It was about four o’clock. In the centurions’ quarters at the barracks sat two men. A third stood by the arched window, anxiously watching the sky. The earthquake shock had been a severe one; and still at intervals slight tremors shook the building. The two older centurions were drinking their ration of sour wine; the younger one had left his untouched. No one spoke.
A fourth man entered the room and sat down heavily on a wooden bench by the table. In silence he poured himself out some wine and drank it down. He laid aside his helmet and began to unbuckle his breastplate. One of the older centurions looked up.
“What’s wrong, Longinus?” he said. “You look done in. Been on duty?”
“How many today?”
“Oh well, that’s not too bad,” remarked the second veteran, whose name was Justus. “The last time I was in charge of the crucifixion squad we had seven to deal with. Still, it’s a beastly job; I’d rather be on any duty than execution work.”
“It’s horrible at any time,” said Longinus; “but to-day—” He stopped abruptly.
“Oh, the earthquake; yes,” put in Varro, the man who had spoken first. “Makes you feel queer, doesn’t it? I’ve never known a shock as bad as to-day’s.”
“The gods are angry,” said Longinus simply and with conviction.
“Don’t, Longinus!” the younger man by the window spoke for the first time.
“Cornelius is not himself today,” explained Varro, with a wink at his comrades.
“I was on duty at the praetorium this morning,” said Cornelius; “the proconsul gave orders that a prisoner should be scourged. I was in charge.”
“You’re too soft hearted, Cornelius,” said Justus; “You’ll get used to it when you’ve seen as much service as I have.”
“I’ve had to scourge men myself,” answered Cornelius, “before I got my promotion. I’ve always hated it; but duty is duty. But today it was not the actual scourging I minded so much; it was the prisoner. If ever an innocent man was condemned, it was this fellow, Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Better that one innocent Jew should die rather than a lot of innocent Romans,” put in Justus. “The riot might have been very serious if the Governor hadn’t given way. Varro and I had orders to stand by with a strong contingent in case things got worse. These Jews are a tough lot when their blood’s up. I thank the gods the Governor took the sensible line.”
“And I feel that I’d willingly have risked my life to save this man,” said Cornelius. “You didn’t see him, Justus. I did. We Romans pride ourselves on our bravery—on our power to endure pain without flinching. We have something to learn from Jesus of Nazareth. All through the scourging he never uttered a word. I went back to Pilate to report that the sentence had been carried out. He kept me waiting for some minutes. When I got back to the guardroom, I found the men had dressed up the prisoner in an old cloak of Galba’s; they were just pushing a wreath of thorns down on his head and were mocking him with cries of ‘Hail! King of the Jews!’ It was the bully Voltumus who was chiefly responsible. How could the men insult a prisoner who had far more courage than themselves? Anyhow, I soon put a stop to it, and led Jesus back, just as he was, to the Governor. Those were my orders. I think Pilate hoped for the crowd to show some pity. But it was no good; they wouldn’t give way; and Pilate signed the order for crucifixion. I don’t know why—but I feel that this Jew’s death will be an eternal blot on the honour of Rome. He was something more than an ordinary man. It was not only his courage; it was everything about him. I felt as if we were scourging one of the gods.”
“It’s queer you should say that,” he answered; “for that very thought has been running in my head for the last three hours: ‘Are we crucifying a God?’”
The two older men laughed; but Longinus continued: “You wouldn’t laugh, if you’d been on Skull Hill today. Listen. The prisoner was handed over to me with two others—two of Barabbas’ band. When we were halfway to Skull Hill, this Jesus almost collapsed; I could see he was faint from the scourging and I impressed a Jewish pilgrim—a fellow from Africa—to carry his cross. Exhausted as the prisoner was, he walked with perfect composure and dignity to the place of execution. We nailed the two robbers first; they struggled and cursed, of course—the usual thing. But Jesus just stood, calmly waiting his turn.
“As the men were nailing him, I saw his lips moving and I thought he wanted to speak to me. I bent down and caught his words: ‘Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.’ He was praying to his God—and not to save him from his pain; he was praying for us. That got me, I can tell you. ‘They don’t know what they are doing;’ what were we doing? I tried to think; but I couldn’t get anything clearly. The cross was set up between the other two and the men were dicing for the prisoners’ clothes. I took up my position at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and again I tried to think. ‘They don’t know what they are doing’; those words went round and round in my head. We were crucifying an innocent man. I felt sure of that, but a soldier must obey orders. And what was it he called his God? ‘Father.’ Then it came to me; we had crucified the son of a god; that’s why we needed the pardon of Heaven. And he was praying his Father-God to forgive us.
