Elegant Union (John Clark Smith) - 9

John Clark Smith
A Novel by John Clark Smith

20

 

They continued to walk on the Rue Montmartre to the Rue du Louvre. Oriana joined them.

The surroundings changed. They were now climbing a hill which ended at the Parthenon in Athens. A line of worshippers was filing up the Acropolis outside of the temple.

When they reached the top, beside the Parthenon, Titus said,

“The history of the Western world is to some extent a reflection of the history of the Parthenon.”

They sat down on the floor and contemplated for a long time the sculptured frieze of the sacrifice of Pandora to Athena and the great golden statue of Athena holding the goddess Nike. The Greeks could be heard outside making their sacrifices and performing their rituals.

“So peaceful,” Titus said. “There’s so much silence here. Can’t you feel the spiritual breath? The followers of Athena are so free.”

“And is that why we’re here?” Karna asked. “Does this connect with the Great War?”

“We’re always here, Karna,” Titus said. “This is Athena’s home. I feel as if I’m her brother. They call the Parthenon cold, you know, cold elegance. Not to me. This is elegant warmth and union. It symbolizes and is the world we seek and are. It is the universe’s way to help us. A warm connection. Especially during the festivals.”

Titus went to his feet and stared up at the giant statue of the goddess.

“Would you prefer to stay here always?” Oriana asked.

“The Parthenon is eternal,” Titus said. “How the world spins, the wounds the world takes, those wounds are also the wounds of the Parthenon. When I view it and consider the creative powers that built this masterpiece, a part of me wants to package it and take it with me forever. So yes, I could stay for years in and around this monument. But I would also want to have with me its sisters and brothers, the whole beauty of ancient thought, whether Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Egyptian, Chinese, Pali, Tamil, the Khoisan languages, or the—”

Several events interrupted his words, one after the other: the statue of Athena disappeared, the roof caught fire, and an explosion ignited not far from where they were standing, damaging sculptures, columns, and cracking the foundations. In its place, the roof returned, and a statue of the Virgin Mary stood where Athena was, and the entrance and orientation of the Parthenon changed. Sculptors began to carve Christian figures into the columns and Christian imagery covered every possible space.

Next the Christian elements and imagery were painted over, the Parthenon became a Mosque. In the distance they heard a roar of voices and screams, then gunfire. Titus and the others ran from the building down the path from the Acropolis and found a safe place to watch the Venetians fire a mortar round into the building and explode munitions the Turks were storing. The monument was decimated. Sculptures from the frieze fell, columns crumbled, the roof collapsed, and the cella’s walls tipped and thundered when they hit the earth. When the columns tumbled, so also tumbled other parts of the structure, such as the marble architraves. The great building, which had stood for over a thousand years, became a ruin. Shortly thereafter they watched soldiers try to pillage the remains. Titus was tempted to run out and cry, “Leave it alone!” Members from universities and museums stormed in to remove the precious sculpture and take it away from the site to be displayed elsewhere in alien lands. This too infuriated Titus, but he did not move. The loss of so much meaning made him distraught, as tears flowed heavily down his cheeks. For a time, the area was desolate. No one placed a hand on the beauty. Several birds came and proudly perched upon it under a rich blue sky. Soon after a group of bees hovered near him.

But the quiet did not last. Soon crowds appeared. Titus and the others climbed back up and stood now in the ruins, with so many pieces of its beauty scattered everywhere that more of it was on the ground than standing. An old man sat outside on one of the fallen stones and sang, “Oh how shameless, the way these mortals blame the gods.”

The tourists walked and took photographs, unaware of the old singer and Titus. Titus heard their words of awe and appreciation, none of them realizing how the original building looked. To them the Parthenon was the ruins. What the temple was to fifth century Athenians had no relevance to them. What it meant to the world was even less appreciated.

A boy picked up a small chip of stone and placed it in his pocket. The parents saw him but said nothing.

 

21

 

Oriana, Wang, and Titus were now in ancient Israel, watching a youth help his father with some carpentry.

“We’ll stay until they’re finished,” Titus said. “In this,” he waved his arms around the environment, “we see the ancient Hebrew wonders and what came from it.”

