Book Fifth

Chapter VIII

Lew Wallace

SIMONIDES looked up, none the less a master.

“Esther,” he said, quietly, “the night is going fast; and, lest we become too weary for that which is before us, let the refreshments be brought.”

She rang a bell. A servant answered with wine and bread, which she bore round.

“The understanding, good my master,” continued Simonides, when all were served, “is not perfect in my sight. Henceforth our lives will run on together like rivers which have met and joined their waters. I think their flowing will be better if every cloud is blown from the sky above them. You left my door the other day with what seemed a denial of the claims which I have just allowed in the broadest terms; but it was not so, indeed it was not. Esther is witness that I recognized you; and that I did not abandon you, let Malluch say.”

“Malluch!” exclaimed Ben-Hur.

“One bound to a chair, like me, must have many hands far-reaching, if he would move the world from which he is so cruelly barred. I have many such, and Malluch is one of the best of them. And, sometimes”—he cast a grateful glance at the sheik—“sometimes I borrow from others good of heart, like Ilderim the Generous—good and brave. Let him say if I either denied or forgot you.”

Ben-Hur looked at the Arab.

“This is he, good Ilderim, this is he who told you of me?”

Ilderim’s eyes twinkled as he nodded his answer.

“How, O my master,” said Simonides, “may we without trial tell what a man is? I knew you; I saw your father in you; but the kind of man you were I did not know. There are people to whom fortune is a curse in disguise. Were you of them? I sent Malluch to find out for me, and in the service he was my eyes and ears. Do not blame him. He brought me report of you which was all good.”

“I do not,” said Ben-Hur, heartily. “There was wisdom in your goodness.”

“The words are very pleasant to me,” said the merchant, with feeling, “very pleasant. My fear of misunderstanding is laid. Let the rivers run on now as God may give them direction.”

After an interval he continued:

“I am compelled now by truth. The weaver sits weaving, and, as the shuttle flies, the cloth increases, and the figures grow, and he dreams dreams meanwhile; so to my hands the fortune grew, and I wondered at the increase, and asked myself about it many times. I could see a care not my own went with the enterprises I set going. The simooms which smote others on the desert jumped over the things which were mine. The storms which heaped the seashore with wrecks did but blow my ships the sooner into port. Strangest of all, I, so dependent upon others, fixed to a place like a dead thing, had never a loss by an agent—never. The elements stooped to serve me, and all my servants, in fact, were faithful.”

“It is very strange,” said Ben-Hur.

“So I said, and kept saying. Finally, O my master, finally I came to be of your opinion—God was in it—and, like you, I asked, What can his purpose be? Intelligence is never wasted; intelligence like God’s never stirs except with design. I have held the question in heart, lo! these many years, watching for an answer. I felt sure, if God were in it, some day, in his own good time, in his own way, he would show me his purpose, making it clear as a whited house upon a hill. And I believe he has done so.”

Ben-Hur listened with every faculty intent.

“Many years ago, with my people—thy mother was with me, Esther, beautiful as morning over old Olivet—I sat by the wayside out north of Jerusalem, near the Tombs of the Kings, when three men passed by riding great white camels, such as had never been seen in the Holy City. The men were strangers, and from far countries. The first one stopped and asked me a question. ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ As if to allay my wonder, he went on to say, ‘We have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.’ I could not understand, but followed them to the Damascus Gate; and of every person they met on the way—of the guard at the Gate, even—they asked the question. All who heard it were amazed like me. In time I forgot the circumstance, though there was much talk of it as a presage of the Messiah. Alas, alas! What children we are, even the wisest! When God walks the earth, his steps are often centuries apart. You have seen Balthasar?”

“And heard him tell his story,” said Ben-Hur.

“A miracle!—a very miracle!” cried Simonides. “As he told it to me, good my master, I seemed to hear the answer I had so long waited; God’s purpose burst upon me. Poor will the King be when he comes—poor and friendless; without following, without armies, without cities or castles; a kingdom to be set up, and Rome reduced and blotted out. See, see, O my master! thou flushed with strength, thou trained to arms, thou burdened with riches; behold the opportunity the Lord hath sent thee! Shall not his purpose be thine? Could a man be born to a more perfect glory?”

Simonides put his whole force in the appeal.

“But the kingdom, the kingdom!” Ben-Hur answered, eagerly. “Balthasar says it is to be of souls.”

