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The tribune, standing upon the helmsman's deck with the order of
the duumvir open in his hand, spoke to the chief of the rowers.*

* Called hortator.

"What force hast thou?"

"Of oarsmen, two hundred and fifty-two; ten supernumeraries.

"Making reliefs of--"


"And thy habit?"

"It has been to take off and put on every two hours."

The tribune mused a moment.

"The division is hard, and I will reform it, but not now. The oars
may not rest day or night."

Then to the sailing-master he said,

"The wind is fair. Let the sail help the oars."

When the two thus addressed were gone, he turned to the chief pilot.*

* Called rector.

"What service hast thou had?"

"Two-and-thirty years."

"In what seas chiefly?"

"Between our Rome and the East."

"Thou art the man I would have chosen."

The tribune looked at his orders again.

"Past the Camponellan cape, the course will be to Messina.
Beyond that, follow the bend of the Calabrian shore till Melito
is on thy left, then-- Knowest thou the stars that govern in the
Ionian Sea?"

"I know them well."

"Then from Melito course eastward for Cythera. The gods willing,
I will not anchor until in the Bay of Antemona. The duty is urgent.
I rely upon thee."

A prudent man was Arrius--prudent, and of the class which,
while enriching the altars at Praeneste and Antium, was of
opinion, nevertheless, that the favor of the blind goddess
depended more upon the votary's care and judgment than upon
his gifts and vows. All night as master of the feast he had sat
at table drinking and playing; yet the odor of the sea returned
him to the mood of the sailor, and he would not rest until he
knew his ship. Knowledge leaves no room for chances. Having begun
with the chief of the rowers, the sailing-master, and the pilot,
in company with the other officers--the commander of the marines,
the keeper of the stores, the master of the machines, the overseer
of the kitchen or fires--he passed through the several quarters.
Nothing escaped his inspection. When he was through, of the community
crowded within the narrow walls he alone knew perfectly all there was
of material preparation for the voyage and its possible incidents;
and, finding the preparation complete, there was left him but one
thing further--thorough knowledge of the personnel of his command.
As this was the most delicate and difficult part of his task,
requiring much time, he set about it his own way.

At noon that day the galley was skimming the sea off Paestum.
The wind was yet from the west, filling the sail to the master's
content. The watches had been established. On the foredeck the
altar had been set and sprinkled with salt and barley, and before
it the tribune had offered solemn prayers to Jove and to Neptune
and all the Oceanidae, and, with vows, poured the wine and burned
the incense. And now, the better to study his men, he was seated
in the great cabin, a very martial figure.

The cabin, it should be stated, was the central compartment of the
galley, in extent quite sixty-five by thirty feet, and lighted by
three broad hatchways. A row of stanchions ran from end to end,
supporting the roof, and near the centre the mast was visible,
all bristling with axes and spears and javelins. To each hatchway
there were double stairs descending right and left, with a pivotal
arrangement at the top to allow the lower ends to be hitched to
the ceiling; and, as these were now raised, the compartment had
the appearance of a skylighted hall.

The reader will understand readily that this was the heart of
the ship, the home of all aboard--eating-room, sleeping-chamber,
field of exercise, lounging-place off duty--uses made possible by
the laws which reduced life there to minute details and a routine
relentless as death.

At the after-end of the cabin there was a platform, reached by
several steps. Upon it the chief of the rowers sat; in front of
him a sounding-table, upon which, with a gavel, he beat time
for the oarsmen; at his right a clepsydra, or water-clock,
to measure the reliefs and watches. Above him, on a higher
platform, well guarded by gilded railing, the tribune had his
quarters, overlooking everything, and furnished with a couch,
a table, and a cathedra, or chair, cushioned, and with arms and
high back--articles which the imperial dispensation permitted of
the utmost elegance.

Thus at ease, lounging in the great chair, swaying with the motion
of the vessel, the military cloak half draping his tunic, sword in
belt, Arrius kept watchful eye over his command, and was as closely
watched by them. He saw critically everything in view, but dwelt
longest upon the rowers. The reader would doubtless have done
the same: only he would have looked with much sympathy, while,
as is the habit with masters, the tribune's mind ran forward of
what he saw, inquiring for results.

The spectacle was simple enough of itself. Along the sides of the
cabin, fixed to the ship's timbers, were what at first appeared
to be three rows of benches; a closer view, however, showed them
a succession of rising banks, in each of which the second bench
was behind and above the first one, and the third above and behind
the second. To accommodate the sixty rowers on a side, the space
devoted to them permitted nineteen banks separated by intervals of
one yard, with a twentieth bank divided so that what would have
been its upper seat or bench was directly above the lower seat
of the first bank. The arrangement gave each rower when at work
ample room, if he timed his movements with those of his associates,
the principle being that of soldiers marching with cadenced step in
close order. The arrangement also allowed a multiplication of banks,
limited only by the length of the galley.

As to the rowers, those upon the first and second benches sat,
while those upon the third, having longer oars to work, were suffered
to stand. The oars were loaded with lead in the handles, and near the
point of balance hung to pliable thongs, making possible the delicate
touch called feathering, but, at the same time, increasing the
need of skill, since an eccentric wave might at any moment catch
a heedless fellow and hurl him from his seat. Each oar-hole was
a vent through which the laborer opposite it had his plenty of
sweet air. Light streamed down upon him from the grating which
formed the floor of the passage between the deck and the bulwark
over his head. In some respects, therefore, the condition of the
men might have been much worse. Still, it must not be imagined that
there was any pleasantness in their lives. Communication between
them was not allowed. Day after day they filled their places
without speech; in hours of labor they could not see each other's
faces; their short respites were given to sleep and the snatching
of food. They never laughed; no one ever heard one of them sing.
What is the use of tongues when a sigh or a groan will tell all
men feel while, perforce, they think in silence? Existence with
the poor wretches was like a stream under ground sweeping slowly,
laboriously on to its outlet, wherever that might chance to be.

