Presently Sanballat came to the party.
“I am just from the stalls, O sheik,” he said, bowing gravely to Ilderim, who began combing his beard, while his eyes glittered with eager inquiry. “The horses are in perfect condition.”
Ilderim replied simply, “If they are beaten, I pray it be by some other than Messala.”
Turning then to Simonides, Sanballat drew out a tablet, saying, “I bring you also something of interest. I reported, you will remember, the wager concluded with Messala last night, and stated that I left another which, if taken, was to be delivered to me in writing to-day before the race began. Here it is.”
Simonides took the tablet and read the memorandum carefully.
“Yes,” he said, “their emissary came to ask me if you had so much money with me. Keep the tablet close. If you lose, you know where to come; if you win”- his face knit hard- “if you win- ah, friend, see to it! See the signers escape not; hold them to the last shekel. That is what they would with us.”
“Trust me,” replied the purveyor.
“Will you not sit with us?” asked Simonides.
“You are very good,” the other returned; “but if I leave the consul, young Rome yonder will boil over. Peace to you; peace to all.”
At length the recess came to an end.
The trumpeters blew a call at which the absentees rushed back to their places. At the same time, some attendants appeared in the arena, and, climbing upon the division wall, went to an entablature near the second goal at the west end, and placed upon it seven wooden balls; then returning to the first goal, upon an entablature there they set up seven other pieces of wood hewn to represent dolphins.
“What shall they do with the balls and fishes, O sheik?” asked Balthasar.
“Hast thou never attended a race?”
“Never before; and hardly know I why I am here.”
“Well, they are to keep the count. At the end of each round run thou shalt see one ball and one fish taken down.”
The preparations were now complete, and presently a trumpeter in gaudy uniform arose by the editor, ready to blow the signal of commencement promptly at his order. Straightway the stir of the people and the hum of their conversation died away. Every face near-by, and every face in the lessening perspective, turned to the east, as all eyes settled upon the gates of the six stalls which shut in the competitors.
The unusual flush upon his face gave proof that even Simonides had caught the universal excitement. Ilderim pulled his beard fast and furious.
“Look now for the Roman,” said the fair Egyptian to Esther, who did not hear her, for, with close-drawn veil and beating heart, she sat watching for Ben-Hur.
The structure containing the stalls, it should be observed, was in form of the segment of a circle, retired on the right so that its central point was projected forward, and midway the course, on the starting side of the first goal. Every stall, consequently, was equally distant from the starting-line or chalked rope above mentioned.