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Title: The Dying of Francis Donne and others
Author: Ernest Dowson
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605491.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Table of Contents

The Dying of Francis Donne
Absinthia Taetra
The Visit





THE DYING OF FRANCIS DONNE


"Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris"



Chapter I



HE had lived so long in the meditation of death, visited it so often
in others, studied it with such persistency, with a sentiment in which
horror and fascination mingled; but it had always been, as it were, an
objective, alien fact, remote from himself and his own life. So that
it was in a sudden flash, quite too stupefying to admit in the first
instance of terror, that knowledge of his mortality dawned on him.
There was absurdity in the idea too.

"I, Francis Donne, thirty-five and some months old, am going to die,"
he said to himself; and fantastically he looked at his image in the
glass, and sought, but quite vainly, to find some change in it which
should account for this incongruity, just as, searching in his
analytical habit into the recesses of his own mind, he could find no
such alteration of his inner consciousness as would explain or justify
his plain conviction. And quickly, with reason and casuistry, he
sought to rebut that conviction.

The quickness of his mind--it had never seemed to him so nimble, so
exquisite a mechanism of syllogism and deduction--was contraposed
against his blind instinct of the would-be self-deceiver, in a
conflict to which the latter brought something of desperation, the
fierce, agonized desperation of a hunted animal at bay. But piece by
piece the chain of evidence was strengthened. That subtile and agile
mind of his, with its special knowledge, cut clean through the
shrinking protests of instinct, removing them as surely and as
remorselessly? he reflected in the image most natural to him, as the
keen blades of his surgical knives had removed malignant ulcers.

"I, Francis Donne, am going to die," he repeated, and, presently, "I
am going to die soon; in a few months, in six perhaps, certainly in a
year."

Once more, curiously, but this time with a sense of neutrality, as he
had often diagnosed a patient, he turned to the mirror. Was it his
fancy, or, perhaps, only for the vague light that he seemed to
discover a strange grey tone about his face?

But he had always been a man of a very sallow complexion.

There were a great many little lines, like pen-scratches, scarring the
parchment-like skin beneath the keen eyes: doubtless, of late, these
had multiplied, become more noticeable, even when his face was in
repose.

But, of late, what with his growing practice, his lectures, his
writing; all the unceasing labour, which his ambitions entailed, might
well have aged him somewhat. That dull, immutable pain, which had
first directed his attention from his studies, his investigations, his
profession, to his corporal self, the actual Francis Donne, that pain
which he would so gladly have called inexplicable, but could explain
so precisely, had ceased for the moment. Nerves, fancies! How long it
was since he had taken any rest! He had often intended to give himself
a holiday, but something had always intervened. But he would do so
now, yes, almost immediately; a long, long holiday--he would grudge
nothing--somewhere quite out of the way, somewhere, where there was
fishing; in Wales, or perhaps in Brittany; that would surely set him
right.

And even while he promised himself this necessary relaxation in the
immediate future, as he started on his afternoon round, in the
background of his mind there lurked the date, was, as it were, some
tardy sacrifice, almost hypocritical, which he offered to powers who
might not be propitiated.

Once in his neat brougham, the dull pain began again; but by an effort
of will he put it away from him. In the brief interval from house to
house--he had some dozen visits to make--he occupied himself with a
medical paper, glanced at the notes of a lecture he was giving that
evening at a certain Institute on the "Limitations of Medicine."

He was late, very late for dinner, and his man, Bromgrove, greeted him
with a certain reproachfulness, in which he traced, or seemed to
trace, a half-patronieing sense of pity. He reminded himself that on
more than one occasion, of late, Bromgrove's manner had perplexed him.
He was glad to rebuke the man irritably on some pretext, to dismiss
him from the room, and he hurried, without appetite, through the cold
or overdone food which was the reward of his tardiness.

His lecture over, he drove out-to South Kensington, to attend a
reception at the house of a great man--great not only in the
scientific world, but also in the world of letters. There was some of
the excitement of success in his eyes as he made his way, with smiles
and bows, in acknowledgment of many compliments, through the crowded
rooms. For Francis Donne's lectures--those of them which were not
entirely for the initiated--had grown into the importance of a social
function. They had almost succeeded in making science fashionable,
clothing its dry bones in a garment of so elegantly literary a
pattern. But even in the ranks of the profession it was only the
envious, the unsuccessful, who ventured to say that Donne had
sacrificed doctrine to popularity, that his science was, in their
contemptuous parlance, "mere literature."

Yes, he had been very successful, as the world counts success, and his
consciousness of this fact, and the influence of the lights, the
crowd, the voices, was like absinthe on his tired spirit. He had
forgotten, or thought he had forgotten, the phantom of the last few
days, the phantom which was surely waiting for him at home.

