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CHAPTER IV



In the Bay of Antemona, east of Cythera the island, the hundred
galleys assembled. There the tribune gave one day to inspection.
He sailed then to Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades, midway the
coasts of Greece and Asia, like a great stone planted in the
centre of a highway, from which he could challenge everything
that passed; at the same time, he would be in position to go
after the pirates instantly, whether they were in the AEgean
or out on the Mediterranean.

As the fleet, in order, rowed in towards the mountain shores of the
island, a galley was descried coming from the north. Arrius went to
meet it. She proved to be a transport just from Byzantium, and from
her commander he learned the particulars of which he stood in most
need.

The pirates were from all the farther shores of the Euxine.
Even Tanais, at the mouth of the river which was supposed to feed
Palus Maeotis, was represented among them. Their preparations had
been with the greatest secrecy. The first known of them was their
appearance off the entrance to the Thracian Bosphorus, followed
by the destruction of the fleet in station there. Thence to the
outlet of the Hellespont everything afloat had fallen their prey.
There were quite sixty galleys in the squadron, all well manned
and supplied. A few were biremes, the rest stout triremes. A Greek
was in command, and the pilots, said to be familiar with all the
Eastern seas, were Greek. The plunder had been incalculable.
The panic, consequently, was not on the sea alone; cities,
with closed gates, sent their people nightly to the walls.
Traffic had almost ceased.

Where were the pirates now?

To this question, of most interest to Arrius, he received answer.

After sacking Hephaestia, on the island of Lemnos, the enemy had
coursed across to the Thessalian group, and, by last account,
disappeared in the gulfs between Euboea and Hellas.

Such were the tidings.

Then the people of the island, drawn to the hill-tops by the
rare spectacle of a hundred ships careering in united squadron,
beheld the advance division suddenly turn to the north, and the
others follow, wheeling upon the same point like cavalry in a
column. News of the piratical descent had reached them, and now,
watching the white sails until they faded from sight up between
Rhene and Syros, the thoughtful among them took comfort, and were
grateful. What Rome seized with strong hand she always defended:
in return for their taxes, she gave them safety.

The tribune was more than pleased with the enemy's movements;
he was doubly thankful to Fortune. She had brought swift and
sure intelligence, and had lured his foes into the waters where,
of all others, destruction was most assured. He knew the havoc one
galley could play in a broad sea like the Mediterranean, and the
difficulty of finding and overhauling her; he knew, also, how those
very circumstances would enhance the service and glory if, at one blow,
he could put a finish to the whole piratical array.

If the reader will take a map of Greece and the AEgean, he will
notice the island of Euboea lying along the classic coast like a
rampart against Asia, leaving a channel between it and the continent
quite a hundred and twenty miles in length, and scarcely an average
of eight in width. The inlet on the north had admitted the fleet
of Xerxes, and now it received the bold raiders from the Euxine.
The towns along the Pelasgic and Meliac gulfs were rich and their
plunder seductive. All things considered, therefore, Arrius judged
that the robbers might be found somewhere below Thermopylae.
Welcoming the chance, he resolved to enclose them north and south,
to do which not an hour could be lost; even the fruits and wines
and women of Naxos must be left behind. So he sailed away without
stop or tack until, a little before nightfall, Mount Ocha was seen
upreared against the sky, and the pilot reported the Euboean coast.

At a signal the fleet rested upon its oars. When the movement
was resumed, Arrius led a division of fifty of the galleys,
intending to take them up the channel, while another division,
equally strong, turned their prows to the outer or seaward side
of the island, with orders to make all haste to the upper inlet,
and descend sweeping the waters.

To be sure, neither division was equal in number to the pirates;
but each had advantages in compensation, among them, by no means
least, a discipline impossible to a lawless horde, however brave.
Besides, it was a shrewd count on the tribune's side, if, peradventure,
one should be defeated, the other would find the enemy shattered by his
victory, and in condition to be easily overwhelmed.

Meantime Ben-Hur kept his bench, relieved every six hours. The rest
in the Bay of Antemona had freshened him, so that the oar was
not troublesome, and the chief on the platform found no fault.

People, generally, are not aware of the ease of mind there is in
knowing where they are, and where they are going. The sensation of
being lost is a keen distress; still worse is the feeling one has in
driving blindly into unknown places. Custom had dulled the feeling
with Ben-Hur, but only measurably. Pulling away hour after hour,
sometimes days and nights together, sensible all the time that the
galley was gliding swiftly along some of the many tracks of the
broad sea, the longing to know where he was, and whither going,
was always present with him; but now it seemed quickened by the
hope which had come to new life in his breast since the interview
with the tribune. The narrower the abiding-place happens to be,
the more intense is the longing; and so he found. He seemed to
hear every sound of the ship in labor, and listened to each one
as if it were a voice come to tell him something; he looked to
the grating overhead, and through it into the light of which so
small a portion was his, expecting, he knew not what; and many
times he caught himself on the point of yielding to the impulse
to speak to the chief on the platform, than which no circumstance
of battle would have astonished that dignitary more.

In his long service, by watching the shifting of the meager
sunbeams upon the cabin floor when the ship was under way, he had
come to know, generally, the quarter into which she was sailing.
This, of course, was only of clear days like those good-fortune
was sending the tribune. The experience had not failed him in the
period succeeding the departure from Cythera. Thinking they were
tending towards the old Judean country, he was sensitive to every
variation from the course. With a pang, he had observed the sudden
change northward which, as has been noticed, took place near Naxos:
the cause, however, he could not even conjecture; for it must be
remembered that, in common with his fellow-slaves, he knew nothing
of the situation, and had no interest in the voyage. His place was
at the oar, and he was held there inexorably, whether at anchor
or under sail. Once only in three years had he been permitted an
outlook from the deck. The occasion we have seen. He had no idea
that, following the vessel he was helping drive, there was a great
squadron close at hand and in beautiful order; no more did he know
the object of which it was in pursuit.

