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CHAPTER XIII



About three o'clock, speaking in modern style, the program was
concluded except the chariot-race. The editor, wisely considerate
of the comfort of the people, chose that time for a recess. At once
the vomitoria were thrown open, and all who could hastened to the
portico outside where the restaurateurs had their quarters. Those who
remained yawned, talked, gossiped, consulted their tablets, and,
all distinctions else forgotten, merged into but two classes--the
winners, who were happy, and the losers, who were grum and captious.

Now, however, a third class of spectators, composed of citizens who
desired only to witness the chariot-race, availed themselves of the
recess to come in and take their reserved seats; by so doing they
thought to attract the least attention and give the least offence.
Among these were Simonides and his party, whose places were in the
vicinity of the main entrance on the north side, opposite the consul.

As the four stout servants carried the merchant in his chair up
the aisle, curiosity was much excited. Presently some one called
his name. Those about caught it and passed it on along the benches
to the west; and there was hurried climbing on seats to get sight of
the man about whom common report had coined and put in circulation
a romance so mixed of good fortune and bad that the like had never
been known or heard of before.

Ilderim was also recognized and warmly greeted; but nobody knew
Balthasar or the two women who followed him closely veiled.

The people made way for the party respectfully, and the ushers
seated them in easy speaking distance of each other down by the
balustrade overlooking the arena. In providence of comfort,
they sat upon cushions and had stools for footrests.

The women were Iras and Esther.

Upon being seated, the latter cast a frightened look over
the Circus, and drew the veil closer about her face; while the
Egyptian, letting her veil fall upon her shoulders, gave herself
to view, and gazed at the scene with the seeming unconsciousness
of being stared at, which, in a woman, is usually the result of
long social habitude.

The new-comers generally were yet making their first examination of
the great spectacle, beginning with the consul and his attendants,
when some workmen ran in and commenced to stretch a chalked rope
across the arena from balcony to balcony in front of the pillars
of the first goal.

About the same time, also, six men came in through the Porta Pompae
and took post, one in front of each occupied stall; whereat there
was a prolonged hum of voices in every quarter.

"See, see! The green goes to number four on the right; the Athenian
is there."

"And Messala--yes, he is in number two."

"The Corinthian--"

"Watch the white! See, he crosses over, he stops; number one it
is--number one on the left."

"No, the black stops there, and the white at number two."

"So it is."

These gate-keepers, it should be understood, were dressed in tunics
colored like those of the competing charioteers; so, when they took
their stations, everybody knew the particular stall in which his
favorite was that moment waiting.

"Did you ever see Messala?" the Egyptian asked Esther.

The Jewess shuddered as she answered no. If not her father's enemy,
the Roman was Ben-Hur's.

"He is beautiful as Apollo."

As Iras spoke, her large eyes brightened and she shook her jeweled
fan. Esther looked at her with the thought, "Is he, then, so much
handsomer than Ben-Hur?" Next moment she heard Ilderim say to
her father, "Yes, his stall is number two on the left of the
Porta Pompae;" and, thinking it was of Ben-Hur he spoke, her eyes
turned that way. Taking but the briefest glance at the wattled face
of the gate, she drew the veil close and muttered a little prayer.

Presently Sanballat came to the party.

"I am just from the stalls, O sheik," he said, bowing gravely to
IIderim, who began combing his beard, while his eyes glittered with
eager inquiry. "The horses are in perfect condition."

Ilderim replied simply, "If they are beaten, I pray it be by some
other than Messala."

Turning then to Simonides, Sanballat drew out a tablet, saying,
"I bring you also something of interest. I reported, you will
remember, the wager concluded with Messala last night, and stated
that I left another which, if taken, was to be delivered to me in
writing to-day before the race began. Here it is."

Simonides took the tablet and read the memorandum carefully.

"Yes," he said, "their emissary came to ask me if you had so much
money with me. Keep the tablet close. If you lose, you know where
to come; if you win"--his face knit hard--"if you win--ah, friend,
see to it! See the signers escape not; hold them to the last shekel.
That is what they would with us."

"Trust me," replied the purveyor.

"Will you not sit with us?" asked Simonides.

"You are very good," the other returned; "but if I leave the consul,
young Rome yonder will boil over. Peace to you; peace to all."

At length the recess came to an end.

