The Retrospect

As we saunter through the picture galleries of Memory, when the morning is past and the afternoon beginning to draw in, we note this curious fact — that the records of our strenuous and passionate middle years, so recently and vividly painted in, are already blurred and spotty, the light cold and pale upon them, while those of childhood and early youth, that once had no more significance than a whitewashed wall, so take the glow of the setting sun that every point comes out, line and color as fresh as on the day that produced them, with a sort of divine limelight glorifying all. The now educated eye, allowing for the limelight, sees in these early works of the master-artist, Life, a beauty of spontaneity and sincerity that the untrained cannot appreciate. The sobered imagination, like a cultured palate, tastes the delicate values of sound and simple fare, the fine poetry of unsophisticated nature, ignorant of its own romance. And the spirit that has wandered so far and wide, like Noah’s dove in search of the yet invisible tree, comes back to this quiet chamber of the mind, its ark of origin, with the instinct of the tired wayfarer for his old if humble home; here it rests in the visions of its dear Past, beautiful because it is past, and past so long, — the vanished hand, the ain countree, the old-time ways that are no more; and the big canvases that once were the treasures of the collection hide their diminished charms.

Did that dove of history, or fable, as the case may be, care a straw for invisible trees when he ate his supper and tucked his head under his wing that night? He was, I suppose, a mere bird of flesh and blood, and therefore I feel sure he did not. And we, although we may yet be flung forth to find a new world blissful enough to make us forget this little boat upon the waters which is now the only one we know, are at present in the position of that weary little fowl when, after its futile wanderings, it roosted happily with its companions in fortune and misfortune, feeling that never before had the ark been so grateful a resting-place.

For the evening of our laborious day — say sixty o’clock, when the end of the hard fight is in view, but almost none of the rewards we aimed for — is far from being the dreary time that I shudderingly anticipated when I was young. I used to look upon those who then appeared so aged, and marvel at the fortitude which could carry gray hair and rounding back so calmly. Was it possible that they were not secretly writhing in mortification under the indignities put upon the pride of the flesh — that they were not continually thinking where they would be in a short ten years, or fifteen at the most, equivalent to “no time” as a portion of life? Or was it that the faculties of persons of sixty were already so impaired that they did not realize their case ? The mystery was to find the whole body of them more or less serene in the contemplation of their common calamity, the bright and sensitive equally with the dullwitted and thick-skinned. Since I am now sixty myself, the mystery is cleared up.

In the first place, given health and fair play, one is not old at sixty. Certainly not. I cannot say how it is with men, but with normal women, the wives and mothers, when the heavier pressure of civilization which their lighter strength supports, often with so much difficulty through the middle years, is eased at about fifty, and body and mind have rest together for perhaps the first time, a second youth of physical strength and mental vigor is apt to come as a delightful surprise. We find ourselves, ten years after that, in many respects younger than our married daughters, so seriously absorbed in the stern struggle from which we have emerged; more buoyant, more pleasure-loving, more alive to the charm of life and the beauty of the world, far more simple in our tastes and free and easy in our opinions, and, oh, infinitely less hard to satisfy.

Another thing. Having been, in the words of John Stuart Mill (I prefer to let a man say it), “confined by custom to one physical function as their means of living and their source of influence,” women have had to adjust themselves to that circumstance, or, rather, they have been molded by their environment, like everything else. All through the years of youth the interest of their lives has been to be interesting to men, and their wiles and their vanities are the very last things men should blame them for. We have all heard the saying that women should die at forty, and well we women know the tragical meaning of the words. One need not be a waning beauty to know it, although it is she who drinks the cup of bitterness to the dregs. Well, at fifty that cup has passed from us. You don’t expect to be made love to, and you are even sensible of having escaped much worry on that account; still more satisfactory is the knowledge that you are no longer suspected of making love yourself. Your relations with your men friends become delightful. Now they are true comrades, as they should have been all along, and as some day they will be all along, when things are equalized a little more; now the best of both sides comes out, no longer afraid to show itself, and if the habit of flirtation (decorous flirtation, of course) does unconsciously persist a little, that is only as it should be. Your woman’s dignity is untouched, while the cockles of your woman’s heart are undeniably warmed within you. It was by no virtue that you could call your own that you were attractive to men in your youth and prime, but if you attract them now you may be justly proud of yourself. Thanks be to the enlightened spirit of these days, there are many dear men of Max O’Rell’s persuasion, who give you honestly that sweetest compliment that a woman can receive, in letting you know, at sixty, that you are not too old to charm.

