"I've told you as much, Mr Grundle, as it is fit that you should know," I replied, with severity. "For the absolute condition of the law you must look in the statute-book, and not come to the President of the empire."
Abraham Grundle then departed. I had assumed an angry air, as though I were offended with him, for troubling me on a matter by referring simply to an individual. But he had in truth given rise to very serious and solemn thoughts. Could it be that Crasweller, my own confidential friend – the man to whom I had trusted the very secrets of my soul on this important matter, – could it be that he should be unwilling to be deposited when the day had come? Could it be that he should be anxious to fly from his country and her laws, just as the time had arrived when those laws might operate upon him for the benefit of that country? I could not think that he was so vain, so greedy, so selfish, and so unpatriotic. But this was not all. Should he attempt to fly, could we prevent his flying? And if he did fly, what step should we take next? The Government of New South Wales was hostile to us on the very matter of the Fixed Period, and certainly would not surrender him in obedience to any law of extradition. And he might leave his property to trustees who would manage it on his behalf; although, as far as Britannula was concerned, he would be beyond the reach of law, and regarded even as being without the pale of life. And if he, the first of the Fixed-Periodists, were to run away, the fashion of so running would become common. We should thus be rid of our old men, and our object would be so far attained. But looking forward, I could see at a glance that if one or two wealthy members of our community were thus to escape, it would be almost impossible to carry out the law with reference to those who should have no such means. But that which vexed me most was that Gabriel Crasweller should desire to escape, – that he should be anxious to throw over the whole system to preserve the poor remnant of his life. If he would do so, who could be expected to abstain? If he should prove false when the moment came, who would prove true? And he, the first, the very first on our list! Young Grundle had now left me, and as I sat thinking of it I was for a moment tempted to abandon the Fixed Period altogether. But as I remained there in silent meditation, better thoughts came to me. Had I dared to regard myself as the foremost spirit of my age, and should I thus be turned back by the human weakness of one poor creature who had not sufficiently collected the strength of his heart to be able to look death in the face and to laugh him down. It was a difficulty – a difficulty the more. It might be the crushing difficulty which would put an end to the system as far as my existence was concerned. But I bethought me how many early reformers had perished in their efforts, and how seldom it had been given to the first man to scale the walls of prejudice, and force himself into the citadel of reason. But they had not yielded when things had gone against them; and though they had not brought their visions down to the palpable touch of humanity, still they had persevered, and their efforts had not been altogether lost to the world.
"So it shall be with me," said I. "Though I may never live to deposit a human being within that sanctuary, and though I may be doomed by the foolish prejudice of men to drag out a miserable existence amidst the sorrows and weakness of old age; though it may never be given to me to feel the ineffable comforts of a triumphant deposition, – still my name will be handed down to coming ages, and I shall be spoken of as the first who endeavoured to save grey hairs from being brought with sorrow to the grave."
I am now writing on board H.M. gunboat John Bright, – for the tyrannical slaves of a modern monarch have taken me in the flesh and are carrying me off to England, so that, as they say, all that nonsense of a Fixed Period may die away in Britannula. They think, – poor ignorant fighting men, – that such a theory can be made to perish because one individual shall have been mastered. But no! The idea will still live, and in ages to come men will prosper and be strong, and thrive, unpolluted by the greed and cowardice of second childhood, because John Neverbend was at one time President of Britannula.
It occurred to me then, as I sat meditating over the tidings conveyed to me by Abraham Grundle, that it would be well that I should see Crasweller, and talk to him freely on the subject. It had sometimes been that by my strength I had reinvigorated his halting courage. This suggestion that he might run away as the day of his deposition drew nigh, – or rather, that others might run away, – had been the subject of some conversation between him and me. "How will it be," he had said, "if they mizzle?" He had intended to allude to the possible premature departure of those who were about to be deposited.
"Men will never be so weak," I said.
"I suppose you'd take all their property?"
"Every stick of it."
"But property is a thing which can be conveyed away."
"We should keep a sharp look-out upon themselves. There might be a writ, you know, ne exeant regno. If we are driven to a pinch, that will be the last thing to do. But I should be sorry to be driven to express my fear of human weakness by any general measure of that kind. It would be tantamount to an accusation of cowardice against the whole empire."
Crasweller had only shaken his head. But I had understood him to shake it on the part of the human race generally, and not on his own behalf.
