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CHAPTER XVI



Going next day to fill his appointment with Iras, Ben-Hur turned
from the Omphalus, which was in the heart of the city, into the
Colonnade of Herod, and came shortly to the palace of Idernee.

From the street he passed first into a vestibule, on the sides of
which were stairways under cover, leading up to a portico. Winged
lions sat by the stairs; in the middle there was a gigantic ibis
spouting water over the floor; the lions, ibis, walls, and floor
were reminders of the Egyptians: everything, even the balustrading
of the stairs, was of massive gray stone.

Above the vestibule, and covering the landing of the steps,
arose the portico, a pillared grace, so light, so exquisitely
proportioned, it was at that period hardly possible of conception
except by a Greek. Of marble snowy white, its effect was that of
a lily dropped carelessly upon a great bare rock.

Ben-Hur paused in the shade of the portico to admire its tracery
and finish, and the purity of its marble; then he passed on
into the palace. Ample folding-doors stood open to receive him.
The passage into which he first entered was high, but somewhat
narrow; red tiling formed the floor, and the walls were tinted
to correspond. Yet this plainness was a warning of something
beautiful to come.

He moved on slowly, all his faculties in repose. Presently he
would be in the presence of Iras; she was waiting for him;
waiting with song and story and badinage, sparkling, fanciful,
capricious--with smiles which glorified her glance, and glances
which lent voluptuous suggestion to her whisper. She had sent
for him the evening of the boat-ride on the lake in the Orchard
of Palms; she had sent for him now; and he was going to her in
the beautiful palace of Idernee. He was happy and dreamful rather
than thoughtless.

The passage brought him to a closed door, in front of which
he paused; and, as he did so, the broad leaves began to open of
themselves, without creak or sound of lock or latch, or touch of
foot or finger. The singularity was lost in the view that broke
upon him.

Standing in the shade of the dull passage, and looking through
the doorway, he beheld the atrium of a Roman house, roomy and
rich to a fabulous degree of magnificence.

How large the chamber was cannot be stated, because of the
deceit there is in exact proportions; its depth was vista-like,
something never to be said of an equal interior. When he stopped
to make survey, and looked down upon the floor, he was standing
upon the breast of a Leda, represented as caressing a swan; and,
looking farther, he saw the whole floor was similarly laid in mosaic
pictures of mythological subjects. And there were stools and chairs,
each a separate design, and a work of art exquisitely composed,
and tables much carven, and here and there couches which were
invitations of themselves. The articles of furniture, which stood
out from the walls, were duplicated on the floor distinctly as if
they floated unrippled water; even the panelling of the walls,
the figures upon them in painting and bas-relief, and the fresco
of the ceiling were reflected on the floor. The ceiling curved up
towards the centre, where there was an opening through which the
sunlight poured without hindrance, and the sky, ever so blue,
seemed in hand-reach; the impluvium under the opening was guarded
by bronzed rails; the gilded pillars supporting the roof at the
edges of the opening shone like flame where the sun struck them,
and their reflections beneath seemed to stretch to infinite depth.
And there were candelabra quaint and curious, and statuary and vases;
the whole making an interior that would have befitted well the house
on the Palatine Hill which Cicero bought of Crassus, or that other,
yet more famous for extravagance, the Tusculan villa of Scaurus.

Still in his dreamful mood, Ben-Hur sauntered about, charmed by
all he beheld, and waiting. He did not mind a little delay;
when Iras was ready, she would come or send a servant. In every
well-regulated Roman house the atrium was the reception chamber
for visitors.

Twice, thrice, he made the round. As often he stood under the
opening in the roof, and pondered the sky and its azure depth;
then, leaning against a pillar, he studied the distribution of light
and shade, and its effects; here a veil diminishing objects, there a
brilliance exaggerating others; yet nobody came. Time, or rather the
passage of time, began at length to impress itself upon him, and he
wondered why Iras stayed so long. Again he traced out the figures
upon the floor, but not with the satisfaction the first inspection
gave him. He paused often to listen: directly impatience blew a
little fevered breath upon his spirit; next time it blew stronger
and hotter; and at last he woke to a consciousness of the silence
which held the house in thrall, and the thought of it made him
uneasy and distrustful. Still he put the feeling off with a smile
and a promise. "Oh, she is giving the last touch to her eyelids,
or she is arranging a chaplet for me; she will come presently,
more beautiful of the delay!" He sat down then to admire a
candelabrum--a bronze plinth on rollers, filigree on the sides
and edges; the post at one end, and on the end opposite it an altar
and a female celebrant; the lamp-rests swinging by delicate chains
from the extremities of drooping palm-branches; altogether a wonder
in its way. But the silence would obtrude itself: he listened even
as he looked at the pretty object--he listened, but there was not
a sound; the palace was still as a tomb.

