The boat had gone ashore and returned before the John Bright had steamed out of the harbour. Then everything seemed to change, and Captain Battleax bade me make myself quite at home. “He trusted,” he said, “that I should always dine with him during the voyage, but that I should be left undisturbed during all other periods of the day. He dined at seven o’clock, but I could give my own orders as to breakfast and tiffin. He was sure that Lieutenant Crosstrees would have pleasure in showing me my cabins, and that if there was anything on board which I did not feel to be comfortable, it should be at once altered. Lieutenant Crosstrees would tell my servant to wait upon me, and would show me all the comforts, — and discomforts, — of the vessel.” With that I left him, and was taken below under the guidance of the lieutenant. As Mr Crosstrees became my personal friend during the voyage, — more peculiarly than any of the other officers, all of whom were my friends, — I will give some short description of him. He was a young man, perhaps eight-and-twenty years old, whose great gift in the eyes of all those on board was his personal courage. Stories were told to me by the junior officers of marvellous things which he had done, which, though never mentioned in his own presence, either by himself or by others, seemed to constitute for him a special character, — so that had it been necessary that any one should jump overboard to attack a shark, all on board would have thought that the duty as a matter of course belonged to Lieutenant Crosstrees. Indeed, as I learnt afterwards, he had quite a peculiar name in the British navy. He was a small fair-haired man, with a pallid face and a bright eye, whose idiosyncrasy it was to conceive that life afloat was infinitely superior in all its attributes to life on shore. If there ever was a man entirely devoted to his profession, it was Lieutenant Crosstrees. For women he seemed to care nothing, nor for bishops, nor for judges, nor for members of Parliament. They were all as children skipping about the world in their foolish playful ignorance, whom it was the sailor’s duty to protect. Next to the sailor came the soldier, as having some kindred employment; but at a very long interval. Among sailors the British sailor, — that is, the British fighting sailor, — was the only one really worthy of honour; and among British sailors the officers on board H.M. gunboat the John Bright were the happy few who had climbed to the top of the tree. Captain Battleax he regarded as the sultan of the world; but he was the sultan’s vizier, and having the discipline of the ship altogether in his own hands, was, to my thinking, its very master. I should have said beforehand that a man of such sentiments and feelings was not at all to my taste. Everything that he loved I have always hated, and all that he despised I have revered. Nevertheless I became very fond of him, and found in him an opponent to the Fixed Period that has done more to shake my opinion than Crasweller with all his feelings, or Sir Ferdinando with all his arguments. And this he effected by a few curt words which I have found almost impossible to resist. “Come this way, Mr President,” he said. “Here is where you are to sleep; and considering that it is only a ship, I think you’ll find it fairly comfortable.” Anything more luxurious than the place assigned to me, I could not have imagined on board ship. I afterwards learned that the cabins had been designed for the use of a travelling admiral, and I gathered from the fact that they were allotted to me an idea that England intended to atone for the injury done to the country by personal respect shown to the late President of the republic.
“I, at any rate, shall be comfortable while I am here. That in itself is something. Nevertheless I have to feel that I am a prisoner.”
“Not more so than anybody else on board,” said the lieutenant.
“A guard of soldiers came up this morning to look after me. What would that guard of soldiers have done supposing that I had run away?”
“We should have had to wait till they had caught you. But nobody conceived that to be possible. The President of a republic never runs away in his own person. There will be a cup of tea in the officers’ mess-room at five o’clock. I will leave you till then, as you may wish to employ yourself.” I went up immediately afterwards on deck, and looking back over the tafferel, could only just see the glittering spires of Gladstonopolis in the distance.
