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The Lord's Prayer in B by James Huneker

 

At the close of the first day they brought Baruch into the great Hall of the Oblates, sometime called the Hall of the Unexpected. The young man walked with eyes downcast. Aloft in the vast spaces the swinging domes of light made more reddish his curly beard, deepened the hollows on either side of his sweetly pointed nose, and accented the determined corners of his firmly modelled lips. He was dressed in a simple tunic and wore no Talith; and as he slowly moved up the wide aisle the Grand Inquisitor, visibly annoyed by the resemblance, said to his famulus, “The heretic dares to imitate the Master.” He crossed himself and shuddered.

Mendoza abated not his reserve as he drew near the long table before the Throne. Like a quarry that is at last hemmed in, the Jew was quickly surrounded by a half thousand black-robed monks. The silence—sick, profound, and awful—was punctuated by the low, sullen tapping of a drum. Its droning sound reminded the prisoner of life-blood dripping from some single pore; the tone was B, and its insistent, muffled, funereal blow at rhythmic intervals would in time have worn away rock. Mendoza felt a prevision of his fate; being a musician he knew of music's woes and warnings. And he lifted eyes for the first time since his arrest in a gloomy, star-lit street of Lisbon.

He saw bleached, shaven faces in a half circle; they seemed like skulls fastened on black dummies—so immobile their expression, so deadly staring their eyes. The brilliant and festal appearance of the scene oppressed him and his eyeballs ached. Symphonies of light were massed over the great high walls; glistening and pendulous, they illuminated remote ceilings. There was color and taunting gaiety in the decoration; the lofty panels contained pictures from the classic poets which seemed profane in so sacred an edifice, and just over the Throne gleamed the golden tubes of a mighty organ. Then Baruch Mendoza's eyes, half blinded by the strange glory of the place to which he had been haled, encountered the joyful and ferocious gaze of the Grand Inquisitor. Again echoed dolefully the tap of the drum in the key of B, and the prisoner shuddered.

A voice was heard: “Baruch Mendoza, thou art before the Throne, and one of the humblest of God's creatures asks thee to renounce thy vile heresies.” Baruch made no answer. The voice again modulated high, its menace sweetly hidden.

“Baruch Mendoza, dost thou renounce?” The drum counted two taps. Baruch did not reply. For the third time the voice issued from the lips of the Grand Inquisitor, as he drew the hood over his face.

“Baruch Mendoza, dog of a Jew, dog of a heretic, believer in no creed, wilt thou recant the evil words of thy unspeakable book, prostrate thyself before the altar of the Only God, and ask His forgiveness? Answer, Baruch Mendoza!”

The man thus interrogated wondered why the Hall of the Oblates was adorned with laughing Bacchantes, but he responded not. The drum tapped thrice, and there was a burst of choral music from the death-like monks; they chaunted the Dies Iræ, and the sonorous choir was antiphonally answered with anxious rectitude from the gallery, while the organ blazed out its frescoed tones. And Baruch knew that his death-hymn was being sung.

To him, a despiser of the vesture of things, to him the man with the spiritual inner eye, whose philosophy was hated and feared because of its subtle denial of the God in high heaven, to Baruch Mendoza the universe had seemed empty with an emptiness from which glared no divine Judge—his own people's Jahveh—no benignant sufferer appeared on the cross. He saw no future life except in the commingling of his substance with the elements; and for this contumacious belief, and his timidly bold expression of it, he had been waylaid and apprehended in the gloomy star-lit street of Lisbon.

The single tap of the drum warned him; the singing had ceased. And this bitter idealist, this preacher of the hollowness of the real, wondered where were the sable trappings of woe, the hideous envisagement of them that are condemned with mortuary symbols in garbs of painted flame to the stake, faggot, axe, and headsman. None of these were visible, and the gentle spirit of the prisoner became ruffled, alarmed. He expected violence but instead they offered churchly music. Restless, his nerves fretted, he asked himself the reason. He did not fear death, for he despised life; he had no earthly ties; his life's philosophy had been fittingly enunciated; and he knew that even though a terrible death overtook him his seed had fallen on ripe soil. As he was a descendant from some older system that denied the will to live, so would he in turn beget disciples who would be beaten, burned and reviled by the great foe to liberty—the foe that strangled it before Egypt's theocracy, aye! before the day of sun-worshippers invoking their round, burning god, riding naked in the blue. Baruch pondered these things, and had almost lost his grasp on time and space when something jarred his consciousness.

It was the tap of the drum, sombre, dull, hollow and threatening; he shivered as he heard its percussive note, and with a start remembered that the Dies Iræ had been chaunted in the same key. Once more he wondered.

A light touch on the shoulder brought him realization. He stood almost alone; the monks were gliding down the great Hall of the Oblates and disappearing through a low arched door, the sole opening in the huge apartment. One remained, a black friar, absolutely hooded.

Baruch followed him. The pair noiselessly traversed the wonderful hall with its canopies of light, its airy arches, massive groinings and bewildering blur of color and fragrance; the air was thick and grateful with incense. Exactly in the middle of the hall there rested on the floor a black shadow, a curiously shaped shadow. It was a life-sized crucifix which Baruch had not seen before. To it he was led by the black friar, who motioned him to the floor; then this unbelieving Jew and atheist laid himself humbly down, and with outstretched arms awaited his end.

