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CHAPTER XVII



Up a little way from the dower there was a cluster of palms,
which threw its shade half in the water, half on the land. A bulbul
sang from the branches a song of invitation. Ben-Hur stopped beneath
to listen. At any other time the notes of the bird would have driven
thought away; but the story of the Egyptian was a burden of wonder,
and he was a laborer carrying it, and, like other laborers, there was
to him no music in the sweetest music until mind and body were happily
attuned by rest.

The night was quiet. Not a ripple broke upon the shore. The old
stars of the old East were all out, each in its accustomed place;
and there was summer everywhere--on land, on lake, in the sky.

Ben-Hur's imagination was heated, his feelings aroused, his will
all unsettled.

So the palms, the sky, the air, seemed to him of the far south
zone into which Balthasar had been driven by despair for men;
the lake, with its motionless surface, was a suggestion of the
Nilotic mother by which the good man stood praying when the
Spirit made its radiant appearance. Had all these accessories
of the miracle come to Ben-Hur? or had he been transferred to
them? And what if the miracle should be repeated--and to him? He
feared, yet wished, and even waited for the vision. When at last
his feverish mood was cooled, permitting him to become himself,
he was able to think.

His scheme of life has been explained. In all reflection about it
heretofore there had been one hiatus which he had not been able to
bridge or fill up--one so broad he could see but vaguely to the
other side of it. When, finally, he was graduated a captain as
well as a soldier, to what object should he address his efforts?
Revolution he contemplated, of course; but the processes of
revolution have always been the same, and to lead men into
them there have always been required, first, a cause or presence
to enlist adherents; second, an end, or something as a practical
achievement. As a rule he fights well who has wrongs to redress;
but vastly better fights he who, with wrongs as a spur, has also
steadily before him a glorious result in prospect--a result in
which he can discern balm for wounds, compensation for valor,
remembrance and gratitude in the event of death.

To determine the sufficiency of either the cause or the end, it was
needful that Ben-Hur should study the adherents to whom he looked when
all was ready for action. Very naturally, they were his countrymen.
The wrongs of Israel were to every son of Abraham, and each one was
a cause vastly holy, vastly inspiring.

Ay, the cause was there; but the end--what should it be?

The hours and days he had given this branch of his scheme were
past calculation--all with the same conclusion--a dim, uncertain,
general idea of national liberty. Was it sufficient? He could not
say no, for that would have been the death of his hope; he shrank
from saying yes, because his judgment taught him better. He could
not assure himself even that Israel was able single-handed to
successfully combat Rome. He knew the resources of that great
enemy; he knew her art was superior to her resources. A universal
alliance might suffice, but, alas! that was impossible, except-- and
upon the exception how long and earnestly he had dwelt!-- except a
hero would come from one of the suffering nations, and by martial
successes accomplish a renown to fill the whole earth. What glory
to Judea could she prove the Macedonia of the new

Alexander! Alas, again! Under the rabbis valor was possible, but not
discipline. And then the taunt of Messala in the garden of Herod--
"All you conquer in the six days, you lose on the seventh."

So it happened he never approached the chasm thinking to surmount
it, but he was beaten back; and so incessantly had he failed in
the object that he had about given it over, except as a thing of
chance. The hero might be discovered in his day, or he might not.
God only knew. Such his state of mind, there need be no lingering
upon the effect of Malluch's skeleton recital of the story of
Balthasar. He heard it with a bewildering satisfaction--a feeling
that here was the solution of the trouble--here was the requisite
hero found at last; and he a son of the Lion tribe, and King of
the Jews! Behind the hero, lo! the world in arms.

The king implied a kingdom; he was to be a warrior glorious as David,
a ruler wise and magnificent as Solomon; the kingdom was to be a
power against which Rome was to dash itself to pieces. There would
be colossal war, and the agonies of death and birth-- then peace,
meaning, of course, Judean dominion forever.

Ben-Hur's heart beat hard as for an instant he had a vision of
Jerusalem the capital of the world, and Zion, the site of the
throne of the Universal Master.

It seemed to the enthusiast rare fortune that the man who had
seen the king was at the tent to which he was going. He could
see him there, and hear him, and learn of him what all he knew
of the coming change, especially all he knew of the time of its
happening. If it were at hand, the campaign with Maxentius should
be abandoned; and he would go and set about organizing and arming
the tribes, that Israel might be ready when the great day of the
restoration began to break.

Now, as we have seen, from Balthasar himself Ben-Hur had the
marvelous story. Was he satisfied?

