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!
But in my heart I could forgive Crasweller. For Grundle I felt nothing but personal dislike. He was anxious to hurry on the deposition of his father-in-law, in order that the entire possession of Little Christchurch might come into his own hands just one year the earlier! No doubt he knew the exact age of the man as well as I did, but it was not for him to have hastened his deposition. And then I could not but think, even in this moment of public misery, how willing Jack would have been to have assisted old Crasweller in his little fraud, so that Eva might have been the reward. My belief is that he would have sworn against his own father, perjured himself in the very teeth of truth, to have obtained from Eva that little privilege which I had once seen Grundle enjoying.
I was sitting there silent in Crasweller's verandah as all this passed through my mind. But before I spoke again I was enabled to see clearly what duty required of me. Eva and Little Christchurch, with Jack's feelings and interests, and all my wife's longings, must be laid on one side, and my whole energy must be devoted to the literal carrying out of the law. It was a great world's movement that had been projected, and if it were to fail now, just at its commencement, when everything had been arranged for the work, when again would there be hope? It was a matter which required legislative sanction in whatever country might adopt it. No despot could attempt it, let his power be ever so confirmed. The whole country would rise against him when informed, in its ignorance, of the contemplated intention. Nor could it be effected by any congress of which the large majority were not at any rate under forty years of age. I had seen enough of human nature to understand its weakness in this respect. All circumstances had combined to make it practicable in Britannula, but all these circumstances might never be combined again. And it seemed to me to depend now entirely on the power which I might exert in creating courage in the heart of the poor timid creature who sat before me. I did know that were Britannula to appeal aloud to England, England, with that desire for interference which has always characterised her, would interfere. But if the empire allowed the working of the law to be commenced in silence, then the Fixed Period might perhaps be regarded as a thing settled. How much, then, depended on the words which I might use!
"Crasweller," I said, "my friend, my brother!"
"I don't know much about that. A man ought not to be so anxious to kill his brother."
"If I could take your place, as God will be my judge, I would do so with as ready a step as a young man to the arms of his beloved. And if for myself, why not for my brother?"
"You do not know," he said. "You have not, in truth, been tried."
"Would that you could try me!"
"And we are not all made of such stuff as you. You have talked about this till you have come to be in love with deposition and departure. But such is not the natural condition of a man. Look back upon all the centuries, and you will perceive that life has ever been dear to the best of men. And you will perceive also that they who have brought themselves to suicide have encountered the contempt of their fellow-creatures."
I would not tell him of Cato and Brutus, feeling that I could not stir him to grandeur of heart by Roman instances. He would have told me that in those days, as far as the Romans knew,
"the Everlasting had not fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter."
I must reach him by other methods than these, if at all. "Who can be more alive than you," I said, "to the fact that man, by the fear of death, is degraded below the level of the brutes?"
"If so, he is degraded," said Crasweller. "It is his condition."
"But need he remain so? Is it not for you and me to raise him to a higher level?"
"Not for me—not for me, certainly. I own that I am no more than man. Little Christchurch is so pleasant to me, and Eva's smiles and happiness; and the lowing of my flocks and the bleating of my sheep are so gracious in my ears, and it is so sweet to my eyes to see how fairly I have turned this wilderness into a paradise, that I own that I would fain stay here a little longer."
"But the law, my friend, the law,—the law which you yourself have been so active in creating."
"The law allows me two years yet," said he; that look of stubbornness which I had before observed again spreading itself over his face.
Now this was a lie; an absolute, undoubted, demonstrable lie. And yet it was a lie which, by its mere telling, might be made available for its intended purpose. If it were known through the capital that Crasweller was anxious to obtain a year's grace by means of so foul a lie, the year's grace would be accorded to him. And then the Fixed Period would be at an end.
"I will tell you what it is," said he, anxious to represent his wishes to me in another light. "Grundle wants to get rid of me."
