THE LAST SECRET OF CABALISM
In the month of August, 1798, a vessel steering towards the western entrance of the straits of Magellan was stranded on a reef of coral rocks, and went to pieces. One Frenchman swam on shore, accompanied by a Gentoo servant, whose efforts saved him from perishing. The Island on which chance had cast them appeared not more than a mile broad, crossed by a deep valley. In the centre of this valley, surrounded by a thick plantation of bananas and plantain trees, the two shipwrecked strangers found three rows of houses, each in the form of an oblong square, with a shelving roof, supported by seven posts on each side and three in the middle. The eaves reached within two feet of the ground, leaving the rest open and unwalled. These roofs or eaves were composed of palm-leaves, thatched with a degree of skill and symmetry that promised civilized inhabitants. The Frenchman took a branch of the Mimosa tree, knowing how generally its tender and flexible leaves are respected, perhaps because they seem even to rude nations an emblem of courtesy, and presented himself at the first hut’s entrance. He was surprised to receive a courteous answer from a gentle voice in the English language. The speaker had the features of a Briton, though shaded with a deep olive tint; and the white cloth which covered his tall and well-shaped figure was arranged in something like European costume. The stranger spake English well, and was instantly surrounded by all the residents of this valley, hailing with cries and gestures of joy, the countryman of their ancestors. Their welcome was shared by his Gentoo attendant, who knelt humbly to receive it, and both were led into the central hut, seated on a bench covered with soft matting, and feasted on delicious fish. Delombre was cautious to avail himself of fortunate accidents, and spoke of England with the glee and familiarity of a native. He heard the traditions of the islanders, who informed him, that an accident very similar to his own had thrown an English ship on what they called the coast of Omorea, about the year 1649. The passengers in this crew were a person named Digby, his family, and a few of his friends, emigrating to the new southern world from the turmoils of rebellion. These had been the parents and founders of the colony, in which Delombre was surprised to find no traces of Christianity. There was, indeed, a Moravian regularity in the movements of the whole. The central hut was so contrived as to command a view of those that surrounded it, and they, resting on detached pillars of the clustered stems of trees, formed a perspective on all sides not unlike the arcades of the Banian tree. The inhabitant of this centre was invested with the office of chief magistrate, and teacher of those mysteries which seemed to be at once their law and gospel. At first Delombre was cautiously and reluctantly admitted among the audience, but his profound and submissive attention gained their confidence. He then discovered, that the seven props of every house alluded symbolically to the seven metals, the seven planets, and the seven days’ work of creation: that they believed in two things, a good, and an evil spirit, and expected a millennium or perfect state of man at the end of a thousand years. In preparation for this great sabbath, they appeared to live in an entire community of brotherhood and peace. Their huts or dwellings were all equal; the little isle was common property, like lands of ancient parishes; and their boats were divided into small allotments of the same size, in which, whatever was the success of any individual in fish, he was only permitted to deposit as much as it would contain, and to distribute the rest among his companions. On the same principle, the public granary was subject to the equal demands of every family, and the cloth which their mulberry trees’ bark afforded belonged not to the manufacturers, but to the commonwealth, Punishments seemed hardly needed, for the mild temperament of these people, subdued by a pure and moderate diet, incessant labour, and the total absence of all excitements to love, avarice, ambition, or revenge, almost promised to realize their hope of perfectibility. Love was no passion here, for the young women of the island, seen all day at work in their open huts in the plain clothing never permitted to be embellished, had none of the charms afforded by seclusion, mystery, or parade. The mayor, or chief magistrate, united them in the central pavilion of the valley, and dissolved their contract when they complained of discontent, which seldom happened, for neither party could gain any thing by a change, except a new progeny, and a consequent increase of labour. There was no ceremony, no congratulations, no change of scene or dress, to flatter the imagination; and love, as Rochefoucault merrily says, was never known, because it was never spoken of.
