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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 38
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 38 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1675

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 38

CHAPTER XXXVIII

There are some people in the world, I am sure, who are born solitary, who are not conscious of any closeness of relationship with others. They are not necessarily ungenial people--indeed they sometimes have a great deal of external geniality; but when it is a question of forming a closer relationship, they are alarmed and depressed by the responsibility which attaches to it, and become colder instead of warmer, the deeper and more imperative that the claims upon them become. Such people are not as a rule unhappy, because they are spared the pain which arises from the strain of intimacy, and because loss and bereavement do not rend and devastate their hearts. They miss perhaps the best kind of happiness, but they do not suffer from the penalties that dog the great affections of men.

I had an old friend, who was a boy at school with me, who was of this type. He was essentially solitary in spirit, though he was amiable and sociable enough. There can be no harm in my telling the story of his life, as the actors in it are all long ago dead.

He was at the University with me, though not at the same College; I think that owing to a certain similarity of tastes, and perhaps of temperament, I was his nearest and most intimate friend. He confided in me as far as he confided in any one; but I always felt that there was a certain fence behind which I was never admitted; and probably it was because I never showed any signs of desiring to claim more than he was ready to give in the way of intimacy that he found himself very much at his ease with me.

A year or two after he left the University I heard from him, to my great surprise, that he was engaged to be married. I went up to see him in town, where he was then living, and he took me to see his fiancee. She was one of the most beautiful and charming creatures I have ever seen, and the two were evidently, as the phrase goes, very much in love. I must say that my friend was superficially a most attractive fellow; he had a commanding presence, and great personal beauty, and there was a certain air of mystery about him which must, I think, have added to the charm. They were married, and for a time, to all appearances, enjoyed great happiness. A child was born to them, a daughter. I saw them at intervals, and my impression was that my friend had found the one thing that he wanted, the companionship of a loving, beautiful, and intelligent woman.

It was in the course of the year after the birth of the child that I became aware that something had gone wrong; a shadow seemed to have fallen upon them. I became aware in the course of a few days which I spent with them in a little house by the sea, which they had taken for the summer, that all was not well. My friend seemed to me distrait and heavy-hearted; his wife seemed to be pathetically affectionate and anxious. There was no indifference or harshness apparent in his manner to her; indeed, he seemed to me to be extraordinarily considerate and tender. One day--we had gone off in the morning for a long ramble on the cliffs, leaving his wife in the company of an old school friend of hers who had come to stay with them--he suddenly said to me, with a determined air, that he wished to consult me on a point. I expressed the utmost readiness to be of use, and wondered in an agitated way what the matter could be; but he was silent for so long--we were sitting on a grassy headland high above a broad, calm expanse of summer sea--that I wondered if he had repented of his resolution. At last he spoke. I will not attempt to reproduce his words, but he said to me, with an astonishing calmness, that he found that he was ceasing to care for his wife: he said very quietly that it was not that he cared for anyone else, but that his marriage had been a mistake; that he had engaged himself in a moment of passion, and that this had subsequently evaporated. In the days of his first love he had poured out his heart to his wife, and now he no longer desired to do so; he did not wish any more to share his thoughts with her, and he was aware that she was conscious of this; he said that it was infinitely pathetic and distressing to him to see the efforts that she made to regain his confidence, and that he tried as far as he could to talk to her freely, but that he had no longer any sincere desire to do it, and that the effort was acutely painful; he was, he said, deeply distressed that she should be bound to him, and he indicated that he was fully aware that her own affection for him had undergone no change, and that it was not likely to do so. He asked me what he had better do. Should he continue to struggle with his reluctance to communicate his feelings to her; should he endeavour to make her acquiesce in altered relations; should he tell her frankly what had happened; or should he--he confessed that he would prefer this himself--arrange for a virtual separation? "I feel," he said, "that I have lost the only thing in the world I really care about--my liberty." It sounds, as I thus describe the situation, as though my friend was acting in an entirely selfish and cold-blooded manner; but I confess that it did not strike me in that light at the time. He spoke in a mood of dreary melancholy, as a man might speak who had committed a great mistake, and felt himself unequal to the responsibilities he had assumed. He spoke of his wife with a deep compassionateness, as though intensely alive to the sorrow that he had inconsiderately inflicted upon her. He condemned himself unsparingly, and said frankly that he had known all the time that he was doing wrong in allowing himself to be carried away by his passion. "I hoped," he said, "that it might have been the awakening of a new life in me, and that it would be an initiation for me into the inner life of the world, from which I had always been excluded." He went on to say that he would make any sacrifice he could for her happiness--adding gravely, looking at me with a strange air, that if he thought that she would be the happier if he killed himself, he would not hesitate to do it. "But live as we are living," he said, "I cannot. My life has become a continual and wearing drama, in which I can never be myself, but am condemned to play an unreal part."

I made him the only answer that was possible--namely, that I thought that he had undertaken a certain responsibility and that he was bound in honour to fulfil it. I added that I thought that the whole of his future peace of mind depended upon his rising to the situation, even though it were to be a martyrdom. I said that I thought, believing as I did in the providential guidance of individual lives, that it was the crisis of his fate; that he had the opportunity of playing a noble part.

"Yes," he said dispassionately, "if it was the case of a single action of the kind that is usually called heroic, I think I could do it; what I can't say that I think I am equal to is the making of my life into one long pretence; and what is more, it will not be successful--I cannot hope to deceive her day after day."

"Well," I said, "it is a terrible position; but I think you are bound to make the attempt."

"Thanks," he said; "you don't mind my having asked you? I thought it would perhaps make things clearer, and I think that on the whole I agree with you." He then began to talk of other matters with the utmost calmness. The sequel is a strange one; what he said to his wife I do not know, but for the few days that I spent with them there was a very different feeling in the air; he had contrived to reassure her, and her anxiety seemed for a time, at all events, to be at an end. A few days after I left them, the child fell ill, and died within a week. The shock was too much for the wife, and within a month she followed the child to the grave. My friend was left alone; and it seemed to me like a ghastly fulfilment of his desires. I was with him at the funeral of his wife; is it terrible to relate that there was a certain tranquillity about him that suggested the weariness of one off whom a strain had been lifted? But his own life was to be a short one; about two years after he himself died very suddenly, as he had always desired to die. I saw him often in the interval; he never recurred to the subject, and I never liked to reopen it. Only once did he speak to me of her. "I feel," he said to me on one occasion, quite suddenly, "that the two are waiting for me somewhere, and that they understand; and my hope is that when I am freed from this vile body I shall be different--perhaps worthy of their love; it is all within me somewhere, though I cannot get at it. Don't think of me," he said, turning to me, "as a very brutal person. I have tried my best; but I think that the capacity for real feeling has been denied me."

It is a very puzzling episode; what I feel is that though we always recognise the limitations of people physically and mentally, we do not sufficiently recognise the moral and emotional limitations. We think of the will as a dominant factor in people's lives, as a thing that we can all make use of if we choose; we forget that it is just as strictly limited and conditioned as all our other faculties.

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