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Ch. 3 - Old Mortality

I


THERE is a certain graveyard, looked upon on the one side by a
prison, on the other by the windows of a quiet hotel; below, under
a steep cliff, it beholds the traffic of many lines of rail, and
the scream of the engine and the shock of meeting buffers mount to
it all day long. The aisles are lined with the inclosed sepulchres
of families, door beyond door, like houses in a street; and in the
morning the shadow of the prison turrets, and of many tall
memorials, fall upon the graves. There, in the hot fits of youth,
I came to be unhappy. Pleasant incidents are woven with my memory
of the place. I here made friends with a plain old gentleman, a
visitor on sunny mornings, gravely cheerful, who, with one eye upon
the place that awaited him, chirped about his youth like winter
sparrows; a beautiful housemaid of the hotel once, for some days
together, dumbly flirted with me from a window and kept my wild
heart flying; and once - she possibly remembers - the wise Eugenia
followed me to that austere inclosure. Her hair came down, and in
the shelter of the tomb my trembling fingers helped her to repair
the braid. But for the most part I went there solitary and, with
irrevocable emotion, pored on the names of the forgotten. Name
after name, and to each the conventional attributions and the idle
dates: a regiment of the unknown that had been the joy of mothers,
and had thrilled with the illusions of youth, and at last, in the
dim sick-room, wrestled with the pangs of old mortality. In that
whole crew of the silenced there was but one of whom my fancy had
received a picture; and he, with his comely, florid countenance,
bewigged and habited in scarlet, and in his day combining fame and
popularity, stood forth, like a taunt, among that company of
phantom appellations. It was then possible to leave behind us
something more explicit than these severe, monotonous and lying
epitaphs; and the thing left, the memory of a painted picture and
what we call the immortality of a name, was hardly more desirable
than mere oblivion. Even David Hume, as he lay composed beneath
that "circular idea," was fainter than a dream; and when the
housemaid, broom in hand, smiled and beckoned from the open window,
the fame of that bewigged philosopher melted like a raindrop in the
sea.

And yet in soberness I cared as little for the housemaid as for
David Hume. The interests of youth are rarely frank; his passions,
like Noah's dove, come home to roost. The fire, sensibility, and
volume of his own nature, that is all that he has learned to
recognise. The tumultuary and gray tide of life, the empire of
routine, the unrejoicing faces of his elders, fill him with
contemptuous surprise; there also he seems to walk among the tombs
of spirits; and it is only in the course of years, and after much
rubbing with his fellow-men, that he begins by glimpses to see
himself from without and his fellows from within: to know his own
for one among the thousand undenoted countenances of the city
street, and to divine in others the throb of human agony and hope.
In the meantime he will avoid the hospital doors, the pale faces,
the cripple, the sweet whiff of chloroform - for there, on the most
thoughtless, the pains of others are burned home; but he will
continue to walk, in a divine self-pity, the aisles of the
forgotten graveyard. The length of man's life, which is endless to
the brave and busy, is scorned by his ambitious thought. He cannot
bear to have come for so little, and to go again so wholly. He
cannot bear, above all, in that brief scene, to be still idle, and
by way of cure, neglects the little that he has to do. The parable
of the talent is the brief epitome of youth. To believe in
immortality is one thing, but it is first needful to believe in
life. Denunciatory preachers seem not to suspect that they may be
taken gravely and in evil part; that young men may come to think of
time as of a moment, and with the pride of Satan wave back the
inadequate gift. Yet here is a true peril; this it is that sets
them to pace the graveyard alleys and to read, with strange
extremes of pity and derision, the memorials of the dead.

