Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV.

WOOING BY PROXY.

At the time when Spinoza was leaving the synagogue the sacristan was unbolting a side-door of the Catholic Church of St. John. Two festively clad men came out, the one with a pale, agitated face, the other laughing and gay. It was Van den Ende and Kerkering.

"I am shivering," said the latter. "I feel as if my usual clothing was torn off and I was freezing. When I was on my knees there abjuring the familiar, if half forgotten faith, and accepting yours, my heart contracted as if icy cold, and I could hardly bring out the required words. It is a good thing that in the final carrying out of a resolution we have no alternative left."

"This nonsensical sensation," replied Van den Ende, "is nothing but the cold church and your unaccustomed position, which checks your circulation. Come, my son; the wine which they refuse you there and keep for themselves is much better at other taverns. Look at the whole thing, as you have so well described it, in the light of a change of clothes; as the fashion is, you have equipped yourself for a wedding, nothing more."

Nevertheless Kerkering threw troubled glances round; he thought every one must be looking at him to see what had happened. It was not till they turned round the church of St. Olave's to Van den Ende's house that the color returned to his cheeks. In the physician's study, where he drank to the new convert in "the mother's milk of alma mater nature," as he called it, Kerkering was warmed by the fiery wine, and joined in the jest on the childish sensations which he had experienced.

Van den Ende sent to desire an interview with Olympia, but she sent word that she was ill in bed. He hastened to her, leaving Kerkering alone.

"My child," said the father to his daughter, "I am going on a difficult, perhaps dangerous journey. It is a comfort to me that I leave you in good care."

"May I not know where and why? Why have I lost your confidence?" inquired Olympia.

"That you may not pine or be anxious unnecessarily. When it is over you will be the first to rejoice. I must play my part on a large stage. I do not know whether it will be to laugh or weep. In any case it is worth the trouble to prepare with hat and wig. You should remember that Lucian and Democritus fit themselves with courage, as well as their more dismal gods. But you shall know everything later. Now let me talk to you as a father, as a friend. Look, I come to you in galadress. Say now with the Stoic to physical ill, 'I am stronger than thou.* Deck thyself likewise. Take this."

Olympia listened in astonishment to her father's voice, doubly gay in her silence, and looked wonderingly at the offered pearls.

"What is that for?" she asked.

"This bridal gift of his mother's our friend sends you as a compliment, and says he has shed more tears for you than there are pearls in the depths of the sea."

"Did he weep? I never thought he would have done that. It was surely because he had to abjure his father's faith and accept ours."

"He did do it, my child. There was still enough stiff-necked Protestantism in him to protest against it, but it is a proof of his love. In Kerkering you restore my Cornelius to me."

"Alas!" cried Olympia, and covered her face in the pillows. After much persuasion from her father she looked up sobbing. "We are all unhappy. My love belongs—you know, father; why need I say it? I love Spinoza, and am beloved by him with all the divine greatness of his mind, as never maiden was loved before."

Van den Ende struck his forehead with his clenched fist. He paced the room thoughtfully for a long time, then again seated himself beside his daughter's bed.

"Dear Olympia," he said, "be open with me. Have you already confessed your love?"

"Yes."

"And do you expect my consent?"

"Certainly, for your free-thinking mind can admit of no prejudices."

"I will not. Let us look at the thing openly. What do you mean to live on? You know what I have is not really my own."

"Spinoza could have a chair of mathematics or philosophy at any university."

"That is not certain; he is rejected by the Jews as an infidel, and the priests of all confessions join hands when it is worth while to put down the common enemy. He can polish glass, and you earn something with organ playing or other instruction. It might be sufficient to ward off death by starvation, and if you have even pure water for broth you can steep your philosophy in it, and it will be nutritious food, but your children unfortunately will not be satisfied therewith. Your love is nothing but a false syllogism."

"Father, you are too hard."

"I am not. On your spiritual heights, where you let yourself be fluttered round by nothing but genii who have neither bone nor marrow, any one such as I am must appear a barbarian. You have solved the eternal problem of human fate and the existence of the world; what does it matter to you if your fate and the nourishment of your existence give you a new problem to solve day by day? Your souls love each other, and the dear souls, ah! they are such dear adaptable creatures that no privation is too hard for them."

"Is that the want of prejudice with which you would talk to me? Do the sacrifices which I so joyfully undertake merit such mockery?"

