Then the hateful town feeling of lassitude returned on me and all my vigour was gone, all pleasure in life ended. Thereafter for a fortnight I spent the time moping about the house; then there was a spell of frosty weather with a bleak cutting wind to tell us that it was winter, which even in those latitudes can be very cold. One day after early dinner my mother and sisters went in the carriage to pay a visit to a neighbouring estancia, and my brothers being out or absent from home I was left alone. The verandah appeared to me the warmest place I could find, as the sun shone on it warm and bright, and there I settled down on a chair placed against the wall at the side of a heap of sacks of meal or something which had been left there, and formed a nice shelter from the wind.
The house was strangely quiet, and the westering sun shining full on me made me feel quite comfortable, and in a little while I fell asleep. The sun set and it grew bitterly cold, but I did not wake, and when my mother returned and inquired for me I could not be found. Finally the whole household turned out with lanterns and searched for me up and down through the plantation, and the hunt was still going on when, about ten o'clock at night, some one hurrying along the verandah stumbled on me in my sheltered corner by the sacks, still in my chair but unconscious and in a burning fever. It was the dread typhus, an almost obsolete malady in Europe, and in fact in all civilized countries, but not uncommon at that date in the pestilential city. It was wonderful that I lived through it in a place where we were out of reach of doctors and apothecaries, with only my mother's skill in nursing and her knowledge of such drugs as were kept in the house to save me. She nursed me day and night for the three weeks during which the fever lasted, and when it left me, a mere shadow of my former self, I was dumb-not even a little Yes or No could I articulate however hard I tried, and it was at last concluded that I would never speak again. However, after about a fortnight, the lost faculty came back, to my mother's inexpressible joy.
Winter was nearing its end when one morning in late July I ventured out of doors for the first time, though still but a skeleton, a shadow of my former self. It was a windy day of brilliant sunshine, a day I shall never forget, and the effect of the air and the sun and smell of earth and early flowers, and the sounds of wild birds, with the sight of the intensely green young grass and the vast crystal dome of heaven above, was like deep draughts of some potent liquor that made the blood dance in my veins. Oh what an inexpressible, immeasurable joy to be alive and not dead, to have my feet still on the earth, and drink in the wind and sunshine once more! But the pleasure was more than I could endure in that feeble state; the chilly wind pierced me like needles of ice, my senses swam, and I would have fallen to the ground if my elder brother had not caught me in his arms and taken me back to the house.
In spite of that fainting fit I was happy again with the old happiness, and from day to day I regained strength, until one day in early August I was suddenly reminded that it was my anniversary by my brothers and sisters all coming to me with birthday presents, which they had been careful to provide beforehand, and congratulations on my recovery.
Fifteen years old! This was indeed the most memorable day of my life, for on that evening I began to think about myself, and my thoughts were strange and unhappy thoughts to me-what I was, what I was in the world for, what I wanted, what destiny was going to make of me! Or was it for me to do just what I wished, to shape my own destiny, as my elder brothers had done? It was the first time such questions had come to me, and I was startled at them. It was as though I had only just become conscious; I doubt that I had ever been fully conscious before. I had lived till now in a paradise of vivid sense-impressions in which all thoughts came to me saturated with emotion, and in that mental state reflection is well-nigh impossible. Even the idea of death, which had come as a surprise, had not made me reflect. Death was a person, a monstrous being who had sprung upon me in my flowery paradise and had inflicted a wound with a poisoned dagger in my flesh. Then had come the knowledge of immortality for the soul, and the wound was healed, or partly so, for a time at all events; after which the one thought that seriously troubled me was that I could not always remain a boy. To pass from boyhood to manhood was not so bad as dying; nevertheless it was a change painful to contemplate. That everlasting delight and wonder, rising to rapture, which was in the child and boy would wither away and vanish, and in its place there would be that dull low kind of satisfaction which men have in the set task, the daily and hourly intercourse with others of a like condition, and in eating and drinking and sleeping. I could not, for example, think of so advanced an age as fifteen without the keenest apprehension. And now I was actually at that age-at that parting of the ways, as it seemed to me.
What, then, did I want?-what did I ask to have? If the question had been put to me then, and if I had been capable of expressing what was in me, I should have replied: I want only to keep what I have; to rise each morning and look out on the sky and the grassy dew-wet earth from day to day, from year to year. To watch every June and July for spring, to feel the same old sweet surprise and delight at the appearance of each familiar flower, every new-born insect, every bird returned once more from the north. To listen in a trance of delight to the wild notes of the golden plover coming once more to the great plain, flying, flying south, flock succeeding flock the whole day long. Oh, those wild beautiful cries of the golden plover! I could exclaim with Hafiz, with but one word changed: "If after a thousand years that sound should float o'er my tomb, my bones uprising in their gladness would dance in the sepulchre!" To climb trees and put my hand down in the deep hot nest of the Biente-veo and feel the hot eggs—the five long pointed cream-coloured eggs with chocolate spots and splashes at the larger end. To lie on a grassy bank with the blue water between me and beds of tall bulrushes, listening to the mysterious sounds of the wind and of hidden rails and coots and courlans conversing together in strange human-like tones; to let my sight dwell and feast on the camalote flower amid its floating masses of moist vivid green leaves—the large alamanda-like flower of a purest divine yellow that when plucked sheds its lovely petals, to leave you with nothing but a green stem in your hand. To ride at noon on the hottest days, when the whole earth is a-glitter with illusory water, and see the cattle and horses in thousands, covering the plain at their watering-places; to visit some haunt of large birds at that still, hot hour and see storks, ibises, grey herons, egrets of a dazzling whiteness, and rose-coloured spoonbills and flamingoes, standing in the shallow water in which their motionless forms are reflected. To lie on my back on the rust-brown grass in January and gaze up at the wide hot whitey-blue sky, peopled with millions and myriads of glistening balls of thistle-down, ever, ever floating by; to gaze and gaze until they are to me living things and I, in an ecstasy, am with them, floating in that immense shining void!
And now it seemed that I was about to lose it—this glad emotion which had made the world what it was to me, an enchanted realm, a nature at once natural and supernatural; it would fade and lessen imperceptibly day by day, year by year, as I became more and more absorbed in the dull business of life, until it would be lost as effectually as if I had ceased to see and hear and palpitate, and my warm body had grown cold and stiff in death, and, like the dead and the living, I should be unconscious of my loss.
