The soul’s loneliness — My mother and her death-A mother’s love for her son — Her character-Anecdotes-A mystery and a revelation — The autumnal migration of birds — Moonlight vigils — My absent brother’s return — He introduces me to Darwin’s works — A new philosophy of life — Conclusion.
The mournful truth that a man — every man-must die alone, had been thrust sharply into my mind and kept there by the frequent violent attacks of my malady I suffered at that time, every one of which threatened to be the last. And this sense and apprehension of loneliness at the moment of the severance of all earthly ties and parting with light and life, was perhaps the cause of the idea or notion which possessed me, that in all our most intimate thoughts and reflections concerning our destiny and our deepest emotions, we are and must be alone. Anyhow, in so far as these matters are concerned, I never had nor desired a confidant. In this connection I recall the last words spoken to me by my younger brother, the being I loved best on earth at that time and the one I had been more intimate with than with any other person I have ever known. This was after the dark days and years had been overpass, when I had had long periods of fairly good health and had known happiness in the solitary places I loved to haunt, communing with wild nature, with wild birds for company.
He was with me in the ship in which I had taken my passage “home,” as I insisted on calling England, to his amusement, and when we had grasped hands for the last time and had said our last good-bye, he added this one more last word: “Of all the people I have ever known you are the only one I don’t know.”
It was a word, I imagine, never spoken by a mother of a loved son, her insight, born of her exceeding love, being so much greater than that of the closest friend and brother. I never breathed a word of my doubts and mental agonizing to my mother; I spoke to her only of my bodily sufferings; yet she knew it all, and I knew that she knew. And because she knew and understood the temper of my mind as well, she never questioned, never probed, but invariably when alone with me she would with infinite tenderness in her manner touch on spiritual things and tell me of her own state, the consolations of her faith which gave her peace and strength in all our reverses and anxieties.
I knew, too, that her concern at my state was the greater because it was not her first experience of a trouble of this kind. My elder long-absent brother had scarcely ceased to be a boy before throwing off all belief in the Christian creed and congratulating himself on having got rid of old wives’ fables, as he scornfully expressed it. But never a word did he say to her of this change, and without a word she knew it, and when she spoke to us on the subject nearest to her heart and he listened in respectful silence, she knew the thought and feeling — that was in him-that he loved her above everybody but was free of her creed.
He had been able to cast it off with a light heart because of his perfect health, since in that condition death is not in the mind — the mind refuses to admit the thought of it, so remote is it in that state that we regard ourselves as practically immortal. And, untroubled by that thought, the mind is clear and vigorous and unfettered. What, I have asked myself, even when striving after faith, would faith in another world have mattered to me if I had not been suddenly sentenced to an early death, when the whole desire of my soul was life, nothing but life — to live for ever!
Then my mother died. Her perfect health failed her suddenly, and her decline was not long. But she suffered much, and on the last occasion of my being with her at her bedside she told me that she was very tired and had no fear of death, and would be glad to go but for the thought of leaving me in such a precarious state of health and with a mind distressed. Even then she put no questions to me, but only expressed the hope that her prayers for me would be answered and that at the last we should be together again.
I cannot say, as I might say in the case of any other relation or friend, that I had lost her. A mother’s love for the child of her body differs essentially from all other affections, and burns with so clear and steady a flame that it appears like the one unchangeable thing in this earthly mutable life, so that when she is no longer present it is still a light to our steps and a consolation.
It came to me as a great surprise a few years ago to have my secret and most cherished feelings about my own mother expressed to me as I had never heard them expressed before by a friend who, albeit still young, has made himself a name in the world, one who had never known a mother, she having died during his infancy. He lamented that it had been so, not only on account of the motherless childhood and boyhood he had known, but chiefly because in after life it was borne in on him that he had been deprived of something infinitely precious which others have — the enduring and sustaining memory of a love which is unlike any other love known to mortals, and is almost a sense and prescience of immortality.
