Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 3

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RODRIGO CASSERES took another long draught from his tall goblet, and began his narration:

"About eight months ago I received a letter from Seville through Philip Capsoli; I was horrified when I read the address, 'To Daniel Casseres in Guadalaxara.' It could only be some thoughtless Jew who would address me by my Hebrew name. How I trembled at the contents! 'Daniel, Man of Pleasure,' it said, 'the day of vengeance and death is at hand, and I must die among the Philistines. Would you ask how it feels to be roasted? Come to me; I am watched by the holy police. In the name of the High God, by the ashes of our murdered brothers and sisters, I conjure you come to thy dying Geronimo de Espinosa.' There could be no doubt that Geronimo himself had written the letter; the fine straight line under the signature, a sign of the worship of the one true God, showed me that plainly, even if I had failed to recognize the trembling handwriting.

"When I told my children of my intention to travel to Seville, I was weak enough to be deterred from its fulfilment by their prayers and tears. I had almost forgotten poor Geronimo, when a dreadful dream reminded me of him, and the next day I set out on my journey.

"I parted from my children with a beating heart, telling them I was going to my sister in Cordova. I travelled swiftly through Cordova, and passed my sister's house unnoticed; I could neither stop nor rest; it was as if an unseen hand drew me irresistibly onward. I arrived at Seville. The clock struck the hour as I mounted the hill. 'There you dwell, my brilliant Geronimo,' I said to myself, 'and turn your footsteps to the Chapel, with prayer on your lips and scorn in your heart. Is it not a tempting of Providence for you, at heart a Jew, to venture your person in the councils of the Inquisition, even to help your brethren?' I entered the chapel, and knelt till the mass was ended. I then arose, and looked round among the stout or ascetic devotees again, but in none could I recognize Geronimo.

"I questioned a familiar; he said Geronimo had lain for weeks between life and death, and talked continually of Daniel in the lions' den. He led me to his cell. The invalid slept, with averted face; nothing was to be seen but the tonsured crown. A crucifix hung over the bed, and a friar sat praying beside him; he signed to me to enter softly. Only the slight breathing of the sick man and a light whisper of prayer spoke of life in this grave-like stillness.

"At last the sick man rose; I did not recognize him: he had deep-set eyes, hollow cheeks, blue lips, overhung by a long flowing white beard. Geronimo's appearance could not be so altered. He recognized me, however, immediately; and softly, with hardly a movement of his lips, said, 'Are you there, Daniel? It is well that you do not desert me; you need not be afraid; you too are in the lions' den; but God will help you to get out, as he did the prophet in Babylon; only from me they have sucked the blood and the life: I cannot get out. In truth, you will not leave me?'

"I had feared that the momentary joy of reunion might have hastened his death. I could hardly understand him when he acted as if we had been long together, as if we had never been parted. He signed to the brother praying beside him, who took his book under his arm and went out. As he went he whispered in my ear that I could ring if I required aid.

"'Has he gone?' then said Geronimo. 'Come quick: give me the pitch-smeared hoops you carry under your mantle; I will hide them in my bed. Tonight when they all sleep we will burn the nest over their heads: that will be a joyful sacrifice; the angels in heaven will laugh to see it; I am bound, I cannot get out. It must be kindled at all four sides at once; we must be quick, or the Guadalquivir itself will rise from its bed and extinguish the flames on the mount; they have it in pay. Help me! the water takes my life. Lord God! I have sinned, I have denied Thy holy name. Once Thou showedst Thyself in wonders; send down Thy lightnings, that they may destroy me—me also, me first. I have sinned, destroy me!'

"He spoke quickly, and beat his breast with his bony fists till it resounded; I could not restrain him. He sank back almost breathless; I feared that he would die then, and would have rung the bell, but he rose again, and said, weeping,

"'Come, give me your hand; it is pure—pure from the blood of your brethren: it was at the suggestion of Satan that I, a worm, tried to gnaw through this giant tree. I do penance for my pride; I have denied my God. I die useless, as I have lived useless. Do you not see my father there? He comes to help us. Have you pitched rings enough. Father? Do you hear the prisoners beneath singing Hallelujah? Ah, it is a beautiful song: Hallelujah, Hallelu El! We free you; you dare die. Do not look so reproachful; I am not in fault!'

"He sank back again, and stared at me with unearthly glassy eyes. I prayed him, for God's sake and our own, to be quiet: I told him how I had come in obedience to his letter; he should be at peace, since he had saved many lives, and God would be merciful, and look only at the heart.

"Then, in perfect consciousness, he spoke to me of his approaching death, and how rejoiced he was at the thought thereof. A flood of tears relieved his mind of its heavy load: then suddenly all was fearful confusion again; he called for consecrated water to soften his pain on his heart, that burnt like hot iron. 'Drink also,' he said to me, 'the holy father has blessed it. Bless me! Father, it is the Sabbath. Where is Mother? Still below in the cellar of the synagogue. Mother, rise; it is I, thy Moses.'