There might be a mistake. No, the messenger had come from the
Egyptian, and this was the palace of Idernee. Then he remembered
how mysteriously the door had opened so soundlessly, so of itself.
He would see!

He went to the same door. Though he walked ever so lightly the
sound of his stepping was loud and harsh, and he shrank from it.
He was getting nervous. The cumbrous Roman lock resisted his
first effort to raise it; and the second--the blood chilled in
his cheeks--he wrenched with all his might: in vain--the door
was not even shaken. A sense of danger seized him, and for a
moment he stood irresolute.

Who in Antioch had the motive to do him harm?

Messala!

And this palace of Idernee? He had seen Egypt in the vestibule,
Athens in the snowy portico; but here, in the atrium, was Rome;
everything about him betrayed Roman ownership. True, the site
was on the great thoroughfare of the city, a very public place
in which to do him violence; but for that reason it was more
accordant with the audacious genius of his enemy. The atrium
underwent a change; with all its elegance and beauty, it was no
more than a trap. Apprehension always paints in black.

The idea irritated Ben-Hur.

There were many doors on the right and left of the atrium, leading,
doubtless, to sleeping-chambers; he tried them, but they were all
firmly fastened. Knocking might bring response. Ashamed to make
outcry, he betook himself to a couch, and, lying down, tried to
reflect.

All too plainly he was a prisoner; but for what purpose? and by
whom?

If the work were Messala's! He sat up, looked about, and smiled
defiantly. There were weapons in every table. But birds had been
starved in golden cages; not so would he--the couches would serve
him as battering-rams; and he was strong, and there was such increase
of might in rage and despair!

Messala himself could not come. He would never walk again; he was
a cripple like Simonides; still he could move others. And where
were there not others to be moved by him? Ben-Hur arose, and tried
the doors again. Once he called out; the room echoed so that he was
startled. With such calmness as he could assume, he made up his mind
to wait a time before attempting to break a way out.

In such a situation the mind has its ebb and flow of disquiet,
with intervals of peace between. At length--how long, though,
he could not have said--he came to the conclusion that the affair
was an accident or mistake. The palace certainly belonged to somebody;
it must have care and keeping: and the keeper would come; the evening
or the night would bring him. Patience!

So concluding, he waited.

Half an hour passed--a much longer period to Ben-Hur--when the door
which had admitted him opened and closed noiselessly as before,
and without attracting his attention.

The moment of the occurrence he was sitting at the farther end of
the room. A footstep startled him.

"At last she has come!" he thought, with a throb of relief and
pleasure, and arose.

The step was heavy, and accompanied with the gride and clang of
coarse sandals. The gilded pillars were between him and the door;
he advanced quietly, and leaned against one of them. Presently he
heard voices--the voices of men--one of them rough and guttural.
What was said he could not understand, as the language was not of
the East or South of Europe.

After a general survey of the room, the strangers crossed to their
left, and were brought into Ben-Hur's view--two men, one very stout,
both tall, and both in short tunics. They had not the air of masters
of the house or domestics. Everything they saw appeared wonderful to
them; everything they stopped to examine they touched. They were
vulgarians. The atrium seemed profaned by their presence. At the
same time, their leisurely manner and the assurance with which
they proceeded pointed to some right or business; if business,
with whom?

With much jargon they sauntered this way and that, all the time
gradually approaching the pillar by which Ben-Hur was standing.
Off a little way, where a slanted gleam of the sun fell with a
glare upon the mosaic of the floor, there was a statue which
attracted their notice. In examining it, they stopped in the
light.

The mystery surrounding his own presence in the palace tended,
as we have seen, to make Ben-Hur nervous; so now, when in the
tall stout stranger he recognized the Northman whom he had known
in Rome, and seen crowned only the day before in the Circus as
the winning pugilist; when he saw the man's face, scarred with
the wounds of many battles, and imbruted by ferocious passions;
when he surveyed the fellow's naked limbs, very marvels of exercise
and training, and his shoulders of Herculean breadth, a thought of
personal danger started a chill along every vein. A sure instinct
warned him that the opportunity for murder was too perfect to have
come by chance; and here now were the myrmidons, and their business
was with him. He turned an anxious eye upon the Northman's
comrade--young, black-eyed, black-haired, and altogether Jewish
in appearance; he observed, also, that both the men were in costume
exactly such as professionals of their class were in the habit of
wearing in the arena. Putting the several circumstances together,
Ben-Hur could not be longer in doubt: he had been lured into the
palace with design. Out of reach of aid, in this splendid privacy,
he was to die!