In reading, nothing goes to my heart like any true account of a mother and son’s love for one another, such as we find in that true book I have already spoken of in a former chapter, Serge Aksakoff’s History of my Childhood. Of other books I may cite Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography in the early chapters. Reading the incidents he records of his mother’s love and pity for all in trouble and her self-sacrificing acts, I have exclaimed: “How like my mother! It is just how she would have acted!” I will give an instance here of her loving-kindness.
Some days after her death I had occasion to go to the house of one of our native neighbours — the humble rancho of poor people. It was not in my mind at the moment that I had not seen these people since my mother died, and on coming into the living-room the old mother of the family, who had grandchildren of my age, rose from her seat with tottering steps to meet me, and taking my hand in hers, with tears streaming from her eyes, cried: “She has left us! She who called me mother on account of my years and her loving heart. It was she who was my mother and the mother of us all. What shall we do without her?”
Only after going out and getting on my horse it occurred to me that the old woman’s memory went back to the time when she first knew my mother, a girl-wife, many years before I was born. She could remember numerous acts of love and compassion: that when one of her daughters died in childbirth in that very house, my mother, who was just then nursing me, went to give them whatever aid and comfort she could, and finding the child alive, took it home and nursed it, with me, at her own breasts for several days until a nurse was found.
From the time when I began to think for myself I used to wonder at her tolerance; for she was a saint in her life, spiritually-minded in the highest degree. To her, a child of New England parents and ancestors, reared in an intensely religious atmosphere, the people of the pampas among whom her lot was cast must have appeared almost like the inhabitants of another world. They were as strange to her soul, morally and spiritually, as they were unlike her own people outwardly in language, dress, and customs. Yet she was able to affiliate with them, to visit and sit at ease with them in their lowliest ranches, interesting herself as much in their affairs as if she belonged to them. This sympathy and freedom endeared her to them, and it was a grief to some who were much attached to her that she was not of their faith. She was a Protestant, and what that exactly meant they didn’t know, but they supposed it was something very bad. Protestants, some of them held, had been concerned in the crucifixion of the Saviour; at all events, they would not go to mass or confessional, and despised the saints, those glorified beings who, under the Queen of Heaven, and with the angels, were the guardians of Christian souls in this life and their intercessors in the next. They were anxious to save her, and when I was born, the same old dame I have told about a page or two back, finding that I had come into the world on St. Dominic’s Day, set herself to persuade my mother to name me after that saint, that being the religious custom of the country. For if they should succeed in this it would be taken as a sign of grace, that she was not a despiser of the saints and her case hopeless. But my mother had already fixed on a name for me and would not change it for another, even to please her poor neighbours — certainly not for such a name as Dominic; perhaps there is not one in the calendar more obnoxious to heretics of all denominations.
They were much hurt-it was the only hurt she ever caused them-and the old dame and some of her people, who had thought the scheme too good to be dropped altogether, insisted always on calling me Dominic!
My mother’s sympathy and love for everybody appeared, too, in the hospitality she delighted to exercise. That, indeed, was the common virtue of the country, especially in the native population; but from all my experience during my wanderings on these great plains in subsequent years, when every night would find me a guest in a different establishment, I never saw anything quite on a par with my parents’ hospitality. Nothing seemed to make them happier than having strangers and travellers taking their rest with us; there were also a good number of persons who were accustomed to make periodical visits to the city from the southern part of the province who, after a night with us, with perhaps half a day’s rest to follow, would make our house a regular resting-place. But no distinctions were made. The poorest, even men who would be labelled tramps in England, travellers on foot perhaps where cattle made it dangerous to be on foot, would be made as welcome as those of a better class. Our delight as children, loving fun too well, was when we had a guest of this humble description at the supper-table. Settling down in our places at the long table laden with good things, a stern admonitory glance from our father would let us into the secret of the new guest’s status — his unsuitability to his surroundings. It was great fun to watch him furtively and listen to his blundering conversational efforts, but we knew that the least sound of a titter on our part would have been an unpardonable offence. The poor and more uncouth, or ridiculous, from our childish point of view, they appeared, the more anxious my mother would be to put them at their ease. And she would sometimes say to us afterwards that she could not laugh with us because she remembered the poor fellow probably had a mother somewhere in a distant country who was perhaps thinking of him at the very time he was at the table with us, and hoping and praying that in his wanderings he would meet with some who would be kind to him.
