The Fixed Period, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter VI.

The College.

I was surprised to see that Jack, who was so bold in playing his match, and who had been so well able to hold his own against the Englishmen, — who had been made a hero, and had carried off his heroism so well, — should have been so shamefaced and bashful in regard to Eva. He was like a silly boy, hardly daring to look her in the face, instead of the gallant captain of the band who had triumphed over all obstacles. But I perceived, though it seemed that he did not, that she was quite prepared to give herself to him, and that there was no real obstacle between him and all the flocks and herds of Little Christchurch. Not much had been seen or heard of Grundle during the match, and as far as Eva was concerned, he had succumbed as soon as Sir Kennington Oval had appeared upon the scene. He had thought so much of the English baronet as to have been cowed and quenched by his grandeur. And Sir Kennington himself had, I think, been in earnest before the days of the cricket-match. But I could see now that Eva had merely played him off against Jack, thinking thereby to induce the younger swain to speak his mind. This had made Jack more than ever intent on beating Sir Kennington, but had not as yet had the effect which Eva had intended. “It will all come right,” I said to myself, “as soon as these Englishmen have left the island.” But then my mind reverted to the Fixed Period, and to the fast-approaching time for Crasweller’s deposition. We were now nearly through March, and the thirtieth of June was the day on which he ought to be led to the college. It was my first anxiety to get rid of these Englishmen before the subject should be again ventilated. I own I was anxious that they should not return to their country with their prejudices strengthened by what they might hear at Gladstonopolis. If I could only get them to go before the matter was again debated, it might be that no strong public feeling would be excited in England till it was too late. That was my first desire; but then I was also anxious to get rid of Jack for a short time. The more I thought of Eva and the flocks, the more determined was I not to allow the personal interests of my boy, — and therefore my own, — to clash in any way with the performance of my public duties.

I heard that the Englishmen were not to go till another week had elapsed. A week was necessary to recruit their strength and to enable them to pack up their bats and bicycles. Neither, however, were packed up till the day before they started; for the track down to Little Christchurch was crowded with them, and they were still practising as though another match were contemplated. I was very glad to have Lord Marylebone as an inmate in our house, but I acknowledge that I was anxious for him to say something as to his departure. “We have been very proud to have you here, my lord,” I remarked.

“I cannot say that we are very proud,” he replied, “because we have been so awfully licked. Barring that, I never spent a pleasanter two months in my life, and should not be at all unwilling to stay for another. Your mode of life here seems to me to be quite delightful, and we have been thinking so much of our cricket, that I have hardly as yet had a moment to look at your institutions. What is all this about the Fixed Period?” Jack, who was present, put on a serious face, and assumed that air of determination which I was beginning to fear. Mrs Neverbend pursed up her lips, and said nothing; but I knew what was passing through her mind. I managed to turn the conversation, but I was aware that I did it very lamely.

“Jack,” I said to my son, “I got a post-card from New Zealand yesterday.” The boats had just begun to run between the two islands six days a-week, and as their regular contract pace was twenty-five miles an hour, it was just an easy day’s journey.

“What said the post-card?”

“There’s plenty of time for Mount Earnshawe yet. They all say the autumn is the best. The snow is now disappearing in great quantities.”

But an old bird is not to be caught with chaff. Jack was determined not to go to the Eastern Alps this year; and indeed, as I found, not to go till this question of the Fixed Period should be settled. I told him that he was a fool. Although he would have been wrong to assist in depositing his father-in-law for the sake of getting the herd and flocks himself, as Grundle would have done, nevertheless he was hardly bound by any feelings of honour or conscience to keep old Crasweller at Little Christchurch in direct opposition to the laws of the land. But all this I could not explain to him, and was obliged simply to take it as a fact that he would not join an Alpine party for Mount Earnshawe this year. As I thought of all this, I almost feared Jack’s presence in Gladstonopolis more than that of the young Englishmen.

It was clear, however, that nothing could be done till the Englishmen were gone, and as I had a day at my disposal I determined to walk up to the college and meditate there on the conduct which it would be my duty to follow during the next two months. The college was about five miles from the town, at the side opposite to you as you enter the town from Little Christchurch, and I had some time since made up my mind how, in the bright genial days of our pleasant winter, I would myself accompany Mr Crasweller through the city in an open barouche as I took him to be deposited, through admiring crowds of his fellow-citizens. I had not then thought that he would be a recreant, or that he would be deterred by the fear of departure from enjoying the honours which would be paid to him. But how different now was his frame of mind from that glorious condition to which I had looked forward in my sanguine hopes! Had it been I, I myself, how proud should I have been of my country and its wisdom, had I been led along as a first hero, to anticipate the euthanasia prepared for me! As it was, I hired an inside cab, and hiding myself in the corner, was carried away to the college unseen by any.

