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Anna Jane Vardill

The Secrets of Cabalism

Part Three

It has been matter of much marvel among casuists why countries far remote, and men wholly unlike in habits and constitution, should have the same superstitions and pastimes:—yet as human nature is every where alike in general, there is no more wonder that its follies should be similar than that trees of the same species should put forth nearly the same kind of blossoms in all climates, though the size and colouring may differ according to the richness of the soil. About the year 1770, a Dutch merchant named Donderdonk settled at New York, and became remarkable alike for the amplitude of his purse and person. Though the Dutch settlers in that colony had very little reverence for poetic fables, they carried with them and cherished all the legends of St. Nicholas, and paid great attention to a custom supposed to have been brought from the ancient isle of Cytherea, authorizing the girls to beat all the boys who ventured abroad on the first of April, and on the second of that month to receive a counter flagellation from any male urchin whose courage was equal to reprisal. Various frolics similar to those practised in Europe among older people, were at this period carefully licensed in New York, and the exceeding capacity of Von Donderdonk’s person indicated an equal capacity to endure a jest. On the 1st of April, 1771, this gentleman, as usual, took his seat in a commercial coffee-house, and was presently accosted by several of his class and acquaintance. When he moved homewards, they all followed, and till a great crowd of gazers assembled, he was not aware how strangely he was attended by a procession of at least forty persons all nearly of the same rotundity. Finding they had all been collected by cards of invitation to dine with him, he had the good nature and good sense enough to give them a very friendly dinner impromptu; but the contrivers of this scene took pains to report that Von Donderdonk held on this day at his house a mysterious meeting of Cabalists whose persons were enlarged by bladders of air, bags of earth, and tubes of gas, according to Rosicrucian art. Now though it was pretty certain that neither air nor water had much share in the elements of his large company’s composition, Donderdonk was not free from general suspicion of a tendency to occult science. He was very fond of believing that the Freemasonry cultivated in New York was a branch of that secret school which amused and frightened Europe more than six centuries. And as he was clearly convinced that the disciples of Paracelsus and Hermes had made great advances towards the great discovery of transmuting certain metals into gold, his love of gelt stimulated his zeal for science.

There was then in New York a sort of supernumerary or factitious lodge of Freemasons, who affected, under the seal of most profound secrecy, to initiate novices into the true Eleusinian mysteries of their craft without the preludes and delays of elder brethren. This whimsical fraternity held occult correspondence with a man in high office, whose frugal habit of carrying his negro boy behind him on the same horse gave great offence to decorous magistrates, and food for much conjecture to Mynheer Donderdonk, who conceived this personage’s black page must be no less than such an imp as the great Cabalist Paracelsus kept in his sword’s pommel. This idea redoubled his zeal to be one of the initiated among the Free Brothers. After much ceremony and many bribes his wish was granted; but whether he learned the art of building arches without a keystone, which ancient masons are said to have made the true secret of their brotherhood, or whether he was taught the sublimer art of changing himself into any element he pleased, like a Rosicrucian, will never now be known. But it is certain that his personal circumference was reduced at least one half, and seemed composed of much lighter particles; and the mere sound of a Freemason’s symbol in a workman’s hand, or the sight of their mystic triangle, made his face peak itself into at least as many acute points. But he nursed in his mind such a spirit of revenge as Dutchmen are famed for shewing; and as the little lean personage who rode with his black page en croupe had been the chief cause of his initiation, he singled him out as the subject of his slow and silent vengeance.

The separation of America from her mother-country caused the dispersion of nearly all the special lodge of Free Brothers,[1] and the grand master was supposed to have migrated to the continent of Europe, where various vicissitudes conducted him at last as a bookseller to Berlin. But his taste and skill in literature, and a spirit of research which poverty could not suppress, gave him a kind of fame among the itinerant collectors and Jew-brokers frequent at continental fairs. By one of these far-dealing travellers his name was brought to the ear of his ancient enemy, who gave such instructions to his Prussian correspondent as he thought likely to ripen his plan of retaliation. This correspondent was a banker of some note, acquainted with many state-secrets, the keys of which are usually of gold or steel. He was the agent of a fraternity said to be Freemasons, but in reality a knot of literary conspirators, aiding and aided by those daring wits and politicians whose axes were then laid at the root of ancient governments. They were in quest of a credulous enthusiast fit to act a part in a necromantic farce designed to dupe one of their patrons. Von Donderdonk represented the quondam Freemason as a most convenient tool, and his friend the banker described him to the Secret Society accordingly.

