A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter XV

The Kohen is Inexorable

I determined to talk to the Kohen, and try for myself whether he might not be accessible to pity. This greatest of cannibals might, indeed, have his little peculiarities, I thought, and who has not? — yet at bottom he seemed full of tender and benevolent feeling; and as he evidently spent his whole time in the endeavor to make us happy, it seemed not unlikely that he might do something for our happiness in a case where our very existence was at stake.

The Kohen listened with deep attention as I stated my case. I did this fully and frankly. I talked of my love for Almah and of Almah’s love for me; our hope that we might be united so as to live happily in reciprocal affection; and I was going on to speak of the dread that was in my heart when he interrupted me:

“You speak of being united,” said he. “You talk strangely. Of course you mean that you wish to be separated.”

“Separated!” I exclaimed. “What do you mean? Of course we wish to be united.”

The Kohen stared at me as I said this with the look of one who was quite puzzled; and I then went on to speak of the fate that was before us, and to entreat his sympathy and his aid that we might be saved from so hideous a doom. To all these words the Kohen listened with an air of amazement, as though I were saying incomprehensible things.

“You have a gentle and an affectionate nature,” I said — “a nature full of sympathy with others, and noble self-denial.”

“Of course,” said the Kohen, quickly, as though glad to get hold of something which he could understand, “of course we are all so, for we are so made. It is our nature. Who is there who is not self-denying? No one can help that.”

This sounded strange indeed; but I did not care to criticize it. I came to my purpose direct and said,

“Save us from our fate.”

“Your fate?”

“Yes, from death — that death of horror.”

“Death? — horror? What do you mean by horror?” said the Kohen, in an amazement that was sincere and unfeigned. “I cannot comprehend your meaning. It seems as though you actually dislike death; but that is not conceivable. It cannot be possible that you fear death.”

“Fear death!” I exclaimed, “I do — I do. Who is there that does not fear it?”

The Kohen stared.

“I do not understand you,” he said.

“Do you not understand,” said I, “that death is abhorrent to humanity?”

“Abhorrent!” said the Kohen; “that is impossible. Is it not the highest blessing? Who is there that does not long for death? Death is the greatest blessing, the chief desire of man — the highest aim. And you — are you not to be envied in having your felicity so near? above all, in having such a death as that which is appointed for you — so noble, so sublime? You must be mad; your happiness has turned your head.”

All this seemed like hideous mockery, and I stared at the Kohen with a gaze that probably strengthened his opinion of my madness.

“Do you love death?” I asked at length, in amazement.

“Love death? What a question! Of course I love death — all men do; who does not? Is it not human nature? Do we not instinctively fly to meet it whenever we can? Do we not rush into the jaws of sea-monsters, or throw ourselves within their grasp? Who does not feel within him this intense longing after death as the strongest passion of his heart?”

“I don’t know — I don’t know,” said I. “You are of a different race; I do not understand what you say. But I belong to a race that fears death. I fear death and love life; and I entreat you, I implore you to help me now in my distress, and assist me so that I may save my life and that of Almah.”

“I— I help you!” said the Kohen, in new amazement. “Why do you come to me — to me, of all men? Why, I am nothing here. And help you to live — to live! Who ever heard of such a thing?”

And the Kohen looked at me with the same astonishment which I should evince if a man should ask me to help him to die.

Still, I persisted in my entreaty for his help.

“Such a request,” said he, “is revolting; you must be mad. Such a request outrages all the instincts of humanity. And even if I could do such violence to my own nature as to help you to such a thing, how do you think I could face my fellow-men, or how could I endure the terrible punishment which would fall upon me?”

“Punishment!” said I. “What! would you be punished?”

“Punished!” said the Kohen. “That, of course, would be inevitable. I should be esteemed an unnatural monster and the chief of criminals. My lot in life now is painful enough; but in this case my punishment would involve me in evils without end. Riches would be poured upon me; I should be raised to the rank of Kohen Gadol; I should be removed farther away than ever from the pauper class — so far, indeed, that all hope in life would be over. I should be made the first and noblest and richest in all the land.”

He spoke these words just as if he had said, “the lowest, meanest, poorest, and most infamous.” It sounded like fresh mockery, and I could not believe but that he was amusing himself at my expense.