Now was the time for thought. I found an easy seat on the stern of the vessel, and sat myself down to consider all that Crasweller had said to me. He and I had parted, — perhaps for ever. I had not been in England since I was a little child, and I could not but feel now that I might be detained there by circumstances, or die there, or that Crasweller, who was ten years my senior, might be dead before I should have come back. And yet no ordinary farewell had been spoken between us. In those last words of his he had confined himself to the Fixed Period, so full had his heart been of the subject, and so intent had he felt himself to be on convincing me. And what was the upshot of what he had said? Not that the doctrine of the Fixed Period was in itself wrong, but that it was impracticable because of the horrors attending its last moments. These were the solitude in which should be passed the one last year; the sight of things which would remind the old man of coming death; and the general feeling that the business and pleasures of life were over, and that the stillness of the grave had been commenced. To this was to be added a certainty that death would come on some prearranged day. These all referred manifestly to the condition of him who was to go, and in no degree affected the welfare of those who were to remain. He had not attempted to say that for the benefit of the world at large the system was a bad system. That these evils would have befallen Crasweller himself, there could be no doubt. Though a dozen companions might have visited him daily, he would have felt the college to be a solitude, because he would not have been allowed to choose his promiscuous comrades as in the outer world. But custom would no doubt produce a cure for that evil. When a man knew that it was to be so, the dozen visitors would suffice for him. The young man of thirty travels over all the world, but the old man of seventy is contented with the comparative confinement of his own town, or perhaps of his own house. As to the ghastliness of things to be seen, they could no doubt be removed out of sight; but even that would be cured by custom. The business and pleasures of life at the prescribed time were in general but a pretence at business and a reminiscence of pleasure. The man would know that the fated day was coming, and would prepare for it with infinitely less of the anxious pain of uncertainty than in the outer world. The fact that death must come at the settled day, would no doubt have its horror as long as the man were able habitually to contrast his position with that of the few favoured ones who had, within his own memory, lived happily to a more advanced age; but when the time should come that no such old man had so existed, I could not but think that a frame of mind would be created not indisposed to contentment. Sitting there, and turning it all over in my mind, while my eyes rested on the bright expanse of the glass-clear sea, I did perceive that the Fixed Period, with all its advantages, was of such a nature that it must necessarily be postponed to an age prepared for it. Crasweller’s eloquence had had that effect upon me. I did see that it would be impossible to induce, in the present generation, a feeling of satisfaction in the system. I should have declared that it would not commence but with those who were at present unborn; or, indeed, to allay the natural fears of mothers, not with those who should be born for the next dozen years. It might have been well to postpone it for another century. I admitted so much to myself, with the full understanding that a theory delayed so long must be endangered by its own postponement. How was I to answer for the zeal of those who were to come so long after me? I sometimes thought of a more immediate date in which I myself might be the first to be deposited, and that I might thus be allowed to set an example of a happy final year passed within the college. But then, how far would the Tallowaxes, and Barneses, and Exors of the day be led by my example?
I must on my arrival in England remodel altogether the Fixed Period, and name a day so far removed that even Jack’s children would not be able to see it. It was with sad grief of heart that I so determined. All my dreams of a personal ambition were at once shivered to the ground. Nothing would remain of me but the name of the man who had caused the republic of Britannula to be destroyed, and her government to be resumed by her old mistress. I must go to work, and with pen, ink, and paper, with long written arguments and studied logic, endeavour to prove to mankind that the world should not allow itself to endure the indignities, and weakness, and selfish misery of extreme old age. I confess that my belief in the efficacy of spoken words, of words running like an electric spark from the lips of the speaker right into the heart of him who heard them, was stronger far than my trust in written arguments. They must lack a warmth which the others possess; and they enter only on the minds of the studious, whereas the others touch the feelings of the world at large. I had already overcome in the breasts of many listeners the difficulties which I now myself experienced. I would again attempt to do so with a British audience. I would again enlarge on the meanness of the man who could not make so small a sacrifice of his latter years for the benefit of the rising generation. But even spoken words would come cold to me, and would fall unnoticed on the hearts of others, when it was felt that the doctrine advocated could not possibly affect any living man. Thinking of all this, I was very melancholy when I was summoned down to tea by one of the stewards who attended the officers’ mess.