At a loss what to do, he gazed from man to man, while there was
enacted within him that miracle of mind by which life is passed
before us in awful detail, to be looked at by ourselves as if it
were another's; and from the evolvement, from a hidden depth, cast up,
as it were, by a hidden hand, he was given to see that he had entered
upon a new life, different from the old one in this: whereas, in that,
he had been the victim of violences done to him, henceforth he was
to be the aggressor. Only yesterday he had found his first victim!
To the purely Christian nature the presentation would have brought
the weakness of remorse. Not so with Ben-Hur; his spirit had its
emotions from the teachings of the first lawgiver, not the last
and greatest one. He had dealt punishment, not wrong, to Messala.
By permission of the Lord, he had triumphed; and he derived faith
from the circumstance--faith the source of all rational strength,
especially strength in peril.

Nor did the influence stop there. The new life was made appear to
him a mission just begun, and holy as the King to come was holy,
and certain as the coming of the King was certain--a mission
in which force was lawful if only because it was unavoidable.
Should he, on the very threshold of such an errand, be afraid?

He undid the sash around his waist, and, baring his head and casting
off his white Jewish gown, stood forth in an undertunic not unlike those
of the enemy, and was ready, body and mind. Folding his arms, he placed
his back against the pillar, and calmly waited.

The examination of the statue was brief. Directly the Northman turned,
and said something in the unknown tongue; then both looked at Ben-Hur.
A few more words, and they advanced towards him.

"Who are you?" he asked, in Latin.

The Northman fetched a smile which did not relieve his face of
its brutalism, and answered,

"Barbarians."

"This is the palace of Idernee. Whom seek you? Stand and answer."

The words were spoken with earnestness. The strangers stopped;
and in his turn the Northman asked, "Who are you?"

"A Roman."

The giant laid his head back upon his shoulders.

"Ha, ha, ha! I have heard how a god once came from a cow licking
a salted stone; but not even a god can make a Roman of a Jew."

The laugh over, he spoke to his companion again, and they moved
nearer.

"Hold!" said Ben-Hur, quitting the pillar. "One word."

They stopped again.

"A word!" replied the Saxon, folding his immense arms across his
breast, and relaxing the menace beginning to blacken his face.
"A word! Speak."

"You are Thord the Northman."

The giant opened his blue eyes.

"You were lanista in Rome."

Thord nodded.

"I was your scholar."

"No," said Thord, shaking his head. "By the beard of Irmin, I had
never a Jew to make a fighting-man of."

"But I will prove my saying."

"How?"

"You came here to kill me."

"That is true."

"Then let this man fight me singly, and I will make the proof on
his body."

A gleam of humor shone in the Northman's face. He spoke to his
companion, who made answer; then he replied with the naivete of
a diverted child,

"Wait till I say begin."

By repeated touches of his foot, he pushed a couch out on the
floor, and proceeded leisurely to stretch his burly form upon it;
when perfectly at ease, he said, simply, "Now begin."

Without ado, Ben-Hur walked to his antagonist.

"Defend thyself," he said.

The man, nothing loath, put up his hands.

As the two thus confronted each other in approved position,
there was no discernible inequality between them; on the contrary,
they were as like as brothers. To the stranger's confident smile,
Ben-Hur opposed an earnestness which, had his skill been known,
would have been accepted fair warning of danger. Both knew the
combat was to be mortal.

Ben-Hur feinted with his right hand. The stranger warded,
slightly advancing his left arm. Ere he could return to guard,
Ben-Hur caught him by the wrist in a grip which years at the oar
had made terrible as a vise. The surprise was complete, and no
time given. To throw himself forward; to push the arm across the
man's throat and over his right shoulder, and turn him left side
front; to strike surely with the ready left hand; to strike the
bare neck under the ear--were but petty divisions of the same act.
No need of a second blow. The myrmidon fell heavily, and without
a cry, and lay still.

Ben-Hur turned to Thord.

"Ha! What! By the beard of Irmin!" the latter cried, in astonishment,
rising to a sitting posture. Then he laughed.

"Ha, ha, ha! I could not have done it better myself."

He viewed Ben-Hur coolly from head to foot, and, rising, faced him
with undisguised admiration.

"It was my trick--the trick I have practised for ten years in the
schools of Rome. You are not a Jew. Who are you?"

"You knew Arrius the duumvir."

"Quintus Arrius? Yes, he was my patron."

"He had a son."

"Yes," said Thord, his battered features lighting dully, "I knew
the boy; he would have made a king gladiator. Caesar offered him
his patronage. I taught him the very trick you played on this one
here--a trick impossible except to a hand and arm like mine. It has
won me many a crown."

"I am that son of Arrius."

Thord drew nearer, and viewed him carefully; then his eyes
brightened with genuine pleasure, and, laughing, he held out
his hand.

"Ha, ha, ha! He told me I would find a Jew here--a Jew--a dog of
a Jew--killing whom was serving the gods."

"Who told you so?" asked Ben-Hur, taking the hand.

