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CHAPTER XI



What time the lower horn of a new moon touched the castellated
piles on Mount Sulpius, and two thirds of the people of Antioch
were out on their house-tops comforting themselves with the night
breeze when it blew, and with fans when it failed, Simonides sat
in the chair which had come to be a part of him, and from the
terrace looked down over the river, and his ships a-swing at
their moorings. The wall at his back cast its shadow broadly over
the water to the opposite shore. Above him the endless tramp upon
the bridge went on. Esther was holding a plate for him containing
his frugal supper--some wheaten cakes, light as wafers, some honey,
and a bowl of milk, into which he now and then dipped the wafers
after dipping them into the honey.

"Malluch is a laggard to-night," he said, showing where his
thoughts were.

"Do you believe he will come?" Esther asked.

"Unless he has taken to the sea or the desert, and is yet following
on, he will come."

Simonides spoke with quiet confidence.

"He may write," she said.

"Not so, Esther. He would have despatched a letter when he found
he could not return, and told me so; because I have not received
such a letter, I know he can come, and will."

"I hope so," she said, very softly.

Something in the utterance attracted his attention; it might have
been the tone, it might have been the wish. The smallest bird
cannot light upon the greatest tree without sending a shock to
its most distant fibre; every mind is at times no less sensitive
to the most trifling words.

"You wish him to come, Esther?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, lifting her eyes to his.

"Why? Can you tell me?" he persisted.

"Because"--she hesitated, then began again--"because the young
man is--" The stop was full.

"Our master. Is that the word?"

"Yes."

"And you still think I should not suffer him to go away without
telling him to come, if he chooses, and take us--and all we have-
-all, Esther--the goods, the shekels, the ships, the slaves, and
the mighty credit, which is a mantle of cloth of gold and finest
silver spun for me by the greatest of the angels of men--Success."

She made no answer.

"Does that move you nothing? No?" he said, with the slightest taint
of bitterness. "Well, well, I have found, Esther, the worst reality
is never unendurable when it comes out from behind the clouds through
which we at first see it darkly--never--not even the rack. I suppose
it will be so with death. And by that philosophy the slavery to which
we are going must afterwhile become sweet. It pleases me even now
to think what a favored man our master is. The fortune cost him
nothing--not an anxiety, not a drop of sweat, not so much as a
thought; it attaches to him undreamed of, and in his youth. And,
Esther, let me waste a little vanity with the reflection; he gets
what he could not go into the market and buy with all the pelf in
a sum--thee, my child, my darling; thou blossom from the tomb of
my lost Rachel!"

He drew her to him, and kissed her twice--once for herself, once for
her mother.

"Say not so,". she said, when his hand fell from her neck. "Let us
think better of him; he knows what sorrow is, and will set us free."

"Ah, thy instincts are fine, Esther; and thou knowest I lean upon
them in doubtful cases where good or bad is to be pronounced of a
person standing before thee as he stood this morning. But--but"-- his
voice rose and hardened--"these limbs upon which I cannot stand--this
body drawn and beaten out of human shape--they are not all I bring
him of myself. Oh no, no! I bring him a soul which has triumphed
over torture and Roman malice keener than any torture--I bring
him a mind which has eyes to see gold at a distance farther than
the ships of Solomon sailed, and power to bring it to hand--ay,
Esther, into my palm here for the fingers to grip and keep lest
it take wings at some other's word--a mind skilled at scheming"--he
stopped and laughed--"Why, Esther, before the new moon which in the
courts of the Temple on the Holy Hill they are this moment celebrating
passes into its next quartering I could ring the world so as to startle
even Caesar; for know you, child, I have that faculty which is better
than any one sense, better than a perfect body, better than courage
and will, better than experience, ordinarily the best product of the
longest lives--the faculty divinest of men, but which"--he stopped,
and laughed again, not bitterly, but with real zest-- "but which
even the great do not sufficiently account, while with the herd
it is a non-existent--the faculty of drawing men to my purpose and
holding them faithfully to its achievement, by which, as against
things to be done, I multiply myself into hundreds and thousands.
So the captains of my ships plough the seas, and bring me honest
returns; so Malluch follows the youth, our master, and will"--just
then a footstep was heard upon the terrace--"Ha, Esther! said
I not so? He is here--and we will have tidings. For thy sake,
sweet child--my lily just budded--I pray the Lord God, who has
not forgotten his wandering sheep of Israel, that they be good
and comforting. Now we will know if he will let thee go with all
thy beauty, and me with all my faculties."

Malluch came to the chair.

"Peace to you, good master," he said, with a low obeisance--"and
to you, Esther, most excellent of daughters."

He stood before them deferentially, and the attitude and the address
left it difficult to define his relation to them; the one was that
of a servant, the other indicated the familiar and friend. On the
other side, Simonides, as was his habit in business, after answering
the salutation went straight to the subject.

"What of the young man, Malluch?"

The events of the day were told quietly and in the simplest words,
and until he was through there was no interruption; nor did the
listener in the chair so much as move a hand during the narration;
but for his eyes, wide open and bright, and an occasional long-drawn
breath, he might have been accounted an effigy.

