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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Death And Two Friends; A Dialogue

Title:     Death And Two Friends; A Dialogue
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

(To the Memory of J.S. and T.C.L.)


[This dialogue was written originally as a rejoinder to certain criticisms on a book of mine entitled, _The Religion of a Literary Man_--_Religio Scriptoris_--hence the names given to the two 'persons.' It was written in March 1894, before an event in the writer's life to which, erroneously, some have supposed it to refer.]

LECTOR. But do you really mean, Scriptor, that you have no desire for the life after death?

SCRIPTOR. I never said quite that, Lector, though perhaps I might almost have gone so far. What I did say was that we have been accustomed to exaggerate its importance to us here and now, that it really matters less to us than we imagine.

LECTOR. I see. But you must speak for yourself, Scriptor. I am sure that it matters much to many, to most of us. It does, I know, to me.

SCRIPTOR. Less than you think, my dear Lector. Besides, you are really too young to know. It is true that, as years go, you are ten years my senior, but what of that? You have that vigorous health which is the secret of perpetual youth. You have not yet realised decay, not to speak of death. The immortality of the soul is a question wide of you, who have as yet practically no doubt of the immortality of the body. But I--well, it would be melodramatic to say that I face death every day. The metaphor applies but to desperate callings and romantic complaints. To some Death comes like a footpad, suddenly, and presents his pistol--and the smoke that curls upward from his empty barrel is your soul.

To another he comes featureless, a stealthily accumulating London fog, that slowly, slowly chokes the life out of you, without allowing you the consolation of a single picturesque moment, a single grand attitude. For you, probably, Death will only come when you die. I have to live with him as well. I shall smoulder for years, you will be carried to heaven, like Enoch, in a beautiful lightning.

'A simple child
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What can it know of Death?'

That's you, my dear Lector, for all your forty years.

LECTOR. All the more reason, Scriptor, that you should desire a hereafter. You sometimes talk of the work you would do if you were a robust Philistine such as I. Would it not be worth while to live again, if only to make sure of that _magnum opus_--just to realise those dreams that you say are daily escaping you?

SCRIPTOR. Ah! so speaks the energetic man, eager to take the world on his shoulders. I know the images of death that please you, Lector--such as that great one of Arnold's, about 'the sounding labour-house vast of being.'

But, Lector, you who love work so well--have you never heard tell of a thing called Rest? Have you never known what it is to be tired, my Lector?--not tired at the end of a busy day, but tired in the morning, tired in the Memnonian sunlight, when larks and barrel-organs start on their blithe insistent rounds. No, the man who is tired of a morning sings not music-hall songs in his bedroom as he dashes about in his morning bath. But will you never want to go to bed, Lector? Will you be always like the children who hate to be sent to bed, and think that when they are grown up they will never go to bed at all? Yet in a few years' time how glad they are of the stray chance of bed at ten. May it not be so with sleep's twin-brother? In our young vigour, driven by a hundred buoyant activities, enticed by dream on dream, time seems so short for all we think we have to do; but surely when the blood begins to thin, and the heart to wax less extravagantly buoyant, when comfort croons a kettle-song whose simple spell no sirens of ambition or romance can overcome--don't you think that then 'bedtime' will come to seem the best hour of the day, and 'Death as welcome as a friend would fall'?

LECTOR. But you are no fair judge, Scriptor. You say my health, my youth, as you waggishly call it, puts me out of court. Yet surely your ill-health and low spirits just as surely vitiate your judgment?

SCRIPTOR. Admitted, so far as my views are the outcome of my particular condition. But you forget that the condition I have been supposing is not merely particular, but, on the contrary, the most general among men. Was it not old age?--which, like youth, is independent of years. You may be young beyond your years, I may be old in advance of them; but old age does come some time, and with it the desire of rest.

LECTOR. But does not old age spend most of its thought in dwelling fondly on its lost youth, hanging like a remote sunrise in its imagination? Is it not its one yearning desire just to live certain hours of its youth over again?--and would the old man not give all he possesses for the certainty of being born young again into eternity?

SCRIPTOR. He would give everything--but the certainty of rest. After seventy years of ardent life one needs a long sleep to refresh us in. Besides, age may not be so sure of the advantages of youth. All is not youth that laughs and glitters. Youth has its hopes, which are uncertain; but age has its memories, which are sure; youth has its passions, but age has its comforts.

LECTOR. Your answers come gay and pat, Scriptor, but your voice betrays you. In spite of you, it saddens all your words. Tell me, have you ever known what it is actually to lose any one who is dear to you? Have you looked on death face to face?

