Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Galley Fight
By Lewis Wallace (1827–1905)
From ‘Ben-Hur’

EVERY soul aboard, even the ship, awoke. Officers went to their quarters. The marines took arms, and were led out, looking in all respects like legionaries. Sheaves of arrows and armfuls of javelins were carried on deck. By the central stairs the oil-tanks and fire-balls were set ready for use. Additional lanterns were lighted. Buckets were filled with water. The rowers in relief assembled under guard in front of the chief. As Providence would have it, Ben-Hur was one of the latter. Overhead he heard the muffled noise of final preparations,—of the sailors furling sail, spreading the nettings, unslinging the machines, and hanging the armor of bull-hide over the side. Presently quiet settled about the galley again—quiet full of vague dread and expectation, which interpreted, means ready.  1
  At a signal passed down from the deck, and communicated to the hortator by a petty officer stationed on the stairs, all at once the oars stopped.  2
  What did it mean?  3
  Of the hundred and twenty slaves chained to the benches, not one but asked himself the question. They were without incentive. Patriotism, love of honor, sense of duty, brought them no inspiration. They felt the thrill common to men rushed helpless and blind into danger. It may be supposed the dullest of them, poising his oar, thought of all that might happen, yet could promise himself nothing: for victory would but rivet his chains the firmer, while the chances of the ship were his; sinking or on fire, he was doomed to her fate.  4
  Of the situation without, they might not ask. And who were the enemy? And what if they were friends, brethren, countrymen? The reader, carrying the suggestion forward, will see the necessity which governed the Roman when, in such emergencies, he locked the hapless wretches to their seats.  5
  There was little time, however, for such thoughts with them. A sound like the rowing of galleys astern attracted Ben-Hur, and the Astræa rocked as if in the midst of countering waves. The idea of a fleet at hand broke upon him,—a fleet in manœuvre,—forming probably for attack. His blood started with the fancy.  6
  Another signal order came down from deck. The oars dipped, and the galley started imperceptibly. No sound from without, none from within, yet each man in the cabin instinctively poised himself for a shock; the very ship seemed to catch the sense, and hold its breath, and go crouched tiger-like.  7
  In such a situation, time is inappreciable; so that Ben-Hur could form no judgment of distance gone. At last there was a sound of trumpets on deck,—full, clear, long-blown. The chief beat the sounding-board until it rang; the rowers reached forward full length, and deepening the dip of their oars, pulled suddenly with all their united force. The galley, quivering in every timber, answered with a leap. Other trumpets joined in the clamor—all from the rear, none forward;—from the latter quarter only a rising sound of voices in tumult heard briefly. There was a mighty blow: the rowers in front of the chief’s platform reeled, some of them fell; the ship bounded back, recovered, and rushed on more irresistibly than before. Shrill and high arose the shrieks of men in terror; over the blare of trumpets, and the grind and crash of the collision, they arose: then under his feet, under the keel, pounding, rumbling, breaking to pieces, drowning, Ben-Hur felt something overridden. The men about him looked at each other afraid. A shout of triumph from the deck,—the beak of the Roman had won! But who were they whom the sea had drunk? Of what tongue, from what land were they?  8
  No pause, no stay! Forward rushed the Astræa; and as it went, some sailors ran down, and plunging the cotton balls into the oil-tanks, tossed them dripping to comrades at the head of the stairs: fire was to be added to other horrors of the combat.  9
  Directly the galley heeled over so far that the oarsmen on the uppermost side with difficulty kept their benches. Again the hearty Roman cheer, and with it despairing shrieks. An opposing vessel, caught by the grappling-hooks of the great crane swinging from the prow, was being lifted into the air that it might be dropped and sunk.  10
  The shouting increased on the right hand and on the left; before, behind, swelled an indescribable clamor. Occasionally there was a crash, followed by sudden peals of fright, telling of other ships ridden down, and their crews drowned in the vortexes.  11
  Nor was the fight all on one side. Now and then a Roman in armor was borne down the hatchway, and laid bleeding, sometimes dying, on the floor.  12
  Sometimes also puffs of smoke, blended with steam, and foul with the scent of roasting human flesh, poured into the cabin, turning the dimming light into yellow murk. Gasping for breath the while, Ben-Hur knew they were passing through the cloud of a ship on fire, and burning up with the rowers chained to the benches.  13