When the sun, going down, withdrew his last ray from the cabin,
the galley still held northward. Night fell, yet Ben-Hur could
discern no change. About that time the smell of incense floated
down the gangways from the deck.

"The tribune is at the altar," he thought. "Can it be we are going
into battle?"

He became observant.

Now he had been in many battles without having seen one. From his
bench he had heard them above and about him, until he was familiar
with all their notes, almost as a singer with a song. So, too, he had
become acquainted with many of the preliminaries of an engagement,
of which, with a Roman as well as a Greek, the most invariable
was the sacrifice to the gods. The rites were the same as those
performed at the beginning of a voyage, and to him, when noticed,
they were always an admonition.

A battle, it should be observed, possessed for him and his
fellow-slaves of the oar an interest unlike that of the sailor
and marine; it came, not of the danger encountered but of the
fact that defeat, if survived, might bring an alteration of
condition--possibly freedom--at least a change of masters,
which might be for the better.

In good time the lanterns were lighted and hung by the stairs,
and the tribune came down from the deck. At his word the marines
put on their armor. At his word again, the machines were looked to,
and spears, javelins, and arrows, in great sheaves, brought and
laid upon the floor, together with jars of inflammable oil, and
baskets of cotton balls wound loose like the wicking of candles.
And when, finally, Ben-Hur saw the tribune mount his platform and
don his armor, and get his helmet and shield out, the meaning of
the preparations might not be any longer doubted, and he made
ready for the last ignominy of his service.

To every bench, as a fixture, there was a chain with heavy anklets.
These the hortator proceeded to lock upon the oarsmen, going from
number to number, leaving no choice but to obey, and, in event of
disaster, no possibility of escape.

In the cabin, then, a silence fell, broken, at first, only by the
sough of the oars turning in the leathern cases. Every man upon the
benches felt the shame, Ben-Hur more keenly than his companions.
He would have put it away at any price. Soon the clanking of the
fetters notified him of the progress the chief was making in his
round. He would come to him in turn; but would not the tribune
interpose for him?

The thought may be set down to vanity or selfishness, as the reader
pleases; it certainly, at that moment, took possession of Ben-Hur.
He believed the Roman would interpose; anyhow, the circumstance would
test the man's feelings. If, intent upon the battle, he would but
think of him, it would be proof of his opinion formed--proof that
he had been tacitly promoted above his associates in misery--such
proof as would justify hope.

Ben-Hur waited anxiously. The interval seemed like an age. At every
turn of the oar he looked towards the tribune, who, his simple
preparations made, lay down upon the couch and composed himself
to rest; whereupon number sixty chid himself, and laughed grimly,
and resolved not to look that way again.

The hortator approached. Now he was at number one--the rattle of
the iron links sounded horribly. At last number sixty! Calm from
despair, Ben-Hur held his oar at poise, and gave his foot to the
officer. Then the tribune stirred--sat up--beckoned to the chief.

A strong revulsion seized the Jew. From the hortator, the great
man glanced at him; and when he dropped his oar all the section
of the ship on his side seemed aglow. He heard nothing of what
was said; enough that the chain hung idly from its staple in
the bench, and that the chief, going to his seat, began to beat
the sounding-board. The notes of the gavel were never so like
music. With his breast against the leaded handle, he pushed with
all his might--pushed until the shaft bent as if about to break.

The chief went to the tribune, and, smiling, pointed to number
sixty.

"What strength!" he said.

"And what spirit!" the tribune answered. "Perpol! He is better
without the irons. Put them on him no more."

So saying, he stretched himself upon the couch again.

The ship sailed on hour after hour under the oars in water scarcely
rippled by the wind. And the people not on duty slept, Arrius in
his place, the marines on the floor.

Once--twice--Ben-Hur was relieved; but he could not sleep. Three
years of night, and through the darkness a sunbeam at last! At sea
adrift and lost, and now land! Dead so long, and, lo! the thrill and
stir of resurrection. Sleep was not for such an hour. Hope deals
with the future; now and the past are but servants that wait on
her with impulse and suggestive circumstance. Starting from the
favor of the tribune, she carried him forward indefinitely.
The wonder is, not that things so purely imaginative as the
results she points us to can make us so happy, but that we can
receive them as so real. They must be as gorgeous poppies under
the influence of which, under the crimson and purple and gold,
reason lies down the while, and is not. Sorrows assuaged, home
and the fortunes of his house restored; mother and sister in
his arms once more--such were the central ideas which made him
happier that moment than he had ever been. That he was rushing,
as on wings, into horrible battle had, for the time, nothing to
do with his thoughts. The things thus in hope were unmixed with
doubts--they WERE. Hence his joy so full, so perfect, there was
no room in his heart for revenge. Messala, Gratus, Rome, and all
the bitter, passionate memories connected with them, were as dead
plagues--miasms of the earth above which he floated, far and safe,
listening to singing stars.

The deeper darkness before the dawn was upon the waters, and all
things going well with the Astroea, when a man, descending from
the deck, walked swiftly to the platform where the tribune slept,
and awoke him. Arrius arose, put on his helmet, sword, and shield,
and went to the commander of the marines.

"The pirates are close by. Up and ready!" he said, and passed to
the stairs, calm, confident, insomuch that one might have thought,
"Happy fellow! Apicius has set a feast for him."





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