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CHAPTER VI



Ben-Hur entered the woods with the processions. He had not interest
enough at first to ask where they were going; yet, to relieve him
from absolute indifference, he had a vague impression that they
were in movement to the temples, which were the central objects
of the Grove, supreme in attractions.

Presently, as singers dreamfully play with a flitting chorus,
he began repeating to himself, "Better be a worm, and feed on
the mulberries of Daphne, than a king's guest." Then of the much
repetition arose questions importunate of answer. Was life in
the Grove so very sweet? Wherein was the charm? Did it lie in
some tangled depth of philosophy? Or was it something in fact,
something on the surface, discernible to every-day wakeful senses?
Every year thousands, forswearing the world, gave themselves to
service here. Did they find the charm? And was it sufficient,
when found, to induce forgetfulness profound enough to shut out
of mind the infinitely diverse things of life? those that sweeten
and those that embitter? hopes hovering in the near future as well
as sorrows born of the past? If the Grove were so good for them,
why should it not be good for him? He was a Jew; could it be that
the excellences were for all the world but children of Abraham?
Forthwith he bent all his faculties to the task of discovery,
unmindful of the singing of the gift-bringers and the quips of
his associates.

In the quest, the sky yielded him nothing; it was blue, very blue,
and full of twittering swallows--so was the sky over the city.

Further on, out of the woods at his right hand, a breeze poured
across the road, splashing him with a wave of sweet smells, blent of
roses and consuming spices. He stopped, as did others, looking the
way the breeze came.

"A garden over there?" he said, to a man at his elbow.

"Rather some priestly ceremony in performance--something to Diana,
or Pan, or a deity of the woods."

The answer was in his mother tongue. Ben-Hur gave the speaker a
surprised look.

"A Hebrew?" he asked him.

The man replied with a deferential smile,

"I was born within a stone's-throw of the market-place in Jerusalem."

Ben-Hur was proceeding to further speech, when the crowd surged
forward, thrusting him out on the side of the walk next the woods,
and carrying the stranger away. The customary gown and staff,
a brown cloth on the head tied by a yellow rope, and a strong
Judean face to avouch the garments of honest right, remained in
the young man's mind, a kind of summary of the man.

This took place at a point where a path into the woods began,
offering a happy escape from the noisy processions. Ben-Hur availed
himself of the offer.

He walked first into a thicket which, from the road, appeared in
a state of nature, close, impenetrable, a nesting-place for wild
birds. A few steps, however, gave him to see the master's hand even
there. The shrubs were flowering or fruit-bearing; under the bending
branches the ground was pranked with brightest blooms; over them
the jasmine stretched its delicate bonds. From lilac and rose,
and lily and tulip, from oleander and strawberry-tree, all old
friends in the gardens of the valleys about the city of David,
the air, lingering or in haste, loaded itself with exhalations day
and night; and that nothing might be wanting to the happiness of
the nymphs and naiads, down through the flower-lighted shadows of
the mass a brook went its course gently, and by many winding ways.

Out of the thicket, as he proceeded, on his right and left, issued the
cry of the pigeon and the cooing of turtle-doves; blackbirds waited
for him, and bided his coming close; a nightingale kept its place
fearless, though he passed in arm's-length; a quail ran before
him at his feet, whistling to the brood she was leading, and as
he paused for them to get out of his way, a figure crawled from
a bed of honeyed musk brilliant with balls of golden blossoms.
Ben-Hur was startled. Had he, indeed, been permitted to see a
satyr at home? The creature looked up at him, and showed in its
teeth a hooked pruning-knife; he smiled at his own scare, and,
lo! the charm was evolved! Peace without fear--peace a universal
condition--that it was!

He sat upon the ground beneath a citron-tree, which spread its
gray roots sprawling to receive a branch of the brook. The nest of
a titmouse hung close to the bubbling water, and the tiny creature
looked out of the door of the nest into his eyes. "Verily, the bird
is interpreting to me," he thought. "It says, 'I am not afraid of
you, for the law of this happy place is Love.'"

