Reflecting on what I suffered, then, I cannot find any solid ground for it, and yet there are not half-a-dozen days or nights of my life which remain with me like that one. I was beside myself with a kind of terror, which I cannot further explain. It is possible for another person to understand grief for the death of a friend, bodily suffering, or any emotion which has a distinct cause, but how shall he understand the worst of all calamities, the nameless dread, the efflux of all vitality, the ghostly, haunting horror which is so nearly akin to madness?
It is many years ago since that evening, but while I write I am at the window still, and the yellow flare of the city is still in my eyes. I remember the thought of all the happy homes which lay around me, in which dwelt men who had found a position, an occupation, and, above all things, affection. I know the causelessness of a good deal of all those panic fears and all that suffering, but I tremble to think how thin is the floor on which we stand which separates us from the bottomless abyss.
The next morning I went down into the schoolroom, and after I had been there for some little time, the proprietor of the school made his appearance. He was not a bad man, nor even unkind in his way, but he was utterly uninteresting, and as commonplace as might be expected after having for many years done nothing but fight a very uphill battle in boarding the sons of tradesfolk, and teaching them, at very moderate rates, the elements of Latin, and the various branches of learning which constitute what is called a commercial education. He said that he expected some of the boys back that day; that when they came, he should wish me to take my meals with them, but that meanwhile he would be glad if I would breakfast with him and his wife. This accordingly I did. What his wife was like I have almost entirely forgotten, and I only saw her once again. After breakfast he said I could go for a walk, and for a walk I went; wandering about the dreary, intermingled chaos of fields with damaged hedges, and new roads divided into building plots.
Meanwhile one or two of the boys had made their appearance, and I therefore had my dinner with them. After dinner, as there was nothing particular to do, I was again dismissed with them for a walk just as the light of the winter afternoon was fading. My companions were dejected, and so was I! The wind was south-easterly, cold, and raw, and the smoke came up from the region about the river and shrouded all the building plots in fog. I was now something more than depressed. It was absolutely impossible to endure such a state of things any longer, and I determined that, come what might, I would not stop. I considered whether I should leave without saying a word—that is to say, whether I should escape, but I feared pursuit and some unknown legal proceedings.
When I got home, therefore, I sought the principal, and informed him that I felt so unwell that I was afraid I must throw up my engagement at once. He naturally observed that this was a serious business for him; that my decision was very hasty—what was the matter with me? I might get better; but he concluded, after my reiterated asseverations that I must go, with a permission to resign, only on one condition, that I should obtain an equally efficient substitute at the same salary. I was more agitated than ever. With my natural tendency to believe the worst, I had not the least expectation of finding anybody who would release me.
The next morning I departed on my errand. I knew a poor student who had been at college with me, and who had nothing to do, and to him I betook myself. I strove—as even now I firmly believe—not to make the situation seem any better than it was, and he consented to take it. I have no clear recollection of anything that happened till the following day, excepting that I remember with all the vividness of actual and present sensuous perception lugging my box down the ladder and sending for a cab. I was in a fever lest anything should arrest me, but the cab came, and I departed. When I had got fairly clear of the gates, I literally cried tears of joy—the first and the last of my life. I am constrained now, however, to admit that my trouble was but a bubble blown of air, and I doubt whether I have done any good by dwelling upon it.
CHAPTER IX—OXFORD STREET
Until I had actually left, I hardly knew where I was going, but at last I made up my mind I would go to Reuben Shapcott, another fellow- student, whom I knew to be living in lodgings in one of the streets just then beginning to creep over the unoccupied ground between Camden Town and Haverstock Hill, near the Chalk Farm turnpike gate. To his address I betook myself, and found him not at home. He, like me, had been unsuccessful as a minister, and wrote a London letter for two country papers, making up about 100 or 120 pounds a year by preaching occasionally in small Unitarian chapels in the country. I waited till his return, and told him my story. He advised me to take a bed in the house where he was staying, and to consider what could be done.
At first I thought I would consult Mardon, but I could not bring myself to go near him. How was I to behave in Mary's presence? During the last few months she had been so continually before me, that it would have been absolutely impossible for me to treat her with assumed indifference. I could not have trusted myself to attempt it. When I had been lying alone and awake at night, I had thought of all the endless miles of hill and valley that lay outside my window, separating me from the one house in which I could be at peace; and at times I scarcely prevented myself from getting up and taking the mail train and presenting myself at Mardon's door, braving all consequences. With the morning light, however, would come cooler thoughts and a dull sense of impossibility.
