1st May 1946.
Jesus is a guest of the rope-maker's humble family. Their house is low, with a saltish smell, close as it is to sea water. At the rear there are some smelly storehouses where goods are unloaded before they are collected by the various buyers. At the front there is a dusty road, furrowed by heavy wheels, very noisy because dockers, urchins, carters and seamen come and go incessantly. Beyond the street there is a little dockyard with dirty water soiled by the rubble thrown into it, and by its own stagnation. From the dockyard a canal flows into the actual port, capable of taking large ships. On the western side there is a large sandy square where ropes are made with squeaky twisting winches worked by hand. On the eastern side there is another little square, much smaller but more noisy and untidy, where men and women are patching up nets and sails. And beyond lie low hovels with a saltish smell, crowded with half-naked children.
One certainly cannot say that Jesus has chosen a magnificent abode. Flies, dust, bustle, the smell of stagnant water, the stink of hemp steeped before being used, reign there. And the King of kings, lying with His apostles on heaps of coarse hemp, tired as He is, falls asleep in that poor environment, partly a lumber-room, partly a storeroom, which is at the rear of the little house and from which, through a door as black as tar, one can enter the kitchen, which is also black, and through a worm-eaten door, corroded by dust and salt, so that it looks whitish-grey like pumice-stone, one comes out into the square where ropes are being made and from which comes the stench of steeped hemp.
The sun is blazing down on the square notwithstanding that there are four huge plane-trees, two at each end of the rectangular square, under which are the winches to twist the hemp. I do not know whether I am giving the implement the right name. The men, wearing tunics reduced to the bare essential for decency, running with sweat as if they were under a shower, keep turning their winches with continuous motion, as if they were galley-slaves... They speak only to say the words indispensable to their work. Thus, without the squeaking of the winch wheels, and the creaking of the hemp stretched in twisting, there is no other noise in the square, a strange contrast with the din in the other places around the house of the rope-maker.
Thus the exclamation of one of the workers is most surprising as it is uttered unexpectedly: « What? Women? At this awful time of the day?! Look! They are coming here... »
« They may be in need of ropes to tie their husbands... » says a young rope-maker jokingly.
« They may need some hemp for some work. »
« H'm! It's unlikely that they need ours, which is so coarse, when they can get it combed!? »
« Ours is cheaper. See? They are poor... »
« But they are not Jewesses. See, their mantles are different... »
« Perhaps they are not Jewesses. There are all races in Caesarea now... »
« Perhaps they are looking for the Rabbi. They may be ill... See how they are all covered, even in this heat... »
« Provided they are not lepers... Poverty, yes, but leprosy, no; I do not want it, not even to be resigned to God » says the rope-maker whom everybody obeys.
« But did you not hear the Master?: “We must accept everything God sends us.” »
« But leprosy is not sent by God. It is sent by sins, vices, contagion... »
The women are now behind them, not behind those who are speaking and are at the very end of the square, but behind those who are on the side near the house, thus the first to be met, and one of them bends to say something to one of the rope-makers, who turns round astonished and remains like a blockhead.
« Let us go and listen to them... Covered like that... With all the children I have, leprosy would be the last straw!... » says the owner who has stopped turning his winch and goes towards the women. His companions follow him...
« Simon, this woman wants something, but she speaks a foreign language. Since you have travelled, listen to her » says the man to whom the woman had spoken.
« What do you want? » asks the rope-maker rudely, trying to see her through the dark dyed byssus which covers her face.
And in the purest Greek the woman replies: « The King of Israel. The Master. »
« Ah! I see. But... are you lepers? »
« No. »
« Who can assure me? »
« He can. Ask Him. »
The man hesitates... He then says: « Well. I will make an act of faith and God will protect me... I am going to call Him. Stay where you are. »
The four women do not move, a greyish silent group, looked at with amazement and evident fear by the rope-makers, who have gathered together a few steps apart.
