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Marius the epicurean %E2.., p.7

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2, page 7

 part  #2 of  Marius the Epicurean Series


Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2

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  "Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."

  [92] CORNELIUS had certain friends in or near Rome, whose household, toMarius, as he pondered now and again what might be the determininginfluences of that peculiar character, presented itself as possibly itsmain secret--the hidden source from which the beauty and strength of anature, so persistently fresh in the midst of a somewhat jaded world,might be derived. But Marius had never yet seen these friends; and itwas almost by accident that the veil of reserve was at last lifted,and, with strange contrast to his visit to the poet's villa atTusculum, he entered another curious house.

  "The house in which she lives," says that mystical German writer quotedonce before, "is for the orderly soul, which does not live on [93]blindly before her, but is ever, out of her passing experiences,building and adorning the parts of a many-roomed abode for herself,only an expansion of the body; as the body, according to the philosophyof Swedenborg,+ is but a process, an expansion, of the soul. For suchan orderly soul, as life proceeds, all sorts of delicate affinitiesestablish themselves, between herself and the doors and passage-ways,the lights and shadows, of her outward dwelling-place, until she mayseem incorporate with it--until at last, in the entire expressivenessof what is outward, there is for her, to speak properly, betweenoutward and inward, no longer any distinction at all; and the lightwhich creeps at a particular hour on a particular picture or space uponthe wall, the scent of flowers in the air at a particular window,become to her, not so much apprehended objects, as themselves powers ofapprehension and door-ways to things beyond--the germ or rudiment ofcertain new faculties, by which she, dimly yet surely, apprehends amatter lying beyond her actually attained capacities of spirit andsense."

  So it must needs be in a world which is itself, we may think, togetherwith that bodily "tent" or "tabernacle," only one of many vestures forthe clothing of the pilgrim soul, to be left by her, surely, as if onthe wayside, worn-out one by one, as it was from her, indeed, theyborrowed what momentary value or significance they had.

  [94] The two friends were returning to Rome from a visit to acountry-house, where again a mixed company of guests had beenassembled; Marius, for his part, a little weary of gossip, and thosesparks of ill-tempered rivalry, which would seem sometimes to be theonly sort of fire the intercourse of people in general society canstrike out of them. A mere reaction upon this, as they started in theclear morning, made their companionship, at least for one of them,hardly less tranquillising than the solitude he so much valued.Something in the south-west wind, combining with their own intention,favoured increasingly, as the hours wore on, a serenity like thatMarius had felt once before in journeying over the great plain towardsTibur--a serenity that was to-day brotherly amity also, and seemed todraw into its own charmed circle whatever was then present to eye orear, while they talked or were silent together, and all pettyirritations, and the like, shrank out of existence, or kept certainlybeyond its limits. The natural fatigue of the long journey overcamethem quite suddenly at last, when they were still about two milesdistant from Rome. The seemingly endless line of tombs and cypresseshad been visible for hours against the sky towards the west; and it wasjust where a cross-road from the Latin Way fell into the Appian, thatCornelius halted at a doorway in a long, low wall--the outer wall ofsome villa courtyard, it might be supposed-- [95] as if at liberty toenter, and rest there awhile. He held the door open for his companionto enter also, if he would; with an expression, as he lifted the latch,which seemed to ask Marius, apparently shrinking from a possibleintrusion: "Would you like to see it?" Was he willing to look uponthat, the seeing of which might define--yes! define the criticalturning-point in his days?

  The little doorway in this long, low wall admitted them, in fact, intothe court or garden of a villa, disposed in one of those abrupt naturalhollows, which give its character to the country in this place; thehouse itself, with all its dependent buildings, the spaciousness ofwhich surprised Marius as he entered, being thus wholly concealed frompassengers along the road. All around, in those well-orderedprecincts, were the quiet signs of wealth, and of a noble taste--ataste, indeed, chiefly evidenced in the selection and juxtaposition ofthe material it had to deal with, consisting almost exclusively of theremains of older art, here arranged and harmonised, with effects, bothas regards colour and form, so delicate as to seem really derivativefrom some finer intelligence in these matters than lay within theresources of the ancient world. It was the old way of trueRenaissance--being indeed the way of nature with her roses, the divineway with the body of man, perhaps with his soul--conceiving the neworganism by no sudden and [96] abrupt creation, but rather by theaction of a new principle upon elements, all of which had in truthalready lived and died many times. The fragments of olderarchitecture, the mosaics, the spiral columns, the preciouscorner-stones of immemorial building, had put on, by suchjuxtaposition, a new and singular expressiveness, an air of gravethought, of an intellectual purpose, in itself, aesthetically, veryseductive. Lastly, herb and tree had taken possession, spreading theirseed-bells and light branches, just astir in the trembling air, abovethe ancient garden-wall, against the wide realms of sunset. And fromthe first they could hear singing, the singing of children mainly, itwould seem, and of a new kind; so novel indeed in its effect, as tobring suddenly to the recollection of Marius, Flavian's early essaystowards a new world of poetic sound. It was the expression notaltogether of mirth, yet of some wonderful sort of happiness--theblithe self-expansion of a joyful soul in people upon whom someall-subduing experience had wrought heroically, and who stillremembered, on this bland afternoon, the hour of a great deliverance.

