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CHRONICLES OF PALESTINE
By Jennifer Keogh Armstrong
The Body in the Garden Tomb Mystery
“Having bought a linen cloth,
He took him down,
Wrapped him in the linen cloth
And laid him in a tomb
That had been hewn out of the rock.
Then he rolled a stone to the entrance of the tomb.”
“My God, that’s a sick joke!” said Detective Sergeant Peter Howard. He had just arrived and heard the news.
Detective Chief Inspector Adam O’Rourke nodded. He looked particularly serious today.
“Thankfully the gardener has been quick to alert us before a whole group of tourists from Dorset arrives later today. We’d better hurry.”
The two men set out briskly. They stopped only to sign out with the constable on Station Diary Duty. It was early morning as the left the former Russian Compound, now home to the Palestine Police Headquarters in Jerusalem. They hurried down Jaffa Road, turning down Suleiman Road so named for Turkish sultan who had built the Old City walls. It was a short walk to the Damascus Gate. From there, the Garden Tomb was a stone’s throw away, just off of Nablus Road.
Constables were already at the scene to see to it that no one disturbed the evidence.
Howard whistled when he saw inside the tomb that the Protestants revered as the final resting place of Jesus.
“I’m glad we got here before the tourists,” he said.
O’Rourke went inside the small space and crouched down. Blood was seeping through the linen of the shrouded body.
“ Of course, the thing is done so well, it could have just looked like a prop.”
“Except that the tomb is, of course, supposed to be empty.”
“Except for that,” agreed O’Rourke, standing. Now he was looking around the tomb space. But it was just bare rocky ground that yielded no useful clues.
“Too many people pass through this place to expect any helpful fingerprints,” he said. He turned to the constable guarding the entrance to the tomb.
“Has anyone been in here?”
“Only the gardener, sir,” replied the constable. “But I gather he just screamed and ran straight to the nearest constable on patrol.”
“Did you get a statement from him?”
“Yes,” said the constable. “He left at about eight o’clock last night. The tomb was empty. He returned here about nine o’clock. The tomb was not empty.”
“Not good,” said O’Rourke. “That means he left when it was dark. And there were only about four hours of daylight before he arrived. I doubt we’ll find any eyewitnesses. This site isn’t exactly located on a thoroughfare.” Although located near a main road, the Garden Tomb itself was secluded. The nearby hill that overlooked the site was a Muslim cemetery.
He turned to the constable.
“Carry on,” said O’Rourke. “I’m going to have the body taken back to the morgue, but I still do not want this place open to the public. I need to have a look around first.”
“Yes, sir,” said the constable. “I feel a bit like one of the Roman soldiers, sir,” he added.
“Everything around here feels Biblical. It’s hard to avoid.”
Howard kept silent.
As a Catholic, he knew the more reliable holy site was the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City. But the Anglicans in Jerusalem preferred this site declared by their own hero of Khartoum, Major General Charles Gordon, as the authentic one.
But O’Rourke was right. Everything around here felt Biblical. As he and O’Rourke investigated the surrounding garden, Howard couldn’t help but think about Mary Magdalene encountering her risen Lord and mistaking him for the gardener.
“I see no sign of struggle,” said O’Rourke.
“It seems more likely he was killed somewhere else and brought here already wrapped in that shroud.”
“We’ll know more when they get the body back to the morgue,” said O’Rourke, “but it’s looking that way.” He surveyed the quiet garden. “That increases the likelihood of there being an eyewitness. Someone must have seen a man carrying a body.”
“The Monastery of St. Stephen is nearby,” Howard pointed out. The church had been built to commemorate the site where St. Stephen had been stoned. “The Dominicans run it. I use their library often. I could pop over there and ask the monks if they saw anyone passing by with a body.”
“I’ll leave that to you, then,” said O’Rourke. He turned back to examining the ground, in case they had missed anything the first time. It didn’t surprise Howard that he left the matter him. Since coming to Palestine, Howard had eschewed English company in favour of Franciscan or Dominican company. The Franciscans were erudite in their knowledge of archaeology. The Dominicans were also interested in archaeology, publishing a research journal on the topic called Revie Biblique. In addition, they were wonderfully diligent in promoting devotion to the Rosary. Howard was already devoted to the Rosary and since coming to the Holy Land, he was also discovering an interest in Biblical archeology.