It was not a unique nor a singular feeling: it is known to other boys, as I have read and heard; also I have occasionally met with one who, in a rare moment of confidence, has confessed that he has been troubled at times at the thought of all he would lose. But I doubt that it was ever more keenly felt than in my case; I doubt, too, that it is common or strong in English boys, considering the conditions in which they exist. For restraint is irksome to all beings, from a black-beetle or an earthworm to an eagle, or, to go higher still in the scale, to an orang-u-tan or a man; it is felt most keenly by the young, in our species at all events, and the British boy suffers the greatest restraint during the period when the call of nature, the instincts of play and adventure, are most urgent. Naturally, he looks eagerly forward to the time of escape, which he fondly imagines will be when his boyhood is over and he is free of masters.
To come back to my own case: I did not and could not know that it was an exceptional case, that my feeling for nature was something more than the sense of pleasure in sun and rain and wind and earth and water and in liberty of motion, which is universal in children, but was in part due to a faculty which is not universal or common. The fear, then, was an idle one, but I had good reason for it when I considered how it had been with my elder brothers, who had been as little restrained as myself, especially that masterful adventurous one, now in a distant country thousands of miles from home, who, at about the age at which I had now arrived, had made himself his own master, to do what he liked with his own life. I had seen him at his parting of the ways, how resolutely he had abandoned his open-air habits, everything in fact that had been his delight, to settle down to sheer hard mental work, and this at our home on the pampas where there were no masters, and even the books and instruments required for his studies could only be procured with great difficulty and after long delays. I remember one afternoon when we were gathered in the dining-room for tea, he was reading, and my mother coming in looked over his shoulder and said, "You are reading a novel: don't you think all that romantic stuff will take your mind off your studies?"
Now he'll flare up, said I to myself; he's so confoundedly independent and touchy no one can say a word to him. It surprised me when he answered quietly, "Yes, mother, I know, but I must finish this book now; it will be the last novel I shall read for some years." And so it was, I believe.
His resolution impressed us even more in another matter. He had an extraordinary talent for inventing stories, mostly of wars and wild adventures with plenty of fighting in them, and whenever we boys were all together, which was usually after we had gone to bed and put the candle out, he would begin one of his wonderful tales and go on for hours, we all wide awake, listening in breathless silence. At length towards midnight the flow of the narrative would suddenly stop, and after an interval we would all begin to cry out to him to go on. "Oh, you are awake!" he would exclaim, with a chuckle of laughter. "Very well, then, you know just where we are in our history, to be resumed another day. Now you can go to sleep." On the following evening he would take up the tale, which would often last an entire week, to be followed by another just as long, then another, and so on-our thousand and one nights. And this delightful yarn-spinning was also dropped as he became more and more absorbed in his mathematical and other studies.
To this day I can recall portions of those tales, especially those in which birds and beasts instead of men were the actors, and so much did we miss them that sometimes when we were all assembled of an afternoon we would start begging him for a story—-"just one more, and the longer the better," we would say to tempt him. And he, a little flattered at our keen appreciation of his talent as a yarn-spinner, would appear inclined to yield. "Well, now, what story shall I tell you?" he would say; and then, just when we were settling down to listen, he would shout, "No, no, no more stories," and to put the matter from him he would snatch up a book and order us to hold our tongues or clear out of the room!
It was not for me to follow his lead; I had not the intellect or strength of will for such tasks, and not only on that memorable evening of my anniversary, but for days afterwards I continued in a troubled state of mind, ashamed of my ignorance, my indolence, my disinclination to any kind of mental work-ashamed even to think that my delight in nature and wish for no other thing in life was merely due to the fact that while the others were putting away childish things as they grew up, I alone refused to part with them.
The result of all these deliberations was that I temporized: I would not, I could not, give up the rides and rambles that took up most of my time, but I would try to overcome my disinclination to serious reading. There were plenty of books in the house-it was always a puzzle to me how we came to have so many. I was familiar with their appearance on the shelves-they had been before me since I first opened my eyes—-their shape, size, colour, even their titles, and that was all I knew about them. A general Natural History and two little works by James Ronnie on the habits and faculties of birds was all the literature suited to my wants in the entire collection of three or four hundred volumes. For the rest, I had read a few story-books and novels: but we had no novels; when one came into the house it would be read and lent to our next neighbour five or six miles away, and he in turn would lend to another, twenty miles further on, and so on until it disappeared in space.
I made a beginning with Rollin's Ancient History in two huge quarto volumes; I fancy it was the large clear type and numerous plates which illustrated it that determined my choice. Rollin, the good old priest, opened a new wonderful world to me, and instead of the tedious task I had feared the reading would prove, it was as delightful as it had formerly been to listen to my brother's endless histories of imaginary heroes and their wars and adventures.
Still athirst for history, after finishing Rollin I began fingering other works of that kind: there was Whiston's Josephus, too ponderous a book to be held in the hands when read out of doors; and there was Gibbon in six stately volumes. I was not yet able to appreciate the lofty artificial style, and soon fell on something better suited to my boyish taste in letters—-a History of Christianity in, I think, sixteen or eighteen volumes of a convenient size. The simple natural diction attracted me, and I was soon convinced that I could not have stumbled on more fascinating reading than the lives of the Fathers of the Church included in some of the earlier volumes, especially that of Augustine, the greatest of all: how beautiful and marvellous his life was, and his mother Monica's! what wonderful books he wrote!-his Confessions and City of God from which long excerpts were given in this volume.
These biographies sent me to another old book, Leland on Revelation, which told me much I was curious to know about the mythologies and systems of philosophy of the ancients—the innumerable false cults which had flourished in a darkened world before the dawn of the true religion.
Next came Carlyle's French Revolution and at last Gibbon, and I was still deep in the Decline and Fall when disaster came to us: my father was practically ruined, owing, as I have said in a former chapter, to his childlike trust in his fellow-men, and we quitted the home he had counted as a permanent one, which in due time would have become his property had he but made his position secure by a proper deed on first consenting to take over the place in its then ruinous condition.
Thus ended, sadly enough, the enchanting years of my boyhood; and here, too, the book should finish: but having gone so far, I will venture a little further and give a brief account of what followed and the life which, for several succeeding years, was to be mine—the life, that is to say, of the mind and spirit.