I remember many of these chance guests, and will give a particular account of one — the guest and the evening we passed in his company — as this survives with a peculiar freshness in my memory, and it was also a cherished recollection of my mother’s.
I was then nine or ten years old, and our guest was a young Spanish gentleman, singularly handsome, with a most engaging expression and manner. He was on a journey from Buenos Ayres to a part in our province some sixty or seventy leagues further south, and after asking permission to pass the night at our house, he explained that he had only one horse, as he liked that way of travelling rather than the native way of driving a tropilla before him, going at a furious gallop from dawn to dark, and changing horses every three or four leagues. Having but one horse, he had to go in a leisurely way with many rests, and he liked to call at many houses every day just to talk with the people.
After supper, during which he charmed us with his conversation and pure Castilian, which was like music as he spoke it, we formed a circle before a wood fire in the dining-room and made him take the middle seat. For he had confessed that he performed on the guitar, and we all wanted to sit where we could see as well as listen. He tuned the instrument in a leisurely way, pausing often to continue the conversation with my parents, until at last, seeing how eager we all were, he began to play, and his music and style were strange to us, for he had no jigging tunes with fantastic flights and flourishes so much affected by our native guitarists. It was beautiful but serious music.
Then came another long pause and he talked again, and said the pieces he had been playing were composed by his chief favourite, Sarasate. He said that Sarasate had been one of the most famous guitarists in Spain, and had composed a good deal of music for the guitar before he had given it up for the violin. As a violinist he would win a European reputation, but in Spain they were sorry that he had abandoned the national instrument.
All he said was interesting, but we wanted more and more of his music, and he played less and less and at longer intervals, and at last he put the guitar down, and turning to my parents, said with a smile that he begged to be excused — that he could play no more for thinking. He owed it to them, he said, to tell them what he was thinking about; they would then know how much they had done for his pleasure that evening and how he appreciated it. He was, he continued, one of a large family, very united, all living with their parents at home; and in winter, which was cold in his part of Spain, their happiest time was in the evening when they would gather before a big fire of oak logs in their solar and pass the time with books and conversation and a little music and singing. Naturally, since he had left his country years ago, the thought of that time and those evenings had occasionally been in his mind — a passing thought and memory. On this evening it had come in a different way, less like a memory than a revival of the past, so that as he sat there among us, he was a boy back in Spain once more, sitting by the fire with his brothers and sisters and parents. With that feeling in him he could not go on playing. And he thought it most strange that such an experience should have come to him for the first time in that place out on that great naked pampa, sparsely inhabited, where life was so rough, so primitive.
And while he talked we all listened — how eagerly! — drinking in his words, especially my mother, her eyes bright with the moisture rising in them; and she often afterwards recalled that evening guest, who was seen no more by us but had left an enduring image in our hearts.
This is a picture of my mother as she appeared to all who knew her. In my individual case there was more, a secret bond of union between us, since she best understood my feeling for Nature and sense of beauty, and recognized that in this I was nearest to her. Thus, besides and above the love of mother and son, we had a spiritual kinship, and this was so much to me that everything beautiful in sight or sound that affected me came associated with her to my mind. I have found this feeling most perfectly expressed in some lines to the Snowdrop by our lost poet, Dolben. I am in doubt, he wrote,
If summer brings a flower so lovable
Of such a meditative restfulness
As this, with all her roses and carnations.
The morning hardly stirs their noiseless bells;
Yet could I fancy that they whispered “Home,”
For all things gentle, all things beautiful,
I hold, my mother, for a part of thee.
So have I held. All things beautiful, but chiefly flowers. Her feeling for them was little short of adoration. Her religious mind appeared to regard them as little voiceless messengers from the Author of our beings and of Nature, or as divine symbols of a place and a beauty beyond our power to imagine.
I think it likely that when Dolben penned those lines to the Snowdrop it was in his mind that this was one of his mother’s favourites. My mother had her favourites too; not the roses and carnations in our gardens, but mostly among the wild flowers growing on the pampas — flowers which I never see in England. But I remember them, and if by some strange chance I should find myself once more in that distant region, I should go out in search of them, and seeing them again, feel that I was communing with her spirit.
