|Finn Sivert Nielsen||Anthropologist|
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Translated by Finn Sivert Nielsen and Alexandra Livanova
Once on a sweltering hot evening in spring, two gentlemen appeared at the Patriarch's Ponds in Moscow. The first wore a gray summer suit, he was short, well fed, bald, and held his respectable-looking fedora hat delicately in one hand. On his cleanly shaven face he had found room for a pair of huge black horn-rimmed glasses. The second - a muscular young man - had a mess of red hair and a checkered cap shoved back from his forehead, he wore a cowboy shirt, creased white pants and black shoes.
The first was none other than Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz, chairman of the board of one of Moscow's largest literary associations - MASSOLIT for short - and editor of a copious literary journal. His young friend was the poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyryov, known under the pen name Bezdomny - "Homeless".
Reaching a shady spot under the young leaves of a group of linden trees, both writers made straight for a gaudy little booth with a sign reading: "Beer and soft drinks".
But here we must note the first strange thing about this terrible May evening. There was not a living soul to be seen - neither by the booth itself, nor on the tree-lined walk along Little Bronnaya Street. All day long the sun had scorched the city, until it finally went off to sulk somewhere in a dry haze beyond the Sadovoe Ring. You'd think people would be gasping for a breath of fresh air - but no one came to walk in the shade under the lindens or to sit on the benches. The park was empty.
- I'll have a Narzan, - said Berlioz.
- We're all out of Narzan, - replied the woman in the booth, who was somehow offended by his request.
- How about beer? - inquired the poet hoarsely.
- They're bringing beer this evening, - answered the woman.
- So what do you have? - asked Berlioz.
- Apricot juice. But it's warm, - said the woman.
- Let's have it, let's have it!...
The apricot juice gave off a thick, yellowish foam and made the air smell like a hairdresser's. The two patrons of literature swallowed the liquid, immediately got the hiccups, paid the saleswoman and went off to sit on a bench facing the pond with its back to Bronnaya.
And now the second strange thing happened, which concerned only Berlioz. His hiccups stopped, his heart gave a sudden leap, dropped out of reach for a moment, then returned with a blunt needle throbbing in it. Berlioz was paralyzed by fear. There was nothing to be afraid of, but all he wanted to do was get up and dash away from Patriarch's Ponds as fast as his legs could carry him. Berlioz looked around in anguish, but without understanding what was happening to him. His face paled. He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and thought to himself: "What's going on? This has never... my heart's playing tricks on me... I've been working too hard. Maybe I should just let the devil take it all and catch the first train to Kislovodsk..."
Just then the burning air thickened in front of him, and out of it protruded a transparent personage with the most amazing appearance. A tiny head in a jockey cap, a short-tailed, checkered jacket of air... The person was about seven feet tall, narrow-breasted, unnaturally thin, and with the looks, believe me, of an altogether shameless rogue.
Life had left Berlioz quite unprepared for unusual events of this kind. He turned even paler, opened his eyes wide and heard his mind chatter frantically: "It's not real!..."
But alas, that is exactly what it was, and the tall, transparent person continued to sway gently in front of him, not only to one side, but to the other side as well, without even having the common decency to keep his feet on the ground.
Berlioz had by now reached such a peak of terror that he closed his eyes. When he reopened them it was all over, the mirage had evaporated, the man in checkers was gone, and at the same moment he felt the dull needle slip from his heart.
- The devil! - exclaimed the editor, - you know Ivan, just now I almost had a heart attack from this heat! I even had some kind of hallucination, - he tried to smile, but his eyes were still shot through with alarm and his hands trembled.
But as he calmed down, fanning himself with his handkerchief, he proceeded rather bravely: "Well, as I was saying…" - and continued the speech interrupted by the apricot drink.
It later emerged that he had been speaking of Jesus Christ. The fact was that the editor had ordered a long antireligious poem from the poet for the next edition of his journal. Ivan Nikolaevich had finished the poem on time, but unfortunately the editor wasn't happy with it at all. Bezdomny had portrayed his chief protagonist - Jesus - in the darkest of colors, nevertheless, the editor insisted that the poem would have to be redone from scratch. Now the editor was delivering a kind of lecture about Jesus, to explain the poet's fundamental mistake. It's hard to say exactly what had gotten Ivan Nikolaevich off on the wrong track - the sheer vitality of his descriptive talent or his total ignorance of the subject matter he proposed to describe, - but somehow his Jesus came alive, though his personality, it is true, was hardly attractive. Now Berlioz was trying to demonstrate that the important point wasn't what kind of person Jesus had been, good, bad or indifferent, but that Jesus, as a person, had never existed at all in this world, and that all the stories about him were pure fantasy - nothing but myth.
We should remind the reader that the editor was a well-read man and thoroughly at home with the ancient historians, to whom he referred with verve and ease - the famous Philon of Alexandria, for example, or the brilliantly educated Josephus Flavius, neither of whom had ever written a word about the existence of Jesus. With a convincing show of erudition, Mikhail Alexandrovich informed the poet, among other things, that the passage in Book 15, Chapter 44 of the famous "Annals" of Tacitus, which recounts the execution of Jesus, is in fact nothing but a latter-day forgery.
The poet, who was ignorant of everything Mikhail Andreevich told him, focused his alert, green eyes on the editor and listened attentively, with only an occasional hiccup, followed by whispered oaths at the apricot juice.
- That's how it is in all the Eastern religions, - Berlioz said, - there's a virgin mother who gives birth to God - it's perfectly normal. The Christians couldn't think of anything better, so that's how they imagined their Jesus, who in fact never existed at all. You see, this is what you've got to get across to the reader...
As his light tenor spread through the park and Mikhail Alexandrovich penetrated deeper into a wilderness, which only the most learned of men can enter without risking their necks, the poet was acquainted with an increasing number of interesting and useful facts about the Egyptian Osiris - God of blessings and son of Heaven and Earth, Fammuz - God of the Phoeniceans, Marduk, and even the less-renowned terrible God Vitsliputsli, who was once held in high esteem by the Mexican Aztecs.
Just then, as Mikhail Alexandrovich was telling the poet how the Aztecs used to stick together figurines of dough depicting the God Vitsliputsli, the first man appeared in the park.
Afterwards, when it was frankly too late, various institutions compared their reports describing this man. The differences between them cannot fail to astonish us. Thus, the first asserts that the man was short, had gold teeth and limped on his right foot. According to the second he was a giant with platinum fillings and a limp on his left foot. The third confirms laconically that the man had no distinguishing features at all.
It must be conceded that every one of these reports is worthless.
First of all, the subject limped on neither foot, was neither gigantic nor short, but simply tall. As for his teeth, they were gold on the left side, platinum on the right. He dressed in an expensive gray suit with matching shoes of foreign make, wore a gray cap mischievously pulled down over one ear, and cradled a walking-stick with the head of a black poodle in his arm. To judge by his looks, he might have been just past forty. Mouth slightly crooked. Clean shave. Hair dark. Right eye black, left eye - for some reason - green. Black eyebrows, one raised higher than the other. In short - a foreigner.
Passing the bench with the editor and poet, the foreigner leaned toward them, stopped and abruptly seated himself on the neighboring bench, two steps away.
"German", - thought Berlioz
"Englishman, - thought Bezdomny, - God, he must be hot in those gloves".
The foreigner let his gaze travel slowly around the square formed by the tall buildings enclosing the pond. It was obvious that he was seeing this place for the first time, and that it fascinated him.
His eyes were arrested at the level of the top-story windows, from which the broken sun reflected down on them one last time before departing from Mikhail Alexandrovich forever. Then he looked further down, where the panes were already darkening with the onset of evening. Something gave rise to an aloof smile. He screwed up his eyes, folded his hands on the head of his cane, and rested his chin on them.
- You see, Ivan, - said Berlioz, - you've done an excellent satire, let's say, of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, but the point is that way before Jesus there was a whole list of Sons of God like the Phrygian Attis, none of whom were ever born or ever lived, and with Jesus it's the same story, so you simply must not go on describing his birth and the three kings and so on. Instead you should describe the absurd rumors of his birth... Otherwise your story will end up giving the impression that he was actually born!...
