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CHAPTER II



The man as now revealed was of admirable proportions, not so tall
as powerful. Loosening the silken rope which held the kufiyeh on his
head, he brushed the fringed folds back until his face was bare--a
strong face, almost negro in color; yet the low, broad forehead,
aquiline nose, the outer corners of the eyes turned slightly upward,
the hair profuse, straight, harsh, of metallic lustre, and falling
to the shoulder in many plaits, were signs of origin impossible
to disguise. So looked the Pharaohs and the later Ptolemies; so
looked Mizraim, father of the Egyptian race. He wore the kamis,
a white cotton shirt tight-sleeved, open in front, extending to
the ankles and embroidered down the collar and breast, over which
was thrown a brown woollen cloak, now, as in all probability
it was then, called the aba, an outer garment with long skirt
and short sleeves, lined inside with stuff of mixed cotton and
silk, edged all round with a margin of clouded yellow. His feet
were protected by sandals, attached by thongs of soft leather.
A sash held the kamis to his waist. What was very noticeable,
considering he was alone, and that the desert was the haunt of
leopards and lions, and men quite as wild, he carried no arms,
not even the crooked stick used for guiding camels; wherefore we
may at least infer his errand peaceful, and that he was either
uncommonly bold or under extraordinary protection.

The traveller's limbs were numb, for the ride had been long and
wearisome; so he rubbed his hands and stamped his feet, and walked
round the faithful servant, whose lustrous eyes were closing in calm
content with the cud he had already found. Often, while making the
circuit, he paused, and, shading his eyes with his hands, examined the
desert to the extremest verge of vision; and always, when the survey
was ended, his face clouded with disappointment, slight, but enough
to advise a shrewd spectator that he was there expecting company,
if not by appointment; at the same time, the spectator would have
been conscious of a sharpening of the curiosity to learn what the
business could be that required transaction in a place so far from
civilized abode.

However disappointed, there could be little doubt of the stranger's
confidence in the coming of the expected company. In token thereof,
he went first to the litter, and, from the cot or box opposite
the one he had occupied in coming, produced a sponge and a
small gurglet of water, with which he washed the eyes, face,
and nostrils of the camel; that done, from the same depository he
drew a circular cloth, red-and white-striped, a bundle of rods,
and a stout cane. The latter, after some manipulation, proved to
be a cunning device of lesser joints, one within another, which,
when united together, formed a centre pole higher than his head.
When the pole was planted, and the rods set around it, he spread
the cloth over them, and was literally at home--a home much smaller
than the habitations of emir and sheik, yet their counterpart in
all other respects. From the litter again he brought a carpet or
square rug, and covered the floor of the tent on the side from
the sun. That done, he went out, and once more, and with greater
care and more eager eyes, swept the encircling country. Except a
distant jackal, galloping across the plain, and an eagle flying
towards the Gulf of Akaba, the waste below, like the blue above
it, was lifeless.

He turned to the camel, saying low, and in a tongue strange to the
desert, "We are far from home, O racer with the swiftest winds--we are
far from home, but God is with us. Let us be patient."

Then he took some beans from a pocket in the saddle, and put them
in a bag made to hang below the animal's nose; and when he saw the
relish with which the good servant took to the food, he turned and
again scanned the world of sand, dim with the glow of the vertical
sun.

"They will come " he said, calmly. "He that led me is leading them.
I will make ready."

From the pouches which lined the interior of the cot, and from a
willow basket which was part of its furniture, he brought forth
materials for a meal: platters close-woven of the fibres of
palms; wine in small gurglets of skin; mutton dried and smoked;
stoneless shami, or Syrian pomegranates; dates of El Shelebi,
wondrous rich and grown in the nakhil, or palm orchards, of Central
Arabia; cheese, like David's "slices of milk;" and leavened bread
from the city bakery--all which he carried and set upon the carpet
under the tent. As the final preparation, about the provisions he
laid three pieces of silk cloth, used among refined people of the
East to cover the knees of guests while at table--a circumstance
significant of the number of persons who were to partake of his
entertainment--the number he was awaiting.

