Chapter 8 A FAITH AND ITS FOUNDER

On the return of the family, my host was met at the door with such accounts of what had happened as led him at once to see and question his daughter. It was not, therefore, till he had heard her story that I saw him. More agitated than I should have expected from one under ordinary circumstances so calm and self-possessed, he entered my room with a face whose paleness and compressed lips indicated intense emotion; and, laying his hand on my shoulder, expressed his feeling rather in look and tone than in his few broken and not very significant words. After a few moments, however, he recovered his coolness, and asked me to supply the deficiencies of Eveena’s story. I told him briefly but exactly what had passed from the moment when I missed her to that of her rescue. He listened without the slightest symptom of surprise or anger to the tale of the Regent’s indifference, and seemed hardly to understand the disgust and indignation with which I dwelt upon it. When I had finished—

You have made,” he said, “an enemy, and a dangerous one; but you have also secured friends against whose support even the anger of a greater than the Zamptâ might break as harmlessly as waves upon a rock. He behaved only as any one else would have done; and it is useless to be angry with men for being what they habitually and universally are. What you did for Eveena, one of ourselves, perhaps, but no other, might have risked for a first bride on the first day of her marriage. Indeed, though I am most thankful to you, I should, perhaps, have withheld my consent to my daughter’s request had I supposed that you felt so strongly for her.”

I think,” I replied with some displeasure, “that I may positively affirm that I have spoken no word to your daughter which I should not have spoken in your presence. I am too unfamiliar with your ideas to know whether your remark has the same force and meaning it would have borne among my own people; but to me it conveys a grave reproach. When I accepted the charge of your daughter during this day’s excursion, I thought of her only as every man thinks of a young, pretty, and gentle girl of whom he has seen and knows scarcely anything. To avail myself of what has since happened to make a deeper impression on her feelings than you might approve would have seemed to me unpardonable treachery.”

You do utterly misunderstand me,” he answered. “It may be that Eveena has received an impression which will not be effaced from her mind. It may be that this morning, could I have foreseen it, I should have decidedly wished to avoid anything that would so impress her. But that feeling, if it exist, has been caused by your acts and not by your words. That you should do your utmost, at any risk to yourself, to save her, is consistent with what I know of your habit of mind, and ought not much to surprise me. But, from your own account of what you said to the Zamptâ, you were not merely willing to risk life for life. When you deemed it impossible to return without her, you spoke as few among us would seriously speak of a favourite bride.”

I spoke and felt,” I replied, “as any man trained in the hereditary thought of my race and rank would have spoken of any woman committed to his care. All that I said and did for Eveena, I should have said and done, I hope, for the least attractive or least amiable maiden in this planet who had been similarly entrusted to my charge. How could any but the vilest coward return and say to a father, ‘You trusted your daughter to me, and she has perished by my fault or neglect’?”

Not so,” he answered, “Eveena alone was to blame—and much to blame. She says herself that you had told her to remain where you left her till your return; and if she had not disobeyed, neither her life nor yours would have been imperilled.”

One hardly expects a young lady to comply exactly with such requests,” I said. “At any rate, Terrestrial feelings of honour and even of manhood would have made it easier to leap the precipice than to face you and the world if, no matter by whose fault, my charge had died in such a manner under my eyes and within my reach.”

Esmo’s eyes brightened and his cheek flushed a little as I spoke, with more of earnestness or passion than any incident, however exciting, is wont to provoke among his impassive race.

Of one thing,” he said, “you have assured me—that the proposal I was about to make rather invites honour than confers it. I have been obliged, in speaking of the manners and ideas of my countrymen, to let you perceive not only that I differ from them, but that there are others who think and act as I do. We have for ages formed a society bound together by our peculiar tenets. That we individually differ in conduct, and, therefore, probably in ideas, from our countrymen, they necessarily know; that we form a body apart with laws and tenets of our own, is at least suspected. But our organisation, its powers, its methods, its rules of membership, and its doctrines are, and have always been, a secret, and no man’s connection with it is avowed or provable. Our chief distinctive and essential doctrines you hold as strongly as we do—the All-perfect Existence, the immortal human soul. From these necessarily follow conceptions of life and principles of conduct alien to those that have as necessarily grown up among a race which repudiates, ignores, and hates our two fundamental premises. After what has happened, I can promise you immediate and eager acceptance among those invested with the fullest privileges of our order. They will all admire your action and applaud your motives, though, frankly speaking, I doubt whether any of us would carry your views so far as you have done. The best among us would have flinched, unless under the influence of the very strongest personal affection, from the double peril of which you seemed to think so lightly. They might indeed have defied the Regent but it would have been in reliance on the protection of, a power superior to his of which you knew nothing.”

