NEXT DAY early, to the neglect of the city, Ben-Hur sought the house of Simonides. Through an embattled gateway he passed to a continuity of wharves; thence up the river midst a busy press, to the Seleucian Bridge, under which he paused to take in the scene.
There, directly under the bridge, was the merchant’s house, a mass of gray stone, unhewn, referable to no style, looking, as the voyager had described it, like a buttress of the wall against which it leaned. Two immense doors in front communicated with the wharf. Some holes near the top, heavily barred, served as windows. Weeds waved from the crevices, and in places black moss splotched the otherwise bald stones.
The doors were open. Through one of them business went in; through the other it came out; and there was hurry, hurry in all its movements.
On the wharf there were piles of goods in every kind of package, and groups of slaves, stripped to the waist, going about in the abandon of labor.
Below the bridge lay a fleet of galleys, some loading, others unloading. A yellow flag blew out from each masthead. From fleet and wharf, and from ship to ship, the bondmen of traffic passed in clamorous counter-currents.
Above the bridge, across the river, a wall rose from the water’s edge, over which towered the fanciful cornices and turrets of an imperial palace, covering every foot of the island spoken of in the Hebrew’s description. But, with all its suggestions, Ben-Hur scarcely noticed it. Now, at last, he thought to hear of his people—this, certainly, if Simonides had indeed been his father’s slave. But would the man acknowledge the relation? That would be to give up his riches and the sovereignty of trade so royally witnessed on the wharf and river. And what was of still greater consequence to the merchant, it would be to forego his career in the midst of amazing success, and yield himself voluntarily once more a slave. Simple thought of the demand seemed a monstrous audacity. Stripped of diplomatic address, it was to say, You are my slave; give me all you have, and—yourself.
Yet Ben-Hur derived strength for the interview from faith in his rights and the hope uppermost in his heart. If the story to which he was yielding were true, Simonides belonged to him, with all he had. For the wealth, be it said in justice, he cared nothing. When he started to the door determined in mind, it was with a promise to himself—“Let him tell me of mother and Tirzah, and I will give him his freedom without account.”
He passed boldly into the house.
The interior was that of a vast depot where, in ordered spaces, and under careful arrangement, goods of every kind were heaped and pent. Though the light was murky and the air stifling, men moved about briskly; and in places he saw workmen with saws and hammers making packages for shipments. Down a path between the piles he walked slowly, wondering if the man of whose genius there were here such abounding proofs could have been his father’s slave? If so, to what class had he belonged? If a Jew, was he the son of a servant? Or was he a debtor or a debtor’s son? Or had he been sentenced and sold for theft? These thoughts, as they passed, in nowise disturbed the growing respect for the merchant of which he was each instant more and more conscious. A peculiarity of our admiration for another is that it is always looking for circumstances to justify itself.
At length a man approached and spoke to him.
“What would you have?”
“I would see Simonides, the merchant.”
“Will you come this way?”
By a number of paths left in the stowage, they finally came to a flight of steps; ascending which, he found himself on the roof of the depot, and in front of a structure which cannot be better described than as a lesser stone house built upon another, invisible from the landing below, and out west of the bridge under the open sky. The roof, hemmed in by a low wall, seemed like a terrace, which, to his astonishment, was brilliant with flowers; in the rich surrounding, the house sat squat, a plain square block, unbroken except by a doorway in front. A dustless path led to the door, through a bordering of shrubs of Persian rose in perfect bloom. Breathing a sweet attar-perfume, he followed the guide.
At the end of a darkened passage within, they stopped before a curtain half parted. The man called out,
“A stranger to see the master.”
A clear voice replied, “In God’s name, let him enter.”
A Roman might have called the apartment into which the visitor was ushered his atrium. The walls were paneled; each panel was comparted like a modern office-desk, and each compartment crowded with labelled folios all filemot with age and use. Between the panels, and above and below them, were borders of wood once white, now tinted like cream, and carved with marvellous intricacy of design. Above a cornice of gilded balls, the ceiling rose in pavilion style until it broke into a shallow dome set with hundreds of panes of violet mica, permitting a flood of light deliciously reposeful. The floor was carpeted with gray rugs so thick that an invading foot fell half buried and soundless.
