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The Altar Fire - Part 9 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2462

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The Altar Fire - Part 9

July 8, 1889.

I lose myself sometimes in a dream of misery in thinking of the baseness and meanness and squalor that condition the lives of so many of the poor. Not that it is not possible under those conditions to live lives of simplicity and dignity and beauty. It is perfectly possible, but only, I think, for strong natures possessing a combination of qualities--virtue, industry, sense, prudence, and above all good physical health. There must still be thousands of lives which could be happy and simple and virtuous under more secure conditions, which are marred and degraded by the influences under which they are nurtured. Yet what can the more fortunate individual do in the matter? If all the rich men in England were to resign to-morrow all the wealth they possessed, reserving only a bare modicum of subsistence, the matter could not be amended. Even that wealth could not be wisely applied; and, if equally divided, it would hardly make any appreciable difference. What is worse, it would not alter the baneful influences in the least; it would give no increased security of material conditions, and it would not affect the point at issue, namely, the tone and quality of thought and feeling, where the only hope of real amelioration lies, and which is really the source and root of our social evils.

Moreover, the real difficulty is not to see what the classes on whom the problem presses most grimly NEED, but what they WANT. It is no use theorising about it, and providing elegant remedies which will not touch the evil. What one requires to know is what those natures, who lie buried in this weltering tide, and are dissatisfied and tormented by it, really desire. It is no use trying to provide a paradise on the farther bank of the river, till we have constructed bridges to cross the gulf. What one wants is that some one from the darkness of the other side should speak articulately and boldly what they claim, what they could use. It is not enough to have a wistful cry for help ringing in our ears; one wants a philosophical or statesmanlike demand--just the very thing which from the nature of the case we cannot get. It may be that education will make this possible; but at present education seems merely to be a ladder let down into the abyss, by which a few stronger natures can climb out of it, with horror and contempt in their hearts of what they have left behind. The question that stares one in the face is, is there honest work for all to do, if all were strong and virtuous? The answer at present seems to be in the negative; and the problem seems to be solved only by the fact that all are not capable of honest work, and that the weaklings give the strong their opportunity. What, again, one asks oneself, is the use of contriving more leisure for those who could not use it well? Then, too, under present conditions, the survival of the unfittest seems to be assured. Those breed most freely and recklessly of whom it may be said that, for the interests of civilisation, it is least desirable that they should perpetuate their kind. The problem too is so complicated, that it requires a gigantic faith in a reformer to suggest the sowing of seed of which he can never hope to see the fruit. The situation is one which tends to develop vehement and passionate prophets, dealing in vague and remote generalisations, when what one needs is practical prudence, and the effective power of foreseeing contingencies. One who like myself loves security, leisure, beauty and peace, and is actuated by a vague and benevolent wish that all should have the same opportunities as myself, feels himself a mere sentimentalist in the matter, without a single effective quality. I can see the problem, I can grieve over it, I can feel my faith in God totter under the weight of it, but that is all.

July 15, 1889.

One of the hardest things to face in the world is the grim fact that our power of self-improvement is limited. Of some qualities we do not even possess the germs. Some qualities we have in minute quantities, but hardly capable of development; some few qualities we possess in fuller measure, and they are capable of development; but even so, our total capacity of growth is limited, conditioned by our vital energy, and we have to face the fact that if we develop one set of qualities we must neglect another set.

I think of it in a whimsical and fantastic image, the best I can find. Imagine a box in which there are a number of objects like puff-balls, each with a certain life of its own, half-filling the box. Some of the puff-balls are small, hard, sterile; others are soft and expansive; some grow quickly in warmth and light, others fare better in cold and darkness. The process of growth begins: some of them increase in size and press themselves into every crevice, enclosing and enfolding the others; even so the growth of the whole mass is conditioned by the size of the box, and when the box is full, the power of increase is at an end.