Bezdomny now made an attempt to stop the hiccups that were tormenting him by holding his breath, but the only result was an even louder and more painful hiccup. At this Berlioz broke off his speech, because the foreigner suddenly got up and approached the two authors.
They looked at him in surprise.
- Excuse me, please, - the man said, with a foreign accent, but understandably enough, - that I, not being acquainted, permit myself... but the subject of your learned conversation was so intriguing, that...
He politely lifted his cap, and the friends had no choice but to rise from their seats and greet him.
"No, I guess he's French..." - thought Berlioz.
"Polish?.." - thought Bezdomny.
We must add that the foreigner's first words made an altogether distasteful impression on the poet, while Berlioz rather liked him, or not exactly liked him... well, how should one put it... found him interesting or something like that.
- Would you permit me to sit with you? - the foreigner asked politely, and somehow, mechanically, the companions moved apart; the foreigner quickly seated himself between them and entered directly into their conversation.
- You were, if I am not mistaken, just saying that Jesus never existed? - asked the foreigner, focusing his left eye, the green one, on Berlioz.
- You're quite right, - Berlioz answered pleasantly, - that's exactly what I was saying.
- Oh, how interesting! - the foreigner exclaimed.
"What the devil does he want?" - thought Bezdomny and knit his brows.
- And did you agree with your companion? - inquired the stranger, turning right to face Bezdomny.
- To the hilt! - confirmed the poet, who loved pretentious figures of speech.
- Amazing! - exclaimed their uninvited partner, looking furtively around, and for some reason or other lowering his voice: - Excuse me for intruding, but am I correct in assuming that you, quite aside from everything else, do not believe in God? - He opened his eyes wide with fear as he added: - I promise not to tell a soul.
- You're quite right, we don't believe in God, - Berlioz answered, smiling faintly at the tourist's fear, - but you may speak quite openly about that.
The foreigner leaned back on the bench and asked, with a voice so full of curiosity that it almost squeaked:
- You're atheists?!
- Yes, we're atheists, - answered Berlioz, with a smile, while Bezdomny angrily thought to himself: "Now we're stuck with the foreign goose!"
- Oh how splendid! - exclaimed the extraordinary foreigner, and wagged his head, looking from one author to the other.
- In our country nobody is surprised by atheism, - Berlioz diplomatically explained, - the great majority of the population consciously stopped believing the fairytales about God a long time ago.
At this the foreigner pulled off quite a trick: he rose to his feet, gripped the astonished editor by the hand and proclaimed:
- Permit me to express my heartfelt thanks!
- What are you thanking him for? - inquired Bezdomny, his eyes twitching with surprise.
- For a very crucial piece of information, which for me, as a traveler, is of the greatest value, - explained the eccentric foreigner, waving his finger ambiguously.
The important information seemed quite honestly to have made a deep impression on the foreigner, because he looked fearfully around at the houses again, as if he expected an atheist to pop out of every window.
"No, he's not English..." - thought Berlioz, and Bezdomny thought to himself: "Where did he learn to speak Russian like that - now that's an interesting question!" - and knit his brows again.
- But permit me to ask, - recommenced their foreign guest after a troubled pause, - what about the proofs of God's existence, of which, you know, there are no less than five.
- I'm sorry! - answered Berlioz regretfully, - every one of the proofs is worthless, and humanity has committed them to the dustbin long ago. For you agree, don't you, that in a rational world there can be no valid proof of the existence of God.
- Bravo! - cried the foreigner, - bravo! You support restless old Immanuel's views on the subject completely. But here's a curious fact: after polishing off all five proofs, he continued, as if to mock his own efforts, to construct his very own proof, as a sixth.
- Kant's proof, - objected the learned editor, smiling indulgently, - is hardly convincing either. Schiller was quite right that Kant's reflections can satisfy no one but a slave, and Strauss simply laughed at his proof.
As Berlioz spoke, he kept thinking to himself: "All this is nice and dandy, but who is he anyway? And how come he speaks such good Russian?"
- Someone should send that guy Kant to Solovkí to cool off a few years for a proof like that! - Ivan Nikolaevich blurted out unexpectedly.
- Ivan! - whispered Berlioz, blushing.
But the foreigner was not only struck by the suggestion of sending Kant to Solovkí, he was enthusiastic.
- Yes, yes, - he cried, and his green, left eye glittered at Berlioz, - that's the place for him! That's what I told him at the breakfast-table that time: "Professor, do as you like, but this thing you've dreamed up is a mess! It may be smart, but it's too goddamn difficult. People are going to laugh at you".
Berlioz opened his eyes wide. "At the breakfast-table... To Kant?... What's he babbling?" - he thought.
- But, - the foreigner continued, unperturbed by Berlioz's surprise and directing his attention at the poet, - it's quite impossible to send him to Solovkí now, since it's already more than a hundred years since he was conveyed to points much further off than Solovkí, and retrieving him from there, I assure you, is quite out of the question.
- What a shame! - replied the provocative poet.
- Yes, isn't it! - agreed the stranger, his eyes glittering, and continued: - But there's another question bothering me: if there is no God, we must ask ourselves who directs the life of humanity and the entire order of existence on earth.
- Man himself directs it, - Bezdomny hurriedly snapped back at this, it must be admitted, rather vague question.
- Pardon me, - replied the stranger softly, - but in order to direct, one must somehow or other have an exact plan encompassing a more or less respectable span of time. Please tell me how man can direct anything at all, when he's not only unable to put together a plan for the utterly insignificant period of, say, one thousand years, but he can't even keep track of what will happen to himself tomorrow? Very well, - the stranger turned to Berlioz, - let's say you, for instance, start directing, you organize yourself and others, on the whole, you're getting the feel of it, then suddenly... heh... heh... a light case of sarcoma... - the foreigner smiled sweetly, as if the idea of a light sarcoma made him think of something nice, - indeed, sarcoma, - he repeated the resonating syllables with eyes closed, like a cat, - your directorship is ended! The only fate you're interested in now is your own. Your family starts lying to you; sensing that something's amiss you drag yourself off first to scientific doctors, then to quacks, maybe even to old wives in the end. All the time you know perfectly well that the first is just as senseless as the second or the third. The story ends tragically: Just a while ago you thought you were directing something, now all at once you're lying motionless in a wooden casket, and the surrounding public, quickly grasping that there is nothing sensible at all to be gotten out of the person lying there, sets fire to him in an oven. But even worse things happen: Someone decides to go to Kislovodsk, - the foreigner barely winked at Berlioz, - that's not a problem, you might say, but even that is beyond him, because suddenly, for no apparent reason, a trolley skids and runs him down! Now don't tell me he directed that himself? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to suspect that someone else directed him? - the stranger laughed peculiarly.
Berlioz followed the unpleasant story of the sarcoma and the trolley with rapt attention, and uneasy thoughts started to distress him. 'He's not a foreigner! He's not a foreigner! - he said to himself, - he's a very unusual character... but who is he, anyway?”
- You would like a cigarette, I see? - the stranger observed suddenly to Bezdomny, - what brand do you prefer?
- You mean you've got several? - asked the poet darkly. He had run out.
- Which do you prefer? - repeated the stranger.
- Well then, Nasha Marka, - Bezdomny blurted out, angrily.
The stranger flipped a cigarette case from his pocket and handed it to Bezdomny:
- Nasha Marka.
What surprised the editor and poet was not so much the fact that the case contained Nasha Marka, as the cigarette case itself. It was very bulky, made of pure gold, and when you opened the lid it flashed with the blue and white fire of a triangle of diamonds.
The two literary gentlemen reacted differently to this. Berlioz: 'No, he's not a foreigner”, Bezdomny: 'The devil take him, ah?”
The poet and the owner of the cigarette case lit up, while Berlioz, who was not a smoker, declined.
'I'll have to answer him like this, - Berlioz thought to himself, - true, man is mortal, no-one denies that. However, the fact is, that...”
But before he had time to pronounce these words, the stranger continued:
- True, man is mortal, but that is itself only half the evil. The trouble is that man is sometimes suddenly mortal, that's the tricky part! Basically, he can never say what will happen to him this evening.
'What an idiotic way of putting it...” thought Berlioz, and objected:
- Certainly, that is an exaggeration. I know more or less exactly what will happen this evening. Of course, if a brick falls on my head on Bronnaya...