This, I know, was not pure love for her; it was a selfish passion for relief. But then I have never known what is meant by a perfectly pure love. When Christian was in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and, being brought to the mouth of hell, was forced to put up his sword, and could do no other than cry, O Lord, I beseech Thee, deliver my soul, he heard a voice going before him and saying, Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear none ill, for Thou art with me. And by and by the day broke. "Then," said Christian, "He hath turned the Shadow of Death into morning. Whereupon Christian sang -
"Oh, world of wonders! (I can say no less) That I should be preserved in that distress That I have met with here! Oh, blessed be That hand that from it hath delivered me!"
This was Christian's love for God, and for God as his helper. Was that perfectly pure? However, this is a digression. I determined to help myself in my own way, and thought I would try the publishers. One morning I walked from Camden Town to Paternoster Row. I went straightway into two or three shops and asked whether they wanted anybody. I was ready to do the ordinary work it of a publisher's assistant, and aspired no higher. I met with several refusals, some of them not over-polite, and the degradation—for so I felt it—of wandering through the streets and suing for employment cut me keenly. I remember one man in particular, who spoke to me with the mechanical brutality with which probably he replied to a score of similar applications every week. He sat in a little glass box at the end of a long dark room lighted with gas. It was a bitterly cold room, with no contrivances for warming it, but in his box there was a fire burning for his own special benefit. He surveyed all his clerks unceasingly, and woe betide the unhappy wretch who was caught idling. He and his slaves reminded me of a thrashing-machine which is worked by horses walking round in a ring, the driver being perched on a high stool in the middle and armed with a long whip.
While I was waiting his pleasure he came out and spoke to one or two of his miserable subordinates words of directest and sharpest rebuke, without anger or the least loss of self-possession, and yet without the least attempt to mitigate their severity. I meditated much upon him. If ever I had occasion to rebuke anybody, I always did it apologetically, unless I happened to be in a flaming passion—and this was my habit, not from any respectable motive of consideration for the person rebuked, but partly because I am timid, and partly because I shrink from giving pain. This man said with perfect ease what I could not have said unless I had been wrought up to white heat. With all my dislike to him, I envied him: I envied his complete certainty; for although his language was harsh in the extreme, he was always sure of his ground, and the victim upon whom his lash descended could never say that he had given absolutely no reason for the chastisement, and that it was altogether a mistake. I envied also his ability to make himself disagreeable and care nothing about it; his power to walk in his own path, and his resolve to succeed, no matter what the cost might be.
As I left him, it occurred to me that I might be more successful perhaps with a publisher of whom I had heard, who published and sold books of a sceptical turn. To him I accordingly went, and although I had no introductions or recommendatory letters, I was received, if not with a cordiality, at least with an interest which surprised me. He took me into a little back shop, and after hearing patiently what I wanted, he asked me somewhat abruptly what I thought of the miracles in the Bible. This was a curious question if he wished to understand my character; but his mind so constantly revolved in one circle, and existed so completely by hostility to the prevailing orthodoxy, that belief or disbelief in it was the standard by which he judged men. It was a very absurd standard doubtless, but no more absurd than many others, and not so absurd then as it would be now, when heresy is becoming more fashionable.
I explained to him as well as I could what my position was; that I did not suppose that the miracles actually happened as they are recorded, but that, generally speaking, the miracle was a very intense statement of a divine truth; in fact, a truth which was felt with a more than common intensity seemed to take naturally a miraculous expression. Hence, so far from neglecting the miraculous stories of the Bible as simply outside me, I rejoiced in them more, perhaps, than in the plain historical or didactic prose.
He seemed content, although hardly to comprehend, and the result was that he asked me if I would help him in his business. In order to do this, it would be more economical if I would live in his house, which was too big for him. He promised to give me 40 pounds a year, in addition to board and lodging. I joyously assented, and the bargain was struck.
