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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
Berenice was sixteen years old when she witnessed her father's murder, and she watched the sequence of events that led to it with curious indifference. Since her father had embraced virtue and had hired an army of street singers to proclaim the fact that a saint dwelt among the living, Berenice had become conscious of him; she had become aware of him and curious about him, but her feelings toward him had not changed. As a child she had feared him; during the first years after puberty she had hated him; and finally indifference came. That was because it was not in her to go on hating; it took too great a toll of her. It was too destructive.
It was late spring; they were in Caesarea on the seacoast, and it should have been a cool and pleasant day. But the wind had backed upon itself during the night, and with morning, the slow, hot inland wind from the desert began to blow, crossing the hills of Low Galilee and rolling down on the seacoast like boiling oil. The wind blew evil, and everyone in Caesarea knew that it would be an evil day. Berenice knew it. She knew it in the hot, breathless, gasping morning, before the wind began to blow, and she was not afraid. Quite to the contrary, she was filled with anticipation, for some instinct told her that the evil was not directed toward her. Her whole family would be at the theater that day, and Berenice loved the theater.
So she dressed, quite deliberately, to greet evil and to blend evil with joy, in a cotton shift of blazing red, with an overdress of green. Her maid, a short, heavy-limbed, black-haired, black-eyed, dark-skinned Benjaminite woman, began to protest the combination of colors, but Berenice silenced her with a single glance. The Benjaminite's name had once been Leah, but Berenice detested the name Leah and forbade her to use it ever again, giving her instead the Idumean name of Gabo, which means the black sand mole. Gabo, as she was now called, was seventeen years old and had been body maid and of course chattel slave to Berenice for three years. When she had first appeared, Berenice had detested her and struck her upon the slightest provocation, sometimes with a short whip and sometimes with her hands. On occasion, more because of her own vexation than any sins of Gabo's, Berenice would beat her until the blood flowed. But as Berenice grew older, she found that a sharp glance or a cold word were as effective as a beating—and left her own soul untormented by the self-loathing and guilt that always followed one of her tantrums.
So now, a glance from Berenice was enough to make Gabo understand that her mistress was in no mood for arguments. It would be green and red, gold shoes, a gold sash for the waist, and a gold net for the hair. As a matter of fact, the colors became Berenice very well. At sixteen, she had reached her full growth, and she stood taller than most women of her time, with copper skin that glowed on the strong bones of her face. She had green eyes that became greener in juxtaposition to the sleeveless over-dress, and the red of the shift went well with her coppery complexion and her auburn hair. She had the red-brown hair and the large bones of the Hasmoneans, large hands, long fingers, wide shoulders, and prominent cheekbones, planing down to a firm, clean-cut chin. Her mouth was too wide, her nose the high-bridged, arrogant Hasmonean nose, and nowhere upon her trace or evidence of the dark Idumean line—but she was now beginning to be beautiful. She had never been beautiful before. She had been a raw-boned, skinny, ugly, freckled child, and now she was a woman more strangely and differently attractive—to those who found her attractive—than any other in her father's kingdom. Her father was king. She was a princess.
She was also a queen, but the very thought of that was distasteful to her. As the scale of queens went and was weighed and counted, she was close to the bottom, queen of a tiny, unimportant and rather shabby little city in Lebanon called Chalcis. The king of Chalcis, her husband, was also her uncle; and this marriage with him her father had forced upon her only ten months before. This morning, when the hot wind started, she wished for the first time that her husband, her uncle, Herod of Chalcis, were here with her. He could not abide heat. Chalcis was pleasantly cool, one of its very few virtues. It made her smile slightly as she thought of her husband breaking out all over with prickly heat and then the red heat irritation spreading over his bald skull.
"Gabo?" she said. Gabo was very quiet. She mistrusted her mistress's smile.
"Gabo, is it true that the spells made in Arad work—that they have power, effect, force—you know, you know?"
"I have never been in Arad, mistress."
"You're Benjamin. Why haven't you been there?"
"I was born in Betab, mistress, in Judea, where I was slave to your father's stablekeeper. Arad is an Idumean place," she ventured to instruct, her voice dying off with the awareness that she had dared to instruct.
"Idumea, Benjamin—black people, dirty people—I can't bear any of you. I told you to wash! I told you to wash every day! I told you to scrub that brown filth off your skin!"
"I do, I do," Gabo pleaded.
"I know what you do—rolling with everyone who crosses your path, like a little animal. How many yesterday? How many men did you have yesterday? How many?"
"Oh, none, none, none," Gabo pleaded.
