Early in the morning on the fourteenth of the spring month of Nisan the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood red, emerged with his shuffling cavalryman's walk into the arcade connecting the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great.
More than anything else in the world the Procurator hated the smell of attar of roses. The omens for the day were bad, as this scent had been haunting him since dawn.
It seemed to the Procurator that the very cypresses and palms in the garden were exuding the smell of roses, that this damned stench of roses was even mingling with the smell of leather tackle and sweat from his mounted bodyguard.
A haze of smoke was drifting toward the arcade across the upper courtyard of the garden, coming from the wing at the rear of the palace, the quarters of the first cohort of the XII Legion; known as the "Lightning," it had been stationed in Jerusalem since the Procurator's arrival. The same oily perfume of roses was mixed with the acrid smoke that showed that the centuries' cooks had started to prepare breakfast.
"Oh, gods, what are you punishing me for?.. No, there's no doubt, I have it again, this terrible incurable pain... hemicrania, when half the head aches... There's no cure for it, nothing helps... I must try not to move my head..."
A chair had already been placed on the mosaic floor by the fountain; without a glance around, the Procurator sat in it and stretched out his hand to one side. His secretary deferentially laid a piece of parchment in his hand. Unable to restrain a grimace of agony, the Procurator gave a fleeting sideways look at its contents, returned the parchment to his secretary and said painfully, "The accused comes from Galilee, does he? Was the case sent to the tetrarch?"
"Yes, Procurator," replied the secretary. "He declined to confirm the finding of the court and passed the Sanhedrin's sentence of death to you for confirmation."
The Procurator's cheek twitched, and he said quietly, "Bring in the accused."
At once two legionaries escorted a man of about twenty-seven from the courtyard, under the arcade and up to the balcony, where they placed him before the Procurator's chair. The man was dressed in a shabby, torn, blue chiton. His head was covered with a white bandage fastened round his forehead, his hands tied behind his back. There was a large bruise under the man's left eye and a scab of dried blood in one corner of his mouth. The prisoner stared at the Procurator with anxious curiosity.
The Procurator was silent at first, then asked quietly in Aramaic, "So you have been inciting the people to destroy the temple of Jerusalem?"
The Procurator sat as though carved in stone, his lips barely moving as he pronounced the words. The Procurator was like stone from fear of shaking his fiendishly aching head.
The man with bound hands made a slight move forward and began speaking: "Good man! Believe me "
But the Procurator, immobile as before and without raising his voice, at once interrupted him: "You call me 'good man'? You are making a mistake. The rumor about me in Jerusalem is that I am a raving monster, and that is absolutely correct," and he added in the same monotone, "Send centurion Muribellum to me."
The balcony seemed to darken when the centurion of the first century, Mark surnamed Muribellum, appeared before the Procurator. Muribellum was a head taller than the tallest soldier in the legion and so broad in the shoulders that he completely obscured the rising sun.
The Procurator said to the centurion in Latin, "This criminal calls me 'good man.' Take him away for a minute and show him the proper way to address me. But do not mutilate him."
All except the motionless Procurator watched Mark Muribellum as he gestured to the prisoner to follow him. Because of his height people always watched Muribellum wherever he went. Those who saw him for the first time were inevitably fascinated by his disfigured face: his nose had once been smashed by a blow from a German club.
Mark's heavy boots resounded on the mosaic, the bound man followed him noiselessly. There was complete silence under the arcade except for the cooing of doves in the garden below and the water singing its seductive tune in the fountain.
The Procurator had a sudden urge to get up and put his temples under the stream of water until they were numb. But he knew that even that would not help.
Having led the prisoner out of the arcade into the garden, Muribellum took a whip from the hands of a legionary standing by the base of a bronze statue and with a gentle swing struck the prisoner across the shoulders. The centurion's movement was slight, almost negligent, but the bound man collapsed instantly as though his legs had been struck from under him and he gasped for air. The color fled from his face and his eyes clouded.
With his left hand alone Mark lifted the fallen man into the air as lightly as an empty sack, set him on his feet and said in broken, nasal Aramaic, "You call a Roman Procurator 'hegemon.' Don't say anything else. Stand at attention. Do you understand or must I hit you again?"
The prisoner staggered helplessly, his color returned. He gulped and answered hoarsely, "I understand you. Don't beat me."
A minute later he was again standing in front of the Procurator.
The harsh, suffering voice rang out: "Name?"
"Mine?" inquired the prisoner hurriedly, his whole being expressing readiness to answer sensibly and to forestall any further anger.
The Procurator said quietly, "I know my own name. Don't pretend to be stupider than you are. Your name."
Yeshua," replied the prisoner hastily.
"Where are you from?"
"From the town of Gamala," replied the prisoner, nodding his head to show that far over there to his right, in the north, was the town of Gamala.
"Who are you by birth?"
"I don't know exactly," promptly answered the prisoner, "I don't remember my parents. I was told that my father was a Syrian..."
"Where is your fixed abode?"
"I have no home," said the prisoner shamefacedly. "I move from town to town."
"There is a shorter way of saying that in a word you are a vagrant," said the Procurator and asked, "Have you any relations?"
"No, none. Not one in the world."
"Can you read and write?"
"Do you know any language besides Aramaic?"