The next day I came to my new quarters. I found that he was a bachelor, with a niece, apparently about four or five and twenty years old, acting as a housekeeper, who assisted him in literary work. My own room was at the top of the house, warm, quiet, and comfortable, although the view was nothing but a wide reaching assemblage of chimney-pots. My hours were long—from nine in the morning till seven in the evening; but this I did not mind. I felt that if I was not happy, I was at least protected, and that I was with a man who cared for me, and for whom I cared. The first day I went there, he said that I could have a fire in my bedroom whenever I chose, so that I could always retreat to it when I wished to be by myself. As for my duties, I was to sell his books, keep his accounts, read proofs, run errands, and in short do just what he did himself.
After my first morning's work we went upstairs to dinner, and I was introduced to "my niece Theresa." I was rather surprised that I should have been admitted to a house in which there lived a young woman with no mother nor aunt, but this surprise ceased when I came to know more of Theresa and her uncle. She had yellowish hair which was naturally waved, a big arched head, greyish-blue eyes, so far as I could make out, and a mouth which, although it had curves in it, was compressed and indicative of great force of character. She was rather short, with square shoulders, and she had a singularly vigorous, firm walk. She had a way, when she was not eating or drinking, of sitting back in her chair at table and looking straight at the person with whom she was talking.
Her uncle, whom, by the way, I had forgotten to name—his name was Wollaston—happened to know some popular preacher whom I knew, and I said that I wondered so many people went to hear him, for I believed him to be a hypocrite, and hypocrisy was one of the easiest of crimes to discover. Theresa, who had hitherto been silent, and was reclining in her usual attitude, instantly broke out with an emphasis and directness which quite startled me.
"The easiest to discover, do you think, Mr. Rutherford? I think it is the most difficult, at least for ordinary persons; and when they do discover it, I believe they like it, especially if it is successful. They like the sanction it gives to their own hypocrisy. They like a man to come to them who will say to them, 'We are all hypocrites together,' and who will put his finger to his nose and comfort them. Don't you think so yourself?"
In conversation I was always a bad hand at assuming a position contrary to the one assumed by the person to whom I might be talking—nor could I persistently maintain my own position if it happened to be opposed. I always rather tried to see as my opponent saw, and to discover how much there was in him with which I could sympathise. I therefore assented weakly to Theresa, and she seemed disappointed. Dinner was just over; she got up and rang the bell and went out of the room.
I found my work very hard, and some of it even loathsome. Particularly loathsome was that part of it which brought me into contact with the trade. I had to sell books to the booksellers' assistants, and I had to collect books myself. These duties are usually undertaken in large establishments by men specially trained, who receive a low rate of wages and who are rather a rough set. It was totally different work to anything I had ever had to do before, and I suffered as a man with soft hands would suffer who was suddenly called to be a blacksmith or a dock-labourer.
Specially, too, did I miss the country. London lay round me like a mausoleum. I got into the habit of rising very early in the morning and walking out to Kensington Gardens and back before breakfast, varying my route occasionally so as even to reach Battersea Bridge, which was always a favourite spot with me. Kensington Gardens and Battersea Bridge were poor substitutes for the downs, and for the level stretch by the river towards the sea where I first saw Mardon, but we make too much of circumstances, and the very pressure of London produced a sensibility to whatever loveliness could be apprehended there, which was absent when loveliness was always around me. The stars seen in Oxford Street late one night; a sunset one summer evening from Lambeth pier; and, above everything, Piccadilly very early one summer morning, abide with me still, when much that was more romantic has been forgotten. On the whole, I was not unhappy. The constant outward occupation prevented any eating of the heart or undue brooding over problems which were insoluble, at least for my intellect, and on that very account fascinated me the more.
I do not think that Wollaston cared much for me personally. He was a curious compound, materialistic yet impulsive, and for ever drawn to some new thing; without any love for anybody particularly, as far as I could see, and yet with much more general kindness and philanthropy than many a man possessing much stronger sympathies and antipathies. There was no holy of holies in him, into which one or two of the elect could occasionally be admitted and feel God to be there. He was no temple, but rather a comfortable, hospitable house open to all friends, well furnished with books and pictures, and free to every guest from garret to cellar. He had "liberal" notions about the relationship between the sexes. Not that he was a libertine, but he disbelieved in marriage, excepting for so long as husband and wife are a necessity to one another. If one should find the other uninteresting, or somebody else more interesting, he thought there ought to be a separation.
