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CHAPTER II



With the foregoing explanation in mind, the reader is invited to
look into one of the gardens of the palace on Mount Zion. The time
was noonday in the middle of July, when the heat of summer was at
its highest.

The garden was bounded on every side by buildings, which in
places arose two stories, with verandas shading the doors
and windows of the lower story, while retreating galleries,
guarded by strong balustrades, adorned and protected the upper.
Here and there, moreover, the structures fell into what appeared
low colonnades, permitting the passage of such winds as chanced to
blow, and allowing other parts of the house to be seen, the better to
realize its magnitude and beauty. The arrangement of the ground was
equally pleasant to the eye. There were walks, and patches of grass
and shrubbery, and a few large trees, rare specimens of the palm,
grouped with the carob, apricot, and walnut. In all directions the
grade sloped gently from the centre, where there was a reservoir,
or deep marble basin, broken at intervals by little gates which,
when raised, emptied the water into sluices bordering the walks--a
cunning device for the rescue of the place from the aridity too
prevalent elsewhere in the region.

Not far from the fountain, there was a small pool of clear water
nourishing a clump of cane and oleander, such as grow on the
Jordan and down by the Dead Sea. Between the clump and the pool,
unmindful of the sun shining full upon them in the breathless air,
two boys, one about nineteen, the other seventeen, sat engaged in
earnest conversation.

They were both handsome, and, at first glance, would have been
pronounced brothers. Both had hair and eyes black; their faces
were deeply browned; and, sitting, they seemed of a size proper
for the difference in their ages.

The elder was bareheaded. A loose tunic, dropping to the knees,
was his attire complete, except sandals and a light-blue mantle
spread under him on the seat. The costume left his arms and legs
exposed, and they were brown as the face; nevertheless, a certain
grace of manner, refinement of features, and culture of voice decided
his rank. The tunic, of softest woollen, gray-tinted, at the neck,
sleeves, and edge of the skirt bordered with red, and bound to the
waist by a tasselled silken cord, certified him the Roman he was.
And if in speech he now and then gazed haughtily at his companion
and addressed him as an inferior, he might almost be excused, for he
was of a family noble even in Rome--a circumstance which in that
age justified any assumption. In the terrible wars between the
first Caesar and his great enemies, a Messala had been the friend
of Brutus. After Philippi, without sacrifice of his honor, he and
the conqueror became reconciled. Yet later, when Octavius disputed
for the empire, Messala supported him. Octavius, as the Emperor
Augustus, remembered the service, and showered the family with
honors. Among other things, Judea being reduced to a province,
he sent the son of his old client or retainer to Jerusalem,
charged with the receipt and management of the taxes levied
in that region; and in that service the son had since remained,
sharing the palace with the high-priest. The youth just described
was his son, whose habit it was to carry about with him all too
faithfully a remembrance of the relation between his grandfather
and the great Romans of his day.

The associate of the Messala was slighter in form, and his
garments were of fine white linen and of the prevalent style
in Jerusalem; a cloth covered his head, held by a yellow cord,
and arranged so as to fall away from the forehead down low over
the back of the neck. An observer skilled in the distinctions of
race, and studying his features more than his costume, would have
soon discovered him to be of Jewish descent. The forehead of the
Roman was high and narrow, his nose sharp and aquiline, while his
lips were thin and straight, and his eyes cold and close under
the brows. The front of the Israelite, on the other hand, was low
and broad; his nose long, with expanded nostrils; his upper lip,
slightly shading the lower one, short and curving to the dimpled
corners, like a Cupid's bow; points which, in connection with the
round chin, full eyes, and oval cheeks reddened with a wine-like
glow, gave his face the softness, strength, and beauty peculiar
to his race. The comeliness of the Roman was severe and chaste,
that of the Jew rich and voluptuous.

"Did you not say the new procurator is to arrive to-morrow?"

The question proceeded from the younger of the friends, and was couched
in Greek, at the time, singularly enough, the language everywhere
prevalent in the politer circles of Judea; having passed from the
palace into the camp and college; thence, nobody knew exactly when
or how, into the Temple itself, and, for that matter, into precincts
of the Temple far beyond the gates and cloisters--precincts of a
sanctity intolerable for a Gentile.

"Yes, to-morrow," Messala answered.

"Who told you?"

