The mist that came from the Mediterranean sea blotted out the city that Pilate so detested. The suspension bridges connecting the temple with the grim fortress of Antonia vanished, the murk descended from the sky and drowned the winged gods above the hippodrome, the crenellated Hasmonaean palace, the bazaars, the caravanserai, the alleyways, the pools... Jerusalem, the great city, vanished as though it had never been. The mist devoured everything, frightening every living creature in Jerusalem and its surroundings. The city was engulfed by a strange cloud which had crept over it from the sea towards the end of that day, the fourteenth of the month of Nisan.
It had emptied its belly over Mount Golgotha, where the executioners had hurriedly dispatched their victims, it had flowed over the temple of Jerusalem, pouring down in smoky cascades from the mound of the temple and invading the Lower City. It had rolled through open windows and driven people indoors from the winding streets. At first it held back its rain and only spat lightning, the flame cleaving through the smoking black vapor, lighting up the great pile of the temple and its glittering, scaly roof. But the flash passed in a moment and the temple was plunged again into an abyss of darkness. Several times it loomed through the murk to vanish again and each time its disappearance was accompanied by a noise like the crack of doom.
Other shimmering flashes lit up the palace of Herod the Great facing the temple on the western hill; as they did so the golden statues, eyeless and fearful, seemed to leap up into the black sky and stretch their arms towards it. Then the fire from heaven would be quenched again and a great thunderclap would banish the gilded idols into the mist.
The rainstorm burst suddenly and the storm turned into a hurricane. On the very spot near a marble bench in the garden, where that morning the Procurator had spoken to the High Priest, a thunderbolt snapped the trunk of a cypress as though it had been a twig. With the water vapor and the hail, the balcony under the arcade was swept with torn rose-heads, magnolia leaves, small branches and sand as the hurricane scourged the garden.
At the moment when the storm broke only the Procurator was left beneath the arcade.
He was no longer sitting in a chair but lying on a couch beside a small low table laid with food and jugs of wine. Another, empty, couch stood on the far side of the table. An untidy, blood-red puddle lay spread out at the Procurator's feet amid the shreds of a broken jug. The servant who had laid the Procurator's table had been so terrified by his look and so nervous at his apparent displeasure that the Procurator had lost his temper with him and smashed the jug on the mosaic floor, saying:
"Why don't you look me in the eyes when you serve me? Have you stolen something?"
The African's black face turned grey, mortal terror came into his eyes and he trembled so much that he almost broke another jug, but the Procurator waved him away and the slave ran off, leaving the pool of spilt wine.
As the hurricane struck, the African hid himself in a niche beside a statue of a white, naked woman with bowed head, afraid to show himself too soon yet frightened of missing the call should the Procurator summon him.
Lying on his couch in the half-darkness of the storm the Procurator poured out his own wine, drank it in long gulps, stretching out his arm for an occasional piece of bread which he crumbled and ate in little pieces. Now and again he would swallow an oyster, chew a slice of lemon and drink again. Without the roar of water, without the claps of thunder which seemed to be about to smash the palace roof, without the crash of hail that hammered on the steps leading up to the balcony, a listener might have heard the Procurator muttering as he talked to himself. And if the momentary flashes of lightning had shone with a steady light an observer might have noticed that the Procurator's face, the eyes inflamed with insomnia and wine, showed impatience ; that the Procurator's glance was not only taken up by the two yellow roses drowning in the red puddle, but that he was constantly turning his face towards the garden, towards the water-lashed sand and mud; that he was expecting someone, waiting impatiently.
A little time passed and the veil of water in front of the Procurator began to thin out. The storm, though still furious, was abating. No more branches creaked and fell. The lightning and thunder grew more infrequent. The cloud hovering over Jerusalem was no longer violet edged with white but a normal grey, the rearguard of the storm that was now moving onwards towards the Dead Sea.
Soon the sound of the rain could be distinguished from the noise of water running down the gutters and on to the staircase down which the Procurator had walked to the square to pronounce sentence. At last even the tinkle of the fountain, drowned until now, could be heard. It grew lighter. Windows of blue began to appear in the grey veil as it fled eastward.
Then from far away, above the weak patter of rain, the Procurator heard faint trumpet-calls and the tattoo of several score of horses" hooves. The sound caused the Procurator to stir and his expression to liven. The ala was returning from Mount Golgotha. To judge from the sound, they were just crossing the hippodrome square.