The place was called Necropolis. The name had always been distasteful to me, as I had never wished to join with it the feeling of death. Various names had been proposed for the site. Young Grundle had suggested Cremation Hall, because such was the ultimate end to which the mere husks and hulls of the citizens were destined. But there was something undignified in the sound, — as though we were talking of a dancing saloon or a music hall, — and I would have none of it. My idea was to give to the mind some notion of an approach to good things to come, and I proposed to call the place “Aditus.” But men said that it was unmeaning, and declared that Britannulists should never be ashamed to own the truth. Necropolis sounded well, they said, and argued that though no actual remains of the body might be left there, still the tablets would remain. Therefore Necropolis it was called. I had hoped that a smiling hamlet might grow up at the gate, inhabited by those who would administer to the wants of the deposited; but I had forgot that the deposited must come first. The hamlet had not yet built itself, and round the handsome gates there was nothing at present but a desert. While land in Britannula was plenty, no one had cared to select ground so near to those awful furnaces by which the mortal clay should be transported into the air. From the gates up to the temple which stood in the middle of the grounds, — that temple in which the last scene of life was to be encountered, — there ran a broad gravel path, which was intended to become a beautiful avenue. It was at present planted alternately with eucalypti and ilexes — the gum-trees for the present generation, and the green-oaks for those to come; but even the gum-trees had not as yet done much to give a furnished appearance to the place. Some had demanded that cedars and yew-trees should be placed there, and I had been at great pains to explain to them that our object should be to make the spot cheerful, rather than sad. Round the temple, at the back of it, were the sets of chambers in which were to live the deposited during their year of probation. Some of these were very handsome, and were made so, no doubt, with a view of alluring the first comers. In preparing wisdom for babes, it is necessary to wrap up its precepts in candied sweets. But, though handsome, they were at present anything but pleasant abodes. Not one of them had as yet been inhabited. As I looked at them, knowing Crasweller as well as I did, I almost ceased to wonder at his timidity. A hero was wanted; but Crasweller was no hero. Then further off, but still in the circle round the temple, there were smaller abodes, less luxurious, but still comfortable, all of which would in a few short years be inhabited, — if the Fixed Period could be carried out in accordance with my project. And foundations had been made for others still smaller, — for a whole township of old men and women, as in the course of the next thirty years they might come hurrying on to find their last abode in the college. I had already selected one, not by any means the finest or the largest, for myself and my wife, in which we might prepare ourselves for the grand departure. But as for Mrs Neverbend, nothing would bring her to set foot within the precincts of the college ground. “Before those next ten years are gone,” she would say, “common-sense will have interfered to let folks live out their lives properly.” It had been quite useless for me to attempt to make her understand how unfitting was such a speech for the wife of the President of the Republic. My wife’s opposition had been an annoyance to me from the first, but I had consoled myself by thinking how impossible it always is to imbue a woman’s mind with a logical idea. And though, in all respects of domestic life, Mrs Neverbend is the best of women, even among women she is the most illogical.

I now inspected the buildings in a sad frame of mind, asking myself whether it would ever come to pass that they should be inhabited for their intended purpose. When the Assembly, in compliance with my advice, had first enacted the law of the Fixed Period, a large sum had been voted for these buildings. As the enthusiasm had worn off, men had asked themselves whether the money had not been wasted, and had said that for so small a community the college had been planned on an absurdly grand scale. Still I had gone on, and had watched them as they grew from day to day, and had allowed no shilling to be spared in perfecting them. In my earlier years I had been very successful in the wool trade, and had amassed what men called a large fortune. During the last two or three years I had devoted a great portion of this to the external adornment of the college, not without many words on the matter from Mrs Neverbend. “Jack is to be ruined,” she had said, “in order that all the old men and women may be killed artistically.” This and other remarks of the kind I was doomed to bear. It was a part of the difficulty which, as a great reformer, I must endure. But now, as I walked mournfully among the disconsolate and half-finished buildings, I could not but ask myself as to the purpose to which my money had been devoted. And I could not but tell myself that if in coming years these tenements should be left tenantless, my country would look back upon me as one who had wasted the produce of her young energies. But again I bethought me of Columbus and Galileo, and swore that I would go on or perish in the attempt.

