By Mr. Saltus
HISTORIA AMORIS THE POMPS OF SATAN IMPERIAL PURPLE THE ANATOMY OF NEGATION VANITY SQUARE THE PERFUME OF EROS
NEW YORK BRENTANO'S MCMXIX
COPYRIGHT, 1891, BY EDGAR SALTUS.
CHAPTER I. CHAPTER II. CHAPTER III. CHAPTER IV. CHAPTER V. CHAPTER VI. CHAPTER VII. CHAPTER VIII. CHAPTER IX. CHAPTER X. Transcriber's note
"Three to one on Scarlet!"
Throughout the brand-new circus were the eagerness, the gesticulations, shouts, and murmurs of an impatient throng. On a ledge above the entrance a man stood, a strip of silk extended in his finger-tips. Beneath, on either side, were gates. About him were series of ascending tiers, close-packed, and brilliant with multicolored robes and parasols. The sand of the track was very white: where the sunlight fell it had the glitter of broken glass. In the centre was a low wall; at one end were pillars and seven great balls of wood; at the other, seven dolphins, their tails in the air. The uproar mounted in unequal vibrations, and stirred the pulse. The air was heavy with odors, with the emanations of the crowd, the cloy of myrrh. Through the exits whiffs of garlic filtered from the kitchens below, and with them, from the exterior arcades, came the beat of timbrels, the click of castanets. Overhead was a sky of troubled blue; beyond, a lake.
"They are off!"
The strip of silk had fluttered and fallen, the gates flew open, there was a rumble of wheels, a whirlwind of sand, a yell that deafened, and four tornadoes burst upon the track.
They were shell-shaped, and before each six horses tore abreast. Between the horses' ears were swaying feathers; their manes had been dyed clear pink, the forelocks puffed; and as they bounded, the drivers, standing upright, had the skill to guide but not the strength to curb. About their waists the reins were tied; at the side a knife hung; from the forehead the hair was shaven; and everything they wore, the waistcoat, the short skirt, the ribbons, was of one color, scarlet, yellow, emerald, or blue: and this color, repeated on the car and on the harness, distinguished them from those with whom they raced.
Already the cars had circled the hippodrome four times. There were but three more rounds, and Scarlet, which in the beginning had trailed applause behind it as a torch trails smoke, lagged now a little to the rear. Green was leading. Its leadership did not seem to please; it was cursed at and abused, threatened with naked fist; yet when for the sixth time it turned the terminal pillar, a shout that held the thunder of Atlas leaped abroad. Where the yellow car, pursued by the blue, had been, was now a mass of sickening agitation—twelve fallen horses kicking each other into pulp, the drivers brained already; and down upon that barrier of blood and death swept the scarlet car. In a second it veered and passed; in that second a flash of steel had out the reins, and, as the car swung round, the driver, released, was tossed to the track. What then befell him no one cared. Stable-men were busy there; the car itself, unguided, continued vertiginously on its course. If it had lagged before, there was no lagging now. The hoofs that beat upon the ring plunged with it through the din down upon Emerald, and beyond it to the goal. And as the last dolphin vanished and the seventh ball was removed, the palm was granted, and the spectators shouted a salutation to the giver of the games—Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee.
He was superb, this Antipas. His beard was like a lady's fan. On his cheeks was a touch of alkanet; his hair, powdered blue, was encircled by a diadem set with gems. About his shoulders was a mantle that had a broad purple border; beneath it was a tunic of yellow silk. Between the railing of the tribune in which he sat one foot was visible, shod with badger's skin, dyed blood-red. He was superb, but his eyelids drooped. He had a straight nose and a retreating forehead, a physiognomy that was at once weak and vicious. He looked melancholy; it may be that he was bored. At the salutation, however, he affected a smile, and motioned that the games should continue. And as the signals, the dolphins and the seven balls, appeared again, his thoughts, forsaking the circus, went back to Rome.
Insecure in the hearts of his people, uncertain even of the continued favor of the volatile monster who was lounging then in his Caprian retreat, it was with the idea of pleasing the one, of flattering the other, that he had instituted the games. For here in his brand-new Tiberias, a city which he had built in a minute, whose colonnades and porticoes he had bought ready-made in Rome, and had erected by means of that magic which only the Romans possessed—in this capital of a parvenu was a mongrel rabble of Greeks, Cypriotes, Egyptians, Cappadocians, Syrians, and Jews, whose temper was uncertain, and whose rebellion to be feared.
Annona et spectaculis indeed! Antipas knew the dictum well; and with an uprising in the yonderland, and a sedition under his feet, what more could he do than quell the first with his mercenaries, and disarm the second with his games? Tiberius, whom he emulated, never deigned to appear at the hippodrome; it was a way he had of showing his contempt for a nation. Antipas might have imitated his sovereign in that, only he was not sure that Tiberius would take the compliment as it was meant. He might view such abstention as the airs of a trumpery tetrarch, and depose him there and then. He was irascible, and when displeased there were dungeons at his command which reopened with difficulty, and where existence was not secure. Ah, that sausage of blood and mud, how he feared and envied him! An emperor now, a god hereafter, truly the dominion of this world and a part of the next was a matter concerning which fear and envy well might be.
And as Antipas' vagabond fancy roamed in and out through the possibilities of the Caesar's sway, unconsciously he thought of another monster, the son of a priest of Ascalon, who had defied the Sanhedrim, won Cleopatra, murdered the woman he loved the most, conquered Judaea and found it too small for his magnificence—of that Herod in fact, his own father, who gave to Jerusalem her masterpiece of marble and gold, and meanwhile, drunk with the dream of empire, had made himself successor of Solomon, Sultan of Israel, King of the Jews, and who, even as he died, had vomited death and crowns, diadems and crucifixions.
It was through his legacy that Antipas ruled. The kingdom had been sliced into three parts, of one of which Augustus had made a province; over another a brother whom he hated ruled; and he had but this third part, the smallest yet surely the most fair. Its unparalleled garden surrounded him, and its eye, the lake, was just beyond. In the amphitheatre the hills formed was a city of pink and blue marble, of cupolas, porticoes, volutes, bronze doors, and copper roofs. Along the fringe of the shore were Choraizin and Bethsaida, purple with pomegranates, Capharnahum, beloved for its honey, and Magdala, scented with spice. The slopes and intervales were very green where they were not yellow, and there were terraces of grape, glittering cliffs, and a sky of troubled blue, wadded with little gold-edged clouds.
Yes, it was paradise, but it was not monarchy. It was to that he aspired. As he mused, a rancid-faced woman decked with paint and ostrich-plumes snarled in his ear:
"What have you heard of Iohanan?"
And as with a gesture he signified that he had heard nothing, she snarled again.
Antipas turned to her reflectively, but it was of another that he thought—the brown-eyed bride that Arabia had given him, the lithe-limbed princess of the desert whose heart had beaten on his own, whom he had loved with all the strength of youth and weakness, and whom he had deserted while at Rome for his brother's wife, his own niece, Herodias, who snarled at his side.
Behind her were her women, and among them was one who, as the cars swept by, turned her head with that movement a flower has which a breeze has stirred. Her eyes were sultry, darkened with stibium; on her cheek was the pink of the sea-shell, and her lips made one vermilion rhyme. The face was oval and rather small; and though it was beautiful as victory, the wonder of her eyes, which looked the haunts of hope fulfilled, the wonder of her mouth, which seemed to promise more than any mortal mouth could give, were forgotten in her hair, which was not orange nor flame, but a blending of both. And now, as the cars passed, her thin nostrils quivered, her hand rose as a bird does and fluttered with delight.
On the adjacent tiers were Greeks, fat-calved Cypriotes, Cappadocians with flowers painted on their skin, red Egyptians, Thracian mercenaries, Galilean fishermen, and a group of Lydians in women's clothes.
On the tier just beyond was a man gazing wistfully at the woman that sat behind Herodias. He was tall and sinewy, handsome with the comeliness of the East. His beard was full, unmarred at the corners; his name was Judas. Now and then he moistened his under lip, and a Thracian who sat at his side heard him murmur "Mary" and some words of Syro-Chaldaic which the Thracian did not understand.
To him Mary paid no attention. She had turned from the track. An officer had entered the tetrarch's tribune and addressed the prince. Antipas started; Herodias colored through her paint. The latter evidently was pleased.
"Iohanan!" she exclaimed. "To Machaerus with him! You may believe in fate and mathematics; I believe in the axe."
And questioningly Herodias looked at her husband, who avoided her look, yet signified his assent to the command she had given.
The din continued. From the tier beyond, Judas still gazed into the perils of Mary's eyes.
"Dear God," he muttered, in answer to an anterior thought, "it would be the birthday of my life."
"O Prophet Iohanan, how fair you are!"
