THE SHEIK waited, well satisfied, until Ben-Hur drew his horses off the field for the forenoon—well satisfied, for he had seen them, after being put through all the other paces, run full speed in such manner that it did not seem there were one the slowest and another the fastest—run in other words, as if the four were one.
“This afternoon, O sheik, I will give Sirius back to you.” Ben-Hur patted the neck of the old horse as he spoke. “I will give him back, and take to the chariot.”
“So soon?” Ilderim asked.
“With such as these, good sheik, one day suffices. They are not afraid; they have a man’s intelligence, and they love the exercise. This one,” he shook a rein over the back of the youngest of the four—“you called him Aldebaran, I believe—is the swiftest; in once round a stadium he would lead the others thrice his length.”
Ilderim pulled his beard, and said, with twinkling eyes, “Aldebaran is the swiftest; but what of the slowest?”
“This is he.” Ben-Hur shook the rein over Antares. “This is he: but he will win, for, look you, sheik, he will run his utmost all day—all day; and, as the sun goes down, he will reach his swiftest.”
“Right again,” said Ilderim.
“I have but one fear, O sheik.”
The sheik became doubly serious.
“In his greed of triumph, a Roman cannot keep honor pure. In the games—all of them, mark you—their tricks are infinite; in chariot racing their knavery extends to everything—from horse to driver, from driver to master. Wherefore, good sheik, look well to all thou hast; from this till the trial is over, let no stranger so much as see the horses. Would you be perfectly safe, do more—keep watch over them with armed hand as well as sleepless eye; then I will have no fear of the end.”
At the door of the tent they dismounted.
“What you say shall be attended to. By the splendor of God, no hand shall come near them except it belong to one of the faithful. To-night I will set watches. But, son of Arrius”—Ilderim drew forth the package, and opened it slowly, while they walked to the divan and seated themselves—“son of Arrius, see thou here, and help me with thy Latin.”
He passed the despatch to Ben-Hur.
“There; read—and read aloud, rendering what thou findest into the tongue of thy fathers. Latin is an abomination.”
Ben-Hur was in good spirits, and began the reading carelessly. “‘Messala to Gratus!’” He paused. A premonition drove the blood to his heart. Ilderim observed his agitation.
“Well; I am waiting.”
Ben-Hur prayed pardon, and recommenced the paper, which, it is sufficient to say, was one of the duplicates of the letter despatched so carefully to Gratus by Messala the morning after the revel in the palace.
The paragraphs in the beginning were remarkable only as proof that the writer had not outgrown his habit of mockery; when they were passed, and the reader came to the parts intended to refresh the memory of Gratus, his voice trembled, and twice he stopped to regain his self-control. By a strong effort he continued. “‘I recall further,’” he read, “‘that thou didst make disposition of the family of Hur’”—there the reader again paused and drew a long breath—“‘both of us at the time supposing the plan hit upon to be the most effective possible for the purposes in view, which were silence and delivery over to inevitable but natural death.’”
Here Ben-Hur broke down utterly. The paper fell from his hands, and he covered his face.
“They are dead—dead. I alone am left.”
The sheik had been a silent, but not unsympathetic, witness of the young man’s suffering; now he arose and said, “Son of Arrius, it is for me to beg thy pardon. Read the paper by thyself. When thou art strong enough to give the rest of it to me, send word, and I will return.”
He went out of the tent, and nothing in all his life became him better.
Ben-Hur flung himself on the divan and gave way to his feelings. When somewhat recovered, he recollected that a portion of the letter remained unread, and, taking it up, he resumed the reading. “Thou wilt remember,” the missive ran, “what thou didst with the mother and sister of the malefactor; yet, if now I yield to a desire to learn if they be living or dead”—Ben-Hur started, and read again, and then again, and at last broke into exclamation. “He does not know they are dead; he does not know it! Blessed be the name of the Lord! there is yet hope.” He finished the sentence, and was strengthened by it, and went on bravely to the end of the letter.
“They are not dead,” he said, after reflection; “they are not dead, or he would have heard of it.”
A second reading, more careful than the first, confirmed him in the opinion. Then he sent for the sheik.
“In coming to your hospitable tent, O sheik,” he said, calmly, when the Arab was seated and they were alone, “it was not in my mind to speak of myself further than to assure you I had sufficient training to be intrusted with your horses. I declined to tell you my history. But the chances which have sent this paper to my hand and given it to me to be read are so strange that I feel bidden to trust you with everything. And I am the more inclined to do so by knowledge here conveyed that we are both of us threatened by the same enemy, against whom it is needful that we make common cause. I will read the letter and give you explanation; after which you will not wonder I was so moved. If you thought me weak or childish, you will then excuse me.”
The sheik held his peace, listening closely, until Ben-Hur came to the paragraph in which he was particularly mentioned: “‘I saw the Jew yesterday in the Grove of Daphne;’” so ran the part, “‘and if he be not there now, he is certainly in the neighborhood, making it easy for me to keep him in eye. Indeed, wert thou to ask me where he is now, I should say, with the most positive assurance, he is to be found at the old Orchard of Palms.’”
“A—h!” exclaimed Ilderim, in such a tone one might hardly say he was more surprised than angry; at the same time, he clutched his beard.
“‘At the old Orchard of Palms,’” Ben-Hur repeated, “‘under the tent of the traitor Shiek Ilderim.’”
“Traitor!—I?” the old man cried, in his shrillest tone, while lip and beard curled with ire, and on his forehead and neck the veins swelled and beat as they would burst.
