The interest which from the beginning had centred chiefly in the struggle between the Roman and the Jew, with an intense and general sympathy for the latter, was fast changing to anxiety on his account. On all the benches the spectators bent forward motionless, except as their faces turned following the contestants. Ilderim quitted combing his beard, and Esther forgot her fears.
“A hundred sestertii on the Jew!” cried Sanballat to the Romans under the consul’s awning.
There was no reply.
“A talent- or five talents, or ten; choose ye!”
He shook his tablets at them defiantly.
“I will take thy sestertii,” answered a Roman youth, preparing to write.
“Do not so,” interposed a friend.
“Messala hath reached his utmost speed. See him lean over his chariot-rim, the reins loose as flying-ribbons. Look then at the Jew.”
The first one looked.
“By Hercules!” he replied, his countenance falling. “The dog throws all his weight on the bits. I see, I see! If the gods help not our friend, he will be run away with by the Israelite. No, not yet. Look! Jove with us, Jove with us!”
The cry, swelled by every Latin tongue, shook the velaria over the consul’s head.
If it were true that Messala had attained his utmost speed, the effort was with effect; slowly but certainly he was beginning to forge ahead. His horses were running with their heads low down; from the balcony their bodies appeared actually to skim the earth; their nostrils showed blood-red in expansion; their eyes seemed straining in their sockets. Certainly the good steeds were doing their best! How long could they keep the pace? It was but the commencement of the sixth round. On they dashed. As they neared the second goal, Ben-Hur turned in behind the Roman’s car.
The joy of the Messala faction reached its bound: they screamed and howled, and tossed their colours; and Sanballat filled his tablets with wagers of their tendering.
Malluch, in the lower gallery over the Gate of Triumph, found it hard to keep his cheer. He had cherished the vague hint dropped to him by Ben-Hur of something to happen in the turning of the western pillars. It was the fifth round, yet the something had not come; and he had said to himself, the sixth will bring it; but, lo! Ben-Hur was hardly holding a place at the tail of his enemy’s car.
Over in the east end, Simonides’ party held their peace. The merchant’s head was bent low. Ilderim tugged at his beard, and dropped his brows till there was nothing of his eyes but an occasional sparkle of light. Esther scarcely breathed. Iras alone appeared glad.
Along the home-stretch- sixth round- Messala leading, next him Ben-Hur, and so close, it was the old story-
“First flew Eumelus on Pheretian steeds;
With those of Tros bold Diomed succeeds:
Close on Eumelus’ back they puff the wind,