"You are right," replied the father, "you may marry him; I will not oppose it. The human will is his kingdom; it is also my motto. But think of one thing: how will you bear it when your friends and acquaintances turn up their noses and titter when they see you cross the street with him? 'Look, there she goes,' they will say; 'she would have stayed a spinster if the poor Jew, whose kin even rejected him, had not taken pity on her!' I cannot say they are wrong if they think, 'If he really loved her he would have denied his old creed willingly, and not have waited till he was turned out;' for that is and always will be an insult in the eyes of the world. And they will gossip further and say: 'How proud she was once, and how she looked down on us; she is lucky now, she does not want a wardrobe; the cast-off dress she had ten years ago is now her whole stock. We pity her with all our hearts.' I know such things could not and would not shake your resolution; I only tell it you that you may know it beforehand. I will not compare Spinoza in any way with Kerkering; his mind is great, and one minute in which your souls ring in celestial harmony together weighs against years of self-denial, weighs against all enjoyment of earthly pleasures. You love and honor him, you admire the majestic nature of his intellect. I do not believe that he will misuse this power over you; such things seldom happen. What is he compared to Kerkering? He has sealed his love by going over to your church; he has left a powerful and honorable association; he has not made you a partaker in the painful preliminaries, nor laid any responsibility on you that you might receive the fruit of his work without personal trouble, and it is thus that he will always act. You will be bound by no gratitude for his acts; he makes no pretension but that he loves you. He adores you, all your words are oracles to him, the lightest wish of your heart is a command to him which he fulfils with joy; but you are right, you would not have a husband whom you could rule; the wife's fairest ornament is obedience, obedience even to tyrannical oppression. What can Kerkering offer you? Nothing but a good, faithful heart that beats only for you. He can give you a life amid brilliant society, honor and pleasure. You will be an object of envy to all your friends. But what is all this to the enjoyment of perfect intellectual harmony? Truly, it is eternal, and your eternity will outlast a year, maybe two; is not that enough?"

Van den Ende was silent. Olympia no longer wept and sobbed; she dreamily played with the pearls that lay before her.

"Can I get up?" she inquired at last.

"Certainly," said the father, and smiled contentedly to himself as he left the room.

Olympia rose and dressed.

"I made out my love to be stronger than it is, to my father," she said to herself. "Was it not in the beginning mere wounded self-love and desire to see no man unconquered that threw me into his arms? No, I loved him formerly, and I love him yet." She took the pearls, clasped them round her neck, and looked at herself well pleased in the mirror. "'I should not have found another husband,' they will say; what does that matter to me? My own consciousness tells me these pearls, and with them a life of brilliant enjoyment, was in my hand, and I despised it all. But am I right to do it? He is a born hermit, knowledge is his goddess. I only free him, I give him back himself, if I deny him my hand. No, this glitter dazzles my eyes. And yet, may not his strong mind behave differently when, safe in possession of me, he has no longer to woo for my favor? He knows I feel small beside him. How often has he tutored me, and will he not do it in another sense then? No, he is kind and good, but I am too weak, and Kerkering's submissive adoration has fascinated me."

She laid the pearls down, and paced the chamber thoughtfully. Again she stood before the mirror and gazed into it dreamily and absently. She saw herself, pining, ragged, muddy and laughed at, go through the streets; she only banished this maddening vision with a forced song. When her father heard her so gay he entered the room.

"Kerkering," said he, "is waiting outside; he will not move from the spot until he receives the decisive 'Yes' or 'No.' I believe I know your thoughts. I will not try to influence your decision, but I may be able to help you. Come with me."

Olympia clung to her father as if in childlike obedience and humility, and intimated that she complied with his wishes; in this compliance lay a half-unconscious obstinacy, thinly covered by an appearance of humility. Her father took her hand, and led her into the other room to Kerkering, saying:

"Here I bring your bride, my son."

Kerkering took a diamond ring from his finger, and placed it on Olympia's.

"Mine forever!" he said, and impressed a warm kiss on her lips. In the same hour that Spinoza struggled with the temptations of a life of honor and pleasure Olympia also had fought with temptation and succumbed.

Kerkering and his bride sat that evening in confidential discourse, Van den Ende rubbed his hands and smiled as he paced the room. Olympia felt more and more at ease in Kerkering's company; indeed she found him so amiable that she blamed herself for not having given him her heart long before. Kerkering told her that he had bought a well-broken-in riding horse for her, and that again, as years before, she should sit proudly in her saddle, and ride through the streets with him. He spread a brilliant life of pleasure in entrancing colors before her eyes. Olympia's cheeks flushed rosy red, her heart beat loudly. Kerkering held her in his embrace. At an unusual hour and with unusual gravity Spinoza entered. Olympia tore herself from Kerkering's arms; for a second she pressed her hands to her eyes, then stood up and advanced to Spinoza.

