"I am an atom of Nature;" said Wauna, gravely. "If you want me to answer your superstitious notions of religion, I will, in one sentence, explain, that the only religious idea in Mizora is: Nature is God, and God is Nature. She is the Great Mother who gathers the centuries in her arms, and rocks their children into eternal sleep upon her bosom."
"But how," I asked in bewildered astonishment, "how can you think of living without creeds, and confessionals? How can you prosper without prayer? How can you be upright, and honest, and true to yourselves and your friends without praying for divine grace and strength to sustain you? How can you be noble, and keep from envying your neighbors, without a prayer for divine grace to assist you to resist such temptation?"
"Oh, daughter of the dark ages," said Wauna, sadly, "turn to the benevolent and ever-willing Science. She is the goddess who has led us out of ignorance and superstition; out of degradation and disease, and every other wretchedness that superstitious, degraded humanity has known. She has lifted us above the low and the little, the narrow and mean in human thought and action, and has placed us in a broad, free, independent, noble, useful and grandly happy life."
"You have been favored by divine grace," I reiterated, "although you refuse to acknowledge it."
She smiled compassionately as she answered: "She is the divinity who never turned a deaf ear to earnest and persistent effort in a sensible direction. But prayers to her must be work, resolute and conscientious work. She teaches that success in this world can only come to those who work for it. In your superstitious belief you pray for benefits you have never earned, possibly do not deserve, but expect to get simply because you pray for them. Science never betrays such partiality. The favors she bestows are conferred only upon the industrious."
"And you deny absolutely the efficacy of prayer?" I asked.
"If I could obtain anything by prayer alone, I would pray that my inventive faculty should be enlarged so that I might conceive and construct an air-ship that could cleave its way through that chaos of winds that is formed when two storms meet from opposite directions. It would rend to atoms one of our present make. But prayer will never produce an improved air-ship. We must dig into science for it. Our ancestors did not pray for us to become a race of symmetrically-shaped and universally healthy people, and expect that to effect a result. They went to work on scientific principles to root out disease and crime and want and wretchedness, and every degrading and retarding influence."
"Prayer never saved one of my ancestors from premature death," she continued, with a resolution that seemed determined to tear from my mind every fabric of faith in the consolations of divine interposition that had been a special part of my education, and had become rooted into my nature. "Disease, when it fastened upon the vitals of the young and beautiful and dearly-loved was stronger and more powerful than all the agonized prayers that could be poured from breaking hearts. But science, when solicited by careful study and experiment and investigation, offered the remedy. And now, we defy disease and have no fear of death until our natural time comes, and then it will be the welcome rest that the worn-out body meets with gratitude."
"But when you die," I exclaimed, "do you not believe you have an after life?"
"When I die," replied Wauna, "my body will return to the elements from whence it came. Thought will return to the force which gave it. The power of the brain is the one mystery that surrounds life. We know that the brain is a mechanical structure and acted upon by force; but how to analyze that force is still beyond our reach. You see that huge engine? We made it. It is a fine piece of mechanism. We know what it was made to do. We turn on the motive power, and it moves at the rate of a mile a minute if we desire it. Why should it move? Why might it not stand still? You say because of a law of nature that under the circumstances compels it to move. Our brain is like that engine--a wonderful piece of mechanism, and when the blood drives it, it displays the effects of force which we call Thought. We can see the engine move and we know what law of nature it obeys in moving. But the brain is a more mysterious structure, for the force which compels it to action we cannot analyze. The superstitious ancients called this mystery the soul."
"And do you discard that belief?" I asked, trembling and excited to hear such sacrilegious talk from youth so beautiful and pure.
"What our future is to be after dissolution no one knows," replied Wauna, with the greatest calmness and unconcern. "A thousand theories and systems of religion have risen and fallen in the history of the human family, and become the superstitions of the past. The elements that compose this body may construct the delicate beauty of a flower, or the green robe that covers the bosom of Mother Earth, but we cannot know."
"But that beautiful belief in a soul," I cried, in real anguish, "How can you discard it? How sever the hope that after death, we are again united to part no more? Those who have left us in the spring time of life, the bloom on their young cheeks suddenly paled by the cold touch of death, stand waiting to welcome us to an endless reunion."