"Big ones? Who was the biggest, Gabo?" Berenice's anger vanished as she was caught up with the notion. "The longest? How long? Did you ever have one this long?" She spread her arms and Gabo burst out laughing.
Only with Gabo and with her brother; with all others, Berenice was on guard, tall, regal, witty on occasion, more often silent, never talkative and very often—for those who recognized it and knew—dangerous. Particularly, she herself knew that she was dangerous, a knowledge that had come to her concurrently with her ceasing to be afraid of her father. The first time she was master of a situation, she had the heady feeling of being drunk without incapacity—and thereafter a sense of the danger that accompanied the power. After that, it became easier and easier to master a situation—as this morning.
Whether he was at home in Galilee in his own city of Tiberias, or at the shore in Caesarea or in the hills in Jerusalem, Agrippa, Berenice's father, made a ceremony of meals and encouraged his family and friends to eat with him. Not that they were frequently together. This morning, for instance, his wife, Berenice's mother, Cypros, still lay in bed, sick, weaker each day, carried to the hot salt baths but deriving no strength from them. Berenice's sisters were both away with their husbands, Drusilla, the younger, in Commangene, and Mariamne in Alexandria; but her brother, Agrippa, was there—already in the breakfast room when Berenice entered, stuffing himself with figs, olives, cheese, and wine.
They breakfasted in the Greek manner—a little fruit, some olives, dry bread, and cold water—but Agrippa managed to turn the simple fare into a banquet. Yet Berenice observed that however much he ate, her long-legged, darkly handsome seventeen-year-old brother gained no weight, maintained his Apollo-like figure against all assaults—as if indeed bearing out the legend that the Herodian blood carried a devil's trace, like vinegar against decay.
He greeted Berenice with great mock ceremony, kissing her hand and offering her a fig, which she chewed absently while he told her what the day promised.
She only half listened, half heard; she had the gift of being able to compartmentalize her mind, to listen indifferently while she played with other thoughts, dealt with other problems, meanwhile sensuously enjoying the sweet juice of the wine-preserved fig. Agrippa, her brother, was telling her about the play that would be presented that afternoon—and at which their attendance was commanded—in honor of Agrippa, their father, to the glory of Claudius, the emperor, who was ostensibly the author.
"—which, to my way of thinking, is a Tather disgusting fiction," Agrippa said. "It's perfectly natural, of course, that an emperor should be cock of the walk all over the place, but I think he should draw the line at plagiarism."
"It's no worse than taking the credit for victories he never won or for children he never birthed," Berenice said.
"You know, you have a peculiar turn of mind, sister—but it is worse. Somehow it's worse. Anyway, it's not military history Claudius dreams of making. He's a literary type, and somehow it is worse."
"Why? The real author is paid, and handsomely, too—which reminds me that I am poverty-stricken. Can I borrow?"
"You cannot," Agrippa answered firmly. "What do you spend your money on? Oh, look, Berenice, I don't want to be a swine about it, but this is a company of very talented Greeks from Colophon. Their girls have a reputation that has had me licking my lips for ages. And money buys—"
"You're an animal," Berenice said.
"Oh, yes—and let me tell you this, sister—"
He cut off whatever he had intended to say. Berenice thought that her father, Agrippa the king, had entered behind her, but when she turned around to greet him, she saw that it was only two priests, Phineas and Aaron by name, fat, well-fed appurtenances to her father's court. They were most eager at mealtime. They bowed from the waist, holding in their white robes, and then hurried to the buffet. They broke the hard, dry circles of bread into bowls and then poured wine on it to soften it, and while the bread soaked up the wine, they took the edge off their hunger with figs and dates, stuffing their mouths full of the sweet fruit while they mumbled their greetings in Aramaic.
In Latin, Berenice said to her brother, "Do you know what I should do if I were king?"
"Geld every priest."
"Ahhah—and what makes you so sure that the fat little bastards know no Latin?"
"Look at them," Berenice smiled.
They smiled back. They were eating the wine-soaked bread now, but pouring honey over it first.
"Holy child," one of them managed to say to Berenice.
"Sacred child," mumbled the other, through his mouthful of food, managing to eat and talk simultaneously—"delight of God."
"Lovely creatures," said Berenice in Latin.
They swallowed their food so suddenly they almost choked. They gulped, swallowed, and turned out the linings of their sleeves to wipe their lips. They straightened, donned unctuousness, and held themselves in what they conceived of as dignity. They faced the length of the lovely room where breakfast food was laid out, a long room with one side open to the sea and walled off from the gardens below by a delightfully wrought cedar railing. Their ears were keen. They heard the steps of the approaching king and his attendants, or perhaps the ring of arms.
