WHEN Ben-Hur left the guest-chamber, there was not nearly so much life in his action as when he entered it; his steps were slower, and he went along with his head quite upon his breast. Having made discovery that a man with a broken back may yet have a sound brain, he was reflecting upon the discovery.
Forasmuch as it is easy after a calamity has befallen to look back and see the proofs of its coming strewn along the way, the thought that he had not even suspected the Egyptian as in Messala’s interest, but had gone blindly on through whole years putting himself and his friends more and more at her mercy, was a sore wound to the young man’s vanity. “I remember,” he said to himself, “she had no word of indignation for the perfidious Roman at the Fountain of Castalia! I remember she extolled him at the boat-ride on the lake in the Orchard of Palms! And, ah!”—he stopped, and beat his left hand violently with his right—“ah! that mystery about the appointment she made with me at the Palace of Idernee is no mystery now!”
The wound, it should be observed, was to his vanity; and fortunately it is not often that people die of such hurts, or even continue a long time sick. In Ben-Hur’s case, moreover, there was a compensation; for presently he exclaimed aloud, “Praised be the Lord God that the woman took not a more lasting hold on me! I see I did not love her.”
Then, as if he had already parted with not a little of the weight on his mind, he stepped forward more lightly; and, coming to the place on the terrace where one stairway led down to the court-yard below, and another ascended to the roof, he took the latter and began to climb. As he made the last step in the flight he stopped again.
“Can Balthasar have been her partner in the long mask she has been playing? No, no. Hypocrisy seldom goes with wrinkled age like that. Balthasar is a good man.”
With this decided opinion he stepped upon the roof. There was a full moon overhead, yet the vault of the sky at the moment was lurid with light cast up from the fires burning in the streets and open places of the city, and the chanting and chorusing of the old psalmody of Israel filled it with plaintive harmonies to which he could not but listen. The countless voices bearing the burden seemed to say, “Thus, O son of Judah, we prove our worshipfulness of the Lord God, and our loyalty to the land he gave us. Let a Gideon appear, or a David, or a Maccabaeus, and we are ready.”
That seemed an introduction; for next he saw the man of Nazareth.
In certain moods the mind is disposed to mock itself with inapposite fancies.
The tearful woman-like face of the Christ stayed with him while he crossed the roof to the parapet above the street on the north side of the house, and there was in it no sign of war; but rather as the heavens of calm evenings look peace upon everything, so it looked, provoking the old question, What manner of man is he?
Ben-Hur permitted himself one glance over the parapet, then turned and walked mechanically towards the summer-house.
“Let them do their worst,” he said, as he went slowly on. “I will not forgive the Roman. I will not divide my fortune with him, nor will I fly from this city of my fathers. I will call on Galilee first, and here make the fight. By brave deeds I will bring the tribes to our side. He who raised up Moses will find us a leader, if I fail. If not the Nazarene, then some other of the many ready to die for freedom.”
The interior of the summer-house, when Ben-Hur, slow sauntering, came to it, was murkily lighted. The faintest of shadows lay along the floor from the pillars on the north and west sides. Looking in, he saw the arm-chair usually occupied by Simonides drawn to a spot from which a view of the city over towards the Market-place could be best had.
“The good man is returned. I will speak with him, unless he be asleep.”
He walked in, and with a quiet step approached the chair. Peering over the high back, he beheld Esther nestled in the seat asleep—a small figure snugged away under her father’s lap-robe. The hair dishevelled fell over her face. Her breathing was low and irregular. Once it was broken by a long sigh, ending in a sob. Something—it might have been the sigh or the loneliness in which he found her—imparted to him the idea that the sleep was a rest from sorrow rather than fatigue. Nature kindly sends such relief to children, and he was used to thinking Esther scarcely more than a child. He put his arms upon the back of the chair, and thought.
“I will not wake her. I have nothing to tell her—nothing unless—unless it be my love. . . . She is a daughter of Judah, and beautiful, and so unlike the Egyptian; for there it is all vanity, here all truth; there ambition, here duty; there selfishness, here self-sacrifice. . . . Nay, the question is not do I love her, but does she love me? She was my friend from the beginning. The night on the terrace at Antioch, how child-like she begged me not to make Rome my enemy, and had me tell her of the villa by Misenum, and of the life there! That she should not see I saw her cunning drift I kissed her. Can she have forgotten the kiss! I have not. I love her. . . . They do not know in the city that I have back my people. I shrank from telling it to the Egyptian; but this little one will rejoice with me over their restoration, and welcome them with love and sweet services of hand and heart. She will be to my mother another daughter; in Tirzah she will find her other self. I would wake her and tell her these things, but—out on the sorceress of Egypt! Of that folly I could not command myself to speak. I will go away, and wait another and a better time. I will wait. Fair Esther, dutiful child, daughter of Judah!”
He retired silently as he came.