"Alas, for your anguish, my friend," said Wauna, with pityng tenderness. "Centuries ago my people passed through that season of mental pain. That beautiful visionary idea of a soul must fade, as youth and beauty fade, never to return; for Nature nowhere teaches the existence of such a thing. It was a belief born of that agony of longing for happiness without alloy, which the children of earth in the long-ago ages hoped for, but never knew. Their lot was so barren of beauty and happiness, and the desire for it is, now and always has been, a strong trait of human character. The conditions of society in those earlier ages rendered it impossible to enjoy this life perfectly, and hope and longing pictured an imaginary one for an imaginary part of the body called the Soul. Progress and civilization have brought to us the ideal heaven of the ancients, and we receive from Nature no evidence of any other."
"But I do believe there is another," I declared. "And we ought to be prepared for it."
Wauna smiled. "What better preparation could you desire, then, than good works in this?" she asked.
"You should pray, and do penance for your sins," was my reply.
"Then," said Wauna, "we are doing the wisest penance every day. We are studying, investigating, experimenting in order that those who come after us may be happier than we. Every day Science is yielding us some new knowledge that will make living in the future still easier than now."
"I cannot conceive," I said, "how you are to be improved upon."
"When we manufacture fruit and vegetables from the elements, can you not perceive how much is to be gained? Old age and death will come later, and the labor of cultivation will be done away. Such an advantage will not be enjoyed during my lifetime. But we will labor to effect it for future generations."
"Your whole aim in life, then, is to work for the future of your race, instead of the eternal welfare of your own soul?" I questioned, in surprise.
"If Nature," said Wauna, "has provided us a future life, if that mysterious something that we call Thought is to be clothed in an etherealized body, and live in a world where decay is unknown, I have no fear of my reception there. Live this life usefully and nobly, and no matter if a prayer has never crossed your lips your happiness will be assured. A just and kind action will help you farther on the road to heaven than all the prayers that you can utter, and all the pains and sufferings that you can inflict upon the flesh, for it will be that much added to the happiness of this world. The grandest epitaph that could be written is engraved upon a tombstone in yonder cemetery. The subject was one of the pioneers of progress in a long-ago century, when progress fought its way with difficulty through ignorance and superstition. She suffered through life for the boldness of her opinions, and two centuries after, when they had become popular, a monument was erected to her memory, and has been preserved through thousands of years as a motto for humanity. The epitaph is simply this: 'The world is better for her having lived in it.'"
Not long after my conversation with Wauna, mentioned in the previous chapter, an event happened in Mizora of so singular and unexpected a character for that country that it requires a particular description. I refer to the death of a young girl, the daughter of the Professor of Natural History in the National College, whose impressive inaugural ceremonies I had witnessed with so much gratification. The girl was of a venturesome disposition, and, with a number of others, had gone out rowing. The boats they used in Mizora for that purpose were mere cockle shells. A sudden squall arose from which all could have escaped, but the reckless daring of this young girl cost her her life. Her boat was capsized, and despite the exertions made by her companions, she was drowned.
Her body was recovered before the news was conveyed to the mother. As the young companions surrounded it in the abandon of grief that tender and artless youth alone feels, had I not known that not a tie of consanguinity existed between them, I might have thought them a band of sisters mourning their broken number. It was a scene I never expect and sincerely hope never to witness again. It made the deeper impression upon me because I knew the expressions of grief were all genuine.
I asked Wauna if any of the dead girl's companions feared that her mother might censure them for not making sufficient effort to save her when her boat capsized. She looked at me with astonishment.
"Such a thought," she said, "will never occur to her nor to any one else in Mizora. I have not asked the particulars, but I know that everything was done that could have been done to save her. There must have been something extraordinarily unusual about the affair for all Mizora girls are expert swimmers, and there is not one but would put forth any exertion to save a companion."
I afterward learned that such had really been the case.
It developed upon the Preceptress to break the news to the afflicted mother. It was done in the seclusion of her own home. There was no manifestation of morbid curiosity among acquaintances, neighbors and friends. The Preceptress and one or two others of her nearest and most intimate friends called at the house during the first shock of her bereavement.
