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  1. AELIUS LAMIA, born in Italy of illustrious parents, had not yet discarded the toga proetexta when he set out for the schools of Athens to study philosophy. Subsequently he took up his residence at Rome, and in his house on the Esquiline, amid a circle of youthful wastrels, abandoned himself to licentious courses. But being accused of engaging in criminal relations with Lepida, the wife of Sulpicius Quirinus, a man of consular rank, and being found guilty, he was exiled by Tiberius Caesar. At that time he was just entering his twenty-fourth year. During the eighteen years that his exile lasted he traversed Syria, Palestine, Cappadocia, and Armenia, and made prolonged visits to Antioch, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. When, after the death of Tiberius, Caius was raised to the purple, Lamia obtained permission to return to Rome. He even regained a portion of his possessions. Adversity had taught him wisdom.

He avoided all intercourse with the wives and daughters of Roman citizens, made no efforts toward obtaining office, held aloof from public honours, and lived a secluded life in his house on the Esquiline. Occupying himself with the task of recording all the remarkable things he had seen during his distant travels, he turned, as he said, the vicissitudes of his years of expiation into a diversion for his hours of rest. In the midst of these calm enjoyments, alternating with assiduous study of the works of Epicurus, he recognized with a mixture of surprise and vexation that age was stealing upon him. In his sixty-second year, being afflicted with an illness which proved in no slight degree troublesome, he decided to have recourse to the waters at Baiae. The coast at that point, once frequented by the halcyon, was at this date the resort of the wealthy Roman, greedy of pleasure. For a week Lamia lived alone, without a friend in the brilliant crowd. Then one day, after dinner, an inclination to which he yielded urged him to ascend the inclines, which, covered with vines that resembled bacchantes, looked out upon the waves.

Having reached the summit he seated himself by the side of a path beneath a terebinth, and let his glances wander over the lovely landscape. To his left, livid and bare, the Phlegraean plain stretched out towards the ruins of Cumae. On his right, Cape Misenum plunged its abrupt spur beneath the Tyrrhenian sea. Beneath his feet luxurious Baiae, following the graceful outline of the coast, displayed its gardens, its villas thronged with statues, its porticos, its marble terraces along the shores of the blue ocean where the dolphins sported. Before him, on the other side of the bay, on the Campanian coast, gilded by the already sinking sun, gleamed the temples which far away rose above the laurels of Posilippo, whilst on the extreme horizon Vesuvius looked forth smiling.

Lamia drew from a fold of his toga a scroll containing the Treatise upon Nature , extended himself upon the ground, and began to read. But the warning cries of a slave necessitated his rising to allow of the passage of a litter which was being carried along the narrow pathway through the vineyards. The litter being uncurtained, permitted Lamia to see stretched upon the cushions as it was borne nearer to him the figure of an elderly man of immense bulk, who, supporting his head on his hand, gazed out with a gloomy and disdainful expression. His nose, which was aquiline, and his chin, which was prominent, seemed desirous of meeting across his lips, and his jaws were powerful.

 

From the first moment Lamia was convinced that the face was familiar to him. He hesitated a moment before the name came to him. Then suddenly hastening towards the litter with a display of surprise and delight —

“Pontius Pilate!” he cried.”The gods be praised who have permitted me to see you once again!”

The old man gave a signal to the slaves to stop, and cast a keen glance upon the stranger who had addressed him.

“Pontius, my dear host,” resumed the latter, “have twenty years so far whitened my hair and hollowed my cheeks that you no longer recognise your friend AElius Lamia?”

At this name Pontius Pilate dismounted from the litter as actively as the weight of his years and the heaviness of his gait permitted him, and embraced AElius Lamia again and again.

“Gods! what a treat it is to me to see you once more! But, alas, you call up memories of those long-vanished days when I was Procurator of Judaea, in the province of Syria. Why, it must be thirty years ago that I first met you. It was at Caesarea, whither you came to drag out your weary term of exile. I was fortunate enough to alleviate it a little, and out of friendship, Lamia, you followed me to that depressing place Jerusalem, where the Jews filled me with bitterness and disgust. You remained for more than ten years my guest and my companion, and in converse about Rome and things Roman we both of us managed to find consolation — you for your misfortunes, and I for my burdens of State.”

Lamia embraced him afresh.

“You forget two things, Pontius; you are overlooking the facts that you used your influence on my behalf with Herod Antipas, and that your purse was freely open to me.”

“Let us not talk of that,” replied Pontius, “since after your return to Rome you sent me by one of your freedmen a sum of money which repaid me with usury.”

“Pontius, I could never consider myself out of your debt by the mere payment of money. But tell me, have the gods fulfilled your desires? Are you in the enjoyment of all the happiness you deserve? Tell me about your family, your fortunes, your health.”

“I have withdrawn to Sicily, where I possess estates, and where I cultivate wheat for the market. My eldest daughter, my best-beloved Pontia, who has been left a widow, lives with me, and directs my household. The gods be praised, I have preserved my mental vigour; my memory is not in the least degree enfeebled. But old age always brings in its train a long procession of griefs and infirmities. I am cruelly tormented with gout. And at this very moment you find me on my way to the Phlegraean plain in search of a remedy for my sufferings. From that burning soil, whence at night flames burst forth, proceed acrid exhalations of sulphur, which, so they say, ease the pains and restore suppleness to the stiffened joints. At least, the physicians assure me that it is so.”

“May you find it so in your case, Pontius! But, despite the gout and its burning torments, you scarcely look as old as myself, although in reality you must be my senior by ten years. Unmistakably you have retained a greater degree of vigour than I ever possessed, and I am overjoyed to find you looking so hale. Why, dear friend, did you retire from the public service before the customary age? Why, on resigning your governorship in Judaea, did you withdraw to a voluntary exile on your Sicilian estates? Give me an account of your doings from the moment that I ceased to be a witness of them. You were preparing to suppress a Samaritan rising when I set out for Cappadocia, where I hoped to draw some profit from the breeding of horses and mules. I have not seen you since then. How did that expedition succeed? Pray tell me. Everything interests me that concerns you in any way.”

Pontius Pilate sadly shook his head.

“My natural disposition,” he said, “as well as a sense of duty, impelled me to fulfil my public responsibilities, not merely with diligence, but even with ardour. But I was pursued by unrelenting hatred. Intrigues and calumnies cut short my career in its prime, and the fruit it should have look to bear has withered away. You ask me about the Samaritan insurrection. Let us sit down on this hillock. I shall be able to give you an answer in few words. These occurrences are as vividly present to me as if they had happened yesterday.

“A man of the people, of persuasive speech — there are many such to be met with in Syria — induced the Samaritans to gather together in arms on Mount Gerizi
m (which in that country is looked upon as a holy place) under the promise that he would disclose to their sight the sacred vessels which in the ancient days of Evander and our father, AEneas, had been hidden away by an eponymous hero, or rather a tribal deity, named Moses. Upon this assurance the Samaritans rose in rebellion; but having been warned in time to forestall them, I dispatched detachments of infantry to occupy the mountain, and stationed cavalry to keep the approaches to it under observation.

“These measures of prudence were urgent. The rebels were already laying siege to the town of Tyrathaba, situated at the foot of Mount Gerizim. I easily dispersed them, and stifled the as yet scarcely organized revolt. Then, in order to give a forcible example with as few victims as possible, I handed over to execution the leaders of the rebellion. But you are aware, Lamia, in what strait dependence I was kept by the proconsul Vitellius, who governed Syria not in, but against the interests of Rome, and looked upon the provinces of the empire as territories which could be farmed out to tetrarchs. The head men among the Samaritans, in their resentment against me, came and fell at his feet lamenting. To listen to them, nothing had been further from their thoughts than to disobey Caesar. It was I who had provoked the rising, and it was purely in order to withstand my violence that they had gathered together around Tyrathaba. Vitellius listened to their complaints, and handing over the affairs of Judaea to his friend Marcellus, commanded me to go and justify my proceedings before the Emperor himself. With a heart overflowing with grief and resentment I took ship. Just as I approached the shores of Italy, Tiberius, worn out with age and the cares of empire, died suddenly on the self-same Cape Misenum, whose peak we see from this very spot magnified in the mists of evening. I demanded justice of Caius, his successor, whose perception was naturally acute, and who was acquainted with Syrian affairs. But marvel with me, Lamia, at the maliciousness of fortune, resolved on my discomfiture. Caius then had in his suite at Rome the Jew Agrippa, his companion, the friend of his childhood, whom he cherished as his own eyes. Now Agrippa favoured Vitellius, inasmuch as Vitellius was the enemy of Antipas, whom Agrippa pursued with his hatred. The Emperor adopted the prejudices of his beloved Asiatic, and refused even to listen to me. There was nothing for me to do but bow beneath the stroke of unmerited misfortune. With tears for my meat and gall for my portion, I withdrew to my estates in Sicily, where I should have died of grief if my sweet Pontia had not come to console her father. I have cultivated wheat, and succeeded in producing the fullest ears in the whole province. But now my life is ended; the future will judge between Vitellius and me.”

“Pontius,” replied Lamia, “I am persuaded that you acted towards the Samaritans according to the rectitude of your character, and solely in the interests of Rome. But were you not perchance on that occasion a trifle too much influenced by that impetuous courage which has always swayed you? You will remember that in Judaea it often happened that I who, younger than you, should naturally have been more impetuous than you, was obliged to urge you to clemency and suavity.”