One swollen eyelid was raised and a pain-clouded eye stared at the prisoner. The other eye remained closed.
Pilate said in Greek, "So you intended to destroy the temple building and incited the people to do so?"
"Never, goo" Terror flashed across the prisoner's face for having so nearly said the wrong word. "Never in my life, hegemon, have I intended to destroy the temple. Nor have I ever tried to persuade anyone to do such a senseless thing."
A look of amazement came over the secretary's face as he bent over a low table recording the evidence. He raised his head but immediately lowered it again over his parchment.
"People of all kinds are streaming into the city for the feast day. Among them there are magicians, astrologers, seers and murderers," said the Procurator in a monotone. "There are also liars. You, for instance, are a liar. It is clearly written down: 'He incited people to destroy the temple.' Witnesses have said so."
"These good people," the prisoner began, and hastily adding, "hegemon," he went on, "are unlearned and have confused everything I said. I am beginning to fear that this confusion will last for a very long time. And all because he untruthfully wrote down what I said."
There was silence. Now both pain-filled eyes stared heavily at the prisoner.
"I repeat, but for the last time: stop pretending to be mad, scoundrel," said Pilate softly and evenly. "What has been written down about you is little enough, but it is sufficient to hang you."
"No, no, hegemon," said the prisoner, straining with the desire to convince. "This man follows me everywhere with nothing but his goatskin parchment and writes incessantly. But I once caught a glimpse of that parchment and I was horrified. I had not said a word of what was written there. I begged him, 'Please burn this parchment of yours!' But he tore it out of my hands and ran away."
"Who was he?" inquired Pilate in a strained voice and put his hand to his temple.
"Matthew the Levite," said the prisoner eagerly. "He was a tax collector. I first met him on the road to Bethphagy at the comer where the road skirts a fig orchard and I started talking to him. At first he was rude and even insulted me, or rather he thought he was insulting me by calling me a dog." The prisoner laughed. "Personally I see nothing wrong with that animal so I was not offended by the word."
The secretary stopped taking notes and glanced surreptitiously not at the prisoner but at the Procurator.
"However, when he had heard me out he grew milder," went on Yeshua, "and in the end he threw his money into the road and said that he would go traveling with me."
Pilate laughed with one cheek. Baring his yellow teeth and turning fully round to his secretary, he said, "Oh, city of Jerusalem! What tales you have to tell! A tax collector, did you hear, throwing away his money!"
Not knowing what reply was expected of him, the secretary chose to return Pilate's smile.
"And he said that henceforth he loathed his money," said Yeshua in explanation of Matthew the Levite's strange action, adding, "And since then he has been my companion."
His teeth still bared in a grin, the Procurator glanced at the prisoner, then at the sun rising inexorably over the equestrian statues of the hippodrome far below to his left, and suddenly in a moment of agonizing nausea it occurred to him that the simplest thing would be to dismiss this curious rascal from his balcony with no more than two words: "Hang him." Dismiss the bodyguard too, leave the arcade and go indoors, order the room to be darkened, fall onto his couch, send for cold water, call for his dog Banga in a pitiful voice and complain to the dog about his hemicrania. Suddenly the tempting thought of poison flashed through the Procurator's mind.
He stared dully at the prisoner for a while, trying painfully to recall why this man with the bruised face was standing in front of him in the pitiless Jerusalem morning sunshine and what further useless questions he should put to him.
"Matthew the Levite?" asked the suffering man in a hoarse voice, closing his eyes.
"Yes, Matthew the Levite," came the grating, high-pitched reply.
"So you did make a speech about the temple to the crowd in the temple forecourt?"
The voice that answered seemed to strike Pilate on the forehead, causing him inexpressible torture, and it said, "I spoke, hegemon, of how the temple of the old beliefs would fall down and the new temple of truth would be built up. I used those words to make my meaning easier to understand."
"Why should a tramp like you upset the crowd in the bazaar by talking about truth, something of which you have no conception? What is truth?"
At this the Procurator thought, "Ye gods! This is a court of law and I am asking him an irrelevant question... my mind no longer obeys me." Once more he had a vision of a goblet of dark liquid. "Poison, I need poison..."
And again he heard the voice:
"At this moment the truth is chiefly that your head is aching and aching so hard that you are having cowardly thoughts about death. Not only are you in no condition to talk to me, but it even hurts you to look at me. This makes me seem to be your torturer, which distresses me. You cannot even think and you can only long for your dog, who is clearly the only creature for whom you have any affection. But the pain will stop soon and your headache will go."
The secretary stared at the prisoner, his note-taking abandoned.
Pilate raised his martyred eyes to the prisoner and saw how high the sun now stood above the hippodrome, how a ray had penetrated the arcade, had crept toward Yeshua's patched sandals and how the man moved aside from the sunlight. The Procurator stood up and clasped his head in his hands. Horror came over his yellowish, clean-shaven face. With an effort of will he controlled his expression and sank back into his chair.
Meanwhile the prisoner continued talking, but the secretary had stopped writing, craning his neck like a goose in the effort not to miss a single word.