A DARKENED LIFE
A severe illness-Case pronounced hopeless-How it affected me-Religious doubts and a mind distressed-Lawless thoughts—Conversation with an old gaucho about religion—George Combe and the desire for immortality.
After we had gone back impoverished to our old home where I first saw the light-which was still my father's property and all he had left-I continued my reading, and was so taken up with the affairs of the universe, seen and unseen, that I did not feel the change in our position and comforts too greatly. I took my share in the rough work and was much out-of-doors on horseback looking after the animals, and not unhappy. I was already very tall and thin at that time, in my sixteenth year, still growing rapidly, and though athletic, it was probable that some weakness had been left in me by the fever. At all events, I had scarcely settled down to the new way of life before a fresh blow fell upon me, a malady which, though it failed to kill me, yet made shipwreck of all my new-born earthly hopes and dreams, and a dismal failure of my after life.
One day I undertook, unaided, to drive home a small troop of cattle we had purchased at a distance of a good many leagues, and was in the saddle from morning till after dark in a continuous flooding rain and violent wind. The wind was against me, and the beasts were incessantly trying to turn and rush back to the place they had been taken from, and the fight with wind and cattle went wearily on, the driving rain gradually soaking through my woollen poncho, theft through my clothes to my skin, and trickling down until my long boots were full and slopping over at the knees. For the last half of that midwinter day my feet and legs were devoid of feeling. The result of it was rheumatic fever and years of bad health, with constant attacks of acute pain and violent palpitation of the heart which would last for hours at a stretch. From time to time I was sent or taken to consult a doctor in the city, and in that way from first to last I was in the hands of pretty well all the English doctors in the place, but they did me no permanent good, nor did they say anything to give me a hope of complete recovery. Eventually we were told that it was a practically hopeless case, that I had "outgrown my strength," and had a permanently bad heart and might drop down at any moment.
Naturally this pronouncement had a most disastrous effect on me. That their diagnosis proved in the end to be wrong mattered nothing, since the injury had been done and could not be undone if I lived a century. For the blow had fallen at the most critical period in life, the period of transition when the newly-awakened mind is in its freshest, most receptive stage, and is most curious, most eager, when knowledge is most readily assimilated, and, above everything, when the foundations of character and the entire life of the man are laid.
I speak, it will be understood, of a mind that had not been trained or pressed into a mould or groove by schoolmasters and schools-of a mind that was a forest wilding rather than a plant, one in ten thousand like it, grown under glass in a prepared soil, in a nursery.
That I had to say good-bye to all thoughts of a career, all bright dreams of the future which recent readings had put into my mind, was not felt as the chief loss, it was in fact a small matter compared with the dreadful thought that I must soon resign this earthly life which was so much more to me, as I could not help thinking, than to most others. I was like that young man with a ghastly face I had seen bound to a post in our barn; or like any wretched captive, tied hand and foot and left to lie there until it suited his captor to come back and cut his throat or thrust him through with a spear, or cut him into strips with a sword, in a leisurely manner so as to get all the satisfaction possible out of the exercise of his skill and the spectacle of gushing blood and his victim's agony.
Nor was this all nor even the worst which had befallen me; I now discovered that in spite of all my strivings after the religious mind, that old dread of annihilation which I had first experienced as a small child was not dead as I had fondly imagined, but still lived and worked in me. This visible world—this paradise of which I had had so far but a fleeting glimpse-the sun and moon and other worlds peopling all space with their brilliant constellations, and still other suns and systems, so utterly remote, in such inconceivable numbers as to appear to our vision as a faint luminous mist in the sky-all this universe which had existed for millions and billions of ages, or from eternity, would have existed in vain, since now it was doomed with my last breath, my last gleam of consciousness, to come to nothing. For that was how the thought of death presented itself to me.
Against this appalling thought I struggled with all my power, and prayed and prayed again, morning, noon and night, wrestling with God, as the phrase was, trying as it were to wring something from His hands which would save me, and which He, for no reason that I could discover, withheld from me.
It was not strange in these circumstances that I became more and more absorbed in the religious literature of which we had a good amount on our bookshelves—theology, sermons, meditations for every day in the year, The Whole Duty of Man, A Call to the Unconverted, and many other old works of a similar character.
Among these I found one entitled, if I remember rightly, An Answer to the Infidel, and this work, which I took up eagerly in the expectation that it would allay those maddening doubts perpetually rising in my mind and be a help and comfort to me, only served to make matters worse, at all events for a time. For in this book I was first made acquainted with many of the arguments of the freethinkers, both of the Deists who were opposed to the Christian creed, and of those who denied the truth of all supernatural religion. And the answers to the arguments were not always convincing. It was idle, then, to seek for proofs in the books. The books themselves, after all their arguments, told me as much when they said that only by faith could a man be saved. And to the sad question: "How was it to be attained?" the only answer was, by striving and striving until it came. And as there was nothing else to do I continued striving, with the result that I believed and did not believe, and my soul, or rather my hope of immortality, trembled in the balance.
This, from first to last, was the one thing that mattered; so much was it to me that in reading one of the religious books entitled The Saints' Everlasting Rest, in which the pious author, Richard Baxter, expatiates on and labours to make his readers realize the condition of the eternally damned, I have said to myself: "If an angel, or one returned from the dead, could come to assure me that life does not end with death, that we mortals are destined to live for ever, but that for me there can be no blessed hereafter on account of my want of faith, and because I loved or worshipped Nature rather than the Author of my being, it would be, not a message of despair, but of consolation; for in that dreadful place to which I should be sent, I should be alive and not dead, and have my memories of earth, and perhaps meet and have communion there with others of like mind with myself, and with recollections like mine."
This was but one of many lawless thoughts which assailed me at this time. Another, very persistent, was the view I took of the sufferings of the Saviour of mankind. Why, I asked, were they made so much of?—- why was it said that He suffered as no man had suffered? It was nothing but the physical pain which thousands and millions have had to endure! And if I could be as sure of immortality as Jesus, death would be to me no more than the prick of a thorn. What would it matter to be nailed to a cross and perish in a slow agony if I believed that, the agony over, I should sit down refreshed to sup in paradise? The worst of it was that when I tried to banish these bitter, rebellious ideas, taking them to be the whisperings of the Evil One, as the books taught, the quick reply would come that the supposed Evil One was nothing but the voice of my own reason striving to make itself heard.
But the contest could not be abandoned; devil or reason, or whatever it was, must be overcome, else there was no hope for me; and such is the powerful effect of fixing all one's thoughts on one object, assisted no doubt by the reflex effect on the mind of prayer, that in due time I did succeed in making myself believe all I wished to believe, and had my reward, since after many days or weeks of mental misery there would come beautiful intervals of peace and of more than peace, a new and surprising experience, a state of exaltation, when it would seem to me that I was lifted or translated into a purely spiritual atmosphere and was in communion and one with the unseen world.
It was wonderful. At last and for ever my Dark Night of the Soul was over; no more bitter broodings and mocking whispers and shrinking from the awful phantom of death continually hovering near me; and, above all, no more "difficulties"—the rocky barriers I had vainly beat and bruised myself against. For I had been miraculously lifted over them and set safely down on the other side, where it was all plain walking.
Unhappily, these blissful intervals would not last long. A recollection of something I had heard or read would come back to startle me out of the confident happy mood; reason would revive as from a benumbed or hypnotized condition, and the mocking voice would be heard telling me that I had been under a delusion. Once more I would abhor and shudder at the black phantom, and when the thought of annihilation was most insistent, I would often recall the bitter, poignant words about death and immortality spoken to me about two years before by an old gaucho landowner who had been our neighbour in my former home.
He was a rough, rather stern-looking man, with a mass of silver-white hair and grey eyes; a gaucho in his dress and primitive way of life, the owner of a little land and a few animals-the small remnant of the estancia which had once belonged to his people. But he was a vigorous old man, who spent half of his day on horseback, looking after the animals, his only living. One day he was at our house, and coming out to where I was doing something in the grounds, he sat down on a bench and called me to him. I went gladly enough, thinking that he had some interesting bird news to give me. He remained silent for some time, smoking a cigar, and staring at the sky as if watching the smoke vanish in the air. At length he opened fire.
"Look," he said, "you are only a boy, but you can tell me something I don't know. Your parents read books, and you listen to their conversation and learn things. We are Roman Catholics, and you are Protestants. We call you heretics and say that for such there is no salvation. Now I want you to tell me what is the difference between our religion and yours."
I explained the matter as well as I knew how, and added, somewhat maliciously, that the main difference was his religion was a corrupt form of Christianity and ours a pure one.
This had no effect on him; he went on smoking and staring at the sky as if he hadn't heard me. Then he began again: "Now I know. These differences are nothing to me, and though I was curious to know what they were, they are not worth talking about, because, as I know, all religions are false."
"What did he mean—how did he know?" I asked, very much surprised.
"The priests tell us," he replied, "that we must believe and live a religious life in this world to be saved. Your priests tell you the same, and as there is no other world and we have no souls, all they say must be false. You see all this with your eyes," he continued, waving his hands to indicate the whole visible world. "And when you shut them or go blind you see no more. It is the same with our brains. We think of a thousand things and remember, and when the brain decays we forget everything, and we die, and everything dies with us. Have not the cattle eyes to see and brains to think and remember too? And when they die no priest tells us that they have a soul and have to go to purgatory, or wherever he likes to send them. Now, in return for what you told me, I've told you something you didn't know."
It came as a great shock to me to hear this. Hitherto I had thought that what was wrong with our native friends was that they believed too much, and this man—this good honest old gaucho we all respected— believed nothing! I tried to argue with him and told him he had said a dreadful thing, since every one knew in his heart that he had an immortal soul and had to be judged after death. He had distressed and even frightened me, but he went on calmly smoking and appeared not to be listening to me, and as he refused to speak I at last burst out: "How do you know? Why do you say you know?"
At last he spoke. "Listen. I was once a boy too, and I know that a boy of fourteen can understand things as well as a man. I was an only child, and my mother was a widow, and I was more than all the world to her, and she was more than everything else to me. We were alone together in the world—we two. Then she died, and what her loss was to me—how can I say it?—how could you understand? And after she was taken away and buried, I said: 'She is not dead, and wherever she now is, in heaven or in purgatory, or in the sun, she will remember and come to me and comfort me.' When it was dark I went out alone and sat at the end of the house, and spent hours waiting for her. 'She will surely come,' I said, 'but I don't know whether I shall see her or not. Perhaps it will be just a whisper in my ear, perhaps a touch of her hand on mine, but I shall know that she is with me.' And at last, worn out with waiting and watching, I went to my bed and said she will come to-morrow. And the next night and the next it was the same. Sometimes I would go up the ladder, always standing against the gable so that one could go up, and standing on the roof, look out over the plain and see where our horses were grazing. There I would sit or lie on the thatch for hours. And I would cry: 'Come to me, my mother! I cannot live without you! Come soon-come soon, before I die of a broken heart!' That was my cry every night, until worn out with my vigil I would go back to my room. And she never came, and at last I knew that she was dead and that we were separated for ever—that there is no life after death."
His story pierced me to the heart, and without another word I left him, but I succeeded in making myself believe that grief for his mother had made him mad, that as a boy he had got these delusions in his mind and had kept them all his life. Now this recollection haunted me. Then one day, with my mind in this troubled state, in reading George Combe's Physiology I came on a passage in which the question of the desire for immortality is discussed, his contention being that it is not universal, and as a proof of this he affirms that he himself had no such desire.
This came as a great shock to me, since up to the moment of reading it I had in my ignorance taken It for granted that the desire is inherent in every human being from the dawn of consciousness to the end of life, that it is our chief desire, and is an instinct of the soul like that physical instinct of the migratory bird which calls it annually from the most distant regions back to its natal home. I had also taken it for granted that our hope of immortality, or rather our belief in it, was founded on this same passion in us and in its universality. The fact that there were those who had no such desire was sufficient to show that it was no spiritual instinct or not of divine origin.
There were many more shocks of this kind—when I go back in memory to that sad time, it seems almost incredible to me that that poor doubtful faith in revealed religion still survived, and that the struggle still went on, but go on it certainly did.
