Charles R. Tanner The Robe Of Caesar

During the latter part of the world war (the first one, not this preset day dog fight), there was a certain young English lieutenant by the name of Tony Jefferson. Time has hardened and lined his features and made of him a rather horsey, Jack-Holtish sort of individual, and one would no more expect a story of this king from him than one would expect one of Raphael’s angels to peddle fish. He’s Colonel Anthony Sykes Jefferson, K.B., V.C. etc, retired, today: but back in the days when this adventure happened he was, he assures me, just young Tony Jefferson.

And at the moment when this story starts, he was a tired, war-harassed and not particularly pleased Tony Jefferson.

He was seated on a big stone, along a road that led from the front lines, and standing in front of him, with a sneer of contemptuous complacency on his face, was a big, bearded Austrian Jew, clad in the badly soiled field uniform of a German sergeant. He had been captured the day before, and that look had been on his face almost constantly since his capture.

“Contemptuous complacency!” Jefferson was saying. “That just exactly describes it. And, by gad, Fritzie, I wouldn’t mind the complacency, if it wasn’t for the contempt. Deuces take it, I did save your life, you know. I may have taken you prisoner, and brought you back here, but - - why, that’s fortune of war, that’s all.

And although I don’t demand gratitude from you for saving your life - - well, after all, it is customary, old chap. You know, chap saves another’s life, other one thanks him tears in his eyes, and that sort of rot, you know - -.”

He finished rather lamely. The other shrugged silently, and the look never left his face. He seemed quite uninterested, bored, in fact.

Jefferson, worn with two days of sleeplessness, was irritated to the limit of endurance. He became determined to get some sort of contempt out of the fellow. He went on with his analysis.

“You act as if having your life saved was an everyday occurrence. You act as if you were tired of having your life saved. My word, I’m not asking you for any token of gratitude, but take that supercilious look off of your face.”

For just a second, it did seem that the look dropped from eth other’s face. It was replaced by a curious sort of pity. By tut was just for a second. As soon as he began to speak, it appeared again. And when he spoke, it was in a flawless Oxford accent that one would have hardly believer possible in any but an Englishman born.

“I suppose I might as well tell you what I have told so many other unbelieving mortals. It will help pass away a few moments if nothing else.”

“I am sick and tired of having my life saved, my friend. People have been saving my life more, lately, than ever before. And - - it is not appreciated. My life has been saved more than three thousand times. For nearly nineteen hundred years, I have been searching for death and never finding it; for some kind soul has always saved my life. Is it any wonder that I grow contemptuous of my many saviors? You will not wonder when I tell you who I am.

Lieutenant, I am that unfortunate immortal who legend calls the “Wandering Jew.”

Had this speech been made without the supercilious, believe-it-or-not air, Jefferson might have wondered. But the manner in which it was told almost demanded antipathy. Tony looked at him and his tired brain swelled with anger.

“You’re a nut, that’s what you are. Don’t come to me with such a bally tale. Try it on the doctors that examine you back at the hospital base, but don’t use it as an excuse for your lack of gratitude”.

He turned disgustedly and sulked. It had been a hard day, and men who went through the horror of that war, with its trench fighting and its shell shock, were not always in perfect control of their emotions. And because he turned away disgustedly, he failed to notice a sudden sardonic gleam that appeared in the self-styled “Wandering Jew’s” eyes. But he did hear him when he spoke.

“You continue to insist that I show some form of gratitude, eh?” He turned, opened the duffle bag that he had persisted in bringing all the long way with him. He drew out a cloth-covered package.

“I am now, at your insistence, about to show you some gratitude, lieutenant. And being an Oriental at heart, I am going to show my gratitude in an Oriental way. I am going to give you a gift.”

He carefully unwrapped the package, and unfolded what it contained – a huge square of heavy cloth, old unbleached linen; it seemed with a border of figured red. It looked for all the world like an ancient Roman toga, like the toga praetexta that the higher Roman officers used to wear. He held it out to Tony.

“There,” he said. “Accept that, as a gift for saving my life. That it may not be said that I am lacking in gratitude. And may the gift give you as much happiness as the life that you saved is likely to bring me.”

Tony took the cloth and looked at it curiously. It did have an appearance of age, which, combined with its appearance, made it seem that maybe it really was an ancient Roman toga. Of course, linen couldn’t last that long and still be in such good condition, He raised his eyes to the prisoner.

“Where’d you get this? He asked. “Some French museum? It looks deucedly old.”