"There, it has gone," said the prisoner, with a kindly glance at Pilate. "I am so glad. I would advise you, hegemon, to leave the palace for a while and take a walk somewhere nearby, perhaps in the gardens or on Mount Eleona. There will be thunder " the prisoner turned and squinted into the sun "later, toward evening. A walk would do you a great deal of good and I should be happy to go with you. Some new thoughts have just come into my head which you might, I think, find interesting, and I should like to discuss them with you, the more so as you strike me as a man of great intelligence." The secretary turned mortally pale and dropped his scroll to the ground. "Your trouble is," went on the unstoppable prisoner, "that your mind is too closed and you have finally lost your faith in human beings. You must admit that no one ought to lavish all his devotion on a dog. Your life is a cramped one, hegemon." Here the speaker allowed himself to smile.
The only thought in the secretary's mind now was whether he could believe his ears. He had to believe them. He then tried to guess in what strange form the Procurator's fiery temper might break out at the prisoner's unheard-of insolence. Although he knew the Procurator well, the secretary's imagination failed him.
Then the hoarse, broken voice of the Procurator barked out in Latin, "Untie his hands."
One of the legionary escorts tapped the ground with his lance, gave it to his neighbor, approached and removed the prisoner's bonds. The secretary picked up his scroll, decided to take no more notes for a while and to be astonished at nothing he might hear.
"Tell me," said Pilate softly in Latin, "are you a great physician?"
"No, Procurator, I am no physician," replied the prisoner, gratefully rubbing his twisted, swollen, purpling wrist.
Staring from beneath his eyelids, Pilate's eyes bored into the prisoner, and those eyes were no longer dull. They now flashed with their familiar sparkle.
"I did not ask you," said Pilate. "Do you know Latin too?"
"Yes, I do," replied the prisoner.
The color flowed back into Pilate's yellowed cheeks and he asked in Latin, "How did you know that I wanted to call my dog?"
"Quite simple," the prisoner answered in Latin. "You moved your hand through the air " the prisoner repeated Pilate's gesture "as though to stroke something, and your lips..."
"Yes," said Pilate.
There was silence. Then Pilate put a question in Greek: "So you are a physician?"
"No, no," was the prisoner's eager reply. "Believe me I am not."
"Very well, if you wish to keep it a secret, do so. It has no direct bearing on the case. So you maintain that you never incited people to tear down... or burn... or by any means destroy the temple?"
"I repeat, hegemon, that I have never tried to persuade anyone to attempt any such thing. Do I look weak in the head?"
"Oh, no, you do not," replied the Procurator quietly and smiled an ominous smile. "Very well, swear that it is not so."
"What would you have me swear by?" inquired the unbound prisoner with great urgency.
"Well, by your life," replied the Procurator. "It is high time to swear by it because you should know that it is hanging by a thread."
"You do not believe, do you, hegemon, that it is you who have strung it up?" asked the prisoner. "If you do, you are mistaken."
Pilate shuddered and answered through clenched teeth, "I can cut that thread."
"You are mistaken there, too," objected the prisoner, beaming and shading himself from the sun with his hand. "You must agree, I think, that the thread can only be cut by the one who has suspended it?"
"Yes, yes," said Pilate, smiling. "I now have no doubt that the idle gapers of Jerusalem have been pursuing you. I do not know who strung up your tongue, but he strung it well. By the way, tell me, is it true that you entered Jerusalem by the Susim Gate mounted on a donkey, accompanied by a rabble who greeted you as though you were a prophet?" Here the Procurator pointed to a scroll of parchment.
The prisoner stared dubiously at the Procurator.
"I have no donkey, hegemon," he said. "I certainly came into Jerusalem through the Susim Gate, but I came on foot alone except for Matthew the Levite, and nobody shouted a word to me as no one in Jerusalem knew me then."
"Do you happen to know," went on Pilate without taking his eyes off the prisoner, "anyone called Dismas? Or Hestas? Or a third Bar-Abba?"
"I do not know these good men," replied the prisoner.
"Is that the truth?"
"And now tell me why you always use that expression "good men?" Is that what you call everybody?"
"Yes, everybody," answered the prisoner. "There are no evil people on earth."
"That is news to me," said Pilate with a laugh. "But perhaps I am too ignorant of life. You need take no further notes," he said to the secretary, although the man had taken none for some time. Pilate turned back to the prisoner.
"Did you read about that in some Greek book?"
"No, I reached that conclusion in my own mind."
"And is that what you preach?"
"Centurion Mark Muribellum, for instance is he good?"
"Yes," replied the prisoner. "He is, it is true, an unhappy man. Since the good people disfigured him he has become harsh and callous. It would be interesting to know who mutilated him."
"That I will gladly tell you," rejoined Pilate, "because I was a witness to it. These good men threw themselves at him like dogs at a bear. The Germans clung to his neck, his arms, his legs. An infantry maniple had been ambushed, and had it not been for a troop of cavalry breaking through from the flank a troop commanded by me you, philosopher, would not have been talking to Muribellum just now. It happened at the battle of Idistavizo in the Valley of the Virgins."
"If I were to talk to him," the prisoner suddenly said in a reflective voice, "I am sure that he would change greatly."
"I suspect," said Pilate, "that the Legate of the Legion would not be best pleased if you took it into your head to talk to one of his officers or soldiers. Fortunately for us all, any such thing is forbidden and the first person to insure that it cannot occur would be myself."