Delombre, a pupil of Rochefoucault in manners, but of a much deeper philosophy in other points, was surprised and strongly interested by this Utopian island. He easily perceived in the obscure creed of its inhabitants the relics of that superstition which prevailed among the Rosicrucians or Hermetic men, the Cabalists, Platonists, and Illuminati of the Dutch and German schools in the sixteenth century. He remembered the name of Digby among their disciples, and had no doubt that the father of this colony was some kinsman of the Sir Kenelm Digby, famous for his faith in the dreams of Jacob Behmen, and John of Munster during the first Charles’s reign. He was surprised to find such a community of men governed by the simple levelling principle of those enthusiasts, without any help from the more solemn inventions and witcheries of Dr. Dee, and Hugh Peters. He rather expected to have found in this relic of their sect some traces of the beryl glass and magic tripod by which those impostors either duped or aided the reformers of Cromwell’s days. And he was not mistaken. For on the seventh sabbath after his arrival in the island, he witnessed an assembly of the eldest men held in silence at midnight, “under the close shade of innumerous boughs,” while their chief read from the remnant of a very ancient bible certain strange, and dark texts in the Apocrypha. And there was a rude altar of stone on which a plate of some mixed metal was fastened, inscribed with Egyptian characters, and covered with a crimson veil, which none but the patriarch presumed to raise. “I am not mistaken,” said Delombre to himself: “the vision of universal equality and perfection, and the omnipotence of God and Matter, or rather of Matter without God, has found its way from the Magians recorded by Plutarch, through the secret tribunals of Westphalia, the elegant academies of Descartes and Spinosa, and the roundheaded, crop-eared dupes of an English parliament’s hired wizards, to this paradise in the Southern Seas!—Plato himself, who expected that golden period when “all mankind should be one family, having all things in common and one form of speech,” would have yawned if he had spent seven weeks in the dullness of this ‘equal republic of the elect.’—I marvel that the Rosicrucian Digby did not enrich his colony with a few sylphs and nymphs exempt from the domestic drudgery of this levelling system, and bring the Houris of the Manichean heresy into his island-tabernacle, though he could not find the elixir of life or the seed of gold. Let us see whether we cannot enliven the dull matter which composes these people with some finer touch of the fifth element they expect.”
Delombre began by recommending himself to his new friend’s esteem by the urbanity and gentleness of his conduct. He assisted his Gentoo servant in constructing several ingenious toys and utensils in addition to many they possessed, especially a flageolet and a guitar capable of great sweetness. He observed that all their domestic articles were constructed of bone very neatly polished, or of wood, but never of metal, and he concluded that their creed forbade its use, as the founder of Digby’s philosophy taught the depreciation of all metals. Delombre’s ardent spirit seized on this opportunity to realize or establish the full extent of the Rosicrucian creed, to try its influence over a simple race of men, and to see its consequences. The inhabitants of this isle, whose very name had some reference to the Chaldean root of Rosicrucianism, seemed formed for his disciples; and their isle, perhaps, might be the first theatre of a cabalist’s dominion. Delombre’s meditations were interrupted by the person who held in this island an office nearly similar to the patriarch of St. Kilda’s. When they had walked together a few paces—“This,” said he, “is the place where by burying our dead we restore them to the basest of the four elements mystically mingled in us. Look round and tell me what you see.”
“I see,” replied Delombre, “a sandy plain, without tree, stone, or beacon. The darkness that lies beyond passes my sight.”
“You are right,” said the Patriarch, “and such is the state we live in here. There is a dry smooth level crust spread over the corruption at work beneath. Our wretched people lie under the weight of our barbarous equality, a prey to vile paltry passions, ever grovelling and coiling, as the dead lie under this soil devoured by earthworms—yet the quietness of the grave appears outside!—Here is neither flower nor tablet to honour the dead, nor have the living here either joy or honour. All is blank, barren, and dark, yet this burial-place is better than our life, for our life is a death we feel.”
Delombre’s brow became black, and he cast a fearful glance towards the dark cavern which terminated the prospect.
“None but the dead are near us,” continued the Patriarch, “and we may speak safely of what concerns the living. You cannot desire to remain here—Assist me in completing the boat I have secretly begun to build, and we may escape together.”
“From hence,” said Delombre, in surprise—“from this quiet and free island—to navigate an unknown sea, and visit strangers?”
“Yours,” answered his companion, “was not the first vessel that has touched it; but what you have told me is enough. I loathe the poverty, the sameness, the torpor of our existence here. Where men build towers and cities and palaces, they must have property and hope. They would not plough, nor reap those rich fields you tell of, nor come forth in such gallant vessels, if there was no better prize for their labour than the pittance given to all men. If they have churches, they must feel or know something of a GOD. England, they say, has all these—Men are not buried there like dogs, nor born only to eat, sleep, and die—Here, we have nothing else to do.”
“What!” said Delombre, contemptuously—“to see a few useless palaces and churches, would you leave the bones of your fathers, the young men born under your roof, and the mother who reared them?”
“I tell you,” the Patriarch answered, “we have no property and no hope. Our iron law gives all things alike to all men—the idle, the witless, the gormandizing, and the ungrateful. Our women are dull as the wood which kindles our fires—What more are they to us, or we to them?—Our children owe us nothing, for we cannot enrich them—they are sure of bread and sleep whether they are the drones, or the bees of this hive. The drones may devour their morsel of honey, and the most industrious bees have no better share. Therefore we heed them and they heed us no more than the swamp regards the water it sucks in and never yields again. We are like the rushes in a swamp—equal, it is true, but all feeble, and soon withered.—In England—”
“In England,” interrupted the Frenchman, bitterly, “the commonwealth is a tree which they are hewing down because the roots cannot be at the top, and every branch cannot bear at once both blossom and fruit. There is not a pool in your island sooner disturbed by a pebble—not a bunch of dry fern on your hearths more easily kindled into a blaze than the owners of those broad fields and rich cities!—Nor is there a nook in the most savage corner of the world which they are not readier to dwell in than their own!”
“But they may hope!” exclaimed the Patriarch, his dark eyes gleaming and expanding—“they may range—they may rave—they may mistake evil for good, but there is a good in view, and if they fall sometimes, they are free to rise. They are not forced to live in the deadness and desert of an eternal Level.—Their tree bears fruit, and every man may strive to reach it. Friend!—my night’s prayer and my morning dream is to see that land, where there is a race to run, and a prize to win.”
“And I,” said Delombre, “have spent my manhood in flying from such vanities. I once believed some childish tales, but I have shaken them off—and instead of hoping for an hundred ages beyond the grave, I enjoy the present.”
“You believed and hoped this once!” rejoined the Patriarch, stopping short, “and you strive to forget it? I would give all the years of my past life for one day of such belief. Well—thou may’st teach it me, however; and I will make these senseless grovellers happy before I go. They look for a change into some unknown element a thousand years hence—let us give them a nearer and better hope.”
The philosopher smiled in scorn, and promised to instruct him in those cabalistic secrets which govern and amuse men.
Delombre, however, had no intention to amuse his new acquaintance with the whims of cabalism respecting the mighty secret of generating gold, or its pretended parent mercury. Neither did he suppose that such a secret, even if he had possessed it, would have been more useful to him, than to its owner Paracelsus, who died ridiculously poor, notwithstanding the help of his gold seed, and the imp he kept in the pommel of his sword: both as unprofitable as the mice he pretended to make out of meal. But he erected in the hut allotted to him certain machines calculated to excite the curiosity of the people; and with great mystery informed their Patriarch that he belonged himself to the creed of their English Ancestor. “But,” said he, “you are aware that he did not live long enough here to convey to his descendants the inmost secret of his faith. That which you obscurely call the Creator of the world, is the substance that fills it. Since all things, even the impalpable air, is material—that is, a mass of matter—the power that sways all things is in it, and matter itself is the divinity.”
There was darkness in this light, and the old man he addressed only trembled and was silent. But when the younger men of the community gathered round the orator, he took care to clothe his mystery in gayer colours. He told his hearers, that the air, the fire, the water, and the earth which they beheld, were inhabited by particles endued with life like themselves, but too delicate to be discerned by common eyes. “Their business,” he added, “is to watch, to assist, and to bless us. They are unacquainted with the toils and afflictions of bodily existence—their beauty is unchanging, their power is pleasure, their presence is the highest gift of science. They are always near. Even while we speak they hear us now, and their exquisite voices are prevented from reaching us only by the dullness of our own composition.”
These hints and disclosures were not given at the same time, nor without the aid of such pageantry as his situation afforded. He shewed them at a certain hour, after much awful preparation, the concave mirrors in a globe of glass by which the fire of the sun could be concentrated, and a powder obtained capable of the most marvellous effects. Another glass, filled with water, earth, and air, was placed mysteriously on a kind of altar exposed to the sun; and these three elements, he said, would soon be separated and reduced by his art to a medicine sufficient to prevent all want of food and drink. If the natives could have paused in the simplicity of their ignorance, before they credited his assertions, his eagle eye, the authority of his noble brow, and the powerful music of his voice, would have enforced belief; and the charm of a romance so new and rich wanted little more than its own influence.