Books were the proper remedy: books of vivid human import, forcing
upon their minds the issues, pleasures, busyness, importance and
immediacy of that life in which they stand; books of smiling or
heroic temper, to excite or to console; books of a large design,
shadowing the complexity of that game of consequences to which we
all sit down, the hanger-back not least. But the average sermon
flees the point, disporting itself in that eternity of which we
know, and need to know, so little; avoiding the bright, crowded,
and momentous fields of life where destiny awaits us. Upon the
average book a writer may be silent; he may set it down to his ill-
hap that when his own youth was in the acrid fermentation, he
should have fallen and fed upon the cheerless fields of Obermann.
Yet to Mr. Arnold, who led him to these pastures, he still bears a
grudge. The day is perhaps not far oft when people will begin to
count MOLL FLANDERS, ay, or THE COUNTRY WIFE, more wholesome and
more pious diet than these guide-books to consistent egoism.

But the most inhuman of boys soon wearies of the inhumanity of
Obermann. And even while I still continued to be a haunter of the
graveyard, I began insensibly to turn my attention to the grave-
diggers, and was weaned out of myself to observe the conduct of
visitors. This was dayspring, indeed, to a lad in such great
darkness. Not that I began to see men, or to try to see them, from
within, nor to learn charity and modesty and justice from the
sight; but still stared at them externally from the prison windows
of my affectation. Once I remember to have observed two working-
women with a baby halting by a grave; there was something
monumental in the grouping, one upright carrying the child, the
other with bowed face crouching by her side. A wreath of
immortelles under a glass dome had thus attracted them; and,
drawing near, I overheard their judgment on that wonder. "Eh! what
extravagance!"

To a youth afflicted with the callosity of sentiment, this quaint
and pregnant saying appeared merely base.

My acquaintance with grave-diggers, considering its length, was
unremarkable. One, indeed, whom I found plying his spade in the
red evening, high above Allan Water and in the shadow of Dunblane
Cathedral, told me of his acquaintance with the birds that still
attended on his labours; how some would even perch about him,
waiting for their prey; and in a true Sexton's Calendar, how the
species varied with the season of the year. But this was the very
poetry of the profession. The others whom I knew were somewhat
dry. A faint flavour of the gardener hung about them, but
sophisticated and dis-bloomed. They had engagements to keep, not
alone with the deliberate series of the seasons, but with man-
kind's clocks and hour-long measurement of time. And thus there
was no leisure for the relishing pinch, or the hour-long gossip,
foot on spade. They were men wrapped up in their grim business;
they liked well to open long-closed family vaults, blowing in the
key and throwing wide the grating; and they carried in their minds
a calendar of names and dates. It would be "in fifty-twa" that
such a tomb was last opened for "Miss Jemimy." It was thus they
spoke of their past patients -familiarly but not without respect,
like old family servants. Here is indeed a servant, whom we forget
that we possess; who does not wait at the bright table, or run at
the bell's summons, but patiently smokes his pipe beside the
mortuary fire, and in his faithful memory notches the burials of
our race. To suspect Shakespeare in his maturity of a superficial
touch savours of paradox; yet he was surely in error when he
attributed insensibility to the digger of the grave. But perhaps
it is on Hamlet that the charge should lie; or perhaps the English
sexton differs from the Scotch. The "goodman delver," reckoning up
his years of office, might have at least suggested other thoughts.
It is a pride common among sextons. A cabinet-maker does not count
his cabinets, nor even an author his volumes, save when they stare
upon him from the shelves; but the grave-digger numbers his graves.
He would indeed be something different from human if his solitary
open-air and tragic labours left not a broad mark upon his mind.
There, in his tranquil aisle, apart from city clamour, among the
cats and robins and the ancient effigies and legends of the tomb,
he waits the continual passage of his contemporaries, falling like
minute drops into eternity. As they fall, he counts them; and this
enumeration, which was at first perhaps appalling to his soul, in
the process of years and by the kindly influence of habit grows to
be his pride and pleasure. There are many common stories telling
how he piques himself on crowded cemeteries. But I will rather
tell of the old grave-digger of Monkton, to whose unsuffering
bedside the minister was summoned. He dwelt in a cottage built
into the wall of the church-yard; and through a bull's-eye pane
above his bed he could see, as he lay dying, the rank grasses and
the upright and recumbent stones. Dr. Laurie was, I think, a
Moderate: 'tis certain, at least, that he took a very Roman view of
deathbed dispositions; for he told the old man that he had lived
beyond man's natural years, that his life had been easy and
reputable, that his family had all grown up and been a credit to
his care, and that it now behoved him unregretfully to gird his
loins and follow the majority. The grave-digger heard him out;
then he raised himself upon one elbow, and with the other hand
pointed through the window to the scene of his life-long labours.
"Doctor," he said, "I ha'e laid three hunner and fower-score in
that kirkyaird; an it had been His wull," indicating Heaven, "I
would ha'e likit weel to ha'e made out the fower hunner." But it
was not to be; this tragedian of the fifth act had now another part
to play; and the time had come when others were to gird and carry
him.


