Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 3. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
page: 262


MY friendship with Mrs. Barry was still only in this stage of what I may call incidental light, when one day I received from Arthur Ronalds a pencilled note, asking me to go and see him. He was not quite well, he said, and the doctor forbade him to leave the house; would I therefore go to him? He wanted to see me for no special purpose, he added; only for the simple pleasure of a talk. So that, if I were engaged elsewhere, I was not to think twice of his request.

He was always this unselfish creature!—always ready to give up his own desire for page: 263 the sake of another; as indeed belongs to the highest class of mind.

I went at once, and found him indisposed but not in actual suffering. He had a slight pain about his heart, was a little feverish and flushed, and certainly too actively brilliant in mind.

‘I feel to-day,’ he said, ‘as if my thoughts ran through my brain in lines of light. And how nimble-footed they are!’

The doctor, whom I met in his room, said there was a certain disturbance of the circulation which would soon pass. He recommended rest and a reclining position; and allowed me, he said, smiling, to stay say and talk with the patient, provided I did not argue nor let him become excited.

Arthur himself made light of his indisposition. He was always averse from confessing either his transitory ailments or his constitutional delicacy; and he did his best to forget that he was below the average in physical power. He was not foolhardy page: 264 in action, but he was both sensitive and reticent in acknowledgment.

We had a long but perfectly quiet talk that day, skimming over many subjects of interest to each and of grave importance to the world at large. It was a synoptical talk—the heads of that Confession of Faith to which we subscribed. But it was Arthur more than I who both took the initiative and gave the affirmative.

Suggested by the fearful sufferings of a certain man we knew, dying by inches of a cancerous affection of the pylorus, we discussed the benefits as well as the dangers attending that euthanasia which has been too noisily advocated and too coarsely ventilated. And we agreed on its advisability, as an act of mercy as well as reasonableness, given the consent of the tortured dying and the strictest safeguards against abuse.

We also went over the whole question of suicide, and the right of a man to cast off page: 265 his individual existence, when this has become intolerable. Arthur maintained this right—always with the limitation of those more imperative duties to others which would be abandoned by the act. As, in the case of the bread-winner of the family, who was bound to remain at his post so long as those who depended on him required his support; or with the mother, whose love and care and moral influence were needed by the children—no matter what her own sorrows and weariness might be, she too was bound to remain at her post till no longer needed; or where the happiness of another life was bound up in the continuance of this.

‘Then,’ he said, ‘the martyrdom of life must be bravely borne to the end; and a man may no more take premature rest than he may shirk the battle and slink to the rear before the bugle sounds a retreat. But,’ he added, ‘outside these conditions of absolute usefulness to others, page: 266 I hold that a man is justified in dealing with his life as he would with his money or his books. It is his property; and he is the master of his own possessions.’

He then told me a touching story of a Scottish peasant, by his father's death left the head of the house and caretaker of the family. He was a thoughtful, well-educated, high-principled man; and he accepted the charge laid on him by fate as such a man would. He wrought for, supported, educated and set out for themselves all his younger brothers and sisters; and then there remained to him only his aged mother. For her sake, and to carry his burden loyally to the end, he consented to live; but he made no secret of his intention to kill himself so soon as she should die. He was weary of life, he said. With his mother the last of his duties would be fulfilled; then he might think of himself.

So it all came about. His old mother died and he saw her decently buried. When he page: 267 got home from the funeral he said ‘Good-night’ to his friends, shut the cottage door, and cut his throat.

We met on the matter of cremation, and confessed its superiority to the system of earth interment—especially in view of the increase of the race in civilized centres, and the greater perils therefore run by the living by the greater chances of disease sown with death in the soil.

‘I like to think that when I am dead I shall be resolved at once into my original elements—not by the slow and hurtful process of decay, but by the quick purification of fire,’ said Arthur, tossing back his hair with a broad sweep of his hand, familiar to him. ‘If we can do no more good, it is pleasant to know beforehand that we can do no harm. A negative virtue is better than a positive wrong. And I have my mother's promise.’