  His old native susceptibility to the spirit, the special sympathies, ofplaces,--above all, to any hieratic or religious significance theymight have,--was at its liveliest, as Marius, still encompassed by thatpeculiar singing, and still amid the evidences of a grave discretionall around him, passed into the house. That intelligent seriousness[97] about life, the absence of which had ever seemed to remove thosewho lacked it into some strange species wholly alien from himself,accumulating all the lessons of his experience since those first daysat White-nights, was as it were translated here, as if in designedcongruity with his favourite precepts of the power of physical vision,into an actual picture. If the true value of souls is in proportion towhat they can admire, Marius was just then an acceptable soul. As hepassed through the various chambers, great and small, one dominantthought increased upon him, the thought of chaste women and theirchildren--of all the various affections of family life under its mostnatural conditions, yet developed, as if in devout imitation of somesublime new type of it, into large controlling passions. There reignedthroughout, an order and purity, an orderly disposition, as if by wayof making ready for some gracious spousals. The place itself was likea bride adorned for her husband; and its singular cheerfulness, theabundant light everywhere, the sense of peaceful industry, of which hereceived a deep impression though without precisely reckoning whereinit resided, as he moved on rapidly, were in forcible contrast just atfirst to the place to which he was next conducted by Cornelius stillwith a sort of eager, hurried, half-troubled reluctance, and as if heforbore the explanation which might well be looked for by his companion.

  [98] An old flower-garden in the rear of the house, set here and therewith a venerable olive-tree--a picture in pensive shade and fieryblossom, as transparent, under that afternoon light, as the oldminiature-painters' work on the walls of the chambers within--wasbounded towards the west by a low, grass-grown hill. A narrow openingcut in its steep side, like a solid blackness there, admitted Mariusand his gleaming leader into a hollow cavern or crypt, neither more norless in fact than the family burial-place of the Cecilii, to whom thisresidence belonged, brought thus, after an arrangement then becomingnot unusual, into immediate connexion with the abode of the living, inbold assertion of that in
stinct of family life, which the sanction ofthe Holy Family was, hereafter, more and more to reinforce. Here, intruth, was the centre of the peculiar religious expressiveness, of thesanctity, of the entire scene. That "any person may, at his ownelection, constitute the place which belongs to him a religious place,by the carrying of his dead into it":--had been a maxim of old Romanlaw, which it was reserved for the early Christian societies, like thatestablished here by the piety of a wealthy Roman matron, to realise inall its consequences. Yet this was certainly unlike any cemeteryMarius had ever before seen; most obviously in this, that these peoplehad returned to the older fashion of disposing of [99] their dead byburial instead of burning. Originally a family sepulchre, it wasgrowing to a vast necropolis, a whole township of the deceased, bymeans of some free expansion of the family interest beyond its amplestnatural limits. That air of venerable beauty which characterised thehouse and its precincts above, was maintained also here. It wascertainly with a great outlay of labour that these long, apparentlyendless, yet elaborately designed galleries, were increasing sorapidly, with their layers of beds or berths, one above another, cut,on either side the path-way, in the porous tufa, through which all themoisture filters downwards, leaving the parts above dry and wholesome.All alike were carefully closed, and with all the delicate costlinessat command; some with simple tiles of baked clay, many with slabs ofmarble, enriched by fair inscriptions: marble taken, in some cases,from older pagan tombs--the inscription sometimes a palimpsest, the newepitaph being woven into the faded letters of an earlier one.

