Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 18

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CECILIA was praying in the next room before her crucifix. Spinoza sat silently near Olympia; her hand rested close to his, but he did not attempt to clasp it. Dreamily and reflectively the two lovers looked long at each other in silence.

"When I am so exalted to the very highest point of rapturous spiritual enjoyment," said Olympia, "I feel nothing but longing for death. Now, borne so far above all small annoyances, now I would that I might die. So near and akin to the Highest, I should be absorbed into his being."

"Formerly, when I was still capable of such religious raptures, I was often possessed by such a desire for death," replied Spinoza. "We might, perhaps, find the explanation of this sensation in the Talmudist legend that Moses died of a kiss, in that God the Lord recalled his soul to himself in a kiss."

Olympia was taken by surprise at this strange turn. Was this mind always absorbed in its investigations, or did he wish by such parables to veil the ardent wish of his heart, and yet to explain it? Formerly their exchange of thoughts had been easy; now they sat mutely together and did not know what to say to one another. At Spinoza's desire Olympia sang the ballad he had surprised her while singing the first time he saw her. She sang the refrain

"You are my own true wife,
No other shall be my own for life"

with such melting tenderness, and drew out the notes of the organ by which she accompanied herself into such long-drawn sighs that Spinoza painfully missed the repose which the song had once given to his agitated heart. It was with difficulty that he refrained from clasping her to him and sealing the melodious spring of song with a kiss. He could trust himself no longer, so he took his hat and went away. Olympia took the lamp and lighted him down the steps, but without a word. Below Spinoza held out his hand; she laid her curly head on his breast; he embraced her; her heart beat violently under his hand.

"Dear Olympia," he said, "I conjure you by all that is holy, love me not; I am not worthy of it."

"I must love you," she said. "Command my heart to cease beating. I cannot leave you!" Her voice trembled; he pressed her closer to his breast, and held her fast with an ardent kiss. He then tore himself from her embrace and rushed out. Olympia sprang warbling up the steps and cried in a sprightly voice, "Good night, Herr von Spinoza!"

He stood before the house; the door shut behind him. With heavy sighs passed care-laden married couples who endeavored to enjoy the holiday evening in the fresh air; lovers passed with quicker steps and livelier conversation; sailors sauntered on and merrily sang and chorused the old Dutch ballad:

"To eastern lands will I journey,
There dwells my sweetest love;
Over hill, and over valley,
Far over the moorland,
There dwells my sweetest love.

"The sun from sight has sunk under;
The stars now blink out so clear;
I know that I with my loved one,
Far over the moorland,
Was in that orchard so near.

"The garden door is fastened.
And no one can come in,
But the nightingales only,
Far over the moorland,
Who fly from far to come in.

"We must the nightingales fasten
Their heads to their feet close to,
That they may tell naught to others,
Far over the moorland,
Of what two sweet lovers there do.

"And though you had thus bound me.
My heart is not the less sound;
So thus I can yet prattle,
Far over the moorland,
Of two sweetest lovers' death-wound."

It was a varied throng. Spinoza hardly noticed it.

"Women's ways are indeed unfathomable!" he said to himself. "Did she not feel the infinite depth of that moment? Or did she act with such apparent indifference to all that had passed to hide it quickly from Cecilia? But how could she possibly do it?"

He could not go home in such agitation of mind; he crossed the street, and sat down on the steps of the chapel of St. Olave's. He looked across at Olympia's lighted windows, and often saw her shadow pass backwards and forwards until the light was extinguished. He was almost ashamed of himself, gazing at the windows of his beloved like a sentimental knight, and laughed internally as Tessala occurred to him.

"I cannot leave you, say you. I will not, I dare not leave you, I tell you; have I not pressed your coy, pure lips to mine? You are mine, mine forever. Was not my mother a Moslem, and changed to our faith? Should I have remained a Moslem if by chance I had been born such? But thy father and mother loved each other wholly and uncontrollably at first sight, and as to thee, dost thou think Olympia faultless? Hast thou not, flattered by her wild charms, persuaded thyself into a connection that at first appeared to thee so objectionable? A love that must overcome doubt is greater and more enduring than that other that seems as if fallen from Heaven; it is intellectual love. Thou wouldst picture to thyself a life of self-denial. Away with it! She loves thee, and at her side thou wilt find renown and happiness, honor and joy. What will give me back the pleasures that I would cast from me for the sake of truth? Truth! But must I be her slave? I alone, of so many thousands, condemn myself to give up my inborn right to the gay pleasures of life? I will deck truth with the figleaf of orthodoxy, will choose words with double meanings to save superstition; should I not thus serve truth still more? Thou wouldst serve her by lies. No, I would never speak against my convictions, but only shut them close in my breast. And the Catholic confession of faith? Olympia loves me; must I not save her? Some day in happier times it may be otherwise, but now I must obey the times. And thy father and Geronimo—they were believing Jews, but thou?"

Such thoughts disturbed Spinoza's mind, to which the ever-returning chime at the quarter hours in the quiet night made a singular accompaniment. To him life was not measured by the notes from the church tower.

Is no other way to be found? ....

He must have sat there a long time, for towards midnight Maessen Blutzaufer and Flyns, arm in arm like two powers holding each other in equipoise, reeling homewards, jested over the poor sinner, who, instead of seeking his mistress, cowered there in the cold night on the hard stones. Spinoza noticed nothing of what went on around him. At last he stood up, and when he looked at the place in which he had remained so long he was forced to laugh against his will; it was the church built on the model of the Temple of Jerusalem.

"Sleep sweetly," he said to himself, as he looked at Olympia's window. "I have watched over thee; thou shalt rest ever at my side."

