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BOOK FIFTH

"Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust."
SHIRLEY.

"And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the law,
In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw."
WORDSWORTH.




CHAPTER I



The morning after the bacchanalia in the saloon of the palace,
the divan was covered with young patricians. Maxentius might come,
and the city throng to receive him; the legion might descend from
Mount Sulpius in glory of arms and armor; from Nymphaeum to Omphalus
there might be ceremonial splendors to shame the most notable ever
before seen or heard of in the gorgeous East; yet would the many
continue to sleep ignominiously on the divan where they had fallen
or been carelessly tumbled by the indifferent slaves; that they
would be able to take part in the reception that day was about as
possible as for the lay-figures in the studio of a modern artist
to rise and go bonneted and plumed through the one, two, three of
a waltz.

Not all, however, who participated in the orgy were in the shameful
condition. When dawn began to peer through the skylights of the saloon,
Messala arose, and took the chaplet from his head, in sign that the
revel was at end; then he gathered his robe about him, gave a last
look at the scene, and, without a word, departed for his quarters.
Cicero could not have retired with more gravity from a night-long
senatorial debate.

Three hours afterwards two couriers entered his room, and from his
own hand received each a despatch, sealed and in duplicate, and
consisting chiefly of a letter to Valerius Gratus, the procurator,
still resident in Caesarea. The importance attached to the speedy
and certain delivery of the paper may be inferred. One courier
was to proceed overland, the other by sea; both were to make the
utmost haste.

It is of great concern now that the reader should be fully informed
of the contents of the letter thus forwarded, and it is accordingly
given:

"ANTIOCH, XII. Kal. Jul.

"Messala to Gratus.

"O my Midas!

"I pray thou take no offense at the address, seeing it is one of
love and gratitude, and an admission that thou art most fortunate
among men; seeing, also, that thy ears are as they were derived
from thy mother, only proportionate to thy matured condition.

"O my Midas!

"I have to relate to thee an astonishing event, which, though as
yet somewhat in the field of conjecture, will, I doubt not,
justify thy instant consideration.

"Allow me first to revive thy recollection. Remember, a good many
years ago, a family of a prince of Jerusalem, incredibly ancient and
vastly rich--by name Ben-Hur. If thy memory have a limp or ailment
of any kind, there is, if I mistake not, a wound on thy head which
may help thee to a revival of the circumstance.

"Next, to arouse thy interest. In punishment of the attempt upon
thy life--for dear repose of conscience, may all the gods forbid
it should ever prove to have been an accident!--the family were
seized and summarily disposed of, and their property confiscated.
And inasmuch, O my Midas! as the action had the approval of our
Caesar, who was as just as he was wise--be there flowers upon his
altars forever!--there should be no shame in referring to the
sums which were realized to us respectively from that source,
for which it is not possible I can ever cease to be grateful
to thee, certainly not while I continue, as at present, in the
uninterrupted enjoyment of the part which fell to me.

"In vindication of thy wisdom--a quality for which, as I am now
advised, the son of Gordius, to whom I have boldly likened thee,
was never distinguished among men or gods--I recall further that
thou didst make disposition of the family of Hur, both of us at the
time supposing the plan hit upon to be the most effective possible
for the purposes in view, which were silence and delivery over to
inevitable but natural death. Thou wilt remember what thou didst
with the mother and sister of the malefactor; yet, if now I yield
to a desire to learn whether they be living or dead, I know, from
knowing the amiability of thy nature, O my Gratus, that thou wilt
pardon me as one scarcely less amiable than thyself.

"As more immediately essential to the present business, however,
I take the liberty of inviting to thy remembrance that the actual
criminal was sent to the galleys a slave for life--so the precept
ran; and it may serve to make the event which I am about to relate
the more astonishing by saying here that I saw and read the receipt
for his body delivered in course to the tribune commanding a galley.

"Thou mayst begin now to give me more especial heed, O my most
excellent Phrygian!

"Referring to the limit of life at the oar, the outlaw thus justly
disposed of should be dead, or, better speaking, some one of the
three thousand Oceanides should have taken him to husband at least
five years ago. And if thou wilt excuse a momentary weakness, O most
virtuous and tender of men! inasmuch as I loved him in childhood,
and also because he was very handsome--I used in much admiration to
call him my Ganymede--he ought in right to have fallen into the arms
of the most beautiful daughter of the family. Of opinion, however,
that he was certainly dead, I have lived quite five years in calm
and innocent enjoyment of the fortune for which I am in a degree
indebted to him. I make the admission of indebtedness without
intending it to diminish my obligation to thee.