II


I would fain strike a note that should be more heroical; but the
ground of all youth's suffering, solitude, hysteria, and haunting
of the grave, is nothing else than naked, ignorant selfishness. It
is himself that he sees dead; those are his virtues that are
forgotten; his is the vague epitaph. Pity him but the more, if
pity be your cue; for where a man is all pride, vanity, and
personal aspiration, he goes through fire unshielded. In every
part and corner of our life, to lose oneself is to be gainer; to
forget oneself is to be happy; and this poor, laughable and tragic
fool has not yet learned the rudiments; himself, giant Prometheus,
is still ironed on the peaks of Caucasus. But by-and-by his truant
interests will leave that tortured body, slip abroad and gather
flowers. Then shall death appear before him in an altered guise;
no longer as a doom peculiar to himself, whether fate's crowning
injustice or his own last vengeance upon those who fail to value
him; but now as a power that wounds him far more tenderly, not
without solemn compensations, taking and giving, bereaving and yet
storing up.

The first step for all is to learn to the dregs our own ignoble
fallibility. When we have fallen through storey after storey of
our vanity and aspiration, and sit rueful among the ruins, then it
is that we begin to measure the stature of our friends: how they
stand between us and our own contempt, believing in our best; how,
linking us with others, and still spreading wide the influential
circle, they weave us in and in with the fabric of contemporary
life; and to what petty size they dwarf the virtues and the vices
that appeared gigantic in our youth. So that at the last, when
such a pin falls out - when there vanishes in the least breath of
time one of those rich magazines of life on which we drew for our
supply - when he who had first dawned upon us as a face among the
faces of the city, and, still growing, came to bulk on our regard
with those clear features of the loved and living man, falls in a
breath to memory and shadow, there falls along with him a whole
wing of the palace of our life.


III


One such face I now remember; one such blank some half-a-dozen of
us labour to dissemble. In his youth he was most beautiful in
person, most serene and genial by disposition; full of racy words
and quaint thoughts. Laughter attended on his coming. He had the
air of a great gentleman, jovial and royal with his equals, and to
the poorest student gentle and attentive. Power seemed to reside
in him exhaustless; we saw him stoop to play with us, but held him
marked for higher destinies; we loved his notice; and I have rarely
had my pride more gratified than when he sat at my father's table,
my acknowledged friend. So he walked among us, both hands full of
gifts, carrying with nonchalance the seeds of a most influential
life.

The powers and the ground of friendship is a mystery; but, looking
back, I can discern that, in part, we loved the thing he was, for
some shadow of what he was to be. For with all his beauty, power,
breeding, urbanity and mirth, there was in those days something
soulless in our friend. He would astonish us by sallies, witty,
innocent and inhumane; and by a misapplied Johnsonian pleasantry,
demolish honest sentiment. I can still see and hear him, as he
went his way along the lamplit streets, LA CI DAREM LA MANO on his
lips, a noble figure of a youth, but following vanity and
incredulous of good; and sure enough, somewhere on the high seas of
life, with his health, his hopes, his patrimony and his self-
respect, miserably went down.

