THE third day of the journey the party nooned by the river Jabbok, where there were a hundred or more men, mostly of Peræa, resting themselves and their beasts. Hardly had they dismounted, before a man came to them with a pitcher of water and a bowl, and offered them drink; as they received the attention with much courtesy, he said, looking at the camel, “I am returning from the Jordan, where just now there are many people from distant parts, travelling as you are, illustrious friend; but they had none of them the equal of your servant here. A very noble animal. May I ask of what breed he is sprung?”
Balthasar answered, and sought his rest; but Ben-Hur, more curious, took up the remark.
“At what place on the river are the people?” he asked.
“It used to be a lonesome ford,” said Ben-Hur. “I cannot understand how it can have become of such interest.”
“I see,” the stranger replied; “you, too, are from abroad, and have not heard the good tidings.”
“Well, a man has appeared out of the wilderness—a very holy man—with his mouth full of strange words, which take hold of all who hear them. He calls himself John the Nazarite, son of Zacharias, and says he is the messenger sent before the Messiah.”
Even Iras listened closely while the man continued:
“They say of this John that he has spent his life from childhood in a cave down by En-Gedi, praying and living more strictly than the Essenes. Crowds go to hear him preach. I went to hear him with the rest.”
“Have all these, your friends, been there?”
“Most of them are going; a few are coming away.”
“What does he preach?”
“A new doctrine—one never before taught in Israel, as all say. He calls it repentance and baptism. The rabbis do not know what to make of him; nor do we. Some have asked him if he is the Christ, others if he is Elias; but to them all he has the answer, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!’”
At this point the man was called away by his friends; as he was going, Balthasar spoke.
“Good stranger!” he said, tremulously, “tell us if we shall find the preacher at the place you left him.”
“Yes, at Bethabara.”
“Who should this Nazarite be?” said Ben-Hur to Iras, “if not the herald of our King?”
In so short a time he had come to regard the daughter as more interested in the mysterious personage he was looking for than the aged father! Nevertheless, the latter with a positive glow in his sunken eyes half arose, and said,
“Let us make haste. I am not tired.”
They turned away to help the slave.
There was little conversation between the three at the stopping-place for the night west of Ramoth-Gilead.
“Let us arise early, son of Hur,” said the old man. “The Saviour may come, and we not there.”
“The King cannot be far behind his herald,” Iras whispered, as she prepared to take her place on the camel.
“To-morrow we will see!” Ben-Hur replied, kissing her hand.
Next day about the third hour, out of the pass through which, skirting the base of Mount Gilead, they had journeyed since leaving Ramoth, the party came upon the barren steppe east of the sacred river. Opposite them they saw the upper limit of the old palm lands of Jericho, stretching off to the hill-country of Judea. Ben-Hur’s blood ran quickly, for he knew the ford was close at hand.
“Content you, good Balthasar,” he said; “we are almost there.”
The driver quickened the camel’s pace. Soon they caught sight of booths and tents and tethered animals; and then of the river, and a multitude collected down close by the bank, and yet another multitude on the western shore. Knowing that the preacher was preaching, they made greater haste; yet, as they were drawing near, suddenly there was a commotion in the mass, and it began to break up and disperse.
They were too late!
“Let us stay here,” said Ben-Hur to Balthasar, who was wringing his hands. “The Nazarite may come this way.”
The people were too intent upon what they had heard, and too busy in discussion, to notice the new-comers. When some hundreds were gone by, and it seemed the opportunity to so much as see the Nazarite was lost to the latter, up the river not far away they beheld a person coming towards them of such singular appearance they forgot all else.
Outwardly the man was rude and uncouth, even savage. Over a thin, gaunt visage of the hue of brown parchment, over his shoulders and down his back below the middle, in witch-like locks, fell a covering of sun-scorched hair. His eyes were burning-bright. All his right side was naked, and of the color of his face, and quite as meagre; a shirt of the coarsest camel’s-hair—coarse as Bedouin tent-cloth—clothed the rest of his person to the knees, being gathered at the waist by a broad girdle of untanned leather. His feet were bare. A scrip, also of untanned leather, was fastened to the girdle. He used a knotted staff to help him forward. His movement was quick, decided, and strangely watchful. Every little while he tossed the unruly hair from his eyes, and peered round as if searching for somebody.
The fair Egyptian surveyed the son of the Desert with surprise, not to say disgust. Presently, raising the curtain of the houdah, she spoke to Ben-Hur, who sat his horse near by.
