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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 16. The End
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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 16. The End Post by :67834 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2748

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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 16. The End


I had spent a long day in London at a business meeting, where we discussed a complicated educational problem. I came away alone; I was anxious to have news of my sister, who had that morning undergone a slight operation; but I was not gravely disquieted, because no serious complications were expected.

When I reached my house there were two telegrams awaiting me, one to say that the operation had gone well, the other from Canon Sharrock, of Salford, to say that my brother was dangerously ill of pneumonia. I wired at once for a further report, and before it arrived made up my mind that I must go to him. I waited till the reply came--it was a little more favourable--went up to London, and caught a midnight train for Manchester.

The news had the effect which a sudden shock is apt to have, of inducing a sense of curious unreality. I neither read nor slept, nor even thought coherently. I was just aware of disaster and fear. I was alone in my compartment. Sometimes we passed through great, silent, deserted stations, or stopped outside a junction for an express to pass. At one or two places there was a crowd of people, seeing off a party of soldiers, with songs and cheers. Further north I was aware at one time that the train was labouring up a long incline, and I had a faint sense of relief when suddenly the strain relaxed, and the train began to run swiftly and smoothly downwards; I had just one thought, the desire to reach my brother, and over and over again the dread of what I might hear.

It was still dark and chilly when I arrived at Manchester. The great station was nearly empty. I drove hurriedly through dimly-lit streets. Sometimes great factories towered up, or dark house-fronts shuttered close. Here there were high steel networks of viaducts overhead, or parapets of bridges over hidden waterways. At last I came to where a great church towered up, and an iron-studded door in a blank wall appeared. I was told this was the place, and pushing it open I went up a stone-flagged path, among beds of soot-stained shrubs, to where a lantern shone in the porch of a sombre house. There was a window high up on the left, where a shaded lamp was burning and a fire flickered on the ceiling, and I knew instinctively that this was my brother's room. I rang, and presently a weary-eyed, kindly priest, in a hastily-donned cassock, appeared. He said at once that my brother was a little better and was asleep. The doctors were to see him at nine. I asked where I could go, and he advised a hotel hard by. "We did not expect you," he said, "or we would have had a room ready, but now I fear we could hardly make you comfortable."

I went to the hotel, a big, well-equipped place, and was taken to a bedroom, where I slept profoundly, out of utter weariness. Then I went down to the Bishop's House again at nine o'clock. By daylight Manchester had a grim and sinister air. It was raining softly and the air was heavy with smoke. The Bishop's House stood in what was evidently a poor quarter, full of mean houses and factories, all of red brick, smeared and stained with soot. The house itself appeared like a great college, with paved corridors, dark arches, and many doors. There was a lighted room like a sacristy, and a faint scent of incense drifted in from the door which led into the church. Upstairs, in a huge throne-room with a gilded chair of state and long, bare tables, I met the doctors--Dr. Bradley, a Catholic, and Professor Murray, a famous Manchester physician, in khaki uniform, both most gentle and kind. Canon Sharrock joined us, a tall, robust man, with a beautiful tenderness of manner and a brotherly air. They gave me a better report, but could not disguise from me that things were very critical. It was pneumonia of a very grave kind which had supervened on a condition of overwork and exhaustion. I see now that they had very little hope of recovery, but I did not wholly perceive it then.

Then I went with the Canon to the end of the room. I saw two iron cylinders on the table with brass fittings, and somehow knew that they contained oxygen.

The Canon knocked, and Hugh's voice said, clearly and resonantly, "Come in." I found him in bed, in a big library, the Bishop's own room. There were few signs of illness except a steam-kettle and a few bottles; a nurse was in the adjoining room. He was unable to speak very much, as his throat troubled him; but he was full of humour and brightness. I told him such news as I could think of. He knew that I was very busy, but was pleased that I had come to see him. He said that he felt really better, and that I should be able to go back the next day. He said a few words about a will he had made, but added, "Mind, I don't think I am going to die! I did yesterday, but I feel really better. This is only by way of precaution." We talked about a friend of mine in Manchester, a militant Protestant. "Yes," said Hugh, "he spoke of me the other day as a 'hell-hound'--not very tactful!" He said that he could not sleep for long together, but that he did not feel tired--only bored. I was told I must not stay long with him. He said once or twice, "It's awfully good of you to have come."

(Illustration: _Photo by Lofthouse, Crosbie & Co.


The Church on the left is the transept of St. John's Cathedral, Salford, where Hugh preached his last sermon. The room in which he died was the Bishop's Library. One of its windows is visible on the first floor to the left of the porch.)

I went away after a little, feeling very much reassured. He did not give the impression of being gravely ill at all, he was so entirely himself. I wrote a few letters and then returned, while he ate his luncheon, a baked apple--but this was painful to him and he soon desisted. He talked again a little, with the same liveliness, but as he began to be drowsy, I left him again.

Dr. Bradley soon came to me, and confessed he felt anxious. "It may be a long and critical business," he said. "If he can maintain his strength like this for several days, he may turn the corner--he is a difficult patient. He is not afraid, but he is excitable, and is always asking for relief and suggesting remedies." I said something about summoning the others. "On no account," he said. "It would give him the one impression we must try to avoid--much depends upon his own hopefulness."