Iohanan was hideous. His ankles were in stocks, a chain about his waist was looped in a ring that hung from the wall. About his body were tattered furs, his hair was tangled, the face drawn and yellow. Vermin were visible on his person. His lips twitched, and his gums, discolored, were as those of a camel that has journeyed too far. A tooth projected, green as a fresh almond is; the chin projected too, and from it on one side a rill of saliva dripped upon the naked breast. On the terrace he was a blur, a nightmare in a garden.
"Ah, how fair!"
Tantalizing as temptation, Mary stood just beyond his reach. Her eyes were full of compliments, her body was bent, and, the folds of her gown held back, she swayed a little, in the attitude of one cajoling a tiger. She was quite at home and at her ease, and yet prepared for instant flight.
Iohanan, or John—surnamed, because of practices of his, the Baptist—beckoned her to approach. In his eyes was the innocence that oxen have.
"My body is chained, but my soul is free!"
Mary made a pirouette, and through the terrace of the citadel the rattles on her ankles rang.
It was appalling, this citadel; it dominated the entire land. Perched on a peak of basalt, it overhung an abyss in which Asphalitis, the Bitter Sea, lay, a stretch of sapphire to the sun. In the distance were the heights of Abraham, the crests of Gilead. Before it was the infinite, behind it the desert. At its base a hamlet crouched, and a path hewn in the rock crawled in zigzags to its gates. Irregular walls surrounded it, in some places a hundred cubits high, and in each of the many angles was a turret. Seen from below it was a threat in stone, but within was a caress, one of those rapturous palaces that only the Orientals build. It was called Machaerus. Peopled with slaves and legends, it was a haunt of ghosts and fierce delights.
And now as Mary tripped before the prophet the walls alone repelled. The terrace was a garden in which were lilies and sentries. For entrance there was a portal of red porphyry, above which was a balcony hemmed by a balustrade of yellow Numidian stone.
Against it Antipas leaned. He had been eyeing the desert in tremulous surmise. The day before, he had caught the glitter of lances, therewith spirals of distant smoke, and he had become fearful lest Aretas, that king of Arabia Petraea whose daughter he had deserted, might be meditating attack. But now there was nothing, at most a triangular mass speeding westwards, of which only the edges moved, and which he knew to be a flight of cranes.
He took heart again and gazed in the valley below. It was the anniversary of his birth. To celebrate it he had invited the stewards of his lands, the notables of Galilee, the elect of Jerusalem, the procurator of Judaea, the emir of Tadmor, mountaineers and Pharisees, Scribes and herdsmen.
But in the valley only a few shepherds were visible. Along the ramparts soldiers paced. At the further end of the terrace a group of domestics was busy with hampers and luggage. The day was solemnly still, exquisitely clear; and between two hills came a glare of gold projected from the Temple of Jerusalem.
Through the silence rang the tinkle of the rattles that Mary wore. The prophet was beckoning her.
"And Martha?" the tetrarch heard him ask.
The pirouette ceased awkwardly. Mary's eyes forgot their compliments. Her brows contracted, and, as though perplexed, she held her head a little to one side.
"There," he added, "there, I know you well. It was at Bethany I saw you first. Yes, yes, I remember perfectly; you were leaving, and Martha was in tears. Only a little since I had speech with her. She spoke of you; she knew you were called the Magdalen. No," he continued, for Mary had shrunk back, "no, I will not curse. There is another by whom you will be blessed."
Mary laughed. "I am going to Rome. Tiberius will give me a palace. I shall sleep on the down the Teutons bring. I shall drink pearls dissolved in falernian. I shall sup on peacocks' tongues."
"No, Mary, Rome you will never see. The Eternal has you in His charge. Your shame will be washed away."
"Shame to you," she interrupted. "Shame and starvation too." She made as though she were about to pirouette again. "Whom are you talking of?"
"One whose shoes I am unworthy to bear."
For a moment he seemed to meditate; then, with the melancholy of one renounceing some immense ambition, he murmured, half to himself, half to the sky, "For him to increase I must diminish."
"As for that, you are not much to look at now. I must go. I must braid my hair; the emir's eyes are eager."
"Mary," he hissed, and the sudden asperity of his voice coerced her as a bit might do, "you will go to Capharnahum, you will seek him, you will say Iohanan is descended into the tombs to announce the Son of David."
Through the lateral entrance to the terrace a number of guests had entered. From the balcony above, Antipas leaned and listened. Some one touched him; it was Herodias.
"The procurator is coming," she announced. "You should be at the gate."
He seemed indifferent. What Iohanan had said concerning the Son of David stirred him like the point of a sword. He felt that there could be no such person; his father had put a stop to all that. And yet, if there were!
His indifference surprised Herodias.
"What are you staring at?" she asked; and to assure herself she looked over the balustrade. "That carrion? You should——"
Her hand drawn across her throat completed the sentence.
The tetrarch shook his head. There was no hurry. Then, too, the prophet was useful. He reviled Jerusalem, and that flattered Galilee. But there was another reason, which he kept to himself. Iohanan affected him as no one had done before.
He feared him, chained though he was, and into that fear something akin to admiration entered. In his heart he wished he had let him alone. No, there was no hurry. As he assured her of that the prophet looked up.
The guests approached. Their number had increased. There were Greek merchants from Hippos and Sepphoris, Pharisees from Jericho, and Scribes from Jerusalem. Herodias clapped her hands. A negro, naked to the waist, appeared.
"Take him below."
But the guests surrounded Iohanan. The Pharisees recognized him at once. He was the terror of the hierarchs.
As he cried out at Herodias he seemed as though he would rise and wrench his bonds and mount to where she was. His eyes had lost their pathos; they blazed.
"Woe unto you!" he shouted, "and woe unto your barren bed! Though you hid in the bowels of the earth, in the uttermost depths of a jungle, the stench of your incest would betray you. Woe unto you, I say; the swine will turn from you, the Eternal will rend you, and the heart of hell will vomit you back!"
Herodias shook with anger. She was livid. Murmurs circulated through the increasing throng.
The Pharisees edged nearer. On their foreheads were slips of vellum on which passages of the Law had been inscribed. About their left arms other slips extended spiralwise from the elbow to the end of the third finger. They were in white; where their garments had become soiled, the spots had been chalked.
To them the prophet showed his teeth. "And woe unto you too, race of vipers, bladders of wind! As the fire devours the stubble, and the flame consumes the chaff, so your root will be rottenness and your seed go up as dust. Fear will engulf you like a torrent. The high peaks will be broken, the mountains will sever, and night be upon all. The valleys and hills will be strewn with your corpses, the rocks will run with your blood, the plain will drink it, and the vultures feast on your flesh. Woe unto you all, I say, that call good evil, and evil good!"
The invective continued. It enveloped the world. Everything was to be destroyed. Presently it subsided; the voice of the prophet sank lower; his eyes sought the sky, the pupils dilated; and the dream of his nation, the triumphant future, the sanctification of the faithful, the magnificence that was to be, poured rapturously from his lips.
"The whole land will glow with glory. The sky will be a rose in bloom. The meadows will rejoice, and the earth will be filled with men and maidens singing and kneeling to Thee, Immanuel, whom I await."
The vision would have expanded, perhaps, but the chain that bound him was loosed, sinewy arms were dragging him away. As he went, he glared up again at Herodias. His face had lost its beatitude.
"You will be stripped of your purple, Jezebel; your diadem will be trodden under foot. The pains of a woman in travail will be as joys unto yours. There will be not enough stones to throw at you, and the abomination of your lust will bellow, Accursed, even beyond the tomb."
The anathema fainted in the distance. The Scribes consulted between their teeth. By the Pharisees Antipas was blamed. A merchant from Hippos did not understand, and the Law was explained. That a man should marry his brother's wife was a duty, only in this instance it had not occurred to the brother to die beforehand. Then, again, by her first husband Herodias had a child, and in that was the abomination.
The merchant did not wholly grasp the distinction, but he nodded as though he had.
"There was a child, was there?"
A captain of the garrison answered: "A girl, Salome."
He said nothing further, but the merchant could see that his mouth watered at the thought of her.
The crowd had become very dense. Suddenly a trumpet blared. At the gate was Pontius Pilate. On his head was a high and dazzling helmet. His tunic was short, open at the neck. His legs were bare. He was shod with shoes that left the toes exposed. From his cuirass a gorgon's head had, in deference to local prejudice, been effaced; in its stead were scrolls and thunderbolts. From the belt rows of straps, embroidered and fringed, fell nearly to the knee. He held his head in the air. His features were excellent, and his beard hung in rows of short overlapping curls.
Behind him was his body-guard. Before him Antipas stood, welcoming the Roman in Greek.
In the sky now were the advancing steps of night; in crevices of the basalt the leaves of the baaras weed had begun to flicker. It was time for the festival to begin; and, preceding the guests, Antipas passed into a hall beyond.