All was now ready. He stepped out: lo! in the east a dark speck
on the face of the desert. He stood as if rooted to the ground;
his eyes dilated; his flesh crept chilly, as if touched by
something supernatural. The speck grew; became large as a hand;
at length assumed defined proportions. A little later, full into
view swung a duplication of his own dromedary, tall and white,
and bearing a houdah, the travelling litter of Hindostan. Then the
Egyptian crossed his hands upon his breast, and looked to heaven.

"God only is great!" he exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, his soul
in awe.

The stranger drew nigh--at last stopped. Then he, too, seemed just
waking. He beheld the kneeling camel, the tent, and the man standing
prayerfully at the door. He crossed his hands, bent his head, and
prayed silently; after which, in a little while, he stepped from
his camel's neck to the sand, and advanced towards the Egyptian,
as did the Egyptian towards him. A moment they looked at each other;
then they embraced--that is, each threw his right arm over the
other's shoulder, and the left round the side, placing his chin
first upon the left, then upon the right breast.

"Peace be with thee, O servant of the true God!" the stranger said.

"And to thee, O brother of the true faith!--to thee peace and
welcome," the Egyptian replied, with fervor.

The new-comer was tall and gaunt, with lean face, sunken eyes,
white hair and beard, and a complexion between the hue of cinnamon
and bronze. He, too, was unarmed. His costume was Hindostani;
over the skull-cap a shawl was wound in great folds, forming a
turban; his body garments were in the style of the Egyptian's,
except that the aba was shorter, exposing wide flowing breeches
gathered at the ankles. In place of sandals, his feet were clad
in half-slippers of red leather, pointed at the toes. Save the
slippers, the costume from head to foot was of white linen. The air
of the man was high, stately, severe. Visvamitra, the greatest of
the ascetic heroes of the Iliad of the East, had in him a perfect
representative. He might have been called a Life drenched with the
wisdom of Brahma--Devotion Incarnate. Only in his eyes was there
proof of humanity; when he lifted his face from the Egyptian's
breast, they were glistening with tears.

"God only is great!" he exclaimed, when the embrace was finished.

"And blessed are they that serve him!" the Egyptian answered,
wondering at the paraphrase of his own exclamation. "But let us
wait," he added, "let us wait; for see, the other comes yonder!"

They looked to the north, where, already plain to view, a third
camel, of the whiteness of the others, came careening like a ship.
They waited, standing together--waited until the new-comer arrived,
dismounted, and advanced towards them.

"Peace to you, O my brother!" he said, while embracing the Hindoo.

And the Hindoo answered, "God's will be done!"

The last comer was all unlike his friends: his frame was slighter;
his complexion white; a mass of waving light hair was a perfect
crown for his small but beautiful head; the warmth of his dark-blue
eyes certified a delicate mind, and a cordial, brave nature. He was
bareheaded and unarmed. Under the folds of the Tyrian blanket which
he wore with unconscious grace appeared a tunic, short-sleeved and
low-necked, gathered to the waist by a band, and reaching nearly to
the knee; leaving the neck, arms, and legs bare. Sandals guarded
his feet. Fifty years, probably more, had spent themselves upon
him, with no other effect, apparently, than to tinge his demeanor
with gravity and temper his words with forethought. The physical
organization and the brightness of soul were untouched. No need to
tell the student from what kindred he was sprung; if he came not
himself from the groves of Athene', his ancestry did.

When his arms fell from the Egyptian, the latter said, with a
tremulous voice, "The Spirit brought me first; wherefore I know
myself chosen to be the servant of my brethren. The tent is set,
and the bread is ready for the breaking. Let me perform my office."

Taking each by the hand, he led them within, and removed their
sandals and washed their feet, and he poured water upon their
hands, and dried them with napkins.

Then, when he had laved his own hands, he said, "Let us take care
of ourselves, brethren, as our service requires, and eat, that we
may be strong for what remains of the day's duty. While we eat,
we will each learn who the others are, and whence they come,
and how they are called."

He took them to the repast, and seated them so that they faced
each other. Simultaneously their heads bent forward, their hands
crossed upon their breasts, and, speaking together, they said
aloud this simple grace:

"Father of all--God!--what we have here is of thee; take our thanks
and bless us, that we may continue to do thy will."

With the last word they raised their eyes, and looked at each other
in wonder. Each had spoken in a language never before heard by the
others; yet each understood perfectly what was said. Their souls
thrilled with divine emotion; for by the miracle they recognized
the Divine Presence.





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