As these painful thoughts were agitating my mind, a slow decrepit old gentleman came up to me and greeted me as Mr President. He linked his arm familiarly through mine, and remarked that the time seemed to be very long before the college received any of its inhabitants. This was Mr Graybody, the curator, who had been specially appointed to occupy a certain residence, to look after the grounds, and to keep the books of the establishment. Graybody and I had come as young men to Britannula together, and whereas I had succeeded in all my own individual attempts, he had unfortunately failed. He was exactly of my age, as was also his wife. But under the stress of misfortune they had both become unnaturally old, and had at last been left ruined and hopeless, without a shilling on which to depend. I had always been a sincere friend to Graybody, though he was, indeed, a man very difficult to befriend. On most subjects he thought as I did, if he can be said to have thought at all. At any rate he had agreed with me as to the Fixed Period, saying how good it would be if he could be deposited at fifty-eight, and had always declared how blessed must be the time when it should have come for himself and his old wife. I do not think that he ever looked much to the principle which I had in view. He had no great ideas as to the imbecility and weakness of human life when protracted beyond its fitting limits. He only felt that it would be good to give up; and that if he did so, others might be made to do so too. As soon as a residence at the college was completed, I asked him to fill it; and now he had been living there, he and his wife together, with an attendant, and drawing his salary as curator for the last three years. I thought that it would be the very place for him. He was usually melancholy, disheartened, and impoverished; but he was always glad to see me, and I was accustomed to go frequently to the college, in order to find a sympathetic soul with whom to converse about the future of the establishment. “Well, Graybody,” I said, “I suppose we are nearly ready for the first comer.”

“Oh yes; we’re always ready; but then the first comer is not.” I had not said much to him during the latter months as to Crasweller, in particular. His name used formerly to be very ready in all my conversations with Graybody, but of late I had talked to him in a more general tone. “You can’t tell me yet when it’s to be, Mr President? We do find it a little dull here.”

Now he knew as well as I did the day and the year of Crasweller’s birth. I had intended to speak to him about Crasweller, but I wished our friend’s name to come first from him. “I suppose it will be some time about mid-winter,” I said.

“Oh, I didn’t know whether it might not have been postponed.”

“How can it be postponed? As years creep on, you cannot postpone their step. If there might be postponement such as that, I doubt whether we should ever find the time for our inhabitants to come. No, Graybody; there can be no postponement for the Fixed Period.”

“It might have been made sixty-nine or seventy,” said he.

“Originally, no doubt. But the wisdom of the Assembly has settled all that. The Assembly has declared that they in Britannula who are left alive at sixty-seven shall on that day be brought into the college. You yourself have, I think, ten years to run, and you will not be much longer left to pass them in solitude.”

“It is weary being here all alone, I must confess. Mrs G. says that she could not bear it for another twelve months. The girl we have has given us notice, and she is the ninth within a year. No followers will come after them here, because they say they’ll smell the dead bodies.”

“Rubbish!” I exclaimed, angrily; “positive rubbish! The actual clay will evaporate into the air, without leaving a trace either for the eye to see or the nose to smell.”

“They all say that when you tried the furnaces there was a savour of burnt pork.” Now great trouble was taken in that matter of cremation; and having obtained from Europe and the States all the best machinery for the purpose, I had supplied four immense hogs, in order that the system might be fairly tested, and I had fattened them for the purpose, as old men are not unusually very stout. These we consumed in the furnaces all at the same time, and the four bodies had been dissolved into their original atoms without leaving a trace behind them by which their former condition of life might be recognised. But a trap-door in certain of the chimneys had been left open by accident, — either that or by an enemy on purpose, — and undoubtedly some slight flavour of the pig had been allowed to escape. I had been there on the spot, knowing that I could trust only my own senses, and was able to declare that the scent which had escaped was very slight, and by no means disagreeable. And I was able to show that the trap-door had been left open either by chance or by design, — the very trap-door which was intended to prevent any such escape during the moments of full cremation, — so that there need be no fear of a repetition of the accident. I ought, indeed, to have supplied four other hogs, and to have tried the experiment again. But the theme was disagreeable, and I thought that the trial had been so far successful as to make it unnecessary that the expense should be again incurred. “They say that men and women would not have quite the same smell,” said he.

“How do they know that?” I exclaimed, in my anger. “How do they know what men and women will smell like? They haven’t tried. There won’t be any smell at all — not the least; and the smoke will all consume itself, so that even you, living just where you are, will not know when cremation is going on. We might consume all Gladstonopolis, as I hope we shall some day, and not a living soul would know anything about it. But the prejudices of the citizens are ever the stumbling-blocks of civilisation.”

