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St. Peter and Mordecai by Johannes Jorgensen

Translated By Ann R. Born

I.

It was during the time when Our Lord walked the earth with his apostles. As is generally known, Our Lord was a poor man. He had no regular employment, neither with State nor borough, he was not in an office, he was certainly no University professor or minister of the church. He had no private income to live on, and he had no door on which he could knock on the first day of each month and when bidden to come in walk over to the counter, remove his hat, sign a receipt and be paid so and so many five pound notes. To be blunt about it, Our Lord lived on charity, but he never had enough to enable him to put something aside for a rainy day (not that he wanted to do that anyway). He couldn't, perhaps, be arrested for lacking the means of subsistence, because he always had enough for his immediate needs; the other question directed at vagrant persons, that is, as to where they live, was more serious. Our Lord had no permanent address, he caused the registration office not a few headaches—at one moment he was stated to be living in Capernaum as a lodger of Simon bar Jona's mother-in-law, and the next in Bethany, where he had a room at the house of one named Lazarus—a house of somewhat ill repute, as a matter of fact—"You know, the sister, the one from Magdala"—"Oh, the beautiful Miriam—with the red hair—stunning bit of goods—but, well..."

But Our Lord couldn't always count on getting to either Capernaum or Bethany by evening. The Holy Land is small, of course—but even so, when you are on foot the roads are long enough. And the apostles, who faithfully followed Our Lord from Dan to Beersaba and from Sion to Djebel Hermon, were not all such good walkers—for instance, Peter was no longer so young; neither was Matthew, who had spent half his lifetime sitting behind the counter in his customs house, any great lover of hiking expeditions. On the other hand John was usually ahead of all the others—often he was joined by Nathanael—John was so eager to know what Nathanael had been thinking about "when he was sitting there beneath the fig tree," but Nathanael only replied that it was a secret between the Master and himself.

Then one evening Our Lord and the twelve faithful happened to lose their way among the mountains of Judaea. They were coming from thee north and had intended to go on as far as Ain Karim to stay with the family of John the Baptist. But they had taken the wrong road at Nebi Samuil—and when darkness fell and the first jackal appeared beside the road, they found themselves in the middle of a stony, deserted valley. They came to a halt—the disciples gathered about the Master, at a loss as to what to do. Peter bent down, got hold of a stone and aimed it at the jackal, not hitting it, but causing it to run off. From a short distance they heard its eery laugh—which was answered by other jackals round about among the rocks.

"Why did you do that, Simon?" said the Master reprovingly. "Now you have set all the jackals on to us."

Peter struck the sword he wore at his belt.

"I will defend you, Rabbi!"

"All right," came the reply (and there was a smile in the answering voice). "All right, Simon bar Jona, you had better go up over the hill and see if you can't catch a glimpse of a house. The new Roman town which the Latins call Castellum must lie somewhere in this direction. Meanwhile, we others will say Evensong."

And while Peter disappeared up over the slope (the stones slipping and slithering under his feet) the twelve recited De Profundis—"We call to Thee from the depths, O Lord." But the prayer was hardly finished before there came a shout from the scouting apostle, who had just reached the brow of the hill—"Come up here! I can see a light!"

He was right. The light was not far away. Before long the tired band was standing outside the door and knocking. But just at that moment the light inside was extinguished.

"Knock again, Peter," commanded the Master.

A peevish voice answered from within: "What do you want? I am in bed with my children—I have washed my feet and I don't want to soil them again by walking on the floor. There is a caravanserai farther on— people will still be up there. Go along there!"

There was a short silence among those outside. "Caravanserai—that's all very well! A caravanserai needs paying for. How much is there in the money-bag, Judas?"

Judas felt the purse which he wore at his belt—it was not heavy. "And there is bread to be bought for us all first thing to-morrow," he added. "Unless you all want to fast?"

"Knock once more, Simon," ordered the Master.

They heard a small child begin to cry inside the house—then there was a rustling sound as if somebody had got up from a mattress of maize leaves—the sound of naked footsteps padded across the stone floor—a bolt was drawn back—and a middle-aged Jew showed his hooked nose and grizzled beard through the cautiously opened crack in the door.

"Adonai, Lord of Hosts," he burst out in horror, when he saw how many were standing out there in the dark wanting to come in. And he hastily made as if to shut the door.

But Peter had already wedged his foot in—and in a confidential half- whisper he informed the owner of the house as to WHO it was who stood before him.

"Rabbi Joshua ben Joseph—oh, yes, I've heard a lot about him," came the answer, almost amiably. "There is room for the Rabbi under my poor roof, but as for all you others—how many of you are there? Twelve! No, for all you others there is the caravanserai, as I said! Master, walk in!"

And with these words the owner of the house flung the door wide open. But after Our Lord came Peter—and after Peter, Andrew—and after Andrew, John—and Nathanael—and Judas, who clasped the money-bag tightly so that the silver coins in it should not chink and raise hopes of payment in the owner of the house....Finally the whole house was full of apostles, who lay down to sleep in all the corners.

