During one of the latter years of Emperor Tiberius’ reign, a poor vine-dresser and his wife came and settled in a solitary hut among the Sabine mountains. They were strangers, and lived in absolute solitude without ever receiving a visit from a human being. But one morning when the laborer opened his door, he found, to his astonishment, that an old woman sat huddled up on the threshold. She was wrapped in a plain gray mantle, and looked very poor. Nevertheless, she impressed him as being so respect-compelling, as she rose and came to meet him, that it made him think of what the legends had to say about goddesses who, in the form of old women, had visited mortals.
“My friend,” said the old woman to the vine-dresser, “you must not wonder that I have slept this night on your threshold. My parents lived in this hut, and here I was born nearly ninety years ago. I expected to find it empty and deserted. I did not know that people still occupied it.”
“I do not wonder that you thought a hut which lies so high up among these desolate hills should stand empty and deserted,” said the vine-dresser. “But my wife and I come from a foreign land, and as poor strangers we have not been able to find a better dwelling-place. But to you, who must be tired and hungry after the long journey, which you at your extreme age have undertaken, it is perhaps more welcome that the hut is occupied by people than by Sabine mountain wolves. You will at least find a bed within to rest on, and a bowl of goats’ milk, and a bread-cake, if you will accept them.”
The old woman smiled a little, but this smile was so fleeting that it could not dispel the expression of deep sorrow which rested upon her countenance.
“I spent my entire youth up here among these mountains,” she said. “I have not yet forgotten the trick of driving a wolf from his lair.”
And she actually looked so strong and vigorous that the laborer didn’t doubt that she still possessed strength enough, despite her great age, to fight with the wild beasts of the forest.
He repeated his invitation, and the old woman stepped into the cottage. She sat down to the frugal meal, and partook of it without hesitancy. Although she seemed to be well satisfied with the fare of coarse bread soaked in goats’ milk, both the man and his wife thought: “Where can this old wanderer come from? She has certainly eaten pheasants served on silver plates oftener than she has drunk goats’ milk from earthen bowls.”
Now and then she raised her eyes from the food and looked around,—as if to try and realize that she was back in the hut. The poor old home with its bare clay walls and its earth floor was certainly not much changed. She pointed out to her hosts that on the walls there were still visible some traces of dogs and deer which her father had sketched there to amuse his little children. And on a shelf, high up, she thought she saw fragments of an earthen dish which she herself had used to measure milk in.
The man and his wife thought to themselves: “It must be true that she was born in this hut, but she has surely had much more to attend to in this life than milking goats and making butter and cheese.”
They observed also that her thoughts were often far away, and that she sighed heavily and anxiously every time she came back to herself.
Finally she rose from the table. She thanked them graciously for the hospitality she had enjoyed, and walked toward the door.
But then it seemed to the vine-dresser that she was pitifully poor and lonely, and he exclaimed: “If I am not mistaken, it was not your intention, when you dragged yourself up here last night, to leave this hut so soon. If you are actually as poor as you seem, it must have been your intention to remain here for the rest of your life. But now you wish to leave because my wife and I have taken possession of the hut.”
The old woman did not deny that he had guessed rightly. “But this hut, which for many years has been deserted, belongs to you as much as to me,” she said. “I have no right to drive you from it.”
“It is still your parents’ hut,” said the laborer, “and you surely have a better right to it than we have. Besides, we are young and you are old; therefore, you shall remain and we will go.”
When the old woman heard this, she was greatly astonished. She turned around on the threshold and stared at the man, as though she had not understood what he meant by his words.
But now the young wife joined in the conversation.
“If I might suggest,” said she to her husband, “I should beg you to ask this old woman if she won’t look upon us as her own children, and permit us to stay with her and take care of her. What service would we render her if we gave her this miserable hut and then left her? It would be terrible for her to live here in this wilderness alone! And what would she live on? It would be just like letting her starve to death.”
The old woman went up to the man and his wife and regarded them carefully. “Why do you speak thus?” she asked. “Why are you so merciful to me? You are strangers.”
Then the young wife answered: “It is because we ourselves once met with great mercy.”
This is how the old woman came to live in the vine-dresser’s hut. And she conceived a great friendship for the young people. But for all that she never told them whence she had come, or who she was, and they understood that she would not have taken it in good part had they questioned her.
But one evening, when the day’s work was done, and all three sat on the big, flat rock which lay before the entrance, and partook of their evening meal, they saw an old man coming up the path.
He was a tall and powerfully built man, with shoulders as broad as a gladiator’s. His face wore a cheerless and stern expression. The brows jutted far out over the deep-set eyes, and the lines around the mouth expressed bitterness and contempt. He walked with erect hearing and quick movements.
The man wore a simple dress, and the instant the vine-dresser saw him, he said: “He is an old soldier, one who has been discharged from service and is now on his way home.”
When the stranger came directly before them he paused, as if in doubt. The laborer, who knew that the road terminated a short distance beyond the hut, laid down his spoon and called out to him: “Have you gone astray, stranger, since you come hither? Usually, no one takes the trouble to climb up here, unless he has an errand to one of us who live here.”
When he questioned in this manner, the stranger came nearer. “It is as you say,” said he. “I have taken the wrong road, and now I know not whither I shall direct my steps. If you will let me rest here a while, and then tell me which path I shall follow to get to some farm, I shall be grateful to you.”
As he spake he sat down upon one of the stones which lay before the hut. The young woman asked him if he wouldn’t share their supper, but this he declined with a smile. On the other hand it was very evident that he was inclined to talk with them, while they ate. He asked the young folks about their manner of living, and their work, and they answered him frankly and cheerfully.
Suddenly the laborer turned toward the stranger and began to question him. “You see in what a lonely and isolated way we live,” said he. “It must be a year at least since I have talked with any one except shepherds and vineyard laborers. Can not you, who must come from some camp, tell us something about Rome and the Emperor?”
Hardly had the man said this than the young wife noticed that the old woman gave him a warning glance, and made with her hand the sign which means—Have a care what you say.
The stranger, meanwhile, answered very affably: “I understand that you take me for a soldier, which is not untrue, although I have long since left the service. During Tiberius’ reign there has not been much work for us soldiers. Yet he was once a great commander. Those were the days of his good fortune. Now he thinks of nothing except to guard himself against conspiracies. In Rome, every one is talking about how, last week, he let Senator Titius be seized and executed on the merest suspicion.”
“The poor Emperor no longer knows what he does!” exclaimed the young woman; and shook her head in pity and surprise.
“You are perfectly right,” said the stranger, as an expression of the deepest melancholy crossed his countenance. “Tiberius knows that every one hates him, and this is driving him insane.”
“What say you?” the woman retorted. “Why should we hate him? We only deplore the fact that he is no longer the great Emperor he was in the beginning of his reign.”
“You are mistaken,” said the stranger. “Every one hates and detests Tiberius. Why should they do otherwise? He is nothing but a cruel and merciless tyrant. In Rome they think that from now on he will become even more unreasonable than he has been.”
“Has anything happened, then, which will turn him into a worse beast than he is already?” queried the vine-dresser.
When he said this, the wife noticed that the old woman gave him a new warning signal, but so stealthily that he could not see it.
The stranger answered him in a kindly manner, but at the same time a singular smile played about his lips.
“You have heard, perhaps, that until now Tiberius has had a friend in his household on whom he could rely, and who has always told him the truth. All the rest who live in his palace are fortune-hunters and hypocrites, who praise the Emperor’s wicked and cunning acts just as much as his good and admirable ones. But there was, as we have said, one alone who never feared to let him know how his conduct was actually regarded. This person, who was more courageous than senators and generals, was the Emperor’s old nurse, Faustina.”
“I have heard of her,” said the laborer. “I’ve been told that the Emperor has always shown her great friendship.”
“Yes, Tiberius knew how to prize her affection and loyalty. He treated this poor peasant woman, who came from a miserable hut in the Sabine Mountains, as his second mother. As long as he stayed in Rome, he let her live in a mansion on the Palatine, that he might always have her near him. None of Rome’s noble matrons has fared better than she. She was borne through the streets in a litter, and her dress was that of an empress. When the Emperor moved to Capri, she had to accompany him, and he bought a country estate for her there, and filled it with slaves and costly furnishings.”
