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CHAPTER IV



Scarcely was Ben-Hur gone, when Simonides seemed to wake as from
sleep: his countenance flushed; the sullen light of his eyes
changed to brightness; and he said, cheerily,

"Esther, ring--quick!"

She went to the table, and rang a service-bell.

One of the panels in the wall swung back, exposing a doorway which
gave admittance to a man who passed round to the merchant's front,
and saluted him with a half-salaam.

"Malluch, here--nearer--to the chair," the master said, imperiously.
"I have a mission which shall not fail though the sun should. Hearken! A
young man is now descending to the store-room--tall, comely, and in the
garb of Israel; follow him, his shadow not more faithful; and every
night send me report of where he is, what he does, and the company
he keeps; and if, without discovery, you overhear his conversations,
report them word for word, together with whatever will serve to
expose him, his habits, motives, life. Understand you? Go quickly!
Stay, Malluch: if he leave the city, go after him--and, mark you,
Malluch, be as a friend. If he bespeak you, tell him what you will
to the occasion most suited, except that you are in my service,
of that, not a word. Haste--make haste!"

The man saluted as before, and was gone.

Then Simonides rubbed his wan hands together, and laughed.

"What is the day, daughter?" he said, in the midst of the mood.
"What is the day? I wish to remember it for happiness come.
See, and look for it laughing, and laughing tell me, Esther."

The merriment seemed unnatural to her; and, as if to entreat him
from it, she answered, sorrowfully, "Woe's me, father, that I
should ever forget this day!"

His hands fell down the instant, and his chin, dropping upon his
breast, lost itself in the muffling folds of flesh composing his
lower face.

"True, most true, my daughter!" he said, without looking up. "This
is the twentieth day of the fourth month. To-day, five years ago,
my Rachel, thy mother, fell down and died. They brought me home
broken as thou seest me, and we found her dead of grief. Oh, to
me she was a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-Gedi! I
have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb
with my honey. We laid her away in a lonely place--in a tomb cut
in the mountain; no one near her. Yet in the darkness she left me
a little light, which the years have increased to a brightness of
morning." He raised his hand and rested it upon his daughter's head.
"Dear Lord, I thank thee that now in my Esther my lost Rachel liveth
again!"

Directly he lifted his head, and said, as with a sudden thought,
"Is it not clear day outside?"

"It was, when the young man came in."

"Then let Abimelech come and take me to the garden, where I can
see the river and the ships, and I will tell thee, dear Esther,
why but now my mouth filled with laughter, and my tongue with
singing, and my spirit was like to a roe or to a young hart upon
the mountains of spices."

In answer to the bell a servant came, and at her bidding pushed
the chair, set on little wheels for the purpose, out of the room to
the roof of the lower house, called by him his garden. Out through
the roses, and by beds of lesser flowers, all triumphs of careful
attendance, but now unnoticed, he was rolled to a position from
which he could view the palace-tops over against him on the island,
the bridge in lessening perspective to the farther shore, and the
river below the bridge crowded with vessels, all swimming amidst
the dancing splendors of the early sun upon the rippling water.
There the servant left him with Esther.

The much shouting of laborers, and their beating and pounding,
did not disturb him any more than the tramping of people on the
bridge floor almost overhead, being as familiar to his ear as the
view before him to his eye, and therefore unnoticeable, except as
suggestions of profits in promise.

Esther sat on the arm of the chair nursing his hand, and waiting
his speech, which came at length in the calm way, the mighty will
having carried him back to himself.

"When the young man was speaking, Esther, I observed thee,
and thought thou wert won by him."

Her eyes fell as she replied,

"Speak you of faith, father, I believed him."

"In thy eyes, then, he is the lost son of the Prince Hur?"

"If he is not--" She hesitated.

"And if he is not, Esther?"

"I have been thy handmaiden, father, since my mother answered the
call of the Lord God; by thy side I have heard and seen thee deal
in wise ways with all manner of men seeking profit, holy and unholy;
and now I say, if indeed the young man be not the prince he claims
to be, then before me falsehood never played so well the part of
righteous truth."

"By the glory of Solomon, daughter, thou speakest earnestly.
Dost thou believe thy father his father's servant?"

"I understood him to ask of that as something he had but heard."

For a time Simonides' gaze swam among his swimming ships, though
they had no place in his mind.