“It is old.” answered the “Wandering Jew”. “It’s just what you think it is – and ancient Roman toga. It’s the toga, in fact, of the imperial Julius Caesar.” (he pronounced it Yoolyoos Kye-ssahr). “I am giving it to you because I am grateful. Don’t you appreciate it?”

Tony grunted. “I’d appreciate it more,” he decided, “if you’d stick to the truth. You surely don’t expect to pull any of that Julius Caesar stuff on me and get away with it, do you?”

The “Wandering Jew” actually grew solemn for a moment.

“It really is the robe of Caesar,” he insisted. “I have been its guardian during all the ages since the Empire was divided. For, because of the strange power it possesses, it was necessary that some one as immortal as I be its guardian.”

“Oh, now it has a strange power!” Tony’s petulant anger was turning to contempt. “Fritzie, you’re balmy, that’s what you are. Balmy as they make “em. I don’t know whether to take this thing or not. What’s this strange power it’s got, eh?

He asked this last question in the humoring tone that one uses when talking to a lunatic or one in a delirium. The prisoner ignored the tone, however, and answered the question.

“Because this is the robe of Caesar”, he stated “none but a Caesar can wear it. Take this gift I offer you, and in time you will be the greatest man in all England. And England will go on to greater heights of glory until she is the greatest country in the world!”

“What is she now…” Tony began hotly, but the other waved him to silence.

“Listen! This robe was worn by Constantine. Charlemagne accepted it as a gift from me, as did Gustavus Adolphus, the great Swede. I gave it to a little Corsican, and Napoleon Bonaparte swept over Europe! Two months ago I took it away from Wilhelm Hohenzollern, because I decided he wasn’t worthy of it. And now, in gratitude, I offer it to you”.

Tony looked at him quizzically.

“And I suppose if I wear it, or keep it, or whatever, I’ll be another Bonaparte, eh? He snorted derision. “By George, if I can make any headway against that political line-up back in Blighty now, it’ll be a deuced miracle, right-o.”

He took the package as he spoke, for he had determined, after all, to accept it. For it was a fine, firm piece of old linen, and mother or Aunt Catherine might jolly well appreciate it. He rose as he took the package, and beckoning the other to follow he started down the road.

And so they walked along, and Tony, whose disposition had been improved by the rest and mellowed by the feeling that here was a poor fellow worse touched by war than he was, grew talkative and chatted freely with his prisoner, telling him of his home in England and of his life there, and his hopes…

The prisoner’s look softened as he listened. Once he sighed and shook his head dolefully. After a while he sighed again. Tony looked curiously at him, and, of course, misconstrued the meaning of the sign.

“Don’t take it so hard, old man,” he counseled. “After all. This war won’t last much longer. I don’t suppose you’ll be a prisoner very long.”

The other shook his head.

“It wasn’t that. It was just that I was envying you your youth. And your hopes. After nineteen centuries, one almost forgets that one was every young. And as for hope – Perhaps, I was pitying you, too. Look!”

He stopped suddenly and took a card out of his pocket. Some searching through his pockets disclosed a pencil, too; and, lifting a leg, he scribbled something on the card, using his thigh as a desk. He took the package of linen from Tony and tucked the card into it.

“There, he said. “That’s my address. Perhaps I have been too severe with you. So I offer an escape from the fate I have given you. If ever you tire of the robe of Caesar, you can return it to me.”

Tony could make little sense out of this, so he made no comment on it. In fact, it was beginning to be plain to him that, no matter how you talked, the theme came back to this fellow’s “Wandering Jew” mania, so he decided to keep still entirely.

And so, at last, they reached the place toward which they were walking.

The days that followed Tony’s capture of the “Wandering Jew” were busy one’s. Tony’s company was sent back to a rest camp, only to be immediately returned to the front line. The great Hindenburg line was broken at last and the German Army was in full retreat. The war was drawing to a close. Tony marched his men nine miles one day, twelve the next, and seventeen the next.

   And then, one day, they caught up with Fritzie. On both sides of the regiment the British had drawn ahead. Fritzie’s flight was stopped by a river and he found himself unable to turn to the right or left. Cornered, he turned on Tony’s regiment and struck, swiftly and hopelessly. There was a brief but fierce little engagement, and when it was over, Tony’s captain and senior lieutenant were dead and Tony was in charge of his company.     

He was aching captain for a little over a week when his promotion to captain was confirmed. He was grateful, of course, but he was surprised at the promptness of the confirmation. Some officers he knew had been waiting months for the confirmation of their promotions.

