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CHAPTER V



Every soul aboard, even the ship, awoke. Officers went to their
quarters. The marines took arms, and were led out, looking in all
respects like legionaries. Sheaves of arrows and armfuls of javelins
were carried on deck. By the central stairs the oil-tanks and fire-balls
were set ready for use. Additional lanterns were lighted. Buckets were
filled with water. The rowers in relief assembled under guard in
front of the chief. As Providence would have it, Ben-Hur was one
of the latter. Overhead he heard the muffled noises of the final
preparations--of the sailors furling sail, spreading the nettings,
unslinging the machines, and hanging the armor of bull-hide over the
side. Presently quiet settled about the galley again; quiet full
of vague dread and expectation, which, interpreted, means READY.

At a signal passed down from the deck, and communicated to the
hortator by a petty officer stationed on the stairs, all at once
the oars stopped.

What did it mean?

Of the hundred and twenty slaves chained to the benches, not one but
asked himself the question. They were without incentive. Patriotism,
love of honor, sense of duty, brought them no inspiration. They felt
the thrill common to men rushed helpless and blind into danger. It may
be supposed the dullest of them, poising his oar, thought of all that
might happen, yet could promise himself nothing; for victory would but
rivet his chains the firmer, while the chances of the ship were his;
sinking or on fire, he was doomed to her fate.

Of the situation without they might not ask. And who were the
enemy? And what if they were friends, brethren, countrymen? The
reader, carrying the suggestion forward, will see the necessity
which governed the Roman when, in such emergencies, he locked the
hapless wretches to their seats.

There was little time, however, for such thought with them. A sound
like the rowing of galleys astern attracted Ben-Hur, and the Astroea
rocked as if in the midst of countering waves. The idea of a fleet
at hand broke upon him--a fleet in manoeuvre-- forming probably
for attack. His blood started with the fancy.

Another signal came down from the deck. The oars dipped, and the
galley started imperceptibly. No sound from without, none from
within, yet each man in the cabin instinctively poised himself
for a shock; the very ship seemed to catch the sense, and hold
its breath, and go crouched tiger-like.

In such a situation time is inappreciable; so that Ben-Hur could
form no judgment of distance gone. At last there was a sound of
trumpets on deck, full, clear, long blown. The chief beat the
sounding-board until it rang; the rowers reached forward full
length, and, deepening the dip of their oars, pulled suddenly
with all their united force. The galley, quivering in every
timber, answered with a leap. Other trumpets joined in the
clamor--all from the rear, none forward--from the latter quarter
only a rising sound of voices in tumult heard briefly. There was
a mighty blow; the rowers in front of the chief's platform reeled,
some of them fell; the ship bounded back, recovered, and rushed on
more irresistibly than before. Shrill and high arose the shrieks
of men in terror; over the blare of trumpets, and the grind and
crash of the collision, they arose; then under his feet, under the
keel, pounding, rumbling, breaking to pieces, drowning, Ben-Hur felt
something overridden. The men about him looked at each other afraid.
A shout of triumph from the deck-- the beak of the Roman had won! But
who were they whom the sea had drunk? Of what tongue, from what land
were they?

No pause, no stay! Forward rushed the Astroea; and, as it went,
some sailors ran down, and plunging the cotton balls into the
oil-tanks, tossed them dripping to comrades at the head of the
stairs: fire was to be added to other horrors of the combat.

Directly the galley heeled over so far that the oarsmen on the
uppermost side with difficulty kept their benches. Again the hearty
Roman cheer, and with it despairing shrieks. An opposing vessel,
caught by the grappling-hooks of the great crane swinging from
the prow, was being lifted into the air that it might be dropped
and sunk.

The shouting increased on the right hand and on the left; before,
behind, swelled an indescribable clamor. Occasionally there was a
crash, followed by sudden peals of fright, telling of other ships
ridden down, and their crews drowned in the vortexes.

Nor was the fight all on one side. Now and then a Roman in armor
was borne down the hatchway, and laid bleeding, sometimes dying,
on the floor.

