XIII. The Bottom of the Abyss 
'Here am I, at last!' said Raphael Aben-Ezra to himself. 'Fairly and safely landed at the very bottom of the bottomless; disporting myself on the firm floor of the primeval nothing, and finding my new element, like boys when they begin to swim, not so impracticable after all. No man, angel, or demon, can this day cast it in my teeth that I am weak enough to believe or disbelieve any phenomenon or theory in or concerning heaven or earth; or even that any such heaven, earth, phenomena, or theories exist—or otherwise . . . . I trust that is a sufficiently exhaustive statement of my opinions? . . . . I am certainly not dogmatic enough to deny—or to assert either—that there are sensations . . . . far too numerous for comfort . . . . but as for proceeding any further, by induction, deduction, analysis, or synthesis, I utterly decline the office of Arachne, and will spin no more cobwebs out of my own inside—if I have any. Sensations? What are they, but parts of oneself—if one has a self! What put this child's fancy into one's head, that there is anything outside of one which produces them? You have exactly similar feelings in your dreams, and you know that there is no reality corresponding to them—No, you don't! How dare you be dogmatic enough to affirm that? Why should not your dreams be as real as your waking thoughts? Why should not your dreams be the reality, and your waking thoughts the dream? What matter which?
'What matter indeed? Here have I been staring for years—unless that, too, is a dream, which it very probably is—at every mountebank "ism" which ever tumbled and capered on the philosophic tight-rope; and they are every one of them dead dolls, wooden, worked with wires, which are petitiones principii . . . . Each philosopher begs the question in hand, and then marches forward, as brave as a triumph, and prides himself—on proving it all afterwards. No wonder that his theory fits the universe, when he has first clipped the universe to fit his theory. Have I not tried my hand at many a one—starting, too, no one can deny, with the very minimum of clipping, . . . . for I suppose one cannot begin lower than at simple "I am I" . . . . unless—which is equally demonstrable—at "I am not I." I recollect—or dream—that I offered that sweet dream, Hypatia, to deduce all things in heaven and earth, from the Astronomics of Hipparchus to the number of plumes in an archangel's wing, from that one simple proposition, if she would but write me out a demonstration of it first, as some sort of ποῦ στῶ for the apex of my inverted pyramid. But she disdained . . . . People are apt to disdain what they know they cannot do . . . . "It was an axiom," it was, "like one and one making two." . . . . How cross the sweet dream was, at my telling her that I did not consider that any axiom either, and that one thing and one thing seeming to us to be two things, was no more proof that they really were two, and not three hundred and sixty-five, than a man seeming to be an honest man, proved him not to be a rogue; and at my asking her, moreover, when she appealed to universal experience, how she proved that the combined folly of all fools resulted in wisdom!
'"I am I" an axiom, indeed! What right have I to say that I am not any one else? How do I know it? How do I know that there is any one else for me not to be? I, or rather something, feel a number of sensations, longings, thoughts, fancies—the great devil take them all—fresh ones every moment, and each at war tooth and nail with all the rest; and then on the strength of this infinite multiplicity and contradiction, of which alone I am aware, I am to be illogical enough to stand up, and say, "I by myself I," and swear stoutly that I am one thing, when all I am conscious of is the devil only knows how many things. Of all quaint deductions from experience, that is the quaintest! Would it not be more philosophical to conclude that I, who never saw or felt or heard this which I call myself, am what I have seen, heard, and felt—and no more and no less—that sensation which I call that horse, that dead man, that jackass, those forty thousand two-legged jackasses who appear to be running for their lives below there, having got hold of this same notion of their being one thing each—as I choose to fancy in my foolish habit of imputing to them the same disease of thought which I find in myself—crucify the word!—The folly of my ancestors—if I ever had any—prevents my having any better expression . . . . Why should I not be all I feel—that sky, those clouds—the whole universe? Hercules! what a creative genius my sensorium must be!—I'll take to writing' poetry—a mock-epic, in seventy-two books, entitled "The Universe: or, Raphael Aben-Ezra," and take Homer's Margites for my model. Homer's? Mine! Why must not the Margites, like everything else, have been a sensation of my own? Hypatia used to say Homer's poetry was a part of her . . . . only she could not prove it . . . . but I have proved that the Margites is a part of me . . . . not that I believe my own proof—scepticism forbid! Oh, would to heaven that the said whole disagreeable universe were annihilated, if it were only just to settle by fair experiment whether any of master "I" remained when they were gone! Buzzard and dogmatist! And how do you know that that would settle it? And if it did—why need it be settled? . . . .
'I daresay there is an answer pat for all this. I could write a pretty one myself in half an hour. But then I should not believe it . . . . nor the rejoinder to that . . . . nor the demurrer to that again . . . . So . . . . I am both sleepy and hungry . . . . or rather, sleepiness and hunger are me. Which is it! Heigh-ho. . . .' and Raphael finished his meditation by a mighty yawn.