“Mr President, will you take tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, or preserved dates? There are muffins and crumpets, dry toast, buttered toast, plum-cake, seed-cake, peach-fritters, apple-marmalade, and bread and butter. There are put-up fruits of all kinds, of which you really wouldn’t know that they hadn’t come this moment from graperies and orchard-houses; but we don’t put them on the table, because we think that we can’t eat quite so much dinner after them.” This was the invitation which came from a young naval lad who seemed to be about fifteen years old.
“Hold your tongue, Percy,” said an elder officer. “The fruits are not here because Lord Alfred gorged himself so tremendously that we were afraid his mother, the duchess, would withdraw him from the service when she heard that he had made himself sick.”
“There are curaçoa, chartreuse, pepperwick, mangostino, and Russian brandy on the side-board,” suggested a third.
“I shall have a glass of madeira — just a thimbleful,” said another, who seemed to be a few years older than Lord Alfred Percy. Then one of the stewards brought the madeira, which the young man drank with great satisfaction. “This wine has been seven times round the world,” he said, “and the only time for drinking it is five-o’clock tea, — that is, if you understand what good living means.” I asked simply for a cup of tea, which I found to be peculiarly good, partly because of the cream which accompanied it. I then went up-stairs to take a constitutional walk with Mr Crosstrees on the deck. “I saw you sitting there for a couple of hours very thoughtful,” said he, “and I wouldn’t disturb you. I hope it doesn’t make you unhappy that you are carried away to England?”
“Had it done so, I don’t know whether I should have gone — alive.”
“They said that when it was suggested, you promised to be ready in two days.”
“I did say so — because it suited me. But I can hardly imagine that they would have carried me on board with violence, or that they would have put all Gladstonopolis to the sword because I declined to go on board.”
“Brown had told us that we were to bring you off dead or alive; and dead or alive, I think we should have had you. If the soldiers had not succeeded, the sailors would have taken you in hand.” When I asked him why there was this great necessity for kidnapping me, he assured me that feeling in England had run very high on the matter, and that sundry bishops had declared that anything so barbarous could not be permitted in the twentieth century. “It would be as bad, they said, as the cannibals of New Zealand.”
“That shows the absolute ignorance of the bishops on the subject.”
“I daresay; but there is a prejudice about killing an old man, or a woman. Young men don’t matter.”
“Allow me to assure you, Mr Crosstrees,” said I, “that your sentiment is carrying you far away from reason. To the State the life of a woman should be just the same as that of a man. The State cannot allow itself to indulge in romance.”
“You get a sailor, and tell him to strike a woman, and see what he’ll say.”
“The sailor is irrational. Of course, we are supposing that it is for the public benefit that the woman should be struck. It is the same with an old man. The good of the commonwealth, — and his own, — requires that, beyond a certain age, he shall not be allowed to exist. He does not work, and he cannot enjoy living. He wastes more than his share of the necessaries of life, and becomes, on the aggregate, an intolerable burden. Read Shakespeare’s description of man in his last stage —
‘Second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything;’
and the stage before is merely that of the ‘lean and slippered pantaloon.’ For his own sake, would you not save mankind from having to encounter such miseries as these?”
“You can’t do it, Mr President.”
“I very nearly did do it. The Britannulist Assembly, in the majesty of its wisdom, passed a law to that effect.” I was sorry afterwards that I had spoken of the majesty of the Assembly’s wisdom, because it savoured of buncombe. Our Assembly’s wisdom was not particularly majestic; but I had intended to allude to the presumed majesty attached to the highest council in the State.
“Your Assembly in the majesty of its wisdom could do nothing of the kind. It might pass a law, but the law could be carried out only by men. The Parliament in England, which is, I take it, quite as majestic as the Assembly in Britannula — ”
“I apologise for the word, Mr Crosstrees, which savours of the ridiculous. I did not quite explain my idea at the moment.”
“It is forgotten,” he said; and I must acknowledge that he never used the word against me again. “The Parliament in England might order a three-months-old baby to be slain, but could not possibly get the deed done.”
“Not if it were for the welfare of Great Britain?”