"Thank you, thank you, Malluch," he said, heartily, at the conclusion;
"you have done well--no one could have done better. Now what say you
of the young man's nationality?"

"He is an Israelite, good master, and of the tribe of Judah."

"You are positive?"

"Very positive."

"He appears to have told you but little of his life."

"He has somewhere reamed to be prudent. I might call him distrustful.
He baffled all my attempts upon his confidence until we started from
the Castalian fount going to the village of Daphne."

"A place of abomination! Why went he there?"

"I would say from curiosity, the first motive of the many who go;
but, very strangely, he took no interest in the things he saw.
Of the Temple, he merely asked if it were Grecian. Good master,
the young man has a trouble of mind from which he would hide,
and he went to the Grove, I think, as we go to sepulchres with
our dead--he went to bury it."

"That were well, if so," Simonides said, in a low voice; then
louder, "Malluch, the curse of the time is prodigality. The poor
make themselves poorer as apes of the rich, and the merely rich
carry themselves like princes. Saw you signs of the weakness in the
youth? Did he display moneys--coin of Rome or Israel?"

"None, none, good master."

"Surely, Malluch, where there are so many inducements to folly--so
much, I mean, to eat and drink--surely he made you generous offer
of some sort. His age, if nothing more, would warrant that much."

"He neither ate nor drank in my company."

"In what he said or did, Malluch, could you in anywise detect his
master-idea? You know they peep through cracks close enough to stop
the wind."

"Give me to understand you," said Malluch, in doubt.

"Well, you know we nor speak nor act, much less decide grave
questions concerning ourselves, except as we be driven by a
motive. In that respect, what made you of him?"

"As to that, Master Simonides, I can answer with much assurance.
He is devoted to finding his mother and sister--that first. Then he
has a grievance against Rome; and as the Messala of whom I told you
had something to do with the wrong, the great present object is to
humiliate him. The meeting at the fountain furnished an opportunity,
but it was put aside as not sufficiently public."

"The Messala is influential," said Simonides, thoughtfully.

"Yes; but the next meeting will be in the Circus."

"Well--and then?"

"The son of Arrius will win."

"How know you?"

Malluch smiled.

"I am judging by what he says."

"Is that all?"

"No; there is a much better sign--his spirit."

"Ay; but, Malluch, his idea of vengeance--what is its scope? Does
he limit it to the few who did him the wrong, or does he take in
the many? And more--is his feeling but the vagary of a sensitive
boy, or has it the seasoning of suffering manhood to give it
endurance? You know, Malluch, the vengeful thought that has root
merely in the mind is but a dream of idlest sort which one clear
day will dissipate; while revenge the passion is a disease of the
heart which climbs up, up to the brain, and feeds itself on both
alike."

In this question, Simonides for the first time showed signs of
feeling; he spoke with rapid utterance, and with clenched hands
and the eagerness of a man illustrating the disease he described.

"Good my master," Malluch replied, "one of my reasons for believing
the young man a Jew is the intensity of his hate. It was plain to
me he had himself under watch, as was natural, seeing how long
he has lived in an atmosphere of Roman jealousy; yet I saw it
blaze--once when he wanted to know Ilderim's feeling towards Rome,
and again when I told him the story of the sheik and the wise man,
and spoke of the question, 'Where is he that is born King of the
Jews?'"

Simonides leaned forward quickly.

"Ah, Malluch, his words--give me his words; let me judge the
impression the mystery made upon him."

"He wanted to know the exact words. Were they TO BE or BORN TO BE?
It appeared he was struck by a seeming difference in the effect of
the two phrases."

Simonides settled back into his pose of listening judge.

"Then," said Malluch, "I told him Ilderim's view of the mystery--that
the king would come with the doom of Rome. The young man's blood rose
over his cheeks and forehead, and he said earnestly, 'Who but a Herod
can be king while Rome endures?'"

"Meaning what?"

"That the empire must be destroyed before there could be another
rule."

Simonides gazed for a time at the ships and their shadows slowly
swinging together in the river; when he looked up, it was to end
the interview.

"Enough, Malluch," he said. "Get you to eat, and make ready to
return to the Orchard of Palms; you must help the young man in
his coming trial. Come to me in the morning. I will send a letter
to IIderim." Then in an undertone, as if to himself, he added,
"I may attend the Circus myself."

When Malluch after the customary benediction given and received
was gone, Simonides took a deep draught of milk, and seemed
refreshed and easy of mind.

"Put the meal down, Esther," he said; "it is over."

She obeyed.

"Here now."

She resumed her place upon the arm of the chair close to him.

"God is good to me, very good," he said, fervently. "His habit is
to move in mystery, yet sometimes he permits us to think we see
and understand him. I am old, dear, and must go; but now, in this
eleventh hour, when my hope was beginning to die, he sends me this
one with a promise, and I am lifted up. I see the way to a great
part in a circumstance itself so great that it shall be as a new
birth to the whole world. And I see a reason for the gift of my
great riches, and the end for which they were designed. Verily,
my child, I take hold on life anew."

