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The Shades, A Phantasy

by Vladimir G. Korolenko

Overview I II III IV V


It seemed as if the words of the philosopher had taken effect. High up
in the distance a beam of light penetrated a vapoury envelop and
disappeared in the mountains. It was followed by a second and a third.
There beyond the darkness luminous genii seemed to be hovering, and a
great mystery seemed about to be revealed, as if the breath of life
were blowing, as if some great ceremony were in process. But it was
still very remote. The shades descended thicker and thicker; foggy
clouds rolled into masses, separated, and chased one another
endlessly, ceaselessly.

A blue light from a distant peak fell upon a deep ravine; the clouds
rose and covered the heavens to the zenith.

The rays disappeared and withdrew to a greater and greater distance,
as if fleeing from this vale of shades and horrors. Socrates stood and
looked after them sadly. Elpidias peered up at the peak full of dread.

"Look, Socrates! What do you see there on the mountain?"

"Friend," answered; the philosopher, "let us investigate our
situation. Since we are in motion, we must arrive somewhere, and since
earthly existence must have a limit, I believe that this limit is to
be found at the parting of two beginnings. In the struggle of light
with darkness we attain the crown of our endeavours. Since the ability
to think has not been taken from us, I believe that it is the will of
the divine being who called our power of thinking into existence that
we should investigate the goal of our endeavours ourselves. Therefore,
Elpidias, let us in dignified manner go to meet the dawn that lies
beyond those clouds.

"Oh, my friend! If that is the dawn, I would rather the long cheerless
night: had endured forever, for it was quiet and peaceful. Don't you
think our time passed tolerably well in instructive converse? And now
my soul trembles before the tempest drawing nigh. Say what you will,
but there before us are no ordinary shades of the dead night."

Zeus hurled a bolt into the bottomless gulf.

Ctesippus looked up to the peak, and his soul was frozen with horror.
Huge sombre figures of the Olympian gods crowded on the mountain in a
circle. A last ray shot through the region of clouds and mists, and
died away like a faint memory. A storm was approaching now, and the
powers of night were once more in the ascendant. Dark figures covered
the heavens. In the centre Ctesippus could discern the all-powerful
son of Cronos surrounded by a halo. The sombre figures of the older
gods encircled him in wrathful excitement. Like flocks of birds
winging their way in the twilight, like eddies of dust driven by a
hurricane, like autumn leaves lashed by Boreas, numerous minor gods
hovered in long clouds and occupied the spaces.

When the clouds gradually lifted from the peak and sent down dismal
horror to embrace the earth, Ctesippus fell upon his knees. Later, he
admitted that in this dreadful moment he forgot all his master's
deductions and conclusions. His courage failed him; and terror took
possession of his soul.

He merely listened.

Two voices resounded there where before had been silence, the one the
mighty and threatening voice of the Godhead, the other the weak voice
of a mortal which the wind carried from the mountain slope to the spot
where Ctesippus had left Socrates.

"Are you," thus spake the voice from the clouds, "are you the
blasphemous Socrates who strives with the gods of heaven and earth?
Once there were none so joyous, so immortal, as we. Now, for long we
have passed our days in darkness because of the unbelief and doubt
that have come upon earth. Never has the mist closed in on us so
heavily as since the time your voice resounded in Athens, the city we
once so dearly loved. Why did you not follow the commands of your
father, Sophroniscus? The good man permitted himself a few little
sins, especially in his youth, yet by way of recompense, we frequently
enjoyed the smell of his offerings—"

"Stay, son of Cronos, and solve my doubts! Do I understand that you
prefer cowardly hypocrisy to searchings for the truth?"

At this question the crags trembled with the shock of a thundering
peal. The first breath of the tempest scattered in the distant gorges.
But the mountains still trembled, for he who was enthroned upon them
still trembled. And in the anxious quiet of the night only distant
sighs could be heard.

In the very bowels of the earth the chained Titans seemed to be
groaning under the blow of the son of Cronos.