After permission had been given to view the remains, Wauna and I called at the house, but only entered the drawing-room. On a low cot, in an attitude of peaceful repose, lay the breathless sleeper. Her mother and sisters had performed for her the last sad offices of loving duty, and lovely indeed had they made the last view we should have of their dear one.
There was to be no ceremony at the house, and Wauna and I were in the cemetery when the procession entered. As we passed through the city, I noticed that every business house was closed. The whole city was sympathizing with sorrow. I never before saw so vast a concourse of people. The procession was very long and headed by the mother, dressed and veiled in black. Behind her were the sisters carrying the body. It rested upon a litter composed entirely of white rosebuds. The sisters wore white, their faces concealed by white veils. Each wore a white rosebud pinned upon her bosom. They were followed by a long procession of young girls, schoolmates and friends of the dead. They were all dressed in white, but were not veiled. Each one carried a white rosebud.
The sisters placed the litter upon rests at the side of the grave, and clasping hands with their mother, formed a semicircle about it. They were all so closely veiled that their features could not be seen, and no emotion was visible. The procession of young girls formed a circle inclosing the grave and the mourners, and began chanting a slow and sorrowful dirge. No words can paint the pathos and beauty of such a scene. My eye took in every detail that displayed that taste for the beautiful that compels the Mizora mind to mingle it with every incident of life. The melody sounded like a chorus of birds chanting, in perfect unison, a weird requiem over some dead companion.
She came like the Spring in its gladness We received her with joy--we rejoiced in her promise Sweet was her song as the bird's, Her smile was as dew to the thirsty rose. But the end came ere morning awakened, While Dawn yet blushed in its bridal veil, The leafy music of the woods was hushed in snowy shrouds. Spring withered with the perfume in her hands; A winter sleet has fallen upon the buds of June; The ice-winds blow where yesterday zephyrs disported: Life is not consummated The rose has not blossomed, the fruit has perished in the flower, The bird lies frozen under its mother's breast Youth sleeps in round loveliness when age should lie withered and weary, and full of honor. Then the grave would be welcome, and our tears would fall not. The grave is not for the roses of youth; We mourn the early departed. Youth sleeps without dreams-- Without an awakening.
At the close of the chant, the mother first and then each sister took from her bosom the white rosebud and dropped it into the grave. Then followed her schoolmates and companions who each dropped in the bud she carried. A carpet of white rosebuds was thus formed, on which the body, still reclining upon its pillow of flowers, was gently lowered.
The body was dressed in white, and over all fell a veil of fine white tulle. A more beautiful sight I can never see than that young, lovely girl in her last sleep with the emblems of youth, purity and swift decay forming her pillow, and winding-sheet. Over this was placed a film of glass that rested upon the bottom and sides of the thin lining that covered the bottom and lower sides of the grave. The remainder of the procession of young girls then came forward and dropped their rosebuds upon it, completely hiding from view the young and beautiful dead.
The eldest sister then took a handful of dust and casting it into the grave, said in a voice broken, yet audible: "Mingle ashes with ashes, and dust with its original dust. To the earth whence it was taken, consign we the body of our sister." Each sister then threw in a handful of dust, and then with their mother entered their carriage, which immediately drove them home.
A beautiful silver spade was sticking in the soft earth that had been taken from the grave. The most intimate of the dead girls friends took a spadeful of earth and threw it into the open grave. Her example was followed by each one of the remaining companions until the grave was filled. Then clasping hands, they chanted a farewell to their departed companion and playmate. After which they strewed the grave with flowers until it looked like a bed of beauty, and departed.
I was profoundly impressed by the scene. Its solemnity, its beauty, and the universal expression of sorrow it had called forth. A whole city mourned the premature death of gifted and lovely youth. Alas! In my own unhappy country such an event would have elicited but a passing phrase of regret from all except the immediate family of the victim; for there sorrow is a guest at every heart, and leaves little room for sympathy with strangers.