The box, to interpret the fable, is our character with its possibilities. The conditions which develop the various qualities are the conditions of our lives, our health, our income, our education, the people who surround us; but even the qualities themselves have their limitations. Two people may grow up under almost precisely similar influences, and yet remain different to the end; two characters may be placed in difficult and bracing circumstances; the effect upon one character is to train the quality of self-reliance, on the other to produce a moral collapse. Some people do their growing early and then stop altogether, becoming impervious to new opinions and new influences. Some people go on growing to the end.

If one develops one side of one's nature, as the intellectual or artistic, one probably suffers on the emotional or moral side. The pain which the perceptive man feels in surveying this process is apt to be very acute. He may see that he lacks certain qualities altogether and yet be unable to develop them. He may find in himself some patent and even gross fault, and be unable to cure it. The only hope for any of us is that we do not know the expansive force of our qualities, nor the size of the box; and therefore it is reasonable to go on trying and desiring; and as long as one can do that, it is clear that there is still room for growth. The worst shadow of all is to find, as one goes on, a certain indifference creeping over one. One accepts a fault as a part of one's nature; one ceases to care about what appears unattainable.

It may be said that this is a fatalistic theory, and leads to a mild inactivity; but the question rather is whether it is true, whether it is attested by experience. One improves, not by overlooking facts, in however generous and enthusiastic a spirit, but by facing facts, and making the best use one can of them. One must resolutely try to submit oneself to favourable conditions, fertilising influences. And much more must one do that in the case of those for whom one is responsible. In the case of my own two children, for instance, my one desire is to surround them with the best influences I can. Even there one makes mistakes, no doubt, because one cannot test the expansive power of their qualities; but one can observe the conditions under which they seem to develop best, and apply them. To lavish love and tenderness on some children serves to concentrate their thoughts upon themselves, and makes them expect to find all difficulties smoothed away; on other more generous natures, it produces a glow of responsive gratitude and affection, a desire to fulfil the hopes formed of them by those who love them. The most difficult cases of all are the cases of temperaments without loyal affection, but with much natural charm. Those are the people who get what is called 'spoilt,' because it is so much easier to believe in the existence of qualities which are superficially displayed than in qualities which lie too deep for facile expression. One comes across cases of children of intense emotional natures, and very little power of expressing their feelings, or of showing their affection. Of course, too, example is far more potent than precept, and it is very difficult for parents to simulate a high-mindedness and an affectionateness that they do not themselves possess, even if they are sincerely anxious that their children should grow up high-minded and affectionate. One of the darkest shadows of my present condition is the fear that any revelation of my own weakness and emptiness may discourage and distort my children's characters; and the watchfulness which this requires increases the strain under which I suffer, because it is a hard fact that an example set for a noble and an unselfish motive is not nearly so potent as an example set naturally, sweetly, and generously, with no particular consciousness of motive behind it at all.

July 18, 1889.

I have just heard of the sudden death of an old friend. Francis Willett was a writer of some distinction, whose acquaintance I made in my first years in London. He was a tall, slim man, dark of complexion, who would have been called very handsome, if it had not been for a rather burdened air that he wore. As it was, people tended rather to pity him, and to speak of him as somewhat of a mystery. I never knew anything about the background of his life. He must have had some small means of his own, and he lived in rooms, in rather an out-of-the-way street near Regent's Park. One used to see him occasionally in London, walking rapidly, almost always alone, and very rarely I encountered him at parties, always wearing a slightly regretful air, as though he were wishing himself away. He wrote a good deal, reviewed books, and, I suppose, contrived to make enough to live on by his pen. He once spoke of himself as being in the happy position of being able to exist without writing, but forced to purchase all small luxuries by work. He published two or three books of short stories and sketches of travel, delicate pieces of work, which had no great sale, but gave him a recognised position among men of letters. I drifted into a kind of friendship with him; we were members of the same club, and he sometimes used to flutter shyly into my rooms like a great moth; but he never asked me to his quarters.