THE FIRST BREAK-DOWN
It was now mid-winter, and it wanted just twelve months to that 30th of June on which, in accordance with all our plans, Crasweller was to be deposited. A full year would, no doubt, suffice for him to arrange his worldly affairs, and to see his daughter married; but it would not more than suffice. He still went about his business with an alacrity marvellous in one who was so soon about to withdraw himself from the world. The fleeces for bearing which he was preparing his flocks, though they might be shorn by him, would never return their prices to his account. They would do so for his daughter and his son-in-law; but in these circumstances, it would have been well for him to have left the flocks to his son-in-law, and to have turned his mind to the consideration of other matters. "There should be a year devoted to that final year to be passed within the college, so that, by degrees, the mind may be weaned from the ignoble art of money-making." I had once so spoken to him; but there he was, as intent as ever, with his mind fixed on the records of the price of wool as they came back to him from the English and American markets. "It is all for his daughter," I had said to myself. "Had he been blessed with a son, it would have been otherwise with him." So I got on to my steam-tricycle, and in a few minutes I was at Little Christchurch. He was coming in after a hard day's work among the flocks, and seemed to be triumphant and careful at the same time.
"I tell you what it is, Neverbend," said he; "we shall have the fluke over here if we don't look after ourselves."
"Have you found symptoms of it?"
"Well; not exactly among my own sheep; but I know the signs of it so well. My grasses are peculiarly dry, and my flocks are remarkably well looked after; but I can see indications of it. Only fancy where we should all be if fluke showed itself in Britannula! If it once got ahead we should be no better off than the Australians."
This might be anxiety for his daughter; but it looked strangely like that personal feeling which would have been expected in him twenty years ago. "Crasweller," said I, "do you mind coming into the house, and having a little chat?" and so I got off my tricycle.
"I was going to be very busy," he said, showing an unwillingness. "I have fifty young foals in that meadow there; and I like to see that they get their suppers served to them warm."
"Bother the young foals!" said I. "As if you had not men enough about the place to see to feeding your stock without troubling yourself. I have come out from Gladstonopolis, because I want to see you; and now I am to be sent back in order that you might attend to the administration of hot mashes! Come into the house." Then I entered in under the verandah, and he followed. "You certainly have got the best-furnished house in the empire," said I, as I threw myself on to a double arm-chair, and lighted my cigar in the inner verandah.
"Yes, yes," said he; "it is pretty comfortable."
He was evidently melancholy, and knew the purpose for which I had come. "I don't suppose any girl in the old country was ever better provided for than will be Eva." This I said wishing to comfort him, and at the same time to prepare for what was to be said.
"Eva is a good girl, – a dear girl. But I am not at all so sure about that young fellow Abraham Grundle. It's a pity, President, your son had not been born a few years sooner." At this moment my boy was half a head taller than young Grundle, and a much better specimen of a Britannulist. "But it is too late now, I suppose, to talk of that. It seems to me that Jack never even thinks of looking at Eva."
This was a view of the case which certainly was strange to me, and seemed to indicate that Crasweller was gradually becoming fit for the college. If he could not see that Jack was madly in love with Eva, he could see nothing at all. But I had not come out to Little Christchurch at the present moment to talk to him about the love matters of the two children. I was intent on something of infinitely greater importance. "Crasweller," said I, "you and I have always agreed to the letter on this great matter of the Fixed Period." He looked into my face with supplicating, weak eyes, but he said nothing. "Your period now will soon have been reached, and I think it well that we, as dear loving friends, should learn to discuss the matter closely as it draws nearer. I do not think that it becomes either of us to be afraid of it."
"That's all very well for you," he replied. "I am your senior."
"Ten years, I believe."
"About nine, I think."
This might have come from a mistake of his as to my exact age; and though I was surprised at the error, I did not notice it on this occasion. "You have no objection to the law as it stands now?" I said.
"It might have been seventy."
"That has all been discussed fully, and you have given your assent. Look round on the men whom you can remember, and tell me, on how many of them life has not sat as a burden at seventy years of age?"
"Men are so different," said he. "As far as one can judge of his own capacities, I was never better able to manage my business than I am at present. It is more than I can say for that young fellow Grundle, who is so anxious to step into my shoes."
"My dear Crasweller," I rejoined, "it was out of the question so to arrange the law as to vary the term to suit the peculiarities of one man or another."
"But in a change of such terrible severity you should have suited the eldest."
This was dreadful to me, – that he, the first to receive at the hands of his country the great honour intended for him, – that he should have already allowed his mind to have rebelled against it! If he, who had once been so keen a supporter of the Fixed Period, now turned round and opposed it, how could others who should follow be expected to yield themselves up in a fitting frame of mind? And then I spoke my thoughts freely to him. "Are you afraid of departure?" I said, – "afraid of that which must come; afraid to meet as a friend that which you must meet so soon as friend or enemy?" I paused; but he sat looking at me without reply. "To fear departure; – must it not be the greatest evil of all our life, if it be necessary? Can God have brought us into the world, intending us so to leave it that the very act of doing so shall be regarded by us as a curse so terrible as to neutralise all the blessings of our existence? Can it be that He who created us should have intended that we should so regard our dismissal from the world? The teachers of religion have endeavoured to reconcile us to it, and have, in their vain zeal, endeavoured to effect it by picturing to our imaginations a hell-fire into which ninety-nine must fall; while one shall be allowed to escape to a heaven, which is hardly made more alluring to us! Is that the way to make a man comfortable at the prospect of leaving this world? But it is necessary to our dignity as men that we shall find the mode of doing so. To lie quivering and quaking on my bed at the expectation of the Black Angel of Death, does not suit my manhood, – which would fear nothing; – which does not, and shall not, stand in awe of aught but my own sins. How best shall we prepare ourselves for the day which we know cannot be avoided? That is the question which I have ever been asking myself, – which you and I have asked ourselves, and which I thought we had answered. Let us turn the inevitable into that which shall in itself be esteemed a glory to us. Let us teach the world so to look forward with longing eyes, and not with a faint heart. I had thought to have touched some few, not by the eloquence of my words, but by the energy of my thoughts; and you, oh my friend, have ever been he whom it has been my greatest joy to have had with me as the sharer of my aspirations."