  As in an ordinary Roman cemetery, an abundance of utensils for theworship or commemoration of the departed was disposed around--incense,lights, flowers, their flame or their freshness being relieved to theutmost by contrast with the coal-like blackness of the soil itself, avolcanic sandstone, cinder of burnt-out fires. Would they ever kindleagain?--possess, transform, the place?--Turning to an [100] ashenpallor where, at regular intervals, an air-hole or luminare let in ahard beam of clear but sunless light, with the heavy sleepers, row uponrow within, leaving a passage so narrow that only one visitor at a timecould move along, cheek to cheek with them, the high walls seemed toshut one in into the great company of the dead. Only the long straightpathway lay before him; opening, however, here and there, into a smallchamber, around a broad, table-like coffin or "altar-tomb," adornedeven more profusely than the rest as if for some anniversaryobservance. Clearly, these people, concurring in this with the specialsympathies of Marius himself, had adopted the practice of burial fromsome peculiar feeling of hope they entertained concerning the body; afeeling which, in no irreverent curiosity, he would fain havepenetrated. The complete and irreparable disappearance of the dead inthe funeral fire, so crushing to the spirits, as he for one had foundit, had long since induced in him a preference for that other mode ofsettlement to the last sleep, as having something about it morehome-like and hopeful, at least in outward seeming. But whence thestrange confidence that these "handfuls of white dust" would hereafterrecompose themselves once more into exulting human creatures? By whatheavenly alchemy, what reviving dew from above, such as was certainlynever again to reach the dead violets?-- [101] Januarius, Agapetus,Felicitas; Martyrs! refresh, I pray you, the soul of Cecil, ofCornelius! said an inscription, one of many, scratched, like a passingsigh, when it was still fresh in the mortar that had closed up theprison-door. All critical estimate of this bold hope, as sincereapparently as it was audacious in its claim, being set aside, here atleast, carried further than ever before, was that pious, systematiccommemoration of the dead, which, in its chivalrous refusal to forgetor finally desert the helpless, had ever counted with Marius as thecentral exponent or symbol of all natural duty.

  The stern soul of the excellent Jonathan Edwards, applying thefaulty theology of John Calvin, afforded him, we know, the vision ofinfants not a span long, on the floor of hell. Every visitor to theCatacombs must have observed, in a very different theologicalconnexion, the numerous children's graves there--beds of infants, but aspan long indeed, lowly "prisoners of hope," on these sacred floors.It was with great curiosity, certainly, that Marius considered them,decked in some instances with the favourite toys of their tinyoccupants--toy-soldiers, little chariot-wheels, the entireparaphernalia of a baby-house; and when he saw afterwards the livingchildren, who sang and were busy above--sang their psalm Laudate PueriDominum!--their very faces caught for him a sort of quaint unrealityfrom the memory [102] of those others, the children of the Catacombs,but a little way below them.

  Here and there, mingling with the record of merely natural decease, andsometimes even at these children's graves, were the signs of violentdeath or "martyrdom,"--proofs that some "had loved not their lives untothe death"--in the little red phial of blood, the palm-branch, the redflowers for their heavenly "birthday." About one sepulchre inparticular, distinguished in this way, and devoutly arrayed for what,by a bold paradox, was thus treated as, natalitia--a birthday, thepeculiar arrangements of the whole place visibly centered. And it waswith a singular novelty of feeling, like the dawning of a fresh orderof experiences upon him, that, standing beside those mournful relics,snatched in haste from the common place of execution not many yearsbefore, Marius became, as by some gleam of foresight, aware of thewhole force of evidence for a certain strange, new hope, defining inits turn some new and weighty motive of action, which lay in deaths sotragic for the "Christian superstition." Something of them he hadheard indeed already. They had seemed to him but one savagery themore, savagery self-provoked, in a cruel and stupid world.

  And yet these poignant memorials seemed also to draw him onwardsto-day, as if towards an image of some still more pathetic suffering,[103] in the remote background. Yes! the interest, the expression, ofthe entire neighbourhood was instinct with it, as with the savour ofsome priceless incense. Penetrating the whole atmosphere, touchingeverything around with its peculiar sentiment, it seemed to make allthis visible mortality, death's very self--Ah! lovelier than any fableof old mythology had ever thought to render it, in the utmost limits offantasy; and this, in simple candour of feeling about a supposed fact.Peace! Pax tecum!--the word, the thought--was put forth everywhere,with images of hope, snatched sometimes from that jaded pagan worldwhich had really afforded men so little of it from first to last; thevarious consoling images it had thrown off, of succour, ofregeneration, of escape from the grave--Hercules wrestling with Deathfor possession of Alcestis, Orpheus taming the wild beasts, theShepherd with his sheep, the Shepherd carrying the sick lamb upon hisshoulders. Yet these imageries after all, it must be confessed, formedbut a slight contribution to the dominant effect of tranquil hopethere--a kind of heroic cheerfulness and grateful expansion of heart,as with the sense, again, of some real deliverance, which seemed todeepen the longer one lingered through these strange and awfulpassages. A figure, partly pagan in character, yet most frequentlyrepeated of all these visible parables--the figure of one just [104]escaped from the sea, still clinging as for life to the shore insurprised joy, together with the inscription beneath it, seemed best toexpress the prevailing sentiment of the place. And it was just as hehad puzzled out this inscription--

  I went down to the bottom of the mountains. The earth with her bars was about me for ever: Yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption!