“This is cruel,” said I. “You are mocking me.”

“Cruel? — cruel?” said he; “what is cruel? You mean that such a fate would be cruel for me.”

“No, no,” said I; “but alas! I see we cannot understand one another.”

“No,” said the Kohen, musingly, as he looked at me. “No, it seems not; but tell me, Atam-or, is it possible that you really fear death — that you really love life?”

“Fear death! — love life!” I cried. “Who does not? Who can help it? Why do you ask me that?”

The Kohen clasped his hands in amazement.

“If you really fear death,” said he, “what possible thing is there left to love or to hope for? What, then, do you think the highest blessing of man?”

“Long life,” said I, “and riches and requited love.”

At this the Kohen started back, and stared at me as though I were a raving madman.

“Oh, holy shades of night!” he exclaimed. “What is that you say? What do you mean?”

“We can never understand one another, I fear,” said I. “The love of life must necessarily be the strongest passion of man. We are so made. We give up everything for life. A long life is everywhere considered as the highest blessing; and there is no one who is willing to die, no matter what his suffering may be. Riches also are desired by all, for poverty is the direst curse that can embitter life; and as to requited love, surely that is the sweetest, purest, and most divine joy that the human heart may know.”

At this the Kohen burst forth in a strain of high excitement:

“Oh, sacred cavern gloom! Oh, divine darkness! Oh, impenetrable abysses of night! What, oh, what is this! Oh, Atam-or, are you mad? Alas! it must be so. Joy has turned your brain; you are quite demented. You call good evil, and evil good; our light is your darkness, and our darkness your light. Yet surely you cannot be altogether insane. Come, come, let us look further. How is it! Try now to recall your reason. A long life — a life, and a long one! Surely there can be no human being in a healthy state of nature who wishes to prolong his life; and as to riches, it is possible that anyone exists who really and honestly desires riches? Impossible! And requited love! Oh, Atam-or, you are mad to-day! You are always strange, but now you have quite taken leave of your senses. I cannot but love you, and yet I can never understand you. Tell me, and tell me truly, what is it that you consider evils, if these things that you have mentioned are not the very worst?”

He seemed deeply in earnest and much moved. I could not understand him, but could only answer his questions with simple conciseness.

“Poverty, sickness, and death,” said I, “are evils; but the worst of all evils is unrequited love.”

At these words the Kohen made a gesture of despair.

“It is impossible to understand this,” said he. “You talk calmly; you have not the air of a madman. If your fellow-countrymen are all like you, then your race is an incomprehensible one. Why, death is the greatest blessing. We all long for it; it is the end of our being. As for riches, they are a curse, abhorred by all. Above all, as to love, we shrink from the thought of requital. Death is our chief blessing, poverty our greatest happiness, and unrequited love the sweetest lot of man.”

All this sounded like the ravings of a lunatic, yet the Kohen was not mad. It seemed also like the mockery of some teasing demon; but the gentle and self-denying Kohen was no teasing demon, and mockery with him was impossible. I was therefore more bewildered than ever at this reiteration of sentiments that were so utterly incomprehensible. He, on the other hand, seemed as astonished at my sentiments and as bewildered, and we could find no common ground on which to meet.

“I remember now,” said the Kohen, in a musing tone, “having heard of some strange folk at the Amir, who profess to feel as you say you feel, but no one believes that they are in earnest; for although they may even bring themselves to think that they are in earnest in their professions, yet after all everyone thinks that they are self-deceived. For you see, in the first place, these feelings which you profess are utterly unnatural. We are so made that we cannot help loving death; it is a sort of instinct. We are also created in such a way that we cannot help longing after poverty. The pauper must always, among all men, be the most envied of mortals. Nature, too, has made us such that the passion of love, when it arises, is so vehement, so all-consuming that it must always struggle to avoid requital. This is the reason why, when two people find that they love each other, they always separate and avoid one another for the rest of their lives. This is human nature. We cannot help it; and it is this that distinguishes us from the animals. Why, if men were to feel as you say you feel, they would be mere animals. Animals fear death; animals love to accumulate such things as they prize; animals, when they love, go in pairs, and remain with one another. But man, with his intellect, would not be man if he loved life and desired riches and sought for requited love.”

I sank back in despair. “You cannot mean all this,” I said.