In the midlight of the room were two persons—a man resting in a chair high-backed, broad-armed, and lined with pliant cushions; and at his left, leaning against the back of the chair, a girl well forward into womanhood. At sight of them Ben-Hur felt the blood redden his forehead; bowing, as much to recover himself as in respect, he lost the lifting of the hands, and the shiver and shrink with which the sitter caught sight of him—an emotion as swift to go as it had been to come. When he raised his eyes the two were in the same position, except the girl’s hand had fallen and was resting lightly upon the elder’s shoulder; both of them were regarding him fixedly.
“If you are Simonides, the merchant, and a Jew”—Ben-Hur stopped an instant—“then the peace of the God of our father Abraham upon you and—yours.”
The last word was addressed to the girl.
“I am the Simonides of whom you speak, by birthright a Jew,” the man made answer, in a voice singularly clear. “I am Simonides, and a Jew; and I return you your salutation, with prayer to know who calls upon me.”
Ben-Hur looked as he listened, and where the figure of the man should have been in healthful roundness, there was only a formless heap sunk in the depths of the cushions, and covered by a quilted robe of sombre silk. Over the heap shone a head royally proportioned—the ideal head of a statesman and conqueror—a head broad of base and domelike in front, such as Angelo would have modelled for Cæsar. White hair dropped in thin locks over the white brows, deepening the blackness of the eyes shining through them like sullen lights. The face was bloodless, and much puffed with folds, especially under the chin. In other words, the head and face were those of a man who might move the world more readily than the world could move him—a man to be twice twelve times tortured into the shapeless cripple he was, without a groan, much less a confession; a man to yield his life, but never a purpose or a point; a man born in armor, and assailable only through his loves. To him Ben-Hur stretched his hands, open and palm up, as he would offer peace at the same time he asked it.
“I am Judah, son of Ithamar, late head of the House of Hur, and a prince of Jerusalem.”
The merchant’s right hand lay outside the robe—a long, thin hand, articulate to deformity with suffering. It closed tightly; otherwise there was not the slightest expression of feeling of any kind on his part; nothing to warrant an inference of surprise or interest; nothing but this calm answer,
“The princes of Jerusalem, of the pure blood, are always welcome in my house; you are welcome. Give the young man a seat, Esther.”
The girl took an ottoman near by, and carried it to Ben-Hur. As she arose from placing the seat, their eyes met.
“The peace of our Lord with you,” she said, modestly. “Be seated and at rest.”
When she resumed her place by the chair, she had not divined his purpose. The powers of woman go not so far: if the matter is of finer feeling, such as pity, mercy, sympathy, that she detects; and therein is a difference between her and man which will endure as long as she remains, by nature, alive to such feelings. She was simply sure he brought some wound of life for healing.
Ben-Hur did not take the offered seat, but said, deferentially, “I pray the good master Simonides that he will not hold me an intruder. Coming up the river yesterday, I heard he knew my father.”
“I knew the Prince Hur. We were associated in some enterprises lawful to merchants who find profit in lands beyond the sea and the desert. But sit, I pray you—and, Esther, some wine for the young man. Nehemiah speaks of a son of Hur who once ruled the half part of Jerusalem; an old house; very old, by the faith! In the days of Moses and Joshua even some of them found favor in the sight of the Lord, and divided honors with those princes among men. It can hardly be that their descendant, lineally come to us, will refuse a cup of wine-fat of the genuine vine of Sorek, grown on the south hill-sides of Hebron.”
By the time of the conclusion of this speech, Esther was before Ben-Hur with a silver cup filled from a vase upon a table a little removed from the chair. She offered the drink with downcast face. He touched her hand gently to put it away. Again their eyes met; whereat he noticed that she was small, not nearly to his shoulder in height; but very graceful, and fair and sweet of face, with eyes black and inexpressibly soft. She is kind and pretty, he thought, and looks as Tirzah would were she living. Poor Tirzah! Then he said aloud,
“No, thy father—if he is thy father?”—he paused.
“I am Esther, the daughter of Simonides,” she said, with dignity.
