“Well, a man has appeared out of the wilderness- a very holy man- with his mouth full of strange words, which take hold of all who hear them. He calls himself John the Nazarite, son of Zacharias, and says he is the messenger sent before the Messiah.”
Even Iras listened closely while the man continued- “They say of this John that he has spent his life from childhood in a cave down by En-gedi, praying and living more strictly than the Essenes. Crowds go to hear him preach. I went to hear him with the rest.”
“Have all these, your friends, been there?”
“Most of them are going; a few are coming away.”
“What does he preach?”
“A new doctrine- one never before taught in Israel, as all say. He calls it repentance and baptism. The rabbis do not know what to make of him; nor do we. Some have asked him if he is the Christ, others if he is Elias; but to them all he has the answer, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!'”
At this point the man was called away by his friends; as he was going, Balthasar spoke.
“Good stranger!” he said, tremulously, “tell us if we shall find the preacher at the place you left him.”
“Yes, at Bethabara.”
“Who should this Nazarite be?” said Ben-Hur to Iras, “if not the herald of our King?”
In so short a time he had come to regard the daughter as more interested in the mysterious personage he was looking for than the aged father! Nevertheless, the latter with a positive glow in his sunken eyes half arose, and said- “Let us make haste. I am not tired.”
They turned away to help the slave.
There was little conversation between the three at the stopping-place for the night west of Ramoth-Gilead.
“Let us arise early, son of Hur,” said the old man. “The Saviour may come, and we not there.”
“The King cannot be far behind his herald,” Iras whispered, as she prepared to take her place on the camel.
“To-morrow we will see!” Ben-Hur replied, kissing her hand.
Next day about the third hour, out of the pass through which, skirting the base of Mount Gilead, they had journeyed since leaving Ramoth, the party came upon the barren steppe east of the sacred river. Opposite them they saw the upper limit of the old palm lands of Jericho, stretching off to the hill-country of Judea. Ben-Hur’s blood ran quickly, for he knew the ford was close at hand.
“Content you, good Balthasar,” he said; “we are almost there.”
The driver quickened the camel’s pace. Soon they caught sight of booths and tents and tethered animals; and then of the river, and a multitude collected down close by the bank, and yet another multitude on the western shore. Knowing that the preacher was preaching, they made greater haste; yet, as they were drawing near, suddenly there was a commotion in the mass, and it began to break up and disperse.