E-text prepared by Al Haines
I. N. R. I.
A Prisoner's Story of the Cross
Translated by Elizabeth Lee
Hodder and Stoughton Limited London First Edition, September, 1905. Second Edition, September, 1905. Third Edition, December, 1905. Made and Printed in Great Britain. Wyman & Sons Ltd., London, Reading and Fakenham
The difficult path which leads to the gardens where the waters of life sparkle, takes us first to a big city in which the hearts of men pulsate with feverish unrest.
There is such a great crowd in the broad square in front of the law courts that the electric cars are forced to stop. Six or eight of them are standing in a row, and the police cannot break through the crowd. Every one is making for the law courts; some hurry forward excitedly, others push their way through quietly, and fresh streams of people from the side streets are continually joining the rest. The public prosecutor is expected every moment to appear on the balcony and announce the verdict to the public.
Every one was indulging in remarks about the prisoner who had wished to do so terrible a deed.
"He is condemned, sure enough!" shouted one man. "The like of him gets to Heaven with a hempen cord!"
"Don't be silly," said another, with lofty superiority. "In half an hour at most he'll pass the gate a free man. Juries don't condemn the like of him."
Many agreed with the first speaker, but more with the last.
"Whoever believes that he'll be let off is a fool!" shouted some one. "Just consider what he did, what he wished to do!"
"He wanted to do a splendid thing!"
Passionate discussion and wagering began. It would have struck a keen observer that good broadcloth expected condemnation, while fustian and rags eagerly desired acquittal. A big man of imposing presence asked in a loud tone, over the heads of the people, if anyone would bet him ten ducats that the wretch would hang.
A starved-looking little fellow declared himself willing to take up the bet. The handsome man turned his head in its silk hat, and when he saw the starved, undersized creature, murmured sleepily, "He! he'll bet ten ducats with me! My dear sir, you'd better go home to your mother and ask her to give you a couple of pennies."
Laughter followed; but it was interrupted. The crowd swayed suddenly, as when a gust of wind passes over the surface of water. A man appeared on the balcony of the law courts. He had a short, dark beard; his head with its high forehead was uncovered. He stepped forward ceremoniously to the railing, and raised his hand to enforce silence. And when the murmur of the crowd died away, he exclaimed in a thin voice, but pronouncing every syllable clearly, "The prisoner, Konrad Ferleitner, is found guilty by a majority of two-thirds of the jury, and in the name of his Majesty the King is condemned to die by hanging."
He stood for a moment after making the announcement, and then went back into the house. A few isolated exclamations came from the crowd.
"To make a martyr of him! Enthusiasm is infectious!"
"An enthusiast! If he's an enthusiast, I'm a rascal!"
"Why not?" replied a shock-headed man with a laugh.
"Move on!" ordered the police, who were now reinforced by the military. The crowd yielded on all sides, and the tram rails were once more free.
A few minutes later a closed carriage was driven along the same road. The glint of a bayonet could be seen through the window. The crowd flocked after the carriage, but it went so swiftly over the paved road that the dust flew up under the horses' hoofs, and at length it vanished in the poplar avenue that led to the prison. Some of the people stopped, panting, and asked each other why they had run so fast. "It won't take place to-day. We shall see in the papers when it's to come off."
"Do you think so? I tell you it's only for specially invited and honoured guests! The times when executions were conducted in public are gone, my dear fellow. The people are kept out of the way."
"Patience, my wise compeer! It'll be a people's holiday when the hangman is hung."
The crowd melted into the ordinary traffic of the street.
A slender, stooping man sat handcuffed between two policemen in the carriage that rolled along the avenue. He breathed so heavily that his shoulders heaved up and down. He wore his black coat today, and white linen appeared at neck and sleeves. His hair was reddish brown, he had brushed it carefully, and cheeks and chin were shaved smoothly. He had felt sure that the day would restore him to liberty, or promise it him at no very distant date. His pale face and sunken cheeks proclaimed him about forty, but he might have been younger. His blue eyes had a far-away, dreamy expression, but they were now full of terror. His face would have been handsome had not the look of terror spoiled it. His fettered hands lay on his knees, which were closely pressed together, his fingers were intertwined, his head sunken so that his chin was driven into his chest: he looked an utterly broken man. He drew in his legs so that the policemen might be more comfortable. One of them glanced at him sideways, and wondered how this gentle creature could have committed such a crime.
They drove alongside the wall of the large building, the gate of which was now opened. In the courtyard the poor sinner was taken out of the carriage and led through a second gate into an inner courtyard where his handcuffs were removed. He was led through vaulted corridors in which here and there small doors with barred windows might be seen. The dark passage had many windings, and was lighted by an occasional lamp. The air was cold and damp. The openings high up in the wall, through which glimmered a pale daylight, became rarer, until at length it was as dark as the tomb. The new arrival was received by the gaoler, a man with bristly grey hair, a prominent forehead, and pronounced features which incessant ill-humour had twisted into a lasting grimace. Who would not be ill-humoured indeed, were he forced to spend a blameless life in a dungeon among thieves and murderers and even—worst of all—among those who had been foolishly led astray? Directly he saw the tottering, shadowy figure of the prisoner come round the pillar, he knew the blow had fallen. Midnight had struck for the poor fellow. Annoyed that such people should let themselves be so stupidly taken by surprise, he had continually snubbed him harshly. To-day he accompanied him to his cell in silence, and when opening it avoided rattling the keys. But he could not help looking through the spy-hole to see what the poor fellow would do. What he saw was the condemned man falling on to the brick floor and lying there motionless. The gaoler was alarmed, and opened the door again. So the man was clever enough to die quickly? That would be a miscarriage! But the culprit moved slightly, and begged to be left alone.
And he was alone, once again in this damp room with the wooden bench, the straw mattress, the water-jug on a table—things which during the long period of probation he had gazed at a hundred times, thinking of nothing but "They must acquit me." Out of the planks that propped up the straw mattress he had put together a kind of table, a work of which the gaoler disapproved, but he had not destroyed it. High up in the wall was a small barred window, through which mercifully came the reflection from an outer opposite wall, now lighted by the sun. The edge of a steep gabled roof and a chimney could be just seen through the window, and in between peeped a three-cornered piece of blue sky. That was the joy of the cell. Konrad did not know that he owed this room to special kindness. The scanty light from above had been a comfort, almost a promise, all the weary weeks: "They will send you a free man out into the sunshine!" By slow degrees that hope was extinguished in his lonely soul. And to-day? The little bit of reflection was a mockery to him. He wanted no more twilight. Daylight was gone for ever—he longed for darkness. Night! night! Night would be so heavy and dark that he would not behold his misery, even inwardly. He could not think; he felt stifled, giddy, as if someone had struck him on the head with a club.
When the gaoler on his rounds peeped through the spy-hole again and saw the man still lying on the floor, he grew angry. He noisily opened the little door. "By Jove, are you still there? Number 19! Do you hear? Is anything the matter?" The last words were spoken almost gently; a stupid fellow might imagine that he was pitied. But that was not the case. As a man sows, he reaps.
The prisoner stood up quickly and looked distractedly about him. When he recognised the gaoler he felt for his hand. He grasped it firmly, and said hoarsely: "I want to ask something. Send me a priest."
"Oh, at last!" grumbled the old man. "These atheists! In the end they crawl to the Cross."
"I'm not an atheist," calmly replied the prisoner.
"No? Well, it's all the same. You shall have a father-confessor."
Konrad had not meant a confessor. To set himself right with God? That might come with time. But what he now most desired was a human being. No one else would come. No one will have anything to do with a ruined man. Each man thanks God that he is not such a one. But the priest must come.
In about half an hour the condemned man started, every sound at the door alarmed him—some one came. A monk quietly entered the cell. He slipped along in sandals. The dull light from the window showed an old man with a long, grey beard and cheerful-looking eyes. His gown of rough cloth was tied round the waist with a white cord, from which a rosary hung. He greeted the prisoner, reaching for his hand: "May I say good evening? I should like to, if I may."
"I sent for you, Father. I don't know if you are aware how things are with me," said Konrad.
"Yes, I know, I know. But the Lord is nearer to you to-day than He was yesterday," replied the monk.
"I have many things to say," said Konrad, hesitatingly. "But I don't want to confess. I want a man to talk to."
"You want to ease your heart, my poor friend," said the monk.
"You come to me because it's your duty," returned Konrad. "It's not pleasant. You have to comfort us, and don't know how to do it. There's nothing left for me."
"Don't speak like that," said the Father. "If I understand rightly, you have not summoned me as a confessor. Only as a man, isn't that it? And I come willingly as such. I can't convert you. You must convert yourself. Imagine me to be a brother whom you haven't seen for a long time. And now he comes and finds you here, and wellnigh weeping asks you how such a thing could have happened."
The prisoner sat down on the bench, folded his hands, and bent his head and murmured; "I had a brother. If he had lived I should not be here. He was older than I."
"Have you no other relatives?" asked the monk.
"My parents died before I was twelve years old. Quickly, one after the other. My father could not survive my mother. My mother—a poor, good woman; always cheerful, pious. In the village just outside. No one could have had a happier childhood. Ah! forgive me——" His words seemed to stick in his throat.
"Compose yourself!" counselled the priest. "Keep your childhood in your memory! It is a light in such days."
