Recollections of My Youth/Good Master Systeme/Part II

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Good Master Systeme/Part II[edit]

Among those whom I have to thank for being more a son of the Revolution than of the Crusaders was a singular character who was long a puzzle to us. He was an elderly man, whose mode of life, ideas, and habits were in striking contrast with those of the country at large. I used to see him every day, with his threadbare cloak, going to buy a pennyworth of milk which the girl who sold it poured into the tin he brought with him. He was poor without being literally in want. He never spoke to any one, but he had a very gentle look about the eyes, and those who had happened to be brought into contact with him spoke in very eulogistic terms of his amiability and good sense. I never knew his name, and I do not believe that any one else did. He did not belong to our part of the country, and he had no relations. He was allowed to go his own way, and his singular mode of life excited no other feeling than one of surprise; but it had not always been so. He had passed through many vicissitudes. At one time he had been in communication with the people of the place and had imparted some of his ideas to them; but no one understood what he meant. The word system which he used several times tickled their fancy, and this nickname was at once applied to him. If he had gone on imparting his ideas he would have got himself into trouble, and the children would have pelted him. Like a wise man he kept his tongue between his teeth, and no one attempted to molest him. He came out every day to make his modest purchases, and of an evening he would take a walk in some unfrequented spot. He was of a serious but not melancholy cast of countenance, and with more of an amiable than morose expression. Later in life when I read Colerus's Life of Spinoza, I at once saw that as a child I had had before my eyes the very image of the holy man of Amsterdam. He was left to follow his own courses, and was even treated with respect. His resigned and affable airs seemed like a glimpse from another world. People did not understand him, but they felt that he possessed higher qualities to which they paid implicit homage.

He never went to church, and avoided any occasion of having to make external display of religious belief. The clergy were very unfavourable to him and though they did not denounce him from the pulpit, as he had never given any cause for scandal, his name was always mentioned with repugnance. A peculiar incident occurred to fan this animosity into a flame, and to involve the aged recluse in an atmosphere of ghostly terror. He possessed a very large library, consisting of works belonging to the eighteenth century. All those philosophical treatises which have exercised a wider influence than Luther and Calvin were to be found in it, and the old bookworm knew them by heart, and eked out a living by lending them to some of his neighbours. The clergy looked upon this as the abomination of desolation, and strictly forbade their flocks to borrow these books. System's lodging was looked upon as a receptacle for every kind of impiety.

I, as a matter of course, looked upon him and his books in the same light, and it was only when my ideas upon philosophy were well consolidated that I came to understand that I had been fortunate enough during my youth to contemplate a truly wise man. I had no difficulty in reconstructing his ideas by piecing together a few words which at the time had appeared to me unintelligible, but which I had remembered. God, in his eyes, was the order of nature, from which all things proceed, and he would not brook contradiction upon this point. He loved humanity as representing reason, and he hated superstition as the negation of reason. Although he had not the poetic afflatus which the nineteenth century has given to these great truths, System, I feel sure, had very high and far-reaching views. He was quite in the right. So far from failing to appreciate the greatness of God, he looked with contempt upon those who believed that they could move Him. Lost in profound tranquillity and unaffected humility, he saw that human error was more to be pitied than hated. It was evident that he despised his age. The revival of superstition, which, he thought, had been buried by Voltaire and Rousseau, seemed to him a sign of utter imbecility in the rising generation.

He was found dead one morning in his humble room, with his books and papers littered all about him. This was soon after the Revolution of 1830, and the mayor had him decently interred at night. The clergy purchased the whole of his library at a nominal price and made away with it. No papers were found which served to elucidate the mystery which had always surrounded him, but in the corner of one drawer was found a packet containing some faded flowers tied up with a tricoloured ribbon. At first this was supposed to be some love-token, and several people built upon this foundation a romantic biography of the deceased recluse, but the tricolour ribbon tended to discredit this version. My mother never believed that it was the correct one. Although she had an instinctive feeling of respect for System, she always said to me: "I am sure that he was one of the Terrorists. I sometimes fancy that I remember seeing him in 1793. Besides, he has all the ways and ideas of M----, who terrorised Lannion and kept the guillotine in constant play there during the time that Robespierre had the upper hand." Fifteen or twenty years ago, I read the following paragraph in a newspaper:

"There died yesterday, almost suddenly, in an unfrequented street of the Faubourg St. Jacques, an old man whose way of living was a constant source of gossip in the neighbourhood. He was respected in the parish as a model of charity and kindness, but he was careful to avoid any allusion to his past. A few works, such as Volney's Catechism, and odd volumes of Rousseau, were scattered about the table. All his property consisted of a trunk, which, when opened by the Commissary of Police, was found to contain only a few clothes and a faded bouquet carefully wrapped up in a piece of paper on which was written: 'Bouquet which I wore at the festival of the Supreme Being, 20 Prairial, year II.'"

This explained the whole thing to me. I remembered how the few disciples of the Jacobite School whom I had known were ardently attached to the recollections of 1793-94 and incapable of dwelling upon anything else. The twelvemonths' dream was so vivid that those who had experienced it could not come back to real life. They were ever haunted by the same sinister fancy; they had a delirium tremens of blood. They were uncompromising in their belief, and the world at large, which no longer pitched its note to their cry, seemed idle and empty in their eyes. Left standing alone like the survivors of a world of giants, loaded with the opprobrium of the human race, they could hold no sort of communion with the living. I could quite understand the effect which Lakanal must have produced when he returned from America in 1833 and appeared among his colleagues of the Academic des Sciences Morales et Politiques like a phantom. I could understand Daunou looking upon M. Cousin and M. Guizot as dangerous Jesuits. By a not uncommon contrast these survivors of the fierce struggles and combats of the Revolution had become as gentle as lambs. Man, to be kind, need not necessarily have a logical basis for his kindness. The most cruel of the Inquisitors of the middle ages, Conrad of Marburg for instance, were the kindest of men. This we see in Torquemada, where the genius of Victor Hugo shows us how a man may send his fellows to the stake out of charity and sentimentalism.