These memories of my mother are a relief to me in recalling that melancholy time, the years of my youth that were wasted and worse, considering their effect and that the very thought of that period, which is to others the fullest, richest, and happiest in life, has always been painful to me. Yet to it I am now obliged to return for the space of two or three pages to relate how I eventually came out of it.
My case was not precisely like that of Cooper’s Castaway, but rather like that of a fugitive from his ship on some tropical coast who, on swimming to the shore, finds himself in a mangrove swamp, waist-deep in mire, tangled in rope-like roots, straining frantically to escape his doom.
I have told how after my fifteenth anniversary, when I first began to reflect seriously on my future life, the idea still persisted that my perpetual delight in Nature was nothing more than a condition or phase of my child’s and boy’s mind, and would inevitably fade out in time. I might have guessed at an earlier date that this was a delusion, since the feeling had grown in strength with the years, but it was only after I took to reading at the beginning of my sixteenth year that I discovered its true character. One of the books I read then for the first time was White’s Selborne, given to me by an old friend of our family, a merchant in Buenos Ayres, who had been accustomed to stay a week or two with us once a year when he took his holiday. He had been on a visit to Europe, and one day, he told me, when in London on the eve of his departure, he was in a bookshop, and seeing this book on the counter and glancing at a page or two, it occurred to him that it was just the right thing to get for that bird-loving boy out on the pampas. I read and re-read it many times, for nothing so good of its kind had ever come to me, but it did not reveal to me the secret of my own feeling for Nature — the feeling of which I was becoming more and more conscious, which was a mystery to me, especially at certain moments, when it would come upon me with a sudden rush. So powerful it was, so unaccountable, I was actually afraid of it, yet I would go out of my way to seek it. At the hour of sunset I would go out half a mile or so from the house, and sitting on the dry grass with hands clasped round my knees, gaze at the western sky, waiting for it to take me. And I would ask myself: What does it mean? But there was no answer to that in any book concerning the “life and conversation of animals.” I found it in other works: in Brown’s Philosophy — another of the ancient tomes on our shelves — and in an old volume containing appreciations of the early nineteenth-century poets; also in other works. They did not tell me in so many words that it was the mystical faculty in me which produced those strange rushes or bursts of feeling and lifted me out of myself at moments; but what I found in their words was sufficient to show me that the feeling of delight in Nature was an enduring one, that others had known it, and that it had been a secret source of happiness throughout their lives.
This revelation, which in other circumstances would have made me exceedingly happy, only added to my misery when, as it appeared, I had only a short time to live. Nature could charm, she could enchant me, and her wordless messages to my soul were to me sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, but she could not take the sting and victory from death, and I had perforce to go elsewhere for consolation. Yet even so, in my worst days, my darkest years, when occupied with the laborious business of working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, with that spectre of death always following me, even so I could not rid my mind of its old passion and delight. The rising and setting sun, the sight of a lucid blue sky after cloud and rain, the long unheard familiar call-note of some newly-returned migrant, the first sight of some flower in spring, would bring back the old emotion and would be like a sudden ray of sunlight in a dark place — a momentary intense joy, to be succeeded by ineffable pain. Then there were times when these two opposite feelings mingled and would be together in my mind for hours at a time, and this occurred oftenest during the autumnal migration, when the great wave of bird-life set northwards, and all through March and April the birds were visible in flock succeeding flock from dawn to dark, until the summer visitants were all gone, to be succeeded in May by the birds from the far south, flying from the Antarctic winter.