Howard glanced at his watch. It was still early, but the library would be open by now. He returned to Nablus Road and went inside the quiet well-lit room that was open to the public. He showed his badge to the librarian and explained what had happened at the Garden Tomb. Not surprisingly, it was a shock. The only mercy of it was that it was a site of dubious authenticity that had been desecrated.
“Of course you must ask around,” said the monk. “I have to stay here, but most of the brothers will be at their labours by now. We are up early here.”
Howard knew about morning prayers, followed by breakfast and morning chores.
He went out into the courtyard and decided that the abbot would be the best person to talk to first. It took asking several monks for directions to find the abbot in a small office down a dark corridor. The monks had only been able to point, suggesting they had taken vows of silence. Howard hoped that wouldn’t hamper his investigation. Thankfully, the abbot verbally welcomed him and asked him how he could help Howard this morning.
The abbot merely raised his eyebrows at the news, suggesting the kind of maturity that came with age where one takes life as it comes, no matter how outrageous the event.
“We go to bed early,” he said. “So if the event happened in the night, as you say it might have, it is unlikely anyone here would have seen it.”
“It could have happened early this morning,” said Howard.
The abbot looked thoughtful.
“Now that would be different,” he said. “When we were coming out of the church after Lauds, I did notice a man pushing a wheelbarrow along the path. The light was too dim to take note of what was in the wheelbarrow, however.”
This was promising.
“The man, what did he look like?” Howard asked, leaning forward. The abbot stood and went to the window, as if to remember better.
“An Arab, I thought at the time,” said the abbot. “But really, I cannot be sure.”
“So, a workman?” said Howard.
“It would seem likely,” said the abbot. “But there was only the light of our lamps to see anything.”
“Not a woman, then?”
“No,” said the abbot, smiling. “Perhaps you do not understand, for some of us, when we have taken a vow of chastity, we learn to quickly turn away when a woman is in close proximity.”
Howard understood. He was not part of a monastic community but he certainly practiced celibacy. And he had heard of rabbis in the Jewish community who were known for sustaining bruises on the forehead from bumping into walls in their zeal not to make eye contact with any woman apart from immediate family members.
The abbot volunteered to take him around to talk to all of the men who had been at Lauds that morning. After interviewing each of them, Howard learned that there had indeed been a man with a wheelbarrow passing by at about 3:15 am and that due to the poor lighting, no one had gotten a good look at him.
It wasn’t much but it was more than he had come with. It had taken him several hours to talk to everyone and Howard returned to the Garden Tomb to find that despite it being a recent crime scene, it was now business as usual. There were tourists lined up to go into the tomb. A few constables lingered, but O’Rourke and the body were gone.
Howard returned to police headquarters only to find that the autopsy was in progress and O’Rourke was grumpy. The High Commissioner had insisted that the Garden Tomb be reopened despite the crime.
“Normally he’s quite reasonable,” said O’Rourke. They were alone in his office. “But, unfortunately, in this city, religion takes first place to justice.”
“Oh, we’ll get the man,” said Howard, sitting down. He was tired. There had been no time for breakfast. “The monks at St. Stephen’s are all praying for us.”
“God pity the poor murderer, then,” said O’Rourke. He almost smiled. “What did you learn?”
Howard reported on everything the brothers had told him.
“Do we have any idea who the man is?” Howard asked, when he was done.
“The murderer?” O’Rourke said.
“No, the victim.”
“It isn’t a man,” said O’Rourke. “It’s a woman. A young woman.”
It was unexpected. Howard had assumed somehow that because the tomb was considered Jesus’s tomb, that the victim must be a male. He realized that subconsciously he had even been expecting him to be about the age of Jesus when he died.
“A young woman?” he repeated.
“How did she die?”
“We’ll know when we get the coroner’s report.”
There were other things to keep them busy until the coroner’s report came in. The National Socialists in Germany were making life difficult for the British administration in Palestine. Anti-Jewish measures in Berlin, compounded by outbreaks of violent persecution, were causing many German Jews to decide they would be safer in Palestine facing the Arabs than living in Europe. Most came legally, but some were arriving illegally. Arabs were already sensitive about the idea of the British supporting the establishment of Jewish national home in an Arab land. Every now and then, a violent event occurred in the Old City or in one of the few places in the New City where Jews and Arabs mingled. The one mercy of it all was that they spoke different languages now, so you were unlikely to find an Arab in a Jewish cinema or vice versa. In the past, everyone in Palestine, Jews included, had spoken Arabic.
