THE TENT was cosily pitched beneath a tree where the gurgle of the stream was constantly in ear. Overhead the broad leaves hung motionless on their stems; the delicate reed-stalks off in the pearly haze stood up arrowy-straight; occasionally a home-returning bee shot humming athwart the shade, and a partridge creeping from the sedge drank, whistled to his mate, and ran away. The restfulness of the vale, the freshness of the air, the garden beauty, the Sabbath stillness, seemed to have affected the spirits of the elder Egyptian; his voice, gestures, and whole manner were unusually gentle; and often as he bent his eyes upon Ben-Hur conversing with Iras, they softened with pity.
“When we overtook you, son of Hur,” he said, at the conclusion of the repast, “it seemed your face was also turned towards Jerusalem. May I ask, without offence, if you are going so far?”
“I am going to the Holy City.”
“For the great need I have to spare myself prolonged toil, I will further ask you, Is there a shorter road than that by Rabbath-Ammon?”
“A rougher route, but shorter, lies by Gerasa and Rabbath-Gilead. It is the one I design taking.”
“I am impatient,” said Balthasar. “Latterly my sleep has been visited by dreams—or rather by the same dream in repetition. A voice—it is nothing more—comes and tells me, ‘Haste—arise! He whom thou hast so long awaited is at hand.’”
“You mean he that is to be King of the Jews?” Ben-Hur asked, gazing at the Egyptian in wonder.
“Then you have heard nothing of him?”
“Nothing, except the words of the voice in the dream.”
“Here, then, are tidings to make you glad as they made me.”
From his gown Ben-Hur drew the letter received from Malluch. The hand the Egyptian held out trembled violently. He read aloud, and as he read his feelings increased; the limp veins in his neck swelled and throbbed. At the conclusion he raised his suffused eyes in thanksgiving and prayer. He asked no questions, yet had no doubts.
“Thou hast been very good to me, O God,” he said. “Give me, I pray thee, to see the Saviour again, and worship him, and thy servant will be ready to go in peace.”
The words, the manner, the singular personality of the simple prayer, touched Ben-Hur with a sensation new and abiding. God never seemed so actual and so near by; it was as if he were there bending over them or sitting at their side—a Friend whose favors were to be had by the most unceremonious asking—a Father to whom all his children were alike in love—Father, not more of the Jew than of the Gentile—the Universal Father, who needed no intermediates, no rabbis, no priests, no teachers. The idea that such a God might send mankind a Saviour instead of a king appeared to Ben-Hur in a light not merely new, but so plain that he could almost discern both the greater want of such a gift and its greater consistency with the nature of such a Deity. So he could not resist asking,
“Now that he has come, O Balthasar, you still think he is to be a Saviour, and not a king?”
Balthasar gave him a look thoughtful as it was tender.
“How shall I understand you?” he asked, in return. “The Spirit, which was the Star that was my guide of old, has not appeared to me since I met you in the tent of the good sheik; that is to say, I have not seen or heard it as formerly. I believe the voice that spoke to me in my dreams was it; but other than that I have no revelation.”
“I will recall the difference between us,” said Ben-Hur, with deference. “You were of opinion that he would be a king, but not as Cæsar is; you thought his sovereignty would be spiritual, not of the world.”
“Oh yes,” the Egyptian answered; “and I am of the same opinion now. I see the divergence in our faith. You are going to meet a king of men, I a Saviour of souls.”
He paused with the look often seen when people are struggling, with introverted effort, to disentangle a thought which is either too high for quick discernment or too subtle for simple expression.
“Let me try, O son of Hur,” he said, directly, “and help you to a clear understanding of my belief; then it may be, seeing how the spiritual kingdom I expect him to set up can be more excellent in every sense than anything of mere Cæsarean splendor, you will better understand the reason of the interest I take in the mysterious person we are going to welcome.
“I cannot tell you when the idea of a Soul in every man had its origin. Most likely the first parents brought it with them out of the garden in which they had their first dwelling. We all do know, however, that it has never perished entirely out of mind. By some peoples it was lost, but not by all; in some ages it dulled and faded, in others it was overwhelmed with doubts; but, in great goodness, God kept sending us at intervals mighty intellects to argue it back to faith and hope.
