GOING next day to fill his appointment with Iras, Ben-Hur turned from the Omphalus, which was in the heart of the city, into the Colonnade of Herod, and came shortly to the palace of Idernee.
From the street he passed first into a vestibule, on the sides of which were stairways under cover, leading up to a portico. Winged lions sat by the stairs; in the middle there was a gigantic ibis spouting water over the floor; the lions, ibis, walls, and floor were reminders of the Egyptians: everything, even the balustrading of the stairs, was of massive gray stone.
Above the vestibule, and covering the landing of the steps, arose the portico, a pillared grace, so light, so exquisitely proportioned, it was at that period hardly possible of conception except by a Greek. Of marble snowy white, its effect was that of a lily dropped carelessly upon a great bare rock.
Ben-Hur paused in the shade of the portico to admire its tracery and finish, and the purity of its marble; then he passed on into the palace. Ample folding-doors stood open to receive him. The passage into which he first entered was high, but somewhat narrow; red tiling formed the floor, and the walls were tinted to correspond. Yet this plainness was a warning of something beautiful to come.
He moved on slowly, all his faculties in repose. Presently he would be in the presence of Iras; she was waiting for him; waiting with song and story and badinage, sparkling, fanciful, capricious—with smiles which glorified her glance, and glances which lent voluptuous suggestion to her whisper. She had sent for him the evening of the boat-ride on the lake in the Orchard of Palms; she had sent for him now; and he was going to her in the beautiful palace of Idernee. He was happy and dreamful rather than thoughtless.
The passage brought him to a closed door, in front of which he paused; and, as he did so, the broad leaves began to open of themselves, without creak or sound of lock or latch, or touch of foot or finger. The singularity was lost in the view that broke upon him.
Standing in the shade of the dull passage, and looking through the doorway, he beheld the atrium of a Roman house, roomy and rich to a fabulous degree of magnificence.
How large the chamber was cannot be stated, because of the deceit there is in exact proportions; its depth was vista-like, something never to be said of an equal interior. When he stopped to make survey, and looked down upon the floor, he was standing upon the breast of a Leda, represented as caressing a swan; and, looking farther, he saw the whole floor was similarly laid in mosaic pictures of mythological subjects. And there were stools and chairs, each a separate design, and a work of art exquisitely composed, and tables much carven, and here and there couches which were invitations of themselves. The articles of furniture, which stood out from the walls, were duplicated on the floor distinctly as if they floated unrippled water; even the panelling of the walls, the figures upon them in painting and bas-relief, and the fresco of the ceiling were reflected on the floor. The ceiling curved up towards the centre, where there was an opening through which the sunlight poured without hindrance, and the sky, ever so blue, seemed in hand-reach; the impluvium under the opening was guarded by bronzed rails; the gilded pillars supporting the roof at the edges of the opening shone like flame where the sun struck them, and their reflections beneath seemed to stretch to infinite depth. And there were candelabra quaint and curious, and statuary and vases; the whole making an interior that would have befitted well the house on the Palatine Hill which Cicero bought of Crassus, or that other, yet more famous for extravagance, the Tusculan villa of Scaurus.
Still in his dreamful mood, Ben-Hur sauntered about, charmed by all he beheld, and waiting. He did not mind a little delay; when Iras was ready, she would come or send a servant. In every well-regulated Roman house the atrium was the reception chamber for visitors.
Twice, thrice, he made the round. As often he stood under the opening in the roof, and pondered the sky and its azure depth; then, leaning against a pillar, he studied the distribution of light and shade, and its effects; here a veil diminishing objects, there a brilliance exaggerating others; yet nobody came. Time, or rather the passage of time, began at length to impress itself upon him, and he wondered why Iras stayed so long. Again he traced out the figures upon the floor, but not with the satisfaction the first inspection gave him. He paused often to listen: directly impatience blew a little fevered breath upon his spirit; next time it blew stronger and hotter; and at last he woke to a consciousness of the silence which held the house in thrall, and the thought of it made him uneasy and distrustful. Still he put the feeling off with a smile and a promise. “Oh, she is giving the last touch to her eyelids, or she is arranging a chaplet for me; she will come presently, more beautiful of the delay!” He sat down then to admire a candelabrum—a bronze plinth on rollers, filigree on the sides and edges; the post at one end, and on the end opposite it an altar and a female celebrant; the lamp-rests swinging by delicate chains from the extremities of drooping palm-branches; altogether a wonder in its way. But the silence would obtrude itself: he listened even as he looked at the pretty object—he listened, but there was not a sound; the palace was still as a tomb.