 

“Suavity towards the Jews!” cried Pontius Pilate.”Although you have lived amongst them, it seems clear that you ill understand those enemies of the human race. Haughty and at the same time base, combining an invincible obstinacy with a despicably mean spirit, they weary alike your love and your hatred. My character, Lamia, was formed upon the maxims of the divine Augustus. When I was appointed Procurator of Judaea, the world was already penetrated with the majestic ideal of the pax romana . No longer, as in the days of our internecine strife, were we witnesses to the sack of a province for the aggrandisement of a proconsul. I knew where my duty lay. I was careful that my actions should be governed by prudence and moderation. The gods are my witnesses that I was resolved upon mildness, and upon mildness only. Yet what did my benevolent intentions avail me? You were at my side, Lamia, when, at the outset of my career as ruler, the first rebellion came to a head. Is there any need for me to recall the details to you? The garrison had been transferred from Caesarea to take up its winter quarters at Jerusalem. Upon the ensigns of the legionaries appeared the presentment of Caesar. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, who did not recognize the indwelling divinity of the Emperor, were scandalized at this, as though, when obedience is compulsory, it were not less abject to obey a god than a man. The priests of their nation appeared before my tribunal imploring me with supercilious humility to have the ensigns removed from within the holy city. Out of reverence for the divine nature of Caesar and the majesty of the empire, I refused to comply. Then the rabble made common cause with the priests, and all around the pretorium portentous cries of supplication arose. I ordered the soldiers to stack their spears in front of the tower of Antonia, and to proceed, armed only with sticks like lictors, to disperse the insolent crowd. But, heedless of blows, the Jews continued their entreaties, and the more obstinate amongst them threw themselves on the ground and, exposing their throats to the rods, deliberately courted death. You were a witness of my humiliation on that occasion, Lamia. By the order of Vitellius I was forced to send the insignia back to Caesarea. That disgrace I had certainly not merited. Before the immortal gods I swear that never once during my term of office did I flout justice and the laws. But I am grown old. My enemies and detractors are dead. I shall die unavenged. Who will not retrieve my character?”

He moaned and lapsed into silence. Lamia replied:

“That man is prudent who neither hopes nor fears anything from the uncertain events of the future. Does it matter in the least what estimate men may form of us hereafter? We ourselves are after all our own witnesses, and our own judges. You must rely, Pontius Pilate, on the testimony you yourself bear to your own rectitude. Be content with your own personal respect and that of your friends. For the rest, we know that mildness by itself will not suffice for the work of government. There is but little room in the actions of public men for that indulgence of human frailty which the philosophers recommend.”

“We’ll say no more at present,” said Pontius.”The sulphurous fumes which rise from the Phlegraean plain are more powerful when the ground which exhales them is still warm beneath the sun’s rays. I must hasten on. Adieu! But now that I have rediscovered a friend, I should wish to take advantage of my good fortune. Do me the favour, AElius Lamia, to give me your company at supper at my house to-morrow. My house stands on the seashore, at the extreme end of the town in the direction of Misenum. You will easily recognize it by the porch, which bears a painting representing Orpheus surrounded by tigers and lions, whom he is charming with the strains from his lyre.

 

“Till to-morrow, Lamia,” he repeated, as he climbed once more into his litter.”To-morrow we will talk about Judaea.”

The following day at the supper hour Lamia presented himself at the house of Pontius Pilate. Two couches only were in readiness for occupants. Creditably but simply equipped, the table held a silver service in which were set out beccaficos in honey, thrushes, oysters from the Lucrine lake, and lampreys from Sicily. As they proceeded with their repast, Pontius and Lamia interchanged inquiries with one another about their ailments, the symptoms of which they described at considerable length, mutually emulous of communicating the various remedies which had been recommended to them. Then, congratulating themselves on being thrown together once more at Baiae, they vied with one another in praise of the beauty of that enchanting coast and the mildness of the c
limate they enjoyed. Lamia was enthusiastic about the charms of the courtesans who frequented the seashore laden with golden ornaments and trailing draperies of barbaric broidery. But the aged Procurator deplored the ostentation with which by means of trumpery jewels and filmy garments foreigners and even enemies of the empire beguiled the Romans of their gold. After a time they turned to the subject of the great engineering feats that had been accomplished in the country; the prodigious bridge constructed by Caius between Puteoli and Baiae, and the canals which Augustus excavated to convey the waters of the ocean to Lake Avernus and the Lucrine lake.

“I also,” said Pontius, with a sigh, “I also wished to set afoot public works of great utility. When, for my sins, I was appointed Governor of Judaea, I conceived the idea of furnishing Jerusalem with an abundant supply of pure water by means of an aqueduct. The elevation of the levels, the proportionate capacity of the various parts, the gradient for the brazen reservoirs to which the distribution pipes were to be fixed — I had gone into every detail, and decided everything for myself with the assistance of mechanical experts. I had drawn up regulations for the superintendents so as to prevent individuals from making unauthorized depredations. The architects and the workmen had their instructions. I gave orders for the commencement of operations. But far from viewing with satisfaction the construction of that conduit, which was intended to carry to their town upon its massive arches not only water but health, the inhabitants of Jerusalem gave vent to lamentable outcries. They gathered tumultuously together, exclaiming against the sacrilege and impiousness, and hurling themselves upon the workmen, scattered the very foundation stones. Can you picture to yourself, Lamia, a filthier set of barbarians? Nevertheless, Vitellius decided in their favour, and I received orders to put a stop to the work.”

“It is a knotty point,” said Lamia, “how far one is justified in devising things for the commonweal against the will of the populace.”

Pontius Pilate continued as though he had not heard this interruption.

“Refuse an aqueduct! What madness! But whatever is of Roman origin is distasteful to the Jews. In their eyes we are an unclean race, and our very presence appears a profanation to them. You will remember that they would never venture to enter the pretorium for fear of defiling themselves, and that I was consequently obliged to discharge my magisterial functions in an open-air tribunal on that marble pavement your feet so often trod.

“They fear us and they despise us. Yet is not Rome the mother and warden of all these peoples who nestle smiling upon her venerable bosom? With her eagles in the van, peace and liberty have been carried to the very confines of the universe. Those whom we have subdued we look on as our friends, and we leave those conquered races, nay, we secure to them the permanence of their customs and their laws. Did Syria, aforetime rent asunder by its rabble of petty kings, ever even begin to taste of peace and prosperity until it submitted to the armies of Pompey? And when Rome might have reaped a golden harvest as the price of her goodwill, did she lay hands on the hoards that swell the treasuries of barbaric temples? Did she despoil the shrine of Cybele at Pessinus, or the Morimene and Cilician sanctuaries of Jupiter, or the temple of the Jewish god at Jerusalem? Antioch, Palmyra, and Apamea, secure despite their wealth, and no longer in dread of the wandering Arab of the desert, have erected temples to the genius of Rome and the divine Caesar. The Jews alone hate and withstand us. They withhold their tribute till it is wrested from them, and obstinately rebel against military service.”

“The Jews,” replied Lamia, “are profoundly attached to their ancient customs. They suspected you, unreasonably I admit, of a desire to abolish their laws and change their usages. Do not resent it, Pontius, if I say that you did not always act in such a way as to disperse their unfortunate illusion. It gratified you, despite your habitual self-restraint, to play upon their fears, and more than once have I seen you betray in their presence the contempt with which their beliefs and religious ceremonies inspired you. You irritated them particularly by giving instructions for the sacredotal garments and ornaments of their high priest to be kept in ward by your legionaries in the Antonine tower. One must admit that though they have never risen like us to an appreciation of things divine, the Jews celebrate rites which their very antiquity renders venerable.”

Pontius Pilate shrugged his shoulders.

“They have very little exact knowledge of the nature of the gods,” he said.”They worship Jupiter, yet they abstain from naming him or erecting a statue of him. They do not even adore him under the semblance of a rude stone, as certain of the Asiatic peoples are wont to do. They know nothing of Apollo, of Neptune, of Mars, nor of Pluto, nor of any goddess. At the same time, I am convinced that in days gone by they worshipped Venus. For even to this day their women bring doves to the altar as victims; and you know as well as I that the dealers who trade beneath the arcades of their temple supply those birds in couples for sacrifice. I have even been told that on one occasion some madman proceeded to overturn the stalls bearing these offerings, and their owners with them. The priests raised an outcry about it, and looked on it as a case of sacrilege. I am of opinion that their custom of sacrificing turtle-doves was instituted in honour of Venus. Why are you laughing, Lamia?”

“I was laughing,” said Lamia, “at an amusing idea which, I hardly know how, just occurred to me. I was thinking that perchance some day the Jupiter of the Jews might come to Rome and vent his fury upon you. Why should he not? Asia and Africa have already enriched us with a considerable number of gods. We have seen temples in honour of Isis and the dog-faced Anubis erected in Rome. In the public squares, and even on the race-courses, you may run across the Bona Dea of the Syrians mounted on an ass. And did you never hear how, in the reign of Tiberius, a young patrician passed himself off as the horned Jupiter of the Egyptians, Jupiter Ammon, and in this disguise procured the favours of an illustrious lady who was too virtuous to deny anything to a god? Beware, Pontius, lest the invisible Jupiter of the Jews disembark some day on the quay at Ostia!”

At the idea of a god coming out of Judaea, a fleeting smile played over the severe countenance of the Procurator. Then he replied gravely:

“How would the Jews manage to impose their sacred law on outside peoples when they are in a perpetual state of tumult amongst themselves as to the interpretation of that law? You have seen them yourself, Lamia, in the public squares, split up into twenty rival parties, with staves in their hands, abusing each other and clutching one another by the beard. You have seen them on the steps of the temple, tearing their filthy garments as a symbol of lamentation, with some wretched creature in a frenzy of prophetic exaltation in their midst. They have never realized that it is possible to discuss peacefully and with an even mind those matters concerning the divine which yet are hidden from the profane and wrapped in uncertainty. For the nature of the immortal gods remains hidden from us, and we cannot arrive at a knowledge of it. Though I am of opinion, none the less, that it is a prudent thing to believe in the providence of the gods. But the Jews are devoid of philosophy, and cannot tolerate any diversity of opinions. On the contrary, they judge worthy of the extreme penalty all those who on divine subjects profess opinions opposed to their law. And as, since the genius of Rome has towered over them, capital sentences pronounced by their own tribunals can only be carried out with the sanction of the proconsul or the procurator, they harry the Roman magistrate at an
y hour to procure his signature to their baleful decrees, they besiege the pretorium with their cries of ‘Death!’ A hundred times, at least, have I known them, mustered, rich and poor together, all united under their priests, make a furious onslaught on my ivory chair, seizing me by the skirts of my robe, by the thongs of my sandals, and all to demand of me — nay, to exact from me — the death sentence on some unfortunate whose guilt I failed to perceive, and as to whom I could only pronounce that he was as mad as his accusers. A hundred times, do I say! Not a hundred, but every day and all day. Yet it was my duty to execute their law as if it were ours, since I was appointed by Rome not for the destruction, but for the upholding of their customs, and over them I had the power of the rod and the axe. At the outset of my term of office I endeavoured to persuade them to hear reason. I attempted to snatch their miserable victims from death. But this show of mildness only irritated them the more; they demanded their prey, fighting around me like a horde of vultures with wing and beak. Their priests reported to Caesar that I was violating their law, and their appeals, supported by Vitellius, drew down upon me a severe reprimand. How many times did I long, as the Greeks used to say, to dispatch accusers and accused in one convoy to the crows!