Sometimes, also, puffs of smoke, blended with steam, and foul
with the scent of roasting human flesh, poured into the cabin,
turning the dimming light into yellow murk. Gasping for breath
the while, Ben-Hur knew they were passing through the cloud of
a ship on fire, and burning up with the rowers chained to the
benches.

The Astroea all this time was in motion. Suddenly she stopped.
The oars forward were dashed from the hands of the rowers, and the
rowers from their benches. On deck, then, a furious trampling, and on
the sides a grinding of ships afoul of each other. For the first time
the beating of the gavel was lost in the uproar. Men sank on the floor
in fear or looked about seeking a hiding-place. In the midst of the
panic a body plunged or was pitched headlong down the hatchway,
falling near Ben-Hur. He beheld the half-naked carcass, a mass
of hair blackening the face, and under it a shield of bull-hide
and wicker-work--a barbarian from the white-skinned nations of
the North whom death had robbed of plunder and revenge. How came
he there? An iron hand had snatched him from the opposing deck--no,
the Astroea had been boarded! The Romans were fighting on their own
deck? A chill smote the young Jew: Arrius was hard pressed--he might
be defending his own life. If he should be slain! God of Abraham
forefend! The hopes and dreams so lately come, were they only
hopes and dreams? Mother and sister--house--home--Holy Land--was
he not to see them, after all? The tumult thundered above him;
he looked around; in the cabin all was confusion--the rowers on the
benches paralyzed; men running blindly hither and thither; only the
chief on his seat imperturbable, vainly beating the sounding-board,
and waiting the orders of the tribune--in the red murk illustrating
the matchless discipline which had won the world.

The example had a good effect upon Ben-Hur. He controlled himself
enough to think. Honor and duty bound the Roman to the platform;
but what had he to do with such motives then? The bench was a
thing to run from; while, if he were to die a slave, who would
be the better of the sacrifice? With him living was duty, if not
honor. His life belonged to his people. They arose before him
never more real: he saw them, their arms outstretched; he heard
them imploring him. And he would go to them. He started--stopped.
Alas! a Roman judgment held him in doom. While it endured, escape
would be profitless. In the wide, wide earth there was no place in
which he would be safe from the imperial demand; upon the land none,
nor upon the sea. Whereas he required freedom according to the forms
of law, so only could he abide in Judea and execute the filial
purpose to which he would devote himself: in other land he would
not live. Dear God! How he had waited and watched and prayed for
such a release! And how it had been delayed! But at last he had
seen it in the promise of the tribune. What else the great man's
meaning? And if the benefactor so belated should now be slain! The
dead come not back to redeem the pledges of the living. It should
not be--Arrius should not die. At least, better perish with him
than survive a galley-slave.

Once more Ben-Hur looked around. Upon the roof of the cabin the
battle yet beat; against the sides the hostile vessels yet crushed
and grided. On the benches, the slaves struggled to tear loose from
their chains, and, finding their efforts vain, howled like madmen;
the guards had gone upstairs; discipline was out, panic in. No,
the chief kept his chair, unchanged, calm as ever--except the
gavel, weaponless. Vainly with his clangor he filled the lulls
in the din. Ben-Hur gave him a last look, then broke away--not
in flight, but to seek the tribune.

A very short space lay between him and the stairs of the hatchway
aft. He took it with a leap, and was half-way up the steps--up far
enough to catch a glimpse of the sky blood-red with fire, of the
ships alongside, of the sea covered with ships and wrecks, of the
fight closed in about the pilot's quarter, the assailants many,
the defenders few--when suddenly his foothold was knocked away,
and he pitched backward. The floor, when he reached it, seemed to
be lifting itself and breaking to pieces; then, in a twinkling,
the whole after-part of the hull broke asunder, and, as if it had
all the time been lying in wait, the sea, hissing and foaming,
leaped in, and all became darkness and surging water to Ben-Hur.

It cannot be said that the young Jew helped himself in this
stress. Besides his usual strength, he had the indefinite extra
force which nature keeps in reserve for just such perils to life;
yet the darkness, and the whirl and roar of water, stupefied him.
Even the holding his breath was involuntary.

