SAINT PETER was polishing the large knocker of the gate of heaven, leaving it as bright as the sun — which is not to be wondered at, since the knocker Saint Peter was cleaning is the sun we see appearing every morning in the east.
The holy porter, merrier than his colleagues at Madrid, was humming some little air not unlike Ca ira of the French.
“Hullo! You get up very early,” said he, bending his head and staring at a person who had stopped before the threshold of the gate.
The unknown did not reply, but bit his lips, which were thin, pale, and dry.
“No doubt,” continued Saint Peter, “you are the philosopher who was dying last night? What a night you made me pass, friend! I never closed my eyes once, thinking you might be likely to knock. My last orders were not to let you wait a moment, a piece of respect paid to your sort here in heaven. Well, welcome, and come in. I can’t leave the gate. Go through, and then straight on.”
The stranger did not stir from the threshold, but fixed his little blue eyes on the venerable bald head of Saint Peter, who had turned his back to go on rubbing up the sun.
The newcomer was thin, short, and sallow, with somewhat feminine movements, neat in his attire, and without a hair on his face. He wore his shroud elegantly and nicely 270 adjusted, and he measured his gestures with academic severity.
After gazing for some time at Saint Peter working, he wheeled round, and was about to return on the journey he had come he knew not how; but he found he was standing above a gloomy abyss, in which the darkness almost seemed palpable, and a furious tempest was roaring, with flashes of livid light at intervals like lightning. There was not a trace of any stairs, and the machine by which he dimly remembered he had mounted was not in sight either.
“Sir,” exclaimed he, in a vibrating and acrid voice, “may I know what this means? Where am I? Why was I brought here?”
“Ah, you haven’t gone yet! I am very glad, for I had forgotten something.” And pulling his memorandum-book out of his pocket, the saint moistened the point of the pencil between his lips and asked:
“I am Dr. Pertinax, author of the book stereotyped in its twentieth edition, called Philosophia Ultima.”
Saint Peter was not a quick writer, and of all this had only put down “Pertinax.”
“Well, Pertinax of what?”
“Oh what? Oh, I see — you mean from where? just as they say Thales of Miletus or Parmenides of Elea.”
“Exactly, Quixote of la Mancha.”
“Write down Pertinax of Torrelodones. And now, may I know what this farce means?”
“Yes, sir. I am the victim of a farce. This is a comedy. My enemies, my colleagues, with the help of subtle artifices 271 and theatrical machinery, exalting my mind with some beverage, have doubtless prepared all this. But the deception is useless. My power of reasoning is above all these appearances, and protests with a mighty voice against this low trickery. Neither masks nor lime-lights are of any avail, for I am not taken in by such palpable effrontery, and I say what I always said and which is enframed on page 315 of my Philosophia Ultima, note b of the subnote Alpha, i.e., that after death the deception of appearances will not exist, and there will no longer be any desire for life, nolite vivere, which is only a chain of shadows linked with desires, etc. Therefore, either I have died, or I have not died. If I have died, it cannot possibly be I as I was when alive half an hour ago, and all that I see around me, as it can only be a representation, is not, for I am not. But if I have not died, and am myself, what I was and am, it is clear that although what I see around me exists in me by representation, it is not what my enemies wish me to believe, but an unworthy farce designed to frighten me. But ’tis in vain, for ——.”
And the philosopher swore like a coal-heaver; and the swearing was not the worst, for he lifted up his voice toward heaven, the inhabitants of which were beginning to awake at the noise, while some of the blest were already descending by the staircase of clouds, tinged some as with woad, others with a sea-blue.
Meanwhile Saint Peter held his sides with both hands to keep from bursting into laughter with which he was nearly choking. Pertinax became more irritated at the saint’s laughter, and the latter had to stop to try and pacify him by the following words:
“My dear sir, farces are of no avail here, nor is it a 272 question of deceiving you, but of getting you to heaven, which it appears you have merited for some good works of which I am ignorant. In any case, be easy and go up, for the inhabitants above are already astir, and you will find somebody who will conduct you to where all will be explained to your taste, so that not a shadow of doubt will remain, for doubts all disappear in this region, where the dullest thing is the sun which I am polishing.”
“I do not say you are deceiving me, for you seem an honest man. The tricksters are others, and you only an instrument, unconscious of what you are doing.”
“I am Saint Peter.”
“They have persuaded you that you are; but there’s no proof that you are.”
“My dear sir, I have been porter here for more than eighteen hundred years.”
“Apprehension, preconception ——”
“Preconception fiddlesticks!” cried the saint, now somewhat angry. “I am Saint Peter, and you a philosopher, and, like all that come to us, you are an ignorant fool, with more than one bee in your bonnet!”
The gateway was now crowded with angels and cherubim, saints, male and female, and a number of the blest, who all formed a circle round the stranger and smilingly surveyed him.
From among them there stepped forth Saint Job. “I think,” said he, “that this gentleman would be convinced that he had lived in error if he could see the universe as it actually is. Why not appoint a commission from among us to accompany Dr. Pertinax and show him the construction of the immense piece of architecture, as Lope de Vega says, whom I am sorry not to see among us.”273
Great was the respect for Saint Job, and they immediately proceeded to a nominal vote, which took up a good deal of time, as more than half the martyrology had repaired to the gate. The following were by the results appointed members of the commission: Saint Job, by acclamation; Diogenes, by a majority; and Saint Thomas the Apostle, by a majority. Saint Thomas of Aquinas and Duns Scotus had votes.
Dr. Pertinax gave way to the supplications of the commission, and consented to survey all the machinery and magic, with which they might deceive his eyes, said he, but not his mind.
“My dear fellow, don’t be downhearted,” said Saint Thomas, as he sewed some wings on to the doctor’s shoulder-blades. “Look at me; I was an unbeliever, and ——”
“Sir,” replied Pertinax, “you lived in very different times, the world was then in its theological age, as Comte said, and I have passed through all those ages and have lived side by side with the Criticism of Pure Reason and the Philosophia Ultima; so that I believe in nothing, not even in the mother who bore me. I only believe in this, inasmuch as I know that I am, I am conscious, but without falling into the preconception of confounding representation with essence, which is unattainable, that is to say, excepting the being conscious, putting aside all that is not myself — and all being in myself — I know, by knowing that everything is represented — and I as everything else — by simply appearing to be what it is, and the reality of which is only investigated by another volitive and effective representation, a harmful representation, being irrational and the original sin of the Fall. Therefore, this apparent desire undone, nothing remains to explore, since not even the will for knowledge remains.”274
Only Saint Job heard the last word of this discourse, and, scratching his bald crown with his potsherd, he replied:
“The truth is, you philosophers are the very devil for talking nonsense; and don’t be offended, but those things, whether in your head or imagination, as you please, will give you warm work to see them in reality as they are.”
“Forward! Forward!” shouted Diogenes at this moment, “The sophists denied me motion, and you know how I proved it. Forward!”
And they began their flight through boundless space. Boundless? Pertinax thought it so, and said:
“Do you expect to show me all the universe?”
“Certainly,” replied Saint Thomas.
“But since the universe — seemingly, of course, — is infinite, how can you conceive the limit of space?”
“Conceive it, with difficulty; but see it, easily. Aristotle sees it every day, for he takes the most terrible walks with his disciples, and certainly he complained that the space for walking ended before the disputes of his peripatetics.”
“But how can space have an end? If there is a limit, it will have to be nothing; but as nothing does not exist, it cannot form a boundary. For a boundary is something, and something apart from what is bounded.”
Saint Job, who was already growing impatient, cut him short:
“Enough — enough talk! But you had better bend your head so as not to knock it, for we have arrived at that limit of space which cannot be conceived, and if you take a step more, you will break your head against that nothing you are denying.”