"Grundle, I fear, has truth on his side," said I, determined to show him that I, at any rate, would not consent to lend myself to the furtherance of a falsehood.
"Grundle wants to get rid of me," he repeated in the same tone. "But he shan't find that I am so easy to deal with. Eva already does not above half like him. Eva thinks that this depositing plan is abominable. She says that no good Christians ever thought of it."
"A child—a sweet child—but still only a child; and brought up by her mother with all the old prejudices."
"I don't know much about that. I never knew a decent woman who wasn't an Episcopalian. Eva is at any rate a good girl, to endeavour to save her father; and I'll tell you what—it is not too late yet. As far as my opinion goes, Jack Neverbend is ten to one a better sort of fellow than Abraham Grundle. Of course a promise has been made; but promises are like pie-crusts. Don't you think that Jack Neverbend is quite old enough to marry a wife, and that he only needs be told to make up his mind to do it? Little Christchurch would do just as well for him as for Grundle. If he don't think much of the girl he must think something of the sheep."
Not think much of the girl! Just at this time Jack was talking to his mother, morning, noon, and night, about Eva, and threatening young Grundle with all kinds of schoolboy punishments if he should persevere in his suit. Only yesterday he had insulted Abraham grossly, and, as I had reason to suspect, had been more than once out to Christchurch on some clandestine object, as to which it was necessary, he thought, to keep old Crasweller in the dark. And then to be told in this manner that Jack didn't think much of Eva, and should be encouraged in preference to look after the sheep! He would have sacrificed every sheep on the place for the sake of half an hour with Eva alone in the woods. But he was afraid of Crasweller, whom he knew to have sanctioned an engagement with Abraham Grundle.
"I don't think that we need bring Jack and his love into this dispute," said I.
"Only that it isn't too late, you know. Do you think that Jack could be brought to lend an ear to it?"
Perish Jack! perish Eva! perish Jack's mother, before I would allow myself to be bribed in this manner, to abandon the great object of all my life! This was evidently Crasweller's purpose. He was endeavouring to tempt me with his flocks and herds. The temptation, had he known it, would have been with Eva,—with Eva and the genuine, downright, honest love of my gallant boy. I knew, too, that at home I should not dare to tell my wife that the offer had been made to me and had been refused. My wife could not understand,—Crasweller could not understand,—how strong may be the passion founded on the conviction of a life. And honesty, simple honesty, would forbid it. For me to strike a bargain with one already destined for deposition,—that he should be withdrawn from his glorious, his almost immortal state, on the payment of a bribe to me and my family! I had called this man my friend and brother, but how little had the man known me! Could I have saved all Gladstonopolis from imminent flames by yielding an inch in my convictions, I would not have done so in my then frame of mind; and yet this man,—my friend and brother,—had supposed that I could be bought to change my purpose by the pretty slopes and fat flocks of Little Christchurch!
"Crasweller," said I, "let us keep these two things separate; or rather, in discussing the momentous question of the Fixed Period, let us forget the loves of a boy and a girl."
"But the sheep, and the oxen, and the pastures! I can still make my will."
"The sheep, and the oxen, and the pastures must also be forgotten. They can have nothing to do with the settlement of this matter. My boy is dear to me, and Eva is dear also, but not to save even their young lives could I consent to a falsehood in this matter."
"Falsehood! There is no falsehood intended."
"Then there need be no bargain as to Eva, and no need for discussing the flocks and herds on this occasion. Crasweller, you are sixty-six now, and will be sixty-seven this time next year. Then the period of your deposition will have arrived, and in the year following,—two years hence, mind,—the Fixed Period of your departure will have come."
"Is not such the truth?"
"No; you put it all on a year too far. I was never more than nine years older than you. I remember it all as well as though it were yesterday when we first agreed to come away from New Zealand. When will you have to be deposited?"
"In 1989," I said carefully. "My Fixed Period is 1990."
"Exactly; and mine is nine years earlier. It always was nine years earlier."
