eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER VIII



As Ben-Hur descended the steps of the stand, an Arab arose upon
the last one at the foot, and cried out,

"Men of the East and West--hearken! The good Sheik Ilderim giveth
greeting. With four horses, sons of the favorites of Solomon the
Wise, he bath come up against the best. Needs he most a mighty man
to drive them. Whoso will take them to his satisfaction, to him
he promiseth enrichment forever. Here--there--in the city and in
the Circuses, and wherever the strong most do congregate, tell ye
this his offer. So saith my master, Sheik Ilderim the Generous."

The proclamation awakened a great buzz among the people under
the awning. By night it would be repeated and discussed in all
the sporting circles of Antioch. Ben-Hur, hearing it, stopped and
looked hesitatingly from the herald to the sheik. Malluch thought he
was about to accept the offer, but was relieved when he presently turned
to him, and asked, "Good Malluch, where to now?"

The worthy replied, with a laugh, "Would you liken yourself to
others visiting the Grove for the first time, you will straightway
to hear your fortune told."

"My fortune, said you? Though the suggestion has in it a flavor
of unbelief, let us to the goddess at once."

"Nay, son of Arrius, these Apollonians have a better trick than
that. Instead of speech with a Pythia or a Sibyl, they will sell
you a plain papyrus leaf, hardly dry from the stalk, and bid you
dip it in the water of a certain fountain, when it will show you
a verse in which you may hear of your future."

The glow of interest departed from Ben-Hur's face.

"There are people who have no need to vex themselves about their
future," he said, gloomily.

"Then you prefer to go to the temples?"

"The temples are Greek, are they not?"

"They call them Greek."

"The Hellenes were masters of the beautiful in art; but in architecture
they sacrificed variety to unbending beauty. Their temples are all alike.
How call you the fountain?"

"Castalia."

"Oh! it has repute throughout the world. Let us thither."

Malluch kept watch on his companion as they went, and saw that
for the moment at least his good spirits were out. To the people
passing he gave no attention; over the wonders they came upon
there were no exclamations; silently, even sullenly, he kept a
slow pace.

The truth was, the sight of Messala had set Ben-Hur to thinking.
It seemed scarce an hour ago that the strong hands had torn him
from his mother, scarce an hour ago that the Roman had put seal
upon the gates of his father's house. He recounted how, in the
hopeless misery of the life--if such it might be called--in
the galleys, he had had little else to do, aside from labor,
than dream dreams of vengeance, in all of which Messala was the
principal. There might be, he used to say to himself, escape for
Gratus, but for Messala--never! And to strengthen and harden his
resolution, he was accustomed to repeat over and over, Who pointed
us out to the persecutors? And when I begged him for help--not for
myself--who mocked me, and went away laughing? And always the dream
had the same ending. The day I meet him, help me, thou good God of
my people!--help me to some fitting special vengeance!

And now the meeting was at hand.

Perhaps, if he had found Messala poor and suffering, Ben-Hur's
feeling had been different; but it was not so. He found him
more than prosperous; in the prosperity there was a dash and
glitter--gleam of sun on gilt of gold.

So it happened that what Malluch accounted a passing loss of
spirit was pondering when the meeting should be, and in what
manner he could make it most memorable.

They turned after a while into an avenue of oaks, where the people
were going and coming in groups; footmen here, and horsemen;
there women in litters borne slaves; and now and then chariots
rolled by thunderously.

At the end of the avenue the road, by an easy grade, descended into
a lowland, where, on the right hand, there was a precipitous facing of
gray rock, and on the left an open meadow of vernal freshness. Then they
came in view of the famous Fountain of Castalia.

Edging through a company assembled at the point, Ben-Hur beheld
a jet of sweet water pouring from the crest of a stone into a
basin of black marble, where, after much boiling and foaming,
it disappeared as through a funnel.

By the basin, under a small portico cut in the solid wall, sat a
priest, old, bearded, wrinkled, cowled--never being more perfectly
eremitish. From the manner of the people present, hardly might one
say which was the attraction, the fountain, forever sparkling,
or the priest, forever there. He heard, saw, was seen, but never
spoke. Occasionally a visitor extended a hand to him with a coin
in it. With a cunning twinkle of the eyes, he took the money,
and gave the party in exchange a leaf of papyrus.

