It was the year 1790; the “Great Master,” following a certain affair of a diamond necklace cunningly arranged by enemies, had fallen into the King’s disfavor, and was now beyond the Italian border in the hands of the Inquisition, his fate uncertain and his name to go down the centuries as one of the world’s great imposters. His erstwhile friends among the great and near-great, who had stood numerous as the wheat stalks in the field, had now vanished as mice vanish into the same wheat when the hawk swoops.
Covered under the glitter of the Master’s political and financial fame, there had secretly grown a work set in motion by him through the hands of smaller and quieter folk; the work of teaching a knowledge of the nature of man. This work, helped by the example of the Americans, was shortly to leaven the bloody torrent of the coming Revolution with a dim red-smeared light of brotherhood that should have its day on a later occasion. These obscure ones did not run to cover; they were already under cover. However, in course of time the wrath of King and Church, in a last struggle for power, began to infiltrate its tentacles through the highways and byways. To one Arnaud Bonpays there came by night a friend who warned of the morrow and spoke of an English smuggling lugger off the mouth of the Seine.
Pausing only to collect a few small debts as travel money - he was a tailor, and tailors were notoriously slowly paid - Arnaud departed in secret haste, and in due time breathed the foggy freedom of England on the Thames. For George III was in no condition to trouble himself about obscure philosophers, and his people were profiting well by the rebellious example of their erstwhile colonists. Arnaud and his ideas might be laughed at here; they would meet no guillotine and no Inquisitorial dungeon. But Arnaud found that if these English were free of speech and belief, they were not quite so free with pounds and pence. It took him a long time to regain enough trade to re-begin the teaching of the Wisdom; and those who finally came to hear it were intrigued as much by the novelty of listening to a “Frenchie” dispense philosophy, as by the philosophy itself. But there were a few who after listening stayed to learn, and Arnaud did not despair. He was a little man with a big mission; for the “Great Master” had said that upon the continuance of at least a few in the way of secret wisdom, depended not only the coming of a far greater one around the distant time of 1875, but the very survival of all that such as France and England knew as civilization. He had at times said much in detail; but Arnaud had never been able to grasp all this very competently, and indeed the Master had admitted that no words had yet come into being in the Western world for the powers and weapons and perils of the future. Arnaud had grasped little of this; but what he did seize brought the conviction that no one man’s life, or happiness, or prosperity, counted as a grain’s weight against some little bettering of the minds of the people toward one another. So Arnaud struggled on undaunted, closing his mind to sorrow over sacrifice and seemingly small results.
One evening among the dozen or so sat one somewhat different; a fellow stocky, sturdy, of rosy complexion and well-cut clothing. This one asked a question; Arnaud’s heart leaped to hear the familiar accent of his home-land. The stranger put other questions well framed; and indeed made some comment that put Arnaud’s arguings in clearer light and better words. “Have I,” said Arnaud to himself, flushing with pleasure, “at last found a companion and helper?”
As the group dispersed, the stranger introduced himself.
“I am Charles Delaville,” he said, “formerly of St. Aignan. It is easy to recognize in you a country man.”
“Arnaud Bonpays, ci-devant Parisian. I am of extreme happiness to greet you.”
Over coffee, Delaville enlarged.
“This Wisdom of yours - it is not altogether new to me. I too have listened to the Great Master, and have seen that there is more to this muddy world than the outward seeming. Yet a balance is necessary and one must keep the things of this world and of the next in equilibrium lest both be lost. This Master of ours - great indeed; yet it must be recognized, no wise in all things - otherwise there would not have been these affairs of the necklace and the Inquisition.”
Arnaud bristled a little inwardly. “And this unwisdom you have recognized betimes?”
“I may say so. I foresaw the fall of the Master and took myself from under without loss of that which, after all, is necessary for good works in this world. In a word, I converted my holdings into English securities while the plaudits still rang - I have seen these popularities wax and wane before. Indeed I find myself doubly wise: my kind is finished in France in any case. In a year or two, not more than five, blood will run from border to border, and I should then be priced a dozen for a copper coin. If I may say so without offense, your own attire and style bespeak one a little more behindhand than beforehand, not so?”
