Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Siste, Viator

An essay by George William Curtis

Siste, Viator

Title:     Siste, Viator
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

It is still very difficult to discover where the bad people are buried. The cemeteries are still symbolically white with monuments to the departed. Shylock and Ralph Nickleby are still, upon their tombstones, the most respected of deceased citizens. Here lies Clytemnestra, a model of the wifely virtues, whom an inconsolable spouse deplores. Beneath this marble, in the tranquil hope of a joyful resurrection, repose the remains of Iago, who kept the noiseless tenor of his way. Beyond sleeps Solomon, most faithful of husbands; and under this turf of buttercups and daisies lie Paris and Lovelace, arcades ambo, too early lost. 'Tis pathetic to reflect how much worthier is the world under-ground than that which still cumbers its surface; and if we, whose lives are indifferent honest, had only had the good fortune to die a century ago, our memories would by this time have been upon our tombstones a very odor of sanctity to the sense of the age which knows us, perhaps, but too well.

In one of his terrible inscriptions suggested for the monuments of the Georges, Thackeray says, "He left an example for youth and for age to avoid. He never did well by man or by woman." Has there been only one such George in the world? And if more, and in every age, in what cemetery have you found their epitaphs? Catiline was a fascinating and accomplished man. He had many followers, and if his political views and projects were open to differences of opinion, he was certainly well-mannered. Has there been but one Catiline in history? Or is he confined wholly to a public sphere? Cicero described him as "a corrupter of youth," and no one has denied it. Where is Catiline buried? If you sought his grave by that epitaph, where would you find it? Is there no corrupter of youth now? Have there been none within the last century? None, if you may trust the epitaphs. How long will you abuse our patience, O Catiline, and be annually buried, like Cato the Censor, with crosses of white camellias laid upon your coffin, and wreaths of immortelles hung upon the weeping effigy of Virtue which guards your sleep?

But because a man was brutal and coarse and cruel in his life, must we needs insist upon it when he is gone? When Mawworm leaves us, must we write upon his grave, he lying below defenceless, "Hic jacet a hypocrite"? When old Sathanas departs to a sphere of light and truth, shall we carve upon his monument, "Father of lies"? Is it manly? Shall we have no mercy? Do we really know any man; and shall charity be forgotten? To be human is to be frail; and is not the fact that we must die at all, of which the grave is proof, itself sufficient comment upon our weakness? Here lies Colonel Newcome--tender, generous, noble, child-like heart! Shall we add that he was credulous and ignorant? Dear Uncle Toby is in the next grave. Shall we shout in marble, "Siste, viator, contemplate his foibles"? Sacred to the memory of Samuel Pickwick. Is the inscription incomplete if we do not chisel beneath it, "A wind-bag pricked by Death"?

Epitaphs are written more forcibly than upon tombstones. When old Silenus dies, and the white camellias and the lilies-of-the-valley and the rose-buds are strewn upon his bier, and the "universally lamented" is cut upon the monument, the satire is pathetic, but it is slight. But when the bloated old debauchee is cautiously and forgivingly praised in the papers, and everybody solemnly pretends not to know what everybody knows that everybody else does know, it is a sign not of charity, but of public demoralization. Catiline corrupts youth by his example. Then his own offences bring him to a sudden end, and the newspapers speak of him so deprecatingly, so gingerly, that as a good man being dead yet speaketh, so a bad man being dead yet corrupteth. His evil influence is not suffered to perish with him, but it is cherished and extended and confirmed, and his death, like his life, demoralizes.

Dick Turpin no longer rides in jack-boots upon Hounslow Heath, stopping my Lord Bishop and the Right Honorable the Earl of Garter; and no longer stands at the dock, the hero of St. Giles's; and goes no longer to the gallows in a blaze of glory, with a huge nosegay in his button-hole. Richard Turpin is a very different fellow in his costume of to-day, but he is the same Dick of the jack-boots and the heath, this vulgar robber who smirks and is called smart. He drives a fine equipage, and lives luxuriously, and keeps a harem, and frequents Wall Street, and beats everybody in the game of making money, and spending it profusely and splendidly. He dazzles the eyes of the widow's son, and bewilders his mind. The boy sees the money with which Richard surrounds himself by means which honorable men despise. He hears him called good-humoredly a great rascal, and sees that he buys judges, and steals vast properties, and procures laws to protect him. The boy hears that all men are fallible, and that some men are no worse than other men, and that money is a fine thing, and honor and truth and respect and all the rest of it are very well, but see what power, what pleasure, what luxury Turpin commands! Then the poor boy rushes for the same prizes, and fails, and ends in disgrace, the jail, suicide. And Dick Turpin tosses a hundred dollars to the boy's mother, and a generous press exclaims, "Not a model man, perhaps; but what noble generosity! The friend of the widow and the orphan! When he dies, how many poor homes will be darkened with grief!" Yes, and the hundred dollars probably pays the widow for her boy.

It is not difficult to be generous with the money of others. A year ago it was announced that Greed had given forty or fifty thousand dollars to the poor. "There," said the admirers of Turpin, "you may say what you will of Greed. He, too, is not a polished man; he is not a scholar nor a dainty gentleman; but he is one of the people; he is large-hearted and generous. Who else has given fifty thousand dollars to the poor?" Yes, and who else has stolen five millions? The politest gentlemen of the highway were notoriously gallant. The Marquis of Goutytoe they compelled to descend from his carriage, and sent the trudging market-woman home in it. They eased the pockets of the Spanish ambassador, and threw a doubloon to the leper hiding behind the hedge. It was a cheap munificence. So was Greed's. It was not his fifty thousand dollars, the giving of which caused such a burst of good feeling, and the exclamation, "There now!" It was only a little of the millions that were not his. He gave it to the poor dwellers in tenement-houses, and it was said that there was no wretched hovel to which he did not send a load of coal or a barrel of flour during the winter months. But he took them first from those wretched dens. Somebody paid the taxes that he stole, and it is the poor who at last pay taxes. Where be the bad people buried? When Turpin dies, we have Greed's opinion of him and his ways gravely paraded in a newspaper. Madame Brinvilliers's opinion of Lucrezia Borgia would be edifying reading!

Shall we have no charity, then? and when a man lies dead and defenceless, shall not warfare cease? Warfare may cease; but should death condone all offences? The malignant lover who denounced his rival to the Inquisition, and in the very moment of his rival's death by fire himself fell dead--shall we write over him, De mortuis? Shall we Romans, whose sons he corrupted, go dumb and sorrowing behind the corpse of Catiline? When a bad man dies, let us say that he was bad. Although he was very rich and very splendid, shall we remember only that he gave in charity one quarter of one per cent. upon the amount of his thefts? The Italian brigand chief, when his band had slaughtered the travellers, said, "There are twelve of us, and we will share equally; but the first equal share shall be for the mother of God." When we tell his story, shall we see only that share?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Siste, Viator