At that moment a swallow darted into the arcade, circled under the gilded ceiling, flew lower, almost brushed its pointed wing tip over the face of a bronze statue in a niche and disappeared behind the capital of a column, perhaps with the thought of nesting there.
As it flew, an idea formed itself in the Procurator's mind, which was now bright and clear. It was this: the hegemon had examined the case of the vagrant philosopher Yeshua, surnamed Ha-Notsri, and could not substantiate the criminal charge made against him. In particular he could not find the slightest connection between Yeshua's actions and the recent disorders in Jerusalem. The vagrant philosopher was mentally ill, as a result of which the sentence of death pronounced on Ha-Notsri by the Lesser Sanhedrin would not be confirmed. But in view of the danger of unrest liable to be caused by Yeshua's mad, utopian preaching, the Procurator would remove the man from Jerusalem and sentence him to imprisonment in Caesarea Stratonova on the Mediterranean the place of the Procurator's own residence. It only remained to dictate this to the secretary.
The swallow's wings fluttered over the hegemon's head, the bird flew toward the fountain and out into freedom. The Procurator raised his eyes to the prisoner and saw that a column of dust had swirled up beside him.
"Is that all there is on this man?" Pilate asked the secretary.
"No, unfortunately," replied the secretary unexpectedly, and handed Pilate another parchment.
"What else is there?" inquired Pilate and frowned.
When he had read the further evidence, a change came over his expression. Whether it was blood flowing back into his neck and face or from something else that had occurred, his skin changed from yellow to red-brown and his eyes appeared to collapse. Probably caused by the increased blood pressure in his temples, something happened to the Procurator's sight. He seemed to see the prisoner's head vanish and another appear in its place, bald and crowned with a spiked golden diadem. The skin of the forehead was split by a round, livid scar smeared with ointment. A sunken, toothless mouth with a capricious, pendulous lower lip. Pilate had the sensation that the pink columns of his balcony and the roofscape of Jerusalem below and beyond the garden had all vanished, drowned in the thick foliage of cypress groves. His hearing, too, was strangely affected there was a sound as of distant trumpets, muted and threatening, and a nasal voice could clearly be heard haughtily intoning the words, "The law pertaining to high treason..."
Strange, rapid, disconnected thoughts passed through his mind. "Dead!" Then: "They have killed him!" And an absurd notion about immortality, the thought of which aroused a sense of unbearable grief.
Pilate straightened up, banished the vision, turned his gaze back to the balcony, and again the prisoner's eyes met his.
"Listen, Ha-Notsri," began the Procurator, giving Yeshua a strange look. His expression was grim, but his eyes betrayed anxiety. "Have you ever said anything about great Caesar? Answer! Did you say anything of the sort? Or did you... not?" Pilate gave the word "not" more emphasis than was proper in a court of law, and his look seemed to be trying to project a particular thought into the prisoner's mind.
"Telling the truth is easy and pleasant," remarked the prisoner.
"I do not want to know," rejoined Pilate in a voice of suppressed anger, "whether you enjoy telling the truth or not. You are obliged to tell me the truth. But when you speak, weigh every word, if you wish to avoid a painful death."
No one knows what passed through the mind of the Procurator of Judea, but he permitted himself to raise his hand as though shading himself from a ray of sunlight and, shielded by that hand, to throw the prisoner a glance that conveyed a hint.
"So," he said, "answer this question: do you know a certain Judas of Karioth, and if you have ever spoken to him what did you say to him about Caesar?"
"It happened thus," began the prisoner readily. "The day before yesterday, in the evening, I met a young man near the temple who called himself Judas, from the town of Karioth. He invited me to his home in the Lower City and gave me supper."
"Is he a good man?" asked Pilate, a diabolical glitter in his eyes.
"A very good man and eager to learn," affirmed the prisoner. "He expressed the greatest interest in my ideas and welcomed me joyfully."
"Lit the candles..." said Pilate through clenched teeth to the prisoner, his eyes glittering.
"Yes," said Yeshua, slightly astonished that the Procurator should be so well informed, and went on: "He asked me for my views on the government. The question interested him very much."
"And so what did you say?" asked Pilate. "Or are you going to reply that you have forgotten what you said?" But there was already a note of hopelessness in Pilate's voice.
"Among other things I said," continued the prisoner, "that all power is a form of violence exercised over people, and that the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other form of rule. Man will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice where no sort of power will be needed."
"There is no more to tell," said the prisoner. "After that some men came running in, tied me up and took me to prison." The secretary, straining not to miss a word, rapidly scribbled the statement on his parchment.
"There never has been, nor yet shall be, a greater and more perfect government in this world than the rule of the Emperor Tiberius!" Pilate's voice rang out harshly and painfully. The Procurator stared at his secretary and at the bodyguard with what seemed like hatred. "And what business have you, a criminal lunatic, to discuss such matters!" Pilate shouted. "Remove the guards from the balcony!" And turning to his secretary he added, "Leave me alone with this criminal. This is a case of treason."
The bodyguards raised their lances and with the measured tread of their iron-shod caligae marched from the balcony toward the garden followed by the secretary.
For a while the silence on the balcony was only disturbed by the splashing of the fountain. Pilate watched the water splay out at the apex of the jet and drip downward.
The prisoner was the first to speak: "I see that there has been some trouble as a result of my conversation with that young man from Karioth. I have a presentiment, hegemon, that some misfortune will befall him and I feel very sorry for him."
