BEN-HUR pitched two tents out on the Upper Cedron east a short space of the Tombs of the Kings, and furnished them with every comfort at his command; and thither, without loss of time, he conducted his mother and sister, to remain until the examining priest could certify their perfect cleansing.
In course of the duty, the young man had subjected himself to such serious defilement as to debar him from participation in the ceremonies of the great feast, then near at hand. He could not enter the least sacred of the courts of the Temple. Of necessity, not less than choice, therefore, he stayed at the tents with his beloved people. There was a great deal to hear from them, and a great deal to tell them of himself.
Stories such as theirs—sad experiences extending through a lapse of years, sufferings of body, acuter sufferings of mind—are usually long in the telling, the incidents seldom following each other in threaded connection. He listened to the narrative and all they told him, with outward patience masking inward feeling. In fact, his hatred of Rome and Romans reached a higher mark than ever; his desire for vengeance became a thirst which attempts at reflection only intensified. In the almost savage bitterness of his humor many mad impulses took hold of him. The opportunities of the highways presented themselves with singular force of temptation; he thought seriously of insurrection in Galilee; even the sea, ordinarily a retrospective horror to him, stretched itself map-like before his fancy, laced and interlaced with lines of passage crowded with imperial plunder and imperial travellers; but the better judgment matured in calmer hours was happily too firmly fixed to be supplanted by present passion however strong. Each mental venture in reach of new expedients brought him back to the old conclusion—that there could be no sound success except in a war involving all Israel in solid union; and all musing upon the subject, all inquiry, all hope, ended where they began—in the Nazarene and his purposes.
At odd moments the excited schemer found a pleasure in fashioning a speech for that person:
“Hear, O Israel! I am he, the promised of God, born King of the Jews—come to you with the dominion spoken of by the prophets. Rise now, and lay hold on the world!”
Would the Nazarene but speak these few words, what a tumult would follow! How many mouths performing the office of trumpets would take them up and blow them abroad for the massing of armies!
Would he speak them?
And eager to begin the work, and answering in the worldly way, Ben-Hur lost sight of the double nature of the man, and of the other possibility, that the divine in him might transcend the human. In the miracle of which Tirzah and his mother were the witnesses even more nearly than himself, he saw and set apart and dwelt upon a power ample enough to raise and support a Jewish crown over the wrecks of the Italian, and more than ample to remodel society, and convert mankind into one purified happy family; and when that work was done, could any one say the peace which might then be ordered without hindrance was not a mission worthy a son of God? Could any one then deny the Redeemership of the Christ? And discarding all consideration of political consequences, what unspeakable personal glory there would then be to him as a man? It was not in the nature of any mere mortal to refuse such a career.
Meantime down the Cedron, and in towards Bezetha, especially on the roadsides quite up to the Damascus Gate, the country filled rapidly with all kinds of temporary shelters for pilgrims to the Passover. Ben-Hur visited the strangers, and talked with them; and returning to his tents, he was each time more and more astonished at the vastness of their numbers. And when he further discovered that every part of the world was represented among them—cities upon both shores of the Mediterranean far off as the Pillars of the West, river-towns in distant India, provinces in northernmost Europe; and that, though they frequently saluted him with tongues unacquainted with a syllable of the old Hebrew of the fathers, these representatives had all the same object—celebration of the notable feast—an idea tinged mistily with superstitious fancy forced itself upon him. Might he not after all have misunderstood the Nazarene? Might not that person by patient waiting be covering silent preparation, and proving his fitness for the glorious task before him? How much better this time for the movement than that other when, by Gennesaret, the Galileans would have forced assumption of the crown? Then the support would have been limited to a few thousands; now his proclamation would be responded to by millions—who could say how many? Pursuing this theory to its conclusions, Ben-Hur moved amidst brilliant promises, and glowed with the thought that the melancholy man, under gentle seeming and wondrous self-denial, was in fact carrying in disguise the subtlety of a politician and the genius of a soldier.
Several times also, in the meanwhile, low-set, brawny men, bareheaded and black-bearded, came and asked for Ben-Hur at the tent; his interviews with them were always apart; and to his mother’s question who they were he answered,
“Some good friends of mine from Galilee.”
Through them he kept informed of the movements of the Nazarene, and of the schemes of the Nazarene’s enemies, Rabbinical and Roman. That the good man’s life was in danger, he knew; but that there were any bold enough to attempt to take it at that time, he could not believe. It seemed too securely intrenched in a great fame and an assured popularity. The very vastness of the attendance in and about the city brought with it a seeming guaranty of safety. And yet, to say truth, Ben-Hur’s confidence rested most certainly upon the miraculous power of the Christ. Pondering the subject in the purely human view, that the master of such authority over life and death, used so frequently for the good of others, would not exert it in care of himself was simply as much past belief as it was past understanding.
Nor should it be forgotten that all these were incidents of occurrence between the twenty-first day of March—counting by the modern calendar—and the twenty-fifth. The evening of the latter day Ben-Hur yielded to his impatience, and rode to the city, leaving behind him a promise to return in the night.
The horse was fresh, and choosing his own gait, sped swiftly. The eyes of the clambering vines winked at the rider from the garden fences on the way; there was nothing else to see him, nor child nor woman nor man. Through the rocky float in the hollows of the road the agate hoofs drummed, ringing like cups of steel; but without notice from any stranger. In the houses passed there were no tenants; the fires by the tent-doors were out; the road was deserted; for this was the first Passover eve, and the hour “between the evenings” when the visiting millions crowded the city, and the slaughter of lambs in offering reeked the fore-courts of the Temple, and the priests in ordered lines caught the flowing blood and carried it swiftly to the dripping altars—when all was haste and hurry, racing with the stars fast coming with the signal after which the roasting and the eating and the singing might go on, but not the preparation more.
Through the great northern gate the rider rode, and lo! Jerusalem before the fall, in ripeness of glory, illuminated for the Lord.