“She has certainly fared well,” said the husband.
Now it was he who kept up the conversation with the stranger. The wife sat silent and observed with surprise the change which had come over the old woman. Since the stranger arrived, she had not spoken a word. She had lost her mild and friendly expression. She had pushed her food aside, and sat erect and rigid against the door-post, and stared straight ahead, with a severe and stony countenance.
“It was the Emperor’s intention that she should have a happy life,” said the stranger. “But, despite all his kindly acts, she too has deserted him.”
The old woman gave a start at these words, but the young one laid her hand quietingly on her arm. Then she began to speak in her soft, sympathetic voice. “I can not believe that Faustina has been as happy at court as you say,” she said, as she turned toward the stranger. “I am sure that she has loved Tiberius as if he had been her own son. I can understand how proud she has been of his noble youth, and I can even understand how it must have grieved her to see him abandon himself in his old age to suspicion and cruelty. She has certainly warned and admonished him every day. It has been terrible for her always to plead in vain. At last she could no longer bear to see him sink lower and lower.”
The stranger, astonished, leaned forward a bit when he heard this; but the young woman did not glance up at him. She kept her eyes lowered, and spoke very calmly and gently.
“Perhaps you are right in what you say of the old woman,” he replied. “Faustina has really not been happy at court. It seems strange, nevertheless, that she has left the Emperor in his old age, when she had endured him the span of a lifetime.”
“What say you?” asked the husband. “Has old Faustina left the Emperor?”
“She has stolen away from Capri without any one’s knowledge,” said the stranger. “She left just as poor as she came. She has not taken one of her treasures with her.”
“And doesn’t the Emperor really know where she has gone?” asked the wife.
“No! No one knows for certain what road the old woman has taken. Still, one takes it for granted that she has sought refuge among her native mountains.”
“And the Emperor does not know, either, why she has gone away?” asked the young woman.
“No, the Emperor knows nothing of this. He can not believe she left him because he once told her that she served him for money and gifts only, like all the rest. She knows, however, that he has never doubted her unselfishness. He has hoped all along that she would return to him voluntarily, for no one knows better than she that he is absolutely without friends.”
“I do not know her,” said the young woman, “but I think I can tell you why she has left the Emperor. The old woman was brought up among these mountains in simplicity and piety, and she has always longed to come back here again. Surely she never would have abandoned the Emperor if he had not insulted her. But I understand that, after this, she feels she has the right to think of herself, since her days are numbered. If I were a poor woman of the mountains, I certainly would have acted as she did. I would have thought that I had done enough when I had served my master during a whole lifetime. I would at last have abandoned luxury and royal favors to give my soul a taste of honor and integrity before it left me for the long journey.”
The stranger glanced with a deep and tender sadness at the young woman. “You do not consider that the Emperor’s propensities will become worse than ever. Now there is no one who can calm him when suspicion and misanthropy take possession of him. Think of this,” he continued, as his melancholy gaze penetrated deeply into the eyes of the young woman, “in all the world there is no one now whom he does not hate; no one whom he does not despise—no one!”
As he uttered these words of bitter despair, the old woman made a sudden movement and turned toward him, but the young woman looked him straight in the eyes and answered: “Tiberius knows that Faustina will come back to him whenever he wishes it. But first she must know that her old eyes need never more behold vice and infamy at his court.”
They had all risen during this speech; but the vine-dresser and his wife placed themselves in front of the old woman, as if to shield her.
The stranger did not utter another syllable, but regarded the old woman with a questioning glance. Is this your last word also? he seemed to want to say. The old woman’s lips quivered, but words would not pass them.
“If the Emperor has loved his old servant, then he can also let her live her last days in peace,” said the young woman.
The stranger hesitated still, but suddenly his dark countenance brightened. “My friends,” said he, “whatever one may say of Tiberius, there is one thing, which he has learned better than others; and that is—renunciation. I have only one thing more to say to you: If this old woman, of whom we have spoken, should come to this hut, receive her well! The Emperor’s favor rests upon any one who succors her.”
He wrapped his mantle about him and departed the same way that he had come.
After this, the vine-dresser and his wife never again spoke to the old woman about the Emperor. Between themselves they marveled that she, at her great age, had had the strength to renounce all the wealth and power to which she had become accustomed. “I wonder if she will not soon go back to Tiberius?” they asked themselves. “It is certain that she still loves him. It is in the hope that it will awaken him to reason and enable him to repent of his low conduct, that she has left him.”
“A man as old as the Emperor will never begin a new life,” said the laborer. “How are you going to rid him of his great contempt for mankind? Who could go to him and teach him to love his fellow man? Until this happens, he can not be cured of suspicion and cruelty.”
“You know that there is one who could actually do it,” said the wife. “I often think of how it would turn out, if the two should meet. But God’s ways are not our ways.”
The old woman did not seem to miss her former life at all. After a time the young wife gave birth to a child. The old woman had the care of it; she seemed so content in consequence that one could have thought she had forgotten all her sorrows.
Once every half-year she used to wrap her long, gray mantle around her, and wander down to Rome. There she did not seek a soul, but went straight to the Forum. Here she stopped outside a little temple, which was erected on one side of the superbly decorated square.
All there was of this temple was an uncommonly large altar, which stood in a marble-paved court under the open sky. On the top of the altar, Fortuna, the goddess of happiness, was enthroned, and at its foot was a statue of Tiberius. Encircling the court were buildings for the priests, storerooms for fuel, and stalls for the beasts of sacrifice.
Old Faustina’s journeys never extended beyond this temple, where those who would pray for the welfare of Tiberius were wont to come. When she cast a glance in there and saw that both the goddess’ and the Emperor’s statue were wreathed in flowers; that the sacrificial fire burned; that throngs of reverent worshipers were assembled before the altar, and heard the priests’ low chants sounding thereabouts, she turned around and went back to the mountains.
In this way she learned, without having to question a human being, that Tiberius was still among the living, and that all was well with him.
The third time she undertook this journey, she met with a surprise. When she reached the little temple, she found it empty and deserted. No fire burned before the statue, and not a worshiper was seen. A couple of dried garlands still hung on one side of the altar, but this was all that testified to its former glory. The priests were gone, and the Emperor’s statue, which stood there unguarded, was damaged and mud-bespattered.
The old woman turned to the first passer-by. “What does this mean?” she asked. “Is Tiberius dead? Have we another Emperor?”
“No,” replied the Roman, “Tiberius is still Emperor, but we have ceased to pray for him. Our prayers can no longer benefit him.”
“My friend,” said the old woman, “I live far away among the mountains, where one learns nothing of what happens out in the world. Won’t you tell me what dreadful misfortune has overtaken the Emperor?”
“The most dreadful of all misfortunes! He has been stricken with a disease which has never before been known in Italy, but which seems to be common in the Orient. Since this evil has befallen the Emperor, his features are changed, his voice has become like an animal’s grunt, and his toes and fingers are rotting away. And for this illness there appears to be no remedy. They believe that he will die within a few weeks. But if he does not die, he will be dethroned, for such an ill and wretched man can no longer conduct the affairs of State. You understand, of course, that his fate is a foregone conclusion. It is useless to invoke the gods for his success, and it is not worth while,” he added, with a faint smile. “No one has anything more either to fear or hope from him. Why, then, should we trouble ourselves on his account?”
He nodded and walked away; but the old woman stood there as if stunned.
For the first time in her life she collapsed, and looked like one whom age has subdued. She stood with bent back and trembling head, and with hands that groped feebly in the air.
She longed to get away from the place, but she moved her feet slowly. She looked around to find something which she could use as a staff.
But after a few moments, by a tremendous effort of the will, she succeeded in conquering the faintness.
A week later, old Faustina wandered up the steep inclines on the Island of Capri. It was a warm day and the dread consciousness of old age and feebleness came over her as she labored up the winding roads and the hewn-out steps in the mountain, which led to Tiberius’ villa.
This feeling increased when she observed how changed everything had become during the time she had been away. In truth, on and alongside these steps there had always before been throngs of people. Here it used fairly to swarm with senators, borne by giant Libyans; with messengers from the provinces attended by long processions of slaves; with office-seekers; with noblemen invited to participate in the Emperor’s feasts.