‘We will add that codicil to your will when the time comes,’ I said lightly.

page: 268

And yet I confess to a certain superstitious creeping of my skin as I spoke. I did not like to hear him talk of his death and burial to-day. And we had wandered among the graves too much as it was.

‘Dies datus? Who knows when?’ he answered.

‘Not yet for you, at all events, my boy. You have your work to do before you can be allowed to sleep!’

I spoke with a rush of strange tenderness, like a flood about my heart. It reminded me of the old Biblical phrase used to express parental love. For indeed he was as my own—the Judah to whom had been given the crown and sceptre of sovereignty; the little Benjamin, born of love and cradled in tenderness from the beginning; the son of my soul and the heir of my spiritual estate—to be greater than I and all those who had gone before him. Had I not been an Englishman, and page: 269 ashamed of my own emotion, I should have taken him in my arms and kissed him.

‘Yes,’ he returned rather slowly; ‘I have my work to do. I often wonder if I shall be strong enough to hew down so much as one square yard of the jungle of superstition by which we are hemmed in on all sides—if I shall be able to add even one brick to the great Temple of Truth.’

‘Your very existence answers that,’ I said. ‘What we are is as important as what we do. A noble personality is equivalent to a noble deed.’

‘And the end of it all—the condition on which we hold the charter of life—death:—and each individual of no more account than one diatom in the whole mass—the bulk making an important stratum, but each separate unit, as a unit, valueless!’

He said this with a certain philosophic quietness—a realization of individual nothingness—singularly pathetic in view of page: 270 the creature he himself was. His very individuality, so grandly beautiful and exalted, seemed of itself the warrant of immortality. And yet, was it in reality more than the individuality of a Swiss cretin, save in the accident of influence on others?

‘We know nothing of ultimates,’ I said. ‘If the Christian heaven or the Mahommedan paradise fails to satisfy the philosopher, we have always the possibilities lying behind the unknown. If we cannot affirm we cannot deny.’

‘There is no possibility of individual existence when the machine, the organism which made that individual, dissolves, or rather, I should say, resolves itself into its component parts,’ he answered. ‘It is the condition on which we live from the beginning. We came out of nothing, and we return to nothing. Willingly or unwillingly, we must accept the law!’

He smiled as he said this, then broke off abruptly into the woman question, on the page: 271 main points of which we were thoroughly agreed—neither liking the situation, but both seeing the futility of opposition. For he too, as I, saw in this modern endeavour of women to assimilate themselves to men and to repudiate their own assigned functions, an individually unconscious but practically resultant check to population—inasmuch as the self-sacrifice and quietness demanded of mothers cannot exist with the personal ambition of professional life, with feverish absorption in social excitements, nor with the physical enjoyment of a purely out-of-door life devoted to sport and athletics, like a man's. Thus, the movement, by centering in self the energies needed for the continuance of the race, is, by the very nature of things, a movement in the direction of sterility. It is the analogue of that well-known law, so disastrous to stock-raisers, which makes that, when the breed has been brought to the highest possible point of perfection, it stops—the female refusing to continue it. page: 272 Between the two, however, a milky mother of the herd is more valuable than the infertile heifer; and a brave, bright winsome mother does more for humanity in the noble men and women she brings into the world and makes fit to carry on the higher development, than does the sister who prefers individuality and a paying profession to the self-continuance, self-sacrifice and devotion of maternity.

We agreed on the lawfulness of vivisection—the future good of the greater number being of more importance than the sacrifice of the present few. And we saw in the agitation that had been carried on against it as much hostility to science as regard for humane principles—as much fear of what will be revealed, inimical to orthodox belief, as that generous philosophy which includes the whole of living nature in one ring-fence of affinity, and recognises for animals the rights we claim for ourselves. But, accepting as we did, page: 273 this ring-fence, this affinity, we agreed that animals were therefore bound to contribute their quota of individual pain to the general good. Even the most humane objectors to vivisection are at one on this in the elemental matters of food and service. For these we may both sacrifice and pain our poor dumb brethren. It is only Knowledge—Science—that has to go bare rather than be nourished by the sorrows of these others.

