AN HOUR or thereabouts after the scene upon the roof, Balthasar and Simonides, the latter attended by Esther, met in the great chamber of the palace; and while they were talking, Ben-Hur and Iras came in together.
The young Jew, advancing in front of his companion, walked first to Balthasar, and saluted him, and received his reply; then he turned to Simonides, but paused at sight of Esther.
It is not often we have hearts roomy enough for more than one of the absorbing passions at the same time; in its blaze the others may continue to live, but only as lesser lights. So with Ben-Hur, much study of possibilities, indulgence of hopes and dreams, influences born of the condition of his country, influences more direct—that of Iras, for example—had made him in the broadest worldly sense ambitious; and as he had given the passion place, allowing it to become a rule, and finally an imperious governor, the resolves and impulses of former days faded imperceptibly out of being, and at last almost out of recollection. It is at best so easy to forget our youth; in his case it was but natural that his own sufferings and the mystery darkening the fate of his family should move him less and less as, in hope at least, he approached nearer and nearer the goals which occupied all his visions. Only let us not judge him too harshly.
He paused in surprise at seeing Esther a woman now, and so beautiful; and as he stood looking at her a still voice reminded him of broken vows and duties undone: almost his old self returned.
For an instant he was startled; but recovering, he went to Esther, and said, “Peace to thee, sweet Esther—peace; and thou, Simonides”—he looked to the merchant as he spoke—“the blessing of the Lord be thine, if only because thou hast been a good father to the fatherless.”
Esther heard him with downcast face; Simonides answered,
“I repeat the welcome of the good Balthasar, son of Hur—welcome to thy father’s house; and sit, and tell us of thy travels, and of thy work, and of the wonderful Nazarene—who he is, and what. If thou art not at ease here, who shall be? Sit, I pray—there, between us, that we may all hear.”
Esther stepped out quickly and brought a covered stool, and set it for him.
“Thanks,” he said to her, gratefully.
When seated, after some other conversation, he addressed himself to the men.
“I have come to tell you of the Nazarene.”
The two became instantly attentive.
“For many days now I have followed him with such watchfulness as one may give another upon whom he is waiting so anxiously. I have seen him under all circumstances said to be trials and tests of men; and while I am certain he is a man as I am, not less certain am I that he is something more.”
“What more?” asked Simonides.
“I will tell you—”
Some one coming into the room interrupted him; he turned, and arose with extended hands.
“Amrah! Dear old Amrah!” he cried.
She came forward; and they, seeing the joy in her face, thought not once how wrinkled and tawny it was. She knelt at his feet, clasped his knees, and kissed his hands over and over; and when he could he put the lank gray hair from her cheeks, and kissed them, saying, “Good Amrah, have you nothing, nothing of them—not a word—not one little sign?”
Then she broke into sobbing which made him answer plainer even than the spoken word.
“God’s will has been done,” he next said, solemnly, in a tone to make each listener know he had no hope more of finding his people. In his eyes there were tears which he would not have them see, because he was a man.
When he could again, he took seat, and said, “Come, sit by me, Amrah—here. No? then at my feet; for I have much to say to these good friends of a wonderful man come into the world.”
But she went off, and stooping with her back to the wall, joined her hands before her knees, content, they all thought, with seeing him. Then Ben-Hur, bowing to the old men, began again:
“I fear to answer the question asked me about the Nazarene without first telling you some of the things I have seen him do; and to that I am the more inclined, my friends, because to-morrow he will come to the city, and go up into the Temple, which he calls his father’s house, where, it is further said, he will proclaim himself. So, whether you are right, O Balthasar, or you, Simonides, we and Israel shall know to-morrow.”
Balthasar rubbed his hands tremulously together, and asked, “Where shall I go to see him?”
“The pressure of the crowd will be very great. Better, I think, that you all go upon the roof above the cloisters—say upon the Porch of Solomon.”
“Can you be with us?”
“No,” said Ben-Hur, “my friends will require me, perhaps, in the procession.”
“Procession!” exclaimed Simonides. “Does he travel in state?”
Ben-Hur saw the argument in mind.
“He brings twelve men with him, fishermen, tillers of the soil, one a publican, all of the humbler class; and he and they make their journeys on foot, careless of wind, cold, rain, or sun. Seeing them stop by the wayside at nightfall to break bread or lie down to sleep, I have been reminded of a party of shepherds going back to their flocks from market, not of nobles and kings. Only when he lifts the corners of his handkerchief to look at some one or shake the dust from his head, I am made known he is their teacher as well as their companion—their superior not less than their friend.
“You are shrewd men,” Ben-Hur resumed, after a pause. “You know what creatures of certain master motives we are, and that it has become little less than a law of our nature to spend life in eager pursuit of certain objects; now, appealing to that law as something by which we may know ourselves, what would you say of a man who could be rich by making gold of the stones under his feet, yet is poor of choice?”
“The Greeks would call him a philosopher,” said Iras.
“Nay, daughter,” said Balthasar, “the philosophers had never the power to do such thing.”
“How know you this man has?”
Ben-Hur answered quickly, “I saw him turn water into wine.”
“Very strange, very strange,” said Simonides; “but it is not so strange to me as that he should prefer to live poor when he could be so rich. Is he so poor?”
“He owns nothing, and envies nobody his owning. He pities the rich. But passing that, what would you say to see a man multiply seven loaves and two fishes, all his store, into enough to feed five thousand people, and have full baskets over? That I saw the Nazarene do.”