This annual spectacle had always been a moving one, but the feeling it now produced — this mingled feeling — was most powerful on still moonlight nights, when I would sit or lie on my bed gazing out on the prospect, earth and sky, in its changed mysterious aspect. And, lying there, I would listen by the hour to the three-syllable call-note of the upland or solitary plover, as the birds went past, each bird alone far up in the dim sky, winging his way to the north. It was a strange vigil I kept, stirred by strange thoughts and feelings, in that moonlit earth that was strange too, albeit familiar, for never before had the sense of the supernatural in Nature been stronger. And the bird I listened to, that same solitary plover I had known and admired from my earliest years, the most graceful of birds, beautiful to see and hear when it would spring up before my horse with its prolonged wild bubbling cry of alarm and go away with swift, swallow-like flight — what intensity and gladness of life was in it, what a wonderful inherited knowledge in its brain, and what an inexhaustible vigour in its slender frame to enable it to perform that annual double journey of upwards of ten thousand miles! What a joy it would be to live for ages in a world of such fascinating phenomena! If some great physician, wise beyond all others, infallible, had said to me that all my doctors had been wrong, that, barring accidents, I had yet fifty years to live, or forty, or even thirty, I should have worshipped him and would have counted myself the happiest being on the globe, with so many autumns and winters and springs and summers to see yet.
With these supernatural moonlight nights I finish the story of that dark time, albeit the darkness had not yet gone; to have recalled it and related it briefly as I could once in my life is enough. Let me now go back to the simile of the lost wretch struggling for life in the mangrove swamp. The first sense of having set my foot on a firmer place in that slough of fetid slime, of a wholesome breath of air blown to me from outside the shadow of the black abhorred forest, was when I began to experience intervals of relief from physical pain, when these grew more and more frequent and would extend to entire days, then to weeks, and for a time I would become oblivious of my precarious state. I was still and for a long time subject to attacks, when the pain was intolerable and was like steel driven into my heart, always followed by violent palpitations, which would last for hours. But I found that exercise on foot or horseback made me no worse, and I became more and more venturesome, spending most of my time out of doors, although often troubled with the thought that my passion for Nature was a hindrance to me, a turning aside from the difficult way I had been striving to keep.
Then my elder brother returned, an event of the greatest importance in my life; and as he had not been expected so soon, I was for a minute in doubt that this strange visitor could be my brother, so greatly had he altered in appearance in those five long years of absence, which had seemed like an age to me. He had left us as a smooth-faced youth, with skin tanned to such a deep colour that with his dark piercing eyes and long black hair he had looked to me more like an Indian than a white man. Now his skin was white, and he had grown a brown beard and moustache. In disposition, too, he had grown more genial and tolerant, but I soon discovered that in character he had not changed.
As soon as an opportunity came he began to interrogate and cross-question me as to my mind — life and where I stood, and expressed himself surprised to hear that I still held to the creed in which we had been reared. How, he demanded, did I reconcile these ancient fabulous notions with the doctrine of evolution? What effect had Darwin produced on me? I had to confess that I had not read a line of his work, that with the exception of Draper’s History of Civilisation, which had come by chance in my way, I had during all those five years read nothing but the old books which had always been on our shelves. He said he knew Draper’s History, and it was not the sort of book for me to read at present. I wanted a different history, with animals as well as men in it. He had a store of books with him, and would lend me the Origin of Species to begin with.
When I had read and returned the book, and he was eager to hear my opinion, I said it had not hurt me in the least, since Darwin had to my mind only succeeded in disproving his own theory with his argument from artificial selection. He himself confessed that no new species had ever been produced in that way.
That, he said in reply, was the easy criticism that any one who came to the reading in a hostile spirit would make. They would fasten on that apparently weak point and not pay much attention to the fact that it is fairly met and answered in the book. When he first read the book it convinced him; but he had come to it with an open mind and I with a prejudiced mind on account of my religious ideas. He advised me to read it again, to read and consider it carefully with the sole purpose of getting at the truth. “Take it,” he said, “and read it again in the right way for you to read it — as a naturalist.”
He had been surprised that I, an ignorant boy or youth on the pampas, had ventured to criticise such a work. I, on my side, had been equally surprised at his quiet way of reasoning with me, with none of the old scornful spirit flaming out. He was gentle with me, knowing that I had suffered much, and was not free yet.