Esther nestled closer to him, as if to bring his thoughts from
their far-flying.

"The king has been born" he continued, imagining he was still speaking
to her, "and he must be near the half of common life. Balthasar says
he was a child on his mother's lap when he saw him, and gave him
presents and worship; and Ilderim holds it was twenty-seven years
ago last December when Balthasar and his companions came to his
tent asking a hiding-place from Herod. Wherefore the coming cannot
now be long delayed. To-night--to-morrow it may be. Holy fathers of
Israel, what happiness in the thought! I seem to hear the crash of
the falling of old walls and the clamor of a universal change--ay,
and for the uttermost joy of men, the earth opens to take Rome in,
and they look up and laugh and sing that she is not, while we are;"
then he laughed at himself. "Why, Esther, heard you ever the like?
Surely, I have on me the passion of a singer, the heat of blood
and the thrill of Miriam and David. In my thoughts, which should be
those of a plain worker in figures and facts, there is a confusion
of cymbals clashing and harp-strings loud beaten, and the voices
of a multitude standing around a new-risen throne. I will put the
thinking by for the present; only, dear, when the king comes he
will need money and men, for as he was a child born of woman he
will be but a man after all, bound to human ways as you and I are.
And for the money he will have need of getters and keepers, and
for the men leaders. There, there! See you not a broad road for
my walking, and the running of the youth our master?--and at the
end of it glory and revenge for us both?--and--and"--he paused,
struck with the selfishness of a scheme in which she had no part
or good result; then added, kissing her, "And happiness for thy
mother's child."

She sat still, saying nothing. Then he remembered the difference
in natures, and the law by which we are not permitted always to
take delight in the same cause or be equally afraid of the same
thing. He remembered she was but a girl.

"Of what are you thinking, Esther?" he said, in his common home-like
way. "If the thought have the form of a wish, give it me, little one,
while the power remains mine. For power, you know, is a fretful thing,
and hath its wings always spread for flight."

She answered with a simplicity almost childish,

"Send for him, father. Send for him to-night, and do not let him
go into the Circus."

"Ah!" he said, prolonging the exclamation; and again his eyes
fell upon the river, where the shadows were more shadowy than ever,
since the moon had sunk far down behind Sulpius, leaving the city to
the ineffectual stars. Shall we say it, reader? He was touched by
a twinge of jealousy. If she should really love the young master!
Oh no! That could not be; she was too young. But the idea had
fast grip, and directly held him still and cold. She was sixteen.
He knew it well. On the last natal day he had gone with her to
the shipyard where there was a launch, and the yellow flag which
the galley bore to its bridal with the waves had on it "Esther;"
so they celebrated the day together. Yet the fact struck him now
with the force of a surprise. There are realizations which come to
us all painfully; mostly, however, such as pertain to ourselves;
that we are growing old, for instance; and, more terrible, that we
must die. Such a one crept into his heart, shadowy as the shadows,
yet substantial enough to wring from him a sigh which was almost
a groan. It was not sufficient that she should enter upon her
young womanhood a servant, but she must carry to her master her
affections, the truth and tenderness and delicacy of which he the
father so well knew, because to this time they had all been his
own undividedly. The fiend whose task it is to torture us with
fears and bitter thoughts seldom does his work by halves. In the
pang of the moment, the brave old man lost sight of his new scheme,
and of the miraculous king its subject. By a mighty effort, however,
he controlled himself, and asked, calmly, "Not go into the Circus,
Esther? Why, child?"

"It is not a place for a son of Israel, father."

"Rabbinical, rabbinical, Esther! Is that all?"

The tone of the inquiry was searching, and went to her heart,
which began to beat loudly--so loudly she could not answer.
A confusion new and strangely pleasant fell upon her.

"The young man is to have the fortune," he said, taking her hand,
and speaking more tenderly; "he is to have the ships and the
shekels--all, Esther, all. Yet I did not feel poor, for thou
wert left me, and thy love so like the dead Rachel's. Tell me,
is he to have that too?"

She bent over him, and laid her cheek against his head.

"Speak, Esther. I will be the stronger of the knowledge. In warning
there is strength."

She sat up then, and spoke as if she were Truth's holy self.

"Comfort thee, father. I will never leave thee; though he take
my love, I will be thy handmaid ever as now."

And, stooping, she kissed him.

"And more," she said, continuing: "he is comely in my sight,
and the pleading of his voice drew me to him, and I shudder to
think of him in danger. Yes, father, I would be more than glad
to see him again. Still, the love that is unrequited cannot be
perfect love, wherefore I will wait a time, remembering I am thy
daughter and my mother's."

"A very blessing of the Lord art thou, Esther! A blessing to
keep me rich, though all else be lost. And by his holy name
and everlasting life, I swear thou shalt not suffer."

At his request, a little later, the servant came and rolled the
chair into the room, where he sat for a time thinking of the coming
of the king, while she went off and slept the sleep of the innocent.





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