This hopeful oration was delivered in a fitting lecture-room. Between the bare walls of a doleful fire-scarred tower in the Campagna of Rome, standing upon a knoll of dry brown grass, ringed with a few grim pines, blasted and black with smoke; there sat Raphael Aben-Ezra, working out the last formula of the great world problem—'Given Self; to find God.' Through the doorless stone archway he could see a long vista of the plain below, covered with broken trees, trampled crops, smoking villas, and all the ugly scars of recent war, far onward to the quiet purple mountains and the silver sea, towards which struggled, far in the distance, long dark lines of moving specks, flowing together, breaking up, stopping short, recoiling back to surge forward by some fresh channel, while now and then a glitter of keen white sparks ran through the dense black masses . . . . The Count of Africa had thrown for the empire of the world—and lost.
'Brave old Sun!' said Raphael, 'how merrily he flashes off the sword-blades yonder, and never cares that every tiny spark brings a death-shriek after it! Why should he? It is no concern of his. Astrologers are fools. His business is to shine; and on the whole, he is one of my few satisfactory sensations. How now? This is questionably pleasant!'
As he spoke, a column of troops came marching across the field, straight towards his retreat.
'If these new sensations of mine find me here, they will infallibly produce in me a new sensation, which will render all further ones impossible . . . . Well? What kinder thing could they do for me? . . . . Ay—but how do I know that they would do it? What possible proof is there that if a two-legged phantasm pokes a hard iron-gray phantasm in among my sensations, those sensations will be my last? Is the fact of my turning pale, and lying still, and being in a day or two converted into crows' flesh, any reason why I should not feel? And how do I know that would happen? It seems to happen to certain sensations of my eyeball—or something else—who cares? which I call soldiers; but what possible analogy can there be between what seems to happen to those single sensations called soldiers, and what may or may not really happen to all my sensations put together, which I call me? Should I bear apples if a phantasm seemed to come and plant me? Then why should I die if another phantasm seemed to come and poke me in the ribs?
'Still I don't intend to deny it . . . . I am no dogmatist. Positively the phantasms are marching straight for my tower! Well, it may be safer to run away, on the chance. But as for losing feeling,' continued he, rising and cramming a few mouldy crusts into his wallet, 'that, like everything else, is past proof. Why—if now, when I have some sort of excuse for fancying myself one thing in one place, I am driven mad with the number of my sensations, what will it be when I am eaten, and turned to dust, and undeniably many things in many places . . . . Will not the sensations be multiplied by—unbearable! I would swear at the thought, if I had anything to swear by! To be transmuted into the sensoria of forty different nasty carrion crows, besides two or three foxes, and a large black beetle! I'll run away, just like anybody else . . . . if anybody existed. Come, Bran!
* * *
'Bran! where are you; unlucky inseparable sensation of mine? Picking up a dinner already off these dead soldiers? Well, the pity is that this foolish contradictory taste of mine, while it makes me hungry, forbids me to follow your example. Why am I to take lessons from my soldier-phantasms, and not from my canine one? Illogical! Bran! Bran!' and he went out and whistled in vain for the dog.
'Bran! unhappy phantom, who will not vanish by night or day, lying on my chest even in dreams; and who would not even let me vanish, and solve the problem—though I don't believe there is any—why did you drag me out of the sea there at Ostia? Why did you not let me become a whole shoal of crabs? How did you know, or I either, that they may not be very jolly fellows, and not in the least troubled with philosophic doubts? . . . . But perhaps there were no crabs, but only phantasms of crabs . . . . And, on the other hand, if the crab-phantasms give jolly sensations, why should not the crow-phantasms? So whichever way it turns out, no matter; and I may as well wait here, and seem to become crows, as I certainly shall do.—Bran! . . . . Why should I wait for her? What pleasure can it be to me to have the feeling of a four-legged, brindled, lop-eared, toad-mouthed thing always between what seem to be my legs? There she is! Where have you been, madam? Don't you see I am in marching order, with staff and wallet ready shouldered? Come!'
But the dog, looking up in his face as only dogs can look, ran toward the back of the ruin, and up to him again, and back again, until he followed her.
'What's this? Here is a new sensation with a vengeance! O storm and cloud of material appearances, were there not enough of you already, that you must add to your number these also? Bran! Bran! Could you find no other day in the year but this, whereon to present my ears with the squeals of—one—two—three—nine blind puppies?'
Bran answered by rushing into the hole where her new family lay tumbling and squalling, bringing out one in her mouth, and laying it at his feet.
'Needless, I assure you. I am perfectly aware of the state of the case already. What! another? Silly old thing!—do you fancy, as the fine ladies do, that burdening the world with noisy likenesses of your precious self, is a thing of which to be proud? Why, she's bringing out the whole litter! . . . . What was I thinking of last? Ah—the argument was self-contradictory, was it, because I could not argue without using the very terms which I repudiated. Well . . . . And—why should it not be contradictory; Why not? One must face that too, after all. Why should not a thing be true and false also? What harm in a thing's being false? What necessity for it to be true? True? What is truth? Why should a thing be the worse for being illogical? Why should there be any logic at all? Did I ever see a little beast flying about with "Logic" labelled on its back? What do I know of it, but as a sensation of my own mind—if I have any? What proof is that that I am to obey it, and not it me? If a flea bites me I get rid of that sensation; and if logic bothers me, I'll get rid of that too. Phantasms must be taught to vanish courteously. One's only hope of comfort lies in kicking feebly against the tyranny of one's own boring notions and sensations— every philosopher confesses that—and what god is logic, pray, that it is to be the sole exception? . . . . What, old lady? I give you fair warning, you must choose this day, like any nun, between the ties of family and those of duty.'