 

“Do not imagine, Lamia, that I nourish the rancour of the discomfited, the wrath of the superannuated, against a people which in my person has prevailed against both Rome and tranquillity. But I foresee the extremity to which sooner or later they will reduce us. Since we cannot govern them, we shall be driven to destroy them. Never doubt it. Always in a state of insubordination, brewing rebellion in their inflammatory minds, they will one day burst forth upon us with a fury beside which the wrath of the Numidians and the mutterings of the Parthians are mere child’s play. They are secretly nourishing preposterous hopes, and madly premeditating our ruin. How can it be otherwise, when, on the strength of an oracle, they are living in expectation of the coming of a prince of their own blood whose kingdom shall extend over the whole earth? There are no half measures with such a people. They must be exterminated. Jerusalem must be laid waste to the very foundation. Perchance, old as I am, it may be granted me to behold the day when her walls shall fall and the flames shall envelop her houses, when her inhabitants shall pass under the edge of the sword, when salt shall be strewn on the place where once the temple stood. And in that day I shall at length be justified.”

Lamia exerted himself to lead the conversation back to a less acrimonious note.

“Pontius,” he said, “it is not difficult for me to understand both your long-standing resentment and your sinister forebodings. Truly, what you have experienced of the character of the Jews is nothing to their advantage. But I lived in Jerusalem as an interested onlooker, and mingled freely with the people, and I succeeded in detecting certain obscure virtues in these rude folk which were altogether hidden from you. I have met Jews who were all mildness, whose simple manners and faithfulness of heart recalled to me what our poets have related concerning the Spartan lawgiver. And you yourself, Pontius, have seen perish beneath the cudgels of your legionaries simple-minded men who have died for a cause they believed to be just without revealing their names. Such men do not deserve our contempt. I am saying this because it is desirable in all things to preserve moderation and an even mind. But I own that I never experienced any lively sympathy for the Jews. The Jewess, on the contrary, I found extremely pleasing. I was young, then, and the Syrian women stirred all my senses to response. Their ruddy lips, their liquid eyes that shone in the shade, their sleepy gaze pierced me to the very marrow. Painted and stained, smelling the nard and myrrh, steeped in odours, their physical attractions are both rare and delightful.”

Pontius listened impatiently to these praises.

“I was not the kind of man to fall into the snares of the Jewish women,” he said; “and since you have opened the subject yourself, Lamia, I was never able to approve of your laxity. If I did not express with sufficient emphasis formerly how culpable I held you for having intrigued at Rome with the wife of a man of consular rank, it was because you were then enduring heavy penance for your misdoings. Marriage from the patrician point of view is a sacred tie; it is one of the institutions which are the support of Rome. As to foreign women and slaves, such relations as one may enter into with them would be of little account were it not that they habituate the body to a humiliating effeminacy. Let me tell you that you have been too liberal in your offerings to the Venus of the Marketplace; and what, above all, I blame in you is that you have not married in compliance with the law and given children to the Republic, as every good citizen is bound to do.”

But the man who had suffered exile under Tiberius was no longer listening to the venerable magistrate. Having tossed off his cap of Falernian, he was smiling at some image visible to his eye alone.

After a moment’s silence he resumed in a very deep voice, which rose in pitch by little and little:

“With what languorous grace they dance, those Syrian women! I knew a Jewess at Jerusalem who used to dance in a poky little room, on a threadbare carpet, by the light of one smoky little lamp, waving her arms as she clanged her cymbals. Her loins arched, her head thrown back, and, as it were, dragged down by the weight of her heavy red hair, her eyes swimming with voluptuousness, eager, languishing, compliant, she would have made Cleopatra herself grow pale with envy. I was in love with her barbaric dances, her voice — a little raucous and yet so sweet — her atmosphere of incense, the semi-somnolescent state in which she seemed to live. I followed her everywhere. I mixed with the vile rabble of soldiers, conjurers, and extortioners with which she was surrounded. One day, however, she disappeared, and I saw her no more. Long did I seek her in disreputable alleys and taverns. It was more difficult to learn to do without her than to lose the taste for Greek wine. Some months after I lost sight of her, I learned by chance that she had attached herself to a small company of men and women who were followers of a young Galilean thaumaturgist. His name was Jesus; he came from Nazareth, and he was crucified for some crime, I don’t quite know what. Pontius, do you remember anything about the man?”

Pontius Pilate contracted his brows, and his hand rose to his forehead in the attitude of one who probes the deeps of memory. Then after a silence of some seconds:

“Jesus?” he murmured, “Jesus — of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.”

 

 

 

 

GuidetohisWord

Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six  (Re.13:18)”.

In order to understand the mystery of numbers let us first get a hang of what it means in the parlance of the Spirit.

The number One represents the Lord Almighty. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deu.6:4-NIV).

The number 12 refers to God the Son. We see it thus wherever the Spirit used the Son in terms of the Father-Son Association, a heavenly reality.

Numbers as used by the Spirit in most cases for our instruction. It is neither written in Hebrew or Roman numerals.  When the Spirit uses it to refer the length of man’s life it is counted as the number of fingers of man’s hands. Ten is associated …

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CANUTE AAKRE belonged to an ancient family of the parish, where it had always been distinguished for its intelligence and care for the public good. His father through self-exertion had attained to the ministry, but had died early, and his widow being by birth a peasant, the children were brought up as farmers. Consequently, Canute’s education was only of the kind afforded by the public school; but his father’s library had early inspired him with a desire for knowledge, which was increased by association with his friend Henrik Wergeland, who often visited him or sent him books, seeds for his farm, and much good counsel. Agreeably to his advice, Canute early got up a club for practice in debating and study of the constitution, but which finally became a practical agricultural society, for this and the surrounding parishes. He also established a parish library, giving his father’s books as its first endowment, and organized in his own house a Sunday-school for persons wishing to learn penmanship, arithmetic, and history. In this way the attention of the public was fixed upon him, and he was chosen a member of the board of parish-commissioners, of which he soon became chairman. Here he continued his endeavors to advance the school interests, which he succeeded in placing in an admirable condition.

Canute Aakre was a short-built, active man, with small sharp eyes and disorderly hair. He had large lips which seemed constantly working, and a row of excellent teeth which had the same appearance, for they shone when he spoke his clear sharp words, which came out with a snap, as when the sparks are emitted from a great fire.

Among the many he had helped to an education, his neighbor Lars Hogstad stood foremost. Lars was not much younger than Canute, but had developed more slowly. Being in the habit of talking much of what he read and thought, Canute found in Lars—who bore a quiet, earnest manner—a good listener, and step by step a sensible judge. The result was, that he went reluctantly to the meetings of the board, unless first furnished with Lars Hogstad’s advice, concerning whatever matter of importance was before it, which matter was thus most likely to result in practical improvement. Canute’s influence, therefore, brought his neighbor in as a member of the board, and finally into everything with which he himself was connected. They always rode together to the meetings, where Lars never spoke, and only on the road to and from, could Canute learn his opinion. They were looked upon as inseparable.
One fine autumn day, the parish-commissioners were convened, for the purpose of considering, among other matters, a proposal made by the Foged, to sell the public grain-magazine, and with the proceeds establish a savings-bank. Canute Aakre, the chairman, would certainly have approved this, had he been guided by his better judgment; but, in the first place, the motion was made by the Foged, whom Wergeland did not like, consequently, neither did Canute; secondly, the grain-magazine had been erected by his powerful paternal grandfather, by whom it was presented to the parish. To him the proposal was not free from an appearance of personal offence; therefore, he had not spoken of it to any one, not even to Lars, who never himself introduced a subject.

As chairman, Canute read the proposal without comment, but, according to his habit, looked over to Lars, who sat as usual a little to one side, holding a straw between his teeth; this he always did when entering upon a subject, using it as he would a toothpick, letting it hang loosely in one corner of his mouth, or turning it more quickly or slowly, according to the humor he was in. Canute now saw with surprise, that the straw moved very fast. He asked quickly, “Do you think we ought to agree to this?”

Lars answered dryly, “Yes, I do.”

The whole assembly, feeling that Canute was of quite a different opinion, seemed struck, and looked at Lars, who said nothing further, nor was further questioned. Canute turned to another subject, as if nothing had happened, and did not again resume the question till toward the close of the meeting, when he asked with an air of indifference if they should send it back to the Foged for closer consideration, as it certainly was contrary to the mind of the people of the parish, by whom the grain-magazine was highly valued; also, if he should put upon the record, “Proposal deemed inexpedient.”

“Against one vote,” said Lars.

“Against two,” said another instantly.

“Against three,” said a third, and before the chairman had recovered from his surprise, a majority had declared in favor of the proposal.

He wrote; then read in a low tone, “Referred for acceptance, and the meeting adjourned.” Canute, rising and closing the “Records,” blushed deeply, but resolved to have this vote defeated in the parish meeting. In the yard he hitched his horse to the wagon, and Lars came and seated himself by his side. On the way home they spoke upon various subjects, but not upon this.

On the following day Canute’s wife started for Lars’ house, to inquire of his wife if anything had happened between their husbands; Canute had appeared so queerly when he returned home the evening previous. A little beyond the house she met Lars’ wife, who came to make the same inquiry on account of a similar peculiar behavior in her husband. Lars’ wife was a quiet, timid thing, easily frightened, not by hard words, but by silence; for Lars never spoke to her unless she had done wrong, or he feared she would do so. On the contrary, Canute Aakre’s wife spoke much with her husband, and particularly about the commissioners’ meetings, for lately they had taken his thoughts, work, and love from her and the children. She was jealous of it as of a woman, she wept at night about it, and quarrelled with her husband concerning it in the day. But now she could say nothing; for once he had returned home unhappy; she immediately became much more so than he, and for the life of her she must know what was the matter. So as Lars’ wife could tell her nothing, she had to go for information out in the parish, where she obtained it, and of course was instantly of her husband’s opinion, thinking Lars incomprehensible, not to say bad. But when she let her husband perceive this, she felt that, notwithstanding what had occurred, no friendship was broken between them; on the contrary, that he liked Lars very much.