I discovered that he had done well at Oxford, and also that he had once, at all events, had considerable ambitions; but his health was not strong, he was extremely sensitive, and very fastidious about the quality of his work. I realised this on an occasion when he once entrusted me with a MS., and asked me if I would give him an opinion, as it was an experiment, and he did not feel sure of his ground; he added that there was no hurry about it. I put the MS. away in a despatch-box, and having at the time a press of work, I forgot about it. He never asked me for it, and I did not happen to open the box where it lay. Some months after I came upon it. I read it through, and thought it a fine and delicate piece of work. I wrote to him, apologising for my delay and speaking warmly of the piece, which was one of those rather uncomfortable stories, which is not quite long enough to make a book, and yet rather too long to put in a volume with other pieces. He wrote at once, thanking me for my opinion, and it was only by accident at a later date, when I happened to ask him what he was doing with the story, that he told me he had destroyed it. I expressed deep regret that he had done so; and he said with a smile that it was probably rather a foolish impulse that had decided him to make away with it. "The fact is," he said, "that you wrote very kindly about it, but you had had it in your hands so long, that I felt somehow that it could not have interested you--it really doesn't matter," he added, "I don't think it was at all successful." I apologised very humbly, and explained the circumstances. "Oh, please don't blame yourself in any way," he said, "I have not the least shadow of resentment in my mind about it. There is something wrong about my work; it doesn't interest people. I suppose it is that I can't let myself go." An interesting conversation followed, and he told me more than he ever told me before or since about himself. He confessed to being so critical of his own work, that his table-drawers were full of unfinished MSS. His usual experience was to begin a piece of work enthusiastically; to plan it all out, and to work at first with zest. "Then it begins to get all out of shape," he said, "there is no go about it; it all loses itself in subtleties and complexities of motive; one thing trips up another, and at last it all gets so tangled that I put it aside; if I could follow the track of one strong and definite emotion, it would be all right--but I am like the man in the story who changes the cow for the horse, and the horse for the pig, and the pig for the grindstone; and then the grindstone rolls into the river." He seemed to take it all very philosophically, and I ventured to say so. "Yes," he said, "I have learnt at last that that is how I am made; but I have been through a good many agonies of disgust and discouragement about it in old days--it is the same with everything I have touched. The bits of work that I have completed have all been done in a rush--if the mood lasts long enough, I am all right--and once or twice it has just lasted. I am like a swimmer," he went on, "who can only swim a certain distance; and if I judge the distance rightly, I can reach the point I desire to reach; but I generally judge the distance wrong; and half-way across I am seized with a sudden fright, and struggle back in terror."

By one of the strange coincidences that sometimes happen in this world, I took an unknown lady in to dinner a few days afterwards, and happened to mention Willett's name. "Do you know him?" she said. "Oh yes, of course you do!" she went on; "you are the Mr. S---- of whom he has spoken to me." I found that my neighbour was a distant relation of Willett's, and she told me a good deal about him. He was absolutely alone in the world; he had been left an orphan at an early age, and had spent his holidays with guardians and relations, with any one who would take pity on him. "He was a clever kind of boy," she said, "melancholy and diffident, always thinking that people disliked him. He used to give me the air of a person who was trying to find something, and who did not quite know where to look for it. He had a time of expansion at Oxford, where he made friends and did well; and then he came to London, and began to write. But the real tragedy of his life is this," she said. "He really fell in love, or as nearly as he could, with a very pretty and high-spirited girl, who took a great fancy to him, and pitied him from the bottom of her heart. For five years the thing went on. She would have married him at any time if he had asked her. But he did not. I suppose he could not face the idea of being married. He always seemed to be on the point of proposing to her, and then he would lose heart at the last minute. At last she got tired of waiting, and, I suppose, began to care for some one else; but she was very good to Francis, and never lost patience with him. At last she told him one day quietly that she was engaged, and hoped that they would always remain friends. I think, do you know, that it was almost more a relief to him than otherwise. I did my best to help him--marriage was the one thing he wanted; if he could only have been pushed into it, he would have made a perfect husband, because not only is he very much of a gentleman, but he could never bear to fail any one who depended on him; but he has got the unhappiest mind I know; the moment that he has formed a plan, and sees his way clear, he at once begins to think of all the reasons against it--not the selfish reasons, by any means; in this case he reflected, I am sure, how little he had to offer; he could not bring himself to feel that any one could really care for him; and then, too, he never really cared for anything quite enough himself. Or if he did, he found all sorts of refined reasons why he ought not to do so. If only he had been a little more selfish, it would have been all right. Indeed," said Mrs. T----, with a smile, "he is the only person of whom I could truthfully say that if he had only been a little more vulgar, he would have been a much happier person."