Bran seized him by the skirt, and pulled him down towards the puppies; took up one of the puppies and lifted it towards him; and then repeated the action with another.
'You unconscionable old brute! You don't actually dare to expect me to carry your puppies for you?' and he turned to go.
Bran sat down on her tail and began howling.
'Farewell, old dog! you have been a pleasant dream after all . . . . But if you will go the way of all phantasms.' . . . . And he walked away.
Bran ran with him, leaping and barking; then recollected her family and ran back; tried to bring them, one by one, in her mouth, and then to bring them all at once; and failing sat down and howled.
'Come, Bran! Come, old girl!'
She raced halfway up to him; then halfway back again to the puppies; then towards him again: and then suddenly gave it up, and dropping her tail, walked slowly back to the blind suppliants, with a deep reproachful growl.
'* * * * *!' said Raphael with a mighty oath; 'you are right after all! Here are nine things come into the world, phantasms or not, there it is; I can't deny it. They are something, and you are something, old dog; or at least like enough to something to do instead of it; and you are not I, and as good as I, and they too, for aught I know, and have as good a right to live as I; and by the seven planets and all the rest of it, I'll carry them!'
And he went back, tied up the puppies in his blanket, and set forth, Bran barking, squeaking, wagging, leaping, running between his legs and upsetting him, in her agonies of joy.
'Forward! Whither you will, old lady! The world is wide. You shall be my guide, tutor, queen of philosophy, for the sake of this mere common sense of yours. Forward, you new Hypatia! I promise you I will attend no lectures but yours this day!'
He toiled on, every now and then stepping across a dead body, or clambering a wall out of the road, to avoid some plunging, shrieking horse, or obscene knot of prowling camp followers, who were already stripping and plundering the slain . . . . At last, in front of a large villa, now a black and smoking skeleton, he leaped a wall, and found himself landed on a heap of corpses . . . . They were piled up against the garden fence for many yards. The struggle had been fierce there some three hours before.
'Put me out of my misery! In mercy kill me!' moaned a voice beneath his feet.
Raphael looked down; the poor wretch was slashed and mutilated beyond all hope.
'Certainly, friend, if you wish it,' and he drew his dagger. The poor fellow stretched out his throat, and awaited the stroke with a ghastly smile. Raphael caught his eye; his heart failed him, and he rose.
'What do you advise, Bran?' But the dog was far ahead, leaping and barking impatiently.
'I obey,' said Raphael; and he followed her, while the wounded man called piteously and upbraidingly after him.
'He will not have long to wait. Those plunderers will not be as squeamish as I . . . . Strange, now! From Armenian reminiscences I should have fancied myself as free from such tender weakness as any of my Canaanite-slaying ancestors . . . . And yet by some mere spirit of contradiction, I couldn't kill that fellow, exactly because he asked me to do it . . . . There is more in that than will fit into the great inverted pyramid of "I am I." . . . Never mind, let me get the dog's lessons by heart first. What next, Bran? Ah! Could one believe the transformation? Why, this is the very trim villa which I passed yesterday morning, with the garden-chairs standing among the flower-beds, just as the young ladies had left them, and the peacocks and silver pheasants running about, wondering why their pretty mistresses did not come to feed them. And here is a trampled mass of wreck and corruption for the girls to find, when they venture back from Rome, and complain how horrible war is for breaking down all their shrubs, and how cruel soldiers must be to kill and cook all their poor dear tame turtle-doves! Why not? Why should they lament over other things—which they can just as little mend—and which perhaps need no more mending? Ah! there lies a gallant fellow underneath that fruit-tree!'
Raphael walked up to a ring of dead, in the midst of which lay, half-sitting against the trunk of the tree, a tall and noble officer in the first bloom of manhood. His casque and armour, gorgeously inlaid with gold, were hewn and battered by a hundred blows; his shield was cloven through and through; his sword broken in the stiffened hand which grasped it still. Cut off from his troop, he had made his last stand beneath the tree, knee-deep in the gay summer flowers, and there he lay, bestrewn, as if by some mockery— or pity—of mother nature, with faded roses, and golden fruit, shaken from off the boughs in that last deadly struggle. Raphael stood and watched him with a sad sneer.
'Well!—you have sold your fancied personality dear! How many dead men? . . . . Nine . . . . Eleven! Conceited fellow! Who told you that your one life was worth the eleven which you have taken?'
Bran went up to the corpse—perhaps from its sitting posture fancying it still living—smelt the cold cheek, and recoiled with a mournful whine.
'Eh? That is the right way to look at the phenomena, is it? Well, after all, I am sorry for you . . . . almost like you . . . . All your wounds in front, as a man's should be. Poor fop! Lais and Thais will never curl those dainty ringlets for you again! What is that bas-relief upon your shield? Venus receiving Psyche into the abode of the gods! . . . . Ah! you have found out all about Psyche's wings by this time . . . . How do I know that? And yet, why am I, in spite of my common sense—if I have any—talking to you as you, and liking you, and pitying you, if you are nothing now, and probably never were anything? Bran! What right had you to pity him without giving your reasons in due form, as Hypatia would have done? Forgive me, sir, however—whether you exist or not, I cannot leave that collar round your neck for these camp-wolves to convert into strong liquor.'
