Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 7

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HONEST Mynheer Dodimus de Vries conscientiously entered the date 24th October, 1648, in conscientious clerkly style in his ledger, and wrote underneath how much wool, saffron, and ginger had arrived, and how much cheese, sugar, and tea he had that day despatched. Afternoon tea was delicious, and Mynheer de Vries told his dear spouse that he had still seven hundredweight and a half of that sort in his warehouse that would be worth more every day, for the celebrated Dr. Beverocius had written a treatise wherein he plainly proved that tea was a preservative from all maladies, and the East India Company had had this treatise printed and circulated at their own expense. Hereupon he slept softly and smiled in his dreams like a child, but had no notion of the sweet surprise Mevrouw de Vries was preparing for him. Of the tulip bulbs of the rarest sorts and varied sizes and species which she cultivated in her garden she built a pyramid on the writing table opposite the sleeper, so that when the happy man awoke his eyes were met by the ingenious edifice. He embraced his stout better-half heartily, and went gayly and happily to his counting-house. It was a lucky day, a day like all others, except for the extra pleasure of the tulip pyramid. What in the world could happen more than usual?

Three gorgeously dressed heralds rode at a sharp trot with sound of trumpets through the streets of Amsterdam, without drawing rein until they reached the Town Hall. The hammers stopped in the smithies, the weaver's shuttle hung on the loom, the tradesman wiped his pen, the banker straightened his spectacles on his nose, locked his black box, and pulled a second time at the padlock to make sure that it was safely locked. Our Mynheer de Vries laid the blotting-paper thoughtfully on the freshly written page, closed his ledger, and locked it in the desk; then Mevrouw brought him his wig and gold-headed cane.

"My love, have you noticed nothing strange about me? I am expecting all day long that something extraordinary is going to happen to the world." So said Mynheer de Vries, and he took his son Simon by the hand and went to the Town Hall to hear the news which he had anticipated.

But it was not so quiet in the houses of the town councillors; every hand and every foot therein was set in motion to bring the robes and clothe the stately person of the master; nothing would set well in the hurry, and the stern old councillor scolded over his wife's want of order, and tried to put things into a form worthy of his dignity on the way. It required all his importance to force his way to the entrance of the Town Hall through the crowd which had assembled there. Artisans with their aprons still tied on and their bare, sinewy arms folded; clerks with their pens behind their ears, and ink on their fingers; porters who had set down their loads and seated themselves thereon; soldiers, idlers, women and children, all stood huddled together, and exchanged conjectures on the arrivals. One loitering dandy praised the light trot of the horses and the fine work on the robes of the heralds; they fitted as if grown to them, and must have been made either in Madrid or Paris, civilization was as yet too backward in this country; no Amsterdam tailor knew how to give a waistcoat such an undeniable cut. An apple-woman admired to her neighbor the rich gold embroidery, and the breadth and brilliancy of the herald's ribbons, and an apprentice remarked to his companion that those must be Utrecht ribbons, as they had some in the warehouse which they sold at four and a half stivers the yard to gain five and twenty per cent. On the right hand corner of the Town Hall a tall lean figure had planted himself, his legs carelessly crossed as he whistled a tune.

"A good thing you are here, Flyns," shouted several porters. "You can tell us for certain what the golden birds that have flown up there have in their beaks; you have shaved the chins of more than ten town councillors to-day; you ought to know what is going on in the United Netherlands. Have we captured a silver fleet or something of that sort? The devil! You have a face like a mynheer on the pier when he hears his ship has foundered." They all shouted together, and the barber tried to get away so that his dignified appearance might check their impertinence.

"Holla! stop! that won't do," they cried. "In the Thunderbolt there with a full glass of gin you may know everything as well or better than the Grand Pensioner himself, and you can tell us all about it there; now, brother, show us how much you know, and if any one says you lie we will tan his hide for him till he can't see or hear."

Their clenched fists showed that they meant to keep their promise, but Flyns answered none the more, and tried to get away from his evidently unpleasant surroundings.

"Let him alone," said one; "the chin scraper has always shaved us over a spoon.[1] Why should he be there if he knew any more than we do. He must wait as well as we till they throw us something down."

"Ha, ha!" they all laughed; "good, but you will have to wait too, you see."

"I only wait," said Flyns, "to amuse myself by seeing you march off with the wind in your ears. You herring-hearts, you think they ought to grease your dirty mouths with the news boiling hot. Go to! Eat your dinners, there is nothing here for such lubbers as you. Off with you; if I did not know my own place I should despise myself for having so much in common with you. That comes of being too good, and not keeping one's proper position continually before one's eyes. You have seen too much of me."