At last the Procurator heard the long-awaited footsteps and the slap of shoe-leather on the staircase leading to the upper terrace of the garden in front of the balcony. The Procurator craned his neck and his eyes shone expectantly.
Between the two marble lions there appeared first the cowled head, then the figure of a man closely wrapped in his soaking wet cloak. It was the same man with whom the Procurator, before pronouncing sentence, had held a whispered conference in a darkened room of the palace, and who had watched the execution as he played with a stick seated on a three-legged stool.
Walking straight through the puddles, the cowled man crossed the terrace, crossed the mosaic floor of the balcony, and raising his hand said in a pleasant, high-pitched voice:
"Hail, Procurator!" The visitor spoke in Latin.
"Gods!" exclaimed Pilate. "There's not a dry stitch on you!" What a storm! Please go to my room at once and change."
The man pushed back his cowl, revealing a completely wet head with the hair plastered down over his forehead. With a polite smile on his clean-shaven face he declined the offer of a change of clothing, assuring the Procurator that a little rain would do him no harm.
"I won't hear of it," replied Pilate. He clapped his hands, summoning his cowering servant, and ordered him to help the visitor to change and then to bring him some hot food.
The Procurator's visitor needed only a short while to dry his hair, change his clothes, his footgear, and tidy himself up, and he soon reappeared on the balcony in dry sandals, in a purple army cloak and with his hair combed.
At that moment the sun returned to Jerusalem and before setting in the Mediterranean it sent its parting rays over the Procurator's hated city and gilded the balcony steps. The fountain was now playing again at full strength, pigeons had landed on the terrace, cooing and hopping between the broken twigs and pecking at the sand. The red puddle was mopped up, the fragments removed, a steaming plateful of meat was set on the table.
"I await the Procurator's orders," said the visitor as he approached the table.
"Forget about my orders until you have sat down and drunk your wine," answered Pilate kindly, pointing to the other couch.
The man reclined, the servant poured some thick red wine into his cup. Another servant, bending cautiously over Pilate's shoulder, filled the Procurator's cup, after which he dismissed them both with a gesture.
While the visitor ate and drank Pilate sipped his wine and watched his guest through narrowed eyes. The man was middle-aged with very pleasant, neat, round features and a fleshy nose. The color of his hair was vague, though its color lightened as it dried out. His nationality was hard to guess. His main feature was a look of good nature, which was belied by his eyes — or rather not so much by his eyes as by a peculiar way of looking at the person facing him. Usually the man kept his small eyes shielded under eyelids that were curiously enlarged, even swollen. At these moments the chinks in his eyelids showed nothing but mild cunning, the look of a man with a sense of humor. But there were times when the man who was now the Procurator's guest opened his eyelids wide and gave a person a sudden, unwavering stare as though to search out an inconspicuous spot on his nose. It only lasted a moment, after which the lids dropped, the eyes narrowed again and they shone with goodwill and sly intelligence.
The visitor accepted a second cup of wine, swallowed a few oysters with obvious relish, tasted the boiled vegetables and ate a piece of meat. When he had eaten his fill he praised the wine:
"An excellent vintage. Procurator — is it Falernian?"
"Cecuba — thirty years old," replied the Procurator amiably.
The visitor placed his hand on his heart and declined the offer of more to eat, saying that he had had enough. Pilate refilled his own cup and his guest did the same. The two men each poured a libation into the dish of meat and the Procurator, raising his cup, said in a loud voice:
"To thee, 0, Caesar, father of thy people, best and most beloved of men."
Both drank their wine to its dregs and the Africans cleared the dishes from the table, leaving fruit and jugs of wine. The Procurator dismissed the servants, and was left alone with his visitor under the arcade.
"So," began Pilate quietly, "what have you to tell me of the mood of the city?" Involuntarily he turned his glance downwards to where, past the terraces of the garden, the colonnades and flat roofs glowed in the golden rays of the setting sun.
"I believe, Procurator," said his visitor, "that the mood of Jerusalem can now be regarded as satisfactory."
"So I can rely on there being no further disorders?"
"One can only rely," Arthanius replied with a reassuring glance at the Procurator, "on one thing in this world — on the power of great Caesar."
"May the gods send him long life!" Pilate said fervently, "And universal peace!" He was silent for a moment then went on: "What do you think — can we withdraw the troops now?"
"I think the cohort from the Lightning can be sent away," replied the visitor, and added: "It would be a good idea if it were to parade through the city before leaving."