“You saw it?” exclaimed Simonides.
“Ay, and ate of the bread and fish.”
“More marvellous still,” Ben-Hur continued, “what would you say of a man in whom there is such healing virtue that the sick have but to touch the hem of his garment to be cured, or cry to him afar? That, too, I witnessed, not once, but many times. As we came out of Jericho two blind men by the wayside called to the Nazarene, and he touched their eyes, and they saw. So they brought a palsied man to him, and he said merely, ‘Go unto thy house,’ and the man went away well. What say you to these things?”
The merchant had no answer.
“Think you now, as I have heard others argue, that what I have told you are tricks of jugglery? Let me answer by recalling greater things which I have seen him do. Look first to that curse of God—comfortless, as you all know, except by death—leprosy.”
At these words Amrah dropped her hands to the floor, and in her eagerness to hear him half arose.
“What would you say,” said Ben-Hur, with increased earnestness—“what would you say to have seen that I now tell you? A leper came to the Nazarene while I was with him down in Galilee, and said, ‘Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.’ He heard the cry, and touched the outcast with his hand, saying, ‘Be thou clean;’ and forthwith the man was himself again, healthful as any of us who beheld the cure, and we were a multitude.”
Here Amrah arose, and with her gaunt fingers held the wiry locks from her eyes. The brain of the poor creature had long since gone to heart, and she was troubled to follow the speech.
“Then, again,” said Ben-Hur, without stop, “ten lepers came to him one day in a body, and falling at his feet, called out—I saw and heard it all—called out, ‘Master, Master, have mercy upon us!’ He told them, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priest, as the law requires; and before you are come there ye shall be healed.’”
“And were they?”
“Yes. On the road going their infirmity left them, so that there was nothing to remind us of it except their polluted clothes.”
“Such thing was never heard before—never in all Israel!” said Simonides, in undertone.
And then, while he was speaking, Amrah turned away, and walked noiselessly to the door, and went out; and none of the company saw her go.
“The thoughts stirred by such things done under my eyes I leave you to imagine,” said Ben-Hur, continuing; “but my doubts, my misgivings, my amazement, were not yet at the full. The people of Galilee are, as you know, impetuous and rash; after years of waiting their swords burned their hands; nothing would do them but action. ‘He is slow to declare himself; let us force him,’ they cried to me. And I too became impatient. If he is to be king, why not now? The legions are ready. So as he was once teaching by the seaside we would have crowned him whether or not; but he disappeared, and was next seen on a ship departing from the shore. Good Simonides, the desires that make other men mad—riches, power, even kingships offered out of great love by a great people—move this one not at all. What say you?”
The merchant’s chin was low upon his breast; raising his head, he replied, resolutely, “The Lord liveth, and so do the words of the prophets. Time is in the green yet; let to-morrow answer.”
“Be it so,” said Balthasar, smiling.
And Ben-Hur said, “Be it so.” Then he went on: “But I have not yet done. From these things, not too great to be above suspicion by such as did not see them in performance as I did, let me carry you now to others infinitely greater, acknowledged since the world began to be past the power of man. Tell me, has any one to your knowledge ever reached out and taken from Death what Death has made his own? Who ever gave again the breath of a life lost? Who but—”
“God!” said Balthasar, reverently.
“O wise Egyptian! I may not refuse the name you lend me. What would you—or you, Simonides—what would you either or both have said had you seen as I did, a man, with few words and no ceremony, without effort more than a mother’s when she speaks to wake her child asleep, undo the work of Death? It was down at Nain. We were about going into the gate, when a company came out bearing a dead man. The Nazarene stopped to let the train pass. There was a woman among them crying. I saw his face soften with pity. He spoke to her, then went and touched the bier, and said to him who lay upon it dressed for burial, ‘Young man, I say unto thee, Arise!’ And instantly the dead sat up and talked.”
“God only is so great,” said Balthasar to Simonides.
“Mark you,” Ben-Hur proceeded, “I do but tell you things of which I was a witness, together with a cloud of other men. On the way hither I saw another act still more mighty. In Bethany there was a man named Lazarus, who died and was buried; and after he had lain four days in a tomb, shut in by a great stone, the Nazarene was shown to the place. Upon rolling the stone away, we beheld the man lying inside bound and rotting. There were many people standing by, and we all heard what the Nazarene said, for he spoke in a loud voice: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ I cannot tell you my feelings when in answer, as it were, the man arose and came out to us with all his cerements about him. ‘Loose him,’ said the Nazarene next, ‘loose him, and let him go.’ And when the napkin was taken from the face of the resurrected, lo, my friends! the blood ran anew through the wasted body, and he was exactly as he had been in life before the sickness that took him off. He lives yet, and is hourly seen and spoken to. You may go see him to-morrow. And now, as nothing more is needed for the purpose, I ask you that which I came to ask, it being but a repetition of what you asked me, O Simonides, What more than a man is this Nazarene?”
The question was put solemnly, and long after midnight the company sat and debated it; Simonides being yet unwilling to give up his understanding of the sayings of the prophets, and Ben-Hur contending that the elder disputants were both right—that the Nazarene was the Redeemer, as claimed by Balthasar, and also the destined king the merchant would have.
“To-morrow we will see. Peace to you all.”
So saying, Ben-Hur took his leave, intending to return to Bethany.