The receiver made haste to plunge the papyrus into the basin; then,
holding the dripping leaf in the sunlight, he would be rewarded
with a versified inscription upon its face; and the fame of the
fountain seldom suffered loss by poverty of merit in the poetry.
Before Ben-Hur could test the oracle, some other visitors were
seen approaching across the meadow, and their appearance piqued the
curiosity of the company, his not less than theirs.

He saw first a camel, very tall and very white, in leading of
a driver on horseback. A houdah on the animal, besides being
unusually large, was of crimson and gold. Two other horsemen
followed the camel with tall spears in hand.

"What a wonderful camel!" said one of the company.

"A prince from afar," another one suggested.

"More likely a king."

"If he were on an elephant, I would say he was a king."

A third man had a very different opinion.

"A camel--and a white camel!" he said, authoritatively. "By Apollo,
friends, they who come yonder--you can see there are two of them--are
neither kings nor princes; they are women!"

In the midst of the dispute the strangers arrived.

The camel seen at hand did not belie his appearance afar. A taller,
statelier brute of his kind no traveller at the fountain, though
from the remotest parts, had ever beheld. Such great black eyes!
such exceedingly fine white hair! feet so contractile when raised,
so soundless in planting, so broad when set!--nobody had ever seen
the peer of this camel. And how well he became his housing of silk,
and all its frippery of gold in fringe and gold in tassel! The
tinkling of silver bells went before him, and he moved lightly,
as if unknowing of his burden.

But who were the man and woman under the houdah?

Every eye saluted them with the inquiry.

If the former were a prince or a king, the philosophers of the
crowd might not deny the impartiality of Time. When they saw the
thin, shrunken face buried under an immense turban, the skin of
the hue of a mummy, making it impossible to form an idea of his
nationality, they were pleased to think the limit of life was for
the great as well as the small. They saw about his person nothing
so enviable as the shawl which draped him.

The woman was seated in the manner of the East, amidst veils and
laces of surpassing fineness. Above her elbows she wore armlets
fashioned like coiled asps, and linked to bracelets at the wrists
by strands of gold; otherwise the arms were bare and of singular
natural grace, complemented with hands modelled daintily as a
child's. One of the hands rested upon the side of the carriage,
showing tapered fingers glittering with rings, and stained at the
tips till they blushed like the pink of mother-of-pearl. She wore an
open caul upon her head, sprinkled with beads of coral, and strung
with coin-pieces called sunlets, some of which were carried across
her forehead, while others fell down her back, half-smothered in the
mass of her straight blue-black hair, of itself an incomparable
ornament, not needing the veil which covered it, except as a
protection against sun and dust. From her elevated seat she
looked upon the people calmly, pleasantly, and apparently so
intent upon studying them as to be unconscious of the interest
she herself was exciting; and, what was unusual--nay, in violent
contravention of the custom among women of rank in public--she
looked at them with an open face.

It was a fair face to see; quite youthful; in form, oval:
complexion not white, like the Greek; nor brunet, like the
Roman; nor blond, like the Gaul; but rather the tinting of the
sun of the Upper Nile upon a skin of such transparency that the
blood shone through it on cheek and brow with nigh the ruddiness
of lamplight. The eyes, naturally large, were touched along the lids
with the black paint immemorial throughout the East. The lips were
slightly parted, disclosing, through their scarlet lake, teeth of
glistening whiteness. To all these excellences of countenance the
reader is finally besought to superadd the air derived from the
pose of a small head, classic in shape, set upon a neck long,
drooping, and graceful--the air, we may fancy, happily described
by the word queenly.

As if satisfied with the survey of people and locality, the fair
creature spoke to the driver--an Ethiopian of vast brawn, naked to
the waist--who led the camel nearer the fountain, and caused it to
kneel; after which he received from her hand a cup, and proceeded
to fill it at the basin. That instant the sound of wheels and the
trampling of horses in rapid motion broke the silence her beauty
had imposed, and, with a great outcry, the bystanders parted in
every direction, hurrying to get away.

"The Roman has a mind to ride us down. Look out!" Malluch shouted
to Ben-Hur, setting him at the same time an example of hasty flight.

