UP a little way from the dower there was a cluster of palms, which threw its shade half in the water, half on the land. A bulbul sang from the branches a song of invitation. Ben-Hur stopped beneath to listen. At any other time the notes of the bird would have driven thought away; but the story of the Egyptian was a burden of wonder, and he was a laborer carrying it, and, like other laborers, there was to him no music in the sweetest music until mind and body were happily attuned by rest.
The night was quiet. Not a ripple broke upon the shore. The old stars of the old East were all out, each in its accustomed place; and there was summer everywhere—on land, on lake, in the sky.
Ben-Hur’s imagination was heated, his feelings aroused, his will all unsettled.
So the palms, the sky, the air, seemed to him of the far south zone into which Balthasar had been driven by despair for men; the lake, with its motionless surface, was a suggestion of the Nilotic mother by which the good man stood praying when the Spirit made its radiant appearance. Had all these accessories of the miracle come to Ben-Hur? or had he been transferred to them? And what if the miracle should be repeated—and to him? He feared, yet wished, and even waited for the vision. When at last his feverish mood was cooled, permitting him to become himself, he was able to think.
His scheme of life has been explained. In all reflection about it heretofore there had been one hiatus which he had not been able to bridge or fill up—one so broad he could see but vaguely to the other side of it. When, finally, he was graduated a captain as well as a soldier, to what object should he address his efforts? Revolution he contemplated, of course; but the processes of revolution have always been the same, and to lead men into them there have always been required, first, a cause or presence to enlist adherents; second, an end, or something as a practical achievement. As a rule he fights well who has wrongs to redress; but vastly better fights he who, with wrongs as a spur, has also steadily before him a glorious result in prospect—a result in which he can discern balm for wounds, compensation for valor, remembrance and gratitude in the event of death.
To determine the sufficiency of either the cause or the end, it was needful that Ben-Hur should study the adherents to whom he looked when all was ready for action. Very naturally, they were his countrymen. The wrongs of Israel were to every son of Abraham, and each one was a cause vastly holy, vastly inspiring.
Ay, the cause was there; but the end—what should it be?
The hours and days he had given this branch of his scheme were past calculation—all with the same conclusion—a dim, uncertain, general idea of national liberty. Was it sufficient? He could not say no, for that would have been the death of his hope; he shrank from saying yes, because his judgment taught him better. He could not assure himself even that Israel was able single-handed to successfully combat Rome. He knew the resources of that great enemy; he knew her art was superior to her resources. A universal alliance might suffice, but, alas! that was impossible, except—and upon the exception how long and earnestly he had dwelt!—except a hero would come from one of the suffering nations, and by martial successes accomplish a renown to fill the whole earth. What glory to Judea could she prove the Macedonia of the new Alexander! Alas, again! Under the rabbis valor was possible, but not discipline. And then the taunt of Messala in the garden of Herod—“All you conquer in the six days, you lose on the seventh.”
So it happened he never approached the chasm thinking to surmount it, but he was beaten back; and so incessantly had he failed in the object that he had about given it over, except as a thing of chance. The hero might be discovered in his day, or he might not. God only knew. Such his state of mind, there need be no lingering upon the effect of Malluch’s skeleton recital of the story of Balthasar. He heard it with a bewildering satisfaction—a feeling that here was the solution of the trouble—here was the requisite hero found at last; and he a son of the Lion tribe, and King of the Jews! Behind the hero, lo! the world in arms.
The king implied a kingdom; he was to be a warrior glorious as David, a ruler wise and magnificent as Solomon; the kingdom was to be a power against which Rome was to dash itself to pieces. There would be colossal war, and the agonies of death and birth—then peace, meaning, of course, Judean dominion forever.
Ben-Hur’s heart beat hard as for an instant he had a vision of Jerusalem the capital of the world, and Zion, the site of the throne of the Universal Master.
It seemed to the enthusiast rare fortune that the man who had seen the king was at the tent to which he was going. He could see him there, and hear him, and learn of him what all he knew of the coming change, especially all he knew of the time of its happening. If it were at hand, the campaign with Maxentius should be abandoned; and he would go and set about organizing and arming the tribes, that Israel might be ready when the great day of the restoration began to break.
