Earth's Holocaust (From "Mosses from an Old Manse") by Nathaniel Hawthorne


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Page 1

"What materials have been used to kindle the flame?" inquired I of a
bystander; for I was desirous of knowing the whole process of the
affair from beginning to end.

The person whom I addressed was a grave man, fifty years old or
thereabout, who had evidently come thither as a looker-on. He
struck me immediately as having weighed for himself the true value
of life and its circumstances, and therefore as feeling little
personal interest in whatever judgment the world might form of them.
Before answering my question, he looked me in the face by the
kindling light of the fire.

"O, some very dry combustibles," replied he, "and extremely suitable
to the purpose,--no other, in fact, than yesterday's newspapers,
last month's magazines, and last year's withered leaves. Here now
comes some antiquated trash that will take fire like a handful of
shavings."

As he spoke, some rough-looking men advanced to the verge of the
bonfire, and threw in, as it appeared, all the rubbish of the
herald's office,--the blazonry of coat armor, the crests and
devices of illustrious families, pedigrees that extended back, like
lines of light, into the mist of the dark ages, together with stars,
garters, and embroidered collars, each of which, as paltry a bawble
as it might appear to the uninstructed eye, had once possessed vast
significance, and was still, in truth, reckoned among the most
precious of moral or material facts by the worshippers of the
gorgeous past. Mingled with this confused heap, which was tossed
into the dames by armfuls at once, were innumerable badges of
knighthood, comprising those of all the European sovereignties, and
Napoleon's decoration of the Legion of Honor, the ribbons of which
were entangled with those of the ancient order of St. Louis. There,
too, were the medals of our own Society of Cincinnati, by means of
which, as history tells us, an order of hereditary knights came near
being constituted out of the king quellers of the Revolution. And
besides, there were thee patents of nobility of German counts and
barons, Spanish grandees, and English peers, from the worm-eaten
instruments signed by William the Conqueror down to the bran-new
parchment of the latest lord who has received his honors from the
fair hand of Victoria.

At sight of the dense volumes of smoke, mingled with vivid jets of
flame, that gushed and eddied forth from this immense pile of
earthly distinctions, the multitude of plebeian spectators set up a
joyous shout, and clapped their hands with an emphasis that made the
welkin echo. That was their moment of triumph, achieved, after long
ages, over creatures of the same clay and the same spiritual
infirmities, who had dared to assume the privileges due only to
Heaven's later workmanship. But now there rushed towards the
blazing heap a gray-haired man, of stately presence, wearing a coat,
from the breast of which a star, or other badge of rank, seemed to
have been forcibly wrenched away. He had not the tokens of
intellectual power in his face; but still there was the demeanor,
the habitual and almost native dignity, of one who had been born to
the idea of his own social superiority, and had never felt it
questioned till that moment.

"People," cried he, gazing at the ruin of what was dearest to his
eyes with grief and wonder, but nevertheless with a degree of
stateliness,--"people, what have you done? This fire is consuming
all that marked your advance from barbarism, or that could have
prevented your relapse thither. We, the men of the privileged
orders, were those who kept alive from age to age the old chivalrous
spirit; the gentle and generous thought; the higher, the purer, the
more refined and delicate life. With the nobles, too, you cast off
the poet, the painter, the sculptor,--all the beautiful arts; for
we were their patrons, and created the atmosphere in which they
flourish. In abolishing the majestic distinctions of rank, society
loses not only its grace, but its steadfastness--"

More he would doubtless have spoken; but here there arose an outcry,
sportive, contemptuous, and indignant, that altogether drowned the
appeal of the fallen nobleman, insomuch that, casting one look of
despair at his own half-burned pedigree, he shrunk back into the
crowd, glad to shelter himself under his new-found insignificance.

"Let him thank his stars that we have not flung him into the same
fire!" shouted a rude figure, spurning the embers with his foot.
"And henceforth let no man dare to show a piece of musty parchment
as his warrant for lording it over his fellows. If he have strength
of arm, well and good; it is one species of superiority. If he have
wit, wisdom, courage, force of character, let these attributes do
for him what they may; but from this day forward no mortal must hope
for place and consideration by reckoning up the mouldy bones of his
ancestors. That nonsense is done away."

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 23rd Aug 2019, 16:26