I saw a good deal of Willett after that, and he interested me increasingly. I verified Mrs. T----'s judgment about him, and found it true in every particular. I suppose there was some lack of vitality about him, because the more I knew of him the more I found to admire. He was an exquisitely delicate person, affectionate, responsive, with a fine sense of humour--indeed, the most disconcerting thing was that he saw to the full the humour of his own position. But none of the robust motives that spur men to action affected him. He was ambitious, but he would not make any sacrifices to gain the objects of his ambition. He could not use his powers on conventional lines. He was, I think, deeply desirous of confidence and affection, but he could never believe that he deserved either, or that it was possible for him to be interesting to others. He was laborious, pure-minded, transparently honest, and had a shrewd and penetrating judgment of other people; but he seemed to labour under a sense of shame at his deficiencies, and to feel that he had no claims or rights in the world. He existed on sufferance. The smallest shadow of disapproval caused him to abandon any design, not resentfully but eagerly, as though he was fully aware of his own incompetence.

I grew to feel a strong affection for him, and tried in many ways to help and encourage him. But he always discounted encouragement, and it is a clumsy business trying to help a man who does not demand or desire help.

He seemed to me to have schooled himself into a kind of tender patience; and this attitude, I am ashamed to say, used to irritate me considerably, because it seemed to me to be so much power wasted on accepting defeat, which might have ensured victory.

He was with me a few weeks ago. I was up in town, and he dined with me by appointment. He told me, with a gentle philosophy, a story which made my blood boil. He had been asked to write a book by a publisher, and the lines had been laid down for him. "It was such a comfort to me," he said, "because it supplied just the stimulus I could not myself originate. My book was really rather a good piece of work; but a week ago I sent it to the publisher, and he returned it, saying it was not the least what he wanted--he suggested my retaining about a third of it, and rewriting the rest. Of course I could do nothing of the kind." "What have you done with it?" I asked. "Oh, I have destroyed it." "But didn't you see him," I said, "or do something--or at all events insist on payment?" "Oh no," he said, "I could not do that--the man was probably right--he wanted a particular kind of book, and mine was not what he wanted. I did say that I wished he had explained to me more clearly what he wanted--but after all it doesn't very much matter. I can get along all right, if I am careful."

"Well," I said, "you are really a very aggravating person. If I could not have got my book published elsewhere, I would certainly have had a row--I would have taken out my money's worth in vituperation."

Willett smiled; "I dare say you would have had some fun," he said, "but that is not my line. I have told you before that I can't interest people--I don't think it is wholly my fault."

We sate late, talking; and for the only time in his life he spoke to me, with a depth of emotion of which I should hardly have suspected him, of the value he set upon my friendship, and his gratitude for my sympathy.