It was oblong, curved at the ends, and so vast that the roof was vague. On the walls were slabs of different colors, marble spotted like the skin of serpents, and onyx flecked with violet. On two sides were galleries supported by columns of sandstone. A third gallery formed a semicircle. Opposite, at the further end, on a dais, was the table of the tetrarch.
Antipas faced the assemblage. At his left was the procurator, at his right the emir of Tadmor. Curtains were looped on either side. Above were panels; they separated, and flowers fell. On a little stool next to the couch on which the emir lay was a beautiful boy with curly hair. The couch of the procurator was covered with a dim Babylonian shawl. That of the tetrarch was of ivory incrusted with gold. All three were cushioned.
As the guests entered they were sprinkled with perfume. Throughout the length of the hall other tables extended, and at these they found seats and food: Syrian radishes, melons from the oases near the Oxus, white olives from Bethany, honey from Capharnahum, and the little onions of Ascalon. There were candelabra everywhere, liquids cooled with snow, cheeses big as millstones, chunks of fat in wooden bowls, and behind the tables, slaves with copper platters. On the platters were quarters of red beef, breams swimming in grease, and sunbirds with their plumage on. In the semicircular gallery musicians played, three notes, constantly repeated.
The tetrarch's table was spread with a cloth of byssus striped with Laconian green. On it were jars of murrha filled with balsam, Sidonian goblets of colored glass, jasper amphorae, and water-melons from Egypt. Before the procurator was a dish of oysters, lampreys, and boned barbels, mixed well together, flavored with cinnamon and assafoetida; mashed grasshoppers baked in saffron; and a roasted boar, the legs curled inward, the eyes half-closed. The emir ate abundantly of heron's eggs whipped with wine into an amber foam. When his fingers were soiled, he wiped them in the curls of the beautiful boy who sat near by.
The smell of food filled the hall, mounted to the roof. The atmosphere was that of a bath, and the wines were heady. Already discussions had arisen. A mountaineer and a Galilean skiffsman had been dragged away, the one senseless, the other with features indistinguishable and masked in blood. It was a great festival, and the tetrarch was entertaining, as only he could, his friends, his enemies, and whoever chanced that way.
"As a child he rubbed his body with the leaves of the cnyza, which is a preservative of chastity." It was a little man with restless eyes and a very long white beard detailing the virtues of Iohanan. "But," he added, "he must have found cold water better."
His neighbors laughed. One pounded the table.
"Jeshua—" he began, but everyone was talking at once.
"Jeshua—" he continued; yet, as no one would listen, he turned to a passing eunuch and caught him by the arm—"Jeshua does more; he works miracles, and not with the cnyza either."
The eunuch eluded him and escaped. However, he would not be balked; he stood up and, through the din, he shouted at the little man:
"Baba Barbulah, I tell you he is the Messiah!"
His voice was so loud it dominated the hubbub, and suddenly the hubbub ceased.
From the dais Pontius Pilate listened indifferently. Antipas held his hands behind his ears that he might hear the better. The emir paid no attention at all. On his head was a conical turban; about it were loops of sapphire and coils of pearl. He wore a vest with scant sleeves that reached to the knuckles, and trousers that overhung the instep and fell in wide wrinkles on his feet; both were of leopard-skin. Over the vest was a sleeveless tunic, clasped at the shoulders and girt at the waist. His hair was long, plentifully oiled; his beard was bushy, blue-black, and specked with silver.
Mary had approached. From the lessening waist to the slender feet her dress opened at either side. Beneath was a chemise of transparent Bactrianian tissue. From girdle to armpits were little clasps; on her ankles, bands; and above the elbow, on her bare white arm, two circlets of emeralds from the mines of Djebel Zabur.
The emir spoke to her. She listened with a glimpse of the most beautiful teeth in the world. He put out a hand tentatively and touched her: the tissue of her garment crackled and emitted sparks. He raised a goblet to her. The wine it held was yellower than the marigold. She brushed it with her lips; he drank it off, then, refreshed, he looked her up and down.
In one hand she held a cup of horn, narrower at the top than at the end; in it were dice made of the knee-joints of gazelles, and these she rattled in his beard.
"That beautiful Sultan, will he play?"
With an ochre-tipped finger she pointed at the turban on his head. The eyes of the emir vacillated. He undid a string of gems and placed them on the table's edge. Mary unclasped a coil of emeralds and rattled the dice again. She held the cup high up, then spilled the contents out.
"Ashtaroth!" the emir cried. He had won.
Mary leaned forward, fawned upon his breast, and gazed into his face. Her breath had the fragrance of his own oasis, her lips were moist as the pomegranate's pulp, her teeth as keen as his own desire.
"No, beautiful Sultan, it is I." With the back of her hand she disturbed the dice. "I am Ashtaroth, am I not?"
Questioningly the emir explored the unfathomable eyes that gazed into his.
On their surface floated an acquiescence to the tacit offer of his own. Then he nodded, and Mary turned and gathered the jewels from the cloth of byssus where they lay.
"I tell you he is the Messiah!" It was the angry disputant shouting at the little man.
"Who is? What are you talking about?"
Though the hubbub had ceased, throughout the hall were the mutterings of dogs disturbed.
"Jeshua," the disputant answered; "Jeshua the Nazarene."
A Pharisee, very vexed, his bonnet tottering, gnashed back: "The Messiah will uphold the law; this Nazarene attacks it."
A Scribe interrupted: "Many things are to distinguish his advent. The light of the sun will be increased a hundredfold, the orchards will bear fruit a thousand times more abundantly. Death will be forgotten, joy will be universal, Elijah will return."
"But he has!"
Antipas started. The Scribe trembled with rage. But the throng had caught the name of Elijah, and knew to whom the disputant referred—a man in tattered furs whom a few hours before they had seen dragged away by a negro naked to the waist, and some one shouted:
"Iohanan is Elijah."
Baba Barbulah stood up and turned to whence the voice had come:
"In the footprints of the Anointed impudence shall increase, and the face of the generation shall be as the face of a dog. It may be," he added, significantly—"it may be that you speak the truth."
The sarcasm was lost. The musicians in the gallery, who had been playing on flute and timbrel, began now on the psalteron and the native sambuca. Behind was a row of lute-players; but most in view was a trignon, an immense Egyptian harp, at which with nimble fingers a fair girl plucked.
In the shadow Herodias leaned. At a signal from her the musicians attacked the prelude of a Syrian dance, and in the midst of the assemblage a figure veiled from head to foot suddenly appeared. For a moment it stood very still; then the veil fell of itself, and from the garrison a shout went up:
Her hair, after an archaic Chanaanite fashion, was arranged in the form of a tower. Her high bosom was wound about with protecting bands. Her waist was bare. She wore long pink drawers of silk, and for girdle she had the blue buds of the lotus, which are symbols of virginity. She was young and exquisitely formed. In her face you read strange records, and on her lips were promises as rare. Her eyes were tortoise-shell, her hair was black as guilt.
The prelude had ceased, the movement quickened. With a gesture of abandonment the girl threw her head back, and, her arms extended, she fluttered like a butterfly on a rose. She ran forward. The sambuca rang quicker, the harp quicker yet. She threw herself to one side, then to the other, her hips swaying as she moved. The buds at her girdle fell one by one; she was dancing on flowers, her hips still swaying, her waist advancing and retreating to the shiver of the harp. She was elusive as dream, subtle as love; she intoxicated and entranced; and finally, as she threw herself on her hands, her feet, first in the air and then slowly descending, touched the ground, while her body straightened like a reed, there was a long growl of unsatisfied content.
She was kneeling now before the dais. Pilate compared her to Bathylle, a mime whom he had applauded at Rome. The tetrarch was purple; he gnawed his under lip. For the moment he forgot everything he should have remembered—the presence of his guests, the stains of his household, his wife even, whose daughter this girl was—and in a gust of passion he half rose from his couch.
"Come to me," he cried. "But come to me, and ask whatever you will."
Salome hesitated and pouted, the point of her tongue protruding between her lips.
"Come to me," he pleaded; "you shall have slaves and palaces and cities; you shall have hills and intervales. I will give you anything; half my kingdom if you wish."
There was a tinkle of feet; the girl had gone. In a moment she returned, and balancing herself on one foot, she lisped very sweetly: "I should like by and by to have you give me the head of Iohanan—" she looked about; in the distance a eunuch was passing, a dish in his hand, and she added, "on a platter."
Antipas jumped as though a hound under the table had bitten him on the leg. He turned to the procurator, who regarded him indifferently, and to the emir, who was toying with Mary's agate-nailed hand. He had given his word, however; the people had heard. About his ears the perspiration started; from purple he had grown very gray.
Salome still stood, balancing herself on one foot, the point of her tongue just visible, while from the gallery beyond, in whose shadows he divined the instigating presence of Herodias, came the grave music of an Hebraic hymn.
"So be it," he groaned.
The order was given, and a tear trickled down through the paint and furrows of his cheek. On the hall a silence had descended. The guests were waiting, and the throb of the harp accentuated the suspense. Presently there was the clatter of men-at-arms, and a negro, naked to the waist, appeared, an axe in one hand, the head of the prophet in the other.
