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CHAPTER XIV



When the dash for position began, Ben-Hur, as we have seen, was on
the extreme left of the six. For a moment, like the others, he was
half blinded by the light in the arena; yet he managed to catch sight
of his antagonists and divine their purpose. At Messala, who was more
than an antagonist to him, he gave one searching look. The air of
passionless hauteur characteristic of the fine patrician face was
there as of old, and so was the Italian beauty, which the helmet
rather increased; but more--it may have been a jealous fancy,
or the effect of the brassy shadow in which the features were
at the moment cast, still the Israelite thought he saw the soul
of the man as through a glass, darkly: cruel, cunning, desperate;
not so excited as determined--a soul in a tension of watchfulness
and fierce resolve.

In a time not longer than was required to turn to his four again,
Ben-Hur felt his own resolution harden to a like temper. At whatever
cost, at all hazards, he would humble this enemy! Prize, friends,
wagers, honor--everything that can be thought of as a possible
interest in the race was lost in the one deliberate purpose.
Regard for life even should not hold him back. Yet there was no
passion, on his part; no blinding rush of heated blood from heart
to brain, and back again; no impulse to fling himself upon Fortune:
he did not believe in Fortune; far otherwise. He had his plan, and,
confiding in himself, he settled to the task never more observant,
never more capable. The air about him seemed aglow with a renewed
and perfect transparency.

When not half-way across the arena, he saw that Messala's rush
would, if there was no collision, and the rope fell, give him the
wall; that the rope would fall, he ceased as soon to doubt; and,
further, it came to him, a sudden flash-like insight, that Messala
knew it was to be let drop at the last moment (prearrangement
with the editor could safely reach that point in the contest);
and it suggested, what more Roman-like than for the official
to lend himself to a countryman who, besides being so popular,
had also so much at stake? There could be no other accounting
for the confidence with which Messala pushed his four forward the
instant his competitors were prudentially checking their fours in
front of the obstruction--no other except madness.

It is one thing to see a necessity and another to act upon it.
Ben-Hur yielded the wall for the time.

The rope fell, and all the fours but his sprang into the course
under urgency of voice and lash. He drew head to the right, and,
with all the speed of his Arabs, darted across the trails of his
opponents, the angle of movement being such as to lose the least
time and gain the greatest possible advance. So, while the spectators
were shivering at the Athenian's mishap, and the Sidonian, Byzantine,
and Corinthian were striving, with such skill as they possessed,
to avoid involvement in the ruin, Ben-Hur swept around and took
the course neck and neck with Messala, though on the outside.
The marvellous skill shown in making the change thus from the
extreme left across to the right without appreciable loss did
not fail the sharp eyes upon the benches; the Circus seemed to
rock and rock again with prolonged applause. Then Esther clasped
her hands in glad surprise; then Sanballat, smiling, offered his
hundred sestertii a second time without a taker; and then the Romans
began to doubt, thinking Messala might have found an equal, if not
a master, and that in an Israelite!

And now, racing together side by side, a narrow interval between
them, the two neared the second goal.

The pedestal of the three pillars there, viewed from the west,
was a stone wall in the form of a half-circle, around which
the course and opposite balcony were bent in exact parallelism.
Making this turn was considered in all respects the most telling
test of a charioteer; it was, in fact, the very feat in which
Orastes failed. As an involuntary admission of interest on the
part of the spectators, a hush fell over all the Circus, so that
for the first time in the race the rattle and clang of the cars
plunging after the tugging steeds were distinctly heard. Then, it
would seem, Messala observed Ben-Hur, and recognized him; and at
once the audacity of the man flamed out in an astonishing manner.

"Down Eros, up Mars!" he shouted, whirling his lash with practised
hand--"Down Eros, up Mars!" he repeated, and caught the well-doing
Arabs of Ben-Hur a cut the like of which they had never known.

The blow was seen in every quarter, and the amazement was universal.
The silence deepened; up on the benches behind the consul the boldest
held his breath, waiting for the outcome. Only a moment thus: then,
involuntarily, down from the balcony, as thunder falls, burst the
indignant cry of the people.

The four sprang forward affrighted. No hand had ever been laid
upon them except in love; they had been nurtured ever so tenderly;
and as they grew, their confidence in man became a lesson to men
beautiful to see. What should such dainty natures do under such
indignity but leap as from death?

Forward they sprang as with one impulse, and forward leaped
the car. Past question, every experience is serviceable to us.
Where got Ben-Hur the large hand and mighty grip which helped
him now so well? Where but from the oar with which so long he
fought the sea? And what was this spring of the floor under his
feet to the dizzy eccentric lurch with which in the old time
the trembling ship yielded to the beat of staggering billows,
drunk with their power? So he kept his place, and gave the four
free rein, and called to them in soothing voice, trying merely to
guide them round the dangerous turn; and before the fever of the
people began to abate, he had back the mastery. Nor that only:
on approaching the first goal, he was again side by side with
Messala, bearing with him the sympathy and admiration of every
one not a Roman. So clearly was the feeling shown, so vigorous
its manifestation, that Messala, with all his boldness, felt it
unsafe to trifle further.