And as he spoke, he bent down, and detached, gently enough, a magnificent necklace.
'Not for myself, I assure you. Like Ate's golden apple, it shall go to the fairest. Here, Bran!' And he wreathed the jewels round the neck of the mastiff, who, evidently exalted in her own eyes by the burden, leaped and barked forward again, taking, apparently as a matter of course, the road back towards Ostia, by which they had come thither from the sea. And as he followed, careless where he went, he continued talking to himself aloud after the manner of restless self-discontented men.
. . . .'And then man talks big about his dignity and his intellect, and his heavenly parentage, and his aspirations after the unseen, and the beautiful, and the infinite—and everything else unlike himself. How can he prove it? Why, these poor blackguards lying about are very fair specimens of humanity.—And how much have they been bothered since they were born with aspirations after anything infinite, except infinite sour wine? To eat, to drink; to destroy a certain number of their species; to reproduce a certain number of the same, two-thirds of whom will die in infancy, a dead waste of pain to their mothers and of expense to their putative sires . . . . and then—what says Solomon? What befalls them befalls beasts. As one dies, so dies the other; so that they have all one breath, and a man has no pre-eminence over a beast; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are of the dust, and turn to dust again. Who knows that the breath of man goes upward, and that the breath of the beast goes downward to the earth? Who, indeed, my most wise ancestor? Not I, certainly. Raphael Aben-Ezra, how art thou better than a beast? What pre-eminence hast thou, not merely over this dog, But over the fleas whom thou so wantonly cursest? Man must painfully win house, clothes, fire . . . . A pretty proof of his wisdom, when every flea has the wit to make my blanket, without any labour of his own, lodge him a great deal better than it lodges me! Man makes clothes, and the fleas live in them . . . . Which is the wiser of the two? . . . .
'Ah, but—man is fallen . . . . Well—and the flea is not. So much better he than the man; for he is what he was intended to be, and so fulfils the very definition of virtue. which no one can say of us of the red-ochre vein. And even if the old myth be true, and the man only fell, because he was set to do higher work than the flea, what does that prove—but that he could not do it?
'But his arts and his sciences? . . . . Apage! The very sound of those grown-children's rattles turns me sick . . . . One conceited ass in a generation increasing labour and sorrow, and dying after all even as the fool dies, and ten million brutes and slaves, just where their fore-fathers were, and where their children will be after them, to the end of the farce . . . . The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and there is no new thing under the sun. . . .
'And as for your palaces, and cities, and temples . . . . look at this Campagna, and judge. Flea-bites go down after a while—and so do they. What are they but the bumps which we human fleas make in the old earth's skin?. Make them? We only cause them, as fleas cause flea-bites . . . . What are all the works of man, but a sort of cutaneous disorder in this unhealthy earth-hide, and we a race of larger fleas, running about among its fur, which we call trees? Why should not the earth be an animal? How do I know it is not? Because it is too big? Bah! What is big, and what is little? Because it has not the shape of one? . . . . Look into a fisherman's net, and see what forms are there! Because it does not speak? . . . . Perhaps it has nothing to say, being too busy. Perhaps it can talk no more sense than we . . . . In both cases it shows its wisdom by holding its tongue. Because it moves in one necessary direction? . . . . How do I know that it does? How can I tell that it is not flirting with all the seven spheres at once, at this moment? But if it does—so much the wiser of it, if that be the best direction for it. Oh, what a base satire on ourselves and our notions of the fair and fitting, to say that a thing cannot be alive and rational, just because it goes steadily on upon its own road, instead of skipping and scrambling fantastically up and down without method or order, like us and the fleas, from the cradle to the grave! Besides, if you grant, with the rest of the world, that fleas are less noble than we, because they are our parasites, then you are bound to grant that we are less noble than the earth, because we are its parasites. . . . . Positively, it looks more probable than anything I have seen for many a day . . . . And, by the bye, why should not earthquakes, and floods, and pestilences, be only just so many ways which the cunning old brute earth has of scratching herself when the human fleas and their palace and city bites get too troublesome?'
At a turn of the road he was aroused from this profitable meditation by a shriek, the shrillness of which told him that it was a woman's. He looked up, and saw close to him, among the smouldering ruins of a farmhouse, two ruffians driving before them a young girl, with her hands tied behind her, while the poor creature was looking back piteously after something among the ruins, and struggling in vain, bound as she was, to escape from her captors and return.
'Conduct unjustifiable in any fleas,—eh, Bran? How do I know that, though? Why should it not be a piece of excellent fortune for her, if she had but the equanimity to see it? Why—what will happen to her? She will betaken to Rome, and sold as a slave . . . . And in spite of a few discomforts in the transfer, and the prejudice which some persons have against standing an hour on the catasta to be handled from head to foot in the minimum of clothing, she will most probably end in being far better housed, fed, bedizened, and pampered to her heart's desire, than ninety-nine out of a hundred of her sister fleas . . . . till she begins to grow old . . . . which she must do in any case. . . .And if she have not contrived to wheedle her master out of her liberty, and to make up a pretty little purse of savings, by that time—why, it is her own fault. Eh, Bran?'
