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to the library, and I will show it to thee. Thou shalt read it, if thou wilt: if not, we will converse till mid-night. I have something I would say to thee.'
He summoned a slave, who entered with a bronze lamp, and led the way into the atrium. The oiled log was blazing on the hearth, and by its flickering light they saw the Lares and Penates. From the atrium they proceeded to the library, which was already lighted. From the centre of the gilded ceiling swung a massive silver lamp, of a fantastic pattern. It was shaped somewhat like a boat, with the head and fore-legs of an ox on each side. On its deck were a couple of swans, looking to the prow and stern, which were slightly raised; through their arching necks ran the chain by which the lamp was suspended. Under this lamp was a couch, and a table of Egyptian marble. The floor was inlaid with mosaic, and here and there were mats of grass, brilliantly dyed. Statues of marble and alabaster stood on the shadowy niches, like ghosts, and in the corners of the room were dusky figures of bronze.
But the glory of the library was its manuscripts, which were lying round in all directions; strewn on the couches and the floor, and piled up in their cases. Here were the writings of the Greek poets and philosophers, and there the mysterious lore of Egyptian and Indian sages: volumes of papyrus and parchment rolled on ebony cylinders, and sheets of vellum fastened with leather thongs. The name of each work was emblazoned on its back in red letters. The voluminous authors were bound with ribbons, and preserved in boxes and cases. Upon a small desk by the window stood a silver ink-horn, and beside it lay an Egyptian reed, and some halfwritten sheets of parchment.
'I sent for thee to-night, Publius,' said the poet, when the pair had seated themselves, as a man sends for his friend when he feels that his end is near. Start not when I say that my last hour is at hand. It will be here at mid-night.'
"Thou art to die at mid-night?' inquired his companion anxiously.
'I said not that.'
True I had forgotten. To us, philosophers, there is no such thing as death. It is merely change. We change our bodies as we do our garments, putting off our old, worn-out robes for a new suit, fresh from the wardrobe of the gods. You assume the spiritual toga at mid-night then? I am sorry for it. You will doubtless gain by the change, for they say we have nothing in Rome like the Elysian fields. Still, I prefer Rome, and, Jove willing, I do not mean to quit it for many a long year.'
In my new epic,' said the poet, I take Æneas through the kingdoms of the dead. I follow the priests in my description of his journey through the shades, partly because it would not be safe just now to question their stories, and partly because I have nothing better to offer in their stead. Invention is a rare gift, even among the poets. But, under the rose, dear Publius, Hades and Elysium are fables. That the soul of man exists after this
change which we call 'death,' I believe; but beyond that, I know nothing. We may guess, but we cannot know; knowledge is the fruit of things seen, not of traditions and dreams. You will see what I have written as a poet; what I shall write as a philosopher thou wilt know hereafter."
'I doubt not, Virgil, but that thou wilt walk with Plato in the world of souls, and interpret his wisdom cunningly. But the dead know already what thou wouldst teach them. It is not the dead, but the living, from whom the secret of death is hid.'
'Listen, Publius, for what I am about to say to thee has never been breathed to man. From my earliest youth, as thou knowest, I devoted my life to philosophy; not merely studying what the philosophers have written, but travelling in many lands. I have listened to the Greek philosophers in Athens, in the very grove where Plato taught: questioned the priests of Egypt in the shadow of the Pyramids, and even traced the stream of thought back to its fountain-head in the East. I have learned something from all, but more, Publius, from myself. I studied at first the nature of the gods, for upon that, I was taught, all knowledge is based. I mastered all the known systems of mythology - a thousand different charts of the same sea. I could track my way through the pathless forest of Error, under which the Truth lies buried, and erect its fallen columns with a semblance of their ancient beauty. I saw the gods of the world, Jove, Osiris, Brahma, sitting above the clouds, in the serene regions of the air, but I could not worship them, majestic though they were, for I felt there was something beyond them. As they did not go back to the beginning, they could not endure to the end. There was another GOD to whom the end and the beginning were one. Of this GOD I knew nothing. He was, is, and ever will be, THE UNKNOWN. Unlike Jove, whom we figure to ourselves as a bearded, majestic monarch, we cannot embody or conceive HIM. HE is a Cause, a Principle, an Essence.