"It is over," said Konrad, controlling his sobs. "Father, that memory does not comfort me; it accuses me more heavily. How can such misfortune come from such blessing? If only I dared kneel now before my God—and thank Him that she did not live to see this day."
"Well, well!" said the Father. "Other mothers had different experiences with other sons."
"I would sacrifice everything too for the sake of our dear Lady," muttered Konrad.
"That's right," returned the Father. "Now tell me more. Quite young, then, you lived among strangers, eh?"
He uttered confusedly: "After the deaths of my father and mother I was apprenticed. To a joiner. That was a splendid time. Only I read a great deal too much to please the master—all sorts of things, and dreamed about them. And I didn't wish to do anything wrong, at least so I imagined. The master called me a stupid visionary, and gave me the sack. Then came a period of wandering—Munich, Cologne, Hamburg. I was two years with a master at Cologne. If only I had stayed with him! He didn't want to let me go—and there was a daughter. Then to Hamburg. That was bad luck. I was introduced into a Society for the protection of the people against traitors. To be a saviour, to risk one's life! It came to me very slowly, quite gradually, what was the misery of living under such tyranny. When a boy I once killed a dog that bit some poor people's children in the street. A dog belonging to gentlefolk! I was whipped, but it scarcely hurt—there was always in my mind; 'You freed them from the beast!' And I felt just the same about the Society. I can't tell you what went on in me. I'm all bewildered. Everything was laid bare at the trial, the whole horrible story. Only I said yes with hundreds of others, I said it and thought: it won't come to me. And it did come to me, as if our Lord had not wished it otherwise. To me, the lot fell to me, when we drew."
"I know the story, my poor fellow," said the monk.
"I don't," retorted Konrad. "From the moment they took the revolver out of my hand everything has been dark. I have known nothing. I only heard to-day that he lives. And they told me——"
"What did they tell you?"
"That I must die." Then violently addressing the priest: "It was a misfortune. Is it really so great a crime? Tell me."
"I don't think I need tell you that."
"Very well, then. So it serves me right. I desired to do the deed, and they say that's the same as the accomplishment of it. Quite correct. Isn't it 'A life for a life'? It is written so in the Bible. Just that, no more. They must take mine. But—they must do it unexpectedly, suddenly. Just as I meant to do to him. Otherwise it won't be fair. Tell me, holy Father, is it cowardly to be so terrified? I am so terrified—of what is before me. There's nothing about this terror of death in the Scriptures. Those who settled my fate to-day looked like men. Then they ought to know that they are executing me a thousand times, not once. Why do I still live, I who was slain three hours ago! Quick! From behind! If only they were so merciful! One of them said to-day it was my duty to die. My God! I think I have the right to die, and they're the criminals! They haven't secured me my rights at once! It would have been over by now. O God, my God, if only it were over!"
So he raged on, wringing his hands, groaning under the torture. Suddenly his face became deathly white and his features stiffened as if his heart had ceased beating.
"Poor fellow," said the priest, putting his arm round his neck and drawing his head down on his breast. "You mustn't talk like that. Think, if we've been sinners all our lives, oughtn't we to spend a few days in repenting? Tell me, brother, don't you desire the consolations of religion?"
"Indeed I do," stammered the poor sinner. "And so I asked——"
"You see, I am ready."
"And I also want the Gospels, if I may be allowed the book."
The monk looked at him, then demanded quietly:
"You want the New Testament?"
"I should like to read in it. My mother had one and used to read it aloud and explain it. It would give me a home-like feeling if I could read in it now."
The Father replied: "I'll tell you something, my dear friend. The Gospel is a very good book, not in vain is it called the glad tidings."
"My God! yes; what do I need more sorely now than glad tidings?" agreed Konrad.
"Of course. But the book's not an easy one. Out of ten readers there's hardly one who understands it. And even he doesn't really understand it. It's too profound, I might say, too divine a book; as they say, seven times sealed. Therefore it must be explained by experts. I will willingly go through certain parts of it with you occasionally, but I shall give you something else for your edification, from which you will derive comfort and peace."
Konrad covered his face with his hands, and said, almost inaudibly: "The Gospel is what I should have liked best."
And then the monk said gravely: "My friend, you are the sick man and I am the physician. And the physician knows best what will do the sick man good. You should also prepare yourself for taking the Sacrament."
As the poor sinner said no more, the priest spoke a few kind words and left him. An hour later the gaoler brought him a parcel of books. "The holy brother sends them so that you can amuse yourself a little."
Amusement! It was a cruel joke. Konrad gave a shrill laugh. It was the laugh of a despairing man who cannot shut out the vision of his last journey, which became more hideous every moment. What did the Father send? Simple prayer-books and religious manuals. Book-markers were placed to show the passages that applied especially to the penitent and the dying man, and also prayers for poor souls in purgatory. The soul physician, all unacquainted with souls, sent the inconsolable man new anguish of death instead of life. Konrad searched for the bread he needed, turned over the leaves of the books, began to read here and there, but always put them down sadly. The more eagerly did he exercise his memory in order to recall the pictures of his childhood. His mother, who had been dead many years, stood before him in order to help her unhappy child. Her figure, her words, her songs, her sacred stories from the Saviour's life on earth—brought peace to his soul. It suddenly came upon him; "God has not forgotten me." Just as before he had raged in despair, so now beautiful shadows out of the past appeared before him, and tears of redemption flowed from his eyes.
He did not have an hour's sleep the night of his condemnation. He prayed, he dreamed, and then the horrid terror, which made him shiver in all his limbs, came again. He kept looking towards the window to see if daylight was beginning. Early in the morning, just at the first dawn—so he had often heard—the warders come. The window showed only darkness. But look, in the little three-cornered bit of sky, there is a star. He had not seen it on other nights. It sailed up to the crack in the roof and shone down through the window in kindly fashion. His eye was riveted on the spark of light until it vanished behind the walls. When at length day dawned, and the key rattled in the door, Konrad's hands and feet began to tremble. It was the gaoler, who brought him a bundle of coarse cotton clothing.
When Konrad asked in a dull voice if it was his gallows dress, the old man answered roughly: "What are you chattering about? Put on your house clothes."
The convict went up to the gaoler, clasped his hands, and said: "Only one thing, if I knew—when, when? This suspense is unbearable!"
"Eh! how impatient we are!" mocked the old man. "My dear fellow, we don't do things so quickly. The decision was only made yesterday. Why, they haven't yet settled about the banquet."
"The bill of fare—don't you understand? No orders have come yet. You're safe for twenty-four hours. But if there's anything you'd like to eat—I'll make an exception for once. And now, get on with your toilet! You can will away your own things as you please," he pointed to his clothes. "Have you anyone? No? Well, I know some poor people. But get on, get on. The hot season is coming on, and cotton isn't bad wear then."
The rough gaoler's good-humoured chatter was particularly distasteful to the poor man. To be snubbed and railed at would have pointed to a long life to come, one not to be measured by hours. Did he know? And was he silent out of pity? or was it malice? Before, the old man had been easily moved to anger, and when heated would swing his arms up and down and plainly threaten to have the obstinate convict sent off. Now there was no more grim humour nor raging round. He looked at the poor sinner, sunk in deep gloom, with a sad calmness. "Poor devil!" Suddenly it was too much for him, and he broke out violently: "But come now! You must have known it. Be sensible; I can't stand this misery. Dying is not easy, of course; you should be glad that there's someone by to help. And then—who knows whether you won't live after all. Do be sensible!"
When at last deep silence again gathered round him, the prisoner tried his books afresh. The Father had provided for a varied taste. The "Devotion to the Holy Rosary," the "Prayers to the Virgin's Heart," "Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell," the "Life of St. Theresa," "The Seven Bolts of Heaven," and "Prayers of Intercession for Souls in Distress." What a wealth of edification! The joiner's apprentice had always loved books. He had once reckoned out as a joke that three asses could not carry the books which he had read since his childhood. They had afforded him a glimpse of all times and places, and of all provinces of human life. Now he asked himself what it had all brought him. Confusion, perplexity, nothing besides. He had thought about everything, but he could not be clear about anything. That was not generally possible, he had read in one of the books, and the statement pacified him. He had read all kinds of theological books, had easily and trustfully given himself up to the echo of words heard in childhood, but it had not gone deeper. Now that they ought to prove their worth, they left him in the lurch. He turned over the pages, he read and prayed and sought, and found nothing to relieve his need. Discouraged, he pushed the books away from him, and some of them fell over the edge of the table on to the brick floor.
In the night that followed Konrad had a dream, vivid and clear as never dream had been. It was a dark country, and he had lost his way. He wandered about amid cold, damp rocks, and could not find a path. Then his fingers felt a thread; he seized it, and it guided him through the darkness. The land grew brighter and brighter; the thread brought him into his sunny native valley, to the place with the old gabled houses, to his father's house which stood amidst the fruit-trees, and the thread to which his fingers still clung involuntarily led him into the room where it had been spun from his mother's distaff. And there she sat and span the thread, with her pale face and soft wrinkles and kind eyes, and directly the boy stood near her she told him tales of the Saviour. He listened to her and was a happy child. That was his dream. And when he awoke in the prison cell, his mother's gentle voice still sounded in his ears: "My child, you must cling to Jesus."