The next day the mother was at her post in the National College; the daughters were at their studies, all seemingly calm and thoughtful, but showing no outward signs of grief excepting to the close observer. The mother was performing her accustomed duties with seeming cheerfulness, but now and then her mind would drop for a moment in sorrowful abstraction to be recalled with resolute effort and be fastened once more upon the necessary duty of life.
The sisters I often saw in those abstracted moods, and frequently saw them wiping away silent but unobtrusive tears. I asked Wauna for the meaning of such stoical reserve, and the explanation was as curious as were all the other things that I met with in Mizora.
"If you notice the custom of different grades of civilization in your own country," said Wauna, "you will observe that the lower the civilization the louder and more ostentatious is the mourning. True refinement is unobtrusive in everything, and while we do not desire to repress a natural and inevitable feeling of sorrow, we do desire to conceal and conquer it, for the reason that death is a law of nature that we cannot evade. And, although the death of a young person has not occurred in Mizora in the memory of any living before this, yet it is not without precedent. We are very prudent, but we cannot guard entirely against accident. It has cast a gloom over the whole city, yet we refrain from speaking of it, and strive to forget it because it cannot be helped."
"And can you see so young, so fair a creature perish without wanting to meet her again?"
"Whatever sorrow we feel," replied Wauna, solemnly, "we deeply realize how useless it is to repine. We place implicit faith in the revelations of Nature, and in no circumstances does she bid us expect a life beyond that of the body. That is a life of individual consciousness."
"How much more consoling is the belief of my people," I replied, triumphantly. "Their belief in a future reunion would sustain them through the sorrow of parting in this. It has been claimed that some have lived pure lives solely in the hope of meeting some one whom they loved, and who had died in youth and innocence."
"You do not all have then the same fate in anticipation for your future life?" she asked.
"Oh, no!" I answered. "The good and the wicked are divided."
"Tell me some incident in your own land that you have witnessed, and which illustrates the religious belief of your country."
"The belief that we have in a future life has often furnished a theme for the poets of my own and other countries. And sometimes a quaint and pretty sentiment is introduced into poetry to express it."
"I should like to hear some such poetry. Can you recite any?"
"I remember an incident that gave birth to a poem that was much admired at the time, although I can recall but the two last stanzas of it. A rowing party, of which I was a member, once went out upon a lake to view the sunset. After we had returned to shore, and night had fallen upon the water in impenetrable darkness, it was discovered that one of the young men who had rowed out in a boat by himself was not with us. A storm was approaching, and we all knew that his safety lay in getting ashore before it broke. We lighted a fire, but the blaze could not be seen far in such inky darkness. We hallooed, but received no answer, and finally ceased our efforts. Then one of the young ladies who possessed a very high and clear soprano voice, began singing at the very top of her power. It reached the wanderer in the darkness, and he rowed straight toward it. From that time on he became infatuated with the singer, declaring that her voice had come to him in his despair like an angel's straight from heaven.
"She died in less than a year, and her last words to him were: 'Meet me in heaven.' He had always been recklessly inclined, but after that he became a model of rectitude and goodness. He wrote a poem that was dedicated to her memory. In it he described himself as a lone wanderer on a strange sea in the darkness of a gathering storm and no beacon to guide him, when suddenly he hears a voice singing which guides him safe to shore. He speaks of the beauty of the singer and how dear she became to him, but he still hears the song calling him across the ocean of death."
"Repeat what you remember of it," urged Wauna.
"That face and form, have long since gone Beyond where the day was lifted: But the beckoning song still lingers on, An angels earthward drifted.
And when death's waters, around me roar And cares, like the birds, are winging: If I steer my bark to Heaven's shore 'Twill be by an angel's singing."
"Poor child of superstition," said Wauna, sadly. "Your belief has something pretty in it, but for your own welfare, and that of your people, you must get rid of it as we have got rid of the offspring of Lust. Our children come to us as welcome guests through portals of the holiest and purest affection. That love which you speak of, I know nothing about. I would not know. It is a degradation which mars your young life and embitters the memories of age. We have advanced beyond it. There is a cruelty in life," she added, compassionately, "which we must accept with stoicism as the inevitable. Justice to your posterity demands of you the highest and noblest effort of which your intellect is capable."