- Bricks are out of the question, - the stranger broke him off sharply, - not a single brick will ever fall on anybody's head. Under no circumstances, I assure you, does this constitute a threat. You will die a different death.
- And perhaps you know just which? - inquired Berlioz with the most natural irony, he had clearly been drawn into some kind of absurd conversation, - and can tell me?
- Certainly, - responded the stranger. He measured Berlioz with his gaze, as if he were sewing him a suit, and mumbled through his teeth, something like: 'One, two... Mercury in the second house... the moon is down... six - misfortune... evening - seven...” - then he loudly and delightedly proclaimed: - You'll have your head cut off!”
Bezdomny stared at the stranger, who was obviously enjoying himself, wild-eyed and angry, and Berlioz, with a crooked smirk, asked:
- By whom exactly? Enemies? Foreign aggressors?
- No, - answered his companion, - by a Russian woman, a Komsomolka.
- Hm... - muttered Berlioz, the stranger's joke irritated him, - I'm sorry, but that seems extremely unlikely.
- I'm sorry too, - answered the foreigner, - but that's how it is. Oh yes, I wanted to ask you, what are you doing this evening, if it's not a secret?
- Why should it be a secret? In a little while, I'll be going home to my place on Sadovaya, then, at ten o'clock this evening, there is a meeting at MASSOLIT, which I will chair.
- That's completely out of the question, - the foreigner objected firmly.
- May I ask why?
- Because, - answered the foreigner, staring through half-closed eyes at the sky, against which black birds, anticipating the evening cool, were silently silhouetted, - because Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil, not only has she paid for it, she's already poured it up. So there will be no meeting.
At this, as one might expect, there was silence under the lindens.
- Excuse me, - said Berlioz after a pause, with a glance at the senselessly prattling foreigner, - but why sunflower oil... and who is Annushka?
- I'll tell you why sunflower oil, - said Bezdomny suddenly, he had clearly made up his mind to declare war on their unknown companion, - you haven't by any chance, sir, spent time in a mental institution?
- Ivan!... - Mikhail Aleksandrovich exclaimed under his breath.
But the foreigner was not the least offended and laughed merrily.
- Yes, certainly, many times! - he exclaimed, laughing, but without moving his unblinking eyes from the poet, - I've spent time in the strangest places! It's just a shame I never found time to ask the professor what schizophrenia is. So you'll have to ask him yourself, Ivan Nikolaevich!
- How do you know my name?
- But Ivan Nikolaevich, doesn't everyone know you? - the foreigner extracted a copy of yesterday's Literaturnaya Gazeta from his pocket, and right there on the front page Ivan Nikolaevich could see his own portrait with his poetry underneath. The poet, who had only yesterday been filled with delight at this proof of his fame and popularity, was not the least bit delighted now.
- I apologize, - he said, his face darkening, - could you excuse us for a moment? I want to say a few words to my friend.
- Why certainly! - the foreigner exclaimed, - it's very pleasant here under the lindens, and, come to think of it, I am in no rush at all.
- Listen, Misha, - whispered the poet, who had pulled Berlioz to one side, - he's not a foreign tourist, he's a spy. He's a Russian emigrant, who has wended his way back home to us. Demand to see his documents, or he'll slip off...
- Do you think so? - asked Berlioz nervously, and thought to himself: 'I bet he's right!”
- Believe me, - the poet whispered in his ear, - he's just acting stupid to fool us to answer his questions. Notice how good his Russian is, - the poet said, looking askance at the stranger so he wouldn't run away, - come, let's detain him, or he'll slip off...
The poet pulled Berlioz by the hand back to the bench.
The stranger, no longer seated on the bench, was standing beside it, holding some kind of booklet with dark gray binding, a thick envelope of good paper and a business card.
- Pardon me, but in the heat of our discussion I completely forgot to introduce myself. Here is my card, my passport and my invitation to come to Moscow for consultations, - said the stranger ceremoniously, peering intently at the two patrons of literature.
They were quite taken aback. 'The devil, he heard it all...” - thought Berlioz, who made it clear with a polite gesture that it would be unnecessary to inspect the documents. While the foreigner was holding them out to the editor, the poet just had time to read the word 'professor” printed in foreign letters on the card, and the first letter of a surname - 'W”.
- Very pleasant to meet you, - mumbled the editor confusedly, the foreigner returned his papers to his pocket.
Normal relations thus restored, all three returned to their places on the bench.
- So you're invited here as a consultant, professor? - asked Berlioz.
- Yes, as a consultant.
- Are you German? - Bezdomny inquired.
- Me?... - echoed the professor, suddenly falling into thought. - Yes, I suppose, I'm German... - he said.
- You speak excellent Russian, - remarked Bezdomny.
- Ah yes, really I am rather a polyglot and know a very great number of languages, - replied the professor.
- And what is your specialization? - inquired Berlioz.
- I specialize in black magic.
'Well I'll be damned!..” - echoed through Mikhail Aleksandrovich's head.
- And... you were invited here on account of this specialization? - he stammered.
- That's why they invited me, - repeated the professor and explained: - Here at the state library they've discovered original tenth-century manuscripts by the necromancer Gerbert of Aurillac. Now they want me to decipher them. I'm the only specialist in the world.
- Ah! You're a historian? - asked Berlioz with great relief and respect.
- I'm a historian, - the scholar confirmed, and continued, without rhyme or reason: - This evening at Patriarch's Ponds there'll be an interesting story!
Again, both the editor and the poet were quite taken aback, but the professor beckoned them toward him, and when they bent close, he whispered:
- Bear in mind that Jesus did exist.
- Well, you see, professor, - replied Berlioz with a forced smile, - with all due respect for your great knowledge, we permit ourselves in this case to hold a different point of view.
- Points of view won't change a thing! - answered the strange professor, - he just existed, that's all.
- But surely, we should demand some kind of proof... - commenced Berlioz.
- Proofs won't change a thing either, - answered the professor, who started speaking softly and at the same time, for some reason, his accent disappeared: - It's all very simple: in a white cape...
In a white cape with blood-red lining, with the shuffling step of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, into the roofed colonnade between two wings of the palace of Herod the Great, stepped the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.
More than anything else on earth, the Procurator hated the smell of rose oil, and now all signs portended that this would be a bad day, since that smell had pursued the Procurator since early this morning. It seemed to the Procurator that the smell of roses billowed from the cypresses and palms in the garden, that the smell of leather and the guard was laced with that damnable rosy stream. The palace, from the wings to the rear, where the first cohort of the Twelfth Lightningswift Legion that had come to Yershalaim with the Procurator, was lodged, had filled with mist up to the colonnade across the topmost terrace of the garden, and to the bitter smoke announcing that the centurial cooks had started preparing the midday meal, was added that same, oily, rosy smell. Oh my gods, my gods, why are you punishing me?
'Yes, there can be no doubt! It is she, she again, the unconquerable, terrible disease hemicrania, when only one half of the head is in agony. There is no means against it, no rescue. I must try not to move my head.”
On the mosaic floor by the fountain, an armchair had been readied, and the Procurator, looking at no one, seated himself on it and reached out with one hand to the side.
In this hand, the secretary respectfully deposited a sheet of parchment. Unable to suppress a grimace of pain, the Procurator gave a glance at what was written there, returned the parchment to the secretary and with difficulty pronounced:
- The accused is from Galilee? Has the case been sent to the Tetrarch?
- Yes, Procurator, - answered the secretary.
- He refused to pass judgment in this case and sent the Sanhedrin's death sentence to you for confirmation, - explained the secretary.
The Procurator's cheek twitched and he said softly:
- Lead the accused in.
At that moment, two legionaries moved from the garden terrace through the colonnade to the balcony, leading a man, perhaps twenty-seven years old, up to the Procurator's chair. The man was dressed in a tunic that was old and torn. Around his head was wound a white bandage fastened with a thong across his brow, his hands were tied behind his back. There was a big bruise under his left eye and at the corner of his mouth was a scratch of dried blood. The newcomer glanced anxiously and curiously at the Procurator.
The latter was silent for a moment, then asked very softly in Aramaic:
- So, it is you who has been inciting the people to destroy the Temple of Yershalaim?
The Procurator sat still as a statue, his lips barely moving as he pronounced the words. The Procurator was like stone, because he was afraid to disturb his burning, hellishly painful head.
