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Authors: Isak Dinesen

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BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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“ ‘Now about that friend of mine, Phares,’ he took up the thread of the conversation, ‘I will tell you all about how he was taken prisoner, and put to death. He was a robber on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. On that road there came along a transport of wine which the Emperor of Rome sent as a present to the tetrarch Herodes, and amongst it was a hogshead of red Capri wine, which was beyond price. One evening, in this same place where we are now, I was talking to Phares. I said to him: “I would give my heart to drink that red wine of the tetrarch’s.” He said: “For the sake of my love of you, and to show you that I am not a much lesser man than you, I will kill the overseer of this transport and have the hogshead of red wine buried under such and such a cedar on the mountain, and you and I will drink the wine of the tetrarch together.” He did indeed do all this, but as he came into Jerusalem to find me, he was recognized by one of the people of the transport, who had escaped, and thrown into prison, and condemned to be crucified.

“ ‘
I
was told of it, and I walked about in Jerusalem in the night, thinking of a means to help him escape. In the morning, on passing the steps of the Temple, I saw there an old beggar, whom I had seen many times before, who had a bad leg, all bandaged up, and was also mad. In his madness he would scream out, and prophesy, complaining of his fate and cursing the governors of the town, proclaiming many bad things against the tetrarch and his wife. As he was mad, people only used to laugh at him. But this morning it happened that a centurion was passing with his men, and when he heard what the beggar said of the tetrarch’s wife he was angry. He told the beggar that if he did this again he would make him sleep in the prison of Jerusalem, and he would have him dealt twenty-five strokes of a stick in the evening, and twenty-five in the morning, to teach him to speak reverently about high people.

“ ‘I listened, and thought: this is the opportunity for me. So in
the course of the day I had my beard and hair shaved off, I dyed my face in nut oil, and dressed myself in rags, and I also bandaged up my right leg, but in those bandages I had hidden a strong, sharp file and a long rope. In the evening, when I went to the steps of the Temple, the old beggar had been so frightened that he had not come, so I took his place there myself. Just as the watch was passing, I cried out loudly, in the voice of the mad beggar, the worst curses I could think of against Cæsar in Rome himself, and, as I had thought, the watch took hold of me and brought me to the prison, and no one could recognize me in my rags. I was given, there, twenty-five strokes, and I took note of the face of the man who beat me, for the sake of the future; but with a piece of silver I bribed the turnkey to shut me up for the night in the prison where Phares was kept, which was very high up in the prison, the which, as you know, is built into the rock.

“ ‘Phares fell down and kissed my feet, and he gave me some water that he had, but later we set to work to file through the iron bar of the window. It was high up, and he had to stand upon my shoulders, or I upon his, but by early morning we broke it, and then tied the rope onto the broken bar. Phares lowered himself down first, until he came to the end of the rope, which was not quite long enough, and then he let himself fall. Then I got out, but I was weak, and too slow at it, and it happened that just at that hour a batch of soldiers came to the place with a prisoner. They had torches with them, and one of them caught sight of me as I was hanging onto the rope on the wall. Now Phares could have got away, if he had run, but he would not go before he had seen what would happen to me, and in this way we were both taken once more, and they saw who I was.

“ ‘That is how it happened,’ said the stranger. ‘But then you tell me that Phares is now in paradise.’

“ ‘All this,’ said Peter, who had, though, been listening only with half an ear, ‘I hold to be very brave of you, and it was well done to risk your life for your friend.’ At that he sighed deeply.
‘Oh, I have lived too long in the woods to be frightened of an owl,’ said the stranger. ‘Has anybody told you of me that I was the sort that runs away from danger?’

“ ‘No,’ said Peter. ‘But then you tell me,’ he said after a moment, ‘that you, too, were made prisoner. Still, since you are here, you got off somehow?’

“ ‘Yes; I got off,’ said the man, and gave Peter a strange deep glance. ‘I meant, then, to revenge Phares’s death. But since he is in paradise I do not see that I need to worry. And now I do not know what to do. Shall I dig up this hogshead of the tetrarch’s wine and drink it?’

“ ‘It will be sad to you without your friend,’ said Peter, and his eyes filled with such tears as were still left in him after this last week. He thought that he ought perhaps to reproach the man with the theft of the tetrarch’s wine, but too many recollections welled up in his own heart.