And actually Pertinax saw there was nothing more beyond, wished to feel it, and bumped his head.275
“But this can’t be!” he exclaimed, while Saint Thomas applied to the bump one of those pieces of money which pagans take with them on their journey to the other world.
There was not help for it, they had to turn back, the universe had come to an end. But, ended or not, how beautiful shone the firmament with its millions and millions of stars!
“What is that dazzling light shining above there, higher than all the constellations? Is it some nebula unknown to the astronomers of earth?”
“A pretty nebula!” replied Saint Thomas. “That is the Heavenly Jerusalem, from which we have just descended, and what is shining so are the diamond walls round the city of God.”
“So that those marvels related by Chateaubriand, and which I thought unworthy of a serious man ——”
“Are perfectly true, my friend. And now let us go and rest on that star passing below there, for i’ faith, I am tired of so much going backward and forward.”
“Gentlemen, I am not presentable,” said Pertinax; “I have not yet doffed my shroud, and the inhabitants of this star will laugh at such indecorous garb.”
The three guides of heaven all burst out laughing together. Diogenes was the first to exclaim.
“Though I should lend you my lantern, you would not meet a living soul in that star, nor in any other star.”
“Of course,” added Saint Job very seriously, “there are no inhabitants except on the earth. Don’t talk such nonsense.”
“This I cannot believe!”
“Well, let us go and show him,” said Saint Thomas, who was already growing angry. And they journeyed from star 276 to star, and in a few minutes had traversed all the Milky Way and the most distant starry systems. There was not a sign of life. They did not even encounter a flea on all the numerous globes they surveyed. Pertinax was horrified.
“This is the Creation!” he exclaimed. “What solitude! Come, show me the earth; I want to see that privileged region. By what I conjecture, all modern cosmography is a lie; the earth is still, and the center of all the celestial vault; and round her revolve the suns and planets, and she is the largest of all the spheres.”
“Not at all,” replied Saint Thomas; “astronomy is not mistaken; the earth revolves round the sun, and you will soon see how insignificant she appears. Let us see if we can find her among all that crowd of stars. You look for her, Saint Job; you have plenty of patience.”
“I will!” exclaimed the saint of the potsherd, as he hooked his spectacles round his ears.
“It is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I see her! There she goes! Look! Look, how small! She looks like a microbe!”
Pertinax looked at the earth and sighed.
“And are there no inhabitants except on that mote?”
“And the rest of the universe is empty?”
“Then of what use are such millions and millions of stars?”
“As lamps. They are the public illumination of the earth. And they are also useful for singing praises to the Almighty. And they serve as eke-outs in poetry, and you can’t deny they are very pretty.”277
“But all empty?”
Pertinax remained in the air for a good time, sad and thoughtful. The edifice of his Philosophia Ultima was threatening to collapse. Upon seeing that the universe was so different from what reason demanded, he began to believe in the universe. That brusk lesson of reality was the rude and cold contact with material which his spirit needed in order to believe. “It is all so badly arranged, but perhaps it is true!” thus thought the philosopher. Suddenly he turned to his companions, and asked them, “Does hell exist?”
The three sighed, made gesture of compassion, and replied, “Yes, it exists.”
“And condemnation is eternal?”
“A great injustice!”
“A terrible reality!” replied the three in chorus.
Pertinax wiped his brow with his shroud. He was perspiring philosophy. He began to believe that he was in the other world. The injustice of everything convinced him. “Then the cosmogony and the theogony of my infancy was the truth?”
“Yes, the first and only philosophy.”
“Then I am not dreaming?”
“A confessor — I want a confessor!” groaned the philosopher; and he swooned into the arms of Diogenes.
When he awoke he found himself in his bed. His old servant and the priest were by his side.
“Here is the confessor, sir, for whom you asked.”278
Pertinax sat up, stretched out both hands, and, looking at the confessor with frightened eyes, cried out:
“I say and repeat, that all is simply a stage play, and that I am the victim of a wretched farce!”
And then he really expired.