“Who could resist? Who in this universe?
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
“ESTHER—Esther! Speak to the servant below that he may bring me a cup of water.”
“Would you not rather have wine, father?”
“Let him bring both.”
This was in the summer-house upon the roof of the old palace of the Hurs in Jerusalem. From the parapet overlooking the court-yard Esther called to a man in waiting there; at the same moment another man-servant came up the steps and saluted respectfully.
“A package for the master,” he said, giving her a letter enclosed in linen cloth, tied and sealed.
For the satisfaction of the reader, we stop to say that it is the twenty-first day of March, nearly three years after the annunciation of the Christ at Bethabara.
In the meanwhile, Malluch, acting for Ben-Hur, who could not longer endure the emptiness and decay of his father’s house, had bought it from Pontius Pilate; and, in process of repair, gates, courts, lewens, stairways, terraces, rooms, and roof had been cleansed and thoroughly restored; not only was there no reminder left of the tragic circumstances so ruinous to the family, but the refurnishment was in a style richer than before. At every point, indeed, a visitor was met by evidences of the higher tastes acquired by the young proprietor during his years of residence in the villa by Misenum and in the Roman capital.
Now it should not be inferred from this explanation that Ben-Hur had publicly assumed ownership of the property. In his opinion, the hour for that was not yet come. Neither had he yet taken his proper name. Passing the time in the labors of preparation in Galilee, he waited patiently the action of the Nazarene, who became daily more and more a mystery to him, and by prodigies done, often before his eyes, kept him in a state of anxious doubt both as to his character and mission. Occasionally he came up to the Holy City, stopping at the paternal house; always, however, as a stranger and a guest.
These visits of Ben-Hur, it should also be observed, were for more than mere rest from labor. Balthasar and Iras made their home in the palace; and the charm of the daughter was still upon him with all its original freshness, while the father, though feebler in body, held him an unflagging listener to speeches of astonishing power, urging the divinity of the wandering miracle-worker of whom they were all so expectant.
As to Simonides and Esther, they had arrived from Antioch only a few days before this their reappearance—a wearisome journey to the merchant, borne, as he had been, in a palanquin swung between two camels, which, in their careening, did not always keep the same step. But now that he was come, the good man, it seemed, could not see enough of his native land. He delighted in the perch upon the roof, and spent most of his day hours there seated in an arm-chair, the duplicate of that one kept for him in the cabinet over the store-house by the Orontes. In the shade of the summer-house he could drink fully of the inspiring air lying lightly upon the familiar hills; he could better watch the sun rise, run its course, and set as it used to in the far-gone, not a habit lost; and with Esther by him it was so much easier up there close to the sky, to bring back the other Esther, his love in youth, his wife, dearer growing with the passage of years. And yet he was not unmindful of business. Every day a messenger brought him a despatch from Sanballat, in charge of the big commerce behind; and every day a despatch left him for Sanballat with directions of such minuteness of detail as to exclude all judgment save his own, and all chances except those the Almighty has refused to submit to the most mindful of men.
As Esther started in return to the summer-house, the sunlight fell softly upon the dustless roof, showing her a woman now—small, graceful in form, of regular features, rosy with youth and health, bright with intelligence, beautiful with the outshining of a devoted nature—a woman to be loved because loving was a habit of life irrepressible with her.
She looked at the package as she turned, paused, looked at it a second time more closely than at first; and the blood rose reddening her cheeks—the seal was Ben-Hur’s. With quickened steps she hastened on.
Simonides held the package a moment while he also inspected the seal. Breaking it open, he gave her the roll it contained.
“Read,” he said.
His eyes were upon her as he spoke, and instantly a troubled expression fell upon his own face.
“You know who it is from, I see, Esther.”
Though the manner was halting, she met his gaze with modest sincerity. Slowly his chin sank into the roll of flesh puffed out under it like a cushion.
“You love him, Esther,” he said, quietly.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Have you thought well of what you do?”
“I have tried not to think of him, father, except as the master to whom I am dutifully bound. The effort has not helped me to strength.”
“A good girl, a good girl, even as thy mother was,” he said, dropping into reverie, from which she roused him by unrolling the paper.
“The Lord forgive me, but—but thy love might not have been vainly given had I kept fast hold of all I had, as I might have done—such power is there in money!”
“It would have been worse for me had you done so, father; for then I had been unworthy a look from him, and without pride in you. Shall I not read now?”