To many of my readers, to all who have interested themselves in the history of religion and its effect on individual minds—its psychology—all I have written concerning my mental condition at that period, will come as a twice-told tale, since thousands and millions of men have undergone similar experiences and have related them in numberless books. And here I must beg my reader to bear in mind that in the days of my youth we had not yet fallen into the indifference and scepticism which now infects the entire Christian world. In those days people still believed; and here in England, in the very centre and mind of the world, many thousands of miles from my rude wilderness, the champions of the Church were in deadly conflict with the Evolutionists. I knew nothing about all that: I had no modern books—those we had were mostly about a hundred years old. My fight up to this period was all on the old lines, and on this account I have related it as briefly as possible; but it had to be told, since it comes into the story of the development of my mind at that period. I have no doubt that my sufferings through these religious experiences were far greater than in the majority of cases, and this for the special reason which I have already intimated.
LOSS AND GAIN
The soul's loneliness—My mother and her death-A mother's love for her son—Her character-Anecdotes-A mystery and a revelation—The autumnal migration of birds—Moonlight vigils—My absent brother's return—He introduces me to Darwin's works—A new philosophy of life—Conclusion.
The mournful truth that a man—every man-must die alone, had been thrust sharply into my mind and kept there by the frequent violent attacks of my malady I suffered at that time, every one of which threatened to be the last. And this sense and apprehension of loneliness at the moment of the severance of all earthly ties and parting with light and life, was perhaps the cause of the idea or notion which possessed me, that in all our most intimate thoughts and reflections concerning our destiny and our deepest emotions, we are and must be alone. Anyhow, in so far as these matters are concerned, I never had nor desired a confidant. In this connection I recall the last words spoken to me by my younger brother, the being I loved best on earth at that time and the one I had been more intimate with than with any other person I have ever known. This was after the dark days and years had been overpass, when I had had long periods of fairly good health and had known happiness in the solitary places I loved to haunt, communing with wild nature, with wild birds for company.
He was with me in the ship in which I had taken my passage "home," as I insisted on calling England, to his amusement, and when we had grasped hands for the last time and had said our last good-bye, he added this one more last word: "Of all the people I have ever known you are the only one I don't know."
It was a word, I imagine, never spoken by a mother of a loved son, her insight, born of her exceeding love, being so much greater than that of the closest friend and brother. I never breathed a word of my doubts and mental agonizing to my mother; I spoke to her only of my bodily sufferings; yet she knew it all, and I knew that she knew. And because she knew and understood the temper of my mind as well, she never questioned, never probed, but invariably when alone with me she would with infinite tenderness in her manner touch on spiritual things and tell me of her own state, the consolations of her faith which gave her peace and strength in all our reverses and anxieties.
I knew, too, that her concern at my state was the greater because it was not her first experience of a trouble of this kind. My elder long- absent brother had scarcely ceased to be a boy before throwing off all belief in the Christian creed and congratulating himself on having got rid of old wives' fables, as he scornfully expressed it. But never a word did he say to her of this change, and without a word she knew it, and when she spoke to us on the subject nearest to her heart and he listened in respectful silence, she knew the thought and feeling—that was in him-that he loved her above everybody but was free of her creed.
He had been able to cast it off with a light heart because of his perfect health, since in that condition death is not in the mind—the mind refuses to admit the thought of it, so remote is it in that state that we regard ourselves as practically immortal. And, untroubled by that thought, the mind is clear and vigorous and unfettered. What, I have asked myself, even when striving after faith, would faith in another world have mattered to me if I had not been suddenly sentenced to an early death, when the whole desire of my soul was life, nothing but life—to live for ever!
Then my mother died. Her perfect health failed her suddenly, and her decline was not long. But she suffered much, and on the last occasion of my being with her at her bedside she told me that she was very tired and had no fear of death, and would be glad to go but for the thought of leaving me in such a precarious state of health and with a mind distressed. Even then she put no questions to me, but only expressed the hope that her prayers for me would be answered and that at the last we should be together again.
I cannot say, as I might say in the case of any other relation or friend, that I had lost her. A mother's love for the child of her body differs essentially from all other affections, and burns with so clear and steady a flame that it appears like the one unchangeable thing in this earthly mutable life, so that when she is no longer present it is still a light to our steps and a consolation.
It came to me as a great surprise a few years ago to have my secret and most cherished feelings about my own mother expressed to me as I had never heard them expressed before by a friend who, albeit still young, has made himself a name in the world, one who had never known a mother, she having died during his infancy. He lamented that it had been so, not only on account of the motherless childhood and boyhood he had known, but chiefly because in after life it was borne in on him that he had been deprived of something infinitely precious which others have—the enduring and sustaining memory of a love which is unlike any other love known to mortals, and is almost a sense and prescience of immortality.
In reading, nothing goes to my heart like any true account of a mother and son's love for one another, such as we find in that true book I have already spoken of in a former chapter, Serge Aksakoff's History of my Childhood. Of other books I may cite Leigh Hunt's Autobiography in the early chapters. Reading the incidents he records of his mother's love and pity for all in trouble and her self- sacrificing acts, I have exclaimed: "How like my mother! It is just how she would have acted!" I will give an instance here of her loving- kindness.
Some days after her death I had occasion to go to the house of one of our native neighbours—the humble rancho of poor people. It was not in my mind at the moment that I had not seen these people since my mother died, and on coming into the living-room the old mother of the family, who had grandchildren of my age, rose from her seat with tottering steps to meet me, and taking my hand in hers, with tears streaming from her eyes, cried: "She has left us! She who called me mother on account of my years and her loving heart. It was she who was my mother and the mother of us all. What shall we do without her?"
Only after going out and getting on my horse it occurred to me that the old woman's memory went back to the time when she first knew my mother, a girl-wife, many years before I was born. She could remember numerous acts of love and compassion: that when one of her daughters died in childbirth in that very house, my mother, who was just then nursing me, went to give them whatever aid and comfort she could, and finding the child alive, took it home and nursed it, with me, at her own breasts for several days until a nurse was found.
