Eight of the fours passed the stand, some walking, others on the trot, and all unexceptionally handled; then the ninth one came on the gallop. Ben-Hur burst into exclamation.
“I have been in the stables of the emperor, Malluch, but, by our father Abraham of blessed memory! I never saw the like of these.”
The last four was then sweeping past. All at once they fell into confusion. Someone on the stand uttered a sharp cry. Ben-Hur turned, and saw an old man half-risen from an upper seat, his hands clenched and raised, his eyes fiercely bright, his long white beard fairly quivering. Some of the spectators nearest him began to laugh.
“They should respect his beard at least. Who is he?” asked Ben-Hur.
“A mighty man from the desert, somewhere beyond Moab, and owner of camels in herds, and horses descended, they say, from the racers of the first Pharaoh- Sheik Ilderim by name and title.”
Thus Malluch replied.
The driver meanwhile exerted himself to quiet the four, but without avail. Each ineffectual effort excited the sheik the more.
“Abaddon seize him!” yelled the patriarch, shrilly. “Run! fly! do you hear, my children?” The question was to his attendants, apparently of the tribe. “Do you hear? They are desert-born, like yourselves. Catch them- quick!”
The plunging of the animals increased.
“Accursed Roman!” and the sheik shook his fist at the driver. “Did he not swear he could drive them- swear it by all his brood of bastard Latin gods? Nay, hands off me- off, I say! They should run swift as eagles, and with the temper of hand-bred lambs, he swore. Cursed be he- cursed the mother of liars who calls him son! See them, the priceless! Let him touch one of them with a lash, and”- the rest of the sentence was lost in a furious grinding of his teeth. “To their heads, some of you, and speak them- a word, one is enough, from the tent-song your mothers sang you. Oh, fool, fool that I was to put trust in a Roman!”
Some of the shrewder of the old man’s friends planted themselves between him and the horses. An opportune failure of breath on his part helped the stratagem.
Ben-Hur, thinking he comprehended the sheik, sympathized with him. Far more than mere pride of property- more than anxiety for the result of the race- in his view it was within the possible for the patriarch, according to his habits of thought and his ideas of the inestimable, to love such animals with a tenderness akin to the most sensitive passion.
They were all bright bays, unspotted, perfectly matched, and so proportioned as to seem less than they really were. Delicate ears pointed small heads; the faces were broad and full between the eyes; the nostrils in expansion disclosed membrane so deeply red as to suggest the flashing of flame; the necks were arches, overlaid with fine mane so abundant as to drape the shoulders and breast, while in happy consonance the forelocks were like ravellings of silken veils; between the knees and the fetlocks the legs were flat as an open hand, but above the knees they were rounded with mighty muscles, needful to upbear the shapely close-knit bodies; the hoofs were like cups of polished agate; and in rearing and plunging they whipped the air, and sometimes the earth, with tails glossy-black and thick and long. The sheik spoke of them as the priceless, and it was a good saying.