He opened his hand and revealed the gold disc with his name on it.

“Someone created this disc too,” Titus said. “What’s in a name, Oriana? All rivers flowing into and becoming the same sea.”

“You’re right,” Oriana said. “What’s in a name? Are you really Titus?”

“We can’t change the words on this disc,” Titus said, “but there are other choices for the savior—since Titus Ketkar is the sea. Zarathustra, the mukhya Upanishads, Socrates, or the Zhou yi commentary Xi ci? What of the bees? Couldn’t any of them be called savior of humanity?”

“Yes,” Wang said. “And many more unknown and unwritten.”

“Yes. But they’re not forgotten.”

“And this youth, helping his father?” Oriana asked. “A savior?”

“Look carefully. The sea or a river?”

They stayed watching the carpenter and his son until the evening. The smell of olive trees was fresh in the dry and sweet air. Afterwards they took a walk around the Sea of Galilee and borrowed a boat.

“Whenever I look out upon this Sea,” Titus said, when they reached the middle of the Sea, “a pall comes upon the beauty of this land. I have the image of Solari’s painting of the head of John the Baptist.”

Titus continued to concentrate on the disc. The numbers were now an item of interest.

“7461,” Titus mumbled, still perusing the disc.

“Why these numbers?” Wang said.

“Did the forger think it would be more easily understood?” Oriana wondered.

“Impossible,” Wang said, “for anyone but a god.”

“There are only mysteries for a god,” Oriana said.

“The silhouette on that disc is you,” Wang noted, looking at Titus.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Titus said.

“Why make such a talisman?” Oriana asked.

Titus did not answer. He was lost in the history that the Sea had seen.

 

22

 

The question prompted another change of location. They arrived in modern Hong Kong riding on a ferry to Hong Kong Island. Afterwards, they took the tram. The smell of the sea water, fish, and the wind invigorated Titus.

For reasons unknown to him, it reminded him of the harbor in Mumbai—though Lantau Island near Hong Kong was different from Elephanta Island near Mumbai. Resting at the temples and caves on Elephanta was one of his favorite joys. He relished the experience of being alone both when there were no tourists, and when there were tourists to see the tourist interactions with the monkeys. The guides warned the tourists that the monkeys might steal their snacks and purses, but few realized how smart the simian thieves were. For hours until the last tourist group had left, Titus would wander around the Elephanta caves and temples and listen to the tourists and the way the guides tried to explain the origin and history of the caves and temples. Since this was one of his favorite places, Titus could have been a guide. He knew the history behind every sacred place on the island, including the time when the Muslims came and tried to destroy what they considered the impious statues.

The three of them ended up at Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island. At the top of Hong Kong Island Titus sensed the whole human community from every point on earth in the tiny space of mainland Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. It reminded him of ancient Xi’an, Carthage, Baghdad, Rome, and Alexandria, but here he could grasp the strange amalgam of mountains, forests, waters, and masses of people from around the world in one glimpse. The sight and experience were uplifting even though he knew this vision would be temporary.

 

23

 

The desert suddenly was on all sides. They stood in front of a young man arguing with an older man engaged in a ritual. The older man castigated the youth for defiling the ritual and angering the deities. The youth laughed and told the man there is no truth in deities and the rituals. A crowd gathered behind the older man and began to threaten the youth. But he refused to move or concede to the other.

“I have nothing to fear from an army of people like you. I have a greater protector.”

“I love this moment,” Titus said. “Such courage. Such passion. Such conviction. Truly a visionary. Like Siddhartha standing up to the Brahmins or Jesus correcting the Pharisees.”

“It’s inspiring,” Oriana said.

“I return here often just to watch this event. One must love the desert for creating such a person. The lives in the desert, the sand, the endless nothingness, the stark simplicity of it all. It’s the ultimate confrontation between the all and the one. It is heaven, and again, shows the beauty of the human soul.”

“What of the talisman?” Oriana asked. “You didn’t answer when I asked on the Sea of Galilee.”