"Well, thou art a good child, Esther, of genuine Jewish shrewdness,
and of years and strength to hear a sorrowful tale. Wherefore give
me heed, and I will tell you of myself, and of thy mother, and of
many things pertaining to the past not in thy knowledge or thy
dreams--things withheld from the persecuting Romans for a hope's
sake, and from thee that thy nature should grow towards the Lord
straight as the reed to the sun. . . . I was born in a tomb in the
valley of Hinnom, on the south side of Zion. My father and mother
were Hebrew bond-servants, tenders of the fig and olive trees
growing, with many vines, in the King's Garden hard by Siloam;
and in my boyhood I helped them. They were of the class bound
to serve forever. They sold me to the Prince Hur, then, next to
Herod the King, the richest man in Jerusalem. From the garden he
transferred me to his storehouse in Alexandria of Egypt, where I
came of age. I served him six years, and in the seventh, by the
law of Moses, I went free."

Esther clapped her hands lightly.

"Oh, then, thou art not his father's servant!"

"Nay, daughter, hear. Now, in those days there were lawyers in
the cloisters of the Temple who disputed vehemently, saying the
children of servants bound forever took the condition of their
parents; but the Prince Hur was a man righteous in all things,
and an interpreter of the law after the straitest sect, though not
of them. He said I was a Hebrew servant bought, in the true meaning
of the great lawgiver, and, by sealed writings, which I yet have,
he set me free."

"And my mother?" Esther asked.

"Thou shalt hear all, Esther; be patient. Before I am through thou
shalt see it were easier for me to forget myself than thy mother. .
. . At the end of my service, I came up to Jerusalem to the Passover.
My master entertained me. I was in love with him already, and I prayed
to be continued in his service. He consented, and I served him yet
another seven years, but as a hired son of Israel. In his behalf
I had charge of ventures on the sea by ships, and of ventures on
land by caravans eastward to Susa and Persepolis, and the lands
of silk beyond them. Perilous passages were they, my daughter;
but the Lord blessed all I undertook. I brought home vast gains
for the prince, and richer knowledge for myself, without which
I could not have mastered the charges since fallen to me. . . .
One day I was a guest in his house in Jerusalem. A servant entered
with some sliced bread on a platter. She came to me first. It was
then I saw thy mother, and loved her, and took her away in my secret
heart. After a while a time came when I sought the prince to make
her my wife. He told me she was bond-servant forever; but if she
wished, he would set her free that I might be gratified. She gave
me love for love, but was happy where she was, and refused her
freedom. I prayed and besought, going again and again after long
intervals. She would be my wife, she all the time said, if I would
become her fellow in servitude. Our father Jacob served yet other
seven years for his Rachel. Could I not as much for mine? But thy
mother said I must become as she, to serve forever. I came away,
but went back. Look, Esther, look here."

He pulled out the lobe of his left ear.

"See you not the scar of the awl?"

"I see it," she said; "and, oh, I see how thou didst love my
mother!"

"Love her, Esther! She was to me more than the Shulamite to the
singing king, fairer, more spotless; a fountain of gardens, a well
of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. The master, even as I
required him, took me to the judges, and back to his door, and thrust
the awl through my ear into the door, and I was his servant forever.
So I won my Rachel. And was ever love like mine?"

Esther stooped and kissed him, and they were silent, thinking of
the dead.

"My master was drowned at sea, the first sorrow that ever fell
upon me," the merchant continued. "There was mourning in his
house, and in mine here in Antioch, my abiding-place at the time.
Now, Esther, mark you! When the good prince was lost, I had risen
to be his chief steward, with everything of property belonging to
him in my management and control. Judge you how much he loved and
trusted me! I hastened to Jerusalem to render account to the
widow. She continued me in the stewardship. I applied myself
with greater diligence. The business prospered, and grew year
by year. Ten years passed; then came the blow which you heard
the young man tell about--the accident, as he called it, to the
Procurator Gratus. The Roman gave it out an attempt to assassinate
him. Under that pretext, by leave from Rome, he confiscated to his
own use the immense fortune of the widow and children. Nor stopped
he there. That there might be no reversal of the judgment, he removed
all the parties interested. From that dreadful day to this the family of
Hur have been lost. The son, whom I had seen as a child, was sentenced
to the galleys. The widow and daughter are supposed to have been
buried in some of the many dungeons of Judea, which, once closed
upon the doomed, are like sepulchers sealed and locked. They passed
from the knowledge of men as utterly as if the sea had swallowed
them unseen. We could not hear how they died--nay, not even that
they were dead."

Esther's eyes were dewy with tears.