The day for the parish meeting came. In the morning, Lars Hogstad drove over for Canute Aakre, who came out and took a seat beside him. They saluted each other as usual, spoke a little less than they were wont on the way, but not at all of the proposal. The meeting was full; some, too, had come in as spectators, which Canute did not like, for he perceived by this a little excitement in the parish. Lars had his straw, and stood by the stove, warming himself, for the autumn had begun to be cold. The chairman read the proposal in a subdued and careful manner, adding, that it came from the Foged, who was not habitually fortunate. The building was a gift, and such things it was not customary to part with, least of all when there was no necessity for it.

Lars, who never before had spoken in the meetings, to the surprise of all, took the floor. His voice trembled; whether this was caused by regard for Canute, or anxiety for the success of the bill, we cannot say; but his arguments were clear, good, and of such a comprehensive and compact character as had hardly before been heard in these meetings. In concluding, he said:

“Of what importance is it that the proposal is from the Foged?—none,—or who it was that erected the house, or in what way it became the public property?”

Canute, who blushed easily, turned very red, and moved nervously as usual when he was impatient; but notwithstanding, he answered in a low, careful tone, that there were savings banks enough in the country, he thought, quite near, and almost too near. But if one was to be instituted, there were other ways of attaining this end, than by trampling upon the gifts of the dead, and the love of the living. His voice was a little unsteady when he said this, but recovered its composure, when he began to speak of the grain magazine as such, and reason concerning its utility.

Lars answered him ably on this last, adding: “Besides, for many reasons I would be led to doubt whether the affairs of this parish are to be conducted for the best interests of the living, or for the memory of the dead; or further, whether it is the love and hate of a single family which rules, rather than the welfare of the whole.”

Canute answered quickly: “I don’t know whether the last speaker has been the one least benefited not only by the dead of this family, but also by its still living representative.”

In this remark he aimed first at the fact that his powerful grandfather had, in his day, managed the farm for Lars’ grandfather, when the latter, on his own account, was on a little visit to the penitentiary.

The straw, which had been moving quickly for a long time, was now still:

“I am not in the habit of speaking everywhere of myself and family,” said he, treating the matter with calm superiority; then he reviewed the whole matter in question, aiming throughout at a particular point. Canute was forced to acknowledge to himself, that he had never looked upon it from that standpoint, or heard such reasoning; involuntarily he had to turn his eye upon Lars. There he stood tall and portly, with clearness marked upon the strongly-built forehead and in the deep eyes. His mouth was compressed, the straw still hung playing in its corner, but great strength lay around. He kept his hands behind him, standing erect, while his low deep intonations seemed as if from the ground in which he was rooted. Canute saw him for the first time in his life, and from his inmost soul felt a dread of him; for unmistakably this man had always been his superior! He had taken all Canute himself knew or could impart, but retained only what had nourished this strong hidden growth.

He had loved and cherished Lars, but now that he had become a giant, he hated him deeply, fearfully; he could not explain to himself why he thought so, but he felt it instinctively, while gazing upon him; and in this forgetting all else, he exclaimed:

“But Lars! Lars! what in the Lord’s name ails you?”

He lost all self-control,—”you, whom I have”—”you, who have”—he could n’t get out another word, and seated himself, only to struggle against the excitement which he was unwilling to have Lars see; he drew himself up, struck the table with his fist, and his eyes snapped from below the stiff disorderly hair which always shaded them. Lars appeared as if he had not been interrupted, only turning his head to the assembly, asking if this should be considered the decisive blow in the matter, for in such a case nothing more need be said.

Canute could not endure this calmness.

“What is it that has come among us?” he cried. “Us, who to this day have never debated but in love and upright zeal? We are infuriated at each other as if incited by an evil spirit;” and he looked with fiery eyes upon Lars, who answered:

“You yourself surely bring in this spirit, Canute, for I have spoken only of the case. But you will look upon it only through your own self-will; now we shall see if your love and upright zeal will endure, when once it is decided agreeably to our wish.”

“Have I not, then, taken good care of the interests of the parish?”

No reply. This grieved Canute, and he continued:

“Really, I did not think otherwise than that I had accomplished something;—something for the good of the parish;—but may be I have deceived myself.”

He became excited again, for it was a fiery spirit within him, which was broken in many ways, and the parting with Lars grieved him, so he could hardly control himself. Lars answered:

“Yes, I know you give yourself the credit for all that is done here, and should one judge by much speaking in the meetings, then surely you have accomplished the most.

“Oh, is it this!” shouted Canute, looking sharply upon Lars: “it is you who have the honor of it!”

“Since we necessarily talk of ourselves,” replied Lars, “I will say that all matters have been carefully considered by us before they were introduced here.”

Here little Canute Aakre resumed his quick way of speaking:

“In God’s name take the honor, I am content to live without it; there are other things harder to lose!”

Involuntarily Lars turned his eye from Canute, but said, the straw moving very quickly: “If I were to speak my mind, I should say there is not much to take honor for;—of course ministers and teachers may be satisfied with what has been done; but, certainly, the common men say only that up to this time the taxes have become heavier and heavier.”

A murmur arose in the assembly, which now became restless. Lars continued:

“Finally, to-day, a proposition is made which, if carried, would recompense the parish for all it has laid out; perhaps, for this reason, it meets such opposition. It is the affair of the parish, for the benefit of all its inhabitants, and ought to be rescued from being a family matter.”

The audience exchanged glances, and spoke half audibly, when one threw out a remark as he rose to go to his dinner-pail, that these were “the truest words he had heard in the meetings for many years.” Now all arose, and the conversation became general. Canute Aakre felt as he sat there that the case was lost, fearfully lost; and tried no more to save it. He had somewhat of the character attributed to Frenchmen, in that he was good for first, second, and third attacks, but poor for self-defence—his sensibilities overpowering his thoughts.

He could not comprehend it, nor could he sit quietly any longer; so, yielding his place to the vice-chairman, he left,—and the audience smiled.

He had come to the meeting accompanied by Lars, but returned home alone, though the road was long. It was a cold autumn day; the way looked jagged and bare, the meadow gray and yellow; while frost had begun to appear here and there on the roadside. Disappointment is a dreadful companion. He felt himself so small and desolate, walking there; but Lars was everywhere before him, like a giant, his head towering, in the dusk of evening, to the sky. It was his own fault that this had been the decisive battle, and the thought grieved him sorely: he had staked too much upon a single little affair. But surprise, pain, anger, had mastered him; his heart still burned, shrieked, and moaned within him. He heard the rattling of a wagon behind; it was Lars, who came driving his superb horse past him at a brisk trot, so that the hard road gave a sound of thunder. Canute gazed after him, as he sat there so broad-shouldered in the wagon, while the horse, impatient for home, hurried on unurged by Lars, who only gave loose rein. It was a picture of his power; this man drove toward the mark! He, Canute, felt as if thrown out of his wagon to stagger along there in the autumn cold.

Canute’s wife was waiting for him at home. She knew there would be a battle; she had never in her life believed in Lars, and lately had felt a dread of him. It had been no comfort to her that they had ridden away together, nor would it have comforted her if they had returned in the same way. But darkness had fallen, and they had not yet come. She stood in the doorway, went down the road and home again; but no wagon appeared. At last she hears a rattling on the road, her heart beats as violently as the wheels revolve; she clings to the doorpost, looking out; the wagon is coming; only one sits there; she recognizes Lars, who sees and recognizes her, but is driving past without stopping. Now she is thoroughly alarmed! Her limbs fail her; she staggers in, sinking on the bench by the window. The children, alarmed, gather around, the youngest asking for papa, for the mother never spoke with them but of him. She loved him because he had such a good heart, and now this good heart was not with them; but, on the contrary, away on all kinds of business, which brought him only unhappiness; consequently, they were unhappy too.

“Oh, that no harm had come to him to-day! Canute was so excitable! Why did Lars come home alone? why did n’t he stop?”

Should she run after him, or, in the opposite direction, toward her husband? She felt faint, and the children pressed around her, asking what was the matter; but this could not be told to them, so she said they must take supper alone, and, rising, arranged it and helped them. She was constantly glancing out upon the road. He did not come. She undressed and put them to bed, and the youngest repeated the evening prayer, while she bowed over him, praying so fervently in the words which the tiny mouth first uttered, that she did not perceive the steps outside.

Canute stood in the doorway, gazing upon his little congregation at prayer. She rose; all the children shouted ” Papa!” but he seated himself, and said gently:

“Oh! let him repeat it.”

The mother turned again to the bedside, that meantime he might not see her face; otherwise, it would have been like intermeddling with his grief before he felt a necessity of revealing it. The child folded its hands,—the rest followed the example,—and it said:

“I am now a little lad,
But soon shall grow up tall,
And make papa and mamma glad,
I’ll be so good to all!
When in Thy true and holy ways,
Thou dear, dear God wilt help me keep;—
Remember now Thy name to praise
And so we’ll try to go to sleep!”

What a peace now fell! Not a minute more had passed ere the children all slept in it as in the lap of God; but the mother went quietly to work arranging supper for the father, who as yet could not eat. But after he had gone to bed, he said:

“Now, after this, I shall be at home.”

The mother lay there, trembling with joy, not daring to speak, lest she should reveal it; and she thanked God for all that had happened, for, whatever it was, it had resulted in good.

II.

In the course of a year, Lars was chosen head Justice of the Peace, chairman of the board of commissioners, president of the savings-bank, and, in short, was placed in every office of parish trust to which his election was possible. In the county legislature, during the first year, he remained silent, but afterward made himself as conspicuous as in the parish council; for here, too, stepping up to the contest with him who had always borne sway, he was victorious over the whole line, and afterward himself manager. From this he was elected to the Congress, where his fame had preceded him, and he found no lack of challenge. But here, although steady and independent, he was always retiring, never venturing beyond his depth, lest his post as leader at home should be endangered by a possible defeat abroad.