And now this morning I have heard of his sudden death. He was found dead in his room, bent over his papers. He must have been writing late at night, as his custom was; and it proved on examination that he must have long suffered from an unsuspected disease of the heart. Perhaps that may explain his failure, if it can be called a failure. There is something to me almost insupportably pathetic to think of his lonely and uncomforted life, his isolation, his sensitiveness. And yet I do not feel sure that it is pathetic, because his life somehow seems to me to have been one of the most beautiful I have ever known. He did nothing much for others, he achieved nothing for himself; but it is only our miserable habit of weighing every one's life, in a hard way, by a standard of performance and success, which makes one sigh over Francis Willett's life. It is very difficult at times to see what it is that life is exactly meant to do for us. Most of the men and women I know--I say this sadly but frankly--seem to me to leave the world worse, in essential respects, than they entered it. There is generally something ingenuous, responsive, eager, sweet, hopeful about a child--but though I admit that one does encounter beautiful natures that seem to flower very generously in the light of experience, yet most people grow dull, dreary, conventional, grasping, commonplace--they grow to think rather contemptuously of emotion and generosity--they think it weak to be amiable, unselfish, kind. They become fond of comfort and position and respect and money. They think such things the serious concerns of life, and sentiment a kind of relaxation. But with Willett it was the precise reverse. He claimed nothing for himself, he never profited at the expense of another; he was utterly humble, gentle, unpretentious, kind, sincere. An hour ago I should have called him "poor fellow," and wished that he had had a more robust kind of fibre; now that I know he is dead, I cannot find it in my heart to wish him any such qualities. His life appears to me utterly beautiful and fragrant. He never incurred any taint of grossness from prosperity or success; he never grew indifferent or hard; and in the light of his last passage, such a failure seems the one thing worth achieving, and to carry with it a hope all alive and rich with possibilities of blessing and glory. He would hardly have called himself a Christian, I think; he would have said that he could not have attained to anything like a vital faith or a hopeful certainty; but the only words and thoughts that haunt my mind about him, echoing sweetly and softly through the ages, are the words in which Christ described the tender spirits of those who were nearest to the Father's heart, and to whom it is given to see God.

July 28, 1889.

Health of body and mind return to me, slowly but surely. I have given up all attempt at writing; I rack my brain no longer for plots or situations. I keep, it is true, my note-book for subjects beside me, and occasionally jot down a point; but I feel entirely indifferent to the whole thing. Meanwhile the flood of letters about my book, invitations from editors, offers from publishers, continues to flow. I reply to these benignantly and courteously, but undertake nothing, promise nothing. I seem to have recovered my balance. I think no more about my bodily complaints, and my nerves no longer sting and thrill. The day is hardly long enough for all I have to do. It may be that when the novelty of the experiment in education wears off, I shall begin to hanker after authorship again. Alec will have to go to school in a year or two, I suppose; but it shall be a day-school at first, if I can find one. As to the question of a public school, I am much exercised. Of course there are nightmare terrors about tone and morals; but I am not really very anxious about the boy, because he is sensible and independent, and has no lack of moral courage. The vigorous barrack-life is good for a boy, the give-and-take, the splendid equality, the manly code, the absence of affectation. But the intellectual tone of schools is low, and the conventionality is great. I don't want Alec to be a conventional man, and yet I want him to accept current conventions instinctively about matters of indifference. I have a horror of the sporting public-school type, the good-humoured, robust fellow, who does his work and fills his spare time with games, and thinks intellectual things, and artistic interests, and emotion, and sympathy, moonshine and rot. Such people live a wholesome enough life; they make good soldiers, good officials, good men of business. But they are woefully complacent and self-satisfied. The schools develop a Spartan type, and I want Alec to be an Athenian. But the experiment will have to be made, because a man is at a disadvantage in ordinary life if he has not the public school bonhomie, courtesy, and common sense. I must try to keep the other side alive, and I don't despair of doing it.

Meantime we are a very contented household, in spite of the fact that now, if ever, is the time for me to make my mark as a writer, and I have to pass all the opportunities that offer. On the other hand, this is the point at which one sees, in the history of letters, so many writers go to pieces. They suddenly find, after their first great success, that they have arrived, by a tortuous and secret path, at being a sort of public man. They are dazzled by contact with the world. They go into society, they make speeches, they write twaddle, they drain their energy, already depleted by creation, in fifty different ways. Now I am strongly of Ruskin's opinion that the duty of the artist is to make himself fit for the best society, and then to abstain from it. Very fortunately I have no sort of taste for these things, beyond the simple human satisfaction in enjoying consideration. That is natural and inevitable. But I don't value it unduly, and I dislike its penalties more than I love its rewards.