The latter faced to the direction the sounds came from, and beheld
Messala in his chariot pushing the four straight at the crowd.
This time the view was near and distinct.

The parting of the company uncovered the camel, which might have
been more agile than his kind generally; yet the hoofs were almost
upon him, and he resting with closed eyes, chewing the endless cud
with such sense of security as long favoritism may be supposed
to have bred in him. The Ethiopian wrung his hands afraid. In the
houdah, the old man moved to escape; but he was hampered with age,
and could not, even in the face of danger, forget the dignity which
was plainly his habit. It was too late for the woman to save herself.
Ben-Hur stood nearest them, and he called to Messala,

"Hold! Look where thou goest! Back, back!"

The patrician was laughing in hearty good-humor; and, seeing there
was but one chance of rescue, Ben-Hur stepped in, and caught the
bits of the left yoke-steed and his mate. "Dog of a Roman! Carest
thou so little for life?" he cried, putting forth all his strength.
The two horses reared, and drew the others round; the tilting of the
pole tilted the chariot; Messala barely escaped a fall, while his
complacent Myrtilus rolled back like a clod to the ground. Seeing
the peril past, all the bystanders burst into derisive laughter.

The matchless audacity of the Roman then manifested itself.
Loosing the lines from his body, he tossed them to one side,
dismounted, walked round the camel, looked at Ben-Hur, and spoke
partly to the old man and partly to the woman.

"Pardon, I pray you--I pray you both. I am Messala," he said; "and,
by the old Mother of the earth, I swear I did not see you or your
camel! As to these good people--perhaps I trusted too much to my
skill. I sought a laugh at them--the laugh is theirs. Good may it
do them!"

The good-natured, careless look and gesture he threw the bystanders
accorded well with the speech. To hear what more he had to say,
they became quiet. Assured of victory over the body of the offended,
he signed his companion to take the chariot to a safer distance,
and addressed himself boldly to the woman.

"Thou hast interest in the good man here, whose pardon, if not
granted now, I shall seek with the greater diligence hereafter;
his daughter, I should say."

She made him no reply.

"By Pallas, thou art beautiful! Beware Apollo mistake thee not
for his lost love. I wonder what land can boast herself thy mother.
Turn not away. A truce! a truce! There is the sun of India in thine
eyes; in the corners of thy mouth, Egypt hath set her love-signs.
Perpol! Turn not to that slave, fair mistress, before proving merciful
to this one. Tell me at least that I am pardoned."

At this point she broke in upon him.

"Wilt thou come here?" she asked, smiling, and with gracious bend
of the head to Ben-Hur.

"Take the cup and fill it, I pray thee," she said to the latter.
"My father is thirsty."

"I am thy most willing servant!"

Ben-Hur turned about to do the favor, and was face to face with
Messala. Their glances met; the Jew's defiant; the Roman's sparkling
with humor.

"O stranger, beautiful as cruel!" Messala said, waving his hand to
her. "If Apollo get thee not, thou shalt see me again. Not knowing
thy country, I cannot name a god to commend thee to; so, by all
the gods, I will commend thee to--myself!"

Seeing that Myrtilus had the four composed and ready, he returned to
the chariot. The woman looked after him as he moved away, and whatever
else there was in her look, there was no displeasure. Presently she
received the water; her father drank; then she raised the cup to
her lips, and, leaning down, gave it to Ben-Hur; never action more
graceful and gracious.

"Keep it, we pray of thee! It is full of blessings--all thine!"

Immediately the camel was aroused, and on his feet, and about to
go, when the old man called,

"Stand thou here."

Ben-Hur went to him respectfully.

"Thou hast served the stranger well to-day. There is but one God.
In his holy name I thank thee. I am Balthasar, the Egyptian.
In the Great Orchard of Palms, beyond the village of Daphne,
in the shade of the palms, Sheik Ilderim the Generous abideth in
his tents, and we are his guests. Seek us there. Thou shalt have
welcome sweet with the savor of the grateful."

Ben-Hur was left in wonder at the old man's clear voice and reverend
manner. As he gazed after the two departing, he caught sight of
Messala going as he had come, joyous, indifferent, and with a
mocking laugh.





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