The trumpeters blew a call at which the absentees rushed back
to their places. At the same time, some attendants appeared
in the arena, and, climbing upon the division wall, went to an
entablature near the second goal at the west end, and placed upon
it seven wooden balls; then returning to the first goal, upon an
entablature there they set up seven other pieces of wood hewn to
represent dolphins.

"What shall they do with the balls and fishes, O sheik?" asked
Balthasar.

"Hast thou never attended a race?"

"Never before; and hardly know I why I am here."

"Well, they are to keep the count. At the end of each round run
thou shalt see one ball and one fish taken down."

The preparations were now complete, and presently a trumpeter in
gaudy uniform arose by the editor, ready to blow the signal of
commencement promptly at his order. Straightway the stir of the
people and the hum of their conversation died away. Every face
near-by, and every face in the lessening perspective, turned to
the east, as all eyes settled upon the gates of the six stalls
which shut in the competitors.

The unusual flush upon his face gave proof that even Simonides
had caught the universal excitement. Ilderim pulled his beard
fast and furious.

"Look now for the Roman," said the fair Egyptian to Esther, who did
not hear her, for, with close-drawn veil and beating heart, she sat
watching for Ben-Hur.

The structure containing the stalls, it should be observed, was
in form of the segment of a circle, retired on the right so that
its central point was projected forward, and midway the course,
on the starting side of the first goal. Every stall, consequently,
was equally distant from the starting-line or chalked rope above
mentioned.

The trumpet sounded short and sharp; whereupon the starters, one
for each chariot, leaped down from behind the pillars of the goal,
ready to give assistance if any of the fours proved unmanageable.

Again the trumpet blew, and simultaneously the gate-keepers threw
the stalls open.

First appeared the mounted attendants of the charioteers, five in all,
Ben-Hur having rejected the service. The chalked line was lowered to
let them pass, then raised again. They were beautifully mounted,
yet scarcely observed as they rode forward; for all the time the
trampling of eager horses, and the voices of drivers scarcely
less eager, were heard behind in the stalls, so that one might
not look away an instant from the gaping doors.

The chalked line up again, the gate-keepers called their men;
instantly the ushers on the balcony waved their hands, and shouted
with all their strength, "Down! down!"

As well have whistled to stay a storm.

Forth from each stall, like missiles in a volley from so many great
guns, rushed the six fours; and up the vast assemblage arose,
electrified and irrepressible, and, leaping upon the benches,
filled the Circus and the air above it with yells and screams.
This was the time for which they had so patiently waited!--this
the moment of supreme interest treasured up in talk and dreams
since the proclamation of the games!

"He is come--there--look!" cried Iras, pointing to Messala.

"I see him," answered Esther, looking at Ben-Hur.

The veil was withdrawn. For an instant the little Jewess was brave.
An idea of the joy there is in doing an heroic deed under the eyes
of a multitude came to her, and she understood ever after how,
at such times, the souls of men, in the frenzy of performance,
laugh at death or forget it utterly.

The competitors were now under view from nearly every part of
the Circus, yet the race was not begun; they had first to make
the chalked line successfully.

The line was stretched for the purpose of equalizing the start.
If it were dashed upon, discomfiture of man and horses might
be apprehended; on the other hand, to approach it timidly was
to incur the hazard of being thrown behind in the beginning of
the race; and that was certain forfeit of the great advantage
always striven for--the position next the division wall on the
inner line of the course.

This trial, its perils and consequences, the spectators knew
thoroughly; and if the opinion of old Nestor, uttered that time
he handed the reins to his son, were true--

"It is not strength, but art, obtained the prize,
And to be swift is less than to be wise"--

all on the benches might well look for warning of the winner to
be now given, justifying the interest with which they breathlessly
watched for the result.

The arena swam in a dazzle of light; yet each driver looked first
thing for the rope, then for the coveted inner line. So, all six
aiming at the same point and speeding furiously, a collision seemed
inevitable; nor that merely. What if the editor, at the last moment,
dissatisfied with the start, should withhold the signal to drop the
rope? Or if he should not give it in time?

The crossing was about two hundred and fifty feet in width. Quick the
eye, steady the hand, unerring the judgment required. If now one look
away! or his mind wander! or a rein slip! And what attraction in the
ensemble of the thousands over the spreading balcony! Calculating
upon the natural impulse to give one glance--just one--in sooth
of curiosity or vanity, malice might be there with an artifice;
while friendship and love, did they serve the same result, might be
as deadly as malice.

