“How is it, then?” said Ben-Hur, who had been listening unmindful of the slow gait of the dromedaries. “I saw the sheik tear his beard while he cursed himself that he had put trust in a Roman. Caesar, had he heard him, might have said, ‘I like not such a friend as this; put him away.'”
“It would be but shrewd judgment,” Malluch replied, smiling. “Ilderim is not a lover of Rome; he has a grievance. Three years ago the Parthians rode across the road from Bozra to Damascus, and fell upon a caravan laden, among other things, with the incoming tax-returns of a district over that way. They slew every creature taken, which the censors in Rome could have forgiven if the imperial treasure had been spared and forwarded. The farmers of the taxes, being chargeable with the loss, complained to Caesar, and Caesar held Herod to payment, and Herod, on his part, seized property of Ilderim, whom he charged with treasonable neglect of duty. The sheik appealed to Caesar, and Caesar has made him such answer as might be looked for from the unwinking sphinx. The old man’s heart has been aching sore ever since, and he nurses his wrath, and takes pleasure in its daily growth.”
“He can do nothing, Malluch.”
“Well,” said Malluch, “that involves another explanation, which I will give you, if we can draw nearer. But see!- the hospitality of the sheik begins early- the children are speaking to you.”
The dromedaries stopped, and Ben-Hur looked down upon some little girls of the Syrian peasant class, who were offering him their baskets filled with dates. The fruit was freshly gathered, and not to be refused; he stooped and took it, and as he did so a man in the tree by which they were halted cried, “Peace to you, and welcome!”
Their thanks said to the children, the friends moved on at such gait as the animals chose.
“You must know,” Malluch continued, pausing now and then to dispose of a date, “that the merchant Simonides gives me his confidence, and sometimes flatters me by taking me into council; and as I attend him at his house, I have made acquaintance with many of his friends, who, knowing my footing with the host, talk to him freely in my presence. In that way I became somewhat intimate with Sheik Ilderim.”
For a moment Ben-Hur’s attention wandered. Before his mind’s eye there arose the image, pure, gentle, and appealing, of Esther, the merchant’s daughter. Her dark eyes bright with the peculiar Jewish lustre met his in modest gaze; he heard her step as when she approached him with the wine, and her voice as she tendered him the cup; and he acknowledged to himself again all the sympathy she manifested for him, and manifested so plainly that words were unnecessary, and so sweetly that words would have been but a detraction. The vision was exceeding pleasant, but upon his turning to Malluch, it flew away.