“All this time the crowd were hurling insults at him; and even the accursed Jewish priests came to mock him in his pain. ‘He saved others,’ they sneered; ‘he can’t save himself. Let the Messiah come down from the cross and we’ll believe in him.’
“Even the two highwaymen on the other cross tried to win a bit of cheap popularity by cursing him; till one of them, seeming to feel his greatness, suddenly changed his tone; in a low voice he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Quick as a flash, Jesus looked up with a smile and answered: ‘To-day you shall be with me in Paradise.’ Those were the first words he had spoken since he prayed for us. Not a word in answer to the insults flung at him.”
“In Paradise? What did he mean by that?” asked Varro.
“That’s the Jews word for Hades, isn’t it?” said Justus.
“Well, not quite,” answered Cornelius; “they think only the best of their people go to Paradise. It’s their place of happiness.”
“Then how could this Jesus promise the robber he would go there?” objected Justus.
“Perhaps he has the power to give him pardon,” said Longinus. “There was no trace of doubt in his tone. I’m sure those two are together now in Paradise—wherever Paradise is.
“By this time most of the crowd had drifted away. But I saw at a little distance away several women and a young Jew, who were obviously friends of the prisoner. I hadn’t noticed them before because of the crush of people. I beckoned to the young man and asked if he wanted to speak to Jesus. He just asked me if he might bring Jesus’ mother nearer to the cross. It could do no harm, so I gave him leave. When Jesus saw them approaching, he looked straight at his mother and said: ‘He shall be your son.’ Then, turning to the boy: ‘She shall be your mother.’ No more than that; he must have seen the poor woman couldn’t stand much more. I take it he was asking his young friend to take care of his mother and make a home for her. The young man led her back to the city; I watched them go through the gates in the growing darkness. The other women followed them to the foot of the hill and stayed there—all except one young girl, who sat down on a stone where she could see the prisoner. I wondered if she could be his sister, but she was a bit young for that. Anyway we left her alone and there she sat on and on without moving, without crying. She was still there when Crastinus relieved me.
“The hill was now quite deserted except for the three crosses and the solitary girl and the guard. The sky was very overcast and all the sightseers had left the spot in fear of the approaching earthquake. It got darker and darker; you know what it’s been like most of the afternoon. Looking up at the crosses, I could see no more than the limbs of the prisoners, glimmering white in the gloom.
“Suddenly from the centre cross came a cry. It was in Hebrew, so I didn’t understand. One of my men, who has learnt a little of the ancient tongue, thought Jesus was calling to one of the old Jewish prophets. But I don’t know; it sounded to me like the cry of a man who has lost his way through life for the first time.
“After that there was dead silence, for nearly two hours. The strain of it was terrible. We waited there in the dark for the first shock of the earthquake. But worse than that was the feeling that on the hill an awful crime was being committed; and I couldn’t get it out of my head that some of the guilt was mine. I was glad when Jesus spoke again; it gave me something to do—and something to do for him. All he said was: ‘I’m thirsty.’ I ran to the jar of wine set aside for the soldiers, dipped in the sponge and lifted it on a pole to his mouth. He didn’t touch it; but I could swear he was thanking me—me, who had charge of his crucifixion. He seemed to be always thinking of someone else—not of himself; first me and the execution squad, then the highwaymen, then his mother and his friend—and now me again.
“This was almost the end. But now a sudden gleam of light struck through the gloom of the sky upon the middle cross. Jesus raised his head; his face shone with a look of glorious happiness; he uttered a great cry, ‘It is finished,’—and his head sank again. He just whispered: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’—and it was all over.”
Longinus paused. The others waited.
“Then came the shock. First a little rumble in the far distance, then coming nearer and nearer—then the whole earth began to tremble. And to me, as I stood at the foot of that cross, it seemed as if the gods had given a sign. It felt as if the earth would open to swallow up the whole might and glory of Rome, and that the cross of Jesus was the only thing which would stand above the ruin.”
The four men sat in silence for a long time. Then Cornelius rose and went again to the window.
“The sky has cleared,” he said. “See, the evening sunlight is breaking through.”
“I’ve been puzzling,” said Longinus, “what he meant by ‘it is finished.’”
“Suffering over, I suppose,” suggested Varro.
“No, that wasn’t it,” replied Longinus; “it was like the shout of a victorious warrior. You’d have thought he’d gained a great triumph, not a criminal’s death.”
“Well, he’s out of his pain now,” said Justus with rough sympathy; “death’s the end for all of us.”
“Not for Jesus,” said Longinus positively; “you forget his last words: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ ‘Father,’ again; the god he prayed to before. No, the gods don’t die; and certainly this man was the son of a god.”
Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts