bands of discipline, the interior of the dowar was devoted to his cows, camels, goats, and such property in general as might tempt a lion or a thief.
To do him full justice, Ilderim kept well all the customs of his people, abating none, not even the smallest; in consequence his life at the Orchard was a continuation of his life in the Desert; nor that alone, it was a fair reproduction of the old patriarchal modes—the genuine pastoral life of primitive Israel.
Recurring to the morning the caravan arrived at the Orchard—“Here, plant it here,” he said, stopping his horse, and thrusting a spear into the ground. “Door to the south; the lake before it thus; and these, the children of the Desert, to sit under at the going-down of the sun.”
At the last words he went to a group of three great palm-trees, and patted one of them as he would have patted his horse’s neck, or the cheek of the child of his love.
Who but the sheik could of right say to the caravan, Halt! or of the tent, Here be it pitched? The spear was wrested from the ground, and over the wound it had riven in the sod the base of the first pillar of the tent was planted, marking the centre of the front door. Then eight others were planted—in all, three rows of pillars, three in a row. Then, at call, the women and children came, and unfolded the canvas from its packing on the camels. Who might do this but the women? Had they not sheared the hair from the brown goats of the flock? and twisted it into thread? and woven the thread into cloth? and stitched the cloth together, making the perfect roof, dark-brown in fact, though in the distance black as the tents of Kedar? And, finally, with what jests and laughter, and pulls altogether, the united following of the sheik stretched the canvas from pillar to pillar, driving the stakes and fastening the cords as they went! And when the walls of open reed matting were put in place—the finishing-touch to the building after the style of the Desert—with what hush of anxiety they waited the good man’s judgment! When he walked in and out, looking at the house in connection with the sun, the trees, and the lake, and said, rubbing his hands with might of heartiness, “Well done! Make the dowar now as ye well know, and to-night we will sweeten the bread with arrack, and the milk with honey, and at every fire there shall be a kid. God with ye! Want of sweet water there shall not be, for the lake is our well; neither shall the bearers of burden hunger, or the least of the flock, for here is green pasture also. God with you all, my children! Go.”
And, shouting, the many happy went their ways then to pitch their own habitations. A few remained to arrange the interior for the sheik; and of these the men-servants hung a curtain to the central row of pillars, making two apartments; the one on the right sacred to Ilderim himself, the other sacred to his horses—his jewels of Solomon—which they led in, and with kisses and love-taps set at liberty. Against the middle pillar they then erected the arms-rack, and filled it with javelins and spears, and bows, arrows, and shields; outside of them hanging the master’s sword, modelled after the new moon; and the glitter of its blade rivalled the glitter of the jewels bedded in its grip. Upon one end of the rack they hung the housings of the horses, gay some of them as the livery of a king’s servant, while on the other end they displayed the great man’s wearing apparel—his robes woollen and robes linen, his tunics and trousers, and many colored kerchiefs for the head. Nor did they give over the work until he pronounced it well.
Meantime the women drew out and set up the divan, more indispensable to him than the beard down-flowing over his breast, white as Aaron’s. They put a frame together in shape of three sides of a square, the opening to the door, and covered it with cushions and base curtains, and the cushions with a changeable spread striped brown and yellow; at the corners they placed pillows and bolsters sacked in cloth blue and crimson; then around the divan they laid a margin of carpet, and the inner space they carpeted as well; and when the carpet was carried from the opening of the divan to the door of the tent, their work was done; whereupon they again waited until the master said it was good. Nothing remained then but to bring and fill the jars with water, and hang the skin bottles of arrack ready for the hand—to-morrow the leben. Nor might an Arab see why Ilderim should not be both happy and generous—in his tent by the lake of sweet waters, under the palms of the Orchard of Palms.
Such was the tent at the door of which we left Ben-Hur.
Servants were already waiting the master’s direction. One of them took off his sandals; another unlatched Ben-Hur’s Roman shoes; then the two exchanged their dusty outer garments for fresh ones of white linen.
“Enter—in God’s name, enter, and take thy rest,” said the host, heartily, in the dialect of the Market-place of Jerusalem; forthwith he led the way to the divan.
“I will sit here,” he said next, pointing; “and there the stranger.”
A woman—in the old time she would have been called a handmaid—answered, and dexterously piled the pillows and bolsters as rests for the back; after which they sat upon the side of the divan, while water was brought fresh from the lake, and their feet bathed and dried with napkins.
“We have a saying in the Desert,” Ilderim began, gathering his beard, and combing it with his slender fingers, “that a good appetite is the promise of a long life. Hast thou such?”
“By that rule, good sheik, I will live a hundred years. I am a hungry wolf at thy door,” Ben-Hur replied.
“Well, thou shalt not be sent away like a wolf. I will give thee the best of the flocks.”
Ilderim clapped his hands.
“Seek the stranger in the guest-tent, and say I, Ilderim, send him a prayer that his peace may be as incessant as the flowing of waters.”
