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by E.F. Benson

from Six common things (1894)


IT seems that I am not going to remain in this vast cold world for very long; that is good news to me. And because you have followed me so far already, because you have looked with me at sadness, because you have faced death with me, and because I have made you all sharers in my sorrows and in my happinesses, it is fitting that I should say good-bye to you, as you will have very few words more from me, and that I should tell you why I have to say good-bye, and with what feelings I do so.

  For some weeks past, I have suspected this. I knew that my father, my grandfather and one of my aunts died of the same disease — it has an ugly cruel name, cancer, and we will not dwell on it — and I have thought lately that I was going to follow the same road. Yesterday, I went to see a doctor. I knew very soon by his face that I was right, and I urged him to tell me exactly what my case was. Yes, it was cancer. Was there any hope of saving my life by any operation? No, none; it was in a vital spot. How long had I to live? Perhaps six months, because I am very strong. We will not talk any more about cancer.

  And now twenty-four hours have passed, and I have grown used to the thought. I am no longer lonely, for a kindly presence has come to me, whom they call Death. Let me tell you quite shortly what I have thought about in the last twenty-four hours, and that will be all.

  May I treat you all quite intimately? May I say things to you that I would sayonly to those I trusted and loved? Surely, for if you have read these little things which I have told you, these six common things as I have called them, you know me well. In this last half hour perhaps I have gained a friend, or if not that, I have treated you as if you were my friends, and I cannot go back now. But if you have laughed at them, if you have sneered, if you have thought that these stories are foolish, stupid, mock-heroic, you may still read on; but I am not talking to you. I have given you my heart, I could give you no more. If it is worthless, toss it away. Soon I shall not care. But let us walk together a few steps towards the mouth of the valley of the shadow.

  So then at last I am face to face with the great mystery, the inconceivable end of life. Believe me it is not so dreadful. I have always looked on death with horror, with a feeling of passionate revolt, but now that is gone. Perhaps when one is going to die, one is in a way fitted for it, and it becomes as natural as life. Once before I was face to face with death, on a frozen peak of the great Zermatt mountains. I had slipped when climbing about alone, and for a few seconds, until I dropped on to an unsuspected ledge above the great ice fall below, I was alone with God and death, and I was not frightened. And now I am not frightened; only a miracle could save my life; humanly speaking I must die; in a year I shall know this earth no longer, I shall be a name, and soon not even that. What do I then look forward to? I hardly know. It is impossible for a living being to contemplate annihilation; it is inconceivable. This one can only realise for oneself; when those we love pass from us, all we know is that they are gone; that to us, as living beings on this earth, they have passed for ever; they are dead.

  And if not annihilation, what then? Life surely in some form, and if this is inevitably true for us, it is true for them, for Jack, for — ah God, is that true?

  So I do not fear, but I look forward to this change that will soon happen to me, with the intensest longing and wonder. What will it be? I wish I could come back and tell you.

  But here am I in the presence of that which I always thought of with loathing, with abhorrence, and let this be some comfort to you, who fear and dread death, who think of it as a horrible cruel annihilation. Believe me when it comes to you, you will feel how impossible that is, and try to realise it now. It is worth while — there is suffering enough for all already.

  And in the meantime, what am I going to do? They have told me that two months out of these six at least will be passed in pain which is terrible and wearing — they can relieve that a good deal with morphia and other drugs, but while I am conscious I shall not be myself, I shall not be able to think, I shall be tired and racked with this pain.

  So then I have four months before the struggle begins; till then they say, I shall not suffer much. How shall I spend it?

  Well, first of all, I shall finish writing this little book. That will not take long now, and then? I think I shall behave quite as usual, for I do not see how I could behave differently. I do not fear death, and it will be useless to think of the two weary months before death comes. Some men, I know, believe that they would put an end to themselves. That I could not do. That death would be horrible, unnatural, and I have an idea that it would be like running away; it is worth while, I think, to be brave.

  It is now March. The hint of spring was whispered through the trees yesterday. I noticed that as I came back from the doctor's house. I was dazed, confused then, but I can remember now that I noticed it. The buds on the lime tree were red, and on the ash the black knots had appeared. April and May will come and go; the birds will build again, and the swallows will wheel and circle round the barn where they make their nests. Everything will go on quite as usual. I want to realise that. June — ah, I am sorry I shall only see June once more; that from the hay-fields the breath of summer will steal up over the lawn no more after that for me. I hope the nightingales will build here again this year. There is a beech-tree not far from the door, where they built last year, and one night, when the moon was up, I went softly out and sat down under the tree, while between me and the infinite sky the bird told his heart to the still air.

  And after that comes July, and that last moment, when I shall stand at my window, and say good-bye to the sleeping summer night for ever. That last night, before I pass upstairs to wait for the end, should be fine and windless; summer should be at its full, luxuriant, with promise of infinite summers to come for the delight of man.

  I would not have it different. I want to be quiet for these few months, to sit and think, to wonder, to prepare for the great change, which is new to me, for I have never regarded death as coming near me. Yet here he is, an old friend of twenty-four hours' standing, waiting for me, and his face is kind, and in his eyes I see a promise, which he may not tell me yet.

  So much life then I have still before me, for those two later months I cannot count as life, and before they come I want to find out why they are coming. It seems unnecessary and cruel. That is the only complaint I have to make.

  There is one more thing I have to ask you. When September comes, think of me for a minute or two. Choose some quiet autumn night, when the winds are still, when a harvest moon shines big over the yellow fields, and before that moment comes when summer stops. Stand for a little while looking out into the night, for in the night, thoughts which only hover restlessly round our busy brains during the day, come home to their nests, and, if you can, think this: that there is one who was very tired and very lonely, to whom the beauty of earth and air was a mystery that he could not fathom, but in which sometimes he found peace, and that to him perhaps at this moment there is coming something so strange, so wonderful and so new, that he may even now be learning the meaning of what has puzzled, has wearied him; that perhaps into his dimlit soul a light has entered which has made things plain, or that at the worst they trouble him no longer. That he is very thankful, and very content, and that he in turn has thought of you, who have shared some of his sorrows with him, and that at the end of the dark valley there is a light shining. And then, thank God for all this.