Came the last week of the war. Came also an astonishing message from headquarters. For some reason or other, vague even in the papers, Captain Anthony Sykes Jefferson was promoted to major. Tony never did understand what error, covered by miles of red tape, brought about that second promotion. But he accepted the promotion and turned, unprepared as he was, to the study of his new duties. Had anyone been especially interested in Major Jefferson at that time, they would have noticed that he had acquired a remarkable insight into field tactics and the handling of bodies of men. But no one noticed it, and in the excitement of attending to his new duties, even Tony failed to notice that he was carrying on surprisingly well.

And then - - the war was over, and everybody was looking forward to a return to Blighty, and wondering how soon it would be.

Tony was due for another surprise. He had no reason to expect that he would not be returned to England as soon as any of the other officers in his regiment. But, strangely, he was transferred to Paris, and some weeks later received orders to report to a certain Brigadier-General Blessington. He found himself appointed to a commission that was going to Bavaria to supervise the return of German prisoners.

This was tantamount to a transfer to the diplomatic branch of the army and Major Jefferson was again pleased to receive the envious congratulations of his fellow officers. He was pleased, of course, but he was uneasy. For it seemed certain that his rapid promotion was not due to accident. Somebody, back there in London, must be pulling strings. At least, that was how it appeared to Tony, at the time. And he worried, because he hadn’t the remotest idea who that somebody could be.

Nevertheless, he accepted what the gods (the little tin gods of politics) offered, and went his way to Munich, as a soldier should.

And, once in the German city, he found further honor and promotion. There were five men on the commission, and Tony was the youngest and most inexperienced of the lot, when he first arrived. But General Blessington, one of those doddering old Haw-by-Joves that had been jerked out of retirement by the war, took an especial liking to the young man and before long the two were together constantly. Blessington had the typical on-track mind of the professional soldier, and he could talk of nothing but the commission and its duties. Jefferson learned fast, he soon saw not only the side that Blessington presented, but, with that new keenness that was constantly surprising him, he was also able to see just how Blessington as fumbling in the carrying out of the commission’s business.

Several times, therefore, he made minor suggestions and was pleased to see Blessington accept them, although, before the commission and the Germans, the old fellow unblushingly produced them as his won.

And then—General Blessington was down with Spanish influenza!

And so was Malcolm MacDonald, his second in command. MacDonald lasted five days; the old General, whom one would have expected to succumb at once, lingered on for twelve. Two days before he died, he sent for Tony.

“Major,” he wheezed. “I don’t think I’m going to last it out, this time, by Gad. Number’s up, I’m afraid. Dashed inconvenience, I’m sure, but unavoidable. They’ve told me of poor Mac’s death. And those others - - technically, they’re your superiors, but - - stuffed shirts, lad, stuffed shirts. Deuced civilians, politicians that don’t know—dash it, they don’t know anything. You mark my words, lad, they’ll leave it up to you. So listen…”

He proceeded, slowly, as well as his weakness would allow, to convey to Tony all the business of the commission, just as he had planned it, And, two days later, he was dead.

Blessington had not been deceived in the character of the two remaining associates. They were just as he had pictured them, and they quickly relegated their power to Tony. And he, to his surprise, found himself quite capable of carrying on. So, presently, came a wire from London, appointing him as official head of the commission and instructing him to carry the business to a close.

Now, Tony Jefferson really began to wonder. It dawned on him suddenly, one day, that no amount of pull, back home, could have arranged the deaths of Blessington and Malcolm MacDonald. True enough, those deaths had been natural; there was an epidemic of flu, that winter, and one could hardly call it strange that his superiors had died from it. Not one single event in all the series that had caused his rise had been in the least bit miraculous - - in itself.

But - - the succession of coincidences was miraculous. And so Tony Jefferson was worried. He had liked the old general, in spite of his pomposity, and he had no desire to feel that he had been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the old fellow’s death. Nevertheless, the rapid rise for lieutenant to major - - no, it was colonel now, the commission had come with his authorization as head of the group in Munich - - the rapid rise had made him uneasy, and he began, for the first time since he was given it, of the so-called “robe of Caesar”.

And the, one day, when the work of the commission had been closed and he was preparing to return home, he ran across the toga in a drawer in his room at the hotel.

This was odd. He had been absolutely certain that he had sent it to his mother before he left Paris. He remembered distinctly wrapping it up– well, he was almost certain that he had. His memory was a little vague on that score, but - -

He sighed. Very probably he hadn’t sent it back at all. Very probably, seeing it was right here. It was just a well. He didn’t want to seem a superstitious ass, but that robe, and the sequences of promotions, when combined, made him go crawly, all over. He determined to get rid of the thing. The, if the promotions stopped, well and good, by George. And if they continued – well, he’d have the satisfaction of knowing that the “robe of Caesar” wasn’t responsible, anyway.

