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An essay by James Runciman

Lost Days

Title:     Lost Days
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

I fully recognize the fact which the Frenchman flippantly stated--that no human beings really believe that death is inevitable until the last clasp of the stone-cold king numbs their pulses. Perhaps this insensibility is a merciful gift; at any rate, it is a fact. If belief came home with violence to our minds, we should suffer from a sort of vertigo; but the merciful dullness which the Frenchman perceived and mocked in his epigram saves us all the miseries of apprehension. This is very curiously seen among soldiers when they know that they must soon go into action. The soldiers chat together on the night before the attack; they know that some of them must go down; they actually go so far as to exchange messages thus--"If anything happens to me, you know, Bill, I want you to take that to the old people. You give me a note or anything else you have; and, if we get out of the shindy, we can hand the things back again." After confidences of this sort, the men chat on; and I never yet knew or heard of one who did not speak of his own safe return as a matter of course. When a brigade charges, there may be a little anxiety at first; but the whistle of the first bullet ends all misgivings, and the fellows grow quite merry, though it may be that half of them are certain to be down on the ground before the day is over. A man who is struck may know well that he will pass away: but he will rise up feebly to cheer on his comrades--nay, he will ask questions, as the charging troops pass him, as to the fate of Bill or Joe, or the probable action of the Heavies, or similar trifles.

In the fight of life we all behave much as the soldiers do in the crash and hurry of battle. If we reason the matter out with a semblance of logic, we all know that we must move toward the shadows; but, even after we are mortally stricken by disease or age, we persist in acting and thinking as if there were no end. In youth we go almost further; we are too apt to live as though we were immortal, and as though there were absolutely nothing to result from human action or human inaction. To the young man and the young woman the future is not a blind lane with a grave at the end; it is a spacious plain reaching away towards a far-off horizon; and that horizon recedes and recedes as they move forward, leaving magnificent expanses to be crossed in joyous freedom. A pretty delusion! The youth harks onward, singing merrily and rejoicing in sympathy with the mystic song of the birds; there is so much space around him--the very breath of life is a joy--and he is content to taste in glorious idleness the ecstasy of living. The evening closes in, and then the horizon seems to be narrowing; like the walls of the deadly chamber in the home of the Inquisition, the skies shrink inward--and the youth has misgivings. The next day finds his plain shrunken a little in expanse, and his horizon has not so superb a sweep. Nevertheless he goes gaily on, and once more he raises his voice joyously, and tries to think that the plain and the horizon can contract no more. Thus in foolish hopefulness he passes his days until the glorious plain of his dreams has been traversed, and, lo, under his very feet is the great gulf fixed, and far below the tide--the tide of Eternity--laps sullenly against the walls of the deadly chasm. If the youth knew that the gulf and the rolling river were so near--if he not only knew, but could absolutely picture his doom--would he be so merry? Ah, no!

I repeat that, if men could be so disciplined as to believe in their souls that death must come, then there would be no lost days. Is there one of us who can say that he never lost a day amid this too brief, too joyous, too entrancing term of existence? Not one. The aged Roman--who, by-the-way, was somewhat of a prig--used to go about moaning, "I have lost a day," if he thought he had not performed some good action or learned something in the twenty-four hours. Most of us have no such qualms; we waste the time freely; and we never know that it is wasted until with a dull shock we comprehend that all must be left and that the squandered hours can never be retrieved. The men who are strongest and greatest and best suffer the acutest remorse for the lost days; they know their own powers, and that very knowledge makes them suffer all the more bitterly when they reckon up what they might have done and compare it with the sum of their actual achievement.

