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THE DARKEST HOUR.
Suffering is perhaps the only preparation for suffering: still I was but poorly prepared for what followed.
Having gathered strength, and a certain quietness which I could not mistake for peace, I returned to London towards the close of the Spring. I had in the interval heard nothing of Mary. The few letters Marston had sent on had been almost exclusively from my publishers. But the very hour I reached my lodging, came a note, which I opened trembling, for it was in the handwriting of Miss Pease.
I cannot, I think, be wrong in giving you a piece of information which will be in the newspapers to-morrow morning. Your old acquaintance, and my young relative, Mr Brotherton, was married this morning, at St George's, Hanover Square, to your late friend's sister, Miss Mary Osborne. They have just left for Dover on their way to Switzerland.
Your sincere well-wisher,
Even at this distance of time, I should have to exhort myself to write with calmness, were it not that the utter despair of conveying my feelings, if indeed my soul had not for the time passed beyond feeling into some abyss unknown to human consciousness, renders it unnecessary. This despair of communication has two sources--the one simply the conviction of the impossibility of expressing any feeling, much more such feeling as mine then was--and is; the other the conviction that only to the heart of love can the sufferings of love speak. The attempt of a lover to move, by the presentation of his own suffering, the heart of her who loves him not, is as unavailing as it is unmanly. The poet who sings most wailfully of the torments of the lover's hell, is but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal in the ears of her who has at best only a general compassion to meet the song withal--possibly only an individual vanity which crowns her with his woes as with the trophies of a conquest. True, he is understood and worshipped by all the other wailful souls in the first infernal circle, as one of the great men of their order--able to put into words full of sweet torment the dire hopelessness of their misery; but for such the singer, singing only for ears eternally deaf to his song, cares nothing; or if for a moment he receives consolation from their sympathy, it is but a passing weakness which the breath of an indignant self-condemnation--even contempt, the next moment sweeps away. In God alone there must be sympathy and cure; but I had not then--have I indeed yet found what that cure is? I am at all events now able to write with calmness. If suffering destroyed itself, as some say, mine ought to have disappeared long ago; but to that I can neither pretend nor confess.
For the first time, after all I had encountered, I knew what suffering could be. It is still at moments an agony as of hell to recall this and the other thought that then stung me like a white-hot arrow: the shafts have long been drawn out, but the barbed heads are still there. I neither stormed nor maddened. I only felt a freezing hand lay hold of my heart, and gripe it closer and closer till I should have sickened, but that the pain ever stung me into fresh life; and ever since I have gone about the world with that hard lump somewhere in my bosom into which the griping hand and the griped heart have grown and stiffened.
I fled at once back to my solitary house, looking for no relief in its solitude, only the negative comfort of escaping the eyes of men. I could not bear the sight of my fellow-creatures. To say that the world had grown black to me, is as nothing: I ceased---I will not say to believe in God, for I never dared say that mighty thing--but I ceased to hope in God. The universe had grown a negation which yet forced its presence upon me--death that bred worms. If there were a God anywhere, this universe could be nothing more than his forsaken moth-eaten garment. He was a God who did not care. Order was all an invention of phosphorescent human brains; light itself the mocking smile of a Jupiter over his writhing sacrifices. At times I laughed at the tortures of my own heart, saying to it, 'Writhe on, worm; thou deservest thy writhing in that thou writhest. Godless creature, why dost thou not laugh with me? Am I not merry over thee and the world--in that ye are both rottenness to the core?' The next moment my heart and I would come together with a shock, and I knew it was myself that scorned myself.
Such being my mood, it will cause no surprise if I say that I too was tempted to suicide; the wonder would have been if it had been otherwise. The soft keen curves of that fatal dagger, which had not only slain Charley but all my hopes--for had he lived this horror could not have been--grew almost lovely in my eyes. Until now it had looked cruel, fiendish, hateful; but now I would lay it before me and contemplate it. In some griefs there is a wonderful power of self-contemplation, which indeed forms their only solace; the moment it can set the sorrow away from itself sufficiently to regard it, the tortured heart begins to repose; but suddenly, like a waking tiger, the sorrow leaps again into its lair, and the agony commences anew. The dagger was the type of my grief and its torture: might it not, like the brazen serpent, be the cure for the sting of its living counterpart? But alas! where was the certainty? Could I slay myself? This outer breathing form I could dismiss--but the pain was not there. I was not mad, and I knew that a deeper death than that could give, at least. than I had any assurance that could give, alone could bring repose. For, impossible as I had always found it actually to believe in immortality, I now found it equally impossible to believe in annihilation. And even if annihilation should be the final result, who could tell but it might require ages of a horrible slow-decaying dream-consciousness to kill the living thing which felt itself other than its body?