"Nay, nay, we did not mean that; you must not go away angry," they all cried. "If the little rat-catcher says a word against you we will stop his mouth so that it will bulge like a woolsack that has lost its hoop. Don't be cross, and tell us all about it; you surely know."

Thus invited and flattered he fell back into his former easy position, and began:

"Do you remember what I said when we went home yesterday evening, and saw fiery hosts fighting in the eastern heavens? You will soon see what will come of it. I did not forget it. When I went early this morning to rich Van Kampen, who lives near the Oude Kerk, to shave him, he made a face like a cat in thunder; he is always close, nothing to be got out of him; but I laid my plans and learned from him without his knowing it that the war is going well at last. As for the Spaniard, we have done with him long ago; he can say no more. But, my brethren, you will stare your eyes out with astonishment, and we may pave a whole country with men's heads. The Turk, as I said a short time ago, won't rest, and would like to give Austria a slap. But look! There that puffy-cheeked master rope-maker, Reuwerz, is on a cask, and babbles something to the monkey-faced creatures that stand round him. That lot are unendurable. Since the rope-maker, Michel Ruyter, has become a hero of the sea every one thinks if he can twist a cable of tow he must have the making of an admiral in him. Every apprentice who turns a windlass thinks we have to thank him for the hundred ships of war and the hundred merchantmen we could send to sea any day; and a boy who has not a hair in front of his ears babbles about freedom and rights. But there is no God in Heaven if things do not change again soon. Then men of standing and education were something; my father was first valet—"

"Ay, there you warm to the old story again; we have heard that a hundred times, and have always told you we will have none of the Orange rule. Stadtholders they may be, we have nothing to say against that, but under their rule we might starve, and now we have enough to eat if we don't sit with our hands in our laps."

So said Maessen Blutzaufer, who spoke for his comrades, and before the barber could look round he was deserted by his audience.

"Hurrah for the United Provinces!" shouted one of the crowd, and, as if by electricity, all the assembly roared, "Hurrah for the United Provinces!" till the window-panes clattered with the shout. When silence ensued again, they all pressed round the master rope-maker who was still speaking.

"Brethren!" he cried, "obedience is the first duty of true citizens, obedience to the laws, and respect and regard for governors, whom we no longer receive from foreign tyrants, but whom we elect from among ourselves. I have heard many among you grumble that free citizens of the Republic are made to wait down here, while those above sit behind locked doors, and keep for themselves the state secrets which belong to us all, one as much as another. You all know, brethren, I love freedom as much as any one. Without thinking twice I would hang my best halter round the neck of my own son if I heard that he was a traitor to freedom, or might become one. I hate those court flatterers, who would make themselves out better than we, as I hate Old Nick. So you may trust me that I mean well by you when I persuade you to be quiet. There may be cases in which the fathers of the Republic hold it better not to trumpet the news to every wind. Think for yourselves; there might be traitors among us!"

"Down with traitors! Hurrah for freedom!" burst from the crowd in one enthusiastic shout.

"Therefore, brethren," continued the orator, "whatever may come, war or peace, on water or on land, we have the handle in our own hands, and we will not let it be wrenched out. We have won our freedom, we can protect it."

The cry of "Hurrah for Hooft! Hurrah for the States General!" here interrupted the orator, for on the balcony of the Town Hall appeared old Drost Hooft, and with him the town councillors, as many as the balcony would hold. Attentive silence reigned while Drost thanked them and began:

"Brother citizens, a slight accident has prevented me from sooner imparting the news which must fill the heart of every one with joy and thankfulness. Yesterday the thirty years of the horrors of war, and the seven years' peace conference at last came to an end. Honorable and favorable conditions for the United Provinces are in the treaty, to which all the powers of Europe have sworn. Above all, Spain, with the approval of all Europe, has acknowledged the perfect independence of our Republic. It is merely a point of honor, nothing more, for we have not waited for them to present us with our freedom; we have won it with the help of God and our own good swords. Our rightful conquests in Brabant, Flanders and Limburg, the right to close the Scheid at will, and other privileges remain to us. Rejoice and thank God, for it is he who decrees man to leave the sword in the sheath, that peace may be between Christian and Christian. Pray to him that he may preserve the peace. Love God, and guard our liberties!"

