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hat is to be thought of sudden death? It is remarkable that, in different conditions of society, it has been variously regarded as the consummation of an earthly career most fervently to be desired, and on the other hand, as that consummation which is most of all to be deprecated. C?sar the Dictator, at his last dinner-party (c?na), and the very evening before his assassination, being questioned as to the mode of death which, in his opinion, might seem the most eligible, replied, “That which should be most sudden.” On the other hand, the divine Litany of our English Church, when breathing forth supplications, as if in some representative character for the whole human race prostrate before God, places such a death in the very van of horrors. “From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death,—Good Lord, deliver us.” Sudden death is here made to crown the climax in a grand ascent of calamities; it is the last of curses; and yet, by the noblest of Romans, it was treated as the first of blessings.[183] In that difference, most readers will see little more than the difference between Christianity and Paganism. But there I hesitate. The Christian Church may be right in its estimate of sudden death; and it is a natural feeling, though after all it may also be an infirm one, to wish for a quiet dismissal from life,—as that which seems most reconcilable with meditation, with penitential retrospects, and with the humilities of farewell prayer. There does not, however, occur to me any direct Scriptural warrant for this earnest petition of the English Litany. It seems rather a petition indulged to human infirmity, than exacted from human piety. And, however that may be, two remarks suggest themselves as prudent restraints upon a doctrine, which else may wander, and has wandered, into an uncharitable superstition. The first is this: that many people are likely to exaggerate the horror of a sudden death (I mean the objective horror to him who contemplates such a death, not the subjective horror to him who suffers it), from the false disposition to lay a stress upon words or acts, simply because by an accident they have become words or acts. If a man dies, for instance, by some sudden death when he happens to be intoxicated, such a death is falsely regarded with peculiar horror; as though the intoxication were suddenly exalted into a blasphemy. But that is unphilosophic. The man was, or he was not, habitually a drunkard. If not, if his intoxication were a solitary accident, there can be no reason at all for allowing special emphasis to this act, simply because through misfortune it became his final act. Nor, on the other hand, if it were no accident, but one of his habitual transgressions, will it be the more[184] habitual or the more a transgression, because some sudden calamity, surprising him, has caused this habitual transgression to be also a final one? Could the man have had any reason even dimly to foresee his own sudden death, there would have been a new feature in his act of intemperance,—a feature of presumption and irreverence, as in one that by possibility felt himself drawing near to the presence of God. But this is no part of the case supposed. And the only new element in the man’s act is not any element of extra immorality, but simply of extra misfortune.
The other remark has reference to the meaning of the word sudden. And it is a strong illustration of the duty which forever calls us to the stern valuation of words, that very possibly C?sar and the Christian Church do not differ in the way supposed; that is, do not differ by any difference of doctrine as between Pagan and Christian views of the moral temper appropriate to death, but that they are contemplating different cases. Both contemplate a violent death, a Βιαθανατο?—death that is Βιαιο?: but the difference is that the Roman by the word “sudden” means an unlingering death: whereas the Christian Litany by “sudden” means a death without warning, consequently without any available summons to religious preparation. The poor mutineer, who kneels down to gather into his heart the bullets from twelve firelocks of his pitying comrades, dies by a most sudden death in C?sar’s sense: one shock, one mighty spasm, one (possibly not one) groan, and all is over. But, in the sense of the Litany, his death is far from sudden; his offence, originally, his imprisonment, his trial, the[185] interval between his sentence and its execution, having all furnished him with separate warnings of his fate,—having all summoned him to meet it with solemn preparation.