Konrad was taken every day for half an hour into the dirty and sunless courtyard. But he dreaded that half-hour. It stirred a vain longing for light. And the rough and insolent fellow-prisoners with whom he was brought in contact! He preferred to be alone in his quiet cell.
During his imprisonment he had often asked for work, but was always informed that nothing of the sort had been provided for by the authorities. Besides—work was an honourable thing, and it must first be proved that he was worthy of it. But now it was not a time for work, rather a time for preparation. What could he do in order to get through these days? Or what could he do in order to keep the days from flying so quickly? Look how a flash of lightning seems sometimes to pass over the floor. Then it is gone again. High up in the opposite wall, on which the sun sometimes shone, was a casement window, and its glass doors, swayed by the breeze, were reflected in the prison. Konrad was terrified by these sparks from heaven; he would grope on the ground as if for a gold piece that had rolled away.
Then came visitors, unexpected, alarming visitors! The judge's stiff figure and serious face appeared in company with the gaoler.
Konrad felt stunned, and could only think: "The hour has come!" The man had pronounced his sentence as coldly and unfeelingly as if he had been a machine which, when its keys are pressed, gives forth sounds like words. The judge ordered the gaoler to withdraw. The old man hesitated—what could that mean? The judge had to repeat his order before the old man would go. When the judge was alone with the prisoner, he bent down and felt with his hands, for he was not yet accustomed to the darkness. Then he said kindly: "Konrad Ferleitner, I have come to ask you if there's anything you wish for?"
The prisoner wrung his hands convulsively; wild pulsations, that beat in strong double strokes at irregular intervals, coursed through his body. So violent was his agitation that the poor wretch stuttered forth words that the judge could not understand.
When he caught the words "Father-confessor!" amid the sounds uttered by the prisoner, it occurred to the judge that the poor fellow imagined that the hour of execution had arrived. "Ferleitner," he said, "come and sit by me on the bench. You think it's the end—no, it hasn't come so far yet, and perhaps it won't come so far at all. I may tell you that a petition for mercy has been sent to His Majesty."
Konrad looked up as if in a dream, and the dim light showed how terribly pale and sunken his cheeks were. "Mercy!" he muttered in suppressed tones. "Mercy for me? Then—why did you condemn me?"
The question appeared to puzzle the judge. The delinquent seemed in all seriousness to think himself innocent. "You were there yourself, Ferleitner, and heard how the jury decided after listening to the witnesses. After that the judge must condemn; he has no choice."
"For mercy? The king?" asked Konrad, who, more bewildered than consoled, had sat down on the bench, for his legs would scarcely support him.
"The advocate ventured it," replied the judge. "Your whole bearing proves that you were inveigled into the business. We want nothing further. You see, Ferleitner, that evil cannot be eradicated from the world with evil. To fight evil with evil only increases its power. But a large heart can pardon such a deed or purpose. Let us hope meanwhile that our king possesses one. The Chancellor is getting better. Here, just look—sign the paper." He pulled out a folded sheet, then an inkpot and a pen. Konrad bent over the table and groaned while signing his name.
"Ah," he said, "if only I could be free again! I should never think of such things again. The world could go on as it pleased. I should do my work, and not trouble about anything else. Only," and he said it softly, uncertainly, "only I shall not forget God again."
"There is naturally only a moderate chance," said the judge. "In some cases, where it is concerned with the whole——"
"It is very uncertain, then?" asked Konrad. "But, my God! how is it to be borne? If this time is lengthened, how is it to be borne? This terrible suspense!"
"It can be a time of hope," said the judge.
"But how long will it last?" asked Konrad.
The judge shrugged his shoulders. "It may last three weeks, but it might last double that time."
Konrad asked confidingly: "Do you think, sir, that a man can hold out?—with the terror of death lasting for weeks?"
"Haven't you just a little confidence?" asked the judge. "Haven't we all to endure uncertainty?—the judge as well as the condemned man?"
"But what am I to do?" demanded Konrad. "How am I to employ myself all the dreadful time? It's being buried alive."
"Unhappily it's not in my power to give you a better room, though you haven't the worst cell in the building. But perhaps you have some other desire that can be granted. Speak out frankly, Ferleitner," said the judge.
Therewith he folded the paper, and put the writing materials into his coat pocket. Konrad followed his proceedings with his eyes. He could not comprehend how this dread personage came to speak to him in so kindly a fashion. "As to the room," he said, "it's all I need—when you've nothing to do, and are not likely to have anything to do, what can a man want? If a man isn't free, nothing else matters. But one thing—I have one request, sir."
"Then speak it," said the judge, and holding Konrad's hand firmly in his, broke out with: "Don't you see, it's cruel to think, to believe, that we must be the personal enemies of all whom we're obliged to condemn. You think the proceedings in court were so callous, you've no idea how we actually feel about the business. It is not only the accused who passes sleepless nights—the judge, too, knows them. We lawyers—outside our profession—have founded an association to support and encourage those we are obliged to pronounce guilty, that they may not sink down uncomforted. So, my dear Ferleitner, you may trust me that, as far as I can, I will alleviate your position."
Then Konrad, looking down on the floor, said: "I should like to have writing materials."
"You want to write?" asked the Judge.
"If I might ask for paper, pens, and ink," returned Konrad. "In former years I used to like writing down my thoughts—just as they came, I had little education."
"You wish to write to your friends?" inquired the judge.
"Oh no! If I had any, they'd be glad not to hear from me," said Konrad.
"Or to draw up a plea of justification?"
"Or an account of your life?"
"No, not that either. My life has not been good enough. Misfortune should be forgotten rather than recorded. No, I think I can write something else," stated Konrad.
"You shall have writing materials," said the judge. "And is there anything else? A more comfortable bed?"
"No, thank you. It's right enough as it is. If a hard bed was the only thing——"
"And is everything kept properly neat and clean?" interrupted the judge.
"If you're always waiting and thinking, 'Now, now, they're coming!' I tell you, sir, you don't sleep well," replied Konrad.
"Don't keep worrying yourself with ideas, Ferleitner," said the judge warningly to the man, who had again worked himself up into a state of excitement. "Not one of us knows what the next hour may bring, and yet we live on calmly. Use the time," he continued playfully, "in avenging your condemnation by some great literary work. In olden times great minds often did it."
"I can't write a great work," answered Konrad. "And I've nothing to avenge. I deserve death. But it's this waiting for it. The torments of hell cannot be worse."
"We've nothing to do with hell. We've merely to think of the purgatory in which we are placed. Let heaven, as they say, follow. Haven't you any business to arrange? Nothing to settle for anyone?" asked the judge.
"No one, no one!" Konrad assured him.
"That's a piece of luck that many of your comrades in misfortune would envy you. A man can settle things easily for himself alone. If it's any consolation, Ferleitner, I may tell you that we don't regard you as a scoundrel, only as a poor creature who has been led astray. Now that's enough for the present. Your modest request shall be granted at once."
After this remarkable conversation with the poor sinner, the judge left the cell. He was not satisfied. Had he not listened enough, or had he spoken too much? How could so childlike a creature take an oath to commit murder? In the corridor he spoke seriously to the gaoler.
"I must point out to you that the man is very ill. Don't treat him harshly."
The old man was annoyed.
"I beg your pardon, sir! To treat a poor devil like that harshly! If you pity him, why were you so rough with him?" He rubbed a lamp-glass with a coarse rag in order to get the black off. "'To die by hanging.' Even said as gently as that, it hurts more than when we roundly abuse the people, and yet that's at once taken amiss. Only to prove it. Ill! Of course he's ill, poor devil. I am only surprised the doctors haven't been to cure him. I suppose he's well enough to be hanged?"
"That will do, Trapser."
The gaoler put down his work, stood up straight in military fashion, and said: "Sir, I beg to resign my post."
"What!" exclaimed the judge, "you wish to go?"
"I respectfully hand in my resignation." He stood up straight as a dart. "Do you know, I've got accustomed to most things here in six-and-twenty years, I've seen seventeen hanged—just seventeen, sir. There ought to have been twenty-four, but seven were granted imprisonment for life. They're still undergoing that mercy. Do you know, sir, it's a miserable calling! But as to that Ferleitner, I never afore saw anything like him. What has he done, I ask you? He's done nothing. You see we've had quite different gallows-birds here. A speculator who had ruined six families and driven the seventh to suicide—eight months. A student with two duel murders on his conscience—six months. But he is there now—because he's done nothing, it seems to me. Well, the long and the short of it is, it horrifies me."
"Always the same in temper and disposition, you old bear! God keep you!" And then a kindly tap on the shoulder. The attempt at resignation was again met with a refusal. The judge formally put it aside. But the old man growled on for a long time. "Old bear! old bear! That's his whole stock of wit every time, I'll show him the old bear. Good God! that's how things are with us!" He whistled and made a harsh noise with his bunch of keys so that the prisoners could make their preparations before he performed his duty of looking through the spyhole to see how his charges were spending their time. Then he went and procured a big bottle of ink and a packet of foolscap paper for Number 19.
"Is that enough?" he asked.
"Thank you, thank you!" said Ferleitner; "only now I want a pen."
"Oh no, my dear sir, no. We know that sort of thing. Since the notary in Number 43 stabbed himself with a steel pen five years ago, I don't give any more," said the gaoler.
"But I can't write without a pen," returned Konrad.