“In a moment,” he said. “Let me, for your sake, my child, show you the worst. Seeing it with me may make it less terrible to you. His love, Esther, is all bestowed.”
“I know it,” she said, calmly.
“The Egyptian has him in her net,” he continued. “She has the cunning of her race, with beauty to help her—much beauty, great cunning; but, like her race again, no heart. The daughter who despises her father will bring her husband to grief.”
“Does she that?”
Simonides went on:
“Balthasar is a wise man who has been wonderfully favored for a Gentile, and his faith becomes him; yet she makes a jest of it. I heard her say, speaking of him yesterday, ‘The follies of youth are excusable; nothing is admirable in the aged except wisdom, and when that goes from them, they should die.’ A cruel speech, fit for a Roman. I applied it to myself, knowing a feebleness like her father’s will come to me also—nay, it is not far off. But you, Esther, will never say of me—no, never—‘It were better he were dead.’ No, your mother was a daughter of Judah.”
With half-formed tears, she kissed him, and said, “I am my mother’s child.”
“Yes, and my daughter—my daughter, who is to me all the Temple was to Solomon.”
After a silence, he laid his hand upon her shoulder, and resumed: “When he has taken the Egyptian to wife, Esther, he will think of you with repentance and much calling of the spirit; for at last he will awake to find himself but the minister of her bad ambition. Rome is the centre of all her dreams. To her he is the son of Arrius the duumvir, not the son of Hur, Prince of Jerusalem.”
Esther made no attempt to conceal the effect of these words.
“Save him, father! It is not too late!” she said, entreatingly.
He answered, with a dubious smile, “A man drowning may be saved; not so a man in love.”
“But you have influence with him. He is alone in the world. Show him his danger. Tell him what a woman she is.”
“That might save him from her. Would it give him to you, Esther? No,” and his brows fell darkly over his eyes. “I am a servant, as my fathers were for generations; yet I could not say to him, ‘Lo, master, my daughter! She is fairer than the Egyptian, and loves thee better!’ I have caught too much from years of liberty and direction. The words would blister my tongue. The stones upon the old hills yonder would turn in their beds for shame when I go out to them. No, by the patriarchs, Esther, I would rather lay us both with your mother to sleep as she sleeps!”
A blush burned Esther’s whole face.
“I did not mean you to tell him so, father. I was concerned for him alone—for his happiness, not mine. Because I have dared love him, I shall keep myself worthy his respect; so only can I excuse my folly. Let me read his letter now.”
“Yes, read it.”
She began at once, in haste to conclude the distasteful subject.
“Nisan, 8th day.
“On the road from Galilee to Jerusalem.
“The Nazarene is on the way also. With him, though without his knowledge, I am bringing a full legion of mine. A second legion follows. The Passover will excuse the multitude. He said upon setting out, ‘We will go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning me shall be accomplished.’
“Our waiting draws to an end.
“Peace to thee, Simonides.
Esther returned the letter to her father, while a choking sensation gathered in her throat. There was not a word in the missive for her—not even in the salutation had she a share—and it would have been so easy to have written “and to thine, peace.” For the first time in her life she felt the smart of a jealous sting.
“The eighth day,” said Simonides, “the eighth day; and this, Esther, this is the—”
“The ninth,” she replied.
“Ah, then, they may be in Bethany now.”
“And possibly we may see him to-night,” she added, pleased into momentary forgetfulness.
“It may be, it may be! To-morrow is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and he may wish to celebrate it; so may the Nazarene; and we may see him—we may see both of them, Esther.”
At this point the servant appeared with the wine and water. Esther helped her father, and in the midst of the service Iras came upon the roof.
To the Jewess the Egyptian never appeared so very, very beautiful as at that moment. Her gauzy garments fluttered about her like a little cloud of mist; her forehead, neck, and arms glittered with the massive jewelry so affected by her people. Her countenance was suffused with pleasure. She moved with buoyant steps, and self-conscious, though without affectation. Esther at the sight shrank within herself, and nestled closer to her father.
“Peace to you, Simonides, and to the pretty Esther peace,” said Iras, inclining her head to the latter. “You remind me, good master—if I may say it without offence—you remind me of the priests in Persia who climb their temples at the decline of day to send prayers after the departing sun. Is there anything in the worship you do not know, let me call my father. He is Magian-bred.”
“Fair Egyptian,” the merchant replied, nodding with grave politeness, “your father is a good man who would not be offended if he knew I told you his Persian lore is the least part of his wisdom.”
Iras’s lip curled slightly.