He presented it deferentially to Antipas, who motioned it away, his face averted. Salome smiled. She took it, and then, while she resumed her veil, she put it down before the emir, who eyed it with the air of one that has seen many another object such as that.
But in a moment the veil was adjusted, and with the trophy the girl disappeared.
The harp meanwhile had ceased to sob, the guests were departing; already the procurator had gone. The emir looked about for Mary, but she also had departed; and, with the expectation, perhaps, of finding her without, he too got up and left the hall.
Antipas was alone. Through the lattice at his side he could see the baaras in the basalt emitting its firefly sparks of flame. From an adjacent corridor came the discreet click-clack of a sandal, and in a moment the head of the prophet was placed on the table at which he lay. The tetrarch leaned over and gazed into the unclosed eyes. They were haggard and dilated, and they seemed to curse.
He put his hand to his face and tried to think—to forget rather, and not to remember; but his ears were charged with rustlings that extended indefinitely and lost themselves in the future; his mind peopled itself with phantoms of the past. Perhaps he dozed a little. When he looked up again the head was no longer there, and he told himself that Herodias had thrown it to the swine.
In the distance the white and yellow limestone of the mountains rose. Near by was a laughter of flowers, a tumult of green. Just beyond, in a border of sedge and rushes, a lake lay, a mirror to the sky. In the background were the blue and white terraces of Magdala, and about a speaker were clustered a handful of people, a group of laborers and of fishermen.
He was dressed as a rabbi, but he looked like a seer. In his face was the youth of the world, in his eyes the infinite. As he spoke, his words thrilled and his presence allured. "Repent," he was saying; "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And as the resplendent prophecy continued, you would have said that a bird in his heart had burst into song.
A little to one side, in an attitude of amused contempt, a few of the tetrarch's courtiers stood; they were dressed in the Roman fashion, and one, Pandera, a captain of the guard, wore a cuirass that glittered as he laughed. He was young and very handsome. He had white teeth, red lips, a fair skin, a dark beard, and, as he happened to be stationed in the provinces, an acquired sneer. Dear old Rome, how vague it was! And as he jested with his comrades he thought of its delights, and wished himself either back again in the haunts he loved, or else, if he must be separated from them, then, instead of vegetating in a tiresome tetrarchy, he felt that it would be pleasant to be far off somewhere, where the uncouth Britons were, a land which it took a year of adventures to reach; on the banks of the Betis, whence the girls came that charmed the lupanars; in Numidia, where the hunting was good; or in Thrace, where there was blood in plenty—anywhere, in fact, save on the borders of the beautiful lake where he happened to be.
It was but the restlessness of youth, perhaps, that disturbed him so, for in Galilee there were oafs as awkward as any that Britannia could show; there was game in abundance; blood, too, was not as infrequent as it might have been; and as for women, there at his side stood one as appetizing as Rome, Spain even, had produced. He turned to her now, and plucked at his dark beard and showed his white teeth; he had caught a phrase of the rabbi in which the latter had mentioned the kingdoms of the earth, and the phrase amused him.
"I like that," he said. "What does he know about the kingdoms of the earth? Mary, I wager what you will that he has never been two leagues from where he stands. Let's ask and see."
But Mary did not seem to hear. She was engrossed in the rabbi, and Pandera had to tug at her sleeve before she consented to return to a life in which he seemingly had a part.
"What do you say?" he asked.
Mary shook her head. She had the air of one whose mind is elsewhere. Into her face a vacancy had come; she seemed incapable of reply; and as the guardsman scrutinized her it occurred to him that she might be on the point of having an attack of that catalepsy to which he knew her to be subject. But immediately she reassured him.
"Come, let us go."
And, the guardsman at her side, the others in her train, she ascended the little hill on which her castle was, and where the midday meal awaited.
It was a charming residence. Built quadrangularwise, the court held a fountain which was serviceable to those that wished to bathe. The roof was a garden. The interior facade was of teak wood, carved and colored; the frontal was of stone. Seen from the exterior it looked the fortress of some umbrageous prince, but in the courtyard reigned the seduction of a woman in love. From without it menaced, within it soothed.
Her title to it was a matter of doubt. According to Pandera, who at the mess-table at Tiberias had boasted his possession of her confidence, it was a heritage from her father. Others declared that it had been given her by her earliest lover, an old man who since had passed away. Yet, after all, no one cared. She kept open house; the tetrarch held her in high esteem; she was attached to the person of the tetrarch's wife; only a little before, the emir of Tadmor had made a circuitous journey to visit her; Vitellius, the governor of the province, had stopped time and again beneath her roof; and—and here was the point—to see her was to acquire a new conception of beauty. Of human flowers she was the most fair.
Yet now, during the meal that followed, Mary, the toast of the tetrarchy, she whose wit and brilliance had been echoed even in Rome, wrapped herself in a mantle of silence. The guardsman jested in vain. To the others she paid as much attention as the sun does to a torch; and when at last Pandera, annoyed, perhaps, at her disregard of a quip of his, attempted to whisper in her ear, she left the room.
The nausea of the hour may have affected her, for presently, as she threw herself on her great couch, her thoughts forsook the present and went back into the past, her childhood returned, and faces that she had loved reappeared and smiled. Her father, for instance, Theudas, who had been satrap of Syria, and her mother, Eucharia, a descendant of former kings.
But of these her memories were slight—they had died when she was still very young—and in their place came her sister, Martha, kind of heart and quick of temper, obdurate, indulgent, and continually perplexed; Simon, Martha's husband, a Libyan, born in Cyrene, called by many the Leper because of a former whiteness of his skin, a whiteness which had long since vanished, for he was brown as a date; Eleazer, her brother, younger than herself, a delicate boy with blue pathetic eyes; and with them came the delight of Bethany, that lovely village on the oriental slope of the Mount of Olives, where the rich of Jerusalem had their villas, and where her girlhood had been passed.
From the lattice at which she used to sit she could see the wide white road begin its descent to the Jordan, a stretch of almond trees and oleanders; and just beyond, in a woody hollow, a little house in which Sephorah lived—a woman who came from no one knew where, and to whom Martha had forbidden her to speak.
She could see her still, a gaunt, gray creature, with projecting cheek-bones, a skin of brick, and a low, insinuating voice. The fascination which she had exercised over her partook both of wonder and of fear, for it was rumored that she was a sorceress, and as old as the world. To Mary, who was then barely nubile, and inquisitive as only fanciful children are, she manifested a great affection, enticing her to her dwelling with little cakes that were sweet to the tooth and fabulous tales that stirred the heart: the story of Stratonice and Combabus, for instance, which Mary did not in the least understand, but which seemed to her intensely sad.
"And then what?" she would ask when the tale was done; and the woman would tell her of Ninus and Semiramis, of Sennachereb, of Sardanapalus, Belsarazzur, of Dagon, the fish-god of Philistia, by whom Goliath swore and in whose temple Samson died, or of Sargon, who, placed by his mother in an ark of rushes, was set adrift in the Euphrates, yet, happily discovered by a water-carrier, afterwards became a leader of men.
"Why, that was Moses!" the child would exclaim.
"No, no," the woman invariably answered, "it was Sargon."
But that which pleasured Mary more highly even than these tales were the legends of Hither Asia, the wonderlands of Babylon, and particularly the story of the creation, for always the human mind has wished to read the book of God.
"Where did they say the world came from?" she would ask.
And Sephorah, drawing a long breath, would answer: "Once all was darkness and water. In this chaos lived strange animals, and men with two wings, and others with four wings and two faces. Some had the thighs of goats, some had horns, and some had horses' feet, or were formed behind like a horse and in front like a man; there were bulls with human faces, and men with the heads of dogs, and other animals of human shape with fins like fishes, and fishes like sirens, and dragons, and creeping things, and serpents, and fierce creatures, the images of which are preserved in the temple of Bel.
"Over all these ruled the great mother, Um Uruk. But Bel, whom your people call Baal, divided the darkness and clove the woman asunder. Of one part he made the earth, and of the other the sun, the moon, the planets. He drew off the water, apportioned it to the land, and prepared and arranged the world. The creatures on it could not endure the light of day and became extinct.
"Now when Bel saw the land fruitful yet uninhabited, he cut off his head and made one of the gods mingle the blood which flowed from it with earth and form therewith men and animals that could endure the sun. Presently Chaldaea was plentifully populated, but the inhabitants lived like animals, without order or rule. Then there appeared to them from the sea a monster of the name of Yan. Its body was that of a fish, but under its head another head was attached, and on its fins were feet, and its voice was that of a man. Its image is still preserved. It came at morning, passed the day, and taught language and science, the harvesting of seeds and of fruits, the rules for the boundaries of land, the mode of building cities and temples, arts and writing and all that pertains to civilized life, and for four hundred and thirty-two thousand years the world went very well.
