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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThomas Wingfold, Curate - Volume 3 - Chapter 9. Immortality
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Thomas Wingfold, Curate - Volume 3 - Chapter 9. Immortality Post by :wordsworth Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1146

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Thomas Wingfold, Curate - Volume 3 - Chapter 9. Immortality


"How goes business?" said Polwarth, when the new-comer had seated himself.

"That is hardly a question I look for from you, sir," returned the draper, smiling all over his round face, which looked more than ever like a moon of superior intelligence. "For me, I am glad to leave it behind me in the shop."

"True business can never be left in any shop. It is a care, white or black, that sits behind every horseman."

"That is fact; and with me it has just taken a new shape," said Drew, "for I have come with quite a fresh difficulty. Since I saw you last, Mr. Polwarth, a strange and very uncomfortable doubt has rushed in upon me, and I find myself altogether unfit to tackle it. I have no weapons--not a single argument of the least weight. I wonder if it be a law of nature that no sooner shall a man get into a muddle with one thing, than a thousand other muddles shall come pouring in upon him, as if Muddle itself were going to swallow him up! Here am I just beginning to get a little start in honester ways, when up comes the ugly head of the said doubt, swelling itself more and more to look like a fact--namely, that after this world there is nothing for us--nothing at all to be had anyhow--that as we came so we go--into life, out of life--that, having been nothing before, we shall be nothing after! The flowers come back in the spring, and the corn in the autumn, but they ain't the same flowers or the same corn. They're just as different as the new generations of men."

"There's no pretence that we come back either. We only think we don't go into the ground, but away somewhere else."

"You can't prove that."


"And you don't know anything about it!"

"Not much--but enough, I think."

"Why, even those that profess to believe it, scoff at the idea of an apparition--a ghost!"

"That's the fault of the ghosts, I suspect--or their reporters. I don't care about them myself. I prefer the tale of one who, they say, rose again, and brought his body with him."

"Yes; but he was only one!"

"Except two or three whom, they say, he brought to life."

"Still there are but three or four."

"To tell you the truth, I do not care much to argue the point with you.--It is by no means a matter of the FIRST importance whether we live for ever or not."

"Mr. Polwarth!" exclaimed the draper in such astonishment mingled with horror, as proved he was not in immediate danger of becoming an advocate of the doctrine of extinction.

The gate-keeper smiled what, but for a peculiar expression of undefinable good in it, might have been called a knowing smile.

"Suppose a thing were in itself not worth having," he said, "would it be any great enhancement of it as a gift to add the assurance that the possession of it was eternal! Most people think it a fine thing to have a bit of land to call their own and leave to their children; but suppose a stinking and undrainable swamp, full of foul springs--what consolation would it be to the proprietor of that to know, while the world lasted, not a human being would once dispute its possession with any fortunate descendant holding it?"

The draper only stared, but his stare was a thorough one. The curate sat waiting, with both amusement and interest, for what would follow: he saw the direction in which the little man was driving.

"You astonish me!" said Mr. Drew, recovering his mental breath. "How can you compare God's gift to such a horrible thing! Where should we be without life?"

Rachel burst out laughing, and the curate could not help joining her.

"Mr. Drew," said Polwarth, half merrily, "are you going to help me drag my chain out of its weary length, or are you too much shocked at the doubtful condition of its links to touch them? I promise you the last shall be of bright gold."

"I beg your pardon," said the draper; "I might have known you didn't mean it."

"On the contrary, I mean everything I say and that literally. Perhaps I don't mean everything you fancy I mean.--Tell me then, would life be worth having on any and every possible condition?"

"Certainly not."

"You know some, I dare say, who would be glad to be rid of life such as it is, and such as they suppose it must continue?"

"I don't."

"I do."

"I have already understood that everybody clung to life."

"Most people do; everybody certainly does not: Job, for instance."

"They say that is but a poem."