The bells rang loudly, the organ resounded through the whole building, an innumerable throng filled the Catholic cathedral. Spinoza stood before the altar between Dr. Van den Ende and his daughter. Olympia was in bridal attire. Above, in the gallery, stood Spinoza's father, his garments rent, his countenance pale and stony. High mass began. Cecilia and Olympia knelt down. Van den Ende and Spinoza followed their example. Chisdai and the skeleton of the fat Domine were dressed as acolytes. Chisdai swung the censer, and whenever he made the sign of the cross on his brow, his fingers caught on the bridge of his nose; and when the skeleton did likewise, his fleshless fingers stuck in the hole in which his nose once had been; and when they rang the bell, his bare ribs clattered like dry poppy-heads shaken by the wind. High mass was ended. Spinoza advanced alone, and knelt before the priest on the steps of the altar. He cursed the mother who bore him, and the father who had begotten him, because they had not taken him from his birth to the bosom of the one saving faith. A cry of grief was heard from the gallery, and a corpse was carried out. Spinoza repeated the creed in a low voice, inaudible to all but the priest. The priest laid both hands on the head of the candidate, blessed him gently, and sprinkled his brow three times with holy water. The organ broke out in joyous tones.

"Baruch, Baruch!" it now cried, "get up!" It was only a dream. Spinoza lay in his bed, and old Chaje stood before him with a light. He passed his hand over his brow; it was wet with cold perspiration.

"What is the matter?" he asked.

"Your father is dying; it would break the heart of a stone! The men from the neighborhood are already below."

Baruch sprang hastily out of bed, dressed as much as was absolutely necessary, and ran down stairs; his father must already be very bad, for he heard the men chant in loud chorus, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God."

As he entered the room his father was repeating the conclusion of the prayer:

"Master of the world! Lord of pardon and mercy, it is by thy grace, my God and my fathers' God, that my thoughts mount to the throne of thy glory, to thy goodness! Look on my trouble, for because of thine anger there is no soundness in my flesh, neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. Now, O God of pardon, grant me thy grace, and go not into judgment with thy servant. If this be indeed my hour of death, may the knowledge of thy Unity not leave my lips, as it is written in thy scriptures, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God!' I confess before thee, Eternal One, my God and the God of my fathers, God of all spirit and flesh, that my recovery and my death are in thy power. It would be by thy mercy if thou shouldst allow me perfect recovery, and my thoughts and my prayers should mount unto thee like the prayer of Hezekiah in his sickness. But if the hour of my death be indeed come, may my death be the atonement for all the sins of omission and commission which I have sinned and committed in thy sight from the day of my birth. Give me my share in the Garden of Eden, and console me in the future world reserved for the pious. Show me the way of Life, make me full of joy before thy face, for at thy right hand are eternity and glory. Praised be thou, Eternal, Hearer of prayers. Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Thou wilt save me, Eternal God of truth."

Baruch sat down at the bedside of his father whose breath came with ever-increasing difficulty; he clasped his son's hand whose fever heat the cold hand of death could not cool.

"Father!" cried Baruch; he could say no more.

"Pray for me, my son," said his father gently. The rattle became ever louder, every instant they thought his breath must stop; all those assembled cried incessantly:

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God!"

The sick man prayed with them. He raised his eyes to Heaven, and with the word "one" he gave up his breath; his lips still pressed together, opened as if for a kiss—he was dead.

Rabbi Saul Morteira opened a window as a sign that the soul journeyed to Heaven, and all present repeated:

"Praised be the Righteous Judge!"

Baruch sank from his father's bed to the floor, and pressed the dead hand to his hot brow; from above in another chamber echoed the half suppressed lamentations of Miriam and Rebecca. Those present conversed in low whispers, and were just on the point of going away, when some one was heard to mount the stairs with loud, stumbling haste. The door was thrown open.

"Is he dead?" inquired a voice.

"Hush, silence, Rabbi Chisdai!" answered those present.

"Woe, treble woe to this house!" cried Chisdai. "He alone could have yet saved his Ben sorer umoreh.[1] I heard with my own ears that he meant to turn Christian, and marry a Christian woman."

"If you do not go out this instant," answered Samuel Casseres, "and if you say another such word against my brother-in-law, I will show you the way out. No one invited you."

"You will invite me, and I shall not come," answered Chisdai, as he was shouldered out by the others.

Benjamin von Spinoza had desired in his will that his broken old Spanish sword should be laid in the grave with him; the Rabbis objected for some time to fulfil this desire, whose meaning but few could imagine. Spinoza was obliged to bring forward many authorities from the Talmud before he could see his father's wish fulfilled. Outside in the graveyard, in accordance with old Jewish custom, he was made to kneel down at his father's feet, and beg forgiveness from God and his father for all in which he had sinned against them; then he must tear his garments on the left breast, and when the coffin was lowered, the son must be the first to enter the grave, and throw a handful of earth thereon. He did all this with uncertain step and trembling hand; Chisdai sprang forward to support him.

For seven long days Spinoza was obliged to sit on the ground with rent garments and without shoes, and for thirty days he was not permitted to shave his beard; but his outward appearance was not so uncared for and torn as his inward feelings. How often as he rested his elbows on his knees, his face covered with his hands, how often he thought of Olympia. What would become of them?

His greatest trial was a visit from Oldenburg and Meyer, who came just as he was sitting on the ground with his sisters, and the Rabbis were chanting a litany or sort of mass for the dead before the congregation.

He thought much about the free, unfettered life he would make for himself. Desire for rest and contemplative solitude often rose in him like an overwhelming homesickness; he felt imprisoned by the tumult of the world and its ways. And again he saw how his whole former life had been beset by difficulties. He would strive for consistency; should he find it in union with Olympia or not, it was at least a painful consolation that the unmitigated opposition of his father no longer stood between them.

  1. Stubborn and rebellious son.