  The Astræa all this time was in motion. Suddenly she stopped. The oars forward were dashed from the hands of the rowers, and the rowers from their benches. On deck, then, a furious trampling, and on the sides a grinding of ships afoul of each other. For the first time the beating of the gavel was lost in the uproar. Men sank on the floor in fear, or looked about seeking a hiding-place. In the midst of the panic a body plunged or was pitched headlong down the hatchway, falling near Ben-Hur. He beheld the half-naked carcass, a mass of hair blackening the face, and under it a shield of bull-hide and wicker-work,—a barbarian from the white-skinned nations of the North whom death had robbed of plunder and revenge. How came he there? An iron hand had snatched him from the opposing deck—no, the Astræa had been boarded! The Romans were fighting on their own deck? A chill smote the young Jew: Arrius was hard pressed,—he might be defending his own life. If he should be slain! God of Abraham forfend! The hopes and dreams so lately come, were they only hopes and dreams? Mother and sister—house—home—Holy Land—was he not to see them, after all? The tumult thundered above him: he looked around; in the cabin all was confusion: the rowers on the benches paralyzed; men running blindly hither and thither, only the chief on his seat imperturbable, vainly beating the sounding-board, and waiting the order of the tribune,—in the red murk illustrating the matchless discipline which had won the world.  14
  The example had a good effect upon Ben-Hur. He controlled himself enough to think. Honor and duty bound the Roman to the platform; but what had he to do with such motives then? The bench was a thing to run from; while if he were to die a slave, who would be the better of the sacrifice? With him living was duty, if not honor. His life belonged to his people. They arose before him never more real: he saw them, their arms outstretched; he heard them imploring him. And he would go to them. He started—stopped. Alas! a Roman judgment held him in doom. While it endured, escape would be profitless. In the wide, wide earth there was no place in which he would be safe from the imperial demand; upon the land none, nor upon the sea. Whereas he required freedom according to the forms of law, so only could he abide in Judea and execute the filial purpose to which he would devote himself: in other land he would not live. Dear God! How he had waited and watched and prayed for such a release! And how it had been delayed! But at last he had seen it in the promise of the tribune. What else the great man’s meaning? And if the benefactor so belated should now be slain! The dead come not back to redeem the pledges of the living. It should not be—Arrius should not die. At least, better perish with him than survive a galley-slave.  15
  Once more Ben-Hur looked around. Upon the roof of the cabin the battle yet beat; against the sides the hostile vessels yet crushed and grinded. On the benches, the slaves struggled to tear loose from their chains, and finding their efforts vain, howled like madmen; the guards had gone up-stairs: discipline was out, panic in. No, the chief kept his chair, unchanged, calm as ever—except the gavel, weaponless. Vainly with his clangor he filled the lulls in the din. Ben-Hur gave him a last look, then broke away,—not in flight, but to seek the tribune.  16
  A very short space lay between him and the stairs of the hatchway aft. He took it with a leap, and was half-way up the steps—up far enough to catch a glimpse of the sky blood-red with fire, of the ships alongside, of the sea covered with ships and wrecks, of the fight closed in about the pilot’s quarter, the assailants many, the defenders few—when suddenly his foothold was knocked away, and he pitched backward. The floor, when he reached it, seemed to be lifting itself and breaking to pieces; then in a twinkling, the whole after-part of the hull broke asunder, and as if it had all the time been lying in wait, the sea, hissing and foaming, leaped in, and all became darkness and surging water to Ben-Hur.  17
  It cannot be said that the young Jew helped himself in this stress. Besides his usual strength, he had the indefinite extra force which nature keeps in reserve for just such perils to life; yet the darkness, and the whirl and roar of water, stupefied him. Even the holding his breath was involuntary.  18
  The influx of the flood tossed him like a log forward into the cabin, where he would have drowned but for the refluence of the sinking motion. As it was, fathoms under the surface the hollow mass vomited him forth, and he arose along with the loosed débris. In the act of rising, he clutched something, and held to it. The time he was under seemed an age longer than it really was: at last he gained the top; with a great gasp he filled his lungs afresh, and tossing the water from his hair and eyes, climbed higher upon the plank he held, and looked about him.  19
  Death had pursued him closely under the waves; he found it waiting for him when he was risen—waiting multiform.  20