In a certain German town a little cell is shown on the walls of which a famous name is marked many times. It appears that in his turbulent youth Prince Bismarck was often a prisoner in this cell; and his various appearances are registered under eleven different dates. Moreover, I observe from the same rude register that he fought twenty-eight duels. Lost days--lost days! He tells us how he drank in the usual insane fashion prevalent among the students. He "cannot tell how much Burgundy he could really drink." Lost days--lost days! And now the great old man, with Europe at his feet and the world awaiting his lightest word with eagerness, turns regretfully sometimes to think of the days thrown away. A haze seems to hang before the eyes of such as he; and it is a haze that makes the future seem dim and vast, even while it obscures all the sharp outlines of things. The child is not capable of reasoning coherently, and therefore its disposition to fritter away time must be regarded as only the result of defective organization; but the young man and young woman can reason, and yet we find them perpetually making excuses for eluding time and eternity. Look at the young fellows who are preparing for the hard duties of life by studying at a University. Here is one who seems to have recognized the facts of existence; his hours are arranged as methodically as his heart beats; he knows the exact balance between physical and intellectual strength, and he overtaxes neither, but body and mind are worked up to the highest attainable pressure. No pleasures of the destructive sort call this youngster aside; he has learned already what it is to reap the harvest of a quiet eye, and his joys are of the sober kind. He rises early, and he has got far through his work ere noon; his quiet afternoon is devoted to harmless merriment in the cricket-field or on the friendly country roads, and his evening is spent without any vain gossip in the happy companionship of his books. That young man loses no day; but unhappily he represents a type which is but too rare. The steady man, economic of time, is a rarity; but the wild youth who is always going to do something to-morrow is one of a class that numbers only too many on its rolls. To-morrow! The young fellow passes to-day on the river, or spends it in lounging or in active dissipation. He feels that he is doing wrong; but the gaunt spectres raised by conscience are always exorcised by the bright vision of to-morrow. To-morrow the truant will go to his books; he will bend himself for that concentrated effort which alone secures success, and his time of carelessness and sloth shall be far left behind. But the sinister influence of to-day saps his will and renders him infirm; each new to-day is wasted amid thoughts of visionary to-morrows which take all the power from his soul; and, when he is nerveless, powerless, tired, discontented with the very sight of the sun, he finds suddenly that his feet are on the edge of the gulf, and he knows that there will be no more to-morrows.

I am not entering a plea for hard, petrifying work. If a man is a hand-worker or brain-worker, his fate is inevitable if he regards work as the only end of life. The loss of which I speak is that incurred by engaging in pursuits which do not give mental strength or resource or bodily health. The hard-worked business-man who gallops twenty miles after hounds before he settles to his long stretch of toil is not losing his day; the empty young dandy whose life for five months in the year is given up to galloping across grass country or lounging around stables is decidedly a spendthrift so far as time is concerned.