"A very good idea," said the Procurator approvingly. "I shall order it away the day after tomorrow. I shall also go myself and — I swear to you by the feast of the twelve gods, I swear by the Lares — I would have given a lot to have been able to do so today!"
"Does the Procurator not like Jerusalem?" enquired the visitor amicably.
"Merciful heavens!" exclaimed the Procurator, smiling. "It's the most unsettling place on earth. It isn't only the climate — I'm ill every time I have to come here — that's only half the trouble. But these festivals! Magicians, sorcerers, wizards, the hordes of pilgrims. Fanatics — all of them. And what price this messiah of theirs, which they're expecting this year? Every moment there's likely to be some act of gratuitous bloodshed. I spend all my time shuffling the troops about or reading denunciations and complaints, half of which are directed at you. You must admit it's boring. Oh, if only I weren't in the imperial service!"
"Yes, the festivals here are trying times," agreed the visitor.
"I wish with all my heart that this one was over," said Pilate forcibly. "Then I can go back to Caesarea. Do you know, this lunatic building of Herd's — the Procurator waved at the arcade, embracing the whole palace in a gesture — " is positively driving me out of my mind. I can't bear sleeping in it. It is the most extraordinary piece of architecture in the world... However, to business. First of all — is that cursed Bar-Abba giving you any trouble?"
At this the visitor directed his peculiar stare at the Procurator, but Pilate was gazing wearily into the distance, frowning with distaste and contemplating the quarter of the city which lay at his feet, fading into the dusk. The visitor's glance also faded and his eyelids lowered again.
"I think that Bar is now as harmless as a lamb," said the visitor, his round face wrinkling. "He is hardly in a position to make trouble now."
"Too busy?" asked Pilate, smiling.
"The Procurator, as usual, has put the point with great finesse."
"But at all events," remarked the Procurator anxiously and raised a long, thin finger adorned with a black stone, "we must..."
"The Procurator may rest assured that as long as I am in Judaea Bar will not move a step without my being on his heels."
"That is comforting. I am always comforted when you are here."
"The Procurator is too kind."
"Now tell me about the execution," said Pilate.
"What interests the Procurator in particular?"
"Chiefly, whether there were any attempts at insurrection from the mob?"
"None," answered the visitor.
"Good. Did you personally confirm that they were dead?"
"Of that the Procurator may be sure."
"And tell me... were they given a drink before being gibbeted?"
"Yes. But he" — the visitor closed his eyes — "refused to drink."
"Who did?" asked Pilate.
"I beg your pardon, hegemon!" exclaimed the visitor. "Didn't I say? Ha-Notsri!"
"Madman!" said Pilate, grimacing. A vein twitched under his left eye. "To die of sunstroke! Why refuse what the law provides for? How did he refuse?"
"He said," replied the guest, shutting his eyes again, "that he was grateful and blamed no one for taking his life."
"Whom did he thank?" asked Pilate in a low voice.
"He did not say, hegemon..."
"He didn't try to preach to the soldiers, did he?"
"No, hegemon, he was not very loquacious on this occasion. His only words were that he regarded cowardice as one of the worst human sins."
"What made him say that?" The Procurator's voice suddenly trembled.
"I have no idea. His behavior was in any case strange, as it always has been."
"In what way strange?"
"He kept staring at individuals among the people standing around him, and always with that curiously vague smile on his face."
"Nothing more?" asked the husky voice.
The jug clattered against his cup as the Procurator poured himself some more wine. Having drained it he said:
"My conclusion is as follows: although we have not been able — at least not at present — to find any followers or disciples of his, we nevertheless cannot be certain that he had none,"
The visitor nodded, listening intently.
"Therefore to avoid any untoward consequences," the Procurator went on, "please remove the three victims' bodies from the face of the earth, rapidly and without attracting attention. Bury them secretly and silently so that nothing more is heard of them."
"Very good, hegemon," said the visitor. He stood up and said: "As this matter is important and will present certain difficulties, may I have your permission to go at once?"
"No, sit down again," said Pilate, restraining his visitor with a gesture. "I have a couple more questions to ask you. Firstly — your remarkable diligence in carrying out your task as chief of the secret service to the Procurator makes it my pleasant duty to mention it in a report to Rome."
The visitor blushed as he rose, bowed to the Procurator and said:
"I am only doing my duty as a member of the imperial service."
"But," said the hegemon, "if you are offered promotion and transfer to another post, I should like to ask you to refuse it and stay here. I do not wish to be parted from you on any account. I shall see to it that you are rewarded in other ways."