The man with the bound hands leaned slightly forward and started to speak:
- My good man! Believe me...
But the Procurator, still without moving and without raising his voice one notch, broke him off right there:
- You call me a good man? You are wrong. Everyone in Yershalaim whispers that I am a horrible monster, and they are absolutely right, - and he added in the same monotone: - centurion Krysoboy to me.
It seemed to all that the balcony darkened when the centurion commanding the special century, Mark, known as Krysoboy - Ratslayer, appeared before the Procurator.
Krysoboy was a head taller than the tallest soldier in the legion, and his shoulders were so wide that he completely obscured the sun, still low in the sky.
The Procurator addressed the centurion in Latin:
- The criminal calls me 'good man”. Lead him outside for a moment and explain how he should address me. Do not cripple him.
And everyone's eyes, except those of the motionless Procurator, accompanied Mark Krysoboy, who gestured with his hand at the prisoner to show that he should follow him.
Wherever he went, people would follow Krysoboy with their eyes, because of his great height, but also, when they first saw him, because he was disfigured: his nose had once been crushed by a blow from a German mace.
Then came the sound of Mark's heavy boots marching over the mosaics, the bound man noiselessly left with him, there was complete silence in the colonnade, and one could hear the doves cooing on the garden terrace by the balcony and the water in the fountain singing its intricately pleasing song.
The Procurator wanted only to get up, put his temple under the falling water, and remain there, frozen. But he knew that this would not help him either.
Leading the prisoner out of the colonnade into the garden, Krysoboy took a whip from the hands of a legionary stationed at the foot of a bronze statue, and flicking it gently back, let it fall on the shoulders of the prisoner. The centurion's movement was casual and light, but the bound man collapsed directly to the ground, as if his legs had been cut off beneath him, he gasped, the color disappeared from his face and his eyes turned empty. With his left hand only, Mark hove the fallen man lightly as an empty sack back into the air, set him on his feet and spoke in a nasal voice, pronouncing the Aramaic words poorly:
- Refer to the Roman Procurator as hegemon. Use no other words. Stand straight. Have you understood me or shall I strike you?
The prisoner was swaying, but he mastered himself, his color returned, he caught his breath and answered hoarsely:
- I understood you. Do not beat me.
A moment later he stood again before the Procurator.
The faint, sick voice sounded:
- Mine? - responded the prisoner promptly, with all of his being expressing his willingness to answer sensibly and clearly, and not give rise to further wrath.
The Procurator said softly:
- Mine I know. Do not make yourself more stupid than you are. Yours.
- Ieshua, - answered the convict hurriedly.
- Is there another name you are called by?
- Where were you born?
- In the town of Gamala, - answered the convict, showing with a movement of his head that there, somewhere far off, to his right, to the North, lies the town of Gamala.
- Who are you by kin?
- I don't know exactly, - the prisoner answered willingly, - I do not remember my parents. I have been told that my father was a Syrian...
- Where is your permanent residence?
- I have no permanent living quarters, - answered the convict, self-consciously, - I travel from town to town.
- That could be said more briefly, in one word - a vagabond, - said the Procurator and asked: - Do you have a family?
- No, no one. I am alone in the world.
- Can you read and write?
- Do you know any other language than Aramaic?
- Yes. Greek.
One swollen eyebrow lifted, a pain-clouded eye focused on the prisoner. The other eye remained closed.
Pilate spoke in Greek:
- So you planned to destroy the Temple building, and urged the people to it?
At this, the convict again livened up, the fear emptied from his eyes, and he spoke in Greek:
- I, my goo... - the convict's eyes flashed with horror, he had almost misspoken, - I, hegemon, have never in my life planned to destroy the Temple building and never tried to convince anyone to commit such a senseless act.
An expression of surprise appeared on the face of the secretary, who was bowed over the low table to record the testimonies. He lifted his head, but immediately bent again over his parchment.
- The most various people gather in this city before the holidays. Among them are magicians, astrologers, fortunetellers and murderers, - said the Procurator in monotone, - and you also meet liars. You, for example, are a liar. It's clearly written here: incited to destroy the Temple. That is what the witnesses say.
- Those good people, - said the convict, and hastily adding: - hegemon, - continued: - have no education at all and have completely misunderstood what I said. I even started to worry that this confusion might continue for a very long time. And it is all because he writes my words incorrectly.
There was silence. Now both sick eyes rested heavily on the convict.
- I'm telling you again, and for the last time: stop acting like you are crazy, you bandit, - said Pilate in soft monotone, - there is little written about you, but enough has been written to hang you.
- No, no, hegemon, - said the prisoner, every bit of him straining in the desire to convince, - he follows me and follows me, the man with the goatskin parchment, constantly writing. But once, when I looked at this parchment, I was horrified. In truth, there is nothing written there that I have said. I begged him: for God's sake, burn your parchment! But he tore it out of my hands and ran away.
- Who is he? - asked Pilate in disgust and touched his temple with his hand.
- Levi Matthew, - explained the convict willingly, - he was a tax collector and I first met him on the road to Bethphage, right where it bends around the corner of the fig orchard, and I spoke to him. At first he was hostile and even offended me, that is, he thought he offended me by calling me a dog, - here the convict smiled, - personally, I see no evil in that animal, so I am not offended by this word...
The secretary stopped writing and cast a hidden glance of surprise, not at the prisoner, but at the Procurator.
- ... however, when he listened to me, he softened, - continued Ieshua, - at last he threw his money on the road and declared that he would accompany me on my travels...
Pilate grinned ironically on one cheek, baring his yellow teeth, and turned his whole body toward his secretary to say:
- Oh, city of Yershalaim! There is no end to what can be heard in this place. A tax collector, did you hear, threw his money on the road!
The secretary, not knowing how to respond to this, felt obliged to return Pilate's grin.
- He said that henceforth money had become hateful to him, - Ieshua explained the strange behavior of Levi Matthew, and added: - And since then he has been my companion.
Still grimacing, the Procurator glanced at the prisoner, then at the sun, which was rising inexorably over the equestrian statues of the hippodrome far below them to the right, and suddenly, in a wave of nauseous pain, he imagined that the simplest thing would be to chase this strange criminal from the balcony with two simple words: 'Hang him”. To send off the guard, to leave the colonnade for the inner reaches of the palace, to order the room darkened, to sink onto bed, to demand cold water, to call, with plaintive voice, for the dog Bangá and complain to it about the hemicrania. And all at once the thought of poison flashed temptingly through the diseased head of the Procurator.
He looked at the prisoner with clouded eyes and was silent for a while, tortuously trying to remember why this convict stood in front of him in the merciless morning sun of Yershalaim, his face disfigured by bruises, and what other, utterly unnecessary questions he would still have to ask him.
- Levi Matthew? - asked the sick man hoarsely and closed his eyes.
- Yes, Levi Matthew, - the high voice, torturing him, reached him as if from afar.
- So what was it you said about the Temple to the crowd at the bazaar?
The answering voice seemed to pierce Pilate's temple, the pain was unbearable, and the voice said:
- I spoke, hegemon, of how the Temple of the old faith will fall, and a new Temple of truth will be raised in its stead. I put it that way so people would understand me better.
- Why, vagabond, did you stir up the people at the bazaar with stories of a truth you cannot fathom? What is the truth?
At this the Procurator thought: "Oh, my gods! I am asking him questions that are irrelevant at a trial... My mind no longer serves me..." And again he saw before him a cup of dark liquid. "Poison, bring me poison!"
And again he heard the voice:
- The truth is, first of all, that your head hurts, and it hurts so badly that you are thinking faint-heartedly of death. It is not only beyond your strength to speak to me, it is hard even to look at me. So now I am your unwilling tormentor, and this distresses me. You are unable to think of anything at all, and can only dream that your dog will come to you, the only creature, it seems, to whom you are attached. But your suffering will soon be over, your head will be restored.
The secretary stared wide-eyed at the convict and stopped writing in the middle of a word.
Pilate lifted his suffering eyes to the convict and saw that the sun already stood quite high above the hippodrome, that a ray had found its way into the colonnade and was creeping toward Yeshua's worn sandals and that he was trying to step out of the way of the sun.