There was a shadow upon him deeper than that of the cluster of
palms--the shadow of a great uncertainty, which--take note,
O reader! which pertained more to the kingdom than the king.

"What of this kingdom? And what is it to be?" Ben-Hur asked himself
in thought.

Thus early arose the questions which were to follow the Child to
his end, and survive him on earth--incomprehensible in his day,
a dispute in this--an enigma to all who do not or cannot understand
that every man is two in one--a deathless Soul and a mortal Body.

"What is it to be?" he asked.

For us, O reader, the Child himself has answered; but for Ben-Hur
there were only the words of Balthasar, "On the earth, yet not of
it--not for men, but for their souls--a dominion, nevertheless,
of unimaginable glory."

What wonder the hapless youth found the phrases but the darkening
of a riddle?

"The hand of man is not in it," he said, despairingly. "Nor has the
king of such a kingdom use for men; neither toilers, nor councillors,
nor soldiers. The earth must die or be made anew, and for government new
principles must be discovered--something besides armed hands--something
in place of Force. But what?"

Again, O reader!

That which we will not see, he could not. The power there is in
Love had not yet occurred to any man; much less had one come saying
directly that for government and its objects--peace and order--Love
is better and mightier than Force.

In the midst of his reverie a hand was laid upon his shoulder.

"I have a word to say, O son of Arrius," said Ilderim, stopping by
his side--"a word, and then I must return, for the night is going."

"I give you welcome, sheik."

"As to the things you have heard but now," said Ilderim, almost without
pause, "take in belief all save that relating to the kind of kingdom
the Child will set up when he comes; as to so much keep virgin mind
until you hear Simonides the merchant--a good man here in Antioch,
to whom I will make you known. The Egyptian gives you coinage of his
dreams which are too good for the earth; Simonides is wiser; he will
ring you the sayings of your prophets, giving book and page, so you
cannot deny that the Child will be King of the Jews in fact--ay,
by the splendor of God! a king as Herod was, only better and far
more magnificent. And then, see you, we will taste the sweetness
of vengeance. I have said. Peace to you!"

"Stay--sheik!"

If Ilderim heard his call, he did not stay.

"Simonides again!" said Ben-Hur, bitterly. "Simonides here,
Simonides there; from this one now, then from that! I am like
to be well ridden by my father's servant, who knows at least to
hold fast that which is mine; wherefore he is richer, if indeed
he be not wiser, than the Egyptian. By the covenant! it is not
to the faithless a man should go to find a faith to keep--and
I will not. But, hark! singing--and the voice a woman's--or an
angel's! It comes this way."

Down the lake towards the dower came a woman singing. Her voice
floated along the hushed water melodious as a flute, and louder
growing each instant. Directly the dipping of oars was heard in
slow measure; a little later the words were distinguishable--words
in purest Greek, best fitted of all the tongues of the day for the
expression of passionate grief.

THE LAMENT.
(Egyptian.)

I sigh as I sing for the story land
Across the Syrian sea.
The odorous winds from the musky sand
Were breaths of life to me.
They play with the plumes of the whispering palm
For me, alas! no more;
Nor more does the Nile in the moonlit calm
Moan past the Memphian shore.

O Nilus! thou god of my fainting soul!
In dreams thou comest to me;
And, dreaming, I play with the lotus bowl,
And sing old songs to thee;
And hear from afar the Memnonian strain,
And calls from dear Simbel;
And wake to a passion of grief and pain
That e'er I said--Farewell!


At the conclusion of the song the singer was past the cluster of
palms. The last word--farewell--floated past Ben-Hur weighted with
all the sweet sorrow of parting. The passing of the boat was as the
passing of a deeper shadow into the deeper night.

Ben-Hur drew a long breath hardly distinguishable from a sigh.

"I know her by the song--the daughter of Balthasar. How beautiful
it was! And how beautiful is she!"

He recalled her large eyes curtained slightly by the drooping
lids, the cheeks oval and rosy rich, the lips full and deep
with dimpling in the corners, and all the grace of the tall
lithe figure.

"How beautiful she is!" he repeated.

And his heart made answer by a quickening of its movement.

Then, almost the same instant, another face, younger and quite
as beautiful--more childlike and tender, if not so passionate--
appeared as if held up to him out of the lake.

"Esther!" he said, smiling. "As I wished, a star has been sent
to me."

He turned, and passed slowly back to the tent.

His life had been crowded with griefs and with vengeful
preparations--too much crowded for love. Was this the beginning
of a happy change?

And if the influence went with him into the tent, whose was it?
Esther had given him a cup. So had the Egyptian. And both had
come to him at the same time under the palms.

Which?






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