In few rapid movements the prisoner was chained to the cross; and with a penetratingly sweet smile the friar gave him a silent blessing, while Baruch's eyes followed the dazzling tracery on the ceiling, and caught a glimpse of the golden, gleaming organ tubes above the Throne of Judgment.

The stillness was so profound that he heard the soft sighs of the candles, the forest of unnumbered candles; the room was windless. Again the singular fancy overtook him that the key of B ruled the song of the lights, and he stirred painfully because certain sounds irritated him, recalling as a child his vague rage at the Kol Nidrei, which was sung in the key of B at the synagogue.

He closed his eyes a moment and opened them with fright, for the drum sounded near his head, though he could not turn to see it. Suddenly he was encircled by ten monks and chaunting heard. Mendoza noticed the admirable monotone, the absolute, pitch, and then, with a leap of his heart, the key color B again; and the mode was major.

The hooded monks sang in Latin the Lord's Prayer. “Our Father,” they solemnly intoned—“Our Father who art in Heaven; hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”

Baruch tried to sleep. The rich voices lulled him into temporary rest; he seemed to have slept hours. But he knew this was impossible, for the monks were singing the Lord's Prayer when he awoke. He grew exasperated; why need they pray over him? Why did they not take him to his damp cell to rot or to be eaten by vermin? This blaze of light was unendurable; it penetrated his closed eyelids, painted burning visions on his brain, and the music—the accursed music—continued. Again the Lord's Prayer was solemnly intoned, and noticing the freshness of the voices he opened his eyes, counted ten cowled monks around him; and the key they sang was B, the mode major.

Another set, Baruch thought, as he remarked the stature of the singers, and sought oblivion. All that night and all next day he chased sleep, and the morning of the third day found him with half mad gaze, sleepless and frantic. When from deadly exhaustion he would half faint into stupor the hollow, sinister sound of the drum stunned his ears, while rich, churchly voices of men would intone “Pater noster, qui es in coelis!” and always in the agonizing key of B.

This tone became a monstrous serpent that plunged its fangs into Baruch's brain and hissed one implacable tone, the tone B. The drum roared the same tone; the voices twined about the crucified Jew and beat back sleep, beat back death itself.

The evening of the fourth day Baruch Mendoza was more pallid than his robe; his eyes looked like twin stars, they so glittered, and the fire in them was hardly of this earth. His cheek-bones started through the skin; beard and hair hung in damp masses about the ghastly face and head; his lips were parted in a contemptuous grin, and there was a strained, listening look on the countenance: he was listening for the key that was slaying him, and he saw it now, saw it in the flesh, a creeping, crawling, shapeless thing that slowly strangled his life. All his soul had flown to his ears, all his senses were lodged in the one sense of hearing, and as he heard again and again the Lord's Prayer in the key of B the words that compose it separated themselves from the tone and assumed an individual life. The awful power of the spoken word assailed him, and “Our Father who art in heaven” became for Baruch a divine gigantic cannibal, devouring the planets, the stars, the firmament, the cosmos, as he created them. The heavens were copper, and there gleamed and glared the glance of an eyeball burning like a sun, and so threatening that the spirit of the atheist was consumed as a scroll in the flame. He cried aloud, “If there is a God, let Him come from on high and save me!” The drum sounded more fiercely, a monk moistened with water the tortured man's lips, and Baruch groaned when the cowled choir chaunted, “Pater noster, qui es in coelis!”

“Give us this day our daily bread.” He asked himself if he had ever known hunger and thirst; then other letters of fire came into his brain, but through the porches of his ears. “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Could he, he whispered to his soul—could he forgive these devils that sang like angels? He almost shivered in his attempt to smile; and loathing life heard with sardonic amusement: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!”

“Amen,” groaned Baruch Mendoza. Again the drum boomed dolorously, and monkish voices intoned: “Pater noster, qui es in coelis!”

There was no dawn, no eve in this brassy hell of music. The dripping monotone of voices, the dreary pelting of the drum never ceased; and the soul of the unbeliever was worn slowly away. The evening of the seventh day the Grand Inquisitor, standing at his side, noticed with horror the resemblance to the Master, and piously crossed himself.

Seeing the end was nigh, for there was thin froth on the shrivelled gums of the man, the mild-voiced Inquisitor made a sign to the black friar, and in a moment the music that had never ceased for six days was no longer heard, though the air continued to hum with the vibrations of the diabolical tone. The black friar knelt beside the dying one, and drawing an ivory crucifix from his habit held it to Mendoza's face. Baruch, aroused by the cessation of the torturing tonality, opened his eyes, which were as black as blood, saw the symbol of Christianity, and with a final effort forced from his cracked lips:

“Thou traitor!” As he attempted to blaspheme the sacred image he died, despairingly invoking Adonai.

Then rolled forth in rich, triumphant tones the music of “Our Father who art in heaven,” while the drum sonorously sounded in the key of B, and the mode was major.

 
 
 

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