At length, from the direction of the great towers, Ben-Hur heard, at first faint in the distance, a shouting of many men.
“Hark! they are coming now,” said one of his friends.
The people in the street halted to hear; but as the cry rang on over their heads, they looked at each other, and in shuddering silence moved along.
The shouting drew nearer each moment; and the air was already full of it and trembling, when Ben-Hur saw the servants of Simonides coming with their master in his chair, and Esther walking by his side; a covered litter was next behind them.
“Peace to you, O Simonides- and to you, Esther,” said Ben-Hur, meeting them. “If you are for Golgotha, stay until the procession passes; I will then go with you. There is room to turn in by the house here.”
The merchant’s large head rested heavily upon his breast; rousing himself, he answered, “Speak to Balthasar; his pleasure will be mine. He is in the litter.”
Ben-Hur hastened to draw aside the curtain. The Egyptian was lying within, his wan face so pinched as to appear like a dead man’s. The proposal was submitted to him.
“Can we see him?” he inquired, faintly.
“The Nazarene? yes; he must pass within a few feet of us.”
“Dear Lord!” the old man cried, fervently. “Once more, once more! Oh, it is a dreadful day for the world!”
Shortly the whole party were in waiting under shelter of the house. They said but little, afraid, probably, to trust their thoughts to each other; everything was uncertain, and nothing so much so as opinions. Balthasar drew himself feebly from the litter, and stood supported by a servant; Esther and Ben-Hur kept Simonides company.
Meantime the flood poured along, if anything, more densely than before; and the shouting came nearer, shrill up in the air, hoarse along the earth, and cruel. At last the procession was up.
“See!” said Ben-Hur, bitterly; “that which cometh now is Jerusalem.”
The advance was in possession of an army of boys, hooting and screaming, “The King of the Jews! Room, room for the King of the Jews!”
Simonides watched them as they whirled and danced along, like a cloud of summer insects, and said, gravely, “When these come to their inheritance, son of Hur, alas for the city of Solomon!”
A band of legionaries fully armed followed next, marching in sturdy indifference, the glory of burnished brass about them the while.
Then came the NAZARENE.
He was nearly dead. Every few steps he staggered as if he would fall. A stained gown badly torn hung from his shoulders over a seamless under-tunic. His bare feet left red splotches upon the stones. An inscription on a board was tied to his neck. A crown of thorns had been crushed hard down upon his head, making cruel wounds from which streams of blood, now dry and blackened, had run over his face and neck. The long hair, tangled in the thorns, was clotted thick. The skin, where it could be seen, was ghastly white. His hands were tied before him. Back somewhere in the city he had fallen exhausted under the transverse beam of his cross, which, as a condemned person, custom required him to bear to the place of execution; now a countryman carried the burden in his stead. Four soldiers went with him as a guard against the mob, who sometimes, nevertheless, broke through, and struck him with sticks, and spit upon him. Yet no sound escaped him, neither remonstrance nor groan; nor did he look up until he was nearly in front of the house sheltering Ben-Hur and his friends, all of whom were moved with quick compassion. Esther clung to her father; and he, strong of will as he was, trembled. Balthasar fell down speechless. Even Ben-Hur cried out, “O my God! my God!” Then, as if he divined their feelings or heard the exclamation, the Nazarene turned his wan face towards the party, and looked at them each one, so they carried the look in memory through life. They could see he was thinking of them, not himself, and the dying eyes gave them the blessing he was not permitted to speak.