But Bran by no means agreed with his view of the case; for after watching the two ruffians, with her head stuck on one side, for a minute or two, she suddenly and silently, after the manner of mastiffs, sprang upon them, and dragged one to the ground.
'Oh! that is the "fit and beautiful," in this case, as they say in Alexandria, is it? Well—I obey. You are at least a more practical teacher than ever Hypatia was. Heaven grant that there may be no more of them in the ruins!'
And rushing on the second plunderer, he laid him dead with a blow of his dagger, and then turned to the first, whom Bran was holding down by the throat.
'Mercy, mercy!' shrieked the wretch. 'Life! only life!'
'There was a fellow half a mile back begging me to kill him: with which of you two am I to agree?—for you can't both be right.'
'Life! Only life!'
'A carnal appetite, which man must learn to conquer,' said Raphael, as he raised the poniard. . . . . In a moment it was over, and Bran and he rose—Where was the girl? She had rushed back to the ruins, whither Raphael followed her; while Bran ran to the puppies, which he had laid upon a stone, and commenced her maternal cares.
'What do you want, my poor girl?' asked he in Latin. 'I will not hurt you.'
'My father! My father!'
He untied her bruised and swollen wrists; and without stopping to thank him, she ran to a heap of fallen stones and beams, and began digging wildly with all her little strength, breathlessly calling 'Father!'
'Such is the gratitude of flea to flea! What is there, now, in the mere fact of being accustomed to call another person father, and not master, or slave, which should produce such passion as that? . . . . Brute habit! . . . . What services can the said man render, or have rendered, which make him worth—Here is Bran! . . . . What do you think of that, my female philosopher?'
Bran sat down and watched too. The poor girl's tender hands were bleeding from the stones, while her golden tresses rolled down over her eyes, and entangled in her impatient fingers; but still she worked frantically. Bran seemed suddenly to comprehend the case, rushed to the rescue, and began digging too, with all her might.
Raphael rose with a shrug, and joined in the work.
* * *
'Hang these brute instincts! They make one very hot. What was that?'
A feeble moan rose from under the stones. A human limb was uncovered. The girl threw herself on the place, shrieking her father's name. Raphael put her gently back and exerting his whole strength, drew out of the ruins a stalwart elderly man, in the dress of an officer of high rank.
He still breathed. The girl lifted up his head and covered him with wild kisses. Raphael looked round for water; found a spring and a broken sherd, and bathed the wounded man's temples till he opened his eyes and showed signs of returning life.
The girl still sat by him, fondling her recovered treasure, and bathing the grizzled face in holy tears.
'It is no business of mine,' said Raphael. 'Come, Bran!'
The girl sprang up, threw herself at his feet, kissed his hands, called him her saviour, her deliverer, sent by God.
'Not in the least, my child. You must thank my teacher the dog, not me.'
And she took him at his word, and threw her soft arms round Bran's Deck; and Bran understood it, and wagged her tail, and licked the gentle face lovingly.
'Intolerably absurd, all this!' said Raphael. 'I must be going, Bran.'
'You will not leave us? You surely will not leave an old man to die here?'
'Why not? What better thing could happen to him?'
'Nothing,' murmured the officer, who had not spoken before.
'Ah, God! he is my father!'
'He is my father!'
'You must save him! You shall, I say!' And she seized Raphael's arm in the imperiousness of her passion.
He shrugged his shoulders: but felt, he knew not why, marvellously inclined to obey her.
'I may as well do this as anything else, having nothing else to do. Whither now, sir?'
'Whither you will. Our troops are disgraced, our eagles taken. We are your prisoners by right of war. We follow you.'
'Oh, my fortune! A new responsibility! Why cannot I stir, without live animals, from fleas upward, attaching. themselves to me? Is it not enough to have nine blind puppies at my back, and an old brute at my heels, who will persist in saving my life, that I must be burdened over and above with a respectable elderly rebel and his daughter? Why am I not allowed by fate to care for nobody but myself? Sir, I give you both your freedom. The world is wide enough for us all. I really ask no ransom.'
'You seem philosophically disposed, my friend.'
'I? Heaven forbid! I have gone right through that slough, and come out sheer on the other side. For sweeping the last lingering taint of it out of me, I have to thank, not sulphur and exorcisms, but your soldiers and their morning's work. Philosophy is superfluous in a world where all are fools.'
'Do you include yourself under that title?'
'Most certainly, my best sir. Don't fancy that I make any exceptions. If I can in any way prove my folly to you, I will do it.'
'Then help me and my daughter to Ostia.'
'A very fair instance. Well—my dog happens to be going that way; and after all, you seem to have a sufficient share of human imbecility to be a very fit companion for me. I hope, though, you do not set up for a wise man!'
'God knows—no! Am I not of Heraclian's army?'
'True; and the young lady here made herself so great a fool about you, that she actually infected the very dog.'