"I heard Ishmael, the new governor in the palace--you call him
high priest--tell my father so last night. The news had been
more credible, I grant you, coming from an Egyptian, who is of a
race that has forgotten what truth is, or even from an Idumaean,
whose people never knew what truth was; but, to make quite certain,
I saw a centurion from the Tower this morning, and he told me
preparations were going on for the reception; that the armorers
were furbishing the helmets and shields, and regilding the eagles
and globes; and that apartments long unused were being cleansed
and aired as if for an addition to the garrison--the body-guard,
probably, of the great man."

A perfect idea of the manner in which the answer was given cannot
be conveyed, as its fine points continually escape the power behind
the pen. The reader's fancy must come to his aid; and for that he
must be reminded that reverence as a quality of the Roman mind was
fast breaking down, or, rather, it was becoming unfashionable.
The old religion had nearly ceased to be a faith; at most it was
a mere habit of thought and expression, cherished principally by
the priests who found service in the Temple profitable, and the
poets who, in the turn of their verses, could not dispense with the
familiar deities: there are singers of this age who are similarly
given. As philosophy was taking the place of religion, satire was
fast substituting reverence; insomuch that in Latin opinion it was
to every speech, even to the little diatribes of conversation, as
salt to viands, and aroma to wine. The young Messala, educated in
Rome, but lately returned, had caught the habit and manner;
the scarce perceptible movement of the outer corner of the
lower eyelid, the decided curl of the corresponding nostril,
and a languid utterance affected as the best vehicle to convey
the idea of general indifference, but more particularly because
of the opportunities it afforded for certain rhetorical pauses
thought to be of prime importance to enable the listener to take
the happy conceit or receive the virus of the stinging epigram.
Such a stop occurred in the answer just given, at the end of the
allusion to the Egyptian and Idumaean. The color in the Jewish
lad's cheeks deepened, and he may not have heard the rest of the
speech, for he remained silent, looking absently into the depths
of the pool.

"Our farewell took place in this garden. 'The peace of the Lord go
with you!'--your last words. 'The gods keep you!' I said. Do you
remember? How many years have passed since then?"

"Five," answered the Jew, gazing into the water.

"Well, you have reason to be thankful to--whom shall I say? The
gods? No matter. You have grown handsome; the Greeks would call
you beautiful--happy achievement of the years! If Jupiter would
stay content with one Ganymede, what a cup-bearer you would make
for the emperor! Tell me, my Judah, how the coming of the procurator
is of such interest to you."

Judah bent his large eyes upon the questioner; the gaze was
grave and thoughtful, and caught the Roman's, and held it
while he replied, "Yes, five years. I remember the parting;
you went to Rome; I saw you start, and cried, for I love you.
The years are gone, and you have come back to me accomplished
and princely--I do not jest; and yet--yet--I do wish you were
the Messala you went away."

The fine nostril of the satirist stirred, and he put on a longer
drawl as he said, "No, no; not a Ganymede--an oracle, my Judah.
A few lessons from my teacher of rhetoric hard by the Forum--I
will give you a letter to him when you become wise enough to
accept a suggestion which I am reminded to make you--a little
practise of the art of mystery, and Delphi will receive you as
Apollo himself. At the sound of your solemn voice, the Pythia
will come down to you with her crown. Seriously, O my friend,
in what am I not the Messala I went away? I once heard the
greatest logician in the world. His subject was Disputation.
One saying I remember--'Understand your antagonist before you
answer him.' Let me understand you."

The lad reddened under the cynical look to which he was subjected;
yet he replied, firmly, "You have availed yourself, I see, of your
opportunities; from your teachers you have brought away much
knowledge and many graces. You talk with the ease of a master,
yet your speech carries a sting. My Messala, when he went away,
had no poison in his nature; not for the world would he have hurt
the feelings of a friend."

The Roman smiled as if complimented, and raised his patrician head
a toss higher.

"O my solemn Judah, we are not at Dodona or Pytho. Drop the oracular,
and be plain. Wherein have I hurt you?"

The other drew a long breath, and said, pulling at the cord about
his waist, "In the five years, I, too, have learned somewhat.
Hillel may not be the equal of the logician you heard, and Simeon
and Shammai are, no doubt, inferior to your master hard by the Forum.
Their learning goes not out into forbidden paths; those who sit at
their feet arise enriched simply with knowledge of God, the law,
and Israel; and the effect is love and reverence for everything
that pertains to them. Attendance at the Great College, and study
of what I heard there, have taught me that Judea is not as she
used to be. I know the space that lies between an independent
kingdom and the petty province Judea is. I were meaner, viler,
than a Samaritan not to resent the degradation of my country.
Ishmael is not lawfully high-priest, and he cannot be while the
noble Hannas lives; yet he is a Levite; one of the devoted who
for thousands of years have acceptably served the Lord God of
our faith and worship. His--"

Messala broke in upon him with a biting laugh.