“So indeed. I never was one to look far into the coming road - I always had enough trouble with the cobblestones under my feet.”
“It need not be always thus - with the taking of a little friendly advice from one who knows the world enough to cope well with it.”
“And you would advise -?”
“A little different handling of these shop-keeping English, for one thing. You have to admit that the showing has not been great to the present moment - yet we both well recognize that the Wisdom is great indeed. Look you - these fellows are set in dingy uninteresting ways in dingy streets. They are hungry for life and color and imagination - even though outwardly they scoff at such. Give them these things, and a hundred will follow you eagerly for each one here that now listens cautiously and doubtfully.”
“I am not a fine talker. I can only say one word at a time, as I see its truth. What would you?”
“One may learn - with a proper teacher. Now the manner in which you set forth the mysteries - one might as well add up a ledger. ‘Behold, my friends, two on this side; another two here, set them together, and observe four.’ But they observe that every day. What they desire is a kind of two which, added unto itself, comes out at least four and a quarter and even five.”
“But the Law of the Great Master inexorably and always renders a four for two twos - in no matter what region of life.”
“That is true. But the grimness of that must be gently leavened with a bit of fancy and imagination. It is not enough to show that a man must reap in toto as he has sown; for those not quite ready, a chink should be left for a belief that there can be exceptions - or at least, an intimation that each particular wight may indeed have sown so well that there need be no anxiety over the reaping.”
“But that - pardon me - does not seem quite honest. I try to present the problem of life as it is.”
“What is honesty? It lies in the end sought, not in the means. You seek naught for yourself, all for others, and this is your aim without alloy, not so? Thus, if there be a little deviousness in the route, what of it if the hones end is gained by all?”
“So. In what other respects might my method see improvement?”
“Well - for instance, you have a quite unused asset in this our incurable French accent. You try to suppress it - a quite vain hope in any case; you are conscious of it as a defect; you make no use of it at all.”
“Use of it, I confess, had never occurred to me. How?”
“It really should help, for it smacks of the exotic, the strange, and the mysterious. This scorn that these stodgy English manifest for such things in reality covers a hunger for them. Scratch the most skeptical Englishman deep enough with the right pin, and you find a true believer. Add to your accent a hint now and then that you yourself have seen strange wonders, and might even teach a little of their where-withal to those truly serving, and you will carry the field. If the Englishmen do not find themselves intrigued thus, the English women will be more alert.” **
“But I have seen no wonders. I have no powers, or power to teach powers.”
“Nor need you, or should you, make such claims, in so many words. People hear that which they wish to hear. If one, knowing this, learns the art of slightly slanting phrases toward a preconceiving ear - all for its own final good, mind you - whose the fault that a temporary misconception form a stepping stone on the path?”
“Your philosophy is interesting indeed.”
“And is meant. So much so that I myself, not unendowed with the wherewithal of living, and still of a mind to help mankind, might assist in a substantial manner in a work well fortified by practical knowledge of men and their ways. In a word, in return for some such amendment of presentation and manner on you part, I should be quite willing to assume the rent of this place and other necessary expenditures. But to be frank, my friend, I have neither gained my fortune, nor saved it and my skin withal, by following or supporting those without due knowledge of the practicalities.”
“Well understood is your advice, you may be sure. I shall think it over very seriously.” (“What a damned liar he has already made of me,” thought Arnaud. “I have very well thought it over already, not only now but years ago.”)
After some further conversation, they parted at the door of the tavern.
“As a farewell word - for now -” said Delaville, “ponder well over what I have said.”
“Quite so - and as a parting word from me also - ‘Retro me Sathanas.’” *
Delaville frowned a little. “Latin? I fear that I am not up in the tongue ...Well, if you don’t wish to translate, you don’t. But remember. Adieu!”
As Arnaud turned out of the muddy street into his dim hallway, he thought how much less lonesome his work would be were it not for the help proffered by some kinds of friends.
* * *
* It was Latin - “Get thee behind me, Satan!” [V.E.]
* Are we wrong, or does it seem to us that in modern America, this would come very near being: “If the men don’t fall for your line, the women will?” But we feel that M. Delaville’s estimate of English susceptibility was unduly. [V.E.]
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