The charm of the Grove seemed plain to him; he was glad, and
determined to render himself one of the lost in Daphne. In charge
of the flowers and shrubs, and watching the growth of all the dumb
excellences everywhere to be seen, could not he, like the man with
the pruning-knife in his mouth, forego the days of his troubled
life--forego them forgetting and forgotten?

But by-and-by his Jewish nature began to stir within him.

The charm might be sufficient for some people. Of what kind were
they?

Love is delightful--ah! how pleasant as a successor to wretchedness
like his. But was it all there was of life? All?

There was an unlikeness between him and those who buried themselves
contentedly here. They had no duties--they could not have had;
but he--

"God of Israel!" he cried aloud, springing to his feet, with burning
cheeks--"Mother! Tirzah! Cursed be the moment, cursed the place,
in which I yield myself happy in your loss!"

He hurried away through the thicket, and came to a stream flowing
with the volume of a river between banks of masonry, broken at
intervals by gated sluiceways. A bridge carried the path he was
traversing across the stream; and, standing upon it, he saw other
bridges, no two of them alike. Under him the water was lying in a
deep pool, clear as a shadow; down a little way it tumbled with a
roar over rocks; then there was another pool, and another cascade;
and so on, out of view; and bridges and pools and resounding
cascades said, plainly as inarticulate things can tell a story,
the river was running by permission of a master, exactly as the
master would have it, tractable as became a servant of the gods.

Forward from the bridge he beheld a landscape of wide valleys and
irregular heights, with groves and lakes and fanciful houses linked
together by white paths and shining streams. The valleys were spread
below, that the river might be poured upon them for refreshment in
days of drought, and they were as green carpets figured with beds
and fields of flowers, and flecked with flocks of sheep white as
balls of snow; and the voices of shepherds following the flocks
were heard afar. As if to tell him of the pious inscription of
all he beheld, the altars out under the open sky seemed countless,
each with a white-gowned figure attending it, while processions in
white went slowly hither and thither between them; and the smoke
of the altars half-risen hung collected in pale clouds over the
devoted places.

Here, there, happy in flight, intoxicated in pause, from object
to object, point to point, now in the meadow, now on the heights,
now lingering to penetrate the groves and observe the processions,
then lost in efforts to pursue the paths and streams which trended
mazily into dim perspectives to end finally in-- Ah, what might
be a fitting end to scene so beautiful! What adequate mysteries
were hidden behind an introduction so marvellous! Here and there,
the speech was beginning, his gaze wandered, so he could not help
the conviction, forced by the view, and as the sum of it all,
that there was peace in the air and on the earth, and invitation
everywhere to come and lie down here and be at rest.

Suddenly a revelation dawned upon him--the Grove was, in fact,
a temple--one far-reaching, wall-less temple!

Never anything like it!

The architect had not stopped to pother about columns and porticos,
proportions or interiors, or any limitation upon the epic he sought
to materialize; he had simply made a servant of Nature--art can
go no further. So the cunning son of Jupiter and Callisto built
the old Arcadia; and in this, as in that, the genius was Greek.

From the bridge Ben-Hur went forward into the nearest valley.

He came to a flock of sheep. The shepherd was a girl, and she
beckoned him, "Come!"

Farther on, the path was divided by an altar--a pedestal of black
gneiss, capped with a slab of white marble deftly foliated, and on
that a brazier of bronze holding a fire. Close by it, a woman,
seeing him, waved a wand of willow, and as he passed called him,
"Stay!" And the temptation in her smile was that of passionate
youth.