"But I am nine years older than you are."
I again passed by the one year added to my age. There was nothing now in so trifling an error. "But you still agree with me as to the fundamental truth of our doctrine."
"I suppose so," said Crasweller.
"I suppose so!" repeated I. "Is that all that can be said for the philosophy to which we have devoted ourselves, and in which nothing false can be found?"
"It won't teach any one to think it better to live than to die while he is fit to perform all the functions of life. It might be very well if you could arrange that a man should be deposited as soon as he becomes absolutely infirm."
"Some men are infirm at forty."
"Then deposit them," said Crasweller.
"Yes; but they will not own that they are infirm. If a man be weak at that age, he thinks that with advancing years he will resume the strength of his youth. There must, in fact, be a Fixed Period. We have discussed that fifty times, and have always arrived at the same conclusion."
He sat still, silent, unhappy, and confused. I saw that there was something on his mind to which he hardly dared to give words. Wishing to encourage him, I went on. "After all, you have a full twelve months yet before the day shall have come."
"Two years," he said, doggedly.
"Exactly; two years before your departure, but twelve months before deposition."
"Two years before deposition," said Crasweller.
At this I own I was astonished. Nothing was better known in the empire than the ages of the two or three first inhabitants to be deposited. I would have undertaken to declare that not a man or a woman in Britannula was in doubt as to Mr Crasweller's exact age. It had been written in the records, and upon the stones belonging to the college. There was no doubt that within twelve months of the present date he was due to be detained there as the first inhabitant. And now I was astounded to hear him claim another year, which could not be allowed him.
"That impudent fellow Grundle has been with me," he continued, "and wishes to make me believe that he can get rid of me in one year. I have, at any rate, two years left of my out-of-door existence, and I do not mean to give up a day of it for Grundle or any one else."
It was something to see that he still recognised the law, though he was so meanly anxious to evade it. There had been some whisperings in the empire among the elderly men and women of a desire to obtain the assistance of Great Britain in setting it aside. Peter Grundle, for instance, Crasweller's senior partner, had been heard to say that England would not allow a deposited man to be slaughtered. There was much in that which had angered me. The word slaughter was in itself peculiarly objectionable to my ears, – to me who had undertaken to perform the first ceremony as an act of grace. And what had England to do with our laws? It was as though Russia were to turn upon the United States and declare that their Congress should be put down. What would avail the loudest voice of Great Britain against the smallest spark of a law passed by our Assembly? – unless, indeed, Great Britain should condescend to avail herself of her great power, and thus to crush the free voice of those whom she had already recognised as independent. As I now write, this is what she has already done, and history will have to tell the story. But it was especially sad to have to think that there should be a Britannulist so base, such a coward, such a traitor, as himself to propose this expedient for adding a few years to his own wretched life.
But Crasweller did not, as it seemed, intend to avail himself of these whispers. His mind was intent on devising some falsehood by which he should obtain for himself just one other year of life, and his expectant son-in-law purposed to prevent him. I hardly knew as I turned it all in my mind, which of the two was the more sordid; but I think that my sympathies were rather in accord with the cowardice of the old man than with the greed of the young. After all, I had known from the beginning that the fear of death was a human weakness. To obliterate that fear from the human heart, and to build up a perfect manhood that should be liberated from so vile a thraldom, had been one of the chief objects of my scheme. I had no right to be angry with Crasweller, because Crasweller, when tried, proved himself to be no stronger than the world at large. It was a matter to me of infinite regret that it should be so. He was the very man, the very friend, on whom I had relied with confidence! But his weakness was only a proof that I myself had been mistaken. In all that Assembly by which the law had been passed, consisting chiefly of young men, was there one on whom I could rest with confidence to carry out the purpose of the law when his own time should come? Ought I not so to have arranged matters that I myself should have been the first, – to have postponed the use of the college till such time as I might myself have been deposited? This had occurred to me often throughout the whole agitation; but then it had occurred also that none might perhaps follow me, when under such circumstances I should have departed!