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Facing Death By G. L. Apperson 1898
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DR. JOHNSON once confessed that he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him; and when he was told of someone who, from being gloomy from low spirits and depressed by the fear of death, had become uniformly placid and able to contemplate his dissolution without any disturbance of mind, the doctor said, emphatically: "Sir, this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn." Yet when his own time came, Johnson faced the great change with the perfect composure and fortitude inspired by humble trust. As he had once said when Boswell foolishly teased him with questions on the subject: "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives."
The spirit in which a man faces life will be that in which he will face death. So, when people talk about the ruling passion being strong in death, and seek to point a moral and adorn a tale by relating anecdotes of the last sayings and doings of men and women of strongly marked character, they forget that there is nothing really strange or abnormal in such instances. They are simply unusually clearly defined examples of what is a universal rule. Death has no terrors for one who has a proper sense of proportion, who has an eye for moral perspective. When one told Socrates, "The thirty tyrants have condemned thee to death," he replied, briefly and unanswerably, "And Nature them." "What fondness is it," says Montaigne, with epigrammatic force, "to cark and care so much at that instant and passage from all exemption of pain and care!"
ON THE BATTLEFIELD.
NO man can read the secret fears of those around him, but so far as observation has been recorded of those who have faced death publicly, fear has had little part in the matter. We are not now thinking of those who have looked into the eyes of Death on the battlefield. Mr. Stephen Crane, in his "Red Badge of Courage," has described graphically, and probably truthfully, the sensations and experiences of one who is thus situated for the first time in his life. In a few hours he runs through the whole gamut of the emotions, from the most craven fear to the most reckless daring. Death is faced, indeed, in many forms and in many ways on the field of battle. But to have to face the dark shadow deliberately, amid no noise or heat of conflict, but at a sudden turning, as it were, in life's high road; to stand in the sunlight, strong and sound in limb and body, with the red blood flowing in full and equal tide through every artery, and to know that in a few seconds the stream of life will be dammed, and the strength brought to naught by the overshadowing of Azrael's wing—that is what tries the courage of man or woman. "That tries not the courage," says the executioner in "Anne of Gierstein," to the soldier who speaks of his five pitched fields besides skirmishes and ambuscades innumerable—"All men will fight when pitched against each other—so will the most paltry curs—so will the dunghill fowls. But he is brave and noble who can look on a scaffold and a block, a priest to give him absolution, and the headsman, and a good sword which is to mow him down in his strength, as he would look upon things indifferent." And it is heartening to think of the mighty host of men and women, of all ages and of all nationalities and races, who have thus courageously faced death. Martyrs for their faith—and not for one faith or form of faith alone—leaders of lost causes, victims of royal or popular hatred and spite—all have gone to the stake, or to the block, or have looked down the rifle barrels, calmly and without flinching
ON THE SCAFFOLD.
WHEN Murat was shot in 1815, he asked permission from the officer in charge of the firing party to give the word of command as he had often done to men under his own orders. The officer granted the privilege, and Murat, with unfaltering courage ordering his own death, fell pierced with the Bourbon bullets. The "red fool fury of the Seine" has been responsible for many a heroic facing of death, from the days when the tumbrils made their daily ghastly promenade to the Place de la Revolution, to the reign of horror in 1871, when the Archbishop of Paris, and Generals Thomas and Lecomte died with their backs to the wall.
Men have had no monopoly of this scaffold courage. Queen Anne Boleyn, with all her frivolity and indiscretion, when she was brought to the fatal green within the Tower walls, submitted to the headsman with his great two-handed sword, without a shadow of flinching. Lady Jane Grey and Mary Queen of Scots were equally unmoved.
Many have faced death with a jest upon their lips. "How oft when men are at the point of death," says Romeo, "have they been merry!" His friend Mercutio had only a little while before exemplified the truth of the remark in his own dying words. As Sir Walter Raleigh was on his way to execution he saw an old friend in the crowd unable to approach the scaffold, "Farewell," cried Sir Walter, "I know not what shift you will make, but I am sure to have a place;" and when he mounted the scaffold he kissed the axe, and remarked that it was a "sharp medicine, but a sound cure for all diseases." In similar vein, Sir Thomas More, when brought to the place of execution, noticing that the scaffold was weak, turned to the Lieutenant of the Tower, and said, "I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me up safe, and for my coming down let me shift for myself."
Nor has this somewhat lugubrious form of humour been confined to those who have died in public. When Sir Patrick Hume, of Polwarth, lay dying in 1724, a friend who was sitting beside his bed noticed him smiling, and asked what amused him. Sir Patrick, who was eighty-three years of age and extremely emaciated, replied, "I am diverted to think what a disappointment the worms will meet with when they come to me expecting a good meal, and find nothing but bones!" A very similar grim pleasantry is recorded of an old lady in Dean Ramsay's well-known book on "Scottish Life and Character." Horace Walpole said of Lord Chesterfield that his "closing lips dropped repartees that sparkled with his juvenile fire." When old and feeble Chesterfield apologised to a visitor for leaving him in order to take his daily drive, by saying, "I do not detain you, for I must go and rehearse my funeral;" and when, during his last illness, his friend Sir Thomas Robinson, a very tall man, called upon him, Chesterfield, who was as short as his friend was tall, remarked, "Ah, Sir Thomas, it will be sooner over with me than it would be with you, for I am dying by inches."
It is hardly necessary to multiply examples; and the humour of such utterances seems sometimes a trifle forced. It looks as if it might have been assumed as a cloak to cover the real emotions. But, after all, the real feelings of a human soul at the supreme crisis of existence—when death throws open the portals of life can be known to that human soul only, and to no other; and it would be as futile as it would be indecent to attempt to say whether the face with which a man meets death is his own, or merely a mask assumed for the occasion.
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