The man goes into the storeroom and touches Jesus Who is sleeping. « Master... Come out. They are looking for. You. »
Jesus wakes and gets up immediately asking: « Who? »
« Who knows!... Some Greek women... they are all covered... They say that they are not lepers and that You can assure me... »
« I will come at once » says Jesus tying His sandals which He had taken off, and buttoning the top part of His tunic near His neck, and putting on the belt which He had taken off to be more free in His sleep. And He goes out with the rope-maker.
The women make the gesture of starting towards them. « Stay where you are, I tell you! I do not want you to walk where my children are playing... I want Him to say first that you are healthy. » The women stop.
Jesus joins them. The tallest one, not the one who previously spoke Greek, says a word in a low voice. Jesus addresses the ropemaker: « Simon, you need not worry. The women are healthy and I have to listen to them in peace. May I go into the house?... »
« No. The old woman is there and she is more curious and chatty than a magpie. Go over there, to the end, under the shed of the vats. There is also a little room. You will be alone there and in peace. »
« Come... » says Jesus to the women. And He goes with them to the end of the square, under the unsavoury shed, into the little room as narrow as a cell, where there are broken tools, rags, refuse hemp, huge cobwebs, and where the smell of macerating-vats and mould is so strong as to catch their throats. Jesus, Who is very grave and pale, smiles lightly saying: « It is not a place in accord with your tastes... But I have nothing else... »
« We do not see the place, because we see Him Who lives in it just now » replies Plautina removing her veil and mantle, imitated by the other ladies, who are Lydia, Valeria and Albula Domitilla, a freedwoman.
« From which I infer that after all you still believe that I am a just man. »
« More than a just man. And Claudia has sent us precisely because she believes that You are more than just and she does not take into consideration the words she heard. But she wishes to have Your confirmation to double her veneration for You. »
« Or to deprive Me of it, should I appear as they tried to picture Me. But you can assure her. I have no human ambitions. My ministry and My desire are only and entirely supernatural. I do want to gather all men into one only kingdom. But what part of men? Their flesh and blood? No. I leave that, a fleeting matter, to fleeting monarchies, to unsteady empires. I want to gather under My sceptre only the spirits of men, immortal spirits in an immortal kingdom. I reject all other accounts of My will, irrespectively of whoever gave them, if they differ from that one. And I beg you to believe and to tell her who sent you, that the Truth has but one word... »
« Your apostle was so sure of himself when he told us... »
« He is an overexcited youngster. He is to be listened to as such... »
« But he is detrimental to You! Reproach him... Send him away... »
« And what about My mercy? He acts through mistaken love. So must I not pity him? And what would change if I sent him away? He would do double harm to himself and to Me. »
« So he is like a cannon-ball tied to Your foot!... »
« He is a poor wretch to be redeemed... »
Plautina falls on her knees stretching out her arms and saying: « Ah! Master, greater than anybody else, how easy it is to believe that You are holy when one feels Your heart in Your words! How easy it is to love and follow You because of Your charity, which is even greater than Your intelligence! »
« Not greater. But more understandable for you... whose intellects are hampered by too many errors and you are not generous in clearing them to receive the Truth. »
« You are right. Your divination is as great as Your wisdom. »
« As wisdom is a form of holiness it gives enlightenment of judgement, both on past or present events, and on forewarning of future ones. »
« So your prophets... »
« Were holy. God therefore communicated with them in great fullness. »
« Were they holy because they belonged to Israel? »
« They were holy because they belonged to Israel and because they were just in their actions. Because not all Israel is or was holy, although they belonged to Israel. The fact that one belongs by chance to a people or to a religion cannot make one holy. Those two conditions can be of great assistance to be so, but they are not the essential factors of holiness. »
« Which is then the factor? »
« The will of man. The will that leads the actions of man to holiness if it is good, to wickedness if it is bad. »
« Then... it is not fair to say that just people cannot be found also among us. »
« Certainly not. Nay, some just people were certainly among your ancestors, and there are certainly some among those who are living now. Because it would be too dreadful if the whole heathen world were made of demons. Those among you who feel attraction to Good and Truth and repulsion to Vice, and shun evil deeds as disgracing man, believe Me, they are already on the path of justice. »
« Claudia then... »
« Yes. And you as well. Persevere. »
« But if we should die before being... converted to You?... Of what use would it be to have been virtuous?... »
« God is just in judging. But why hesitate to come to the true God? »
The three ladies lower their heads... Silence... Then the great confession, the one which explains so many cruelties and so much resistance of the Romans against Christianity... « Because, by doing so, we would appear to be betraying our Fatherland... »
« On the contrary you would serve your Fatherland, making it morally and spiritually greater, strengthened by the possession and protection of God, in addition to its armies and riches. Rome, the City of the world, the City of the universal Religion!... Just think of that... »
There is silence...
