The Roman sagged low in his saddle as his horse wearily descended toward the distant lake. He was old, and he was tired: tired of mind as of body, and wondering whether, after all, his wandering life of insatiable curiosity about men and things had been the best manner in which to spend the years all too few in total. The unfinished manuscript that recorded many curious observations about men and things and places reposed, stained and crumpled, in his saddlebags. Would he live to see the fair copies from the pens of the scribes? Who would read it, and with what understanding?
“Look, Master,” said the servant from behind. “A villa on the cliff. Shelter for the night, perhaps? The air is chill in these Helvetian mountains.”
“Good; we will ride over.”
On the villa steps awaited a man still older; a Jew, the Roman saw with some distaste. A Jew whose eyes were black as night, and hair and beard white; a man with a thin face and eagle nose. He greeted them courteously but with something of a shrinking air, and invited them in for food and rest. The Roman and his man washed and changed their clothing, as the former wondered what brought such a man to this far place; why one with wealth enough to build this villa should place it in such solitude.
After eating, they sat together and gazed upon the brilliant sunset as it died across the lake, casting a black silhouette of the western mountains. They sat together, these two of races of ancient enmity, and something about the Jew stirred a memory in the Roman; some cut of face, or turn of head, or other mannerism. They talked, and the exile slowly thawed, listening eagerly and commenting freely on the events of the Empire, of which it seemed he had heard little for many months. Within the villa, the voices of two servants grew upon the air in intimate conversation as the level in the jug sank low. The traveler felt within him a strange compassion, responding to some deep tragedy in this man of alien race. Suddenly it came to him.
“Iscariot!” he said. “You are Iscariot, named Judas! But how - I thought -”
“That I had hanged myself? That is the Christian story of it - made up to terrify others who might offend against their Lord.”
“What happened then?”
“When I saw the faces of His followers on the way to Golgotha, I knew my life hung by a hair in Jerusalem. These religious fanatics have no restraints, no end to their enmities and vengeances. I fled the city.”
“It is true that the disciple Thomas pruned a Roman ear in Gethsemane. But his Master healed it, and since then no deed of blood has been credibly reported of His followers. Perhaps, my friend, the thing of dread was not in their faces, but in your eyes.”
“Aye ... perhaps ... it may be so. I have come to wonder and to doubt concerning many things; even ... concerning Him.”
“Iscariot - may I speak frankly?”
The Jew shrank; then sat erect. “Say on. It is better to hear the thought than to wonder about it.”
“Iscariot - your name is dirt in the streets of Rome as of Jerusalem. He has few followers; yet fewer still like the manner of his taking off. Rome holds naught against him; the Jews find him false as a prophet, yet it sits ill upon their minds that one of his own turned him in under the guise of friendship. You were a good man - (as Jews go, he almost said) as men are reckoned; honest, kind, and charitable. It could not have been the money, I think; for you were not poor.”
“It was not the money. The thirty pieces I threw at the feet of the priests; that much is true. It was - other things. Many things.”
The historian in the Roman was aroused.
“Why not speak fully?”
“Yes - I will ... At the beginning I believed in this Ben Pandira with all my soul. In him I verily saw Jehovah descended to His people. And then - I cannot remember all - it is vague; but many matters that I have forgotten came between. I do not recall their nature now, but I know that they were, and that they were sore and grievous - such speech and such deeds as ill became the King of the Jews. Somewhere - somewhere at a time that I cannot place, His image became black in my mind; and I knew Him ... I though I knew Him - as the betrayer of His people.”
“According to our understanding of the Prophecies, He was to have come as a great conqueror, to trample the oppressor - your kind, if you will pardon - underfoot, and raise us to our ancient glory. Instead - he taught us to love our fetters and kiss the bloody lash of the Roman whip. Very strange it seemed that Rome cared so little about his freely running the streets and gathering crowds - this man ordained, if he spoke truly, to free the race from the ancient yoke. Thus by degrees - helped by many strange things he did and would not explain - it came clear in my mind that this Pandira, called the Christ, was in secret an agent of the oppression. His followers were mad - I could not enlighten them and knew better than to try. So, learning of the hatred of the priests, I consorted with them to destroy Him. Having been led by Him to betray my people, it seemed that all I could do in recompense was to sacrifice my honor in betraying Him in turn. Thus it was.”
“Now I am a lost man. The years have worn away so many things I held so sure. I remember things I forgot then - many, many things that He did, that no mortal man could do. Much He endured in love and patience that man could not endure at all. Now I fear he was our deliverer; but that we did not understand the manner of it.”
The Roman sat long looking across the darkling lake, while strange thoughts thronged his mind and vistas seemed to open into future ages.
“I - I had thought of it. But I cannot. The Christians would not forgive me, and to all others I would then become a double betrayer. I should be all alone - alone and hated. Now I am alone - and forgotten. It is better ...I would be useless sacrifice in any case, for who would believe me? Would any single man turn to Him because of anything that I could say? It is all over - it was all so long ago. Best let the dead bury the dead.”
“It might seem useless now. But history has a way of sorting out things. What of a thousand years from now?”
“A thousand years from now I shall have been dust for ages. What concern have I for that? It is now that I live - and there is little of life left to me. I would end it in peace.”
The Roman’s argument ceased; for he saw that this man, now as hitherto, thought of himself first, all other things afterward. So it had secretly been, unknown to himself, even in the days of his highest devotion to the Messiah, and hence easy for the thirty pieces of silver to disguise themselves to him. After a few perfunctory words, the Roman left for his bed; the other sat, shriveling deeper into his robe as the chill of night and death sank slowly into his aging bones.
Last Update : January