The pride of the Jew was strong in Simonides, and therefore the slightly contemptuous curl of the lip with which he began his reply:

“Balthasar has been a witness of wonderful things—of miracles, O my master; and when he speaks of them, I bow with belief, for they are of sight and sound personal to him. But he is a son of Mizraim, and not even a proselyte. Hardly may he be supposed to have special knowledge by virtue of which we must bow to him in a matter of God’s dealing with our Israel. The prophets had their light from Heaven directly, even as he had his—many to one, and Jehovah the same forever. I must believe the prophets.—Bring me the Torah, Esther.”

He proceeded without waiting for her.

“May the testimony of a whole people be slighted, my master? Though you travel from Tyre, which is by the sea in the north, to the capital of Edom, which is in the desert south, you will not find a lisper of the Shema, an alms-giver in the Temple, or any one who has ever eaten of the lamb of the Passover, to tell you the kingdom the King is coming to build for us, the children of the covenant, is other than of this world, like our father David’s. Now where got they the faith, ask you! We will see presently.”

Esther here returned, bringing a number of rolls carefully enveloped in dark-brown linen lettered quaintly in gold.

“Keep them, daughter, to give to me as I call for them,” the father said, in the tender voice he always used in speaking to her, and continued his argument:

“It were long, good my master—too long, indeed—for me to repeat to you the names of the holy men who, in the providence of God, succeeded the prophets, only a little less favored than they—the seers who have written and the preachers who have taught since the Captivity; the very wise who borrowed their lights from the lamp of Malachi, the last of his line, and whose great names Hillel and Shammai never tired of repeating in the colleges. Will you ask them of the kingdom? Thus, the Lord of the sheep in the Book of Enoch—who is he? Who but the King of whom we are speaking? A throne is set up for him; he smites the earth, and the other kings are shaken from their thrones, and the scourges of Israel flung into a cavern of fire flaming with pillars of fire. So also the singer of the Psalms of Solomon—‘Behold, O Lord, and raise up to Israel their king, the son of David, at the time thou knowest, O God, to rule Israel, thy children. . . . And he will bring the peoples of the heathen under his yoke to serve him. . . . And he shall be a righteous king taught of God, . . . for he shall rule all the earth by the word of his mouth forever.’ And last, though not least, hear Ezra, the second Moses, in his visions of the night, and ask him who is the lion with human voice that says to the eagle—which is Rome—‘Thou hast loved liars, and overthrown the cities of the industrious, and razed their walls, though they did thee no harm. Therefore, begone, that the earth may be refreshed, and recover itself, and hope in the justice and piety of him who made her.’ Whereat the eagle was seen no more. Surely, O my master, the testimony of these should be enough! But the way to the fountain’s head is open. Let us go up to it at once.—Some wine, Esther, and then the Torah.”

“Dost thou believe the prophets, master?” he asked, after drinking. “I know thou dost, for of such was the faith of all thy kindred.—Give me, Esther, the book which hath in it the visions of Isaiah.”

He took one of the rolls which she had unwrapped for him, and read, “‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. . . . For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder. . . . Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever.’—Believest thou the prophets, O my master?—Now, Esther, the word of the Lord that came to Micah.”

She gave him the roll he asked.

“‘But thou,’” he began reading—“‘but thou, Bethlehem Ephrath, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.’—This was he, the very child Balthasar saw and worshipped in the cave. Believest thou the prophets, O my master?—Give me, Esther, the words of Jeremiah.”

Receiving that roll, he read as before, “‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous branch, and a king shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely.’ As a king he shall reign—as a king, O my master! Believest thou the prophets?—Now, daughter, the roll of the sayings of that son of Judah in whom there was no blemish.”

She gave him the Book of Daniel.

“Hear, my master,” he said: “‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven. . . . And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.’—Believest thou the prophets, O my master?”

“It is enough. I believe,” cried Ben-Hur.

“What then?” asked Simonides. “If the King come poor, will not my master, of his abundance, give him help?”

“Help him? To the last shekel and the last breath. But why speak of his coming poor?”

“Give me, Esther, the word of the Lord as it came to Zechariah,” said Simonides.

She gave him one of the rolls.

“Hear how the King will enter Jerusalem.” Then he read, “‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. . . . Behold, thy King cometh unto thee with justice and salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass.’”

Ben-Hur looked away.

“What see you, O my master?”

“Rome!” he answered, gloomily—“Rome, and her legions. I have dwelt with them in their camps. I know them.”

“Ah!” said Simonides. “Thou shalt be a master of legions for the King, with millions to choose from.”

“Millions!” cried Ben-Hur.

Simonides sat a moment thinking.

“The question of power should not trouble you,” he next said.

Ben-Hur looked at him inquiringly.

“You were seeing the lowly King in the act of coming to his own,” Simonides answered—“seeing him on the right hand, as it were, and on the left the brassy legions of Cæsar, and you were asking, What can he do?”

