THE REV. EDWARD BABCOCK stood beside one of the lounge windows of the hotel on the Mount of Olives looking across the Kedron Valley to the city of Jerusalem on the opposite hill. Darkness had come so suddenly, between the time of arrival with his small party, the allotting of rooms, unpacking, a quick wash; and now, with hardly a moment to get his bearings and study his notes and guidebook, the little group would be on him, primed with questions, each requiring some measure of individual attention.
He had not chosen this particular assignment: he was deputising for the vicar of Little Bletford, who had succumbed to an attack of influenza and had been obliged to stay on board the S.S. Ventura in Haifa, leaving his small party of seven parishioners without a shepherd. It had been felt that, in the absence of their own vicar, another clergyman would be the most suitable person to lead them on the planned twenty-four-hour excursion to Jerusalem, and so the choice had fallen on Edward Babcock. He wished it had been otherwise. It was one thing to visit Jerusalem for the first time as a pilgrim amongst other pilgrims, even as an ordinary tourist, and quite another to find himself in charge of a group of strangers who would be regretting the unavoidable absence of their own vicar, and would in addition expect him to show qualities of leadership or, worse, the social bonhomie that was so evident a characteristic of the sick man. Edward Babcock knew the type only too well. He had observed the vicar on board, forever moving amongst the more affluent of the passengers, hobnobbing with the titled, invariably at his ease. One or two even called him by his Christian name, notably Lady Althea Mason, the most prominent of the group from Little Bletford, and the doyenne, apparently, of Bletford Hall. Babcock, used to his own slum parish on the outskirts of Huddersfield, had no objection to Christian names--the members of his own youth club referred to him as Cocky often enough over a game of darts, or during one of the informal chats which the lads appeared to enjoy as much as he did himself--but snobbery was something he could not abide; and if the ailing vicar of Little Bletford thought that he, Babcock, was going to abase himself before a titled lady and her family, he was very much mistaken. Babcock had instantly summed up Lady Althea's husband, Colonel Mason, a retired army officer, as one of the old school tie brigade, and considered that their spoilt grandson Robin, instead of attending some private preparatory school, would have done better rubbing shoulders with the kids on a local council estate.
Mr and Mrs Foster were of a different calibre, but equally suspect in Babcock's eyes. Foster was managing director of an up-and-coming plastics firm, and from his conversation on the bus journey from Haifa to Jerusalem he seemed to think more of the possibilities of doing business with the Israelis than he did of visiting the Holy Places. His wife had countered the business chat by holding forth about the distress and starvation amongst Arab refugees, which, she insisted, was the responsibility of the whole world. She might have contributed towards this, thought Babcock, by wearing a less expensive fur coat, and giving the money saved to the refugees.
Mr and Mrs Smith were a young honeymoon couple. This had made them a special object of attention, giving rise to the usual indulgent glances and smiles--and even a few ill-judged jokes from Mr Foster. They would have done better, Babcock couldn't help telling himself, to have stayed in the hotel on the shores of Galilee and got to know each other properly, rather than trail around Jerusalem, the historical and religious importance of which they couldn't possibly graspin their present mood.
The eighth, and oldest, member of the party was a spinster, Miss Dean. She was nearing seventy, she had informed them all, and it had been her life's dream to come to Jerusalem under the auspices of the vicar of Little Bletford. The substitution of the Rev. Edward Babcock for her beloved vicar, whom she alluded to as Father, had evidently spoilt her idyll. So, thought the shepherd of the flock, glancing at his watch, the position is not an enviable one, but it is a challenge, and one that I must face. It is also a privilege.
The lounge was filling up, and the clamour of the many tourists and pilgrims who were already taking their places in the dining-room beyond rose in the air with discordant sound. Edward Babcock looked out once more towards the lights of Jerusalem on the opposite hill. He felt alien, alone, and curiously nostalgic for Huddersfield. He wished his crowd of friendly, though often rowdy, lads from the youth club could have been standing at his side.
Althea Mason was sitting on the stool before the dressing-table arranging a piece of blue organza round her shoulders. She had chosen the blue to match her eyes. It was her favourite colour, and she always managed to wear it somewhere on her person, no matter the circumstances, but this evening it looked particularly well against the darker shade of her dress. With the string of pearls, and the small pearl ear-rings, the effect was just right. Kate Foster would be overdressed as usual, of course--all that costume jewellery was in such bad taste, and the blue rinse to the hair added to her years, if she only realised it. It was a fact of life that however much money a woman had or a man either, for that matter--it could never make up for lack of breeding. The Fosters were amiable enough, and everyone said Jim Foster would stand for Parliament one of these days, which one did not begrudge him--after all, it was a known thing that his firm gave large sums to the Conservative Party--but there was just that little touch of ostentation, of vulgarity, which betrayed his origins. Althea smiled. Her friends always told her she was shrewd, a keen judge of human nature.
'Phil?' she called over her shoulder to her husband. 'Are you ready?'
Colonel Mason was in the bathroom filing his nails. A minute speck of grime had wedged itself beneath his thumb-nail and was almost impossible to extract. He resembled his wife in one particular only. A man must be well-groomed. A lack of polish to the shoes, an unbrushed shoulder, a dingy finger-nail, these things were taboo. Besides, if he and Althea were well turned out it set an example to the rest of the party, and above all to their grandson Robin. True, he was only nine years old, but a boy was never too young to learn, and heaven knows he was quick enough in the uptake. He would make a fine soldier one of these days-- that is, if his scruffy scientist of a father ever allowed him to join the army. Seeing that the grandparents were paying for the boy's education, they should be allowed a say in his future. Curious thing that the younger men of today were glib enough when they talked of ideals and how everyone must progress in a changing world, but when the crunch came they were very ready to let the older generation pay the piper. Take this cruise, for instance. Robin was with them because it suited the parents' plans. Whether it suited himself and Althea was another matter. It so happened that it did, for he and Althea were devoted to the child, but that was not the point; it occurred too often during school holidays to be a coincidence.
'Coming,' he called, and straightening his tie went through to the bedroom. 'All very comfortable, I must say,' he observed. 'I wonder if the rest of our party have it as good. Of course, none of this existed when I was here twenty years ago.'
Oh dear, thought Althea, are we going to have non-stop comparison with his time in the army and during the British occupation? Phil was not above demonstrating strategic positions with salt-cellars to Jim Foster during dinner.
'I did stipulate a view over Jerusalem for all of us,' she said, 'but whether the others realise that they have me to thank for the whole idea I can't make out. They've taken it very much for granted. Such a pity dear Arthur can't be with us; it really is a tragedy that he had to stay on board. He would have brought such life into it all. I don't think I take very much to young Babcock.'
'Oh, I don't know,' replied her husband. 'Seems a nice enough chap. Bit of an ordeal for him, coping at a moment's notice. We must make allowances.'
'He should have refused, if he wasn't equal to it,' said Althea. 'I must say I am continually amazed at the type of young man entering the Church today. Certainly not out of the top drawer. Have you noticed his accent? Still, one never knows what to expect in this day and age.'
She stood up for a final glance in the mirror. Colonel Mason cleared his throat and glanced at his watch. He hoped Althea would not put on her superior manner in front of the luckless parson.
'Where's Robin?' he asked. 'We ought to be getting on down.'
'I'm here, Grandfather.'
The boy had been standing behind the drawn curtains all the time, looking at the view of the city. Funny little chap. Always appearing out of nowhere. Pity he had to wear those spectacles. Made him the spit image of his father.
'Well, my boy,' said Colonel Mason, 'what do you make of it all? I don't mind telling you Jerusalem wasn't lighted up like that twenty years ago.'
'No,' replied his grandson, 'I don't suppose it was. Nor two thousand years ago either. Electricity has made an enormous difference to the world. I was saying to Miss Dean as we came along in the bus that Jesus would be very surprised.'
H'm ... No answer to that one. Extraordinary things children said. He exchanged looks with his wife. She smiled indulgently, and patted Robin's shoulder. She liked to think that nobody but herself understood what she was fond of calling his little ways.
'I hope Miss Dean wasn't shocked.'
'Shocked?' Robin put his head on one side and considered the matter. 'I'm sure she wasn't,' he replied, 'but I was rather shocked myself when we saw that car that had broken down by the side of the road, and we drove past it without stopping.'
Colonel Mason closed the bedroom door behind them, and all three walked along the corridor.
'Car?' he asked. 'What car? I don't remember seeing one.'
'You were looking the other way, Grandfather,' said Robin. 'You were pointing out to Mr Foster a place where there had been machine-guns in your day. Perhaps nobody saw the broken-down car but myself. The guide was busy showing us the site of the Good Samaritan Inn. The car was a few yards further along the road.'
'The driver had probably run out of petrol,' said Althea. 'I dare say somebody came along shortly. It seemed a busy road.'
She caught sight of her reflection in the long mirror at the end of the corridor, and adjusted the piece of blue organza.
Jim Foster was having a quick one in the bar. Or two, to be exact. Then when the others appeared he would stand everybody drinks, and Kate would have to lump it. She would scarcely have the nerve to tick him off in front of everyone with threats of a coronary and the number of calories contained in a double gin. He looked round at the chattering throng. God, what a mob! The Chosen Race in full possession, and good luck to them, especially the women, although the young ones were better looking in Haifa. Nobody worth crossing the room for here. This lot were probably from New York's East Side anyway, and not indigenous. The hotel was lousy with tourists, and it would be worse tomorrow in Jerusalem proper.
He had a good mind to cry off the sight-seeing and hire a car to take himself and Kate down to the Dead Sea, where there was this talk of installing a plant for making plastics. The Israelis had hit on a new method of processing, and you could bet your life that if they were on to something they believed in it would prosper. Bloody silly to come all this way and not be able to talk with authority about the site when he got home. Sheer waste of expense account. Hullo, here come the honeymooners. No need to ask what they had been doing since decanting from the bus! Though on second thoughts you never could be sure. Bob Smith looked abit strained. Perhaps the bride, like all red-heads, was insatiable. A drink would put new strength into both of them.
'Come on, the bridal pair,' he called. 'The choice of drinks is yours, the damage mine. Let's all relax.'
Gallantly he slid off his stool and offered it to Jill Smith, taking care to allow his hand to remain just one instant beneath her small posterior as she mounted his vacated seat.'Thanks ever so, Mr Foster,' said the bride, and to prove that she had not lost her self-possession, and was aware that his lingering hand was intended for a compliment, she added, 'I don't know about Bob, but I'd like champagne.'
The remark was made with such defiance that the bridegroom flushed scarlet. Oh hell, he thought. Mr Foster will fluff. He can't help fluffing from Jill's tone that ... that it's not working out, that I just can't somehow get going. It's a nightmare, I don't know what's wrong, I shall have to ask a doctor, I ...
'Whisky, please, sir,' he said.
'Whisky it shall be,' smiled Jim Foster, 'and for heaven's sake don't either of you call me anything but Jim.'
He commanded a champagne cocktail for Jill, a double whisky for Bob, and a large gin-and-tonic for himself, and as he did so his wife Kate pushed through the crowd hovering at the bar and heard him give the order.
I knew it, thought Kate. I knew that was the reason he came downstairs before I had finished dressing, so that he could get to the bar before me. And he's got his eye on that chit of a girl, what's more. Hasn't the decency to leave anything young and female alone, even on her honeymoon. Thank heaven she had put a stop to his idea of meeting up with business friends in Tel Aviv and letting her come to Jerusalem alone. She was not going to let him get away with that one, thank you very much. If only Colonel Mason wasn't such an old bore and Lady Althea such a colossal snob the visit to Jerusalem could be so rewarding, especially to anyone with a spark of intelligence and an interest in world affairs. But what did they care? They hadn't even bothered to come to the talk she had given in Little Bletford on the world refugee problem a few weeks ago, making the excuse that they never went out in the evenings, which was quite untrue. If Lady Althea thought more about other people and less about the fact that she was the only surviving daughter of a peer who had never even risen to his feet in the House of Lords, and was said to be dotty anyway, Kate would have more respect for her. As it was ... She looked about her, indignation rising. All these tourists drinking and enjoying themselves, and spending the money that might have gone to Oxfam or some other worthwhile charity, it made her feel quite ashamed to be amongst them. Well, if there was nothing active she could do to help world causes at the moment, she could at least break up Jim's little party and put him in his place. She advanced towards the bar, her high colour clashing with her magenta blouse.
'Now, Mr Smith,' she said, 'don't encourage my husband. He's been told by his doctor to cut down on his drinking and smoking, or he'll have a coronary. It's no use making that face at me, Jim, you know it's true. As a matter of fact, we'd all of us be better without alcohol. Statistics prove that the damage to the liver through even quite a modest intake is incalculable.'
Bob Smith replaced his glass on the bar counter. He was just beginning to feel more sure of himself. Now Mrs Foster had gone and spoilt it all.
'Oh, don't mind me,' she said, 'nobody ever listens to a word I say, but one of these days the world will wake up to the fact that by drinking only pure fruit juices the human being can stand ten times the stress and strain of modern life. We should all live longer, look younger, achieve greater things. Yes, I'd like a grapefruit juice, please. Plenty of ice.'
Pheugh! It was stuffy. She could feel the flush rising from her neck right up to her temples, and then descending in a slow-moving war, e, What a fool she was ... She had forgotten to take her hormones.
Jill Smith watched Kate Foster over the rim of her champagne glass. She must be older than he was. Looked it, anyway. You never could tell with middle-aged people, and men were most deceptive. She had read somewhere that men went on doing it until they were nearly ninety, but women lost interest after the change of life. Perhaps Mrs Foster was right about fruit-juice being good for you. Oh, why did Bob have to wear that spotted tie? It made him look so pasty. And he had such a schoolboy appearance beside Mr Foster. Fancy telling them to call him Jim! He was touching her arm again. Honestly! The fact that she was on her honey
moon didn't seem to put men off but rather egged them on, if he was anything to go by. She nodded when he suggested another glass of champagne.