"Hurrah for freedom!" echoed and re-echoed the cheers of the dispersing crowd through every street, till at last it was lost in the clang of the bells which spread the news of the peace through the air.

It was a glorious, impressive sight to see the life of a people as it can only spring from the consciousness of a happily won and gladly enjoyed peace. Many indeed could not accustom themselves to the thought that the peace really existed, as one who is freed from a heavy burden still feels its pressure, even when he has long been relieved from it.

The pious were the first to accustom themselves to the new state of affairs, for they had found it plainly revealed in the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelations of St. John that this year, whose number, divided and added, gave the sacred numbers twelve and seven, must be a year of peace and blessedness; and they went home, and called their children and their household together, and said:

"Watch and pray, for the Millennium, the reign of the Lord has arrived; the promise will be fulfilled, and the Lord will enter into his glory."

Those, however, who had not so much faith trusted in the seven seals and the signatures of the European powers, and were content therewith.

As Mynheer de Vries went home he said to his son Simon, "Have you given your full attention? Such a day as this, please God, you will never see in your life again." But any one a little way off would not have found out from his walk and bearing that Mynheer de Vries had thus explained to his son that greatest of benefits—a citizen's freedom. He spoke with such quiet thoughtfulness, so devoid of all outward excitement, evincing that immovable tenacity of the Netherlanders, who, even where their passions were concerned, still held to the national ideal, the "makklyk," the comfortable. At home Mynheer Dodimus embraced his beloved wife in an ecstasy of joy.

"See, my dear," he said, pointing to the tulip bulbs, "they can grow on peaceful ground, and my tea has risen a third in price, for the soldiers who are now coming home have not drunk tea for so long that they will enjoy it all the more."

He sat down to table quietly and in silence, and endeavored to control the extraordinary excitement which had disturbed him during the day. That evening he drank half a glass more than his usual quantity; he did not speak a word at table, and before tea came in he slept in peace.

It is a good thing that the house of the De Vries is far from the Thunderbolt ale-house. The shouts and cheers that echoed from there would certainly have awakened the good man from his slumbers. There sat the whole gang of porters, and made themselves happy with gin. The popular "Het daghet uyt den Osten" was sung to an end, and Maessen Blutzaufer had struck up " Wilhelmus van Nassau," when he was interrupted by a tremendous bawling.

"Hold! here comes Judas the archknave, the false prophet; stone him, crucify him, drown him!" they all shouted together as Flyns entered.

"Now answer for it, why did you take us in this morning?" cried one. Flyns stood his ground and smiled condescendingly. His father had not been first valet to Prince Maurice of Nassau for nothing; he had inherited so much of diplomatic talent from him. He let the revellers stop blustering.

"Are you ready?" he asked quietly. "You don't understand a joke; I only wanted to make you look foolish."

"But that is lying and rascally cheating," cried the little man.

"Lie down, you rat-catcher," retorted Flyns; "if you bark like that again I will grind your crooked bones to meal, and sell it for rat-poison."

"Be quiet, be quiet, no disputes, we must have peace everywhere. Give him your hand," they all cried, and Flyns sat down with his friends.

"So here we sit," said Maessen Blutzaufer, "and ten horses shall not drag me from my seat. And if the Emperor of Japan came, dressed like the one in the East India House, and said, 'Take me that gold chest two houses farther and you shall earn a thousand stivers,' I should say, 'Emperor, take a glass; to-day I cannot serve you; sit down with us here; we are all emperors as good as you;' and if the Grand Pensioner himself sent for you, you should not move from this spot, Flyns. No beard shall come to harm to-day; even the beards shall have peace."

"You all rejoice over the peace," said Flyns, "and you don't know what name the child has."

"Well, what is it called?"

"The everlasting peace."

"Vivat! Hurrah for the everlasting peace!" they all cried, and emptied their glasses to the dregs. Flyns prophesied the return of the jolly times of Jacob van Artevelde in Ghent, and told them that in those old times, by wise management and extensive trade connection, men need only work two days a week, and might sit in the ale-house all the rest. It was a tempting bait, and each one had his own ideal of how to enjoy it. Maessen Blutzaufer alone would hear nothing of it, and asserted that it would be less godless to have no Sunday at all than five a week. The jolly company revelled far into the night, and then stumbled singing and cheering home.

Everywhere joy and merrymaking prevailed, in church and tavern as well as in the family circle, for peace was spread over the whole of Christendom. Peace to all religions. Peace in heaven, and peace on earth.