I wish--if it be not impious so to wish--that every young man could have one glimpse into the future. Supposing some good genius could say, "If you proceed as you are now doing, your position in your fortieth year will be this!" what a horror would strike through many among us, and how desperately each would strive to take advantage of that kindly "If." But there is no uplifting of the veil; and we must all be guided by the experience of the past and not by knowledge of the future. I observe that those who score the greatest number of lost days on the world's calendar always do so under the impression that they are enjoying pleasure. An acute observer whose soul is not vitiated by cynicism may find a kind of melancholy pastime in observing the hopeless attempts of these poor son's to persuade themselves that they are making the best of existence. I would not for worlds seem for a moment to disparage pleasure, because I hold that a human being who lives without joy must either become bad, mad, or wretched. But I speak of those who cheat themselves into thinking that every hour which passes swiftly to eternity is wisely spent. Observe the parties of young men who play at cards even in the railway-train morning after morning and evening after evening. The time of the journey might be spent in useful and happy thought; it is passed in rapid and feverish speculation. There is no question of reviving the brain; it is not recreation that is gained, but distraction, and the brain, instead of being ready to concentrate its power upon work, is enfeebled and rendered vague and flighty. Supposing a youth spends but one hour per day in handling pieces of pasteboard and trying to win his neighbour's money, then in four weeks he has wasted twenty-four hours, and in one year he wastes thirteen days. Is there any gain--mental, muscular, or nervous--from this unhappy pursuit? Not one jot or tittle. Supposing that a weary man of science leaves his laboratory in the evening, and wends his way homeward, the very thought of the game of whist which awaits him is a kind of recuperative agency. Whist is the true recreation of the man of science; and the astronomer or mathematician or biologist goes calmly to rest with his mind at ease after he has enjoyed his rubber. The most industrious of living novelists and the most prolific of all modern writers was asked--so he tells us in his autobiography--"How is it that your thirtieth book is fresher than your first?" He made answer, "I eat very well, keep regular hours, sleep ten hours a day, and never miss my three hours a day at whist." These men of great brain derive benefit from their harmless contests; the young men in the railway-carriages only waste brain-tissue which they do nothing-to repair. A very beautiful writer who was an extremely lazy man pictures his own lost days as arising before him and saying, "I am thy Self; say, what didst thou to me?" That question may well be asked by all the host of murdered days, but especially may it be asked of those foolish beings who try to gain distinction by recklessly losing money on the Turf or in gambling-saloons. A heart of stone might be moved by seeing the precious time that is hurled to the limbo of lost days in the vulgar pandemonium by the racecourse. A nice lad comes out into the world after attaining his majority, and plunges into that vortex of Hades. Reckon up the good he gets there. Does he gain health? Alas, think of the crowd, the rank odours, the straining heart-beats! Does he hear any wisdom? Listen to the hideous badinage, the wild bursts of foul language from the betting-men, the mean, cunning drivel of the gamblers, the shrill laughter of the horsey and unsexed women? Does the youth make friends? Ah, yes! He makes friends who will cheat him at betting, cheat him at horse-dealing, cheat him at gambling when the orgies of the course are over, borrow money as long as he will lend, and throw him over when he has parted with his last penny and his last rag of self-respect. Those who can carry their minds back for twenty years must remember the foolish young nobleman who sold a splendid estate to pay the yelling vulgarians of the betting-ring. They cheered him when he all but beggared himself; they hissed him when he failed once to pay. With lost health, lost patrimony, lost hopes, lost self-respect, he sank amid the rough billows of life's sea, and only one human creature was there to aid him when the great last wave swept over him. Lost days--lost days! Youths who are going to ruin now amid the plaudits of those who live upon them might surely take warning: but they do not, and their bones will soon bleach on the mound whereon those of all other wasters of days have been thrown. When I think of the lost days and the lost lives of which I have cognizance, then it seems as though I were gazing on some vast charnel-house, some ghoul-haunted place of skulls. Memories of those who trifled with life come to me, and their very faces flash past with looks of tragic significance. By their own fault they were ruined; they were shut out of the garden of their gifts; their city of hope was ploughed and salted. The past cannot be retrieved, let canting optimists talk as they choose; what has been has been, and the effects will last and spread until the earth shall pass away. Our acts our angels are, or good or ill; our fatal shadows that walk by us still. The thing done lasts for eternity; the lightest act of man or woman has incalculably vast results. So it is madness to say that the lost days can be retrieved. They cannot! But by timely wisdom we may save the days and make them beneficent and fruitful in the future. Watch those wild lads who are sowing in wine what they reap in headache and degradation. Night after night they laugh with senseless glee, night after night inanities which pass for wit are poured forth; and daily the nerve and strength of each carouser grow weaker. Can you retrieve those nights? Never! But you may take the most shattered of the crew and assure him that all is not irretrievably lost; his weakened nerve may be steadied, his deranged gastric functions may gradually grow more healthy, his distorted views of life may pass away. So far, so good; but never try to persuade any one that the past may be repaired, for that delusion is the very source and spring of the foul stream of lost days. Once impress upon any teachable creature the stern fact that a lost day is lost for ever, once make that belief part of his being, and then he will strive to cheat death. Perhaps it may be thought that I take sombre views of life. No; I see that the world may be made a place of pleasure, but only by learning and obeying the inexorable laws which govern all things, from the fall of a seed of grass to the moving of the miraculous brain of man.

_April, 1888._

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James Runciman's essay: Lost Days