But he was reminded by a certain piece of news which late in the
evening fluttered the now diminished assembly: the quite sudden death
of an eminent surgeon, expected there that night, an acquaintance of
his own, and more or less of each one of the little, intimate group
which tarried to discuss it. With sympathy, with a certain awe, they
spoke of him, Donne and others; and both the awe and the sympathy were
genuine.

But as he drove home, leaning back in his carriage, in a
discouragement, in a lethargy, which was only partly due to physical
reaction, he saw visibly underneath their regret--theirs and his own--
the triumphant assertion of life, the egoism of instinct. They were
sorry, but oh, they were glad! royally glad, that it was another, and
not they themselves whom something mysterious had of a sudden snatched
away from his busy career, his interests, perhaps from all
intelligence; at least, from all the pleasant sensuousness of life,
the joy of the visible world, into darkness. And honestly dared not to
blame it. How many times had not he, Francis Donne himself experienced
it, that egoistic assertion of life in the presence of the dead--the
poor, irremediable dead?...And now, he was only good to give it to
others.

Latterly, he had been in the habit of subduing sleeplessness with
injections of morphia, indeed in infinitesimal quantities. But to-
night, although he was more than usually restless and awake, by a
strong effort of reasonableness he resisted his impulse to take out
the little syringe. The pain was at him again with the same dull and
stupid insistence; in its monotony, losing some of the nature of pain
and becoming a mere nervous irritation. But he was aware that it would
not continue like that. Daily, almost hourly, it would gather strength
and cruelty; the moments of respite from it would become rarer, would
cease. From a dull pain it would become an acute pain, and then a
torture, and then an agony, and then a madness. And in those last
days, what peace might be his would be the peace of morphia, so that
it was essential that, for the moment, he should not abuse the drug.

And as he knew that sleep was far away from him, he propped himself up
with two pillows, and by the light of a strong reading lamp settled
himself to read. He had selected the work of a distinguished German
savant upon the cardiac functions, and a short treatise of his own,
which was covered with recent annotations, in his crabbed handwriting,
upon "Aneurism of the Heart." He read avidly, and against his own
deductions, once more his instinct raised a vain protest. At last he
threw the volumes aside, and lay with his eyes shut, without, however,
extinguishing the light. A terrible sense of helplessness overwhelmed
him; he was seized with an immense and heartbreaking pity for poor
humanity as personified in himself; and, for the first time since he
had ceased to be a child, he shed puerile tears.



Chapter II



The faces of his acquaintance, the faces of the students at his
lectures, the faces of Francis Donne's colleagues at the hospital,
were altered; were, at least, sensibly altered to his morbid self-
consciousness. In every one whom he encountered, he detected, or
fancied that he detected, an attitude of evasion, a hypocritical air
of ignoring a fact that was obvious and unpleasant. Was it so obvious,
then, the hidden horror which he carried incessantly about him? Was
his secret, which he would still guard so jealously, become a by-word
and an anecdote in his little world? And a great rage consumed him
against the inexorable and inscrutable forces which had made him to
destroy him; against himself, because of his proper impotence; and,
above all, against the living, the millions who would remain when he
was no longer, the living, of whom many would regret him (some of them
his personality, and morc, his skill), because he could see under all
the unconscious hypocrisy of their sorrow, the exultant self-
satisfaction of their survival.

And with his burning sense of helplessness, of a certain bitter
injustice in things, a sense of sharne mingled; all the merely
physical dishonour of death shaping itself to his sick and morbid
fancy into a violent symbol of whlt was, as it were, an actual moral
or intellectual dishonour. Was not death, too, inevitable and natural
an operation as it was, essentially a process to undergo apart and
hide jealously, as much as other natural and ignoble processes of the
body?

And the animal, who steals away to an uttermost place in the forest,
who gives up his breath in a solitude and hides his dying like a
shameful thing,---might he not offer an example that it would be well
for the dignity of poor humanity to follow?

Since Death is coming to Donne, said Francis Donne to himself, let me
meet it, a stranger in a strange land, with only strange faces round
me and the kind indifference of strangers, instead of the intolerable
pity of friends.



Chapter III



On the bleak and wave-tormented coast of Finistre, somewhere between
Quiberon and Fouesnant, he reminded himself of a little fishing-
village: a few scattered houses (one of them being an auberge at which
ten years ago he had spent a night), collected round a poor little
grey church. Thither Francis Donne went, without leave-takings or
explanation, almost secretly, giving but the vaguest indications of
the length or direction of his absence. And there for many days he
dwelt, in the cottage which he had hired, with one old Breton woman
for his sole attendant, in a state of mind which, after all the years
of energy, of ambitious labour, was almost peace.