Then Livia, blushing like a peony, says: « Master, some time ago we were seeking information on You also in the pages of our Virgil. Because, as far as we are concerned, prophecies in no way connected with any of the beliefs of Israel are of greater value to us than those of your prophets, as we feel that the latter are influenced by millenary beliefs... And we discussed the matter... comparing those who presaged You in all times, nations and religions. But no one presaged You so justly as our Virgil... How much we spoke on that day with Diomed also, the Greek freedman, an astrologer dear to Claudia! He maintained that that happened because the time was nearer and the stars spoke with their conjunctions... And in support of his thesis he put forward the fact of the three Wise men from the three Eastern countries, who had come to worship You, still a baby, causing the massacre, which struck Rome with horror... But we were not persuaded because... for over fifty years none of the wise people in the world spoke of You explaining the voices of the stars, although we are even closer to Your present revelation. Claudia exclaimed: “We would need the Master! He would speak the truth and we would know the place and the immortal destiny of our greatest poet!” Would You tell us... for Claudia... A gift to prove that she is not disliked by You because of her doubt about You... »
« I understood her reaction of a Roman and I have had no grudge against her. You may reassure her. And listen. Virgil was not great only as a poet, was he? »
« Oh! no! Also as a man. In the midst of a society already corrupt and vicious he shone with spiritual purity. No one knew him to be lewd, fond of orgies and debauchery. His writings are chaste, but even chaster was his heart. So much so that where he lived mostly, he was called the “little virgin” with mockery by vicious people, with respect by good people. »
« So, could God not be reflected in the limpid soul of a chaste man, even if that man was a heathen? Will perfect Virtue not have loved the virtuous man? And if he was granted love and the sight of Truth because of the pure beauty of his soul, could he not have had a flash of prophecy? As prophecy is nothing but the truth which is revealed to those who deserve to know the Truth as a reward and a spur to greater and greater virtue? »
« So... he did prophesy You? »
« His mind inflamed with purity and genius was elevated to the knowledge of a page concerning Me, and he can be called the just heathen poet, a pre-Christian prophetic spirit as a reward to his virtues. »
« Oh! Our Virgil!! And will he be rewarded? »
« I said: “God is just.” But do not imitate the poet stopping at his limit. Go on, because the Truth did not reveal itself to you by intuition and partly, but completely and it spoke to you. »
« Thank You, Master... We are going away. Claudia told us to ask You if she can be useful to You in moral matters » says Plautina without replying to Jesus' remark.
« And she told you to ask Me, if I was not an usurper... »
« Oh! Master! How do You know? »
« I am more than Virgil and the prophets... »
« It is true! It is all true! Can we serve You?... »
« For Myself I need but faith and love. But there is a creature who is in great danger and whose soul will be killed this evening. Claudia could save her. »
« Here? Who? Soul killed? »
« One of your patricians is giving a dinner-party and... »
« Ah! Yes! Ennius Cassius. My husband also is invited... » says Livia.
« And mine... And we, too, really. But as Claudia is not going, we will not go either. We had decided to withdraw immediately after dinner, in the event we had gone... Because... our dinners end in orgies... which we can no longer bear... And with the contempt of neglected wives we let our husbands remain... » says Valeria severely.
« Not with contempt... With pity for their moral misery... » corrects Jesus.
