Chapter XXIV.

The evening was dark and sultry. Above the trees clouds chased each other across the sky, hurrying onward as to some mysterious goal. In pale green spaces overhead faint stars glimmered and then vanished. Above, all was commotion, while the earth seemed waiting, as in breathless suspense. Amid this silence, human voices in dispute sounded harsh and shrill.

"Anyhow," exclaimed Von Deitz, blundering along in unwieldy fashion, "Christianity has enriched mankind with an imperishable boon, being the only system of morals that is complete and comprehensible."

"Quite so," replied Yourii, who walked behind the last speaker tossing his head defiantly, and glaring at the officer's back, "but in its conflict with the bestial instincts of mankind Christianity has proved itself to be as impotent as all the other religions."

"How do you mean, 'proved itself to be'?" exclaimed Von Deitz angrily. "To Christianity belongs the future, and to suggest that it is obsolete..."

"There is no future for Christianity," broke in Yourii vehemently. "If at the zenith of its development Christianity could not triumph, but became the tool of a shameless gang of impostors, it would be nothing short of absurd to expect a miracle nowadays, when even the word Christianity sounds grotesque. History is inexorable; what has once disappeared from the scene can never return."

"Do you mean to say that Christianity has disappeared from the scene?" shrieked Von Deitz.

"Certainly, I do," continued Yourii obstinately. "You seem as surprised as if such an idea were utterly impossible. Just as the law of Moses has passed away, just as Buddha and the gods of Greece are dead, so, too, Christ is dead. It is but the law of evolution. Why should you be so amazed? You don't believe in the divinity of his doctrine, do you?"

"No, of course not," retorted Von Deitz, less irritated at the question than at Yourii's offensive tone.

"Then how can you maintain that a man is able to create eternal laws?"

"Idiot!" thought Yourii, agreeably convinced that the other was infinitely less intelligent than he, and would never be able to comprehend what was as plain and clear as noonday.

"Supposing it were so," rejoined Von Deitz, nettled, in his turn. "The future will nevertheless have Christianity as its basis. It has not perished, but, like seed in the soil ..."

"I was not talking about that," said Yourii, confused somewhat, and thus the more vexed, "what I meant to say ..."

"No, excuse me, but that's what you said...."

"If I said no, then I meant no! How absurd you are!" interrupted Yourii, rendered more furious by the thought that this stupid Von Deitz should for a moment presume to think himself the cleverer. "I meant to say ..."

"That may be. I am sorry if I misunderstood you." Von Deitz shrugged his narrow shoulders, with an air of condescension, as much as to say that he had got the best of the argument.

This was not lost upon Yourii, whose fury almost choked him.

"I do not deny that Christianity has played an enormous part ..."

"Ah! now you contradict yourself," exclaimed Von Deitz, more triumphant than ever, being intensely pleased to feel how incomparably superior he was to Yourii, who obviously had not the remotest conception of what was so neatly and definitely set out in his own brain.

"To you it may seem that I am contradicting myself," said Yourii bitterly, "but, as a matter of fact, my Contention is a perfectly logical one, and it is not my fault if you don't wish to understand me. I said before, and I say again, that Christianity is played out, and it is vain to look to it for salvation."

Yes, yes; but do you mean to deny the salutary influence of Christianity, that is to say, as the basis of social order? ..."

"No, I don't deny that."

"But I do," interposed Sanine, who till now had walked behind them in silence. His voice sounded calm and pleasant, in strange contrast to the harsh accent of the disputants.

Yourii was silent. This good-tempered, mocking tone of voice annoyed him, yet he had no answer ready. He was not fond of arguing with Sanine, for his usual vocabulary proved useless in such an encounter. Every time it seemed as if he were trying to break down a wall while standing on smooth ice.

Von Deitz, however, stumbling along and rattling his spurs, exclaimed irritably:

"May I ask why?"

"Because I do," replied Sanine coolly.

"Because you do! If one asserts a thing, one ought to prove it."

"Why must I prove it? There is no need to prove anything. It is my own personal conviction, but I have not the slightest wish to convince you. Besides, it would be useless."

"According to your line of reasoning," observed Yourii cautiously, "one had better make a bonfire of all literature."

"Oh no I Why do that?" replied Sanine. "Literature is a very great, and a very interesting thing. Real literature, such as I mean, is not polemical after the manner of some prig who, having nothing to do, endeavours to convince everybody that he is extremely intelligent. Literature reconstructs life, and penetrates even to the very life- blood of humanity, from generation to generation. To destroy literature would be to take away all colour from life and make it insipid."