Meantime, whatever may be thought of a sudden death as a mere variety in the modes of dying, where death in some shape is inevitable,—a question which, equally in the Roman and the Christian sense, will be variously answered according to each man’s variety of temperament,—certainly, upon one aspect of sudden death there can be no opening for doubt, that of all agonies incident to man it is the most frightful, that of all martyrdoms it is the most freezing to human sensibilities,—namely, where it surprises a man under circumstances which offer (or which seem to offer) some hurried and inappreciable chance of evading it. Any effort, by which such an evasion can be accomplished, must be as sudden as the danger which it affronts. Even that, even the sickening necessity for hurrying in extremity where all hurry seems destined to be vain, self-baffled, and where the dreadful knell of too late is already sounding in the ears by anticipation,—even that anguish is liable to a hideous exasperation in one particular case, namely, where the agonizing appeal is made not exclusively to the instinct of self-preservation, but to the conscience on behalf of another life besides your own, accidentally cast upon your protection. To fail, to collapse in a service merely your own, might seem comparatively venial; though, in fact, it is far from venial. But to fail in a case where Providence has suddenly thrown into your hands the final interests of another,—of a fellow-creature shuddering[186] between the gates of life and death; this, to a man of apprehensive conscience, would mingle the misery of an atrocious criminality with the misery of a bloody calamity. The man is called upon, too probably, to die; but to die at the very moment when, by any momentary collapse, he is self-denounced as a murderer. He had but the twinkling of an eye for his effort, and that effort might, at the best, have been unavailing; but from this shadow of a chance, small or great, how if he has recoiled by a treasonable lacheté? The effort might have been without hope; but to have risen to the level of that effort would have rescued him, though not from dying, yet from dying as a traitor to his duties.
The situation here contemplated exposes a dreadful ulcer lurking far down in the depths of human nature. It is not that men generally are summoned to face such awful trials. But potentially, and in shadowy outline, such a trial is moving subterraneously in perhaps all men’s natures,—muttering under ground in one world, to be realized perhaps in some other. Upon the secret mirror of our dreams such a trial is darkly projected at intervals, perhaps, to every one of us. That dream, so familiar to childhood, of meeting a lion, and, from languishing prostration in hope and vital energy, that constant sequel of lying down before him, publishes the secret frailty of human nature,—reveals its deep-seated Pariah falsehood to itself,—records its abysmal treachery. Perhaps not one of us escapes that dream; perhaps, as by some sorrowful doom of man, that dream repeats for every one of us, through every generation, the original temptation in Eden. Every one of us, in[187] this dream, has a bait offered to the infirm places of his own individual will; once again a snare is made ready for leading him into captivity to a luxury of ruin; again, as in aboriginal Paradise, the man falls from innocence; once again, by infinite iteration, the ancient Earth groans to God, through her secret caves, over the weakness of her child; “Nature, from her seat, sighing through all her works,” again “gives signs of woe that all is lost”; and again the countersign is repeated to the sorrowing heavens of the endless rebellion against God. Many people think that one man, the patriarch of our race, could not in his single person execute this rebellion for all his race. Perhaps they are wrong. But, even if not, perhaps in the world of dreams every one of us ratifies for himself the original act. Our English rite of Confirmation, by which, in years of awakened reason, we take upon us the engagements contracted for us in our slumbering infancy,—how sublime a rite is that! The little postern gate, through which the baby in its cradle had been silently placed for a time within the glory of God’s countenance, suddenly rises to the clouds as a triumphal arch, through which, with banners displayed and martial pomps, we make our second entry as crusading soldiers militant for God, by personal choice and by sacramental oath. Each man says in effect, “Lo! I rebaptize myself; and that which once was sworn on my behalf, now I swear for myself.” Even so in dreams, perhaps, under some secret conflict of the midnight sleeper, lighted up to the consciousness at the time, but darkened to the memory as soon as all is finished, each several child of our mysterious race completes for himself the aboriginal fall.
