The 'Black Art'
William. J. House

Theosophical Forum, July, 1938.

Caramba! The whole village was agog with the scandal of the thing. Its traditional piety was seething in hot revolt. Arturo Balboa, but lately in the service of the Duke Anselmo, who had just returned to Spain from Florence, brought the very latest news! Galileo (who indeed was he?) with incredible effrontery had asserted in the hearing of all Italy that the earth was not flat! It was round, said he - yes, as round as an orange! And to make matters worse he had even had this absurd idea set forth in a book that all who could might read of it.

Why must some folk be always itching to find a thing they may proclaim as new? Why not be satisfied to see things just as they are, with the eyes the good God gave for that very purpose? El Senor Cura had said that the earth was certainly flat - that itself would be sufficient for any; but also there were every one of ten people in the village who had been to the coast of Portugal and had seen with their own eyes that awe-inspiring sight, the edge of the world far off over the ocean.

A few of the older ones also remembered well how one Carlos Beltran had tried to spread among them a story about a certain Cristobal Colon, who had sailed beyond the edge of the world and come back safely! Carlos did not last long in the place.

But there was even more to this new nonsense that had just come to their ears. Not satisfied with the ridiculous statement that the earth was round, this Galileo (the rack would soon put sense into him) also had the impertinence to maintain that the sun did not move through the heavens above! Ho, ho! Will there ever be a limit to the crazy notions of these idiots? The earth -how was it that he put it? - the earth slipped along under the sun ! Yes, and see you now! Not only was that madness, but blasphemy as well; for did it not say in Holy Writ that the prophet Joshua commanded the sun to stand still? How could it stand still unless it was already moving? Explain that if you can!

Could we but lay our hands upon this Galileo, we would soon put an end to his foolish fancies. We would fasten him in the market-place and turn his silly head around in time with the sun moving above him until he tired of his crazy ideas ...

Now, it was directly because of this purveying of news by Arturo Balboa that Don Sebastian de Mendoza came by his undoing; and that through the vice of his enthusiasm. He had taken up his residence near the village to enjoy the remote and unhurried quiet of the district. And when Carlos Garrido, as he was so often wont to do in the evening, climbed the hill to give Don Sebastian the news of the day, he found him as usual quietly meditating in his garden.

Declaiming with great gusto upon the iniquity of this Galileo, Carlos felt sure that it was his eloquent presentation, as much as the news itself that was evoking the obviously increasing interest of his hearer. For presently the grave face of Don Sebastian lit up with a great light and he exclaimed, "Ah, I knew it! I knew it!"

A chill of suspicion swept over Carlos. He drew back coldly. Don Sebastian, with half-closed eyes and knitted brows, was muttering to himself: "At last! At last the time is come when we may work openly instead of in secret. I must go to Florence, and myself talk with this Galileo!" Then, coming suddenly to himself, he saw his mistake reflected in the troubled eyes of Carlos, and hastened to cover the matter by remarks concerning the unwisdom of straining the imagination beyond the limits set by God. But Carlos had lost interest in news-purveying for that evening. With an eerie feeling creeping over him he went back down the hill to the town. Whom should he speak to about this? Was Don Sebastian in his right senses? Could he have misunderstood what Carlos had just told him? Why that abstraction and low-toned muttering? Carlos consulted his wife, and they decided that it would be better to say nothing at present.

And that was the way his wife presented it to her sister Maria a little later, and the way Carlos explained it to his brother-in-law Matias, at about the same time but in a different place. Consequently, when Maria and Matias hurried home to tell each other that it had been decided not to mention Don Sebastian's peculiarity at present, they discovered that each had heard the same news. They therefore asked two or three others whether they also had heard of the matter. No, they had not. But it was a fearful suspicion to lay on anyone. Had this new madness about the earth being round begun to take root here amongst them? Would it not be well to go up the hill to Don Sebastian's house to just look around? They might get a little more certainty in the matter.

Thus it was that Maria and Matias and several others stole up the hill in the dusk of the evening.