And today, the Palestine Post was reporting that Dollfuss, Chancellor of Austria, had been assassinated. Even though Vienna was calm, it was reported that the Nazis were behind the assassination. The city was now under martial law.
“Vienna might be under martial law, but we aren’t,” said Howard. “This will stir up people here.”
“Especially those who still have loved ones in Austria,” said O’Rourke grimly. “They’ll be blaming us when the National Socialists start treating their family members back home with the same shabby treatment they treat their Jews in Germany.”
It was true. When tensions ran high, the Jews of Palestine often blamed the British for not allowing more Jews into Eretz Israel. But the British could not risk offending their Arab allies who had not only fought alongside them in wresting the Holy Land from the Ottoman Empire, but who also provided them with much needed oil to fuel the British navy.
For now, with this latest report, all the police could do was have more constables on foot patrolling the streets.
In the meantime, Howard had been working on catching shoplifters at Spinney’s. Spinney’s was a popular shop on Jaffa Road that specialized in imported English goods. Arthur Spinney, who had come to Palestine with General Allenby, had started as a provisions supervisor for the Palestine Railway. After the war, he had become a successful merchant. The ladies of the colonial set adored him because he provided them with all of the comforts of home. Howard doubted that any of them were the shoplifters. But he did have his eye on some Arab lads who came in to shop for their English employers. This was his second day undercover. Yesterday had been grueling. With the full knowledge of the shop assistant, he had spent the day pretending to be shopping for the perfect marmalade. Spinneys offered a respectable selection of thick cut, fine cut, Dundee orange, three-fruit, and lime-lemon. With a Dundee orange in his hand, he had moved on to browse the biscuits, the sweets and the tastefully-arranged collection of Brown Betty teapots. He had even ended up buying a small one for his room. His mother back in London had a large one and it felt like a bit of home. Evidently, that was why Spinney’s was so successful. Everyone from Britain wanted a bit of home while they were in Palestine. The customers were constant and the shop assistant handled them all with the assurance of any her equal back in London. But despite the constant trade, the whole time Howard had been there, all business had been above board.
It was a short walk down Jaffa Road back to Spinney’s.
He gave the shop assistant a little wave and proceeded to the back of the store where he could inconspicuously keep an eye on the whole store. The back was where Spinney’s displayed their potted meat. Most men who had fought in the campaign to take Palestine never wanted to see potted meat again, but Howard had been too young to fight in the Great War. He took his time reading the labels before selecting some corned beef. Three people were in the store. All women. They leisurely examined the wares. Howard suspected many of the wives of those in administration just came in to feel like they were back in England. Two had baskets and were adding food items to them. One woman was examining the selection of Taveners sweets. Another woman joined her and asked her if she had seen the chocolate limes. The shop assistant was quick to come to her assistance saying that they were expecting a shipment from Haifa any day now, but could she interest her in some jelly babies while she waited? The woman shook her head and said she’d prefer to wait. Chocolate limes were her husband’s favourite. The other woman had added some wine gums to her basket and moved on to examine the canned soups.
Howard picked up some pickled onions, pretending to read the label while he turned to examine the other patron. She was a young English woman examining the tea towels. She seemed too young to have a home of her own. Perhaps she was looking for a gift.
An Arab lad entered the store with a large basket on his arm. Howard watched as he filled it with a box of tea, some Cadbury biscuits, several cans of meat and some Scottish oats. He expected the lad to pocket a candy bar, but the boy came and went without any petty theft. Howard returned his attention to the onions and then decided to keep them as well. Along with the corned beef, they would make a decent meal on those nights they worked late into the evening. He decided to add a box of crackers to his purchase. He was so busy examining the water crackers he almost missed the young woman slipping one of the tea towels into the sleeve of her coat.
“Hey, there!” he said, nearly dropping his pickled onions. She made a run for it. Howard carefully put down his potted meat, onions and crackers. He didn’t like the thought of pursuing a young woman down Jaffa Road and was greatly relieved when the shop assistant moved with lightening speed from behind the counter to block the doorway.
“I’m much obliged, miss,” he said to her. He now had a firm grip on the thief’s arm.
“I was going to pay for it,” she said sulkily.