But to-day the steps and passages were entirely deserted. Gray-greenish lizards were the only living things which the old woman saw in her path.
She was amazed to see that already everything appeared to be going to ruin. At most, the Emperor’s illness could not have progressed more than two months, and yet the grass had already taken root in the cracks between the marble stones. Rare growths, planted in beautiful vases, were already withered and here and there mischievous spoilers, whom no one had taken the trouble to stop, had broken down the balustrade.
But to her the most singular thing of all was the entire absence of people. Even if strangers were forbidden to appear on the island, attendants at least should still be found there: the endless crowds of soldiers and slaves; of dancers and musicians; of cooks and stewards; of palace-sentinels and gardeners, who belonged to the Emperor’s household.
When Faustina reached the upper terrace, she caught sight of two slaves, who sat on the steps in front of the villa. As she approached, they rose and bowed to her.
“Be greeted, Faustina!” said one of them. “It is a god who sends thee to lighten our sorrows.”
“What does this mean, Milo?” asked Faustina. “Why is it so deserted here? Yet they have told me that Tiberius still lives at Capri.”
“The Emperor has driven away all his slaves because he suspects that one of us has given him poisoned wine to drink, and that this has brought on the illness. He would have driven even Tito and myself away, if we had not refused to obey him; yet, as you know, we have all our lives served the Emperor and his mother.”
“I do not ask after slaves only,” said Faustina. “Where are the senators and field marshals? Where are the Emperor’s intimate friends, and all the fawning fortune-hunters?”
“Tiberius does not wish to show himself before strangers,” said the slave. “Senator Lucius and Marco, Commander of the Life Guard, come here every day and receive orders. No one else may approach him.”
Faustina had gone up the steps to enter the villa. The slave went before her, and on the way she asked: “What say the physicians of Tiberius’ illness?”
“None of them understands how to treat this illness. They do not even know if it kills quickly or slowly. But this I can tell you, Faustina, Tiberius must die if he continues to refuse all food for fear it may be poisoned. And I know that a sick man can not stay awake night and day, as the Emperor does, for fear he may be murdered in his sleep. If he will trust you as in former days, you might succeed in making him eat and sleep. Thereby you can prolong his life for many days.”
The slave conducted Faustina through several passages and courts to a terrace which Tiberius used to frequent to enjoy the view of the beautiful bays and proud Vesuvius.
When Faustina stepped out upon the terrace, she saw a hideous creature with a swollen face and animal-like features. His hands and feet were swathed in white bandages, but through the bandages protruded half-rotted fingers and toes. And this being’s clothes were soiled and dusty. It was evident he could not walk erect, but had been obliged to crawl out upon the terrace. He lay with closed eyes near the balustrade at the farthest end, and did not move when the slave and Faustina came.
Faustina whispered to the slave, who walked before her: “But, Milo, how can such a creature be found here on the Emperor’s private terrace? Make haste, and take him away!”
But she had scarcely said this when she saw the slave bow to the ground before the miserable creature who lay there.
“Cæsar Tiberius,” said he, “at last I have glad tidings to bring thee.”
At the same time the slave turned toward Faustina, but he shrank back, aghast! and could not speak another word.
He did not behold the proud matron who had looked so strong that one might have expected that she would live to the age of a sibyl. In this moment, she had drooped into impotent age, and the slave saw before him a bent old woman with misty eyes and fumbling hands.
Faustina had certainly heard that the Emperor was terribly changed, yet never for a moment had she ceased to think of him as the strong man he was when she last saw him. She had also heard some one say that this illness progressed slowly, and that it took years to transform a human being. But here it had advanced with such virulence that it had made the Emperor unrecognizable in just two months.
She tottered up to the Emperor. She could not speak, but stood silent beside him, and wept.
“Are you come now, Faustina?” he said, without opening his eyes. “I lay and fancied that you stood here and wept over me. I dare not look up for fear I will find that it was only an illusion.”
Then the old woman sat down beside him. She raised his head and placed it on her knee.
But Tiberius lay still, without looking at her. A sense of sweet repose enfolded him, and the next moment he sank into a peaceful slumber.
A few weeks later, one of the Emperor’s slaves came to the lonely hut in the Sabine mountains. It drew on toward evening, and the vine-dresser and his wife stood in the doorway and saw the sun set in the distant west. The slave turned out of the path, and came up and greeted them. Thereupon he took a heavy purse, which he carried in his girdle, and laid it in the husband’s hand.
“This, Faustina, the old woman to whom you have shown compassion, sends you,” said the slave. “She begs that with this money you will purchase a vineyard of your own, and build you a house that does not lie as high in the air as the eagles’ nests.”
“Old Faustina still lives, then?” said the husband. “We have searched for her in cleft and morass. When she did not come back to us, I thought that she had met her death in these wretched mountains.”
“Don’t you remember,” the wife interposed, “that I would not believe that she was dead? Did I not say to you that she had gone back to the Emperor?”
This the husband admitted. “And I am glad,” he added, “that you were right, not only because Faustina has become rich enough to help us out of our poverty, but also on the poor Emperor’s account.”
The slave wanted to say farewell at once, in order to reach densely settled quarters before dark, but this the couple would not permit. “You must stop with us until morning,” said they. “We can not let you go before you have told us all that has happened to Faustina. Why has she returned to the Emperor? What was their meeting like? Are they glad to be together again?”
The slave yielded to these solicitations. He followed them into the hut, and during the evening meal he told them all about the Emperor’s illness and Faustina’s return.
When the slave had finished his narrative, he saw that both the man and the woman sat motionless—dumb with amazement. Their gaze was fixed on the ground, as though not to betray the emotion which affected them.
Finally the man looked up and said to his wife: “Don’t you believe God has decreed this?”
“Yes,” said the wife, “surely it was for this that our Lord sent us across the sea to this lonely hut. Surely this was his purpose when He sent the old woman to our door.”
As soon as the wife had spoken these words, the vine-dresser turned again to the slave.
“Friend!” he said to him, “you shall carry a message from me to Faustina. Tell her this word for word! Thus your friend the vineyard laborer from the Sabine mountains greets you. You have seen the young woman, my wife. Did she not appear fair to you, and blooming with health? And yet this young woman once suffered from the same disease which now has stricken Tiberius.”
The slave made a gesture of surprise, but the vine-dresser continued with greater emphasis on his words.
“If Faustina refuses to believe my word, tell her that my wife and I came from Palestine, in Asia, a land where this disease is common. There the law is such that the lepers are driven from the cities and towns, and must live in tombs and mountain grottoes. Tell Faustina that my wife was born of diseased parents in a mountain grotto. As long as she was a child she was healthy, but when she grew up into young maidenhood she was stricken with the disease.”
The slave bowed, smiled pleasantly, and said: “How can you expect that Faustina will believe this? She has seen your wife in her beauty and health. And she must know that there is no remedy for this illness.”
The man replied: “It were best for her that she believed me. But I am not without witnesses. She can send inquiries over to Nazareth, in Galilee. There every one will confirm my statement.”
“Is it perchance through a miracle of some god that your wife has been cured?” asked the slave.
“Yes, it is as you say,” answered the laborer. “One day a rumor reached the sick who lived in the wilderness: ‘Behold, a great Prophet has arisen in Nazareth of Galilee. He is filled with the power of God’s spirit, and he can cure your illness just by laying his hand upon your forehead!’ But the sick, who lay in their misery, would not believe that this rumor was the truth. ‘No one can heal us,’ they said. ‘Since the days of the great prophets no one has been able to save one of us from this misfortune.’
“But there was one amongst them who believed, and that was a young maiden. She left the others to seek her way to the city of Nazareth, where the Prophet lived. One day, when she wandered over wide plains, she met a man tall of stature, with a pale face and hair which lay in even, black curls. His dark eyes shone like stars and drew her toward him. But before they met, she called out to him: ‘Come not near me, for I am unclean, but tell me where I can find the Prophet from Nazareth!’ But the man continued to walk towards her, and when he stood directly in front of her, he said: ‘Why seekest thou the Prophet of Nazareth?’—’I seek him that he may lay his hand on my forehead and heal me of my illness.’ Then the man went up and laid his hand upon her brow. But she said to him: ‘What doth it avail me that you lay your hand upon my forehead? You surely are no prophet?’ Then he smiled on her and said: ‘Go now into the city which lies yonder at the foot of the mountain, and show thyself before the priests!’