II.

The next morning Peter was up betimes talking to their host, whose name was Mordecai, of the tribe of Levi. "You may be sure," he explained to the man, who was none too satisfied, "that you will not have done this for nothing. You know who my Master is—and you also know that he has no silver nor gold—but he can give you things worth far more than they. Ask what you will of him—and your desire will be fulfilled. But be careful to ask sensibly! You don't get such an opportunity every day."

The good man will most likely wish for wealth, good health, a long life, thought Peter. Or, if he is a devout Israelite, he will pray for the forgiveness of his sins and a place in Abraham's bosom after death...

Before long the apostles stood ready to leave, gathered about their Master—barefoot, no staff in hand, no purse or bag at their belt. They all thanked their host heartily and begged him to excuse them for pushing their way in the night before. "And now, wish!" said Peter.

Now it should be mentioned that the previous evening, when the lamp had been rekindled in order that the many uninvited guests could find themselves resting places, Peter had seen a box of dice standing on the table. He had been amazed to find a Jew who played dice in such a deserted village—this foreign game had only just begun to be known in Jerusalem, where it had been introduced by the Roman soldiers.

The dice-box was still on the table in the morning, and Simon Zelotes (which stands for The Zealous One) looked at it somewhat disapprovingly. Judas had been a strict Pharisee and still had trouble in accepting the new commandment: "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

But now a most extraordinary thing happened. "You may wish a wish," said Peter, "and the Master will give you everything you wish for."

Mordecai looked at the Master, who nodded and said Amen.

Then the old Jew picked up the dice-box. "Master," he said, "let me always win whenever I play with these dice—even if it should be with Satan himself!"

"Miserable man," burst out Peter. "Is that all you can think of to wish for?"

"I have no other wish," answered the grey-haired Israelite calmly.

They all looked at the Master—and again the reply came from his lips: "Amen! So be it!"

III.

The years passed. Everyone is familiar with the events that followed. The Rabbi of Nazareth suffered, died, rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven, from where He has not yet returned to judge the quick and the dead. Simon bar Jona went to Rome, preached the Gospel, suffered, died, was buried beside the Via Aurelia below the hill of the Vatican, and received his position in eternal glory as keeper of the gates of Paradise. The keys are his—and his alone; if he shut the door no-one shall ever open it, if he open it no-one may shut it.

The time came for Mordecai of the Levi tribe too to forsake his earthly abode and go to where the way divides—one way is narrow and dark and leads upwards, another goes downwards and is broad and brightly lit and paved with good intentions. At the parting of the ways stands a sign-board like those on the French railways: Bifur—and so that nobody should go wrong, an angel stands beside the sign-post and directs people where to go.

All his life Mordecai had walked in righteousness, and the angel directed him to take the narrow path.

"Mayn't I go a little way along the broad one?" asked Mordecai.

"Good Heavens," answered the angel. "Anyone who holds a ticket to Heaven is allowed to go where he will on the Other Side. But take care you don't get run over."

The warning was timely—an elegant car with a lovely young lady at the wheel whizzed past Mordecai, roaring to hell in a cloud of petrol fumes.

The old Jew kept to the pavement. Traffic was brisk, both there and on the carriageway—eventually there was such a jam that the cars had to be parked and everyone continued on foot. Mordecai had not experienced such a crush since the previous Easter in the fore-court of the temple at Jerusalem—and he thought now that he could recognise a number of the faces he had so often seen there at festival times behind the tables of the money-lenders and pigeon-vendors. Mordecai was about to greet them—but somehow they didn't seem to want to be known. So he restrained his courtesy—and besides, he had far more important matters to attend to.

For it was certainly not for his own pleasure that he was treading the road to Hell to-day. The reason was quite another one; the good Mordecai had a fairly certain idea that several members of his family, not less than twelve in number, who had already mistaken the right way when they were on earth, had gone wrong in eternity too. And it was his plan now to try to pass the time of day with them at least—who knows—perhaps there was still a chance of doing something for them?

Thus considering, Mordecai arrived at the main entrance to Hell. He could see inside—long avenues of lights, coloured lanterns in the trees, music and a crowd of strolling, laughing, flirting people. There was a turnstile at the gate, and the clicking noise of it went on incessantly, new joyous guests streamed through continuously. Mordecai joined the queue and at length came to the entrance.

"Ticket, please?"

That nearly put a stop to Mordecai's plan. Of course he had a ticket— but it was WHITE. And you could only go in on RED tickets. A small discussion ensued—until finally a superior inspector decided the dispute. Mordecai was in the right—white tickets granted safe-conduct for Heaven, Purgatory, and...HERE.

"By the way, though, what brings you down to us, Mr. Mordecai?" asked the polite inspector.

Well, it so happened that Mordecai was rather keen on having a chat with some of his family. The inspector did not see why he shouldn't.

Mordecai gathered his courage together. Might it perhaps be possible for him to take them away with him—to another place—if it wasn't too much to ask?