“Please examine her purse,” Howard said to the shop assistant.
“Just two pence,” she reported after a quick look in the woman’s small bag. She looked at the woman. “That’s Irish linen,” she said, yanking the tea towel out of the sleeve. “She had no intention of paying for it.”
“You suspected her, didn’t you?” said Howard intuitively.
The shop assistant nodded.
“I didn’t want to say anything. She’s a
daughter of the friend of the High Commissioner. No one would have believed
“I suspected one of the Arab lads,” Howard admitted.
“Oh, not them,” said the shop assistant. “They’re as honest as the day is long. They all think this shop is some kind of extension of the British government. They wouldn’t take anything.” She glared at the shoplifter as if to accuse her of disloyalty to the British administration in Palestine.
Howard led the woman down the road back to the police headquarters. She was young, attractive, but defiant.
“Why did you do it?” he asked her.
“That’s none of your business,” she said. Her face was proud. Then she sighed. “Oh hell. There’s nothing to do here. It’s Jerusalem. You’re either a saint or a sinner. Mommy prays all day at St. George’s. Daddy gambles and drinks and has a mistress back home. I had to go one way or the other, didn’t I?”
Howard almost laughed.
“You should be Catholic,” he said. “I’m Catholic and I assure you, the Church takes both saints and sinners.”
“I’ll consider it,” said the girl. She spoke sincerely. “I should like to be one or the other. But not in between,” she added.
O’Rourke was reading the coroner’s report by the time he returned to the office.
“I forgot to ask you to pick up some more Bournvita,” said O’Rourke, without looking up from the report.
Howard smiled. No one would have guessed looking at his stern boss that he enjoyed the chocolate malted drink almost as much as his tea.
O’Rourke handed the report to Howard.
It concluded that the death was not accidental. Based on the injuries, the woman had been beaten to death. After she was dead, her body had been then anointed with oil and wrapped in a cotton shroud.
“Hated in life, loved in death,” said Howard. “That sounds like marriage.”
“My thoughts, too. She was young. No children. Most likely an Arab although the blows to her face make it difficult to be certain. Definitely one of yours, though. She was holding a Rosary.”
There were many Arab Catholics in Jerusalem.
Howard shook his head and handed the report back to O’Rourke. He stood.
“I hate this sort of thing.” He stood. “I think I’ll go back to the brothers at St. Stephen’s. Is it OK if I share the findings of the report?”
“Of course not,” said O’Rourke. “This is a police investigation in progress.” He gave Howard a stare. “ I know you trust those chaps and I suppose I do, too. They know how to keep secrets.”
Howard nodded. He knew he was receiving unofficial permission to speak freely with the brothers.
He returned to St. Stephen’s Monastery. If he had kept walking north, he would have encountered St. George’s Cathedral, home to all the Anglicans of the British administration. Howard wondered whether it was a coincidence that they had located themselves far from the Catholic centre of worship at the Holy Sepulchre and close to their hero Gordon’s Garden Tomb.
The abbot received him graciously in his office, waving him to sit down and asking if any progress had been made on the case.
“First of all,” said Howard. “I think a mass should be said for the victim. We found a Rosary on the young woman.”
The abbot’s eyes went up.
“A woman? Do you think she received last rites?” he asked.
“I am almost certain she did not,” said Howard. “She was beaten to death.”
“God have mercy on her soul,” said the abbot, sounding genuinely distressed. “Of course there will be a mass said for her. Do you know her name?”
“Not yet,” said Howard. “I was hoping you could help.”
“As you know, we are a closed community,” said the abbot. “We do not hear confessions.”
“And you wouldn’t be able to violate the confessional,” said Howard. “I know that. That is why I have come here and not to the Fathers at the Holy Sepulchre who would not be able to tell me if they have heard anything that might help in this investigation.”
“How old was woman, do you think?”
“Young, the report said. Maybe eighteen. She had never had a child.”
The abbot was in deep thought.
“I do hear things,” he said finally. “Nothing specific,” he said. “But a Dominican brother told me he was concerned by the foolishness of Christian girls marrying Muslim men. This brother tends to exaggerate. He spoke as if it were an epidemic. I imagine it was a singular case.”
Howard leaned forward.
“And you think it could be a Christian girl who married a Muslim man?”
“It’s just a feeling I have,” said the abbot. “I saw the man pass by with the wheelbarrow. I am certain he was a Muslim and yet you tell me, the girl was a Christian.”