“It was my very thought.”

“O my master!” Simonides continued. “You do not know how strong our Israel is. You think of him as a sorrowful old man weeping by the rivers of Babylon. But go up to Jerusalem next Passover, and stand on the Xystus or in the Street of Barter, and see him as he is. The promise of the Lord to father Jacob coming out of Padan-Aram was a law under which our people have not ceased multiplying—not even in captivity; they grew under foot of the Egyptian; the clench of the Roman has been but wholesome nurture to them; now they are indeed ‘a nation and a company of nations.’ Nor that only, my master; in fact, to measure the strength of Israel—which is, in fact, measuring what the King can do—you shall not bide solely by the rule of natural increase, but add thereto the other—I mean the spread of the faith, which will carry you to the far and near of the whole known earth. Further, the habit is, I know, to think and speak of Jerusalem as Israel, which may be likened to our finding an embroidered shred, and holding it up as a magisterial robe of Cæsar’s. Jerusalem is but a stone of the Temple, or the heart in the body. Turn from beholding the legions, strong though they be, and count the hosts of the faithful waiting the old alarm, ‘To your tents, O Israel!’—count the many in Persia, children of those who chose not to return with the returning; count the brethren who swarm the marts of Egypt and Farther Africa; count the Hebrew colonists eking profit in the West—in Lodinum and the trade-courts of Spain; count the pure of blood and the proselytes in Greece and in the isles of the sea, and over in Pontus, and here in Antioch, and, for that matter, those of that city lying accursed in the shadow of the unclean walls of Rome herself; count the worshippers of the Lord dwelling in tents along the deserts next us, as well as in the deserts beyond the Nile: and in the regions across the Caspian, and up in the old lands of Gog and Magog even, separate those who annually send gifts to the Holy Temple in acknowledgment of God—separate them, that they may be counted also. And when you have done counting, lo! my master, a census of the sword hands that await you; lo! a kingdom ready fashioned for him who is to do ‘judgment and justice in the whole earth’—in Rome not less than in Zion. Have then the answer, What Israel can do, that can the King.”

The picture was fervently given.

Upon Ilderim it operated like the blowing of a trumpet. “Oh that I had back my youth!” he cried, starting to his feet.

Ben-Hur sat still. The speech, he saw, was an invitation to devote his life and fortune to the mysterious Being who was palpably as much the centre of a great hope with Simonides as with the devout Egyptian. The idea, as we have seen, was not a new one, but had come to him repeatedly; once while listening to Malluch in the Grove of Daphne; afterwards more distinctly while Balthasar was giving his conception of what the kingdom was to be; still later, in the walk through the old Orchard, it had risen almost, if not quite, into a resolve. At such times it had come and gone only an idea, attended with feelings more or less acute. Not so now. A master had it in charge, a master was working it up; already he had exalted it into a cause brilliant with possibilities and infinitely holy. The effect was as if a door theretofore unseen had suddenly opened flooding Ben-Hur with light, and admitting him to a service which had been his one perfect dream—a service reaching far into the future, and rich with the rewards of duty done, and prizes to sweeten and soothe his ambition. One touch more was needed.

“Let us concede all you say, O Simonides,” said Ben-Hur—“that the King will come, and his kingdom be as Solomon’s; say also I am ready to give myself and all I have to him and his cause; yet more, say that I should do as was God’s purpose in the ordering of my life and in your quick amassment of astonishing fortune; then what? Shall we proceed like blind men building? Shall we wait till the King comes? Or until he sends for me? You have age and experience on your side. Answer.”

Simonides answered at once.

“We have no choice; none. This letter”—he produced Messala’s despatch as he spoke—“this letter is the signal for action. The alliance proposed between Messala and Gratus we are not strong enough to resist; we have not the influence at Rome nor the force here. They will kill you if we wait. How merciful they are, look at me and judge.”

He shuddered at the terrible recollection.

“O good my master,” he continued, recovering himself; “how strong are you—in purpose, I mean?”

Ben-Hur did not understand him.

“I remember how pleasant the world was to me in my youth,” Simonides proceeded.

“Yet,” said Ben-Hur, “you were capable of a great sacrifice.”

“Yes; for love.”

“Has not life other motives as strong?”

Simonides shook his head.

“There is ambition.”

“Ambition is forbidden a son of Israel.”

“What, then, of revenge?”

The spark dropped upon the inflammable passion; the man’s eyes gleamed; his hands shook; he answered, quickly, “Revenge is a Jew’s of right; it is the law.”