"Where are you now, you impious questioner?" suddenly came the mocking
voice of the Olympian.

"I am here, son of Cronos, on the same spot. Nothing but your answer
can move me from it. I am waiting."

Thunder bellowed in the clouds like a wild animal amazed at the daring
of a Lybian tamer's fearless approach. At the end of a few moments the
Voice again rolled over the spaces:

"Son of Sophroniscus! Is it not enough that you bred so much
scepticism on earth that the clouds of your doubt reached even to
Olympus? Indeed, many a time when you were carrying on your discourse
m the market-places or in the academies or on the promenades, it
seemed to me as if you had already destroyed all the altars on earth,
and the dust were rising from them up to us here on the mountain. Even
that is not enough! Here before my very face you will not recognise
the power of the immortals—"

"Zeus, thou art wrathful. Tell me, who gave me the 'Daemon' which
spoke to my soul throughout my life and forced me to seek the truth
without resting?"

Mysterious silence reigned in the clouds.

"Was it not you? You are silent? Then I will investigate the matter.
Either this divine beginning emanates from you or from some one else.
If from you, I bring it to you as an offering. I offer you the ripe
fruit of my life, the flame of the spark of your own kindling! See,
son of Cronos, I preserved, my gift; in my deepest heart grew the seed
that you sowed. It is the very fire of my soul. It burned in those
crises when with my own hand I tore the thread of life. Why will you
not accept it? Would you have me regard you as a poor master whose age
prevents him from seeing that his own pupil obediently follows out his
commands? Who are you that would command me to stifle the flame that
has illuminated my whole life, ever since it was penetrated by the
first ray of sacred thought? The sun says not to the stars: 'Be
extinguished that I may rise.' The sun rises and the weak glimmer of
the stars is quenched by its far, far stronger light. The day says not
to the torch: 'Be extinguished; you interfere with me.' The day
breaks, and the torch smokes, but no longer shines. The divinity that
I am questing is not you who are afraid of doubt. That divinity is
like the day, like the sun, and shines without extinguishing other
lights. The god I seek is the god who would say to me: 'Wanderer, give
me your torch, you no longer need it, for I am the source of all
light. Searcher for truth, set upon my altar the little gift of your
doubt, because in me is its solution.' If you are that god, harken to
my questions. No one kills his own child, and my doubts are a branch
of the eternal spirit whose name is truth."

Round about, the fires of heaven tore the dark clouds, and out of the
howling storm again resounded the powerful voice:

"Whither did your doubts tend, you arrogant sage, who renounce
humility, the most beautiful adornment of earthly virtues? You
abandoned the friendly shelter of credulous simplicity to wander in
the desert of doubt. You have seen this dead space from which the
living gods have departed. Will you traverse it, you insignificant
worm, who crawl in the dust of your pitiful profanation of the gods?
Will you vivify the world? Will you conceive the unknown divinity to
whom you do not dare to pray? You miserable digger of dung, soiled by
the smut of ruined altars, are you perchance the architect who shall
build the new temple? Upon what do you base your hopes, you who
disavow the old gods and have no new gods to take their place? The
eternal night of doubts unsolved, the dead desert, deprived of the
living spirit—this is your world, you pitiful worm, who gnawed at
the living belief which was a refuge for simple hearts, who converted
the world into a dead chaos. Now, then, where are you, you
insignificant, blasphemous sage?"

Nothing was heard but the mighty storm roaring through the spaces.
Then the thunder died away, the wind folded its pinions, and torrents
of rain streamed through the darkness, like incessant floods of tears
which threatened to devour the earth and drown it in a deluge of
unquenchable grief.

It seemed to Ctesippus that the master was overcome, and that the
fearless, restless, questioning voice had been silenced forever. But a
few moments later it issued again from the same spot.