There might be a mistake. No, the messenger had come from the Egyptian, and this was the palace of Idernee. Then he remembered how mysteriously the door had opened so soundlessly, so of itself. He would see!
He went to the same door. Though he walked ever so lightly the sound of his stepping was loud and harsh, and he shrank from it. He was getting nervous. The cumbrous Roman lock resisted his first effort to raise it; and the second—the blood chilled in his cheeks—he wrenched with all his might: in vain—the door was not even shaken. A sense of danger seized him, and for a moment he stood irresolute.
Who in Antioch had the motive to do him harm?
And this palace of Idernee? He had seen Egypt in the vestibule, Athens in the snowy portico; but here, in the atrium, was Rome; everything about him betrayed Roman ownership. True, the site was on the great thoroughfare of the city, a very public place in which to do him violence; but for that reason it was more accordant with the audacious genius of his enemy. The atrium underwent a change; with all its elegance and beauty, it was no more than a trap. Apprehension always paints in black.
The idea irritated Ben-Hur.
There were many doors on the right and left of the atrium, leading, doubtless, to sleeping-chambers; he tried them, but they were all firmly fastened. Knocking might bring response. Ashamed to make outcry, he betook himself to a couch, and, lying down, tried to reflect.
All too plainly he was a prisoner; but for what purpose? and by whom?
If the work were Messala’s! He sat up, looked about, and smiled defiantly. There were weapons in every table. But birds had been starved in golden cages; not so would he—the couches would serve him as battering-rams; and he was strong, and there was such increase of might in rage and despair!
Messala himself could not come. He would never walk again; he was a cripple like Simonides; still he could move others. And where were there not others to be moved by him? Ben-Hur arose, and tried the doors again. Once he called out; the room echoed so that he was startled. With such calmness as he could assume, he made up his mind to wait a time before attempting to break a way out.
In such a situation the mind has its ebb and flow of disquiet, with intervals of peace between. At length—how long, though, he could not have said—he came to the conclusion that the affair was an accident or mistake. The palace certainly belonged to somebody; it must have care and keeping: and the keeper would come; the evening or the night would bring him. Patience!
So concluding, he waited.
Half an hour passed—a much longer period to Ben-Hur—when the door which had admitted him opened and closed noiselessly as before, and without attracting his attention.
The moment of the occurrence he was sitting at the farther end of the room. A footstep startled him.
“At last she has come!” he thought, with a throb of relief and pleasure, and arose.
The step was heavy, and accompanied with the gride and clang of coarse sandals. The gilded pillars were between him and the door; he advanced quietly, and leaned against one of them. Presently he heard voices—the voices of men—one of them rough and guttural. What was said he could not understand, as the language was not of the East or South of Europe.
After a general survey of the room, the strangers crossed to their left, and were brought into Ben-Hur’s view—two men, one very stout, both tall, and both in short tunics. They had not the air of masters of the house or domestics. Everything they saw appeared wonderful to them; everything they stopped to examine they touched. They were vulgarians. The atrium seemed profaned by their presence. At the same time, their leisurely manner and the assurance with which they proceeded pointed to some right or business; if business, with whom?
With much jargon they sauntered this way and that, all the time gradually approaching the pillar by which Ben-Hur was standing. Off a little way, where a slanted gleam of the sun fell with a glare upon the mosaic of the floor, there was a statue which attracted their notice. In examining it, they stopped in the light.
The mystery surrounding his own presence in the palace tended, as we have seen, to make Ben-Hur nervous; so now, when in the tall stout stranger he recognized the Northman whom he had known in Rome, and seen crowned only the day before in the Circus as the winning pugilist; when he saw the man’s face, scarred with the wounds of many battles, and imbruted by ferocious passions; when he surveyed the fellow’s naked limbs, very marvels of exercise and training, and his shoulders of Herculean breadth, a thought of personal danger started a chill along every vein. A sure instinct warned him that the opportunity for murder was too perfect to have come by chance; and here now were the myrmidons, and their business was with him. He turned an anxious eye upon the Northman’s comrade—young, black-eyed, black-haired, and altogether Jewish in appearance; he observed, also, that both the men were in costume exactly such as professionals of their class were in the habit of wearing in the arena. Putting the several circumstances together, Ben-Hur could not be longer in doubt: he had been lured into the palace with design. Out of reach of aid, in this splendid privacy, he was to die!
