Then Kennaston was in Alexandria when John the Grammarian pleaded with the victorious Arabian general Amrou to spare the royal library, the sole repository at this period of many of the masterworks of Greek and Roman literature.

But Amrou only laughed, with a practical man's contempt for such matters. "The Koran contains all that is necessary to salvation: if these books teach as the Koran teaches they are superfluous; if they contain anything contrary to the Koran they ought t o be destroyed. Let them be used as fuel for the public baths."

And this was done. Curious, very curious, it was to Kennaston, to witness this utilitarian employment of a nation's literature; and it moved him strangely. He had come at this season to believe that individual acts can count for nothing, in the outcome of things. Whatever might happen upon earth, during the existence of that midge among the planets, affected infinitesimally, if at all the universe of which earth was a part so inconceivably tiny. To figure out the importance in this universe of the dee ds of one or another nation temporarily clustering on earth's surface, when you concidered that neither the doings of Assyris or of Rome, or of any kingdom, had ever extended a thousand feet from earth's surface, was a task too delicate for human reason. For human faculties to attempt to estimate the individuals of this nation, in the light of the relative importance of their physical antics while living, was purely and simply ridiculous. To assume, as did so many well-meaning persons, that Omniscience devoted eternity to puzzling out just these minutiae, seemed at the mildest to postulate in Omniscience a queer mania for trivialities. With the passsage of time, whatever a man had done, whether for good or evil, with the man's bodily organs, left the m an's parish unaffected: only a man's thoughts and dreams could outlive him, in any serious sense, and these might survive with perhaps augmenting influnce: so that Kennaston had come to think artistic creation in words--since marble and canvas inevitabl y perished--was he one, possibly, worth-while employment of human life. But here was a crude corporal deed which bluntly destroyed thoughts, and annihilated dreams by wholesale. To Kennaston this seemed the one real tragedy that could be staged on earth ....

Curious, very curious, it was to Kennaston, to see the burning of sixty-three plays written by AEschylus, of a hundred and six by Sophocles, and of fifty-five by Euripides--masterworks eternally lost, which, as Kennaston knew, the world would affect to d eplore eternally, whataver might be the world's real opinion in the matter.

But of these verbal artificers something a least was to endure. They would fare better than Agathon and Ion and Achaeus, their admitted equals in splendor, whose whole life-work was passing, at the feet of Horvendile, into complete oblivion. There, too, were perishing all the writings of the Pleiad--the noble tragedies of Homerus, and Sositheus, and Lycophron, and Alexander, and Philiscuc, and Sosiphanes, and Dionysides. All the great comic poets, too, were burned pellmell with these--Telecleides, Her mippus, Eupolis, Antiphanes, Ameipsas, Lysippus, and Menander--"whom nature mimicked," as the phrase was. And here, posting to obliteration went likewise Thespis, and Pratinas, and Phrynichus--and Choerilus, whom cultured persons had long ranked with Hom er. Nothing was to remain of any of these save the bare name, and even this would be known only to pedants. All these, spurred by the poet's ageless monomania, had toiled toward, and had attained, the poets ageless goal--to write perfectly of beautiful happenings: and of this action's normal by-product, which is immortality in the mouths and minds of succeeding generations, all these were being robbed, by circumstance that parchment is imflammable.

Here was beauty, and wit, and learning, and genius, being wasted--quite wantonly--never to be recaptured, never to be equaled again (despite the innumerable painstaking penmen destined to fret the hearts of unborn wives), and never, in the outcome, to be thought of as a very serious loss to anybody, after all....

These book-rolls burned with great rapidity, crackling cheerily as the garnered wisdom of Cato's octogenarian life dissolved in puffs of smoke, and the wit of Sosipater blazed for the last time in heating a pint of water.... But then in Parma long afterw ard Kennaston observed a monk erasing a song of Sappho's from a parchment on which the monk meant to inscribe a feeble little Latin hymn of his own compostition; in an obscure village near Alexandria Kennaston saw the only existent copy of the Mimes of Herondas crumpled up and used as packing for a mummy-case; in the tidiest of old English Kennaston watched thrifty Betty Baker, then acting as cook for Warburton the antiquary, destroy in making pie-crust the unique manuscript copies of some fifty pl ays, among which were never-printed tragedies by Marlowe and Cyril Tourneur and George Chapmen, and comedies by Middleton and Greene and Dekker, and--rather drolly--those very three dramas which Shakespeare, when he talked with Horvendile in the orchard, had asserted to perpetuate, upon the whole, the most excellent fruit of Shakespeare's ripened craftsmanship.

Yet--conceding Heaven to be an actual place and atainment of its felicities to be the object of human life--Kennaston could not, after all, detect and fault in Amrou's logic. AEsthetic considerations could, in that event, but lead to profitless time-wast ing where every moment was precious.

Chapter Twenty-Five