eBooks Cube

"Alva. Should the monarch prove unjust--
And, at this time--

Queen. Then I must wait for justice
Until it come; and they are happiest far
Whose consciences may calmly wait their right."
Schiller, Don Carlos (act iv., sc. xv.)


The month to which we now come is July, the year that of our Lord
29, and the place Antioch, then Queen of the East, and next to
Rome the strongest, if not the most populous, city in the world.

There is an opinion that the extravagance and dissoluteness of
the age had their origin in Rome, and spread thence throughout
the empire; that the great cities but reflected the manners of
their mistress on the Tiber. This may be doubted. The reaction
of the conquest would seem to have been upon the morals of the
conqueror. In Greece she found a spring of corruption; so also
in Egypt; and the student, having exhausted the subject, will close
the books assured that the flow of the demoralizing river was from
the East westwardly, and that this very city of Antioch, one of the
oldest seats of Assyrian power and splendor, was a principal source
of the deadly stream.

A transport galley entered the mouth of the river Orontes from the
blue waters of the sea. It was in the forenoon. The heat was great,
yet all on board who could avail themselves of the privilege were
on deck--Ben-Hur among others.

The five years had brought the young Jew to perfect manhood. Though the
robe of white linen in which he was attired somewhat masked his form,
his appearance was unusually attractive. For an hour and more he had
occupied a seat in the shade of the sail, and in that time several
fellow-passengers of his own nationality had tried to engage him
in conversation, but without avail. His replies to their questions
had been brief, though gravely courteous, and in the Latin tongue.
The purity of his speech, his cultivated manners, his reticence,
served to stimulate their curiosity the more. Such as observed
him closely were struck by an incongruity between his demeanor,
which had the ease and grace of a patrician, and certain points
of his person. Thus his arms were disproportionately long; and
when, to steady himself against the motion of the vessel, he took
hold of anything near by, the size of his hands and their evident
power compelled remark; so the wonder who and what he was mixed
continually with a wish to know the particulars of his life.
In other words, his air cannot be better described than as a
notice--This man has a story to tell.

The galley, in coming, had stopped at one of the ports of Cyprus,
and picked up a Hebrew of most respectable appearance, quiet,
reserved, paternal. Ben-Hur ventured to ask him some questions;
the replies won his confidence, and resulted finally in an
extended conversation.

It chanced also that as the galley from Cyprus entered the receiving
bay of the Orontes, two other vessels which had been sighted out in
the sea met it and passed into the river at the same time; and as
they did so both the strangers threw out small flags of brightest
yellow. There was much conjecture as to the meaning of the signals.
At length a passenger addressed himself to the respectable Hebrew
for information upon the subject.

"Yes, I know the meaning of the flags," he replied; "they do
not signify nationality--they are merely marks of ownership."

"Has the owner many ships?"

"He has."

"You know him?"

"I have dealt with him."

The passengers looked at the speaker as if requesting him to go
on. Ben-Hur listened with interest.

"He lives in Antioch," the Hebrew continued, in his quiet way.
"That he is vastly rich has brought him into notice, and the
talk about him is not always kind. There used to be in Jerusalem
a prince of very ancient family named Hur."

Judah strove to be composed, yet his heart beat quicker.

"The prince was a merchant, with a genius for business. He set
on foot many enterprises, some reaching far East, others West.
In the great cities he had branch houses. The one in Antioch
was in charge of a man said by some to have been a family servant
called Simonides, Greek in name, yet an Israelite. The master was
drowned at sea. His business, however, went on, and was scarcely
less prosperous. After a while misfortune overtook the family.
The prince's only son, nearly grown, tried to kill the procurator
Gratus in one of the streets of Jerusalem. He failed by a narrow
chance, and has not since been heard of. In fact, the Roman's rage
took in the whole house--not one of the name was left alive. Their
palace was sealed up, and is now a rookery for pigeons; the estate
was confiscated; everything that could be traced to the ownership
of the Hurs was confiscated. The procurator cured his hurt with a
golden salve."

The passengers laughed.

"You mean he kept the property," said one of them.

"They say so," the Hebrew replied; "I am only telling a story
as I received it. And, to go on, Simonides, who had been the
prince's agent here in Antioch, opened trade in a short time on
his own account, and in a space incredibly brief became the master
merchant of the city. In imitation of his master, he sent caravans
to India; and on the sea at present he has galleys enough to make
a royal fleet. They say nothing goes amiss with him. His camels do
not die, except of old age; his ships never founder; if he throw a
chip into the river, it will come back to him gold."

"How long has he been going on thus?"

"Not ten years."

"He must have had a good start."

"Yes, they say the procurator took only the prince's property ready
at hand--his horses, cattle, houses, land, vessels, goods. The money
could not be found, though there must have been vast sums of it.
What became of it has been an unsolved mystery."

"Not to me," said a passenger, with a sneer.

"I understand you," the Hebrew answered. "Others have had your
idea. That it furnished old Simonides his start is a common belief.
The procurator is of that opinion--or he has been--for twice in
five years he has caught the merchant, and put him to torture."

Judah griped the rope he was holding with crushing force.

"It is said," the narrator continued, "that there is not a sound
bone in the man's body. The last time I saw him he sat in a chair,
a shapeless cripple, propped against cushions."

"So tortured!" exclaimed several listeners in a breath.

"Disease could not have produced such a deformity. Still the
suffering made no impression upon him. All he had was his lawfully,
and he was making lawful use of it--that was the most they wrung
from him. Now, however, he is past persecution. He has a license
to trade signed by Tiberius himself."

"He paid roundly for it, I warrant."

"These ships are his," the Hebrew continued, passing the remark.
"It is a custom among his sailors to salute each other upon meeting
by throwing out yellow flags, sight of which is as much as to say,
'We have had a fortunate voyage.'"

The story ended there.

When the transport was fairly in the channel of the river, Judah
spoke to the Hebrew.

"What was the name of the merchant's master?"

"Ben-Hur, Prince of Jerusalem."

"What became of the prince's family?"

"The boy was sent to the galleys. I may say he is dead. One year
is the ordinary limit of life under that sentence. The widow and
daughter have not been heard of; those who know what became of
them will not speak. They died doubtless in the cells of one of
the castles which spot the waysides of Judea."

Judah walked to the pilot's quarter. So absorbed was he in thought
that he scarcely noticed the shores of the river, which from sea
to city were surpassingly beautiful with orchards of all the
Syrian fruits and vines, clustered about villas rich as those
of Neapolis. No more did he observe the vessels passing in an
endless fleet, nor hear the singing and shouting of the sailors,
some in labor, some in merriment. The sky was full of sunlight,
lying in hazy warmth upon the land and the water; nowhere except
over his life was there a shadow.

Once only he awoke to a momentary interest, and that was when some
one pointed out the Grove of Daphne, discernible from a bend in
the river.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site