'So we three fools will forth together.'
'And the greatest one, as usual, must help the rest. But I have nine puppies in my family already. How am I to carry you and them?'
'I will take them,' said the girl; and Bran, after looking on at the transfer with a somewhat dubious face, seemed to satisfy herself that all was right, and put her head contentedly under the girl's hand.
'Eh? You trust her, Bran?' said Raphael, in an undertone. 'I must really emancipate myself from your instructions if you require a similar simplicity in me. Stay! there wanders a mule without a rider; we may as well press into the service.'
He caught the mule, lifted the wounded man into the saddle, and the cavalcade set forth, turning out of the highroad into a by-lane, which the officer, who seemed to know the country thoroughly, assured would lead them to Ostia by an unfrequented route.
'If we arrive there before sundown, we are saved,' said he.
'And in the meantime,' answered Raphael, 'between the dog and this dagger, which, as I take care to inform all comers, is delicately poisoned, we may keep ourselves clear of marauders. And yet, what a meddling fool I am!' he went on to himself. 'What possible interest can I have in this uncircumcised rebel! The least evil is, that if we are taken, which we most probably shall be, I shall be crucified for helping to escape. But even if we get safe off—here is a fresh tie between me and those very brother fleas, to be rid of whom I have chosen beggary and starvation. Who knows where it may end? Pooh! The man is like other men. He is certain, before the day is over, to prove ungrateful, or attempt the mountebank-heroic, or give me some other excuse for bidding good-evening. And in the meantime there is something quaint in the fact of finding so sober a respectability, with a young daughter too, abroad on this fool's errand, which really makes me curious to discover with what variety of flea I am to class him.'
But while Aben-Ezra was talking to himself about the father, he could not help, somehow, thinking about the daughter. Again and again he found himself looking at her. She was, undeniably, most beautiful. Her features were not as regularly perfect as Hypatia's, nor her stature so commanding; but her face shone with a clear and joyful determination, and with a tender and modest thoughtfulness, such as he had never beheld before united in one countenance; and as she stepped along, firmly and lightly, by her father's side, looping up her scattered tresses as she went, laughing at the struggles of her noisy burden, and looking up with rapture at her father's gradually brightening face, Raphael could not help stealing glance after glance, and was surprised to find them returned with a bright, honest, smiling gratitude, which met full-eyed, as free from prudery as it was from coquetry . . . . 'A lady she is,' said he to himself; 'but evidently no city one. There is nature—or something else, there, pure and unadulterated, without any of man's additions or beautifications.' And as he looked, he began to feel it a pleasure such as his weary heart had not known for many a year, simply to watch her. . . .
'Positively there is a foolish enjoyment after all in making other fleas smile . . . . Ass that I am! As if I had not drunk all that ditch-water cup to the dregs years ago!'
They went on for some time in silence, till the officer, turning to him—
'And may I ask you, my quaint preserver, whom I would have thanked before but for this foolish faintness, which is now going off, what and who you are?'
'A flea, sir—a flea—nothing more.'
'But a patrician flea, surely, to judge by your language and manners?'
'Not that exactly. True, I have been rich, as the saying is; I may be rich again, they tell me, when I am fool enough to choose.'
'Oh if we were but rich!' sighed the girl.
'You would be very unhappy, my dear young lady. Believe a flea who has tried the experiment thoroughly.'
'Ah! but we could ransom my brother! and now we can find no money till we get back to Africa.'
'And none then,' said the officer, in a low voice. 'You forget, my poor child, that I mortgaged the whole estate to raise my legion. We must not shrink from looking at things as they are.'
'Ah! and he is prisoner! he will be sold for a slave—perhaps—ah! perhaps crucified, for he is not a Roman! Oh, he will be crucified!' and she burst into an agony of weeping. . . .Suddenly she dashed away her tears and looked up clear and bright once more.
'No! forgive me, father! God will protect His own!'
'My dear young lady,' said Raphael, 'if you really dislike such a prospect for your brother, and are in want of a few dirty coins wherewith to prevent it, perhaps I may be able to find you them in Ostia.'
She looked at incredulously, as her eye glanced over his rags, and then, blushing, begged his pardon for her unspoken thoughts.
'Well, as you choose to suppose. But my dog has been so civil to you already, that perhaps she may have no objection to make you a present of that necklace of hers. I will go to the Rabbis, and we will make all right; so don't cry. I hate crying; and the puppies are quite chorus enough for the present tragedy.'
'The Rabbis? Are you a Jew?' asked the officer.
'Yes, sir, a Jew. And you, I presume, a Christian: perhaps you may have scruples about receiving—your sect has generally none about taking—from one of our stubborn and unbelieving race. Don't be frightened, though, for your conscience; I assure you I am no more a Jew at heart than I am a Christian.'
'God help you then!'
'Some one, or something, has helped me a great deal too much, for three-and-thirty years of pampering. But, pardon me, that was a strange speech for a Christian.'
'You must be a good Jew, sir, before you can be a good Christian.'
'Possibly. I intend to be neither—nor a good Pagan either. My dear sir, let us drop the subject. It is beyond me. If I can be as good a brute animal as my dog there—it being first demonstrated that it is good to be good—I shall be very well content.'