All this I soon learned from him, for he was communicative without any reserve. His treatment of his niece was peculiar. He would talk on all kinds of subjects before her, for he had a theory that she ought to receive precisely the same social training as men, and should know just what men knew. He was never coarse, but on the other hand he would say things to her in my presence which brought a flame into my face. What the evil consequences of this might be, I could not at once foresee, but one good result obviously was, that in his house there was nothing of that execrable practice of talking down to women; there was no change of level when women were present.
One day he began to speak about a novel which everybody was reading then, and I happened to say that I wished people who wrote novels would not write as if love were the very centre and sum of human existence. A man's life was made up of so much besides love, and yet novelists were never weary of repeating the same story, telling it over and over again in a hundred different forms.
"I do not agree with you," said Theresa. "I disagree with you utterly. I dislike foolish, inane sentiment—it makes me sick; but I do believe, in the first place, that no man was ever good for anything who has not been devoured, I was going to say, by a great devotion to a woman. The lives of your great men are as much the history of women whom they adored as of themselves. Dante, Byron, Shelley, it is the same with all of them, and there is no mistake about it; it is the great fact of life. What would Shakespeare be without it? and Shakespeare is life. A man, worthy to be named a man, will find the fact of love perpetually confronting him till he reaches old age, and if he be not ruined by worldliness or dissipation, will be troubled by it when he is fifty as much as when he was twenty-five. It is the subject of all subjects. People abuse love, and think it the cause of half the mischief in the world. It is the one thing that keeps the world straight, and if it were not for that overpowering instinct, human nature would fall asunder; would be the prey of inconceivable selfishness and vices, and finally, there would be universal suicide. I did not intend to be eloquent: I hate being eloquent. But you did not mean what you said; you spoke from the head or teeth merely."
Theresa's little speech was delivered not with any heat of the blood. There was no excitement in her grey eyes, nor did her cheek burn. Her brain seemed to rule everything. This was an idea she had, and she kindled over it because it was an idea. It was impossible, of course, that she should say what she did without some movement of the organ in her breast, but how much share this organ had in her utterances I never could make out. How much was due to the interest which she as a looker-on felt in men and women, and how much was due to herself as a woman, was always a mystery to me.
She was fond of music, and occasionally I asked her to play to me. She had a great contempt for bungling, and not being a professional player, she never would try a piece in my presence of which she was not perfectly master. She particularly liked to play Mozart, and on my asking her once to play a piece of Beethoven, she turned round upon me and said: "You like Beethoven best. I knew you would. He encourages a luxurious revelling in the incomprehensible and indefinably sublime. He is not good for you."
My work was so hard, and the hours were so long, that I had little or no time for reading, nor for thinking either, except so far as Wollaston and Theresa made me think. Wollaston himself took rather to science, although he was not scientific, and made a good deal of what he called psychology. He was not very profound, but he had picked up a few phrases, or if this word is too harsh, a few ideas about metaphysical matters from authors who contemned metaphysics, and with these he was perfectly satisfied. A stranger listening to him would at first consider him well read, but would soon be undeceived, and would find that these ideas were acquired long ago; that he had never gone behind or below them, and that they had never fructified in him, but were like hard stones, which he rattled in his pocket. He was totally unlike Mardon. Mardon, although he would have agreed with many of Wollaston's results, differed entirely from him in the processes by which they had been brought about; and a mental comparison of the two often told me what I had been told over and over again, that what we believe is not of so much importance as the path by which we travel to it.
Theresa too, like her uncle, eschewed metaphysics, but she was a woman, and a woman's impulses supplied in her the lack of those deeper questionings, and at times prompted them. She was far more original than he was, and was impatient of the narrowness of the circle in which he moved. Her love of music, for example, was a thing incomprehensible to him, and I do not remember that he ever sat for a quarter of an hour really listening to it. He would read the newspaper or do anything while she was playing. She never resented his inattention, except when he made a noise, and then, without any rebuke, she would break off and go away. This mode of treatment was the outcome of one of her theories. She disbelieved altogether in punishment, except when it was likely to do good, either to the person punished or to others. "A good deal of punishment," she used to say, "is mere useless pain."
