IT WAS Ben-Hur’s purpose to turn aside at the break of day, and find a safe place in which to rest; but the dawn overtook him while out in the Desert, and he kept on, the guide promising to bring him afterwhile to a vale shut in by great rocks, where there were a spring, some mulberry-trees, and herbage in plenty for the horses.
As he rode thinking of the wondrous events so soon to happen, and of the changes they were to bring about in the affairs of men and nations, the guide, ever on the alert, called attention to an appearance of strangers behind them. Everywhere around the Desert stretched away in waves of sand, slowly yellowing in the growing light, and without any green thing visible. Over on the left, but still far off, a range of low mountains extended, apparently interminable. In the vacancy of such a waste an object in motion could not long continue a mystery.
“It is a camel with riders,” the guide said, directly.
“Are there others behind?” said Ben-Hur.
“It is alone. No, there is a man on horseback—the driver, probably.”
A little later Ben-Hur himself could see the camel was white and unusually large, reminding him of the wonderful animal he had seen bring Balthasar and Iras to the fountain in the Grove of Daphne. There could be no other like it. Thinking then of the fair Egyptian, insensibly his gait became slower, and at length fell into the merest loiter, until finally he could discern a curtained houdah, and two persons seated within it. If they were Balthasar and Iras! Should he make himself known to them? But it could not be: this was the Desert—and they were alone. But while he debated the question the long swinging stride of the camel brought its riders up to him. He heard the ringing of the tiny bells, and beheld the rich housings which had been so attractive to the crowd at the Castalian fount. He beheld also the Ethiopian, always attendant upon the Egyptians. The tall brute stopped close by his horse, and Ben-Hur, looking up, lo! Iras herself under the raised curtain looking down at him, her great swimming eyes bright with astonishment and inquiry!
“The blessing of the true God upon you!” said Balthasar, in his tremulous voice.
“And to thee and thine be the peace of the Lord,” Ben-Hur replied.
“My eyes are weak with years,” said Balthasar; “but they approve you that son of Hur whom lately I knew an honored guest in the tent of Ilderim the Generous.”
“And thou art that Balthasar, the wise Egyptian, whose speech concerning certain holy things in expectation is having so much to do with the finding me in this waste place. What dost thou here?”
“He is never alone who is where God is—and God is everywhere,” Balthasar answered, gravely; “but in the sense of your asking, there is a caravan short way behind us going to Alexandria; and as it is to pass through Jerusalem, I thought best to avail myself of its company as far as the Holy City, whither I am journeying. This morning, however, in discontent with its slow movement—slower because of a Roman cohort in attendance upon it—we rose early, and ventured thus far in advance. As to robbers along the way, we are not afraid, for I have here a signet of Sheik Ilderim; against beasts of prey, God is our sufficient trust.”
Ben-Hur bowed and said, “The good sheik’s signet is a safeguard wherever the wilderness extends, and the lion shall be swift that overtakes this king of his kind.”
He patted the neck of the camel as he spoke.
“Yet,” said Iras, with a smile which was not lost upon the youth, whose eyes, it must be admitted, had several times turned to her during the interchange of speeches with the elder—“Yet even he would be better if his fast were broken. Kings have hunger and headaches. If you be, indeed, the Ben-Hur of whom my father has spoken, and whom it was my pleasure to have known as well, you will be happy, I am sure, to show us some near path to living water, that with its sparkle we may grace a morning’s meal in the Desert.”
Ben-Hur, nothing loath, hastened to answer.
“Fair Egyptian, I give you sympathy. Can you bear suffering a little longer, we will find the spring you ask for, and I promise that its draught shall be as sweet and cooling as that of the more famous Castalia. With leave, we will make haste.”
“I give you the blessing of the thirsty,” she replied; “and offer you in return a bit of bread from the city ovens, dipped in fresh butter from the dewy meadows of Damascus.”
“A most rare favor! Let us go on.”
So saying, Ben-Hur rode forward with the guide, one of the inconveniences of travelling with camels being that it is necessarily an interdiction of polite conversation.
Afterwhile the party came to a shallow wady, down which, turning to the right hand, the guide led them. The bed of the cut was somewhat soft from recent rains, and quite bold in its descent. Momentarily, however, it widened; and erelong the sides became bluffs ribbed with rocks much scarred by floods rushing to lower depths ahead. Finally, from a narrow passage, the travellers entered a spreading vale which was very delightful; but come upon suddenly from the yellow, unrelieved, verdureless plain, it had the effect of a freshly discovered Paradise. The water-channels winding here and there, definable by crisp white shingling, appeared like threads tangled among islands green with grasses and fringed with reeds. Up from the final depths of the valley of the Jordan some venturous oleanders had crept, and with their large bloom now starred the sunken place. One palm-tree arose in royal assertion. The bases of the boundary-walls were cloaked with clambering vines, and under a leaning cliff over on the left the mulberry grove had planted itself, proclaiming the spring which the party were seeking. And thither the guide conducted them, careless of whistling partridges and lesser birds of brighter hues roused whirring from the reedy coverts.