« It is difficult, Master... We know what happens there... »
« I also know many things which happen in hearts... and yet I forgive... »
« You are holy... »
« You must become so. Urged by My desire and spurred by your will... »
« Master!... »
« Yes. Can you say that you are as happy now as you were before meeting Me, happy with the poor brute sensual happiness of heathens unaware that they are more than flesh, now that you know a little of Wisdom?... »
« No, Master. We admit it. We are discontented, annoyed, like one who is looking for a treasure and cannot find it. »
« And it is in front of you! What annoys you is the yearning after Light of your spirits, which suffer because of your delay... in giving them what they ask for... »
There is silence... Then Plautina, without replying to Jesus' remark, says: « And what could Claudia do? »
« She could save that creature. A girl purchased for pleasure by the Roman. A virgin who will not be such tomorrow. »
« If he bought her... she belongs to him. »
« She is not a piece of furniture. Within her body there is a soul... »
« Master... our laws... »
« Women: the Law of God!... »
« Claudia is not going to the feast... »
« I am not telling her to go. I am telling you to say to her: “The Master, to be sure that Claudia does not blame Him, asks her for help for the soul of that girl”... »
« We will tell her. But she will not be able to do anything... A slave purchased... is an object of which one may dispose... »
« Christianity will teach you that a slave has a soul like the soul of Caesar, in most cases even better, and that that soul belongs to God, and he who corrupts it is cursed. » Jesus is imposing while saying so.
The women perceive His authority and severity. They bow without discussing. They put on their mantles and veils again and say: « We will report. Hail, Master. »
« Goodbye. »
The women go out into the warm square. But Plautina turns round and says: « With regard to everybody we were Greek women. Is that clear? »
« I understand. Go without worrying. »
Jesus remains under the low porch and they go away along the same road they came.
The rope-makers go back to their work...
Jesus walks back to the storeroom slowly. He is pensive. He does not lie down again. Sitting on a pile of rolled up ropes He prays fervently... The eleven apostles are still fast asleep...
Some time goes by thus... About one hour. Then the rope-maker looks in and beckons Jesus to go to the door. « There is a slave who wants You. »
The slave, a Numidian, is outside in the square still exposed to the sun. He bows and without speaking he gives Jesus a waxed tablet.
Jesus reads it and says: « Tell her that I will wait until dawn. Have you understood? »
The man nods assent and to make Jesus understand why he does not speak, he opens his mouth to show that his tongue has been cut off.
« Poor wretch! » says Jesus caressing him.
Two tears stream down the dark cheeks of the slave who takes Jesus' white hand in his dark ones, which are so much like those of a big monkey, and he rubs it against his face, he kisses it, and then throws himself on the ground. He takes Jesus' foot and lays it on his head... A language of gestures to express his gratitude for that gesture of pitiful love...
And Jesus repeats: « Poor wretch! » but He does not cure him.
The slave stands up and wants the waxed tablet back... Claudia does not wish to leave any trace of her correspondence... Jesus smiles and hands the tablet to him. The Numidian departs and Jesus approaches the rope-maker.
« I must remain here until dawn... Will you allow Me?... »
« Everything You wish. I am sorry that I am poor... »
« I am pleased that you are honest. »
« Who were those women? »
« Foreigners needing advise. »
« Healthy? »
« As you and Me. »
« Good!... Here are Your apostles... »
In fact, rubbing their eyes, stretching themselves, still half sleeping, the Eleven come out of the storeroom and go toward the Master.
« Master... we will have to have supper if You wish to leave this evening... » says Peter.