"He--Messala--ha, ha, ha!"

"When, Thord?"

"Last night."

"I thought he was hurt."

"He will never walk again. On his bed he told me between groans."

A very vivid portrayal of hate in a few words; and Ben-Hur saw that
the Roman, if he lived, would still be capable and dangerous,
and follow him unrelentingly. Revenge remained to sweeten the
ruined life; therefore the clinging to fortune lost in the wager
with Sanballat. Ben-Hur ran the ground over, with a distinct
foresight of the many ways in which it would be possible for
his enemy to interfere with him in the work he had undertaken for
the King who was coming. Why not he resort to the Roman's methods?
The man hired to kill him could be hired to strike back. It was in
his power to offer higher wages. The temptation was strong; and,
half yielding, he chanced to look down at his late antagonist
lying still, with white upturned face, so like himself. A light
came to him, and he asked, "Thord, what was Messala to give you
for killing me?"

"A thousand sestertii."

"You shall have them yet; and so you do now what I tell you, I will
add three thousand more to the sum."

The giant reflected aloud,

"I won five thousand yesterday; from the Roman one--six. Give me
four, good Arrius--four more--and I will stand firm for you,
though old Thor, my namesake, strike me with his hammer. Make it
four, and I will kill the lying patrician, if you say so. I have
only to cover his mouth with my hand--thus."

He illustrated the process by clapping his hand over his own mouth.

"I see," said Ben-Hur; "ten thousand sestertii is a fortune.
It will enable you to return to Rome, and open a wine-shop near
the Great Circus, and live as becomes the first of the lanistae."

The very scars on the giant's face glowed afresh with the pleasure
the picture gave him.

"I will make it four thousand," Ben-Hur continued; "and in what you
shall do for the money there will be no blood on your hands, Thord.
Hear me now. Did not your friend here look like me?"

"I would have said he was an apple from the same tree."

"Well, if I put on his tunic, and dress him in these clothes of
mine, and you and I go away together, leaving him here, can you
not get your sestertii from Messala all the same? You have only
to make him believe it me that is dead."

Thord laughed till the tears ran into his mouth.

"Ha, ha, ha! Ten thousand sestertii were never won so easily.
And a wine-shop by the Great Circus!--all for a lie without blood
in it! Ha, ha, ha! Give me thy hand, O son of Arrius. Get on now,
and--ha, ha, ha!--if ever you come to Rome, fail not to ask for the
wine-shop of Thord the Northman. By the beard of Irmin, I will give
you the best, though I borrow it from Caesar!"

They shook hands again; after which the exchange of clothes was
effected. It was arranged then that a messenger should go at night
to Thord's lodging-place with the four thousand sestertii. When
they were done, the giant knocked at the front door; it opened
to him; and, passing out of the atrium, he led Ben-Hur into a
room adjoining, where the latter completed his attire from the
coarse garments of the dead pugilist. They separated directly in
the Omphalus.

"Fail not, O son of Arrius, fail not the wine-shop near the Great
Circus! Ha, ha, ha! By the beard of Irmin, there was never fortune
gained so cheap. The gods keep you!"

Upon leaving the atrium, Ben-Hur gave a last look at the myrmidon
as he lay in the Jewish vestments, and was satisfied. The likeness
was striking. If Thord kept faith, the cheat was a secret to endure
forever.

* * * * * *

At night, in the house of Simonides, Ben-Hur told the good man all
that had taken place in the palace of Idernee; and it was agreed
that, after a few days, public inquiry should be set afloat for the
discovery of the whereabouts of the son of Arrius. Eventually the
matter was to be carried boldly to Maxentius; then, if the mystery
came not out, it was concluded that Messala and Gratus would be at
rest and happy, and Ben-Hur free to betake himself to Jerusalem,
to make search for his lost people.

At the leave-taking, Simonides sat in his chair out on the terrace
overlooking the river, and gave his farewell and the peace of the
Lord with the impressment of a father. Esther went with the young
man to the head of the steps.

"If I find my mother, Esther, thou shalt go to her at Jerusalem,
and be a sister to Tirzah."

And with the words he kissed her.

Was it only a kiss of peace?

He crossed the river next to the late quarters of Ilderim, where
he found the Arab who was to serve him as guide. The horses were
brought out.

"This one is thine," said the Arab.

Ben-Hur looked, and, lo! it was Aldebaran, the swiftest and
brightest of the sons of Mira, and, next to Sirius, the beloved
of the sheik; and he knew the old man's heart came to him along
with the gift.

The corpse in the atrium was taken up and buried by night; and,
as part of Messala's plan, a courier was sent off to Gratus to
make him at rest by the announcement of Ben-Hur's death--this
time past question.

Ere long a wine-shop was opened near the Circus Maximus,
with inscription over the door:

THORD THE NORTHMAN.






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