Iras’s lip curled slightly.
“To speak like a philosopher, as you invite me,” she said, “the least part always implies a greater. Let me ask what you esteem the greater part of the rare quality you are pleased to attribute to him.”
Simonides turned upon her somewhat sternly.
“Pure wisdom always directs itself towards God; the purest wisdom is knowledge of God; and no man of my acquaintance has it in higher degree, or makes it more manifest in speech and act, than the good Balthasar.”
To end the parley, he raised the cup and drank.
The Egyptian turned to Esther a little testily.
“A man who has millions in store, and fleets of ships at sea, cannot discern in what simple women like us find amusement. Let us leave him. By the wall yonder we can talk.”
They went to the parapet then, stopping at the place where, years before, Ben-Hur loosed the broken tile upon the head of Gratus.
“You have not been to Rome?” Iras began, toying the while with one of her unclasped bracelets.
“No,” said Esther, demurely.
“Have you not wished to go?”
“Ah, how little there has been of your life!”
The sigh that succeeded the exclamation could not have been more piteously expressive had the loss been the Egyptian’s own. Next moment her laugh might have been heard in the street below; and she said, “Oh, oh, my pretty simpleton! The half-fledged birds nested in the ear of the great bust on the Memphian sands know nearly as much as you.”
Then, seeing Esther’s confusion, she changed her manner, and said, in a confiding tone, “You must not take offence. Oh, no! I was playing. Let me kiss the hurt, and tell you what I would not to any other- not if Simbel himself asked it of me, offering a lotus-cup of the spray of the Nile!”
Another laugh, masking excellently the look she turned sharply upon the Jewess, and she said, “The King is coming.”
Esther gazed at her in innocent surprise.
“The Nazarene,” Iras continued- “he whom our fathers have been talking about so much, whom Ben-Hur has been serving and toiling for so long”- her voice dropped several tones lower- “the Nazarene will be here to-morrow, and Ben-Hur to-night.”
Esther struggled to maintain her composure, but failed; her eyes fell, the tale-tell blood surged to her cheek and forehead, and she was saved sight of the triumphant smile that passed, like a gleam, over the face of the Egyptian.
“See, here is his promise.”
And from her girdle she took a roll.
“Rejoice with me, O my friend! He will be here to-night! On the Tiber there is a house, a royal property, which he has pledged to me; and to be its mistress is to be- ”
A sound of someone walking swiftly along the street below interrupted the speech, and she leaned over the parapet to see. Then she drew back, and cried, with hands-clasped above her head, “Now blessed be Isis! ‘Tis he- Ben-Hur himself! That he should appear while I had such thought of him! There are no gods if it be not a good omen. Put your arms about me, Esther- and a kiss!”