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
silencesick, profound, and awfulwas 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 dummiesso 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
Judgehis own people's Jahvehno 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 libertythe 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
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
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 intonedOur 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 musicthe accursed musiccontinued. 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 soulcould 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.