“ ‘No, it is not that of which I am thinking,’ said the stranger, ‘but if that wine also has gone bad and gives me no pleasure, what am I to do then?’

“Peter sat for a little while in his own thoughts. ‘Friend,’ he said, ‘there are other things in life to give you pleasure than the wine of the tetrarch.’

“ ‘Yes, I know,’ said the stranger, ‘but what if the same thing has happened to them? I have two lovely wives waiting for me at home, and just before this happened I purchased a virgin of twelve years. I have not seen her since. I could try them, if I chose. But the earthquake may have affected them as well, so that they may have neither flavor nor body, and what shall I do then?’

“Now Peter began to wish that this man would stop his complaints and leave him to himself. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘do you come to me about this?’

“ ‘You remind me,’ said the stranger. ‘I will tell you. I have been informed that your Rabbi, on the night before he died, gave a party to his followers, and that at that time a special wine was
served, which was very rare and had some highly precious body in it. Have you, now, any more of this wine, and will you consent to sell it to me? I will give you your price.’

“Peter stared at the stranger. ‘Oh, God, oh, God,’ he cried, so highly affected that he upset his wine, which ran onto the floor, ‘you do not know what you are saying. This wine which we drank on Thursday night, the Emperor of Rome cannot pay for one drop of it.’ His heart was so terribly wrung that he rocked to and fro in his seat. Still, in the midst of his grief the words of the Lord, that he was to be a fisher of men, were brought back to him, and he reflected that it might be his duty to help this man, who seemed in some deep distress. He turned to him again, but as he was looking at him it came over him that of all people in the world, this young man was the one whom he could not help. To strengthen himself he called up one of the words of the Lord himself.

“ ‘My son,’ he said kindly and gravely, ‘take up thine cross and follow him.’ The stranger, just at the same moment as the Apostle, had been about to speak. Now he stopped and looked very darkly at Peter. ‘My cross!’ he cried. ‘Where is my cross? Who is to take up my cross?’

“ ‘No one but yourself can take up your cross,’ said Peter, ‘but He will help you to carry it. Have patience and strength. I will tell you much more about all this.’

“ ‘What have you to tell me about it?’ said the stranger. ‘It seems to me that you know nothing of it. Help? Who is it who wants help to carry the sort of cross which the carpenters of Jerusalem make in these days? Not I, you may be sure. That bow-legged Cyrenean would never have had the opportunity to exhibit his strength on my behalf. You talk of strength and patience,’ he went on after a moment, still highly agitated, ‘but I have never known a man as strong as myself. Look,’ he said, and pulling back his cloak he showed Peter his chest and shoulders, crossed by many terrible deep white scars. ‘My cross! The cross of Phares
was to the right, and the cross of the man Achaz, who was never worth much, to the left. I should have taken up my cross better than any of them. Do you not think that I should have lasted more than six hours? I do not think much of that, I tell you. Wherever I have been, I have been a leader of men, and they have looked to me. Do not believe, because now I do not know what to do, that I have not been used to telling others to come and go as I liked.’

“At the disdainful tone of this speech Peter was about to lose his patience with the stranger, but he had promised himself, since he cut off Malchus’s ear, to control his temper, so he said nothing.

“After a while the man looked at him, as if impressed by his silence. ‘And you,’ he said, ‘who are a follower of this Prophet, what do you think is likely to happen to yourself now?’ Peter’s face, marred by sorrow, cleared and softened. His whole countenance radiated hope. ‘I trust and believe,’ he said, ‘that my faith, though it be tried with fire, be found unto praise and honor. I hope that it may be granted to me to suffer and die for my Lord. Sometimes, even, in these last nights,’ he went on, speaking in a low voice, ‘I have thought that at the end of the road a cross might await me.’ Having spoken thus he dared not look up to meet the other’s eyes. He added quickly, ‘Although you may think that I am boasting, and that I am too low for that.’

“ ‘No,’ said the stranger, ‘I think it very likely that all this of which you have spoken will indeed happen to you.’