The house was dark. No doubt Don Sebastian had long since sent his housekeeper home. They moved quietly. There seemed to be nothing unusual about, and they were just on the point of turning home when the sharp eyes of Maria noticed a gleam of light through one of the shutters behind the rhododendrons. Presently they were peeping in turn in horrified fascination at the scene within!

The Black Art! Yes, undoubtedly it was the Black Art! There on the center of the table was a polished red globe, looking like blood itself as it reflected the light of several candles set at odd distances around the room. And sidling stealthily around the table, twirling a black globe in his trembling fingers, was Don Sebastian himself, his face pale and intense as he muttered some fearful spell.

With beating hearts they gathered in a knot outside the garden gate. The thing which they had been taught to fear most in all their village traditions was right here amongst them! "El Cura! El Cura!" They started in a body in the direction of the home of the village priest, and then as suddenly stopped. For the moment they had forgotten that only yesterday he had gone on a journey which might last several days. What next, then? "The inn! The inn! Pedro will know what best to do."

Down the hill they rushed. The younger and lustier arrived first and began the clamor. The older ones gathered recruits as they panted along, and presently the inn was a babel of indignant questioning and speculation. Pedro seized an iron tray and a mallet, climbed upon a bench, and beat such a clangor as subdued them all to silence.

"In the name of good sense," he cried, "let us have peace for a moment! Who knows whether el Senor Cura went away by the valley road or by the hills?"

"The valley road," shouted several.

"Then do two of you go after him. You, Matias; and you, Felipe! You say you saw this thing happening behind the shutters, do you not? Then do both of you find the Cura and tell him your story! Waste no time upon the way. He may have gone only five miles; he may have gone fifteen - who knows! But find him quickly; we shall have no peace until he comes or tells us what is to be done."

Matias and Felipe hurried away on their search. But even when one is hurrying there is surely breath enough for a little conversation; and their hearers, as many as could, gravitated immediately to the inn. It was good for business, certainly; but level-headed Pedro, sensing the frenzy that was gathering, drove them all out of the inn and bolted the doors. Whatever happened, it must not be blamed upon his good wine.

And presently the inevitable did happen. The crowd, inflamed by their own exaggerated imaginings, surged up the hill, broke into Don Sebastian's house by the windows and doors, and carried off in triumph the red and black globes, as well as many curious drawings which they also found. But Don Sebastian himself was nowhere to be found, though they scoured every nook and corner of the garden.

Now, the reason why he was not found was that he was helping the crowd to look for himself; and the way it came about was in this wise. After Matias and Maria and their party, earlier in the evening, had stolen away, Don Sebastian continued his studies of the sun and the planets but a little longer. Growing tired of the heat of the evening and the reek of the smoking candles in the closely shuttered room, he went to the eastern side of his garden, where the cool night air drifted up from the valley. He stood beside an excavation which he was having made for an ornamental lake. The work had been suspended because a heavy rain had turned the thing into a black sludge before it could be completed.

Now, when the crowd rushed into the garden with a sudden roar, Don Sebastian, who was standing in deep contemplation of the stars at the very edge of the lake to be, started suddenly and in turning too quickly lost his balance. Consequently he fell into the mud. It was excellent mud, as mud goes; and as he fell face downwards the first time, and back downwards the second time as he tried to climb out, he did not at all resemble the Spanish gentleman he really was when at length he gained the bank.

This incident alone would not have been a protection, were it not that several of the folk who started searching for him through the garden fell into the same mud. Don Sebastian's general resemblance to them in the night's gloom was then sufficient to enable him to mix with them and find out why they were there. Having discovered their purpose, he moved here and there through the garden, calling out that Don Sebastian was being held at the west gate. When the crowd began to mill around that entrance, Don Sebastian went quickly to the eastern side of the garden, on the further side of the sludge. Raising his voice he yelled lustily for help. Don Sebastian was escaping! He could not hold him much longer! Quickly! Quickly! Everybody come this way! . . .