"That's not my business; I can't let you have a pen," the old man assured him.
"The judge gave me permission to have one," Konrad remonstrated modestly.
Then the old man exclaimed afresh: "Do you know this judge, he just comes up as far as this," and he placed his hand on a level with his chin. "He crumbles everything up and then we're to spoon it out." Then he muttered indistinctly in his beard; "I say just this, if they let a man hang for a week before they hang him, it's a—a—good God! I can't properly—I can't find any more fine words! If a man puts a knife into himself, no wonder!"
"I shan't kill myself," said Konrad quietly. "They say I may put my hopes in the king."
"And you want to write to him? That won't help much, but you can do it if you like; there's time. For once it's a good thing that our officials are so slow. If it's any comfort to you, you may know that they wrong me, too. They won't accept my resignation. Yes, that's how it is with us," concluded the old man.
Then he went and brought a pot with rusty steel pens. "But don't you spoil them!" For they were the very pens with which death-warrants had been signed—the old man had a collection of such things and hoped to sell it to a rich Englishman. "Does your honour require anything else?" With those mocking words he left the cell and raged and cursed all along the corridor. The prisoners thought he was cursing them.
The judge, his hands behind his back, walked up and down his large study. What a cursed critical case! If the Chancellor had not been given up by the doctors on the day of the trial, the sentence would have been different. The petition for mercy! Would it have any result except that of prolonging the poor man's torture? Whether in the end it would not have been better——? Everything would have been over then. An old official came out of the adjoining room and laid a bundle of papers on the table.
"One moment. Has the petition for mercy been sent to His Majesty?"
"It has, sir."
"What's your opinion?" asked the judge.
The counsellor raised his shoulders and let them fall again.
Konrad cowered down and stared at the table.
On it lay everything—paper, ink, pens. What should he write? He might describe his sadness, but how did a man begin to do that? He lifted up his face as if searching for something. His glance fell through the window on to the wall, the upper part of which was lighted by the evening sun. The mountain tops glowed like that. Ah, world, beautiful world! Still three weeks. Or double that time. Then—the very beating of his heart hurt him; his temple throbbed as though struck by a hammer. For he always thought of the one thing—and it suddenly flashed into his mind—there were other executioners! His supper was there—a tin can with rice soup and a piece of bread. He swallowed it mechanically to the last crumb. Then came night, and the star was again visible in the scrap of sky between the roof and the chimney. Konrad gazed at it reverently for the few minutes until it vanished. Then the long, dark, miserable night. And this was called living! And it was for such life that you petitioned the king. But if a king grants mercy, then the sun shines. The kindness shown him by the judge had strengthened him a little, but the last of his surging thoughts was always, "Hopeless!"
The next night Konrad had another visitor—his mother, in her Sunday gown, just as she used to go to communion. And there was some one with her. She went up to her son's bed, and said: "Konrad, I bring you a kind friend."
When he felt for her hand, she was no longer there, but in the middle of the dim cell stood the Lord Jesus. His white garment hung down to the ground, His long hair lay over His shoulders. His shining face was turned towards Konrad.
When the poor sinner woke in the morning his heart was full of wonder. The night had brought healing. He jumped blithely out of bed. "My Saviour, I will never more leave you."
Something of which he had hardly been conscious suddenly became clear to him. He would take refuge in the Saviour. He would sink himself in Jesus, in whom everything was united that had formed and must form his happiness—his mother, his innocent childhood, his joy in God, his repose and hope, his immortal life. Now he knew, he would rely on his Saviour. He would write a book about Jesus. Not a proper literary work; he could not do that, he had no talent for it. But he would represent the Lord as He lived, he would inweave his whole soul with the being of his Saviour so that he might have a friend in the cell. Then perhaps his terrors would vanish. In former days it had pleased him, so to speak, to write away an anxiety from his heart, not in letters to others, but only for himself. Many things which were not clear to him, which he found incomprehensible—with pen in hand he succeeded in making clearer to his inward eye, so that vague pictures almost assumed corporeal shape. He had in that fashion created many comrades and many companions during his wanderings in strange lands when he was afraid. So now in his forlorn and deserted condition he would try to invite the Saviour into the poor sinner's cell. No outward help was to be hoped, he must evoke it all out of himself. He would venture to implore the Lord Jesus until He came, using his childish memories, the remains of his school learning, the fragments of his reading, and, above all, his mother's Bible stories.
And now the condemned man began to write a book in so far as it was possible to him. At first his dreams and thoughts and figures were disconnected through timidity, and the painful excitement which often made his pulses gallop and his heart stop beating. Then he cowered in the corner, and wept and groaned and struggled in vain with the desire for mortal life. When he succeeded in collecting his thoughts again, and he took up his pen afresh, he gradually regained calm, and each time it lasted longer. And it happened that he often wrote for hours at a stretch, that his cheeks began to glow and his eyes to shine—for he wandered with Jesus in Galilee. Suddenly he would awake from his visions and find himself in his prison cell, and sadness overcame him, but it was no longer a falling into the pit of hell; he was strong enough to save himself on his island of the blessed. And so he wrote and wrote. He did not ask if it was the Saviour of the books. It was his Saviour as he lived in him, the only Saviour who could redeem him. And so there was accomplished in this poor sinner on a small scale what was accomplished among the nations on a large scale; if it was not always the historical Jesus as Saviour, it was the Saviour in whom men believed become historical, since he affected the world's history through the hearts of men. He whom the books present may not be for all men; He who lives in men's hearts is for all. That is the secret of the Saviour's undying power: He is for each man just what that man needs. We read in the Gospels that Jesus appeared at different times and to different men in different forms. That should be a warning to us to let every man have his own Jesus. As long as it is the Jesus of love and trust, it is the right Jesus.
It often happened that during the prisoner's composition and writing, a wider, softer light from the window spread through the cell, flickered over the wall, the floor, the table, and then rested for a space on the white paper. And so light even entered the lonely room, but unspeakably more light entered the writer's heart.
The gaoler saw little of the writing. Directly he rattled his keys, it was hidden under the sheet—just as children hide their treasures from intrusive eyes. When five or six weeks had gone by, hundreds of written sheets lay there.
Konrad placed them in a cover and wrote on it
When darkness covers the world men look gladly towards the east. There light dawns. All lights come from out of the east. And the races of men are said to have come hither from that quarter. There is an ancient book, in which is written the beginning of things and of men. The book came from the nation of the Jews, and the old Jews were called the people of God, for they recognised only one eternal God. And great men and holy prophets arose in that nation. The greatest of them was named Moses, and it is written that he it was who brought down to men the Ten Commandments. But the Jews fell on evil times, they sank lower and lower and were heavily oppressed by stronger nations. Like us, they suffered poverty and curses and despair, and this lasted for a thousand years and more. Prophets appeared from time to time, and with words of mercy announced that a Saviour would come to lead the Jews into the kingdom of glory. For that Saviour they waited many hundreds of years. Oftentimes one would appear whom they took for Him, but they were deceived. And when at last the real Saviour, the real, mighty Saviour appeared, they did not recognise Him. For He was different from what they had imagined.
Shall I try to tell how it happened, just as my mother used to tell me, her little boy, the story on winter evenings? Shall I recite it to myself like one who desires to wake himself at midnight before the Lord comes? Shall I, who am without learning, search in my poor confused head for the fragments that have remained in it? So much has been lost in the wear and tear of the world, and yet since it has grown so dark with me something flashes out, and shines forth on high, like some starry crown in the night! Shall I invoke the holy figures that they may stand by me through the anguish of my last days, that they may surround me with their glad eternal light, and let no spirit of despair come near me?—The path between the walls of this cruel fortress is narrow, and through it only a feeble light penetrates to me.
As God wills. I am grateful for and content with the pale reflection of the sky that comes to me from the holy east through the cracks in the wall. Oh, God, my Father, let glad tidings come to me from distant lands and far-off times, so that my simple heart can hold and understand them. I am thirsty for God's truth, and whatever shall strengthen, comfort, and save me, will be for me God's truth. Oh, thou pale light! Art thou my mother's heritage and blessing? Oh, my mother! From out the eternal dwelling speak to thy unhappy son—oh, speak!
Did I not always see you in the woman who, during the cold winter season, was compelled to go across the mountains far from home? And so I will begin.
At that time the land of the Jews was under the dominion of the Romans. The Roman Emperor wished to know how many Jews there were, and commanded that an enrolment of the people should be made in Judaea. All the Jews were to go to the place of their birth, and there report themselves to the Imperial officer. In the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee—a mountainous district of Judaea—there lived a carpenter. He was an elderly man, and had married a young wife of whom a folk-song still sings—
"As beautifully white as milk, As marvellously soft as silk; A woman very fair to see, Yet full of deep humility."