“The disc is more than a talisman,” Titus said. “It’s a replica or an imitation of a memorial emblem for a dying god. I have seen them before. They commemorate someone and are given to visitors and worshippers in great temples and shrines. It’s a way to honor someone. I know the smith.

“But now I must stop. The events of our journey have tired me.”

 

24

 

After his rest, Titus and Karna were staring at a grand banquet at the Royal Palace in Berlin in 1913. They stood up against a wall, behind them was a statue of a famous German figure set within the wall, but close enough to the crowd of servants ready to cater to the great number of royalty present. Over a thousand people were attending. The central grand table seem to stretch into infinity. Candelabra, with its candle’s flames glittering in the eyes of the guests, were set on a table laden with food and drink.

“A most grand affair,” Karna said.

“Perhaps the most splendid one in modern history,” Titus said. “Never again will such people walk and sit beside each other in one room.”

“What kind of celebration is this?” Karna asked.

“That is indeed the question. What is happening here?”

“A wedding?” Karna wondered. “I see a bride. The groom and parents are seated near them.”

“Yes, a wedding, a royal wedding. The Emperor and Empress of Germany are here. Seated near them is the Tsar of Russia. The King and Queen of England are here. Many other kings and noble men and women. Also present are their daughters: the daughter of the King of Romania, and Princess Yolande from Italy, all friends of the bride.”

“Who is the bride?” Karna asked. “Everyone looks so stylish. They all look like brides and grooms.”

“The bride is Victoria Louise,” Titus said, “daughter of the Emperor and Empress. But in truth she’s just a woman from Prussia marrying a man from Hanover. The wedding is a kind of reconciliation of the House of Hanover and the House of Hohenzollern, an attempt to make peace between their houses. If only unions between nations could be so arranged, if only peace could be so easily bought, because these nations could use a reconciliation.”

“Why does this interest you? In the end, as you say, isn’t it just another wedding, even if quite impressive?”

“This banquet was the closing moment of royalty, the end of an era when monarchs still had power before the Great War killed aristocracy. Later three of these men, Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor Wilhelm II and King George V, will talk in a corner room. And they will worry about what each of them says to the other and what they should say to the powers who are not here, the royal leaders of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Serbia. No prominent person from France was invited.”

“No French royalty?” Karna asked.

“No royalty, but out of good relations, other important French people might have been invited.”

Titus and Karna walked into the crowd, barely able to move around the guests and gowns and servants. In the background was a group of musicians playing a medley of German folk tunes in preparation for the dance that would happen later, when the aristocrats would give their impression of dancing like ordinary folk.

“And why will these monarchs worry?” Karna asked. “What is happening here?

“Two of these men, the Emperor and the Tsar, have much to do with deciding what will happen a year from now when the most pivotal event of the millennia happens, the start of the Great War. George V is a constitutional monarch. He must ultimately comply with his ministers. But he has moral authority with the people and other subtle ways to influence decisions.”

“You will offer suggestions then?”

“I have done my nurturing. But these royals are all fierce jingoists, even though they’re all blood related. Many of their advisers are even more extreme about their nation and their race and their image and their honor and their holdings and the lands and waters they want or must protect.”

“A single suggestion even?”

“We shall see. We shall listen to their talk.”

“Could you influence them?” Karna asked.

“Yes, but why would I? To influence I must be noticed. Gretchen would appear and ask what I’m doing. No matter. These leaders would stick out their chests and boast about their history or their race or their superiority. The tiger cannot lose its stripes. They ignore the problems at home. Russia is unstable and on the verge of revolution. Britain is on the verge of a civil war due to the Irish question. The press of Germany is stoking the fires of hate in their people, and the Social Democrats are growing in strength. Everywhere there is talk of change that isn’t really change. ‘Look at us,’ they all brag! ‘We’re great because we’re Serbian, we’re Russian, we’re German, we’re Austrian,’ and so on, and so on. These are times when people are expecting, some are hoping for, war to prove their superiority or because they fear they may not be superior. The crises in Morocco, Bosnia, Libya, and the Balkan Wars should have taught them.”

When the banquet ended, Titus and Karna watched Nicholas and George—the Tsar and King of England—cousins who looked quite alike, walk to a nearby room. Emperor Wilhelm, also a cousin to both, stared at their departure suspiciously. In a few moments, he too would follow them.