“The sick maiden thought to herself: ‘He mocks me because I believe I can be healed. From him I can not learn what I would know.’ And she went farther. Soon thereafter she saw a man, who was going out to hunt, riding across the wide field. When he came so near that he could hear her, she called to him: ‘Come not close to me, I am unclean! But tell me where I can find the Prophet of Nazareth!’ ‘What do you want of the Prophet?’ asked the man, riding slowly toward her. ‘I wish only that he might lay his hand on my forehead and heal me of my illness.’ The man rode still nearer. Of what illness do you wish to be healed?’ said he. ‘Surely you need no physician!’ ‘Can’t you see that I am a leper?’ said she. ‘I was born of diseased parents in a mountain grotto.’ But the man continued to approach, for she was beautiful and fair, like a new-blown rose. You are the most beautiful maiden in Judea!’ he exclaimed. ‘Ah, taunt me not—you, too!’ said she. ‘I know that my features are destroyed, and that my voice is like a wild beast’s growl.’
“He looked deep into her eyes and said to her: ‘Your voice is as resonant as the spring brook’s when it ripples over pebbles, and your face is as smooth as a coverlet of soft satin.’
“That moment he rode so close to her that she could see her face in the shining mountings which decorated his saddle. ‘You shall look at yourself here,’ said he. She did so, and saw a face smooth and soft as a newly-formed butterfly wing. ‘What is this that I see?’ she said. ‘This is not my face!’ ‘Yes, it is your face,’ said the rider. ‘But my voice, is it not rough? Does it not sound as when wagons are drawn over a stony road?’ ‘No! It sounds like a zither player’s sweetest songs,’ said the rider.
“She turned and pointed toward the road. ‘Do you know who that man is just disappearing behind the two oaks?’ she asked.
” ‘It is he whom you lately asked after; it is the Prophet from Nazareth,’ said the man. Then she clasped her hands in astonishment, and tears filled her eyes. ‘Oh, thou Holy One! Oh, thou Messenger of God’s power!’ she cried. ‘Thou hast healed me!’
“Then the rider lifted her into the saddle and bore her to the city at the foot of the mountain and went with her to the priests and elders, and told them how he had found her. They questioned her carefully; but when they heard that the maiden was born in the wilderness of diseased parents, they would not believe that she was healed. ‘Go back thither whence you came!’ said they. ‘If you have been ill, you must remain so as long as you live. You must not come here to the city, to infect the rest of us with your disease.’
“She said to them: ‘I know that I am well, for the Prophet from Nazareth hath laid his hand upon my forehead.’
“When they heard this they exclaimed: ‘Who is he, that he should be able to make clean the unclean? All this is but a delusion of the evil spirits. Go back to your own, that you may not bring destruction upon all of us!’
“They would not declare her healed, and they forbade her to remain in the city. They decreed that each and every one who gave her shelter should also be adjudged unclean.
“When the priests had pronounced this judgment, the young maiden turned to the man who had found her in the field: ‘Whither shall I go now? Must I go back again to the lepers in the wilderness?’
“But the man lifted her once more upon his horse, and said to her: ‘No, under no conditions shall you go out to the lepers in their mountain caves, but we two shall travel across the sea to another land, where there are no laws for clean and unclean.’ And they——”
But when the vineyard laborer had got thus far in his narrative, the slave arose and interrupted him. “You need not tell any more,” said he. “Stand up rather and follow me on the way, you who know the mountains, so that I can begin my home journey to-night, and not wait until morning. The Emperor and Faustina can not hear your tidings a moment too soon.”
When the vine-dresser had accompanied the slave, and come home again to the hut, he found his wife still awake.
“I can not sleep,” said she. “I am thinking that these two will meet: he who loves all mankind, and he who hates them. Such a meeting would be enough to sweep the earth out of existence!”
Old Faustina was in distant Palestine, on her way to Jerusalem. She had not desired that the mission to seek the Prophet and bring him to the Emperor should be intrusted to any one but herself. She said to herself: “That which we demand of this stranger, is something which we can not coax from him either by force or bribes. But perhaps he will grant it us if some one falls at his feet and tells him in what dire need the Emperor is. Who can make an honest plea for Tiberius, but the one who suffers from his misfortune as much as he does?”
The hope of possibly saving Tiberius had renewed the old woman’s youth. She withstood without difficulty the long sea trip to Joppa, and on the journey to Jerusalem she made no use of a litter, but rode a horse. She appeared to stand the difficult ride as easily as the Roman nobles, the soldiers, and the slaves who made up her retinue.
The journey from Joppa to Jerusalem filled the old woman’s heart with joy and bright hopes. It was springtime, and Sharon’s plain, over which they had ridden during the first day’s travel, had been a brilliant carpet of flowers. Even during the second day’s journey, when they came to the hills of Judea, they were not abandoned by the flowers. All the multiformed hills between which the road wound were planted with fruit trees, which stood in full bloom. And when the travelers wearied of looking at the white and red blossoms of the apricots and persimmons, they could rest their eyes by observing the young vine-leaves, which pushed their way through the dark brown branches, and their growth was so rapid that one could almost follow it with the eye.
It was not only flowers and spring green that made the journey pleasant, but the pleasure was enhanced by watching the throngs of people who were on their way to Jerusalem this morning. From all the roads and by-paths, from lonely heights, and from the most remote corners of the plain came travelers. When they had reached the road to Jerusalem, those who traveled alone formed themselves into companies and marched forward with glad shouts. Round an elderly man, who rode on a jogging camel, walked his sons and daughters, his sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, and all his grandchildren. It was such a large family that it made up an entire little village. An old grandmother who was too feeble to walk her sons had taken in their arms, and with pride she let herself be borne among the crowds, who respectfully stepped aside.
In truth, it was a morning to inspire joy even in the most disconsolate. To be sure the sky was not clear, but was o’ercast with a thin grayish-white mist, but none of the wayfarers thought of grumbling because the sun’s piercing brilliancy was dampened. Under this veiled sky the perfume of the budding leaves and blossoms did not penetrate the air as usual, but lingered over roads and fields. And this beautiful day, with its faint mist and hushed winds, which reminded one of Night’s rest and calm, seemed to communicate to the hastening crows somewhat of itself, so that they went forward happy—yet with solemnity—singing in subdued voices ancient hymns, or playing upon peculiar old-fashioned instruments, from which came tones like the buzzing of gnats, or grasshoppers’ piping.
When old Faustina rode forward among all the people, she became infected with their joy and excitement. She prodded her horse to quicker speed, as she said to a young Roman who rode beside her: “I dreamt last night that I saw Tiberius, and he implored me not to postpone the journey, but to ride to Jerusalem to-day. It appears as if the gods had wished to send me a warning not to neglect to go there this beautiful morning.”
Just as she said this, she came to the top of a long mountain ridge, and there she was obliged to halt. Before her lay a large, deep valley-basin, surrounded by pretty hills, and from the dark, shadowy depths of the vale rose the massive mountain which held on its head the city of Jerusalem.
But the narrow mountain city, with its walls and towers, which lay like a jeweled coronet upon the cliff’s smooth height, was this day magnified a thousand-fold. All the hills which encircled the valley were bedecked with gay tents, and with a swarm of human beings.
It was evident to Faustina that all the inhabitants were on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate some great holiday. Those from a distance had already come, and had managed to put their tents in order. On the other hand, those who lived near the city were still on their way. Along all the shining rock-heights one saw them come streaming in like an unbroken sea of white robes, of songs, of holiday cheer.
For some time the old woman surveyed these seething throngs of people and the long rows of tent-poles. Thereupon she said to the young Roman who rode beside her:
“Verily, Sulpicius, the whole nation must have come to Jerusalem.”
“It really appears like it,” replied the Roman, who had been chosen by Tiberius to accompany Faustina because he had, during a number of years, lived in Judea. “They celebrate now the great Spring Festival, and at this time all the people, both old and young, come to Jerusalem.”
