IT WAS dark when, parting with the drover inside the gate, Ben-Hur turned into a narrow lane leading to the south. A few of the people whom he met saluted him. The bouldering of the pavement was rough. The houses on both sides were low, dark, and cheerless; the doors all closed: from the roofs, occasionally, he heard women crooning to children. The loneliness of his situation, the night, the uncertainty cloaking the object of his coming, all affected him cheerlessly. With feelings sinking lower and lower, he came directly to the deep reservoir now known as the Pool of Bethesda, in which the water reflected the over-pending sky. Looking up, he beheld the northern wall of the Tower of Antonia, a black frowning heap reared into the dim steel-gray sky. He halted as if challenged by a threatening sentinel.
The Tower stood up so high, and seemed so vast, resting apparently upon foundations so sure, that he was constrained to acknowledge its strength. If his mother were there in living burial, what could he do for her? By the strong hand, nothing. An army might beat the stony face with ballista and ram, and be laughed at. Against him alone, the gigantic southeast turret looked down in the self-containment of a hill. And he thought, cunning is so easily baffled; and God, always the last resort of the helpless—God is sometimes so slow to act!
In doubt and misgiving, he turned into the street in front of the Tower, and followed it slowly on to the west.
Over in Bezetha he knew there was a khan, where it was his intention to seek lodging while in the city; but just now he could not resist the impulse to go home. His heart drew him that way.
The old formal salutation which he received from the few people who passed him had never sounded so pleasantly. Presently, all the eastern sky began to silver and shine, and objects before invisible in the west—chiefly the tall towers on Mount Zion—emerged as from a shadowy depth, and put on spectral distinctness, floating, as it were, above the yawning blackness of the valley below, very castles in the air.
He came, at length, to his father’s house.
Of those who read this page, some there will be to divine his feelings without prompting. They are such as had happy homes in their youth, no matter how far that may have been back in time—homes which are now the starting-points of all recollection; paradises from which they went forth in tears, and which they would now return to, if they could, as little children; places of laughter and singing, and associations dearer than any or all the triumphs of after-life.
At the gate on the north side of the old house Ben-Hur stopped. In the corners the wax used in the sealing-up was still plainly seen, and across the valves was the board with the inscription—
“THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF
Nobody had gone in or out the gate since the dreadful day of the separation. Should he knock as of old? It was useless, he knew; yet he could not resist the temptation. Amrah might hear, and look out of one of the windows on that side. Taking a stone, he mounted the broad stone step, and tapped three times. A dull echo replied. He tried again, louder than before; and again, pausing each time to listen. The silence was mocking. Retiring into the street, he watched the windows; but they, too, were lifeless. The parapet on the roof was defined sharply against the brightening sky; nothing could have stirred upon it unseen by him, and nothing did stir.
From the north side he passed to the west, where there were four windows which he watched long and anxiously, but with as little effect. At times his heart swelled with impotent wishes; at others, he trembled at the deceptions of his own fancy. Amrah made no sign—not even a ghost stirred.
Silently, then, he stole round to the south. There, too, the gate was sealed and inscribed. The mellow splendor of the August moon, pouring over the crest of Olivet, since termed the Mount of Offence, brought the lettering boldly out; and he read, and was filled with rage. All he could do was to wrench the board from its nailing, and hurl it into the ditch. Then he sat upon the step, and prayed for the New King, and that his coming might be hastened. As his blood cooled, insensibly he yielded to the fatigue of long travel in the summer heat, and sank down lower, and, at last, slept.
About that time two women came down the street from the direction of the Tower of Antonia, approaching the palace of the Hurs. They advanced stealthily, with timid steps, pausing often to listen. At the corner of the rugged pile, one said to the other, in a low voice,
“This is it, Tirzah!”
And Tirzah, after a look, caught her mother’s hand, and leaned upon her heavily, sobbing, but silent.
“Let us go on, my child, because”—the mother hesitated and trembled; then, with an effort to be calm, continued—“because when morning comes they will put us out of the gate of the city to—return no more.”
Tirzah sank almost to the stones.
“Ah, yes!” she said, between sobs; “I forgot. I had the feeling of going home. But we are lepers, and have no homes; we belong to the dead!”
The mother stooped and raised her tenderly, saying, “We have nothing to fear. Let us go on.”
Indeed, lifting their empty hands, they could have run upon a legion and put it to flight.
And, creeping in close to the rough wall, they glided on, like two ghosts, till they came to the gate, before which they also paused. Seeing the board, they stepped upon the stone in the scarce cold tracks of Ben-Hur, and read the inscription—“This is the Property of the Emperor.”
Then the mother clasped her hands, and, with upraised eyes, moaned in unutterable anguish.
“What now, mother? You scare me!”
And the answer was, presently, “Oh, Tirzah, the poor are dead! He is dead!”
“Your brother! They took everything from him—everything—even this house!”
“Poor!” said Tirzah, vacantly.
“He will never be able to help us.”
“And then, mother?”
“To-morrow—to-morrow, my child, we must find a seat by the wayside, and beg alms as the lepers do; beg, or—”
Tirzah leaned upon her again, and said, whispering, “Let us—let us die!”
“No!” the mother said, firmly. “The Lord has appointed our times, and we are believers in the Lord. We will wait on him even in this. Come away!”
She caught Tirzah’s hand as she spoke, and hastened to the west corner of the house, keeping close to the wall. No one being in sight there, they kept on to the next corner, and shrank from the moonlight, which lay exceedingly bright over the whole south front, and along a part of the street. The mother’s will was strong. Casting one look back and up to the windows on the west side, she stepped out into the light, drawing Tirzah after her; and the extent of their affliction was then to be seen—on their lips and cheeks, in their bleared eyes, in their cracked hands; especially in the long, snaky locks, stiff with loathsome ichor, and, like their eyebrows, ghastly white. Nor was it possible to have told which was mother, which daughter; both alike seemed witch-like old.