They were poor people, but pious and industrious and obedient. No man in the wide world troubled about them, and yet had it not been for them the Roman Empire might not have fallen. Years afterwards, indeed, it fell because of that carpenter. People from all quarters of the globe dwelt in Galilee, even barbarians who had wandered there from the west and the north. And it was often difficult to distinguish their descent. Our carpenter was born in the south of Judaea, in the town of Bethlehem, which, in olden times, had been the native place of King David. Joseph, the carpenter, was not unwilling to speak of that, and even to let it be known that he was of the house of David, the great king. But yet he might well have thought it a finer thing to rise up from below than to come down from above. And is it not so? Does not man rise up from below, and God come down from high? In his boyhood David was a shepherd; it is said that he slew the leader of the enemy with stones from his sling, and that was why he rose so high. Now for that reason, and because Joseph, the carpenter, was glad to visit his native town once again, and to take his wife with him and show her the land of his youth, the enrolment of the people was right pleasing unto him. So the two made their plans, and set out for Bethlehem. It was three days' journey and more, and they might well have complained. If a workman to-day has not all that is of the best, he should think of Master Joseph, who always cared more for good work than good money. They probably took a packet of food with them from home, and the bride was often obliged to rest by the way. The path over the rocky mountains was difficult and tiring, and they had to pass through the suspected land of Samaria. But Joseph never grumbled. And at last they reached Judaea. And when they came upon ancient monuments, he liked to stop, first in order to see how they were built, and then to ponder over the great men and great deeds of olden times. They spent a night at a place called Bethel, and there Joseph dreamed that he saw a ladder before him, and that it reached from earth to heaven. And Joseph thought, if the rungs would bear him, he might perhaps ascend it; meanwhile, he saw how an angel, robed in white, slowly descended it until he came down to where Joseph was. But when Joseph stretched out his hand to him, the angel was no longer to be seen. Joseph awoke, and the sweet dream filled his soul. It was the place where once the Patriarch Jacob saw the heavenly ladder, and there it had remained ever since, so that angels might continually descend and ascend between heaven and earth. And then they cheerfully continued their way. Joseph was afraid when he heard the jackals shriek in the desert and saw the Bedouin camps. But he thought the angel who had come down was hovering near him, and often imagined that he felt his wings fanning his cheek.
The land through which they journeyed was barren; the plants were dried up by the frost and were all faded. Snow lay on the summits of Lebanon, which the travellers now saw from afar, away in their native land, and pale gleams fell on to the lowlands of Judaea through the cloudy atmosphere, so that stones and grass were white. When they rested beside a brook the woman gazed thoughtfully into the pool and said, "Look, Joseph; what are the wonderful plants and flowers on the surface of the water?"
And Joseph said, "Haven't you ever seen them before, Mary? You are young and have only known a few cold winters. And you don't know what these flowers mean? Let me tell you. A maiden stands in the dawn. Her feet are on the moon and the stars circle round her head. And under her foot she crushes the head of the serpent who betrayed our first parents in Paradise. And see, Spring courts the maiden and brings her his roses. And Winter, too, courts the maiden, and because he has no other flowers he makes these to grow on the surface of the water and on the window-panes. But they are stiff and cold, and the maiden, the mysterious rose, of whom a prophet sang, 'All nations shall call thee blessed!' she chose the Spring."
That was the story Joseph told, Joseph whose beard was white as the ice-flowers. Mary listened to the tale and was silent.
On the third day the royal city lay before our wanderers. Magnificent it stood on the hill-top with the domes and pinnacles of its temples. At that time Herod, king of the Jews, sat on the throne and imagined that he ruled. But he only ruled in so far as the strangers allowed him to rule. The town which had once been the pride of the chosen people, now swarmed with Roman warriors, who filled the streets with noise and unruly conduct. Joseph led his young wife down towards the sloping rocks where were the graves of the prophets. There he was so overcome that suddenly he stretched forth his hands to heaven: "Almighty Jehovah, when will the Messiah come?" His cry was re-echoed in the hollows of the rocks, and Mary said: "You should not shout so, Joseph. The dead will not awaken, and Jehovah hears a prayer that is quietly spoken."
Mary had hoped in her heart that they would enter Jerusalem and spend the night there. Joseph said it could not be, for he had no relatives in the town who could give them lodging, and he had not money enough to pay strangers for a lodging. Also he did not like the strange ways of the place; he yearned for his beloved Bethlehem. It wasn't very far off now; could she manage it?
Mary signed "Yes" with her head, and gathered together all her remaining strength. But just beyond the city walls she sank down exhausted, and Joseph said: "We will stay here so that you may rest, and to-morrow I can show you the Temple."
There was a man on a stony hillock nailing two beams of wood together. Joseph understood something of that sort of work, but he was not quite clear over this particular thing. So he asked what it might be.
"He for whose use it is, doesn't want it," replied the workman. It then flashed into Joseph's mind that it was a gallows.
Mary grasped his arm: "Joseph, let us go on to Bethlehem." For she began to be frightened.
They staggered along the road. A draught of the spring of the Valley of Jehoshaphat refreshed them. Farther on in the fertile plain of Judaea lambs and kids were feeding, and Joseph began to speak of his childhood. His whole being was fresh and joyful. Home! And by evening time Bethlehem, lighted by the setting sun, lay before them on the hill-top.
They stood still for a space and looked at it. Then Joseph went into the town to inquire about the place and the time of the enrolment, and to seek lodging for the night. The young woman sat down before the gate under the fan-shaped leaves of a palm-tree and looked about her. The western land seemed very strange to her and yet sweet, for it was her Joseph's childish home. How noisy it was in Jerusalem, and how peaceful it was here—almost as still and solemn as a Sabbath evening at Nazareth! Beloved Nazareth! How far away, how far away! Sometimes the sound of a shepherd's pipe was heard from the green hills. A youth leaned up against an olive tree and made a wreath of twigs and sang: "Behold, thou art fair, my love. Thine eyes are as doves in thy fragrant locks, thy lips are rosebuds, and thy two breasts are like roes which feed among the lilies. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse." Then he was silent, and the leaves rustled softly in the evening breeze.
Mary looked out for Joseph, but he came not. And the singer continued: "Who art thou that shinest like the day-dawn, fair as the moon, and clear as the sun, divine daughter of Eve?" And Mary still waited under the palm-tree and listened, and she began to feel strange pangs. She drew her cloak more closely round her, and saw that the stars already stood in the sky. But still Joseph came not. And from the hill the singer: "And from the root of Jesse a twig shall spring." And a second voice: "And all nations shall rise up and sing her praises." So did the shepherds sing the songs of their old kings and prophets.
At last Joseph came slowly from the town. The enrolment was to take place to-morrow at nine o'clock; that was all right. But there was difficulty over the lodging for the night. He had spoken with rich relations; they would have been very glad, but unfortunately a wedding feast was going forward, and wanderers in homely garments might easily feel uncomfortable. He quite understood that. Then he went to his poorer relations, who would have been even more glad, but it was deplorable that their house was so small and their hearth so cramped. All the inns were overcrowded with strangers. They did not seem to think much here of people from Galilee because all kinds of heathenish folk lived there—as if any one who was born in Bethlehem could be a heathen! And so he did not know what to do.
Mary leaned her head on her hand and said nothing.
"Your hands and feet are trembling, Mary," said Joseph.
She shook her head; it was nothing.
"Come, my wife, we will go in together," said Joseph. "We are not vagabonds to whom they can refuse assistance."
And then they both went into the town. Mine host of the inn was stern.
"I told you already, old man, that there's no place for the like of you in my house. Take your little daughter somewhere else."
"She's not my daughter, sir, but my true wife, trusted to me by God that I may protect her," returned Joseph, and he lifted up his carpenter's hand.
The door was slammed in their faces.
A fruit-seller, who had witnessed the scene, stretched forth his brown neck and asked for their passport.
"If you show me your papers and three pieces of silver, I'll take you in for the love of God. For we are all wanderers on the earth."
"We've no passport. We've come from Nazareth in Galilee for the enrolment, because I am of the house of David," replied Joseph.
"Of the house of David! Why, you don't seem to know whether you're on your head or your heels," and with a laugh the fruit-seller went his way.
"It is true," thought Joseph, "noble ancestors are useless to a man of no importance." For the future he would let David alone.
Mary now advised him to go outside the town again. Perhaps the very poor or entire strangers would have pity on them. And as they staggered along the stony road to the valley the woman sank down on the grass.
Joseph looked at her searchingly. "Mary, Mary, what is it?"
A shepherd came along, looked at them, and listened to their request for shelter.
"My wife is ill, and no one will take us in," complained Joseph.
"Then you must go to the beasts," said the shepherd cheerfully. "Come with me. I'll gladly share my house with you. The earth is my bed, the sky my roof, and a rocky cave my bedchamber."
And he led them to a hollow in the mossy rocks, and it had a roof woven out of rushes. Inside an ox was chewing the hay it had eaten out of the manger. A brown ass stood near by and licked the ox's big head. There was still some hay left in the manger and in the corner was a bed of dry leaves.
"Since you have nothing better, lie down here and rest as well as you can. I will seek a bed at my neighbour's."
So saying the shepherd went away. It had now grown dark.
The young woman lay down on the bed of leaves and heaved a sigh from her terrified heart. Joseph looked at her—and looked at her. Lightly the angel's wings touched his face.
"Joseph, be not afraid. Lift up your heart and pray. It is the secret of all eternities, and you are chosen to be the foster-father of Him who comes from heaven."
He looked round him, not knowing whence came these thoughts, these voices, this wondrous singing.
"You are tired, Joseph, you must sleep," said Mary. And when he slumbered peacefully she prayed in her heart: "I am a poor handmaiden of the Lord. The will of the Lord be done."