Berenice's father, Agrippa, was a bad man who had become a good man, an evil king who had become a saintly king; and like most converts to a new faith, he could become unbearable in its exercise, intolerable in his new persuasion. Taken by a fit of saintliness, he could proceed to make the existence of those around him more burdensome than ever it was when he pursued the ways of evil. Having become conscious of the ways of the world and the older folk who managed it at a very early age, Berenice, though only sixteen, could remember the nonsaintly Agrippa. In fact, she could remember quite clearly his return from Jerusalem to Tiberias immediately after the transition.
As she heard it told, it had happened thus: Three years before, during Succoth, the harvest festival, King Agrippa put in an appearance at Jerusalem. The move was a calculated one and not without elements of danger. Caligula, the mad and sadistic Emperor of Rome, had been murdered—an act of charity which called forth the gratitude of all the Mediterranean world—and the gentle and scholarly Claudius had been made emperor in his place. Like many civilized and educated Romans, Claudius was a Judophile—and a friend to Agrippa in the bargain. With a large and generous gesture, he added to Agrippa's small holdings in Galilee and on the coast, the large territories of Samaria and Judea, recreating by that action the great, united Israel of old and making Agrippa king over all of Palestine. Once again a Jewish king ruled over the ancient as well as the current lands of the Jews.
It was in the flush of this great gift, this splendid accolade by the Emperor of Rome, that Agrippa and his advisers came to the conclusion that he, Agrippa, must go to Jerusalem and appear before the Jewish masses, and confront them and somehow win them. Easier said than done. Agrippa was king over the Jewish lands, which was quite different and much less than being king over the Jews. He was still an evil king, the man the child of a wild youth, the man scheming, devising, murdering, living like a Gentile, raising his children to speak as fluently in Greek and Latin as in the Aramaic—the people's tongue in Israel—or the Hebrew, the holy tongue of the Book, of the Torah; raising them with the pagan ways and the pagan knowledge, contemptuous of the Law and what the Law meant to a Jew.
So it was no small thing for Agrippa to go to Jerusalem on the Feast of Succoth and to declare that he would take his place in front of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and there, with the Torah in his arms, he would read as the Lord God Jehovah directed him to read, and let his fate and future be in the reading and in God's will—for no Roman emperor could make him king over the Jews, but only the Jews themselves.
Yet Agrippa knew that God is kinder to those willing to do some spadework on their own, and thus he pored through the Torah until he found a passage to his taste. It was not to the taste of his advisers, however, and they wailed that he was thrusting his head into the open mouth of the lion, verily the Lion of Judah, for the passage was an incitement that the Jews could not ignore.
"Or its reverse," Agrippa smiled. "Am I no Jew? Do I know nothing?"
It was the beginning of a reputation for courage as well as wisdom. Perhaps a million Jews were in Jerusalem for the Succoth, for the Feast of the Tabernacles—perhaps a million, perhaps half a million. Who knew? Who counted? But to Agrippa, king of the Jews, standing in front of the Temple, it was a revelation—more Jews than he had ever dreamed existed, a sea of Jewish faces in every direction as far as the eyes could reach, the temple courts filled with them, and Jews packed on the walls of the Temple and in the streets beyond and on the roof tops—and all of them waiting for him to speak.
He had selected Deuteronomy 18:15; and with specific reason, for if a good part of his blood strain was from the Hasmoneans, the blood of Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabeus and of the line of kings he fathered, he also carried the blood of Herod the Idumean, Herod of the cursed memory; so what he did was no small thing. The parchment scroll of the Torah was open before him, and the priests had already unrolled it to Deuteronomy and the selection of his choice. Now they watched him carefully and thoughtfully, watched the crowd, too, as Agrippa read:
"Thou shalt definitely make him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou make king over thee—"
A consummate actor? a priest wondered. But even Agrippa could not have answered that truly. The evil Agrippa was becoming the saintly Agrippa. It was happening before the eyes of thousands of Jews, for the king's voice broke, and the tears streamed down over his cheeks, and sobbing piteously, he cried out:
"One from among thy brethren shalt thou make king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, who is not thy brother—
"Thou mayest not," Agrippa sobbed.
The first few ranks heard him. Perhaps a thousand heard him.
"What is he saying?"
"Why does he weep?"
"Who can hear?"
"What is he saying?"
The half a million voices of the crowd telegraphed, crisscrossed, back and forth, through the courts, through the streets, even down to the Lower City where the slaves and the unclean were gathered, the bearers of burdens, the camel drivers, the garbage collectors, the gravediggers and the ulcerated and the leprous—all of them united in that bond of curiosity that transcends everything, all of them pleading.
Excerpted from Agrippa's Daughter by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1964 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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