“Not to save Great Britain from destruction. Strength is very strong, but it is not half so powerful as weakness. I could, with the greatest alacrity in the world, fire that big gun in among battalions of armed men, so as to scatter them all to the winds, but I could not point it in the direction of a single girl.” We went on discussing the matter at considerable length, and his convictions were quite as strong as mine. He was sure that under no circumstances would an old man ever be deprived of his life under the Fixed Period. I was as confident as he on the other side, — or, at any rate, pretended to be so, — and told him that he made no allowance for the progressive wisdom of mankind. But we parted as friends, and soon after went to dinner.
I was astonished to find how very little the captain had to do with his officers. On board ship he lived nearly alone, having his first lieutenant with him for a quarter of an hour every morning. On the occasion of this my first day on board, he had a dinner-party in honour of my coming among them; and two or three days before we reached England, he had another. I dined with him regularly every day except twice, when I was invited to the officers’ mess. I breakfasted alone in my own cabin, where everything was provided for me that I could desire, and always lunched and took five-o’clock tea with the officers. I remained alone till one o’clock, and spent four hours every morning during our entire journey in composing this volume as it is now printed. I have put it into the shape of a story, because I think that I may so best depict the feelings of the people around me as I made my great endeavour to carry out the Fixed Period in Britannula, and because I may so describe the kind of opposition which was shown by the expression of those sentiments on which Lieutenant Crosstrees depended. I do not at this minute doubt but that Crasweller would have been deposited had not the John Bright appeared. Whether Barnes and Tallowax would have followed peaceably, may be doubted. They, however, are not men of great weight in Britannula, and the officers of the law might possibly have constrained them to have followed the example which Crasweller had set. But I do confess that I doubt whether I should have been able to proceed to carry out the arrangements for the final departure of Crasweller. Looking forward, I could see Eva kneeling at my feet, and could acknowledge the invincible strength of that weakness to which Crosstrees had alluded. A godlike heroism would have been demanded, — a heroism which must have submitted to have been called brutal, — and of such I knew myself not to be the owner. Had the British Parliament ordered the three-months-old baby to be slaughtered, I was not the man to slaughter it, even though I were the sworn servant of the British Parliament. Upon the whole, I was glad that the John Bright had come into our waters, and had taken me away on its return to England. It was a way out of my immediate trouble against which I was able to expostulate, and to show with some truth on my side that I was an injured man. All this I am willing to admit in the form of a tale, which I have adopted for my present work, and for which I may hope to obtain some popularity in England. Once on shore there, I shall go to work on a volume of altogether a different nature, and endeavour to be argumentative and statistical, as I have here been fanciful, though true to details.
During the whole course of my journey to England, Captain Battleax never said a word to me about the Fixed Period. He was no doubt a gallant officer, and possessed of all necessary gifts for the management of a 250-ton steam swivel-gun; but he seemed to me to be somewhat heavy. He never even in conversation alluded to Britannula, and spoke always of the dockyard at Devonport as though I had been familiar with its every corner. He was very particular about his clothes, and I was told by Lieutenant Crosstrees on the first day that he would resent it as a bitter offence had I come down to dinner without a white cravat. “He’s right, you know; those things do tell,” Crosstrees had said to me when I had attempted to be jocose about these punctilios. I took care, however, always to put on a white cravat both with the captain and with the officers. After dinner with the captain, a cup of coffee was always brought in on a silver tray, in a silver coffee-pot. This was leisurely consumed; and then, as I soon understood, the captain expected that I should depart. I learnt afterwards that he immediately put his feet up on the sofa and slept for the remainder of the evening. I retired to the lieutenant’s cabin, and there discussed the whole history of Britannula over many a prolonged cigar.
“Did you really mean to kill the old men?” said Lord Alfred Percy to me one day; “regularly to cut their throats, you know, and carry them out and burn them.”
“I did not mean it, but the law did.”
“Every poor old fellow would have been put an end to without the slightest mercy?”
“Not without mercy,” I rejoined.