"BUT a poem! EVEN a poem--a representation true not of this or that individual, but of the race! There ARE such persons as would gladly be rid of life, and in their condition all would feel the same. Somewhat similar is the state of those who profess unbelief in the existence of God: none of them expect, and few of them seem to wish to live for ever!--At least, so I am told."

"That is no wonder," said the draper; "--if they don't believe in God, I mean."

"Then there I have you! There you allow life to be not worth having, if on certain evil conditions."

"I admit it, then."

"And I repeat that to prove life endless is a matter of the FIRST importance. And I will go a little farther.--Does it follow that life is worth having because a man would like to have it for ever?"

"I should say so; who should be a better judge than the man himself?"

"Let us look at it a moment. Suppose--we will take a strong case--suppose a man whose whole delight is in cruelty, and who has such plentiful opportunity of indulging the passion that he finds it well with him--such a man would of course desire such a life to endure for ever: is such a life worth having? were it well that man should be immortally cruel?"

"Not for others."

"Still less, I say, for himself."

"In the judgment of others, doubtless; but to himself he would be happy."

"Call his horrible satisfaction happiness then, and leave aside the fact that in its own nature it is a horror, and not a bliss: a time must come, when, in the exercise of his delight, he shall have destroyed all life besides, and made himself alone with himself in an empty world: will he then find life worth having?"

"Then he ought to live for punishment."

"With that we have nothing to do now, but there you have given me an answer to my question, whether a man's judgment that his life is worth having, proves immortality a thing to be desired."

"I have. I understand now."

"It follows that there is something of prior importance to the possession of immortality:--what is that something?"

"I suppose that the immortality itself should be worth possessing."

"Yes; that the life should be such that it were well it should be endless.--And what then if it be not such?"

"The question then would be whether it could not be made such."

"You are right.--And wherein consists the essential inherent worthiness of a life as life?--The only perfect idea of life is--a unit, self-existent, and creative. That is God, the only one. But to this idea, in its kind, must every life, to be complete as life, correspond; and the human correspondence to self-existence is, that the man should round and complete himself by taking into himself that origin; by going back and in his own will adopting his origin, rooting therein afresh in the exercise of his own freedom and in all the energy of his own self-roused will; in other words--that the man say "I will be after the will of the creating _I_;" that he see and say with his whole being that to will the will of God in himself and for himself and concerning himself, is the highest possible condition of a man. Then has he completed his cycle by turning back upon his history, laying hold of his cause, and willing his own being in the will of the only I AM. This is the rounding, re-creating, unifying of the man. This is religion, and all that gathers not with this, scatters abroad."

"And then," said Drew, with some eagerness, "lawfully comes the question, 'Shall I, or shall I not live for ever?'"

"Pardon me; I think not," returned the little prophet. "I think rather we have done with it for ever. The man with life so in himself, will not dream of asking whether he shall live. It is only in the twilight of a half-life, holding in it at once much wherefore it should desire its own continuance, and much that renders it unworthy of continuance, that the doubtful desire of immortality can arise.--Do you remember"--here Polwarth turned to Wingfold--"my mentioning to you once a certain manuscript of strange interest--to me at least and Rachel--which a brother of mine left behind him?"

"I remember it perfectly," answered the curate."

"It seems so to mingle with all I ever think on this question, that I should much like, if you gentlemen would allow me, to read some extracts from it."

Nothing could have been heartier than the assurance of both the men that they could but be delighted to listen to anything he chose to give them.

"I must first tell you, however," said Polwarth, "merely to protect you from certain disturbing speculations, otherwise sure to present themselves, that my poor brother was mad, and that what I now read portions of seemed to him no play of the imagination, but a record of absolute fact. Some parts are stranger and less intelligible than others, but through it all there is abundance of intellectual movement, and what seems to me a wonderful keenness to perceive the movements and arrest the indications of an imagined consciousness."

As he spoke, the little man was opening a cabinet in which he kept his precious things. He brought from it a good-sized quarto volume, neatly bound in morocco, with gilt edges, which he seemed to handle not merely with respect but with tenderness.

The heading of the next chapter is my own, and does not belong to the manuscript.

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