Only on the town-wall one soul mourned over vanished peace, that no treaty made by earthly potentates could restore, for the covenant of Heaven, the Law of Moses lay torn before him. In the library of the School of the Crown of the Law Baruch Spinoza sat alone. Before him was Ebn Esra's Commentary on the five Books of Moses, of the difficulties and obscurities of which study his teacher had often warned him. There were two passages the solution of which had long occupied him. On the history of the waters of strife (Numbers xxix.) that were drawn from the rock he found this commentary: "I will here point out what appears to me to be the right explanation. Understand, if the part knows the whole he comprehends it, and thereby can do miracles." The passage (Numbers xiii.) "I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord," he explains thus: "The creature cannot alter the work of the Creator or his law; the mystery is, a part cannot alter the other part, but only the law of the whole can alter that of a part. I can penetrate this mystery no further for it is deep; at any rate the she-ass spoke. When you have found out the secret of the angels of Abraham and of Jacob you will penetrate the truth of this."

The passage where it says, "When you understand the secret of the twelve," etc. Baruch understood more easily. A kindred spirit here attracted him; he recognized the caution and diligent veiling, and boldly and freely gave this result, that independent reason and traditional faith can only be reconciled by mutual compulsion. It was made clear to him that not the whole of the contents of the Holy Scriptures were written by inspired men; the glory had vanished; the whole was the work of man. How could profane hands in later ages meddle in the writings of God? Who was the author of the Bible? who its commentator? Dare any one require an answer to this question, and who could give it? Who?

Baruch read the passage commenting on Genesis xii. 6. which the prudent Spaniard finishes with these words, "And whoever has penetrated this mystery, let him keep silence," "Yes, I will keep silence," said Baruch to himself. Buried in thought he recollected another assertion of Ebn Esra's, that there is but one substance, and that is God, and that God is the first category of the ten categories of Aristotle, as the number one is the root of all numbers; and marvellous was the explanation to the almost incomprehensible verse, Job xxiii. 13. "But he is in one mind, and who can turn him?" The word in, Ebn Esra explains, appears superfluous here, but is not so indeed; "I cannot explain it, for herein lies a great secret."

What was the use of these enigmatical directions? What was the use of explaining and searching into one word, one particle, if it were nothing more than the often defective and involved expression of a mere man? Baruch shut the book quickly and turned over the leaves of another, for he heard steps approaching the library. Chisdai Astruk and Ephraim Cardoso entered. Chisdai held out his perpetually damp, lobster-red hand of friendship to Baruch, and looked at the book to see what he was reading. Chisdai had rather a tall figure, a little bowed, and long black eyebrows, whose ends encroached on his forehead; he always screwed them together so that the hair stood out like bristles; his not unhandsome but full forehead was nearly hidden by his untidy long black hair; the expression of his brown eyes was not recognizable on account of his large round spectacles. The wearing of these had a special signification, for the orthodox Jews as well as Christians forbade the practice as an unseemly innovation. What ground the Christians took on the question we cannot tell; the Jews probably had no other but the fact that Joshua and Caleb wore no spectacles, and yet had seen everything distinctly. While Chisdai excused himself to the orthodox on the score of short-sight, he nevertheless liked to please the more enlightened, whose number was not small in the Amsterdam congregation, by this adoption of a novelty, and appear as a young man of advanced cultivation. In the heat of controversy he was continually obliged to put these significant instruments in their right place, for, indeed, his nose did not seem to be made for these evidences of western civilization; they continually slipped over the bridge, from whence his nose bent to a sharp point like a beak. His wide mouth always formed a half smile, for Chisdai was always mindful of the precept of the Talmudist, that no pious Jew must laugh outright as long as the Holy City of Jerusalem is laid waste, that it may be fulfilled as it is written, Ps. cxxvi. I, 2, "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream; then was our mouth filled with laughter." A strange contrast to the rest of Chisdai's face, distorted by an eternal grimace, was the well-cut rounded chin on which the long hair began to darken, for he was four years older than Baruch. He never shaved this beard. Besides the appointed fast-days he fasted every Monday and Thursday, and every Friday he dipped nine times in fresh well water, which nevertheless did not lessen the unattractive nature of his appearance. Wherever he went or stayed he hummed inaudibly an extract from the Mishna, or a synagogue melody, and when he sat he moved his crossed legs in palsied jerks. When Chisdai was seated he said to Baruch:

"You are well met just now, you shall be arbitrator between me and Ephraim; but promise not to give half answers as you usually do, and do not be so close; I do not see why you should be. Are we not brethren?"

