In the midst of this desolation is an old building of the middle ages. Here dwells a singular recluse. In the season of the malaria the native peasant flies the rank vegetation round; but he, a stranger and a foreigner, no associates, no companions, except books and instruments of science. He is often seen wandering over the grass-grown hills, or sauntering through the streets of the new city, not with the absent brow and incurious air of students, but with observant piercing eyes that seem to dive into the hearts of the passers-by. An old man, but not infirm,—erect and stately, as if in his prime. None know whether he be rich or poor. He asks no charity, and he gives none,—he does no evil, and seems to confer no good. He is a man who appears to have no world beyond himself; but appearances are deceitful, and Science, as well as Benevolence, lives in the Universe. This abode, for the first time since thus occupied, a visitor enters. It is Zanoni.
You observe those two men seated together, conversing earnestly. Years long and many have flown away since they met last,—at least, bodily, and face to face. But if they are sages, thought can meet thought, and spirit spirit, though oceans divide the forms. Death itself divides not the wise. Thou meetest Plato when thine eyes moisten over the Phaedo. May Homer live with all men forever!
They converse; they confess to each other; they conjure up the past, and repeople it; but note how differently do such remembrances affect the two. On Zanoni’s face, despite its habitual calm, the emotions change and go. He has acted in the past he surveys; but not a trace of the humanity that participates in joy and sorrow can be detected on the passionless visage of his companion; the past, to him, as is now the present, has been but as Nature to the sage, the volume to the student,—a calm and spiritual life, a study, a contemplation.
From the past they turn to the future. Ah! at the close of the last century, the future seemed a thing tangible,—it was woven up in all men’s fears and hopes of the present.
At the verge of that hundred years, Man, the ripest born of Time,
("An des Jahrhunderts Neige, Der reifste Sohn der Zeit.” “Die Kunstler.”)
stood as at the deathbed of the Old World, and beheld the New Orb, blood-red amidst cloud and vapour,—uncertain if a comet or a sun. Behold the icy and profound disdain on the brow of the old man,—the lofty yet touching sadness that darkens the glorious countenance of Zanoni. Is it that one views with contempt the struggle and its issue, and the other with awe or pity? Wisdom contemplating mankind leads but to the two results,—compassion or disdain. He who believes in other worlds can accustom himself to look on this as the naturalist on the revolutions of an ant-hill, or of a leaf. What is the Earth to Infinity,—what its duration to the Eternal? Oh, how much greater is the soul of one man than the vicissitudes of the whole globe! Child of heaven, and heir of immortality, how from some star hereafter wilt thou look back on the ant-hill and its commotions, from Clovis to Robespierre, from Noah to the Final Fire. The spirit that can contemplate, that lives only in the intellect, can ascend to its star, even from the midst of the burial-ground called Earth, and while the sarcophagus called Life immures in its clay the everlasting!