“Why should there be a Soul in every man? Look, O son of Hur—for one moment look at the necessity of such a device. To lie down and die, and be no more—no more forever—time never was when man wished for such an end; nor has the man ever been who did not in his heart promise himself something better. The monuments of the nations are all protests against nothingness after death; so are statues and inscriptions; so is history. The greatest of our Egyptian kings had his effigy cut-out of a hill of solid rock. Day after day he went with a host in chariots to see the work; at last it was finished, never effigy so grand, so enduring: it looked like him—the features were his, faithful even in expression. Now may we not think of him saying in that moment of pride, ‘Let Death come; there is an after-life for me!’ He had his wish. The statue is there yet.
“But what is the after-life he thus secured? Only a recollection by men—a glory unsubstantial as moonshine on the brow of the great bust; a story in stone—nothing more. Meantime what has become of the king? There is an embalmed body up in the royal tombs which once was his—an effigy not so fair to look at as the other out in the Desert. But where, O son of Hur, where is the king himself? Is he fallen into nothingness? Two thousand years have gone since he was a man alive as you and I are. Was his last breath the end of him?
“To say yes would be to accuse God; let us rather accept his better plan of attaining life after death for us—actual life, I mean—the something more than a place in mortal memory; life with going and coming, with sensation, with knowledge, with power and all appreciation; life eternal in term though it may be with changes of condition.
“Ask you what God’s plan is? The gift of a Soul to each of us at birth, with this simple law—there shall be no immortality except through the Soul. In that law see the necessity of which I spoke.
“Let us turn from the necessity now. A word as to the pleasure there is in the thought of a Soul in each of us. In the first place, it robs death of its terrors by making dying a change for the better, and burial but the planting of a seed from which there will spring a new life. In the next place, behold me as I am—weak, weary, old, shrunken in body, and graceless; look at my wrinkled face, think of my failing senses, listen to my shrilled voice. Ah! what happiness to me in the promise that when the tomb opens, as soon it will, to receive the worn-out husk I call myself, the now viewless doors of the universe, which is but the palace of God, will swing wide ajar to receive me, a liberated immortal Soul!
“I would I could tell the ecstasy there must be in that life to come! Do not say I know nothing about it. This much I know, and it is enough for me—the being a Soul implies conditions of divine superiority. In such a being there is no dust, nor any gross thing; it must be finer than air, more impalpable than light, purer than essence—it is life in absolute purity.
“What now, O son of Hur? Knowing so much, shall I dispute with myself or you about the unnecessaries—about the form of my soul? Or where it is to abide? Or whether it eats and drinks? Or is winged, or wears this or that? No. It is more becoming to trust in God. The beautiful in this world is all from his hand declaring the perfection of taste; he is the author of all form; he clothes the lily, he colors the rose, he distils the dew-drop, he makes the music of nature; in a word, he organized us for this life, and imposed its conditions; and they are such guaranty to me that, trustful as a little child, I leave to him the organization of my Soul, and every arrangement for the life after death. I know he loves me.”
The good man stopped and drank, and the hand carrying the cup to his lips trembled; and both Iras and Ben-Hur shared his emotion and remained silent. Upon the latter a light was breaking. He was beginning to see, as never before, that there might be a spiritual kingdom of more import to men than any earthly empire; and that after all a Saviour would indeed be a more godly gift than the greatest king.
“I might ask you now,” said Balthasar, continuing, “whether this human life, so troubled and brief, is preferable to the perfect and everlasting life designed for the Soul? But take the question, and think of it for yourself, formulating thus: Supposing both to be equally happy, is one hour more desirable than one year? From that then advance to the final inquiry, what are threescore and ten years on earth to all eternity with God? By-and-by, son of Hur, thinking in such manner, you will be filled with the meaning of the fact I present you next, to me the most amazing of all events, and in its effects the most sorrowful; it is that the very idea of life as a Soul is a light almost gone out in the world. Here and there, to be sure, a philosopher may be found who will talk to you of a Soul, likening it to a principle; but because philosophers take nothing upon faith, they will not go the length of admitting a Soul to be a being, and on that account its purpose is compressed darkness to them.