As for that rapidly approaching mortal end, quite as much dreaded by the believer in future bliss as by the doubting Thomases whom he so greatly pities (as witness his equal eagerness to postpone it as long as possible), it is really a curious fact, but still a fact, that our nerve does not fail us as we draw near and nearer to it. On the contrary, we take our doom more philosophically every day. I once knew a poor charwoman who had a most desperate struggle to keep a large family housed and fed, and she said that church teaching was all very well, but that for her part what she hankered for was peace, — not Heaven, with its fresh occupations, but a good, square sleep. Conversely, there is “Punch’s” story of the little boy upbraided by his pastor, pictured as catching him at it, for fishing on the Day of Rest. “What do I want with rest?” the Sabbath-breaker growled. Naturally, it was the last thing he wanted at his time of life.

Even at forty, when one is still young (but not with the youth of sixty), one has paroxysms of longing for one’s “chance over again.” I believe that ninety-nine out of a hundred at that age would pledge their title-deeds to a future life for another turn at this, although they may discreetly, as they can safely, deny it; but later on, when one has crawled out of the dust of the arena, and looks down, calm-eyed, upon the fight still going on, one says to one’s self, “What a bother it has all been! ” and, feeling the sweetness of relief from the toil and moil, “I would not care to have to go through it again.” No, not even when one can assure one’s self, as I can, that, taking all things into account, one has been a lucky woman. As I said before, I cannot answer for the feelings of men.

The crude elements of death are certainly horrible to contemplate. That one’s precious body can become the thing we know it will become, that we must leave this warm home-world (which, by the way, we have so ungratefully grumbled at while in it, and whose beauty and comfort we have not hesitated to help to spoil) to be mere dust of dust in the cold bowels of the earth, out of sight and out of mind, — who, old or young, can think of it without a shiver ? But then, we don’t think of it; or, if we do, we hasten to remember that when the time comes we shall know nothing about it. According to my experience, and I have twice passed through the bitterness of death, in the sense that all the conscious process of dying was complete, it is when you know, or believe, that your last hour has come that you feel least concerned with your personal fate. All I thought of, in my unextinguished self-conceit, was how my poor family would manage to get along without me.

As for post-mortem existence, with its awesome contingencies, well, that is rather delicate ground for a person who wishes to be sincere to venture on. Still, the matter is so important to my subject that I cannot pass it over. And to speak candidly, as I must, or hold my tongue, I can only say that I find no evidence anywhere of words weighed and deeds considered as having to be accounted for at the tremendous Assize foretold; and I ask any fair-minded reader, who looks about him with an unprejudiced eye, whether he does not agree with me. Let words and deeds be good or bad, let the doers and utterers be of the straitest sect of the Pharisees or the reverse, it is obviously the same with all, the gospel of fear has no real meaning for them, and it is the tangible present in which they wholly live.

The most rabidly pious women will come out of church with no thought but to keep the rain from their best hats and frocks, dear, human creatures, our bloodsisters, after all! And the clergy, their teachers, — we see them foaming at the mouth at the mention of a Roman Catholic, or wholly given up to their fantastical ritualistic play-toys. Surely if any class amongst us can be said to fiddle (in more senses than one) while Rome is burning, it is what we may term the official firebrigade, too case-hardened in professionalism to subordinate the engine to the flames.

I do not wish to be rude to anybody, and certainly not to a body of devoted men amongst whom I number many valued friends; I only say they are made of the same stuff as the rest of us, and I mean that for a compliment, although I know they will not take it so. It may be a first-class churchman who turns divine service into primarily a musical or dramatic performance, beguiled by the epithets “stately” and “correct;” but the unpretentious worshiper who goes to it purely for communion with God, and seeks in vain a moment’s peace for a quiet prayer, even at the Holy Sacrament, is the religious one of the two.

Similarly, between the preacher passionately vilifying the Scarlet Lady and the easy-going worldling whose simple creed is to live and let live, we who are not governed by the traditions of a sacerdotal caste have no difficulty in determining which is the better Christian. We are all tarred with the same brush, and the parsons are just as good and bad as we are, creatures of circumstances every one. And they may profess till they are black in the face, they are no more afraid of a great and terrible Day of Judgment than the happy shop-boy cycling through the country of a summer Sunday instead of going to church (one of their pet sinners); for if they were, they would show it.

Believers or unbelievers, we take no step with the direct object of avoiding the road to eternal perdition; similarly, we make no conscious effort to keep our feet pointing for the gates of Heaven, doing our good works, as per the multitudinous paper labels on our backs, out of the natural goodness of our hearts, which were not born to sin as the sparks fly upward. The fact is patent to every observant eye that, virtually, it really does not matter much to anybody whether the great Dream of Humanity materializes or not. He thinks it does, of course; necessarily, after all these ages of thinking it, it is an hereditary instinct in him to do so. Man’s cherished belief is that happiness is what he seeks, wrote R. L. Stevenson to Gosse, “and he can tell himself this fairy-tale of an eternal tea-party and enjoy the notion that he is both himself and something else, and that his friends will yet meet him all ironed out and emasculate, and still be lovable.” Whereas “Happinesses are but his wayside campings; his soul is in the journey; he was born for the struggle, and only tastes his life in effort and on the condition that he is opposed. How, then, is such a creature, so fiery, so pugnacious, so made up of discontent and aspirations, and such noble and uneasy passions, how can he be rewarded but by rest ?”