Both Theresa and her uncle were kind and human, and I endeavoured to my utmost to repay them by working my hardest. My few hours of leisure were sweet, and when I spent them with Wollaston and Theresa, were interesting. I often asked myself why I found this mode of existence more tolerable than any other I had hitherto enjoyed. I had, it is true, an hour or two's unspeakable peace in the early morning, but, as I have said, at nine my toil commenced, and, with a very brief interval for meals, lasted till seven. After seven I was too tired to do anything by myself, and could only keep awake if I happened to be in company.
One reason certainly why I was content, was Theresa herself. She was a constant study to me, and I could not for a long time obtain any consistent idea of her. She was not a this or a that or the other. She could not be summarily dismissed into any ordinary classification. At first I was sure she was hard, but I found by the merest accident that nearly all her earnings were given with utmost secrecy to support a couple of poor relatives. Then I thought her self-conscious, but this, when I came to think upon it, seemed a mere word. She was one of those women, and very rare they are, who deal in ideas, and reflectiveness must be self-conscious. At times she appeared passionless, so completely did her intellect dominate, and so superior was she to all the little arts and weaknesses of women; but this was a criticism she contradicted continually.
There was very little society at the Wollastons', but occasionally a few friends called. One evening there was a little party, and the conversation flagged. Theresa said that it was a great mistake to bring people together with nothing special to do but talk. Nothing is more tedious than to be in a company assembled for no particular reason, and every host, if he asks more than two persons at the outside, ought to provide some entertainment. Talking is worth nothing unless it is perfectly spontaneous, and it cannot be spontaneous if there are sudden and blank silences, and nobody can think of a fresh departure. The master of the house is bound to do something. He ought to hire a Punch and Judy show, or get up a dance.
This spice of bitterness and flavour of rudeness was altogether characteristic of Theresa, and somebody resented it by reminding her that SHE was the hostess. "Of course," she replied, "that is why I said it: what shall I do?" One of her gifts was memory, and her friends cried out at once that she should recite something. She hesitated a little, and then throwing herself back in her chair, began The Lass of Lochroyan. At first she was rather diffident, but she gathered strength as she went on. There is a passage in the middle of the poem in which Lord Gregory's cruel mother pretends she is Lord Gregory, and refuses to recognise his former love, Annie of Lochroyan, as she stands outside his tower. The mother calls to Annie from the inside -
"Gin thou be Annie of Lochroyan (As I trow thou binna she), Now tell me some of the love tokens That passed between thee and me."
"Oh, dinna ye mind, Lord Gregory, As we sat at the wine, We changed the rings frae our fingers, And I can show thee thine?
"Oh, yours was gude, and gude enough, But aye the best was mine; For yours was o' the gude red gowd, BUT MINE O' THE DIAMOND FINE."
The last verse is as noble as anything in any ballad in the English language, and I thought that when Theresa was half way through it her voice shook a good deal. There was a glass of flowers standing near her, and just as she came to an end her arm moved and the glass was in a moment on the floor, shivered into twenty pieces. I happened to be watching her, and felt perfectly sure that the movement of her arm was not accidental, and that her intention was to conceal, by the apparent mishap, an emotion which was increasing and becoming inconvenient. At any rate, if that was her object it was perfectly accomplished, for the recitation was abruptly terminated, there was general commiseration over the shattered vase, and when the pieces were picked up. and order was restored, it was nearly time to separate.
Two of my chief failings were forgetfulness and a want of thoroughness in investigation. What misery have I not suffered from insufficient presentation of a case to myself, and from prompt conviction of insufficiency and inaccuracy by the person to whom I in turn presented it! What misery have I not suffered from the discovery that explicit directions to me had been overlooked or only half understood!
One day in particular, I had to take round a book to be "subscribed" which Wollaston had just published—that is to say, I had to take a copy to each of the leading booksellers to see how many they would purchase. Some books are sold "thirteen as twelve," the thirteenth book being given to the purchaser of twelve, and some are sold "twenty- five as twenty-four." This book was to be sold "twenty-five as twenty- four," according to Wollaston's orders. I subscribed it thirteen as twelve. Wollaston was annoyed, as I could see, for I had to go over all my work again, but in accordance with his fixed principles, he was not out of temper.