There was hardly room enough for them all in the mud, and much as Don Sebastian would have liked to stay and enjoy the result of his application of the `black' art to the crowd, he thought it wiser to retire to a distance for a while.

The warmth of the search having cooled, the globes and the drawings were taken back to the inn, where Pedro was as much and even more interested than any in examining the booty. The

globes they agreed to set aside. There was something about them that was not quite right. Matias proposed burning them right away, but many were firm in their opinion that they certainly would not burn; and this was considered very good logic, since the globes undoubtedly had their origin in the nether regions.

But the various drawings and diagrams were the subject of much windy argument. Vincente and Guillermo came to blows over the word Koppernigk on one of the drawings, and when they were thrown outside to cool off, that only meant that there was room then for two others to squeeze in. For by this time not only was the inn full, but the crowd outside was even greater and was clamoring to be able to take part in the discussion.

Pedro, who had been saying little, and perspiring mentally over the diagrams, had an inspiration. "Outside, all of you! Get lanterns and torches a-plenty!" He explained to them all, with a proper air of importance, that as they could not all see the drawings at once he proposed to demonstrate one to them.

The crowd had hardly the vaguest idea of what Pedro meant. But that mattered little; they were in a jolly mood now. The night was balmy, the moving lanterns and torches romantic. When Pedro stood tall, red-headed Jose in their midst and said he was to represent the sun, their jollity rose to bursting point. Then when Pedro had cleared a goodly space around Jose, placed several couples at intervals in a circle and told them they were to whirl around as the drawing indicated, the bursting point came.

"La Danza de las Estrellas!" they shouted. But the name they gave to it was the only point of resemblance to a dance of the stars. Music was quickly available, and soon the whole square in front of the inn was a whirling, happy mass of dancers. More musicians and more dancers arrived. Who cared about the `black art' now? Here was a new fiesta of the stars which they themselves had invented. There was no Cura near by to call for discretion, and they kept it up until near midnight, when excess of laughter and lack of breath compelled them to subside.

Pedro, seeing the way things were going, had shrugged his shoulders and retired into the inn to further study of the drawings. When the excitement died down he would again make trial of getting recognition for his superior penetration into the meaning of the fascinating diagrams. He had a reputation to sustain, and he was not going to let pass by such an opportunity.

Hearing a decided pause in the fiesta, he got outside quickly and took command. "Be you all seated on the ground and watch while I demonstrate another of these diagrams to you. I have been studying profoundly while you were dancing, and I will now show you something that will surprise you. Where is Jose? Gone to sleep as usual, I suppose. Ah, here he is. Come into the center again, Jose, and we will try this simple figure first, while the others are resting. Give Jose a torch so that we may see how well he represents the sun. Now watch carefully, for I am going to represent our earth."

There was a roar of laughter at this, since Pedro measured almost as far around him as over him.

"I must have a moon," he continued. "Luis, my son, come you here and do credit to your father by being intelligent."

"Listen, all of you!" he exhorted the crowd, now resting happily. "Pay careful attention! While Jose stands still, since that seems to be what nature fitted him best to do, I am going to pivot slowly around, and you are to think of me as turning once completely in twenty-four hours. That is what the drawing indicates - I have studied it most carefully. Now you, Luis, are the moon, and you are to - let me see, let me see! Someone give me a lantern. Yes, leave it with me; I may need to look at the diagram again. Just so, Luis is the moon, and he is to move around in the same direction that I do; but not so quickly, not so quickly. Let us practise that."

After much laughter and vociferous counting in chorus, mingled with satirical advice, they at length lost interest in the moon. And indeed the crowd was much too happy and much too lazy to think out what Pedro was trying to do.

"Well, then, let that go and we will come to the point of the diagram," cried Pedro. There was an intensity and excitement gathering and becoming apparent in his demeanor, and beginning subtly to transfer itself to the onlookers. They grew quieter and listened more attentively.

