Farther on, the path was divided by an altar- a pedestal of black gneiss, capped with a slab of white marble deftly foliated, and on that a brazier of bronze holding a fire. Close by it, a woman, seeing him, waved a wand of willow, and as he passed called him, “Stay!” And the temptation in her smile was that of passionate youth.
On yet further, he met one of the processions; at its head a troop of little girls, nude except as they were covered with garlands, piped their shrill voices into a song; then a troop of boys, also nude, their bodies deeply sunbrowned, came dancing to the song of the girls; behind them the procession, all women, bearing baskets of spices and sweets to the altars- women clad in simple robes, careless of exposure. As he went by they held their hands to him, and said, “Stay, and go with us.” One, a Greek, sang a verse from Anacreon:
“For to-day I take or give;
For to-day I drink and live;
For to-day I beg or borrow;
Who knows about the silent morrow?”
But he pursued his way indifferent, and came next to a grove luxuriant, in the heart of the vale at the point where it would be most attractive to the observing eye. As it came close to the path he was travelling, there was a seduction in its shade, and through the foliage he caught the shining of what appeared a pretentious statue; so he turned aside, and entered the cool retreat.
The grass was fresh and clean. The trees did not crowd each other; and they were of every kind native to the East, blended well with strangers adopted from far quarters; here grouped in exclusive companionship palm-trees plumed like queens; there sycamores, overtopping laurels of darker foliage; and evergreen oaks rising verdantly, with cedars vast enough to be kings on Lebanon; and mulberries; and terebinths so beautiful it is not hyperbole to speak of them as blown from the orchards of Paradise.
The statue proved to be a Daphne of wondrous beauty. Hardly, however, had he time to more than glance at her face: at the base of the pedestal a girl and a youth were lying upon a tiger’s skin asleep in each other’s arms; close by them the implements of their service- his axe and sickle, her basket- flung carelessly upon a heap of faded roses.
The exposure startled him. Back in the hush of the perfumed thicket he discovered, as he thought, that the charm of the great Grove was peace without fear, and almost yielded to it; now, in this sleep in the day’s broad glare- this sleep at the foot of Daphne- he read a further chapter to which only the vaguest allusion is sufferable. The law of the place was Love, but Love without Law.
And this was the sweet peace of Daphne! This the life’s end of her ministers! For this kings and princes gave of their revenues! For this a crafty priesthood subordinated nature- her birds and brooks and lilies, the river, the labour of many hands, the sanctity of altars, the fertile power of the sun! It would be pleasant now to record that as Ben-Hur pursued his walk assailed by such reflections, he yielded somewhat to sorrow for the votaries of the great out-door temple; especially for those who, by personal service, kept it in a state so surpassingly lovely. How they came to the condition was not any longer a mystery; the motive, the influence, the inducement, was before him. Some there were, no doubt, caught by the promise held out to their troubled spirits of endless peace in a consecrated abode, to the beauty of which, if they had not money, they could contribute their labour; this class implied intellect peculiarly subject to hope and fear; but the great body of the faithful could not be classed with such. Apollo’s nets were wide, and their meshes small; and hardly may one tell what all his fishermen landed: this less for that they cannot be described than because they ought not to be. Enough that the mass were of the sybarities of the world, and of the herds in number vaster and in degree lower- devotees of the unmixed sensualism to which the East was almost wholly given. Not to any of the exaltations- not to the singing-god, or his unhappy mistress; not to any philosophy requiring for its enjoyment the calm of retirement, nor to any service for the comfort there is in religion, nor to love in its holier sense- were they abiding their vows. Good reader, why shall not the truth be told here? Why not learn that, at this age, there were in all earth but two peoples capable of exaltations of the kind referred to- those who lived by the law of Moses, and those who lived by the law of Brahma. They alone could have cried you, Better a law without love than a love without law.