‘Food and service indeed, are primitive conditions, like flint implements or lake dwellings,’ said Arthur. ‘By increased intellectual needs we add confinement in cages for the purposes of observation—of itself infinitely more distressing to wild beasts and strong-winged birds than the short, sharp pain of a surgical operation, or even inoculation with a disease. Going a step further, and keeping pace with these ever-advancing intellectual needs, we add experimentalizing on the living body for the purposes of demonstration and the discovery page: 274 of such secrets of organization as could not be got at in any other way. That benevolence which would create a sacred section because of feebleness, and would forbear to impose a tax necessary for the good of the community because the creatures taxed are unable to remonstrate or resist, is injustice to the whole, however kindly to the part. Here, as in all other things, the gain of the greater number sanctions the sacrifice of the few.’

‘The reasonable verdict of scientific men must be the final decision on a matter of scientific need,’ I said. ‘All the same, the law must be careful to ensure due protection against abuse, and these weakest members of the community must be guarded against needless cruelty.’

‘Certainly,’ he returned. ‘But, I confess, it seems to me that what is called sport stands in as much need of legislative interference as does scientific experimentalization. I suppose this is because I am not page: 275 a sportsman myself, and therefore do not understand the pleasure bound up in hunting a hare or winging a pheasant. But I do see the enormous value of knowing how to stamp out cholera and consumption, and all other diseases which now more than decimate the human race. And I see also the quite as enormous value of finding out how the nerves act and are acted upon, and, if possible, of coming to the starting-point of even more important secrets still.’

‘Just so,’ I said. ‘Knowledge is the distinctive possession and most urgent need of man. It must be had at all costs. And to acquire it, men suffer to the full as much as do those poor creatures more directly sacrificed.’

Then we touched on the possibility of educating the masses to think for themselves—to accept responsibilities, and to frame a workable theory of life without the authority of religion and on the platform page: 276 only of respect for humanity and doing right for right's sake, according to the law of moral evolution. We spoke again of immortality and the unprovable nature of the whole subject. Yet the strength of the belief—its universality, not only with ignorance, but co-existing with bold thought and scientific habits of mind—were claims to consideration not to be satisfactorily disposed of on the theory of illusion. That Something which lies behind matter is a fact, call it what we will—that Force which is given by intense religious conviction is also a fact. We may not be able to demonstrate the one nor catalogue the other. All the same, they are; and ignorance of the source does not destroy the reality of the outflow. Christ in Heaven, the Saviour of mankind, may be a phantasm of faith; the houris of Islam may be the projections only of a passionate imagination. Nevertheless, for faith in that Christ who will succour and can save—for hope of page: 277 that Paradise where houris are the believer's eternal delights—men have died by thousands, and in their death have seen the heavenly images of their hope advancing to receive them.

‘But these mysteries of the spiritual life are also matters of comparative evolution,’ said Arthur. ‘When we come to primitive man—savages who live on raw flesh, and roots and worms; who have no more sense of decency nor chastity than a herd of beasts in the jungle; who cannot count, and whose language is little more than a bestial grunt sharpened to a cry—what spiritual life have we there? And where does this soul, of which we are so sure, begin? If at all, it is a result of evolution, like the rest—a potentiality to be realized by cultivation and endeavour. The grand mistake we have made is to suppose it universal—coincident with life, and as integral to man as are the lungs or the heart—and not something to be shaped and perfected according page: 278 to the law which obtains throughout universal nature.’

‘Even religionists feel the difficulty of the soulless man,’ I said. ‘The old phrase, “Ower gude for banning and ower bad for blessing,” expresses what, if your theory be correct, would be the condition of a man whose soul had never come to the birth and was abortive and inert.’

‘A large—by far the largest proportion,’ said Arthur.