Faustina reflected a moment. “I am glad that we came to this city on the day that the people celebrate their festival,” said she. “It can not signify anything else than that the gods protect our journey. Do you think it likely that he whom we seek, the Prophet of Nazareth, has also come to Jerusalem to participate in the festivities?”
“You are surely right, Faustina,” said the Roman. “He must be here in Jerusalem. This is indeed a decree of the gods. Strong and vigorous though you be, you may consider yourself fortunate if you escape making the long and troublesome journey up to Galilee.”
At once he rode over to a couple of wayfarers and asked them if they thought the Prophet of Nazareth was in Jerusalem.
“We have seen him here every day at this season,” answered one. “Surely he must be here even this year, for he is a holy and righteous man.”
A woman stretched forth her hand and pointed towards a hill, which lay east of the city. “Do you see the foot of that mountain, which is covered with olive trees?” she said. “It is there that the Galileans usually raise their tents, and there you will get the most reliable information about him whom you seek.” They journeyed farther, and traveled on a winding path all the way down to the bottom of the valley, and then they began to ride up toward Zion’s hill, to reach the city on its heights. The woman who had spoken went along the same way.
The steep ascending road was encompassed here by low walls, and upon these countless beggars and cripples sat or lolled. “Look,” said the woman who had spoken, pointing to one of the beggars who sat on the wall, “there is a Galilean! I recollect that I have seen him among the Prophet’s disciples. He can tell you where you will find him you seek.”
Faustina and Sulpicius rode up to the man who had been pointed out to her. He was a poor old man with a heavy iron-gray beard.
His face was bronzed by heat and sunshine. He asked no alms; on the contrary, he was so engrossed in anxious thought that he did not even glance at the passers-by.
Nor did he hear that Sulpicius addressed him, and the latter had to repeat his question several times.
“My friend, I’ve been told that you are a Galilean. I beg you, therefore, to tell me where I shall find the Prophet from Nazareth!”
The Galilean gave a sudden start and looked around him, confused. But when he finally comprehended what was wanted of him, he was seized with rage mixed with terror. “What are you talking about?” he burst out. “Why do you ask me about that man? I know nothing of him. I’m not a Galilean.”
The Hebrew woman now joined in the conversation. “Still I have seen you in his company,” she protested. “Do not fear, but tell this noble Roman lady, who is the Emperor’s friend, where she is most likely to find him.”
But the terrified disciple grew more and more irascible. “Have all the people gone mad to-day?” said he. “Are they possessed by an evil spirit, since they come again and again and ask me about that man? Why will no one believe me when I say that I do not know the Prophet? I do not come from his country. I have never seen him.”
His irritability attracted attention, and a couple of beggars who sat on the wall beside him also began to dispute his word.
“Certainly you were among his disciples,” said one. “We all know that you came with him from Galilee.”
Then the man raised his arms toward heaven and cried: “I could not endure it in Jerusalem to-day on that man’s account, and now they will not even leave me in peace out here among the beggars! Why don’t you believe me when I say to you that I have never seen him?”
Faustina turned away with a shrug. “Let us go farther!” said she. “The man is mad. From him we will learn nothing.”
They went farther up the mountain. Faustina was not more than two steps from the city gate, when the Hebrew woman who had wished to help her find the Prophet called to her to be careful. She pulled in her reins and saw that a man lay in the road, just in front of the horse’s feet, where the crush was greatest. It was a miracle that he had not already been trampled to death by animals or people.
The man lay upon his back and stared upward with lusterless eyes. He did not move, although the camels placed their heavy feet close beside him. He was poorly clad, and besides he was covered with dust and dirt. In fact, he had thrown so much gravel over himself that it looked as if he tried to hide himself, to be more easily over-ridden and trampled down.
“What does this mean? Why does this man lie here on the road?” asked Faustina.
Instantly the man began shouting to the passers-by:
“In mercy, brothers and sisters, drive your horses and camels over me! Do not turn aside for me! Trample me to dust! I have betrayed innocent blood. Trample me to dust!”
Sulpicius caught Faustina’s horse by the bridle and turned it to one side. “It is a sinner who wants to do penance,” said he. “Do not let this delay your journey. These people are peculiar and one must let them follow their own bent.”
The man in the road continued to shout: “Set your heels on my heart! Let the camels crush my breast and the asses dig their hoofs into my eyes!”
But Faustina seemed loath to ride past the miserable man without trying to make him rise. She remained all the while beside him.
The Hebrew woman who had wished to serve her once before, pushed her way forward again. “This man also belonged to the Prophet’s disciples,” said she. “Do you wish me to ask him about his Master?”
Faustina nodded affirmatively, and the woman bent down over the man.
“What have you Galileans done this day with your Master?” she asked. “I meet you scattered on highways and byways, but him I see nowhere.”
But when she questioned in this manner, the man who lay in the dust rose to his knees. “What evil spirit hath possessed you to ask me about him?” he said, in a voice that was filled with despair. “You see, surely, that I have lain down in the road to be trampled to death. Is not that enough for you? Shall you come also and ask me what I have done with him?”
When she repeated the question, the man staggered to his feet and put both hands to his ears.
“Woe unto you, that you can not let me die in peace!” he cried. He forced his way through the crowds that thronged in front of the gate, and rushed away shrieking with terror, while his torn robe fluttered around him like dark wings.
“It appears to me as though we had come to a nation of madmen,” said Faustina, when she saw the man flee. She had become depressed by seeing these disciples of the Prophet. Could the man who numbered such fools among his followers do anything for the Emperor?
Even the Hebrew woman looked distressed, and she said very earnestly to Faustina: “Mistress, delay not in your search for him whom you would find! I fear some evil has befallen him, since his disciples are beside themselves and can not bear to hear him spoken of.”
Faustina and her retinue finally rode through the gate archway and came in on the narrow and dark streets, which were alive with people. It seemed well-nigh impossible to get through the city. The riders time and again had to stand still. Slaves and soldiers tried in vain to clear the way. The people continued to rush on in a compact, irresistible stream.
“Verily,” said the old woman, “the streets of Rome are peaceful pleasure gardens compared with these!”
Sulpicius soon saw that almost insurmountable difficulties awaited them.
“On these overcrowded streets it is easier to walk than to ride,” said he. “If you are not too fatigued, I should advise you to walk to the Governor’s palace. It is a good distance away, but if we ride we certainly will not get there until after midnight.”
Faustina accepted the suggestion at once. She dismounted, and left her horse with one of the slaves. Thereupon the Roman travelers began to walk through the city.
This was much better. They pushed their way quickly toward the heart of the city, and Sulpicius showed Faustina a rather wide street, which they were nearing.
“Look, Faustina,” he said, “if we take this street, we will soon be there. It leads directly down to our quarters.”
But just as they were about to turn into the street, the worst obstacle met them.
It happened that the very moment when Faustina reached the street which extended from the Governor’s palace to Righteousness’ Gate and Golgotha, they brought through it a prisoner, who was to be taken out and crucified. Before him ran a crowd of wild youths who wanted to witness the execution. They raced up the street, waved their arms in rapture towards the hill, and emitted unintelligible howls—in their delight at being allowed to view something which they did not see every day.
Behind them came companies of men in silken robes, who appeared to belong to the city’s élite and foremost. Then came women, many of whom had tear-stained faces. A gathering of poor and maimed staggered forward, uttering shrieks that pierced the ears.
“O God!” they cried, “save him! Send Thine angel and save him! Send a deliverer in his direst need!”
Finally there came a few Roman soldiers on great horses. They kept guard so that none of the people could dash up to the prisoner and try to rescue him.
Directly behind them followed the executioners, whose task it was to lead forward the man that was to be crucified. They had laid a heavy wooden cross over his shoulder, but he was too weak for this burden. It weighed him down so that his body was almost bent to the ground. He held his head down so far that no one could see his face.
Faustina stood at the opening of the little by-street and saw the doomed man’s heavy tread. She noticed, with surprise, that he wore a purple mantle, and that a crown of thorns was pressed down upon his head.
“Who is this man?” she asked.
One of the bystanders answered her: “It is one who wished to make himself Emperor.”