I went back to my hotel, slumbered over a book, went in for a little to the cathedral service, and came back about five o'clock. The nurse was not in the room at the moment. Hugh said a few words to me, but had a sudden attack of faintness. I gave him a little whisky at his own request, the doctor was fetched, and there followed a very anxious hour, while various remedies were tried, and eventually oxygen revived him. He laid his head down on the pillow, smiled at me, and said, "Oh, what bliss! I feel absolutely comfortable--it's wonderful."

The doctor beckoned me out, and told me that I had better move my things across to the house and sleep there. "I don't like the look of things at all," he said; "your place is certainly here." He added that we had better wait until the morning before deciding whether the others should be sent for. I moved my things in, and had supper with the priests, who were very kind to me. They talked much about Hugh, of his gaiety and humour; and I saw that he had given his best to these friends of his, and lived with them in brotherly simplicity.

I did not then think he was going to die, and I certainly expected no sudden change. I ought, no doubt, to have realised that the doctors had done their best to prepare me for his death; but the mind has an instinctive way of holding out the shield of hope against such fears.

I was told at this time that he was to be left quiet, so I merely slipped in at ten o'clock. Hugh was drowsy and resting quietly; he just gave me a nod and a smile.

The one thing which made me anxious, on thinking over our interviews in the course of the day was this--that he seemed to have a preoccupation in his mind, though he had spoken cheerfully enough about various matters. It did not seem either a fear or an anxiety. It was rather that he knew that he might die, I now believe, and that he desired to live, and was thinking about all the things he had to do and wished to do, and that his trains of thought continually ended in the thought--"Perhaps I may not live to do them." He wished too, I thought, to reassure himself, and was pleased at feeling better, and at seeing that I thought him better than I had expected. He was a sensitive patient, the doctor said, and often suggested means of keeping up his strength. But he showed no fear at any time, though he seemed like one who was facing a foe; like a soldier in the trenches with an enemy opposite him whom he could not quite discern.

However, I went off to bed, feeling suddenly very tired--I had been for thirty-six hours almost without sleep, and it seemed to me as if whole days had passed since I left Cambridge. My room was far away, a little plain cell in a distant corridor high up. I slept a little; when suddenly, through the glass window above my door, I saw the gleam of a light, and became aware that someone was rapidly drawing near in the corridor. In a moment Canon Sharrock tapped and entered. He said "Mr. Benson, your brother is sinking fast--he has asked for you; he said, 'Is my brother anywhere near at hand?' and when I said yes, that you were in the house, he said, 'Thank God!' Do not lose any time; I will leave the nurse on the stairs to light you." He went out, and I put on a few things and went down the great dark arches of the staircase, with a glimmering light below, and through the throne-room with the nurse. When I came in I saw Hugh sitting up in bed; they had put a chair beside him, covered with cushions, for him to lean against. He was pale and breathing very fast, with the nurse sponging his brow. Canon Sharrock was standing at the foot of the bed, with his stole on, reading the last prayers from a little book. When I entered, Hugh fixed his eyes on me with a strange smile, with something triumphant in it, and said in a clear, natural voice, "Arthur, this is the end!" I knelt down near the bed. He looked at me, and I knew somehow that we understood each other well, that he wanted no word or demonstration, but was just glad I was with him. The prayers began again. Hugh crossed himself faintly once or twice, made a response or two. Then he said: "I beg your pardon--one moment--my love to them all." The big room was brightly lit; something on the hearth boiled over, and the nurse went across the room. Hugh said to me: "You will make certain I am dead, won't you?" I said "Yes," and then the prayers went on. Suddenly he said to the nurse: "Nurse, is it any good my resisting death--making any effort?" The nurse said: "No, Monsignor; just be as quiet as you can." He closed his eyes at this, and his breath came quicker. Presently he opened his eyes again and looked at me, and said in a low voice: "Arthur, don't look at me! Nurse, stand between my brother and me!" He moved his hand to indicate where she should stand. I knew well what was in his mind; we had talked not long before of the shock of certain sights, and how a dreadful experience could pierce through the reason and wound the inner spirit; and I knew that he wished to spare me the pain of seeing him die. Once or twice he drew up his hands as though trying to draw breath, and sighed a little; but there was no struggle or apparent pain. He spoke once more and said: "I commit my soul to God, to Mary, and to Joseph." The nurse had her hand upon his pulse, and presently laid his hand down, saying: "It is all over." He looked very pale and boyish then, with wide open eyes and parted lips. I kissed his hand, which was warm and firm, and went out with Canon Sharrock, who said to me: "It was wonderful! I have seen many people die, but no one ever so easily and quickly."

It was wonderful indeed! It seemed to me then, in that moment, strange rather than sad. He had been _himself to the very end, no diminution of vigour, no yielding, no humiliation, with all his old courtesy and thoughtfulness and collectedness, and at the same time, I felt, with a real adventurousness--that is the only word I can use. I recognised that we were only the spectators, and that he was in command of the scene. He had made haste to die, and he had gone, as he was always used to do, straight from one finished task to another that waited for him. It was not like an end; it was as though he had turned a corner, and was passing on, out of sight but still unquestionably there. It seemed to me like the death of a soldier or a knight, in its calmness of courage, its splendid facing of the last extremity, its magnificent determination to experience, open-eyed and vigilant, the dark crossing.

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