"Your words, son of Cronos, hit the mark better than your
thunderbolts. The thoughts you have cast into my terrified soul have
haunted me often, and it has sometimes seemed as if my heart would
break under the burden of their unendurable anguish. Yes, I abandoned
the friendly shelter of credulous simplicity. Yes, I have seen the
spaces from which the living gods have departed enveloped in the night
of eternal doubt. But I walked without fear, for my 'Daemon' lighted
the way, the divine beginning of all life. Let us investigate the
question. Are not offerings of incense burnt on your altars in the
name of Him who gives life? You are stealing what belongs to another!
Not you, but that other, is served by credulous simplicity. Yes, you
are right, I am no architect. I am not the builder of a new temple.
Not to me was it given to raise from the earth to the heavens the
glorious structure of the coming faith. I am one who digs dung, soiled
by the smut of destruction. But my conscience tells me, son of Cronos,
that the work of one who digs dung is also necessary for the future
temple. When the time comes for the proud and stately edifice to stand
on the purified place, and for the living divinity of the new belief
to erect his throne upon it, I, the modest digger of dung, will go to
him and say: 'Here am I who restlessly crawled in the dust of
disavowal. When surrounded by fog and soot, I had no time to raise my
eyes from the ground; my head had only a vague conception of the
future building. Will you reject me, you just one, Just, and True, and

Silence and astonishment reigned in the spaces. Then Socrates raised
his voice, and continued:

"The sunbeam falls upon the filthy puddle, and light vapour, leaving
heavy mud behind, rises to the sun, melts, and dissolves in the ether.
With your sunbeam you touched my dust-laden soul and it aspired to
you, Unknown One, whose name is mystery! I sought for you, because you
are Truth; I strove to attain to you, because you are Justice; I loved
you, because you are Love; I died for you, because you are the Source
of Life. Will you reject me, O Unknown? My torturing doubts, my
passionate search for truth, my difficult life, my voluntary
death—accept them as a bloodless offering, as a prayer, as a sigh!
Absorb them as the immeasurable ether absorbs the evaporating mists!
Take them, you whose name I do not know, let not the ghosts of the
night I have traversed bar the way to you, to eternal light! Give way,
you shades who dim the light of the dawn! I tell you, gods of my
people, you are unjust, and where there is no justice there can be no
truth, but only phantoms, creations of a dream. To this conclusion
have I come, I, Socrates, who sought to fathom all things. Rise, dead
mists, I go my way to Him whom I have sought all my life long!"

The thunder burst again—a short, abrupt peal, as if the egis had
fallen from the weakened hand of the thunderer. Storm-voices trembled
from the mountains, sounding dully in the gorges, and died away in the
clefts. In their place resounded other, marvellous tones.

When Ctesippus looked up in astonishment, a spectacle presented itself
such as no mortal eyes had ever seen.

The night vanished. The clouds lifted, and godly figures floated in
the azure like golden ornaments on the hem of a festive robe. Heroic
forms glimmered over the remote crags and ravines, and Elpidias, whose
little figure was seen standing at the edge of a cleft in the rocks,
stretched his hands toward them, as if beseeching the vanishing gods
for a solution of his fate.

A mountain-peak now stood out clearly above the mysterious mist,
gleaming like a torch over dark blue valleys. The son of Cronos, the
thunderer, was no longer enthroned upon it, and the other Olympians
too were gone.

Socrates stood alone in the light of the sun under the high heavens.

Ctesippus was distinctly conscious of the pulse-beat of a mysterious
life quivering throughout nature, stirring even the tiniest blade of

A breath seemed to be stirring the balmy air, a voice to be sounding
in wonderful harmony, an invisible tread to be heard—the tread of the
radiant Dawn!

And on the illumined peak a man still stood, stretching out his arms
in mute ecstasy, moved by a mighty impulse.

A moment, and all disappeared, and the light of an ordinary day shone
upon the awakened soul of Ctesippus. It was like dismal twilight after
the revelation of nature that had blown upon him the breath of an
unknown life.

       *        *        *        *        *

In deep silence the pupils of the philosopher listened to the
marvellous recital of Ctesippus. Plato broke the silence.

"Let us investigate the dream and its significance," he said.

"Let us investigate it," responded the others.