“Hist!” said the mother. “There is some one lying upon the step—a man. Let us go round him.”
They crossed to the opposite side of the street quickly, and, in the shade there, moved on till before the gate, where they stopped.
“He is asleep, Tirzah!”
The man was very still.
“Stay here, and I will try the gate.”
So saying, the mother stole noiselessly across, and ventured to touch the wicket; she never knew if it yielded, for that moment the man sighed, and, turning restlessly, shifted the handkerchief on his head in such manner that the face was left upturned and fair in the broad moonlight. She looked down at it and started; then looked again, stooping a little, and arose and clasped her hands and raised her eyes to heaven in mute appeal. An instant so, and she ran back to Tirzah.
“As the Lord liveth, the man is my son—thy brother!” she said, in an awe-inspiring whisper.
The mother caught her hand eagerly.
“Come!” she said, in the same enforced whisper, “let us look at him together—once more—only once—then help thou thy servants, Lord!”
They crossed the street hand in hand ghostly-quick, ghostly-still. When their shadows fell upon him, they stopped. One of his hands was lying out upon the step palm up. Tirzah fell upon her knees, and would have kissed it; but the mother drew her back.
“Not for thy life; not for thy life! Unclean, unclean!” she whispered.
Tirzah shrank from him, as if he were the leprous one.
Ben-Hur was handsome as the manly are. His cheeks and forehead were swarthy from exposure to the desert sun and air; yet under the light mustache the lips were red, and the teeth shone white, and the soft beard did not hide the full roundness of chin and throat. How beautiful he appeared to the mother’s eyes! How mightily she yearned to put her arms about him, and take his head upon her bosom and kiss him, as had been her wont in his happy childhood! Where got she the strength to resist the impulse? From her love, O, reader!—her mother-love, which, if thou wilt observe well, hath this unlikeness to any other love: tender to the object, it can be infinitely tyrannical to itself, and thence all its power of self-sacrifice. Not for restoration to health and fortune, not for any blessing of life, not for life itself, would she have left her leprous kiss upon his cheek! Yet touch him she must; in that instant of finding him she must renounce him forever! How bitter, bitter hard it was, let some other mother say! She knelt down, and, crawling to his feet, touched the sole of one of his sandals with her lips, yellow though it was with the dust of the street—and touched it again and again; and her very soul was in the kisses.
He stirred, and tossed his hand. They moved back, but heard him mutter in his dream,
“Mother! Amrah! Where is—”
He fell off into the deep sleep.
Tirzah stared wistfully. The mother put her face in the dust, struggling to suppress a sob so deep and strong it seemed her heart was bursting. Almost she wished he might waken.
He had asked for her; she was not forgotten; in his sleep he was thinking of her. Was it not enough?
Presently mother beckoned to Tirzah, and they arose, and taking one more look, as if to print his image past fading, hand in hand they recrossed the street. Back in the shade of the wall there, they retired and knelt, looking at him, waiting for him to wake—waiting some revelation, they knew not what. Nobody has yet given us a measure for the patience of a love like theirs.
By-and-by, the sleep being yet upon him, another woman appeared at the corner of the palace. The two in the shade saw her plainly in the light; a small figure, much bent, dark-skinned, gray-haired, dressed neatly in servant’s garb, and carrying a basket full of vegetables.
At sight of the man upon the step the new-comer stopped; then, as if decided, she walked on—very lightly as she drew near the sleeper. Passing round him, she went to the gate, slid the wicket latch easily to one side, and put her hand in the opening. One of the broad boards in the left valve swung ajar without noise. She put the basket through, and was about to follow, when, yielding to curiosity, she lingered to have one look at the stranger whose face was below her in open view.
The spectators across the street heard a low exclamation, and saw the woman rub her eyes as if to renew their power, bend closer down, clasp her hands, gaze wildly around, look at the sleeper, stoop and raise the outlying hand, and kiss it fondly—that which they wished so mightily to do, but dared not.
Awakened by the action, Ben-Hur instinctively withdrew the hand; as he did so, his eyes met the woman’s.
“Amrah! O Amrah, is it thou?” he said.
The good heart made no answer in words, but fell upon his neck, crying for joy.
Gently he put her arms away, and lifting the dark face wet with tears, kissed it, his joy only a little less than hers. Then those across the way heard him say,
“Mother—Tirzah—O Amrah, tell me of them! Speak, speak, I pray thee!”
Amrah only cried afresh.
“Thou has seen them, Amrah. Thou knowest where they are; tell me they are at home.”
Tirzah moved, but her mother, divining her purpose, caught her and whispered, “Do not go—not for life. Unclean, unclean!”
Her love was in tyrannical mood. Though both their hearts broke, he should not become what they were; and she conquered.
Meantime, Amrah, so entreated, only wept the more.
“Wert thou going in?” he asked, presently, seeing the board swung back. “Come, then. I will go with thee.” He arose as he spoke. “The Romans—be the curse of the Lord upon them!—the Romans lied. The house is mine. Rise, Amrah, and let us go in.” A moment and they were gone, leaving the two in the shade to behold the gate staring blankly at them—the gate which they might not ever enter more. They nestled together in the dust.
They had done their duty.
Their love was proven.
Next morning they were found, and driven out the city with stones.
“Begone! Ye are of the dead; go to the dead!”
With the doom ringing in their ears, they went forth.