"Thy heart is good, Esther, good as thy mother's was; and I pray
it have not the fate of most good hearts--to be trampled upon
by the unmerciful and blind. But hearken further. I went up
to Jerusalem to give help to my benefactress, and was seized
at the gate of the city and carried to the sunken cells of the
Tower of Antonia; why, I knew not, until Gratus himself came and
demanded of me the moneys of the House of Hur, which he knew,
after our Jewish custom of exchange, were subject to my draft
in the different marts of the world. He required me to sign to
his order. I refused. He had the houses, lands, goods, ships,
and movable property of those I served; he had not their moneys.
I saw, if I kept favor in the sight of the Lord, I could rebuild
their broken fortunes. I refused the tyrant's demands. He put me
to torture; my will held good, and he set me free, nothing gained.
I came home and began again, in the name of Simonides of Antioch,
instead of the Prince Hur of Jerusalem. Thou knowest, Esther,
how I have prospered; that the increase of the millions of the
prince in my hands was miraculous; thou knowest how, at the end of
three years, while going up to Caesarea, I was taken and a second
time tortured by Gratus to compel a confession that my goods and
moneys were subject to his order of confiscation; thou knowest he
failed as before. Broken in body, I came home and found my Rachel
dead of fear and grief for me. The Lord our God reigned, and I
lived. From the emperor himself I bought immunity and license to
trade throughout the world. To-day--praised be He who maketh the
clouds his chariot and walketh upon the winds!--to-day, Esther,
that which was in my hands for stewardship is multiplied into
talents sufficient to enrich a Caesar."

He lifted his head proudly; their eyes met; each read the other's
thought. "What shall I with the treasure, Esther?" he asked,
without lowering his gaze.

"My father," she answered, in a low voice, "did not the rightful
owner call for it but now?"

Still his look did not fail.

"And thou, my child; shall I leave thee a beggar?"

"Nay, father, am not I, because I am thy child, his bond-servant?
And of whom was it written, 'Strength and honor are her clothing,
and she shall rejoice in time to come?'"

A gleam of ineffable love lighted his face as he said, "The Lord
hath been good to me in many ways; but thou, Esther, art the
sovereign excellence of his favor."

He drew her to his breast and kissed her many times.

"Hear now," he said, with clearer voice--"hear now why I laughed
this morning. The young man faced me the apparition of his father
in comely youth. My spirit arose to salute him. I felt my trial-days
were over and my labors ended. Hardly could I keep from crying out.
I longed to take him by the hand and show the balance I had earned,
and say, 'Lo, 'tis all thine! and I am thy servant, ready now to
be called away.' And so I would have done, Esther, so I would have
done, but that moment three thoughts rushed to restrain me. I will
be sure he is my master's son--such was the first thought; if he
is my master's son, I will learn somewhat of his nature. Of those
born to riches, bethink you, Esther, how many there are in whose
hands riches are but breeding curses"--he paused, while his hands
clutched, and his voice shrilled with passion--"Esther, consider
the pains I endured at the Roman's hands; nay, not Gratus's alone:
the merciless wretches who did his bidding the first time and the
last were Romans, and they all alike laughed to hear me scream.
Consider my broken body, and the years I have gone shorn of my
stature; consider thy mother yonder in her lonely tomb, crushed of
soul as I of body; consider the sorrows of my master's family if
they are living, and the cruelty of their taking-off if they are
dead; consider all, and, with Heaven's love about thee, tell me,
daughter, shall not a hair fall or a red drop run in expiation?
Tell me not, as the preachers sometimes do--tell me not that
vengeance is the Lord's. Does he not work his will harmfully
as well as in love by agencies? Has he not his men of war more
numerous than his prophets? Is not his the law, Eye for eye,
hand for hand, foot for foot? Oh, in all these years I have dreamed
of vengeance, and prayed and provided for it, and gathered patience
from the growing of my store, thinking and promising, as the Lord
liveth, it will one day buy me punishment of the wrong-doers?
And when, speaking of his practise with arms, the young man
said it was for a nameless purpose, I named the purpose even
as he spoke--vengeance! and that, Esther, that it was--the third
thought which held me still and hard while his pleading lasted,
and made me laugh when he was gone."

Esther caressed the faded hands, and said, as if her spirit with
his were running forward to results, "He is gone. Will he come
again?"

"Ay, Malluch the faithful goes with him, and will bring him back
when I am ready."

"And when will that be, father?"

"Not long, not long. He thinks all his witnesses dead. There is
one living who will not fail to know him, if he be indeed my
master's son."

"His mother?"

"Nay, daughter, I will set the witness before him; till then let
us rest the business with the Lord. I am tired. Call Abimelech."

Esther called the servant, and they returned into the house.





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