It was pleasant to him now in his own town. When he stood by the church-wall on Sundays, and the community glided past, saluting and glancing sideways at him,—now and then one stepping up for the honor of exchanging a couple of words with him,—it could almost be said that, standing there, he controlled the whole parish with a straw, which, of course, hung in the cor- ner of his mouth.

He deserved his popularity; for he had opened a new road which led to the church; all this and much more resulted from the savings-bank, which he had instituted and now managed; and the parish, in its self-management and good order, was held up as an example to all others.

Canute, of his own accord, quite withdrew,—not entirely at first, for he had promised himself not thus to yield to pride. In the first proposal he made before the parish board, he became en- tangled by Lars, who would have it represented in all its details; and, somewhat hurt, he re- plied: “When Columbus discovered America he did not have it divided into counties and towns,—this came by degrees afterward;” upon which, Lars compared Canute’s proposition (relating to stable improvements) to the discovery of America, and afterward by the commissioners he was called by no other name than “Discovery of America.” Canute thought since his influence had ceased there, so, also, had his duty to work; and afterwards declined re-election.

But be was industrious, and, in order still to do something for the public good, he enlarged his Sunday-school, and put it, by means of small contributions from the pupils, in connection with the mission cause, of which he soon became the centre and leader in his own and surrounding counties. At this, Lars remarked that, if Canute ever wished to collect money for any purpose, he must first know that its benefit was only to be realized some thousands of miles away.

There was no strife between them now. True, they associated with each other no longer, but saluted and exchanged a few words whenever they met. Canute always felt a little pain in remembering Lars, but struggled to overcome it, by saying to himself that it must have been so. Many years afterward at a large wedding-party, where both were present and a little gay, Canute stepped upon a chair and proposed a toast to the chairman of the parish council, and the county’s first congressman. He spoke until he manifested emotion, and, as usual, in an exceedingly handsome way. It was honorably done, and Lars came to him, saying, with an unsteady eye, that for much of what he knew and was, he had to thank him.

At the next election, Canute was again elected chairman.

But if Lars Hogstad had foreseen what was to follow, he would not have influenced this. It is a saying that “all events happen in their time,” and just as Canute appeared again in the council, the ablest men in the parish were threatened with bankruptcy, the result of a speculative fever which had been raging long, but now first began to react. They said that Lars Hogstad had caused this great epidemic, for it was he who had brought the spirit of speculation into the parish. This penny malady had originated in the parish board; for this body itself had acted as leading speculator. Down to the youth of twenty years, all were endeavoring by sharp bargains to make the one dollar, ten; extreme parsimony, in order to lay up in the beginning, was followed by an exceeding lavishness in the end: and as the thoughts of all were directed to money only, a disposition to selfishness, suspicion, and disunion had developed itself, which at last turned to prosecutions and hatred. It was said that the parish board had set the example in this also; for one of the first acts, performed by Lars as chairman, was a prosecution against the minister, concerning doubtful prerogatives. The venerable pastor had lost, but had also immediately resigned. At the time some had praised, others denounced, this act of Lars; but it had proved a bad example. Now came the effects of his management in the form of loss to all the leading men of the parish; and consequently, the public opinion quickly changed. The opposite party immediately found a champion; for Canute Aakre had come into the parish board,—introduced there by Lars himself.

The struggle at once began. All those youths, who, in their time, had been under Canute Aakre’s instruction, were now grown-up men, the best educated, conversant with all the business and public transactions in the parish; Lars had now to contend against these and others like them, who had disliked him from their childhood. One evening after a stormy debate, as he stood on the platform outside his door, looking over the parish, a sound of distant threatening thunder came toward him from the large farms, lying in the storm. He knew that that day their owners had become insolvent, that he himself and the savings-bank were going the same way: and his whole long work would culminate in condemnation against him.

In these days of struggle and despair, a company of surveyors came one evening to Hogstad, which was the first farm at the entrance of the parish to mark out the line of a new railroad. In the course of conversation, Lars perceived it was still a question with them whether the road should run through this valley, or another parallel one.

Like a flash of lightning it darted through his mind, that, if he could manage to get it through here, all real estate would rise in value, and not only he himself be saved, but his popularity handed down to future generations. He could not sleep that night, for his eyes were dazzled with visions; sometimes he seemed to hear the noise of an engine. The next day he accompanied the surveyors in their examination of the locality; his horses carried them, and to his farm they returned. The following day they drove through the other valley, he still with them, and again carrying them back home. The whole house was illuminated, the first men of the parish having been invited to a party made for the surveyors, which terminated in a carouse that lasted until morning. But to no avail; for the nearer they came to the decision, the clearer it was to be seen that the road could not be built through here without great extra expense. The entrance to the valley was narrow, through a rocky chasm, and the moment it swung into the parish the river made a curve in its way, so that the road would either have to make the same—crossing the river twice—or go straight forward through the old, now unused, churchyard. But it was not long since the last burials there, for the church had been but recently moved.

Did it only depend upon a strip of an old churchyard, thought Lars, whether the parish should have this great blessing or not?—then he would use his name and energy for the removal of the obstacle. So immediately he made a visit to minister and bishop, from them to county legislature and Department of the Interior; he reasoned and negotiated; for he had possessed himself of all possible information concerning the vast profits that would accrue on the one side, and the feelings of the parish on the other, and had really succeeded in gaining over all parties. It was promised him that by the reinterment of some bodies in the new churchyard, the only objection to this line might be considered as removed, and the king’s approbation guaranteed. It was told him that he need only make the motion in the county meeting.

The parish had become as excited on the question as himself. The spirit of speculation, which had been prevalent so many years, now became jubilant. No one spoke or thought of anything but Lars’ journey and its probable result. Consequently, when he returned with the most splendid promises, they made much ado about him; songs were sung to his praise,—yes, if at that time one after another of the largest farms had toppled over, not a soul would have given it any attention; the former speculation fever had been succeeded by the new one of the railroad.

The county board met; an humble petition that the old churchyard might be used for the railroad was drawn up to be presented to the king. This was unanimously voted; yes, there was even talk of voting thanks to Lars, and a gift of a coffee-pot, in the model of a locomotive. But finally, it was thought best to wait until everything was accomplished. The petition from the parish to the county board was sent back, with a requirement of a list of the names of all bodies which must necessarily be removed. The minister made out this, but instead of sending it directly to the county board, had his reasons for communicating it first to the parish. One of the members brought it to the next meeting. Here, Lars opened the envelope, and as chairman read the names.

Now it happened that the first body to be removed was that of Lars’ own grandfather. A little shudder passed through the assembly; Lars himself was taken by surprise; but continued. Secondly, came the name of Canute Aakre’s grandfather; for the two had died at nearly the same time. Canute Aakre sprang from his seat; Lars stopped; all looked up with dread; for the name of the elder Canute Aakre had been the one most beloved in the parish for generations. There was a pause of some minutes. At last Lars hemmed, and continued. But the matter became worse, for the further he proceeded, the nearer it approached their own day, and the dearer the dead became. When he ceased, Canute Aakre asked quietly if others did not think as he, that spirits were around them. It had begun to grow dusk in the room, and although they were mature men sitting in company, they almost felt themselves frightened. Lars took a bundle of matches from his pocket and lit a candle, somewhat dryly remarking that this was no more than they had known beforehand.

“No,” replied Canute, pacing the floor, “this is more than I knew beforehand. Now I begin to think that even railroads can be bought too dearly.”

This electrified the audience, and Canute continued that the whole affair must be reconsidered, and made a motion to that effect. In the excitement which had prevailed, he said it was also true that the benefit to be derived from the road had been considerably overrated; for if it did not pass through the parish, there would have to be a depot at each extremity; true, it would be a little more trouble to drive there, than to a station within; yet not so great as that for this reason they should dishonor the rest of the dead. Canute was one of those who, when his thoughts were excited, could extemporize and present most sound reasons; he had not a moment previously thought of what he now said; but the truth of it struck all. Lars, seeing the danger of his position, thought best to be careful, and so apparently acquiesced in Canute’s proposition to reconsider; for such emotions, thought he, are always strongest in the beginning; one must temporize with them.

But here he had miscalculated. In constantly increasing waves the dread of touching their dead overswept the parish; what no one had thought of as long as the matter existed only in talk became a serious question when it came to touch themselves. The women particularly were excited, and at the parish house, on the day of the next meeting, the road was black with the gathered multitude. It was a warm summer day, the windows were taken out, and as many stood without as within. All felt that that day would witness a great battle.

Lars came, driving his handsome horse, saluted by all; he looked quietly and confidently around, not seeming surprised at the throng. He seated himself, straw in mouth, near the window, and not without a smile saw Canute rise to speak, as he thought, for all the dead lying over there in the old churchyard.

But Canute Aakre did not begin with the churchyard. He made a stricter investigation into the profits likely to accrue from carrying the road through the parish, showing that in all this excitement they had been over-estimated. He had calculated the distance of each farm from the nearest station, should the road be taken through the neighboring valley, and finally asked:

“Why has such a hurrah been made about this railroad, when it would not be for the good of the parish after all?”

This he could explain; there were those who had brought about such a previous disturbance, that a greater was necessary in order that the first might be forgotten. Then, too, there were those who, while the thing was new, could sell their farms and lands to strangers, foolish enough to buy; it was a shameful speculation, which not the living only but the dead also must be made to promote!

The effect produced by his address was very considerable. But Lars had firmly resolved, come what would, to keep cool, and smilingly replied that he supposed Canute Aakre himself had been anxious for the railroad, and surely no one would accuse him of understanding speculation. (A little laugh ensued.) Canute had had no objection to the removal of bodies of common people for the sake of the railroad, but when it came to that of his own grandfather, the question became suddenly of vital importance to the whole parish. He said no more, but looked smilingly at Canute, as did also several others. Meanwhile, Canute Aakre surprised both him and them by replying:

“I confess it; I did not realize what was at stake until it touched my own dead; possibly this is a shame, but really it would have been a greater one not even then to have realized it, as is the case with Lars! Never, I think, could Lars’ raillery have been more out of place; for folks with common feelings the thing is really revolting.”