The evening of that day had more than the usual softness of a southern clime. But the natives of Omorea did not retire as usual to sleep after their contented labours. Many remained couched under the fragrant trees, watching the stars as they came forth in their beauty, and listening to the murmur of waters in which they already imagined whispering voices. The next day did not restore the quiet regularity of their routine. They met in groupes, to talk, to wonder, and to regret that these invisible creatures of light and loveliness were not made known to them. They surrounded Delombre’s dwelling, and demanded his assistance. He told them their obedience must be strict and their patience determined. They answered by shouts of joy, and by bearing him in triumph on a litter of palm-branches to the chief-place or centre of their city, installing him as their priest and king. The deposed patriarch retired gloomily with a sullen gesture. His broad firm neck and the tiger-profile of his iron-countenance gave no indication of the yielding temper manifested by his companions. Delombre graciously dismissed his new subjects, and closing all the entrances of his sanctuary, began his preparations. But an eye not wholly ungifted with the craft of cabalism was upon him.
Within one month he had promised to provide that mercurial elixir by which the spirits of other elements would be rendered visible. He believed himself very well able to delude their expectations by the magic of chemical flames and vapours, and by farther promises couched in such mysterious jargon as would feed their appetite for wonders. Indistinct hopes of novelty and change were, as he well knew, the moving springs by which men govern others; and he smiled as he planned the revolution he expected to complete in this little empire. The Gentoo slave who had accompanied Delombre in his voyage from the Indies, had been one of the first subjects of his experimental cabalism. He had found this man in the diamond mine of Sultan Saib, and obtained him as a gift from his owner. The profound ignorance in which Azim had lived till his nineteenth year, the meekness of his temperament, the idolatrous gratitude he shewed for his redemption, made him ready to receive, as Delombre believed, whatever creed he offered. He was therefore, in some measure, a being of his own creation. During the voyage that followed Azim’s removal from the darkness of the mine, he could learn but little of earthly things, and his master’s powerful genius enslaved him again. Delombre hoped and studied to preserve this uncultivated Gentoo in utter ignorance of all pure religion and all law, and to make him what he chose to call a man of nature. It was necessary, however, to retain his services; and these he thought himself able to command by the force of gratitude, and the awe his mysterious actions imposed. For Azim knew that Delombre had brought a box of diamonds from the wreck, and had saved other treasures. He also knew that his master visited a secret place in the island unknown to its natives, and there held conferences with a creature whose like he had never seen. He had been told that this creature, invisible to all others, was the Spirit of fire that obeyed Delombre, and preserved him from every evil chance. So much his master had chosen to assert, for he knew the power of mystery over the ignorant, and he felt, though he did not confess to himself, that a servant bound by no moral law, must be bound by fear. He was right in his feeling—wrong in his expedient. Fear had not power enough to suppress the growth of envy in Azim’s mind. He knew the diamonds were precious, and his master’s caution had not sufficed to prevent him from discovering the place of their concealment, nor his frequent interviews with that nameless spirit, which, like the Peris of his own clime, might, as he supposed, be gracious to the love of a true Gentoo. This thought dwelled on his mind in solitude and silence till the night when Delombre’s eloquence gained him the Patriarch’s place. His sullen and melancholy eye caught the deposed Patriarch’s as he retired in anger, and they met in the thick woods near the shore. Azim shewed him the secret cavity in a rock near a well of brilliant water; overhung by the broad leaves of a bread-fruit tree. The moon whose last quarter was to mark the period fixed for fulfilling Delombre’s promises, was now waning fast: but her light in a sky thick set with stars sufficed to shew his enemies their way into his sanctuary. It was a recess, a chamber scooped in the sand-rock, illuminated only by a silver glimmering of the sky seen through a fissure in the loose stone that guarded its entrance, and by a burning pine-branch within. The Patriarch ventured near enough to look in, and saw Delombre sitting on a mat at the feet of what might well seem an ethereal spirit. There was a transparent and bloodless fairness in the face, a shadowy uncertainty in the outline of the figure, and a fixture in the large blue eye that seemed of no earthly mould. And Delombre’s attitude and movements were those of a supplicant eagerly and devoutly bending before an idol.—“It is too late!” answered a voice whose very sound was suited to the spirit of beauty—“Your success, Delombre, will be your bane. Why were you not content with their amity and hospitable shelter? You have been ungrateful, and your craft will teach them cruelty.”
“How have I deceived them?” said the Frenchman, starting up—“The cabalistic fool who brought this colony here spoke in parables, but he felt truths. He felt as I feel, that every man has in him a fiery nature, if a kindred spark can be found to rouse it, though it may be encumbered with cold and earthy dross. And though I could not raise a spirit as Lilly and Booker did, aye, and their own sorcerer Dee, I could have shewn these English islanders a rarer apparition than they ever dreamed of, if you would have been induced to aid me. They believe only Azim and myself escaped from the wreck—they cannot know you to be an Englishwoman and my fellow-passenger. Only represent for a few moments the friendly spirit of fire, as for your sake I provoked a worse element.”