In the dead hour of a cold midnight Schimelpenink, as the American brother now called himself, was seized at the entrance of his obscure lane, blindfolded and carried through sundry winding streets and passages till a sharp fresh air informed him he was in some large or uninclosed space. A loosening purposely permitted in the bandage over his eyes allowed him to see several muffled figures passing and repassing in such attire as might grace an Auto-da-fé. A hollow voice very near his ear began by asking if he had repented all his sins, or how many remained to repent. Famine and persecution had wrought hardly on the poor American’s nerves, and he bethought himself with some remorse of the mummeries he had practised under the sacred symbol of Freemasonry. His joints slackened, and his hair, if age had spared any, might. have realized the tale of Mr. Ledupe’s, which a single night made grey. The familiars who seemed to know and resent the impositions he had practised in their semblance, deposited him in a stone sarcophagus, desiring him to commune with his conscience and prepare himself to learn those cabalistic secrets he had mimicked and profamed. Now though a frightened man has seldom any curiosity, he is apt to be very conscientious; and two hours confinement in cold and darkness added to hunger, created all the terrors the Secret Society could desire. Two of their servitors raised him from the stone cistern, covered with the dews of agony, and commanded him to ascend the ladder of three thousand steps by which the Illuminati ascend into the presence of that omniscient eye selected for their symbol from Hindoo mythology. Supported by these two, and in the utmost tribulation of spirit, poor Schimelpenink toiled up his endless ascent, tottering, trembling, and beseeching the merciful care of his guides. The buz of voices which had sounded close to his ear at first, became gradually fainter till it seemed lost in distance; and the thin sharp air which met his face announced his approach to the intense cold of the upper regions. His terror and convulsive shiverings became too intolerable for mortal strength to bear or see; and a sudden burst of hideous sounds, which appeared to his strained fancy like the cackle of demons, but was in part only an explosion of uncontroulable laughter, from many mouths, so harrowed his nerves that a he fell from his dizzy height over the two stools which formed the ladder in a deep swoon. “This fellow will do for us.” said the cabalist whose office had been to place the stools alternately under the feet of their dupe. “He will need neither syrup of borage, nor John of Munster’s lectures to make him mad. Let our Electro-magus make ready his magic lantern, and he will see and say what we please when our other novice arrives to be instructed.”

This charitable philosopher immediately called for his comrade’s assistance, and deposited our American in a sack for further use, in a dry corner of an outer chamber ventilated by a large grate in the wall. The air or the motion of the sack, for it was not too rigidly tied, had just begun to recall Schimelpenink’s breath, and his mind was in a frightful dream of demons and inquisitors, when his eyes opened and beheld a little lean man dressed exactly like himself, looking into the mouth of the sack. The frightened scholar began a prayer in a curious mixture of Saxon, Arabic, and modern Greek, till his apparition interrupted him. “Mutter no exorcisms to me—I am thy good genius. Creep out of that grate and into thy garret silently like a true American Musquash, and let me get into thy sack.” Schimelpenink climbed more like a wild cat than the dull animal his visitor named, and was out of sight in the twinkling of an eye. The new occupier of the sack rolled himself up in the least compass possible and remained quite still in his corner till the servitor of the Secret Society took him on his back and thrust him into the cavity of a closet from whence he heard the muttered dialogue of the familiars.

“Will he not shrink, think you?”

“There is no fear—he is a thorough believer in Hermetic craft, and as our banker tells me, has the rarest dreams we could devise when his head is properly stirred.”

“But if our patron should insist on questioning him?”

“Let him answer for himself—he has heard strange things and will say he has seen the Millennium. Could you not see how his imagination travelled when he thought himself going up the ladder, and you blew the great bellows in his face?”

The agent of the Cabalists could not forbear a fit of laughing—“Well, I have some curiosity myself to know what account he will give of the upper regions which he was so afraid to stay in. Let us take him out of his corner and give him a little celestial refreshment.” The sack was accordingly placed upright on a table, the muffled head allowed to come forth above it, and a few ambrosial pastilles burned near the nose. This ceremony over, the sack was again drawn loosely up, and a voice made powerful by a large silver tube, spoke from the lower part of the academic hall.

“Where hast thou been?”

“In the air,” replied the occupier of the sack in a tremulous voice.

“What hast thou seen there?”

“All that are hanging, all that may, and all that shall be hanged.”

This reply rather startled the examiner, but he consulted his formula and proceeded.

“What sawest thou upon earth?”

“The foolish, the half-wise, and the all-wise.”

“Who are they?”

“The foolish are the women of this world—the half-wise are their husbands, and the all-wise is I myself.” There was another buz at this reply, but it expressed approbation, and the clerk of the society resumed his questions. “If thou art all-wise, thou knowest what the King of Prussia does at this moment?”

“He is thinking of an ugly, lean, ungrateful, Frenchman, with a hawk’s nose, a viper’s eye, and a tongue like a salamander, for it dwells in nothing but heart-burning. The rogue has made himself the King’s confidante, and the King intends to make him his old clothes’ merchant and patcher of loose shreds.”

A pause of silence was broken by a shrill voice asking—“What sawest thou in Geneva?”—The sack replied—“A mad man writing letters to posterity, which the postmaster-general Time will never deliver. Moreover, he is preaching humanity, but leaving his children to the Foundling Hospital; and striving to educate men as if nature had not made fools enough. But he has some good in him for he hates Voltaire.”