Holding the lantern aloft, Pedro revolved carefully. "Look you! This button on my jerkin shall be our village on the face of the earth." There was exaltation in the voice of Pedro. "Take heed now! See you, it is now midday when I am facing Jose!" What was it that possessed him? He seemed abstracted from his usual self. "Look! Look!" he continued, his voice quivering, "As I turn away from the sun the evening draws on! And now I have turned quite away and our village is in full night!"

He paused with concentrated brows. "Can it be true? Does our earth - does the sun - ?"

Pedro stood perfectly still, lost in thought. The onlookers were gripped by the spell. Some essayed to rise, but remained crouched as though frozen. Many had an expression as of terror and pain on their faces. But within the soul of brave Pedro the Truth was striving mightily to break through the veil of ignorance. Another moment, and - !

"Cease this infamy!" The harsh voice of the Cura cut through the silence like a lash. He had returned unexpectedly! "What devil's work is this?" He took a few steps forward and raised his arms. His voice shook with the agony of his heart. Had his whole flock gone astray during his short absence? "Oh, my children," he shouted, "know you not that you are on the very brink of Hell?"

Pedro paled and staggered backwards to the safety of the inn. Jose and the boy melted away into the shadows, while the crowd cringed on their knees with bowed heads. Fiercely the Cura upbraided and implored them in turn, drawing by insistent questioning from this one and that a recital of all that had happened, and ending by demanding that the globes and drawings be brought out into their midst and burned.

But they were not burned. While attention was diverted from the Cura by the movement of many to the inn to get the globes and drawings, a stranger who had been in the background moved up behind the Cura and whispered to him, retiring again immediately.

And it was just here that Don Sebastian, who, ever since the incident in his garden, had been viewing the whole proceedings from a safe distance, decided that the time for his complete disappearance had arrived. He recognised the stranger as an agent of the Holy Inquisition. As the Cura moved off with him in possession of the globes and drawings, Don Sebastian took the nearest road back to his home.

* * *

Yes, it was without doubt a visitation of Providence that his beautiful home should have burned down that very night. And strange indeed, and perhaps just as well, that he should have so suddenly disappeared.

But little comfort were the ways of Providence to a tattered old beggar, who, towards noon of the next day, shuffled wearily into the comforting shade of a sycamore tree beside the doorway of a humble cottage. It was on the outskirts of a village many weary miles away from the scene of Don Sebastian's misfortune, and the keen-eyed countrywoman who came to the door asked him tartly if he had not lived long enough yet to know the best time of day for travelling.

"Ah," replied the beggar, "the poor have little choice when hunger drives. Had I my choice I should always travel in the coolness of the night and by the sweet light of the stars."

"Indeed, I should think the full moon more suited to your difficulties, the woman replied sourly. "What do you know of the stars, since you seem to love them so much?"

"Everybody at least knows the evening star," he said, gently caressing his right foot with his left hand.

"Yes, any fool may know that; but how many may know what is the equal of the evening star?", she asked.

"The morning star is that indeed," replied he.

The woman withdrew somewhat into the doorway, lowered her voice and said: "I surmised that something had happened, when a rider stopped here about the middle of the morning and searched the house and all about it. He threatened my immediate arrest if I should be found harboring fugitives.

"But listen! There is a sound of carriage-wheels on the bridge at the foot of the hill. Stay just where you are, and whatever may be said, do not look up. Your eyes are far too bright and healthy for a beggar's."

The woman withdrew into the house and took her position behind a curtained window, from whence she could see the approach to the house. Presently the carriage, drawn by four mules and accompanied by three well-armed attendants on horses, drew up at the cottage. One of the riders called out to attract attention. The woman, peering out at them from the half-opened door, apparently caught sight of the beggar for the first time, where he sat in a clumsy heap on the whitewashed bench under the sycamore tree.

"Scum of the earth!" she screamed at him. "Is all the filth of the road to deposit itself at my door? And of all times just when distinguished visitors should arrive!" Picking up a broom that stood near by, she made at the beggar with it.

The attendants shouted with laughter. The occupant of the carriage, none other than the agent of the Holy Office who had been with the Cura, opened the door and leaned out. He smiled tolerantly and held up his hand. "Quietly, quietly, woman! You should know that we must be kind to the poor."