“I could not assist you,” replied the melodious voice, “to act imposture always with success. You have already disturbed the quiet of these harmless natives by a fable, and the wildness of unreasonable hopes will end in revenge.—You saved me from the sea where I was perishing—you have fed and sheltered me in this strange land—save me for a better purpose than mockery and profanation.”
“Should I have dared,” interrupted Delombre, advancing still nearer, “to have mocked these islanders by shewing them a prize I never meant to part with? Or is it profanation to shew it as if it was indeed something of divinity beyond their reach—No, Aglae; it does not need the solar powder of the cabalists, nor their doses of water, earth, or air, to exalt the fire within us, or to make the baser elements prevail over it. They said truly that light was the soul of all things; for when the Creator sent light, he sent Beauty into the world, and I act under its influence,”
“Delombre!” said the voice, in a shriller tone, “Thou hast spoken a word that assures me I am safe—Thou hast named thy Creator, who has formed nothing without some touch of good, therefore I will not fear though there is now no light except his presence.”
At that instant the stone barrier of the cave was forced back, and the Patriarch entered. Delombre felt all his peril, and the depth of his errors. He uttered a desperate oath of vengeance on his betrayer, and strove to seize the Patriarch’s throat. “Save that woman and yourself,” said the islander, calmly; “your slave has sold your life. I learned once to be a Christian, and have not forgotten what I learnt.”—Delombre fixed a ghastly and suspicious glance upon him. The islander only replied, “God sees us!” and put his axe into the Frenchman’s hand. In another instant the cave was filled with armed men guided by Azim. The unclouded moon shewed him their weapons, but the same moon shewed them the beautiful shadow of a woman, standing as if hovering on a raised point of the rocks. While Delombre clove his treacherous slave’s head with one stroke of his axe, the Patriarch trampled on the burning pine-branch, hoping to prevent the aim of the assassins. He was too late. An arrow whistled through the cavern, followed by a yell echoed on every side. All the islanders were assembled in the madness of excited rage, threatening, scoffing, and demanding his promised art. Aglae seized the half-extinguished pine-branch, and threw it among the heap of dry leaves and flowers collected for her couch. The pile sent up a column of fire, above which she appeared standing like the spirit of the element. Her outspread arms and pale countenance, gleaming in their deathly whiteness through its crimson volumes, struck the slaves of an unholy superstition with awe. They fled, uttering dismal shrieks, and a pause of silence and darkness followed. Aglae descended to her lover’s side. “Their boat is moored in the creek, Delombre, and they are far off!—Seize it, and escape while they still fear the fire-spirit—The continent is not distant, and we can but die.”—She gave into his hands the chest of diamonds and a basket of the bread-fruit, but the Patriarch caught her in his arms, and ran to the creek, where his boat lay provisioned for a fishing-voyage. He had scarcely pushed it from the shore before the shouts and clang of the armed islanders were heard behind them. Well-managed oars and a rapid current carried them soon beyond reach, but the flash of fire-brands and the whizzing of arrows shewed the fierce spirit of their enemies. “Such are men, then,” said Delombre, “without a GOD!”—He looked towards Aglae, but her frozen eye made him no answer. He raised her head—her long hair was stiff and matted, and lifting it from her throat, he saw the broken point of an arrow fixed in it. “They were not deceived,” she said, smiling in her last agony—“I have an immortal spirit!”—“I believe it now,” he answered,—“and its creator must be a Divinity.”
- Some account of these dreamers may be found in D’Argenson, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The 574th. No. of the Spectator alludes to them with poetical complacency. ↩
- Perhaps something similar to the round plate usually attached to the Abacus, or staff of office, carried by the Knights-Templars, who are supposed to have learned the original mysteries of Cabalism in the early days of Crusading, and to have diffused them on their return from the East. ↩
- The alchymists Von Helmont and Fludd pretend that mercury is the original principle of gold, and sulphur of the inferior metals. And they affect to suppose them typically represented by Adam and Eve. ↩
- William Lilly was astrologer to the English parliament in 1648. The exorcist Kelly is said to have conjured up dead men at Halifax and Lancaster, and in the presence of Alasco, King of Poland; and his successor, Dr. Dee, amused King James I. in the same way. ↩