SCRIPTOR. Yes, Lector, I have--but once. It is now about five years ago, but the impression of it haunts me to this hour. Perhaps the memory is all the keener because it was my one experience. In a world where custom stales all things, save Cleopatra, it is all the better perhaps not to see even too much of Death, lest we grow familiar with him. For instance, doctors and soldiers, who look on him daily, seem to lose the sense of his terror--nay, worse, of his tragedy. Maybe it is something in his favour, and Death, like others, may only need to be known to be loved.

LECTOR. But tell me, Scriptor, of this sad experience, which even now it moves you to name; or is the memory too sad to recall?

SCRIPTOR. Sad enough, Lector, but beautiful for all that, beautiful as winter. It was winter when she of whom I am thinking died--a winter that seemed to make death itself whiter and colder on her marble forehead. It is but one sad little story of all the heaped-up sorrow of the world; but in it, as in a shell, I seem to hear the murmur of all the tides of tears that have surged about the lot of man from the beginning.

There were two dear friends of mine whom I used to call the happiest lovers in the world. They had loved truly from girlhood and boyhood, and after some struggle--for they were not born into that class which is denied the luxury of struggle--at length saw a little home bright in front of them. And then Jenny, who had been ever bright and strong, suddenly and unaccountably fell ill. Like the stroke of a sword, like the stride of a giant, Death, to whom they had never given a thought, was upon them. It was consumption, and love could only watch and pray. Suddenly my friend sent for me, and I saw with my own eyes what at a distance it had seemed impossible to believe. As I entered the house, with the fresh air still upon me, I spoke confidently, with babbling ignorant tongue. 'Wait till you see her face!' was all my poor stricken friend could say.

Ah! her face! How can I describe it? It was much sweeter afterwards, but now it was so dark and witchlike, so uncanny, almost wicked, so thin and full of inky shadows. She sat up in her bed, a wizened little goblin, and laughed a queer, dry, knowing laugh to herself, a laugh like the scraping of reeds in a solitary place. A strange black weariness seemed to be crushing down her brows, like the 'unwilling sleep' of a strong narcotic. She would begin a sentence and let it wither away unfinished, and point sadly and almost humorously to her straight black hair, clammy as the feathers of a dead bird lying in the rain. Her hearing was strangely keen. And yet she did not know, was not to know. How was one to talk to her--talk of being well again, and books and country walks, when she had so plainly done with all these things? How bear up when she, with a half-sad, half-amused smile, showed her thin wrists?--how say that they would soon be strong and round again? Ugh! she was already beginning to be different from us, already putting off our body-sweet mortality, and putting on the fearful garments of death, changing before our eyes from ruddy familiar humanity into a being of another element, an element we dread as the fish dreads the air. Soon we should not be able to talk to her. Soon she would have unlearnt all the sweet grammar of earth. She was no longer Jenny, but a fearful symbol of mysteries at which the flesh crept. She was going to die.

Have you never looked ahead towards some trial, some physical trial, maybe an operation?--for perhaps the pains of the body are the keenest, after all--those of the spirit are at least in some part metaphor. You look forward with dread, yet it is at last over. It is behind you. And have you never thought that so it will be with death some day? Poor little Jenny was to face the great operation.

Next time I saw her she was dead. In our hateful English fashion, they had shut her up in a dark room, and we had to take candles to see her. I shall never forget the moment when my eyes first rested on that awful snow-white sheet, so faintly indented by the fragile form beneath, lines very fragile, but oh! so hard and cold, like the indentations upon frozen snow; never forget my strange unaccountable terror when he on one side and I on the other turned down the icy sheet from her face. But terror changed to awe and reverence, as her face came upon us with its sweet sphinx-like smile. Lying there, with a little gold chain round her neck and a chrysanthemum in the bosom of her night-gown, there was a curious regality about her, a look as though she wore a crown our eyes were unable to see. And while I gazed upon her, the sobs of my friend came across the bed, and as he called to her I seemed to hear the eternal Orpheus calling for his lost Eurydice. Poor lad!--poor maid! Here, naked and terrible, was all the tragedy of the world compressed into an hour, the Medusa-face of life that turns the bravest to stone. Surely, I felt, God owed more than He could ever repay to these two lovers, whom it had been so easy to leave to their simple joys. And from that night to this I can never look upon my white bed without seeing afar off the moment when it, too, will bear the little figure of her I love best in the world, bound for her voyage to the Minotaur Death; just as I never put off my clothes at night, and stretch my limbs down among the cool sheets, without thinking of the night when I shall put off my clothes for the last time and close my eyes for ever.

LECTOR. But, my friend, this is to feel too much; it is morbid.

SCRIPTOR. Morbid! How can one really _feel_ and not be morbid? If one be morbid, one can still be brave.