The man in waiting bowed.
“Say, also,” Ilderim continued, “that I have returned with another for breaking of bread; and, if Balthasar the wise careth to share the loaf, three may partake of it, and the portion of the birds be none the less.”
The second servant went away.
“Let us take our rest now.”
Thereupon Ilderim settled himself upon the divan, as at this day merchants sit on their rugs in the bazaars of Damascus; and when fairly at rest, he stopped combing his beard, and said, gravely, “That thou art my guest, and hast drunk my leben, and art about to taste my salt, ought not to forbid a question: Who art thou?”
“Sheik Ilderim,” said Ben-Hur, calmly enduring his gaze, “I pray thee not to think me trifling with thy just demand; but was there never a time in thy life when to answer such a question would have been a crime to thyself?”
“By the splendor of Solomon, yes!” Ilderim answered. “Betrayal of self is at times as base as the betrayal of a tribe.”
“Thanks, thanks, good sheik!” Ben-Hur exclaimed.
“Never answer became thee better. Now I know thou cost but seek assurance to justify the trust I have come to ask, and that such assurance is of more interest to thee than the affairs of my poor life.”
The sheik in his turn bowed, and Ben-Hur hastened to pursue his advantage.
“So it please thee then,” he said, “first, I am not a Roman, as the name given thee as mine implieth.”
Ilderim clasped the beard overflowing his breast, and gazed at the speaker with eyes faintly twinkling through the shade of the heavy close-drawn brows.
“In the next place,” Ben-Hur continued, “I am an Israelite of the tribe of Judah.”
The sheik raised his brows a little.
“Nor that merely. Sheik, I am a Jew with a grievance against Rome compared with which thine is not more than a child’s trouble.”
The old man combed his beard with nervous haste, and let fall his brows until even the twinkle of the eyes went out.
“Still further: I swear to thee, Sheik Ilderim—I swear by the covenant the Lord made with my fathers—so thou but give me the revenge I seek, the money and the glory of the race shall be thine.”
Ilderim’s brows relaxed; his head arose; his face began to beam; and it was almost possible to see the satisfaction taking possession of him.
“Enough!” he said. “If at the roots of thy tongue there is a lie in coil, Solomon himself had not been safe against thee. That thou art not a Roman—that as a Jew thou hast a grievance against Rome, and revenge to compass, I believe; and on that score enough. But as to thy skill. What experience hast thou in racing with chariots? And the horses—canst thou make them creatures of thy will?—to know thee? to come at call? to go, if thou sayest it, to the last extreme of breath and strength? and then, in the perishing moment, out of the depths of thy life thrill them to one exertion the mightiest of all? The gift, my son, is not to every one. Ah, by the splendor of God! I knew a king who governed millions of men, their perfect master, but could not win the respect of a horse. Mark! I speak not of the dull brutes whose round it is to slave for slaves—the debased in blood and image—the dead in spirit; but of such as mine here—the kings of their kind; of a lineage reaching back to the broods of the first Pharaoh; my comrades and friends, dwellers in tents, whom long association with me has brought up to my plane; who to their instincts have added our wits and to their senses joined our souls, until they feel all we know of ambition, love, hate, and contempt; in war, heroes; in trust, faithful as women. Ho, there!”
A servant came forward.
“Let my Arabs come!”
The man drew aside part of the division curtain of the tent, exposing to view a group of horses, who lingered a moment where they were as if to make certain of the invitation.
“Come!” Ilderim said to them. “Why stand ye there? What have I that is not yours? Come, I say!”
They stalked slowly in.
“Son of Israel,” the master said, “thy Moses was a mighty man, but—ha, ha ha!—I must laugh when I think of his allowing thy fathers the plodding ox and the dull, slow-natured ass, and forbidding them property in horses. Ha, ha, ha! Thinkest thou he would have done so had he seen that one—and that—and this?” At the word he laid his hand upon the face of the first to reach him, and patted it with infinite pride and tenderness.
“It is a misjudgment, sheik, a misjudgment,” Ben-Hur said, warmly. “Moses was a warrior as well as a lawgiver beloved by God; and to follow war—ah, what is it but to love all its creatures—these among the rest?”
A head of exquisite turn—with large eyes, soft as a deer’s, and half hidden by the dense forelock, and small ears, sharp-pointed and sloped well forward—approached then quite to his breast, the nostrils open, and the upper lip in motion. “Who are you?” it asked, plainly as ever man spoke. Ben-Hur recognized one of the four racers he had seen on the course, and gave his open hand to the beautiful brute.
