Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII.

PROSELYTES.

"DE LAGCHLUST" was the inscription over the entrance to the Van den Ende's country house outside the Utrecht Gate, with its freshly-painted doors and window shutters; it was neat and modest, and gave evidence, in the laying out of the garden, the well-covered espaliers, rich flower-beds and shady groves, of the Dutch character, which, failing in the beauties of mountainous country, found means by higher culture to give their plains a quiet beauty of their own.

We meet our familiar companions here in the open air at last, Olympic gods hidden in the bushes, and above them all on a soft green lawn the bust of Democritus attracted all eyes.

To-day the garden and house did not seem to answer to their name. No desire to laugh was apparent. A peculiar feeling of depression seemed to possess them all.

Kerkering and Van den Ende walked away to a distant path in animated conversation; the two friends joined Olympia and Cecilia. Olympia bade Spinoza lay his cares aside; his father's illness was certainly not serious. He should give himself up to the serene enjoyment of nature for the present.

"Your King Solomon," she continued, "must have been very fortunate to understand the speech of all birds and beasts; he must have been so much at home with nature."

"Perhaps he was too much at home therein, and that is why he said all is vanity," interposed Oldenburg.

"I do not miss Solomon's skill in my enjoyment of nature," said Spinoza. "Nature would annoy me if she were eternally chattering to me of all her doings, and never left me to myself."

He had no second thought in saying these words, but Oldenburg and Cecilia looked at each other in embarrassment as they listened to them, for Olympia often had somewhat of the lecturing tone common to most teachers, who, from the habit of seeing pupils stand before them in mute attention, carry their explanations and expositions into conversation also.

Olympia, however, had not the faintest idea of such an application of this speech. She applied it rather to their parting words of the previous day.

"I cannot bear to enjoy nature alone," she said. "When I felt myself carried away into other worlds by the enjoyment of pure sight, I involuntarily grasped at my side to press some friendly hand in mute sympathy."

No one answered; each one looked at the ground. Oldenburg had for some time perceived the relations arising between Olympia and Spinoza by their occasional glances and turns of speech. He was diplomatist enough to believe he could employ these intercepted secret messages towards founding a friendly compromise without an open explanation.

"What do you say," he said, "to Queen Christina of Sweden having presented her crown and sceptre to her cousin, not, as we at first supposed, to garland herself merely with the poet's laurel, but to deck her brows with the myrtle wreath?"

"What!" exclaimed Olympia; "is Queen Christina going to be married?"

"Commercial advices arrived yesterday from Rome, in which it is decidedly affirmed that the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus will return to the bosom of the one true Church, in order to be able to marry her High-Chamberlain Monaldeschi."

"Indeed Queen Christina has cast off all earthly considerations freely and unrestrainedly to partake of the blessings of our faith," said Cecilia in a gentle voice, and no one contradicted her.

"If the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus has done this," said Olympia after a pause, "that she might belong wholly to the man of her choice, the deed is above all reproach; love is a bond which ought to loosen all earlier ones. How simply and truly it is expressed in the Bible where it says, 'For her sake leave father and mother.' The question here is only whether the obedience of the so-called weaker sex goes so far as to make the sacrifice hers in this case. Christina of Sweden has certainly done enough by her abdication; is it not rather the man's duty to take this unpleasant step instead of hers? If he would not do it he would be unworthy of, and lost to, her love, and her step would be censurable."

"But if such a step were in opposition to his own convictions?"

Olympia did not answer and looked at the ground.

Spinoza hesitated whether to join in the conversation or not, for he had partly penetrated Oldenburg's intention. As Olympia, however, here looked at him with an entreating and inquiring glance, he replied:

"If Monaldeschi were the cause of her abdication, and knew it, he had taken upon himself responsibilities towards the Queen, and nothing ought longer to prevent him from agreeing to her wishes in everything; but if insuperable objections existed for him, he ought, as a man of honor, to have rejected the connection from the beginning, as one whose obligations he neither could nor would fulfil. I might make a more general application of this event. The reformed ministers of this country accept the doctrine of Descartes as the best deduction from Calvin's. Queen Christina, the most zealous follower of this philosopher, who taught her himself, can find proofs in it on which to ground her conversion to the Catholic Church."