Now the Procurator rose from his chair, clutched his head between his hands, and his yellowed, clean-shaven face wore an expression of horror. But he immediately suppressed it with his will and lowered himself again to his chair.
The convict meanwhile continued his speech, but the secretary had stopped recording; sticking his neck out like a goose, he tried not to miss a single word.
- You see, it's all over, - said the prisoner, with a friendly look at Pilate, - and I am very glad to see it. I advise you, hegemon, to leave the palace for a while to go for a walk somewhere nearby, perhaps in the gardens of the Mount of Olives. There will be a thunderstorm, - the convict turned and screwed up his eyes at the sun, - later, toward evening. A walk would do you good, and I would be very happy to accompany you. Some new thoughts have occurred to me, which I suspect you might find interesting, and I would be glad to share them with you, all the more so since you seem to be a man of considerable intelligence.
The secretary went deathly pale and dropped his scroll on the floor.
- The trouble is, - continued the imperturbable bound man, - that you are too closed off and have finally lost all faith in people. After all, you must agree that it is no good to invest all your affection in a dog. You lead a wretched life, hegemon, - and the speaker permitted himself a smile.
By now the secretary had only one thought, should he believe his own ears or not. He would have to believe them. He tried to imagine in exactly what whimsical way the wrath of the hotheaded Procurator would express itself, at the unheard-of audacity of this prisoner. But the secretary was unable to imagine this, though he knew the Procurator well.
Then was heard the dry, cracked voice of the Procurator, speaking in Latin:
- Untie his hands.
One of the legionaries of the guard rapped with his spear, handed it over to another, approached and removed the rope from the convict. The secretary picked up his scroll, deciding that for now he would record nothing, and not be surprised by anything.
- Confess, - said Pilate softly in Greek, - you are a great physician.
- No, Procurator, I am not a physician, - answered the convict, happily rubbing his puckered and swollen purple wrist.
Scowling sharply, Pilate gazed at the convict with penetrating eyes, eyes that were no longer clouded, the familiar sparks had reappeared in them.
- I did not ask you, said Pilate, - perhaps you also know Latin?
- Yes, I do, - answered the convict.
Pilate's yellowed cheeks had regained their color, and he asked, in Latin:
- How did you know I wanted to call my dog?
- That is very simple, - answered the convict, in Latin, - you moved your hand through the air, - the convict repeated Pilate's gesture, - as if you wanted to stroke, and your lips...
- Yes, - said Pilate.
They were silent, then Pilate asked in Greek:
- So, you are a physician?
- No, no, - answered the convict animatedly, - believe me, I am not a physician.
- Very well. If you want to keep it secret, then do. It has no direct relevance to the matter at hand. Thus, you assert that you did not urge that the Temple should be torn down... or set fire to, or destroyed in any other way?
- I repeat, hegemon, that I have not urged any such action. Do I look like a halfwit?
- Oh no, you do not look like a halfwit, - answered the Procurator softly, with a smile that was somehow ghastly, - now, will you swear that you did not do this.
- What do you want me to swear by? - asked the unbound man, who had livened up considerably.
- Well then, be it by your own life, - answered the Procurator, - this is just the time to swear by it, since it is hanging by a thin thread, believe me!
- Perhaps you think that it was hung there by you, hegemon? - asked the convict, - if so, you are seriously mistaken.
Pilate shuddered and answered through his teeth:
- I can cut that thread.
- In this too, you are mistaken, - objected the convict, smiling cheerfully and shading his eyes with his hand against the sun, - for surely, you must agree that only he can cut the thread who has hung it?
- Well, well, - said Pilate, smiling, - now I am no longer surprised that all the idle laggards of Yershalaim followed at your heels. I don't know who hung your tongue in place, but it is well hung. By the way, tell me: is it true that you arrived in Yershalaim through the Susa gates, riding on an ass and accompanied by a crowd of riff-raff who cried out greetings to you, as if you were some kind of prophet? - the Procurator pointed at the parchment scroll.
The convict glanced at the Procurator in amazement.
- I don't even own an ass, hegemon, - he said. - It is true that I came to Yershalaim through the Susa gates, but on foot, accompanied only by Levi Matthew, and no one cried anything to me, since no one in Yershalaim knew me at the time.
- And do you not know these men, - continued Pilate, his eyes never moving from the convict, - a certain Dismas, another Gestas and a third, Bar-Rabban!
- These good men I do not know, - answered the convict.
- It that the truth?
- That is the truth.
- Now tell me, why do you constantly use the words "good people"? How is it, do you refer to everyone in this way?
- Everyone, - answered the convict, - there are no evil people in the world.
- I never heard of that before, - said Pilate, grinning, - but perhaps I know life poorly! You need not record the following, - he addressed the secretary who had already stopped recording, and continued to the convict: - Did you read this in one of the Greek books?
- No, I thought of it myself.
- And do you teach this?
- Well then, take for instance centurion Mark, called Krysoboy, - is he good?
- Yes, - answered the convict, - it is true he is an unhappy man. Since the good people disfigured him he has become cruel and cold-hearted. Who brought this injury on him, I wonder?
- I'll be glad to tell you that, - Pilate responded, - since I witnessed it. The good people threw themselves on him, like dogs on a bear. The Germans latched on to his neck, his arms, his legs. The infantry maniple was surrounded, and if the cavalry turm had not broken through from the flank, and it was I who commanded it, - you would not, philosopher, have had occasion to converse with Krysoboy. This was at the battle of Idistaviso, in the Valley of the Virgins.
- If I could only speak to him, - mused the convict all at once, - I am sure he would change greatly.
- I suppose, - responded Pilate, - that the legate of the legion might be less than overjoyed if you should consider speaking to any of his officers or soldiers. However, fortunately for us all, this will never happen, and I will be the first to make sure that it does not.
Just then a swallow flew swiftly into the colonnade, circled under the golden ceiling, swooped down, its sharp wing almost brushing the face of a bronze statue in a niche, and hid itself behind the capital of a column. Perhaps it thought it could build a nest there.
During its flight, a formula shaped itself in the Procurator's mind, by now light and clear. It was this: the hegemon has reviewed the case against the vagabond philosopher Ieshua, called Ha-Notsri, and has found no grounds for indictment. Specifically, he has not found the least connection between the acts of Ieshua and the disorders that have recently taken place in Yershalaim. The vagabond philosopher, is, it seems, mentally ill. As a result, the death penalty, which the Lesser Sanhedrin has passed on Ieshua, is not confirmed by the Procurator. But in view of the fact that the insane, utopian words of Ha-Notsri may cause tumults in Yershalaim, the Procurator removes Ieshua from Yershalaim and puts him under confinement in Stratonian Caesarea on the Mediterranean, that is, just where the Procurator has his residence.
All that was left was to dictate this to the secretary.
The swallow's wings flitted close to the hegemon's head, the bird darted over to the basin of the fountain and flew out to freedom. The Procurator lifted his eyes on the convict and saw that a pillar of dust had blazed up beside him.
- Is that all on him? - the Procurator asked the secretary.
- Unfortunately no, - the secretary unexpectedly responded and handed Pilate another sheet of parchment.
- What else is there? - asked Pilate, and frowned.
When he had read what had been handed to him, his face changed still more. It may have been the dark blood flowing to his neck and face, or it may have been something else, but as his skin lost its yellow tint, it turned grayish-brown, and his gaze seemed to collapse inwards.
Again, it seems likely that the blood was to blame for rushing to his temples and hammering against them, but something had happened to the Procurator's vision. It appeared to him that the convict's head had sailed off somewhere, and another had taken its place. On this head, which was bald, was set a golden crown with just a few spikes; on the forehead was a round boil, eating into the skin and smeared over with ointment; the toothless mouth was sunken, the lower lip drooped capriciously. It seemed to Pilate that the rosy columns of the balcony, and below, beyond the garden, the distant rooftops of Yershalaim, had all vanished, and that everything around him had been swallowed by the luxuriant greenery of the Caprean gardens. Something even stranger had happened to his hearing - it was as if trumpets were sounding far away, muted and menacing, and he could hear very distinctly a nasal voice, arrogantly drawling the words: "The law of lese majesty..."