Bleak and grey it had been, when he had visited it of old, in the late
autumn; but now the character, the whole colour of the country was
changed. It was brilliant with the promise of summer, and the blue
Atlantic, which in winter churned with its long crested waves so
boisterously below the little white lighthouse, which warned mariners
(alas! so vainly), against the shark-like cruelty of the rocks, now
danced and glittered in the sunshine, rippled with feline caresses
round the hulls of the fishing-boats whose brown sails floated so idly
in the faint air.

Above the village, on a grassy slope, whose green was almost lurid,
Francis Donne lay, for many silent hours, looking out at the placid
sea, which could yet be so ferocious, at the low violet line of the
Island of Groix, which alone interrupted the monotony of sky and
ocean.

He had brought many books with him but he read in them rarely; and
when physical pain gave him a respite for thought, he thought almost
of nothing. His thought was for a long time a lethargy and a blank.

Now and again he spoke with some of the inhabitants. They were a poor
and hardy, but a kindly race: fishers and the wives of fishers, whose
children would grow up and become fishermen and the wives of fishermen
in their turn. Most of them had wrestled with death; it was always so
near to them that hardly one of them feared it; they were fatalists,
with the grim and resigned fatalism of the poor, of the poor who live
with the treachery of the sea.

Francis Donne visited the little cemetery, and counted the innumerable
crosses which testified to the havoc which the sea had wrought. Some
of the graves were nameless; holding the bodies of strange seamen
which the waves had tossed ashore.

"And in a little time I shall lie here," he said to himself; "and here
as well as elsewhere," he added with a shrug, assuming, and, for once,
almost sincerely, the stoicism of his surroundings, "and as lief to-
day as to-morrow."

On the whole, the days were placid; there were even moments when, as
though he had actually drunk in renewed vigour from that salt sea air,
the creative force of the sun, he was tempted to doubt his grievous
knowledge, to make fresh plans for life. But these were fleeting
moments, and the reaction from them was terrible. Each day his hold on
life was visibly more slender, and the people of the village saw, and
with a rough sympathy, which did not offend him, allowed him to
perceive that they saw, the rapid growth and the inevitableness of his
end.



Chapter IV



But if the days were not without their pleasantness, the nights were
always horrible--a torture of the body and an agony of the spirit.
Sleep was far away, and the brain, which had been lulled till the
evening, would awake, would grow electric with life and take strange
and abominable flights into the darkness of the pit, into the black
night of the unknowable and the unknown.

And interminably, during those nights which seemed eternity, Francis
Donne questioned and examined into the nature of that Thing, which
stood, a hooded figure beside his bed, with a menacing hand raised to
beckon him so peremptorily from all that lay within his consciousness.

He had been all his life absorbed in science; he had dissected, how
many bodies? and in what anatomy had he ever found a soul? Yet if his
avocations, his absorbing interest in physical phenomena had made him
somewhat a materialist, it had been almost without his consciousness.
The sensible, visible world of matter had loomed so large to him, that
merely to know that had seemed to him sufficient. All that might
conceivably lie outside it, he had, without negation, been content to
regard as outside his province.

And now, in his weakness, in the imminence of approaching dissolution,
his purely physical knowledge seemed but a vain possession, and he
turned with a passionate interest to what had been said and believed
from time immemorial by those who had concentrated their intelligence
on that strange essence, which might after all be the essence of one's
personality, which might be that sublimated consciousness--the Soul--
actually surviving the infamy of the grave?

Animula, vagula, blandula!
Hospes comesque corporis.
Quae nunc abibis in loca?
Pallidula, rigida, nudula.

Ah, the question! It was a harmony, perhaps (as, who had maintained?
whom the Platonic Socrates in the "Phaedo" had not too successfully
refuted), a harmony of life, which was dissolved when life was over?
Or, perhaps, as how many metaphysicians had held both before and after
a sudden great hope, perhaps too generous to be true, had changed and
illuminated, to countless millions, the inexorable figure of Death a
principle, indeed, immortal, which came and went, passing through many
corporal conditions until it was ultimately resolved into the great
mind, pervading all things? Perhaps?...But what scanty consolation, in
all such theories, to the poor body, racked with pain and craving
peace, to the tortured spirit of self-consciousness so achingly
anxious not to be lost.

And he turned from these speculations to what was, after all, a
possibility like the others; the faith of the simple, of these fishers
with whom he lived, which was also the faith of his own childhood,
which, indeed, he had never repudiated, whose practices he had simply
discarded, as one discards puerile garments when one comes to man's
estate. And he remembered, with the vividness with which, in moments
of great anguish, one remembers things long ago familiar, forgotten
though they may have been for years, the triumphant declarations of
the Church:

"Omnes quidem resurgemus, sed non omnes immutabimur. In momento, in
ictu oculi, in novissima tuba: canet enim tuba: et mortui resurgent
incorrupti, et nos immutabimur. Oportet enim corruptibile hoc induere
immortalitatem. Cum autem mortale hoc induerit immortalitatem tunc
fiet sermo qui scriptus est: Absorpta est mors in victoria. Ubi est,
mors, victoria tua? Ubi est, mors, stimulus tuus?"