From this disaster, like a spent swimmer, he came desperately
ashore, bankrupt of money and consideration; creeping to the family
he had deserted; with broken wing, never more to rise. But in his
face there was a light of knowledge that was new to it. Of the
wounds of his body he was never healed; died of them gradually,
with clear-eyed resignation; of his wounded pride, we knew only
from his silence. He returned to that city where he had lorded it
in his ambitious youth; lived there alone, seeing few; striving to
retrieve the irretrievable; at times still grappling with that
mortal frailty that had brought him down; still joying in his
friend's successes; his laugh still ready but with kindlier music;
and over all his thoughts the shadow of that unalterable law which
he had disavowed and which had brought him low. Lastly, when his
bodily evils had quite disabled him, he lay a great while dying,
still without complaint, still finding interests; to his last step
gentle, urbane and with the will to smile.

The tale of this great failure is, to those who remained true to
him, the tale of a success. In his youth he took thought for no
one but himself; when he came ashore again, his whole armada lost,
he seemed to think of none but others. Such was his tenderness for
others, such his instinct of fine courtesy and pride, that of that
impure passion of remorse he never breathed a syllable; even regret
was rare with him, and pointed with a jest. You would not have
dreamed, if you had known him then, that this was that great
failure, that beacon to young men, over whose fall a whole society
had hissed and pointed fingers. Often have we gone to him, red-hot
with our own hopeful sorrows, railing on the rose-leaves in our
princely bed of life, and he would patiently give ear and wisely
counsel; and it was only upon some return of our own thoughts that
we were reminded what manner of man this was to whom we
disembosomed: a man, by his own fault, ruined; shut out of the
garden of his gifts; his whole city of hope both ploughed and
salted; silently awaiting the deliverer. Then something took us by
the throat; and to see him there, so gentle, patient, brave and
pious, oppressed but not cast down, sorrow was so swallowed up in
admiration that we could not dare to pity him. Even if the old
fault flashed out again, it but awoke our wonder that, in that lost
battle, he should have still the energy to fight. He had gone to
ruin with a kind of kingly ABANDON, like one who condescended; but
once ruined, with the lights all out, he fought as for a kingdom.
Most men, finding themselves the authors of their own disgrace,
rail the louder against God or destiny. Most men, when they
repent, oblige their friends to share the bitterness of that
repentance. But he had held an inquest and passed sentence: MENE,
MENE; and condemned himself to smiling silence. He had given
trouble enough; had earned misfortune amply, and foregone the right
to murmur.

Thus was our old comrade, like Samson, careless in his days of
strength; but on the coming of adversity, and when that strength
was gone that had betrayed him - "for our strength is weakness" -
he began to blossom and bring forth. Well, now, he is out of the
fight: the burden that he bore thrown down before the great
deliverer. We

"In the vast cathedral leave him;
God accept him,
Christ receive him!"


IV


If we go now and look on these innumerable epitaphs, the pathos and
the irony are strangely fled. They do not stand merely to the
dead, these foolish monuments; they are pillars and legends set up
to glorify the difficult but not desperate life of man. This
ground is hallowed by the heroes of defeat.

I see the indifferent pass before my friend's last resting-place;
pause, with a shrug of pity, marvelling that so rich an argosy had
sunk. A pity, now that he is done with suffering, a pity most
uncalled for, and an ignorant wonder. Before those who loved him,
his memory shines like a reproach; they honour him for silent
lessons; they cherish his example; and in what remains before them
of their toil, fear to be unworthy of the dead. For this proud man
was one of those who prospered in the valley of humiliation; - of
whom Bunyan wrote that, "Though Christian had the hard hap to meet
in the valley with Apollyon, yet I must tell you, that in former
times men have met with angels here; have found pearls here; and
have in this place found the words of life."

Robert Louis Stevenson