Who knows? And, judging from appearances, which are all we have to judge by, who cares ? At any rate, the beckonings of a future life take nothing from the value of the one we yet possess, with youth and all that youth means gone out of it. “O Paradise! O Paradise! Who doth not crave for rest ? ” I have watched the ecstatic faces of the singers of that hymn, and with difficulty repressed a smile at the funny thought of how they would look if they were suddenly to find themselves in danger of having their implied prayer answered. “’T is weary waiting here;” they don’t mean a word of it. If they do, they should be ashamed to own it. The loafer that will not work and the coward that will not fight are the persons who find ’t is weary waiting here, and when they do now and again muster a bit of courage and commit suicide, it is certainly not with any view to consequences. Well, well! Having done our blundering best according to our lights, we can surely leave the Hereafter to take care of itself; or, rather, we can leave it to the Power that created the Universe, and us to be so infinitesimal a fraction of it. Nor do we need to feel either wicked or unhappy in this condition of things. Because we do not subscribe blindfold to ecclesiastical formulae, we are not without the consolations of religion in our old age. Far from it.

And so we sit and rest ourselves, after all the frantic wear and tear; and more and more, instead of less, it is borne in upon us that life is sweet, and this dear world our hearts’ delight, with all its imperfections. It is young still, as we once were, seeing no further than its nose, or at any rate not far enough to get proportions and perspectives right; but we can believe now that it will be wiser some day, and looking back upon its old wars and childish controversies, say, not only, “What a bother it has all been!” but, “What a stupid waste!” Inasmuch as we see it earnestly struggling to wider and higher light, the God in man winning something over the brute at every step, we love it for what it will be as much as for what it is. We love it, first and last, with the love that “lives in the faults of the beloved, and draws its breath in one unbroken round of forgiveness,” the only love we understand.

Let me repeat once more. As life, this life which is our only life at present, wanes, the interest of life does not necessarily wane with it, despite traditional theories to the contrary. Given fair play, as I said before, the materials of enjoyment are as rich at sixty as at sixteen or twenty-six; in some ways, richer.

The “fullness of experience” — what wealth that is! Now that we have time to think of things, now that we can sleep o’ nights (while other women are agonizing with broken hearts or ailing infants), and thereby gain the strength and sanity of body and mind that were once well-nigh taxed out of them; now that we can give ourselves unreservedly to a fine book, a holiday outing, those simple but uplifting joys which literally re-create jaded spirit and flesh; now that we are up on the cushions, as it were, above the sawdust and smother, we can see life steadily and see it whole. And it is not all vanity, as in our distracted youth we so frequently supposed.

In our distracted youth we were looking forward all the time, and, speaking personally, I may say that hopes of more or less antiquity, some for myself proper, and more for myself in the selves of my progeny, flourish as vigorously as ever they did; but the sweet pastime of the rejuvenated grandmother is to look back, to rest and survey the historic Past. Was it such a hard road, after all ? With the mellow light upon it, its roughnesses are its charm. “The rugged and bitter business where his heart lies;” Stevenson’s description of the mundane life of man is good enough. It was rugged and bitter to us, without a doubt, but our hearts were in it, as they are in it now; it was living, the struggle for which we were born. That we took our gruel standing, however unsteadily, and not lying down, fighting on and through, and not giving in, — is not that its own reward when the battle is over? “Peace at the last” to victor and vanquished, who are neither one nor the other, or equally misnamed.

Never mind how little we have done to brag about, we have done it. And how proud (modestly proud) we feel! The young folks who now own the world, and have the smallest possible opinion of our present value to it, if they only knew with what complacent superiority we listen to their cocksure wisdom and smile over their heads! Let them go their way, poor dears. They will, anyhow, taking no advice from us (and the best thing for them too), and seek the company that suits them; what suits us is to get hold of our own contemporaries and compare notes with them, particularly some old, old friend, whom perhaps we have not seen for thirty years or more. “Do you remember” this, that, and the other? We can yarn over our old times by the hour, by the week, with the sense of being transported to fairy-land. The far Past is our fairy-land now. For all the sordid details have melted into the harmonious whole, as the stones of rough hillsides into the rose and blue of distant ranges at sunset; or, if we recall them, it is like looking at weeds and rubbish when they have been jeweled with hoar-frost.

For this reason, that the alchemy of loving memory does tend to make dross glitter to the likeness of gold, our traveler’s tales are perhaps justly sniffed at by such of our descendants as may chance to overhear them. Let it be understood, then, that this spiritual marconigram is addressed to the men and women, especially the women, of my own day and generation, who have the sympathetic receiver and the code. If they did not see upon the face of Truth some tinge of the color that possibly never was on sea or land, I do not think it would be the face of Truth to them at all.