  Smoke lay upon the sea like a semi-transparent fog, through which here and there shone cores of intense brilliance. A quick intelligence told him that they were ships on fire. The battle was yet on; nor could he say who was victor. Within the radius of his vision now and then ships passed, shooting shadows athwart lights. Out of the dun clouds farther on he caught the crash of other ships colliding. The danger however was closer at hand. When the Astræa went down, her deck, it will be recollected, held her own crew, and the crews of the two galleys which had attacked her at the same time, all of whom were ingulfed. Many of them came to the surface together; and on the same plank or support of whatever kind continued the combat, begun possibly in the vortex fathoms down. Writhing and twisting in deadly embrace, sometimes striking with sword or javelin, they kept the sea around them in agitation,—at one place inky-black, at another aflame with fiery reflections. With their struggles he had nothing to do: they were all his enemies; not one of them but would kill him for the plank upon which he floated. He made haste to get away.  21
  About that time he heard oars in quickest movement, and beheld a galley coming down upon him. The tall prow seemed doubly tall, and the red light playing upon its gilt and carving gave it an appearance of snaky life. Under its foot the water churned to flying foam.  22
  He struck out, pushing the plank, which was very broad and unmanageable. Seconds were precious—half a second might save or lose him. In the crisis of the effort, up from the sea, within arm’s reach, a helmet shot like a gleam of gold. Next came two hands with fingers extended,—large hands were they, and strong,—their hold once fixed might not be loosed. Ben-Hur swerved from them appalled. Up rose the helmet and the head it incased; then two arms, which began to beat the water wildly; the head turned back, and gave the face to the light. The mouth gaping wide; the eyes open but sightless, and the bloodless pallor of a drowning man,—never anything more ghastly! Yet he gave a cry of joy at the sight; and as the face was going under again, he caught the sufferer by the chain which passed from the helmet beneath the chin, and drew him to the plank.  23
  The man was Arrius, the tribune.  24
  For a while the water foamed and eddied violently about Ben-Hur, taxing all his strength to hold to the support, and at the same time to keep the Roman’s head above the surface. The galley had passed, leaving the two barely outside the stroke of its oars. Right through the floating men, over heads helmeted as well as heads bare, she drove; in her wake nothing but the sea sparkling with fire. A muffled crash, succeeded by a great outcry, made the rescuer look again from his charge. A certain savage pleasure touched his heart. The Astræa was avenged.  25
  After that the battle moved on. Resistance turned to flight. But who were the victors? Ben-Hur was sensible how much his freedom and the life of the tribune depended upon that event. He pushed the plank under the latter until it floated him, after which all his care was to keep him there. The dawn came slowly. He watched its growing hopefully, yet sometimes afraid. Would it bring the Romans or the pirates? If the pirates, his charge was lost.  26
  At last morning broke in full, the air without a breath. Off to the left he saw the land, too far to think of attempting to make it. Here and there men were adrift like himself. In spots the sea was blackened by charred and sometimes smoking fragments. A galley up a long way was lying to with a torn sail hanging from the tilted yard, and the oars all idle. Still farther away he could discern moving specks, which he thought might be ships in flight or pursuit, or they might be white birds a-wing.  27
  An hour passed thus. His anxiety increased. If relief came not speedily, Arrius would die. Sometimes he seemed already dead, he lay so still. He took the helmet off, and then, with greater difficulty, the cuirass; the heart he found fluttering. He took hope at the sign, and held on. There was nothing to do but wait, and after the manner of his people, pray.  28
  The throes of recovery from drowning are more painful than the drowning. These Arrius passed through; and at length, to Ben-Hur’s delight, reached the point of speech.  29
  Gradually, from incoherent questions as to where he was, and by whom and how he had been saved, he reverted to the battle. The doubt of the victory stimulated his faculties to full return, a result aided not a little by a long rest—such as could be had on their frail support. After a while he became talkative.  30
  “Our rescue, I see, depends upon the result of the fight. I see also what thou hast done for me. To speak fairly, thou hast saved my life at the risk of thy own. I make the acknowledgment broadly; and whatever cometh, thou hast my thanks. More than that, if fortune doth but serve me kindly, and we get well out of this peril, I will do thee such favor as becometh a Roman who hath power and opportunity to prove his gratitude. Yet—yet it is to be seen if, with thy good intent, thou hast really done me a kindness: or rather, speaking to thy good will,”—he hesitated,—“I would exact of thee a promise to do me, in a certain event, the greatest favor one man can do another; and of that let me have thy pledge now.”  31