From the time when I began to think for myself I used to wonder at her tolerance; for she was a saint in her life, spiritually-minded in the highest degree. To her, a child of New England parents and ancestors, reared in an intensely religious atmosphere, the people of the pampas among whom her lot was cast must have appeared almost like the inhabitants of another world. They were as strange to her soul, morally and spiritually, as they were unlike her own people outwardly in language, dress, and customs. Yet she was able to affiliate with them, to visit and sit at ease with them in their lowliest ranches, interesting herself as much in their affairs as if she belonged to them. This sympathy and freedom endeared her to them, and it was a grief to some who were much attached to her that she was not of their faith. She was a Protestant, and what that exactly meant they didn't know, but they supposed it was something very bad. Protestants, some of them held, had been concerned in the crucifixion of the Saviour; at all events, they would not go to mass or confessional, and despised the saints, those glorified beings who, under the Queen of Heaven, and with the angels, were the guardians of Christian souls in this life and their intercessors in the next. They were anxious to save her, and when I was born, the same old dame I have told about a page or two back, finding that I had come into the world on St. Dominic's Day, set herself to persuade my mother to name me after that saint, that being the religious custom of the country. For if they should succeed in this it would be taken as a sign of grace, that she was not a despiser of the saints and her case hopeless. But my mother had already fixed on a name for me and would not change it for another, even to please her poor neighbours—certainly not for such a name as Dominic; perhaps there is not one in the calendar more obnoxious to heretics of all denominations.
They were much hurt-it was the only hurt she ever caused them-and the old dame and some of her people, who had thought the scheme too good to be dropped altogether, insisted always on calling me Dominic!
My mother's sympathy and love for everybody appeared, too, in the hospitality she delighted to exercise. That, indeed, was the common virtue of the country, especially in the native population; but from all my experience during my wanderings on these great plains in subsequent years, when every night would find me a guest in a different establishment, I never saw anything quite on a par with my parents' hospitality. Nothing seemed to make them happier than having strangers and travellers taking their rest with us; there were also a good number of persons who were accustomed to make periodical visits to the city from the southern part of the province who, after a night with us, with perhaps half a day's rest to follow, would make our house a regular resting-place. But no distinctions were made. The poorest, even men who would be labelled tramps in England, travellers on foot perhaps where cattle made it dangerous to be on foot, would be made as welcome as those of a better class. Our delight as children, loving fun too well, was when we had a guest of this humble description at the supper-table. Settling down in our places at the long table laden with good things, a stern admonitory glance from our father would let us into the secret of the new guest's status—his unsuitability to his surroundings. It was great fun to watch him furtively and listen to his blundering conversational efforts, but we knew that the least sound of a titter on our part would have been an unpardonable offence. The poor and more uncouth, or ridiculous, from our childish point of view, they appeared, the more anxious my mother would be to put them at their ease. And she would sometimes say to us afterwards that she could not laugh with us because she remembered the poor fellow probably had a mother somewhere in a distant country who was perhaps thinking of him at the very time he was at the table with us, and hoping and praying that in his wanderings he would meet with some who would be kind to him.
I remember many of these chance guests, and will give a particular account of one—the guest and the evening we passed in his company—as this survives with a peculiar freshness in my memory, and it was also a cherished recollection of my mother's.
I was then nine or ten years old, and our guest was a young Spanish gentleman, singularly handsome, with a most engaging expression and manner. He was on a journey from Buenos Ayres to a part in our province some sixty or seventy leagues further south, and after asking permission to pass the night at our house, he explained that he had only one horse, as he liked that way of travelling rather than the native way of driving a tropilla before him, going at a furious gallop from dawn to dark, and changing horses every three or four leagues. Having but one horse, he had to go in a leisurely way with many rests, and he liked to call at many houses every day just to talk with the people.
After supper, during which he charmed us with his conversation and pure Castilian, which was like music as he spoke it, we formed a circle before a wood fire in the dining-room and made him take the middle seat. For he had confessed that he performed on the guitar, and we all wanted to sit where we could see as well as listen. He tuned the instrument in a leisurely way, pausing often to continue the conversation with my parents, until at last, seeing how eager we all were, he began to play, and his music and style were strange to us, for he had no jigging tunes with fantastic flights and flourishes so much affected by our native guitarists. It was beautiful but serious music.
Then came another long pause and he talked again, and said the pieces he had been playing were composed by his chief favourite, Sarasate. He said that Sarasate had been one of the most famous guitarists in Spain, and had composed a good deal of music for the guitar before he had given it up for the violin. As a violinist he would win a European reputation, but in Spain they were sorry that he had abandoned the national instrument.
All he said was interesting, but we wanted more and more of his music, and he played less and less and at longer intervals, and at last he put the guitar down, and turning to my parents, said with a smile that he begged to be excused—that he could play no more for thinking. He owed it to them, he said, to tell them what he was thinking about; they would then know how much they had done for his pleasure that evening and how he appreciated it. He was, he continued, one of a large family, very united, all living with their parents at home; and in winter, which was cold in his part of Spain, their happiest time was in the evening when they would gather before a big fire of oak logs in their solar and pass the time with books and conversation and a little music and singing. Naturally, since he had left his country years ago, the thought of that time and those evenings had occasionally been in his mind—a passing thought and memory. On this evening it had come in a different way, less like a memory than a revival of the past, so that as he sat there among us, he was a boy back in Spain once more, sitting by the fire with his brothers and sisters and parents. With that feeling in him he could not go on playing. And he thought it most strange that such an experience should have come to him for the first time in that place out on that great naked pampa, sparsely inhabited, where life was so rough, so primitive.
And while he talked we all listened—how eagerly!—drinking in his words, especially my mother, her eyes bright with the moisture rising in them; and she often afterwards recalled that evening guest, who was seen no more by us but had left an enduring image in our hearts.
This is a picture of my mother as she appeared to all who knew her. In my individual case there was more, a secret bond of union between us, since she best understood my feeling for Nature and sense of beauty, and recognized that in this I was nearest to her. Thus, besides and above the love of mother and son, we had a spiritual kinship, and this was so much to me that everything beautiful in sight or sound that affected me came associated with her to my mind. I have found this feeling most perfectly expressed in some lines to the Snowdrop by our lost poet, Dolben. I am in doubt, he wrote,
If summer brings a flower so lovable Of such a meditative restfulness As this, with all her roses and carnations. The morning hardly stirs their noiseless bells; Yet could I fancy that they whispered "Home," For all things gentle, all things beautiful, I hold, my mother, for a part of thee.