The divine last touch in perfecting the beautiful is animation. Can we
accept the saying, then these latter days, so tame in pastime and
dull in sports, have scarcely anything to compare to the spectacle
offered by the six contestants. Let the reader try to fancy it;
let him first look down upon the arena, and see it glistening
in its frame of dull-gray granite walls; let him then, in this
perfect field, see the chariots, light of wheel, very graceful,
and ornate as paint and burnishing can make them--Messala's rich
with ivory and gold; let him see the drivers, erect and statuesque,
undisturbed by the motion of the cars, their limbs naked, and fresh
and ruddy with the healthful polish of the baths--in their right
hands goads, suggestive of torture dreadful to the thought--in
their left hands, held in careful separation, and high, that they
may not interfere with view of the steeds, the reins passing taut
from the fore ends of the carriage-poles; let him see the fours,
chosen for beauty as well as speed; let him see them in magnificent
action, their masters not more conscious of the situation and all
that is asked and hoped from them--their heads tossing, nostrils in
play, now distent, now contracted--limbs too dainty for the sand
which they touch but to spurn--limbs slender, yet with impact
crushing as hammers--every muscle of the rounded bodies instinct
with glorious life, swelling, diminishing, justifying the world in
taking from them its ultimate measure of force; finally, along with
chariots, drivers, horses, let the reader see the accompanying
shadows fly; and, with such distinctness as the picture comes,
he may share the satisfaction and deeper pleasure of those to
whom it was a thrilling fact, not a feeble fancy. Every age has
its plenty of sorrows; Heaven help where there are no pleasures!

The competitors having started each on the shortest line for the
position next the wall, yielding would be like giving up the race;
and who dared yield? It is not in common nature to change a purpose
in mid-career; and the cries of encouragement from the balcony were
indistinguishable and indescribable: a roar which had the same effect
upon all the drivers.

The fours neared the rope together. Then the trumpeter by the
editor's side blew a signal vigorously. Twenty feet away it
was not heard. Seeing the action, however, the judges dropped
the rope, and not an instant too soon, for the hoof of one of
Messala's horses struck it as it fell. Nothing daunted, the Roman
shook out his long lash, loosed the reins, leaned forward, and,
with a triumphant shout, took the wall.

"Jove with us! Jove with us!" yelled all the Roman faction, in a
frenzy of delight.

As Messala turned in, the bronze lion's head at the end of his
axle caught the fore-leg of the Athenian's right-hand trace-mate,
flinging the brute over against its yoke-fellow. Both staggered,
struggled, and lost their headway. The ushers had their will at
least in part. The thousands held their breath with horror; only up
where the consul sat was there shouting.

"Jove with us!" screamed Drusus, frantically.

"He wins! Jove with us!" answered his associates, seeing Messala
speed on.

Tablet in hand, Sanballat turned to them; a crash from the course
below stopped his speech, and he could not but look that way.

Messala having passed, the Corinthian was the only contestant on
the Athenian's right, and to that side the latter tried to turn his
broken four; and then; as ill-fortune would have it, the wheel of
the Byzantine, who was next on the left, struck the tail-piece of
his chariot, knocking his feet from under him. There was a crash,
a scream of rage and fear, and the unfortunate Cleanthes fell under
the hoofs of his own steeds: a terrible sight, against which Esther
covered her eyes.

On swept the Corinthian, on the Byzantine, on the Sidonian.

Sanballat looked for Ben-Hur, and turned again to Drusus and his
coterie.

"A hundred sestertii on the Jew!" he cried.

"Taken!" answered Drusus.

"Another hundred on the Jew!" shouted Sanballat.

Nobody appeared to hear him. He called again; the situation below
was too absorbing, and they were too busy shouting, "Messala! Messala!
Jove with us!"

When the Jewess ventured to look again, a party of workmen were
removing the horses and broken car; another party were taking off
the man himself; and every bench upon which there was a Greek was
vocal with execrations and prayers for vengeance. Suddenly she dropped
her hands; Ben-Hur, unhurt, was to the front, coursing freely forward
along with the Roman! Behind them, in a group, followed the Sidonian,
the Corinthian, and the Byzantine.

The race was on; the souls of the racers were in it; over them
bent the myriads.





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