Thoughts flew through his mind, short, disconnected and unusual: "Lost!", then: "We are lost!..." And among them one that was quite crazy, about some kind of inevitable - but for whom?! - immortality, and indeed for some reason this immortality called forth in him an unendurable anguish.
Pilate straightened himself, chased the vision from his mind, focused his eyes on the balcony again, and faced the eyes of the convict.
- Listen, Ha-Notsri, - said the Procurator, glancing at Ieshua rather strangely: the Procurator's face was threatening, but his eyes were full of turmoil, - have you ever said anything about the great Caesar? Answer! Did you say?... Or did you... not... say? - Pilate drew out the word 'not' a little more than was acceptable at a trial, it was as if with his glance he sent Ieshua an idea, which he wanted to him to notice.
- It is easy and pleasant to tell the truth, - remarked the convict.
- I do not need to know, - responded Pilate furiously, under his breath, - if it is pleasant or not for you to tell the truth. But you will have to tell it. But while you speak, weigh your every word, if you do not want, not merely an inescapable, but a painful death.
No one knows what came over the Procurator of Judea, but he allowed himself to lift his arm, as if to shield himself against the sun, and under the cover of this arm he sent the convict a strangely meaningful look.
- So, - he said, - answer, do you know one Jude of Kerioth, and what exactly did you say to him, if anything, concerning the Caesar?
- This is how it was, - the convict readily started his story, - the day before yesterday in the evening in front of the Temple, I became acquainted with a young man who called himself Jude of Kerioth. He invited me home to his place in the Lower Town and showed me hospitality...
- A good man? - asked Pilate, and a devilish fire flashed from his eyes.
- A very good man, and eager to learn, - the convict confirmed, - he was very interested in my thoughts and received me very graciously...
- He lit candles... - said Pilate, in the convict's tone of voice, but through his teeth, his eyes flickering.
- Yes, - continued Ieshua, a little surprised at the extent of the Procurator's knowledge, - he asked me to give my opinion on the powers of government. He was very interested in this question.
- And what did you say? - asked Pilate, - or will you answer that you have forgotten what you said? - but already there was hopelessness in Pilate's voice.
- I said, among other things, - recounted the convict, - that all power involves violence against people and that the time will come when there will be neither the power of the Caesars, nor power of any other kind. Man will move on to the kingdom of truth and justice, where there will be no need for power at all.
- And then!
- And then there was nothing, - said the convict, - then people came running, they tied me up and led me off to jail.
The secretary, who was straining not to omit a single word, recorded these statements on the parchment.
- Never in the world has there been, nor is there, nor will there ever be a power that is greater and more beautiful in the eyes of the people than the power of the Emperor Tiberius! - the broken and ailing voice of Pilate swelled around him.
The Procurator, for some reason, glanced hatefully at the secretary and the guard.
- And it is not for you, crazy criminal, to judge it! - Then Pilate cried: - Lead the guard away from the balcony! - And turning to the secretary, he added: - Leave me alone with the criminal, this is an affair of state.
The guard lifted their spears and, to the rhythmic beat of metal-shod sandals, departed from the balcony into the garden, and after the guard followed the secretary.
For some time the silence on the balcony was only broken by the singsong of the water in the fountain. Pilate saw how a platter of water formed above the spout, how its edges broke off, how they collapsed in streams.
The convict was the first to speak:
- I see that some misfortune has occurred because of what I said to this young man from Kerioth. I sense, hegemon, that something terrible will happen to him, and I feel very sorry for him.
- I think, - answered the Procurator, with a strange smile, - that there is someone else in the world that you should be more sorry for than Jude of Kerioth, and who will suffer far worse than Jude! So, Mark Krysoboy, the cold, convinced executioner, the people who, as I see, - the Procurator pointed at Ieshua's disfigured face, - have beaten you for your preachings, the bandits Dismas and Gestas who, with their henchmen, killed four soldiers, and finally, the dirty traitor Jude - they are all good people?
- Yes, - answered the convict.
- And the kingdom of truth will come?
- It will come, hegemon, - answered Ieshua, firmly.
- It will never come! - cried Pilate suddenly, in such a strange voice that Ieshua stepped back. Many years ago, this was how Pilate, in the Valley of the Virgins, had cried to his knights: 'Cut them down! Cut them down! The giant Krysoboy has fallen!” And then he raised his voice, broken by countless commands, and cried out the words so they could be heard in the garden: - Criminal! Criminal! Criminal!
Then, lowering his voice, he asked:
- Ieshua Ha-Notsri, do you believe in any gods?
- God is one, - answered Ieshua, - I believe in him.
- Then pray to him! Pray fervently! Come to think of it, - here Pilate's voice flattened, - that will not help you. You have no wife? - asked Pilate, with a strange anguish, he could not understand what was going on with him.
- No, I am alone.
- Hateful city, - mumbled the Procurator suddenly for some unknown reason, and hunched his shoulders as if he were freezing and rubbed his hands as if he were washing them, - if you had been stabbed to death before your meeting with Jude of Kerioth, I tell you, that would have been better.
- But you should let me go, hegemon, - said the convict unexpectedly, and his voice was uneasy, - I can see they want to kill me.
A spasm contorted Pilate's face, he rested the inflamed whites of his red-veined eyes on Ieshua, and said:
- Do you suppose, unhappy one, that a Roman Procurator would ever release a man who has said what you have said? Oh my gods, my gods! Or do you think that I am ready to take your place? I do not share your ideas! And listen to me: if you from this minute on say just one word to anyone, beware me! I'm telling you again: beware.
- Silence! - cried Pilate, and his furious gaze followed the swallow, who again flitted above the balcony, - to me! - Pilate bellowed.
And when the secretary and the guard returned to their places, Pilate announced that he confirmed the death sentence passed by the assembly of the Lesser Sanhedrin on the criminal Ieshua Ha-Notsri, and the secretary recorded what Pilate said.
A moment later, Mark Krysoboy stood before the Procurator. The Procurator ordered him to deliver the criminal to the chief of the secret service, with the Procurator's orders that Ieshua Ha-Notsri be kept separate from other prisoners, and also, that it was forbidden, under pain of severe punishment, for the secret service unit to engage in any kind of conversation with Ieshua or answer any of his questions.
On a sign from Mark, the guard encircled Ieshua and led him from the balcony.
Next appeared before the Procurator an elegant, light-bearded man, with shining lions' heads on his breast, with eagles' feathers on the crest of his helmet, with golden spangles on the hilt of his sword, with triple-soled footwear laced to his knees, with a purple raincoat slung over his left shoulder. This was the legate in command of the legion. The Procurator asked him where the Sebastean cohort was now posted. The legate informed him that the Sebasteans had formed a cordon encircling the square in front of the hippodrome, where the criminals' sentences would be announced before the people.
Then the Procurator instructed the legate to detach two centuries from the Roman cohort. One of these, under Krysoboy's command, would accompany the criminals, the wagons bearing the implements of justice and the executioners during their passage to Bald Mountain, and upon their arrival would join the upper cordon. The other would proceed at once to Bald Mountain and set about establishing the cordon immediately. For this same purpose, that is, to defend the Mountain, the Procurator also requested the legate to send an auxiliary cavalry regiment - a Syrian ala.
When the legate had left the balcony, the Procurator ordered the secretary to invite the president of the Sanhedrin, two of its members and the chief of the Temple guard in Yershalaim to the palace, but added that he wanted it arranged so that he, before meeting with all these people, could speak to the president first and alone.
The Procurator's orders were carried out promptly and exactly, and the sun, which in these days was scorching Yershalaim with unprecedented fury, had not even come close to its highest point, when the Procurator, on the topmost terrace of the garden by the two white marble lions guarding the stairs, met with the man who fulfilled the duties of president of the Sanhedrin, the high priest of the Jews, Joseph Kaifa.
The garden lay quiet. But, as he stepped from under the colonnade onto the topmost sun-bathed garden terrace with its palms on monstrous elephants' legs, that terrace from which a view opened before the Procurator of the entire hateful city of Yershalaim, with its hanging bridges, its fortifications and - above all - that unmentionable block of marble, with its golden dragon scales replacing a roof, the Temple of Yershalaim, - the Procurator's sharp hearing noticed, far below him, where the stone wall separated the lower terraces of the palace garden from the town square, a muted rumbling, above which at irregular intervals rose weak, plaintive moans or cries.