“How can you be certain he was a Muslim?” asked Howard.
“I cannot be certain,” said the abbot. “It was just the impression I had. I took him for a Muslim. You know how everyone in this city wears distinctive headwear. We all have our costumes.”
It was true. In the Old City especially, someone could hurry past you and without looking carefully at him, you had the impression that you had just passed a devout Jew or a Dominican monk.
“I won’t take anymore of your time. I won’t need to interview your Dominican brother. We have Arab constables. They will know if there has been a marriage between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy. This is a small town.”
“I am grateful,” said the abbot, also standing to shake his hand. “And you will be in my prayers.”
Howard pulled out his wallet.
“I would like to pay for the girl’s mass,” he said. He handed the abbot several pound notes.
“God bless you,” said the abbot.
Howard left the monastery. Rather than continuing down Suleiman Road back to Jaffa Road he entered into the Old City through the Damascus Gate and made his way to the Holy Sepulchre. He wanted to say some prayers for the girl. How had a Catholic girl ended up in the Garden Tomb?
Like the many mansions promised by Jesus to His Church, the Holy Sepulchre had many chambers. He pass through them until he was in the Sepulchre itself. There were always lines so he spoke the pray for her soul quickly and crossed himself before exiting again. It seemed fitting to say the prayer in the true location of her saviour’s resting place.
He returned to police headquarters. Signing in, he found that the constable on Station Diary duty was an Arab. It wasn’t a surprise. There was almost double the amount of Arab constables to Jewish ones. The Arabs were a mix of Muslim and Christian. This one, Daoud al-Hijazi, was a Muslim. Howard was hesitant to ask him if he had heard of a recent marriage between a Muslim and a Christian. By now, the news of the find in the Garden Tomb would be all around police headquarters.
He decided to update O’Rourke and then return later and talk to a Christian constable. The Constabulary also employed Circassians and Druses, so he might have to wait until the current shift ended to talk to a Christian Arab.
O’Rourke was relieved to see him. The
Palestine Post had called him and wanted an interview. In fact, they had
already sent over a reporter. O’Rourke informed him that he was waiting in one
of the interrogation rooms.
“Talk to him,” said O’Rourke. “Don’t tell him too much. Just what we want them to know.”
That was a fine line, Howard thought, returning back to the main building. He found the reporter seasoned, able to ask the probing questions. He was an older man who spoke with a German accent. He had probably worked on a newspaper in Germany until they decided they didn’t want to employ Jews anymore.
He didn’t want to mention that the girl was Christian. He didn’t even want to mention that it was a girl. It would come out eventually, but in this town, the slightest thing could cause an outbreak of violence. Ronald Storrs, former Governor of Jerusalem, had once remarked that the unexpectedness of a horse skittering could set off a chain of events that led to riots. The slightest rumour of violence had shopkeepers in the Old City pulling down their shutters for the day.
His answers were vague. Yes, a body had been found in the Garden Tomb. Most likely Arab. There would be more details. They were following several leads.
He noticed that the reporter assumed the body was that of a man. Being a Jew and considering the times they lived in, he seemed to focus on the fact that the corpse was Arab and not Jewish and seemed relieved when Howard could assure him all the leads they had so far did not take them anywhere near one of the Jewish neighbourhoods in the city.
It was late and the story would appear in the morning paper. There was nothing more to do for the night but return to his room in the police barracks on Mount Scopus. As always, the streets were busy. The weather was cooler at night and more inviting. He caught a bus that took him away from the city centre. In had been a long day and tomorrow would be another long day interviewing Muslim men who had Christian wives. But first they would have to be found. When he had come out of the interrogation room, the constable on Station Diary Duty had been Jewish. While he had been with the reporter, the rotation had taken place and both those who had come in after their day of patrolling the city on foot and those who had replaced them were gone.
He yawned as he stood up and exited the bus at his stop. Even the refreshing night didn’t revive him. He thought of the monks. Some stayed up late praying. Others rose early to pray. Even Jesus himself was known to pray all night. The monks who imitated him were the future saints. All Howard wanted to do was fall into bed at the moment.
Even so, he took the time to pray his Rosary. Being Wednesday, it was the Glorious Mysteries, starting with The Resurrection. As he contemplated Jesus emerging from the tomb he wondered if there wasn’t something wonderfully optimistic about placing a body in the Garden Tomb. Had the man done it in the hope that the woman would rise again?
