“Take three, then.”
“Three say you- only three- and mine but a dog of a Jew! Give me four.”
“Four it is,” said a boy, stung by the taunt.
“Five- give me five,” cried the purveyor, instantly.
A profound stillness fell upon the assemblage.
“The consul- your master and mine- is waiting for me.”
The inaction became awkward to the many.
“Give me five- for the honour of Rome, five.”
“Five let it be,” said one in answer.
There was a sharp cheer- a commotion- and Messala himself appeared.
“Five let it be,” he said.
And Sanballat smiled, and made ready to write.
“If Caesar die to-morrow,” he said, “Rome will not be all bereft. There is at least one other with spirit to take his place. Give me six.”
“Six be it,” answered Messala.
There was another shout louder than the first.
“Six be it,” repeated Messala. “Six to one- the difference between a Roman and a Jew. And, having found it, now, O redemptor of the flesh of swine, let us on. The amount- and quickly. The consul may send for thee, and I will then be bereft.”
Sanballat took the laugh against him coolly, and wrote, and offered the writing to Messala.
“Read, read!” everybody demanded.
And Messala read-
“Mem- Chariot-race. Messala of Rome, in wager with Sanballat, also of Rome, says he will beat Ben-Hur, the Jew. Amount of wager, twenty talents. Odds to Sanballat, six to one.
There was no noise, no motion. Each person seemed held in the pose the reading found him. Messala stared at the memorandum, while the eyes which had him in view opened wide, and stared at him. He felt the gaze, and thought rapidly. So lately he stood in the same place, and in the same way hectored the countrymen around him. They would remember it. If he refused to sign, his heroship was lost. And sign he could not; he was not worth one hundred talents, nor the fifth part of the sum. Suddenly his mind became a blank; he stood speechless; the colour fled his face. An idea at last came to his relief.
“Thou Jew!” he said, “where hast thou twenty talents? Show me.”
Sanballat’s provoking smile deepened.
“There,” he replied, offering Messala a paper.
“Read, read!” arose all round.
Again Messala read-
“AT ANTIOCH, Tammuz 16th day.
“The bearer, Sanballat of Rome, hath now to his order with me fifty talents, coin of Caesar.
“Fifty talents, fifty talents!” echoed the throng, in amazement.
Then Drusus came to the rescue.
“By Hercules!” he shouted, “the paper lies, and the Jew is a liar. Who but Caesar hath fifty talents at order? Down with the insolent white!”
The cry was angry, and it was angrily repeated; yet Sanballat kept his seat, and his smile grew more exasperating the longer he waited. At length Messala spoke.