"Then in a dream Bel revealed to Xisuthrus that there would be a great storm, and men would be destroyed. He bade him bury in Sepharvaim, the city of the sun, all the ancient, mediaeval, and modern records, and build a ship and embark in it with his kindred and his nearest friends. He was also to take food and drink into the ship, and pairs of all creatures winged and four-footed.
"Xisuthrus did as he was bidden, and from the ends of heaven the storm began to blow. Bin thundered; Nebo, the Revealer, came forth; Nergal, the Destroyer, overthrew; and Adar, the Sublime, swept in his brightness across the earth. The storm devoured the nations, it lapped the sky, turned the land into an ocean, and destroyed everything that lived. Even the gods were afraid. They sought refuge in the heaven of Anu, sovereign of the upper realms. As hounds draw in their tails, they seated themselves on their thrones, and to them Mylitta, the great goddess, spake: 'The world has turned from me, and ruin I have proclaimed.' She wept, and the gods on their thrones wept with her.
"On the seventh day Xisuthrus perceived that the storm had abated and that the sea had begun to fall. He sent out a dove, it returned; next, a swallow, which also returned, but with mud on its feet; and again, a raven, which saw the corpses in the water and ate them, and returned no more. Then the boat was stayed and settled upon Mount Nasir. Xisuthrus went out and worshipped the recovered earth. When his companions went in search of him he had disappeared, but his voice called to them saying that for his piety he had been carried away; that he was dwelling among the gods; and that they were to return to Sepharvaim and dig up the books and give them to mankind. Which they did, and erected many cities and temples, and rebuilt Babylon and Mylitta's shrine."
"It is simpler in Genesis," Mary said, the first time she heard this marvellous tale. For to her, as to Martha and Eleazer, the khazzan, the teacher of the synagogue, had read from the great square letters in which the Pentateuch was written another account of the commingling of Chaos and of Light.
At the mention of the sacred canon, Sephorah would smile with that indulgence which wisdom brings, and smooth her scanty plaits, and draw the back of her hand across her mouth.
"Burned on tiles in the land of the magi are the records of a million years. In the unpolluted tombs of Osorapi the history of life and of time is written on the cerements of kings. Where the bells ring at the neck of the camels of Iran is a stretch of columns on which are inscribed the words of those that lived in Paradise. On a wall of the temple of Bel are the chronicles of creation; in the palace of Assurbanipal, the narrative of the flood. It is from these lands and monuments the Thorah comes; its verses are made of their memories; it gathered whatever it found, and overlooked the essential, immortal life."
And Sephorah added in a whisper, "For we are descended from gods, and immortal as they."
The khazzan had disclosed to Mary no such prospect as that. To him as to all orthodox expounders of the Law man was essentially evanescent; he lived his little day and disappeared forever. God alone was immortal, and an immortal being would be God. The contrary beliefs of the Egyptians and the Aryans were to them abominations, and the spiritualistic doctrine inaugurated by Juda Maccabaeus and accepted by the Pharisees, an impiety. The Pentateuch had not a word on the subject. Moses had expressly declared that secret things belong to the Lord, and only visible things to man. The prophets had indeed foretold a terrestrial immortality, but that immortality was the immortality of a nation; and the realization of their prophecy the entire people awaited. Apart from that there was only Sheol, a sombre region of the under-earth, to which the dead descended, and there remained without consciousness, abandoned by God.
"Immortal!" Mary, with great wondering eyes, would echo. "Immortal!"
"Yes; but to become so," Sephorah replied, "you must worship at another shrine."
"Where is it?"
Sephorah answered evasively. Mary would find it in time—when the spring came, perhaps; and meanwhile she had a word or two to say of Baal to such effect even that Mary questioned the khazzan.
"However great the god of the Gentiles has been imagined," the khazzan announced, "he is bounded by the earth and the sky. His feet may touch the one, his head the other, but of nature he is a part, and, to the Eternal, nature is not even a garment, it is a substance He made, and which He can remould at will. It is not in nature, it is in light, He is: in the burning bush in which He revealed Himself; in the stake at which Isaac would have died; in the lightning in which the Law was declared, the column of fire, the flame of the sacrifices, and the gleaming throne in which Isaiah saw Him sit—it is there that He is, and His shadow is the sun."
Of this Mary repeated the substance to her friend, and Sephorah mused.
"No," she said at last—"no, he is not in light, but in the desert where nature is absent, and where the world has ceased to be. The threats of a land that never smiled are reflected in his face. The sight of him is death. No, Baal is the sun-god. His eyes fecundate."
And during the succeeding months Sephorah entertained Mary with Assyrian annals and Egyptian lore. She told her more of Baal, whose temple was in Babylon, and of Baaltis, who reigned at Ascalon. She told her of the women who wept for Tammuz, and explained the reason of their tears. She told her of the union of Ptah, the unbegotten begetter of the first beginning, and of Neith, mother of the sun; of the holy incest of Isis and Osiris; and of Luz, called by the patriarchs Bethel, the House of God, the foothold of a straight stairway which messengers ceaselessly ascended and descended, and at whose summit the Elohim sat.
She told her of these things, of others as well; and now and then in the telling of them a fat little man with beady eyes would wander in, the smell of garlic about him, and stare at Mary's lips. His name was Pappus; by Sephorah he was treated with great respect, and Mary learned that he was rich and knew that Sephorah was poor.
When the Passover had come and gone, Sephorah detected that Mary had ceased to be a child; and of the gods and goddesses with whose adventures she was wont to entertain her, gradually she confined herself to Mylitta; and in describing the wonderlands which she knew so well, she spoke now only of Babylon, where the great tower was, and the gardens that hung in the air.
It was all very marvellous and beautiful, and Sephorah described it in fitting terms. There was the Temple of the Seven Spheres, where the priests offered incense to the Houses of the Planets, to the whole host of heaven, and to Bel, Lord of the Sky. There was the Home of the Height, a sheer flight of solid masonry extending vertiginously, and surmounted by turrets of copper capped with gold. In its utmost pinnacle were a sanctuary and a dazzling couch. There the priests said that sometimes Bel came and rested. For the truth of that statement, however, Sephorah declined to vouch. She had never seen him; but the hanging gardens she had seen, long before they were demolished. She had walked in them, and she described their loveliness, and related that they were erected to pleasure a Persian princess whose eyes had wearied of the monotony of the Babylonian plain.
Once when Pappus was present—and latterly he had been often there—she passed from the gardens to the grove where the temple of Mylitta stood. At the steps of the shrine, she declared, were white-winged lions, and immense bulls with human heads. Within were dovecotes and cisterns, the emblems of fecundity, and a block of stone which she did not describe. Without, among the terebinths and evergreens, were little cabins and an avenue bordered by cypress trees, in which men with pointed hats and long embroidered gowns passed slowly, for there the maidens of Babylon sat, chapleted with cords, burning bran for perfume, awaiting the will of the first who should toss a coin in their lap and in the name of Mylitta invite them to perform the sacred rite.
"That," said Sephorah, "is the worship Mylitta exacts." As she spoke she drew herself up, her height increased, an unnatural splendor filled her eyes. "I," she continued, "am her priestess. I sacrificed at Byblus, but you may sacrifice here. There is a dovecote, yonder is a cistern, beyond are the cypress and the evergreens that she loves. Mary, do you wish to be immortal? Do you see the way?"
Mary smiled vaguely, and with the serenity of one worshipping a divinity she suffered the fat Jerusalemite to take her in his arms.
And now as she lay on her great couch these things returned to her, and subsequent episodes as well. There had been the lamentable grief of Martha, the added pathos in her brother's eyes. The estate of her father had been divided, and the castle of Magdala had fallen to her share. Meanwhile she had been at Jerusalem, and from there she had journeyed to Antioch, where she had heard the beasts roar in the arena. She had looked on blood, on the honey-colored moon that effaced the stars, and everywhere she had encountered love.
Since then her hours had been grooved in revolving circles of alternating delights, and delights to which no shadow of regret had come. To her, youth had been a chalice of aromatic wine. She had drained it and found no dregs. Day had been interwoven with splendors, and night with the rays of the sun. Where she passed she conquered; when she smiled there were slaves ready-made. There had been hot brawls where she trod, the gleam of white knives. Men had killed each other because of her eyes, and women had wept themselves to death. For her a priest had gone mad, and a betrothed had hid herself in the sea. In Hierapolis the galli had fancied her Ashtaroth; and at Capri, where Tiberius lounged, a villa awaited her will.
Her life had indeed been full, yet that morning its nausea had mounted to her heart. At the words of the rabbi the horizon had expanded, the dream of immortality returned. It had been forgot long since and abandoned, but now, for the first time since her childhood, something there was which admonished her that perhaps she still might stroll through lands where dreams come true. The path was not wholly clear as yet, and as in her troubled mind she tried to disentangle the past from the present the sun went down behind the castle, the crouching shadows elongated and possessed the walls.