The influx of the flood tossed him like a log forward into the
cabin, where he would have drowned but for the refluence of the
sinking motion. As it was, fathoms under the surface the hollow
mass vomited him forth, and he arose along with the loosed debris.
In the act of rising, he clutched something, and held to it. The time
he was under seemed an age longer than it really was; at last he
gained the top; with a great gasp he filled his lungs afresh, and,
tossing the water from his hair and eyes, climbed higher upon the
plank he held, and looked about him.

Death had pursued him closely under the waves; he found it waiting
for him when he was risen--waiting multiform.

Smoke lay upon the sea like a semitransparent fog, through which
here and there shone cores of intense brilliance. A quick intelligence
told him that they were ships on fire. The battle was yet on; nor could
he say who was victor. Within the radius of his vision now and then
ships passed, shooting shadows athwart lights. Out of the dun clouds
farther on he caught the crash of other ships colliding. The danger,
however, was closer at hand. When the Astroea went down, her deck,
it will be recollected, held her own crew, and the crews of the
two galleys which had attacked her at the same time, all of whom
were ingulfed. Many of them came to the surface together, and on
the same plank or support of whatever kind continued the combat,
begun possibly in the vortex fathoms down. Writhing and twisting
in deadly embrace, sometimes striking with sword or javelin, they
kept the sea around them in agitation, at one place inky-black,
at another aflame with fiery reflections. With their struggles he
had nothing to do; they were all his enemies: not one of them but
would kill him for the plank upon which he floated. He made haste
to get away.

About that time he heard oars in quickest movement, and beheld a
galley coming down upon him. The tall prow seemed doubly tall,
and the red light playing upon its gilt and carving gave it an
appearance of snaky life. Under its foot the water churned to
flying foam.

He struck out, pushing the plank, which was very broad and
unmanageable. Seconds were precious--half a second might save or lose
him. In the crisis of the effort, up from the sea, within arm's reach,
a helmet shot like a gleam of gold. Next came two hands with fingers
extended--large hands were they, and strong-- their hold once fixed,
might not be loosed. Ben-Hur swerved from them appalled. Up rose
the helmet and the head it encased--then two arms, which began to
beat the water wildly--the head turned back, and gave the face to
the light. The mouth gaping wide; the eyes open, but sightless,
and the bloodless pallor of a drowning man--never anything more
ghastly! Yet he gave a cry of joy at the sight, and as the face
was going under again, he caught the sufferer by the chain which
passed from the helmet beneath the chin, and drew him to the plank.

The man was Arrius, the tribune.

For a while the water foamed and eddied violently about Ben-Hur,
taxing all his strength to hold to the support and at the same
time keep the Roman's head above the surface. The galley had
passed, leaving the two barely outside the stroke of its oars.
Right through the floating men, over heads helmeted as well as
heads bare, she drove, in her wake nothing but the sea sparkling
with fire. A muffled crash, succeeded by a great outcry, made the
rescuer look again from his charge. A certain savage pleasure
touched his heart--the Astroea was avenged.

After that the battle moved on. Resistance turned to flight. But who
were the victors? Ben-Hur was sensible how much his freedom and
the life of the tribune depended upon that event. He pushed the
plank under the latter until it floated him, after which all his
care was to keep him there. The dawn came slowly. He watched its
growing hopefully, yet sometimes afraid. Would it bring the Romans
or the pirates? If the pirates, his charge was lost.

At last morning broke in full, the air without a breath. Off to the
left he saw the land, too far to think of attempting to make it.
Here and there men were adrift like himself. In spots the sea was
blackened by charred and sometimes smoking fragments. A galley up
a long way was lying to with a torn sail hanging from the tilted
yard, and the oars all idle. Still farther away he could discern
moving specks, which he thought might be ships in flight or pursuit,
or they might be white birds a-wing.

An hour passed thus. His anxiety increased. If relief came not
speedily, Arrius would die. Sometimes he seemed already dead,
he lay so still. He took the helmet off, and then, with greater
difficulty, the cuirass; the heart he found fluttering. He took
hope at the sign, and held on. There was nothing to do but wait,
and, after the manner of his people, pray.





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