And then, too, I reflect that it is, after all, life that we are here to taste, and life that so many of us pass by. Work is a part of life, perhaps the essence of life; but to be absorbed in work is to be like a man who is absorbed in collecting specimens, and never has time to sort them. I knew of a man who determined, early in life, to write the history of political institutions. He had a great library, and he devoted himself to study. He put in his books, as he read them, slips of paper to indicate passages and chapters that he would have to consult, and as he finished with a book, he put it in a certain place on a certain shelf. He made no other notes or references--he was a man with a colossal memory, and he knew exactly what his markers meant. In the middle of this life of acquisition, while he bored like a worm in a cheese, he died. His library was sold. The markers meant nothing to any one else; and the book-buyers merely took the markers out and threw them away, and that was the end of the history of political institutions.

I feel that, apart from our work, we ought to try and arrive at some solution, to draw some sort of conclusions--to reflect, to theorise; we may not draw nearer to the secret, but our only hope of doing so, the only hope that humanity will do so, is for some at least to try. And thus I think that I have perhaps been saved from a great delusion. I was spending my time in spinning romances, in elaborating plots, in manoeuvring life as I would; and it is not like that! Life is not run on physical lines, nor on emotional, nor social, nor even moral lines. It is not managed in the least as we should manage it; it is a resultant of innumerable forces, or perhaps the same force running in intricate currents. Of course the strange thing is that we men should find ourselves thrust into it, with strong intuitions, vehement preconceptions, as to how it ought to be directed; our happiness seems to depend upon our being, or learning to be, in harmony with it, but it baffles us, it resists us, it contradicts us, it opposes us to the end; sometimes it crushes us; and yet we believe that it means good; and even if we do not so believe, we have to acquiesce, we have to endure; and one thing is certain, we cannot learn the lesson of life by practising indifference or stoical fortitude, or by abandoning ourselves to despair; only by believing that our sufferings are fruitful, our mistakes educative, our sins significant, our sorrows gracious, can we hope to triumph. We go on, many of us, relying on useless defences, beguiling ourselves with fantastic diversions, overlooking, as far as we can, stern realities; stopping our ears, turning away our gaze, shrinking and crying out like children at the prospect of experiences to which we are led by loving presences, that smile as they draw us to the wholesome and bracing incidents that we so weakly dread. We pray for courage, but we know in our souls that courage can only be won by enduring what we fear; and thus preoccupied by hopes and plans and fears, we miss the wholesome sweet and simple stuff of life, its quiet relationships, its tranquil occupations, its beautiful and tender surprises.

And then perhaps, at long intervals, we have a deep and splendid flash of insight, when we can thank God that things have not been as we should have willed and ordered them. We should have lingered, perhaps, in the low rich meadows, the sheltered woodlands of our desire; we should never have set our feet to the hill. In terror and reluctance we have wandered upwards among the steep mountain tracks, by high green slopes, by grim crag-buttresses, through fields of desolate stones. Yet we are aware of a finer, purer air, of wide prospects of hill and plain; we feel that we have gained in strength and vigour, that our perceptions are keener, our very enjoyment nobler; and at last, it may be, we have sight, from some Pisgah-top of hope, of fairer lands yet to which we are surely bound. And then, too, though we have fared on in loneliness and isolation, we see moving forms of friends and comrades converging on our track. It is no dream; it is but a parable of what has happened to many a soul, what is daily happening. What does the sad, stained, weary, fitful past concern us at such a moment as this? It concerns us nothing, save that only through its pains and shadows was it possible for us to climb where we have climbed.

To-day it seems that I have been blessed with such a vision. The mist will close in again, doubtless, wild with wind, chill with rain, sad with the cry of hoarse streams. But I have seen! I shall be weary and regretful and despairing many times; but I shall never wholly doubt again.

August 8, 1889.