"I think," replied the Procurator with a strange smile, "that there is someone else in this world for whom you should feel sorrier than for Judas of Karioth and who is destined for a fate much worse than Judas'!.. So Mark Muribellum, a cold-blooded killer, the people who I see " the Procurator pointed to Yeshua's disfigured face "beat you for what you preached, the robbers Dismas and Hestas who with their confederates killed four soldiers, and finally this dirty informer Judas are they all good men?"
"Yes," answered the prisoner.
"And will the kingdom of truth come?"
"It will, hegemon," replied Yeshua with conviction.
"It will never come!" Pilate suddenly shouted in a voice so terrible that Yeshua staggered back. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: "Cut them down! Cut them down! They have caught the giant Muribellum!" And again he raised his parade-ground voice, barking out the words so that they would be heard in the garden: "Criminal! Criminal! Criminal!" Then lowering his voice he asked, "Yeshua Ha-Notsri, do you believe in any gods?"
"God is one," answered Yeshua. "I believe in Him."
"Then pray to Him! Pray hard! However " at this Pilate's voice fell again "it will do no good. Have you a wife?" asked Pilate with a sudden inexplicable access of depression.
"No, I am alone."
"I hate this city," the Procurator suddenly mumbled, hunching his shoulders as though from cold and wiping his hands as though washing them. "If they had murdered you before your meeting with Judas of Karioth, I really believe it would have been better."
"You should let me go, hegemon," was the prisoner's unexpected request, his voice full of anxiety. "I see now that they want to kill me."
A spasm distorted Pilate's face as he turned his bloodshot eyes on Yeshua and said, "Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me? Oh gods, oh gods! Or do you think I'm prepared to take your place? I don't believe in your ideas! And listen to me: if from this moment onward you say so much as a word or try to talk to anybody, beware! I repeat beware!"
"Be quiet!" shouted Pilate, his infuriated stare following the swallow which had flown onto the balcony again. "Here!" shouted Pilate.
The secretary and the guards returned to their places, and Pilate announced that he confirmed the sentence of death pronounced by the Lesser Sanhedrin on the accused Yeshua Ha-Notsri and the secretary recorded Pilate's words.
A minute later centurion Mark Muribellum stood before the Procurator. He was ordered by the Procurator to hand the felon over to the captain of the secret service and in doing so to transmit the Procurator's directive that Yeshua Ha-Notsri was to be segregated from the other convicts, also that the captain of the secret service was forbidden on pain of severe punishment to talk to Yeshua or to answer any questions he might ask.
At a signal from Mark the guard closed ranks around Yeshua and escorted him from the balcony. Later the Procurator received a call from a handsome man with a blond beard, eagles' feathers in the crest of his helmet, glittering lions' muzzles on his breastplate, a gold-studded sword belt, triple-soled boots laced to the knee and a purple cloak thrown over his left shoulder. He was the commanding officer, the Legate of the Legion.
The Procurator asked him where the Sebastian cohort was stationed. The Legate reported that the Sebastian was on cordon duty in the square in front of the hippodrome, where the sentences on the prisoners would be announced to the crowd.
Then the Procurator instructed the Legate to detach two centuries from the Roman cohort. One of them, under the command of Muribellum, was to escort the convicts, the carts transporting the executioners' equipment and the executioners themselves to Mount Golgotha and on arrival to cordon off the summit area. The other was to proceed at once to Mount Golgotha and to form a cordon immediately on arrival. To assist in the task of guarding the hill, the Procurator asked the Legate to dispatch an auxiliary cavalry regiment, the Syrian ala.
When the Legate had left the balcony, the Procurator ordered his secretary to summon to the palace the president of the Sanhedrin, two of its members and the captain of the Jerusalem temple guard, but added that he wished arrangements to be made which would allow him, before conferring with all these people, to have a private meeting with the president of the Sanhedrin.
The Procurator's orders were carried out rapidly and precisely, and the sun, which had lately seemed to scorch Jerusalem with such particular vehemence, had not yet reached its zenith when the meeting took place between the Procurator and the president of the Sanhedrin, the High Priest of Judea, Joseph Caiaphas. They met on the upper terrace of the garden between two white marble lions guarding the staircase.
It was quiet in the garden. But as he emerged from the arcade onto the sun-drenched upper terrace of the garden with its palms on their monstrous elephantine legs, the terrace from which the whole of Pilate's detested city of Jerusalem lay spread out before the Procurator with its suspension bridges, its fortresses and over it all that indescribable lump of marble with a golden dragon's scale instead of a roof the temple of Jerusalem the Procurator's sharp hearing detected far below, down there where a stone wall divided the lower terraces of the palace garden from the city square, a low rumbling broken now and again by faint sounds, half groans, half cries.
The Procurator realized that already there was assembling in the square a numberless crowd of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, excited by the recent disorders; that this crowd was waiting impatiently for the pronouncement of sentence and that the water-sellers were busily shouting their wares.
The Procurator began by inviting the High Priest on to the balcony to find some shade from the pitiless heat, but Caiaphas politely excused himself, explaining that he could not do that on the eve of a feast day.
Pilate pulled his cowl over his slightly balding head and began the conversation, which was conducted in Greek.
