Perhaps, if he had found Messala poor and suffering, Ben-Hur’s feeling had been different; but it was not so. He found him more than prosperous; in the prosperity there was a dash and glitter- gleam of sun on gilt of gold.
So it happened that what Malluch accounted a passing loss of spirit was pondering when the meeting should be, and in what manner he could make it most memorable.
They turned after a while into an avenue of oaks, where the people were going and coming in groups; footmen here, and horsemen; there women in litters borne by slaves; and now and then chariots rolled by thunderously.
At the end of the avenue the road, by an easy grade, descended into a lowland, where, on the right hand, there was a precipitous facing of grey rock, and on the left an open meadow of vernal freshness. Then they came in view of the famous Fountain of Castalia.
Edging through a company assembled at the point, Ben-Hur beheld a jet of sweet water pouring from the crest of a stone into a basin of black marble, where, after much boiling and foaming, it disappeared as through a funnel.
By the basin, under a small portico cut in the solid wall, sat a priest, old, bearded, wrinkled, cowled- never being more perfectly eremitish. From the manner of the people present, hardly might one say which was the attraction, the fountain, forever sparkling, or the priest, forever there. He heard, saw, was seen, but never spoke. Occasionally a visitor extended a hand to him with a coin in it. With a cunning twinkle of the eyes, he took the money, and gave the party in exchange a leaf of papyrus.
The receiver made haste to plunge the papyrus into the basin; then, holding the dripping leaf in the sunlight, he would be rewarded with a versified inscription upon its face; and the fame of the fountain seldom suffered loss by poverty of merit in the poetry. Before Ben-Hur could test the oracle, some other visitors were seen approaching across the meadow, and their appearance piqued the curiosity of the company, his not less than theirs.
He saw first a camel, very tall and very white, in leading of a driver on horseback. A houdah on the animal, besides being unusually large, was of crimson and gold. Two other horsemen followed the camel with tall spears in hand.
“What a wonderful camel!” said one of the company.
“A prince from afar,” another one suggested.
“More likely a king.”
“If he were on an elephant I would say he was a king.”
A third man had a very different opinion.
“A camel- and a white camel!” he said, authoritatively. “By Apollo, friends, they who come yonder- you can see there are two of them- are neither kings nor princes; they are women!”
In the midst of the dispute the strangers arrived.