It was the grace the good man had said simultaneously with his brethren Gaspar the Greek and Melchior the Hindoo, the utterance in diverse tongues out of which had come the miracle attesting the Divine Presence at the meal in the desert years before.
The table to which they immediately addressed themselves was, as may be thought, rich in the substantials and delicacies favorite in the East--in cakes hot from the oven, vegetables from the gardens, meats singly, compounds of meats and vegetables, milk of kine, and honey and butter--all eaten or drunk, it should be remarked, without any of the modern accessories--knives, forks, spoons, cups, or plates; and in this part of the repast but little was said, for they were hungry. But when the dessert was in course it was otherwise. They laved their hands again, had the lap-cloths shaken out, and with a renewed table and the sharp edge of their appetites gone they were disposed to talk and listen.
With such a company--an Arab, a Jew, and an Egyptian, all believers alike in one God--there could be at that age but one subject of conversation; and of the three, which should be speaker but he to whom the Deity had been so nearly a personal appearance, who had seen him in a star, had heard his voice in direction, had been led so far and so miraculously by his Spirit? And of what should he talk but that of which he had been called to testify?
The shadows cast over the Orchard of Palms by the mountains at set of sun left no sweet margin time of violet sky and drowsing earth between the day and night. The latter came early and swift; and against its glooming in the tent this evening the servants brought four candlesticks of brass, and set them by the corners of the table. To each candlestick there were four branches, and on each branch a lighted silver lamp and a supply cup of olive-oil. In light ample, even brilliant, the group at dessert continued their conversation, speaking in the Syriac dialect, familiar to all peoples in that part of the world.
The Egyptian told his story of the meeting of the three in the desert, and agreed with the sheik that it was in December, twenty-seven years before, when he and his companions fleeing from Herod arrived at the tent praying shelter. The narrative was heard with intense interest; even the servants lingering when they could to catch its details. Ben-Hur received it as became a man listening to a revelation of deep concern to all humanity, and to none of more concern than the people of Israel. In his mind, as we shall presently see, there was crystallizing an idea which was to change his course of life, if not absorb it absolutely.
As the recital proceeded, the impression made by Balthasar upon the young Jew increased; at its conclusion, his feeling was too profound to permit a doubt of its truth; indeed, there was nothing left him desirable in the connection but assurances, if such were to be had, pertaining exclusively to the consequences of the amazing event.
And now there is wanting an explanation which the very discerning may have heretofore demanded; certainly it can be no longer delayed. Our tale begins, in point of date not less than fact, to trench close upon the opening of the ministry of the Son of Mary, whom we have seen but once since this same Balthasar left him worshipfully in his mother's lap in the cave by Bethlehem. Henceforth to the end the mysterious Child will be a subject of continual reference; and slowly though surely the current of events with which we are dealing will bring us nearer and nearer to him, until finally we see him a man--we would like, if armed contrariety of opinion would permit it, to add--A MAN WHOM THE WORLD COULD NOT DO WITHOUT. Of this declaration, apparently so simple, a shrewd mind inspired by faith will make much--and in welcome. Before his time, and since, there have been men indispensable to particular people and periods; but his indispensability was to the whole race, and for all time--a respect in which it is unique, solitary, divine.
To Sheik Ilderim the story was not new. He had heard it from the three wise men together under circumstances which left no room for doubt; he had acted upon it seriously, for the helping a fugitive escape from the anger of the first Herod was dangerous. Now one of the three sat at his table again, a welcome guest and revered friend. Sheik IIderim certainly believed the story; yet, in the nature of things, its mighty central fact could not come home to him with the force and absorbing effect it came to Ben-Hur. He was an Arab, whose interest in the consequences was but general; on the other hand, Ben-Hur was an Israelite and a Jew, with more than a special interest in--if the ~solecism can be pardoned--the truth of the fact. He laid hold of the circumstance with a purely Jewish mind.