“At any rate, Mrs G. tells me that Jemima is going, because none of the young men will come up and see her.”

This was another difficulty, but a small one, and I made up my mind that it should be overcome. “The shrubs seem to grow very well,” I said, resolved to appear as cheerful as possible.

“They’re pretty nearly all alive,” said Graybody; “and they do give the place just an appearance like the cemetery at Old Christchurch.” He meant the capital in the province of Canterbury.

“In the course of a few years you will be quite — cheerful here.”

“I don’t know much about that, Mr President. I’m not sure that for myself I want to be cheerful anywhere. If I’ve only got somebody just to speak to sometimes, that will be quite enough for me. I suppose old Crasweller will be the first?”

“I suppose so.”

“It will be a gruesome time when I have to go to bed early, so as not to see the smoke come out of his chimney.”

“I tell you there will be nothing of the kind. I don’t suppose you will even know when they’re going to cremate him.”

“He will be the first, Mr President; and no doubt he will be looked closely after. Old Barnes will be here by that time, won’t he, sir?”

“Barnes is the second, and he will come just three months before Crasweller’s departure. But Tallowax, the grocer in High Street, will be up here by that time. And then they will come so quickly, that we must soon see to get other lodgings finished. Exors, the lawyer, will be the fourth; but he will not come in till a day or two after Crasweller’s departure.”

“They all will come; won’t they, sir?” asked Graybody.

“Will come! Why, they must. It is the law.”

“Tallowax swears he’ll have himself strapped to his own kitchen table, and defend himself to the last gasp with a carving-knife. Exors says that the law is bad, and you can’t touch him. As for Barnes, he has gone out of what little wits he ever had with the fright of it, and people seem to think that you couldn’t touch a lunatic.”

“Barnes is no more a lunatic than I am.”

“I only tell you what folk tell me. I suppose you’ll try it on by force, if necessary. You never expected that people would come and deposit themselves of their own accord.”

“The National Assembly expects that the citizens of Britannula will obey the law.”

“But there was one question I was going to ask, Mr President. Of course I am altogether on your side, and do not wish to raise difficulties. But what shall I do suppose they take to running away after they have been deposited? If old Crasweller goes off in his steam-carriage, how am I to go after him, and whom am I to ask to help to bring him back again?”

I was puzzled, but I did not care to show it. No doubt a hundred little arrangements would be necessary before the affairs of the institution could be got into a groove so as to run steadily. But our first object must be to deposit Crasweller and Barnes and Tallowax, so that the citizens should be accustomed to the fashion of depositing the aged. There were, as I knew, two or three old women living in various parts of the island, who would, in due course, come in towards the end of Crasweller’s year. But it had been rumoured that they had already begun to invent falsehoods as to their age, and I was aware that we might be led astray by them. This I had been prepared to accept as being unavoidable; but now, as the time grew nearer, I could not but see how difficult it would be to enforce the law against well-known men, and how easy to allow the women to escape by the help of falsehood. Exors, the lawyer, would say at once that we did not even attempt to carry out the law; and Barnes, lunatic as he pretended to be, would be very hard to manage. My mind misgave me as I thought of all these obstructions, and I felt that I could so willingly deposit myself at once, and then depart without waiting for my year of probation. But it was necessary that I should show a determined front to old Graybody, and make him feel that I at any rate was determined to remain firm to my purpose. “Mr Crasweller will give you no such trouble as you suggest,” said I.

“Perhaps he has come round.”

“He is a gentleman whom we have both known intimately for many years, and he has always been a friend to the Fixed Period. I believe that he is so still, although there is some little hitch as to the exact time at which he should be deposited.”

“Just twelve months, he says.”

“Of course,” I replied, “the difference would be sure to be that of one year. He seems to think that there are only nine years between him and me.”

“Ten, Mr President; ten. I know the time well.”

“I had always thought so; but I should be willing to abandon a year if I could make things run smooth by doing so. But all that is a detail with which up here we need not, perhaps, concern ourselves.”

“Only the time is getting very short, Mr President, and my old woman will break down altogether if she’s told that she’s to live another year all alone. Crasweller won’t be a bit readier next year than he is this; and of course if he is let off, you must let off Barnes and Tallowax. And there are a lot of old women about who are beginning to tell terrible lies about their ages. Do think of it all, Mr President.”