The water started from a crack in the cliff which some loving hand had enlarged into an arched cavity. Graven over it in bold Hebraic letters was the word GOD. The graver had no doubt drunk there, and tarried many days, and given thanks in that durable form. From the arch the stream ran merrily over a flag spotted with bright moss, and leaped into a pool glassy clear; thence it stole away between grassy banks, nursing the trees before it vanished in the thirsty sand. A few narrow paths were noticeable about the margin of the pool; otherwise the space around was untrodden turf, at sight of which the guide was assured of rest free from intrusion by men. The horses were presently turned loose, and from the kneeling camel the Ethiopian assisted Balthasar and Iras; whereupon the old man, turning his face to the east, crossed his hands reverently upon his breast and prayed.
“Bring me a cup,” Iras said, with some impatience.
From the houdah the slave brought her a crystal goblet; then she said to Ben-Hur,
“I will be your servant at the fountain.”
They walked to the pool together. He would have dipped the water for her, but she refused his offer, and kneeling, held the cup to be filled by the stream itself; nor yet content, when it was cooled and overrunning, she tendered him the first draught.
“No,” he said, putting the graceful hand aside, and seeing only the large eyes half hidden beneath the arches of the upraised brows, “be the service mine, I pray.”
She persisted in having her way.
“In my country, O son of Hur, we have a saying, ‘Better a cupbearer to the fortunate than minister to a king.’”
“Fortunate!” he said.
There were both surprise and inquiry in the tone of his voice and in his look, and she said quickly,
“The gods give us success as a sign by which we may know them on our side. Were you not winner in the Circus?”
His cheeks began to flush.
“That was one sign. There is another. In a combat with swords you slew a Roman.”
The flush deepened—not so much for the triumphs themselves as the flattery there was in the thought that she had followed his career with interest. A moment, and the pleasure was succeeded by a reflection. The combat, he knew, was matter of report throughout the East; but the name of the victor had been committed to a very few—Malluch, Ilderim, and Simonides. Could they have made a confidante of the woman? So with wonder and gratification he was confused; and seeing it, she arose and said, holding the cup over the pool,
“O gods of Egypt! I give thanks for a hero discovered—thanks that the victim in the Palace of Idernee was not my king of men. And so, O holy gods, I pour and drink.”
Part of the contents of the cup she returned to the stream, the rest she drank. When she took the crystal from her lips, she laughed at him.
“O son of Hur, is it a fashion of the very brave to be so easily overcome by a woman? Take the cup now, and see if you cannot find a happy word in it for me”
He took the cup, and stooped to refill it.
“A son of Israel has no gods whom he can libate,” he said, playing with the water to hide his amazement, now greater than before. What more did the Egyptian know about him? Had she been told of his relations with Simonides? And there was the treaty with Ilderim—had she knowledge of that also? He was struck with mistrust. Somebody had betrayed his secrets, and they were serious. And, besides, he was going to Jerusalem, just then of all the world the place where such intelligence possessed by an enemy might be most dangerous to him, his associates, and the cause. But was she an enemy? It is well for us that, while writing is slow, thought is instantaneous. When the cup was fairly cooled, he filled it and arose, saying, with indifference well affected,
“Most fair, were I an Egyptian or a Greek or a Roman, I would say”—he raised the goblet overhead as he spoke—“O ye better gods! I give thanks that there are yet left to the world, despite its wrongs and sufferings, the charm of beauty and the solace of love, and I drink to her who best represents them—to Iras, loveliest of the daughters of the Nile!”
She laid her hand softly upon his shoulder.
“You have offended against the law. The gods you have drunk to are false gods. Why shall I not tell the rabbis on you?”
“Oh!” he replied, laughing, “that is very little to tell for one who knows so much else that is really important.”
“I will go further—I will go to the little Jewess who makes the roses grow and the shadows flame in the house of the great merchant over in Antioch. To the rabbis I will accuse you of impenitence; to her—”
“Well, to her?”
“I will repeat what you have said to me under the lifted cup, with the gods for witnesses.”
He was still a moment, as if waiting for the Egyptian to go on. With quickened fancy he saw Esther at her father’s side listening to the despatches he had forwarded—sometimes reading them. In her presence he had told Simonides the story of the affair in the Palace of Idernee. She and Iras were acquainted; this one was shrewd and worldly; the other was simple and affectionate, and therefore easily won. Simonides could not have broken faith—nor Ilderim—for if not held by honor, there was no one, unless it might be himself, to whom the consequences of exposure were more serious and certain. Could Esther have been the Egyptian’s informant? He did not accuse her; yet a suspicion was sown with the thought, and suspicions, as we all know, are weeds of the mind which grow of themselves, and most rapidly when least wanted. Before he could answer the allusion to the little Jewess, Balthasar came to the pool.
“We are greatly indebted to you, son of Hur,” he said, in his grave manner. “This vale is very beautiful; the grass, the trees, the shade, invite us to stay and rest, and the spring here has the sparkle of diamonds in motion, and sings to me of a loving God. It is not enough to thank you for the enjoyment we find; come sit with us, and taste our bread.”
“Suffer me first to serve you.”
With that Ben-Hur filled the goblet, and gave it to Balthasar, who lifted his eyes in thanksgiving.
Immediately the slave brought napkins; and after laving their hands and drying them, the three seated themselves in Eastern style under the tent which years before had served the Wise Men at the meeting in the Desert. And they ate heartily of the good things taken from the camel’s pack.