So have I held. All things beautiful, but chiefly flowers. Her feeling for them was little short of adoration. Her religious mind appeared to regard them as little voiceless messengers from the Author of our beings and of Nature, or as divine symbols of a place and a beauty beyond our power to imagine.
I think it likely that when Dolben penned those lines to the Snowdrop it was in his mind that this was one of his mother's favourites. My mother had her favourites too; not the roses and carnations in our gardens, but mostly among the wild flowers growing on the pampas— flowers which I never see in England. But I remember them, and if by some strange chance I should find myself once more in that distant region, I should go out in search of them, and seeing them again, feel that I was communing with her spirit.
These memories of my mother are a relief to me in recalling that melancholy time, the years of my youth that were wasted and worse, considering their effect and that the very thought of that period, which is to others the fullest, richest, and happiest in life, has always been painful to me. Yet to it I am now obliged to return for the space of two or three pages to relate how I eventually came out of it.
My case was not precisely like that of Cooper's Castaway, but rather like that of a fugitive from his ship on some tropical coast who, on swimming to the shore, finds himself in a mangrove swamp, waist-deep in mire, tangled in rope-like roots, straining frantically to escape his doom.
I have told how after my fifteenth anniversary, when I first began to reflect seriously on my future life, the idea still persisted that my perpetual delight in Nature was nothing more than a condition or phase of my child's and boy's mind, and would inevitably fade out in time. I might have guessed at an earlier date that this was a delusion, since the feeling had grown in strength with the years, but it was only after I took to reading at the beginning of my sixteenth year that I discovered its true character. One of the books I read then for the first time was White's Selborne, given to me by an old friend of our family, a merchant in Buenos Ayres, who had been accustomed to stay a week or two with us once a year when he took his holiday. He had been on a visit to Europe, and one day, he told me, when in London on the eve of his departure, he was in a bookshop, and seeing this book on the counter and glancing at a page or two, it occurred to him that it was just the right thing to get for that bird-loving boy out on the pampas. I read and re-read it many times, for nothing so good of its kind had ever come to me, but it did not reveal to me the secret of my own feeling for Nature—the feeling of which I was becoming more and more conscious, which was a mystery to me, especially at certain moments, when it would come upon me with a sudden rush. So powerful it was, so unaccountable, I was actually afraid of it, yet I would go out of my way to seek it. At the hour of sunset I would go out half a mile or so from the house, and sitting on the dry grass with hands clasped round my knees, gaze at the western sky, waiting for it to take me. And I would ask myself: What does it mean? But there was no answer to that in any book concerning the "life and conversation of animals." I found it in other works: in Brown's Philosophy—another of the ancient tomes on our shelves—and in an old volume containing appreciations of the early nineteenth-century poets; also in other works. They did not tell me in so many words that it was the mystical faculty in me which produced those strange rushes or bursts of feeling and lifted me out of myself at moments; but what I found in their words was sufficient to show me that the feeling of delight in Nature was an enduring one, that others had known it, and that it had been a secret source of happiness throughout their lives.
This revelation, which in other circumstances would have made me exceedingly happy, only added to my misery when, as it appeared, I had only a short time to live. Nature could charm, she could enchant me, and her wordless messages to my soul were to me sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, but she could not take the sting and victory from death, and I had perforce to go elsewhere for consolation. Yet even so, in my worst days, my darkest years, when occupied with the laborious business of working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, with that spectre of death always following me, even so I could not rid my mind of its old passion and delight. The rising and setting sun, the sight of a lucid blue sky after cloud and rain, the long unheard familiar call-note of some newly-returned migrant, the first sight of some flower in spring, would bring back the old emotion and would be like a sudden ray of sunlight in a dark place—a momentary intense joy, to be succeeded by ineffable pain. Then there were times when these two opposite feelings mingled and would be together in my mind for hours at a time, and this occurred oftenest during the autumnal migration, when the great wave of bird-life set northwards, and all through March and April the birds were visible in flock succeeding flock from dawn to dark, until the summer visitants were all gone, to be succeeded in May by the birds from the far south, flying from the Antarctic winter.
This annual spectacle had always been a moving one, but the feeling it now produced—this mingled feeling—was most powerful on still moonlight nights, when I would sit or lie on my bed gazing out on the prospect, earth and sky, in its changed mysterious aspect. And, lying there, I would listen by the hour to the three-syllable call-note of the upland or solitary plover, as the birds went past, each bird alone far up in the dim sky, winging his way to the north. It was a strange vigil I kept, stirred by strange thoughts and feelings, in that moonlit earth that was strange too, albeit familiar, for never before had the sense of the supernatural in Nature been stronger. And the bird I listened to, that same solitary plover I had known and admired from my earliest years, the most graceful of birds, beautiful to see and hear when it would spring up before my horse with its prolonged wild bubbling cry of alarm and go away with swift, swallow-like flight—what intensity and gladness of life was in it, what a wonderful inherited knowledge in its brain, and what an inexhaustible vigour in its slender frame to enable it to perform that annual double journey of upwards of ten thousand miles! What a joy it would be to live for ages in a world of such fascinating phenomena! If some great physician, wise beyond all others, infallible, had said to me that all my doctors had been wrong, that, barring accidents, I had yet fifty years to live, or forty, or even thirty, I should have worshipped him and would have counted myself the happiest being on the globe, with so many autumns and winters and springs and summers to see yet.
With these supernatural moonlight nights I finish the story of that dark time, albeit the darkness had not yet gone; to have recalled it and related it briefly as I could once in my life is enough. Let me now go back to the simile of the lost wretch struggling for life in the mangrove swamp. The first sense of having set my foot on a firmer place in that slough of fetid slime, of a wholesome breath of air blown to me from outside the shadow of the black abhorred forest, was when I began to experience intervals of relief from physical pain, when these grew more and more frequent and would extend to entire days, then to weeks, and for a time I would become oblivious of my precarious state. I was still and for a long time subject to attacks, when the pain was intolerable and was like steel driven into my heart, always followed by violent palpitations, which would last for hours. But I found that exercise on foot or horseback made me no worse, and I became more and more venturesome, spending most of my time out of doors, although often troubled with the thought that my passion for Nature was a hindrance to me, a turning aside from the difficult way I had been striving to keep.