“This feeling has come up quite recently,” answered Lars, “and so we will hope for its speedy disappearance also. It may be well to think upon what minister, bishop, county officers, engineers, and Department will say, if we first unanimously set the ball in motion and then come asking to have it stopped; if we first are jubilant and sing songs, then weep and chant requiems. If they do not say that we have run mad here in the parish, at least they may say that we have grown a little queer lately.”

“Yes, God knows, they can say so,” answered Canute; “we have been acting strangely enough during the last few days,—it is time for us to retract. It has really gone far when we can dig up, each his own grandfather, to make way for a railroad; when in order that our loads may be carried more easily forward, we can violate the resting-place of the dead. For is not overhauling our churchyard the same as making it yield us food? What has been buried there in Jesus’ name, shall we take up in the name of Mammon? It is but little better than eating our progenitors’ bones.”

“That is according to the order of nature,” said Lars dryly.

“Yes, the nature of plants and animals,” replied Canute.

“Are we not then animals?” asked Lars.

“Yes, but also the children of the living God, who have buried our dead in faith upon Him; it is He who shall raise them, and not we.”

“Oh, you prate! Are not the graves dug over at certain fixed periods anyway? What evil is there in that it happens some years earlier?” asked Lars.

“I will tell you! What was born of them yet lives; what they built yet remains; what they loved, taught, and suffered for is all around us and within us; and shall we not, then, let their bodies rest in peace?”

“I see by your warmth that you are thinking of your grandfather again,” replied Lars; “and will say it is high time you ceased to bother the parish about him, for he monopolized space enough in his lifetime; it is n’t worth while to have him lie in the way now he is dead. Should his corpse prevent a blessing to the parish that would reach to a hundred generations, we surely would have reason to say, that of all born here he has done us most harm.”

Canute Aakre tossed back his disorderly hair, his eyes darted fire, his whole frame appeared like a drawn bow.

“What sort of a blessing this is that you speak of, I have already proved. It is of the same character as all the others which you have brought to the parish, namely, a doubtful one. True enough you have provided us with a new church; but, too, you have filled it with a new spirit,—and not that of love. True, you have made us new roads,—but also new roads to destruction, as is now plainly evident in the misfortunes of many. True, you have lessened our taxes to the public; but, too, you have increased those to ourselves;—prosecutions, protests, and failures are no blessing to a community. And you dare scoff at the man in his grave whom the whole parish blesses! You dare say he lies in our way,—yes, very likely he lies in your way. This is plainly to be seen; but over this grave you shall fall! The spirit which has reigned over you, and at the same time until now over us, was not born to rule, only to serve. The churchyard shall surely remain undisturbed; but to-day it numbers one more grave, namely, that of your popularity, which shall now be interred in it.”

Lars Hogstad rose, white as a sheet; he opened his mouth, but was unable to speak a word, and the straw fell. After three or four vain attempts to recover it and to find utterance, he belched forth like a volcano:

“Are these the thanks I get for all my toils and struggles? Shall such a woman-preacher be able to direct? Ah, then, the devil be your chairman if ever more I set my foot here! I have kept your petty business in order until to-day; and after me it will fall into a thousand pieces; but let it go now. Here are the ‘Records!’ (and he flung them across the table). Out on such a company of wenches and brats! (striking the table with his fist). Out on the whole parish, that it can see a man recompensed as I now am!”

He brought down his fist once more with such force, that the leaf of the great table sprang upward, and the inkstand with all its contents downward upon the floor, marking for coming generations the spot where Lars Hogstad, in spite of all his prudence, lost his patience and his rule.

He sprang for the door, and soon after was away from the house. The whole audience stood fixed,—for the power of his voice and his wrath had frightened them,—until Canute Aakre, remembering the taunt he had received at the time of his fall, with beaming countenance, and assuming Lars’ voice, exclaimed:

“Is this the decisive blow in the matter?”

The assembly burst into uproarious merriment. The grave meeting closed amid laughter, talk, and high glee; only few left the place, those remaining called for drink, and made a night of thunder succeed a day of lightning. They felt happy and independent as in old days, before the time in which the commanding spirit of Lars had cowed their souls into silent obedience. They drank toasts to their liberty, they sang, yes, finally they danced, Canute Aakre with the vice-chairman taking lead, and all the members of the council following, and boys and girls too, while the young ones outside shouted, “hurrah!” for such a spectacle they had never before witnessed.

III.

Lars moved around in the large rooms at Hogstad without uttering a word. His wife who loved him, but always with fear and trembling, dared not so much as show herself in his presence. The management of the farm and house had to go on as it would, while a multitude of letters were passing to and fro between Hogstad and the parish, Hogstad and the capital; for he had charges against the county board which were not acknowledged, and a prosecution ensued; against the savings-bank, which were also unacknowledged, and so came another prosecution. He took offence at articles in the Christiania Correspondence, and prosecuted again, first the chairman of the county board, and then the directors of the savings-bank. At the same time there were bitter articles in the papers, which according to report were by him, and were the cause of great strife in the parish, setting neighbor against neighbor. Sometimes he was absent whole weeks at once, nobody knowing where, and after returning lived secluded as before. At church he was not seen after the grand scene in the representatives’ meeting.

Then, one Saturday night, the mail brought news that the railroad was to go through the parish after all, and through the old churchyard. It struck like lightning into every home. The unanimous veto of the county board had been in vain; Lars Hogstad’s influence had proved stronger. This was what his absence meant, this was his work! It was involuntary on the part of the people that admiration of the man and his dogged persistency should lessen dissatisfaction at their own defeat; and the more they talked of the matter the more reconciled they seemed to become: for whatever has once been settled beyond all change develops in itself, little by little, reasons why it is so, which we are accordingly brought to acknowledge.

In going to church next day, as they encountered each other they could not help laughing; and before the service, just as nearly all were convened outside,—young and old, men and women, yes, even children,—talking about Lars Hogstad, his talents, his strong will, and his great influence, he himself with his household came driving up in four carriages. Two years had passed since he was last there. He alighted and walked through the crowd, when involuntarily all lifted their hats to him like one man; but he looked neither to the right nor the left, nor returned a single salutation. His little wife, pale as death, walked behind him. In the house, the surprise became so great that, one after another, noticing him, stopped singing and stared. Canute Aakre, who sat in his pew in front of Lars’, perceiving the unusual appearance and no cause for it in front, turned around and saw Lars sitting bowed over his hymn-book, looking for the place.

He had not seen him until now since the day of the representatives’ meeting, and such a change in a man he never could have imagined. This was no victor. His head was becoming bald, his face was lean and contracted, his eyes hollow and bloodshot, and the giant neck presented wrinkles and cords. At a glance he perceived what this man had endured, and was as suddenly seized with a feeling of strong pity, yes, even with a touch of the old love. In his heart he prayed for him, and promised himself surely to seek him after service; but, ere he had opportunity, Lars had gone. Canute resolved he would call upon him at his home that night, but his wife kept him back.

“Lars is one of the kind,” said she, “who cannot endure a debt of gratitude: keep away from him until possibly he can in some way do you a favor, and then perhaps he will come to you.”

However, he did not come. He appeared now and then at church, but nowhere else, and associated with no one. On the contrary, he devoted himself to his farm and other business with an earnestness which showed a determination to make up in one year for the neglect of many; and, too, there were those who said it was necessary.

Railroad operations in the valley began very soon. As the line was to go directly past his house, Lars remodelled the side facing the road, connecting with it an elegant verandah, for of course his residence must attract attention. They were just engaged in this work when the rails were laid for the conveyance of gravel and timber, and a small locomotive was brought up. It was a fine autumn evening when the first gravel train was to come down. Lars stood on the platform of his house to hear the first signal, and see the first column of smoke; all the hands on the farm were gathered around him. He looked out over the parish, lying in the setting sun, and felt that he was to be remembered so long as a train should roar through the fruitful valley. A feeling of forgiveness crept into his soul. He looked toward the churchyard, of which a part remained, with crosses bowing toward the earth, but a part had become railroad. He was just trying to define his feelings, when, whistle went the first signal, and a while after the train came slowly along, puffing out smoke mingled with sparks, for wood was used instead of coal; the wind blew toward the house, and standing there they soon found themselves enveloped in a dense smoke; but by and by, as it cleared away, Lars saw the train working through the valley like a strong will.

He was satisfied, and entered the house as after a long day’s work. The image of his grandfather stood before him at this moment. This grandfather had raised the family from poverty to forehanded circumstances; true, a part of his citizen-honor had been lost, but forward he had pushed, nevertheless. His faults were those of his time; they were to be found on the uncertain borders of the moral conceptions of that period, and are of no consideration now. Honor to him in his grave, for he suffered and worked; peace to his ashes. It is good to rest at last. But he could get no rest because of his grandson’s great ambition. He was thrown up with stone and gravel. Pshaw! very likely he would only smile that his grandson’s work passed above his head.

With such thoughts he had undressed and gone to bed. Again his grandfather’s image glided forth. What did he wish. Surely he ought to be satisfied now, with the family’s honor sounding forth above his grave; who else had such a monument? But yet, what mean these two great eyes of fire? This hissing, roaring, is no longer the locomotive, for see! it comes from the churchyard directly toward the house: an immense procession! The eyes of fire are his grandfather’s, and the train behind are all the dead. It advances continually toward the house, roaring, crackling, flashing. The windows burn in the reflection of dead men’s eyes . . . he made a mighty effort to collect himself, “For it was a dream, of course, only a dream; but let me waken! . . . See: now I am awake; come, ghosts!”

And behold: they really come from the churchyard, overthrowing road, rails, locomotive and train with such violence that they sink in the ground; and then all is still there, covered with sod and crosses as before. But like giants the spirits advanced, and the hymn, “Let the dead have rest!” goes before them. He knows it; for daily in all these years it has sounded through his soul, and now it becomes his own requiem; for this was death and its visions. The perspiration started out over his whole body, for nearer and nearer,—and see there, on the window-pane! there, there they are now; and he heard his name. Overpowered with dread he struggled to shout, for he was strangling; a dead, cold hand already clenched his throat, when he regained his voice in a shrieking “Help me!” and awoke. At that moment the window was burst in with such force that the pieces flew on to his bed. He sprang up; a man stood in the opening, around him smoke and tongues of fire.