So he wrapped the thing up in a newspaper, took it out with him that evening, and very deliberately and positively dropped in into the middle of the Danube River. And that was that.

At least, he thought that was that, until he got home. He went up to his room and had no more than entered it when he saw it lying on his table - - in the precise middle, in fact - - still dripping, the paper wrapping in a soggy mess - -

The robe of Caesar!

That settled it with Tony. It was the veritable robe of Caesar, now, as far as he was concerned. It was the infernal fetish that was bringing him all his luck, that had caused the death, most likely, of his old captain, and of Blessington, and MacDonald- - -

Tony was fed up. And not a little panic-stricken. He didn’t mind the idea of there being a robe of Caesar; he didn’t mind some deuced old nitwit of a King owning it and getting to be a jolly old Caesar, if he wanted to, – but Tony didn’t want any of that in his. And yet, his attempt to get rid of the robe hadn’t been very successful. He decided on a more certain method. He re-wrapped the toga, took it down to the hotel basement and threw the damned thing into the furnace! Then, with a lighter heart, he started back to his room.

Even before he reached the door, he smelled paint burning. It didn’t register just at first; but before he opened the door, he knew what it was. He opened the door slowly, the hair rising on his neck, and queer chills running up and down this back. There was a big cherry desk that stood in the room, and the top of it was all scorched and smoking, and right on top of it was that infernal robe of Caesar, still red-hot from the furnace!

One never knows just what reaction will take place when one is faced with the incredible. Tony never had expected a situation such as this to confront him and so he was totally unprepared for it. Yet, so strange are the twisting and turnings of the human minds that Ton’s actions, unexplainable as they are, are understandable. He - - grew calm.

Very deliberately, he picked up the smoldering robe in a pair of tong, took it to the bathroom and doused it with water. He unwrapped it for the first time, impelled, no doubt, by some subconscious memory - - land out fell the addressed card of the ‘”Wandering Jew.”

He stared at the charred bit of pasteboard for a full minute. The whole conversation with that strange character came back to him. What was it the fellow had said? “I offer you an escape from the fate I have given you. If ever you tire of the robe of Caesar you can return it to me.” Well, by George, he was tired of it, now. Fed up. Deuced fed up. He picked up the card and read it.

And found, to his surprise, that the Jew‘s address was right here in Munich!

Tony felt a wave of relief sweep over him. He wrung out the toga, wrapped it up again, and scratched an address on the wrapping paper. Then he hurried down to the hotel desk.

“I want a messenger,” he told the clerk at the desk. “I want a man who can deliver a package. It’s important.”

The clerk looked pained.

“I regret, Herr Colonel,” he said, putting on a pained look to show how much he regretted. “There is no one right now available your package to deliver. Could you perhaps another half hour wait?”

You can imagine how much Tony wanted to wait another half hour. Why, perhaps even now events were shaping up to kill some general so that he might take his place. He became insistent. Presently the clerk’s face cleared.

“There are many out on the street, mein colonel, who would gladly earn a few marks. They are returned soldiers. The city is full of them, most of them jobless and some even hungry. One will be glad to serve you.”

Tony turned at once to the door. The clerk, anxious to make aments for the lack of service, followed him. At the door, the clerk stood for a moment and then whistled and signaled to a passing soldier. He addressed him familiarly; evidently he had some slight acquaintance with the fellow.

“The Herr Colonel wishes you an errand to run. A package to deliver. Ten marks, ja?”

The soldier, a doleful looking fellow with sad, insolent eyes and a droopy moustache, answered quickly. But certainly he would the package deliver. He extended eager hands, studied the address, pocketed Tony’s ten mark note and was off. Tony watched him go, and then had sudden feelings of misgiving. He turned to the clerk. “

Do you think he‘ll deliver it?” he asked. “Do you suppose he’s honest?”

“Oh, but yes, mein colonel.” That worthy assured him. “I know him fairly well. I do not think there is any chance of him stealing your package. He is a queer fellow, but honest. Ja, honest.”

Tony had a sort of feeling that the fellow insisted on the soldier’s honestly more to assure himself than Tony. He spoke again.

“You say you know him? Maybe you’d better let me have his name and address. Then, if the package isn’t delivered, I can look him up. Do you know his name and address?”

The clerk nodded, positively.

“Surely, mein colonel. Here, copy it down on this piece of paper.” He spoke each syllable of the name slowly, allowing Tony time to write it down.

“Cor-po-ral A-dolf - - Hit-ler. 22la - - Ot-ter-bein - - Stras-se.”