“This confidence in his own hopes struck Peter as a most unexpected and generous piece of friendliness in the stranger. His heat melted with gratitude. He blushed like a young bride. For the first time he felt a real interest in his companion, and it seemed to him that he ought to do something for him in return for the lovely things that he had said to him. ‘I am sorry,’ he said gently, ‘that I have not been able to help you in what weighs upon your soul. But indeed I am hardly in command of myself, so much has happened to me in these last days.’

“ ‘Oh,’ said the stranger, ‘I hardly expected anything better.’

“In the course of our talk,’ Peter said, ‘you said a couple of times that you did not know what to do. Tell me in what matter it is that you are in such doubts. Even about this wine, of which you speak, I will try to advise you.’ The stranger looked at him. ‘I have not been talking of any particular matter,’ he said. ‘I do not know what to do at all. I do not know where such wine is found that will gladden my heart again. But I suppose,’ he went on, after a little while, ‘that I had better go and dig up that wine of the tetrarch’s, and sleep with this girl that I told you of. I may as well try.’

“With these words he got up from the table and draped his cloak around him.

“ ‘Do not go yet,’ Peter said. ‘It seems to me that there are many things of which we ought to talk together.’

“ ‘I have to go in any case,’ said the man. ‘There is a transport of oil on its way from Hebron, which I must meet.’

“ ‘Are you trading in oil, then?’ Peter asked. ‘In a way,’ said the man.

“ ‘But tell me, before you go,’ said Peter, ‘what is your name? For we might speak again together, some time, if I knew where to find you?’ The stranger was already standing in the door. He turned around and looked at Peter with hauteur and a slight scorn. He looked a magnificent figure. ‘Did you not know my name?’ he asked him. ‘My name was cried all over the town. There was not one of the tame burghers of Jerusalem who did not shout it with all his might. “Barabbas,” they cried, “Barabbas! Barabbas! Give us Barabbas.” My name is Barabbas. I have been a great chief, and, as you said yourself, a brave man. My name shall be remembered.’

“And with these words he walked away.”

As the Cardinal had finished his tale, Jonathan got up and changed the tallow candle in the lantern, for it had burned quite
down, and was now flickering wildly up and down in its last convulsions.

He had no sooner done this than the girl at his side became deadly pale. Her eyes closed, and her whole figure seemed to sink together. Miss Malin asked her kindly if she felt sleepy, but she denied it with great energy, and might well do so. She had lived during this night as she had never lived before. She had faced death and had thrown herself nobly into the jaws of danger for the sake of her fellow-creatures. She had been the center of a brilliant circle, and she had even been married. She did not want to miss a single moment of these pregnant hours. But during the next ten minutes she fell asleep time after time in spite of her efforts to keep awake, her young head rocking forward and back.

She at last consented to lie down to rest for a moment, and her husband arranged a couch for her in the hay, and took off his coat to spread over her. Still holding his hand she sank down, and looked, on the dark ground, like a lovely marble figure of the angel of death. The dog, which had stayed near her for the last hour, at once followed her, and, curling itself up, pressed close to her, its head on her knees.

Her young husband sat for some time watching her sleep, but after a little while he could no longer keep awake himself, and lay down at a little distance from her, but close enough so that he could still hold her hand. For a while he did not sleep, but looked sometimes at her, and sometimes at the erect figures of Miss Malin and the Cardinal. When he did at last fall asleep, in his sleep he made a sudden movement, thrusting himself forward, so that his head nearly touched the head of the girl, and their hair, upon the pillow of the hay, was mingled together. A moment later he sank into the same slumber as had his wife.

The two old people sat silent before the light of the new candle, which, to begin with, burned only feebly. Miss Malin, who now looked as if she were not going to sleep for all eternity, regarded the sleepers with the benevolence of a successful creator. The
Cardinal looked at her for a moment and then he evaded her eyes. After a while he began to undo the bandages around his head, and in doing so he kept his eyes fixed upon the face of the old lady in a strange stare.

“I had better get rid of these,” he said, “now that morning is almost here.”

“But will it not hurt you?” Miss Malin asked anxiously.

“No,” he said, and went on with his occupation. After a moment he added: “It is not even my blood. You, Miss Nat-og-Dag, who have such an eye for the true noble blood, you ought to recognize the blue blood of Cardinal Hamilcar.”

BOOK: Seven Gothic Tales
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