‘Yes; our Buddhas are very few,’ I answered.

‘If any,’ was the reply. ‘But if one knew for certain that the immortality of the individual was in the power of the individual, what a tremendous leverage that would give to lift one into the higher life!’

‘Religion, as it stands, gives this leverage,’ I said. ‘In our search after causes, we must not forget results. Whatever may be the cause of faith, the result is page: 279 a power emphatically beyond our normal selves.’

‘It would be more certain if we knew that we ourselves were the absolute arbiters of our own eternal destinies,’ said Arthur. ‘We are weighted rather than helped by the belief that we shall be saved, by faith alone—that grace and mercy will do what self-control has failed to accomplish—that an extraneous power will supplement the halting of resolve and the slackening of endeavour.’

‘Spirituality governed by science?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘Else has it no truth.’

We glanced off from this to the boy's own future, when he drew out in fuller detail than ever to me before, his noble schemes for the employment of his fortune when he should come of age—and how he would use, for the advancement of science and the good of the whole human race through the free- freedom page: 280 dom of thought and the acquisition of knowledge, the resources which would then be open to him. His belief in the glorious future of mankind was very strong. He looked forward to the time when the passions, which are now cherished as part of the necessary furniture of self-respect, such as jealousy, revenge, resentment—or as lawful excesses of lawful emotions, such as the sickness of love, the unjust partialities of the family, exclusive clanship in any form of association—would be regarded as belonging to the Dark Ages, before the true light had risen. He saw no limit ahead. From the primal cosmic forces to Buddha, Plato, Christ—where was the line drawn, and who should dare to define the point marked No Beyond?

I had never seen him so brilliant nor so beautiful. Take him as the measure of his own possibilities, and what a grand thing indeed that future ideal humanity would be! Arthur Ronalds as the type of the page: 281 masculine mind—just, far-seeing, self-controlled, philosophic, altruistic; Mrs. Barry, whom I was getting to know for what she was, as the type of the feminine character—loving, sympathetic, devoted, strong to suffer in her own person without complaint, and, while smarting under her own wounds, able to bear the burdens of others—who could despair of the future? who see in life only a muddle, and in humanity only a failure? Give us time and we will do all! It has taken millions on millions of years to evolve man out of protoplasm; it will take some thousands more for all the savage and the beast to be educated out of him—for knowledge to take the place of ignorance—for reason, self-control, and altruism to be the motive forces of society, rather than passions, appetites and selfishness, whereof the only check is external law.

As I looked at the boy whom I grudged to the dead man who had been his father—seeing in him a future leader of page: 282 thought, a future torch-bearer who would carry the light far and high—I noticed a sudden change in his face. He first flushed violently, then turned to a deathly pallor, more grey than white and livid rather than blanched. And then, with a deep sigh, he fell forward in a loose heap on the couch. I caught him in my arms. He was nerveless, powerless, speechless, paralyzed. The marvellous mechanism of the brain was stopped, and a travelling clot, entangled in the fine network of the veins, had been like a grain of dust entangled in the delicate works of a watch. The movement, not quite stopped, was rendered useless for work or indication. He was not dead; but he was not alive as he had been a minute ago; and once more matter asserted its supremacy, and arrested function forced the question: Where is now that independent entity you call the soul? where that thing you call the mind? Of this future leader of thought, this past culmination of intel- intellect page: 283 lect, what was left?—an inert mass of flesh, speechless and reasonless—a clogged mechanism, with all its forces sterilized and obscured.

All that evening, and through the night, and for some twenty-four hours more, the boy lay in this terrible state—breathing, but not conscious; dead to himself and to the world, but still existing as an organism—a mere combination of physical forces working irregularly—a mere automatic machine, no more conscious than a pendulum, and with no more constructive intellect than an amœba.