As I drew near to the Manchester post-office, I found that it was considerably past midnight; but to my great relief, as it was important for me to be in Westmoreland by the morning, I saw by the huge saucer eyes of the mail, blazing through the gloom of overhanging houses, that my chance was not yet lost. Past the time it was; but by some luck, very unusual in my experience, the mail was not even yet ready to start. I ascended to my seat on the box, where my cloak was still lying as it had lain at the Bridgewater Arms. I had left it there in imitation of a nautical discoverer, who leaves a bit of bunting on the shore of his discovery, by way of warning off the ground the whole human race, and signalizing to the Christian and the heathen worlds, with his best compliments, that he has planted his throne forever upon that virgin soil: henceforward claiming the jus dominii to the top of the atmosphere above it, and also the right of driving shafts to the centre of the earth below it; so that all people found after this warning, either aloft in the atmosphere, or in the shafts, or squatting on the soil, will be treated as trespassers,—that is, decapitated by their very faithful and obedient servant, the owner of the said bunting. Possibly my cloak might not have been respected, and the jus gentium might have been cruelly violated in my person,—for in the dark, people commit deeds of darkness, gas being a great ally of morality,—but it so happened that, on this night, there was no other outside passenger; and the crime, which else was but too probable, missed fire for want of a criminal. By the way, I may as well mention at this point, since a circumstantial accuracy is essential to the effect[189] of my narrative, that there was no other person of any description whatever about the mail—the guard, the coachman, and myself being allowed for—except only one,—a horrid creature of the class known to the world as insiders, but whom young Oxford called sometimes “Trojans,” in opposition to our Grecian selves, and sometimes “vermin.” A Turkish Effendi, who piques himself on good-breeding, will never mention by name a pig. Yet it is but too often that he has reason to mention this animal; since constantly, in the streets of Stamboul, he has his trousers deranged or polluted by this vile creature running between his legs. But under any excess of hurry he is always careful, out of respect to the company he is dining with, to suppress the odious name, and to call the wretch “that other creature,” as though all animal life beside formed one group, and this odious beast (to whom, as Chrysippus observed, salt serves as an apology for a soul) formed another and alien group on the outside of creation. Now I, who am an English Effendi, that think myself to understand good-breeding as well as any son of Othman, beg my reader’s pardon for having mentioned an insider by his gross natural name. I shall do so no more; and, if I should have occasion to glance at so painful a subject, I shall always call him “that other creature.” Let us hope, however, that no such distressing occasion will arise. But, by the way, an occasion arises at this moment; for the Reader will be sure to ask, when we come to the story, “Was this other creature present?” He was not; or more correctly, perhaps, it was not. We dropped the creature—or the creature, by natural imbecility, dropped itself—within[190] the first ten miles from Manchester. In the latter case, I wish to make a philosophic remark of a moral tendency. When I die, or when the reader dies, and by repute suppose of fever, it will never be known whether we died in reality of the fever or of the doctor. But this other creature, in the case of dropping out of the coach, will enjoy a coroner’s inquest; consequently he will enjoy an epitaph. For I insist upon it, that the verdict of a coroner’s jury makes the best of epitaphs. It is brief, so that the public all find time to read; it is pithy, so that the surviving friends (if any can survive such a loss) remember it without fatigue; it is upon oath, so that rascals and Dr. Johnsons cannot pick holes in it. “Died through the visitation of intense stupidity, by impinging on a moonlight night against the off-hind wheel of the Glasgow mail! Deodand upon the said wheel—twopence.” What a simple lapidary inscription! Nobody much in the wrong but an off-wheel; and with few acquaintances; and if it were but rendered into choice Latin, though there would be a little bother in finding a Ciceronian word for “off-wheel,” Marcellus himself, that great master of sepulchral eloquence, could not show a better. Why I call this little remark moral is, from the compensation it points out. Here, by the supposition, is that other creature on the one side, the beast of the world; and he (or it) gets an epitaph. You and I, on the contrary, the pride of our friends, get none.
But why linger on the subject of vermin? Having mounted the box, I took a small quantity of laudanum, having already travelled two hundred and fifty miles,—namely, from a point seventy miles beyond London, upon[191] a simple breakfast. In the taking of laudanum there was nothing extraordinary. But by accident it drew upon me the special attention of my assessor on the box, the coachman. And in that there was nothing extraordinary. But by accident, and with great delight, it drew my attention to the fact that this coachman was a monster in point of size, and that he had but one eye. In fact, he had been foretold by Virgil as—
“Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens cui lumen ademptum.”