Then my elder brother returned, an event of the greatest importance in my life; and as he had not been expected so soon, I was for a minute in doubt that this strange visitor could be my brother, so greatly had he altered in appearance in those five long years of absence, which had seemed like an age to me. He had left us as a smooth-faced youth, with skin tanned to such a deep colour that with his dark piercing eyes and long black hair he had looked to me more like an Indian than a white man. Now his skin was white, and he had grown a brown beard and moustache. In disposition, too, he had grown more genial and tolerant, but I soon discovered that in character he had not changed.
As soon as an opportunity came he began to interrogate and cross- question me as to my mind—life and where I stood, and expressed himself surprised to hear that I still held to the creed in which we had been reared. How, he demanded, did I reconcile these ancient fabulous notions with the doctrine of evolution? What effect had Darwin produced on me? I had to confess that I had not read a line of his work, that with the exception of Draper's History of Civilisation, which had come by chance in my way, I had during all those five years read nothing but the old books which had always been on our shelves. He said he knew Draper's History, and it was not the sort of book for me to read at present. I wanted a different history, with animals as well as men in it. He had a store of books with him, and would lend me the Origin of Species to begin with.
When I had read and returned the book, and he was eager to hear my opinion, I said it had not hurt me in the least, since Darwin had to my mind only succeeded in disproving his own theory with his argument from artificial selection. He himself confessed that no new species had ever been produced in that way.
That, he said in reply, was the easy criticism that any one who came to the reading in a hostile spirit would make. They would fasten on that apparently weak point and not pay much attention to the fact that it is fairly met and answered in the book. When he first read the book it convinced him; but he had come to it with an open mind and I with a prejudiced mind on account of my religious ideas. He advised me to read it again, to read and consider it carefully with the sole purpose of getting at the truth. "Take it," he said, "and read it again in the right way for you to read it—as a naturalist."
He had been surprised that I, an ignorant boy or youth on the pampas, had ventured to criticise such a work. I, on my side, had been equally surprised at his quiet way of reasoning with me, with none of the old scornful spirit flaming out. He was gentle with me, knowing that I had suffered much, and was not free yet.
I read it again in the way he had counselled, and then refused to think any more on the subject. I was sick of thinking. Like the wretch who long has tossed upon the thorny bed of pain, I only wanted to repair my vigour lost and breathe and walk again. To be on horseback, galloping over the green pampas, in sun and wind. For after all it was only a reprieve, not a commutation of sentence—though one of a kind unknown in the Courts, in which the condemned man is allowed out on bail. My pardon was not received until a few years later. I returned with a new wonderful zest to my old sports, shooting and fishing, and would spend days and weeks from home, sometimes staying with old gaucho friends and former neighbours at their ranches, attending cattle-markings and partings, dances, and other gatherings, and also made longer expeditions to the southern and western frontiers of the province, living out of doors for months at a time.
Despite my determination to put the question off, my mind, or sub- conscious mind, like a dog with a bone which it refuses to drop in defiance of its master's command, went on revolving it. It went to bed and got up with me, and was with me the day long, and whenever I had a still interval, when I would pull up my horse to sit motionless watching some creature, bird or beast or snake, or sat on the ground poring over some insect occupied with the business of its little life, I would become conscious of the discussion and argument going on. And every creature I watched, from the great soaring bird circling in the sky at a vast altitude to the little life at my feet, was brought into the argument, and was a type, representing a group marked by a family likeness not only in figure and colouring and language, but in mind as well, in habits and the most trivial traits and tricks of gesture and so on; the entire group in its turn related to another group, and to others, still further and further away, the likeness growing less and less. What explanation was possible but that of community of descent? How incredible it appeared that this had not been seen years ago—yes, even before it was discovered that the world was round and was one of a system of planets revolving round the sun. All this starry knowledge was of little or no importance compared to that of our relationship with all the infinitely various forms of life that share the earth with us. Yet it was not till the second half of the nineteenth century that this great, almost self-evident truth had won a hearing in the world!
No doubt this is a common experience: no sooner has the inquirer been driven to accept a new doctrine than it takes complete possession of his mind, and has not then the appearance of a strange and unwelcome guest, but rather that of a familiar friendly one, and is like a long- established housemate. I suppose the explanation is that when we throw open the doors to the new importunate visitor, it is virtually a ceremony, since the real event has been already accomplished, the guest having stolen in by some other way and made himself at home in the sub-conscious mind. Insensibly and inevitably I had become an evolutionist, albeit never wholly satisfied with natural selection as the only and sufficient explanation of the change in the forms of life. And again, insensibly and inevitably, the new doctrine has led to modifications of the old religious ideas and eventually to a new and simplified philosophy of life. A good enough one so far as this life is concerned, but unhappily it takes no account of another, a second and perdurable life without change of personality.
This subject has been much in men's minds during the past two or three dreadful years, often reminding me of that shock I received as a boy of fourteen at the old gaucho's bitter story of his soul; I have also again been reminded of the theory in which that younger and greatly- loved brother of mine was able to find comfort. He had become deeply religious, and after much reading in Herbert Spencer and other modern philosophers and evolutionists, he told me he thought it was idle for Christians to fight against the argument of the materialists that the mind is a function of the brain. Undoubtedly it was that, and our mental faculties perished with the brain; but we had a soul that was imperishable as well. He knew it, which meant that he too was a mystic, and being wholly preoccupied with religion, his mystical faculty found its use and exercise there. At all events, his notion served to lift him over his difficulties and to get him out of his mangrove swamp—a way perhaps less impossible than the one recently pointed out by William James.
Thus I came out of the contest a loser, but as a compensation had the knowledge that my physicians were false prophets; that, barring accidents, I could count on thirty, forty, even fifty years with their summers and autumns and winters. And that was the life I desired— the life the heart can conceive—the earth life. When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it, or that they look with equanimity to its end, I am apt to think they have never been properly alive nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it—not a blade of grass. Only I know that mine is an exceptional case, that the visible world is to me more beautiful and interesting than to most persons, that the delight I experienced in my communing with Nature did not pass away, leaving nothing but a recollection of vanished happiness to intensify a present pain. The happiness was never lost, but owing to that faculty I have spoken of, had a cumulative effect on the mind and was mine again, so that in my worst times, when I was compelled to exist shut out from Nature in London for long periods, sick and poor and friendless, I could yet always feel that it was infinitely better to be than not to be.