"I am happy to serve under you, hegemon."
"I am very glad to hear it. Now for the second question. It concerns that man... what's his name?... Judas of Karioth."
At this the visitor again gave the Procurator his open-eyed glance, then, as was fitting, hooded his eyes again.
"They say," the Procurator went on, lowering his voice, "that he is supposed to have been paid for the way he took that idiot home and made him so welcome."
"Will be paid," corrected the visitor gently.
"No one can tell, hegemon."
"Not even you?" said the hegemon, praising the man by his surprise.
"Alas, not even I," replied the visitor calmly. "But I do know that he will be paid this evening. He has been summoned to Caiaphas' palace today."
"Ah, he must be greedy, that old man from Karioth!" said the Procurator with a smile. "I suppose he is an old man, isn't he?"
"The Procurator is never mistaken, but on this occasion he has been misinformed," replied the man kindly. "This man from Karioth is a young man."
"Really? Can you describe him? Is he a fanatic?"
"Oh no, Procurator."
"I see. What else do you know about him?"
"He is very good-looking."
"What else? Has he perhaps a special passion?"
"It is hard to know so much with certainty in this huge city, Procurator."
"Come now, Arthanius! You underestimate yourself."
"He has one passion. Procurator." The visitor made a tiny pause. "He has a passion for money."
"What is his occupation?"
Arthanius looked up, reflected and answered:
"He works for one of his relatives who has a money-changer's booth."
"I see, I see." The Procurator was silent, looked round to make sure that there was no one on the balcony and then said in a low voice: "The fact is — I have received information that he is to be murdered tonight."
At this the visitor not only turned his glance on the Procurator but held it for a while and then replied:
"You have nattered me. Procurator, but I fear I have not earned your commendation. I have no such information."
"You deserve the highest possible praise," replied the Procurator, "but there is no doubting this information."
"May I ask its source?"
"You must allow me not to divulge that for the present, particularly as it is casual, vague and unreliable. But it is my duty to allow for every eventuality. I place great reliance on my instinct in these matters, because it has never failed me yet. The information is that one of Ha-Notsri's secret followers, revolted by this money-changer's monstrous treachery, has plotted with his confederates to kill the man tonight and to return his blood-money to the High Priest with a note reading: "Take back your accursed money!"
The chief of the secret service gave the hegemon no more of his startling glances and listened, frowning, as Pilate continued:
"Do you think the High Priest will be pleased at such a gift on Passover night?"
"Not only will he not be pleased," replied the visitor with a smile, "but I think, Procurator, that it will create a major scandal."
"I think so too. That is why I am asking you to look after the affair and take all possible steps to protect Judas of Karioth."
"The hegemon's orders will be carried out," said Arthanius, "but I can assure the hegemon that these villains have set themselves a very difficult task. After all, only think" — the visitor glanced round as he spoke — "they have to trace the man, kill him, then find out how much money he received and return it to Caiaphas by stealth. All that in one night? Today?"
"Nevertheless he will be murdered tonight," Pilate repeated firmly. "I have a presentiment, I tell you! And it has never yet played me false." A spasm crossed the Procurator's face and he rubbed his hands.
"Very well," said the visitor obediently. He rose, straightened up and suddenly said coldly:
"You say he will be murdered, hegemon?"
"Yes," answered Pilate, "and our only hope is your extreme efficiency."
The visitor adjusted the heavy belt under his cloak and said:
"Hail and farewell, Procurator!"
"Ah, yes," cried Pilate, "I almost forgot. I owe you some money."
The visitor looked surprised.
"I am sure you do not. Procurator."
"Don't you remember? When I arrived in Jerusalem there was a crowd of beggars, I wanted to throw them some money, I had none and borrowed from you."
"But Procurator, that was a trifle!"
"One should remember trifles." Pilate turned, lifted a cloak lying on a chair behind him, picked up a leather purse from beneath it and handed it to Arthanius. The man bowed, took the purse and put it under his cloak.
"I expect," said Pilate, "a report on the burial and on the matter of Judas of Karioth tonight, do you hear, Arthanius, tonight. The guards will be given orders to wake me as soon as you appear. I shall be waiting for you."
"Very well," said the chief of the secret service and walked out on to the balcony. For a while Pilate could hear the sound of wet sand under his feet, then the clatter of his sandals on the marble paving between the two stone lions. Then legs, torso and finally cowl disappeared. Only then did the Procurator notice that the sun had set and twilight had come.