"The Catholic religion is the mother Church, and it is a natural impulse to return to it."

"Speak out," said Oldenburg to Spinoza. "I see by the corners of your mouth you wish to answer, If the Catholic Church is the mother, the Jewish is the grandmother Church, and could just as well demand that we should don her vestments. But we will take another example. Turenne is so pre-eminently a field marshal by nature, he will only bear the star of his own faith on his breast, standing in the front, and not in the ranks among the members of the Catholic Church like a common soldier. Is he not right to do so?"

Spinoza noticed the digression as Van den Ende, who had come into the circle with Kerkering, interposed:

"Turenne is a soldier, and soldiers, who hourly risk their lives, do not willingly lay aside their familiar armor; they think this or that superstition has made them shot free; but if once peace were made I do not think it would be difficult to make Turenne turn Catholic."

"Were he capable of loving a girl tenderly and ardently," added Kerkering, "he would soon join the one saving faith of her possession. It would be cowardice then, when the greatest was at stake, not to be able to conquer a prejudice acquired in the nursery. He who truly loves can only believe in his beloved one; her heart is his church, her words his only revelation, she alone is worthy of his reverence, and nothing is above her. That is the true regeneration that we desire in a maiden's love, which makes us inseparably one with her. Who can think then of the limitations which men place around one another?"

His companions stared in astonishment at Kerkering's words; only old Van dan Ende nodded approvingly, and Olympia said after an awkward pause:

"While we are talking over principles, a poet's mistress, sick unto death, is perhaps dying for such principles."

"Who is that?" inquired Oldenburg.

"The betrothed of your former friend, the poetess Maria Tesselschade, will hardly greet to-morrow's dawn. Did you know Caspar Barläus, Herr von Spinoza?"

"No, Jufrow Olympia, but my old master, Nigritius, who was once insulted by him, has often abused him to me."

"Seven years since," continued Olympia, "I remember it quite well, it was not long after New Year's Day of 1648, they found him in the well near the weighing-house quite dead. He had been with his betrothed the evening before. The well was on the way to his own house."

"Had he thrown himself in?"

Olympia nodded assent; she forbore to assent in words.

"He certainly killed himself," Oldenburg remarked; "but it is incomprehensible to me how he could hold fast to Tesselschade for so many long years, and at last, when they were both grown old, take such a desperate step because he could not marry her."

"Why could he not?"

"She was Catholic and he was Protestant; indeed, he had formerly suffered much persecution as a Remonstrant. His whole thoughts were borrowed from the ancient Greek and Roman world, and yet he could not make up his mind for love of Tesselschade to change his form of faith."

"It is ridiculous," added Van den Ende, taking up his daughter's words; "he sang all the stories of the Old and New Testaments, with all the Greek and Roman mythology, and Arcadian pastorals; he could not say a word without parading the whole Olympus; he translated even his own love into the language of Horace."

"It seems to me, dear father," said Olympia, "that Barläus was obliged to translate all his thoughts into Latin in order to understand them perfectly. Herr von Spinoza, you must read his poems; a soul overflowing with human love is expressed in them. He had a Rubric of his own, Tessalica, in which he sang to his mistress as she sat her horse, and as she sang to her harp, to her ruff and her string of pearls; everything of hers inspired him to poetise. In one ode he sang,

Tessela quae coelo potes deducere lunam,
Et tetricos cantu demeruisse Deos—[1]

Do you understand the pun by which he changed the name Tesselschade into Tessela?"

"No."

"In the second Idyl of Theocritus Tessela is an infallible love-charm, the name was given to the plant from which the philter was prepared, but we do not know the plant itself."

"You will always and forever be my instructress," said Spinoza.

"Will you not, when you have found out how, instruct us in magic?" inquired Kerkering.

"You are already an enchanted prince," replied Olympia. " Herr von Spinoza, do you believe in magic?"

"In yours," he replied hastily. Oldenburg shook his head disapprovingly.

"You have forgotten one main point in the love Story of Barläus," he said. "Do you recollect that, in the epistle dedicatory prefixed to his poems, he maintains that the three L's are incompatible with matrimony, Libri, Liberi and Libertas, as they do not co-operate well? Poor fellow, he wrote epithalamiums for all the world, and could not have a wedding of his own."