Von Deitz stopped short, letting Yourii pass him, and then he asked Sanine:

"Oh! pray tell me more I What you were saying just now interests me immensely."

Sanine laughed.

"What I said was simple enough. I can explain my point at greater length, if you wish. In my opinion Christianity has played a sorry part in the life of humanity. At the very moment when human beings felt that their lot was unbearable, and when the down-trodden and oppressed, coming to their senses, had determined to upset the monstrously unjust order of things, and to destroy all human parasites--then, I say, Christianity made its appearance, gentle, humble, and promising much. It condemned strife, held out visions of eternal bliss, lulled mankind to sweet slumber, and preached a religion of non-resistance to ill- treatment; in short, it acted as a safety-valve for all this pent-up wrath. Those of powerful character, nurtured amid a spirit of revolt, and longing to shake off the yoke of centuries, lost all their fire. Like imbeciles, they walked into the arena and, with courage worthy of a better aim, courted destruction. Naturally, their enemies wished for nothing better. And now it will need centuries of infamous oppression before the flame of revolt shall again be lighted. Christianity has clothed human individuality, too obstinate ever to accept slavery, with a garb of penitence, hiding under it all the colours of liberty. It deceived the strong who to-day could have captured fortune and happiness, transferring life's centre of gravity to the future, to a dreamland that does not exist, and that none of them will ever see. And thus all the charm of life vanished; bravery, passion, beauty, all were dead; duty alone remained, and the dream of a future golden age--golden maybe, for others, coming after. Yes, Christianity has played a sorry part; and the name of Christ ..."

"Well! I never!" broke in Von Deitz, as he stopped short, waving his long arms in the dusk. "That's really a bit too much!"

"Yet, have you never thought what a hideous era of bloodshed would have supervened if Christianity had Dot averted it?" asked Yourii nervously.

"Ha! ha!" replied Sanine, with a disdainful gesture, "at first, under the cloak of Christianity, the arena was drenched with the blood of the martyrs, and then, later, people were massacred and shut up in prisons and mad-houses. And now, every day, more blood is spilt than ever could be shed by a universal revolution. The worst of it all is that each betterment in the life of humanity has always been achieved by bloodshed, anarchy and revolt, though men always affect to make humanitarianism and love of one's neighbour the basis of their lives and actions. The whole thing results in a stupid tragedy; false, hypocritical, neither flesh nor fowl. For my part, I should prefer an immediate world-catastrophe to a dull, vegetable-existence lasting probably another two thousand years."

Yourii was silent. Strange to say, his thoughts were not fixed upon the speaker's words, but upon the speaker's personality. The latter's absolute assurance he considered offensive, in fact insupportable.

"Would you, please, tell me," he began, irresistibly impelled to wound Sanine, "why you always talk as if you were teaching little children?"

Von Deitz, feeling uneasy at this speech, uttered something conciliatory, and rattled his spurs.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Sanine sharply, "why are you so angry?"

Yourii felt that his speech was discourteous, and that he ought not to go any farther, yet his wounded self-respect drove him to add:

"Such a tone is really most unpleasant."

"It is my usual tone," replied Sanine, partly annoyed, and partly anxious to appease the other.

"Well, it is not always a suitable one," continued Yourii, raising his voice, "I really fail to see what gives you such assurance."

"Probably the consciousness of being more intelligent than you are," replied Sanine, now quite calm.

Yourii stood still, trembling from head to foot.

"Look here!" he exclaimed hoarsely.

"Don't get angry!" interposed Sanine. "I had no wish to offend you, and only expressed my candid opinion. It is the same opinion that you have of me, and that Von Deitz has of both of us, and so on. It is only natural."

Sanine spoke in such a frank, friendly way that to show further displeasure would have been absurd. Yourii was silent, and Von Deitz, being still concerned on his behalf, again rattled his spurs and breathed hard.

"At any rate I don't tell you my opinion to your face," murmured Yourii.

"No; and that is where you are wrong. I was listening to your discussion just now, and the offensive spirit prompted every word you said. It is merely a question of form. I say what I think, but you don't say what you think; and that is not in the least interesting. If we were all more sincere, it would be far more amusing for everybody."

Von Deitz laughed loudly.

"What an original idea!" he exclaimed.

Yourii did not reply. His anger had subsided, and he felt almost pleased, though it irked him to think that he had got the worst of it, and would not admit this.

"Such a state of things might be somewhat too primitive," added Von Deitz sententiously.

"Then, you had rather that it were complicated and obscure?" asked Sanine.

Von Deitz shrugged his shoulders, lost in thought.