Nicholas II and George V sat in two chairs with high backs. Two tiny glasses of cognac were brought to them. The room had many paintings in different size frames hung on every space on the walls. Some of them were so faded that it was difficult to see the subjects of the paintings. Except for the candles near them and a few others around the room, the room was quite dark. The candles barely lit their faces. In the deepest shadows stood Titus and Karna.

The two royals began discussing a topic they were continuing from their dinner.

“Well, I blame it all on Alexander and that dreaded Draga,” King George said. “Just like his father. If he hadn’t married that bitch, the Black Hand would never have had the power to continue. Serbia and Bulgaria are now willing to take all risks. Is that why you went to their marriage?”

“Of course,” Nicholas said. “I had to get the boy under control. His father, his mother, everyone had abandoned him when he lusted after Draga. My god, she was ten years older. No one could restrain him. It was quite pathetic. What was he? Twenty-three?”

“Twenty-six,” George said. “You’re too soft, cousin. And what good did it do? They stabbed, disemboweled, and threw them both out the window and brought on Peter the weakling. Peter lets Pasic decide everything. Pasic! Preacher of the greater Serbia. Thank goodness father dealt with that. I can’t get the image of their mutilation out of my mind.”

“I know,” Nicholas said, “but what am I to do? We have agreements. If I intervened, it would be disastrous. They’re Slavs, after all. I have a moral duty to help them.”

“And you didn’t know, correct?” George asked. “Tell me please: you didn’t know.”

There was a long pause, as Nicholas brought the drink to his lips.

“Well, Russia knew,” Nicholas said. “Did I know? I learned later, much later, that Russia had a connection to one of the conspirators, Novak Perisic”

“Perisic?” George said. “A leader in the Black Hand! It’s a nightmare, Nicholas.”

“We had to know what they’re doing.”

Nicholas stood and sat down again. He tugged in the front and rear of his pants. His pants did not seem to fit properly and he wanted to move around. 

“What are you complaining about?” Nicholas asked. “Wilhelm just released two of your spies as a gift for attending the wedding.”

The Emperor walked into the room.

“What schemes are you two concocting against me?” Wilhelm asked. “I heard the word spies.”

“Yes, I was simply saying we all use spies,” the King of England said. “But we were reliving the horror of the assassination of Alexander and Draga and its consequences to the Balkans today.”

“I’m worried about cousin Ferdinand,” Wilhelm said. “Such a buffoon. Him and his Bulgarian empire. Serbia! Bulgaria! They’ll be the death of me.”

“I agree with you about Ferdinand,” Nicholas said. “Though I’m not sure we can trust that fox. I was hoping we would have him under control after our meeting with his uncle last year.”

“When I spoke with him at father’s funeral,” George said, “he was extremely arrogant about Bulgaria’s chances against the Ottomans.”

“He should never have had that throne, but they…well…” Wilhelm said.

“--I know, I know,” Nicholas interjected. “They were trying to prevent a Russian occupation. Anyone but a Russian back then, even an Austrian.”

“He has Hungarian and French blood too,” Wilhelm noted.

“It’s the Serbian rivalry that worries me,” George said.

“France is a greater threat,” Wilhelm said. “Ferdinand turned us down and gave a huge arms contract with Schneider-Creusot.”

“What will Britain do?” Wilhelm said.

“Nothing, Asquith says,” George answered. “The Balkans aren’t our number one concern.”

George stared firmly at Wilhelm and said:

“We’re more concerned with those who are building up their navy to threaten ours.”

“It’s only for defense,” Wilhelm said, recognizing that George was talking about Germany. “We’ve been building that defence for years.”

“Defence is just a polite word for offence,” Nicholas mumbled.

“Now that you brought it up,” Wilhelm said to George, “what are you doing cozying up to France? I don’t see how you can have such ties with France. The French are devious. And they’re terrible soldiers.”

“We’re allied with France too,” Nicholas reminded Wilhelm.

