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CHAPTER IX



Next night, about the fourth hour, Ben-Hur stood on the terrace
of the great warehouse with Esther. Below them, on the landing,
there was much running about, and shifting of packages and boxes,
and shouting of men, whose figures, stooping, heaving, hauling,
looked, in the light of the crackling torches kindled in their aid,
like the laboring genii of the fantastic Eastern tales. A galley
was being laden for instant departure. Simonides had not yet
come from his office, in which, at the last moment, he would
deliver to the captain of the vessel instructions to proceed
without stop to Ostia, the seaport of Rome, and, after landing
a passenger there, continue more leisurely to Valentia, on the
coast of Spain.

The passenger is the agent going to dispose of the estate derived
from Arrius the duumvir. When the lines of the vessel are cast
off, and she is put about, and her voyage begun, Ben-Hur will be
committed irrevocably to the work undertaken the night before.
If he is disposed to repent the agreement with Ilderim, a little
time is allowed him to give notice and break it off. He is master,
and has only to say the word.

Such may have been the thought at the moment in his mind. He was
standing with folded arms, looking upon the scene in the manner of a
man debating with himself. Young, handsome, rich, but recently from
the patrician circles of Roman society, it is easy to think of the
world besetting him with appeals not to give more to onerous duty or
ambition attended with outlawry and danger. We can even imagine the
arguments with which he was pressed; the hopelessness of contention
with Caesar; the uncertainty veiling everything connected with the
King and his coming; the ease, honors, state, purchasable like
goods in market; and, strongest of all, the sense newly acquired
of home, with friends to make it delightful. Only those who have
been wanderers long desolate can know the power there was in the
latter appeal.

Let us add now, the world--always cunning enough of itself; always
whispering to the weak, Stay, take thine ease; always presenting
the sunny side of life--the world was in this instance helped by
Ben-Hur's companion.

"Were you ever at Rome?" he asked.

"No," Esther replied.

"Would you like to go?"

"I think not."

"Why?"

"I am afraid of Rome," she answered, with a perceptible tremor of
the voice.

He looked at her then--or rather down upon her, for at his side
she appeared little more than a child. In the dim light he could
not see her face distinctly; even the form was shadowy. But again
he was reminded of Tirzah, and a sudden tenderness fell upon
him--just so the lost sister stood with him on the house-top
the calamitous morning of the accident to Gratus. Poor Tirzah!
Where was she now? Esther had the benefit of the feeling evoked.
If not his sister, he could never look upon her as his servant;
and that she was his servant in fact would make him always the
more considerate and gentle towards her.

"I cannot think of Rome," she continued, recovering her voice,
and speaking in her quiet womanly way--"I cannot think of Rome as
a city of palaces and temples, and crowded with people; she is to
me a monster which has possession of one of the beautiful lands,
and lies there luring men to ruin and death--a monster which it
is not possible to resist--a ravenous beast gorging with blood.
Why--"

She faltered, looked down, stopped.

"Go on," said Ben-Hur, reassuringly.

She drew closer to him, looked up again, and said, "Why must you
make her your enemy? Why not rather make peace with her, and be
at rest? You have had many ills, and borne them; you have survived
the snares laid for you by foes. Sorrow has consumed your youth;
is it well to give it the remainder of your days?"

The girlish face under his eyes seemed to come nearer and get whiter
as the pleading went on; he stooped towards it, and asked, softly,
"What would you have me do, Esther?"

She hesitated a moment, then asked, in return, "Is the property
near Rome a residence?"

"Yes."

"And pretty?"

"It is beautiful--a palace in the midst of gardens and shell-strewn
walks; fountains without and within; statuary in the shady nooks;
hills around covered with vines, and so high that Neapolis and
Vesuvius are in sight, and the sea an expanse of purpling blue
dotted with restless sails. Caesar has a country-seat near-by,
but in Rome they say the old Arrian villa is the prettiest."

"And the life there, is it quiet?"

"There was never a summer day, never a moonlit night, more quiet,
save when visitors come. Now that the old owner is gone, and I am
here, there is nothing to break its silence--nothing, unless it
be the whispering of servants, or the whistling of happy birds,
or the noise of fountains at play; it is changeless, except as
day by day old flowers fade and fall, and new ones bud and bloom,
and the sunlight gives place to the shadow of a passing cloud.
The life, Esther, was all too quiet for me. It made me restless
by keeping always present a feeling that I, who have so much to
do, was dropping into idle habits, and tying myself with silken
chains, and after a while--and not a long while either--would end
with nothing done."

She looked off over the river.

"Why did you ask?" he said.

"Good my master--"

"No, no, Esther--not that. Call me friend--brother, if you will; I am
not your master, and will not be. Call me brother."

He could not see the flush of pleasure which reddened her face,
and the glow of the eyes that went out lost in the void above
the river.

"I cannot understand," she said, "the nature which prefers the
life you are going to--a life of--"

"Of violence, and it may be of blood," he said, completing the
sentence.

"Yes," she added, "the nature which could prefer that life to such
as might be in the beautiful villa."

"Esther, you mistake. There is no preference. Alas! the Roman is
not so kind. I am going of necessity. To stay here is to die; and if
I go there, the end will be the same--a poisoned cup, a bravo's blow,
or a judge's sentence obtained by perjury. Messala and the procurator
Gratus are rich with plunder of my father's estate, and it is more
important to them to keep their gains now than was their getting
in the first instance. A peaceable settlement is out of reach,
because of the confession it would imply. And then--then-- Ah,
Esther, if I could buy them, I do not know that I would. I do
not believe peace possible to me; no, not even in the sleepy
shade and sweet air of the marble porches of the old villa--no
matter who might be there to help me bear the burden of the days,
nor by what patience of love she made the effort. Peace is not
possible to me while my people are lost, for I must be watchful to
find them. If I find them, and they have suffered wrong, shall not
the guilty suffer for it? If they are dead by violence, shall the
murderers escape? Oh, I could not sleep for dreams! Nor could the
holiest love, by any stratagem, lull me to a rest which conscience
would not strangle."

"Is it so bad then?" she asked, her voice tremulous with feeling.
"Can nothing, nothing, be done?"

Ben-Hur took her hand.

"Do you care so much for me?"

"Yes," she answered, simply.

The hand was warm, and in the palm of his it was lost. He felt it
tremble. Then the Egyptian came, so the opposite of this little
one; so tall, so audacious, with a flattery so cunning, a wit so
ready, a beauty so wonderful, a manner so bewitching. He carried
the hand to his lips, and gave it back.

"You shall be another Tirzah to me, Esther."

"Who is Tirzah?"

"The little sister the Roman stole from me, and whom I must find
before I can rest or be happy."

Just then a gleam of light flashed athwart the terrace and fell
upon the two; and, looking round, they saw a servant roll Simonides
in his chair out of the door. They went to the merchant, and in the
after-talk he was principal.

Immediately the lines of the galley were cast off, and she swung
round, and, midst the flashing of torches and the shouting of
joyous sailors, hurried off to the sea--leaving Ben-Hur committed
to the cause of the KING WHO WAS TO COME.





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