Then,” I said, “I suppose your engagement of to-day was a meeting of this society?”

Yes,” he answered, “a meeting of the Chamber to which I and the elder members of my household, including my son and his wife, belong.” “But,” I said, “if you are more powerful than the rulers of your people, what need of such careful secrecy?”

You will understand the reason,” he answered, “when you learn the nature of our powers. Hundreds among millions, we are no match for the fighting force of our unbelieving countrymen. Our safety lies in the terror inspired by a tradition, verified by repeated and invariable experience, that no one who injures one of us but has reason to rue it, that no mortal enemy of the Star has ever escaped signal punishment, more terrible for the mystery attending it. Were we known, were our organisation avowed, we might be hunted down and exterminated, and should certainly suffer frightful havoc, even if in the end we were able to frighten or overcome our enemies. But if you are disposed to accept my offer—and enrolment among us gives you at once your natural place in this planet and your best security against the enmity you have incurred and will incur here—I should prefer to make the rest of the explanation that must precede your admission in presence of my family. The first step, the preliminary instruction in our creed and our simpler mysteries, which is the work of the Novitiate, is a solemn epoch in the lives of our children. They are not trusted with our secret till we can rely on the maturity of their intelligence and loyalty of their nature. Eveena would in any case have been received as a novice within some dozen days. It will now be easy for me, considering her education and intelligence and my own position in the Order, to obtain, for her as for you, exemption from the usual probation on proof that you both know all that is usually taught therein, and admission on the same occasion; and it will add solemnity and interest to her first initiation, that this chief lesson of her life should be shared this evening with him to whom she owes it that she lives to enter the society, to which her ancestors have belonged since its institution.”

We passed into the peristyle, where the ladies were as usual assembled; but the children had been dismissed, and of the maidens Eveena only was present. Fatigue and agitation had left her very pale, and she was resting at full length on the cushions with her head pillowed on her mother’s knee. As we approached, however, they all rose, the other ladies greeting me eagerly and warmly, Eveena rising with difficulty and faltering the welcome which the rest had spoken with enthusiastic earnestness. Forgetting for the moment the prudence which ignorance of Martial customs had hitherto dictated, I lifted to my lips the hand that she, following the example of the rest, but shyly and half reluctantly, laid on my shoulder—a form very different to the distant greeting I had heretofore received, and marking that I was no longer to be treated as a stranger to the family. My unusual salute brought the colour back to her cheeks, but no one else took notice of it. I observed, however, that on this occasion, instead of interposing himself between me and the ladies as usual, her father left vacant the place next to her; and I seated myself at her feet. She would have exchanged her reclining posture for that of the others, but her mother gently drew her down to her former position.

Eveena,” said my host, “I have told our friend, what you know, that there is in this world a society, of which I am a member, whose principles are not those of our countrymen, but resemble rather those which supplied the impulses on which he acted to-day. This much you know. What you would have learned a few days hence, I mean that you and he shall now hear at the same time.”

Before you enter on that subject,” interposed Zulve timidly—for it is most unusual for a lady to interfere in her husband’s conversation, much more to offer a suggestion or correction—but yet earnestly, “let me say, on my own part, what I am sure you must have said already on yours. If there be now, or ever shall be, anything we can do for our guest, anything we can give that he would value, not in requital, but in memory of what he has done for us—whatever it should cost us, though he should ask the most precious thing we possess, it will be our pride and pleasure—the greatest pleasure he can afford us—to grant it.”

The time and the surroundings were not perhaps exactly suitable to the utterance of the wish suggested by these words; but I knew so little what might be in store for me, and understood so well the difficulty and uncertainty of finding future opportunities of intercourse with the ladies at least of the family, that I dared not lose the present. I spoke at once upon the impulse of the moment, with a sense of reckless desperation not unlike that with which an artillerist fires the train whose explosion may win for him the obsidional wreath or blow him into atoms. “You and my host,” I said, “have one treasure that I have learned to covet, but it is exactly the most precious thing you possess, and one which it would be presumptuous to ask as reward; even had I not owed to Esmo the life I perilled for Eveena, and if I had acted from choice and freely, instead of doing only what only the vilest of cowards could have failed to attempt. In asking it indeed, I feel that I cancel whatever claim your extravagant estimate of that act can possibly ascribe to me.”