“That’s different, Nicky,” Wilhelm said. “You’re bonded to the Serbs. Austria now has Bosnia, and Russia has to be there to support Serbia. So I get it. You need France. I don’t approve, but I get it.”

Wilhelm moved and stood in front of George.

“But what has Britain to do with this, this mess?” Wilhelm badgered George. “France is selling and making armaments, France is building up their armies, France is loaning money to Russia, building railways. She has opposed us at every turn. In the east, in the west, we are surrounded. It’s damn frustrating!”

Wilhelm returned to his chair and smashed his hand on the arm.

“Cousin Willy,” assured Nicholas, “you shouldn’t be threatened. Neither should Britain. Why are you so anxious?”

“Why? Who’s allied with us? Austria? Italy? Bulgaria? Ottomans? All weak. You’re with France and Serbia. Britain is with Belgium and now France too. Like I said, surrounded. It’s the Balkans. The death of me. I see it all, and it’s not pleasant.”

“It’s not a good time for us either,” Nicholas grumbled. “We’re worn out from fighting those pests, the Japanese. Plus the St. Petersburg revolution. France has been generous to us.”

“We have our problems too,” George said.

“Oh yes,” Wilhelm said. “Strikes, that mess with the House of Lords, and the Irish...”

“--let’s not even whisper the word ‘Irish,’” the King said.

“The German army is now the best trained in the world,” Nicholas added. “We all know that, Willy.”

Wilhelm nodded in pride.

“Still, why get in bed with France?” Wilhelm said. “You’re not French. You’ve German blood. Alexandra is German. Queen Mary has German blood. I suppose Rasputin approves. But you must know it’s dangerous to give the French support. It makes Germany less secure, triggers the militarists, so much so that we’re forced to build up our military presence on the western borders. And look how they talk about us in the papers. They mock us.”

“But enough of this talk,” Wilhelm said. “We’ll not solve anything today. Heavens, this is my daughter’s wedding. We’re here to celebrate!”

“Indeed,” Nicholas said.

“Precisely,” George said.

The three monarchs rose together and returned to the celebrations.

“What did you see here?” Karna whispered to Titus.

“Paralysis,” Titus answered.

“But they want peace, don’t they?” Karna asked.

“Ironically, they do, at certain points, but, even here, they’re willing to ignore what they know, they’re willing to think about the unthinkable, and prepare for, war.”

“You mean, their alliances?”

“Yes, that, and much else. It was the manly, the patriotic, the nationalistic, the honorable, thing to do. Honor is at stake. Underlying it all, fear.”

Titus went over and picked up the glass that Nicholas used. A small amount of red cognac remained at the bottom.

“Doesn’t this look like blood, Karna?”

Karna nodded.

“Couldn’t you have inserted some idea into their heads?” Karna asked. “To save lives?”

Titus sat in the chair that Nicholas had used. Karna did the same with George’s chair.

“Why do you ask such a question?” Titus said. “I could make it all better, but soon enough the same patterns would return. I’m not like Fischer. He loves indirectly to mold the future.”

“So you’ll let Fischer continue?”

“Fischer has already nourished the seeds of paranoia in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Serbia. France will simply react with their own prejudices.”

“I hate the way he manipulates,” Karna said.

“Fischer may nourish, but he didn’t create the seeds. You think I should manipulate history the way I think? Do I tell a man armed with weapons in a soldier’s uniform to become a pacifist? Do I try to strain out of the minds of millions the levels of prejudices against others? Would you ask a doctor in a mental hospital: ‘Eliminate the madness in this man’s mind. Give me two easy steps please.’ The doctor will smile and say, ‘The madness is too deep. He may spend the rest of his life here.’ Listen to Wilhelm talk about the French. And the French are no better. Nicholas thought the Japanese were inferior and could easily be defeated. Look what that thinking did to the country and the number who died. Hear them all demean the Bulgarians and the Serbians. I could go on. In a few years, in 1918, George will wait too long to rescue Nicholas, his own cousin, who, along with his wife and children, would be jailed and slaughtered by the Bolsheviks. Nicholas the human came second to what he represented to others and the press.”

Titus held the glass with the cognac up to the light of the candle.

“But I must experience these moments if I am to return to my work.”


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