“The house is burning, Lars, we’ll help you out!”

It was Canute Aakre.

When again he recovered consciousness, he was lying out in a piercing wind that chilled his limbs. No one was by him; on the left he saw his burning house; around him grazed, bellowed, bleated, and neighed his stock; the sheep huddled together in a terrified flock; the furniture recklessly scattered: but, on looking around more carefully, he discovered somebody sitting on a knoll near him, weeping. It was his wife. He called her name. She started.

“The Lord Jesus be thanked that you live,” she exclaimed, coming forward and seating herself, or rather falling down before him: “O God! O God! now we have enough of that railroad!”

“The railroad?” he asked: but ere he spoke, it had flashed through his mind how it was; for, of course, the cause of the fire was the falling of sparks from the locomotive among the shavings by the new side-wall. He remained sitting, silent and thoughtful; his wife dared say no more, but was trying to find clothes for him: the things with which she had covered him, as he lay unconscious, having fallen off. He received her attentions in silence, but as she crouched down to cover his feet, he laid a hand upon her head. She hid her face in his lap, and wept aloud. At last he had noticed her. Lars understood, and said:

“You are the only friend I have.”

Although to hear these words had cost the house, no matter, they made her happy; she gathered courage and said, rising and looking submissively at him:

“That is because no one else understands you.”

Now again they talked of all that had transpired, or rather he remained silent, while she told about it. Canute Aakre had been first to perceive the fire, had awakened his people, sent the girls out through the parish, while he himself hastened with men and horses to the spot where all were sleeping. He had taken charge of extinguishing the fire and saving the property; Lars himself he had dragged from the burning room and brought him here on the left, to the windward,—here, out on the churchyard.

While they were talking of all this, some one came driving rapidly up the road and turned off toward them; soon he alighted. It was Canute, who had been home after his church-wagon; the one in which so many times they had ridden together to and from the parish meetings. Now Lars must get in and ride home with him. They took each other by the hand, one sitting, the other standing.

“You must come with me now,” said Canute Without reply Lars rose: they walked side by side to the wagon. Lars was helped in: Canute seated himself by his side. What they talked about as they rode, or afterward in the little chamber at Aakre, in which they remained until morning, has never been known; but from that day they were again inseparable.

As soon as disaster befalls a man, all seem to understand his worth. So the parish took upon themselves to rebuild Lars Hogstad’s houses, larger and handsomer than any others in the valley. Again he became chairman, but with Canute Aakre at his side, and from that day all went well. (translated by Carl Larsen)


The Railroad and the Churchyard was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Sun, Jan 01, 2012

My book on Genesis is now available as paperback and in Kindle. It is released through Amazon.com. For those who love the Word and believe it as inerrant shall find many revelations that only could have been possible from the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. From the day I set out to write it and till I put the book behind me as complete it was inspiration of God and blessed be the Name. I invite as the author to read and understand what God has in store for every one of us.

Benny

 

Robotics is the wave of future.

In a world of hi-tech if cyborgs are seriously pursued as higher state of human ingenuity why not teach robots certain human values? It is cost effective that government shall have an excuse to throw tax-payer’s money into something of value.  Would it not be worthwhile if  our expertise with AI can show us how to live with all in harmony?

I merely inverted the normal usage of man to give robots a pride of place. Instead of Cold War we make them initiators of peace so man is spared from the awful truth as the destroyer. It means for us pressing the nuclear button is not an option. May be robots shall do it for us.  Robots are our handiwork so is money, If we can make money our be-all, why not give value we so long attached to our humanity to AI? Such inversion makes us look at ourselves how much we have undervalued our humanity. It has therefore a shock value is it not?

Our curiosity is boundless that however prevents our body to follow since we as human species are to make the earth our home. It speaks of certain intelligence that we can send workable spacecrafts with the intent of colonizing exoplanets. In fact NASA is about to launch the Tessa mission to explore the new planets. Why should we teleport us if we can send our microbiome to do it for us instead?AI has its value so have cyborg programmed in some lab to perform certain tasks where humans may not do. Into a corrosive vat of acid we can send a cyborg and if it be melted we shall not be unduly cut up for the loss; for we can always go back to our drawing board and come up with a better model. Or send a robot into the centre of the earth where it can be our eyes and hands. Man is not intended for such death defying acts but to live and learn of his kind. AI in shorts cleans up the mess we make.

Microbiome is our solution: having found the earth our home not conducive to peace and harmony let them reconstitute it for us. Do we change our prejudices and everything non essential, to create a peaceable coexistence? No. Since what is in our own hand shall not bend to our will why not we resort to alternative: deconstruct man so we send the worlds that have colonized us instead to speak for ourselves? Our microbiome for example is likely candidate. You’re more microbe than human – if you count all the cells in your body, only 43% are human. The rest is our microbiome and includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and single-celled archaea.The human genome – the full set of genetic instructions for a human being – is made up of 20,000 instructions called genes. But add all the genes in our microbiome together and the figure comes out at between two million and 20 million microbial genes.It’s known as the second genome and is linked to diseases including allergy, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s, whether cancer drugs work and even depression and autism.

Man is by force of habit no longer a single entity anymore. Us and Them are what man invented with two good eyes his Maker gave him. Man set about himself as homo sapiens  and what did he come up with? Two Tribes. Mankind is deconstructed into many pigeon holes so we shall know how to deal with each when necessary. (‘Just a dog whistle shall do for Jim Crow to feel top of the Ozark mountains. I mean mood wise, while another needs bourbon’.) If man can be divided it means either he belongs to us or them. It is a kind of logic used by fellows who cannot differentiate left from his right foot. So he adds Alt right as though his gut fora is any wiser than mine. Thus we shuffle and deal marked cards and the Haves and Have-nots, carnivores, herbivores, the believers and kaffirs are all cards we carry around.

The second genome is proven more clever than our first. What shall the third wave be, I wonder.

Benny

 

 

One September night a family had gathered round their hearth, and piled it high with the driftwood of mountain streams, the dry cones of the pine, and the splintered ruins of great trees that had come crashing down the precipice. Up the chimney roared the fire, and brightened the room with its broad blaze. The faces of the father and mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed; the eldest daughter was the image of Happiness at seventeen; and the aged grandmother, who sat knitting in the warmest place, was the image of Happiness grown old. They had found the “herb, heart’s-ease,” in the bleakest spot of all New England. This family were situated in the Notch of the White Hills, where the wind was sharp throughout the year, and pitilessly cold in the winter–giving their cottage all its fresh inclemency before it descended on the valley of the Saco. They dwelt in a cold spot and a dangerous one; for a mountain towered above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight.

