THE glowing light of the late afternoon filled the atmosphere with a golden radiance. From the heights of Passy the eye of the spectator dominated the vast city — now more than ever before, a world rather than a city. The International Exposition of 1867 had brought together in this imperial Paris, all the attractions of the century. The flower of civilization here displayed its most vivid colors, and, consumed in the intoxication of its own fragrance, withered while yet in the full bloom of its feverish youth. A brilliant flourish of trumpets — the last of the monarchy — in honor of the assembled sovereigns of Europe, had just sounded. Science, art and industry, scattered their latest creations around with exhaustless prodigality. A species of delirium seemed to have seized upon everyone and everything. Regiments marched through the streets, bands of music at their head; equipages drove rapidly past on all sides; millions of beings hurried to and fro amid the dust of the avenues, the quays and the boulevards; but this very dust, gilded by the rays of the setting sun, seemed like an aureole crowning the splendid city. The tall edifices, the domes, the towers, the steeples, were lighted up by the glowing rays of the sun; the strains of the orchestra could be heard from afar, mingled with the confused murmur of voices, and the noises of the city, and the luminous evening terminating a glorious summer day, produced in the soul a sense of contentment, satisfaction and happiness. It was a sort of symbolic epitome of the manifestations of the life of a great people arrived at the apogee of their being and their prosperity.
On the heights of Passy, where we are, on the terrace of a garden, overhanging, as in the days of Babylon, the lazy current of the river below, two persons, leaning against a stone balustrade, contemplated the noisy scene. Looking from above at the agitated surface of this human sea, happier in their sweet solitude than any among the giddy crowd, thcy do not belong to the vulgar world, and dwell, removed above all this bustle and confusion, in the limpid atmosphere of their happiness. Their minds think, their hearts love or, to express with more completeness the same fact, their souls live.
The young girl, now in the fresh beauty of her eighteenth spring, allows her dreamy gaze to wander to the apothesis of the setting sun, happy in living, happier still in loving. She thinks not of the millions of human beings who are hurrying to and fro at her feet; she gazes without seeing it, at the glowing disk of the sun sinking behind the empurpled clouds in the west; she inhales the perfume of the rose-garlands of the garden, and feels, pervading her being, the peace of the secret happiness which fills her soul with the ineffable harmony of love. Her blonde hair surrounds her brow like an aureole and falls in rich masses over her graceful and slender form; her blue eyes, shaded by long black lashes, seem a reflection of the azure of the skies; her arms and neck are of a milky whiteness; her ears and cheeks of a rosy hue. In her air there is something that reminds one of those petites marquises of the painters of the eighteenth century, born to the uncertainties of a destiny they were not long to enjoy. She was standing. Her companion, whose arm had encircled her waist as he stood gazing with her at the panorama of the city, listening to the strains of harmony diffused in the air by the band of the imperial guard, is now seated beside her. His eyes have forgotten Paris, and the setting sun, to dwell upon his graceful companion, and without being conscious of it he looks at her admiringly, with a strange and sweet persistence in his gaze, as if he now saw her for the first time, and were unable to take his eyes from this charming profile upon which they linger like a caress.
The young student remained long absorbed in this contemplation. Was he, then, still at twenty-five, a student? But is not one always a student, and was not M. Chevreul, our professor at that time, only a few days before surnamed, in his hundred and third year, the dean of the students of France?
George Spero had early finished his studies at the Lyceum, studies which teach nothing unless it be how to study, and had gone on investigating with indefatigable ardor the great problems of the natural sciences. Astronomy, above all, had from the first aroused his enthusiasm, and I had first met him, in fact, at the Observatory of Paris (as the reader may remember to have read in the preceding narration), which he entered at the age of sixteen, and where he had made himself noticeable by an eccentricity sufficiently rare — that of having no ambition and seeking no advancement. At sixteen as at twenty-five, he had believed himself on the eve of his death, reflecting, perhaps, that life is in any case short, and that nothing is worth an effort but Science, no happiness worth having but that of studying and acquiring knowledge. He was rather reserved in his manners, although at bottom he had a happy, childlike nature. His mouth, which was small and gracefully formed, seemed to smile, if one let ones eyes rest on the corners of the lips; otherwise it seemed pensive, rather, and made for silence. His eyes, whose undecided color, resembling the greenish-blue of the sea where it touches the horizon, and changing according to the light and to every passing emotion, had ordinarily an expression of great sweetness, although on occasions they could flash like lightning or shine with the cold glitter of steel. His glance was piercing — at times unfathomable, strange even, and enigmatic. His ear was small and gracefully curved, the lobe well defined and slightly curled, which physiognomists regard as the mark of a subtle intellect. His forehead was broad, although his head was in reality rather small than large, its apparent size being increased by a wealth of sunny hair. His beard was fine; chestnut in color, like his hair, and wavy. Of medium height, his whole bearing had an air of distinction natural to him; and his dress was always elegant, without pretension or affectation.
Neither my friends nor I had ever, at any time, had any intimacy with him. On holidays and during the hours of recreation he was never there. Always buried in his studies, one might suppose he had given up all his faculties to the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone, the squaring of the circle, or perpetual motion. I never knew him to have a friend, unless it were myself, and yet I am by no means certain of having been admitted unreservedly to his confidence, and perhaps, after all, no other event of importance had ever occurred in his life, than the one of which I am now about to relate the history, and of all the details of which I was cognizant as an eye-witness, if not as his confidant.
