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    Ch. 3 - Old Mortality

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    Chapter 4
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    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

    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

    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


    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.


    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

    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!"


    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."
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