Alec is ill to-day. He was restless, flushed, feverish, yesterday evening, and I thought he must have caught cold; we put him to bed, and this morning we sent for the doctor. He says there is no need for anxiety, but he does not know as yet what is the matter; his temperature is high, and we must just keep him quietly in bed, and wait. I tell myself that it is foolish to be anxious, but I cannot keep a certain dread out of my mind; there is a weight upon my heart, which seems unduly heavy. Perhaps it is only that it seems unusual, for he has never had an illness of any kind. He is not to be disturbed, and Maggie is not allowed to see him. Maud sate with him this morning, and he slept most of the time. I looked in once or twice, but people coming and going tend to make him restless. Maud herself is a marvel to me. She must be even more anxious than I am, but she is serene, smiling, strong, with a cheerfulness that has no effort about it. She laughed tenderly at my fears, and sent me out for a walk with Maggie. I fear I was a gloomy companion. In the evening I went to sit with Alec a little. He was wakeful, large-eyed, and restless. He lay with a book of stories from Homer, of which he is very fond, in one hand, the other clasping his black kitten, which slept peacefully on the counterpane. He wanted to talk, but to keep him quiet I told him a long trivial story, full of unexciting incidents. He lay musing, his head on his hand; then he seemed inclined to sleep, so I sate beside him, watching and wondering at the nearness and the dearness of the child to me, almost amazed at the revelation which this shadow of fear gives me of the place which he fills in my heart and life. He tossed about for some time, and when I asked him if he wanted anything, he only put his hand in mine; a gesture not quite like him, as he is a boy who is averse to personal caresses or signs of emotion. So I drew my chair up to the bed, and sate there with the little hot hand in my own. Maud came up presently; but as he now seemed sound asleep, we left him in the care of the old nurse, and went down to dinner. If we only knew what was the matter! I argue with myself how much unnecessary misery I give myself by anticipating evil; but I cannot help it; and the weight on my mind grew heavier; half the night I lay awake, till at last, from sheer weariness, I fell into a sort of stupor of the senses, which fled from me in the dismal dawn, and the unmanning hideous fear leapt on me out of the dark, like a beast leaping upon its prey.

August 11, 1889.

I cannot and dare not write of these days. The child is very ill; it is some obscure inflammation of the brain-tissue. I had an insupportable fear that it might have resulted in some way from being over-pressed in the matter of work, over-stimulated. I asked the doctor. If he lied to me, and I do not think he did, he lied like a man, or an angel. "Not in the least," he said, "it is a constitutional thing; in fact, I may say that the rational and healthy life the child has lived will help more than anything to pull him through."

But I can't write of the days. I sleep, half-conscious of my misery. I suppose I eat, walk, read. But waking is like the waking of a prisoner who awakes up to be put on the rack, who hears doors open and feet approach, and sickens with dread as he lies. God's hand is heavy upon me day and night. Surely nothing, in the world or out of it, can obliterate the memory of this suffering; perhaps, if Alec is given back to us, I shall smile at this time of suffering. But, if not--

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The Altar Fire - Part 13 The Altar Fire - Part 13

The Altar Fire - Part 13
April 3, 1891.A truth which has come home to me of late with a growing intensity is that we are sent into the world for the sake of experience, not necessarily for the sake of immediate happiness. I feel that the mistake we most of us make is in reaching out after a sense of satisfaction; and even if we learn to do without that, we find it very difficult to do without the sense of conscious growth. I say again that what we need and profit by is experience, and sometimes that comes by suffering, helpless, dreary, apparently meaningless suffering.

The Altar Fire - Part 8 The Altar Fire - Part 8

The Altar Fire - Part 8
June 14, 1889. It is comforting to reflect how easy it is to abandon habits, and how soon a new habit takes the place of the old. Some months ago I put writing aside in despair, feeling that I was turning away from the most stable thing in life; yet even now I have learned largely to acquiesce in silence; the dreary and objectless mood visits me less and less frequently. What have I found to fill the place of the old habit? I have begun to read much more widely, and recognise how very ill-educated I am. In my writing