“Is that the herald of thy King?”
“It is the Nazarite,” he replied, without looking up.
In truth, he was himself more than disappointed. Despite his familiarity with the ascetic colonists in En-Gedi—their dress, their indifference to all worldly opinion, their constancy to vows which gave them over to every imaginable suffering of body, and separated them from others of their kind as absolutely as if they had not been born like them—and notwithstanding he had been notified on the way to look for a Nazarite whose simple description of himself was a Voice from the Wilderness—still Ben-Hur’s dream of the King who was to be so great and do so much had colored all his thought of him, so that he never doubted to find in the forerunner some sign or token of the goodliness and royalty he was announcing. Gazing at the savage figure before him, the long trains of courtiers whom he had been used to see in the thermæ and imperial corridors at Rome arose before him, forcing a comparison. Shocked, shamed, bewildered, he could only answer,
“It is the Nazarite.”
With Balthasar it was very different. The ways of God, he knew, were not as men would have them. He had seen the Saviour a child in a manger, and was prepared by his faith for the rude and simple in connection with the Divine reappearance. So he kept his seat, his hands crossed upon his breast, his lips moving in prayer. He was not expecting a king.
In this time of such interest to the new-comers, and in which they were so differently moved, another man had been sitting by himself on a stone at the edge of the river, thinking yet, probably, of the sermon he had been hearing. Now, however, he arose, and walked slowly up from the shore, in a course to take him across the line the Nazarite was pursuing and bring him near the camel.
And the two—the preacher and the stranger—kept on until they came, the former within twenty yards of the animal, the latter within ten feet. Then the preacher stopped, and flung the hair from his eyes, looked at the stranger, threw his hands up as a signal to all the people in sight; and they also stopped, each in the pose of a listener; and when the hush was perfect, slowly the staff in the Nazarite’s right hand came down and pointed to the stranger.
All those who before were but listeners became watchers also.
At the same instant, under the same impulse, Balthasar and Ben-Hur fixed their gaze upon the man pointed out, and both took the same impression, only in different degree. He was moving slowly towards them in a clear space a little to their front, a form slightly above the average in stature, and slender, even delicate. His action was calm and deliberate, like that habitual to men much given to serious thought upon grave subjects; and it well became his costume, which was an undergarment full-sleeved and reaching to the ankles, and an outer robe called the talith; on his left arm he carried the usual handkerchief for the head, the red fillet swinging loose down his side. Except the fillet and a narrow border of blue at the lower edge of the talith, his attire was of linen yellowed with dust and road stains. Possibly the exception should be extended to the tassels, which were blue and white, as prescribed by law for rabbis. His sandals were of the simplest kind. He was without scrip or girdle or staff.
These points of appearance, however, the three beholders observed briefly, and rather as accessories to the head and face of the man, which—especially the latter—were the real sources of the spell they caught in common with all who stood looking at him.
The head was open to the cloudless light, except as it was draped with hair long and slightly waved, and parted in the middle, and auburn in tint, with a tendency to reddish golden where most strongly touched by the sun. Under a broad, low forehead, under black well arched brows, beamed eyes dark-blue and large, and softened to exceeding tenderness by lashes of the great length sometimes seen on children, but seldom, if ever, on men. As to the other features, it would have been difficult to decide whether they were Greek or Jewish. The delicacy of the nostrils and mouth was unusual to the latter type; and when it was taken into account with the gentleness of the eyes, the pallor of the complexion, the fine texture of the hair, and the softness of the beard, which fell in waves over his throat to his breast, never a soldier but would have laughed at him in encounter, never a woman who would not have confided in him at sight, never a child that would not, with quick instinct, have given him its hand and whole artless trust; nor might any one have said he was not beautiful.
The features, it should be further said, were ruled by a certain expression which, as the viewer chose, might with equal correctness have been called the effect of intelligence, love, pity, or sorrow; though, in better speech, it was a blending of them all—a look easy to fancy as the mark of a sinless soul doomed to the sight and understanding of the utter sinfulness of those among whom it was passing; yet withal no one could have observed the face with a thought of weakness in the man; so, at least, would not they who know that the qualities mentioned—love, sorrow, pity—are the results of a consciousness of strength to bear suffering oftener than strength to do; such has been the might of martyrs and devotees and the myriads written down in saintly calendars. And such, indeed, was the air of this one.