"I know you do not like scenes any more than I," she said with a trembling voice. "I have no concealments from my father and Kerkering; we did love each other. Remember that sacred hour when you conjured me to forget what we were and wished to be. Now that time is come. Herr Kerkering is my betrothed."

She was obliged to support herself by her organ. Spinoza stood as if spellbound before her, gazing at her.

"I entreat you," began Olympia again, "do not withdraw your friendship from me."

"I hope Herr Kerkering may afford you the happiness that I myself in happier hours hoped to be able to offer you," answered Spinoza in a hoarse voice. He stayed for some time, spoke on indifferent subjects, and with an amount of humor which they had not perceived in him before. Though deception was so foreign to his nature, he was here entangled in a double network of it. He hoped by his equanimity to make Olympia's part easier to her, and made it more difficult; he thought it owing to his self-respect to remain longer that he might take leave quietly; but truly it was because it was so painful to him to tear himself away forever from the charming surroundings in which the best joys of love had bloomed for him. Oldenburg came too, and for the first time kissed Spinoza when he heard what had taken place.

Kerkering was in overflowing spirits, and jestingly said that he was only born that day, and Olympia must sing him a cradle-song. Oldenburg asked for the song of the "Maid under the lime trees." Olympia objected, but Kerkering too insisted on that particular one; he desired it as the first and only compliance of his new life, and pressed on all sides, Olympia unwillingly sat down to the organ, and sang:

"A maiden should right early rise
To seek where her beloved one lies.
Beneath the lime trees she sought him,
But found not her love where she thought him.

"A knight came riding that way to see.
'What do you here alone?' said he.
'Count you the greenest branches,
Or the golden, yellow roses?'

'I count the greenest branches not,
And I pluck the golden roses
By my lover I am forsaken,
No tidings my ears awaken,'

"'Art thou by a lover forsaken?
No tidings your ears awaken?
In Zealand's vales he doth rest
Where other fair dames have caressed him.'

"'In Zealand's fields he doth rest him,
Where other fair dames have caressed him.
I pray that Heaven his guard may be
Among those ladies fair and free.'

"'What took he then from his arms so bold?
A chain it was of red, red gold.
'Fair child, this chain will I give you,
Forget you the love who did leave you.'

"'And were the chain but once so long
That it hung from Heaven to earth along,
Much rather I would it should fail me,
Than love for another avail me.'

"But the blood of the knight was fiery too.
'Fair child,' he cried, 'take heed what you do.
You are my true and rightful wife.
No other shall be my own for life.'"

The last notes had not died away when Spinoza took his hat and departed. Olympia rose and closed the keyboard of the organ so that the pipes rattled together. With overflowing heart, thus in need of the sympathy of others, Spinoza had come to Olympia. There are times when those to whom temples of stone are closed must worship in the temple of a faithful human heart.

The fate of Spinoza had thus directed him to seek happiness in himself alone.

He might well have consoled himself in that there was now no necessity for him to bow the mind trained to truth alone to any form accepted by others, and be taught by daily labor and daily care to silence and conceal his convictions. He might well have comforted himself in that a love was annihilated with which he had so often struggled painfully; but it is ever an enigma of love that it longs for lost pain, lost desire. Bitterness and depression sought to seize on him, but in self-controlled wisdom he learned to impart to his mind ever more steadfastly that peace of mind which is freedom of mind, in that it submits to the necessity of events, and follows their laws as if the heart itself had no concern in them. That abandonment to a grief whose painful effects can be conquered by reason is partial suicide. He who would be free, that is, would live according to the laws of reason, must never cease to be; and he permits this, his living eternal self-existence, to be interrupted, if he allows himself to be overwhelmed by his sensations. Only a life according to reason is the true, eternal life.

It was a hard conflict, a breaking loose from all special pleasures and all flattering demands, which should at last lead him to the summit of pure intellect, and enable him to express this sentence, almost incomprehensible to us, which apparently despises the world, and yet glorifies it:

"I would investigate the acts and efforts of men as though they were lines, planes or bodies."

His friends observed Spinoza's victorious self-control with surprise and admiration. By free thought he had conquered life with all its casualties, and now in quiet peace of mind he might first call it really his own.

No glory surrounded his head, but it illuminated his whole being.