The officer looked down on him with a stately, loving sorrow. Raphael caught his eye, and felt that he was in the presence of no common man.
'I must take care what I say here, I suspect, or I shall be entangled shortly in a regular Socratic dialogue . . . . And now, sir, may I return your question, and ask who and what are you? I really have no intention of giving you up to any Caesar, Antiochus, Tiglath-Pileser, or other flea-devouring flea . . . . They will fatten well enough without your blood. So I only ask as a student of the great nothing-in-general, which men call the universe.'
'I was prefect of a legion this morning. What I am now, you know as well as I.'
'Just what I do not. I am in deep wonder at seeing your hilarity, when, by all flea-analogies, you ought to be either be howling your fate like Achilles on the shores of Styx, or pretending to grin and bear it, as I was taught to do when I played at Stoicism. You are not of that sect certainly, for you confessed yourself a fool just now.'
'And it would be long, would it not, before you made one of them do as much? Well, be it so. A fool I am; yet, if God helps us as far as Ostia, why should I not be cheerful?'
'Why should you?'
'What better thing can happen to a fool, than that God should teach that he is one, when he fancied himself the wisest of the wise? Listen to me, sir. Four mouths ago I was blessed with health, honour, lands, friends—all for which the heart of man could wish. And if, for an insane ambition, I have chosen to risk all those, against the solemn warnings of the truest friend, and the wisest saint who treads this earth of God's—should I not rejoice to have it proved to me, even by such a lesson as this, that the friend who never deceived me before was right in this case too; and that the God who has checked and turned me for forty years of wild toil and warfare, whenever I dared to do what was right in the sight of my own eyes, has not forgotten me yet, or given up the thankless task of my education?'
'And who, pray, is this peerless friend?'
'Augustine of Hippo.'
'Humph! It had been better for the world in general, if the great dialectician had exerted his powers of persuasion on Heraclian himself.'
'He did so, but in vain.'
'I don't doubt it. I know the sleek Count well enough to judge what effect a sermon would have upon that smooth vulpine determination of his . . . . "An instrument in the hands of God, my dear brother . . . . We must obey His call, even to the death," etc. etc.' And Raphael laughed bitterly.
'You know the Count?'
'As well, sir, as I care to know any man.'
'I am sorry for your eyesight, then, sir,' said the Prefect severely, 'if it has been able to discern no more than that in so august a character.'
'My dear sir, I do not doubt his excellence—nay, his inspiration. How well he divined the perfectly fit moment for stabbing his old comrade Stilicho! But really, as two men of the world, we must be aware by this time that every man has his price.'. . . .
'Oh, hush! hush!' whispered the girl. 'You cannot guess how you pain him. He worships the Count. It was not ambition, as he pretends, but merely loyalty to him, which brought here against his will.'
'My dear madam, forgive me. For your sake I am silent.'. . . .
'For her sake! A pretty speech for me! What next?' said he to himself. 'Ah, Bran, Bran, this is all your fault!'
'For my sake! Oh, why not for your own sake? How sad to hear one— one like you, only sneering and speaking evil!'
'Why then? If fools are fools, and one can safely call them so, why not do it?'
'Ah,—if God was merciful enough to send down His own Son to die for them, should we not be merciful enough not to judge their failings harshly!'
'My dear young lady, spare a worn-out philosopher any new anthropologic theories. We really must push on a little faster, if we intend to reach Ostia to-night.'
But, for some reason or other, Raphael sneered no more for a full half-hour.
Long, however, ere they reached Ostia, the night had fallen; and their situation began to be more than questionably safe. Now and then a wolf, slinking across the road towards his ghastly feast, glided like a lank ghost out of the darkness, and into it again, answering Bran's growl by a gleam of his white teeth. Then the voices of some marauding party rang coarse and loud through the still night, and made them hesitate and stop a while. And at last, worst of all, the measured tramp of an imperial column began to roll like distant thunder along the plain below. They were advancing upon Ostia! What if they arrived there before the routed army could rally, and defend themselves long enough to re-embark! . . . . What if—a thousand ugly possibilities began to crowd up.
'Suppose we found the gates of Ostia shut, and the Imperialists bivouacked outside?' said Raphael half to himself.
'God would protect His own,' answered the girl; and Raphael had no heart to rob her of her hope, though he looked upon their chances of escape as growing smaller and smaller every moment. The poor girl was weary; the mule weary also; and as they crawled along, at a pace which made it certain that the fast passing column would be at Ostia an hour before them, to join the vanguard of the pursuers, and aid them in investing the town, she had to lean again and again on Raphael's arm. Her shoes, unfitted for so rough a journey, had been long since torn off, and her tender feet were marking every step with blood. Raphael knew it by her faltering gait; and remarked, too, that neither sigh nor murmur passed her lips. But as for helping her, he could not; and began to curse the fancy which had led to eschew even sandals as unworthy the self-dependence of a Cynic.
And so they crawled along, while Raphael and the Prefect, each guessing the terrible thoughts of the other, were thankful for the darkness which hid their despairing countenances from the young girl; she, on the other hand, chatting cheerfully, almost laughingly, to her silent father.