At a loss what to do, he gazed from man to man, while there was enacted within him that miracle of mind by which life is passed before us in awful detail, to be looked at by ourselves as if it were another’s; and from the evolvement, from a hidden depth, cast up, as it were, by a hidden hand, he was given to see that he had entered upon a new life, different from the old one in this: whereas, in that, he had been the victim of violences done to him, henceforth he was to be the aggressor. Only yesterday he had found his first victim! To the purely Christian nature the presentation would have brought the weakness of remorse. Not so with Ben-Hur; his spirit had its emotions from the teachings of the first lawgiver, not the last and greatest one. He had dealt punishment, not wrong, to Messala. By permission of the Lord, he had triumphed; and he derived faith from the circumstance—faith the source of all rational strength, especially strength in peril.
Nor did the influence stop there. The new life was made appear to him a mission just begun, and holy as the King to come was holy, and certain as the coming of the King was certain—a mission in which force was lawful if only because it was unavoidable. Should he, on the very threshold of such an errand, be afraid?
He undid the sash around his waist, and, baring his head and casting off his white Jewish gown, stood forth in an undertunic not unlike those of the enemy, and was ready, body and mind. Folding his arms, he placed his back against the pillar, and calmly waited.
The examination of the statue was brief. Directly the Northman turned, and said something in the unknown tongue; then both looked at Ben-Hur. A few more words, and they advanced towards him.
“Who are you?” he asked, in Latin.
The Northman fetched a smile which did not relieve his face of its brutalism, and answered,
“This is the palace of Idernee. Whom seek you? Stand and answer.”
The words were spoken with earnestness. The strangers stopped; and in his turn the Northman asked, “Who are you?”
The giant laid his head back upon his shoulders.
“Ha, ha, ha! I have heard how a god once came from a cow licking a salted stone; but not even a god can make a Roman of a Jew.”
The laugh over, he spoke to his companion again, and they moved nearer.
“Hold!” said Ben-Hur, quitting the pillar. “One word.”
They stopped again.
“A word!” replied the Saxon, folding his immense arms across his breast, and relaxing the menace beginning to blacken his face. “A word! Speak.”
“You are Thord the Northman.”
The giant opened his blue eyes.
“You were lanista in Rome.”
“I was your scholar.”
“No,” said Thord, shaking his head. “By the beard of Irmin, I had never a Jew to make a fighting-man of.”
“But I will prove my saying.”
“You came here to kill me.”
“That is true.”
“Then let this man fight me singly, and I will make the proof on his body.”
A gleam of humor shone in the Northman’s face. He spoke to his companion, who made answer; then he replied with the naïveté of a diverted child,
“Wait till I say begin.”
By repeated touches of his foot, he pushed a couch out on the floor, and proceeded leisurely to stretch his burly form upon it; when perfectly at ease, he said, simply, “Now begin.”
Without ado, Ben-Hur walked to his antagonist.
“Defend thyself,” he said.
The man, nothing loath, put up his hands.
As the two thus confronted each other in approved position, there was no discernible inequality between them; on the contrary, they were as like as brothers. To the stranger’s confident smile, Ben-Hur opposed an earnestness which, had his skill been known, would have been accepted fair warning of danger. Both knew the combat was to be mortal.
Ben-Hur feinted with his right hand. The stranger warded, slightly advancing his left arm. Ere he could return to guard, Ben-Hur caught him by the wrist in a grip which years at the oar had made terrible as a vise. The surprise was complete, and no time given. To throw himself forward; to push the arm across the man’s throat and over his right shoulder, and turn him left side front; to strike surely with the ready left hand; to strike the bare neck under the ear—were but petty divisions of the same act. No need of a second blow. The myrmidon fell heavily, and without a cry, and lay still.
Ben-Hur turned to Thord.
“Ha! What! By the beard of Irmin!” the latter cried, in astonishment, rising to a sitting posture. Then he laughed.
“Ha, ha, ha! I could not have done it better myself.”
He viewed Ben-Hur coolly from head to foot, and, rising, faced him with undisguised admiration.
“It was my trick—the trick I have practised for ten years in the schools of Rome. You are not a Jew. Who are you?”
“You knew Arrius the duumvir.”
“Quintus Arrius? Yes, he was my patron.”
“He had a son.”
“Yes,” said Thord, his battered features lighting dully, “I knew the boy; he would have made a king gladiator. Cæsar offered him his patronage. I taught him the very trick you played on this one here—a trick impossible except to a hand and arm like mine. It has won me many a crown.”
“I am that son of Arrius.”
Thord drew nearer, and viewed him carefully; then his eyes brightened with genuine pleasure, and, laughing, he held out his hand.
“Ha, ha, ha! He told me I would find a Jew here—a Jew—a dog of a Jew—killing whom was serving the gods.”
“Who told you so?” asked Ben-Hur, taking the hand.