Now, as we have seen, from Balthasar himself Ben-Hur had the marvelous story. Was he satisfied?
There was a shadow upon him deeper than that of the cluster of palms—the shadow of a great uncertainty, which—take note, O reader! which pertained more to the kingdom than the king.
“What of this kingdom? And what is it to be?” Ben-Hur asked himself in thought.
Thus early arose the questions which were to follow the Child to his end, and survive him on earth—incomprehensible in his day, a dispute in this—an enigma to all who do not or cannot understand that every man is two in one—a deathless Soul and a mortal Body.
“What is it to be?” he asked.
For us, O reader, the Child himself has answered; but for Ben-Hur there were only the words of Balthasar, “On the earth, yet not of it—not for men, but for their souls—a dominion, nevertheless, of unimaginable glory.”
What wonder the hapless youth found the phrases but the darkening of a riddle?
“The hand of man is not in it,” he said, despairingly. “Nor has the king of such a kingdom use for men; neither toilers, nor councillors, nor soldiers. The earth must die or be made anew, and for government new principles must be discovered—something besides armed hands—something in place of Force. But what?”
Again, O reader!
That which we will not see, he could not. The power there is in Love had not yet occurred to any man; much less had one come saying directly that for government and its objects—peace and order—Love is better and mightier than Force.
In the midst of his reverie a hand was laid upon his shoulder.
“I have a word to say, O son of Arrius,” said Ilderim, stopping by his side—“a word, and then I must return, for the night is going.”
“I give you welcome, sheik.”
“As to the things you have heard but now,” said Ilderim, almost without pause, “take in belief all save that relating to the kind of kingdom the Child will set up when he comes; as to so much keep virgin mind until you hear Simonides the merchant—a good man here in Antioch, to whom I will make you known. The Egyptian gives you coinage of his dreams which are too good for the earth; Simonides is wiser; he will ring you the sayings of your prophets, giving book and page, so you cannot deny that the Child will be King of the Jews in fact—ay, by the splendor of God! a king as Herod was, only better and far more magnificent. And then, see you, we will taste the sweetness of vengeance. I have said. Peace to you!”
If Ilderim heard his call, he did not stay.
“Simonides again!” said Ben-Hur, bitterly. “Simonides here, Simonides there; from this one now, then from that! I am like to be well ridden by my father’s servant, who knows at least to hold fast that which is mine; wherefore he is richer, if indeed he be not wiser, than the Egyptian. By the covenant! it is not to the faithless a man should go to find a faith to keep—and I will not. But, hark! singing—and the voice a woman’s—or an angel’s! It comes this way.”
Down the lake towards the dower came a woman singing. Her voice floated along the hushed water melodious as a flute, and louder growing each instant. Directly the dipping of oars was heard in slow measure; a little later the words were distinguishable—words in purest Greek, best fitted of all the tongues of the day for the expression of passionate grief.
I sigh as I sing for the story land
O Nilus! thou god of my fainting soul!
At the conclusion of the song the singer was past the cluster of palms. The last word—farewell—floated past Ben-Hur weighted with all the sweet sorrow of parting. The passing of the boat was as the passing of a deeper shadow into the deeper night.
Ben-Hur drew a long breath hardly distinguishable from a sigh.
“I know her by the song—the daughter of Balthasar. How beautiful it was! And how beautiful is she!”
He recalled her large eyes curtained slightly by the drooping lids, the cheeks oval and rosy rich, the lips full and deep with dimpling in the corners, and all the grace of the tall lithe figure.
“How beautiful she is!” he repeated.
And his heart made answer by a quickening of its movement.
Then, almost the same instant, another face, younger and quite as beautiful—more childlike and tender, if not so passionate—appeared as if held up to him out of the lake.
“Esther!” he said, smiling. “As I wished, a star has been sent to me.”
He turned, and passed slowly back to the tent.
His life had been crowded with griefs and with vengeful preparations—too much crowded for love. Was this the beginning of a happy change?
And if the influence went with him into the tent, whose was it? Esther had given him a cup. So had the Egyptian. And both had come to him at the same time under the palms.