We don’t waste words,” answered Esmo, “in saying what we don’t mean, and I confirm fully what my wife has said. There is nothing we possess that we shall not delight to give as token of regard and in remembrance of this day to the saviour of our child.”

If,” I said, “I find a neighbour’s purse containing half his fortune, and return it to him, he may offer me what reward I ask, but would hardly think it reasonable if I asked for the purse and its contents. But you have only one thing I care to possess—that which I have, by God’s help, been enabled to save to-day. If I must ask a gift, give me Eveena herself.”

Utilitarianism has extinguished in Mars the use of compliment and circumlocution; and until I concluded, their looks of mild perplexity showed that neither Zulve nor her husband caught my purpose. I fancied—for, not daring to look them in the face, I had turned my downcast glance on Eveena—that she had perhaps somewhat sooner divined the object of my thoughts. However, a silence of surprise—was it of reluctance?—followed, and then Zulve bent over her daughter and looked into her half-averted face, while Esmo answered—

What you should ask I promised to give; what you have asked I give, in so far as it is mine to give, in willing fulfilment of my pledge. But, of course, what I can give is but my free permission to my daughter to answer for herself. You will be, I hope, within a few days at furthest, one of those in whose possession alone a woman of my house could be safe or content; and, free by the law of the land to follow her own wish, she is freed by her father’s voice from the rule which the usage of ten thousand years imposes on the daughters of our brotherhood.”

Zulve then looked up, for Eveena had hidden her face in her mother’s robe, and said—

If my child will not speak for herself I must speak for her, and in my own name and in hers I fulfil her father’s promise. And now let my husband tell his story, for nothing can solemnise more appropriately the betrothal of a daughter of the Star, than her admission to the knowledge of the Order whose privileges are her heritage.”

At the time,” Esmo began, “when material science had gained a decided ascendant, and enforced the recognition of its methods as the only ones whereby certain knowledge and legitimate belief could be attained, those who clung most earnestly to convictions not acquired or favoured by scientific logic were sorely dismayed. They were confounded, not so much by the yet informal but irrevocable majority-vote against them, as by an instinctive misgiving that Science was right; and by irrepressible doubts whether that which would not bear the application of scientific method could in any sense be true or trustworthy knowledge. At the same time, to apply a scientific method to the cherished beliefs threatened only to dissolve them. Fortunately for them and their successors, there was living at that time one of the most remarkable and original thinkers whom our race has produced. From him came the suggestions that gave impulse to our learning and birth to our Order. ‘The reasonings, the processes of Science,’ he affirmed,’are beyond challenge. Their trustworthiness depends not on their subject-matter, but on their own character; not on their relation to outward Nature, but on their conformity to the laws of thought. Their upholders are right in affirming that what will not ultimately bear the test of their application cannot be knowledge, and probably—for the practical purposes of human life we may say certainly—cannot be truth. They are wrong in alleging that the ideas for which they can find no foundation in the subjects to which scientific method has hitherto been applied, are therefore unscientific, or sure to disappear under scientific investigation. I hold that the existence of a Creator and Ruler of the Universe can be logically deduced from first principles, as well as justly inferred from cumulative evidences of overwhelming weight. The existence of something in Man that is not merely corporeal, of powers that can act beyond the reach of any corporeal instruments at his command, or without the range of their application, is not proven; it may be, only because the facts that indicate without proving it have never yet been subject to systematic verification or scientific analysis. But of such facts there exists a vast accumulation; unsifted, untested, and therefore as yet ineffective for proof, but capable, I can scarcely doubt, of reduction to methodical order and scientific treatment. There are records and traditions of every degree of value, from utter worthlessness to the worth of the most authentic history, preserving the evidences of powers which may be generally described as spiritual. Through all ages, among all races, the living have alleged themselves from time to time to have seen the forms and even heard the voices of the dead. Scientific men have been forced by the actual and public exercise of the power under the most crucial tests—for instance, to produce insensibility in surgical operations—to admit that the will of one man can control the brain, the senses, the physical frame of another without material contact, perhaps at a distance. There are narratives of marvels wrought by human will, chiefly in remote, but occasionally in recent times, transcending and even contradicting or overruling the known laws of Nature. All these evidences point to one conclusion; all corroborate and confirm one another. The men of science ridicule them because in so many cases the facts are imperfectly authenticated, and because in others the action of the powers is uncertain, dependent on conditions imperfectly ascertained, and not of that material kind to which material science willingly submits. But if they be facts, if they relate to any element of human nature, all these things can be systematically investigated, the true separated from the false, the proven from the unproven. The powers can be investigated, their conditions of action laid down. Probably they may be so developed as to be exercised with comparative certainty, whether by every one or only by those special constitutions in which they may inhere. Such investigations will at present only enlist the attention and care of a few qualified persons, and, that they may be carried on in peace and safety, should be carried on in secrecy. But upon them may, I hope, be founded a certainty as regards the higher side of man’s nature not less complete than that which science, by similar methods, has gradually acquired in regard to its purely physical aspects.’