“Now, there’s my governor’s father,” said Lord Alfred; “you know who he is?”
“The Duke of Northumberland, I’m informed.”
“He’s a terrible swell. He owns three castles, and half a county, and has half a million a-year. I can hardly tell you what sort of an old fellow he is at home. There isn’t any one who doesn’t pay him the most profound respect, and he’s always doing good to everybody. Do you mean to say that some constable or cremator, — some sort of first hangman, — would have come to him and taken him by the nape of his neck, and cut his throat, just because he was sixty-eight years old? I can’t believe that anybody would have done it.”
“But the duke is a man.”
“Yes, he’s a man, no doubt.”
“If he committed murder, he would be hanged in spite of his dukedom.”
“I don’t know how that would be,” said Lord Alfred, hesitating. “I cannot imagine that my grandfather should commit a murder.”
“But he would be hanged; I can tell you that. Though it be very improbable, — impossible, as you and I may think it, — the law is the same for him as for others. Why should not all other laws be the same also?”
“But it would be murder.”
“What is your idea of murder?”
“Then you are murderers who go about with this great gun of yours for the sake of killing many people.”
“We’ve never killed anybody with it yet.”
“You are not the less murderers if you have the intent to murder. Are soldiers murderers who kill other soldiers in battle? The murderer is the man who illegally kills. Now, in accordance with us, everything would have been done legally; and I’m afraid that if your grandfather were living among us, he would have to be deposited like the rest.”
“Not if Sir Ferdinando were there,” said the boy. I could not go on to explain to him that he thus ran away from his old argument about the duke. But I did feel that a new difficulty would arise from the extreme veneration paid to certain characters. In England how would it be with the Royal Family? Would it be necessary to exempt them down to the extremest cousins; and if so, how large a body of cousins would be generated! I feared that the Fixed Period could only be good for a republic in which there were no classes violently distinguished from their inferior brethren. If so, it might be well that I should go to the United States, and there begin to teach my doctrine. No other republic would be strong enough to stand against those hydra-headed prejudices with which the ignorance of the world at large is fortified. “I don’t believe,” continued the boy, bringing the conversation to an end, “that all the men in this ship could take my grandfather and kill him in cold blood.”
I was somewhat annoyed, on my way to England, by finding that the men on board, — the sailors, the stokers, and stewards, — regarded me as a most cruel person. The prejudices of people of this class are so strong as to be absolutely invincible. It is necessary that a new race should come up before the prejudices are eradicated. They were civil enough in their demeanour to me personally, but they had all been taught that I was devoted to the slaughter of old men; and they regarded me with all that horror which the modern nations have entertained for cannibalism. I heard a whisper one day between two of the stewards. “He’d have killed that old fellow that came on board as sure as eggs if we hadn’t got there just in time to prevent him.”
“Not with his own hands,” said a listening junior.
“Yes; with his own hands. That was just the thing. He wouldn’t allow it to be done by anybody else.” It was thus that they regarded the sacrifice that I had thought to make of my own feelings in regard to Crasweller. I had no doubt suggested that I myself would use the lancet in order to save him from any less friendly touch. I believed afterwards, that when the time had come I should have found myself incapacitated for the operation. The natural weakness incidental to my feelings would have prevailed. But now that promise, — once so painfully made, and since that, as I had thought, forgotten by all but myself, — was remembered against me as a proof of the diabolical inhumanity of my disposition.
“I believe that they think that we mean to eat them,” I said one day to Crosstrees. He had gradually become my confidential friend, and to him I made known all the sorrows which fell upon me during the voyage from the ignorance of the men around me. I cannot boast that I had in the least affected his opinion by my arguments; but he at any rate had sense enough to perceive that I was not a bloody-minded cannibal, but one actuated by a true feeling of philanthropy. He knew that my object was to do good, though he did not believe in the good to be done.
“You’ve got to endure that,” said he.
“Do you mean to say, that when I get to England I shall be regarded with personal feelings of the same kind?”