It is midnight and, wakeful shepherds see a bright star. A strange star, too; they had never seen its like before. It sparkled so brightly that the shepherds' shadows on the plain were long. And it is said that they saw other stars approach it, and at length surround it. And then the new star threw off white sparks, which flew down earthwards and stopped in mid-air; and there were children with white wings and golden hair. And they sang beautiful words to the honour of God and the good-will of men.
In that selfsame hour a boy brought tidings that a tall, white-robed youth stood in front of the shepherd Ishmael's cave, and that within lay a young woman on the bed of leaves, an infant at her breast. And high up in the air they heard singing.
The story quickly spread through the mountains round Bethlehem. The shepherds who were awake roused those who slept. Everywhere a delicious tremor was felt, a sense of mighty wonder. A poor, strange woman and a naked child! What was the use of singing? Swaddling clothes and wraps and milk were what was needed. One brought the fleece of a slaughtered sheep. Another brought dried figs and grapes and a skin of red wine. Other shepherds brought milk and bread and a fat kid; every one brought something, just as they took tithes to the officer. An old shepherd came with a patched bagpipe, and when the bystanders laughed, Ishmael said: "Do you expect our poor, good Isaac, to bring David's golden harp? He gives what he has, and that's often worth more than golden harps."
When they came down they no longer saw the star or the angels, but they found the cave, and the father and the mother and the child. He lay in the manger on the hay, and the beasts stood round and gazed at him with their big, melancholy, black eyes. The shepherd's pity for the poor people was so great that no one thought he was doing a good work for which people would praise him and God would bless him. No one looked slyly at his neighbour to see who gave more and who less. Their one feeling was pity.
People came from the town; and a wiry shepherd, placing himself before the entrance to the grotto, and using his staff as a spear, said: "Men of Bethlehem, ye cannot enter; the babe sleeps."
Near by stood an old man, who said dreamily: "The town cast him out. I always said there was no salvation yonder. That's to be found with the poor under the open sky. Miracles are happening here, men are pitiful. What does it mean?"
Down below in a cleft of the rock cowered a poor sinner, and burrowed in the earth with his lean fingers as if he would dig himself a grave in its depths. He gazed at the cave where the child was with glassy, staring eyes. A prayer for mercy surged up in his heart like a stream of blood. Those who saw him turned from him shuddering. They took him for Cain, his brother's murderer.
A stranger was riding a lazy camel across the lonely Arabian desert. All men are Moors in the dark, but this man was a Moor in the starlight. A newly discovered star brought the man from the banks of the Indus. He consulted all the calendars of the East, but none could tell him about the star. Balthasar, however, was not the man to let the strange, incomprehensible star escape him. Nothing can be concealed in God's bosom from an Eastern scholar, for not even God Himself has a passport for the land of the all-wise. The world is through them alone and for them alone; man must grow of himself towards the light as the lotus grows out of the mud. So thought Balthasar, and felt that life was a failure.
In such wisdom the faith of Orientals lives and moves and has its being. If man honestly aspires to higher things and tortures his flesh, it may go better with him in another life. For he must be born again many times, and must torture his body until it shrivels up, is freed from sin, and is without desires. Then the soul is released and is not born again, for Nirvana, the last goal, is reached. Only bad men continue to live. The nations of India had been demoralised by that doctrine for centuries. But it did not satisfy wise men. Balthasar thought: If a man starves through a few dozen lives, then something good must come out of it. Or is evil good enough to continue, and good evil enough to cease? Balthasar sought better counsel. He sought throughout the universe for a peg on which to hang a new, more beneficial philosophy of life. When, then, he saw the new star in the sky, he never ceased looking at it. And, lo! it too took the road from east to west which all men traversed. What was there yonder in the sunset that all went towards it, on earth as in heaven? Could not one particular star swim against the stream? True, this new heavenly pilgrim took an unusual path; he leaned somewhat to the north of the barbarous folk. So the wise man of the east left the fragrant gardens of India and followed the star. On the road he was joined by two Oriental princes and their suites, who were also seeking they knew not what.
And one night the three wise men saw in the heavens an extraordinary constellation, a group of stars hitherto unknown to any of them.
They looked at the constellation for a long while, and Balthasar thought it was like writing. They brought all their wisdom to bear on it, but could not explain it, for all it shone so brightly. Did the gods mean to write some message? Who could understand it? An uncanny appearance, which no knowledge or faith could explain! The next night they did not see it, but the guiding star still went before them and yielded to no sun.
One morning, just as day began to dawn, they rode through the streets of Jericho. A man was lying on his face in the road, and the Moor asked him why he lay in the dust.
"I lie in the dust," answered the man of Judah, "because I must practise myself in humility in order not to become too proud. We have become great beyond measure these last days. The King of the Jews is born, the Messiah promised of God."
Then the wise man from India remembered how the Jews had been expecting their Messiah for ages, the royal deliverer from bondage.
"I thought you had King Herod," he said.
"He's not the right king," answered the man in the dust. "Herod is a heathen, and cringes to the Romans."
And now clouds from Lebanon hid the star, and the travellers knew not which way to go. Balthasar, perplexed, went towards the neighbouring city of Jerusalem; there surely he would be able to learn more. He asked at the royal palace about the new-born king. Such a question was news to King Herod. A son born to him? He knew nothing about it. He would see the strangers who asked such a question.
"Sire," said the Moor, "something is in the air. Your people are whispering of the Messiah."
"I'll have them beheaded!" shouted Herod angrily; then, more gently: "I'll have them beheaded if they don't kneel before the Messiah. I myself will bow before him. If only I knew where to find him!"
"I'll go and look round a little," said the complacent Balthasar, "and if I find him I'll come and tell you."
"Do, do, noble stranger," said Herod, "And then, pray take your ease at my palace as long as you like. Are you fond of golden wine?"
"I drink red wine," answered the Moor.
"Or of the fair women of the west?" asked the king.
"I love dark-skinned women," said Balthasar.
"Good! Then come, my friend, and bring me news of the new-born king."
Balthasar rode on farther with his companions, and directly he left the town the star again shone in front of him. It hung high up in the heavens, and after they had followed it for some hours it slowly turned its course eastwards, and stopped above a cave in the rocks. And there the strangers who had ridden out of the east to seek for truth, there they found truth and life, there they found a child, a child who was as tender and beautiful as a rosebud in the moonlight, a little child born to poor people, and other poor folk stood round and offered the very last of their possessions, and were full of joy.
Dusky Balthasar peered inside. Had he ever seen eyes shine as in this shepherd's cave? It seemed to him that he saw a new light and a new life there; but he could not understand it. And in the air he heard a strange song, more a suggestion than words: "You will be blessed! You will live for ever!"
The strangers hearkened. What was that? You will be blessed, and you will live for ever! For us happiness is to be found only in non-existence. At sight of this new-born infant the idea of immortal life came to them for the first time.
They offered the poor mother precious jewels, and their hearts were glad and happy and strange within them. Formerly these princes and wise men had only found pleasure in receiving, now they found it in giving. Formerly Balthasar had been all sufficient unto himself, he had woven his thoughts in entire loneliness, had despised the rest of the world, and had only cared for himself. And suddenly there came to him this joy in the joy of poor men, and this suffering at their suffering! He shivered in his silken cloak, and when he took it off and wrapped it about the child he was warm.
They all offered gifts, precious gold and rich perfumes and healing ointments. But they were ashamed of their gifts beside the royal offerings of the shepherds, who, though it was not much, brought all that they possessed.
Balthasar in his joy wished to hasten to Jerusalem in order to tell Herod: I have not yet found the King of the Jews, but I have found a poor child and whoever looks upon him is happy, he knows not why. Now kings are not so anxious to be happy; they prefer to be powerful. A youth came forward from the back of the cave and said to Balthasar: "Do you know the man to whom you would go? Why, he would strangle the Emperor Tiberius if he could. Be silent, then, about a helpless child who is loved by the people as a prince."
"Oh, child!" said Balthasar, "you have the misfortune to be the people's favourite. Therefore the great hate thee."
"Stranger, go not to Jerusalem. Say nothing of the child."
The strangers did not feel at ease in a land which had an emperor and a king, neither of whom was the right ruler! And so they mounted their camels. They took one more look at the child in the manger and they rode away straight over the stony desert. They directed their course towards the east, towards all the starry constellations, and dreamed of a new revelation which might enable them henceforth to live rich in love and ever glad.
Meanwhile King Herod, sleeping or waking, was not at peace. It was not on account of his wife or his brothers whom he had had murdered from a suspicion that they might kill him to secure the throne. It was something else that caused his anxiety. The new-born king! No one mentioned the news at court, but he heard it from the walls of his palace, from the flowers of his garden, from the pillows of his couch. Who had first spoken the word? Whence did it come? A new-born king! Where? He must forthwith hasten to do him homage, to present him with a gift tied with a silken string. And one day the decree came to Bethlehem that every mother who had an infant son should bring it to the king's palace at Jerusalem for the king desired to see the progeny of his subjects in order to discover what hope there was for the delivery of the land of the Jews from bondage: he wished to present gifts to the boys; yes, he was preparing a great surprise for his people. No little excitement prevailed among the women, who declared that the childless king intended to adopt the handsomest boy as his own son. Since each mother considered her son the handsomest and most attractive, she took the boy that she had and carried him to Jerusalem to the palace of King Herod. And those who refused to go were sought out by the guards.