'Don't let Mrs Foster hear you,' she whispered. 'She would say it would damage my liver.'
'My dear girl,' he murmured, 'a liver as young as yours will stand years of punishment. Mine is already pickled.'
Jill giggled. The things he said! And drinking down her second champagne cocktail she forgot about the unhappy scene in the bedroom upstairs, with Bob, white and tense, telling her she wasn't responding properly and it was not his fault. Staring defiantly at Bob, who was agreeing politely with Mrs Foster about starvation in the Middle East and Asia and India, she leant pointedly against Jim Foster's arm and said, 'I don't know why Lady Althea picked on this hotel. The one the purser recommended was right in Jerusalem, and it runs a tour of the ci
ty by night, ending up in a night club, drinks included.'
Miss Dean peered about her short-sightedly. How was she going to find the rest of the party amongst such a crowd of strangers? If only dear Father Garfield had been with them, he would never have left her to fend for herself. That young clergyman who was replacing him had barely said two words to her, and she felt sure he wasn't an Anglican. Probably disapproved of vestments, and had never intoned in his life. If she could catch sight of Lady Althea or the Colonel it would be something, although Lady Althea, bless her, was inclined to be just a little snubby sometimes, but then she must have a lot on her mind. It was so good
of her to take all the trouble she had done with the tour.
Jerusalem ... Jerusalem ... Well, the daughters of Jerusalem would certainly weep if they could see this big agnostic crowd on the Mount of Olives. It really did not seem right to have a modern hotel on such a hallowed spot, where Our Lord had wandered so frequently with his disciples on his way to Jerusalem from Bethany. How she had missed Father when the bus paused for a few minutes in the village and the guide had pointed out the ruined church beneath which, so he said, the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus had stood two thousand years ago! Father would have brought it so vividly to life. She could have pictured the modest but comfortable home, the well-swept kitchen, Martha in charge and Mary not too helpful, probably, with clearing the dishes, reminding her, when she read the passage in the Gospel, of her own younger sister Dora, who never did a hand's turn if there was a good programme on television. Not that one could compare Mary at Bethany listening to Our Lord's wonderful sermons with someone like Malcolm Muggeridge asking the question why, but after all, as Father always said, one should try and relate the past to the present, and then one would come to a better understanding of what everything meant.
Ah, there was Lady Althea coming along the corridor now. How distinguished she looked, so English, so refined amongst the rest of the people here in the hotel, who seemed mostly foreigners, and the Colonel at her side every inch the soldier and gentleman. Little Robin was such an original child. Fancy him making that remark about Our Lord being surprised if he could see electric light. 'But He invented it, dear,' she had told him. 'Everything that has ever been invented or discovered was Our Lord's doing.' She was afraid it had not sunk into his little mind. No matter. There would be other opportunities to make the right impression upon him.
'Well, Miss Dean,' said the Colonel, advancing towards her, 'I hope you feel rested after the long bus ride, and have a good appetite for dinner?'
'Thank you, Colonel, yes, I am quite refreshed, but a little bewildered. Do you think we shall have English food, or will it be that greasy foreign stuff? I have to be careful with my inside.'
'Well, if my experience in the Near East is anything to go by, avoid fresh fruit and melon. Likewise salad. They never wash them properly. Had more tummy trouble amongst the troops in the old days with fruit and salad than anything else.'
'Oh, Phil, what nonsense,' smiled Lady Althea. 'You're living in the past. Of course everything is washed in an up-to-date place like this. Don't take any notice of him, Miss Dean. We shall be served a five-course dinner, and you must do justice to everything they put on your plate. Just picture your sister Dora sitting down to a boiled egg at home, and think how she would envy you.'
Now that, thought Miss Dean, was kindly meant but uncalled for. Why should Lady Althea imagine that she and Dora never had more than a boiled egg for supper? It was true they ate sparsely in the evening, but that was because they both had small appetites. It was nothing to do with the way they lived or what they could afford. Now, if Father had been here he would have known just how to answer Lady Althea. He would have told her--laughingly, of course, for he was so courteous--that he had been better fed by the two Miss Deans in Syringa Cottage than anywhere else in Little Bletford.
'Thank you, Colonel,' she said, addressing herself pointedly to him, 'I shall follow your advice about the fruit and salad. As to the five-course menu, I shall reserve judgement until I see what they have to offer.'
She hoped she would be sitting next to the Colonel at dinner. He was so considerate. And he knew Jerusalem of old--he was quite an authority.
'Your grandson,' she said to him, 'makes friends very easily. He is not at all shy.'
'Oh yes,' replied Colonel Mason, 'Robin's an excellent mixer. Part of my training, I like to think. He reads a lot too. Most children never open a book.'
'Your son-in-law is a scientist, is he not?' said Miss Dean. 'Scientists are such clever men. Perhaps the little boy takes after his father.'
'H'm, I don't know about that,' said the Colonel.
Silly old fool, he thought. Doesn't know what she's talking about. Robin was a Mason all right. Reminded him of himself at the same age. He used to be a great reader too. And imaginative.
'Come on, Robin,' he called, 'your grandmother wants her dinner.'
'Really, Phil,' said Lady Althea, half-amused but rot entirely so, 'you make me sound like the wolf in Red Riding Hood.'
She walked leisurely through the lounge, aware of the many heads that were turned in her direction, not because of her husband's remark, which few people had heard, but because she knew that, despite her sixty-odd years, she was the best-looking and most distinguished woman present. She looked around for the party from Little Bletford, deciding as she did so how she would seat them at dinner. Oh, there they were in the bar--all, that is to say, except Babcock. She dispatched her husband in search of him, and moving into the restaurant summoned the head waiter with an imperious finger.
Her seating plan worked out very well, and everyone appeared satisfied. Miss Dean did justice to the five-course dinner and the wine, though possibly it was a little tactless to lift her glass as soon as it was filled and say to her left-hand neighbour, the Rev. Babcock, 'Let us wish dear Father a speedy recovery, and I am sure he knows how sorely we all miss him here this evening.'
It was not until they were embarking upon the third course that she realised the full import of her words, and remembered that the young man talking to her was not a social worker in the midlands at all but a clergyman himself, acting as deputy for her own beloved vicar. The glass of sherry in the bar had made her light-headed, and the fact that the Rev. Babcock did not wear a clergyman's collar had somehow confused the whole situation.
'Be very careful what you eat,' she said to him, hoping to make amends for any small hurt her words had caused. 'The Colonel says that fruit and salad are not advisable. The native people do not rinse them thoroughly. I think roast lamb would be a wise choice.'
Edward Babcock stared at her use of the word native. Did Miss Dean imagine herself in the wilds of Africa? Just how out of touch with the world of today could you get, he wondered, living in a village in southern England?
'In my rough-and-ready fashion,' he told her, helping himself to ragout of chicken, 'I believe we do more good in the world by seeing how the other half lives than by just sticking to our own routine. We have quite a number of Pakistanis and Jamaicans in our club, amongst our own local lads, and they take it in turn to prepare a meal in the canteen. We get some surprises, I don't mind telling you! But it's a case of share and share alike, and the boys enjoy it.'
'Quite right, padre, quite right,' said the Colonel, who had heard the tail-end of this remark. 'It's absolutely essential to promote a spirit of goodwill in the Mess. Morale goes to pieces if you don't.'
Jim Foster pushed Jill Smith's foot under the table. The old boy was off again. Where did he think he was--Poona? Jill Smith retaliated by bumping her knee against his. They had reached the stage of mutual for-want-of-anything-better-attraction when bodily contact brings warmth, and the most harmless remark made by others suggests a double meaning.
'Depends what you share and who you share it with, don't you agree?' he murmured.
'Once married a girl has no choice,' she murmured back. 'She has to take what her husband gives her.'
Then, noticing Mrs Foster staring at her across the table, she opened her eyes, wide and innocent, and bumped Jim Foster's knee once more to cement duplicity.
Lady Althea, glancing round the restaurant at the occupants of the other tables, wondered if Jerusalem had been such a good choice after all. Nobody of much interest here. Perhaps there would be a better class of people in the Lebanon. Still, it was only for twenty-four hours, and then they would rejoin the boat and go on to Cyprus. She would be content that Phil and darling Robin were enjoying themselves. She must tell Robin not to sit with his mouth open. He was such a good-looking child, and it made him appear half-witted. Kate Foster was sure
ly feeling the heat, she had become very flushed.
'But you should have signed the petition against the manufacture of nerve gas,' Kate was saying to Bob Smith. 'I got more than a thousand names on my appeal list, and it's up to every one of us to see that this frightful business is stopped. How will you like it,' she demanded, banging on the table, 'when your children are born deaf, maimed, and blind, because of this terrible chemical that will pollute succeeding generations unless we all unite to prevent its manufacture?'
'Oh, come,' protested the Colonel, 'the authorities have everything under control. And the stuff isn't lethal. We must have a certain amount in stock in case of riots. Somebody has to deal with the scallywags of the world. Now, in my humble opinion ...'
'Never mind your humble opinion, Phil dear,' interrupted his wife. 'I think we are all getting a little too serious, and we haven't come to Jerusalem to discuss nerve gas, or riots, or anything of the sort. We are here to take back pleasant memories of one of the most famous cities in the world.'
Silence was instant. She smiled upon them all. A good hostess knew when to change a party's mood. Even Jim Foster, momentarily quelled, removed his hand from Jill Smith's knee. The question was, who would be the first to speak and set the ball rolling in a new direction? Robin knew that his moment had arrived.
He had been awaiting his opportunity all through dinner. His scientist father had told him never to introduce a subject or speak about it unless he were sure of his facts, and he had taken good care to be well-primed. He had consulted the courier-guide in the foyer before dinner, and he knew that his facts were correct. The grown-ups would be obliged to listen. The very thought of this was delicious, giving him a tremendous sense of power. He leant forward across the table, his spectacles slightly out of balance, his head on one side.
'I wonder if any of you know,' he said, 'that today is the 13th day of Nisan?' Then he leant back in his chair for his words to take effect.
The adults at the table stared back at him, nonplussed. What on earth was the child talking about? His grandfather, trained to be prepared for the unexpected, was the first to reply.
'The 13th day of Nisan?' he repeated. 'Now, my lively lad, stop trying to be clever and tell us what you mean”
'I'm not trying to be clever, Grandfather,' replied Robin, 'I'm just stating a fact. I'm going by the Hebrew calendar. Tomorrow, the 14th day of Nisan, at sunset, is the start of Pesach, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The guide told me. That's why there are so many people staying here. They've come on pilgrimage from all over the world. Well, everybody knows--at least Mr Babcock does, I'm sure--that according to St John and many other authorities Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper on the 13th day of Nisan, the day before the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so it seemed to me rather appropriate that we should all just have finished our supper here this evening. Jesus was doing precisely the same thing two thousand years ago.'
He pushed his spectacles back on his forehead and smiled. The effect of his words was not so stunning as he had hoped. No burst of applause. No exclamations of wonder at his general knowledge. Everyone looked rather cross.
'H'm,' said Colonel Mason, 'this is your province, padre.'
Babcock did a rapid calculation. He was used to problems being fired at him on the Any Questions programme he gave quarterly at the youth club, but he wasn't prepared for this one.
'You have evidently read your gospels thoroughly, Robin,' he said. 'Matthew, Mark, and Luke appear to disagree with John as to the exact date. However, I must admit I had not checked up on the fact that tomorrow is the 14th day of Nisan, and so the Jewish holiday begins at sunset. It was rather remiss of me not to have talked to the guide myself.'
His statement did not do much to clear the air. Miss Dean was frankly bewildered.
'But how can this be the day of the Last Supper?' she asked. 'We all celebrated Easter early this year. Surely Easter Day was the 29th of March?'
'The Jewish calendar is different from ours,' said Babcock. 'Pesach, or Passover, as we term it, does not necessarily coincide with Easter.'
Surely he was not expected to enter into a theological discussion because a small boy enjoyed showing off?
Jim Foster clicked his fingers in the air. 'That explains why I couldn't get Rubin on the telephone, Kate,' he said. 'They told me the office in Tel Aviv would be shut until the 21st. A public holiday.'
'I hope the shops and bazaars will be open,' Jill exclaimed. 'I want to buy souvenirs for the family and friends back home.'
After a moment's thought Robin nodded his head. 'I think they will,' he said, 'at least until sunset. You could give your friends some unleavened bread.
'An idea suddenly struck him, and he turned delightedly to the Rev. Babcock. 'Seeing that it's the evening of the 13th day of Nisan,' he said, 'oughtn't we all to walk down the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane? It's not very far away. I asked the guide. Jesus and the disciples crossed the valley, but we needn't do that. We could just imagine we had gone back two thousand years and they were going to be there.'
Even his grandmother, who generally applauded his every action, looked alittle uncomfortable.
'Really, Robin,' she said, 'I don't think any of us are quite prepared to set forth after dinner and stumble about in the dark. We aren't taking part inyour end of term play, remember.' She turned to Babcock. 'They put on a very sweet little nativity play last Christmas,' she said. 'Robin was one of the ThreeWise Men.'
'Oh yes,' he countered, 'my Huddersfield lads staged a nativity play at the club. Set the scene in Vietnam. I was very impressed.' Robin was gazing at him with more than usual intensity, and he made a supreme effort to meet the challenge. look,' he said, 'if you really want to walk down the hill to Gethsemane I'm willing to go with you.'
'Splendid!' said the Colonel. 'I'm game. A breath of fresh air would do us all good. I know the terrain--you won't be lost with me in charge.'
'How about it?' murmured Jim Foster to his neighbour Jill. 'If you hold on tight I won't let you go.'
A delighted smile spread over Robin's face. Things were going his way after all. No risk now of being packed off early to bed.