Until now, I had always accepted what seemed the natural and universal repugnance to absolute dissolution as the strongest argument on the side of immortality;--for why should a man shrink from that which belonged to his nature? But now annihilation seemed the one lovely thing, the one sole only lonely thought in which lay no blackness of burning darkness. Oh, for one eternal unconscious sleep!--the nearest likeness we can cherish of that inconceivable nothingness--ever denied by the very thinking of it--by the vain attempt to realize that whose very existence is the knowing nothing of itself! Could that dagger have insured me such repose, or had there been any draught of Lethe, utter Lethe, whose blessed poison would have assuredly dissipated like a fume this conscious self-tormenting me, I should not now be writhing anew, as in the clutches of an old grief, clasping me like a corpse, stung to simulated life by the galvanic battery of recollection. Vivid as it seems--all I suffer as I write is but a faint phantasm of what I then endured.
I learned, therefore, that to some minds the argument for immortality drawn from the apparently universal shrinking from annihilation must be ineffectual, seeing they themselves do not shrink from it. Convince a man that there is no God--or, for I doubt if that be altogether possible--make it, I will say, impossible for him to hope in God--and it cannot be that annihilation should seem an evil. If there is no God, annihilation is the one thing to be longed for, with all that might of longing which is the mainspring of human action. In a word, it is not immortality the human heart cries out after, but that immortal eternal thought whose life is its life, whose wisdom is its wisdom, whose ways and whose thoughts shall--must one day--become its ways and its thoughts. Dissociate immortality from the living Immortality, and it is not a thing to be desired--not a thing that can on those terms, or even on the fancy of those terms, be desired.
But such thoughts as these were far from me then. I lived because I despaired of death. I ate by a sort of blind animal instinct, and so lived. The time had been when I would despise myself for being able to eat in the midst of emotion; but now I cared so little for the emotion even, that eating or not eating had nothing to do with the matter. I ate because meat was set before me; I slept because sleep came upon me. It was a horrible time. My life seemed only a vermiculate one, a crawling about of half-thoughts-half-feelings through the corpse of a decaying existence. The heart of being was withdrawn from me, and my life was but the vacant pericardium in which it had once throbbed out and sucked in the red fountains of life and gladness.
I would not be thought to have fallen to this all but bottomless depth only because I had lost Mary. Still less was it because of the fact that in her, around whom had gathered all the devotion with which the man in me could regard woman, I had lost all womankind. It was the loss of Mary, as I then judged it, not, I repeat, the fact that I had lost her. It was that she had lost herself. Thence it was, I say, that I lost my hope in God. For, if there were a God, how could he let purity be clasped in the arms of defilement? how could he marry my Athanasia--not to a corpse, but to a Plague? Here was the man who had done more to ruin her brother than any but her father, and God had given her to him! I had had--with the commonest of men--some notion of womanly purity--how was it that hers had not instinctively shuddered and shrunk? how was it that the life of it had not taken refuge with death to shun bare contact with the coarse impurity of such a nature as that of Geoffrey Brotherton? My dreams had been dreams indeed! Was my Athanasia dead, or had she never been? In my thought, she had 'said to Corruption, Thou art my father; to the worm, Thou art my mother and my sister.' Who should henceforth say of any woman that she was impure? She might love him--true; but what was she then who was able to love such a man? It was this that stormed the citadel of my hope, and drove me from even thinking of a God.
Gladly would I now have welcomed any bodily suffering that could hide me from myself; but no illness came. I was a living pain, a conscious ill-being. In a thousand forms those questions would ever recur, but without hope of answer. When I fell asleep from exhaustion, hideous visions of her with Geoffrey would start me up with a great cry, sometimes with a curse on my lips. Nor were they the most horrible of those dreams in which she would help him to mock me. Once, and only once, I found myself dreaming the dream of that night, and I knew that I had dreamed it before. Through palace and chapel and charnel-house, I followed her, ever with a dim sense of awful result; and when at the last she lifted the shining veil, instead of the face of Athanasia, the bare teeth of a skull grinned at me from under a spotted shroud, through which the sunlight shone from behind, revealing all its horrors. I was not mad--my reason had not given way: how remains a marvel.
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