Along the home-stretch – sixth round – Messala leading, next him Ben-Hur, and so close it was the old story:
“First flew Eumelus on Pheretian steeds;
With those of Tros bold Diomed succeeds;
Close on Eumelus’ back they puff the wind,
And seem just mounting on his car behind;
Full on his neck he feels the sultry breeze,
And, hovering o’er, their stretching shadow sees.”
Thus to the first goal, and round it. Messala, fearful of losing his place, hugged the stony wall with perilous clasp; a foot to the left, and he had been dashed to pieces; yet, when the turn was finished, no man, looking at the wheel-tracks of the two cars, could have said, here went Messala, there the Jew. They left but one trace behind them.
As they whirled by, Esther saw Ben-Hur’s face again, and it was whiter than before.
Simonides, shrewder than Esther, said to Ilderim, the moment the rivals turned into the course, “I am no judge, good sheik, if Ben-Hur be not about to execute some design. His face hath that look.”
To which Ilderim answered, “Saw you how clean they were and fresh? By the splendor of God, friend, they have not been running! But now watch!”
One ball and one dolphin remained on the entablatures; and all the people drew a long breath, for the beginning of the end was at hand.
First, the Sidonian gave the scourge to his four, and, smarting with fear and pain, they dashed desperately forward, promising for a brief time to go to the front. The effort ended in promise. Next, the Byzantine and the Corinthian each made the trial with like result, after which they were practically out of the race. Thereupon, with a readiness perfectly explicable, all the factions except the Romans joined hope in Ben-Hur, and openly indulged their feeling.
“Ben-Hur! Ben-Hur!” they shouted, and the blent voices of the many rolled overwhelmingly against the consular stand.
From the benches above him as he passed, the favor descended in fierce injunctions. “Speed thee, Jew!”
“Take the wall now!”
“On! loose the Arabs! Give them rein and scourge!”
“Let him not have the turn on thee again. Now or never!”
Over the balustrade they stooped low, stretching their hands imploringly to him.
Either he did not hear, or could not do better, for halfway round the course and he was still following; at the second goal even still no change!
And now, to make the turn, Messala began to draw in his left-hand steeds, an act which necessarily slackened their speed. His spirit was high; more than one altar was richer of his vows; the Roman genius was still president. On the three pillars only six hundred feet away were fame, increase of fortune, promotions, and a triumph ineffably sweetened by hate, all in store for him! That moment Malluch, in the gallery, saw Ben-Hur lean forward over his Arabs, and give them the reins. Out flew the many-folded lash in his hand; over the backs of the startled steeds it writhed and hissed, and hissed and writhed again and again; and though it fell not, there were both sting and menace in its quick report; and as the man passed thus from quiet to resistless action, his face suffused, his eyes gleaming, along the reins he seemed to flash his will; and instantly not one, but the four as one, answered with a leap that landed them alongside the Roman’s car. Messala, on the perilous edge of the goal, heard, but dared not look to see what the awakening portended. From the people he received no sign. Above the noises of the race there was but one voice, and that was Ben-Hur’s. In the old Aramaic, as the sheik himself, he called to the Arabs,
“On, Atair! On, Rigel! What, Antares! dost thou linger now? Good horse – oho, Aldebaran! I hear them singing in the tents. I hear the children singing and the women – singing of the stars, of Atair, Antares, Rigel, Aldebaran, victory! – and the song will never end. Well done! Home to-morrow, under the black tent – home! On, Antares! The tribe is waiting for us, and the master is waiting! ‘Tis done! ’tis done! Ha, ha! We have overthrown the proud. The hand that smote us is in the dust. Ours the glory! Ha, ha! – steady! The work is done – soho! Rest!”
There had never been anything of the kind more simple; seldom anything so instantaneous. At the moment chosen for the dash, Messala was moving in a circle round the goal. To pass him, Ben-Hur had to cross the track, and good strategy required the movement to be in a forward direction; that is, on a like circle limited to the least possible increase. The thousands on the benches understood it all: they saw the signal given – the magnificent response; the four close outside Messala’s outer wheel; Ben-Hur’s inner wheel behind the other’s car – all this they saw. Then they heard a crash loud enough to send a thrill through the Circus, and, quicker than thought, out over the course a spray of shining white and yellow flinders flew. Down on its right side toppled the bed of the Roman’s chariot. There was a rebound as of the axle hitting the hard earth; another and another; then the car went to pieces; and Messala, entangled in the reins, pitched forward headlong.
To increase the horror of the sight by making death certain, the Sidonian, who had the wall next behind, could not stop or turn out. Into the wreck full speed he drove; then over the Roman, and into the latter’s four, all mad with fear. Presently, out of the turmoil, the fighting of horses, the resound of blows, the murky cloud of dust and sand, he crawled, in time to see the Corinthian and Byzantine go on down the course after Ben-Hur, who had not been an instant delayed.
The people arose, and leaped upon the benches, and shouted and screamed. Those who looked that way caught glimpses of Messala, now under the trampling of the fours, now under the abandoned cars. He was still; they thought him dead; but far the greater number followed Ben-Hur in his career. They had not seen the cunning touch of the reins by which, turning a little to the left, he caught Messala’s wheel with the iron-shod point of his axle, and crushed it; but they had seen the transformation of the man, and themselves felt the heat and glow of his spirit, the heroic resolution, the maddening energy of action with which, by look, word, and gesture, he so suddenly inspired his Arabs. And such running! It was rather the long leaping of lions in harness; but for the lumbering chariot, it seemed the four were flying. When the Byzantine and Corinthian were halfway down the course, Ben-Hur turned the first goal.
AND THE RACE WAS WON!