I read it again in the way he had counselled, and then refused to think any more on the subject. I was sick of thinking. Like the wretch who long has tossed upon the thorny bed of pain, I only wanted to repair my vigour lost and breathe and walk again. To be on horseback, galloping over the green pampas, in sun and wind. For after all it was only a reprieve, not a commutation of sentence — though one of a kind unknown in the Courts, in which the condemned man is allowed out on bail. My pardon was not received until a few years later. I returned with a new wonderful zest to my old sports, shooting and fishing, and would spend days and weeks from home, sometimes staying with old gaucho friends and former neighbours at their ranches, attending cattle-markings and partings, dances, and other gatherings, and also made longer expeditions to the southern and western frontiers of the province, living out of doors for months at a time.
Despite my determination to put the question off, my mind, or sub-conscious mind, like a dog with a bone which it refuses to drop in defiance of its master’s command, went on revolving it. It went to bed and got up with me, and was with me the day long, and whenever I had a still interval, when I would pull up my horse to sit motionless watching some creature, bird or beast or snake, or sat on the ground poring over some insect occupied with the business of its little life, I would become conscious of the discussion and argument going on. And every creature I watched, from the great soaring bird circling in the sky at a vast altitude to the little life at my feet, was brought into the argument, and was a type, representing a group marked by a family likeness not only in figure and colouring and language, but in mind as well, in habits and the most trivial traits and tricks of gesture and so on; the entire group in its turn related to another group, and to others, still further and further away, the likeness growing less and less. What explanation was possible but that of community of descent? How incredible it appeared that this had not been seen years ago — yes, even before it was discovered that the world was round and was one of a system of planets revolving round the sun. All this starry knowledge was of little or no importance compared to that of our relationship with all the infinitely various forms of life that share the earth with us. Yet it was not till the second half of the nineteenth century that this great, almost self-evident truth had won a hearing in the world!
No doubt this is a common experience: no sooner has the inquirer been driven to accept a new doctrine than it takes complete possession of his mind, and has not then the appearance of a strange and unwelcome guest, but rather that of a familiar friendly one, and is like a long-established housemate. I suppose the explanation is that when we throw open the doors to the new importunate visitor, it is virtually a ceremony, since the real event has been already accomplished, the guest having stolen in by some other way and made himself at home in the sub-conscious mind. Insensibly and inevitably I had become an evolutionist, albeit never wholly satisfied with natural selection as the only and sufficient explanation of the change in the forms of life. And again, insensibly and inevitably, the new doctrine has led to modifications of the old religious ideas and eventually to a new and simplified philosophy of life. A good enough one so far as this life is concerned, but unhappily it takes no account of another, a second and perdurable life without change of personality.
This subject has been much in men’s minds during the past two or three dreadful years, often reminding me of that shock I received as a boy of fourteen at the old gaucho’s bitter story of his soul; I have also again been reminded of the theory in which that younger and greatly-loved brother of mine was able to find comfort. He had become deeply religious, and after much reading in Herbert Spencer and other modern philosophers and evolutionists, he told me he thought it was idle for Christians to fight against the argument of the materialists that the mind is a function of the brain. Undoubtedly it was that, and our mental faculties perished with the brain; but we had a soul that was imperishable as well. He knew it, which meant that he too was a mystic, and being wholly preoccupied with religion, his mystical faculty found its use and exercise there. At all events, his notion served to lift him over his difficulties and to get him out of his mangrove swamp — a way perhaps less impossible than the one recently pointed out by William James.
Thus I came out of the contest a loser, but as a compensation had the knowledge that my physicians were false prophets; that, barring accidents, I could count on thirty, forty, even fifty years with their summers and autumns and winters. And that was the life I desired — the life the heart can conceive — the earth life. When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it, or that they look with equanimity to its end, I am apt to think they have never been properly alive nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it — not a blade of grass. Only I know that mine is an exceptional case, that the visible world is to me more beautiful and interesting than to most persons, that the delight I experienced in my communing with Nature did not pass away, leaving nothing but a recollection of vanished happiness to intensify a present pain. The happiness was never lost, but owing to that faculty I have spoken of, had a cumulative effect on the mind and was mine again, so that in my worst times, when I was compelled to exist shut out from Nature in London for long periods, sick and poor and friendless, I could yet always feel that it was infinitely better to be than not to be.
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