Book Sixth

Chapter III

Lew Wallace

ABOUT the hour Gesius, the keeper, made his appearance before the tribune in the Tower of Antonia, a footman was climbing the eastern face of Mount Olivet. The road was rough and dusty, and vegetation on that side burned brown, for it was the dry season in Judea. Well for the traveller that he had youth and strength, not to speak of the cool, flowing garments with which he was clothed.

He proceeded slowly, looking often to his right and left; not with the vexed, anxious expression which marks a man going forward uncertain of the way, but rather the air with which one approaches as old acquaintance after a long separation—half of pleasure, half of inquiry; as if he were saying, “I am glad to be with you again; let me see in what you are changed.”

As he arose higher, he sometimes paused to look behind him over the gradually widening view terminating in the mountains of Moab; but when at length he drew near the summit, he quickened his step, unmindful of fatigue, and hurried on without pause or turning of the face. On the summit—to reach which he bent his steps somewhat right of the beaten path—he came to a dead stop, arrested as if by a strong hand. Then one might have seen his eyes dilate, his cheeks flush, his breath quicken, effects all of one bright sweeping glance at what lay before him.

The traveller, good reader, was no other than Ben-Hur; the spectacle, Jerusalem.

Not the Holy City of to-day, but the Holy City as left by Herod—the Holy City of the Christ. Beautiful yet, as seen from old Olivet, what must it have been then?

Ben-Hur betook him to a stone and sat down, and, stripping his head of the close white handkerchief which served it for covering, made the survey at leisure.

The same has been done often since by a great variety of persons, under circumstances surpassingly singular—by the son of Vespasian, by the Islamite, by the Crusader, conquerors all of them; by many a pilgrim from the great New World, which waited discovery nearly fifteen hundred years after the time of our story; but of the multitude probably not one has taken that view with sensations more keenly poignant, more sadly sweet, more proudly bitter, than Ben-Hur. He was stirred by recollections of his countrymen, their triumphs and vicissitudes, their history the history of God. The city was of their building, at once a lasting testimony of their crimes and devotion, their weakness and genius, their religion and their irreligion. Though he had seen Rome to familiarity, he was gratified. The sight filled a measure of pride which would have made him drunk with vainglory but for the thought, princely as the property was, it did not any longer belong to his countrymen; the worship in the Temple was by permission of strangers; the hill where David dwelt was a marbled cheat—an office in which the chosen of the Lord were wrung and wrung for taxes, and scourged for very deathlessness of faith. These, however, were pleasures and griefs of patriotism common to every Jew of the period; in addition, Ben-Hur brought with him a personal history which would not out of mind for other consideration whatever, which the spectacle served only to freshen and vivify.

A country of hills changes but little; where the hills are of rock, it changes not at all. The scene Ben-Hur beheld is the same now, except as respects the city. The failure is in the handiwork of man alone.

The sun dealt more kindly by the west side of Olivet than by the east, and men were certainly more loving towards it. The vines with which it was partially clad, and the sprinkling of trees, chiefly figs and old wild olives, were comparatively green. Down to the dry bed of the Cedron the verdure extended, a refreshment to the vision; there Olivet ceased and Moriah began—a wall of bluff boldness, white as snow, founded by Solomon, completed by Herod. Up, up the wall the eye climbed course by course of the ponderous rocks composing it—up to Solomon’s Porch, which was as the pedestal of the monument, the hill being the plinth. Lingering there a moment, the eye resumed its climbing, going next to the Gentiles’ Court, then to the Israelites’ Court, then to the Women’s Court, then to the Court of the Priests, each a pillared tier of white marble, one above the other in terraced retrocession; over them all a crown of crowns infinitely sacred, infinitely beautiful, majestic in proportions, effulgent with beaten gold—lo! the Tent, the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. The Ark was not there, but Jehovah was—in the faith of every child of Israel he was there a personal Presence. As a temple, as a monument, there was nowhere anything of man’s building to approach that superlative apparition. Now, not a stone of it remains above another. Who shall rebuild that building? When shall the rebuilding be begun? So asks every pilgrim who has stood where Ben-Hur was—he asks, knowing the answer is in the bosom of God, whose secrets are not least marvellous in their well-keeping. And then the third question, What of him who foretold the ruin which has so certainly befallen? God? Or man of God? Or—enough that the question is for us to answer.