'You know,' he said, touching the Rev. Babcock's arm, his voice sounding very loud and clear, 'if we were really the disciples and you were Jesus, you would have to line us all up in a row against the wall there and start to wash our feet. But my grandmother would probably say that was going a bit too far.'
He stood aside, bowing politely, to let the grown-up people pass. He was destined for Winchester, and he remembered the motto, Manners Makyth Man.
The air was sharp and clean, like a sword's blade. No wind-- the air alone made the cutting edge. The stony path led downwards, steep and narrow, bound on either side by walls. On the right the sombre cluster of cypress trees and pines masked the seven spires of the Russian cathedral and the smaller humped dome of the Dominus Flevit church. In the daytime the onion spires of St Mary Magdalene would gleam golden under the sun, and across the valley of Kidron the city walls which encompassed Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock prominent in the foreground and the city itself spreading ever further west and north, would not fail to awaken some response in every pilgrim heart, as it had done through the centuries, but tonight ... Tonight thought Edward Babcock, with the pale yellow moon coming up behind us and the dark sky above our heads, even the low hum of the traffic beneath us on the main road to Jericho seems to blend and merge into the silence. As the steep path descended so the city rose, and the valley separating it from the Mount of Olives down which they walked became sombre, black, like a winding river-bed. Mosques, domes, spires, towers, the rooftops of a myriad human dwellings fused together, blotted against the sky, and only the walls of the city remained, steadfast on the opposite hill, a threat, a challenge.
'I'm not ready for this,' he thought. 'It's too big, I can't take it, I shan't be able to explain what it means, not even to this small handful of people who are with me. I ought to have stayed in the hotel reading up my notes and studying the map so as to be able to speak with some sort of authority tomorrow.Or, better still, have come here on my own.'
It was wrong of him, uncharitable, but the perpetual chatter of the Colonel at his side got on his nerves, made him edgy, irritable. Who cared what his regiment had been doing in '48? It was out of keeping with the scene spread out before them.
'And so,' the Colonel was saying, 'the Mandate was handed over to the U.N. in May, and we were all out of the country by July 1st. To my mind we should have stayed. The whole thing has been a bloody nonsense ever since. No one will ever settle down in this part of the world, and they'll still be fighting over Jerusalem when you and I have been in our graves for years. Beautiful spot, you know, from this distance. Used to be pretty scruffy inside the Old City.'
The pine trees to their right were motionless. Everything was still. To their left the hillside appeared bare, uncultivated, but Babcock could be mistaken: moonlight was deceptive, those white shapes that seemed to be rocks and boulders could be tombs. Once there would have been no sombre pines, no cypresses, no Russian cathedral, only the olive trees with silver branches sweeping the stony ground, and the sound of the brook trickling through the valley below.
'Funny thing,' said the Colonel, 'I never did any proper soldiering once I left this place behind me. Served for a time back home, at Aldershot, but what with reorganisation in the army, and one thing and another, and my wife wasn't too fit at the time, I decided to pack it in and quit. I should have been given command of my regiment if I had stayed, and gone to Germany, but Althea was all against it, and it didn't seem fair to her. Her father left her the Hall, you know, in Little Bletford. She had been brought up there, and her life was centred in it. Still is, in fact. She does a great deal locally.'
Edward Babcock made an effort to attend, to show some sign of interest.
'You regret leaving the army?'
The Colonel did not answer immediately, but when he did the usual tone of brisk self-confidence had gone; he sounded puzzled, strained.
'It was my whole life,' he said. 'And that's another funny thing, padre--I don't think I've ever realised it before tonight. Just standing here, looking at that city across the valley, makes me remember.'
Something moved in the shadows below. It was Robin. He had been crouching against the wall. He had a map in his hand and a small torch.
'Look, Mr Babcock,' he said, 'that's where they must have come, from the gate in the wall over to the left. We can't see it from here, but it's marked on the map. Jesus and his disciples, I mean, after they had had their supper. And the gardens and trees were probably all up this hill then, not just down at the bottom where the church stands today. In fact, if we go on a bit further and sit down by that wall, we can picture the whole thing. The soldiers and the high priests' attendants coming down with flares from the other gate, perhaps where that car is showing now. Come on!'
He began running down the hill in front of them, flicking his small torch to and fro, until he disappeared round a turn of the wall.
'Watch your step, Robin,' called his grandfather. 'You might fall. It's jolly steep down there.' Then he turned to his companion. 'He can read a map as well as I can myself. Only nine years old.'
'I'll go after him,' said Babcock. 'See he doesn't get into trouble. You wait here for Lady Althea.'
'You needn't worry, padre,' replied the Colonel. 'The boy knows what he's doing.'
Babcock pretended not to hear. It was an excuse to be alone, if only for a few minutes, otherwise the scene beneath him would never make the deep impression he desired, so that he could describe it later to all the lads, when he returned to Huddersfield.
Colonel Mason remained motionless beside the wall. The slow, careful footsteps of his wife and Miss Dean descending the path behind him were only a short distance away, and Althea's voice carried on the still cold air.
'If we don't see them we'll turn back,' she was saying, but I know what Phil can be like when he's in charge of an expedition. He always thinks he knows the way, and only too often he doesn't at all.'
'I can hardly credit that,' said Miss Dean, 'as a military man.'
Lady Althea laughed. 'Dear Phil,' she said. 'He likes everyone to think he might have become a general. But the truth is, Miss Dean, he would never have made the grade. I had it on the highest authority from one of his brother officers. Oh, they were all fond of him, but the dear old boy would never have gone any further, not in the army as it is today. That's why we all persuaded him to retire when he did. I sometimes wish he would be just a little more active where local affairs are concerned, but there it is, I have to act for us both. And he has done wonders in the garden.'
'That lovely herbacous border!' said Miss Dean.
'Yes, and the rock plants too. They make quite a show the whole year through.'
The slow footsteps passed without stopping, neither woman looking to right or left, so intent were they upon the rough path under their feet. For one moment their two figures were sharply outlined against the trees beyond, then they turned the corner as Robin had done, and Babcock, and disappeared.
Colonel Mason let them go without calling them back. Then he turned up the collar of his coat, for it seemed suddenly colder, and began to retrace his steps slowly towards the hotel above. He had nearly made the ascent when he bumped into two other members of the party coming down.
'Hullo,' said Jim Foster, 'you crying off already? I thought you'd be in Jerusalem by now!'
'Turned very cold,' said the Colonel shortly. 'Not much sense in stumping on down to the bottom. You'll find the others scattered about the hillside.'
He climbed on past them towards the hotel with a hasty goodnight.
'Now, if he runs into my wife up there and tells her you and I are together we shall be in trouble,' said Jim Foster. 'Willing to risk it?'
'Risk what?' asked Jill Smith. 'We're not doing anything.'
'Now that, my girl, is what I call a direct invitation. Never mind, Kate can console your husband in the bar. Watch your step, this path is steep. The slippery slope to ruin for the pair of us. Don't leave go of my arm.'
Jill threw off her head-scarf and drew a deep breath, clinging tightly to her companion.
'Look at all the city lights,' she said. 'I bet there's plenty going on up there. Makes me feel envious. We seem to be stuck at the back of beyond up here.'
'Don't worry. You'll see it all tomorrow, led by his reverence.
But I doubt if he'll take you into a discotheque, if that's what you're after.'
'Well, naturally we must see the historical part first--that's why we're here, isn't it? But I want to go to the shopping centre too.'
'Suks, my girl, suks. Lot of little trinket-booths in back alleys with dark-eyed young salesmen trying to pinch your bottom.'
'Oh, you think I'd let them, do you?'
'I don't know. But I wouldn't blame them for trying.'
He glanced back over his shoulder. No sign of Kate. Perhaps she had decided against joining the expedition after all. The last he had seen of her was the back of her figure making for the lift en route for their room. As for Bob Smith, if he couldn't keep an eye on his bride that was his lookout. The clump of trees on the other side of the wall further down the path looked enticing. Just the right spot for a little harmless fun.
'What do you make of marriage, Jill?' he asked.
'It's too early to say,' she answered, instantly on the defensive.
'Of course it is. Silly question. But most honeymoons are a flop. I know mine was. It took Kate and me months to get adjusted. That Bob of yours is a great fellow, but he's still very young. All bridegrooms suffer from nerves, you know, even in these enlightened days. Think they know it all, but they damn well don't, and the poor girls suffer for it in consequence.' She did not answer, and he steered her towards the trees. 'It's not until a man has been married for some time that he knows how to make his wife respond. It's technique, like everything else in life--not a question of letting nature take its course. And all women vary. Their moods, their likes and dislikes. Am I shocking you?'
'Oh no,' she said, 'not at all.'
'Good. I wouldn't want to shock you. You're far too sweet and precious for that. I don't see any sign of the others, do you?'
'Let's go and lean against the wall down there, and look at the city lights. Wonderful spot. Wonderful evening. Does Bob ever tell you how lovely you are? Because it's true, you know....'
Kate Foster, who had been upstairs to take her hormone pills, came down to the lounge to look for her husband. When she couldn't find him she went into the bar, and saw Bob Smith all alone, drinking a double whisky.
'Where is everybody?' she asked. 'Our lot, I mean,' for the room was still crowded. 'Gone out, I think,' he answered.
'What about your wife?'
'Oh yes, she went. She followed Lady Althea and Miss Dean. Your husband was with her.'
She did see, too. Only too well. Jim had deliberately given her the slip when she went upstairs.
'Well, it won't do you any good sitting there drinking that poison,' she said. 'I suggest you get your coat and come with me and join the rest of the party. No sense in mooning here on your own.'
Perhaps she was right. Perhaps it was wet and ineffectual to sit drinking all alone when by rights Jill should have been with him. But the way she had smiled at Foster was more than he could stand, and he had thought, by staying here, that it would be a sort of lesson to her. In fact, he had only been punishing himself. Jill probably couldn't care less. 'All right,' he said, sliding off the stool, 'we'll go after them. They can't have gone far.'
They set off together down the path that led to the valley, a strangely ill-assorted couple, Bob Smith long and lanky, a mop of dark hair nearly touching his shoulders, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his coat, and Kate Foster in her mink jacket, gold earrings dangling beneath blue-rinsed hair.
'If you ask me,' she said, as she stumped down the path in her unsuitable shoes, 'this whole outing to Jerusalem has been a mistake. Nobody is really interested in the place. Except perhaps Miss Dean. But you know what Lady Althea is, she had everything arranged with the vicar, and has to play lady of the manor whether she's in England, on board ship or in the Middle East. As for Babcock, he's worse than useless. We'd have been better without him. And as for you two ... Well, it's hardly the best start for married life to let your wife do just as
she pleases all the time. You want to show a little authority.'
'Jill's very young,' he said, 'barely twenty.'
'Oh, youth ... Don't talk to me about youth. You all have it too good these days. In our country, anyway. Very different for some of the youngsters in this part of the world--I'm thinking of the Arab countries in particular--where husbands keep a tight watch on their brides to make sure they don't get into trouble.'
I don't know why I'm saying all this, she thought, it won't sink in. They none of them think of anyone but themselves. If only I didn't feel things so acutely, it does no good, I make myself ill with worry about everything--the state of the world, the future, Jim ... Where on earth has he got to with that girl?
My heart keeps missing a beat. I wonder if those pills suit me ...?
'Don't walk so fast,' she said. 'I can't keep up with you.'
'I'm sorry, Mrs Foster. I thought I saw two figures in the distance over by those trees.'
And if it is them, he wondered, what of it? I mean, what can I do? I can't make a scene just because Jill chose to wander out of the hotel with another member of the party. I shall have to hang about and say nothing, and then wait until we're back at the hotel and give her hell. If only this bloody woman wouldstop talking for one moment...
The two figures turned out to be Lady Althea and Miss Dean. 'Have you seen Jim?' Kate Foster called.
'No,' replied Lady Althea. 'I was just wondering what's happened to Phil. I wish our menfolk wouldn't tear off in this way. It's so inconsiderate. I do think Babcock at least should have waited for us.'
'So different from dear Father,' murmured Miss Dean. 'He would have had it all so well organised, and known just what to show us. As it is, we don't know whether the Garden of Gethsemane is further on along this path or all around us as we stand here.'
The trees beyond the wall were so very dark, and the path seemed to get stonier and stonier. If Father had been with them she could have leant on his arm. Lady Althea was being very kind, but it wasn't the same.
'I'll go on,' said Bob. 'You three stay here.'
He strode ahead of them down the path. If the rest of the party were all together, they couldn't be far away. The Colonel would be in charge, he would keep an eye on Jill. There was a break in the trees about a hundred yards ahead, and open ground, with clumps of small olives and rough unbroken soil, nothing looking like a garden, what a bloody silly expedition anyway, and all to do over again tomorrow. Then he saw a figure, only one, though, humped against a piece of rock. It was Babcock. For one embarrassed moment Bob thought he was praying, and then he saw that he was bent over a notebook, scribbling with the aid of a torch. He lifted his head at the sound of Bob's footsteps and waved the torch.
'Where are the others?' called Bob.
'The Colonel's up behind you on the road,' returned Babcock, 'and the boy's down there, where he can get a better view of Gethsemane. But the garden itself is shut. It doesn't really matter, though. You can get the atmosphere from here.' He smiled in a rather shamefaced fashion as Bob approached him. 'If I don't write down what I see, I shan't remember it. Robin lent me his torch. I want to lecture about this when I get home. Well, not a straight lecture. Just my impr
essions to the lads.
'Have you seen Jill?' asked Bob.
Babcock stared. Jill ... Oh yes, his young wife.
'No,' he said. 'Isn't she with you?'
'You can see she isn't with me,' Bob almost shouted in exasperation. 'And there are only Mrs Foster and Lady Althea and Miss Dean up the road.'
'Oh,' said Babcock. 'Well, I'm afraid I can't help you. The Colonel is around somewhere. I came on alone with the boy.'
Bob could feel the anger mounting within him. 'Look here,' he said, 'I don't mean to be rude, but just who is in charge of this outfit'?'
The Rev. Babcock flushed. There was no call for Bob Smith to get so excited.
'There's no question of anybody being in charge,' he said. 'The Colonel and Robin and I left the hotel on our own. If the rest of you chose to follow on and got lost, I'm afraid it's your own affair.'
He was used to rough talk from the lads, but this was different. Anyone would think he was a paid courier.
'I'm sorry,' said Bob. 'The fact is ...' The fact was he had never felt more helpless, more alone. Weren't parsons supposed to help one in trouble? 'The fact is, I'm worried stiff. Everything's gone wrong. I had one hell of a row with Jill before dinner, and I can't think straight.'
Babcock put down his notebook and extinguished his torch. No more impressions of Gethsemane tonight. Well, it couldn't be helped.
'I'm sorry to hear that,' he said, 'but it happens all the time, you know. Young married couples have arguments, and they feel it's the end of the world. You'll both look at it differently in the morning.'
'No,' said Bob, 'that's just it. I don't think we shall. I keep wondering if we haven't made a terrible mistake in getting married.'
His companion was silent. The poor chap was overtired, probably. He had let things get on top of him. It was difficult to give advice when one didn't know either of them. If things hadn't been going too well, the vicar of Little Bletford should have spotted it and had a word with them both. He probably would have, if he had been here, and not on the boat in Haifa.
'Well,' he said, 'marriage is give and take, you know. It's not just ...how shall I put it? It's not just a physical relationship.' 'It's the physical side of it that's gone wrong,' said Bob Smith. 'I see.'
Babcock wondered if he should advise the lad to see a doctor when he got home. There was nothing much that could be done about it here tonight.
'Look,' he said, 'don't worry too much. Take it easy. Be as gentle as you can with your wife, and perhaps ...'
But he couldn't continue, for at that moment a small figure darted up from the trees below. It was Robin.
'The actual Garden of Gethsemane looks very small,' he called. 'I feel sure Jesus and the disciples wouldn't have sat down there. They would more likely have climbed up here, amongst all the olive trees that were growing in those days. What puzzles me, Mr Babcock, is why the disciples kept falling asleep, if it was as cold as it is tonight. Do you suppose the climate has changed in two thousand years? Or could the disciples have had too much wine at supper?'
Babcock handed Robin back his torch and pushed him gently along the home ward path. 'We don't know, Robin, but we have to remember they had all had a long and very exhausting day.'
That's not the right answer, he thought, but it's the best I can do. And I haven't helped Bob Smith either. Nor was I particularly sympathetic to the Colonel. The trouble is, I don't know any of these people. Their own vicar would have known how to deal with them. Even if he had given them quite the wrong answers they would have been satisfied.
'There they are,' said Robin, 'standing in a huddle up the road and stamping their feet. That's the most sensible way to try and keep awake.'
It was Lady Althea who was stamping her feet. She had wisely changed into sensible shoes before setting forth. Kate Foster was not so well shod, but she scored over Lady Althea by being well wrapped-up in her mink jacket. Miss Dean was a little apart from them both. She had found a break in the wall, and was sitting on a pile of crumbling stones. She had become rather weary of listening to her two companions, who could discuss nothing except the whereabouts of their respective husbands.
I'm glad I never married, she thought. There always seems to be such endless argument going on between husband and wife. I dare say some marriages are ideal, but very few. It was very sad for dear Father losing his wife all those years ago, but he has never tried to replace her. She smiled tenderly, thinking of the manly smell in the vicar's study. He smoked a pipe, and whenever Miss Dean called, which she generally did twice a week to bring flowers to brighten up his bachelor solitude, or with a special cake she had baked, or a jar of homemade j
am or marmalade, she would give a quick look through the open door of the study to see if his housekeeper had tidied it properly, brought some sort of order to the chaos of books and papers. Men were such boys, they needed looking after. That was why Mary and Martha invited Our Lord so often to Bethany. They probably fed Him well after those long walks across the hills, mended His clothes—darned His socks, she was about to say, but of course men didn't wear socks in those days, only sandals. What a blessed honour it must have been to soak the travel-stained garments in the wash-tub....
Miss Dean became aware of some sort of scuffle in the trees behind her.
Could the menfolk have climbed over the stones and wandered into what seemed like private property? Then she heard a man laugh, and a woman whisper 'Shshsh!'
'It's all right,' murmured the man, 'it's only Miss Dean. Sitting all on her own lamenting the absence of her beloved vicar.'
'If she only knew,' came the answering murmur, 'that he hides whenever he sees her walking up the vicarage drive. She's the thorn in his flesh, he told Mum once. Pursued him for years, despite her age.'
There was a sound of stifled laughter, and then suddenly Jim Foster coughed loudly and emerged from the cluster of dark trees, Jill Smith at his heels.
'Well, well, Miss Dean,' he said, 'what a surprise. We've been looking for the rest of the party. Ah, isn't that Kate standing up the road with Lady Althea? And some more of them coming from the opposite direction? Rendezvous all round.' He held out his hand to Jill and helped her over the stones. 'Now, Miss Dean, what about you? Will you take my arm?'
'Thank you, Mr Foster,' she said quietly, 'I can manage on my own.'
Jill Smith threw a quick look down the path. Bob was there, and the Rev. Babcock and young Robin. Robin was chattering and waving a torch. It would look better if she stayed with Miss Dean. She nudged Jim Foster with her elbow, and immediately he understood and began walking alone up the path to where Kate and Lady Althea were standing.
'Hullo, hullo there,' he called, 'we all seem to have been going round in circles. I can't think how I came to miss you.'
The tight-lipped expression on his wife's face made him hesitate a moment, then he smiled, and strolled up to her casually, self-confident.
'Sorry, old girl,' he said. 'Been here long?'
He put his arm round her shoulders and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
'Twenty minutes at least,' she replied. 'More like half-an-hour.'
The three of them turned their heads as Robin came running towards them flicking the light of his torch in all their faces.
'Oh, Mr Foster,' he called delightedly, 'that looked so sinister as you kissed Mrs Foster. You could have been Judas. Mr Babcock and I have had a tremendous time. We've been right down to Gethsemane and back on our own.'
'In that case, where were you?' Kate turned to her husband.
'Oh, Mr Foster and Mrs Smith were under the trees through the gap in that wall,' said Robin, 'and I'm afraid they can't have had a very good view of Jerusalem. I flashed my torch on you once, Mr Foster, but your back was turned.'
Thank God for that, thought Jim Foster. Because if it hadn't been turned...
'What I want to know is what in the world has become of Phil?' asked Lady Althea.
'Oh, he returned to the hotel,' said Jim Foster, relieved that attention
had switched from him. 'I passed him as I was coming down. Said he was cold and had had enough of it.'
'Cold?' queried Lady Althea. 'Phil's never cold. What an extraordinary thing for him to say.'
Slowly the little party began to wind their way back up the path towards the hotel on the summit. They walked in couples, Lady Althea and Robin in the lead, the Fosters following closely behind in silence, and some distance in the rear the young Smiths, hotly arguing.
'Naturally I preferred to go out rather than sit with you soaking in the bar,' Jill was saying. 'I felt thoroughly ashamed of you.'
'Ashamed?' Bob answered. 'That's fine, coming from you. How do you thinkI felt when Mrs Foster asked me to help find her husband? I knew very well where he was. And so do you.'
The Rev. Babcock held back with Miss Dean. It would only distress her to hear the young couple quarrelling. They must really work things out between them. There was nothing in the world he could do. Miss Dean herself, generally such a chatterbox, was strangely silent.
'I'm so sorry,' he began awkwardly, 'that things haven't turned out quite as you had hoped. I know I make a poor substitute for your vicar. Never mind, you'll be able to describe everything to him when we return on board. It's been a wonderful experience for all of us to have walked above the Garden of Gethsemane by night.'
Miss Dean did not hear him. She was many hundreds of miles away. She was walking up the vicarage drive, a basket over her arm, and suddenly she saw a figure dart from behind the curtain in the study window and efface itself against the wall. When she rang the bell nobody answered.
'Are you feeling all right, Miss Dean?' asked the Rev. Babcock. 'Thank you,' she said, 'I'm perfectly well. It's just that I'm very tired.'
Her voice faltered. She must not disgrace herself. She must not cry. It was just that she felt an overwhelming sense of loss, of betrayal....
'I can't imagine,' said. Lady Althea to Robin, 'why your grandfather went back to the hotel. Did he tell you he felt cold?'
'No,' replied Robin. 'He was talking to Mr Babcock about old days, and how he would have been given command of his regiment, but he had to leave the army because you weren't very well at the time, and your life was centred on Little Bletford. He didn't say anything about being cold, though. He just sounded rather sad.'
Left the army because of her? How could he have said such a thing, and to a stranger like Babcock? It wasn't true. It was very unjust. Phil had never for one moment hinted, all that time ago, that ... Or had he? Were things said and she hadn't listened, had brushed them away? But Phil had always appeared so content, so busy with the garden, and arranging his military papers and books in the library.... Doubt, guilt, bewilderment swept over her in turn. It had all happened so long ago. Why should Phil have suddenly felt resentful tonight? Have gone back on his own, not looked for her, even? Babcock must have said something to put Phil out, made some tactless remark.
One by one they climbed the hill, went into the hotel, hovered for a moment in the entrance to bid one another goodnight. Each member of the little party looked tired, strained. Robin could not understand it. He had enjoyed himself immensely, despite the cold. Why did everyone seem to be in such a bad mood? He kissed his grandmother goodnight, promised not to read late, and waited by the door of his bedroom for Mr Babcock to enter the room next door.
'Thank you for a splendid evening,' he said. 'I hope you liked it as much as I did.'
The Rev. Babcock summoned a smile. The boy was not so bad really. He couldn't help his precocity, spending most of his time with adults.
'Thank you, Robin,' he said. 'It was your idea, you know. I would never have thought of it on my own.' And then, quite spontaneously, he heard himself adding, 'I blame myself for not having made the walk more interesting for the rest of the party. They're all a bit lost without your vicar.'
Robin considered the matter, head cocked on one side. He liked being treated as an adult, it gave him status. He must say something to put poor Mr Babcock at his ease, and his mind harked back to the conversation between his grandparents earlier that evening before dinner.
'It must be difficult to be a clergyman in this day and age,' he said. 'Quite an ordeal, in fact.'
The Rev. Babcock looked surprised. 'Yes, it is. At least sometimes.'
Robin nodded gravely. 'My grandfather was saying people must make allowances, and my grandmother remarked that so many clergymen were not out of the topdrawer nowadays. I'm not sure what that means exactly, but I suppose it's to do with passing exams. I hope you sleep well, Mr Babcock.'
He clicked his heels and bowed, as his grandmother had taught him to do, and went into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him. He crossed the floor and drew aside the curtains. The lights were still burning bright in the city of Jerusalem.
'On that other 13th day of Nisan the disciples would all be scattered by now,' he thought, 'and only Peter left, stamping about to keep warm by the charcoal fire in the courtyard. That shows it was a cold night.'
He undressed and got into bed, then switched on his bedside light and spread the map of Jerusalem over his knees. He compared it with a second map that his father had borrowed for him, showing the city as it was around A.D. 30. He studied both maps for about half-an-hour, then, remembering the promise to his grandmother, switched off the light. The priests and scholars have got it all wrong, he thought. They've made Jesus go out of the wrong gate. Tomorrow I shall discover Golgotha for myself.
'Visitors to the Holy City of Jerusalem, this way please.' 'You wish for a guide? English-speaking? German? American? The church of St Anne on your right, birthplace of the Virgin Mary.' 'Walk to your left and enter the superb Haram Esh Sharif, see the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain, the Al Aqsa Mosque.' 'This way, please, to the Jewish Quarter, the site of the Temple, the Wailing Wall.' 'Pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre proceed by the Via Dolorosa straight ahead. Straight ahead for the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross....'
Edward Babcock, standing just inside St Stephen's Gate with his small party, was besieged on all sides by guides of every nationality. He waved them aside. He carried a street map of his own, and a sheaf of scribbled instructions handed him at the last moment by the courier at the hotel.
'Let us all try and keep together,' he said, turning this way and that in search of his own little group amongst the pushing crowd. 'If we don't keep together we shan't see anything. The first thing to remember is that the Jerusalem we are going to visit has been built upon the foundations of the one that was known to Our Lord. We shall be walking, and standing many feet above where He walked and stood. That is to say ...'
He consulted his notes again, and the Colonel seized him by the arm. 'First things first,' he said briskly. 'Deploy your troops where they can take advantage of the ground. I suggest we lead off with the church of St Anne. Follow me.'
The signal was obeyed. The little flock trailed after the temporary shepherd to find themselves within a large courtyard, the church of St Anne on their right.
'Built by the Crusaders,' declaimed the Colonel. 'Finished in the twelfth century. They knew what they were doing in those days. One of the finest examples of Crusader architecture you'll ever see.' He turned to the Rev. Babcock. 'I know it of old, padre,' he added.
Babcock heaved a sigh of relief, and stuffed his notes in his pocket. He needn't refer to them for the moment anyway, and the Colonel, who had seemed below his usual form when they had met at breakfast, had now regained something ofhis old zest and confidence. The group followed their leader dutifully around the almost empty church. They had seen one already, the Franciscan Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane, and, although this second one was very different, the compulsion to silence was the same, the shuffling footsteps, the wandering eyes, the inability to distinguish one feature from another, the sensation of relief when the inspection was over and it was possible to go out once more into the bright sunlight.
'If you've seen one, you've seen the lot,' Jim Foster whispered to Jill Smith, but she avoided his eye and he turned away, shrugging his shoulders. Guilty conscience? Oh well, if that was to be the mood she must get on with it. She had sung a very different tune last night....
Lady Althea, adjusting a blue chiffon scarf around her head so that it fell loosely about her shoulders, observed her husband closely. He seemed to be himself again. She had been relieved to find him in bed and asleep when she had entered their bedroom the night before. Nor had she questioned him. Better to letthings alone.... She had caught sight of friends driving away from the Church of All Nations, Lord and Lady Chaseborough, who were apparently staying at the King David Hotel, and they had agreed to meet by the Dome of the Rock at eleven o'clock. Such a surprise. If only she had known they were coming to Jerusalem shewould have arranged to stay at the King David Hotel too. Never mind. At least she would get a glimpse of them, be able to exchange news of mutual friends.
'There's something going on at the far end of this courtyard,' said Robin. 'Look, Grandfather, quite a big queue. Shall we join them? It looks like some sort of excavation.'
'Pool of Bethesda,' replied the Colonel. 'They've done a lot of work there since my day. I doubt if there's much to see. Part of the city drain.'
But Robin was already running ahead to join the queue. His attention had been drawn to a screaming child, carried in the arms of her father, who was pushing his way to the head of the queue.
'What on earth are they doing with that child?' asked Kate Foster.
Babcock had been glancing at his notes again. 'The site of the old sheep market. You remember Chapter 5 of St John's Gospel, Mrs Foster, and the Pool of Bethesda, where the infirm waited to be healed, and how the angel came at certain times to trouble the water? Our Lord healed the man who had been lame for thirty-eight years.' He turned to the Colonel. 'I think we should just take a look at it.'
'Come along, then, follow me,' said the Colonel, 'but I warn you, it's only part of the old sewer system. We had trouble with it in '48.'
Miss Dean was still standing outside the church of St Anne. She felt confused by all the chatter and bustle. What did the Rev. Babcock mean by saying they would be walking several feet above where Our Lord had trodden? The church here was very beautiful, no doubt, but the Colonel said even this had been built on the foundations of an earlier one, which in its turn had been erected over the simple dwelling of St Joachim and St Anne. Was she to understand that the parents of Our Lady had lived underground? In that curious sort of grotto they had visited before coming out of the church? She had hoped to be inspired by it, but instead she was disenchanted. She had always had such a happy picture of St Joachim and St Anne living in a pleasant whitewashed house with flowers growing in a small garden, and their blessed daughter learning to sew by her mother's side. There had been a calendar once with just such a painting upon it; she had treasured it for years until Dora took it off the wall and threw it away.
She looked around her, trying to conjure up the garden that no longer existed, but there were too many people present, none of them behaving with the slightest reverence, and one young woman was actually sucking an orange and giving pieces to the small child trailing at her skirt, then scattering the peel on the ground. Oh dear, sighed Miss Dean, how Our Lady would have hated litter....
The pressure was intense around the steps descending to the Pool of Bethesda, and an official was standing with his hand on the rail, directing the people to go down one by one. The little girl in her father's arms was screaming louder than ever.
'Why is she making such a fuss?' asked Robin.
'I don't think she wants to go to the Pool,' replied Babcock in some hesitation. He averted his eyes. The child was obviously spastic, and the father, with his anxious wife by his side, was apparently intent upon dipping her in the Pool, hoping for a miracle.
'I think,' said the Colonel, sizing up the situation, 'we'd be well advised to push on to the Praetorium before the crowds get worse.'
'No, wait a minute,' said Robin. 'I want to see what happens to the little girl.'
He leant over the rail and stared down into the Pool with interest. It was certainly not much of a place, the water dark and rather slimy, the steps slippery-looking too. Grandfather must be right, and it formed part of the city drain. The man who had been lame for thirty-eight years was lucky when Jesus came along and healed him instantly, rather than waiting for someone to lift him into the Pool. Perhaps Jesus realised the water was bad. There they go, he said to himself, as the father, ignoring the child's terrified screams, slowly descended the steps. Freeing one hand, he dipped it in the pool and sloshed the water three times over his daughter, wetting her face, her neck, her arms. Then, smiling in triumph at the curious watchers above, he ascended the steps to safety, his wife smiling with him, mopping the child's face with a towel. The child herself, bewildered, distraught, rolled her frightened eyes over the heads of the crowd. Robin waited to see if the father would put her down, cured. Nothing happened, though. She began screaming again, and the father, making soothing sounds, bore her away from the top of the steps and was lost in the crowd.
Robin turned to the Rev. Babcock. 'No luck, I'm afraid. There wasn't a miracle. I didn't really think there would be, but of course you never know.'
The rest of the little party had moved away, embarrassed, distressed, unwilling witnesses of what appeared to be an excess of faith. All but Miss Dean, who, still standing before the church of St Anne, had seen nothing of the incident. Robin ran towards her.
'Miss Dean,' he called, 'you haven't seen the Pool of Bethesda.' 'The Pool of Bethesda?'
'Yes, you know. It comes in St John. The pool where the Angel troubled the water and the lame man was healed. Except that Jesus healed him, not the pool.'
'Yes, of course,' said Miss Dean. 'I remember well. The poor fellow had no one to carry him down, and he used to wait day after day.'
'Well,' said Robin proudly, 'it's over there. I've just seen a little girl carried down to it. But she wasn't cured.'
The Pool of Bethesda.... What a strange and curious coincidence. She had turned to that very chapter in the Gospel the night before on returning to the hotel, and the whole scene was vivid in her recollection. It had made her think of Lourdes, of all the poor sick people who travelled there every year, and some of them indeed were cured, doctors and priests were quite confounded, there was never a medical explanation. Of course some came back without being cured, but then it could be that they did not have sufficient faith.
'Oh, Robin,' she said, 'I would like to see it. Will you show it me?'
'Well,' he replied, 'actually it's a bit disappointing. Grandfather says it's a drain. He remembers it in '48. And the rest of us are going on to the Praetorium where Jesus was scourged by the soldiers.'
'I don't think I could bear to go there,' said Miss Dean, 'especially if it's underground, like everything else.'
Robin, intent upon the next adventure, was not going to waste time showing the Pool of Bethesda to Miss Dean.
'The pool is over there,' he said. 'There's a man who stands at the top of the steps. See you later.'
His grandmother was waving to him in the distance. Lady Althea was impatient to meet her friends at the Dome of the Rock.
'Do go back and tell Miss Dean to hurry up, Robin,' she called. 'She doesn't want to see the Praetorium,' he replied.
'Neither do I,' said his grandmother. 'I'm meeting the Chase-boroughs instead. Miss Dean will really have to take care of herself. Darling, you had better run ahead and join Grandfather. He's just passing under the archway now.'
Everything was so disorganised owing to Babcock's lack of experience that it was a case of each one for himself, she decided. If Miss Dean failed to join up with the rest of the party, she could always go and sit in the hotel bus that was parked just round the corner outside St Stephen's Gate. If the crowds were too impossible, the Chaseboroughs might invite herself and Phil and Robin back to lunch at the King David Hotel. She watched Robin until he had caught up with his grandfather, and the pair of them were lost in the throng of sightseers and
pilgrims, then she followed the sign pointing towards the Dome of the Rock.
'Via Dolorosa ... the Way of the Cross ...'
The Colonel pushed ahead, ignoring the eager guides. The street was very narrow, flanked by high walls, the walls themselves spanned by archways covered in vine-leaves. Walking was difficult, indeed impossible. Some of the pilgrims were already on their knees.
"What's everybody kneeling for?' asked Robin.
'First Station of the Cross,' said the Colonel. 'In point of fact, we're on the site of the Praetorium, padre, this was all part of the old Antonia fortress. We can get a better idea of it inside the Convent of the Ecce Homo.'
He was not sure, though. Things seemed to have altered since '48. Men were seated at a table taking tickets. He had a murmured consultation with Babcock.
'How many of us are there?' he asked, searching the eyes of strangers.
He could see none of his party except himself, Robin and the padre. The place seemed to be full of nuns. The pilgrims were being divided into groups.
'Better do what they tell us,' he muttered to Babcock. 'Call themselves the Soeurs de Sion, can't understand a word they say.'
They were descending to a lower level, and this, thought Robin, must be what Miss Dean didn't want to do. It's not particularly frightening, though. Not nearly as bad as the Ghost Train at a fair.
The nun in charge of their party was explaining that they were descending to the lithostratus or, as the Hebrew had it, the Gabbatha, the stone-paved judgment-place of Pilate. The pavement had only recently been discovered, she told them, and perhaps the most striking proof that it was indeed the site of the place where the Seigneur had been held by Pilate, and scourged and mocked, was furnished by the curious markings on the flagstones themselves, the crisscross lines and pits which, the experts told them, the Roman soldiers used for games of chance. Here in this corner they would have sat, dicing, guarding their prisoner, and we now know too, she said, that it was a Roman custom to play a game called The King, when a condemned prisoner was crowned king during his last few hours, and treated with mock ceremony.
The gaping pilgrims stared about them. The place was low, vaulted, like an immense cellar, the flagstones hard and rugged beneath their feet. The whispering voices died away. The nun herself was silent.
'Perhaps,' thought Robin, 'the soldiers didn't actually mock Jesus at all. It was just a game, which they let him join in. He might even have thrown dice with them. The crown and the purple robe were just dressing-up. It was the Romans' idea of fun. I don't believe when a prisoner is condemned to death the people guarding him are beastly. They try and make the time go quickly, because they feel sorry for him.'
He could imagine the soldiers squatting on the flagstones, and with them, chained to a fellow-prisoner, a thief, was a young man, smiling, who threw his dice with greater skill than his gaolers, and so won the prize and was elected king. The laughter that greeted his skill was not mockery, it was applause.
'That's it,' thought Robin. 'People have been teaching it all wrong through the years. I must tell Mr Babcock.'
He looked about him, but he could see none of his party except his grandfather, who was standing very still, staring towards the far end of the vaulted room. People began to drift away but the Colonel did not move, and Robin, content to squat on the flagstones and trace the curious lines and markings with his finger, waited until his grandfather was ready.
We only acted under instructions, the Colonel told himself. They came direct from High Command. Terrorism was rife at the time, the Palestine Police Force couldn't deal with it, we had to take control. The Jews were laying mines at street corners, the situation was deteriorating daily. They had blown up the King David Hotel in July. We had to arm the troops, and protect them and the civilian population against terrorist attack. The trouble was, there was no political policy back at home, with a Labour government in power. They told us to go soft, but how can you go soft when people on the spot are being killed? The Jewish Agency insisted that they were against terrorism, but it was all talk and no action. Well, then we picked up this Jewish boy and flogged him. He was a terrorist, right enough. Caught him in the act. Nobody likes inflicting pain ... There were reprisals afterwards, of course. One of our officers and three N.C.O.'s kidnapped and flogged. Hell of a row about it at home. I don't know why standing here should bring the whole scene back so vividly. I haven't thought of it since. Suddenly he remembered the expression on the boy's face. The look of panic. And his mouth twisting as the lashes fell. He was very young. The boy was standing there in front of him once again, and his eyes were Robin's eyes. They did not accuse him. They simply stared at him in dumb appeal. Oh God, he thought, oh God, forgive me. And his years of service fell away, became as nothing, were wasted, useless.
'Come on, let's go,' he said abruptly, but even as he turned on his heel and walked across the flagged stones be could hear the sound of the blows, could see the Jewish boy writhe and fall. He pushed his way through the crowd up into the open air, Robin at his heels, and so out into the street, looking neitherto right nor to left.
'Hold on, Grandfather,' called Robin. 'I want to know exactly where Pilate stood.'
'I don't know,' said the Colonel. 'It doesn't matter.'
Another queue was already forming to descend to the paved Gabbatha, and here outside the pilgrims were thicker than ever. A new guide was standing at his elbow, who plucked at his sleeve and said, 'This way, the Via Dolorosa. Straight on for the Way of the Cross.'
Lady Althea, wandering within the Temple area, was doing her best to shake off Kate Foster before they met the Chase-boroughs.
'Yes, yes, very impressive,' she said vaguely as Kate pointed out the various domes, and began reading something out of a guidebook about Mameluke Sultan Quait Bai who had built a fountain over the Holy of Holies. They wandered from one edifice to another, mounted row upon row of steps, descended them again, saw the rock where Isaac was sacrificed by Abraham and Mohammed rose to Heaven, and still no sign of her friends. The sun, directly overhead, blazed down upon them.
'I think I've had enough,' she said. 'I really don't think I want to fag right over there and see the inside of that mosque.'
'You'll be missing the finest sight in the whole of Jerusalem,' retorted Kate. 'The stained-glass windows of the Al Aqsa mosque are world-famous. I'm only hoping they weren't damaged in the bomb explosions one read about.'
Lady Althea sighed. Middle East politics bored her, except when they were being discussed in an authoritative manner by a member of Parliament over dinner. There was so little to distinguish between Jews and Arabs anyway. They all threw bombs.
'Go and look at your mosque,' she said. 'I'll wait for you here.'
She watched her companion disappear and then, loosening her chiffon scarf, strolled back again towards the flight of steps leading to the Dome of the Rock. The one great advantage in being in this Temple area was that there were fewer crowds than in that narrow, stifling Via Dolorosa. So much more space in which to move about. She wondered what Betty Chaseborough would be wearing--she had only caught sight of her white hat in the car. Pity she had let her figure go these last few years.
Lady Althea installed herself against one of the triple pillars above the flight of steps. They surely would not miss her here. She felt rather empty; coffee and breakfast seemed a long time ago. She opened her bag, remembering the piece of ring-shaped bread that Robin had pressed her into buying from some vendor who had been standing with a donkey outside the Church of All Nations. 'It's not unleavened bread,' he had told her, tut the next best thing to it.' She smiled. His little ways were so amusing.
She bit into the bread--it was a lot harder than it looked--and as she did so she saw Eric Chaseborough and his wife emerging with a group of sightseers from some building Kate had said was Solomon's Stables. She waved her hand to attract their attention, and Eric Chaseborough waved his hat in reply. Lady Althea dropped the piece of bread back into her bag, and was instantly aware, from the odd sensation in her mouth, that something was terribly wrong. She thrust her tongue upwards. It pricked against two sharp points. She looked down again at the piece of bread, and there, impaled in the ring, were her two front teeth, capped by her dentist just before she left London. She seized her hand-mirror in horror. The face that was hers belonged to her no longer. The woman who stared back at her had two small filed pegs stuck in her upper gums where the teeth should have been. They looked like broken matchsticks, discoloured, black. All trace of beauty had gone. She might have been some peasant who, old before her time, stood begging at a street corner.
'Oh no ...' she thought, 'oh no, not here, not now!' And in an agony of shame and humiliation she tried to cover her mouth with her blue chiffon scarf as the Chaseboroughs, smiling, advanced towards her.
'Run you to earth at last,' called Eric Chaseborough, but she could only shake her head, gesticulating, trying to wave them off.
'What's the matter with Althea? Is she feeling ill?' asked his wife.
The tall, elegant figure backed away from them, groping with her scarf, and as they hurried to her side the chiffon fell back, revealing the tragedy, and the owner of the scarf, endeavouring to mumble between closed lips, pointed to the impaled teeth on the piece of bread within her bag.
'Oh, I say,' murmured Eric Chaseborough, tad luck. What a wretched thing to happen.'
He looked about him helplessly, as if, amongst the people mounting the steps, there might be someone who could give them the address of a dentist in Jerusalem.
His wife, sensing the humiliation of her friend, held on to her arm.
'Don't worry,' she said. 'It doesn't show. Not if you keep your scarf over your mouth. You're not in pain?'
Lady Althea shook her head. Pain she could have borne, but not this loss of pride, this misery of shame, the knowledge that in that one moment of biting the bread she had thrown away all grace, all dignity.
'The Israelis are very up to date,' said Eric Chaseborough. 'There's sure to be a first-rate man who can fix you up. The reception clerk at the King David will be able to tell us.'
Lady Althea shook her head again, thinking of the endless appointments in Harley Street, the careful probing, the highspeed drill, the hours of patience to keep beauty intact. She thought of the lunch ahead, herself eating nothing, while her friends tried to behave as if all was quite usual. The vain search for a dentist who could at best patch up the ravages that had taken place. Phil's gasp of astonishment. Robin's curious gaze. The averted eyes of the rest of the party. The remainder of the tour a nightmare.
'There's someone coming up the steps who seems to know you,' murmured Eric Chaseborough.
Kate Foster, having inspected the Al Aqsa Mosque, had resolutely turned her back on the entrance to the Wailing Wall--too many Orthodox Jews pressing forward over the enormous space where their government had had the ruthless audacity to bulldoze Jordanian dwellings and condemn more Jordanians to desert tents--and returned towards the Dome of the Rock. There she caught sight of Lady Althea being supported between strangers. She hurried to her rescue.
'What on earth's wrong?' she enquired.
Lord Chaseborough introduced himself and explained the situation. 'Poor Althea is very distressed,' he murmured. 'I'm not quite sure what's the best thing to do.'
'Lost her front teeth?' said Kate Foster. 'Well, it's not the end of the world, is it?' She stared in some curiosity at the stricken woman who, proud and confident, had strolled by her side such a short while ago. 'Let's have a look.'
Lady Althea, her hand trembling, lowered the chiffon scarf, and with a tremendous effort tried to smile. To her consternation, and that of her sympathetic friends, Kate Foster burst out laughing.
'Well, I must say,' she exclaimed, 'you couldn't have made a cleaner job of it if you'd been in a prize-fight.'
It seemed to Lady Althea, as she stood there above the steps, that all the people pressing forward were staring, not at the Dome of the Rock, but at her alone, and were nudging one another, whispering, smiling; for she knew, from her own experience of mocking others, that there is nothing more likely to unite a crowd of strangers in a wave of laughter than the sight of someone who, with dignity shattered, becomes suddenly grotesque.
'Straight on for the Via Dolorosa ... Straight on for the Way of the Cross.'
Jim Foster, dragging Jill Smith by the hand, was held up at every turn by kneeling pilgrims. Jill had expressed a wish to visit the markets, or the suks, or whatever they called themselves, and to the suks she should go. Besides, he could buy something for Kate, and make his peace with her.
'I think I ought to wait for Bob,' said Jill, hanging back.
But Bob was nowhere to be seen. He had followed Babcock to the Praetorium.
'You didn't want to wait for him last night,' replied Jim Foster.
Amazing how a girl could change gear between midnight and noon. She might have been a different creature altogether. Last night under the trees, at first protesting, then moaning with pleasure at his touch, and now prickly, off-hand, it was almost as if she wanted nothing more to do with him. Well, fine, O.K., let it be so. But it was a bit of a slap in the face all the same. A guilty conscience was one thing, a brush-off another. He wouldn't put it past her to have run bleating to her fool of a husband last night, telling him she had been the victim of assault. Though Bob Smith would never have the nerve to do anything about it. Well, it was probably the last thrill she would ever get out of sex, poor girl. Something to remember all her life.
'Come on,' he urged, 'if you want that brass bangle.'
'We can't,' she whispered. 'That clergyman there is praying.'
'We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee.'
The priest, just ahead of them, was on his knees, his head bowed.
'Because by the Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.'
The response came from the group of pilgrims kneeling behind him.
I shouldn't have let him, thought Jill Smith. I shouldn't have let Jim Foster do what he did last night. It wasn't right. I feel terrible when I think of it. And we came here to see the Holy Places, and all these people praying around us, and Jesus Christ dying for our sins. I feel awful, I feel really bad. On my honeymoon, too. What would everyone say if they knew? They'd say I was nothing but a scrubber, a slut, and it's not as if I were in love with him, I'm not, I love Bob. I just don't know what came over me to let Jim Foster do what he did.
The pilgrims rose to their feet and passed on up the Via Dolorosa, and thank goodness it didn't seem so holy once they had gone. The street was full of ordinary people, women with baskets on their heads, and they were coming to stalls full of vegetables, butchers' shops with carcasses of lambs hanging up on hooks, and traders shouting and calling their wares, but it was all so close and huddled together you could hardly move, you could hardly breathe.
The street was dividing, and there were booths and shops on either side, and flights of steps to the right flanked by stalls piled with oranges, grapefruit, enormous cabbages, onions, and beans.
'We're in the wrong suk,' said Jim Foster impatiently. 'Nothing but blasted foodstuffs here.'
Through an archway he espied a row of booths hung with belts and scarves, and next to it a stall where an old man was displaying cheap jewellery. 'Here, this is more like it,' he said, but a donkey loaded with melons barred his path, and a woman with a basket on her head tripped over his foot.
'Let's go back,' said Jill. 'We're getting hopelessly lost.'
A young man sidled up to her, a sheaf of pamphlets in his hand.
'You wish to visit Holyland Hill for superb panoramic view?' he enquired. 'Also see the Artist Colony and Night Club?'
'Oh, please go away,' said Jill. 'I don't want to see any of them.'
She had let go of Foster's hand, and now he was the other side of the street, beckoning to her. This might be the moment to give him the slip and try to retrace her steps and find Bob, yet she was scared at the thought of being on her own in these narrow, bewildering streets.
Jim Foster, standing by the booth selling jewellery, picked up one object after another and threw it down again. Complete junk. Nothing worth buying. Medallions with the Dome of the Rock, and head-scarves printed all over with donkeys. Hardly do to buy one of those for Kate--she might think it was a joke in bad taste. He turned round to look for Jill, forgetting that he still held one of the despised medallions in his hand. He could just see her disappearing down thestreet. Bloody girl, what was the matter with her? He started to cross the road, when an angry voice shouted after him from the stall.
'Three dollars for the medallion. You owe me three dollars!' He looked back over his shoulder. The vendor behind the stall was red with anger.
'Here, take it, I don't want the damn thing,' said Jim, and threw the medallion back on to the stall.
'You pick it up, you buy,' shouted the man, and he began jabbering to his neighbour, and the pair of them started shaking their fists, attracting the attention of other vendors in the market, and other purchasers. Jim hesitated a moment, then panicked. You never knew what might happen with a Middle East crowd. He walked quickly away, and as the uproar rose behind him, and heads turned, he quickened his pace and began to run, elbowing people aside, head down, and the crowds intent upon their shopping, or merely strolling, stepped back upon one another, causing more upheaval. 'What is it? Is he a thief? Has be planted a bomb?' Murmurs were all behind him, and as Jim mounted a flight of steps he saw two Israeli policemen coming down, and he turned again, and tried to carve his way through the crowd below in the narrow street. His breath came quickly, there was a pain under his left rib like a knife, and the sensation of panic increased, for perhaps the Israeli policemen had questioned someone in the crowd and even now were pursuing him, believing him to be a thief, an anarchist, anything … How could he clear himself? How could he explain?
He fought his way through the crowd, losing all control, all sense of direction, and came out into a broader street, and now there was no escape because the way was barred by a throng of pilgrims walking with linked arms, and he had to fall back against a wall. They seemed to be all men, wearing dark trousers and white shirts. They didn't look like pilgrims, for they were laughing and singing. He was borne along with them, like a piece of flotsam on the crest of a wave, unable to turn back, and he found himself in the centre of a great open space, in the midst of which young men similarly dressed were dancing, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder.
The pain under his left rib was intense. He could move no further. If he could only sit down for one moment, but there was no space. If he could only lean against something ... against that enormous, lemon-coloured wall. He couldn't reach it, though, he could only stand and stare, for the way to it was barred by a line of black-hatted men with curling hair, who were bowing and praying and beating their breasts. They are all Jews, he thought, I am alien, I'm not one of them, and his sense of panic returned, of fear, of desolation, for what if the two Israeli policemen were even now close to him on the fringe of the crowd, and forced their way to his side, and instead of bowing and praying before the Wailing Wall the line of men turned and looked upon him in accusation, and a cry arose from the whole lot of them calling, 'Thief... Thief ...'?
Jill Smith had only one thought in mind, and that was to put as great a distance as possible between herself and Jim Foster. She didn't want to have anything more to do with him. She would have to be polite, of course, as long as they were all together, but they were due to leave Jerusalem later in the day, and once they were on board ship again none of them need have any close contact. Thank heaven she and Bob were going to live several miles from Little Bletford.
She walked quickly back along the narrow crowded street, away from the market quarter and the shops, passing tourists, sightseers, pilgrims, priests, but still no sign of Bob, nor of any of their party. There were signposts everywhere to the Holy Sepulchre, but she ignored them. She didn't want to go inside the Holy Sepulchre. It didn't seem right. It didn't seem, well, clean. It would be hypocritical and false to go amongst all those people praying. She wanted to find some place where she could sit and think and be alone. The walls of the Old City seemed to be closing in upon her, and perhaps if she continued walking she would be free of them, find more air, and there would be less noise, less hustle. Then she saw a gate in the distance, at the far end, but it was not St Stephen's Gate, by which they had entered earlier. The letters said 'Shechem', and another sign read 'Damascus'. It did not matter to her what it was called, as long as it led her out of the city.
She passed under the great archway, and there were cars and buses parked in rows outside, just as there had been at St Stephen's Gate, and more tourists than ever coming down across the broad thoroughfare into the city. And there, standing in the midst of them, looking as lost and bewildered as she probably did herself, was Kate Foster. Too late to turn back--Kate had seen her. Reluctantly Jill went towards her.
'Have you seen Jim?' asked Kate.
'No,' she replied. 'I lost him in all those narrow streets. I'm looking for Bob.'
'Well, you'll never find him,' said Kate. 'I've never met with such total disorganisation. The crowds are absolute murder. None of our party has kept together. Lady Althea has gone back to the hotel practically having a nervous breakdown. She's lost her teeth.'
'She's what?' asked Jill.
'Lost her front teeth. They came out on a piece of bread. She looks an absolute fright.'
'Oh dear, how dreadful for her, I am sorry,' said Jill.
A car was hooting at them and they moved to the side of the street, walking out of the stream of traffic but in no particular direction.
'The friends who were with her kept talking about finding a dentist, but how do you know where to get hold of one in such a place of turmoil? Then luckily we ran into the Colonel near St Stephen's Gate, and he took over.'
'What did he do?'
'Found a taxi at once and bundled her into it. She was nearly in tears, but he sent her friends packing and got in beside her, and if you ask me, though she usually spends her time snubbing him, she was never more relieved to see anyone in her life. I wish I could find Jim. What was he doing when you saw him last?'
'I'm not sure,' faltered Jill. 'I think he wanted to buy you a present.'
'I know Jim's presents,' said Kate. 'I always get one when he has a guilty conscience. God! I could do with a cup of tea. Or at least somewhere to sit where I could take the weight off my feet.'
They went on walking, looking aimlessly about them, and came to a sign with the words 'Garden of the Resurrection' upon it.
'I don't suppose,' said Jill, 'we could get a cup of tea there?'
'You never know,' replied Kate, 'All these tourist centres carry ridiculous names. It's like Stratford-on-Avon. Everything is either Shakespeare or Ann Hathaway. Here it's Jesus Christ.'
They found themselves descending into an enclosure surrounded by rock, with paved ways all about it, and an official in the centre handed them a pamphlet. It said something about the Garden of Joseph of Arimathea.
'No tea here,' said Kate. 'No, thank you, we don't want a guide.'
'We can at least,' murmured Jill, 'sit down on that little wall. They surely won't make us pay for that.'
The official moved away, shrugging his shoulders. The garden would soon be full of pilgrims showing greater interest. Kate was studying the pamphlet.
'It's a rival site to the Holy Sepulchre,' she said. 'I suppose they like to spread the tourists around. That curious little tumbledown place built against the rock must be the tomb.'
They walked across and peered into the opening in the wall. 'It's empty,' said Jill.
'Well, it would be, wouldn't it?' answered Kate.
It was peaceful, anyway. They could sit down beside it and rest. The garden was practically empty, and Kate supposed it was still too early in the day for the usual hordes to stamp all over it. She glanced sideways at her companion, who looked tired and strained. Perhaps she had misjudged her after all. It was probably Jim who had made the running the night before.
'If you take my advice,' she said shortly, 'you'll start your family right away. We waited; with the result we've had no children. Oh yes, I tried everything. Opening the fallopian tubes, the lot. It didn't work. The doctors told me they thought Jim was probably sterile, but he wouldn't take a test. Now, of course, it's all too late. I'm plumb in the middle of change of life.'
Jill did not know what to say. Everything Kate Foster told her made her feel more guilty.
'I'm so sorry,' she said.
'No use being sorry. I've got to put up with it. Be thankful you're young, and have all your life before you. Sometimes I feel there's absolutely nothing left, and that Jim wouldn't give a damn if I died tomorrow.'
To Kate's dismay, Jill Smith suddenly burst into tears. 'What on earth's wrong?' Kate asked.
Jill shook her head. She couldn't speak. How could she explain the wave of guilt, of remorse, that was sweeping over her?
'Please forgive me,' she said. 'The thing is, I don't feel very well. I've been tired and out of sorts all day.'
'Got the curse?'
'No ... No ... It's just that sometimes I wonder if Bob really loves me, if we're suited. Nothing seems to go right with us.'
Oh, what was she saying, and as if Kate Foster could possibly care anyway?
'You probably married too young,' said her companion. 'I did too. Everyone marries too young. I often think single women have a far better time.'
What was the use, though? She had been married to Jim for over twenty years, and despite all the anxiety and stress he caused her she could never consider parting from him. She loved him, he depended upon her. If he became ill he would look to her before anyone else.
'I hope he's all right,' she said suddenly.
Jill looked up from blowing her nose. Did she mean Bob, or Jim?
'What do you mean?' she asked.
'Jim hates crowds, always has done, that's why as soon as I saw the mob of pilgrims in that narrow street I wanted him to come with me to the Mosque area, where I knew it would be quieter, but he would go tearing off with you in the opposite direction. Jim panics in crowds. Gets claustrophobia.'
'I didn't realise,' said Jill, 'he never said ...'
Perhaps Bob also panicked in crowds. Perhaps Bob, and Jim too, were at this moment trying to fight their way out of that terrible mass of people, those clamouring street-vendors, those chanting pilgrims.
She looked around her at the silent garden, at the scattered shrubs somebody had planted, at the dreary little empty tomb. Even the official had moved out of sight, leaving them alone.
'It's no use staying here,' she said. 'They'll never come.'
'I know,' said Kate, tut what are we to do? Where can we go?'
The thought of plunging back into the hated city was appalling, but there was no alternative. On, on, searching the faces of the passers-by for their husbands and never finding them, always coming upon strangers, people who did not know, did not care.
Miss Dean waited until the stream of visitors to the church of St Anne and to the Pool of Bethesda had cleared, and then she walked very slowly towards the entrance to the pool and the flight of steps descending to it. A strange and rather wonderful idea had come into her head. She had been hurt, deeply hurt, by what she had overheard the night before. A thorn in the flesh. Jill Smith had told Mr Foster that Father had said to her mother that she, Mary Dean, was a thorn in his flesh. Had pursued him for years. It was a lie, of course. Father would never say such a thing. Mrs Smith had told a deliberate lie. Nevertheless, the fact that such a thing could be said, that possibly stories were told about her all over Little Bletford, had given her so much pain and distress that she had hardly slept. And to have overheard this above the Garden of Gethsemane of all places...
Then that dear little Robin, who seemed to be the only one in the party who ever read his Gospel, had explained to her that she was standing close to the Pool of Bethesda itself, and that a child had already been carried down to the pool to be cured of some disease. Well, perhaps the cure was not instantaneous, perhaps it would take some hours, or even days, for the miracle to show. Miss Dean had no disease, she was perfectly healthy, and strong. But if she could fill her small eau-de-cologne bottle with some of the water from the pool, and take it back with her to Little Bletford, and give it to Father to put in the holy water stoup in the entrance of the church, he would be overcome by her thought, by her gesture of faith. She could picture his expression when she handed the bottle to him. 'Father, I have brought you water from the Pool of Bethesda.' 'Oh, Miss Dean, what a tender, wonderful thing to have done!'
The trouble was, it might be forbidden by the authorities to take water from the pool, whoever the authorities were, but the man standing near the entrance doubtless represented them. Therefore--and it was in a good cause, a holy cause--she would wait until he had moved away, and would then descend the steps and fill the little bottle with water. Deceitful, perhaps, but deceitful in the name of the Lord.
Miss Dean bided her time, and presently--and the Lord must have been on her side--the man moved a short distance away towards a group of people who were obviously questioning him about some excavations further on. This must be her chance.
She moved gingerly towards the steps, placed her hand carefully on the handrail and began to descend. Robin was right in a sense. It did look rather like a drain, but there was plenty of water, and it was in a deep sort of chasm, and after what the Rev. Babcock had told them about everything being underground then there was no doubt about this being the genuine place. She felt truly inspired. Nobody descending to the pool but herself. She reached the slab at the bottom of the steps, and glancing above her, to make quite sure nobody had followed and she was not observed, she took out her handkerchief, knelt upon it, and emptied the eau-de-cologne on to the stone beside her. It seemed rather a waste, but in a way it was a kind of offering.
She leant over the pool and allowed the water to flow into the bottle. Then she stood up and replaced the cork, but as she did so her foot slipped on the damp stone slab, and the bottle fell out of her hand into the water. She gave a little cry of dismay and tried to retrieve it, but already it was out of reach, and she herself was falling, falling, into the dank, deep waters of the pool.
'Oh, dear Lord,' she called. 'Oh, dear Lord, help me!'
Thrusting outwards with her arms she tried to reach the slippery wet slab on which she had stood, but the water was entering her open mouth, was choking her, and there was nothing and no one around her but the stagnant water, and the great high walls, and the patch of blue sky above her head.
The Rev. Babcock had been almost as moved by the pavement floor below the Ecce Homo convent as the Colonel, although his reason was less personal. He too saw a man being scourged, guarded by soldiers, but it was happening two thousand years ago, and the man who was suffering was God. It made him feel utterly unworthy, and at the same time privileged, to have stood on hallowed ground. He wished he could in some way prove himself, and leaving the Praetorium, and watching the stream of pilgrims proceed slowly up the Via Dolorosa, halting at successive Stations of the Cross, he knew that no gesture of his, now or in the future,could atone for what had happened in that First Century A.D. He could only bow his head and follow, with equal humility, those pilgrims who went before.
'Oh Lord,' he prayed, let me drink the cup that you have drunk, let me share your suffering.'
He felt someone pluck him by the arm. It was the Colonel. Will you carry on?' he asked. I'm going to take my wife back to the hotel. She's had a slight accident.'
Babcock expressed concern.
'No, it's nothing really,' the Colonel reassured him. 'An unfortunate mishap to her front teeth. She's rather upset, and I want to get her away from the crowds.'
'Of course. Please express my sympathy. Where are the others?'
The Colonel looked over his shoulder. 'I can only see two of them, our Robin and young Bob Smith. I've told them not to lose sight of you.'
He turned back towards St Stephen's Gate and disappeared.
Babcock resumed his slow progress towards Calvary, hemmed in on either side by the devout. We're really a cross-section of the Christian world, he thought, every nationality, men, women, children, all walking where our Master walked before. And in His day, too, the curious stared, pausing about their daily business to watch the condemned pass by. In His day, too, the traders and shopkeepers sold their wares, women brushed past, or halted in doorways with baskets on their heads, youths shouted from stalls, dogs chased cats under benches, old men argued, children cried.
Via Dolorosa ... The Way of the Cross.
Left, then right again, and now, on the turn, the band of pilgrims beside whom he walked mingled with another group in front, and yet a second and third dovetailed into them. Babcock, turning for one backward glance, could see no sign of Robin or Bob Smith, no sign of any of his flock. His pilgrim partners were now, immediately in front of him, a company of nuns, and behind him, bearded and black-robed, a group of Greek Orthodox priests. To move either to right or left was out of the question. He hoped he was not too conspicuous as the one lone figure bunched between them, the singing nuns ahead, the chanting priests in the rear.
The nuns were saying the Hail Mary in Dutch. At least, he thought it was Dutch, but it could have been German. They went down on their knees when they came to the Fifth and Sixth Stations, and Babcock, fumbling for his little pilgrim's handbook, reminded himself that the Fifth was the spot where the Cross had been laid upon Simon of Cyrene, and the Sixth where the face of Our Lord had been wiped by Veronica. He wondered whether he should kneel with the nuns, or stand with the Greek Orthodox priests. He decided to kneel with the nuns. It showed greater reverence, greater humility.
On, on, ever upwards, ever climbing, the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rearing above him, and now a final pause because they had arrived in the paved court before the great basilica itself, and in a moment the nuns, he himself and the priests would be passing through the imposing door to the final Stations, within the church itself.
It was then that Babcock became aware, though not for the first time—he had known a momentary queasiness within the Ecce Homo convent that all was far from well with his own inside. A sharp pain gripped him, passed, then gripped him again. He began to sweat. He looked to right and left, but there was no means of extricating himself from the pilgrims who surrounded him. The chanting continued, the door of the church was before him, and despite his efforts to turn and go back the priests barred his way. He must go on and into the church, there was no other way.
The church of the Holy Sepulchre enveloped him. He was aware of darkness, scaffolding, steps, the smell of many bodies and much incense. What can I do, he asked himself in agony, where can I go, the lingering taste of last night's chicken ragout rising from his belly to confound him, and as he stumbled up the steps to the Chapel of Golgotha in the wake of the nuns, with altars to right and left of him, candles, lights, crosses, votive offerings in profusion all about him, he saw nothing, heard nothing, he could only feel the pressure within his body, the compelling summons of his bowels, which no prayer, no willpower, no Divine Mercy from on high could overcome.
Bob Smith, bunched in behind the Greek Orthodox priests some distance in the rear, with Robin at his side, had been the first to observe the signs of distress on Babcock's face. He had noticed that when Babcock knelt for the final time, before being swept through the door of the church, he was looking very white, and was wiping his forehead with his handkerchief.
'I wonder,' he thought, 'if he's feeling ill. Faint, or something.' He turned to Robin. 'Look,' he said, 'I'm a bit worried about the parson. I don't think we ought to let him out of our sight.'
'All right,' said Robin. 'Why don't you follow him? Perhaps he feels awkward walking with all those nuns.'
'I don't think it's that,' replied Bob. 'I think he may be feeling ill.'
'Perhaps,' said Robin, 'he wants to go to the toilet. I wouldn't mind going myself, as a matter of fact.'
He looked about him for a practical solution. Bob Smith hesitated.
'Why don't you stay here,' he suggested, 'and wait for us to come out? That is, unless you're terribly keen to see inside the Holy Sepulchre.'
'I'm not at all keen,' said Robin. 'I don't believe it's the correct site anyway.'
'Right, then. I'll see if I can find him inside.'
Bob pushed through the door, and like Babcock before him was met with darkness, scaffolding, chanting pilgrims, priests, a flight of steps and chapels on either side. Most of the pilgrims were descending, the nuns amongst them, closely followed by the priests. The figure of Babcock, so conspicuous in their midst winding his way up the Via Dolorosa, was no longer to be seen.
Then Bob Smith spied him, huddled against the base of the wall in the second chapel, his face buried in his hands, a sacristan --Greek, Coptic, Armenian, Bob didn't know which--crouching by his side. The sacristan raised his head as Bob approached.
'An English pilgrim,' he whispered, 'taken very unwell. I will go to find help.'
'That's O.K.,' said Bob. 'I know him. He belongs to our party. I'll manage.' He bent down and touched Babcock on the arm. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'I'm here.'
Babcock motioned with his hand. 'Ask him to go away,' he whispered. 'The most frightful thing has happened.'
'Yes,' said Bob, 'it's all right. I understand.'
He gestured to the sacristan, who nodded, and crossed the chapel to prevent the incoming batch of pilgrims from approaching, and Bob helped Babcock to his feet.
'It could happen to any one of us,' he said. 'It must be happening all the time. I remember once at the Cup Final ...'
He didn't finish his sentence. His unfortunate companion was too distressed, too doubled up with weakness, with shame. Bob took his elbow and helped him down the steps, and out of the church to the court beyond.
'You'll be better in a moment,' he said, 'in the fresh air.'
Babcock clung to him. 'It was the chicken,' he said, 'that chicken I had last night for dinner. I particularly didn't touch any fruit or salad, Miss Dean warned me against them. I thought chicken would be safe.'
'Don't worry,' said Bob. 'You just couldn't help it. Do you think ... do you think the worst is over?'
'Yes, yes, it's over.'
Bob looked about him, but there was no sign of Robin. He must have gone into the church after all. What the hell should he do? The child ought not to be left to himself, but then no more should Babcock. He might be taken ill again.
Bob should escort him back to the bus at St Stephen's Gate. He would return for Robin.
'Look,' he said, 'I feel you should get back to the hotel as soon as possible, to change and lie down. I'll come with you as far as the bus.'
'I'm so grateful,' murmured his companion, 'so terribly grateful.'
He no longer cared if he had become conspicuous. It no longer mattered whether people turned and stared. As they retraced their steps downhill, back along the Via Dolorosa, past more chanting pilgrims, more tourists, more crying vendors of vegetables, onions, and the carcasses of lambs, he knew that he had indeed descended to the depths of humiliation, that by his final act of human weakness he had suffered a shame that only a man could suffer, and to which perhaps his Master had also succumbed, in his loneliness, in his fear, before being nailedto his criminal's cross.
