Book Fourth

Chapter II

Lew Wallace

WHEN the city came into view, the passengers were on deck, eager that nothing of the scene might escape them. The respectable Jew already introduced to the reader was the principal spokesman.

“The river here runs to the west,” he said, in the way of general answer. “I remember when it washed the base of the walls; but as Roman subjects we have lived in peace, and, as always happens in such times, trade has had its will; now the whole river front is taken up with wharves and docks. Yonder”—the speaker pointed southward—“is Mount Casius, or, as these people love to call it, the Mountains of Orontes, looking across to its brother Amnus in the north; and between them lies the Plain of Antioch. Farther on are the Black Mountains, whence the Ducts of the Kings bring the purest water to wash the thirsty streets and people; yet they are forests in wilderness state, dense, and full of birds and beasts.”

“Where is the lake?” one asked.

“Over north there. You can take horse, if you wish to see it—or, better, a boat, for a tributary connects it with the river.”

“The Grove of Daphne!” he said, to a third inquirer. “Nobody can describe it; only beware! It was begun by Apollo, and completed by him. He prefers it to Olympus. People go there for one look—just one—and never come away. They have a saying which tells it all—‘Better be a worm and feed on the mulberries of Daphne than a king’s guest.’”

“Then you advise me to stay away from it?”

“Not I! Go you will. Everybody goes, cynic philosopher, virile boy, women, and priests—all go. So sure am I of what you will do that I assume to advise you. Do not take quarters in the city—that will be loss of time; but go at once to the village in the edge of the grove. The way is through a garden, under the spray of fountains. The lovers of the god and his Penæan maid built the town; and in its porticos and paths and thousand retreats you will find characters and habits and sweets and kinds elsewhere impossible. But the wall of the city! there it is, the masterpiece of Xeræus, the master of mural architecture.”

All eyes followed his pointing finger.

“This part was raised by order of the first of the Seleucidæ. Three hundred years have made it part of the rock it rests upon.”

The defense justified the encomium. High, solid, and with many bold angles, it curved southwardly out of view.

“On the top there are four hundred towers, each a reservoir of water,” the Hebrew continued. “Look now! Over the wall, tall as it is, see in the distance two hills, which you may know as the rival crests of Sulpius. The structure on the farthest one is the citadel, garrisoned all the year round by a Roman legion. Opposite it this way rises the Temple of Jupiter, and under that the front of the legate’s residence—a palace full of offices, and yet a fortress against which a mob would dash harmlessly as a south wind.”

At this point the sailors began taking in sail, whereupon the Hebrew exclaimed, heartily, “See! you who hate the sea, and you who have vows, get ready your curses and your prayers. The bridge yonder, over which the road to Seleucia is carried, marks the limit of navigation. What the ship unloads for further transit, the camel takes up there. Above the bridge begins the island upon which Calinicus built his new city, connecting it with five great viaducts so solid time has made no impression upon them, nor floods nor earthquakes. Of the main town, my friends, I have only to say you will be happier all your lives for having seen it.”

As he concluded, the ship turned and made slowly for her wharf under the wall, bringing even more fairly to view the life with which the river at that point was possessed. Finally, the lines were thrown, the oars shipped, and the voyage was done. Then Ben-Hur sought the respectable Hebrew.

“Let me trouble you a moment before saying farewell.”

The man bowed assent.

“Your story of the merchant has made me curious to see him. You called him Simonides?”

“Yes. He is a Jew with a Greek name.”

“Where is he to be found?”

The acquaintance gave a sharp look before he answered,

“I may save you mortification. He is not a money-lender.”

“Nor am I a money-borrower,” said Ben-Hur, smiling at the other’s shrewdness.

The man raised his head and considered an instant.

“One would think,” he then replied, “that the richest merchant in Antioch would have a house for business corresponding to his wealth; but if you would find him in the day, follow the river to yon bridge, under which he quarters in a building that looks like a buttress of the wall. Before the door there is an immense landing, always covered with cargoes come and to go. The fleet that lies moored there is his. You cannot fail to find him.”

“I give you thanks.”

“The peace of our fathers go with you.”

“And with you.”

With that they separated.

Two street-porters, loaded with his baggage, received Ben-Hur’s orders upon the wharf.

“To the citadel,” he said; a direction which implied an official military connection.

Two great streets, cutting each other at right angles, divided the city into quarters. A curious and immense structure, called the Nymphæum, arose at the foot of the one running north and south. When the porters turned south there, the new-comer, though fresh from Rome, was amazed at the magnificence of the avenue. On the right and left there were palaces, and between them extended indefinitely double colonnades of marble, leaving separate ways for footmen, beasts, and chariots; the whole under shade, and cooled by fountains of incessant flow.

Ben-Hur was not in mood to enjoy the spectacle. The story of Simonides haunted him. Arrived at the Omphalus—a monument of four arches wide as the streets, superbly illustrated, and erected to himself by Epiphanes, the eighth of the Seleucidæ—he suddenly changed his mind.

“I will not go to the citadel to-night,” he said to the porters. “Take me to the khan nearest the bridge on the road to Seleucia.”

The party faced about, and in good time he was deposited in a public house of primitive but ample construction, within stone’s-throw of the bridge under which old Simonides had his quarters. He lay upon the house-top through the night. In his inner mind lived the thought, “Now—now I will hear of home—and mother—and the dear little Tirzah. If they are on earth, I will find them.”

Ben-Hur - Contents    |     Book Fourth - Chapter III

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