For this end he instituted a secret society, which has subsisted in constantly increasing strength and cohesion to the present hour. It has collected evidence, conducted experiments, investigated records, studied methodically the abnormal phenomena you call occult or spiritual, and reduced them to something like the certainty of science. Discoveries from the first curious and interesting have become more and more complete, practical, and effective. Our results have surpassed the hopes of our Founder, and transcend in importance, while they equal in certainty, the contemporary achievements of physical science,—some of the chief of which belong to us. All that profound knowledge of human nature could suggest to bring its weakness to the support of its strength, and enlist both in the work, was done by our Founder, and by those who have carried out his scheme. The corporate character of the society, its rites and formularies, its grades and ranks, are matter of deep interest to all its members, have linked them together by an inviolable bond, and given them a strength infinitely greater than numbers without such cohesion could possibly have afforded. The Founder left us no moral code, imposed on us none of his own most cherished ethical convictions, as he pledged us to none of the conclusions which his own occult studies had led him to anticipate, nearly all of which have been verified by later investigation. Such rules as he imposed were directed only to the cohesion and efficiency of the Order. Our creed still consists only of the two fundamental doctrines; two settled principles only are laid down by our aboriginal law. We are taught to cultivate the closest personal affection, the most intimate and binding ties among ourselves; to defend the Order and one another, whether by strenuous resistance or severe reprisals, against all who injure us individually or collectively, and especially against persecutors of the Order. But the few laws our Founder has left are given in the form of striking precepts, brief, and often even paradoxical. For example, the law of defence or reprisal is concentrated in one antithetic phrase:—Gavart dax Zveltâ, gavart gedex Zinta [Never let the member strike, never let the Order spare]. As it is a rule with us to embody none of our symbols, forms, or laws in writing, this manner of statement served to impress them on the memory, as well as to leave the utmost freedom in their application, by the gathered experience of ages, and the prudence of those who had to deal with the circumstances of each successive period. Another maxim says, ‘Who kisses a brother’s hand may kick the Camptâ,’ thus enforcing at once the value of ceremonial courtesy, and the power conferred by union. We observe more ceremony in family life than others in the most formal public relations. Their theory of life being utterly utilitarian, no form is observed that serves no distinct practical purpose. We wish to make life graceful and elegant, as well as easy. Principles originally inculcated upon us by the necessity of self-protection have been enforced and graven on our very nature, by the reaction of our experience against the rough and harsh relations, the jarring and often unfriendly intercourse, of external society. Aliens to our Order—that is, ninety-nine hundredths of our race—take delight in the infliction of petty personal annoyance, at least never take care not to ‘jar each other’s elbow-nerves,’ or set on edge the teeth that never bit them. We are careful not to wound the feelings or even the weaknesses of a brother. Punctilious courtesy, frank apology for unintentional wrong, is with us a point of honour. Disputes, when by any chance they arise, are referred to the arbitration of our chiefs, who never consider their work done till the disputants are cordially reconciled. Envy, the most dangerous source of ill-will among men, can hardly exist among us. Rank has been well earned by its holder, or in a few cases by his ancestors; and authority is a trust never to be used for its holder’s benefit. Wealth never provokes covetousness, since no member is ever allowed to be poor. Not only the Order but each member is bound to take every opportunity of assisting every other by every method within his power. We employ them, we promote them, we give them the preference in every kind of patronage at our command. But these obligations are points of honour rather than of law. Only apostasy or treason to the Order involve compulsory penalties; and the latter, if it ever occurred in these days, would be visited with instant death,—inflicted, as it is inflicted upon irreconcilable enemies, in such a manner that none could know who passed the sentence, or by whom it was executed.”

And have you,” I asked, “no apostates, as you have no traitors?”