“A camel, even a dog, will remember a wrong,” cried Ilderim.

Directly Simonides picked up the broken thread of his thought.

“There is a work, a work for the King, which should be done in advance of his coming. We may not doubt that Israel is to be his right hand; but, alas! it is a hand of peace, without cunning in war. Of the millions, there is not one trained band, not a captain. The mercenaries of the Herods I do not count, for they are kept to crush us. The condition is as the Roman would have it; his policy has fruited well for his tyranny; but the time of change is at hand, when the shepherd shall put on armor, and take to spear and sword, and the feeding flocks be turned to fighting lions. Some one, my son, must have place next the King at his right hand. Who shall it be if not he who does this work well?”

Ben-Hur’s face flushed at the prospect, though he said, “I see; but speak plainly. A deed to be done is one thing; how to do it is another.”

Simonides sipped the wine Esther brought him, and replied,

“The sheik, and thou, my master, shall be principals, each with a part. I will remain here, carrying on as now, and watchful that the spring go not dry. Thou shalt betake thee to Jerusalem, and thence to the wilderness, and begin numbering the fighting-men of Israel, and telling them into tens and hundreds, and choosing captains and training them, and in secret places hoarding arms, for which I shall keep thee supplied. Commencing over in Perea, thou shalt go then to Galilee, whence it is but a step to Jerusalem. In Perea, the desert will be at thy back, and Ilderim in reach of thy hand. He will keep the roads, so that nothing shall pass without thy knowledge. He will help thee in many ways. Until the ripening time no one shall know what is here contracted. Mine is but a servant’s part. I have spoken to Ilderim. What sayest thou?”

Ben-Hur looked at the sheik.

“It is as he says, son of Hur,” the Arab responded. “I have given my word, and he is content with it; but thou shalt have my oath, binding me, and the ready hands of my tribe, and whatever serviceable thing I have.”

The three—Simonides, Ilderim, Esther—gazed at Ben-Hur fixedly.

“Every man,” he answered, at first sadly, “has a cup of pleasure poured for him, and soon or late it comes to his hand, and he tastes and drinks—every man but me. I see, Simonides, and thou, O generous sheik!—I see whither the proposal tends. If I accept, and enter upon the course, farewell peace, and the hopes which cluster around it. The doors I might enter and the gates of quiet life will shut behind me, never to open again, for Rome keeps them all; and her outlawry will follow me, and her hunters; and in the tombs near cities and the dismal caverns of remotest hills, I must eat my crust and take my rest.”

The speech was broken by a sob. All turned to Esther, who hid her face upon her father’s shoulder.

“I did not think of you, Esther,” said Simonides, gently, for he was himself deeply moved.

“It is well enough, Simonides,” said Ben-Hur. “A man bears a hard doom better, knowing there is pity for him. Let me go on.”

They gave him ear again.

“I was about to say,” he continued, “I have no choice, but take the part you assign me; and as remaining here is to meet an ignoble death, I will to the work at once.”

“Shall we have writings?” asked Simonides, moved by his habit of business.

“I rest upon your word,” said Ben-Hur.

“And I,” Ilderim answered.

Thus simply was effected the treaty which was to alter Ben-Hur’s life. And almost immediately the latter added,

“It is done, then.”

“May the God of Abraham help us!” Simonides exclaimed.

“One word now, my friends,” Ben-Hur said, more cheerfully. “By your leave, I will be my own until after the games. It is not probable Messala will set peril on foot for me until he has given the procurator time to answer him; and that cannot be in less than seven days from the despatch of his letter. The meeting him in the Circus is a pleasure I would buy at whatever risk.”

Ilderim, well pleased, assented readily, and Simonides, intent on business, added, “It is well; for look you, my master, the delay will give me time to do you a good part. I understood you to speak of an inheritance derived from Arrius. Is it in property?”

“A villa near Misenum, and houses in Rome.”

“I suggest, then, the sale of the property, and safe deposit of the proceeds. Give me an account of it, and I will have authorities drawn, and despatch an agent on the mission forthwith. We will forestall the imperial robbers at least this once.”

“You shall have the account to-morrow.”

“Then, if there be nothing more, the work of the night is done,” said Simonides.

Ilderim combed his beard complacently, saying, “And well done.”

“The bread and wine again, Esther. Sheik Ilderim will make us happy by staying with us till to-morrow, or at his pleasure; and thou, my master—”

“Let the horses be brought,” said Ben-Hur. “I will return to the Orchard. The enemy will not discover me if I go now, and”—he glanced at Ilderim—“the four will be glad to see me.”

As the day dawned, he and Malluch dismounted at the door of the tent.

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