The daughter had just uttered some simple jest that filled them all with mirth, when the wind came through the Notch and seemed to pause before their cottage–rattling the door, with a sound of wailing and lamentation, before it passed into the valley. For a moment it saddened them, though there was nothing unusual in the tones. But the family were glad again when they perceived that the latch was lifted by some traveller, whose footsteps had been unheard amid the dreary blast which heralded his approach, and wailed as he was entering, and went moaning away from the door.
Though they dwelt in such a solitude, these people held daily converse with the world. The romantic pass of the Notch is a great artery, through which the life-blood of internal commerce is continually throbbing between Maine, on one side, and the Green Mountains and the shores of the St. Lawrence, on the other. The stage-coach always drew up before the door of the cottage. The way-farer, with no companion but his staff, paused here to exchange a word, that the sense of loneliness might not utterly overcome him ere he could pass through the cleft of the mountain, or reach the first house in the valley. And here the teamster, on his way to Portland market, would put up for the night; and, if a bachelor, might sit an hour beyond the usual bedtime, and steal a kiss from the mountain maid at parting. It was one of those primitive taverns where the traveller pays only for food and lodging, but meets with a homely kindness beyond all price. When the footsteps were heard, therefore, between the outer door and the inner one, the whole family rose up, grandmother, children, and all, as if about to welcome someone who belonged to them, and whose fate was linked with theirs.
The door was opened by a young man. His face at first wore the melancholy expression, almost despondency, of one who travels a wild and bleak road, at nightfall and alone, but soon brightened up when he saw the kindly warmth of his reception. He felt his heart spring forward to meet them all, from the old woman, who wiped a chair with her apron, to the little child that held out its arms to him. One glance and smile placed the stranger on a footing of innocent familiarity with the eldest daughter.
“Ah, this fire is the right thing!” cried he; “especially when there is such a pleasant circle round it. I am quite benumbed; for the Notch is just like the pipe of a great pair of bellows; it has blown a terrible blast in my face all the way from Bartlett.”
“Then you are going towards Vermont?” said the master of the house, as he helped to take a light knapsack off the young man’s shoulders.
“Yes; to Burlington, and far enough beyond,” replied he. “I meant to have been at Ethan Crawford’s tonight; but a pedestrian lingers along such a road as this. It is no matter; for, when I saw this good fire, and all your cheerful faces, I felt as if you had kindled it on purpose for me, and were waiting my arrival. So I shall sit down among you, and make myself at home.”
The frank-hearted stranger had just drawn his chair to the fire when something like a heavy footstep was heard without, rushing down the steep side of the mountain, as with long and rapid strides, and taking such a leap in passing the cottage as to strike the opposite precipice. The family held their breath, because they knew the sound, and their guest held his by instinct.
“The old mountain has thrown a stone at us, for fear we should forget him,” said the landlord, recovering himself. “He sometimes nods his head and threatens to come down; but we are old neighbors, and agree together pretty well upon the whole. Besides we have a sure place of refuge hard by if he should be coming in good earnest.”
Let us now suppose the stranger to have finished his supper of bear’s meat; and, by his natural felicity of manner, to have placed himself on a footing of kindness with the whole family, so that they talked as freely together as if he belonged to their mountain brood. He was of a proud, yet gentle spirit–haughty and reserved among the rich and great; but ever ready to stoop his head to the lowly cottage door, and be like a brother or a son at the poor man’s fireside. In the household of the Notch he found warmth and simplicity of feeling, the pervading intelligence of New England, and a poetry of native growth, which they had gathered when they little thought of it from the mountain peaks and chasms, and at the very threshold of their romantic and dangerous abode. He had travelled far and alone; his whole life, indeed, had been a solitary path; for, with the lofty caution of his nature, he had kept himself apart from those who might otherwise have been his companions. The family, too, though so kind and hospitable, had that consciousness of unity among themselves, and separation from the world at large, which, in every domestic circle, should still keep a holy place where no stranger may intrude. But this evening a prophetic sympathy impelled the refined and educated youth to pour out his heart before the simple mountaineers, and constrained them to answer him with the same free confidence. And thus it should have been. Is not the kindred of a common fate a closer tie than that of birth?
The secret of the young man’s character was a high and abstracted ambition. He could have borne to live an undistinguished life, but not to be forgotten in the grave. Yearning desire had been transformed to hope; and hope, long cherished, had become like certainty, that, obscurely as he journeyed now, a glory was to beam on all his pathway-though not, perhaps, while he was treading it. But when posterity should gaze back into the gloom of what was now the present, they would trace the brightness of his footsteps, brightening as meaner glories faded, and confess that a gifted one had passed from his cradle to his tomb with none to recognize him.
“As yet,” cried the stranger–his cheek glowing and his eye flashing with enthusiasm–“as yet, I have done nothing. Were I to vanish from the earth tomorrow, none would know so much of me as you: that a nameless youth came up at nightfall from the valley of the Saco, and opened his heart to you in the evening, and passed through the Notch by sunrise, and was seen no more. Not a soul would ask, ‘Who was he? Whither did the wanderer go?’ But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!”
There was a continual flow of natural emotion, gushing forth amid abstracted reverie, which enabled the family to understand this young man’s sentiments, though so foreign from their own. With quick sensibility of the ludicrous, he blushed at the ardor into which he had been betrayed.
“You laugh at me,” said he, taking the eldest daughter’s hand, and laughing himself. “You think my ambition as nonsensical as if I were to freeze myself to death on the top of Mount Washington, only that people might spy at me from the country round about. And, truly, that would be a noble pedestal for a man’s statue!”
“It is better to sit here by this fire,” answered the girl, blushing, “and be comfortable and contented, though nobody thinks about us.”
“I suppose,” said her father, after a fit of musing, “there is something natural in what the young man says; and if my mind had been turned that way, I might have felt just the same. It is strange, wife, how his talk has set my head running on things that are pretty certain never to come to pass.”
“Perhaps they may,” observed the wife. “Is the man thinking what he will do when he is a widower?”
“No, no!” cried he, repelling the idea with reproachful kindness. “When I think of your death, Esther, I think of mine, too. But I was wishing we had a good farm in Bartlett, or Bethlehem, or Littleton, or some other township round the White Mountains; but not where they could tumble on our heads. I should want to stand well with my neighbors and be called Squire, and sent to General Court for a term or two; for a plain, honest man may do as much good there as a lawyer. And when I should be grown quite an old man, and you an old woman, so as not to be long apart, I might die happy enough in my bed, and leave you all crying around me. A slate gravestone would suit me as well as a marble one–with just my name and age, and a verse of a hymn, and something to let people know that I lived an honest man and died a Christian.”
“There now!” exclaimed the stranger; “it is our nature to desire a monument, be it slate or marble, or a pillar of granite, or a glorious memory in the universal heart of man.”
“We’re in a strange way, tonight,” said the wife, with tears in her eyes. “They say it’s a sign of something, when folks’ minds go a-wandering so. Hark to the children!”
They listened accordingly. The younger children had been put to bed in another room, but with an open door between, so that they could be heard talking busily among themselves. One and all seemed to have caught the infection from the fireside circle, and were outvying each other in wild wishes, and childish projects, of what they would do when they came to be men and women. At length a little boy, instead of addressing his brothers and sisters, called out to his mother.
“I’ll tell you what I wish, mother,” cried he. “I want you and father and grandma’m, and all of us, and the stranger too, to start right away, and go and take a drink out of the basin of the Flume!”
Nobody could help laughing at the child’s notion of leaving a warm bed, and dragging them from a cheerful fire, to visit the basin of the Flume–a brook, which tumbles over the precipice, deep within the Notch. The boy had hardly spoken when a wagon rattled along the road, and stopped a moment before the door. It appeared to contain two or three men, who were cheering their hearts with the rough chorus of a song, which resounded, in broken notes, between the cliffs, while the singers hesitated whether to continue their journey or put up here for the night.
“Father,” said the girl, “they are calling you by name.”
But the good man doubted whether they had really called him, and was unwilling to show himself too solicitous of gain by inviting people to patronize his house. He therefore did not hurry to the door; and the lash being soon applied, the travellers plunged into the Notch, still singing and laughing, though their music and mirth came back drearily from the heart of the mountain.
“There, mother!” cried the boy, again. “They’d have given us a ride to the Flume.”
Again they laughed at the child’s pertinacious fancy for a night ramble. But it happened that a light cloud passed over the daughter’s spirit; she looked gravely into the fire, and drew a breath that was almost a sigh. It forced its way, in spite of a little struggle to repress it. Then starting and blushing, she looked quickly round the circle, as if they had caught a glimpse into her bosom. The stranger asked what she had been thinking of.
“Nothing,” answered she, with a downcast smile. “Only I felt lonesome just then.”
“Oh, I have always had a gift of feeling what is in other people’s hearts,” said he, half seriously. “Shall I tell the secrets of yours? For I know what to think when a young girl shivers by a warm hearth, and complains of lonesomeness at her mother’s side. Shall I put these feelings into words?”
“They would not be a girl’s feelings any longer if they could be put into words,” replied the mountain nymph, laughing, but avoiding his eye.
All this was said apart. Perhaps a germ of love was springing in their hearts, so pure that it might blossom in Paradise, since it could not be matured on earth; for women worship such gentle dignity as his; and the proud, contemplative, yet kindly soul is oftenest captivated by simplicity like hers. But while they spoke softly, and he was watching the happy sadness, the lightsome shadows, the shy yearnings of a maiden’s nature, the wind through the Notch took a deeper and drearier sound. It seemed, as the fanciful stranger said, like the choral strain of the spirits of the blast, who in old Indian times had their dwelling among these mountains, and made their heights and recesses a sacred region.
There was a wail along the road, as if a funeral were passing. To chase away the gloom, the family threw pine branches on their fire, till the dry leaves crackled and the flame arose, discovering once again a scene of peace and humble happiness. The light hovered about them fondly, and caressed them all. There were the little faces of the children, peeping from their bed apart, and here the father’s frame of strength, the mother’s subdued and careful mien, the high-browed youth, the budding girl, and the good old grandam, still knitting in the warmest place. The aged woman looked up from her task, and, with fingers ever busy, was the next to speak.
“Old folks have their notions,” said she, “as well as young ones. You’ve been wishing and planning; and letting your heads run on one thing and another, till you’ve set my mind a-wandering too. Now what should an old woman wish for, when she can go but a step or two before she comes to her grave? Children, it will haunt me night and day till I tell you.”
“What is it, mother?” cried the husband and wife at once.
Then the old woman, with an air of mystery which drew the circle closer round the fire, informed them that she had provided her grave-clothes some years before–a nice linen shroud, a cap with a muslin ruff, and everything of a finer sort than she had worn since her wedding day. But this evening an old superstition had strangely recurred to her. It used to be said, in her younger days, that if anything were amiss with a corpse, if only the ruff were not smooth, or the cap did not set right, the corpse in the coffin and beneath the clods would strive to put up its cold hands and arrange it. The bare thought made her nervous.
“Don’t talk so, grandmother!” said the girl, shuddering.
“Now,” continued the old woman, with singular earnestness, yet smiling strangely at her own folly, “I want one of you, my children- when your mother is dressed and in the coffin–I want one of you to hold a looking-glass over my face. Who knows but I may take a glimpse at myself, and see whether all’s right?”
“Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments,” murmured the stranger youth. “I wonder how mariners feel when the ship is sinking, and they, unknown and undistinguished, are to be buried together in the ocean–that wide and nameless sepulchre?”
For a moment, the old woman’s ghastly conception so engrossed the minds of her hearers that a sound abroad in the night, rising like the roar of a blast, had grown broad, deep, and terrible, before the fated group were conscious of it. The house and all within it trembled; the foundations of the earth seemed to be shaken, as if this awful sound were the peal of the last trump. Young and old exchanged one wild glance, and remained an instant, pale, affrighted, without utterance, or power to move. Then the same shriek burst simultaneously from all their lips.
“The Slide! The Slide!”
The simplest words must intimate, but not portray, the unutterable horror of the catastrophe. The victims rushed from their cottage, and sought refuge in what they deemed a safer spot–where, in contemplation of such an emergency, a sort of barrier had been reared. Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction. Down came the whole side of the mountain, in a cataract of ruin. Just before it reached the house, the stream broke into two branches–shivered not a window there, but overwhelmed the whole vicinity, blocked up the road, and annihilated everything in its dreadful course. Long ere the thunder of the great Slide had ceased to roar among the mountains, the mortal agony had been endured, and the victims were at peace. Their bodies were never found.
The next morning, the light smoke was seen stealing from the cottage chimney up the mountain side. Within, the fire was yet smouldering on the hearth, and the chairs in a circle round it, as if the inhabitants had but gone forth to view the devastation of the Slide, and would shortly return, to thank Heaven for their miraculous escape. All had left separate tokens, by which those who had known the family were made to shed a tear for each. Who has not heard their name? The story has been told far and wide, and will forever be a legend of these mountains. Poets have sung their fate.
There were circumstances which led some to suppose that a stranger had been received into the cottage on this awful night, and had shared the catastrophe of all its inmates. Others denied that there were sufficient grounds for such a conjecture. Wo for the high-souled youth, with his dream of Earthly Immortality! His name and person utterly unknown; his history, his way of life, his plans, a mystery never to be solved, his death and his existence equally a doubt! Whose was the agony of that death moment?
The end