"In what am I so close?" inquired Baruch.

"I will not explain now, we will leave that for another time. So that you may be quite impartial I will not tell you which is which of our views. But to speak out. Do you believe in the existence of angels?"

"That is another strange question," answered Baruch.

"Now, to put it another way," continued the other, "must we believe in the existence of angels?"

"That is the same question. But are we not Jews? Must we not believe in the Bible, and in all the goodly rows of books behind those wire doors?"

"But what is there in the Bible about the state of angels?"

"You know as well as I do," answered Baruch.

"But what does the Bible say about the state of angels? Are they material or immaterial?"

"You have a whole list of examples," answered Baruch, "and may choose at will. Abraham, Hagar and Lot, Isaac, Abimelech and Jacob, angels appeared to them all. They first set a fresh-killed calf and fresh cakes before them; with Jacob one wrestled the whole night long, and at last sprained his right thigh, for which reason to this day we are not allowed to eat the hinder part of a slain beast. Have you not enough of angels? If you wish for yet more material ones, an angel appeared to Balaam, and the ass saw him first; an angel appeared to Joshua with a drawn sword; an angel appeared twice to Samson's mother, after which she bore her godless giant child. To Samuel and David angels appeared everywhere. Do you want a whole court of angels? In the very first chapter of Hezekiah there is a great array of them. I once heard the late Acosta say that court angels must have been much more fortunate than our present courtiers, for they had in fact four wings, four hands, and, what is better still, four faces; a man's, a lion's, an ox's, and an eagle's face, and wherever they went they followed straight the face that best pleased them. If you want immaterial angels, it is written (Ps. civ. 4) 'Who maketh his angels spirits.'"

"Do you not believe in bad angels?" asked Chisdai.

"Do you believe, and do you believe! You ought to ask what is written, and, as far as I know our Bible, there is nothing in it about such a Satan or devil's the Christians believe in. The history of Job, according to the Talmud, is merely a poem. To God everything is good; it is only to us men that many things appear bad, as it stands in our glorious Isaiah (xlv. 6, 7), 'I am the Lord and there is none else; I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil!'"

"But can there not be bad angels?"

"No; the distinctive mark of an angel is that he is a mere tool of God without free will. Satan is said to be a fallen angel who rebelled against God; but that could never happen if God did not rebel against himself."

"In the Midrasch the origin of bad angels is very well explained," said Ephraim, who had till then listened in silence. "Whenever an angel wished to become visible on earth he must imbibe a material essence, and none could be permitted to stay longer on earth than seven days. Once several exceeded this limit, and through their lengthened sojourn they had imbibed so much material essence that, thus overweighted, they could not rise to heaven. Such is the origin of the devil by which Genesis vi. 2 is explained."

"That may be very fine," said Baruch, "but is it true? How could an angel overstep the laws of his being?"

"So you do not believe in the existence of bad angels?" put in Chisdai.

"There you are again with your 'Do you believe!'" answered Baruch angrily, "I know as well as you do that the daily Kadish prayer in the synagogue is repeated in Chaldaic because the bad angels cannot understand the idiom, and because no contrary petition can prevail against it with God; I know as well as you that by the Shophar[2] trumpet on New Year's day Satan is confounded, and a good year for Israel obtained."

Ephraim then expounded the view taken by the great and learned Maimonides, who explained away angelic appearances as mere prophetic visions.

"That borders on heresy! that is abominable!" cried Chisdai.

"Agreed," responded Baruch, with an odd smile. "It is absurd, useless babble if Maimonides twists his own inventions out of the Scriptures and explains supernatural revelations away as dreams. That is half-heartedness. He had not the courage to say 'Thus the Scripture teaches and thus reasons.'" Baruch here stopped; he saw how far he had let himself be led on. He read for awhile in a book, and soon after left the room.

"There he goes," said Chisdai to Ephraim, "he will be a second Acosta."

"You have tried so ingeniously to lead him on to bad speeches," responded Ephraim; "let him go his own way."

"No," said Chisdai, and continued in the words of the Talmud, "In religious matters each Israelite has to answer for the other. On me, on thee, and on us all lies the burden of sin which he commits." He then left the room muttering to himself.

  1. Taken us in.
  2. A kind of horn upon which no melody is played, only a tremolo of whole tones and semitones; probably an obsolete war note.