No,” he said. “In the first place, none who has lived among us could endure to fall into the ordinary Martial life. Secondly, the foundations of our simple creed are so clear, so capable of being made apparent to every one, that none once familiar with the evidences can well cease to believe them.”

Here he paused, and I asked, “How is it possible that the means you employ to punish those who have wronged you should not, in some cases at least, indicate the person who has employed them?”

Because,” he said, “the means of vengeance are not corporeal; the agency does not in the least resemble any with which our countrymen, or apparently your race on Earth, are acquainted. A traitor would be found dead with no sign of suffering or injury, and the physician would pronounce that he had died of apoplexy or heart disease. A persecutor, or one who had unpardonably wronged any of the Children of the Star, might go mad, might fling himself from a precipice, might be visited with the most terrible series of calamities, all natural in their character, all distinctly traceable to natural causes, but astonishing and even apparently supernatural in their accumulation, and often in their immediate appropriateness to the character of his offence. Our neighbours would, of course, destroy the avenger, if they could find him out—would attempt to exterminate our society, could they prove its agency.”

But surely your countrymen must either disbelieve in such agency, in which case they can hardly fear your vengeance, or they must believe it, and then would deem it just and necessary to retaliate.”

No,” he said. “They disbelieve in the possibility while they are forced to see the fact. It is impossible, they would say, that a man should be injured in mind or body, reputation or estate, that the forces of Nature or the feelings of men should be directed against him, without the intervention of any material agent, by the mere will of those who take no traceable means to give that will effect. At the same time, tradition and even authentic history record, what experience confirms, that every one who has wronged us deeply has come to some terrible, awe-striking end. Each man would ridicule heartily a neighbour who should allege such a ground for fearing to injure one of us; but there is none who is so true to his own unbelief as to do that which, in every instance, has been followed by signal and awful disaster. Moreover, we do by visible symbols suggest a relation between the vengeance and the crime. Over the heart of criminals who have paid with their lives, no matter by what immediate agency, for wrong to us, is found after death the image of a small blood-red star; the only case in which any of our sacred symbols are exposed to profane eyes.”

Surely,” I said, “in the course of generations, and with your numbers, you must be often watched and traced; and some one spy, on one out of a million occasions, must have found access to your meetings and heard and seen all that passed.”

Our meetings,” he said, “are held where no human eye can possibly see, no human ear hear what passes. The Chambers meet in apartments concealed within the dwellings of individual members. When we meet the doors are guarded, and can be passed only by those who give a token and a password. And if these could become known to an enemy, the appearance of a stranger would lead to questions that would at once expose his ignorance of our simplest secrets. He would learn nothing, and would never tell his story to the outer world.” …

Opening the door, or rather window, of his private chamber, Esmo directed our eyes to a portrait sunk in the wall, and usually concealed by a screen which fitted exactly the level and the patterns of the general surface. It displayed, in a green vesture not unlike his own, but with a gold ribbon and emerald symbol like the cross of an European knighthood over the right shoulder, a spare soldierly form, with the most striking countenance I have ever seen; one which, once seen, none could forget. The white long hair and beard, the former reaching the shoulders, the latter falling to the belt, were not only unlike the fashion of this generation, but gave tokens of age never discerned in Mars for the last three or four thousand years. The form, though erect and even stately, was that of one who had felt the long since abolished infirmity of advancing years. The countenance alone bore no marks of old age. It was full, unwrinkled, firm in physical as in moral character; calm in the unresisted power of intellect and will over the passions, serene in a dignity too absolute and self-contained for pride, but expressing a consciousness of command over others as evident as the unconscious, effortless command of self to which it owed its supreme and sublime quietude. The lips were not set as with a habit of reserve or self-restraint, but close and even as in the repose to which restraint had never been necessary. The features were large, clearly defined, and perfect in shape, proportion, and outline. The brow was massive and broad, but strangely smooth and even; the head had no single marked development or deficiency that could have enlightened a phrenologist, as the face told no tale that a physiognomist could read. The dark deep eyes were unescapable; while in presence of the portrait you could not for a moment avoid or forget their living, fixed, direct look into your own. Even in the painted representation of that gaze, almost too calm in its absolute mastery to be called searching or scrutinising, yet seeming to look through the eyes into the soul, there was an almost mesmeric influence; as if, across the abyss of ten thousand years, the Master could still control the wills and draw forth the inner thoughts of the living, as he had dominated the spirits of their remotest ancestors.