“And must he suffer death for a thing which is scarcely worth striving after?” said the old woman sadly.
The doomed man staggered under the cross. He dragged himself forward more and more slowly. The executioners had tied a rope around his waist, and they began to pull on it to hasten the speed. But as they pulled the rope the man fell, and lay there with the cross over him.
There was a terrible uproar. The Roman soldiers had all they could do to hold the crowds back. They drew their swords on a couple of women who tried to rush forward to help the fallen man. The executioners attempted to force him up with cuffs and lashes, but he could not move because of the cross. Finally two of them took hold of the cross to remove it.
Then he raised his head, and old Faustina could see his face. The cheeks were streaked by lashes from a whip, and from his brow, which was wounded by the thorn-crown, trickled some drops of blood. His hair hung in knotted tangles, clotted with sweat and blood. His jaw was firm set, but his lips trembled, as if they struggled to suppress a cry. His eyes, tear-filled and almost blinded from torture and fatigue, stared straight ahead.
But back of this half-dead person’s face, the old woman saw—as in a vision—a pale and beautiful One with glorious, majestic eyes and gentle features, and she was seized with sudden grief—touched by the unknown man’s misfortune and degradation.
“Oh, what have they done with you, you poor soul!” she burst out, and moved a step nearer him, while her eyes filled with tears. She forgot her own sorrow and anxiety for this tortured man’s distress. She thought her heart would burst from pity. She, like the other women, wanted to rush forward and tear him away from the executioners!
The fallen man saw how she came toward him, and he crept closer to her. It was as though he had expected to find protection with her against all those who persecuted and tortured him. He embraced her knees. He pressed himself against her, like a child who clings close to his mother for safety.
The old woman bent over him, and as the tears streamed down her checks, she felt the most blissful joy because he had come and sought protection with her. She placed one arm around his neck, and as a mother first of all wipes away the tears from her child’s eyes, she laid her kerchief of sheer fine linen over his face, to wipe away the tears and the blood.
But now the executioners were ready with the cross. They came now and snatched away the prisoner. Impatient over the delay, they dragged him off in wild haste. The condemned man uttered a groan when he was led away from the refuge he had found, but he made no resistance.
Faustina embraced him to hold him back, and when her feeble old hands were powerless and she saw him borne away, she felt as if some one had torn from her her own child, and she cried: “No, no! Do not take him from me! He must not die! He shall not die!”
She felt the most intense grief and indignation because he was being led away. She wanted to rush after him. She wanted to fight with the executioners and tear him from them.
But with the first step she took, she was seized with weakness and dizziness. Sulpicius made haste to place his arm around her, to prevent her from falling.
On one side of the street he saw a little shop, and carried her in. There was neither bench nor chair inside, but the shopkeeper was a kindly man. He helped her over to a rug, and arranged a bed for her on the stone floor.
She was not unconscious, but such a great dizziness had seized her that she could not sit up, but was forced to lie down.
“She has made a long journey to-day, and the noise and crush in the city have been too much for her,” said Sulpicius to the merchant. “She is very old, and no one is so strong as not to be conquered by age.”
“This is a trying day, even for one who is not old,” said the merchant. “The air is almost too heavy to breathe. It would not surprise me if a severe storm were in store for us.”
Sulpicius bent over the old woman. She had fallen asleep, and she slept with calm, regular respirations after all the excitement and fatigue.
He walked over to the shop door, stood there, and looked at the crowds while he awaited her waking.
The Roman governor at Jerusalem had a young wife, and she had had a dream during the night preceding the day when Faustina entered the city.
She dreamed that she stood on the roof of her house and looked down upon the beautiful court, which, according to the Oriental custom, was paved with marble, and planted with rare growths.
But in the court she saw assembled all the sick and blind and halt there were in the world. She saw before her the pest-ridden, with bodies swollen with boils; lepers with disfigured faces; the paralytics, who could not move, but lay helpless upon the ground, and all the wretched creatures who writhed in torment and pain.
They all crowded up towards the entrance, to get into the house; and a number of those who walked foremost pounded on the palace door.
At last she saw that a slave opened the door and came out on the threshold, and she heard him ask what they wanted.
Then they answered him, saying: “We seek the great Prophet whom God hath sent to the world. Where is the Prophet of Nazareth, he who is master of all suffering? Where is he who can deliver us from all our torment?”
Then the slave answered them in an arrogant and indifferent tone—as palace servants do when they turn away the poor stranger:
“It will profit you nothing to seek the great Prophet. Pilate has killed him.”
Then there arose among all the sick a grief and a moaning and a gnashing of teeth which she could not bear to hear. Her heart was wrung with compassion, and tears streamed from her eyes. But when she had begun to weep, she awakened.
Again she fell asleep; and again she dreamed that she stood on the roof of her house and looked down upon the big court, which was as broad as a square.
And behold! the court was filled with all the insane and soul-sick and those possessed of evil spirits. And she saw those who were naked and those who were covered with their long hair, and those who had braided themselves crowns of straw and mantles of grass and believed they were kings, and those who crawled on the ground and thought themselves beasts, and those who came dragging heavy stones, which they believed to be gold, and those who thought that the evil spirits spoke through their mouths.
She saw all these crowd up toward the palace gate. And the ones who stood nearest to it knocked and pounded to get in.
At last the door opened, and a slave stepped out on the threshold and asked: “What do you want?”
Then all began to cry aloud, saying: “Where is the great Prophet of Nazareth, he who was sent of God, and who shall restore to us our souls and our wits?”
She heard the slave answer them in the most indifferent tone: “It is useless for you to seek the great Prophet, Pilate has killed him.”
When this was said, they uttered a shriek as wild as a beast’s howl, and in their despair they began to lacerate themselves until the blood ran down on the stones. And when she that dreamed saw their distress, she wrung her hands and moaned. And her own moans awakened her.
But again she fell asleep, and again, in her dream, she was on the roof of her house. Round about her sat her slaves, who played for her upon cymbals and zithers, and the almond trees shook their white blossoms over her, and clambering rose-vines exhaled their perfume.
As she sat there, a voice spoke to her: “Go over to the balustrade which incloses the roof, and see who they are that stand and wait in your court!”
But in the dream she declined, and said: “I do not care to see any more of those who throng my court to-night.”
Just then she heard a clanking of chains and a pounding of heavy hammers, and the pounding of wood against wood. Her slaves ceased their singing and playing and hurried over to the railing and looked down. Nor could she herself remain seated, but walked thither and looked down on the court.
Then she saw that the court was filled with all the poor prisoners in the world. She saw those who must lie in dark prison dungeons, fettered with heavy chains; she saw those who labored in the dark mines come dragging their heavy planks, and those who were rowers on war galleys come with their heavy iron-bound oars. And those who were condemned to be crucified came dragging their crosses, and those who were to be beheaded came with their broad-axes. She saw those who were sent into slavery to foreign lands and whose eyes burned with homesickness. She saw those who must serve as beasts of burden, and whose backs were bleeding from lashes.
All these unfortunates cried as with one voice: “Open, open!”
Then the slave who guarded the entrance stepped to the door and asked: “What is it that you wish?”
And these answered like the others: “We seek the great Prophet of Nazareth, who has come to the world to give the prisoners their freedom and the slaves their lost happiness.”
The slave answered them in a tired and indifferent tone: “You can not find him here. Pilate has killed him.”
When this was said, she who dreamed thought that among all the unhappy there arose such an outburst of scorn and blasphemy that heaven and earth trembled. She was ice-cold with fright, and her body shook so that she awaked.
When she was thoroughly awake, she sat up in bed and thought to herself: “I would not dream more. Now I want to remain awake all night, that I may escape seeing more of this horror.”
But almost the very moment she thought this, sleep had overtaken her anew, and she had laid her head on the pillow and fallen asleep.
Again she dreamed that she sat on the roof of her house, and her little son ran back and forth up there, and played with a ball.
Then she heard a voice that said to her: “Go over to the balustrade, which incloses the roof, and see who they are that stand and wait in your court!” But she who dreamed said to herself: “I have seen enough misery this night. I can not endure any more. I would remain where I am.”