“What will the King of Prussia say to the Calvinistic curate who has asked preferment at Neufchatel?”—“‘Tarry at Jericho till thy beard is grown:’ and he will give the same answer to young philosophers.”

“Ask him,” said a whispering female voice, “what the witty, the beautiful, and the celebrated Madame De——d is now saying to the minister of the Bavarian court?” As if the ears of the oracle in the sack had been sharpened by blindfolding his eyes, the instant answer was—“They are saying nothing—the lady sits with her feet on the fender—the gentleman with his eyes on his snuff-box, both yawning at their ease. Because they were ridiculous forty years ago in each other’s company, they think it their duty to be dull no where else now.”

“If thou hast seen all things,” resumed the inquisitor in a more solemn tone, “thou hast seen our brothers in France. What do they to-night?”

“They are quarrelling over the blue bib of the little Dauphin,[2] and his cousin of Orleans swears it shall be a crimson one ere long. A cup of brandy given to a drunken courier, saved Monk’s head, and restored Charles of England: a scarlet feather placed in a coquettish woman’s cap, cost Peter of Russia his crown and determined his vixen-wife to be an empress: an affront to a printer in green spectacles lost America to England; and a courtezan’s lock of yellow hair may split the alliance of the Illuminated. They are debating now whether Monsieur Neckar’s daughter or himself ought to be prime-minister.”

“How will the debate end?”

The voice changed slightly and replied in a low and deep tone—“None present here will see!—There are men of high souls and women of rare beauty holding council to-night on the fate of Europe—it will be with them in twenty years as it will be with all that inhabit this world in a century. Of all that exist now upon this earth when the hundredth anniversary returns, only a few helpless wretches will remain—but of that divan before the twentieth year is past, there will be but one!—I shall not live to tell you this again.”[3]

A profound and long silence followed, and the secret council looked upon each other with conscious dismay and a deeper feeling of superstitious awe in themselves than they had hoped to create in others. Presently there was considerable hurry and commotion as if some great drama was rehearsing, and the muffled prisoner was suddenly placed near, a crevice in a dark curtain and desired to tell what he discerned through it. There was a slight shivering in his enveloppe and he muttered to himself “Dans peu de temps je te rápprochera!” Then replacing instantly the bandage over his face, he said to the audience—“I see the shadow of a woman whom a misjudged father sacrificed, forgetting that generous men never cease to love what is pesecuted:—and I see a likeness of a thoughtless boy who pleased his Prince by calling himself his faithful Diaphané, and had not wit enough to escape the gallows by forsaking him. I also see a blue-eyed man who would have been unhappy if they had not died, for he might not else have had the pleasure of believing two people loved him.”—“Who is that blue-eyed man?” was asked by many voices. The orator in the sack replied, “He is a prince who loves war and snuff, and hates women as much as the gallant Prince de Condé feared the sound of his mistress’s high shoe-heels, after she had wounded him with his own sword which she mistook for a long turkey’s feather. He has kept Voltaire to tickle and keep him awake, but begins to think a hair from any other old fox would do as well. He gave D’Alembert a snuff-box because it was too little for a king after a fop had dipped his fingers in it. He laughs to see Rousseau making himself and the editor of the St. James’s Chronicle believe that Frederic the Great is afraid of him. As if it was any shame to be libelled by a man who would slander his Creator if he knew him!

“Thou hast not yet answered our former question fully;” rejoined the agent of the assembly in a raised tone—“What employs the King of Prussia on this day?”

“This morning,” replied the invisible speaker, “he was conjugating the verb Ennui at Sans-souci—I am tired, thou art tired, he is tired, &c.—this evening, he has devised a new amusement and has ordered his serjeant-major to give a hundred lashes each to about forty gentlemen who are meddling in what does not concern them.” As he spoke, he dropped the bandage, the sack, and the threadbare coat that covered his favorite uniform, and they saw Frederic the Great himself. His blue eye had something paralyzing in it, for those who might have attempted escape stood stupidly gazing while the serjeant of the guards entered to execute their sentence. It was fulfilled with great impartiality, upon the spot in the presence of the King, who dismissed the cabalists very good humouredly after their flagellation, saying he had given them another secret to keep.


  1. This merry fraternity of college youths was well known to the gallant and amiable General H-m-lt-n, to John J—, afterwards President of the Congress, and his cousin the Bishop-elect of New York, of whom as McFingall, the American Hudibras, says,
        “Next V-d—ll, that poetic zealot,
        I see a lawn-bedizen’d prelate.”  
  2. The cordon bleu was put on the late Dauphin in the cradle. 
  3. M. Laharpe records a similar prophecy. All Europe knows how well it has been verified, 

The European Magazine, Vol. 79, March 1821, pp. 202-206