« No. I am not leaving until dawn. »
« Why? »
« Because I have been asked to do so. »
« But why? Who asked You? It was better to walk by night. It's new moon now... »
« I hope to save a creature... And that is brighter than the moon and more refreshing for Me than the coolness of the night. »
Peter draws Him aside: « What has happened? Have You seen the Roman ladies? What mood are they in? Is it them who are becoming converted? Tell me... »
Jesus smiles: If you let Me reply I will tell you, o most inquisitive man. I saw the Romans. They are going towards the Truth only very slowly. But they are not going back. It is already a lot. »
« And... with regard to what Judas said... what is the situation? »
« That they are continuing to respect Me as a wise man. »
« But... for Judas? Is he not involved?... »
« They came to see Me, not him... »
« Why then was he afraid to meet them? Why did he not want You to come to Caesarea? »
« Simon, it is not the first time that Judas is strangely capricious... »
« That is true. And... are the Romans coming tonight? »
« They have already come. »
« Why are we waiting until dawn, then? »
« And why are you so inquisitive? »
« Master, be good... Tell me everything. »
« Yes, I will... to remove all doubt... You also heard the conversation of those three Romans... »
« Yes, I did. Filthy! Plague! Demons! But what have we got to do with that?... Ah! I see! The Roman ladies will go to the dinner and then they will come and ask to be forgiven for taking part in filthiness... I am surprised that You agree. »
« And I am surprised at your rash judgement! »
« Forgive me, Master! »
« Yes, you had better know that the Roman ladies are not going to the dinner-party and that I asked Claudia to intervene on behalf of that girl... »
« Oh! But Claudia can do nothing! The girl was bought by the Roman and he can do what he likes with her! »
« But Claudia can exert much influence upon the Roman. And Claudia sent word to Me to wait until dawn before leaving. Nothing else. Are you satisfied? »
« Yes, Master, I am. But You have not rested... Come now... You are so tired! I will watch to ensure that You are left in peace... Come... » and lovingly tyrannical he pulls and pushes Jesus, compelling Him to lie down once again...
Hours go by. It is sunset, work comes to an end, and children shout louder in the streets and little squares and swallows screech in the sky. The first shades of evening descend upon the earth, and swallows go back to their nests, and children to bed. One by one all noises cease, so that one can hear only the light rippling of the water in the canal and the louder lapping of the waves on the shore. Houses, the houses of tired workmen are closed, lights go out and rest descends to make everyone blind and dumb... remote... The moon rises and adorns with her silver also the dirty sheet of water of the little dockyard, which now looks like a sheet of silver...
The apostles are sleeping once again on the hemp... Jesus, sitting on one of the winches, His hands in His lap, is praying, thinking, waiting... He does not lose sight of the street coming from town.
The moon rises, rises... She is perpendicularly above His head. The noise of the sea is louder, the smell of the canal is stronger, and the cone of the moon which plunges its beams into the sea becomes wider and wider, embracing all the expanse in front of Jesus, and fades away farther and farther: a path of light which seems to be coming towards Jesus from the end of the world, along the canal, finishing in the basin of the dockyard. And a little white boat is coming along that path. It is proceeding without leaving any trace on the liquid path, as the water becomes smooth again after it passes... It comes up the canal... It is now in the silent dockyard... It draws closer and stops. And three shadows land from it. A robust man, a woman and between them a slender figure. They direct their steps towards the house of the rope-maker.