At last the poor girl stepped on some stone more sharp than usual— and, with a sudden writhe and shriek, sank to the ground. Raphael lifted her up, and she tried to proceed, but sank down again . . . . What was to be done?
'I expected this,' said the Prefect, in a slow stately voice. 'Hear me, sir! Jew, Christian, or philosopher, God seems to have bestowed on you a heart which I can trust. To your care I commit this girl— your property, like me, by right of war. Mount her upon this mule. Hasten with her—where you will—for God will be there also. And may He so deal with you as you deal with her henceforth. An old and disgraced soldier can do no more than die.'
And he made an effort to dismount; but fainting from his wounds, sank upon the neck of the mule. Raphael and his daughter caught in their arms.
'Father! Father! Impossible! Cruel! Oh—do you think that I would have followed you hither from Africa, against your own entreaties, to desert you now?'
'My daughter, I command!'
The girl remained firm and sound.
'How long have you learned to disobey me? Lift the old disgraced man down, sir, and leave to die in the right place—on the battlefield where his general sent him.'
The girl sank down on the road in an agony of weeping. 'I must help myself, I see,' said her father, dropping to the ground. 'Authority vanishes before old age and humiliation. Victoria! has your father no sins to answer for already, that you will send before his God with your blood too upon his head?'
Still the girl sat weeping on the ground; while Raphael, utterly at his wits end, tried hard to persuade himself that it was no concern of his.
'I am at the service of either or of both, for life or death; only be so good as to settle it quickly . . . . Hell! here it is settled for us, with a vengeance!'
And as he spoke, the tramp and jingle of horsemen rang along the lane, approaching rapidly.
In an instant Victoria had sprung to her feet—weakness and pain had vanished.
'There is one chance—one chance for him! Lift over the bank, sir! Lift over, while I run forward and meet them. My death will delay them long enough for you to save him!'
'Death?' cried Raphael, seizing her by the arm. 'If that were all— '
'God will protect His own,' answered she calmly, laying her finger on her lips; and then breaking from his grasp in the strength of her heroism, vanished into the night.
Her father tried to follow her, but fell on his face, groaning. Raphael lifted him, strove to drag up the steep bank: but his knees knocked together; a faint sweat seemed to melt every limb . . . . There was a pause, which secured ages long . . . . Nearer and nearer came the trampling . . . . A sudden gleam of the moon revealed Victoria standing with outspread arms, right before the horses' heads. A heavenly glory seemed to bathe her from head to foot . . . . or was it tears sparkling in his own eyes? . . . . Then the grate and jar of the horse-hoofs on the road, as they pulled up suddenly . . . . He turned his face away and shut his eyes. . . .
'What are you?' thundered a voice.
'Victoria, the daughter of Majoricus the Prefect.'
The voice was low, but yet so clear and calm, that every syllable rang through Aben-Ezra's tingling ears. . . .
A shout—a shriek—the confused murmur of many voices . . . . He looked up, in spite of himself—a horseman had sprung to the ground, and clasped Victoria in his arms. The human heart of flesh, asleep for many a year, leaped into mad life within his breast, and drawing his dagger, he rushed into the throng—
'Villains! Hellhounds! I will balk you! She shall die first!'
And the bright blade gleamed over Victoria's head . . . . He was struck down—blinded—half-stunned—but rose again with the energy of madness . . . . What was this? Soft arms around him . . . . Victoria's!
'Save him! spare him! He saved us! Sir! It is my brother! We are safe! Oh, spare the dog! It saved my father!'
'We have mistaken each other, indeed, sir!' said a gay young Tribune, in a voice trembling with joy. 'Where is my father?'
'Fifty yards behind. Down, Bran! Quiet! O Solomon, mine ancestor, why did you not prevent me making such an egregious fool of myself? Why, I shall be forced, in self-justification, to carry through the farce!'
There is no use telling what followed during the next five minutes, at the end of which time Raphael found himself astride of a goodly war-horse, by the side of the young Tribune, who carried Victoria before him. Two soldiers in the meantime were supporting the Prefect on his mule, and convincing that stubborn bearer of burdens that it was not quite so unable to trot as it had fancied, by the combined arguments of a drench of wine and two sword-points, while they heaped their general with blessings, and kissed his hands and feet.
'Your father's soldiers seem to consider themselves in debt to him: not, surely, for taking them where they could best run away?'
'Ah, poor fellows!' said the Tribune; 'we have had as real a panic among us as I ever read of in Arrian or Polybius. But he has been a father rather than a general to them. It is not often that, out of a routed army, twenty gallant men will volunteer to ride back into the enemy's ranks, on the chance of an old man's breathing still.'
'Then you knew where to find us?' said Victoria.
'Some of them knew. And he himself showed us this very by-road yesterday, when we took up our ground, and told us it might be of service on occasion—and so it has been.'
'But they told me that you were taken prisoner. Oh, the torture I have suffered for you!'
'Silly child! Did you fancy my father's son would be taken alive? I and the first troop got away over the garden walls, and cut our way out into the plain, three hours ago.'
'Did I not tell you,' said Victoria, leaning toward Raphael, 'that God would protect His own?'
'You did,' answered he; and fell into a long and silent meditation.