"Now I am at the very point of interest.

"Last night, while acting as master of the feast for a party just
from Rome--their extreme youth and inexperience appealed to my
compassion--I heard a singular story. Maxentius, the consul,
as you know, comes to-day to conduct a campaign against the
Parthians. Of the ambitious who are to accompany him there
is one, a son of the late duumvir Quintus Arrius. I had occasion
to inquire about him particularly. When Arrius set out in pursuit
of the pirates, whose defeat gained him his final honors, he had
no family; when he returned from the expedition, he brought back
with him an heir. Now be thou composed as becomes the owner of so
many talents in ready sestertii! The son and heir of whom I speak
is he whom thou didst send to the galleys--the very Ben-Hur who
should have died at his oar five years ago--returned now with
fortune and rank, and possibly as a Roman citizen, to-- Well,
thou art too firmly seated to be alarmed, but I, O my Midas! I am
in danger--no need to tell thee of what. Who should know, if thou
dost not?

"Sayst thou to all this, tut-tut?

"When Arrius, the father, by adoption, of this apparition from the
arms of the most beautiful of the Oceanides (see above my opinion
of what she should be), joined battle with the pirates, his vessel
was sunk, and but two of all her crew escaped drowning--Arrius
himself and this one, his heir.

"The officers who took them from the plank on which they were
floating say the associate of the fortunate tribune was a young
man who, when lifted to the deck, was in the dress of a galley
slave.

"This should be convincing, to say least; but lest thou say tut-tut
again, I tell thee, O my Midas! that yesterday, by good chance--I
have a vow to Fortune in consequence--I met the mysterious son of
Arrius face to face; and I declare now that, though I did not then
recognize him, he is the very Ben-Hur who was for years my playmate;
the very Ben-Hur who, if he be a man, though of the commonest grade,
must this very moment of my writing be thinking of vengeance--for
so would I were I he--vengeance not to be satisfied short of life;
vengeance for country, mother, sister, self, and--I say it last,
though thou mayst think it would be first--for fortune lost.

"By this time, O good my benefactor and friend! my Gratus! in
consideration of thy sestertii in peril, their loss being the
worst which could befall one of thy high estate--I quit calling
thee after the foolish old King of Phrygia--by this time, I say
(meaning after having read me so far), I have faith to believe
thou hast ceased saying tut-tut, and art ready to think what
ought to be done in such emergency.

"It were vulgar to ask thee now what shall be done. Rather let me
say I am thy client; or, better yet, thou art my Ulysses whose part
it is to give me sound direction.

"And I please myself thinking I see thee when this letter is put
into thy hand. I see thee read it once; thy countenance all
gravity, and then again with a smile; then, hesitation ended,
and thy judgment formed, it is this, or it is that; wisdom like
Mercury's, promptitude like Caesar's.

"The sun is now fairly risen. An hour hence two messengers will
depart from my door, each with a sealed copy hereof; one of them
will go by land, the other by sea, so important do I regard it that
thou shouldst be early and particularly informed of the appearance
of our enemy in this part of our Roman world.

"I will await thy answer here.

"Ben-Hur's going and coming will of course be regulated by his
master, the consul, who, though he exert himself without rest day
and night, cannot get away under a month. Thou knowest what work
it is to assemble and provide for an army destined to operate in
a desolate, townless country.

"I saw the Jew yesterday in the Grove of Daphne; and if he be not
there now, he is certainly in the neighborhood, making it easy
for me to keep him in eye. Indeed, wert thou to ask me where he
is now, I should say, with the most positive assurance, he is
to be found at the old Orchard of Palms, under the tent of the
traitor Sheik Ilderim, who cannot long escape our strong hand.
Be not surprised if Maxentius, as his first measure, places the
Arab on ship for forwarding to Rome.

"I am so particular about the whereabouts of the Jew because
it will be important to thee, O illustrious! when thou comest
to consider what is to be done; for already I know, and by the
knowledge I flatter myself I am growing in wisdom, that in every
scheme involving human action there are three elements always to
be taken into account--time, place, and agency.

"If thou sayest this is the place, have thou then no hesitancy in
trusting the business to thy most loving friend, who would be thy
aptest scholar as well.

MESSALA."





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