The woman paused and looked at him cunningly. "It is also well known that the poor are kindest to the poor. The rich might help at times," she said meaningly.

"A sharp tongue but a smart one," said the prelate, tossing a coin towards the beggar.

But the woman intercepted it quickly and, turning on the beggar, drove him away to the back of the house. "Go around to the pigs, where you belong," she said, "and I will feed you when I feed them!"

"Do you entertain all your visitors thus?" asked the prelate mildly.

"Oh, sir"! replied the woman fawningly, "I was but distressed that you should find such untidiness in front of the house. You will surely rest until the heat of the midday has passed?"

"Thank you; but we will rest a little further on at the inn. I see that you have had another visitor today," said the prelate, looking at the hoofmarks on the ground where the earlier rider had tethered his horse.

"Indeed yes. One as discourteous as you are courteous. One who entered my house without permission and searched it through and through. And for what I know not."

"And he found naught there that should not be there?"

"He found nothing but the cleanliness which he befouled with his presence," she replied tartly.

"Well, well! The world is full of distress. I trust you may not be subject to further annoyance. We will bid you good-day."

When the Holy Inquisitor was well away, the countrywoman went to the back of the house and called Don Sebastian in. She spoke earnestly: "When they have rested at the inn they will surely return, and we must be ready. Their inquiries at the village will show that you are the only traveler who has come this way today. That one on horseback this morning was surely of their own party. Let us hurry! Presently you may tell me of all that has happened. You must remove from your person any clothing that is of good quality and any money or articles of value you may have hidden upon yourself. Here, take this ragged underclothing and befoul it in the dirt, and then put it on in place of what you have.

"Yes, yes, you must do it! I tell you they will search your clothing, and tear it, and look to see if your skin is fine and clear. But we will deceive them. They think that they alone are the dispensers of knowledge. But not for nothing have I studied herbs, and my mother before me, and my grandmother before her. I will give you a draught that will blotch that clear skin, blear those fine eyes, and make your limbs to tremble as with a palsy."

She lowered her voice and whispered: "Take comfort in the great cause to which we are pledged."

An hour later, even as the countrywoman said, returned the Inquisitor and his party, with the addition now of the soldier who had passed earlier that morning. He now sat in the carriage beside the prelate, while one of the attendants led his horse. Without any parley, and quite evidently in an evil temper, he dismounted, threw the garden gate open so violently that it fell from its hinges, and strode through the flowers to the back of the cottage.

Leaning over the pigstye where the beggar was working; he drew his dagger and ripped the clothes from his back. Shuddering with disgust at the blotched and unhealthy skin disclosed, he held his dagger over the unfortunate man and demanded his name and his doings. But when the beggar turned and looked at him, his mouth slack and slavering and the eyes bleared and dull, the soldier stood back with a pious oath and sheathed his dagger. "God forbid that I should risk having that to haunt me!" he muttered, as he returned in a still worse temper to the carriage.

"Well, Diego, is he the one whom we seek?" asked the prelate. "Am I to congratulate you or to praise my own opinion?"

But what the disgruntled man replied was lost in the flow of vituperation which the woman poured forth as she rushed from the house, pointing to the broken gate and the trampled flowers, keeping up such a ceaseless clattering that the prelate put his hands over his ears in mock despair.

"Diego," he said, "I think you must admit that the loser should pay."

His companion dismounted again and approached the distracted woman, holding a small bag of coins before her. He spoke with suppressed fury: "Do you understand, woman, that it is possible sometimes to lose the power of speech by the too frequent use of it? Yes, and even the sight may be lost by too much keenness." He added meaningly: "Remember that the Holy Office is very zealous in the pursuit of its appointed work."

He threw the bag of money at her feet. The woman meekly picked it up, faltering and fawning as she backed away to her door and disappeared within the house, murmuring protestations of having seen and heard nothing amiss.