“Then, fair Esther, thy father, when he has heard my further speech, will not think worse of me if yet I am slow to take his wine of famous extract; nor less I hope not to lose grace in thy sight. Stand thou here with me a moment!”
Both of them, as in common cause, turned to the merchant. “Simonides!” he said, firmly, “my father, at his death, had a trusted servant of thy name, and it has been told me that thou art the man!”
There was a sudden start of the wrenched limbs under the robe, and the thin hand clenched.
“Esther, Esther!” the man called, sternly; “here, not there, as thou art thy mother’s child and mine—here, not there, I say!”
The girl looked once from father to visitor; then she replaced the cup upon the table, and went dutifully to the chair. Her countenance sufficiently expressed her wonder and alarm.
Simonides lifted his left hand, and gave it into hers, lying lovingly upon his shoulder, and said, dispassionately, “I have grown old in dealing with men—old before my time. If he who told thee that whereof thou speakest was a friend acquainted with my history, and spoke of it not harshly, he must have persuaded thee that I could not be else than a man distrustful of my kind. The God of Israel help him who, at the end of life, is constrained to acknowledge so much! My loves are few, but they are. One of them is a soul which”—he carried the hand holding his to his lips, in manner unmistakable—“a soul which to this time has been unselfishly mine, and such sweet comfort that, were it taken from me, I would die.”
Esther’s head drooped until her cheek touched his.
“The other love is but a memory; of which I will say further that, like a benison of the Lord, it hath a compass to contain a whole family, if only”—his voice lowered and trembled—“if only I knew where they were.”
Ben-Hur’s face suffused, and, advancing a step, he cried, impulsively, “My mother and sister! Oh, it is of them you speak!”
Esther, as if spoken to, raised her head; but Simonides returned to his calm, and answered, coldly, “Hear me to the end. Because I am that I am, and because of the loves of which I have spoken, before I make return to thy demand touching my relations to the Prince Hur, and as something which of right should come first, do thou show me proofs of who thou art. Is thy witness in writing? Or cometh it in person?”
The demand was plain, and the right of it indisputable. Ben-Hur blushed, clasped his hands, stammered, and turned away at loss. Simonides pressed him.
“The proofs, the proofs, I say! Set them before me—lay them in my hands!”
Yet Ben-Hur had no answer. He had not anticipated the requirement; and, now that it was made, to him as never before came the awful fact that the three years in the galley had carried away all the proofs of his identity; mother and sister gone, he did not live in the knowledge of any human being. Many there were acquainted with him, but that was all. Had Quintus Arrius been present, what could he have said more than where he found him, and that he believed the pretender to be the son of Hur? But, as will presently appear in full, the brave Roman sailor was dead. Judah had felt the loneliness before; to the core of life the sense struck him now. He stood, hands clasped, face averted, in stupefaction. Simonides respected his suffering, and waited in silence.
“Master Simonides,” he said, at length, “I can only tell my story; and I will not that unless you stay judgment so long, and with good-will deign to hear me.”
“Speak,” said Simonides, now, indeed, master of the situation—“speak, and I will listen the more willingly that I have not denied you to be the very person you claim yourself.”
Ben-Hur proceeded then, and told his life hurriedly, yet with the feeling which is the source of all eloquence; but as we are familiar with it down to his landing at Misenum, in company with Arrius, returned victorious from the Ægean, at that point we will take up the words.