And still Ben-Hur’s eyes climbed on and up—up over the roof of the Temple, to the hill Zion, consecrated to sacred memories, inseparable from the anointed kings. He knew the Cheesemonger’s Valley dipped deep down between Moriah and Zion; that it was spanned by the Xystus; that there were gardens and palaces in its depths; but over them all his thoughts soared with his vision to the great grouping on the royal hill—the house of Caiaphas, the Central Synagogue, the Roman Praetorium, Hippicus the eternal, and the sad but mighty cenotaphs Phasælus and Mariamne—all relieved against Gareb, purpling in the distance. And when midst them he singled out the palace of Herod, what could he but think of the King Who Was Coming, to whom he was himself devoted, whose path he had undertaken to smooth, whose empty hands he dreamed of filling? And forward ran his fancy to the day the new King should come to claim his own and take possession of it—of Moriah and its Temple; of Zion and its towers and palaces; of Antonia, frowning darkly there just to the right of the Temple; of the new unwalled city of Bezetha; of the millions of Israel to assemble with palm-branches and banners, to sing rejoicing because the Lord had conquered and given them the world.

Men speak of dreaming as if it were a phenomenon of night and sleep. They should know better. All results achieved by us are self-promised, and all self-promises are made in dreams awake. Dreaming is the relief of labor, the wine that sustains us in act. We learn to love labor, not for itself, but for the opportunity it furnishes for dreaming, which is the great under-monotone of real life, unheard, unnoticed, because of its constancy. Living is dreaming. Only in the grave are there no dreams. Let no one smile at Ben-Hur for doing that which he himself would have done at that time and place under the same circumstances.

The sun stooped low in its course. Awhile the flaring disk seemed to perch itself on the far summit of the mountains in the west, brazening all the sky above the city, and rimming the walls and towers with the brightness of gold. Then it disappeared as with a plunge. The quiet turned Ben-Hur’s thought homeward. There was a point in the sky a little north of the peerless front of the Holy of Holies upon which he fixed his gaze: under it, straight as a leadline would have dropped, lay his father’s house, if yet the house endured.

The mellowing influences of the evening mellowed his feelings, and, putting his ambitions aside, he thought of the duty that was bringing him to Jerusalem.

Out in the desert while with Ilderim, looking for strong places and acquainting himself with it generally, as a soldier studies a country in which he has projected a campaign, a messenger came one evening with the news that Gratus was removed, and Pontius Pilate sent to take his place.

Messala was disabled and believed him dead; Gratus was powerless and gone; why should Ben-Hur longer defer the search for his mother and sister? There was nothing to fear now. If he could not himself see into the prisons of Judea, he could examine them with the eyes of others. If the lost were found, Pilate could have no motive in holding them in custody—none, at least, which could not be overcome by purchase. If found, he would carry them to a place of safety, and then, in calmer mind, his conscience at rest, this one first duty done, he could give himself more entirely to the King Who Was Coming. He resolved at once. That night he counselled with Ilderim, and obtained his assent. Three Arabs came with him to Jericho, where he left them and the horses, and proceeded alone and on foot. Malluch was to meet him in Jerusalem.

Ben-Hur’s scheme, be it observed, was as yet a generality.

In view of the future, it was advisable to keep himself in hiding from the authorities, particularly the Romans. Malluch was shrewd and trusty; the very man to charge with the conduct of the investigation.

Where to begin was the first point. He had no clear idea about it. His wish was to commence with the Tower of Antonia. Tradition not of long standing planted the gloomy pile over a labyrinth of prison-cells, which, more even than the strong garrison, kept it a terror to the Jewish fancy. A burial, such as his people had been subjected to, might be possible there. Besides, in such a strait, the natural inclination is to start search at the place where the loss occurred, and he could not forget that his last sight of the loved ones was as the guard pushed them along the street in the direction to the Tower. If they were not there now, but had been, some record of the fact must remain, a clew which had only to be followed faithfully to the end.

Under this inclination, moreover, there was a hope which he could not forego. From Simonides he knew Amrah, the Egyptian nurse, was living. It will be remembered, doubtless, that the faithful creature, the morning the calamity overtook the Hurs, broke from the guard and ran back into the palace, where, along with other chattels, she had been sealed up. During the years following, Simonides kept her supplied; so she was there now, sole occupant of the great house, which, with all his offers, Gratus had not been able to sell. The story of its rightful owners sufficed to secure the property from strangers, whether purchasers or mere occupants. People going to and fro passed it with whispers. Its reputation was that of a haunted house; derived probably from the infrequent glimpses of poor old Amrah, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in a latticed window. Certainly no more constant spirit ever abided than she; nor was there ever a tenement so shunned and fitted for ghostly habitation. Now, if he could get to her, Ben-Hur fancied she could help him to knowledge which, though faint, might yet be serviceable. Anyhow, sight of her in that place, so endeared by recollection, would be to him a pleasure next to finding the objects of his solicitude.

So, first of all things, he would go to the old house, and look for Amrah.

Thus resolved, he arose shortly after the going-down of the sun, and began descent of the Mount by the road which, from the summit, bends a little north of east. Down nearly at the foot, close by the bed of the Cedron, he came to the intersection with the road leading south to the village of Siloam and the pool of that name. There he fell in with a herdsman driving some sheep to market. He spoke to the man, and joined him, and in his company passed by Gethsemane on into the city through the Fish Gate.

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