"So he talked, and I was dizzy to think of the abyss before which I stood.

"Evening came, and Geronimo thought men came to put him in a dark prison, and stretch him on the rack; groaning painfully, and with an almost dying voice, he cried continually, 'I am no Jew, I do not know where there are hidden Jews. Daniel, do not forsake me; do not forsake me, Daniel!' At last he slept again. It was night; the full moon shone through the window and shed its silver light over the sick man. I prepared for death, since every word of our conversation, if overheard, would have brought me to a martyr's death; by good luck, however, almost the whole order was employed in a search for Lutherans in the town. I prayed to God to have pity on Geronimo, and send him death. Children, it is terrible to pray for the death of a man, and that man the friend of your youth. But why should this soul undergo a longer martyrdom? It was, however, otherwise ordained; I must experience yet more terrible moments.

"I sat there, sunk in troubled thought, when a familiar entered, and ordered me to come to the Inquisitor. My heart beat loudly as I entered his presence; I threw myself on my knees, and asked his blessing. He gave it me, and said: 'You are a friend of Geronimo. In that you are a good Christian'—and here he gave me a piercing look—'take care that Geronimo is obstinate no longer, but takes the Sacrament once more before he dies; endeavor to do this, and let me know immediately; he must not die thus.'

"I returned to the sick man's cell; he still slept; I bent softly over him; he awoke.

"'Come,' he said, rising hastily, 'now is the time. Look! Gideon with his three hundred men come also; they carry the fire-filled pitchers into the camp of the Midianites. Hush! be still! do not blow the trumpets yet. Let us celebrate High Mass.' He folded his hands, and crossed himself three times. I prayed, I implored him, I wept for fear, and conjured him to be quiet. I spoke to him of our childhood's days, and how he himself now would murder me, if he did not take the Sacrament.

"'Why do they not give it me?' he said quietly. 'I am a priest; come, wash my hands; I am unclean; then I will receive it.'

"I went to the Inquisitor and told him that Geronimo, though still confused, himself desired the Sacrament. The Inquisitor assembled the whole order, and as they carried the Elements along the long corridor, singing the Requiem in the echoing hall, Geronimo sang loudly with them, and even when it was ended he sang the de profundis clamavi in a piercing voice with folded hands; then he tore his hands asunder, covered his head with them, and sang the Hebrew words: 'Holy! Holy! Holy! Adonaj Zebaoth! (Jehovah, Lord of Hosts!) Ave Maria gratia plena, he said in the same mechanical tone. The Inquisitor used the moment to pass the Host to him; he devoured it, as if famishing.

"'The cup! the cup!' he cried, 'I am a priest.' The Inquisitor handed him the cup, he clasped, both hands round it, and began the Jewish Sabbath blessing over it; then raising himself in bed with all his strength, he stood in the full length of his trembling figure, and cried: "On, Gideon! shatter the pitchers! Fire! Fire!' he put the cup to his lips, threw it at the wall, so that it shivered to atoms, sank down, and was—dead."

The stranger covered his eyes with his hand, and stood up, when he had said these words. No one uttered a syllable, for who could enter into the unutterable emotions of this soul? Each one feared by a sound or a sigh to disturb the deep emotion of the other. It was the silence of death. Outside something tapped as with ghostly fingers on the panes; all started; the stranger opened the window; nothing was to be seen. He sat down again at the table, and continued:

"I had sunk down almost unconscious at the bedside of Geronimo; the cup with the spilt wine lay near me on the floor. I did not venture to rise, for fear my first glance should read my fate.

"'Rise,' said a harsh voice near me. I rose; the Inquisitor stood before me, not another monk was present.

"'What is your name ?' he asked me sternly. I was in painful uncertainty; should I give my real name, or not? but perhaps he had already seen it, and a lie would make my death doubly certain. I told the truth; he asked for a guarantee.

"'No one knows me here,' I answered, 'but my brother-in-law, Don Juan Malveda in Cordova; he can bear me witness that the Casseres, in whose house at Segovia the first sitting of the Inquisition was held, was my ancestor.' I yet wonder at the courage with which I spoke to the Inquisitor in this decisive moment. 'Swear to me,' he said after a long and painful pause. 'No, swear not, but if you let one syllable of what you have seen here pass your lips, you and your two children die the death by fire. You are in my power; I hold you in unseen bonds, from which you cannot run loose.'

"He then ordered a familiar to conduct me from the Castle.

"If we take the history of the prophet Jonah literally, his feelings must have been like mine when he was thrown out by the sea monster. I thought I continually heard the dreadful Requiem, though all around was as still as death. Everything looked so unearthly, so strange; every bush that trembled in the moonlight seemed to beckon to me to hasten on.

"I was hardly capable of thought, through weariness and fear; and nowhere in that wide country was there a soul in whom I could trust.