The conversation that I had with Wauna gave me so much uneasiness that I sought her mother. I cannot express the shock I felt at hearing such youthful and innocent lips speak of the absurdity of religious forms, ceremonies, and creeds. She regarded my belief in them as a species of barbarism. But she had not convinced me. I was resolved not to be convinced. I believed she was in error.
Surely, I thought, a country so far advanced in civilization, and practicing such unexampled rectitude, must, according to my religious teaching, have been primarily actuated by religious principles which they had since abandoned. My only surprise was that they had not relapsed into immorality, after destroying church and creed, and I began to feel anxious to convince them of the danger I felt they were incurring in neglecting prayer and supplication at the throne to continue them in their progress toward perfection of mental and moral culture.
I explained my feelings to the Preceptress with great earnestness and anxiety for their future, intimating that I believed their immunity from disaster had been owing to Divine sufferance. "For no nation," I added, quoting from my memory of religious precepts, "can prosper without acknowledging the Christian religion."
She listened to me with great attention, and when I had finished, asked: "How do you account for our long continuance in prosperity and progress, for it is more than a thousand years since we rooted out the last vestige of what you term religion, from the mind. We have had a long immunity from punishment. To what do you attribute it?"
I hesitated to explain what had been in my mind, but finally faltered out something about the absence of the male sex. I then had to explain that the prisons and penitentiaries of my own land, and of all other civilized lands that I knew of, were almost exclusively occupied by the male sex. Out of eight hundred penitentiary prisoners, not more than twenty or thirty would be women; and the majority of them could trace their crimes to man's infidelity.
"And what do you do to reform them?" inquired the Preceptress.
"We offer them the teachings of Christianity. All countries, however, differ widely in this respect. The government of my country is not as generous to prisoners as that of some others. In the United States every penitentiary is supplied with a minister who expounds the Gospel to the prisoners every Sunday; that is once every seven days."
"And what do they do the rest of the time?"
"Are they ignorant?"
"Oh, yes, indeed;" I replied, earnestly. "You could not find one scholar in ten thousand of them. Their education is either very limited, or altogether deficient."
"Do the buildings they are confined in cost a great deal?"
"Vast sums of money are represented by them; and it often costs a community a great deal of money to send a criminal to the penitentiary. In some States the power to pardon rests entirely with the governor, and it frequently occurs that a desperate criminal, who has cost a county a great deal of money to get rid of him, will be pardoned by the governor, to please a relative, or, as it is sometimes believed, for a bribe."
"And do the people never think of educating their criminals instead of working them?
"That would be an expense to the government," I replied.
"If they would divide the time, and compel them to study half a day as rigorously as they make them work, it would soon make a vast change in their morals. Nothing so ennobles the mind as a broad and thorough education."
"They are all compelled to listen to religious instruction once a week," I answered. "That surely ought to make some improvement in them. I remember hearing an American lady relate her attendance at chapel service in a State penitentiary one Sunday. The minister's education was quite limited, as she could perceive from the ungrammatical language he used, but he preached sound orthodox doctrine. The text selected had a special application to his audience: 'Depart from me ye accursed, into everlasting torment prepared for the Devil and his angels.' There were eight hundred prisoners, and the minister assured them, in plain language, that such would surely be their sentence unless they repented."
"And that is what you call the consolations of religion, is it?" asked the Preceptress with an expression that rather disconcerted me; as though my zeal and earnestness entirely lacked the light of knowledge with which she viewed it.
"That is religious instruction;" I answered. "The minister exhorted the prisoners to pray and be purged of their sins. And it was good advice."
"But they might aver," persisted the Preceptress, "that they had prayed to be restrained from crime, and their prayers had not been answered."
"They didn't pray with enough faith, then;" I assured her in the confidence of my own belief. "That is wherein I think my own church is so superior to the other religions of the world," I added, proudly. "We can get the priest to absolve us from sin, and then we know we are rid of it, when he tells us so."
"But what assurance have you that the priest can do so?" asked the Preceptress.
"Because it is his duty to do so."