Jesus stands up and goes to meet them. « Peace to you. Whom are you looking for? »
« For You, Master » says Lydia unveiling her face and coming forward alone. And she goes on: « Claudia has fulfilled Your desire because it was a just and completely moral matter. That is the girl. Valeria will take her later as a nurse for little Fausta. In the meantime she asks You to keep her, or, better still, to entrust her to Your Mother or to the mother of Your relatives. She is completely pagan. Nay, more than pagan. The master who brought her up, put absolutely nothing into her. She knows nothing about Olympus or anything else. She has only a holy terror of men, because life was revealed to her in all its brutality only a few hours ago... »
« Oh! How sad! Too late? »
« No, not from a material point of view... But he was preparing her for his... let us say: sacrilege. And the girl is terrified... Claudia had to leave her with that satyr while dinner lasted, as she intended to take action when wine had impaired his capability of pondering. I need not remind You that if man is always lewd in his sensual love affairs, he is much more so when he is drunk... But only then he is a laughing-stock who can be urged by force and despoiled of his treasure. And Claudia took advantage of the situation. Ennius wants to go back to Italy, whence he was sent away as he had fallen out of favour... Claudia promised his return in exchange for the girl. Ennius swallowed the bait... But tomorrow, when he is sober, he will rebel, will look for her, he will cause an uproar. It is true that tomorrow Claudia will have the means to silence him. »
« Violence? No!... »
« Oh! violence used for a good purpose is useful! But it will not be used... Only Pilate, still stunned by the quantity of wine he drank this evening, will sign the order for Ennius to go and report to Rome... Ha! Ha!... And he will leave with the first military ship. But in the meanwhile... it is wise for the girl to be elsewhere, lest Pilate should repent and revoke the order... He is so uncertain! And it is better for the girl to forget, if she can, human filth. Oh! Master!... We went to the dinner for that purpose... But how were we able to go to such orgies up to a few months ago, without feeling sick? We ran away as soon as we achieved our purpose... Our husbands are there just now emulating brutes... How disgusting, Master!... And we have to receive them after they... »
« Be austere and patient. You will improve your husbands through your exemplary conduct. »
« Oh! it is not possible!... You do not know... » The woman weeps more out of scorn than sorrow. Jesus sighs.
Lydia resumes: « Claudia asked me to tell You that she did this to prove to You that she reveres You as the Only Man Who deserves veneration. And she wants me to inform You that she thanks You for teaching her the value of a soul and of purity. She will never forget that. Do You want to see the girl? »
« Yes. And who is the man? »
« The dumb Numidian whom Claudia employs in the most secret matters. There is no danger of delation... He has no tongue... »
As in the afternoon Jesus repeats: « Poor wretch! » But even now He does not work a miracle.
Lydia goes and takes the girl by the hand and almost drags her before Jesus. She explains: « She knows few Latin words and even fewer Judaean... A little wild animal... Just an object of pleasure. » And she says to the girl: « Don't be afraid. Say “thanks” to Him. It is He Who saved you... Kneel down. Kiss His feet. Cheer up! Do not tremble!... Forgive her, Master! She is terrorised by the last caresses of drunken Ennius... »
« Poor girl! » says Jesus laying His hand on the veiled head of the girl. « Be not afraid! I will take you to My Mother, for some time. To a Mother, do you understand? And you will have so many brothers around you... Be not afraid, My dear daughter! »
What is there in Jesus' voice and looks? Everything: peace, confidence, purity, holy love. The girl perceives that, she throws back her mantle with hood to look at Him better, and the slender figure of a girl hardly at the threshold of puberty, almost still a little child, somewhat immature in comeliness, innocent looking, appears in a dress too wide for her...
« She was half-naked... I put on her the first garments I found, and I put some also in her sack... » explains Lydia.
« A little girl! » says Jesus compassionately. And stretching out His hand towards her, He asks: « Do you want to come with Me, without any fear? »
« Yes, sir. »
« No. I am not your owner. Call Me: Master. »
« Yes, Master » says the girl with more confidence and a timid smile replaces the expression of fear previously visible on her very pale face.
« Are you capable of walking a long distance? »
« Yes, Master. »
« Then you will rest at My Mother's, in My house, awaiting Fausta... a little girl of whom you will be very fond... Are you pleased? »
« Oh! Yes!... » and the girl confidently raises her clear grey-blue eyes, which are most beautiful between her golden eyebrows and she dares to ask: « No more that master? » and a flash of terror upsets her once again.
« Never again » Jesus promises once more laying His hand again on the girl's thick hair of the shade of blond honey.
« Goodbye, Master. In a few days time we shall be on the lake as well. Perhaps we shall meet again. Pray for the poor Roman ladies. »
« Goodbye, Lydia. Tell Claudia that these are the conquests which I expect, and nothing else. Come, child. We are leaving at once... » And holding her by the hand He looks in at the door of the storeroom calling the apostles.
While the boat, without leaving any trace of its voyage sails back to the open sea, Jesus and the apostles, with the girl enveloped in a mantle in the middle of the group, go towards the country through narrow desert streets of the outskirts...