Words of entreaty and prayer these, poured forth volubly and with earnestness and the mighty sanction of beauty.
“Almost- almost I believe you,” Ben-Hur said, yet hesitatingly, and in a voice low and indistinct; for a doubt remained with him grumbling against the yielding tendency of the man- a good sturdy doubt, such a one as has saved many a life and fortune.
“The perfect life for a woman is to live in love; the greatest happiness for a man is the conquest of himself; and that, O prince, is what I have to ask of you.”
She spoke rapidly, and with animation; indeed, she had never appeared to him so fascinating.
“You had once a friend,” she continued. “It was in your boyhood. There was a quarrel, and you and he became enemies. He did you wrong. After many years you met him again in the Circus at Antioch.”
“Yes, Messala. You are his creditor. Forgive the past; admit him to friendship again; restore the fortune he lost in the great wager; rescue him. The six talents are as nothing to you; not so much as a bud lost upon a tree already in full leaf; but to him- Ah, he must go about with a broken body; wherever you meet him he must look up to you from the ground. O Ben-Hur, noble prince! to a Roman descended as he is beggary is the other most odious name for death. Save him from beggary!”
If the rapidity with which she spoke was a cunning invention to keep him from thinking, either she never knew or else had forgotten that there are convictions which derive nothing from thought, but drop into place without leave or notice. It seemed to him, when at last she paused to have his answer, that he could see Messala himself peering at him over her shoulder; and in its expression the countenance of the Roman was not that of a mendicant or a friend; the sneer was as patrician as ever, and the fine edge of the hauteur as flawless and irritating.
“The appeal has been decided then, and for once a Messala takes nothing. I must go and write it in my book of great occurrences- a judgment by a Roman against a Roman! But did he- did Messala send you to me with this request, O Egypt?”
“He has a noble nature, and judged you by it.”
Ben-Hur took the hand upon his arm.
“As you know him in such friendly way, fair Egyptian, tell me, would he do for me, there being a reversal of the conditions, that he asks of me? Answer, by Isis! Answer, for the truth’s sake!”
There was insistence in the touch of his hand, and in his look also.
“Oh!” she began, “he is- ”
“A Roman, you were about to say; meaning that I, a Jew, must not determine dues from me to him by any measure of dues from him to me; being a Jew, I must forgive him my winnings because he is a Roman. If you have more to tell me, daughter of Balthasar, speak quickly, quickly; for by the Lord God of Israel, when this heat of blood, hotter waxing, attains its highest, I may not be able longer to see that you are a woman, and beautiful! I may see but the spy of a master the more hateful because the master is a Roman. Say on, and quickly.”