'Here I stopped, and wisely, for this is a shoreless sea, and turned my thoughts to man. It matters little in this world, I sometimes think, whether our conceptions of gods are true or false, but it is essential to us to understand men. We have but one life in which to do our duties to ourselves; we shall have many to worship the gods in. I studied man profoundly in his spiritual and physical nature, and much that was before obscure became clear.'
What a strange dream,' said Publius musing, 'this life of ours is! Yesterday we were children in our nurses' arms, to-day we are strong-limbed men: to-morrow we shall totter about on our staffs, the next day all will be over. The life of man is the buzzing of a summer fly.'
It was not so in the early ages,' answered Virgil. 'There was once a time, we read in the poets, when men lived a thousand years. The world considers this a fiction, but I hold it to have been true. When I was in India I saw a Yogi who was said to be two hundred years old. He lived on fruits, and drank from a
brook that ran past his hut: his bed was the bare ground. The earth strengthened him, as it did Antæus. You should be initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis, Publius, if you would learn the virtues of the earth. There is a deep meaning in the myth of Ceres and Proserpina. Would men but live on grain instead of flesh, they would live longer; could they but know themselves and their powers, they need not grow old and die. Our bodies grow old in a few years, because we break the laws which govern them. The matter of which they are composed takes a new form, because its old one will endure no longer. The guest that violates the mansion that harbors him, as we do our bodies, must be ejected. The slaves that have hitherto obeyed him (I mean his passions) grow riotous, and thrust him from the banquet; away from the lights, and the wine, and the laughing faces of his friends, out into the terrible night. Such is the doom of the fool, but the wise man can escape it. The truth which has baffled the world for thousands of years, will one day appear suddenly, and remain forever. It is this, Publius: Men need not die!'
The knight started at these wild words as if a thunder-bolt had fallen at his feet.
'Thou thinkest me mad,' said Virgil with a pitying smile, but thou art mistaken. I repeat it: Man need not die. The UNKNOWN, of whom he is an emanation, makes him at his birth the lord of the body in which he is inclosed. This body has its laws which cannot be broken, (for matter, Publius, is not created, as many think, but is eternal and self-existent ;) but to obey these laws is to master them, and render them powerless. But what are these laws?' I asked myself. That is Nature's secret,' my soul replied,
and we must wring it from her.' Then I began to study the Earth. I planted my garden, and watched the germination of seed. I stocked my ponds with fish, and watched their spawn. I filled my aviaries with birds, and watched their incubation. I learned much, of which our naturalists are ignorant, (I believe my pastorals are praised,) but not the secret of life. It evaded me for years. But my pursuit of this Proteus was not without fruit. For out of my baffled studies, my sleepless nights and days-now prying into the earth in the gloom of caves, and now filtering the rivers at their source -burning in the hot noon sun on unsheltered plains, and freezing on the tops of mountains in the cold nights of winter-in my library poring over ancient scrolls, or in my laboratory melting rocks and metals; from all this, Publius, and from dreams which were vouchsafed to me in answer to my prayers and fasts, came glimpses of what I sought, like flashes of lightning at night. But how stands the clepsydra? The slave of the night has neglected to give me the time.'
'It will not be mid-night for an hour.'
'Much may be done in that time. I will give thee a specimen of my knowledge.'
He opened a casket and took out a handful of seed which he planted in a vase. Then he sprinkled the vase with water, and
muttering an incantation, waited for the charm to work. In a few seconds the seed germinated, and a tuft of light green shoots pushed its way through the soil. At first the stalks were single, like spears of grass, but ere long they put forth branches and leaves, rising and spreading the while until they reached their full growth, and were crowned with buds. Behold this flower,' said he, plucking a blowing rose, and handing it to his wondering companion.
'It is indeed marvellous, if it be not a delusion; but I dare not trust my eyes.'
'Trust them, they do not deceive thee: the rose is real. Smell it.'
'Its odor is delicious. But what else canst thou do? Turn the rose back into a seed?'
'Nothing easier, as thou shalt see. But since thou hast doubted the naturalness of this flower, step into the garden and pluck one. I am no priest that I should juggle with thee.'
The knight soon returned with a lily.