Pilate remarked that he had considered the case of Yeshua Ha-Notsri and had confirmed the sentence of death. Consequently those due for execution that day were the three robbers Hestas, Dismas and Bar-Abba and now this other man, Yeshua Ha-Notsri. The first two, who had tried to incite the people to rebel against Caesar, had been forcibly apprehended by the Roman authorities; they were therefore the Procurator's responsibility and there was no reason to discuss their case. The last two, however, Bar-Abba and Ha-Notsri, had been arrested by the local authorities and tried before the Sanhedrin. In accordance with law and custom, one of these two criminals should be released in honor of the imminent great feast of Passover. The Procurator therefore wished to know which of these two felons the Sanhedrin proposed to discharge Bar-Abba or Ha-Notsri?
Caiaphas inclined his head as a sign that he understood the question and replied, 'The Sanhedrin requests the release of Bar-Abba."
The Procurator well knew that this would be the High Priest's reply; his problem was to show that the request aroused his astonishment.
This Pilate did with great skill. The eyebrows rose on his proud forehead, and the Procurator looked the High Priest straight in the eye with amazement. "I confess that your reply surprises me," began the Procurator softly. "I fear there may have been some misunderstanding here."
Pilate stressed that the Roman government wished to make no inroads into the prerogatives of the local priestly authority, the High Priest was well aware of that, but in this particular case an obvious error seemed to have occurred. And the Roman government naturally had an interest in correcting such an error. The crimes of Bar-Abba and Ha-Notsri were after all not comparable in gravity. If the latter, a man who was clearly insane, was guilty of making some absurd speeches in Jerusalem and various other localities, the former stood convicted of offenses that were infinitely more serious. Not only had he permitted himself to make direct appeals to rebellion, but he had killed a sentry while resisting arrest. Bar-Abba was immeasurably more dangerous than Ha-Notsri. In view of all these facts, the Procurator requested the High Priest to reconsider his decision and to discharge the least dangerous of the two convicts and that one was undoubtedly Ha-Notsri... Therefore?
Caiaphas said in a quiet but firm voice that the Sanhedrin had taken due cognizance of the case and repeated its intention to release Bar-Abba.
"What? Even after my intervention? The intervention of the representative of the Roman government? High Priest, say it for the third time."
"And for the third time I say that we shall release Bar-Abba," said Caiaphas softly.
It was over and there was no more to be discussed. Ha-Notsri had gone forever and there was no one to heal the Procurator's terrible, savage pains; there was no cure for them now except death. But this thought did not strike Pilate immediately. At first his whole being was seized with the same incomprehensible sense of grief that had come to him on the balcony. He at once sought for its explanation, and its cause was a strange one: the Procurator was obscurely aware that he still had something to say to the prisoner and that perhaps, too, he had more to learn from him.
Pilate banished the thought and it passed as quickly as it had come. It passed, yet that grievous ache remained a mystery, for it could not be explained by another thought that had flashed in and out of his mind like lightning: "Immortality... immortality has come." Whose immortality had come? The Procurator could not understand it, but that puzzling thought of immortality sent a chill over him despite the sun's heat.
"Very well," said Pilate. "So be it."
With that he looked around. The visible world vanished from his sight and an astonishing change occurred. The flower-laden rosebush disappeared, the cypresses fringing the upper terrace disappeared, as did the pomegranate tree, the white statue among the foliage and the foliage itself. In their place came a kind of dense purple mass in which seaweed waved and swayed and Pilate himself was swaying with it. He was seized, suffocating and burning, by the most terrible rage of all rage the rage of impotence.
"I am suffocating," said Pilate. "Suffocating!"
With a cold damp hand he tore the buckle from the collar of his cloak and it fell onto the sand.
"It is stifling today, there is a thunderstorm brewing," said Caiaphas, his gaze fixed on the Procurator's reddening face, foreseeing all the discomfort that the weather was yet to bring. "The month of Nisan has been terrible this year!"
"No," said Pilate. "That is not why I am suffocating. I feel stifled by your presence, Caiaphas." Narrowing his eyes, Pilate added, "Beware, High Priest!"
The High Priest's dark eyes flashed and no less cunningly than the Procurator his face showed astonishment.
"What do I hear, Procurator?" Caiaphas answered proudly and calmly. "Are you threatening me when sentence has been duly pronounced and confirmed by yourself? Can this be so? We are accustomed to the Roman Procurator choosing his words carefully before saying anything. I trust no one can have overheard us, hegemon?"
With lifeless eyes Pilate gazed at the High Priest and manufactured a smile.
"Come now, High Priest! Who can overhear us here? Do you take me for a fool, like that crazy young vagrant who is to be executed today? Am I a child, Caiaphas? I know what I'm saying and where I'm saying it. This garden, this whole palace, is so well cordoned that there's not a crack for a mouse to slip through. Not a mouse and not even that man what's his name? that man from Karioth. You do know him, don't you, High Priest? Yes... if someone like that were to get in here, he would bitterly regret it. You believe me when I say that, don't you? I tell you, High Priest, that henceforth you shall have no peace! Neither you nor your people." Pilate pointed to the right where the pinnacle of the temple flashed in the distance. "I, Pontius Pilate, Knight of the Golden Lance, tell you so!"