"I looked up at the myriad host of stars; their celestial light shone comfortingly on my heart. God, the God of Hosts, watched over me; my whole soul was a prayer; He answered it.

"I reached my inn, saddled my horse, and rode as on the wings of the wind.

"The moon disappeared behind clouds, and only the pale light of stars, shone on my lonely path. The horse seemed as if he too were driven by an unseen lash; he rushed irresistibly over hill and dale, and snorted with fear. Perhaps, thought I, the soul of some grim enemy of the Jews, perhaps that of a dead Grand Inquisitor, has entered this animal, and is now condemned to bear me through the night and save me from my enemies. Often, when he turned his head and looked at me with his fiery eyes, it seemed to say to me, 'Do I not suffer enough for my earlier life?'

"I feared even my own shadow that danced over rock and stone, and I drove the sharp spurs still harder into the ribs of my steed.

"You, who have grown up and lived in freedom, you cannot know what a confusion is life in such moments; the earth is no longer firm, the heavens disappear, and whatever has been heard of the fearful and supernatural awakes anew. Anything supernatural, if it appeared, would be regarded without astonishment, for everything has become supernatural, incomprehensible, our own life most of all. Wearied out, I arrived at my sister's in Cordova, and first imparted to her the terrible fear that hardly let me breathe freely.

"When I went to my horse next morning in his stall, he lay dead; his great eyes gazed at me as strangely as on the previous evening.

"With a fresh Andalusian horse of my brother-in-law's I set forward on my journey. I took leave of my sister, but durst not tell her that I saw her for the last time.

"When I arrived at home the old rest and tranquillity had disappeared from the house. In each friend who bade me heartily welcome, in each stranger whom I saw in the streets, I imagined a messenger from the band of murderers who called themselves a tribunal. Each one, I thought, would throw back his mantle and disclose the blood-red I on his breast. The old freedom from care had disappeared; I knew only fear and mistrust. Waking and sleeping, the figure of Geronimo was before me; 'you too, you too,' it said to me, 'may die such a death; deserted by the faith that was a plaything of thy cowardice; tossed hopelessly betwixt truth and lies.' I sold all my goods, and not without great danger—for you know no one is allowed to leave Spain without special permission from the king—was with God's help free. I sent my children out of the country by different ways; they have remained in Leyden. If God preserves my life, I will bring them here next week. If I should relate all that I suffered till I arrived here, it would keep us till the morrow, and I should not have told a tenth part; but it is already late, and if it pleases God, we shall remain longer together."

"Yes, the lights are already burnt out, and tomorrow is the sixth Iyar; we must rise early, so we will, in God's name, retire." So spake the father, and they all parted.

Pleasant as a Jewish house is on Friday evening in the festive hour, as weird and strange is it at the time of separation. The seven lights burn alone in the empty sitting-room, and it is a strange sensation to imagine it as light after light burns out; for the law forbids a light to be extinguished or lit on the Sabbath, or taken in the hand.

In the corner house on the wall, each one went to rest in darkness, and each one was followed by some figure of terror from the narrative of the stranger guest. Old Chaje had already been long asleep, and dreamt of Miriam's wedding, and what an important part she would play therein, when her companion in the apartment, Miriam, entered and awoke her with a cry and a shake. "What is the matter? what is it?" said Chaje, rubbing her eyes.

"You snored so, and talked in your sleep, that I was frightened," replied Miriam. It was, in truth, another fear that made her a disturber of sleep. In the thick darkness she expected the spirit of her uncle to glide before her each moment, and wished to banish the fear by conversation. Chaje related her dream, and what a pity it was that she had been awakened; her mouth watered yet for the good things that she had enjoyed at the wedding; she had been seated near the bridegroom, with her gold chain and her red silk dress on.

"You may laugh," said she, "for what one dreams on Friday night comes as certainly true as that it is now Sabbath all over the world."

Miriam was glad to find Chaje so talkative, her ghostly fears began to fade. "What did my bridegroom look like?" she asked, as she laid her head on the pillow. But that Chaje unluckily did not know; what he wore, and what he said to her, she could tell to a hair. She talked long after Miriam was asleep. It could not be ghosts of which she was dreaming, for when she awoke in the morning she drew the coverlet over her, shut her eyes, and tried to dream again.

Baruch did not awake so pleasantly. He too went to his chamber with a beating heart. It was not the ghost of his uncle that appeared to him in the darkness, but yet he was present to his thoughts. A restless spirit filled him with horror, and oppressed his soul. With a loud voice, and out of the depth of his heart, Baruch said the evening prayer, and laid emphasis on the conjuration, which he thrice repeated. "In the name of Adonaj (Jehovah), the God of Israel, with Michael on the right, with Gabriel on the left, before me Uriel, behind me Raphael, and at my head Schechinath-El (the Holy Ghost)"—he hid his face in the pillow, closed his eyes, but it was long before sleep settled on them; he was too deeply agitated. He had slept but a few hours when his father woke him from a feverish dream, for it was time to go to the synagogue.