  “If the thing be not forbidden, I will do it,” Ben-Hur replied.  32
  Arrius rested again.  33
  “Art thou indeed a son of Hur, the Jew?” he next asked.  34
  “It is as I have said.”  35
  “I knew thy father—”  36
  Judah drew himself nearer, for the tribune’s voice was weak; he drew nearer, and listened eagerly; at last he thought to hear of home.  37
  “I knew him, and loved him,” Arrius continued.  38
  There was another pause, during which something diverted the speaker’s thought.  39
  “It cannot be,” he proceeded, “that thou, a son of his, hast not heard of Cato and Brutus. They were very great men, and never as great as in death. In their dying, they left this law: A Roman may not survive his good fortune. Art thou listening?”  40
  “I hear.”  41
  “It is a custom of gentlemen in Rome to wear a ring. There is one on my hand. Take it now.”  42
  He held the hand to Judah, who did as he asked.  43
  “Now put it on thine own hand.”  44
  Ben-Hur did so.  45
  “The trinket hath its uses,” said Arrius next. “I have property and money. I am accounted rich even in Rome. I have no family. Show the ring to my freedman, who hath control in my absence: you will find him in a villa near Misenum. Tell him how it came to thee, and ask anything, or all he may have: he will not refuse the demand. If I live, I will do better by thee. I will make thee free, and restore thee to thy home and people; or thou mayst give thyself to the pursuit that pleaseth thee most. Dost thou hear?”  46
  “I could not choose but hear.”  47
  “Then pledge me. By the gods—”  48
  “Nay, good tribune, I am a Jew.”  49
  “By thy God, then, or in the form most sacred to those of thy faith, pledge me to do what I tell thee now, and as I tell thee: I am waiting; let me have thy promise.”  50
  “Noble Arrius, I am warned by thy manner to expect something of gravest concern. Tell me thy wish first.”  51
  “Wilt thou promise then?”  52
  “That were to give the pledge, and— Blessed be the God of my fathers! yonder cometh a ship!”  53
  “In what direction?”  54
  “From the north.”  55
  “Canst thou tell her nationality by outward signs?”  56
  “No. My service hath been at the oars.”  57
  “Hath she a flag?”  58
  “I cannot see one.”  59
  Arrius remained quiet some time, apparently in deep reflection.  60
  “Does the ship hold this way yet?” he at length asked.  61
  “Still this way.”  62
  “Look for the flag now.”  63
  “She hath none.”  64
  “Nor any other sign?”  65
  “She hath a sail set, and is of three banks, and cometh swiftly,—that is all I can say of her.”  66
  “A Roman in triumph would have out many flags. She must be an enemy. Hear now,” said Arrius, becoming grave again, “hear, while yet I may speak. If the galley be a pirate, thy life is safe: they may not give thee freedom; they may put thee to the oar again: but they will not kill thee. On the other hand, I—”  67
  The tribune faltered.  68
  “Perpol!” he continued resolutely. “I am too old to submit to dishonor. In Rome, let them tell how Quintus Arrius, as became a Roman tribune, went down with his ship in the midst of the foe. This is what I would have thee do. If the galley prove a pirate, push me from the plank and drown me. Dost thou hear? Swear thou wilt do it.”  69
  “I will not swear,” said Ben-Hur, firmly; “neither will I do the deed. The Law, which is to me most binding, O tribune, would make me answerable for thy life. Take back the ring”—he took the seal from his finger; “take it back, and all thy promises of favor in the event of delivery from this peril. The judgment which sent me to the oar for life made me a slave, yet I am not a slave; no more am I thy freedman. I am a son of Israel, and this moment, at least, my own master. Take back the ring.”  70
  Arrius remained passive.  71
  “Thou wilt not?” Judah continued. “Not in anger, then, nor in any despite, but to free myself from a hateful obligation, I will give thy gift to the sea. See, O tribune!”  72
  He tossed the ring away. Arrius heard the splash where it struck and sank, though he did not look.  73
  “Thou hast done a foolish thing,” he said; “foolish for one placed as thou art. I am not dependent upon thee for death. Life is a thread I can break without thy help; and if I do, what will become of thee? Men determined on death prefer it at the hands of others, for the reason that the soul which Plato giveth us is rebellious at the thought of self-destruction; that is all. If the ship be a pirate, I will escape from the world. My mind is fixed. I am a Roman. Success and honor are all in all. Yet I would have served thee; thou wouldst not. The ring was the only witness of my will available in this situation. We are both lost. I will die regretting the victory and glory wrested from me; thou wilt live to die a little later, mourning the pious duties undone because of this folly. I pity thee.”  74