"I know it!" fearlessly replied the bearded Caiaphas. His eyes flashed as he raised his hand to the sky and went on: "The Jewish people knows that you hate it with a terrible hatred and that you have brought it much suffering, but you will never destroy it! God will protect it. And he shall hear us mighty Caesar shall hear us and protect us from Pilate the oppressor!"
"Oh, no!" rejoined Pilate, feeling more and more relieved with every word that he spoke; there was no longer any need to dissemble, no need to pick his words. "You have complained of me to Caesar too often and now my hour has come, Caiaphas! Now I shall send word but not to the viceroy in Antioch, not even to Rome but straight to Capraia, to the Emperor himself, word of how you in Jerusalem are saving convicted rebels from death. And then it will not be water from Solomon's pool, as I once intended for your benefit, that I shall give Jerusalem to drink no, it will not be water! Remember how, thanks to you, I was made to remove the shields with the imperial cipher from the walls, to transfer troops, to come and take charge here myself! Remember my words, High Priest: you are going to see more than one cohort here in Jerusalem! Under the city walls you are going to see the Fulminata Legion at full strength and Arab cavalry too. Then the weeping and lamentation will be bitter! Then you will remember that you saved Bar-Abba and you will regret that you sent that preacher of peace to his death!"
Flecks of color spread over the High Priest's face, his eyes burned. Like the Procurator, he grinned mirthlessly and replied, "Do you really believe what you have just said, Procurator? No, you do not! It was not peace that this rabble-rouser brought to Jerusalem, and of that, hegemon, you are well aware. You wanted to release him so that he could stir up the people, curse our faith and deliver the people to your Roman swords! But as long as I, the High Priest of Judea, am alive I shall not allow the faith to be defamed and I shall protect the people! Do you hear, Pilate!" With this Caiaphas raised his arm threateningly. "Take heed, Procurator!"
Caiaphas was silent, and again the Procurator heard a murmuring as of the sea, rolling up to the very walls of Herod the Great's garden. The sound flowed upward from below until it seemed to swirl around the Procurator's legs and into his face. Behind his back, from beyond the wings of the palace, came urgent trumpet calls, the heavy crunch of hundreds of feet, the clank of metal. It told the Procurator that the Roman infantry was marching out, on his orders, to the execution parade that was to strike terror into the hearts of all thieves and rebels.
"Do you hear, Procurator?" the High Priest quietly repeated his words. "Surely you are not trying to tell me that all this " here the High Priest raised both arms and his dark cowl slipped from his head "can have been evoked by that miserable thief Bar-Abba?"
With the back of his wrist the Procurator wiped his damp, cold forehead, stared at the ground, then frowning skyward he saw that the incandescent ball was nearly overhead, that Caiaphas' shadow had shrunk to almost nothing, and he said in a calm, expressionless voice, "The execution will be at noon. We have enjoyed this conversation, but matters must proceed."
Excusing himself to the High Priest in a few artificial phrases, he invited him to sit down on a bench in the shade of a magnolia and to wait while he summoned the others necessary for the final short consultation and to give one more order concerning the execution.
Caiaphas bowed politely, placing his hand on his heart, and remained in the garden while Pilate returned to the balcony. There he ordered his waiting secretary to call the Legate of the Legion and the Tribune of the Cohort into the garden, also the two members of the Sanhedrin and the captain of the temple guard, who were standing grouped around the fountain on the lower terrace awaiting his call. Pilate added that he would himself shortly return to join them in the garden and disappeared inside the palace.
While the secretary convened the meeting, inside his darkened, shuttered room the Procurator spoke to a man whose face, despite the complete absence of sunlight from the room, remained half-covered by a hood. The interview was very short. The Procurator whispered a few words to the man, who immediately departed. Pilate passed through the arcade into the garden.
There in the presence of all the men he had asked to see, the Procurator solemnly and curtly repeated that he confirmed the sentence of death on Yeshua Ha-Notsri and inquired officially of the Sanhedrin members as to which of the prisoners it had pleased them to release. On being told that it was Bar-Abba, the Procurator said, "Very well," and ordered the secretary to enter it in the minutes. He clutched the buckle which the secretary had picked up from the sand and announced solemnly, "It is time!"
At this all present set off down the broad marble staircase between the lines of rosebushes, exuding their stupefying aroma, down toward the palace wall, to a gate leading to the smoothly paved square at whose end could be seen the columns and statues of the Jerusalem hippodrome.
As soon as the group entered the square and began climbing up to the broad temporary wooden platform raised high above the square, Pilate assessed the situation through narrowed eyelids.
The cleared passage that he had just crossed between the palace walls and the scaffolding platform was empty, but in front of Pilate the square could no longer be seen it had been devoured by the crowd. The mob would have poured onto the platform and the passage too if there had not been two triple rows of soldiers, one from the Sebastian cohort on Pilate's left and on his right another from the Ituraean auxiliary cohort, to keep it clear.
Pilate climbed the platform, mechanically clenching and unclenching his fist on the useless buckle and frowning hard. The Procurator was not frowning because the sun was blinding him but somehow to avoid seeing the group of prisoners which, as he well knew, would shortly be led out on the platform behind him.
