TWO awful catastrophes have occurred. One Englishman in London is dead, and I have scandalised about twenty of his nearest and dearest friends. He was a man nearly seventy years old, engaged in the business of an architect, and immensely respected. That was all I knew about him till I began to circulate among his friends in these parts, trying to cheer them up and make them forget the fog.
“Hush!” said a man and his wife. “Don’t you know he died yesterday of a sudden attack of pneumonia? Isn’t it shocking?”
“Yes,” said I vaguely. “Aw’fly shocking. Has he left his wife provided for?”
“Oh, he’s very well off indeed, and his wife is quite old. But just think—it was only in the next street it happened!” Then I saw that their grief was not for Strangeways, deceased, but for themselves.
“How old was he?” I said.
“Nearly seventy, or maybe a little over.”
“About time for a man to rationally expect such a thing as death,” I thought, and went away to another house, where a young married couple lived.
“Isn’t it perfectly ghastly?” said the wife. “Mr. Strangeways died last night.”
“So I heard,” said I. “Well, he had lived his life.”
“Yes, but it was such a shockingly short illness. Why, only three weeks ago he was walking about the street.” And she looked nervously at her husband, as though she expected him to give up the ghost at any minute.
Then I gathered, with the knowledge of the length of his sickness, that her grief was not for the late Mr. Strangeways, and went away thinking over men and women I had known who would have given a thousand years in Purgatory for even a week wherein to arrange their affairs, and who were anything but well off.
I passed on to a third house full of children, and the shadow of death hung over their heads, for father and mother were talking of Mr. Strangeway’s “end.” “Most shocking,” said they. “It seems that his wife was in the next room when he was dying, and his only son called her, so she just had time to take him in her arms before he died. He was unconscious at the last. Wasn’t it awful?”
When I went away from that house I thought of men and women without a week wherein to arrange their affairs, and without any money, who were anything but unconscious at the last, and who would have given a thousand years in Purgatory for one glimpse at their mothers, their wives or their husbands. I reflected how these people died tended by hirelings and strangers, and I was not in the least ashamed to say that I laughed over Mr. Strangeways’ death as I entered the house of a brother in his craft.
“Heard of Strangeways’ death?” said he. “Most hideous thing. Why, he had only a few days before got news of his designs being accepted by the Burgoyne Cathedral. If he had lived he would have been working out the deails now—with me.” And I saw that this man’s fear also was not on account of Mr. Strangeways. And I thought of men and women who had died in the midst of wrecked work; then I sought a company of young men and heard them talk of the dead. “That’s the second death among people I know within the year,” said one. “Yes, the second death,” said another.
I smiled a very large smile.
“And you know,” said a third, who was the oldest of the party, “they’ve opened the new road by the head of Tresillion Road, and the wind blows straight across that level square from the Parks. Everything is changing about us.”
“He was an old man,” I said.
“Ye-es. More than middle-aged,” said they.
“And he outlived his reputation?”
“Oh, no, or how would he have taken the designs for the Burgoyne Cathedral? Why, the very day he died . . . ”
“Yes,” said I. “He died at the end of a completed work—his design finished, his prize awarded?”
“Yes; but he didn’t live to . . . ”
“And his illness lasted seventeen days, of twenty-four hours each?”
“And he was tended by his own kith and Mn, dying with his head on his wife’s breast, his hand in his only son’s hand, without any thought of their possible poverty to vex him. Are these things so?”
“Ye-es,” said they. “Wasn’t it shocking?”
“Shocking?” I said. “Get out of this place. Go forth, run about and see what death really means. You have described such dying as a god might envy and a king might pay half his ransom to make certain of. Wait till you have seen men—strong men of thirty-five, with little children, die at two days’ notice, penniless and alone, and seen it not once, but twenty times; wait till you have seen the young girl die within a fortnight of the wedding; or the lover within three days of his marriage; or the mother—sixty little minutes—before her son can come to her side; wait till you hesitate before handling your daily newspaper for fear of reading of the death of some young man that you have dined with, drank with, shot with, lent money to and borrowed money from, and tested to the uttermost—till you dare not hope for the death of an old man, but, when you are strongest, count up the tale of your acquaintances and friends, wondering how many will be alive six months hence. Wait till you have heard men calling in the death hour on kin that cannot come; till you have dined with a man one night and seen him buried on the next. Then you can begin to whimper about loneliness and change and desolation.” Here I foamed at the mouth.
“And do you mean to say,” drawled a young gentleman, “that there is any society in which that sort of holocaust goes on?”
“I do,” said I. “It’s not society; it’s Life,” And they laughed.
But this is the old tale of Pharaoh’s chariot-wheel and flying-fish.
If I tell them yarns, they say: “How true! How true!” If I try to present the truth, they say: “What superb imagination!”
“But you understand, don’t you?’