He answered in every point,—a monster he was,—dreadful, shapeless, huge, who had lost an eye. But why should that delight me? Had he been one of the Calendars in the Arabian Nights, and had paid down his eye as the price of his criminal curiosity, what right had I to exult in his misfortune? I did not exult; I delighted in no man’s punishment, though it were even merited. But these personal distinctions identified in an instant an old friend of mine, whom I had known in the South for some years as the most masterly of mail-coachmen. He was the man in all Europe that could best have undertaken to drive six-in-hand full gallop over Al Sirat,—that famous bridge of Mahomet across the bottomless gulf,—backing himself against the Prophet and twenty such fellows. I used to call him Cyclops mastigophorus, Cyclops the whip-bearer, until I observed that his skill made whips useless, except to fetch off an impertinent fly from a leader’s head; upon which I changed his Grecian name to Cyclops diphrélates (Cyclops the charioteer). I, and others known to me, studied under him the diphrelatic art. Excuse, reader, a word too elegant[192] to be pedantic. And also take this remark from me, as a gage d’amitié, that no word ever was or can be pedantic which, by supporting a distinction, supports the accuracy of logic; or which fills up a chasm for the understanding. As a pupil, though I paid extra fees, I cannot say that I stood high in his esteem. It showed his dogged honesty (though, observe, not his discernment), that he could not see my merits. Perhaps we ought to excuse his absurdity in this particular by remembering his want of an eye. That made him blind to my merits. Irritating as this blindness was (surely it could not be envy!) he always courted my conversation, in which art I certainly had the whip-hand of him. On this occasion, great joy was at our meeting. But what was Cyclops doing here? Had the medical men recommended northern air, or how? I collected, from such explanations as he volunteered, that he had an interest at stake in a suit-at-law pending at Lancaster; so that probably he had got himself transferred to this station, for the purpose of connecting with his professional pursuits an instant readiness for the calls of his lawsuit.
Meantime, what are we stopping for? Surely, we’ve been waiting long enough. O, this procrastinating mail, and O, this procrastinating post-office! Can’t they take a lesson upon that subject from me? Some people have called me procrastinating. Now you are witness, reader, that I was in time for them. But can they lay their hands on their hearts, and say that they were in time for me? I, during my life, have often had to wait for the post-office; the post-office never waited a minute for me. What are they about? The guard tells me that there is[193] a large extra accumulation of foreign mails this night, owing to irregularities caused by war and by the packet service, when as yet nothing is done by steam. For an extra hour, it seems, the post-office has been engaged in threshing out the pure wheaten correspondence of Glasgow, and winnowing it from the chaff of all baser intermediate towns. We can hear the flails going at this moment. But at last all is finished. Sound your horn, guard. Manchester, good by; we’ve lost an hour by your criminal conduct at the post-office; which, however, though I do not mean to part with a serviceable ground of complaint, and one which really is such for the horses, to me secretly is an advantage, since it compels us to recover this last hour amongst the next eight or nine. Off we are at last, and at eleven miles an hour; and at first I detect no changes in the energy or in the skill of Cyclops.
From Manchester to Kendal, which virtually (though not in law) is the capital of Westmoreland, were at this time seven stages of eleven miles each. The first five of these, dated from Manchester, terminated in Lancaster, which was therefore fifty-five miles north of Manchester, and the same distance exactly from Liverpool. The first three terminated in Preston (called, by way of distinction from other towns of that name, proud Preston), at which place it was that the separate roads from Liverpool and from Manchester to the north became confluent. Within these first three stages lay the foundation, the progress, and termination of our night’s adventure. During the first stage, I found out that Cyclops was mortal: he was liable to the shocking affection of sleep,—a thing which[194] I had ............
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