It so happened that that same day he gave me some business correspondence which I was to look through; and having looked through it, I was to answer the last letter in the sense which he indicated. I read the correspondence and wrote the letter for his signature. As soon as he saw it, he pointed out to me that I had only half mastered the facts, and that my letter was all wrong. This greatly disturbed me, not only because I had vexed him and disappointed him, but because it was renewed evidence of my weakness. I thought that if I was incapable of getting to the bottom of such a very shallow complication as this, of what value were any of my thinkings on more difficult subjects, and I fell a prey to self-contempt and scepticism. Contempt from those about us is hard to bear, but God help the poor wretch who contemns himself.
How well I recollect the early walk on the following morning in Kensington Gardens, the feeling of my own utter worthlessness, and the longing for death as the cancellation of the blunder of my existence! I went home, and after breakfast some proofs came from the printer of a pamphlet which Wollaston had in hand. Without unfastening them, he gave them to me, and said that as he had no time to read them himself, I must go upstairs to Theresa's study and read them off with her. Accordingly I went and began to read. She took the manuscript and I took the proof. She read about a page, and then she suddenly stopped. "Oh, Mr. Rutherford," she said, it, "what have you done? I heard my uncle distinctly tell you to mark on the manuscript when it went to the printer, that it was to be printed in demy octavo, and you have marked it twelvemo."
I had had little sleep that night, I was exhausted with my early walk, and suddenly the room seemed to fade from me and I fainted. When I came to myself, I found that Theresa had not sought for any help; she had done all that ought to be done. She had unfastened my collar and had sponged my face with cold water. The first thing I saw as I gradually recovered myself, was her eyes looking steadily at me as she stood over me, and I felt her hand upon my head. When she was sure I was coming to myself, she held off and sat down in her chair.
I was a little hysterical, and after the fit was over I broke loose. With a storm of tears, I laid open all my heart. I told her how nothing I had ever attempted had succeeded; that I had never even been able to attain that degree of satisfaction with myself and my own conclusions, without which a man cannot live; and that now I found I was useless, even to the best friends I had ever known, and that the meanest clerk in the city would serve them better than I did. I was beside myself, and I threw myself on my knees, burying my face in Theresa's lap and sobbing convulsively. She did not repel me, but she gently passed her fingers through my hair. Oh, the transport of that touch! It was as if water had been poured on a burnt hand, or some miraculous Messiah had soothed the delirium of a fever-stricken sufferer, and replaced his visions of torment with dreams of Paradise.
She gently lifted me up, and as I rose I saw her eyes too were wet. "My poor friend," she said, "I cannot talk to you now. You are not strong enough, and for that matter, nor am I, but let me say this to you, that you are altogether mistaken about yourself. The meanest clerk in the city could not take your place here." There was just a slight emphasis I thought upon the word "here." "Now" she said, "you had better go. I will see about the pamphlet."
I went out mechanically, and I anticipate my story so far as to say that, two days after, another proof came in the proper form. I went to the printer to offer to pay for setting it up afresh, and was told that Miss Wollaston had been there and had paid herself for the rectification of the mistake, giving special injunctions that no notice of it was to be given to her uncle. I should like to add one more beatitude to those of the gospels and to say, Blessed are they who heal us of self-despisings. Of all services which can be done to man, I know of none more precious.
When I went back to my work I worshipped Theresa, and was entirely overcome with unhesitating, absorbing love for her. I saw no thing more of her that day nor the next day. Her uncle told me that she had gone into the country, and that probably she would not return for some time, as she had purposed paying a lengthened visit to a friend at a distance. I had a mind to write to her; but I felt as I have often felt before in great crises, a restraint which was gentle and incomprehensible, but nevertheless unmistakable. I suppose it is not what would be called conscience, as conscience is supposed to decide solely between right and wrong, but it was none the less peremptory, although its voice was so soft and low that it might easily have been overlooked. Over and over again, when I have purposed doing a thing, have I been impeded or arrested by this same silent monitor, and never have I known its warnings to be the mere false alarms of fancy.
After a time, the thought of Mary recurred to me. I was distressed to find that, in the very height of my love for Theresa, my love for Mary continued unabated. Had it been otherwise, had my affection for Mary grown dim, I should not have been so much perplexed, but it did not. It may be ignominious to confess it, but so it was; I simply record the fact.