An echo came to her, Repent, and the prophecy continuing danced in her ears; yet still the way was obscure. In the echo she divined merely that the past must be put from her like a garment that is stained. The rest was vague. Then suddenly she was back again in Machaerus, and she heard the ringing words of John. Could this be the Messiah her nation awaited? was there a kingdom coming, and immortality too?
Her thoughts entangled and grew confused. There was a murmur of harps in the distance, and she wondered whence it could come. Some one was speaking; she tried to rouse herself and listen. The room was filled with bats that changed to butterflies. The murmur of harps continued, and through the wall before her issued a litter in which a woman lay.
A circle of slaves surrounded her. She was pale, and her eyes closed languorously. "I am Indolence," she said. "Sleep is not softer than my couch. My lightest wish is law to kings. I live on perfumes; my days are as shadows on glass. Mary, come with me, and I will teach you to forget."
She vanished, and where the litter had been stood a eunuch. "I am Envy," he said, and his eyes drooped sullenly. "I separate those that love; I dismantle altars and dismember nations. I corrode and corrupt; I destroy, and I never rebuild. My joy is malice, and my creed false-witnessing. Mary, come with me, and you will learn to hate."
He disappeared, and where his slime had dripped stood a being with fingers intertwisted and a back that bent. "I am Greed," it said. "I sap the veins of youth; I drain the hearts of women; I bring contention where peace should be. I make fathers destroy their sons, and daughters betray their mother. I never forget, and I never release. I am the master. Mary, come with me, and you shall own the world."
The fetor of the presence went, and in its place came one whose footsteps thundered. "I am Anger," he declared. "I exterminate and rejoice. I batten on blood. In my heart is suspicion, in my hand is flame. It is I that am war and disaster and regret. My breath consumes, and my voice affrights. Mary, come with me, and you will learn to quell."
He dissolved, and in the shadows stood one whose hands were ample, and whose wide mouth laughed. "I am Gluttony," he announced, and as he spoke his voice was thick. "I fatten and forsake. I offer satrapies for one new dish. I invite and alienate, I welcome and repel. It is I that bring disease and disorders. I am the harbinger of Death. Mary, come with me, and you shall taste of Life."
He also disappeared, and two heralds entered with trumpets on which they blew, and one exclaimed, "Make way for Assurbanipal, ruler of land and of sea." Then, with horsemen riding royally, Sardanapalus advanced through the fissure in the wall. On his head a high and wonderful tiara shone with zebras that had wings and horns. His hair was long, and his beard curled in overlapping rings. His robe dazzled, and the close sleeves were fastened over his knuckles with bracelets of precious stones. In one hand he held a sceptre, in the other a chart.
"I," he cried—"I am Assurbanipal; the progeny of Assur and of Baaltis, son of the great king Riduti, whom the lord of crowns, in days remote prophesying in his name, raised to the kingdom, and in the womb of his mother created to rule. The man of war, the joy of Assur and of Istar, the royal offspring, am I. When the gods seated me on the throne of the father my begetter, Bin poured down his rain, Hea feasted the people. My enemies I destroyed, and their gods glorified me before my camp. The god of their oracles, whose image no man had seen, I took, and the goddesses whom the kings worshipped I dishonored."
He paused and looked proudly about, then he continued:
"That which is in the storehouse of heaven is kindled, and to the city of cities my glory flies. The queens above and below proclaim my glory. I am Glory, and I am Pride. Mary, come with me, and you shall disdain the sky."
But Mary gave no sign. The clattering horses vanished, and two men dressed in women's clothes appeared. They bowed to the ground and chanted:
"The holy goddess, our Lady Mylitta, whose sacrificants we are."
Then came a form so luminous that Mary hid her face and listened merely.
"I," said a voice—"I am Desire. In Greece I am revered, and there I am Aphrodite. In Italy I am Venus; in Egypt, Hathor; in Armenia, Anaitis; in Persia, Anahita; Tanit in Carthage; Baaltis in Byblus; Derceto in Ascalon; Atargatis in Hierapolis; Bilet in Babylon; Ashtaroth to the Sidonians; and Aschera in the glades of Judaea. And everywhere I am worshipped, and everywhere I am Love. I bring joy and torture, delight and pain. I appease and appal. It is I that create and undo. It is I that make heaven and people hell. I am the mistress of the world. Without me time would cease to be. I am the germ of stars, the essence of things. I am all that is, will be, and has been, and my robe no mortal has raised. I breathe, and nations are; in my parturitions are planets; my home is space. My lips are blissfuller than any bloom of bliss; my arms the opening gates of life. The Infinite is mine. Mary, come with me, and you shall measure it."
When Mary ventured to look again the vision had gone. They had all gone now. She had made no effort to detain them. They were tempters of which she was freed, in which she believed, and which were real to her. The wall through which they had come and departed was vague and in the darkness remote, but presently it dissolved again, and afar in the beckoning distance was one breathing a soul into decrepit rites. "Come unto me, all ye that sorrow and are heavy-laden," she heard him say; and, as with a great sob of joy she rose to that gracious summons, night seized her. When she awoke, a newer dawn had come.
In the gardens of the palace the tetrarch mused. The green parasols of the palms formed an avenue, and down that avenue now and then he looked. Near him a Syrian bear, quite tame, with a sweet face and tufted silver fur, gambolled prodigiously. Up and down a neighboring tree two lemurs chased with that grace and diabolic vivacity which those enchanting animals alone possess. Ringed-horned antelopes, the ankles slender as the stylus, the eyes timid and trustful, pastured just beyond; and there too a black-faced ape, irritated perhaps by the lemurs, turned indignant somersaults, the tender coloring of his body glistening in the sun.
"It is odd that Pahul does not return," the tetrarch reflected; and then, it may be for consolation's sake, he plunged his face in a jar of wine that had been drained, in accordance with a recipe of Vitellius, through cinnamon and calamus, and drank abundantly.
Long since he had deserted Machaerus. The legends that peopled its corridors had beset him with a sense of reality which before they had never possessed. The leaves of the baaras glittered frenetically in the basalt, and in their spectral light a phantom with eyes that cursed came and went. At night he had drunk, and in the clear forenoons he paced the terrace fancying always that there, beyond in the desert, Aretas prowled like a wolf. Machaerus was unhealthy; men had gone mad there, others had disappeared entirely. It was a haunt of echoes, of memories, of ghosts also, perhaps too of reproach. And so, with his court, he returned to his brand-new Tiberias, where the air was serener, and nature laughed.
And yet in the gardens that leaned to the lake the tranquillity he had anticipated eluded and declined to be detained. Rumors that Herodias collected came to him with the stamp of Rome. One of his brothers was plotting against him; another, though in exile, was plotting too. It was the Herod blood, his wife said; and, with the intemperance of a woman whose ambition has been deceived, she taunted him with his plebeian descent. "Your grandfather was a sweep at Ascalon, a eunuch at that," she had remarked; and the tetrarch, by way of reply, had been obliged to content himself by asking how, in that case, he could have been grandfather at all.
But latterly a new source of inquietude had come. At Magdala, Capharnahum, Bethsaida, there, within the throw of a stone, was a Nazarene going about inciting the peasants to revolt. It was very vexatious, and he told himself that when an annoyance fades another appears. Life, it occurred to him, was a brier with renascent thorns. And now, as he gargled the wine that left a pink foam on his lips, even that irritation lapsed in the perplexing absence of Pahul.
Pahul was a butler of his, a Greek whom he had picked up one adventurous night in Rome, who had made himself useful, whom he had attached to his household, whom he consulted, and on whom he relied. Early that day he had sent him off with instructions to run the demagogue to earth, to listen, to question if need were, and to hurry back and report. But as yet he had not returned. The day was fading, and on the amphitheatre which the hills made the sun seemed to balance itself, the disk blood-red. The lemurs had tired, perhaps; their yellow eyes and circled tails had gone; the bear had been led away; only the multicolored ape remained, gnawing now with little plaintive moans at a bit of fruit which he held suspiciously in his wrinkled hand.
Presently a star appeared and quivered, then another came, and though overhead were streaks of pink, and, where the sun had been, a violence of red and orange, the east retained its cobalt, night still was remote—an echo of crotals from the neighboring faubourg, the cry of elephants impatient for their fodder, alone indicating that a day was dead.
In the charm of the encroaching twilight the irritation of the tetrarch waned and decreased. He lost himself in memories of the princess who had been his bride, and he wondered were it possible that, despite the irrevocable, he was never to see, to speak, to hold her to him again. Truly her grievance was unmeasurable, the more so even that she had not deigned to utter so much as a reproach. At the rumor of his treachery she had betaken herself to the solitudes, where Aretas her father was king, and had there remained girt in that unmurmuring silence which nobility raises as a barrier between outrage and itself, and which the desert is alone competent to suggest.