“Everything animate has a mind measurable by its wants. Is there to you no meaning in the singularity that power in full degree to speculate upon the future was given to man alone? By the sign as I see it, God meant to make us know ourselves created for another and a better life, such being in fact the greatest need of our nature. But, alas! into what a habit the nations have fallen! They live for the day, as if the present were the all in all, and go about saying, ‘There is no to-morrow after death; or if there be, since we know nothing about it, be it a care unto itself.’ So when Death calls them, ‘Come,’ they may not enter into enjoyment of the glorious after-life because of their unfitness. That is to say, the ultimate happiness of man was everlasting life in the society of God. Alas, O son of Hur, that I should say it! but as well yon sleeping camel constant in such society as the holiest priests this day serving the highest altars in the most renowned temples. So much are men given to this lower earthly life! So nearly have they forgotten that other which is to come!
“See now, I pray you, that which is to be saved to us.
“For my part, speaking with the holiness of truth, I would not give one hour of life as a Soul for a thousand years of life as a man.”
Here the Egyptian seemed to become unconscious of companionship and fall away into abstraction.
“This life has its problems,” he said, “and there are men who spend their days trying to solve them; but what are they to the problems of the hereafter? What is there like knowing God? Not a scroll of the mysteries, but the mysteries themselves would for that hour at least lie before me revealed; even the innermost and most awful—the power which now we shrink from thought of—which rimmed the void with shores, and lighted the darkness, and out of nothing appointed the universe. All places would be opened. I would be filled with divine knowledge; I would see all glories, taste all delights; I would revel in being. And if, at the end of the hour, it should please God to tell me, ‘I take thee into my service forever,’ the furthest limit of desire would be passed; after which the attainable ambitions of life, and its joys of whatever kind, would not be so much as the tinkling of little bells.”
Balthasar paused as if to recover from very ecstasy of feeling; and to Ben-Hur it seemed the speech had been the delivery of a Soul speaking for itself.
“I pray pardon, son of Hur,” the good man continued, with a bow the gravity of which was relieved by the tender look that followed it, “I meant to leave the life of a Soul, its conditions, pleasures, superiority, to your own reflection and finding out. The joy of the thought has betrayed me into much speech. I set out to show, though ever so faintly, the reason of my faith. It grieves me that words are so weak. But help yourself to truth. Consider first the excellence of the existence which was reserved for us after death, and give heed to the feelings and impulses the thought is sure to awaken in you—heed them, I say, because they are your own Soul astir, doing what it can to urge you in the right way. Consider next that the afterlife has become so obscured as to justify calling it a lost light. If you find it, rejoice, O son of Hur—rejoice as I do, though in beggary of words. For then, besides the great gift which is to be saved to us, you will have found the need of a Saviour so infinitely greater than the need of a king; and he we are going to meet will not longer hold place in your hope a warrior with a sword or a monarch with a crown.
“A practical question presents itself—How shall we know him at sight? If you continue in your belief as to his character—that he is to be a king as Herod was—of course you will keep on until you meet a man clothed in purple and with a sceptre. On the other hand, he I look for will be one poor, humble, undistinguished—a man in appearance as other men; and the sign by which I will know him will be never so simple. He will offer to show me and all mankind the way to the eternal life; the beautiful pure Life of the Soul.”
The company sat a moment in silence which was broken by Balthasar.
“Let us arise now,” he said—“let us arise and set forward again. What I have said has caused a return of impatience to see him who is ever in my thought; and if I seem to hurry you, O son of Hur—and you, my daughter—be that my excuse.”
At his signal the slave brought them wine in a skin bottle; and they poured and drank, and shaking the lap-cloths out arose.
While the slave restored the tent and wares to the box under the houdah, and the Arab brought up the horses, the three principals laved themselves in the pool.
In a little while they were retracing their steps back through the wady, intending to overtake the caravan if it had passed them by.