The moment the white cloak with the purple lining appeared atop the stone block at the edge of the human sea a wave of sound "Aaahh" struck the unseeing Pilate's ears. It began softly, far away at the hippodrome end of the square, then grew to thunderous volume and, after a few seconds, began to diminish again. "They have seen me," thought the Procurator. The wave of sound did not recede altogether and began unexpectedly to grow again and rose waveringly to a higher pitch, and on top of the second surge of noise, like foam on the crest of a wave at sea, could be heard whistles and the shrieks of several women audible above the roar. "That means they have led them out onto the platform," thought Pilate, "and those screams are from women who were crushed when the crowd surged forward."
He waited a while, knowing that nothing could silence the crowd until it had let loose its pent-up feelings and quieted of its own accord.
When that moment came, the Procurator threw up his right hand and the last murmurings of the crowd expired. Then Pilate took as deep a breath of the hot air as he could, and his cracked voice rang out over the thousands of heads: "In the name of imperial Caesar!"
At once his ears were struck by a clipped, metallic chorus as the cohorts, raising lances and standards, roared out their fearful response: "Hail, Caesar!"
Pilate jerked his head up straight at the sun. He had a sensation of green fire piercing his eyelids, his brain seemed to burn. In hoarse Aramaic he flung his words out over the crowd:
"Four criminals, arrested in Jerusalem for murder, incitement to rebellion, contempt of the law and blasphemy, have been condemned to the most shameful form of execution crucifixion! Their execution will be carried out shortly on Mount Golgotha! The names of these felons are Dismas, Hestas, Bar-Abba and Ha-Notsri, and there they stand before you!"
Pilate pointed to the right, unable to see the prisoners but knowing that they were standing where they should be.
The crowd responded with a long rumble that could have been surprise or relief. When it had subsided, Pilate went on:
"But only three of them are to be executed for, in accordance with law and custom, in honor of the great feast of Passover the Emperor Caesar in his magnanimity will, at the choice of the Lesser Sanhedrin and with the approval of the Roman government, render back to one of these convicted men his contemptible life!"
As Pilate rasped out his words, he noticed that the rumbling had given way to a great silence. Now not a sigh, not a rustle reached his ears, and there even came a moment when it seemed to Pilate that the people around him had vanished altogether. The city he so hated might have died and only he alone stood there, scorched by the vertical rays of the sun, his face craning skyward. Pilate allowed the silence to continue and then began to shout again: "The name of the man who is about to be released before you ..."
He paused once more, holding back the name, mentally confirming that he had said everything, because he knew that as soon as he pronounced the name of the fortunate man the lifeless city would awaken and nothing more that he might say would be audible.
"Is that everything?" Pilate whispered soundlessly to himself. "Yes, it is. Now the name!" And rolling the "r" over the heads of the silent populace he roared: "Bar-Abba!"
It was as though the sun detonated above him and drowned his ears in fire, a fire that roared, shrieked, groaned, laughed and whistled.
Pilate turned and walked back along the platform toward the steps, glancing only at the particolored wooden blocks of the steps beneath his feet to save himself from stumbling. He knew that behind his back a hail of bronze coins and dates was showering the platform, that people in the whooping crowd, elbowing each other aside, were climbing onto shoulders to see a miracle with their own eyes a man already in the arms of death and torn from their grasp! They watched the legionaries as they untied his bonds, involuntarily causing him searing pain in his swollen arms, watched as grimacing and complaining he nevertheless smiled an insane, senseless smile.
Pilate knew that the escort was now marching the three bound prisoners to the side steps of the platform to lead them off on the road westward, out of the city, toward Mount Golgotha. Only when he stood beneath and behind the platform did Pilate open his eyes, knowing that he was now safe he could no longer see the convicted men.
As the roar of the crowd began to die down, the separate, piercing voices of the heralds could be heard repeating, one in Aramaic, the other in Creek, the announcement that the Procurator had just made from the platform. Besides that his ears caught the approaching irregular clatter of horses' hoofs and the sharp, bright call of a trumpet. This sound was echoed by the piercing whistles of boys from the rooftops and by shouts of "Look out!"
A lone soldier, standing in the space cleared in the square, waved his standard in warning, at which the Procurator, the Legate of the Legion and their escort halted.
A squadron of cavalry entered the square at a fast trot, cutting across it diagonally past a knot of people, then down a sidestreet along a vine-covered stone wall in order to gallop on to Mount Golgotha by the shortest route.
As the squadron commander, a Syrian as small as a boy and as dark as a mulatto, trotted past Pilate, he gave a high-pitched cry and drew his sword from its scabbard. His sweating, ugly-tempered, black horse snorted and reared up on its hind legs. Sheathing his sword, the commander struck the horse's neck with his whip, brought its forelegs down and moved off down the side street, breaking into a gallop. Behind him in a column of threes galloped the horsemen in a haze of dust, the tips of their bamboo lances bobbing rhythmically. They swept past the Procurator, their faces unnaturally dark in contrast with their white turbans, grinning cheerfully, teeth flashing.
Raising a cloud of dust, the squadron surged down the street, the last trooper to pass Pilate carrying a glinting trumpet slung across his back.
Shielding his face from the dust with his hand and frowning with annoyance, Pilate walked on, hurrying toward the gate of the palace garden followed by the Legate, the secretary and the escort.
It was about ten o'clock in the morning.