Then he died—one scarcely knew when. The breathing grew gradually slower and fainter, the action of the heart feebler, till at last even the sharpest sense could discern nothing. It was like the fading away of the twilight after the sun has set. You could not say at what precise moment the twilight became darkness. Till the night was fully in the sky, you did not know that the day was done. So with the moment when Arthur page: 284 Ronalds passed wholly out of life; and the long lingering twilight, after the sharp sinking of the sun—that border-line where he had been neither alive nor dead—was unmistakably at an end.

Thus was quenched for ever one of the most glorious intellects which this generation would have had—thus was dissipated the force which, concentrated in that body and manifested through that brain, would have done so much for the world. It passed away into space before it had made the faintest mark on the sands of time. And what was left? A handful of milk-white ashes in a small alabaster urn—the incombustible residuum of that carbonized body, making a tangible memory to match the enduring thought; but of him, as he was—nothing!

I have stood by the graves of those I have loved most and honoured most; by the graves of my own people, whose lives seemed to be part of my own, so that when page: 285 they died it was as if some member of my body had been detached and buried out of sight; by the graves of great men whose work has changed the current of human thought, enlarged the boundaries of knowledge, and whose influence will live so long as the race endures: but I have never felt that I was standing by more than that which had been and now was not. Whether they had lived to the last of their powers, like Landor, or had done their life's work nobly, like Darwin—whether they had declined like Garibaldi, or had gone out in the morning of their promise like Clifford, like Balfour, like Buckle—or, still earlier, in their mere dawn, like Arthur—they had gone. Vixerunt:—they had lived. They had written their verses in the great poem of human history and had added their volute to the carved capitals of the temple; and then, the great ocean of night and the unknown had engulphed them; and we, standing on the shore—so soon to follow page: 286 them!—know no more of them than we know of the foam blown off from the crest of the wave by the wind.

Yet with this vague sense—mark! I do not say conviction, for I know nothing—this dumb dread of the absolute annihilation of the whole personality in one moment of time, one supreme throe of dissolution, I preserve my loyalty to the dear dead as part of my religion. They would not know if I were false to their love, treacherous to my trust. They are dead and done with. No sorrowful eyes would look at me through the darkness of the grave to reproach me with my falseness. The things of life and men are nought to them, and time and space are words which have no meaning for their closed ears. But, for the loyalty and love which do not die, I could as little forget or betray them, dead, as I could were they living to meet my inconstancy with scorn and my treachery with reproach.

Is this faithfulness of love the original, page: 287 whereof belief in immortality is the enlarged transcript? For those nameless, unknown units, those Gurths and Wambas and undesignated Roman slaves and Spartan helots, we do not formulate an individual immortality. But for the child, the father, the husband, the lover—for the mother who was our visible angel—for the woman we loved, who died before satiety had slain that love—for these, and for our friends, we create our place of departed souls, and house them there, still living though unseen—loving and beloved as when we last pressed their hands in ours, and last saw ourselves reflected in their eyes.

Oh for one to rise indeed from the dead, and tell us the Great Secret which ends all life! Oh! to be told the TRUTH, and to know if love be final here and hope a mere phantasy of love—no more solid than the Spectre of the Brocken—or if the instinct of that love has been truer than knowledge, and has revealed what science cannot touch!

page: 288

The ghostly shapes of sorrow and despair crowd round us thick as summer corn. Were we veritably assured that this life is indeed only the time of trial and probation—transitory, preparatory, as they say—to how small a volume even its greatest miseries would shrink! But deeper and lower than all creed, all faith, lies the consciousness of loss, the sentiment of death; and the mother who does not think twice of her darling out of sight among the flowers in the garden, weeps night and day for the death which yet she believes has carried her up to God and His heaven, and landed her in the world of endless delight.

Would that we could know! For if following after a phantom be a delusion—and delusion is only madness; not seeing the light is blindness—and blindness is mutilation. Between dread of believing a sham, and turning into the darkness of the night when the day shines bright behind those closed shutters which we could open, if we page: 289 would, the mind gets racked and riven. And the outside absolute to determine which is true, is yet to find—though we all so painfully seek, and some of us so firmly believe that we have taken secure and enduring hold!