  Ben-Hur saw the consequences of his act more distinctly than before, yet he did not falter.  75
  “In the three years of my servitude, O tribune, thou wert the first to look upon me kindly. No, no! There was another.” The voice dropped, the eyes became humid, and he saw plainly as if it were then before him the face of the boy who helped him to a drink by the old well at Nazareth. “At least,” he proceeded, “thou wert the first to ask me who I was: and if, when I reached out and caught thee, blind and sinking the last time, I too had thought of the many ways in which thou couldst be useful to me in my wretchedness, still the act was not all selfish; this I pray you to believe. Moreover, seeing as God giveth me to now, the ends I dream of are to be wrought by fair means alone. As a thing of conscience, I would rather die with thee than be thy slayer. My mind is firmly set as thine: though thou wert to offer me all Rome, O tribune, and it belonged to thee to make the gift good, I would not kill thee. Thy Cato and Brutus were as little children compared to the Hebrew whose law a Jew must obey.”  76
  “But my request. Hast—”  77
  “Thy command would be of more weight, and that would not move me. I have said.”  78
  Both became silent, waiting. Ben-Hur looked often at the coming ship. Arrius rested with closed eyes, indifferent.  79
  “Art thou sure she is an enemy?” Ben-Hur asked.  80
  “I think so,” was the reply.  81
  “She stops, and puts a boat over the side.”  82
  “Dost thou see her flag?”  83
  “Is there no other sign by which she may be known if Roman?”  84
  “If Roman, she hath a helmet over the mast’s top.”  85
  “Then be of cheer,—I see the helmet.”  86
  Still Arrius was not assured.  87
  “The men in the small boat are taking in the people afloat. Pirates are not humane.”  88
  “They may need rowers,” Arrius replied; recurring possibly to times when he had made rescues for the purpose.  89
  Ben-Hur was very watchful of the actions of the strangers.  90
  “The ship moves off,” he said.  91
  “Whither?”  92
  “Over on our right there is a galley which I take to be deserted. The new-comer heads towards it. Now she is alongside. Now she is sending men aboard.”  93
  Then Arrius opened his eyes and threw off his calm.  94
  “Thank thou thy God,” he said to Ben-Hur, after a look at the galleys,—“thank thou thy God, as I do my many gods. A pirate would sink, not save, yon ship. By the act and the helmet on the mast I know a Roman. The victory is mine. Fortune hath not deserted me. We are saved. Wave thy hand; call to them; bring them quickly. I shall be duumvir—and thou! I knew thy father, and loved him. He was a prince indeed. He taught me a Jew was not a barbarian. I will take thee with me. I will make thee my son. Give thy God thanks, and call the sailors. Haste! The pursuit must be kept. Not a robber shall escape. Hasten them!”  95
  Judah raised himself upon the plank, and waved his hand, and called with all his might; at last he drew the attention of the sailors in the small boat, and they were speedily taken up.  96
  Arrius was received on the galley with all the honors due a hero so the favorite of Fortune. Upon a couch on the deck he heard the particulars of the conclusion of the fight. When the survivors afloat upon the water were all saved and the prize secured, he spread his flag of commandant anew, and hurried northward to rejoin the fleet and perfect the victory. In due time the fifty vessels coming down the channel closed in upon the fugitive pirates, and crushed them utterly: not one escaped. To swell the tribune’s glory, twenty galleys of the enemy were captured.  97
  Upon his return from the cruise, Arrius had warm welcome on the mole at Misenum. The young man attending him very early attracted the attention of his friends there; and to their questions as to who he was, the tribune proceeded in the most affectionate manner to tell the story of his rescue and introduce the stranger, omitting carefully all that pertained to the latter’s previous history. At the end of the narrative he called Ben-Hur to him, and said, with a hand resting affectionately upon his shoulder:—  98
  “Good friends, this is my son and heir, who, as he is to take my property,—if it be the will of the gods that I leave any,—shall be known to you by my name. I pray you all to love him as you love me.”  99
  Speedily as opportunity permitted, the adoption was formally perfected. And in such manner the brave Roman kept his faith with Ben-Hur, giving him happy introduction into the imperial world. The month succeeding Arrius’s return, the armilustrium was celebrated with the utmost magnificence in the theatre of Scaurus. One side of the structure was taken up with military trophies; among which by far the most conspicuous and most admired were twenty prows, complemented by their corresponding aplustra, cut bodily from as many galleys; and over them, so as to be legible to the eighty thousand spectators in the seats, was this inscription:—

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