“They will tell you, the blasphemers!—may their days shorten as they grow fewer!”—the sheik spoke with the feeling of a man repelling a personal defamation—“they will tell you, I say, that our horses of the best blood are derived from the Nesæan pastures of Persia. God gave the first Arab a measureless waste of sand, with some treeless mountains, and here and there a well of bitter waters; and said to him, ‘Behold thy country!’ And when the poor man complained, the Mighty One pitied him, and said again, ‘Be of cheer! for I will twice bless thee above other men.’ The Arab heard, and gave thanks, and with faith set out to find the blessings. He travelled all the boundaries first, and failed; then he made a path into the desert, and went on and on—and in the heart of the waste there was an island of green very beautiful to see; and in the heart of the island, lo! a herd of camels, and another of horses! He took them joyfully and kept them with care for what they were—best gifts of God. And from that green isle went forth all the horses of the earth; even to the pastures of Nesæa they went; and northward to the dreadful vales perpetually threshed by blasts from the Sea of Chill Winds. Doubt not the story; or if thou dost, may never amulet have charm for an Arab again. Nay, I will give thee proof.”
He clapped his hands.
“Bring me the records of the tribe,” he said to the servant who responded.
While waiting, the sheik played with the horses, patting their cheeks, combing their forelocks with his fingers, giving each one a token of remembrance. Presently six men appeared with chests of cedar reinforced by bands of brass, and hinged and bolted with brass.
“Nay,” said Ilderim, when they were all set down by the divan, “I meant not all of them; only the records of the horses—that one. Open it and take back the others.”
The chest was opened, disclosing a mass of ivory tablets strung on rings of silver wire; and as the tablets were scarcely thicker than wafers, each ring held several hundreds of them.
“I know,” said Ilderim, taking some of the rings in his hand—“I know with what care and zeal, my son, the scribes of the Temple in the Holy City keep the names of the newly born, that every son of Israel may trace his line of ancestry to its beginning, though it antedate the patriarchs. My fathers—may the recollection of them be green forever!—did not think it sinful to borrow the idea, and apply it to their dumb servants. See these tablets!”
Ben-Hur took the rings, and separating the tablets saw they bore rude hieroglyphs in Arabic, burned on the smooth surface by a sharp point of heated metal.
“Canst thou read them, O son of Israel?”
“No. Thou must tell me their meaning.”
“Know thou, then, each tablet records the name of a foal of the pure blood born to my fathers through the hundreds of years passed; and also the names of sire and dam. Take them, and note their age, that thou mayst the more readily believe.”
Some of the tablets were nearly worn away. All were yellow with age.
“In the chest there, I can tell thee now, I have the perfect history; perfect because certified as history seldom is—showing of what stock all these are sprung—this one, and that now supplicating thy notice and caress; and as they come to us here, their sires, even the furthest removed in time, came to my sires, under a tent-roof like this of mine, to eat their measure of barley from the open hand, and be talked to as children; and as children kiss the thanks they have not speech to express. And now, O son of Israel, thou mayst believe my declaration—if I am a lord of the Desert, behold my ministers! Take them from me, and I become as a sick man left by the caravan to die. Thanks to them, age hath not diminished the terror of me on the highways between cities; and it will not while I have strength to go with them. Ha, ha, ha! I could tell thee marvels done by their ancestors. In a favoring time I may do so; for the present, enough that they were never overtaken in retreat; nor, by the sword of Solomon, did they ever fail in pursuit! That, mark you, on the sands and under saddle; but now—I do not know—I am afraid, for they are under yoke the first time, and the conditions of success are so many. They have the pride and the speed and the endurance. If I find them a master, they will win. Son of Israel! so thou art the man, I swear it shall be a happy day that brought thee thither. Of thyself now speak.”
“I know now,” said Ben-Hur, “why it is that in the love of an Arab his horse is next to his children; and I know, also, why the Arab horses are the best in the world; but, good sheik, I would not have you judge me by words alone; for, as you know, all promises of men sometimes fail. Give me the trial first on some plain hereabout, and put the four in my hand to-morrow.”
Ilderim’s face beamed again, and he would have spoken.
“A moment, good sheik, a moment!” said Ben-Hur. “Let me say further. From the masters in Rome I learned many lessons, little thinking they would serve me in a time like this. I tell thee these thy sons of the Desert, though they have separately the speed of eagles and the endurance of lions, will fail if they are not trained to run together under the yoke. For bethink thee, sheik, in every four there is one the slowest and one the swiftest; and while the race is always to the slowest, the trouble is always with the swiftest. It was so to-day; the driver could not reduce the best to harmonious action with the poorest. My trial may have no better result; but if so, I will tell thee of it: that I swear. Wherefore, in the same spirit I say, can I get them to run together, moved by my will, the four as one, thou shalt have the sestertii and the crown, and I my revenge. What sayest thou?”
Ilderim listened, combing his beard the while. At the end he said, with a laugh, “I think better of thee, son of Israel. We have a saying in the Desert, ‘If you will cook the meal with words, I will promise an ocean of butter.’ thou shalt have the horses in the morning.”
At that moment there was a stir at the rear entrance to the tent.
“The supper—it is here! and yonder my friend Balthasar, whom thou shalt know. He hath a story to tell which an Israelite should never tire of hearing.”
And to the servants he added,
“Take the records away, and return my jewels to their apartment.”
And they did as he ordered.