“Yes; so I imagine.” There was an honesty about Crosstrees which would never allow him to soften anything.
“That will be hard to bear.”
“The first reformers had to bear such hardships. I don’t exactly remember what it was that Socrates wanted to do for his ungrateful fellow-mortals; but they thought so badly of him, that they made him swallow poison. Your Galileo had a hard time when he said that the sun stood still. Why should we go further than Jesus Christ for an example? If you are not able to bear the incidents, you should not undertake the business.”
But in England I should not have a single disciple! There would not be one to solace or to encourage me! Would it not be well that I should throw myself into the ocean, and have done with a world so ungrateful? In Britannula they had known my true disposition. There I had received the credit due to a tender heart and loving feelings. No one thought there that I wanted to eat up my victims, or that I would take a pleasure in spilling their blood with my own hands. And tidings so misrepresenting me would have reached England before me, and I should there have no friend. Even Lieutenant Crosstrees would be seen no more after I had gone ashore. Then came upon me for the first time an idea that I was not wanted in England at all, — that I was simply to be brought away from my own home to avoid the supposed mischief I might do there, and that for all British purposes it would be well that I should be dropped into the sea, or left ashore on some desert island. I had been taken from the place where, as governing officer, I had undoubtedly been of use, — and now could be of use no longer. Nobody in England would want me or would care for me, and I should be utterly friendless there, and alone. For aught I knew, they might put me in prison and keep me there, so as to be sure that I should not return to my own people. If I asked for my liberty, I might be told that because of my bloodthirstiness it would be for the general welfare that I should be deprived of it. When Sir Ferdinando Brown had told me that I should certainly be asked down to Windsor, I had taken his flowery promises as being worth nothing. I had no wish to go to Windsor. But what should I do with myself immediately on my arrival? Would it not be best to return at once to my own country, — if only I might be allowed to do so. All this made me very melancholy, but especially the feeling that I should be regarded by all around as a monster of cruelty. I could not but think of the words which Lieutenant Crosstrees had spoken to me. The Saviour of the world had His disciples who believed in Him, and the one dear youth who loved Him so well. I almost doubted my own energy as a teacher of progress to carry me through the misery which I saw in store for me.
“I shall not have a very bright time when I arrive in England,” I said to my friend Crosstrees, two days before our expected arrival.
“It will be all new, and there will be plenty for you to see.”
“You will go upon some other voyage?”
“Yes; we shall be wanted up in the Baltic at once. We are very good friends with Russia; but no dog is really respected in this world unless he shows that he can bite as well as bark.”
“I shall not be respected, because I can neither bark nor bite. What will they do with me?”
“We shall put you on shore at Plymouth, and send you up to London — with a guard of honour.”
“And what will the guard of honour do with me?”
“Ah! for that I cannot answer. He will treat you with all kind of respect, no doubt.”
“It has not occurred to you to think,” said I, “where he will deposit me? Why should it do so? But to me the question is one of some moment. No one there will want me; nobody knows me. They to whom I must be the cause of some little trouble will simply wish me out of the way; and the world at large, if it hears of me at all, will simply have been informed of my cruelty and malignity. I do not mean to destroy myself.”
“Don’t do that,” said the lieutenant, in a piteous tone.
“But it would be best, were it not that certain scruples prevent one. What would you advise me to do with myself, to begin with?” He paused before he replied, and looked painfully into my face. “You will excuse my asking you, because, little as my acquaintance is with you, it is with you alone of all Englishmen that I have any acquaintance.”
“I thought that you were intent about your book.”
“What shall I do with my book? Who will publish it? How shall I create an interest for it? Is there one who will believe, at any rate, that I believe in the Fixed Period?”
“I do,” said the lieutenant.
“That is because you first knew me in Britannula, and have since passed a month with me at sea. You are my one and only friend, and you are about to leave me, — and you also disbelieve in me. You must acknowledge to yourself that you have never known one whose position in the world was more piteous, or whose difficulties were more trying.” Then I left him, and went down to complete my manuscript.
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