"It is he!"
The tetrarch started so abruptly that he narrowly missed the jar at his side. On noiseless sandals Pahul had approached, and stood before him nodding his head with an air of assured conviction. The ape had fled and a stork stepped gingerly away.
"It is he," the Greek repeated—"John the Baptist."
Antipas plucked at his beard. "But he is dead," he gasped; "I beheaded him. What nonsense you talk!"
"It is he, I tell you, only grown younger. I found him in the synagogue."
"Where? what synagogue?"
Pahul made a gesture. "At Capharnahum," he answered, and gazed in the tetrarch's face. He was slight of form and regular of feature. As a lad he had crossed bare-handed from Cumae to Rhegium, and from there drifted to Rome, where he started a commerce in Boetican girls which had so far prospered that he bought two vessels to carry the freight. Unfortunately the vessels met in a storm and sank. Then he became a hanger-on of the circus; in idle moments a tout. It was in the latter capacity that Antipas met him, and, pleased with his shrewdness and perfect corruption, had attached him to his house. This had occurred in years previous, and as yet Antipas had found no cause to regret the trust imposed. He was a useful braggart, idle, familiar, and discreet; and he had acquired the dialect of the country with surprising ease.
"There were any number of people," Pahul continued. "Some said he was the son of Joseph, the son of——"
"But he, what did he say? How tiresome you are!"
"Ah!" And Pahul swung his arms. "Who is Mammon?"
"Mammon? Mammon? How do I know? Plutus, I suppose. What about him?"
"And who is Satan?"
"Satan? Satan is a—He's a Jew god. Why? But what do you mean by asking me questions?"
Pahul nodded absently. "I heard him say," he continued, "that no man could serve God and Mammon. At first I thought he meant you. It was this way. I got into conversation with a friend of his, a man named Judas. He told me any number of things about him, that he cured the sick——"
"Bah! Some Greek physician."
"That he walks on the sea——"
"That he turns water into wine, feeds the multitude, raises the dead——"
"Raises the dead!" And the tetrarch added in the sotto voce of thought, "So did Elijah."
"That he had been in the desert——"
"No; I questioned him on that point. He had never heard of Aretas, but he said that in the desert this Satan had come and offered him—what do you suppose? The empire of the earth!"
Antipas shook with fright. "It must have been Aretas."
"But that he had refused."
"Then it is John."
"There, you see." And Pahul dandled himself with the air of one who is master of logic. "That's what I said myself. I said this: 'If he can raise the dead, he can raise himself.' "
"It is John," the tetrarch repeated.
"I am sure of it," the butler continued. "But he did not say so. Judas didn't either. On the contrary, he declared he was not. He said John was not good enough to carry his shoes. I saw through that, though," and Pahul leered; "he knew whom I was, and he lied to protect his friend. I of course pretended to believe him."
"Quite right," said the tetrarch.
"Yes, I played the fool. H'm, where was I? Oh, I asked Judas who then his friend was, but he went over to where a woman stood; he spoke to her; she moved away. Some of the others seemed to reprove him. I would have followed, but at that moment his friend stood up; a khazzan offered him a scroll, but he waved it aside; then some one asked him a question which I did not catch; another spoke to him; a third interrupted; he seemed to be arguing with them. I was too far away to hear well, and I got nearer; then I heard him say, 'I am the bread of life.' Now, what did he mean by that?"
Antipas had no explanation to offer.
"Then," Pahul continued, "he said he had come down from heaven. A man near me exclaimed, 'He is the Messiah;' but others——"
"The Messiah!" echoed the tetrarch. For a moment his thoughts stammered, then at once he was back in the citadel. On one side was the procurator, on the other the emir of Tadmor. In front of him was a drunken rabble, wrangling Pharisees, and one man dominating the din with an announcement of the Messiah's approach. The murmur of lutes threaded through it all; and now, as his thoughts deviated, he wondered could that announcement have been the truth.
"But others," Pahul continued, "objected loudly. For a little I could not catch a word. At last they became quieter, and I heard him repeat that he was the bread of life, adding, 'Your fathers ate manna and are dead, but this bread a man may eat of and never die.' At this there was new contention. A woman fainted—the one to whom Judas had spoken. They carried her out. As she passed I could see her face. It was Mary of Magdala. Judas held her by the waist, another her feet."
Antipas drew a hand across his face. "It is impossible," he muttered.
"Not impossible at all. I saw her as plainly as I see you. The man next to me said that the Rabbi had cast from her seven devils. Moreover, Johanna was there—yes, yes, the wife of Khuza, your steward; it was she, I remember now, who had her by the feet. And there were others that I recognized, and others that the man next to me pointed out: Zabdia, a well-to-do fisherman whom I have seen time and again, and with him his sons James and John, and Salome his wife. Then, too, there were Simon Barjona and Andrew his brother. Simon had his wife with him, his children, and his mother-in-law. The man next to me said that the Rabbi called James and John the Sons of Thunder, and Simon a stone. There was Mathias the tax-gatherer, Philip of Bethsaida, Joseph Barsaba, Mary Clopas, Susannah, Nathaniel of Cana, Thomas, Thaddeus, Aristian the custom-house officer, Ruth the tax-gatherer's wife, mechanics from Scythopolis, and Scribes from Jerusalem."
The fingers of Antipas' hand glittered with jewels. He played with them nervously. The sky seemed immeasurably distant. For some little time it had been hesitating between different shades of blue, but now it chose a fathomless indigo; Night unloosed her draperies, and, with the prodigality of a queen who reigns only when she falls, flung out upon them uncounted stars.
Pahul continued: "And many of them seemed to be at odds with each other. They wrangled so that often I could not distinguish a word. Some of them left the synagogue. The Rabbi himself must have been vexed, for in a lull I heard him say to those who were nearest, 'Will you also go away?' Judas came in at that moment, and he turned to him: 'Have I not chosen twelve, and is not one of you a devil?' Judas came forward at once and protested. I could see he was in earnest, and meant what he said. The man next told me that he was devoted to the Rabbi. Then Simon Barjona, in answer to his question, called out, 'To whom should we go? Thou art Christ, the Son of God.' "
Antipas had ceased to listen. At the mention of the Messiah the dream of Israel had returned, and with it the pageants of its faith unrolled.
Behind the confines of history, in the naked desert he saw a bedouin, austere and grandiose, preparing the tenets of a nation's creed; in the remoter past a shadow in which there was lightning, then the splendor of that first dawn where the future opened like a book, and in the grammar of the Eternal the promise of an age of gold.
Through the echo of succeeding generations came the rumor of that initial impulse which drew the world in its flight. The bedouin had put the desert behind him, and stared at another. Where the sand had been was the sea. As he passed, the land leapt into life. There were tents and passions, clans not men, an aggregate of forces in which the unit disappeared. For chieftain there was Might; and above, the subjects of impersonal verbs, the Elohim from whom the thunder came, the rain, light and darkness, death and birth, dream too, and nightmare as well. The clans migrated. Goshen called. In its heart Chaldaea spoke. The Elohim vanished, and there was El, the one great god, and Isra-el, the great god's elect. From heights that lost themselves in immensity the ineffable name, incommunicable and never to be pronounced, was seared by forked flames on a tablet of stone. A nation learned that El was Jehovah, that they were in his charge, that he was omnipotent, and that the world was theirs.
They had a law, a covenant, a future, and a god; and as they passed into the lands of the well-beloved, leaving tombs and altars to mark their passage, they had battle-cries that frightened and hymns that exalted the heart. Above were the jealous eyes of Jehovah, and beyond was the resplendent to-morrow. They ravaged the land like hailstones. They had the whirlwind for ally; the moon was their servant; and to aid them the sun stood still. The terror of Sinai gleamed from their breastplates; men could not see their faces and live. They encroached and conquered. They had a home, they made a capitol, and there on a rock-bound hill Antipas saw David founding a line of kings, and Solomon the city of god.
It was in their loins the Messiah was; in them the apex of a nation's prosperity; in them glory at its apogee. And across that tableau of might, of splendor, and of submission for one second flitted the silhouette of that dainty princess of Utopia, the Queen of Sheba, bringing riddles, romance, and riches to the wise young king.
She must have been very beautiful, Antipas with melancholy retrospection reflected; and he fancied her more luminous than the twelve signs of the zodiac, lounging nonchalantly in a palanquin that a white elephant with swaying tail balanced on his painted back. And even as she returned, with a child perhaps, to the griffons of the fabulous Yemen whence she came, Antipas noted a speck on the horizon that grew from minim into mountain, and obscured the entire sky. He saw the empire split in twain, and in the twin halves that formed the perfect whole, a concussion of armies, brothers appealing against their kin, the flight of the Ideal.