"Thou hast selected a flower whose virtues are potent at night; so much the better for my art.' He shut the lily up in his hand, and muttered the charm backward. What is it now?'
'By the gods, Virgil, it is a seed!'
This is only child's play to an adept in the art of magic. Our necromancers can do this, and more. There is one now in Rome, I am told, (he is probably an Egyptian,) who can instantly turn an egg into a bird. I can do better than that.'
'Canst thou change a bird into an egg ?'
'Better than that even. I can kill a bird and bring it to life again. But how is the clepsydra now?'
It is still half an hour to mid-night.'
Behind a screen in a corner of the library hung a cage, tenanted by a pair of sleeping sparrows. Virgil opened the cage-door softly, and taking one of the birds from its perch, bore it to the light where it awoke with a sudden chirp. 'Kill it, Publius.' The knight wrung its neck, and handed it to the magician. He sprinkled it with water, and breathed into its bill. The bird stirred and opened its eyes: at last it rose and flew about the room. A peculiar chirp brought it to the hands of its master, who kissed it and placed it back in the cage.
'Canst thou recall the dead?'
'No, Publius, I cannot restore the dead to life, but I can save the living from death. Or rather, they can save themselves, when they learn the laws of their being. What the Universe is to its MAKER, man's body was meant to be to him- not a garment which waxes old with time, but a palace built for Eternity. That we have ruined these noble palaces of ours, is the sorrow which burdens the world. But there are means of rebuilding them, Publius, and making them immortal. We can repair the ravages of our passions, the decay of time. Did not the enchantress Medea restore her father to youth, in the infancy of the art? I
know the herbs that she used, and much beside that she was ignorant of. I met a Brahmin in the East in my travels, who could die and come to life again. He let me shut him up in a tomb once for thirty days, without food or water; at the end of that time he was alive and merry. He taught me his secret so that I too can die at my pleasure. I mean to die to-night, this beautiful spring night, when the earth is full of life. It rises from the rich, damp mould, and falls from the mists and clouds. It breathes in the scented wind, heaves in the swelling river, throbs in the faroff stars. What the Soul of the World is doing with the world around us, my soul can do with my body. As I have preserved it from decay for years, I can preserve it still. As I moulded it once from dust, I can mould it again and into a diviner form. It will be plastic in my hands. Follow me to my laboratory, and when I bid thee, depart and shut the door. Then seal it with wax so that no one may open it. When nine days are past, (it will then be the Ides of March,) I will rejoin thee.'
'But if thou shouldst not?'
'Then I have deceived myself, and deserve the death I shall have found. Bury me in the tomb of my ancestors at Naples, or throw me into the Tiber, I care not which I shall not be worth a thought. Burn my manuscripts, especially my epic. In the mean time read it. It is yonder in that cedar scrinum: the last sheets are lying on the desk. If it prove tedious, turn to Homer instead. When I shall have corrected my story of Æneas, it will rival the Wars of Troy. But we shall see. I have commanded my slaves to obey thee in every thing. Thou shalt have banquets, if thou wilt, even of flesh, although I detest them. There is still some Marsian wine in the amphora. Eat, drink, and be merry. But see, the last drops of the clepsydra proclaim the mid-night. Come.'
He lighted a taper at the lamp of swans, and they proceeded to the laboratory. It was in the cœnaculum, or upper story of the house. They passed through a range of chambers crowded with furnaces and crucibles, and stopped at a small door. It was made of iron, and seemed to have been let into the wall after the house was built. As Virgil touched a secret spring, it flew back, and showed a dark room beyond. This room was without a roof, for on entering, Publius felt the night-air, and saw the stars above him. The floor was strewn with earth, and exhaled a rich, damp smell. What with the unexpected sight of the stars, and the uncertain light of the taper trembling in the hands of the poet, it was some time before the knight could realize where he was. He stood in a circular chamber representing the celestial spheres. The wall was divided into twelve compartments - the number of signs in the Zodiac and adorned with astronomical figures. Between these compartments were ciphers, composed of numerals, and the letters of various alphabets, and above and below were belts of mysterious signs the lotus of India, the winged globe of the Egyptians, and the sacred triangle of the Cabbala. If the figures