O Son of Mary! The sword has now a heart--and thine the glory!
So now; but, in the days of which we are writing, for captivity
there was drudgery on walls, and in the streets and mines, and the
galleys both of war and commerce were insatiable. When Druilius won
the first sea-fight for his country, Romans plied the oars, and the
glory was to the rower not less than the marine. These benches which
now we are trying to see as they were testified to the change come
with conquest, and illustrated both the policy and the prowess of
Rome. Nearly all the nations had sons there, mostly prisoners of
war, chosen for their brawn and endurance. In one place a Briton;
before him a Libyan; behind him a Crimean. Elsewhere a Scythian,
a Gaul, and a Thebasite. Roman convicts cast down to consort with
Goths and Longobardi, Jews, Ethiopians, and barbarians from the
shores of Maeotis. Here an Athenian, there a red-haired savage
from Hibernia, yonder blue-eyed giants of the Cimbri.

In the labor of the rowers there was not enough art to give occupation
to their minds, rude and simple as they were. The reach forward,
the pull, the feathering the blade, the dip, were all there was of
it; motions most perfect when most automatic. Even the care forced
upon them by the sea outside grew in time to be a thing instinctive
rather than of thought. So, as the result of long service, the poor
wretches became imbruted--patient, spiritless, obedient--creatures of
vast muscle and exhausted intellects, who lived upon recollections
generally few but dear, and at last lowered into the semi-conscious
alchemic state wherein misery turns to habit, and the soul takes on
incredible endurance.

From right to left, hour after hour, the tribune, swaying in
his easy-chair, turned with thought of everything rather than
the wretchedness of the slaves upon the benches. Their motions,
precise, and exactly the same on both sides of the vessel, after a
while became monotonous; and then he amused himself singling out
individuals. With his stylus he made note of objections, thinking,
if all went well, he would find among the pirates of whom he was
in search better men for the places.

There was no need of keeping the proper names of the slaves brought
to the galleys as to their graves; so, for convenience, they were
usually identified by the numerals painted upon the benches to
which they were assigned. As the sharp eyes of the great man
moved from seat to seat on either hand, they came at last to
number sixty, which, as has been said, belonged properly to the
last bank on the left-hand side, but, wanting room aft, had been
fixed above the first bench of the first bank. There they rested.

The bench of number sixty was slightly above the level of the
platform, and but a few feet away. The light glinting through
the grating over his head gave the rower fairly to the tribune's
view--erect, and, like all his fellows, naked, except a cincture
about the loins. There were, however, some points in his favor.
He was very young, not more than twenty. Furthermore, Arrius was
not merely given to dice; he was a connoisseur of men physically,
and when ashore indulged a habit of visiting the gymnasia to see and
admire the most famous athletae. From some professor, doubtless,
he had caught the idea that strength was as much of the quality
as the quantity of the muscle, while superiority in performance
required a certain mind as well as strength. Having adopted the
doctrine, like most men with a hobby, he was always looking for
illustrations to support it.

The reader may well believe that while the tribune, in the search
for the perfect, was often called upon to stop and study, he was
seldom perfectly satisfied--in fact, very seldom held as long as
on this occasion.

In the beginning of each movement of the oar, the rower's body and
face were brought into profile view from the platform; the movement
ended with the body reversed, and in a pushing posture. The grace
and ease of the action at first suggested a doubt of the honesty
of the effort put forth; but it was speedily dismissed; the firmness
with which the oar was held while in the reach forward, its bending
under the push, were proofs of the force applied; not that only,
they as certainly proved the rower's art, and put the critic in
the great arm-chair in search of the combination of strength and
cleverness which was the central idea of his theory.

In course of the study, Arrius observed the subject's youth;
wholly unconscious of tenderness on that account, he also observed
that he seemed of good height, and that his limbs, upper and nether,
were singularly perfect. The arms, perhaps, were too long, but the
objection was well hidden under a mass of muscle, which, in some
movements, swelled and knotted like kinking cords. Every rib in
the round body was discernible; yet the leanness was the healthful
reduction so strained after in the palaestrae. And altogether there
was in the rower's action a certain harmony which, besides addressing
itself to the tribune's theory, stimulated both his curiosity and
general interest.

Very soon he found himself waiting to catch a view of the man's
face in full. The head was shapely, and balanced upon a neck broad
at the base, but of exceeding pliancy and grace. The features
in profile were of Oriental outline, and of that delicacy of
expression which has always been thought a sign of blood and
sensitive spirit. With these observations, the tribune's interest
in the subject deepened.

"By the gods," he said to himself, "the fellow impresses me! He
promises well. I will know more of him."

Directly the tribune caught the view he wished--the rower turned
and looked at him.

"A Jew! and a boy!"

Under the gaze then fixed steadily upon him, the large eyes of the
slave grew larger--the blood surged to his very brows--the blade
lingered in his hands. But instantly, with an angry crash, down fell
the gavel of the hortator. The rower started, withdrew his face from
the inquisitor, and, as if personally chidden, dropped the oar half
feathered. When he glanced again at the tribune, he was vastly more
astonished--he was met with a kindly smile.

Meantime the galley entered the Straits of Messina, and, skimming past
the city of that name, was after a while turned eastward, leaving the
cloud over AEtna in the sky astern.

Often as Arrius resumed to his platform in the cabin he returned
to study the rower, and he kept saying to himself, "The fellow
hath a spirit. A Jew is not a barbarian. I will know more of him."

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