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CHAPTER XIV



If the reader will return now to the repast of the wise men at
their meeting in the desert, he will understand the preparations
for the supper in Ilderim's tent. The differences were chiefly such
as were incident to ampler means and better service.

Three rugs were spread on the carpet within the space so nearly
enclosed by the divan; a table not more than a foot in height was
brought and set within the same place, and covered with a cloth.
Off to one side a portable earthenware oven was established under
the presidency of a woman whose duty it was to keep the company in
bread, or, more precisely, in hot cakes of flour from the handmills
grinding with constant sound in a neighboring tent.

Meanwhile Balthasar was conducted to the divan, where Ilderim
and Ben-Hur received him standing. A loose black gown covered
his person; his step was feeble, and his whole movement slow
and cautious, apparently dependent upon a long staff and the
arm of a servant.

"Peace to you, my friend," said Ilderim, respectfully. "Peace and
welcome."

The Egyptian raised his head and replied, "And to thee, good sheik--to
thee and thine, peace and the blessing of the One God--God the true
and loving."

The manner was gentle and devout, and impressed Ben-Hur with a feeling
of awe; besides which the blessing included in the answering salutation
had been partly addressed to him, and while that part was being spoken,
the eyes of the aged guest, hollow yet luminous, rested upon his
face long enough to stir an emotion new and mysterious, and so
strong that he again and again during the repast scanned the much
wrinkled and bloodless face for its meaning; but always there was
the expression bland, placid, and trustful as a child's. A little
later he found that expression habitual.

"This is he, O Balthasar," said the sheik, laying his hand on
Ben-Hur's arm, "who will break bread with us this evening."

The Egyptian glanced at the young man, and looked again surprised
and doubting; seeing which the sheik continued, "I have promised
him my horses for trial to-morrow; and if all goes well, he will
drive them in the Circus."

Balthasar continued his gaze.

"He came well recommended," Ilderim pursued, much puzzled. "You
may know him as the son of Arrius, who was a noble Roman sailor,
though"--the sheik hesitated, then resumed, with a laugh--"though
he declares himself an Israelite of the tribe of Judah; and, by the
splendor of God, I believe that he tells me!"

Balthasar could no longer withhold explanation.

"To-day, O most generous sheik, my life was in peril, and would
have been lost had not a youth, the counterpart of this one--if,
indeed, he be not the very same--intervened when all others fled,
and saved me." Then he addressed Ben-Hur directly, "Art thou not
he?"

"I cannot answer so far," Ben-Hur replied, with modest deference.
"I am he who stopped the horses of the insolent Roman when they were
rushing upon thy camel at the Fountain of Castalia. Thy daughter left
a cup with me."

From the bosom of his tunic he produced the cup, and gave it to
Balthasar.

A glow lighted the faded countenance of the Egyptian.

"The Lord sent thee to me at the Fountain to-day," he said, in a
tremulous voice, stretching his hand towards Ben-Hur; "and he
sends thee to me now. I give him thanks; and praise him thou,
for of his favor I have wherewith to give thee great reward,
and I will. The cup is thine; keep it."

Ben-Hur took back the gift, and Balthasar, seeing the inquiry
upon Ilderim's face, related the occurrence at the Fountain.

"What!" said the sheik to Ben-Hur. "Thou saidst nothing of this
to me, when better recommendation thou couldst not have brought.
Am I not an Arab, and sheik of my tribe of tens of thousands? And
is not he my guest? And is it not in my guest-bond that the good
or evil thou dost him is good or evil done to me? Whither shouldst
thou go for reward but here? And whose the hand to give it but mine?"

His voice at the end of the speech rose to cutting shrillness.

"Good sheik, spare me, I pray. I came not for reward, great or
small; and that I may be acquitted of the thought, I say the
help I gave this excellent man would have been given as well
to thy humblest servant."

"But he is my friend, my guest--not my servant; and seest thou
not in the difference the favor of Fortune?" Then to Balthasar
the sheik subjoined, "Ah, by the splendor of God! I tell thee
again he is not a Roman."

With that he turned away, and gave attention to the servants,
whose preparations for the supper were about complete.

The reader who recollects the history of Balthasar as given by
himself at the meeting in the desert will understand the effect
of Ben-Hur's assertion of disinterestedness upon that worthy.
In his devotion to men there had been, it will be remembered,
no distinctions; while the redemption which had been promised him
in the way of reward--the redemption for which he was waiting--was
universal. To him, therefore, the assertion sounded somewhat like
an echo of himself. He took a step nearer Ben-Hur, and spoke to
him in the childlike way.

"How did the sheik say I should call you? It was a Roman name,
I think."

"Arrius, the son of Arrius."

"Yet thou art not a Roman?"

"All my people were Jews."

"Were, saidst thou? Are they not living?"

The question was subtle as well as simple; but Ilderim saved
Ben-Hur from reply.

"Come," he said to them, "the meal is ready."

Ben-Hur gave his arm to Balthasar, and conducted him to the table,
where shortly they were all seated on their rugs Eastern fashion.
The lavers were brought them, and they washed and dried their hands;
then the sheik made a sign, the servants stopped, and the voice of
the Egyptian arose tremulous with holy feeling.

"Father of All--God! What we have is of thee; take our thanks,
and bless us, that we may continue to do thy will."

It was the grace the good man had said simultaneously with his
brethren Gaspar the Greek and Melchior the Hindoo, the utterance
in diverse tongues out of which had come the miracle attesting
the Divine Presence at the meal in the desert years before.

The table to which they immediately addressed themselves was, as may
be thought, rich in the substantials and delicacies favorite in the
East--in cakes hot from the oven, vegetables from the gardens,
meats singly, compounds of meats and vegetables, milk of kine,
and honey and butter--all eaten or drunk, it should be remarked,
without any of the modern accessories--knives, forks, spoons,
cups, or plates; and in this part of the repast but little was
said, for they were hungry. But when the dessert was in course it
was otherwise. They laved their hands again, had the lap-cloths
shaken out, and with a renewed table and the sharp edge of their
appetites gone they were disposed to talk and listen.

With such a company--an Arab, a Jew, and an Egyptian, all believers
alike in one God--there could be at that age but one subject of
conversation; and of the three, which should be speaker but he to
whom the Deity had been so nearly a personal appearance, who had
seen him in a star, had heard his voice in direction, had been led
so far and so miraculously by his Spirit? And of what should he
talk but that of which he had been called to testify?





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