I had not seen Mardon since that last memorable evening at his house, but one day as I was sitting in the shop, who should walk it in but Mary herself. The meeting, although strange, was easily explained. Her father was ill, and could do nothing but read. Wollaston published free-thinking books, and Mardon had noticed in an advertisement the name of a book which he particularly wished to see. Accordingly he sent Mary for it. She pressed me very much to call on him. He had talked about me a good deal, and had written to me at the last address he knew, but the letter had been returned through the dead-letter office.
It was a week before I could go, and when did go, I found him much worse than I had imagined him to be. There was no virulent disease of any particular organ, but he was slowly wasting away from atrophy, and he knew, or thought he knew, he should not recover. But he was perfectly self-possessed.
"With regard to immortality," he said, "I never know what men mean by it. WHAT self is it which is to be immortal? Is it really desired by anybody that he should continue to exist for ever with his present limitations and failings? Yet if these are not continued, the man does not continue, but something else, a totally different person. I believe in the survival of life and thought. People think is not enough. They say they want the survival of their personality. It is very difficult to express any conjecture upon the matter, especially now when I am weak, and I have no system—nothing but surmises. One thing I am sure of—that a man ought to rid himself as much as possible of the miserable egotism which is so anxious about self, and should be more and more anxious about the Universal."
Mardon grew slowly worse. The winter was coming on, and as the temperature fell and the days grew darker, he declined. With all his heroism and hardness he had a weakness or two, and one was, that he did not want to die in London or be buried there. So we got him down to Sandgate near Hythe, and procured lodging for him close to the sea, so that he could lie in bed and watch the sun and moon rise over the water. Mary, of course, remained with him, and I returned to London.
Towards the end of November I got a letter, to tell me that if I wished to see him alive again, I must go down at once. I went that day, and I found that the doctor had been and had said that before the morning the end must come. Mardon was perfectly conscious, in no pain, and quite calm. He was just able to speak. When I went into his bedroom, he smiled, and without any preface or introduction he said: "Learn not to be over-anxious about meeting troubles and solving difficulties which time will meet and solve for you." Excepting to ask for water, I don't think he spoke again.
All that night Mary and I watched in that topmost garret looking out over the ocean. It was a night entirely unclouded, and the moon was at the full. Towards daybreak her father moaned a little, then became quite quiet, and just as the dawn was changing to sunrise, he passed away. What a sunrise it was! For about half-an-hour before the sun actually appeared, the perfectly smooth water was one mass of gently heaving opaline lustre. Not a sound was to be heard, and over in the south-east hung the planet Venus. Death was in the chamber, but the surpassing splendour of the pageant outside arrested us, and we sat awed and silent. Not till the first burning-point of the great orb itself emerged above the horizon, not till the day awoke with its brightness and brought with it the sounds of the day and its cares, did we give way to our grief.
It was impossible for me to stay. It was not that I was obliged to get back to my work in London, but I felt that Mary would far rather be alone, and that it would not be proper for me to remain. The woman of the house in which the lodgings were was very kind, and promised to do all that was necessary. It was arranged that I should come down again to the funeral.
So I went back to London. Before I had got twenty miles on my journey the glory of a few hours had turned into autumn storm. The rain came down in torrents, and the wind rushed across the country in great blasts, stripping the trees, and driving over the sky with hurricane speed great masses of continuous cloud, which mingled earth and heaven. I thought of all the ships which were on the sea in the night, sailing under the serene stars which I had seen rise and set; I thought of Mardon lying dead, and I thought of Mary. The simultaneous passage through great emotions welds souls, and begets the strongest of all forms of love. Those who have sobbed together over a dead friend, who have held one another's hands in that dread hour, feel a bond of sympathy, pure and sacred, which nothing can dissolve.
I went to the funeral as appointed. There was some little difficulty about it, for Mary, who knew her father so well, was unconquerably reluctant that an inconsistency should crown the career of one who, all through life, had been so completely self-accordant. She could not bear that he should be buried with a ceremony which he despised, and she was altogether free from that weakness which induces a compliance with the rites of the Church from persons who avow themselves sceptics.
At last a burying-ground was found, belonging to a little half-forsaken Unitarian chapel; and there Mardon was laid. A few friends came from London, one of whom had been a Unitarian minister, and he "conducted the service," such as it was. It was of the simplest kind. The body was taken to the side of the grave, and before it was lowered a few words were said, calling to mind all the virtues of him whom we had lost. These the speaker presented to us with much power and sympathy. He did not merely catalogue a disconnected string of excellences, but he seemed to plant himself in the central point of Mardon's nature, and to see from what it radiated.