Unhappy day, O Herod! which bears thy name for all time! The angry king, desiring to kill the anti-king, commanded the wholesale murder of the future protectors of his realm! He destroyed the race which had formerly saved the beautiful city from ruin!
"All hail to our king, long may he live!" shouted the mothers in the courtyard of the palace. Then knaves rushed out from the doors, tore the children from their mothers' arms, and slew them. None can describe, indeed none would attempt to describe, how the unhappy mothers strove frantically with the tyrants until they fell fainting or lifeless upon the bodies of their dear ones.
Tremble, O men, before the terrible decree of Herod, murderer of the innocents, yet despair not. He for whom they spilled their blood by God's decree will requite it in full measure.
He at whom Herod had struck was not among the slaughtered innocents. For Mary had no desire to show her babe to the king.
They kept in hiding with their great treasure. They remained in hiding a long time. The rite of circumcision made the boy a member of the nation which God had named His chosen people. The child's ancestors reached back to Abraham, to whom the promise was made. And if according to Holy Writ I trace his descent from the race of Abraham, branch by branch, it comes at last to Joseph, Mary's husband. And it is here that the glad tidings turn us aside with firm hand from all earthly existence—to the Spirit through which Mary had borne Him, Him whom with holy awe we call Jesus.
Now it came to pass one night that Joseph awoke from his sleep: "Arise, Joseph, wake them, and flee!" The voice called to him clearly and distinctly: twice, thrice.
"Flee? before whom? The shepherds protect us," Joseph ventured to say.
"The king will have the child. Make your preparations quickly and flee."
Joseph looked at his wife and child. Their faces were white in the moonlight. To think that such as they had an enemy on the earth! Flee! But whither? Where could the king not reach them? His arm extended throughout the whole of Judaea. We must not dream of going to Nazareth; he would be sure to seek us there. Shall we go towards the land where the sun rises? There dwell wild men of the desert. Or towards the setting sun? There are the boundless waters, and we have no boat in which to sail thither, where the heathens live who have kinder hearts than the grim princes of Israel.
"Wake them!" called the voice clearly and urgingly. "Take them to the land of the Pharaohs."
"To Egypt, where our forefathers were slaves, and were only delivered with difficulty?" asked Joseph.
"Joseph, delay not. Go to the people whose faith is folly, but whose will is just, yonder where the waters of the Nile make the land fertile and bless it; There you will find peace and livelihood, safety for your wife, and teaching for the child. When the time comes, God will lead you back as once He led Moses and Joshua across the sea."
Joseph knew not whose voice it was; he did not seek to know, and doubted not his soul rested trustfully in the arms of the Lord. He put his hand on the shoulders of his dearest one, and said softly: "Mary, awake, and be not afraid. Gather together our few possessions, put them in a sack, and I will fasten it to the beast Ishmael gave us. Then take the child. We must away."
Mary pushed her long, soft, silky hair from her face. Her husband's sudden decision, the departure in the middle of the night, made her wonder, but she said not a word. She gathered together their scanty possessions, took the sleeping child in her arms, and mounted the ass, who pricked up his ears and thought what a day's work must be before him since it began so terribly early. His former owner had not pampered him; his short legs were firm and willing. They gave one last grateful look at the cave, the stones of which were softer than the hearts of the men of Bethlehem. Joseph took his stick and a leathern strap and walked beside the ass, leading it, the ass which carried his whole world and his heaven, and—the heaven of the whole world.
After going some way, they thought to rest under some palm-trees, not far from Hebron. But the ass would not stop, and they let him have his will. Then soldiers of Herod rode that way; they saw a brown-skinned woman with a child sitting on the sand.
"Is it a boy?" they called to her.
"A girl," answered the woman. "But strangers have just passed by, and I think they had a boy with them, if you can come up with them."
And the horsemen galloped on. Meanwhile the fugitives from Nazareth had reached bad roads, and were tired and wretched. Was not Jacob's favourite son also taken into Egypt just like this child? What will become of this one? They became aware of their pursuers galloping behind over the bare plain. Not a tree, not a shrub which could afford them protection. They took refuge in the cleft of a rock, but Joseph said: "What is the use of hiding? They must have seen us." But as soon as they were well inside the dark hole, down came a spider from the mossy wall, summoned all her brood and her most distant relations in great haste, and they speedily spun a web over the opening, a web that was stronger than the iron railings in Solomon's temple, at the entrance to the Holy of Holies. Hardly was the weaving finished when the knaves came riding up. One said: "They crept into the hole in the rock."
"What!" shouted another, "no one could have crept in there since the time of David the shepherd. Look at the thick cobwebs."
"That's true," they laughed, and straightway rode off.
An old man who seemed to have risen from the grave now stood before the dusky woman who had denied her own son and betrayed the stranger wanderers. Whence he came he did not know himself. He loved the lonely desert, the home of great thoughts. He did not fear the robbers of the desert, for he was stronger than they because he had nothing. Now and again the desire came to him to behold a human face, so that he might read therein whether the souls of men looked upwards or sank downwards. The old man went up to the woman who had denied her own son and betrayed the fugitives. And he said: "Daughter of Uriah! twice have you given your son life: once through pleasure, once through a lie. So his life will be a lie. He will breathe without living, and yet he will not be able to die!"
"Mercy!" she cried.
"He will see Jerusalem fall!"
"Woe is me!"
"He will see Rome burn!"
"Mercy!" she groaned.
"He will see the old world perish. He will see the barbarians of the north prevail. He will wander restless, he will be ill-treated and despised everywhere, he will suffer the boundless despair of universal misery, and he will not be able to die. He will envy men their death anguish and their right to die. He will learn how they suck sweet poison from the loveliest blossoms, and how twelve-year-old boys kill themselves from sheer weariness. He is the son of lies and is banished into the kingdom of lies. He will lament over the torments of old age, and he will not be able to die. He will call those children whom Herod slew blessed, and gnash his teeth at the memory of the woman who saved him through a lie."
"Oh, stop!" shrieked the woman. "When will he be redeemed?"
"Perhaps when the eternal Truth is come."
The desert lay under a leaden sky. The yellow undulating sandy plain was like a frozen sea that had no end, and so far as eye could see was only bounded by the dark orb of heaven. Here and there, grey, cleft, cone-shaped rocks and blunt-cornered stone boulders or blocks and flat-topped stones not unlike a table rose out of the sand-ocean. Two such stones were situated close together; one was partly covered by the yellow quicksand, the other stood higher out of the ground. On each of them lay a man stretched at full length. One, strong and sinewy, lay on his face, supporting his black-bearded cheeks with his hands so that his half-raised face could gaze over the barren plain. The other, a smaller-made man, lay on his back, making a pillow of his arms, and gazed at the gloomy sky. Both wore the Bedouin dress and were provided with arms which were fastened into, or suspended from, their clothes. Their woolly heads were protected by kerchiefs. Their complexion was as brown as the bark of the pine-tree, their eyes big and sparkling, their lips full and red. The one had a snub nose; the nose of the other was long and thin. So do these men of the desert appear to my mind's eye.
"Dismas," said the snub-nosed man, "What do you see in the sky?"
"Barabbas," replied the other, "what do you see in the desert?"
"Are you waiting for manna to fall from the sky?" said Barabbas. "Do you know that I'm almost starved to death? I must go down to the caravan route."
"Well, go. I'll to the oasis of Sheba," said Dismas.
"Dismas, I hate you," growled the other.
Dismas said nothing, and steadfastly looked at the sky, which had not for a long while been so softly sunless as to-day.
"Since the day when you refused to help me hold up the caravan of Orientals with my men, I have hated you. They had much frankincense and precious spices and gold. With one blow we should have provided ourselves with enough for many a long year. And you——"
"Wanderers who were seeking the Messiah! I do not attack such as they," said Dismas.
"You, too, are seeking him, you pious highwayman."
"Of course, I seek him."
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed he of the snub-nose, pressing his pointed chin into his hand. "The Messiah! the fairy-tale of dreaming old men. All weak men dream and believe. Don't you see that when you have to strive and struggle for your little bit of life there isn't time to wait for the Messiah!"
"That's just what I've believed for many a year and day," answered Dismas sadly. "I left my home to follow you; I've plundered men of silks and precious stones here in the desert, and time has flown nevertheless. All the treasure in the world cannot bid it stand still for an hour; comfort only makes the days fly quicker. We should not struggle for life, but hold it fast, for existence is a wondrous thing. Oh, in vain—the days vanish. So I've determined to have nought to say to the hours which pass, but to a time that endures for aye. And only he whom God sends can bring such a time."
Barabbas pressed his face against the stone, and said with comfortable conviction; "We've only the life we have; there's no other."
"If it was as you say," returned Dismas, "we must make this one life great——"
"If there's no life to come," said Barabbas, "we must live this one out. That is nature, and to deny it folly. No, I will enjoy my life. Enjoyment is a duty."
"That is what bad men think," said Dismas.
"There are no bad men," exclaimed Barabbas, "and no good men either. Friend, look at the lamb, he harms no one; he would rather be torn to pieces by the lion than tear the lion to pieces himself. Is he good, therefore? No, only weak. And the lion who kills and eats the lamb? Is he bad, therefore? No, only strong. And so it is his right to destroy the weak. Strength is the only virtue, and the only good deed is to exterminate the weak."