At that moment her son threw his ball so that it dropped outside the balustrade, and the child ran forward and clambered up on the railing. Then she was frightened. She rushed over and seized hold of the child.
But with that she happened to cast her eyes downward, and once more she saw that the court was full of people.
In the court were all the peoples of earth who had been wounded in battle. They came with severed bodies, with cut-off limbs, and with big open wounds from which the blood oozed, so that the whole court was drenched with it.
And beside these, came all the people in the world who had lost their loved ones on the battlefield. They were the fatherless who mourned their protectors, and the young maidens who cried for their lovers, and the aged who sighed for their sons.
The foremost among them pushed against the door, and the watchman came out as before, and opened it.
He asked all these, who had been wounded in battles and skirmishes: “What seek ye in this house?”
And they answered: “We seek the great Prophet of Nazareth, who shall prohibit wars and rumors of wars and bring peace to the earth. We seek him who shall convert spears into scythes and swords into pruning hooks.”
Then answered the slave somewhat impatiently: “Let no more come to pester me! I have already said it often enough. The great Prophet is not here. Pilate has killed him.”
Thereupon he closed the gate. But she who dreamed thought of all the lamentation which would come now. “I do not wish to hear it,” said she, and rushed away from the balustrade. That instant she awoke. Then she discovered that in her terror she had jumped out of her bed and down on the cold stone floor.
Again she thought she did not want to sleep more that night, and again sleep overpowered her, and she closed her eyes and began to dream. She sat once more on the roof of her house, and beside her stood her husband. She told him of her dreams, and he ridiculed her.
Again she heard a voice, which said to her: “Go see the people who wait in your court!”
But she thought: “I would not see them. I have seen enough misery to-night.”
Just then she heard three loud raps on the gate, and her husband walked over to the balustrade to see who it was that asked admittance to his house.
But no sooner had he leaned over the railing, than he beckoned to his wife to come over to him.
“Know you not this man?” said he, and pointed down.
When she looked down on the court, she found that it was filled with horses and riders. Slaves were busy unloading asses and camels. It looked as though a distinguished traveler might have landed.
At the entrance gate stood the traveler. He was a large elderly man with broad shoulders and a heavy and gloomy appearance.
The dreamer recognized the stranger instantly, and whispered to her husband: “It is Cæsar Tiberius, who is here in Jerusalem. It can not be any one else.”
“I also seem to recognize him,” said her husband; at the same time he placed his finger on his mouth, as a signal that they should be quiet and listen to what was said down in the court.
They saw that the doorkeeper came out and asked the stranger: “Whom seek you?”
And the traveler answered: “I seek the great Prophet of Nazareth, who is endowed with God’s power to perform miracles. It is Emperor Tiberius who calls him, that he may liberate him from a terrible disease, which no other physician can cure.”
When he had spoken, the slave bowed very humbly and said: “My lord, be not wroth! but your wish can not be fulfilled.”
Then the Emperor turned toward his slaves, who waited below in the court, and gave them a command.
Then the slaves hastened forward—some with handfuls of ornaments, others carried goblets studded with pearls, other again dragged sacks filled with gold coin.
The Emperor turned to the slave who guarded the gate, and said: “All this shall be his, if he helps Tiberius. With this he can give riches to all the world’s poor.”
But the doorkeeper bowed still lower and said: “Master, be not wroth with thy servant, but thy request can not be fulfilled.”
Then the Emperor beckoned again to his slaves, and a pair of them hurried forward with a richly embroidered robe, upon which glittered a breastpiece of jewels.
And the Emperor said to the slave: “See! This which I offer him, is the power over Judea. He shall rule his people like the highest judge, if he will only come and heal Tiberius!”
The slave bowed still nearer the earth, and said: “Master, it is not within my power to help you.”
Then the Emperor beckoned once again, and his slaves rushed up with a golden coronet and a purple mantle.
“See,” he said, “this is the Emperor’s will: He promises to appoint the Prophet his successor, and give him dominion over the world. He shall have power to rule the world according to his God’s will, if he will only stretch forth his hand and heal Tiberius!”
Then the slave fell at the Emperor’s feet and said in an imploring tone: “Master, it does not lie in my power to attend to thy command. He whom thou seekest is no longer here. Pilate hath killed him.”
When the young woman awoke, it was already full, clear day, and her female slaves stood and waited that they might help her dress.
She was very silent while she dressed, but finally she asked the slave who arranged her hair, if her husband was up. She learned that he had been called out to pass judgment on a criminal. “I should have liked to talk with him,” said the young woman.
“Mistress,” said the slave, “it will be difficult to do so during the trial. We will let you know as soon as it is over.”
She sat silent now until her toilet was completed. Then she asked: “Has any among you heard of the Prophet of Nazareth?”
“The Prophet of Nazareth is a Jewish miracle performer,” answered one of the slaves instantly.
“It is strange, Mistress, that you should ask after him to-day,” said another slave. “It is just he whom the Jews have brought here to the palace, to let him be tried by the Governor.”
She bade them go at once and ascertain for what cause he was arraigned, and one of the slaves withdrew. When she returned she said: “They accuse him of wanting to make himself King over this land, and they entreat the Governor to let him be crucified.”
When the Governor’s wife heard this, she grew terrified and said: “I must speak with my husband, otherwise a terrible calamity will happen here this day.”
When the slaves said once again that this was impossible, she began to weep and shudder. And one among them was touched, so she said: “If you will send a written message to the Governor, I will try and take it to him.”
Immediately she took a stylus and wrote a few words on a wax tablet, and this was given to Pilate.
But him she did not meet alone the whole day; for when he had dismissed the Jews, and the condemned man was taken to the place of execution, the hour for repast was come, and to this Pilate had invited a few of the Romans who visited Jerusalem at this season. They were the commander of the troops and a young instructor in oratory, and several others besides.
This repast was not very gay, for the Governor’s wife sat all the while silent and dejected, and took no part in the conversation.
When the guests asked if she was ill or distraught, the Governor laughingly related about the message she had sent him in the morning. He chaffed her because she had believed that a Roman governor would let himself be guided in his judgments by a woman’s dreams.
She answered gently and sadly: “In truth, it was no dream, but a warning sent by the gods. You should at least have let the man live through this one day.”
They saw that she was seriously distressed. She would not be comforted, no matter how much the guests exerted themselves, by keeping up the conversation to make her forget these empty fancies.
But after a while one of them raised his head and exclaimed: “What is this? Have we sat so long at table that the day is already gone?”
All looked up now, and they observed that a dim twilight settled down over nature. Above all, it was remarkable to see how the whole variegated play of color which it spread over all creatures and objects, faded away slowly, so that all looked a uniform gray.
Like everything else, even their own faces lost their color. “We actually look like the dead,” said the young orator with a shudder. “Our cheeks are gray and our lips black.”
As this darkness grew more intense, the woman’s fear increased. “Oh, my friend! ” she burst out at last. “Can’t you perceive even now that the Immortals would warn you? They are incensed because you condemned a holy and innocent man. I am thinking that although he may already be on the cross, he is surely not dead yet. Let him be taken down from the cross! I would with mine own hands nurse his wounds. Only grant that he be called back to life!”
But Pilate answered laughingly: “You are surely right in that this is a sign from the gods. But they do not let the sun lose its luster because a Jewish heretic has been condemned to the cross. On the contrary, we may expect that important matters shall appear, which concern the whole kingdom. Who can tell how long old Tiberius——”
He did not finish the sentence, for the darkness had become so profound he could not see even the wine goblet standing in front of him. He broke off, therefore, to order the slaves to fetch some lamps instantly.
When it had become so light that he could see the faces of his guests, it was impossible for him not to notice the depression which had come over them. “Mark you!” he said half-angrily to his wife. “Now it is apparent to me that you have succeeded with your dreams in driving away the joys of the table. But if it must needs be that you can not think of anything else to-day, then let us hear what you have dreamed. Tell it us and we will try to interpret its meaning!”
For this the young wife was ready at once. And while she related vision after vision, the guests grew more and more serious. They ceased emptying their goblets, and they sat with brows knit. The only one who continued to laugh and to call the whole thing madness, was the Governor himself.