Ah, for the certitude of that! of that victorious confutation of the
apparent destruction of sense and spirit in a common ruin...But it was
a possibility like the rest; and had it not more need than the rest to
be more than a possibility, if it would be a consolation, in that it
promised more? And he gave it up, turning his face to the wall, lay
very still, imagining himself already stark and cold, his eyes closed,
his jaw closely tied (lest the ignoble changes which had come to him
should be too ignoble), while he waited until the narrow boards,
within which he should lie, had been nailed together, and the bearers
were ready to convey him into the corruption which was to be his part.

And as the window-pane grew light with morning, he sank into a
drugged, unrestful sleep, from which he would awake some hours later
with eyes more sunken and more haggard cheeks. And that was the
pattern of many nights.



Chapter V

One day he seemed to wake from a night longer and more troubled than
usual, a night which had, perhaps, been many nights and days, perhaps
even weeks; a night of an ever-increasing agony, in which he was only
dimly conscious at rare intervals of what was happening, or of the
figures coming and going around his bed: the doctor from a
neighbouring town, who had stayed by him unceasingly, easing his
paroxysms with the little merciful syringe; the soft, practised hands
of a sister of charity about his pillow; even the face of Bromgrove,
for whom doubtless he had sent, when he had foreseen the utter
helplessness which was at hand.

He opened his eyes, and seemed to discern a few blurred figures
against the darkness of the closed shutters through which one broad
ray filtered in; but he could not distinguish their faces, and he
closed his eyes once more. An immense and ineffable tiredness had come
over him that this--this was Death; this was the thing against which
he had cried and revolted; the horror from which he would have
escaped; this utter luxury of physical exhaustion, this calm, this
release.

The corporal capacity of smiling had passed from him, but he would
fain have smiled.

And for a few minutes of singular mental lucidity, all his life
flashed before him in a new relief; his childhccd, his adolescence,
the people whom he had known; his mother, who had died when he was a
boy, of a malady from which, perhaps, a few years later, his skill had
saved her; the friend of his youth who had shot himself for so little
reason; the girl whom he had loved, but who had not loved him...All
that was distorted in life was adjusted and justified in the light of
his sudden knowledge. Beati mortui...and then the great tiredness
swept over him once more, and a fainter consciousness, in which he
could yet just dimly hear, as in a dream, the sound of Latin prayers,
and feel the application of the oils upon all the issues and
approaches of his wearied sense; then utter unccnsciousness, while
pulse and heart gradually grew fainter until both ceased. And that was
all.




ABSINTHIA TAETRA


GREEN changed to white, emerald to an opal: nothing was changed.

The man let the water trickle gently into his glass, and as the green
clouded, a mist fell from his mind.

Then he drank opaline.

Memories and terrors beset him. The past tore after him like a panther
and through the blackness of the present he saw the luminous tiger
eyes of the things to be.

But he drank opaline.

And that obscure night of the soul, and the valley of humiliation,
through which he stumbled were forgotten. He saw blue vistas of
undiscovered countries, high prospects and a quiet, caressing sea. The
past shed its perfume over him, to-day held his hand as it were a
little child, and to-morrow shone like a white star: nothing was
changed.

He drank opaline.

The man had known the obscure night of the soul, and lay even now in
the valley of humiliation; and the tiger menace of the things to be
was red in the skies. But for a little while he had forgotten.

Green changed to white, emerald to an opal: nothing was changed.




THE VISIT


AS though I were still struggling through the meshes of some riotous
dream, I heard his knock upon the door. As in a dream, I bade him
enter, but with his entry, I awoke. Yet when he entered it seemed to
me that I was dreaming, for there was nothing strange in that supreme
and sorrowful smile which shone through the mask which I knew. And
just as though I had not always been afraid of him I said: "Welcome."

And he said very simply, "I am here."

Dreaming I had thought myself, but the reproachful sorrow of his smile
showed me that I was awake. Then dared I open my eyes and I saw my old
body on the bed, and the room in which I had grown so tired, and in
the middle of the room the pan of charcoal which still smouldered. And
dimly I remembered my great weariness and the lost whiteness of Lalage
and last year's snows; and these things had been agonies.

Darkly, as in a dream, I wondered why they gave me no more hurt, as I
looked at my old body on the bed; why, they were like old maids'
fancies (as I looked at my grey body on the bed of my agonies)--like
silly toys of children that fond mothers lay up in lavender (as I
looked at the twisted limbs of my old body), for these things had been
agonies.

But all my wonder was gone when I looked again into the eyes of my
guest, and I said:

"I have wanted you all my life."

Then said Death (and what reproachful tenderness was shadowed in his
obscure smile):

"You had only to call."



THE END



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