Already, the Procurator noted, a vast crowd of Yershalaim's inhabitants, distressed by the latest disorders, had collected in the square, the crowd was waiting impatiently for the announcement of the verdict and among the people restless water-sellers were hawking their wares.
The Procurator began by inviting the high priest onto the balcony, out of the merciless heat, but Kaifa politely declined and explained that, on account of the great holiday tomorrow, he could not. Pilate threw a hood over his barely balding head and opened the conversation. The conversation was in Greek.
Pilate said that he had reviewed the case of Ieshua Ha-Notsri and confirmed the death sentence.
So there were three bandits who had been sentenced to death and would be executed today: Dismas, Gestas, Bar-Rabban and, besides, this Ieshua Ha-Notsri. The first two, who had tried to stir up the people to revolt against Caesar, who had been captured in violent clashes with the Roman authorities, were the Procurator's responsibility, and there could be no discussion about them. But the others, Bar-Rabban and Ha-Notsri, had been apprehended by the local authorities and condemned by the Sanhedrin. According to law and custom, one of these two criminals would be set free today in honor of the great feast of Passover that was drawing near.
And thus, the Procurator begged to inquire which of the two criminals the Sanhedrin intended to release: Bar-Rabban or Ha-Notsri? Kaifa bowed his head to signify that he had understood the question, and answered:
- The Sanhedrin petitions you to release Bar-Rabban.
The Procurator knew precisely what the high priest would answer, but his task was to show that the answer astonished him.
Pilate did this with great artfulness. The brows of his arrogant face lifted, the Procurator looked straight into the eyes of the high priest in wonder.
- I must admit that your answer surprises me, - said the Procurator softly, - I am afraid there may be some misunderstanding.
Pilate explained himself. The Roman authorities, as the high priest well knows, have no desire to infringe on the prerogatives of the local spiritual authorities, but in the present case we are clearly dealing with a mistake. And the Roman authorities are, of course, concerned to correct this mistake.
In fact, the crimes of Bar-Rabban and Ha-Notsri are of quite incomparable gravity. While the second is an obviously insane man, condemned for uttering absurd words that have stirred up the people of Yershalaim and certain other places, the first is burdened by a far heavier record. Not only has he ventured to make direct calls for an uprising, he also killed a guard when an attempt was made to arrest him. Bar-Rabban is far more dangerous than Ha-Notsri.
On the strength of these considerations, the Procurator urges the high priest to review his decision and release the less harmful of the two condemned men, and that, beyond doubt, is Ieshua. Is it not?
Kaifa looked directly into Pilate's eyes and said, in a low but firm voice, that the Sanhedrin had acquainted itself thoroughly with the case and once again confirmed that it would release Bar-Rabban.
- So? Even after my intercession? The intercession of him, who speaks with the power of Rome? High priest, repeat it a third time.
- The third time also we confirm that we will release Bar-Rabban, - said Kaifa quietly.
That was the end of it, of course, and there was no more to be said, Ha-Notsri was gone for ever, and there was no one who could ease the terrifying, wicked pains of the Procurator; there is no cure for them but death. But it was not this thought that now struck Pilate. The same, incomprehensible anguish that had first gripped him on the balcony penetrated his entire being. He immediately looked for an explanation, but the explanation he arrived at seemed strange: the Procurator imagined vaguely that there was something he had not finished saying to the condemned man, or perhaps something he hadn't heard out.
Pilate chased away this thought, and in a moment it was gone, just as it had appeared. It dispersed, but the anguished pain remained, unexplained, since it certainly couldn't be explained by another short thought, flashing like lightning and gone at once: 'Immortality... immortality has come...” Whose immortality had come? This the Procurator did not understand, but the idea of this enigmatic immortality made him freeze in the sun.
- Good, - said Pilate, - thus be it.
Now he looked about, let his gaze roam across the world that he could see, and was astounded at the change that had taken place. Gone was the bush weighed down with roses, gone were the cypresses bordering the topmost terrace, and the pomegranate tree, and the white statue in the greenery, and the greenery itself. Instead, some kind of purplish wave had poured in around him, in which waterweeds swayed and drifted off somewhere, and with them drifted Pilate himself. And now he was swept away, choked and scalded, by the most terrifying rage, the rage of the powerless.
- Air, - said Pilate, - give me air!
With a cold, damp hand he tore the clasp from the collar of his cloak, and it fell to the sand.
- It's stuffy today, there's a thunderstorm nearby, - responded Kaifa, never moving his eyes from the reddened face of the Procurator, and foreseeing all the pain that still lay ahead. "Oh, how terrible is the month of Nisan this year!"
- No, - said Pilate, - it's not the stuffy weather, you stifle me, Kaifa, - and, lowering his eyes, Pilate smiled and added: - Be careful, high priest.
The dark eyes of the high priest flashed, and his face, with no less art than that of the Procurator before him, expressed astonishment.
- What do I hear, Procurator? - answered Kaifa, proudly and evenly, - you threaten me after you yourself confirmed the sentence that was passed? How can this be? We have grown accustomed to the Roman Procurator choosing his words before speaking. Are you sure no-one has overheard us, hegemon?
Pilate glanced at the high priest with dead eyes, and gritting his teeth, drew his lips into a smile.
- My dear high priest! Who could possibly overhear us now? Do you think I am like that young moonstruck vagabond who will be executed today? Am I a little boy, Kaifa? I know what I say and where I say it. The garden is surrounded, the palace is surrounded, not even a mouse can enter through the least crack! Indeed, not only cannot a mouse enter, but not even he, what's his name... from the town of Kerioth. Oh yes, you do know him, high priest? Yes... if ever that same man shows his face in here, he will live to regret it bitterly, you believe me of course, when I say so? Know, then, high priest, that from now on you will have no peace! Neither you nor your people, - and Pilate pointed off into the distance to the right, high up, where the Temple blazed, - it is I who tell you this - Pontius Pilate, knight of the Golden Spear!
- I know, I know! - fearlessly answered the blackbeard, Kaifa, and his eyes flared. He lifted his hand to the sky and continued: - The people of Judea know that you hate them with a cruel hatred, and that you will cause them to suffer much, but you will not destroy them completely! God will save them! He will hear us, the almighty Caesar will hear, he will protect us from Pilate, the destroyer!
- Not so! - exclaimed Pilate, and with each word he felt more and more at ease: There was no need to play games any more, no need to choose his words. - You have complained about me to the Caesar once too often, Kaifa, now my time has come! Already my message is speeding on its way, not to the viceroy in Antioch, nor to Rome, but straight to Capri, to the Emperor himself, my message that you hide self-declared rebels from death. Then I will not, as I once intended for your own best, give you the water of Solomon's Pond to drink, Yershalaim! Not water, no! Remember how I was forced on account of you to remove the shields with the Emperor's insignia from the walls, to move my troops, I was forced, as you see, to come myself and take a look at what was going on here! Mark my words, high priest. You will not see one lone cohort in Yershalaim, oh no! When up to the city walls marches the entire Fulminatus legion, and the Arabian cavalry rides in, then you shall hear bitter sighs and weeping! Then you will remember that you saved Bar-Rabban and regret that you sent to his death the philosopher with his peaceful teachings!
The face of the high priest grew blotches, his eyes burned. Like the Procurator, he smiled with gritted teeth, and answered:
- Do you yourself, Procurator, believe your own words? No, you do not! It was not peace, not peace he brought to Yershalaim, this tempter of the people, and you, horseman, understand this perfectly well. You wanted to set him free so he would excite the people, mock the faith and lead the people under Roman swords! But I, the high priest of Judea, will not, while I am alive, permit the faith to be mocked, I will protect the people! Do you hear, Pilate? - And here Kaifa lifted his arm menacingly: - Listen well, Procurator!
Kaifa fell silent, and again the Procurator thought he heard the sound of the ocean, breaking against the walls of the garden of Herod the Great. The sound rose from below to the feet, then to the face of the Procurator. And behind him, beyond the wings of the palace, he heard horns sharply signaling, the crunching of hundreds of feet, steel clashing, - the Procurator realized that the Roman infantry, in obedience to his command, was already on its way, speeding along the same parade of death that terrifies mutineers and robbers.