"Oh, I understand you now. Ishmael, you say, is a usurper, yet to
believe an Idumaean sooner than Ishmael is to sting like an adder.
By the drunken son of Semele, what it is to be a Jew! All men and
things, even heaven and earth, change; but a Jew never. To him
there is no backward, no forward; he is what his ancestor was
in the beginning. In this sand I draw you a circle--there! Now
tell me what more a Jew's life is? Round and round, Abraham here,
Isaac and Jacob yonder, God in the middle. And the circle--by the
master of all thunders! the circle is too large. I draw it again--"
He stopped, put his thumb upon the ground, and swept the fingers
about it. "See, the thumb spot is the Temple, the finger-lines
Judea. Outside the little space is there nothing of value? The
arts! Herod was a builder; therefore he is accursed. Painting,
sculpture! to look upon them is sin. Poetry you make fast to your
altars. Except in the synagogue, who of you attempts eloquence?
In war all you conquer in the six days you lose on the seventh.
Such your life and limit; who shall say no if I laugh at you?
Satisfied with the worship of such a people, what is your God
to our Roman Jove, who lends us his eagles that we may compass the
universe with our arms? Hillel, Simeon, Shammai, Abtalion--what are
they to the masters who teach that everything is worth knowing that
can be known?"

The Jew arose, his face much flushed.

"No, no; keep your place, my Judah, keep your place," Messala cried,
extending his hand.

"You mock me."

"Listen a little further. Directly"--the Roman smiled derisively--
"directly Jupiter and his whole family, Greek and Latin, will come
to me, as is their habit, and make an end of serious speech. I am
mindful of your goodness in walking from the old house of your
fathers to welcome me back and renew the love of our childhood--
if we can. 'Go,' said my teacher, in his last lecture--'Go, and,
to make your lives great, remember Mars reigns and Eros has found
his eyes.' He meant love is nothing, war everything. It is so
in Rome. Marriage is the first step to divorce. Virtue is a
tradesman's jewel. Cleopatra, dying, bequeathed her arts, and is
avenged; she has a successor in every Roman's house. The world is
going the same way; so, as to our future, down Eros, up Mars! I am
to be a soldier; and you, O my Judah, I pity you; what can you be?"

The Jew moved nearer the pool; Messala's drawl deepened.

"Yes, I pity you, my fine Judah. From the college to the synagogue;
then to the Temple; then--oh, a crowning glory!--the seat in the
Sanhedrim. A life without opportunities; the gods help you! But
I--"

Judah looked at him in time to see the flush of pride that kindled
in his haughty face as he went on.

"But I--ah, the world is not all conquered. The sea has islands
unseen. In the north there are nations yet unvisited. The glory
of completing Alexander's march to the Far East remains to some
one. See what possibilities lie before a Roman."

Next instant he resumed his drawl.

"A campaign into Africa; another after the Scythian; then--a legion!
Most careers end there; but not mine. I--by Jupiter! what a
conception!--I will give up my legion for a prefecture. Think of
life in Rome with money--money, wine, women, games--poets at the
banquet, intrigues in the court, dice all the year round. Such a
rounding of life may be--a fat prefecture, and it is mine. O my
Judah, here is Syria! Judea is rich; Antioch a capital for the
gods. I will succeed Cyrenius, and you--shall share my fortune."

The sophists and rhetoricians who thronged the public resorts of
Rome, almost monopolizing the business of teaching her patrician
youth, might have approved these sayings of Messala, for they were
all in the popular vein; to the young Jew, however, they were new,
and unlike the solemn style of discourse and conversation to which he
was accustomed. He belonged, moreover, to a race whose laws, modes,
and habits of thought forbade satire and humor; very naturally,
therefore, he listened to his friend with varying feelings; one
moment indignant, then uncertain how to take him. The superior
airs assumed had been offensive to him in the beginning; soon they
became irritating, and at last an acute smart. Anger lies close by
this point in all of us; and that the satirist evoked in another
way. To the Jew of the Herodian period patriotism was a savage
passion scarcely hidden under his common humor, and so related
to his history, religion, and God that it responded instantly to
derision of them. Wherefore it is not speaking too strongly to say
that Messala's progress down to the last pause was exquisite torture
to his hearer; at that point the latter said, with a forced smile,

"There are a few, I have heard, who can afford to make a jest of
their future; you convince me, O my Messala, that I am not one
of them."