It was all manifestly untrue. He knew it to be untrue. For the sake of one poor year he was imploring my assent to a base falsehood, and was endeavouring to add strength to his prayer by a bribe. How could I talk to a man who would so far descend from the dignity of manhood? The law was there to support me, and the definition of the law was in this instance supported by ample evidence. I need only go before the executive of which I myself was the chief, desire that the established documents should be searched, and demand the body of Gabriel Crasweller to be deposited in accordance with the law as enacted. But there was no one else to whom I could leave the performance of this invidious task, as a matter of course. There were aldermen in Gladstonopolis and magistrates in the country whose duty it would no doubt be to see that the law was carried out. Arrangements to this effect had been studiously made by myself. Such arrangements would no doubt be carried out when the working of the Fixed Period had become a thing established. But I had long foreseen that the first deposition should be effected with some éclat of voluntary glory. It would be very detrimental to the cause to see my special friend Crasweller hauled away to the college by constables through the streets of Gladstonopolis, protesting that he was forced to his doom twelve months before the appointed time. Crasweller was a popular man in Britannula, and the people around would not be so conversant with the fact as was I, nor would they have the same reasons to be anxious that the law should be accurately followed. And yet how much depended upon the accuracy of following the law! A willing obedience was especially desired in the first instance, and a willing obedience I had expected from my friend Crasweller.
"Crasweller," I said, addressing him with great solemnity; "it is not so."
"It is—it is; I say it is."
"It is not so. The books that have been printed and sworn to, which have had your own assent with that of others, are all against you."
"It was a mistake. I have got a letter from my old aunt in Hampshire, written to my mother when I was born, which proves the mistake."
"I remember the letter well," I said,—for we had all gone through such documents in performing the important task of settling the Period. "You were born in New South Wales, and the old lady in England did not write till the following year."
"Who says so? How can you prove it? She wasn't at all the woman to let a year go by before she congratulated her sister."
"We have your own signature affirming the date."
"How was I to know when I was born? All that goes for nothing."
"And unfortunately," said I, as though clenching the matter, "the Bible exists in which your father entered the date with his usual exemplary accuracy." Then he was silent for a moment as though having no further evidence to offer. "Crasweller," said I, "are you not man enough to do this thing in a straightforward, manly manner?"
"One year!" he exclaimed. "I only ask for one year. I do think that, as the first victim, I have a right to expect that one year should be granted me. Then Jack Neverbend shall have Little Christchurch, and the sheep, and the cattle, and Eva also, as his own for ever and ever,—or at any rate till he too shall be led away to execution!"
A victim; and execution! What language in which to speak of the great system! For myself I was determined that though I would be gentle with him I would not yield an inch. The law at any rate was with me, and I did not think as yet that Crasweller would lend himself to those who spoke of inviting the interference of England. The law was on my side, and so must still be all those who in the Assembly had voted for the Fixed Period. There had been enthusiasm then, and the different clauses had been carried by large majorities. A dozen different clauses had been carried, each referring to various branches of the question. Not only had the period been fixed, but money had been voted for the college; and the mode of life at the college had been settled; the very amusements of the old men had been sanctioned; and last, but not least, the very manner of departure had been fixed. There was the college now, a graceful building surrounded by growing shrubs and broad pleasant walks for the old men, endowed with a kitchen in which their taste should be consulted, and with a chapel for such of those who would require to pray in public; and all this would be made a laughing-stock to Britannula, if this old man Crasweller declined to enter the gates. "It must be done," I said in a tone of firm decision.
"No!" he exclaimed.
"Crasweller, it must be done. The law demands it."
"No, no; not by me. You and young Grundle together are in a conspiracy to get rid of me. I am not going to be shut up a whole year before my time."
With that he stalked into the inner house, leaving me alone on the verandah. I had nothing for it but to turn on the electric lamp of my tricycle and steam back to Government House at Gladstonopolis with a sad heart.