“Oh yes,” said Boulos Mattar, Arab Christian on Station Diary duty. “This is a problem. Many of our girls marry their young men. You see . . .” He leaned forward on the desk. “It is permitted by Islam for a man to marry a Christian or a Jew. But it is forbidden for a woman to marry a Christian man or a Jew.”
“Interesting,” said Howard, nodding. Since they were alone in the small room, Howard said, “As you may know, it was a young woman holding a Rosary found wrapped in a shroud in the Garden Tomb. But eyewitnesses reported a Muslim man pushing a wheelbarrow at around the time the body would have been placed in the tomb.
Boulos Mattar’s eyes were wide.
“Yes,” he said, slowly. “I see. Sometimes things go too far . . .”
“It is not good,” said the Arab constable, shaking his head. His eyes were faraway.
“No, it isn’t,” agreed Howard. “So far we’ve kept it from the media but it will come out. And I anticipate a reaction.”
“Oh yes, of course,” said Mattar, his attention back on Howard. “But I was just thinking, it is not good. Not good to kill the one you love.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Howard. He stepped aside to allow a constable to sign in and then exit back out into the courtyard. “But now we have to identify the girl. Have you heard of any recent marriages between a Christian woman and a Muslim man. She was about 18. They had no children.”
“If she had no children, she was only recently married,” agreed Mattar. “I have heard of no recent marriages. But I will ask my mother and my sister. They know everything that goes on.”
It was the first time a case had been solved by a constable’s mother. Mrs. Mattar had heard of a recent marriage between a girl from Nazareth and a man from Jerusalem. Boulos Mattar had been discreet and had gained the news without giving it away that the girl had been the corpse found in the Garden Tomb. So Howard heard it all from Boulos Mattar as if the girl were still alive.
“Her name is Judith. She is young and beautiful. The man she married is also young. About 25. His first marriage. They seemed happy at the wedding festivities, which were held in Jerusalem. Most of the guests were Muslim, but a few members of the bride’s family had made it from Nazareth. She was raised in her uncle’s household as she is an orphan. No one knows the story. The uncle already had five daughters of his own to raise. But really, there are so many tragedies in this life that we are called to bear with patience . . .”
Howard could almost hear Boulos Mattar’s mother talking through him. Howard was thinking that without Boulos Mattar’s mother, the girl could have remained indefinitely unidentified unless someone in the groom’s family had a conscience and came forward with the information that she was missing.
When they brought in the groom, he had confessed right away. He had gotten angry with his wife and killed her. He did not elaborate. But it was enough. It was a confession and now he waited in his prison cell for his trial. In a case like this, it was expected that the sentence would be death by hanging.
The Palestine Post returned and interviewed the young Muslim. He confessed to anyone who wanted to hear it, but had no interest in sharing the details.
Things had taken an unexpected turn when the grieving father of the son had come in and made an attempt to convince the police that it had been him who had wheeled the body to the Garden Tomb. He did not speak English and had to be questioned by an Arab constable while Howard stood in the room and listened. Finally, it had been conceded that the father had probably rolled the body to the Garden Tomb after his son had killed her, but even though that made him an accessory, the young man’s original confession included transporting the body after the death, so his father’s confession would probably be considered inadmissible when the case came to trial.
Howard returned to the abbot when things had settled down a bit. At first, there had been concern that violence might erupt, but since the girl had no family in Jerusalem to rise up and avenge her, most of the furor was simply in the form of outrage in the Christian cafes.
Howard had come to thank the abbot. He had heard that the good Father had come to visit the young man in his cell several times and that each time he had stayed quite awhile. It would all be confidential, of course, but Howard speculated that he thought that since the man had been willing to marry a Christian, perhaps he was willing to hear more about the Christian faith. In any case, Howard thought it was a marvelous gesture for a member of the Christian community to go talk to the man.
“He’s had no family visit him,” Howard said. They were back in the abbot’s office.
The abbot was silent.
“What is it, Father?” Howard asked, leaning forward.
“I had the young man’s father come see me.”
The abbot nodded.
“A very unpleasant experience. He is not at all like his son. I cannot share with you what the young man confessed to me when I visited him,” continued the abbot. “But I can tell you without breaking any confidences that the father has no sorrow over the death of his daughter-in-law.”
