Jesus Christ had often been warned that Judas Iscariot was a man of very evil repute, and that He ought to beware of him. Some of the disciples, who had been in Judaea, knew him well, while others had heard much about him from various sources, and there was none who had a good word for him. If good people in speaking of him blamed him, as covetous, cunning, and inclined to hypocrisy and lying, the bad, when asked concerning him, inveighed against him in the severest terms.
"He is always making mischief among us," they would say, and spit in contempt. "He always has some thought which he keeps to himself. He creeps into a house quietly, like a scorpion, but goes out again with an ostentatious noise. There are friends among thieves, and comrades among robbers, and even liars have wives, to whom they speak the truth; but Judas laughs at thieves and honest folk alike, although he is himself a clever thief. Moreover, he is in appearance the ugliest person in Judaea. No! he is no friend of ours, this foxy-haired Judas Iscariot," the bad would say, thereby surprising the good people, in whose opinion there was not much difference between him and all other vicious people in Judaea. They would recount further that he had long ago deserted his wife, who was living in poverty and misery, striving to eke out a living from the unfruitful patch of land which constituted his estate. He had wandered for many years aimlessly among the people, and had even gone from one sea to the other,--no mean distance,--and everywhere he lied and grimaced, and would make some discovery with his thievish eye, and then suddenly disappear, leaving behind him animosity and strife. Yes, he was as inquisitive, artful and hateful as a one-eyed demon. Children he had none, and this was an additional proof that Judas was a wicked man, that God would not have from him any posterity.
None of the disciples had noticed when it was that this ugly, foxy-haired Jew first appeared in the company of Christ: but he had for a long time haunted their path, joined in their conversations, performed little acts of service, bowing and smiling and currying favour. Sometimes they became quite used to him, so that he escaped their weary eyes; then again he would suddenly obtrude himself on eye and ear, irritating them as something abnormally ugly, treacherous and disgusting. They would drive him away with harsh words, and for a short time he would disappear, only to reappear suddenly, officious, flattering and crafty as a one-eyed demon.
There was no doubt in the minds of some of the disciples that under his desire to draw near to Jesus was hidden some secret intention-- some malign and cunning scheme.
But Jesus did not listen to their advice; their prophetic voice did not reach His ears. In that spirit of serene contradiction, which ever irresistibly inclined Him to the reprobate and unlovable, He deliberately accepted Judas, and included him in the circle of the chosen. The disciples were disturbed and murmured under their breath, but He would sit still, with His face towards the setting sun, and listen abstractedly, perhaps to them, perhaps to something else. For ten days there had been no wind, and the transparent atmosphere, wary and sensitive, continued ever the same, motionless and unchanged. It seemed as though it preserved in its transparent depths every cry and song made during those days by men and beasts and birds--tears, laments and cheerful song, prayers and curses--and that on account of these crystallised sounds the air was so heavy, threatening, and saturated with invisible life. Once more the sun was sinking. It rolled heavily downwards in a flaming ball, setting the sky on fire. Everything upon the earth which was turned towards it: the swarthy face of Jesus, the walls of the houses, and the leaves of the trees--everything obediently reflected that distant, fearfully pensive light. Now the white walls were no longer white, and the white city upon the white hill was turned to red.
And lo! Judas arrived. He arrived bowing low, bending his back, cautiously and timidly protruding his ugly, bumpy head--just exactly as his acquaintances had described. He was spare and of good height, almost the same as that of Jesus, who stooped a little through the habit of thinking as He walked, and so appeared shorter than He was. Judas was to all appearances fairly strong and well knit, though for some reason or other he pretended to be weak and somewhat sickly. He had an uncertain voice. Sometimes it was strong and manly, then again shrill as that of an old woman scolding her husband, provokingly thin, and disagreeable to the ear, so that ofttimes one felt inclined to tear out his words from the ear, like rough, decaying splinters. His short red locks failed to hide the curious form of his skull. It looked as if it had been split at the nape of the neck by a double sword-cut, and then joined together again, so that it was apparently divided into four parts, and inspired distrust, nay, even alarm: for behind such a cranium there could be no quiet or concord, but there must ever be heard the noise of sanguinary and merciless strife. The face of Judas was similarly doubled. One side of it, with a black, sharply watchful eye, was vivid and mobile, readily gathering into innumerable tortuous wrinkles. On the other side were no wrinkles. It was deadly flat, smooth, and set, and though of the same size as the other, it seemed enormous on account of its wide-open blind eye. Covered with a whitish film, closing neither night nor day, this eye met light and darkness with the same indifference, but perhaps on account of the proximity of its lively and crafty companion it never got full credit for blindness.
When in a paroxysm of joy or excitement, Judas would close his sound eye and shake his head. The other eye would always shake in unison and gaze in silence. Even people quite devoid of penetration could clearly perceive, when looking at Judas, that such a man could bring no good....
And yet Jesus brought him near to Himself, and once even made him sit next to Him. John, the beloved disciple, fastidiously moved away, and all the others who loved their Teacher cast down their eyes in disapprobation. But Judas sat on, and turning his head from side to side, began in a somewhat thin voice to complain of ill-health, and said that his chest gave him pain in the night, and that when ascending a hill he got out of breath, and when he stood still on the edge of a precipice he would be seized with a dizziness, and could scarcely restrain a foolish desire to throw himself down. And many other impious things he invented, as though not understanding that sicknesses do not come to a man by chance, but as a consequence of conduct not corresponding with the laws of the Eternal. Thus Judas Iscariot kept on rubbing his chest with his broad palm, and even pretended to cough, midst a general silence and downcast eyes.
John, without looking at the Teacher, whispered to his friend Simon Peter--
"Aren't you tired of that lie? I can't stand it any longer. I am going away."
Peter glanced at Jesus, and meeting his eye, quickly arose.
"Wait a moment," said he to his friend.
Once more he looked at Jesus; sharply as a stone torn from a mountain, he moved towards Judas, and said to him in a loud voice, with expansive, serene courtesy--
"You will come with us, Judas."
He gave him a kindly slap on his bent back, and without looking at the Teacher, though he felt His eye upon him, resolutely added in his loud voice, which excluded all objection, just as water excludes air--
"It does not matter that you have such a nasty face. There fall into our nets even worse monstrosities, and they sometimes turn out very tasty food. It is not for us, our Lord's fishermen, to throw away a catch, merely because the fish have spines, or only one eye. I saw once at Tyre an octopus, which had been caught by the local fishermen, and I was so frightened that I wanted to run away. But they laughed at me. A fisherman from Tiberias gave me some of it to eat, and I asked for more, it was so tasty. You remember, Master, that I told you the story, and you laughed, too. And you, Judas, are like an octopus--but only on one side."
And he laughed loudly, content with his joke. When Peter spoke, his words resounded so forcibly, that it seemed as though he were driving them in with nails. When Peter moved, or did anything, he made a noise that could be heard afar, and which called forth a response from the deafest of things: the stone floor rumbled under his feet, the doors shook and rattled, and the very air was convulsed with fear, and roared. In the clefts of the mountains his voice awoke the inmost echo, and in the morning-time, when they were fishing on the lake, he would roll about on the sleepy, glittering water, and force the first shy sunbeams into smiles.
For this apparently he was loved: when on all other faces there still lay the shadow of night, his powerful head, and bare breast, and freely extended arms were already aglow with the light of dawn.
The words of Peter, evidently approved as they were by the Master, dispersed the oppressive atmosphere. But some of the disciples, who had been to the seaside and had seen an octopus, were disturbed by the monstrous image so lightly applied to the new disciple. They recalled the immense eyes, the dozens of greedy tentacles, the feigned repose--and how all at once: it embraced, clung, crushed and sucked, all without one wink of its monstrous eyes. What did it mean? But Jesus remained silent, He smiled with a frown of kindly raillery on Peter, who was still telling glowing tales about the octopus. Then one by one the disciples shame-facedly approached Judas, and began a friendly conversation, with him, but--beat a hasty and awkward retreat.
Only John, the son of Zebedee, maintained an obstinate silence; and Thomas had evidently not made up his mind to say anything, but was still weighing the matter. He kept his gaze attentively fixed on Christ and Judas as they sat together. And that strange proximity of divine beauty and monstrous ugliness, of a man with a benign look, and of an octopus with immense, motionless, dully greedy eyes, oppressed his mind like an insoluble enigma.
He tensely wrinkled his smooth, upright forehead, and screwed up his eyes, thinking that he would see better so, but only succeeded in imagining that Judas really had eight incessantly moving feet. But that was not true. Thomas understood that, and again gazed obstinately.
Judas gathered courage: he straightened out his arms, which had been bent at the elbows, relaxed the muscles which held his jaws in tension, and began cautiously to protrude his bumpy head into the light. It had been the whole time in view of all, but Judas imagined that it had been impenetrably hidden from sight by some invisible, but thick and cunning veil. But lo! now, as though creeping out from a ditch, he felt his strange skull, and then his eyes, in the light: he stopped and then deliberately exposed his whole face. Nothing happened; Peter had gone away somewhere or other. Jesus sat pensive, with His head leaning on His hand, and gently swayed His sunburnt foot. The disciples were conversing together, and only Thomas gazed at him attentively and seriously, like a conscientious tailor taking measurement. Judas smiled; Thomas did not reply to the smile; but evidently took it into account, as he did everything else, and continued to gaze. But something unpleasant alarmed the left side of Judas' countenance as he looked round. John, handsome, pure, without a single fleck upon his snow-white conscience, was looking at him out of a dark corner, with cold but beautiful eyes. And though he walked as others walk, yet Judas felt as if he were dragging himself along the ground like a whipped cur, as he went up to John and said: "Why are you silent, John? Your words are like golden apples in vessels of silver filigree; bestow one of them on Judas, who is so poor."
John looked steadfastly into his wide-open motionless eye, and said nothing. And he looked on, while Judas crept out, hesitated a moment, and then disappeared in the deep darkness of the open door.
Since the full moon was up, there were many people out walking. Jesus went out too, and from the low roof on which Judas had spread his couch he saw Him going out. In the light of the moon each white figure looked bright and deliberate in its movements; and seemed not so much to walk as to glide in front of its dark shadow. Then suddenly a man would be lost in something black, and his voice became audible. And when people reappeared in the moonlight, they seemed silent--like white walls, or black shadows--as everything did in the transparent mist of night. Almost every one was asleep when Judas heard the soft voice of Jesus returning. All in and around about the house was still. A cock crew; somewhere an ass, disturbed in his sleep, brayed aloud and insolently as in daytime, then reluctantly and gradually relapsed into silence. Judas did not sleep at all, but listened surreptitiously. The moon illumined one half of his face, and was reflected strangely in his enormous open eye, as on the frozen surface of a lake.
Suddenly he remembered something, and hastily coughed, rubbing his perfectly healthy chest with his hairy hand: maybe some one was not yet asleep, and was listening to what Judas was thinking!