IN FRONT of Ben-Hur there was a forest of cypress-trees, each a column tall and straight as a mast. Venturing into the shady precinct, he heard a trumpet gayly blown, and an instant after saw lying upon the grass close by the countryman whom he had run upon in the road going to the temples. The man arose, and came to him.
“I give you peace again,” he said, pleasantly.
“Thank you,” Ben-Hur replied, then asked, “Go you my way?”
“I am for the stadium, if that is your way.”
“Yes. The trumpet you heard but now was a call for the competitors.”
“Good friend,” said Ben-Hur, frankly, “I admit my ignorance of the Grove; and if you will let me be your follower, I will be glad.”
“That will delight me. Hark! I hear the wheels of the chariots. They are taking the track.”
Ben-Hur listened a moment, then completed the introduction by laying his hand upon the man’s arm, and saying, “I am the son of Arrius, the duumvir, and thou?”
“I am Malluch, a merchant of Antioch.”
“Well, good Malluch, the trumpet, and the gride of wheels, and the prospect of diversion excite me. I have some skill in the exercises. In the palaestræ of Rome I am not unknown. Let us to the course.”
Malluch lingered to say, quickly, “The duumvir was a Roman, yet I see his son in the garments of a Jew.”
“The noble Arrius was my father by adoption,” Ben-Hur answered.
“Ah! I see, and beg pardon.”
Passing through the belt of forest, they came to a field with a track laid out upon it, in shape and extent exactly like those of the stadia. The course, or track proper, was of soft earth, rolled and sprinkled, and on both sides defined by ropes, stretched loosely upon upright javelins. For the accommodation of spectators, and such as had interests reaching forward of the mere practise, there were several stands shaded by substantial awnings, and provided with seats in rising rows. In one of the stands the two new-comers found places.
Ben-Hur counted the chariots as they went by—nine in all.
“I commend the fellows,” he said, with good-will. “Here in the East, I thought they aspired to nothing better than the two; but they are ambitious, and play with royal fours. Let us study their performance.”
Eight of the fours passed the stand, some walking, others on the trot, and all unexceptionably handled; then the ninth one came on the gallop. Ben-Hur burst into exclamation.
“I have been in the stables of the emperor, Malluch, but, by our father Abraham of blessed memory! I never saw the like of these.”
The last four was then sweeping past. All at once they fell into confusion. Some one on the stand uttered a sharp cry. Ben-Hur turned, and saw an old man half-risen from an upper seat, his hands clenched and raised, his eyes fiercely bright, his long white beard fairly quivering. Some of the spectators nearest him began to laugh.
“They should respect his beard at least. Who is he?” asked Ben-Hur.
“A mighty man from the Desert, somewhere beyond Moab, and owner of camels in herds, and horses descended, they say, from the racers of the first Pharaoh—Sheik Ilderim by name and title.”
Thus Malluch replied.
The driver meanwhile exerted himself to quiet the four, but without avail. Each ineffectual effort excited the sheik the more.
“Abaddon seize him!” yelled the patriarch, shrilly. “Run! fly! do you hear, my children?” The question was to his attendants, apparently of the tribe. “Do you hear? They are Desert-born, like yourselves. Catch them—quick!”
The plunging of the animals increased.
“Accursed Roman!” and the sheik shook his fist at the driver. “Did he not swear he could drive them—swear it by all his brood of bastard Latin gods? Nay, hands off me—off, I say! They should run swift as eagles, and with the temper of hand-bred lambs, he swore. Cursed be he—cursed the mother of liars who calls him son! See them, the priceless! Let him touch one of them with a lash, and”—the rest of the sentence was lost in a furious grinding of his teeth. “To their heads, some of you, and speak them—a word, one is enough, from the tent-song your mothers sang you. Oh, fool, fool that I was to put trust in a Roman!”
Some of the shrewder of the old man’s friends planted themselves between him and the horses. An opportune failure of breath on his part helped the stratagem.
Ben-Hur, thinking he comprehended the sheik, sympathized with him. Far more than mere pride of property—more than anxiety for the result of the race—in his view it was within the possible for the patriarch, according to his habits of thought and his ideas of the inestimable, to love such animals with a tenderness akin to the most sensitive passion.
They were all bright bays, unspotted, perfectly matched, and so proportioned as to seem less than they really were. Delicate ears pointed small heads; the faces were broad and full between the eyes; the nostrils in expansion disclosed membrane so deeply red as to suggest the flashing of flame; the necks were arches, overlaid with fine mane so abundant as to drape the shoulders and breast, while in happy consonance the forelocks were like ravellings of silken veils; between the knees and the fetlocks the legs were flat as an open hand, but above the knees they were rounded with mighty muscles, needful to upbear the shapely close-knit bodies; the hoofs were like cups of polished agate; and in rearing and plunging they whipped the air, and sometimes the earth, with tails glossy-black and thick and long. The sheik spoke of them as the priceless, and it was a good saying.