  --that with no feeling of suddenness or change Marius found himselfemerging again, like a later mystic traveller through similar darkplaces "quieted by hope," into the daylight.

  They were still within the precincts of the house, still in possessionof that wonderful singing, although almost in the open country, with agreat view of the Campagna before them, and the hills beyond. Theorchard or meadow, through which their path lay, was already gray withtwilight, though the western sky, where the greater stars were visible,was still afloat in crimson splendour. The colour of all earthlythings seemed repressed by the contrast, yet with a sense of greatrichness lingering in their shadows. At that moment the voice of thesinge
rs, a "voice of joy and health," concentrated itself with solemnantistrophic movement, into an evening, or "candle" hymn.

  "Hail! Heavenly Light, from his pure glory poured, Who is the Almighty Father, heavenly, blest:-- Worthiest art Thou, at all times to be sung With undefiled tongue."--

  [105] It was like the evening itself made audible, its hopes and fears,with the stars shining in the midst of it. Half above, half below thelevel white mist, dividing the light from the darkness, came now themistress of this place, the wealthy Roman matron, left early a widow afew years before, by Cecilius "Confessor and Saint." With a certainantique severity in the gathering of the long mantle, and with coif orveil folded decorously below the chin, "gray within gray," to the mindof Marius her temperate beauty brought reminiscences of the serious andvirile character of the best female statuary of Greece. Quite foreign,however, to any Greek statuary was the expression of pathetic care,with which she carried a little child at rest in her arms. Another, ayear or two older, walked beside, the fingers of one hand within hergirdle. She paused for a moment with a greeting for Cornelius.

  That visionary scene was the close, the fitting close, of theafternoon's strange experiences. A few minutes later, passing forwardon his way along the public road, he could have fancied it a dream.The house of Cecilia grouped itself beside that other curious house hehad lately visited at Tusculum. And what a contrast was presented bythe former, in its suggestions of hopeful industry, of immaculatecleanness, of responsive affection!--all alike determined by thattransporting discovery of some fact, or series [106] of facts, in whichthe old puzzle of life had found its solution. In truth, one of hismost characteristic and constant traits had ever been a certain longingfor escape--for some sudden, relieving interchange, across the veryspaces of life, it might be, along which he had lingered mostpleasantly--for a lifting, from time to time, of the actual horizon.It was like the necessity under which the painter finds himself, to seta window or open doorway in the background of his picture; or like asick man's longing for northern coolness, and the whisperingwillow-trees, amid the breathless evergreen forests of the south. Tosome such effect had this visit occurred to him, and through so slightan accident. Rome and Roman life, just then, were come to seem likesome stifling forest of bronze-work, transformed, as if by malignenchantment, out of the generations of living trees, yet with roots ina deep, down-trodden soil of poignant human susceptibilities. In themidst of its suffocation, that old longing for escape had beensatisfied by this vision of the church in Cecilia's house, as neverbefore. It was still, indeed, according to the unchangeable law of histemperament, to the eye, to the visual faculty of mind, that thoseexperiences appealed--the peaceful light and shade, the boys whose veryfaces seemed to sing, the virginal beauty of the mother and herchildren. But, in his case, what was thus visible constituted a moral[107] or spiritual influence, of a somewhat exigent and controllingcharacter, added anew to life, a new element therein, with which,consistently with his own chosen maxim, he must make terms.

  The thirst for every kind of experience, encouraged by a philosophywhich taught that nothing was intrinsically great or small, good orevil, had ever been at strife in him with a hieratic refinement, inwhich the boy-priest survived, prompting always the selection of whatwas perfect of its kind, with subsequent loyal adherence of his soulthereto. This had carried him along in a continuous communion withideals, certainly realised in part, either in the conditions of his ownbeing, or in the actual company about him, above all, in Cornelius.Surely, in this strange new society he had touched upon for the firsttime to-day--in this strange family, like "a garden enclosed"--was thefulfilment of all the preferences, the judgments, of thathalf-understood friend, which of late years had been his protection sooften amid the perplexities of life. Here, it might be, was, if notthe cure, yet the solace or anodyne of his great sorrows--of thatconstitutional sorrowfulness, not peculiar to himself perhaps, butwhich had made his life certainly like one long "disease of thespirit." Merciful intention made itself known remedially here, in themere contact of the air, like a soft touch upon aching [108] flesh. Onthe other hand, he was aware that new responsibilities also might beawakened--new and untried responsibilities--a demand for something fromhim in return. Might this new vision, like the malignant beauty ofpagan Medusa, be exclusive of any admiring gaze upon anything butitself? At least he suspected that, after the beholding of it, hecould never again be altogether as he had been before.


  93. +Emanuel Swedenborg, Swedish mystic writer, 1688-1772. Return.

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