Unsummoned before him paraded the regicides, convulsions, and anarchies that deified Hatred until Vengeance incarnate talked Assyrian, and Nebuchadnezzar loomed above the desert beyond. His statue filled the perspective. With one broad hand he overturned Jerusalem; with another he swept a nation into captivity, leaving in derision a pigmy for King of Solitude behind, and, blowing the Jews into Babylon, there retained them until it occurred to Cyrus to change the Euphrates' course.
By the light of that legend Antipas saw an immense hall, illuminated by the seven branches of countless candelabra, and filled with revellers celebrating a monarch's feast. Beyond, through retreating columns, were cyclopean arches and towers whose summits were lost in clouds that the lightning rent. At the royal table sat Belsarazzur, laughing mightily at the enterprise of the Persian king; about him were the grandees of his court, the flower of his concubines; at his side were the sacred vases filled with wine. He raised one to his lips, and there on the frieze before him leapt out the flaming letters of his doom, while to the trumpetings of heralds Cyrus and his army beat down the city's gates.
It passed, and Antipas saw Jerusalem repeopled, the Temple rebuilt, peace after exile, the joy of bondage unloosed. For a moment it lasted—a century or two at most; and after Alexander, in chasing kings hither and thither, had passed with his huntsmen that way, Isis and Osiris beckoned, and the descendants of the bedouin belonged to Goshen again, and so remained until Syria took them, lost them, reconquered them, and might have done with them utterly had not Juda Maccabaeus flaunted his banner, and the Roman eagles pounced upon their prey. Once more the Temple was rebuilt, superber than ever, and from the throne of David, Antipas saw the upstart that was his father rule Judaea.
With him the panorama and the kaleidoscope of its details abruptly ceased. But through it all the voices of the prophets had rung more insistently with each defeat. The covenant in the wilderness was unforgetable; in the chained links of slavery they saw the steps of a throne, the triumph of truth over error, peace over war, Israel pontiff and shepherd of the nations of the world.
The expectation of a liberator who should free the bonds of a people and definitively re-create the land of the elect possessed them utterly; his advent had been constantly awaited, obstinately proclaimed; the faith in him was unshakeable. Palestine was filled with believers praying the Eternal not to let them die before the promise was fulfilled; the atmosphere itself was charged with expectation.
And as the visions rushed through his mind, Antipas fell to wondering whether that covenant was as meaningless as he had thought, or whether by any chance this rabbi who had been arguing at Capharnahum could be the usher of Israel's hope. If he were, then indeed he might say good-bye to his tetrarchy, to his dream of a kingdom as well.
"Yes," Pahul repeated, "the Son of God!"
Antipas had been so far away that now he started as one does whom the touch of a hand awakes. To recover himself he leaned over and plunged his face in the jar. The wine brought him courage.
He must be suppressed, he decided.
"But," the butler continued, "I——"
The frontal of the palace was set with lights. The parasols of the palms had turned from green to black, the stars seemed remoter, the sky more dark. From beyond came the call and answer of the sentinels.
Antipas stood up. A fringe of his tunic was detained by a rivet of the bench on which he had sat; he stooped to loose it; something moist touched his fingers, and as he moved to the palace the black-faced ape sprang at his side and nibbled at the jewels on his hand.
The house of Simon Barlevi was gray, and in shape an oblong. It had a flat roof laid with a plaster of lime, about which was a fretwork of open tiles. Beneath, for doorway, was a recess, surmounted by an arch and covered with a layer of mud. On each side was a room.
In the recess, sheltered from the sun and visited by the breeze, Simon stood. His garments were white, and where they were not they had been neatly chalked. On the border of his skirt and sleeves were the regulation fringes, and on his forehead and about his left arm the phylacteries which Pharisees affect. He was not pleasant to the eye, but he was virtuous and a strict observer of the Law.
In the room at his left were mats and painted stools, set in the manner customary when guests are awaited. For on that day Simon Barlevi was to give a little feast, to which he had bidden his friends and also a rabbi whom he had listened to in the synagogue, and with whose ideas he did not at all agree. Save for the mats and stools, and a lamp of red clay, the room was bare.
In front of the house was a bit of ground enclosed by a hedge of stones; and now as Simon stood in the recess a guest appeared.
"Reulah!" he exclaimed, "the Lord be with you."
And Reulah answering, as etiquette required, "Unto you be peace, and to your house be peace, and unto all you have be peace," the two friends clasped hands raised them as though to kiss them, then each withdrawing kissed his own hand, and struck it on his forehead.
Singularly enough, host and guest looked much alike. Simon had the appearance of one conscious of and strong in his own rectitude, while Reulah seemed humbler and more effaced. Otherwise there was not a pin to choose between them.
To Simon's face had come an expression of perplexity in which there was zeal.
"I was thinking, Reulah," he announced, "of the rabbi who is to break bread with us to-day. His teaching does not comfort me."
Reulah was unlatching his shoes. "Nor me," he interjected.
"On questions of purity and impurity he seems unscrupulously negligent. I have heard that he is a glutton and a wine-bibber. I have heard that he despises the washing of the hands."
"Whoso does," Reulah threw back, "will be rooted out of the world."
Simon nodded; a smile of protracted amiability hovered in the corners of his mouth. For a moment he played with his beard.
"I think," he added, "that he will find here food in plenty, and counsel as well."
Reulah closed his eyes benignly, and Simon, in a falsetto which he affected when he desired to impress, continued in gentle menace:
"But I have certain questions to put to him. Whether water from an unclean vessel defiles that which is clean. Whether the flesh of a dead body alone defiles, or the skin and bones as well. I want to see how he will answer that. Then I may ask his opinion on points of the ritual. Should the incense be lighted before the high-priest appears or as he does so. Is or is not the Sabbath broken by the killing of the Paschal lamb? Why is it lawful to take tithe of corn and wine and oil, and not of anise, cummin, and peppers? In swearing by the Temple, should one not first swear by the gold on the Temple? and in swearing by the altar, should one or should one not first swear by the sacrifices on it? These things, since he preaches, he must know. If he does not——"
And Simon looked at his friend as who should say: What is there wanting in me?
"If I may be taught another duty I will observe it," said Reulah, sweetly.
At this evidence of meekness Simon grunted. Two other guests were approaching. On the edges of their tallith were tassels made of four threads which had been drawn through an eyelet and doubled to make eight. Seven of these threads were of equal length, but the eighth was longer, and, twisted into five knots, represented the five books of the Law. The right hand on the left breast, they saluted their host, and placing in turn a hand under his beard, they kissed it. A buzz of inquiries followed, interrupted by the coming and embracing of newer guests, the unloosing of sandals, the washing of feet.
As they assembled, one drew Simon aside and whispered importantly. Simon's eyes dilated, astonishment lifted him, visibly, like a lash, and his hands trembled above his head.
"Have you heard," he exclaimed to the others—"have you heard that the Nazarene whom I invited here, and who pretends to be a prophet, allowed his followers to pluck corn on the Sabbath, to thresh it even, and defended and approved their violation of the Law? Have you heard it? Is it true?"
Reulah quaked as one stricken by palsy. "On the Sabbath!" he moaned. "On the Sabbath! Why, I would not send a message on Wednesday, lest perchance it should be delivered on the Sabbath day. Surely it cannot be."
But on that point the others were certain. They were all aware of the scandal; one had been an eye-witness, another had heard the Nazarene assert that he was "Lord of the Day."
"This is monstrous!" Simon cried.
"He declared," the eye-witness continued, "that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."
"It is monstrous!" Simon repeated. "The command to do no manner of work is absolute and emphatic. The killing of a flea on the Sabbath is as heinous as the butchering of a bullock. The preservation of life itself is inhibited. Moses had the son of Shelomith stoned to death for gathering sticks on it. Shammai occupied six days of the week in thinking how he could best observe it. It is unlawful to wear a false tooth on the Sabbath, and if a tooth ache it is unlawful to rinse the mouth with vinegar."
"Yet," objected Reulah, "it is lawful to hold the vinegar in the mouth provided you swallow it afterward."
No one paid any attention to him. Simon's indignation increased. Of the thirty-nine Abhoth he quoted twelve; he showed that the Nazarene had violated each one of these prohibitions against labor; he showed, too, that by his subsequent speech and bearing he had practically scoffed at the Toldoth, at the synagogue which had drawn it up as well.
"If the Sadducees were not in power, Jerusalem should hear of this. As it is——"
Whatever resolution he may have intended to express remained unuttered. A silence fell upon his lips; his guests drew back. At the step stood the Nazarene, behind him his treasurer, Judas of Kerioth. For a second only Jesus hesitated. He stooped, undid his shoes, and moved to where Simon stood. The latter bowed constrainedly.
"Master," he said, "we awaited you."
At this his friends retreated into the little room. Reulah reached the middle seat of the central mat first and held it, his nostrils quivering at the envy of the others.
Preceded by their host, Jesus and Judas found places near together, and, the usual ablutions performed, the customary prayers recited, lay, the upper part of the body supported by the left arm, the head raised, the limbs outstretched.