"Calm yourself," said the prelate to his companion, as the party continued on its journey. "We are at least sure that this Don Sebastian did not come this way. And we must be prepared to suffer discomfort in our holy cause. It is only by constant watchfulness to prevent this new heresy from spreading that we can maintain peace and prosperity. I confess I cannot understand this desire to be always stirring up something new instead of endeavoring to preserve comfort and peace of mind."

"We should make a public example of that innkeeper, I consider," growled Diego. "And I understand that he has a considerable sum put by."

"I am inclined to agree with you," answered the prelate. "Be assured," he added, with a kindly touch upon his companion's arm, "that your zeal will not be forgotten in my report to our superiors."

But perhaps, after all, it was the countrywoman who prospered most. She had received a bag of money, and an exhortation from the very agent of the Holy Office himself to take care of the beggarman. Did not the prelate say that she must be kind to the poor man? And then, as well, there was the added respect of the neighbors as they plainly saw the beggar's health improving every day under her skilful care.

Indeed, so quickly did he improve that in a short time he was able to assist the countrywoman to take her monthly cartload of chickens and geese to the castle of the Count Don Felipe de Ortega. It was a day's journey there and a night's rest before returning; but well worth the journey, since the Count was a generous patron of the poor.

The Count's secretary, when it came to the paying of the bill, was interested in the countrywoman's new acquisition. He listened attentively to the gossipy and detailed account of the arrival of the beggar and what followed it. "A good fellow," she concluded, "but sadly afflicted, I am afraid. He is always muttering some foolishness about stars, which I do not understand. Perhaps you may be able to make something of it, sir."

The secretary walked over to where the beggar sat by the roadside, caressing his right foot with his left hand, as though to relieve the fatigue of the journey. "Am I to believe what I hear?" he said severely. "You, a mere beggar, pretend to a knowledge of the stars!"

"No, no! quavered the beggar. "I know but one star. Those

who must sleep where they can, by bank or bush, must surely know the evening star."

"There are others equally brilliant; what of them?"

"I know but one other to equal it, and that is the morning star." And the beggar babbled on, drawing what might have been geometrical figures in the dust, only to rub them out again immediately.

"I think that Don Felipe would be interested in him," said the secretary, returning to the countrywoman. "He has made quite a considerable study in matters concerning afflictions such as this beggar is suffering from. In the meantime will you take up your usual quarters for the night."

Alas, when morning came the poor beggarman was nowhere to be found, and neither the distress and anxiety of the country-woman nor the utmost searching by the servants was of any avail. He had been seen about dusk wandering towards the river which bounded the east of the castle. No doubt he had fallen in and been swept to his death in the swift current.

But in a remote wing of the castle, secure against intrusion, Don Felipe and Don Sebastian had just realized by the growing light that it was morning. They had spent the whole night deeply absorbed in the astronomical studies which were dearer to them than life itself.

"How long, Don Felipe," Don Sebastian was saying, "how long do you think it will be before we may pursue our studies openly? I long to share our knowledge with all. I feel assured that it would be the best remedy for the pettiness with which our lives are surrounded."

"I am not very sanguine in the matter: Perhaps in a hundred years we may do so," replied Don Felipe. "And it certainly will not be safe for you to attempt to reach Florence for several months. In the meantime I think that two live philosophers are much more useful than two dead ones; notwithstanding that one of them seems to have been drowned in the night. Come closer to the window and look at the agitation over by the river. That countrywoman is a treasure. Do you hear her lamentations! I wish I could hear her story when she returns home."

And pathetic indeed was the sorrow which she expressed to the neighbors on her return to her home, as she recounted the drowning of the beggar. "Thus it is," she grieved, "with rich as well as poor, with young and old alike. We meet, and love, and part. A sigh and a turn of the head, and we are gone, and nothing left but an ache in the heart to fade as the long years pass."

But there was a new keenness in her eyes as in the privacy of her home she studied the curious circular pattern of the cobble-stones around the well in the courtyard. She considered altering the position of one or two prominent ones amongst them, since her conversations with Don Sebastian.

"Black art! Black art!" she muttered scornfully. "We shall win yet, in spite of their piety."

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