I never thought of anything else, so full was my mind of the subject. When I woke in the morning, before I could face the light of day, it was necessary that I should fortify myself with Columbus and Galileo. I began to fancy, as the danger became nearer and still nearer, that neither of those great men had been surrounded by obstructions such as encompassed me. To plough on across the waves, and either to be drowned or succeed; to tell a new truth about the heavens, and either to perish or become great for ever! — either was within the compass of a man who had only his own life to risk. My life, — how willingly could I run any risk, did but the question arise of risking it! How often I felt, in these days, that there is a fortitude needed by man much greater than that of jeopardising his life! Life! what is it? Here was that poor Crasweller, belying himself and all his convictions just to gain one year more of it, and then when the year was gone he would still have his deposition before him! Is it not so with us all? For me I feel, — have felt for years, — tempted to rush on, and pass through the gates of death. That man should shudder at the thought of it does not appear amiss to me. The unknown future is always awful; and the unknown future of another world, to be approached by so great a change of circumstances, — by the loss of our very flesh and blood and body itself, — has in it something so fearful to the imagination that the man who thinks of it cannot but be struck with horror as he acknowledges that by himself too it has to be encountered. But it has to be encountered; and though the change be awful, it should not therefore, by the sane judgment, be taken as a change necessarily for the worst. Knowing the great goodness of the Almighty, should we not be prepared to accept it as a change probably for the better; as an alteration of our circumstances, by which our condition may be immeasurably improved? Then one is driven back to consider the circumstances by which such change may be effected. To me it seems rational to suppose that as we leave this body so shall we enter that new phase of life in which we are destined to live; — but with all our higher resolves somewhat sharpened, and with our lower passions, alas! made stronger also. That theory by which a human being shall jump at once to a perfection of bliss, or fall to an eternity of evil and misery, has never found credence with me. For myself, I have to say that, while acknowledging my many drawbacks, I have so lived as to endeavour to do good to others, rather than evil, and that therefore I look to my departure from this world with awe indeed, but still with satisfaction. But I cannot look with satisfaction to a condition of life in which, from my own imbecility, I must necessarily retrograde into selfishness. It may be that He who judges of us with a wisdom which I cannot approach, shall take all this into account, and that He shall so mould my future being as to fit it to the best at which I had arrived in this world; still I cannot but fear that a taint of that selfishness which I have hitherto avoided, but which will come if I allow myself to become old, may remain, and that it will be better for me that I should go hence while as yet my own poor wants are not altogether uppermost in my mind. But then, in arranging this matter, I am arranging it for my fellow-citizens, and not for myself. I have to endeavour to think how Crasweller’s mind may be affected rather than my own. He dreads his departure with a trembling, currish fear; and I should hardly be doing good to him were I to force him to depart in a frame of mind so poor and piteous. But then, again, neither is it altogether of Crasweller that I must think, — not of Crasweller or of myself. How will the coming ages of men be affected by such a change as I propose, should such a change become the normal condition of Death? Can it not be brought about that men should arrange for their own departure, so as to fall into no senile weakness, no slippered selfishness, no ugly whinings of undefined want, before they shall go hence, and be no more thought of? These are the ideas that have actuated me, and to them I have been brought by seeing the conduct of those around me. Not for Crasweller, or Barnes, or Tallowax, will this thing be good, — nor for those old women who are already lying about their ages in their cottages, — nor for myself, who am, I know, too apt to boast of myself, that even though old age should come upon me, I may be able to avoid the worst of its effects; but for those untold generations to come, whose lives may be modelled for them under the knowledge that at a certain Fixed Period they shall depart hence with all circumstances of honour and glory.

I was, however, quite aware that it would be useless to spend my energy in dilating on this to Mr Graybody. He simply was willing to shuffle off his mortal coil, because he found it uncomfortable in the wearing. In all likelihood, had his time come as nigh as that of Crasweller, he too, like Crasweller, would impotently implore the grace of another year. He would ape madness like Barnes, or arm himself with a carving-knife like Tallowax, or swear that there was a flaw in the law, as Exors was disposed to do. He too would clamorously swear that he was much younger, as did the old women. Was not the world peopled by Craswellers, Tallowaxes, Exorses, and old women? Had I a right to hope to alter the feelings which nature herself had implanted in the minds of men? But still it might be done by practice, — by practice; if only we could arrive at the time in which practice should have become practice. Then, as I was about to depart from the door of Graybody’s house, I whispered to myself again the names of Galileo and Columbus.

“You think that he will come on the thirtieth?” said Graybody, as he took my hand at parting.

“I think,” replied I, “that you and I, as loyal citizens of the Republic, are bound to suppose that he will do his duty as a citizen.” Then I went, leaving him standing in doubt at his door.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43