When the narrative was ended, the young rhetorician said: “Truly, this is something more than a dream, for I have seen this day not the Emperor, but his old friend Faustina, march into the city. Only it surprises me that she has not already appeared in the Governor’s palace.”
“There is actually a rumor abroad to the effect that the Emperor has been stricken with a terrible illness,” observed the leader of the troops. “It also seems very possible to me that your wife’s dream may be a god-sent warning.”
“There’s nothing incredible in this, that Tiberius has sent messengers after the Prophet to summon him to his sick-bed,” agreed the young rhetorician.
The Commander turned with profound seriousness toward Pilate. “If the Emperor has actually taken it into his head to let this miracle-worker be summoned, it were better for you and for all of us that he found him alive.”
Pilate answered irritably: “Is it the darkness that has turned you into children? One would think that you had all been transformed into dream-interpreters and prophets.”
But the courtier continued his argument: “It may not be impossible, perhaps, to save the man’s life, if you sent a swift messenger.”
“You want to make a laughing-stock of me,” answered the Governor. “Tell me, what would become of law and order in this land, if they learned that the Governor pardoned a criminal because his wife has dreamed a bad dream?”
“It is the truth, however, and not a dream, that I have seen Faustina in Jerusalem,” said the young orator.
“I shall take the responsibility of defending my actions before the Emperor,” said Pilate. “He will understand that this visionary, who let himself be misused by my soldiers without resistance, would not have had the power to help him.”
As he was speaking, the house was shaken by a noise like a powerful rolling thunder, and an earthquake shook the ground. The Governor’s palace stood intact, but during some minutes just after the earthquake, a terrific crash of crumbling houses and falling pillars was heard.
As soon as a human voice could make itself heard, the Governor called a slave.
“Run out to the place of execution and command in my name that the Prophet of Nazareth shall be taken down from the cross!”
The slave hurried away. The guests filed from the dining-hall out on the peristyle, to be under the open sky in case the earthquake should be repeated. No one dared to utter a word, while they awaited the slave’s return.
He came back very shortly. He stopped before the Governor.
“You found him alive?” said he.
“Master, he was dead, and on the very second that he gave up the ghost, the earthquake occurred.”
The words were hardly spoken when two loud knocks sounded against the outer gate. When these knocks were heard, they all staggered back and leaped up, as though it had been a new earthquake.
Immediately afterwards a slave came up.
“It is the noble Faustina and the Emperor’s kinsman Sulpicius. They are come to beg you help them find the Prophet from Nazareth.”
A low murmur passed through the peristyle, and soft footfalls were heard. When the Governor looked around, he noticed that his friends had withdrawn from him, as from one upon whom misfortune has fallen.
Old Faustina had returned to Capri and had sought out the Emperor. She told him her story, and while she spoke she hardly dared look at him. During her absence the illness had made frightful ravages, and she thought to herself: “If there had been any pity among the Celestials, they would have let me die before being forced to tell this poor, tortured man that all hope is gone.”
To her astonishment, Tiberius listened to her with the utmost indifference. When she related how the great miracle performer had been crucified the same day that she had arrived in Jerusalem, and how near she had been to saving him, she began to weep under the weight of her failure. But Tiberius only remarked: “You actually grieve over this? Ah, Faustina! A whole lifetime in Rome has not weaned you then of faith in sorcerers and miracle workers, which you imbibed during your childhood in the Sabine mountains!”
Then the old woman perceived that Tiberius had never expected any help from the Prophet of Nazareth.
“Why did you let me make the journey to that distant land, if you believed all the while that it was useless?”
“You are the only friend I have,” said the Emperor. “Why should I deny your prayer, so long as I still have the power to grant it.”
But the old woman did not like it that the Emperor had taken her for a fool.
“Ah! this is your usual cunning,” she burst out. “This is just what I can tolerate least in you.”
“You should not have come back to me,” said Tiberius. “You should have remained in the mountains.”
It looked for a moment as if these two, who had clashed so often, would again fall into a war of words, but the old woman’s anger subsided immediately. The times were past when she could quarrel in earnest with the Emperor. She lowered her voice again; but she could not altogether relinquish every effort to obtain justice.
“But this man was really a prophet,” she said. “I have seen him. When his eyes met mine, I thought he was a god. I was mad to allow him to go to his death.”
“I am glad you let him die,” said Tiberius. “He was a traitor and a dangerous agitator.”
Faustina was about to burst into another passion—then checked herself.
“I have spoken with many of his friends in Jerusalem about him,” said she. “He had not committed the crimes for which he was arraigned.”
“Even if he had not committed just these crimes, he was surely no better than any one else,” said the Emperor wearily. “Where will you find the person who during his lifetime has not a thousand times deserved death?”
But these remarks of the Emperor decided Faustina to undertake something which she had until now hesitated about. “I will show you a proof of his power,” said she. “I said to you just now that I laid my kerchief over his face. It is the same kerchief which I hold in my hand. Will you look at it a moment?”
She spread the kerchief out before the Emperor, and he saw delineated thereon the shadowy likeness of a human face.
The old woman’s voice shook with emotion as she continued: “This man saw that I loved him. I know not by what power he was enabled to leave me his portrait. But mine eyes fill up with tears when I see it.”
The Emperor leaned forward and regarded the picture, which appeared to be made up of blood and tears and the dark shadows of grief. Gradually the whole face stood out before him, exactly as it had been imprinted upon the kerchief. He saw the blood-drops on the forehead, the piercing thorn-crown, the hair, which was matted with blood, and the mouth whose lips seemed to quiver with agony.
He bent down closer and closer to the picture. The face stood out clearer and clearer. From out the shadow-like outlines, all at once, he saw the eyes sparkle as with hidden life. And while they spoke to him of the most terrible suffering, they also revealed a purity and sublimity which he had never seen before.
He lay upon his couch and drank in the picture with his eyes. “Is this a mortal?” he said softly and slowly. “Is this a mortal?”
Again he lay still and regarded the picture. The tears began to stream down his checks. “I mourn over thy death, thou Unknown!” he whispered.
“Faustina!” he cried out at last. “Why did you let this man die? He would have healed me.”
And again he was lost in the picture.
“O Man!” he said, after a moment, “if I can not gain my health from thee, I can still avenge thy murder. My hand shall rest heavily upon those who have robbed me of thee!”
Again he lay still a long time; then he let himself glide down to the floor—and he knelt before the picture:
“Thou art Man!” said he. “Thou art that which I never dreamed I should see.” And he pointed to his disfigured face and destroyed hands. “I and all others are wild beasts and monsters, but thou art Man.”
He bowed his head so low before the picture that it touched the floor. “Have pity on me, thou Unknown!” he sobbed, and his tears watered the stones.
“If thou hadst lived, thy glance alone would have healed me,” he said.
The poor old woman was terror-stricken over what she had done. It would have been wiser not to show the Emperor the picture, thought she. From the start she had been afraid that if he should see it his grief would be too overwhelming.
And in her despair over the Emperor’s grief, she snatched the picture away, as if to remove it from his sight.
Then the Emperor looked up. And, lo! his features were transformed, and he was as he had been before the illness. It was as if the illness had had its root and sustenance in the contempt and hatred of mankind which had lived in his heart; and it had been forced to flee the very moment he had felt love and compassion.
The following day Tiberius despatched three messengers.
The first messenger traveled to Rome with the command that the Senate should institute investigations as to how the governor of Palestine administered his official duties and punish him, should it appear that he oppressed the people and condemned the innocent to death.
The second messenger went to the vineyard-laborer and his wife, to thank them and reward them for the counsel they had given the Emperor, and also to tell them how everything had turned out. When they had heard all, they wept silently, and the man said: “I know that all my life I shall ponder what would have happened if these two had met.” But the woman answered: “It could not happen in any other way. It was too great a thought that these two should meet. God knew that the world could not support it.”
The third messenger traveled to Palestine and brought back with him to Capri some of Jesus’ disciples, and these began to teach there the doctrine that had been preached by the Crucified One.
When the disciples landed at Capri, old Faustina lay upon her death-bed. Still they had time before her death to make of her a follower of the great Prophet, and to baptize her. And in the baptism she was called VERONICA, because to her it had been granted to give to mankind the true likeness of their Saviour.