"He wrote a lovely Carmen on the wedding of my Uncle Overbeck, in Hamburg," Kerkering threw in. Oldenburg continued:

"If a truly sublime and thoroughly poetic soul had dwelt in Barläus, and the professor not peeped out from every hole and corner in him, the denied possession of his Tesselschade and his own pure love for her alone might have made him become as a fragrant garden of heavenly poetic bloom. If Dante had embraced his Beatrice, if Laura had cooked bread-soup for Petrarch, never would the one have raised himself to be the Homer of the Christian cosmography by his immortal canzones, and the eternal harmony of Petrarch's sonnets would have been drowned in the cries of fretful children. Poetry is not the vulture of fable that perpetually consumes life; it is the flame from which the phoenix springs rejuvenescent, and with uninjured flight soars heavenward. For individual men, as well as for struggling humanity, the highest possession would be disgust and death, or happy delirium."

"What! can this be Herr Oldenburg?" asked Olympia in astonishment.

"That is a very original idea. Then monks and nuns, in their self-renunciation, are the chosen army of poets."

"You want to put me in the wrong by a clever sophistry," answered Oldenburg, "but I am not so stupid. I only affirm that a man of truly great mind must not cling with his whole vitality to any one arbitrarily idealized person; if he does so he has fallen from God to man, and he dies the death of a man, for he is coffined between the hard boards of every-day regrets and necessities. Ay, even could he be free, and find his self-created ideal realized, he would be obliged to fly from it."

"I am also of your opinion," said old Van den Ende; "the gods could not have more effectually punished Pygmalion than when they granted his prayer. Such a marriage must be barren."

"There are no ideals on earth and can be none," said Oldenburg in an animated tone; "foolish is he who seeks such, and still more foolish is he who believes he has found them. They may live in us, and hover above us in glorified memories. How infinitely great is Dante when he sings his pure, refined love!"

"There was a time when you thought otherwise," said Olympia.

"I think so still. I myself have no claim to the highest crown of humanity; as I am live thousands of the great multitude; I must surrender myself prisoner. But if I see a friend, gifted with an exalted and commanding mind, letting himself be imprisoned within the four walls of commonplace, bowing his great mind to serve a self-created idol, I would spurn him from me; for he thus becomes a traitor to the greatness and majesty of his calling; but if he can keep that ideal, which has never perfectly appeared to his consciousness, pure and high, I esteem him happy."

"A sad martyrdom it is to which you condemn the higher minds," said Olympia.

The shades of night were falling; they separated.

Spinoza accompanied Olympia home. She hung on his arm. He did not know how he had gained courage and good fortune for such close communion. Old Van den Ende took care of Cecilia. Olympia and Spinoza followed in silence. When they came to the roadside house Olympia said:

"Look, there is the well in which the weak, good-natured Barläus drank his death. Would it not have been more reasonable and manly to give up his faith than his life?"

"We have not given ourselves either faith or life," answered Spinoza. "Suicide of either one or the other is cowardly and weak; strength lies in bearing one and the other; deny yourself for them, or learn to free them." Olympia was silent.

"This diplomatic obtrusive mediation enrages me," she said after a pause, "that Oldenburg thought to effect so artfully to-day. A third, who disturbs a tender relation with a word, originates estrangements and misunderstandings which but for him would never have arisen, or would much sooner have been extinguished."

"I am glad you think so," said Spinoza, and bit his lips in violent mental conflict. "Dear Olympia," he continued, "I have struggled with all my might, but I am not so strong as you think. I fall if you do not grant me your hand, or rather if you do not withdraw it from me. I cannot say the word that my heart would speak to you, but I conjure you, send me from you; never, never must we belong to one another."

Olympia pressed his arm closer to her, her voice trembled, both hands were clasped.

"What!" she asked. "Why not? Have we nailed Christ to the cross? What does it matter to us what a fanatical crowd did thousands of years ago? Have you risen to such a height of intellect to be frightened by a form to which men have bound themselves? Have you not told me a hundred times you loved and reverenced the spirit of Christ as that of the Saviour of the world? Would to God our relative positions were reversed! Joyfully would I follow you to the altar. Where love is perjury cannot be. Or shall I hasten to the synagogue, and be baptized by the Rabbis?"