“My benefactor was loved and trusted by the emperor, who heaped him with honorable rewards. The merchants of the East contributed magnificent presents, and he became doubly rich among the rich of Rome. May a Jew forget his religion? or his birthplace, if it were the Holy Land of our fathers? The good man adopted me his son by formal rites of law; and I strove to make him just return: no child was ever more dutiful to father than I to him. He would have had me a scholar; in art, philosophy, rhetoric, oratory, he would have furnished me the most famous teacher. I declined his insistence, because I was a Jew, and could not forget the Lord God, or the glory of the prophets, or the city set on the hills by David and Solomon. Oh, ask you why I accepted any of the benefactions of the Roman? I loved him; next place, I thought with his help, array influences which would enable me one day to unseal the mystery close-locking the fate of my mother and sister; and to these there was yet another motive of which I shall not speak except to say it controlled me so far that I devoted myself to arms, and the acquisition of everything deemed essential to thorough knowledge of the art of war. In the palaestræ and circuses of the city I toiled, and in the camps no less; and in all of them I have a name, but not that of my fathers. The crowns I won—and on the walls of the villa by Misenum there are many of them—all came to me as the son of Arrius, the duumvir. In that relation only am I known among Romans. . . . In steadfast pursuit of my secret aim, I left Rome for Antioch, intending to accompany the Consul Maxentius in the campaign he is organizing against the Parthians. Master of personal skill in all arms, I seek now the higher knowledge pertaining to the conduct of bodies of men in the field. The consul has admitted me one of his military family. But yesterday, as our ship entered the Orontes, two other ships sailed in with us flying yellow flags. A fellow-passenger and countryman from Cyprus explained that the vessels belonged to Simonides, the master-merchant of Antioch; he told us, also, who the merchant was; his marvellous success in commerce; of his fleets and caravans, and their coming and going; and, not knowing I had interest in the theme beyond my associate listeners, he said Simonides was a Jew, once the servant of the Prince Hur; nor did he conceal the cruelties of Gratus, or the purpose of their infliction.”
At this allusion Simonides bowed his head, and, as if to help him conceal his feelings and her own deep sympathy, the daughter hid her face on his neck. Directly he raised his eyes, and said, in a clear voice, “I am listening.”
“O good Simonides!” Ben-Hur then said, advancing a step, his whole soul seeking expression, “I see thou art not convinced, and that yet I stand in the shadow of thy distrust.”
The merchant held his features fixed as marble, and his tongue as still.
“And not less clearly, I see the difficulties of my position,” Ben-Hur continued. “All my Roman connection I can prove; I have only to call upon the consul, now the guest of the governor of the city; but I cannot prove the particulars of thy demand upon me. I cannot prove I am my father’s son. They who could serve me in that—alas! they are dead or lost.”
He covered his face with his hands; whereupon Esther arose, and, taking the rejected cup to him, said, “The wine is of the country we all so love. Drink, I pray thee!”
The voice was sweet as that of Rebekah offering drink at the well near Nahor the city; he saw there were tears in her eyes, and he drank, saying, “Daughter of Simonides, thy heart is full of goodness; and merciful art thou to let the stranger share it with thy father. Be thou blessed of our God! I thank thee.”
Then he addressed himself to the merchant again:
“As I have no proof that I am my father’s son, I will withdraw that I demanded of thee, O Simonides, and go hence to trouble you no more; only let me say I did not seek thy return to servitude nor account of thy fortune; in any event, I would have said, as now I say, that all which is product of thy labor and genius is thine; keep it in welcome. I have no need of any part thereof. When the good Quintus, my second father, sailed on the voyage which was his last, he left me his heir, princely rich. If, therefore, thou cost think of me again, be it with remembrance of this question, which, as I do swear by the prophets and Jehovah, thy God and mine, was the chief purpose of my coming here: What cost thou know—what canst thou tell me—of my mother and Tirzah, my sister—she who should be in beauty and grace even as this one, thy sweetness of life, if not thy very life? Oh! what canst thou tell me of them?”
The tears ran down Esther’s cheeks; but the man was wilful: in a clear voice, he replied,
“I have said I knew the Prince Ben-Hur. I remember hearing of the misfortune which overtook his family. I remember the bitterness with which I heard it. He who wrought such misery to the widow of my friend is the same who, in the same spirit, hath since wrought upon me. I will go further, and say to you, I have made diligent quest concerning the family, but—I have nothing to tell you of them. They are lost.”
Ben-Hur uttered a great groan.
“Then—then it is another hope broken!” he said, struggling with his feelings. “I am used to disappointments. I pray you pardon my intrusion; and if I have occasioned you annoyance, forgive it because of my sorrow. I have nothing now to live for but vengeance. Farewell.”
At the curtain he turned, and said, simply, “I thank you both.”
“Peace go with you,” the merchant said.
Esther could not speak for sobbing.
And so he departed.