LECTOR. But surely, true-lover as you are, it would be a joy to you to think that this terrible parting of death will not be final. We cannot love so well without hoping that we may meet our loved ones somewhere after death.

SCRIPTOR. Hopes! wishes! desires! What of them? We hope, we _desire_ all things. Who has not cried for the moon in his time? But what is the use of talking of what we desire? Does life give us all we wish, however passionately we wish it, and is Death any more likely to listen to the cry of our desires? Of course we _wish it_, wish it with a pathetic urgency which is too poignant to bear, and which the wise man bravely stifles. It would all be different if we _knew_.

LECTOR. But does not science even, of late, hold out the promise of its probability?--and the greatest poets and thinkers have always been convinced of its truth.

SCRIPTOR. The promise of a probability! O my Lector, what a poor substitute is that for a certainty! And as for the great men you speak of, what does their 'instinctive' assurance amount to but a strong sense of their own existence at the moment of writing or speaking? Does one of them anywhere assert immortality as a _fact_--a fact of which he has his own personal proof and knowledge--a scientific, not an imaginative, theological fact? Arguments on the subject are naught. It is waste of time to read them; unsupported by fact, they are one and all cowardly dreams, a horrible hypocritical clutching at that which their writers have not the courage to forgo.

LECTOR. Yet may not a dream be of service to reality, my friend? Is it not certain that people are all the better and all the happier for this dream, as you call it?--for what seems to me this sustaining faith?

SCRIPTOR. Happier? Some people, perhaps, in a lazy, unworthy fashion. But 'better'? Well, so long as we believed in 'eternal punishment' no doubt people were sometimes terrified into 'goodness' by the picture of that dread vista of torment, as no doubt they were bribed into it by the companion picture of a green unbounded Paradise; but, O my friend, what an unworthy kind of goodness, the mere mask of virtue! And now that the Inferno has practically disappeared from our theology, the belief in eternal life simply means unlimited cakes and ale, for good and evil alike, for all eternity. How such a belief can be moralising I fail to understand. To my mind, indeed, far from being moralising, this belief in immortality is responsible for no inconsiderable portion of the wrong and misery of the world. It is the baneful narcotic which has soothed the selfish and the slothful from the beginning. It is that unlimited credit which makes the bankrupt. It simply gives us all eternity to procrastinate in. Instead of manfully eating our peck of dirt here and now, we leave it and all such disagreeables to the hereafter.

'He said, "I believe in Eternal Life,"
As he threw his life away--
What need to hoard?
He could well afford
To squander his mortal day.
With Eternity his, what need to care?--
A sort of immortal millionaire.'

LECTOR. I am glad to be reminded, Scriptor, that you are a poet, for the line of your argument had almost made me forget it. One expects other views from a poet.

SCRIPTOR. When, my dear Lector, shall we get rid of the silly idea that the poet should give us only the ornamental view of life, and rock us to sleep, like babies, with pretty lullabies? Is it not possible to make _facts_ sing as well as fancies? With all this beautiful world to sing of--for beautiful it is, however it be marred; with this wonderful life--and wonderful and sweet it is though it is shot through with such bitter pain; with such _certainties_ for his theme, we yet beg him to sing to us of shadows!

And you talk of 'faith.' 'Faith' truly is what we want, but it is faith in the life here, not in the life hereafter. Faith in the life here! Let our poets sing us that. And such as would deny it--I would hang them as enemies of society.

LECTOR. But, at all events, to keep to our point--you at least _hope_ for immortality. If Edison, say, were suddenly to discover it for us as a scientific certainty, you would welcome the news?

SCRIPTOR. Well, yes and no! Have you seen the 'penny' phonographs in the Strand? You should go and have a pennyworth of the mysteries of time and space! How long will Edison's latest magic toy survive this popularisation, I wonder? For a little moment it awakens the sense of wonder in the idly curious, who set the demon tube to their ears; but if they make any remarks at all, it is of the cleverness of Mr. Edison, the probable profits of the invention--and not a word of the wonder of the world! So it would be with the undiscovered country. I was blamed the other day as being cheaply smart because I said that if 'one traveller returned,' his resurrection would soon be as commonplace as the telephone, and that enterprising firms would be interviewing him as to the prospects of opening branch establishments in Hades. Yet it is a perfectly serious, and, I think, true remark; for who that knows the modern man, with his small knowingness, and his utter incapacity for reverence, would doubt that were Mr. Edison actually to be the Columbus of the Unseen, it would soon be as overrun with gaping tourists as Switzerland, and that within a year railway companies would be advertising 'Bank-holidays in Eternity'?

No! let us keep the Unseen--or, if it must be discovered, let the key thereof be given only to true-lovers and poets.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Death And Two Friends; A Dialogue