When they came to St Stephen's Gate the first thing they saw was an ambulance drawn up alongside their bus, and a crowd of people, strangers, grouped round it. An official, white in the face, was directing them to move away. Bob's first thought was for Jill. Something had happened to Jill ... Then Jim Foster, limping, his hair dishevelled, appeared from the midst of them.
'There's been an accident,' he said.
'Are you hurt?' asked Bob.
No ... no, nothing wrong with me, I got caught up in some sort of demonstration and managed to get away ... It's Miss Dean. She fell into that drain they call the Pool of Bethesda.'
'Oh God in heaven ...' exclaimed Babcock, and he looked despairingly from Jim Foster back to Bob. 'This is all my fault, I should have been taking care of her. I didn't know. I thought she was with the rest of you.' He moved forward to the ambulance, then remembered his own plight and spread out his hands in a gesture of despair. 'I don't think I can go to her,' he said. 'I'm not in a fit state to see anyone ...'
Jim Foster was staring at him, then glanced enquiringly at Bob Smith.
'He's not in good shape,' murmured Bob. 'He was taken ill a short while ago, up at the church. A bad tummy upset. He ought to get back to the hotel as soon as possible.'
'Poor devil,' replied Jim Foster under his breath, 'what an awful thing. Look ...' he turned to Babcock, 'get up into the bus right away. I'll tell the driver to take you straight to the hotel. I'll go with Miss Dean in the ambulance.'
'How bad is she?' asked Babcock.
'They don't seem to know,' said Jim Foster. It's shock chiefly, I imagine. She was practically unconscious when the guide fellow pulled her out of the water. Luckily he was only at the top of the steps. Meanwhile, I can't think what has happened to either Bob's wife or mine. They're somewhere back in that infernal city.'
He took hold of Babcock by the arm and steered him towards the bus. Funny thing how other people's misfortunes made you forget your own. The panic he himself had experienced had vanished at his first sight of the ambulance as he stumbled down through St Stephen's Gate, giving way to a deeper anxiety that Kate might be the victim the stretcher-bearers were carrying to it. But it was only Miss Dean. Poor wretched Miss Dean. Thank heaven, not Kate. The bus rumbled off with the pale, unhappy Babcock staring at them from one of the windows.
'Well, he's on his way, that's one thing,' said Jim Foster. 'What a calamity, what a situation. I wish the Colonel was here to handle it.'
'I'm worried now about Robin,' said Bob Smith. 'I told him to wait for us outside the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and he was missing when we came out.'
'Missing? In that mob?' Jim Foster stared, aghast.
Then, with unspeakable relief, he saw his wife, with Jill beside her, coming through St Stephen's Gate. He ran across to her.
'Thank heaven you've come,' he said. 'We've got to get Miss Dean to hospital. She's in the ambulance already. I'll explain everything on the way. There's been a series of mishaps all round. Babcock ill, Robin missing, it's been a disastrous day.'
Kate seized his arm. 'But you?' she said. 'Are you all right?'
'Yes, yes ... Of course I'm all right.'
He dragged her towards the ambulance. He did not even look at Jill. Bob hesitated, wondering what he ought to do. Then he turned, and saw Jill standing beside him.
'Where have you been?' he asked.
'I don't know,' she said wearily. 'In a sort of garden. I was looking for you but I couldn't find you. Kate was with me. She was worried about her husband. He can't stand crowds.'
'Nor can any of us,' he said, tut we'll have to face them again. Young Robin is lost, and I must go and find him. There's nobody else left.'
'I'll come with you.'
'Are you sure? You look absolutely done in.'
The Fosters were climbing into the ambulance. The siren wailed, and the spectators moved away. Jill thought of that endless winding street they called the Via Dolorosa, the chanting pilgrims, the chattering vendors, the repetition of a scene she never wanted to see again, the clatter, the noise.
'I can face it,' she sighed. 'It won't seem so long if we're together.'
Robin was enjoying himself. Being on his own always gave him a sense of freedom, of power. And he had become very bored trailing along in the path of the pilgrims, with people going down on their knees every other moment. It wasn't even as if they were walking the right way. The city had been pulled down and rebuilt so many times that it was altogether different from what it had been two thousand years ago. The only way to reconstruct it would be to pull it down again, and then dig and dig and reveal all the foundations. He might well become an archaeologist when he grew up, if he didn't become a scientist like his father. The two professions were rather similar, he decided. He certainly would not become a clergyman like Mr Babcock. Not in this day and age.
He wondered how long they would stay inside the church. Hours, probably. It was full to the brim with priests and pilgrims wanting to pray, and they would all bump into each other. This made him laugh, and laughing made him want to go to the toilet--his grandmother hated the word toilet, but everyone used it at school--and so, as there wasn't a real one handy, he went and relieved himself against the wall of the church. Nobody saw. Then he sat down on a step, opened his two maps and spread them across his knees. The thing was, Jesus had either been held in the Antonia Fortress or in the Citadel. Probably both. But which one had he been held in last, before he had to carry his Cross with the two other prisoners, and set out for Golgotha? The description in the Gospels did not make it clear. He was brought before Pilate, but Pilate could just as well have been in the one place as in the other. Pilate delivered Jesus to the high priests to be crucified, but where were the high priests waiting for him? That was the point. It could have been at Herod's Palace, where the Citadel stood now, and in that case Jesus and the two thieves would all have left the city by the Genath Gate.
He looked from one map to the other: the Genath Gate was now called Jaffa Gate, or in Hebrew Yafo--it depended which language you spoke.
Robin looked at the church door. They would be ages yet. He decided to walk to the Jaffa Gate and see how it was for himself. It wasn't very far, and with the help of the modern map he wouldn't lose the way. It took him less than ten minutes to reach the gate, and here he paused to take stock of his surroundings. People were passing in and out, and there were cars drawn up outside, as there had been by St Stephen's Gate at the opposite end of the walled city. The trouble was, of course, that instead of the bare hillside and gardens, which was how it would have been two thousand years ago, there was now a main road, and the modern city spreading itself everywhere. He consulted his old map once again. There used to be a fortress tower called Psephinus, standing proud and mighty by the north-west corner of the city, and this was the tower that the Emperor Titus rode to inspect, when he camped with his Roman legions before capturing and sacking Jerusalem in A.D. 70. There was something built on the present site called the College des Freres. Wait a moment, though. Was it the College des Freres or a hotel called the Knight's Palace? Either way it was still inside the walls of the city, and somehow that was not right, even with the walls having been rebuilt.
'I'll imagine,' he told himself, 'that I'm Jesus, and I've just come out of the Genath Gate, and all this is bare hillside and sloping gardens, and they don't crucify a person in a garden, but a decent distance away, especially before the Feast of the Passover, otherwise the people would make a disturbance, and there had been enough riots already. So Jesus and the two other condemned prisoners were made to walk a fair way, that's why they made Simon the farm-labourer--and Cyrene means farm--labourer in Aramaic, the Headmaster told me so--carry the
cross. He was just coming in from work in the fields. Jesus couldn't manage it, being weak from all that scourging. And they took him and the others out to some rough scrubby ground overlooked by the Psephinus tower, where the soldiers would have had a guard posted, so that if there should have been an attempt at rescue the attempt would fail.'
Pleased with his deduction, Robin turned to the right out of the Jaffa Gate and walked along the main road until he judged that he was the right distance from the long-vanished tower of Psephinus. He found that he had reached a junction, with main roads going in all directions and traffic roaring by, and the great building across the other side of the central square was the town hall, according to his modern map.
'So this is it,' he thought. 'This is scrubby ground, with fields where the town hall stands, and the farm-labourer is sweating, and so are Jesus and the others. And the sun is overhead in a blazing sky, as it is now, and when the crosses are set up the men nailed on them won't see the fields behind them, they'll be looking at the city.'
He shut his eyes a moment, and turned, and looked back at the city and the walls, and they were a golden colour, very fine and splendid. For Jesus, who had spent most of his life wandering about the hills and lakes and villages, it would have seemed the finest and most splendid city in the world. But after staring at it for three hours, in pain, it would not seem so splendid--in fact, it would be a relief to die.
A horn blared, and he stepped out of the way of the incoming traffic. If he didn't watch out he would die too, and there wouldn't be much sense in that. He decided to walk back to the city through the New Gate, which was just along to the right. Some men were repairing a place in the road, and they looked up as Robin approached. They shouted, pointing to the traffic, and although Robin got the message, and skipped to safety beside them, he couldn't understand w
hat they were saying. It could be Yiddish, or possibly Hebrew, but he wished it could have been Aramaic. He waited until the man with the drill ceased his ear-splitting probe, and then he called to them.
'Does anyone speak English?' he asked.
The man with the drill smiled and shook his head, then called out to one of his companions, who was bending over a piece of piping. The man looked up. He was young, like the rest, and had very white teeth and black curly hair.
'I speak English, yes,' he said.
Robin peered down into the pit beneath. 'Can you tell me, then,' he asked, 'if you have found anything interesting down there?'
The young man laughed, and picked up a small animal by its tail. It looked like a dead rat.
'Tourist souvenir?' he suggested.
'No skulls? No bones?' Robin asked hopefully.
'No,' smiled the labourer. 'For that we have to drill very deep, below the rock. Here, you can catch?' He threw a small piece of rock up to Robin from the pit in which he stood. 'Keep it,' he said. 'The rock of Jerusalem. It will bring you luck.'
'Thank you very much,' said Robin.
He wondered whether he should tell them that they were standing within a hundred yards or so, perhaps, of a place where three men had been crucified two thousand years ago, and then he decided they would not believe him; or, if they did, it would not impress them very much. For Jesus was not important to them, not like Abraham or David, and, anyway, so many men had been tortured and killed around Jerusalem since then that the young man might very well say, with justice, so what? It would be more tactful to wish them a happy holiday instead. It was the 14th day of Nisan, and at sundown all work would cease. He put the small piece of rock in his pocket.
'I hope you have a very pleasant Pesach,' he said.
The young man stared. 'You Jewish?'
'No,' answered Robin, uncertain whether the question related to his nationality or to his religion. If the latter, he would have to reply that his father was an atheist, and his mother went to church once a year on Christmas Day. 'No, I come from Little Bletford in England, but I do know that today is the 14th day of Nisan and that you have a public holiday tomorrow.'
This, in fact, was the reason for so much traffic, he supposed, and the reason why the city itself had been so crowded. He hoped the young man was suitably impressed by his knowledge.
'It's your Feast of Unleavened Bread,' he told him.
The young man smiled again, showing his row of white teeth, and, laughing, he called something over his shoulder to his companion with the drill, who shouted in reply, before applying his drill to the surface of the road again. The ear-splitting sound began once more, and the young man cupped his hands to his mouth and called up to Robin, 'It is also the Festival of our Freedom,' he shouted. 'You are young, like us. Enjoy it too.'
Robin waved his hand and began walking towards the New Gate, his hand clenched tightly round the piece of rock in his pocket. The Festival of our Freedom ... It sounded better than the Passover. More modern, more up to date. More suitable for, as his grandmother would say, this day and age. And whether it meant freedom from bondage, as it did in the Old Testament, or freedom from the rule of the Roman Empire, which the Jews hoped for at the time of the crucifixion, or freedom from hunger and poverty and homelessness, which the young men digging in the road had won for themselves today, it was all one and the same thing. Everyone, everywhere, wanted freedom from something, and Robin decided that it would be a good idea if Pesach and Easter could be combined throughout the world, and then all of us, he thought, could join in celebrating the Festival of our Freedom.
The bus took the road north from the Mount of Olives before sundown. There had been no further drama. Bob and Jill Smith, having searched the precincts of the Holy Sepulchre in vain, had turned their steps in the direction of the New Gate and had come across Robin, perfectly composed, entering the city behind a group of singing pilgrims from the coast. The bus had been late departing because of Miss Dean. The ambulance had taken her to hospital, where she had been detained for a number of hours suffering from shock, but luckily with no external or internal injuries. She had been given an injection and a sedative, and then the doctor had pronounced her fit to travel, with strict injunctions that she should be put straight to bed directly they were back in Haifa. Kate Foster had become nurse in charge of the patient.
'It is so kind of you,' Miss Dean had murmured, 'so very kind.'
It was decided by all not to mention her unfortunate accident. Nor did Miss Dean allude to it herself. She sat silently, with a rug over her knees, between the Fosters. Lady Althea was silent too. Her blue chiffon scarf masked the lower part of her face, giving her the appearance of a Moslem woman who had not relinquished the veil. If anything, it added to her dignity and grace. She too had a rug over her knees, and the Colonel held her hand beneath it. The young Smiths held hands more openly, Jill sporting a new bangle, an inexpensive one that Bob had bought for her as they passed near one of the suks on their return earlier in the day after finding Robin.
Babcock sat beside Robin. Like Miss Dean, he also wore a change of clothing--a pair of trousers borrowed from Jim Foster which were a shade too large for him. No one passed any remarks, and for this he was unspeakably thankful. No one looked back at the city of Jerusalem as the bus skirted Mount Scopus--that is to say, no one but Robin. The ninth hour of the 14th day of Nisan had come and gone, and the thieves, or the insurrectionists, whichever they were, had been taken down from their crosses. Jesus too, his body perhaps in a grave deep in the rock below where the young labourers had been drilling. Now the young men could go home, and wash, and meet their families, and look forward to the public holiday. Robin turned to the Rev. Babcock at his side.
'It's rather a shame,' he said, 'that we couldn't have stayed two more days.'
Babcock, who wished for nothing more than to be safely back on board ship so that he could shut himself in his cabin and try to forget his shame in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, marvelled at the resilience of the young. The boy had been dragging round the city all day, and had nearly lost himself into the bargain.
'Why, Robin?' he asked.
'Well, you never know,' Robin replied. 'Of course it's not very probable in this day and age, but we might have seen the Resurrection.'