The inspector immediately became rather more guarded. It depended chiefly upon the persons concerned, he declared. But Mordecai felt quite certain on that score—who would not gladly leave the eternal prison if they were given the chance?

"You may be right," replied the official politely. "But of course such permission can only be given by one person—by the President of the Republic of Hell. His Excellency Field Marshal Lucifer."

"I rather suspected that," answered Mordecai, still keeping his spirits up. "Do you think I could have a word with the President?"

"Actually the President only receives in audience at midnight. But I imagine he would make an exception in the case of such a rare visitor. It is 6 o'clock now—the President dines at 7 o'clock—I will see if it might not be possible just before dinner. In the meantime it might amuse you to see our latest film 'Christian Women naked on the Beach at Miami.' Or if you prefer something historical, there is the Massacre of Czar Nicholas and his family—the bodies are chopped up— soaked in petrol and burnt—an interesting cultural spectacle..."

Mordecai had his audience earlier than had been expected. The President received him in his study. A writing desk, practically bare- -no telephone—only on the walls a row of shining screens, where pictures showing everything of importance happening anywhere in the world, i.e. all serious transgressions against the ten commandments, immediately appeared to the Chief. Mordecai made out ten screens—and over each one were printed in Hebrew the ancient words from Moses' stone tablets—printed in mockery as an impotent protest against the reality of life and the powers of darkness.

"Well, Mr. Mordecai," began the President, using one of the three official languages of Hell, English,—"Well, Mr. Mordecai, and what can I do for you?"

Without thinking Mordecai began to talk in Hebrew, his native tongue, stopped himself and started to continue in English. But the President stayed him with a wave of the hand—"No, Mr. Mordecai, go on—Hebrew, Russian and English are our official languages! I understand you perfectly."

Then Mordecai stated his undeniably bold request. There followed a short silence—His Excellency fingered the sole decoration he wore on his fiery red uniform tunic—a small iron swastika. "And what have you got to offer me in return for the dozen sinful souls you wish to export from the Republic?" came the voice of Lucifer at length.

Mordecai felt in the inner pocket of his tunic—yes, the miraculous dice-box was there! He took it out and placed it on the desk.

Then: "Your Excellency," he said, "I will give you my own soul, the soul of a righteous man. But as I know that you have no jurisdiction over me, your Excellency, I will make a pact with you of my own free will. Here are these dice—one throw with them and the matter is decided. If you win, then the twelve souls in question must remain here, and I with them. If I win, all thirteen of us shall be free!"

It was plain to see that Lucifer was tempted. He prefers chess, certainly—more than once he has checkmated his white opponent with those black men of his. But always the White Queen proves her superiority over him and saves the game, often at the last moment. However, playing dice is a good game too—and the stakes were tempting—the soul of Mordecai the Righteous...

He grasped the box firmly—glanced into it first to see whether there had been any hanky-panky with it—and threw. There were three dice and they turned up 6, 6 and 5. Lucifer put his hand to his to hide a smile—there would have to be a miracle if Mordecai his twelve sinners were to be saved. And miracles...!

Then the dice rattled for the second time; they showed 6, 6—and 6.

IV.

Mordecai and the twelve souls he had rescued stood before the gates of Heaven and rang the bell. The doors were opened by St. Peter himself— he did not recognise Mordecai—but seeing that the man had a white ticket—well, come in!

"But those others behind there—who are they—may I see their tickets?"

"Oh," answered Mordecai, "they're just with me," and with that he tried to rush the whole flock inside, past St. Peter, without showing their tickets of admission (which they did not possess, anyway). But the ancient guard of the heavenly gates was not going to play—he hastily lowered the iron grating in the door—"Nobody comes in here at face value!"

Then Mordecai approached the grating by himself and asked to be allowed to say just a word or two between the iron bars to St. Peter. The request was granted—St. Peter laid his ear to the grating as if it were the confessional, and Mordecai spoke quite quietly.

"Do you remember," he said softly (and again he spoke in Hebrew, which is also one of the official languages of HEAVEN—there are only two, the other being Latin). "Do you remember, one evening your Master and you and the eleven had lost your way in a deserted valley among the mountains of Judaea? The jackals were beginning to come out, and you threw a stone after one and the Master reproved for doing so. Then he commanded you to go to the top of one of the hills and look around for a light—and you saw a light—and the light was in my house. And you all came and stood outside my house and knocked..."

"Ah yes," whispered St. Peter back. "Now I remember—you wouldn't let us in—you had washed your feet and didn't want to soil them again..."

"That was what I said," answered Mordecai, "but what did I do? I opened the door to your Master—and all the rest of you crowded in after him—and I didn't drive you out!"

"No," answered St. Peter. "That's right. You didn't do that. On the contrary you put us all up—you saw to it that the Master had a resting-place—and the twelve of us too!"

"And now," said Mordecai and knew that he had triumphed. "Now I stand here outside the gate and knock. And you will gladly open up for me, as I opened up for the Master. But the others will push in after me— and you won't drive them out, I know, dear, holy Peter, you will take them in together with me to eternal Rest!"

 
 
 

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