As the cars whirled round the goal, Esther caught sight of Ben-Hur's
face--a little pale, a little higher raised, otherwise calm, even placid.

Immediately a man climbed on the entablature at the west end of
the division wall, and took down one of the conical wooden balls.
A dolphin on the east entablature was taken down at the same time.

In like manner, the second ball and second dolphin disappeared.

And then the third ball and third dolphin.

Three rounds concluded: still Messala held the inside position;
still Ben-Hur moved with him side by side; still the other
competitors followed as before. The contest began to have the
appearance of one of the double races which became so popular
in Rome during the later Caesarean period--Messala and Ben-Hur in
the first, the Corinthian, Sidonian, and Byzantine in the second.
Meantime the ushers succeeded in returning the multitude to their
seats, though the clamor continued to run the rounds, keeping, as it
were, even pace with the rivals in the course below.

In the fifth round the Sidonian succeeded in getting a place
outside Ben-Hur, but lost it directly.

The sixth round was entered upon without change of relative position.

Gradually the speed had been quickened--gradually the blood of
the competitors warmed with the work. Men and beasts seemed to
know alike that the final crisis was near, bringing the time for
the winner to assert himself.

The interest which from the beginning had centred chiefly in the
struggle between the Roman and the Jew, with an intense and general
sympathy for the latter, was fast changing to anxiety on his account.
On all the benches the spectators bent forward motionless, except as
their faces turned following the contestants. Ilderim quitted combing
his beard, and Esther forgot her fears.

"A hundred sestertii on the Jew!" cried Sanballat to the Romans
under the consul's awning.

There was no reply.

"A talent--or five talents, or ten; choose ye!"

He shook his tablets at them defiantly.

"I will take thy sestertii," answered a Roman youth, preparing to
write.

"Do not so," interposed a friend.

"Why?"

"Messala hath reached his utmost speed. See him lean over his
chariot rim, the reins loose as flying ribbons. Look then at
the Jew."

The first one looked.

"By Hercules!" he replied, his countenance falling. "The dog throws
all his weight on the bits. I see, I see! If the gods help not our
friend, he will be run away with by the Israelite. No, not yet.
Look! Jove with us, Jove with us!"

The cry, swelled by every Latin tongue, shook the velaria over
the consul's head.

If it were true that Messala had attained his utmost speed, the effort
was with effect; slowly but certainly he was beginning to forge ahead.
His horses were running with their heads low down; from the balcony
their bodies appeared actually to skim the earth; their nostrils
showed blood red in expansion; their eyes seemed straining in
their sockets. Certainly the good steeds were doing their best!
How long could they keep the pace? It was but the commencement of
the sixth round. On they dashed. As they neared the second goal,
Ben-Hur turned in behind the Roman's car.

The joy of the Messala faction reached its bound: they screamed
and howled, and tossed their colors; and Sanballat filled his
tablets with wagers of their tendering.

Malluch, in the lower gallery over the Gate of Triumph, found it
hard to keep his cheer. He had cherished the vague hint dropped
to him by Ben-Hur of something to happen in the turning of the
western pillars. It was the fifth round, yet the something had
not come; and he had said to himself, the sixth will bring it;
but, lo! Ben-Hur was hardly holding a place at the tail of his
enemy's car.

Over in the east end, Simonides' party held their peace. The merchant's
head was bent low. Ilderim tugged at his beard, and dropped his brows
till there was nothing of his eyes but an occasional sparkle of light.
Esther scarcely breathed. Iras alone appeared glad.

Along the home-stretch--sixth round--Messala leading, next him
Ben-Hur, and so close it was the old story:

"First flew Eumelus on Pheretian steeds;
With those of Tros bold Diomed succeeds;
Close on Eumelus' back they puff the wind,
And seem just mounting on his car behind;
Full on his neck he feels the sultry breeze,
And, hovering o'er, their stretching shadow sees."

Thus to the first goal, and round it. Messala, fearful of losing
his place, hugged the stony wall with perilous clasp; a foot to
the left, and he had been dashed to pieces; yet, when the turn
was finished, no man, looking at the wheel-tracks of the two cars,
could have said, here went Messala, there the Jew. They left but
one trace behind them.

As they whirled by, Esther saw Ben-Hur's face again, and it was
whiter than before.

Simonides, shrewder than Esther, said to Ilderim, the moment
the rivals turned into the course, "I am no judge, good sheik,
if Ben-Hur be not about to execute some design. His face hath
that look."

To which Ilderim answered, "Saw you how clean they were and fresh?
By the splendor of God, friend, they have not been running! But now
watch!"

One ball and one dolphin remained on the entablatures; and all
the people drew a long breath, for the beginning of the end was
at hand.

First, the Sidonian gave the scourge to his four, and, smarting with
fear and pain, they dashed desperately forward, promising for a brief
time to go to the front. The effort ended in promise. Next, the Byzantine
and the Corinthian each made the trial with like result, after which
they were practically out of the race. Thereupon, with a readiness
perfectly explicable, all the factions except the Romans joined
hope in Ben-Hur, and openly indulged their feeling.