"Dear Olympia, if you but knew the force of the pain which now rends my heart you would not speak to me so. It would be perjury, naught else, if I swore to accept knowingly any other faith. Thanks to progressive development I can declare myself free from the form of faith into which I was born, and can build up for myself a view of higher things as nature gives the hand to my powers of mind. I can and will be withheld by no personal consideration from speaking out, and living according to my convictions of faith and opinion; a religious community in which I have been placed by chance of birth cannot hinder me therefrom. But it is otherwise wilfully to enter such. The new community could justly ask me, What draws you to us if it is not Truth? You have no longer a claim to influence in the old, or in the newly accepted sanctuary. I know the sophisms well enough that are suggested to us: you merely follow the form, your intellect is still free. But it is and ever will be perjury, and durst I, a perjurer, ever take the word truth on my lips without blushing? My unhappy countryman Uriel Acosta, of whom I have told you before, thus ended his life by a dreadful suicide, because he had already committed the suicide of his intellect by recantation. He must have appeared to himself despicable, and unworthy of life in face of that truth. Yes and no were worth nothing to him; they had become meaningless." Olympia was silent; she pressed one hand to her eyes, and allowed herself to be blindly led by Spinoza. He continued in an agitated voice:

"I return your question: Have we thus climbed these heights of intelligence to allow ourselves to be conquered by an inclination which must be the source of infinite trouble to us? I fought long, but I must at last speak to you frankly and honorably; from this hour henceforward let us forget and lay aside all that we were to each other and that we wished to be. It is yet time. Separation and a strong will may enable us again to find peace. We have loved, that is enough. Seek with another the happiness I dare not offer, cannot offer."

His tongue refused to go on; he was obliged to stop. Olympia's hand trembled in his.

"I am not ashamed to confess I have thought it over," said she. "You can become a Christian without any denial of your convictions; I have even consulted the passage for you. Do you know that the root of your new views lies in the words of John? 'Hereby we know that we dwell in Him and He in us, because He hath given us of His spirit.' Indeed, without any inconsistency you must be a Christian."

"Why do you not quote the preceding verse," answered Spinoza, "which has so close an application to our case? 'If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.' But reflect; if some results of my process of thought agree with the Christian views of the world, must I therefore swear to the Church creed? Perhaps that would be the result contemplated by Justus Lipsius, who, as you know, wrote a book called De Constantia (on constancy), and changed his faith every two years."

"I thought you were more independent, but I see Oldenburg has perverted you too," said Olympia in a cutting tone. "You strive after the glory of Dante, but I am no Beatrice, and will not be. Oh, it is too bad! You will throw yourself into active life; a youthful affection is easily forgotten then. Perhaps you will jest over it, while I—what does it matter if I fade away in grief?"

"Dear Olympia," interposed Spinoza, "your own heart must blame you for such words. Reflect a moment; what could I offer you? Nothing but a poverty-stricken life of self-denial. If I could forswear the faith of my fathers, if I could live wholly for you alone—be wholly yours ..."

"Schalom Alechem, Rabbi Baruch, you need not be in haste. Maariph[2] is ended," a harsh voice interrupted their conversation. Spinoza turned round; it was Chisdai, who, without awaiting a response, went on shaking his head.

"Did that man hear what I said?" asked Spinoza.

"I think not," answered Olympia; "but it is horrible that such Medusa faces can speak familiarly to you. That decides it; a higher duty has its claims. I will not desert you. I hate renunciation; it is nothing but hypocritical cowardice; it would be unworthy of yourself and of me."

They had arrived at the Van den Ende's house. Spinoza would have taken his leave.

"You must come in with us," said Olympia.

"You can hardly imagine how dreary it seems to me when I have gone through great agitation of mind out of doors to go in alone where the familiar walls seem altered and strange. Everything is a burden to me. I think I shall die of restlessness and inexpressible longing. Generally I then play the organ until I find rest in perfect stupefaction. Come in with me, I entreat you."

  1. Tessela, thou canst draw down the moon from Heaven with thy songs, and bind the gods of darkness with gratitude.
  2. Evening prayer in the synagogue.