When he made an end of speaking, the other turned his face towards him and said: "What extraordinary words are those? I never heard such talk before. In whose heart were such ideas born?"
"They were not born in the heart," said Barabbas. "The heart is dumb. Dismas, if I must dwell in desert caves and do nothing, I must search out and inquire. I break stones in pieces and search. I pull the corpses of animals and men to pieces and inquire. And I find that things are not as the old writings tell us. There's only one Messiah: the truth. Man is an animal like any of the lower creatures—that is the truth. Ha, ha, ha!"
A shudder went through Dismas's body. How he disliked this man! And yet, on account of his companion's strong will, and through the habit of years, he could not free himself. He had often fled away from him, but had always come back. Now he stood up, lifted his arms to heaven, and exclaimed: "Oh, Lord, in the holy heights, save me!"
"Invoke the stars," said Barabbas, with a scornful laugh. "You'll be right then. They know nothing of you and your God. They're made of common dust. They themselves, and all the beings on them, live in the same base struggle as does our earth and everything on it. An enormous dust-heap, swarming with vermin, that's all."
Dismas sat on his stone with folded hands, pale as a corpse.
"Barabbas, my comrade," he said at last, "it is your bad angel that speaks."
"Why don't you praise him, Dismas? Why don't you shout for joy? My message has redeemed you. You think because you've attacked, slain, and plundered unsuspecting travellers that everlasting hell must be your portion. My strong message does away with hell. Do you see that?"
The other replied: "I heard a prophet in the wilderness cry that a man whom God had damned could be saved by repentance. Your damnation, Barabbas, never! No Almighty God! Everything a dry, swarming dust-heap, and no escape! Frightful, frightful!"
"Do you know, Dismas, your lamentations don't amuse me?" said the other, supporting himself on his hands and knees like a four-footed beast. "I have a more important matter on hand. I'm hungry."
Dismas jumped on his stone, and made ready for flight. "If he's hungry, he's capable of killing and eating me."
Barabbas had assumed a listening attitude, and his eagle eyes stared out into the desert. A red banner was visible between the rocks and stones; it moved and came nearer. It was a woman's red garment. She rode on an ass, and seen closer, carried a child in her arms. A man, tired out, limped beside her, leading the ass.
"Dismas, there's someone," whispered Barabbas, grasping the handle of his weapon. "Come, let's hide behind the stone until they come up."
"You'll fall on those defenceless folk from an ambush?"
"And you're going to help me," said Barabbas coolly.
"We'll take what we need for to-day, no more. I'll only help you so far, mark that."
The little group came nearer. The man and the ass waded deep in the sand, which in some places lay scantily over the rough stones, and in others had drifted into high heaps. The guide was leading the animal quickly, for during this sunless day he had lost his bearings, but said nothing about it, in order not to make his wife anxious. His eyes sought the right road. They ought to reach the oasis of Descheme that day. Now he saw two men standing on blocks of stone which reached up into the sky.
"Praised be God!" said Joseph of Nazareth, "these men will put me right."
Before he had time to frame his question, they quickly descended. One seized the ass's bridle, the other grasped Joseph's arm, and said: "Give us what you have with you."
The pale woman on the ass sent an imploring glance to Heaven. The little child in her lap looked straight out of his clear eyes, and was not afraid.
"If you've bread with you, give it us," said Dismas, who was holding the ass.
"Fool!" shouted Barabbas of the snub-nose, "everything they have belongs to us. Whether we will give anything, that's the question. I will give you the most precious thing—life. Such a beautiful woman without life would be a horror."
Dismas reached at the sack.
"Why are you doing that, brother?" said Barabbas. "We'll lead them to our castle. The simoon may be blowing up. There they'll have shelter for the night."
He tore the bridle from Dismas's hand, and led the ass bearing the mother and child down between the stones to the cave, Joseph saw the men's weapons, and followed gloomily.
When the shades of evening fell, and the desert was shut out and the sky dark, when the blocks of stone and the cone-shaped rocks resembled black monsters, the wanderers were settled in the depths of the cave. The ass lay in front of it sleeping, his big head resting on the sand. Near by lurked the robbers, and ate their plunder.
"Now we'll share our guests in brotherly fashion," said Barabbas. "You shall have the old man and the child."
"They are father, mother, and child," replied Dismas; "they belong together, we will protect them."
"Brother," said Barabbas, who was in high good humour at the ease of the capture, "your dice. We'll throw for them. First, for the ass."
He threw the eight-cornered stone with the black marks, and it fell on his outspread cloak. The ass was his.
"Now for the father and son!"
The dice fell. Barabbas rejoiced. Dismas was winner.
"A third time for the woman!"
He threw the dice; they fell on his cloak.
"What is that? The dice have no marks! Dismas, stop this joke! You've changed the dice."
When he took them up in his hand the black marks were there again all right. They drew a second and a third time. As before the dice had no marks when they fell.
"What does it mean, Dismas? The dice are blind."
"I think it's you who are blind, Barabbas," laughed Dismas. "Here, drink these drops, and then lie down and sleep."
The strong man soon rolled on to the sand beside the ass, and snored loudly.
Then Dismas crawled into the cave and woke the strangers, in order to get them away from the libertine. For he dared not venture a trial of strength with Barabbas. He had some trouble with Joseph, but at last they were beneath the starry sky, Mary and the child on the ass, Joseph leading it. Dismas walked in front in order to show them the way. They went slowly through the darkness; no one spoke a word. Dismas was sunk in thought. Past days, when he had rested like this child in his mother's arms and his father had led them over the Arabian desert, rose before him. Many a holy saying of the prophets had echoed through his robber life and would not be silenced.
After they had waded through the sand and clambered over the rocks for hours, a golden band of light shone in the east. The bushes and trees of the oasis of Descheme stood out against it.
Here Dismas left the wanderers to their safe road, in order to return to the cave. When he turned back with good wishes for the rest of their journey, he was met by a look from the child's shining eyes. The beaming glance terrified him with the terror of wonderment. Never before had child or man looked at him with look so grateful, so glowing, so loving as this boy, his pretty curly head turned towards him, his hands stretched out in form of a cross, as if he wished to embrace him. Dismas's limbs trembled as if a flash of lightning had fallen at his side, and yet it was only a child's eyes. Holding his head with both hands, he fled, without knowing why he fled, for he would rather have fallen on his knees before the wondrous child. But something like a judgment seemed to thrust him forth, back into the horror of the desert.
For three days our fugitives rested in the oasis. Mary liked to sit on the grass under an olive-tree near the spring, and let the boy stretch his little soft arms to pluck a flower. He reached it, but did not break it from its stem; he only stroked it with his soft fingers.
And when the child fell asleep in the flowers, his mother kneeled before him and looked at him. And she gazed and gazed at him, and could not turn her face from him. Then she bent down and took one little plump, soft hand and shut it into hers so that only the finger-tips could be seen, and she lifted them to her mouth and kissed them, and could not cease kissing the white, childish hands, the tears running down her cheeks the while. And with her large dark eyes she looked out into the empty air—afraid of pursuers.
Joseph walked up and down near at hand between the trees and shrubs, but always kept mother and child in view. He was gathering dates for their further travels.
And now new faces rise before me as they wander farther into the barren desert, swept by the simoon, parched by the rays of the sun. Mary is full of peace, and wraps the child in her cloak so that he rests like a pearl in its shell. He nestles against her warm breast and sucks his fill. Whenever Joseph begins to be afraid, he feels the angel's wing fanning his face. And then he is full of courage and leads his loved ones past hissing snakes and roaring lions.
After many days they reached a fertile valley lying between rocky hills; a clear stream flowed through it. They rested under a hedge of thorns, and looked at a terribly wild mountain that rose high above the rest. It was bare and rocky from top to bottom, and deep clefts divided it in its whole length, so that the mountain seemed to be formed of upright blocks of stone, which looked like the fingers of two giant hands placed one on the other. A hermit was feeding his goat in the meadow, and Joseph went up to him and asked the name of the remarkable mountain.
"You are travelling through the district, and you don't know the mountain?" said the hermit. "If you are a Jew, incline your face to the earth and kiss it. It is the spot where eternity floated down from Sinai."
"That—the Mountain of the Law?"
"See how it stretches forth its fingers swearing. As true as God lives!"
Joseph bowed down and kissed the ground. Mary looked at the stony mountain with a thrill of awe. Little Jesus slept in the shade of the thorn-bush. The threatening rock and the lovely child. There dark menaces, and here——?
Joseph tried to picture to himself the scene when Moses, on the summit of the mountain, received the tables of stone from Jehovah. Then a cloud slowly covered the mountain top as if to veil the secret. Joseph was ashamed of his presumption and kept silence. Before he departed he cut a bough from the thorn-bush and pulled off the leaves and twigs, so that it formed a pilgrim's staff for the rest of the journey. They were always meeting new dangers. And one day a hunter of the desert came running after them. They were not frightened of his tiger skin, but of what he had to tell them. If they had come from Judaea with their boy, they had better hasten into the land of Egypt, for Herod's men were on their track. So they had no rest until at last they came to the land of the Pharaohs. But one day they found themselves not on its frontier, but on the seashore. They were dumb with astonishment. There lay the sea, its waves dashing against the black, jagged cliffs, and beyond them was a smooth, level plain as far as the eye could see.