He then passed on to say that about immortality, as usually understood, he knew nothing; but that Mardon would live as every force in nature lives—for ever; transmuted into a thousand different forms; the original form utterly forgotten, but never perishing. The cloud breaks up and comes down upon the earth in showers which cease, but the clouds and the showers are really undying. This may be true,—but, after all, I can only accept the fact of death in silence, as we accept the loss of youth and all other calamities. We are able to see that the arrangements which we should make, if we had the control of the universe, would be more absurd than those which prevail now. We are able to see that an eternity of life in one particular form, with one particular set of relationships, would be misery to many and mischievous to everybody, however sweet those relationships may be to some of us. At times we are reconciled to death as the great regenerator, and we pine for escape from the surroundings of which we have grown weary; but we can say no more, and the hour of illumination has not yet come. Whether it ever will come to a more nobly developed race we cannot tell.
Thus far goes the manuscript which I have in my possession. I know that there is more of it, but all my search for it has been in vain. Possibly some day I may be able to recover it. My friend discontinued his notes for some years, and consequently the concluding portion of them was entirely separate from the earlier portion, and this is the reason, I suppose, why it is missing.
Miss Mardon soon followed her father. She caught cold at his funeral; the seeds of consumption developed themselves with remarkable rapidity, and in less than a month she had gone. Her father's peculiar habits had greatly isolated him, and Miss Mardon had scarcely any friends. Rutherford went to see her continually, and during the last few nights sat up with her, incurring not a little scandal and gossip, to which he was entirely insensible.
For a time he was utterly broken-hearted; and not only broken-hearted, but broken-spirited, and incapable of attacking the least difficulty. All the springs of his nature were softened, so that if anything was cast upon him, there it remained without hope, and without any effort being made to remove it. He only began to recover when he was forced to give up work altogether and take a long holiday. To do this he was obliged to leave Mr. Wollaston, and the means of obtaining his much- needed rest were afforded him, partly by what he had saved, and partly by the kindness of one or two whom he had known.
I thought that Miss Mardon's death would permanently increase my friend's intellectual despondency, but it did not. On the contrary, he gradually grew out of it. A crisis seemed to take a turn just then, and he became less involved in his old speculations, and more devoted to other pursuits. I fancy that something happened; there was some word revealed to him, or there was some recoil, some healthy horror of eclipse in this self-created gloom which drove him out of it.
He accidentally renewed his acquaintance with the butterfly-catcher, who was obliged to leave the country and come up to London. He, however, did not give up his old hobby, and the two friends used every Sunday in summer time to sally forth some distance from town and spend the whole live-long day upon the downs and in the green lanes of Surrey. Both of them had to work hard during the week. Rutherford, who had learned shorthand when he was young, got employment upon a newspaper, and ultimately a seat in the gallery of the House of Commons. He never took to collecting insects like his companion, nor indeed to any scientific pursuits, but he certainly changed.
I find it very difficult to describe exactly what the change was, because it was into nothing positive; into no sect, party, nor special mode. He did not, for example, go off into absolute denial. I remember his telling me, that to suppress speculation would be a violence done to our nature as unnatural as if we were to prohibit ourselves from looking up to the blue depths between the stars at night; as if we were to determine that nature required correcting in this respect, and that we ought to be so constructed as not to be able to see anything but the earth and what lies on it. Still, these things in a measure ceased to worry him, and the long conflict died away gradually into a peace not formally concluded, and with no specific stipulations, but nevertheless definite. He was content to rest and wait. Better health and time, which does so much for us, brought this about. The passage of years gradually relaxed his anxiety about death by loosening his anxiety for life without loosening his love of life.
But I would rather not go into any further details, because I still cherish the hope that some day or the other I may recover the contents of the diary. I am afraid that up to this point he has misrepresented himself, and that those who read his story will think him nothing but a mere egoist, selfish and self-absorbed. Morbid he may have been, but selfish he was not. A more perfect friend I never knew, nor one more capable of complete abandonment to a person for whom he had any real regard, and I can only hope that it may be my good fortune to find the materials which will enable me to represent him autobiographically in a somewhat different light to that in which he appears now.