On yet further, he met one of the processions; at its head a
troop of little girls, nude except as they were covered with
garlands, piped their shrill voices into a song; then a troop
of boys, also nude, their bodies deeply sun-browned, came dancing
to the song of the girls; behind them the procession, all women,
bearing baskets of spices and sweets to the altars--women clad in
simple robes, careless of exposure. As he went by they held their
hands to him, and said, "Stay, and go with us." One, a Greek, sang a
verse from Anacreon:

"For to-day I take or give;
For to-day I drink and live;
For to-day I beg or borrow;
Who knows about the silent morrow?"

But he pursued his way indifferent, and came next to a grove luxuriant,
in the heart of the vale at the point where it would be most attractive
to the observing eye. As it came close to the path he was travelling,
there was a seduction in its shade, and through the foliage he caught
the shining of what appeared a pretentious statue; so he turned aside,
and entered the cool retreat.

The grass was fresh and clean. The trees did not crowd each other;
and they were of every kind native to the East, blended well with
strangers adopted from far quarters; here grouped in exclusive
companionship palm-trees plumed like queens; there sycamores,
overtopping laurels of darker foliage; and evergreen oaks
rising verdantly, with cedars vast enough to be kings on Lebanon;
and mulberries; and terebinths so beautiful it is not hyperbole to
speak of them as blown from the orchards of Paradise.

The statue proved to be a Daphne of wondrous beauty. Hardly,
however, had he time to more than glance at her face: at the base
of the pedestal a girl and a youth were lying upon a tiger's skin
asleep in each other's arms; close by them the implements of their
service--his axe and sickle, her basket--flung carelessly upon a
heap of fading roses.

The exposure startled him. Back in the hush of the perfumed thicket
he discovered, as he thought, that the charm of the great Grove was
peace without fear, and almost yielded to it; now, in this sleep in
the day's broad glare--this sleep at the feet of Daphne--he read a
further chapter to which only the vaguest allusion is sufferable.
The law of the place was Love, but Love without Law.

And this was the sweet peace of Daphne!

This the life's end of her ministers!

For this kings and princes gave of their revenues!

For this a crafty priesthood subordinated nature--her birds and
brooks and lilies, the river, the labor of many hands, the sanctity
of altars, the fertile power of the sun!

It would be pleasant now to record that as Ben-Hur pursued his walk
assailed by such reflections, he yielded somewhat to sorrow for the
votaries of the great outdoor temple; especially for those who,
by personal service, kept it in a state so surpassingly lovely.
How they came to the condition was not any longer a mystery; the
motive, the influence, the inducement, were before him. Some there
were, no doubt, caught by the promise held out to their troubled
spirits of endless peace in a consecrated abode, to the beauty of
which, if they had not money, they could contribute their labor;
this class implied intellect peculiarly subject to hope and fear;
but the great body of the faithful could not be classed with such.
Apollo's nets were wide, and their meshes small; and hardly may
one tell what all his fishermen landed: this less for that they
cannot be described than because they ought not to be. Enough that
the mass were of the sybarites of the world, and of the herds
in number vaster and in degree lower--devotees of the unmixed
sensualism to which the East was almost wholly given. Not to
any of the exaltations--not to the singing-god, or his unhappy
mistress; not to any philosophy requiring for its enjoyment the
calm of retirement, nor to any service for the comfort there is
in religion, nor to love in its holier sense--were they abiding
their vows. Good reader, why shall not the truth be told here?
Why not learn that, at this age, there were in all earth but two
peoples capable of exaltations of the kind referred to--those
who lived by the law of Moses, and those who lived by the law
of Brahma. They alone could have cried you, Better a law without
love than a love without law.

Besides that, sympathy is in great degree a result of the mood we
are in at the moment: anger forbids the emotion. On the other hand,
it is easiest taken on when we are in a state of most absolute
self-satisfaction. Ben-Hur walked with a quicker step, holding his
head higher; and, while not less sensitive to the delightfulness
of all about him, he made his survey with calmer spirit, though
sometimes with curling lip; that is to say, he could not so soon
forget how nearly he himself had been imposed upon.





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