"Education will root out more sin than all your creeds can," gravely answered the Preceptress. "Educate your convicts and train them into controlling and subduing their criminal tendencies by their own will, and it will have more effect on their morals than all the prayers ever uttered. Educate them up to that point where they can perceive for themselves the happiness of moral lives, and then you may trust them to temptation without fear. The ideas you have expressed about dogmas, creeds and ceremonies are not new to us, though, as a nation, we do not make a study of them. They are very, very ancient. They go back to the first records of the traditionary history of man. And the farther you go back the deeper you plunge into ignorance and superstition.
"The more ignorant the human mind, the more abject was its slavery to religion. As history progresses toward a more diffuse education of the masses, the forms, ceremonies and beliefs in religion are continually changing to suit the advancement of intelligence; and when intelligence becomes universal, they will be renounced altogether. What is true of the history of one people will be true of the history of another. Religions are not necessary to human progress. They are really clogs. My ancestors had more trouble to extirpate these superstitious ideas from the mind than they had in getting rid of disease and crime. There were several reasons for this difficulty. Disease and crime were self-evident evils, that the narrowest intelligence could perceive; but beliefs in creeds and superstitions were perversions of judgment, resulting from a lack of thorough mental training. As soon, however, as education of a high order became universal, it began to disappear. No mind of philosophical culture can adhere to such superstitions.
"Many ages the people made idols, and, decking them with rich ornaments, placed them in magnificent temples specially built for them and the rites by which they worshipped them. There have existed many variations of this kind of idolatry that are marked by the progressive stages of civilization. Some nations of remote antiquity were highly cultured in art and literature, yet worshipped gods of their own manufacture, or imaginary gods, for everything. Light and darkness, the seasons, earth, air, water, all had a separate deity to preside over and control their special services. They offered sacrifices to these deities as they desired their co-operation or favor in some enterprise to be undertaken.
"In remote antiquity, we read of a great General about to set out upon the sea to attack the army of another nation. In order to propitiate the god of the ocean, he had a fine chariot built to which were harnessed two beautiful white horses. In the presence of a vast concourse of people collected to witness the ceremony, he drove them into the sea. When they sank out of sight it was supposed that the god had accepted the present, and would show his gratitude for it by favoring winds and peaceful weather.
"A thousand years afterward history speaks of the occurrence derisively, as an absurd superstition, and at the same time they believed in and lauded a more absurd and cruel religion. They worshipped an imaginary being who had created and possessed absolute control of everything. Some of the human family it had pleased him to make eminently good, while others he made eminently bad. For those whom he had created with evil desires, he prepared a lake of molten fire into which they were to be cast after death to suffer endless torture for doing what they had been expressly created to do. Those who had been created good were to be rewarded for following out their natural inclinations, by occupying a place near the Deity, where they were to spend eternity in singing praises to him.
"He could, however, be persuaded by prayer from following his original intentions. Very earnest prayer had caused him to change his mind, and send rain when he had previously concluded to visit the country with drouth.
"Two nations at war with each other, and believing in the same Deity, would pray for a pestilence to visit their enemy. Death was universally regarded as a visitation of Providence for some offense committed against him instead of against the laws of nature.
"Some believed that prayer and donations to the church or priest, could induce the Deity to take their relatives from the lake of torment and place them in his own presence. The Deity was prayed to on every occasion, and for every trivial object. The poor and indolent prayed for him to send them food and clothes. The sick prayed for health, the foolish for wisdom, and the revengeful besought the Deity to consign all their enemies to the burning lake.
"The intelligent and humane began to doubt the necessity of such dreadful and needless torment for every conceivable misdemeanor, and it was modified, and eventually dropped altogether. Education finally rooted out every phase of superstition from the minds of the people, and now we look back and smile at the massive and magnificent structures erected to the worship of a Deity who could be coaxed to change his mind by prayer."
I did not tell the Preceptress that she had been giving me a history of my own ancestry; but I remarked the resemblance with the joyous hope that in the future of my own unhappy country lay the possibility of a civilization so glorious, the ideal heaven of which every sorrowing heart had dreamed. But always with the desire to believe it had a spiritual eternity.