“To speak like a philosopher, as you invite me,” she said, “the least part always implies a greater. Let me ask what you esteem the greater part of the rare quality you are pleased to attribute to him.”
Simonides turned upon her somewhat sternly.
“Pure wisdom always directs itself towards God; the purest wisdom is knowledge of God; and no man of my acquaintance has it in higher degree, or makes it more manifest in speech and act, than the good Balthasar.”
To end the parley, he raised the cup and drank.
The Egyptian turned to Esther a little testily.
“A man who has millions in store, and fleets of ships at sea, cannot discern in what simple women like us find amusement. Let us leave him. By the wall yonder we can talk.”
They went to the parapet then, stopping at the place where, years before, Ben-Hur loosed the broken tile upon the head of Gratus.
“You have not been to Rome?” Iras began, toying the while with one of her unclasped bracelets.
“No,” said Esther, demurely.
“Have you not wished to go?”
“Ah, how little there has been of your life!”
The sigh that succeeded the exclamation could not have been more piteously expressive had the loss been the Egyptian’s own. Next moment her laugh might have been heard in the street below; and she said “Oh, oh, my pretty simpleton! The half-fledged birds nested in the ear of the great bust out on the Memphian sands know nearly as much as you.”
Then, seeing Esther’s confusion, she changed her manner, and said in a confiding tone, “You must not take offence. Oh no! I was playing. Let me kiss the hurt, and tell you what I would not to any other—not if Simbel himself asked it of me, offering a lotus-cup of the spray of the Nile!”
Another laugh, masking excellently the look she turned sharply upon the Jewess, and she said, “The King is coming.”
Esther gazed at her in innocent surprise.
“The Nazarene,” Iras continued—“he whom our fathers have been talking about so much, whom Ben-Hur has been serving and toiling for so long”—her voice dropped several tones lower—“the Nazarene will be here to-morrow, and Ben-Hur to-night.”
Esther struggled to maintain her composure, but failed: her eyes fell, the tell-tale blood surged to her cheek and forehead, and she was saved sight of the triumphant smile that passed, like a gleam, over the face of the Egyptian.
“See, here is his promise.”
And from her girdle she took a roll.
“Rejoice with me, O my friend! He will be here tonight! On the Tiber there is a house, a royal property, which he has pledged to me; and to be its mistress is to be—”
A sound of some one walking swiftly along the street below interrupted the speech, and she leaned over the parapet to see. Then she drew back, and cried, with hands clasped above her head, “Now blessed be Isis! ’Tis he—Ben-Hur himself! That he should appear while I had such thought of him! There are no gods if it be not a good omen. Put your arms about me, Esther—and a kiss!”
The Jewess looked up. Upon each cheek there was a glow; her eyes sparkled with a light more nearly of anger than ever her nature emitted before. Her gentleness had been too roughly overridden. It was not enough for her to be forbidden more than fugitive dreams of the man she loved; a boastful rival must tell her in confidence of her better success, and of the brilliant promises which were its rewards. Of her, the servant of a servant, there had been no hint of remembrance; this other could show his letter, leaving her to imagine all it breathed. So she said,
“Dost thou love him so much, then, or Rome so much better?”
The Egyptian drew back a step; then she bent her haughty head quite near her questioner.
“What is he to thee, daughter of Simonides?”
Esther, all thrilling, began, “He is my—”
A thought blasting as lightning stayed the words: she paled, trembled, recovered, and answered,
“He is my father’s friend.”
Her tongue had refused to admit her servile condition.
Iras laughed more lightly than before.
“Not more than that?” she said. “Ah, by the lover-gods of Egypt, thou mayst keep thy kisses—keep them. Thou hast taught me but now that there are others vastly more estimable waiting me here in Judea; and”—she turned away, looking back over her shoulder—“I will go get them. Peace to thee.”
Esther saw her disappear down the steps, when, putting her hands over her face, she burst into tears so they ran scalding through her fingers—tears of shame and choking passion. And, to deepen the paroxysm to her even temper so strange, up with a new meaning of withering force rose her father’s words—“Thy love might not have been vainly given had I kept fast hold of all I had, as I might have done.”
And all the stars were out, burning low above the city and the dark wall of mountains about it, before she recovered enough to go back to the summer-house, and in silence take her accustomed place at her father’s side, humbly waiting his pleasure. To such duty it seemed her youth, if not her life, must be given. And, let the truth be said, now that the pang was spent, she went not unwillingly back to the duty.