“Yet a moment, sheik,” said Ben-Hur, with a deprecatory gesture. “Such is Messala’s opinion of you. Hear his threat.” And he read on—“‘under the tent of the traitor Sheik Ilderim, who cannot long escape our strong hand. Be not surprised if Maxentius, as his first measure, places the Arab on ship for forwarding to Rome.’”
“To Rome! Me—Ilderim—sheik of ten thousand horsemen with spears—me to Rome!”
He leaped rather than rose to his feet, his arms outstretched, his fingers spread and curved like claws, his eyes glittering like a serpent’s.
“O God!—nay, by all the gods except of Rome!—when shall this insolence end? A freeman am I; free are my people. Must we die slaves? Or, worse, must I live a dog, crawling to a master’s feet? Must I lick his hand, lest he lash me? What is mine is not mine; I am not my own; for breath of body I must be beholden to a Roman. Oh, if I were young again! Oh, could I shake off twenty years—or ten—or five!”
He ground his teeth and shook his hands overhead; then, under the impulse of another idea, he walked away and back again to Ben-Hur swiftly, and caught his shoulder with a strong grasp.
“If I were as thou, son of Arrius—as young, as strong, as practised in arms; if I had a motive hissing me to revenge—a motive, like thine, great enough to make hate holy—Away with disguise on thy part and on mine! Son of Hur, son of Hur, I say—”
At that name all the currents of Ben-Hur’s blood stopped; surprised, bewildered, he gazed into the Arab’s eyes, now close to his, and fiercely bright.
“Son of Hur, I say, were I as thou, with half thy wrongs, bearing about with me memories like thine, I would not, I could not, rest.” Never pausing, his words following each other torrent-like, the old man swept on. “To all my grievances, I would add those of the world, and devote myself to vengeance. From land to land I would go firing all mankind. No war for freedom but should find me engaged; no battle against Rome in which I would not bear a part. I would turn Parthian, if I could not better. If men failed me, still I would not give over the effort—ha, ha, ha! By the splendor of God! I would herd with wolves, and make friends of lions and tigers, in hope of marshalling them against the common enemy. I would use every weapon. So my victims were Romans, I would rejoice in slaughter. Quarter I would not ask; quarter I would not give. To the flames everything Roman; to the sword every Roman born. Of nights I would pray the gods, the good and the bad alike, to lend me their special terrors—tempests, drought, heat, cold, and all the nameless poisons they let loose in air, all the thousand things of which men die on sea and on land. Oh, I could not sleep. I—I—”
The sheik stopped for want of breath, panting, wringing his hands. And, sooth to say, of all the passionate burst Ben-Hur retained but a vague impression wrought by fiery eyes, a piercing voice, and a rage too intense for coherent expression.
For the first time in years, the desolate youth heard himself addressed by his proper name. One man at least knew him, and acknowledged it without demand of identity; and he an Arab fresh from the desert!
How came the man by his knowledge? The letter? No. It told the cruelties from which his family had suffered; it told the story of his own misfortunes, but it did not say he was the very victim whose escape from doom was the theme of the heartless narrative. That was the point of explanation he had notified the sheik would follow the reading of the letter. He was pleased, and thrilled with hope restored, yet kept an air of calmness.
“Good sheik, tell me how you came by this letter.”
“My people keep the roads between cities,” Ilderim answered, bluntly. “They took it from a courier.”
“Are they known to be thy people?”
“No. To the world they are robbers, whom it is mine to catch and slay.”
“Again, sheik. You call me son of Hur—my father’s name. I did not think myself known to a person on earth. How came you by the knowledge?”
Ilderim hesitated; but, rallying, he answered, “I know you, yet I am not free to tell you more.”
“Some one holds you in restraint?”
The sheik closed his mouth, and walked away; but, observing Ben-Hur’s disappointment, he came back, and said, “Let us say no more about the matter now. I will go to town; when I return, I may talk to you fully. Give me the letter.”
Ilderim rolled the papyrus carefully, restored it to its envelopes, and became once more all energy.
“What sayest thou?” he asked, while waiting for his horse and retinue. “I told what I would do, were I thou, and thou hast made no answer.”
“I intended to answer, sheik, and I will.” Ben-Hur’s countenance and voice changed with the feeling invoked. “All thou hast said, I will do—all at least in the power of a man. I devoted myself to vengeance long ago. Every hour of the five years passed, I have lived with no other thought. I have taken no respite. I have had no pleasures of youth. The blandishments of Rome were not for me. I wanted her to educate me for revenge. I resorted to her most famous masters and professors—not those of rhetoric or philosophy: alas! I had no time for them. The arts essential to a fighting-man were my desire. I associated with gladiators, and with winners of prizes in the Circus; and they were my teachers. The drill-masters in the great camp accepted me as a scholar, and were proud of my attainments in their line. O sheik, I am a soldier; but the things of which I dream require me to be a captain. With that thought, I have taken part in the campaign against the Parthians; when it is over, then, if the Lord spare my life and strength—then”—he raised his clenched hands, and spoke vehemently—“then I will be an enemy Roman-taught in all things; then Rome shall account to me in Roman lives for her ills. You have my answer, sheik.”
Ilderim put an arm over his shoulder, and kissed him, saying, passionately, “If thy God favor thee not, son of Hur, it is because he is dead. Take thou this from me—sworn to, if so thy preference run: thou shalt have my hands, and their fulness—men, horses, camels, and the desert for preparation. I swear it! For the present, enough. Thou shalt see or hear from me before night.”
Turning abruptly off, the sheik was speedily on the road to the city.