His mind was constantly occupied with the problem of the nature and destiny of the soul to the exclusion of every other thought. At times he would plunge into the abysses of the unknown in his investigations, with so great an intensity of cerebral action, that he would feel a tingling in his brain, like a premonition of insanity. This was especially the case, when, after devoting hours to the solution of the question of immortality, our ephemeral earthly life vanished from his gaze and he saw opening before his mental view, eternity without end. Face to face with this vision of the soul, enjoying endless being, what he desired was to know. The sight of his body, pale and cold, enveloped in a winding-sheet, lying stretched upon a bier, alone in the narrow grave, the last sad dwelling-place of man, the grass where the cricket chirps growing above, did not terrify his mind as much as did the uncertainty regarding a future state. “What is to be my future destiny? What is the destiny of mankind?” was his constant question, like the echo, in his brain, of a fixed idea. “If we die altogether, what a vain farce is life, with all its struggles and its hopes. If we are immortal, what is to be our occupation during all the countless aeons of eternity? A hundred years hence where shall I be? Where will all those be who live now upon the earth? and what of the inhabitants of other worlds? To die forever, forever! To have existed only for a moment — what a mockery! Would it not be a thousand times better never to have been born? But if it is our destiny to live through all eternity, powerless to influence in aught the fatality that hurries us onward, eternity without end always before our gaze, how to support the weight of such a destiny? Is this then the fate that awaits us? If we should ever grow weary of existence, we should be unable to fly from it; it would be impossible for us to end it — a fate more cruel still than that this ephemeral life should disappear from the view like an insect in its flight in the coolness of the evening. Why then were we born? To endure this uncertainty? To see our hopes of a future, as we examine, them, vanish one by one until none is left. To live, if we do not think like idiots, and if we think like fools? And they talk to us of a ‘good God!’ And there are religions and priests and rabbis and bonzes! But men are all either impostors or dupes. Religion and country, the priest and the soldier, it is the same with all. Men of every nation are armed to the teeth, to slay each other like mad men. And that is the wisest thing they can do: it is the best way in which they can show their gratitude to Nature for the useless gift she has bestowed upon them in giving them life.”
I tried to soothe these tortures, these doubts, for I had framed for myself a certain system of philosophy with which I was comparatively satisfied. “The fear of death,” I would say to him, “appears to me altogether absurd. There are only two sides to the question. When we go to sleep each night there is always the possibility that we may never awaken: yet this thought when it occurs to us does not prevent us from falling asleep. In the one case then — supposing death to end everything — we never awaken, either here or elsewhere; and in that case death is but an unfinished sleep which is to last with us forever. Or, in the other case — that is to say should the soul survive the body — we shall re-awaken in some other place to resume our active life. In this case the re-awakening cannot be very terrible; on the contrary, it must rather be delightful, every form of life in nature having its raison d’etre, and every creature, the lowest as well as the highest, finding its happiness in the exercise of its faculties.”
These arguments seemed to quiet him.
But the tortures of doubt soon pierced his soul again, sharp as thorns. At times he would wander alone through the vast cemeteries of Paris, seeking out the most solitary alleys among the tombs, listening to the sound of the wind among the trees and the rustling of the dead leaves in the walks. At times he would retire to the suburbs of the great city, plunge into the woods, and walk about for hours at a time, talking to himself. At other times he would remain in his room at the Place du Panthéon — a room which served him at once as a study, a bedroom and a reception-room — all day long and far into the night, dissecting some brain he had brought home from the clinic; examining the gray matter divided into minute sections, by the aid of the microscope.
The uncertainties of the sciences that are called exact, a sudden check to the progress of his thoughts in the solution of some problem, would throw him at such times into a paroxysm of despair, and I found him more than once in a state of utter exhaustion, his eyes fixed and brilliant, his hands burning, his pulse quick and irregular. On the occasion of one of these crises, when I had been obliged to leave him alone for several hours, I even feared on returning at about five o’clock in the morning to find him no longer alive. He had beside him a glass of cyanuret of potassium, which he tried to conceal at my approach. But he recovered himself immediately, and smiling slightly, said with the utmost calmness: “What purpose would it serve? If we are immortal it would be of no use. It was only that I might know the truth the sooner.” He confessed to me that day that he had thought himself raised violently by the hair to the ceiling, and dropped down again with his whole weight upon the floor.
The general indifference with regard to this great problem of human destiny — a question in his eyes more important than any other, since it is one of our future existence or our annihilation —- had the effect of exasperating him to the highest degree. He saw everywhere people busied only with material interests, wrapped up in the bizarre idea of “accumulating money”; consecrating all their years, all their days, all their hours, all their minutes, to these interests, disguised under the most diverse forms.
He found not one free, independent, living the life of the spirit. It seemed to him that all thinking beings could and ought — while living the life of the body, since it could not be otherwise — to remain free from the slavery of an organization so gross, and to devote their best moments to the intellectual life.
At the time when this history begins, George Spero had already become celebrated, famous even, on account both of the scientific works he had published, and of several works of polite literature, which had been received with universal applause. Although he had not yet completed his twenty-fifth year, more than a million persons had read his works, which, although not written for the general public, had had the good fortune to be appreciated by the majority seeking for instruction, as well as by the learned few. He had been proclaimed the leader of a new school, and eminent critics, who had never seen him and did not know how young he was, spoke of his “doctrines.”
How was it that this eccentric philosopher, this austere student, found himself at the feet of a young girl, at the hour of sunset, alone with her on this terrace where we have just seen them? This is what we are now about to learn.
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