He threw at me a piteous glance. “What else can you believe or feel?” said he.

“The very opposite. We are so made that we hate and fear death; to us he is the King of Terrors. Poverty is terrible also, since it is associated with want and woe; it is, therefore, natural to man to strive after riches. As to the passion of love, that is so vehement that the first and only thought is requital. Unrequited love is anguish beyond expression — anguish so severe that the heart will often break under it.”

The Kohen clasped his hands in new bewilderment.

“I cannot understand,” said he. “A madman might imagine that he loved life and desired riches; but as to love, why even a madman could not think of requital, for the very nature of the passion of love is the most utter self-surrender, and a shrinking from all requital; wherefore, the feeling that leads one to desire requital cannot be love. I do not know what it can be — indeed, I never heard of such a thing before, and the annals of the human race make no mention of such a feeling. For what is love? It is the ardent outflow of the whole being — the yearning of one human heart to lavish all its treasures upon another. Love is more than self-denial; it is self-surrender and utter self-abnegation. Love gives all away, and cannot possibly receive anything in return. A requital of love would mean selfishness, which would be self-contradiction. The more one loves, the more he must shrink from requital.”

“What!” cried I, “among you do lovers never marry?”

“Lovers marry? Never!”

“Do married people never love one another?”

The Kohen shook his head.

“It unfortunately sometimes happens so,” said he, “and then the result is, of course, distressing. For the children’s sake the parents will often remain with one another, but in many cases they separate. No one can tell the misery that ensues where a husband and wife love one another.”

The conversation grew insupportable. I could not follow the Kohen in what seemed the wildest and maddest flights of fancy that ever were known; so I began to talk of other things, and gradually the Kohen was drawn to speak of his own life. The account which he gave of himself was not one whit less strange than his previous remarks, and for this reason I add it here.

“I was born,” said he, “in the most enviable of positions. My father and mother were among the poorest in the land. Both died when I was a child, and I never saw them. I grew up in the open fields and public caverns, along with the most esteemed paupers. But, unfortunately for me, there was something wanting in my natural disposition. I loved death, of course, and poverty, too, very strongly; but I did not have that eager and energetic passion which is so desirable, nor was I watchful enough over my blessed estate of poverty. Surrounded as I was by those who were only too ready to take advantage of my ignorance or want of vigilance, I soon fell into evil ways, and gradually, in spite of myself, I found wealth pouring in upon me. Designing men succeeded in winning my consent to receive their possessions; and so I gradually fell away from that lofty position in which I was born. I grew richer and richer. My friends warned me, but in vain. I was too weak to resist; in fact, I lacked moral fibre, and had never learned how to say ‘No.’ So I went on, descending lower and lower in the scale of being. I became a capitalist, an Athon, a general officer, and finally Kohen.

“At length, on one eventful day, I learned that one of my associates had by a long course of reckless folly become the richest man in all the country. He had become Athon, Melek, and at last Kohen Gadol. It was a terrible shock, but I trust a salutary one. I at once resolved to reform. That resolution I have steadily kept, and have at least saved myself from descending any lower. It is true, I can hardly hope to become what I once was. It is only too easy to grow rich; and, you know, poverty once forfeited can never return except in rare instances. I have, however, succeeded in getting rid of most of my wealth, chiefly through the fortunate advent of Almah and afterward of yourself. This, I confess, has been my salvation. Neither of you had any scruples about accepting what was bestowed, and so I did not feel as though I was doing you any wrong in giving you all I had in the world. Most of the people of this city have taken advantage of your extraordinary indifference to wealth, and have made themselves paupers at your expense. I had already become your slave, and had received the promise of being elevated to the rank of scullion in the cavern of the Mista Kosek. But now, since this event of your love for Almah, I hope to gain far more. I am almost certain of being made a pauper, and I think I can almost venture to hope some day for the honor of a public death.”

To such a story I had nothing to say. It was sheer madness; yet it was terribly suggestive, and showed how utterly hopeless was my effort to secure the assistance of such a man toward my escape from death.

“A public death!” I said, grimly. “That will be very fortunate! And do you think that you will gain the dignity of being eaten up afterward?”

The Kohen shook his head in all seriousness.

“Oh no,” said he; “that would be far beyond my deserts. That is an honor which is only bestowed upon the most distinguished.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37