In this second and closer look at the horses, Ben-Hur read the story of their relation to their master. They had grown up under his eyes, objects of his special care in the day, his visions of pride in the night, with his family at home in the black tent out on the shadeless bosom of the desert, as his children beloved. That they might win him a triumph over the haughty and hated Roman, the old man had brought his loves to the city, never doubting they would win, if only he could find a trusty expert to take them in hand; not merely one with skill, but of a spirit which their spirits would acknowledge. Unlike the colder people of the West, he could not protest the driver’s inability, and dismiss him civilly; an Arab and a sheik, he had to explode, and rive the air about him with clamor.
Before the patriarch was done with his expletives, a dozen hands were at the bits of the horses, and their quiet assured. About that time, another chariot appeared upon the track; and, unlike the others, driver, vehicle, and races were precisely as they would be presented in the Circus the day of final trial. For a reason which will presently be more apparent, it is desirable now to give this turnout plainly to the reader.
There should be no difficulty in understanding the carriage known to us all as the chariot of classical renown. One has but to picture to himself a dray with low wheels and broad axle, surmounted by a box open at the tail end. Such was the primitive pattern. Artistic genius came along in time, and, touching the rude machine, raised it into a thing of beauty—that, for instance, in which Aurora, riding in advance of the dawn, is given to our fancy.
The jockeys of the ancients, quite as shrewd and ambitious as their successors of the present, called their humblest turnout a two, and their best in grade a four; in the latter, they contested the Olympics and the other festal shows founded in imitation of them.
The same sharp gamesters preferred to put their horses to the chariot all abreast; and for distinction they termed the two next the pole yoke-steeds, and those on the right and left outside trace-mates. It was their judgment, also, that, by allowing the fullest freedom of action, the greatest speed was attainable; accordingly, the harness resorted to was peculiarly simple; in fact, there was nothing of it save a collar round the animal’s neck, and a trace fixed to the collar, unless the lines and a halter fall within the term. Wanting to hitch up, the masters pinned a narrow wooden yoke, or cross-tree, near the end of the pole, and, by straps passed through rings at the end of the yoke, buckled the latter to the collar. The traces of the yokesteeds they hitched to the axle; those of the trace-mates to the top rim of the chariot-bed. There remained then but the adjustment of the lines, which, judged by the modern devices, was not the least curious part of the method. For this there was a large ring at the forward extremity of the pole; securing the ends to that ring first, they parted the lines so as to give one to each horse, and proceeded to pass them to the driver, slipping them separately through rings on the inner side of the halters at the mouth.
With this plain generalization in mind, all further desirable knowledge upon the subject can be had by following the incidents of the scene occurring.
The other contestants had been received in silence; the last comer was more fortunate. While moving towards the stand from which we are viewing the scene, his progress was signalized by loud demonstrations, by clapping of hands and cheers, the effect of which was to centre attention upon him exclusively. His yoke-steeds, it was observed, were black, while the trace-mates were snow-white. In conformity to the exacting canons of Roman taste, they had all four been mutilated; that is to say, their tails had been clipped, and, to complete the barbarity, their shorn manes were divided into knots tied with flaring red and yellow ribbons.
In advancing, the stranger at length reached a point where the chariot came into view from the stand, and its appearance would of itself have justified the shouting. The wheels were very marvels of construction. Stout bands of burnished bronze reinforced the hubs, otherwise very light; the spokes were sections of ivory tusks, set in with the natural curve outward to perfect the dishing, considered important then as now; bronze tires held the fellies, which were of shining ebony. The axle, in keeping with the wheels, was tipped with heads of snarling tigers done in brass, and the bed was woven of willow wands gilded with gold.
The coming of the beautiful horses and resplendent chariot drew Ben-Hur to look at the driver with increased interest.
Who was he?
When Ben-Hur asked himself the question first, he could not see the man’s face, or even his full figure; yet the air and manner were familiar, and pricked him keenly with a reminder of a period long gone.
Who could it be?
Nearer now, and the horses approaching at a trot. From the shouting and the gorgeousness of the turnout, it was thought he might be some official favorite or famous prince. Such an appearance was not inconsistent with exalted rank. Kings often struggled for the crown of leaves which was the prize of victory. Nero and Commodus, it will be remembered, devoted themselves to the chariot. Ben-Hur arose and forced a passage down nearly to the railing in front of the lower seat of the stand. His face was earnest, his manner eager.
And directly the whole person of the driver was in view. A companion rode with him, in classic description a Myrtilus, permitted men of high estate indulging their passion for the race-course. Ben-Hur could see only the driver, standing erect in the chariot, with the reins passed several times round his body—a handsome figure, scantily covered by a tunic of light-red cloth; in the right hand a whip; in the other, the arm raised and lightly extended, the four lines. The pose was exceedingly graceful and animated. The cheers and clapping of hands were received with statuesque indifference. Ben-Hur stood transfixed—his instinct and memory had served him faithfully—the driver was Messala.
By the selection of horses, the magnificence of the chariot, the attitude, and display of person—above all, by the expression of the cold, sharp, eagle features, imperialized in his countrymen by sway of the world through so many generations, Ben-Hur knew Messala unchanged, as haughty, confident, and audacious as ever, the same in ambition, cynicism, and mocking insouciance.