- Do you hear, Procurator? - repeated the high priest softly, - certainly you will not tell me that all this, - here the high priest lifted both hands and the dark hood fell from Kaifa's head, - is the work of the pathetic robber Bar-Rabban?
The Procurator wiped his cold, damp forehead with the back of his hand, glanced at the ground, then, with half-closed eyes, at the sky, saw that the fiercely glowing sphere now stood almost straight above his head, while Kaifa's shadow had crept together around a lion's tail, and said softly and indifferently:
- It is close to noon. We were distracted by our conversation, but we must proceed.
Apologizing to the high priest in the most exquisite language, he invited him to wait on a bench in the shadow of a magnolia tree, while he summoned the others who were needed for this final, brief council and gave one last order concerning the execution.
Kaifa bowed politely, laying his hand to his heart, and remained in the garden, while Pilate returned to the balcony. There he ordered the waiting secretary to invite into the garden the legate of the legion, the tribune of the cohort, and also two members of the Sanhedrin and the chief of the Temple guard, who were awaiting his summons on the next, lower terrace of the garden, in a circular pavilion with a fountain. Adding that he would himself reappear shortly, Pilate departed for the inner reaches of the palace.
While the secretary gathered the council, the Procurator, in a room shaded from the sun behind dark curtains, met with a certain man, who wore a hood half-covering his face, though the rays of the sun could hardly have bothered him in the room. The meeting was short. The Procurator spoke a few quiet words to the man, after which he departed, and Pilate walked through the colonnade into the garden.
There, in the presence of everyone he had desired to see, the Procurator ceremoniously and dryly stated that he confirmed the death sentence on Ieshua Ha-Notsri, and officially inquired of the members of the Sanhedrin which of the criminals it pleased them to leave alive. Receiving the answer - Bar-Rabban, the Procurator said:
- Very well, - and ordered the secretary to record this in the protocol immediately, his hand clutched the clasp, which the secretary had lifted from the sand, and he said, solemnly: - It is time!
At this, all that were present descended a wide marble stairway walled in by roses that gave off a stupefying scent, descended further and further, down to the palace walls, to the gates, opening onto the great, smoothly paved square, at the end of which could be seen the columns and statues of the Yershalaim stadium.
As soon as the group, leaving the garden and entering the square, had climbed to the wide stone platform that dominated the square, Pilate, glancing around under lowered brows, had assessed the situation. The space he had just crossed, that is, the space from the palace walls to the platform, was empty, but before him Pilate could not see the square at all - the crowd had swallowed it up. It would have flowed right up to the platform itself and covered the cleared space, if a triple row of Sebastean soldiers to Pilate's left and soldiers of the auxiliary Iturean cohort to his right, had not held it back.
So Pilate ascended to the platform, mechanically clutching the useless clasp and squinting. The Procurator squinted, not because the sun burned his eyes, oh no! For some reason he did not want to see the group of condemned men, who were now, as he well knew, being led up onto the platform after him.
As soon as the white cloak with the blood-red lining appeared on top of the stone cliff on the edge of the human sea, the sightless Pilate felt a wave of sound pressing against his ears: "Ha-a-a..." It started out softly, originating somewhere in the distance by the hippodrome, then rose to thunderous heights, and, after a few seconds, started to recede. "They have seen me", - thought the Procurator. The wave had not subsided to its lowest point, before it unexpectedly started to swell again and seemed to rise to even greater heights than before, and from the second wave, like foam lifting from a breaker at sea, rose whistles and the occasional cries of women, distinguishable through the roar. "Now they have been led onto the platform... - thought Pilate, - and the cries are from women who were crushed when the crowd surged forward".
He waited a while, knowing that no power on earth could compel the crowd to silence until it had let out everything that was pent up inside it and fell silent on its own.
When that moment arrived, the Procurator lifted his right arm and the last noise was blown out of the crowd.
Then Pilate filled his breast with as much hot air as he could inhale and cried, his broken voice spreading above the thousands of heads:
- In the name of the emperor Caesar!
At this, his ears were struck by a string of iron-hard, abrupt cries - in the cohorts, lifting high their spears and standards, the soldiers shouted terrifyingly:
- Hail Caesar!
Pilate threw back his head and thrust it straight into the sun. Through his eyelids flashed a green fire, igniting the brain, and out over the crowd flew the hoarse, Aramaic words:
- Four criminals, arrested in Yershalaim for murder, inciting riots and mocking the laws and the faith, have been condemned to a shameful death - by hanging on posts! The execution will be carried out immediately on Bald Mountain! The names of the criminals are Dismas, Gestas, Bar-Rabban and Ha-Notsri. They stand before you!
Pilate gestured with his right hand, not seeing the criminals, but knowing they were there, in their appointed place.
The crowd responded with a long rumble, as if in surprise or relief. When it quieted, Pilate continued:
- But only three will be executed, since one of them, in accordance with law and custom and in honor of the feast of Passover, has been chosen by the Lesser Sanhedrin and confirmed by the Roman authorities, and will, by the grace of the emperor Caesar, be returned to his contemptible life!
Pilate cried out the words and noted how the roar was replaced by a great silence. Not a sigh, not a rustle now reached his ears, there was even a moment when it seemed to Pilate that everything around him had simply disappeared. The city he hated was dead, and only he stood alone, burned by the perpendicular rays, his face set against the sky. Pilate held the silence for a moment, then cried out again:
- The name of him who will now be set free, is...
He paused again, keeping back the name, making sure he had said everything, since he knew that the dead city would rise again after the name of the lucky man had been pronounced, and no one would be able to hear any further words.
"All? - Pilate soundlessly whispered to himself, - all. The name!"
And rolling the letter "r" above the silent city, he cried out:
Here it seemed to him that the sun burst above him with a clash, pouring fire into his ears. The fire raged with roars, screams, sighs, laughter and whistling.
Pilate turned and strode across the platform back to the stairs, not looking at anything but the many-colored squares on the floor beneath his feet, to avoid tripping. Behind him, he knew, bronze coins and dates showered onto the platform like hail, and in the howling mob, people shoved against each other, climbed to each other's shoulders, to see the miracle with their own eyes - how a man who had been in the arms of death, tore himself out of those arms! How the legionaries removed his bonds, inadvertently inflicting terrible pain on his arms that had been dislocated during the interrogation, how he, wincing and groaning, still smiled a meaningless, insane grin.
He knew that the guard was already leading the three men with tied hands to the side stairs, from which they would be taken to the road, leading to the East, out of town, to Bald Mountain. Only when he was off the platform, to the rear of it, did Pilate open his eyes, knowing that he was out of danger - he could no longer see the condemned men.
Now were added to the sighs of the crowd that was already falling silent, the cries of the heralds repeating, some in Aramaic, others in Greek, all that the Procurator had cried from the platform. Besides, his ears picked out the rapping, clattering sound of horses' hoofs drawing near and a trumpet blaring out some short and happy signal. These sounds were answered by the penetrating whistles of boys on the rooftops of the houses that lined the streets leading from the bazaar to the hippodrome square, and cries of "give way!".
A soldier, standing alone in the empty space of the square with a standard in his hand, gave them an anxious sign, and the Procurator, the legate of the legion, the secretary and the guard came to a halt.
A cavalry ala, at a lengthening trot, flew out onto the square, to cross it on one side and avoid the mass of people, and ride down a passage under a stone wall covered by vines, taking the shortest road to Bald Mountain.
At a flying trot, the commander of the ala, small as a boy, dark as a mulatto - a Syrian, came abreast of Pilate and in perfect stride cried out something and drew his sword from its sheath. His hot-tempered black steed, drenched in sweat, shied and reared up. Returning his sword to the sheath, the commander struck the horse on the neck with a whip, brought it down, and rode off into the passageway, breaking into a gallop. Three abreast, the horsemen lit after him in a cloud of dust, the points of their light, bamboo lances bobbing, close to the Procurator passed faces that seemed unusually dark under their white turbans, merrily baring their gleaming teeth.
Raising dust to the sky, the ala burst into the passageway, and last of all, a soldier rode past Pilate with a horn slung on his back, blazing in the sun.
Shielding himself with his hand and screwing up his face discontentedly, Pilate moved on, toward the gates of the palace garden, and after him followed the legate, the secretary and the guard.
It was about ten o'clock in the morning.