"Ben-Hur! Ben-Hur!" they shouted, and the blent voices of the many
rolled overwhelmingly against the consular stand.

From the benches above him as he passed, the favor descended in
fierce injunctions.

"Speed thee, Jew!"

"Take the wall now!"

"On! loose the Arabs! Give them rein and scourge!"

"Let him not have the turn on thee again. Now or never!"

Over the balustrade they stooped low, stretching their hands
imploringly to him.

Either he did not hear, or could not do better, for halfway round
the course and he was still following; at the second goal even
still no change!

And now, to make the turn, Messala began to draw in his left-hand
steeds, an act which necessarily slackened their speed. His spirit
was high; more than one altar was richer of his vows; the Roman
genius was still president. On the three pillars only six hundred
feet away were fame, increase of fortune, promotions, and a triumph
ineffably sweetened by hate, all in store for him! That moment Malluch,
in the gallery, saw Ben-Hur lean forward over his Arabs, and give them
the reins. Out flew the many-folded lash in his hand; over the backs
of the startled steeds it writhed and hissed, and hissed and writhed
again and again; and though it fell not, there were both sting and
menace in its quick report; and as the man passed thus from quiet to
resistless action, his face suffused, his eyes gleaming, along the
reins he seemed to flash his will; and instantly not one, but the
four as one, answered with a leap that landed them alongside the
Roman's car. Messala, on the perilous edge of the goal, heard,
but dared not look to see what the awakening portended. From the
people he received no sign. Above the noises of the race there
was but one voice, and that was Ben-Hur's. In the old Aramaic,
as the sheik himself, he called to the Arabs,

"On, Atair! On, Rigel! What, Antares! dost thou linger now?
Good horse--oho, Aldebaran! I hear them singing in the tents.
I hear the children singing and the women--singing of the stars,
of Atair, Antares, Rigel, Aldebaran, victory!--and the song will
never end. Well done! Home to-morrow, under the black tent--home!
On, Antares! The tribe is waiting for us, and the master is waiting!
'Tis done! 'tis done! Ha, ha! We have overthrown the proud. The hand
that smote us is in the dust. Ours the glory! Ha, ha!--steady! The
work is done--soho! Rest!"

There had never been anything of the kind more simple; seldom anything
so instantaneous.

At the moment chosen for the dash, Messala was moving in a circle
round the goal. To pass him, Ben-Hur had to cross the track, and
good strategy required the movement to be in a forward direction;
that is, on a like circle limited to the least possible increase.
The thousands on the benches understood it all: they saw the signal
given--the magnificent response; the four close outside Messala's
outer wheel; Ben-Hur's inner wheel behind the other's car--all
this they saw. Then they heard a crash loud enough to send a
thrill through the Circus, and, quicker than thought, out over the
course a spray of shining white and yellow flinders flew. Down on
its right side toppled the bed of the Roman's chariot. There was a
rebound as of the axle hitting the hard earth; another and another;
then the car went to pieces; and Messala, entangled in the reins,
pitched forward headlong.

To increase the horror of the sight by making death certain,
the Sidonian, who had the wall next behind, could not stop
or turn out. Into the wreck full speed he drove; then over the
Roman, and into the latter's four, all mad with fear. Presently,
out of the turmoil, the fighting of horses, the resound of blows,
the murky cloud of dust and sand, he crawled, in time to see the
Corinthian and Byzantine go on down the course after Ben-Hur,
who had not been an instant delayed.

The people arose, and leaped upon the benches, and shouted and screamed.
Those who looked that way caught glimpses of Messala, now under the
trampling of the fours, now under the abandoned cars. He was still;
they thought him dead; but far the greater number followed Ben-Hur
in his career. They had not seen the cunning touch of the reins by
which, turning a little to the left, he caught Messala's wheel with
the iron-shod point of his axle, and crushed it; but they had seen
the transformation of the man, and themselves felt the heat and
glow of his spirit, the heroic resolution, the maddening energy
of action with which, by look, word, and gesture, he so suddenly
inspired his Arabs. And such running! It was rather the long leaping
of lions in harness; but for the lumbering chariot, it seemed the
four were flying. When the Byzantine and Corinthian were halfway
down the course, Ben-Hur turned the first goal.

AND THE RACE WAS WON!

The consul arose; the people shouted themselves hoarse; the editor
came down from his seat, and crowned the victors.

The fortunate man among the boxers was a low-browed, yellow-haired
Saxon, of such brutalized face as to attract a second look from
Ben-Hur, who recognized a teacher with whom he himself had been
a favorite at Rome. From him the young Jew looked up and beheld
Simonides and his party on the balcony. They waved their hands
to him. Esther kept her seat; but Iras arose, and gave him a
smile and a wave of her fan--favors not the less intoxicating to
him because we know, O reader, they would have fallen to Messala
had he been the victor.

The procession was then formed, and, midst the shouting of the
multitude which had had its will, passed out of the Gate of Triumph.

And the day was over.





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