From that, Howard gathered that by contrast, the young man was contrite about the death of his wife.
“He called me a dirty Christian and a corrupter of good men. And that is the sanitized version of it. The Arabs can be very colourful with their curses.”
Howard knew that the Arabs took special pride in their ability to heap curses on their enemies.
“Had you ever met him before?” asked Howard.
“Never,” said the abbot. “Nor had I met the young man or his wife.”
“Why should he be angry that his son married a Christian?” Howard asked. “It’s not forbidden by Islam.”
“No, it is not forbidden,” agreed the abbot. He was silent again. He spoke carefully. “But that was not why he was angry.”
“But he confessed,” said O’Rourke, impatiently. “What more do we want?”
“I think someone else did it,” said Howard. “And the young man was the one who brought the body to the tomb.”
“Why? What did the abbot say?”
“It wasn’t what he said. It was what he didn’t say,” said Howard. “He’s bound by the confessional not to speak. As you say, the young man made a public confession. But he undoubtedly told the father many things he didn’t tell us.”
“That’s because he hardly told us anything except that he did it.”
“But there’s more to it. The abbot could have spoken freely if the father had said it, but it was something the young man said that he couldn’t share with me.”
“That’s not the type of thing that holds up in court, Howard.”
“I know,” said Howard. “But I trust the abbot.”
“And I trust the young man’s confession,” said O’Rourke, returning his attention to the papers in front of him. “It keeps Jerusalem quiet. God help you if you start a riot in this town. I’ll see that you get posted to the outer borders of Afghanistan.”
“I just don’t think an innocent man should go to the gallows.”
“Even if he wasn’t the one who killed her, he certainly knows who the killer was.”
“I agree,” said Howard. “He’s protecting his father.”
“It’s all the same, really,” said O’Rourke, looking up again. “It was the same in Ireland. It becomes a blood feud if someone in the family doesn’t pay with their life. It doesn’t really matter who in the end, as long as honour is satisfied.”
Howard was silent. It was O’Rourke who was Irish. Howard, despite his Catholic faith, was English and had never experienced the troubles in Ireland.
Howard started heading for the door.
“There won’t be any riots, sir,” he said. “I promise.”
“It’s pointless to go talk to the young man,” O’Rourke called out after him. “He’s said his piece. He won’t talk to you.”
O’Rourke was right.
The young man was silent and sullen. At first it seemed like the interview would be brief. Howard’s brain was empty. Usually criminals liked to talk. They wouldn’t confess everything at first, but if you talked to them for long enough, often they would open up enough to move forward with the interrogation. But this man was as intransient as a monk who had taken a vow of silence. Only the abbot had been able to have a real conversation with him.
Sitting in the cell beside the prisoner, Howard fingered the Rosary beads in his pocket. If it were Howard in prison, he would want a Catholic priest to talk to. He wondered what it was like for the young man to have the abbot here beside him. After all, the young man was Muslim.
Or was he?
Howard felt illumination fill his mind.
The young man had never called for a Muslim consoler. A Muslim man could marry a Christian woman, but he was expected to retain his faith. But what if he hadn’t? That would explain the long hours with the abbot. Perhaps it wasn’t just his wife who was a Christian. Perhaps the girl had won him over to her faith. And the father had found out that his son had violated the one rule of a mixed marriage: that the man must remain Muslim despite marrying a Christian or a Jew. And the girl had been blamed.
The young man had spoken freely to only one person, the abbot. If Howard put forward the idea that he believed the young man was a Catholic, the young man would think that the abbot had betrayed him. Howard stood. He did not need to confirm his theory.
“I think you loved your wife very much,” he said, turning around at the door. “She was wrapped in a very loving way and placed with great care in the tomb.”
For a moment, the dull brown eyes came to life and there was a mixture of sorrow and joy in the tears that formed around the edges.
“I am sorry it had to turn out this way,” said Howard.
The young man nodded, still silent.
And then Howard him softly say, "I was hoping she would come back to life."
Howard turned, knowing that it was a confession of the soul, not a confession of guilt.
"Well, I can understand that," he said.
Howard left the cell, still fingering the beads. He would pray for the young man as the abbot prepared him for death. And he would keep praying afterwards for his soul.
Read the next story in the Chronicles of Palestine:
The Canaanite Idol Mystery by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong