IF the reader will return now to the repast of the wise men at their meeting in the desert, he will understand the preparations for the supper in Ilderim’s tent. The differences were chiefly such as were incident to ampler means and better service.
Three rugs were spread on the carpet within the space so nearly enclosed by the divan; a table not more than a foot in height was brought and set within the same place, and covered with a cloth. Off to one side a portable earthenware oven was established under the presidency of a woman whose duty it was to keep the company in bread, or, more precisely, in hot cakes of flour from the handmills grinding with constant sound in a neighboring tent.
Meanwhile Balthasar was conducted to the divan, where Ilderim and Ben-Hur received him standing. A loose black gown covered his person; his step was feeble, and his whole movement slow and cautious, apparently dependent upon a long staff and the arm of a servant.
“Peace to you, my friend,” said Ilderim, respectfully. “Peace and welcome.”
The Egyptian raised his head and replied, “And to thee, good sheik—to thee and thine, peace and the blessing of the One God—God the true and loving.”
The manner was gentle and devout, and impressed Ben-Hur with a feeling of awe; besides which the blessing included in the answering salutation had been partly addressed to him, and while that part was being spoken, the eyes of the aged guest, hollow yet luminous, rested upon his face long enough to stir an emotion new and mysterious, and so strong that he again and again during the repast scanned the much wrinkled and bloodless face for its meaning; but always there was the expression bland, placid, and trustful as a child’s. A little later he found that expression habitual.
“This is he, O Balthasar,” said the sheik, laying his hand on Ben-Hur’s arm, “who will break bread with us this evening.”
The Egyptian glanced at the young man, and looked again surprised and doubting; seeing which the sheik continued, “I have promised him my horses for trial to-morrow; and if all goes well, he will drive them in the Circus.”
Balthasar continued his gaze.
“He came well recommended,” Ilderim pursued, much puzzled. “You may know him as the son of Arrius, who was a noble Roman sailor, though”—the sheik hesitated, then resumed, with a laugh—“though he declares himself an Israelite of the tribe of Judah; and, by the splendor of God, I believe that he tells me!”
Balthasar could no longer withhold explanation.
“To-day, O most generous sheik, my life was in peril, and would have been lost had not a youth, the counterpart of this one—if, indeed, he be not the very same—intervened when all others fled, and saved me.” Then he addressed Ben-Hur directly, “Art thou not he?”
“I cannot answer so far,” Ben-Hur replied, with modest deference. “I am he who stopped the horses of the insolent Roman when they were rushing upon thy camel at the Fountain of Castalia. Thy daughter left a cup with me.”
From the bosom of his tunic he produced the cup, and gave it to Balthasar.
A glow lighted the faded countenance of the Egyptian.
“The Lord sent thee to me at the Fountain to-day,” he said, in a tremulous voice, stretching his hand towards Ben-Hur; “and he sends thee to me now. I give him thanks; and praise him thou, for of his favor I have wherewith to give thee great reward, and I will. The cup is thine; keep it.”
Ben-Hur took back the gift, and Balthasar, seeing the inquiry upon Ilderim’s face, related the occurrence at the Fountain.
“What!” said the sheik to Ben-Hur. “Thou saidst nothing of this to me, when better recommendation thou couldst not have brought. Am I not an Arab, and sheik of my tribe of tens of thousands? And is not he my guest? And is it not in my guest-bond that the good or evil thou dost him is good or evil done to me? Whither shouldst thou go for reward but here? And whose the hand to give it but mine?”
His voice at the end of the speech rose to cutting shrillness.
“Good sheik, spare me, I pray. I came not for reward, great or small; and that I may be acquitted of the thought, I say the help I gave this excellent man would have been given as well to thy humblest servant.”
“But he is my friend, my guest—not my servant; and seest thou not in the difference the favor of Fortune?” Then to Balthasar the sheik subjoined, “Ah, by the splendor of God! I tell thee again he is not a Roman.”
With that he turned away, and gave attention to the servants, whose preparations for the supper were about complete.
The reader who recollects the history of Balthasar as given by himself at the meeting in the desert will understand the effect of Ben-Hur’s assertion of disinterestedness upon that worthy. In his devotion to men there had been, it will be remembered, no distinctions; while the redemption which had been promised him in the way of reward—the redemption for which he was waiting—was universal. To him, therefore, the assertion sounded somewhat like an echo of himself. He took a step nearer Ben-Hur, and spoke to him in the childlike way.
“How did the sheik say I should call you? It was a Roman name, I think.”
“Arrius, the son of Arrius.”
“Yet thou art not a Roman?”
“All my people were Jews.”
“Were, saidst thou? Are they not living?”
The question was subtle as well as simple; but Ilderim saved Ben-Hur from reply.
“Come,” he said to them, “the meal is ready.”
Ben-Hur gave his arm to Balthasar, and conducted him to the table, where shortly they were all seated on their rugs Eastern fashion. The lavers were brought them, and they washed and dried their hands; then the sheik made a sign, the servants stopped, and the voice of the Egyptian arose tremulous with holy feeling.
“Father of All—God! What we have is of thee; take our thanks, and bless us, that we may continue to do thy will.”
It was the grace the good man had said simultaneously with his brethren Gaspar the Greek and Melchior the Hindoo, the utterance in diverse tongues out of which had come the miracle attesting the Divine Presence at the meal in the desert years before.
The table to which they immediately addressed themselves was, as may be thought, rich in the substantials and delicacies favorite in the East—in cakes hot from the oven, vegetables from the gardens, meats singly, compounds of meats and vegetables, milk of kine, and honey and butter—all eaten or drunk, it should be remarked, without any of the modern accessories—knives, forks, spoons, cups, or plates; and in this part of the repast but little was said, for they were hungry. But when the dessert was in course it was otherwise. They laved their hands again, had the lap-cloths shaken out, and with a renewed table and the sharp edge of their appetites gone they were disposed to talk and listen.
With such a company—an Arab, a Jew, and an Egyptian, all believers alike in one God—there could be at that age but one subject of conversation; and of the three, which should be speaker but he to whom the Deity had been so nearly a personal appearance, who had seen him in a star, had heard his voice in direction, had been led so far and so miraculously by his Spirit? And of what should he talk but that of which he had been called to testify?