The Roman studied him; then replied, "Why not the truth in a jest
as well as a parable? The great Fulvia went fishing the other day;
she caught more than all the company besides. They said it was
because the barb of her hook was covered with gold."

"Then you were not merely jesting?"

"My Judah, I see I did not offer you enough," the Roman answered,
quickly, his eyes sparkling. "When I am prefect, with Judea to
enrich me, I--will make you high-priest."

The Jew turned off angrily.

"Do not leave me," said Messala.

The other stopped irresolute.

"Gods, Judah, how hot the sun shines!" cried the patrician,
observing his perplexity. "Let us seek a shade."

Judah answered, coldly,

"We had better part. I wish I had not come. I sought a friend and
find a--"

"Roman," said Messala, quickly.

The hands of the Jew clenched, but controlling himself again,
he started off. Messala arose, and, taking the mantle from the
bench, flung it over his shoulder, and followed after; when he
gained his side, he put his hand upon his shoulder and walked
with him.

"This is the way--my hand thus--we used to walk when we were
children. Let us keep it as far as the gate."

Apparently Messala was trying to be serious and kind, though he
could not rid his countenance of the habitual satirical expression.
Judah permitted the familiarity.

"You are a boy; I am a man; let me talk like one."

The complacency of the Roman was superb. Mentor lecturing the
young Telemachus could not have been more at ease.

"Do you believe in the Parcae? Ah, I forgot, you are a Sadducee:
the Essenes are your sensible people; they believe in the sisters.
So do I. How everlastingly the three are in the way of our doing
what we please! I sit down scheming. I run paths here and there.
Perpol! Just when I am reaching to take the world in hand, I hear
behind me the grinding of scissors. I look, and there she is,
the accursed Atropos! But, my Judah, why did you get mad when I
spoke of succeeding old Cyrenius? You thought I meant to enrich
myself plundering your Judea. Suppose so; it is what some Roman
will do. Why not I?"

Judah shortened his step.

"There have been strangers in mastery of Judea before the Roman,"
he said, with lifted hand. "Where are they, Messala? She has outlived
them all. What has been will be again."

Messala put on his drawl.

"The Parcae have believers outside the Essenes. Welcome, Judah,
welcome to the faith!"

"No, Messala, count me not with them. My faith rests on the rock
which was the foundation of the faith of my fathers back further than
Abraham; on the covenants of the Lord God of Israel."

"Too much passion, my Judah. How my master would have been shocked
had I been guilty of so much heat in his presence! There were other
things I had to tell you, but I fear to now."

When they had gone a few yards, the Roman spoke again.

"I think you can hear me now, especially as what I have to say
concerns yourself. I would serve you, O handsome as Ganymede;
I would serve you with real good-will. I love you--all I can.
I told you I meant to be a soldier. Why not you also? Why not
you step out of the narrow circle which, as I have shown, is all
of noble life your laws and customs allow?"

Judah made no reply.

"Who are the wise men of our day?" Messala continued. "Not they
who exhaust their years quarrelling about dead things; about Baals,
Joves, and Jehovahs; about philosophies and religions. Give me one
great name, O Judah; I care not where you go to find it--to Rome,
Egypt, the East, or here in Jerusalem--Pluto take me if it belong
not to a man who wrought his fame out of the material furnished him
by the present; holding nothing sacred that did not contribute to
the end, scorning nothing that did! How was it with Herod? How with
the Maccabees? How with the first and second Caesars? Imitate them.
Begin now. At hand see--Rome, as ready to help you as she was the
Idumaean Antipater."

The Jewish lad trembled with rage; and, as the garden gate was
close by, he quickened his steps, eager to escape.

"O Rome, Rome!" he muttered.

"Be wise," continued Messala. "Give up the follies of Moses and
the traditions; see the situation as it is. Dare look the Parcae
in the face, and they will tell you, Rome is the world. Ask them of
Judea, and they will answer, She is what Rome wills."

They were now at the gate. Judah stopped, and took the hand gently
from his shoulder, and confronted Messala, tears trembling in his
eyes.

"I understand you, because you are a Roman; you cannot understand
me--I am an Israelite. You have given me suffering to-day by convincing
me that we can never be the friends we have been--never! Here we part.
The peace of the God of my fathers abide with you!"

Messala offered him his hand; the Jew walked on through the gateway.
When he was gone, the Roman was silent awhile; then he, too, passed
through, saying to himself, with a toss of the head,

"Be it so. Eros is dead, Mars reigns!"





Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Category:
General Fiction
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