“He—Messala—ha, ha, ha!”
“I thought he was hurt.”
“He will never walk again. On his bed he told me between groans.”
A very vivid portrayal of hate in a few words; and Ben-Hur saw that the Roman, if he lived, would still be capable and dangerous, and follow him unrelentingly. Revenge remained to sweeten the ruined life; therefore the clinging to fortune lost in the wager with Sanballat. Ben-Hur ran the ground over, with a distinct foresight of the many ways in which it would be possible for his enemy to interfere with him in the work he had undertaken for the King who was coming. Why not he resort to the Roman’s methods? The man hired to kill him could be hired to strike back. It was in his power to offer higher wages. The temptation was strong; and, half yielding, he chanced to look down at his late antagonist lying still, with white upturned face, so like himself. A light came to him, and he asked, “Thord, what was Messala to give you for killing me?”
“A thousand sestertii.”
“You shall have them yet; and so you do now what I tell you, I will add three thousand more to the sum.”
The giant reflected aloud,
“I won five thousand yesterday; from the Roman one—six. Give me four, good Arrius—four more—and I will stand firm for you, though old Thor, my namesake, strike me with his hammer. Make it four, and I will kill the lying patrician, if you say so. I have only to cover his mouth with my hand—thus.”
He illustrated the process by clapping his hand over his own mouth.
“I see,” said Ben-Hur; “ten thousand sestertii is a fortune. It will enable you to return to Rome, and open a wine-shop near the Great Circus, and live as becomes the first of the lanistæ.”
The very scars on the giant’s face glowed afresh with the pleasure the picture gave him.
“I will make it four thousand,” Ben-Hur continued; “and in what you shall do for the money there will be no blood on your hands, Thord. Hear me now. Did not your friend here look like me?”
“I would have said he was an apple from the same tree.”
“Well, if I put on his tunic, and dress him in these clothes of mine, and you and I go away together, leaving him here, can you not get your sestertii from Messala all the same? You have only to make him believe it me that is dead.”
Thord laughed till the tears ran into his mouth.
“Ha, ha, ha! Ten thousand sestertii were never won so easily. And a wine-shop by the Great Circus!—all for a lie without blood in it! Ha, ha, ha! Give me thy hand, O son of Arrius. Get on now, and—ha, ha, ha!—if ever you come to Rome, fail not to ask for the wine-shop of Thord the Northman. By the beard of Irmin, I will give you the best, though I borrow it from Cæsar!”
They shook hands again; after which the exchange of clothes was effected. It was arranged then that a messenger should go at night to Thord’s lodging-place with the four thousand sestertii. When they were done, the giant knocked at the front door; it opened to him; and, passing out of the atrium, he led Ben-Hur into a room adjoining, where the latter completed his attire from the coarse garments of the dead pugilist. They separated directly in the Omphalus.
“Fail not, O son of Arrius, fail not the wine-shop near the Great Circus! Ha, ha, ha! By the beard of Irmin, there was never fortune gained so cheap. The gods keep you!”
Upon leaving the atrium, Ben-Hur gave a last look at the myrmidon as he lay in the Jewish vestments, and was satisfied. The likeness was striking. If Thord kept faith, the cheat was a secret to endure forever.
At night, in the house of Simonides, Ben-Hur told the good man all that had taken place in the palace of Idernee; and it was agreed that, after a few days, public inquiry should be set afloat for the discovery of the whereabouts of the son of Arrius. Eventually the matter was to be carried boldly to Maxentius; then, if the mystery came not out, it was concluded that Messala and Gratus would be at rest and happy, and Ben-Hur free to betake himself to Jerusalem, to make search for his lost people.
At the leave-taking, Simonides sat in his chair out on the terrace overlooking the river, and gave his farewell and the peace of the Lord with the impressment of a father. Esther went with the young man to the head of the steps.
“If I find my mother, Esther, thou shalt go to her at Jerusalem, and be a sister to Tirzah.”
And with the words he kissed her.
Was it only a kiss of peace?
He crossed the river next to the late quarters of Ilderim, where he found the Arab who was to serve him as guide. The horses were brought out.
“This one is thine,” said the Arab.
Ben-Hur looked, and, lo! it was Aldebaran, the swiftest and brightest of the sons of Mira, and, next to Sirius, the beloved of the sheik; and he knew the old man’s heart came to him along with the gift.
The corpse in the atrium was taken up and buried by night; and, as part of Messala’s plan, a courier was sent off to Gratus to make him at rest by the announcement of Ben-Hur’s death—this time past question.
Ere long a wine-shop was opened near the Circus Maximus, with inscription over the door: