Above the vestibule, and covering the landing of the steps, arose the portico, a pillared grace, so light, so exquisitely proportioned, it was at that period hardly possible of conception except by a Greek. Of marble snowy white, its effect was that of a lily dropped carelessly upon a great bare rock.
Ben-Hur paused in the shade of the portico to admire its tracery and finish, and the purity of its marble; then he passed on into the palace. Ample folding-doors stood open to receive him. The passage into which he first entered was high, but somewhat narrow; red tiling formed the floor, and the walls were tinted to correspond. Yet this plainness was a warning of something beautiful to come.
He moved on slowly, all his faculties in repose. Presently he would be in the presence of Iras; she was waiting for him; waiting with song and story and badinage, sparkling, fanciful, capricious- with smiles which glorified her glance, and glances which lent voluptuous suggestion to her whisper. She had sent for him the evening of the boat-ride on the lake in the Orchard of Palms; she had sent for him now; and he was going to her in the beautiful palace of Idernee. He was happy and dreamful rather than thoughtless.
The passage brought him to a closed door, in front of which he paused; and, as he did so, the broad leaves began to open of themselves, without creak or sound of lock or latch, or touch of foot or finger. The singularity was lost in the view that broke upon him.
Standing in the shade of the dull passage, and looking through the doorway, he beheld the atrium of a Roman house, roomy and rich to a fabulous degree of magnificence.
How large the chamber was cannot be stated, because of the deceit there is in exact proportions; its depth was vista-like, something never to be said of an equal interior. When he stopped to make survey, and looked down upon the floor, he was standing upon the breast of a Leda, represented as caressing a swan; and, looking farther, he saw the whole floor was similarly laid in mosaic pictures of mythological subjects. And there were stools and chairs, each a separate design, and a work of art exquisitely composed, and tables much carven, and here and there couches which were invitations of themselves. The articles of furniture, which stood out from the walls, were duplicated on the floor distinctly as if they floated upon unrippled water; even the panelling of the, walls, the figures upon them in painting and bas-relief, and the fresco of the ceiling were reflected on the floor. The ceiling curved up towards the centre, where there was an opening through which the sunlight poured without hindrance, and the sky, ever so blue, seemed in hand-reach; the impluvium under the opening was guarded by bronzed rails; the gilded pillars supporting the roof at the edges of the opening shone like flame where the sun struck them, and their reflections beneath seemed to stretch to infinite depth. And there were candelabra quaint and curious, and statuary and vases; the whole making an interior that would have befitted well the house on the Palatine Hill which Cicero bought of Crassus, or that other, yet more famous for extravagance, the Tusculan villa of Scaurus.