Slowly he drew near—nearer the three.
Now Ben-Hur, mounted and spear in hand, was an object to claim the glance of a king; yet the eyes of the man approaching were all the time raised above him—and not to Iras, whose loveliness has been so often remarked, but to Balthasar, the old and unserviceable.
The hush was profound.
Presently the Nazarite, still pointing with his staff, cried, in a loud voice,
“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”
The many standing still, arrested by the action of the speaker, and listening for what might follow, were struck with awe by words so strange and past their understanding; upon Balthasar they were overpowering. He was there to see once more the Redeemer of men. The faith which had brought him the singular privileges of the time long gone abode yet in his heart; and if now it gave him a power of vision above that of his fellows—a power to see and know him for whom he was looking—better than calling the power a miracle, let it be thought of as the faculty of a soul not yet entirely released from the divine relations to which it had been formerly admitted, or as the fitting reward of a life in that age so without examples of holiness—a life itself a miracle. The ideal of his faith was before him, perfect in face, form, dress, action, age; and he was in its view, and the view was recognition. Ah, now if something should happen to identify the stranger beyond all doubt!
And that was what did happen.
Exactly at the fitting moment, as if to assure the trembling Egyptian, the Nazarite repeated the outcry,
“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”
Balthasar fell upon his knees. For him there was no need of explanation; and as if the Nazarite knew it, he turned to those more immediately about him staring in wonder, and continued:
“This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me, for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw and bare record, that this”—he paused, his staff still pointing at the stranger in the white garments, as if to give a more absolute certainty to both his words and the conclusions intended—“I bare record, that this is the SON OF GOD!”
“It is he, it is he!” Balthasar cried, with upraised tearful eyes. Next moment he sank down insensible.
In this time, it should be remembered, Ben-Hur was studying the face of the stranger, though with an interest entirely different. He was not insensible to its purity of feature, and its thoughtfulness, tenderness, humility, and holiness; but just then there was room in his mind for but one thought—Who is this man? And what? Messiah or king? Never was apparition more unroyal. Nay, looking at that calm, benignant countenance, the very idea of war and conquest, and lust of dominion, smote him like a profanation. He said, as if speaking to his own heart, Balthasar must be right and Simonides wrong. This man has not come to rebuild the throne of Solomon; he has neither the nature nor the genius of Herod; king he may be, but not of another and greater than Rome.
It should be understood now that this was not a conclusion with Ben-Hur, but an impression merely; and while it was forming, while yet he gazed at the wonderful countenance, his memory began to throe and struggle. “Surely,” he said to himself, “I have seen the man; but where and when?” That the look, so calm, so pitiful, so loving, had somewhere in a past time beamed upon him as that moment it was beaming upon Balthasar became an assurance. Faintly at first, at last a clear light, a burst of sunshine, the scene by the well at Nazareth what time the Roman guard was dragging him to the galleys returned, and all his being thrilled. Those hands had helped him when he was perishing. The face was one of the pictures he had carried in mind ever since. In the effusion of feeling excited, the explanation of the preacher was lost by him, all but the last words—words so marvellous that the world yet rings with them:
“—this is the SON OF GOD!”
Ben-Hur leaped from his horse to render homage to his benefactor; but Iras cried to him, “Help, son of Hur, help, or my father will die!”
He stopped, looked back, then hurried to her assistance. She gave him a cup; and leaving the slave to bring the camel to its knees, he ran to the river for water. The stranger was gone when he came back.
At last Balthasar was restored to consciousness. Stretching forth his hands, he asked, feebly, “Where is he?”
“Who?” asked Iras.
An intense instant interest shone upon the good man’s face, as if a last wish had been gratified, and he answered,
“He—the Redeemer—the Son of God, whom I have seen again.”
“Believest thou so?” Iras asked in a low voice of Ben-Hur.
“The time is full of wonders; let us wait,” was all he said.
And next day while the three were listening to him, the Nazarite broke off in mid-speech, saying reverently, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
Looking to where he pointed, they beheld the stranger again. As Ben-Hur surveyed the slender figure, and holy beautiful countenance compassionate to sadness, a new idea broke upon him.
“Balthasar is right—so is Simonides. May not the Redeemer be a king also?”
And he asked one at his side, “Who is the man walking yonder?”
The other laughed mockingly, and replied,
“He is the son of a carpenter over in Nazareth.”