Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
A week later Mabel awoke about dawn; and for a moment or two forgot where she was. She even spoke Oliver’s name aloud, staring round the unfamiliar room, wondering what she did here. Then she remembered, and was silent....
It was the eighth day she had spent in this Home; her probation was finished: to-day she wits at liberty to do that for which she had come. On the Saturday of the previous week she had gone through her private examination before the magistrate, stating under the usual conditions of secrecy her name, age and home, as well as her reasons for making the application for Euthanasia; and all had passed off well. She had selected Manchester as being sufficiently remote and sufficiently large to secure her freedom from Oliver’s molestation; and her secret had been admirably kept. There was not a hint that her husband knew anything of her intentions; for, after all, in these cases the police were bound to assist the fugitive. Individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it. She scarcely knew why she had selected this method, except that any other seemed impossible. The knife required skill and resolution; firearms were unthinkable, and poison, under the new stringent regulations, was hard to obtain. Besides, she seriously wished to test her own intentions, and to be quite sure that there was no other way than this....
Well, she was as certain as ever. The thought had first come to her in the mad misery of the outbreak of violence on the last day of the old year. Then it had gone again, soothed away by the arguments that man was still liable to relapse. Then once more it had recurred, a cold and convincing phantom, in the plain daylight revealed by Felsenburgh’s Declaration. It had taken up its abode with her then, yet she controlled it, hoping against hope that the Declaration would not be carried into action, occasionally revolting against its horror. Yet it had never been far away; and finally when the policy sprouted into deliberate law, she had yielded herself resolutely to its suggestion. That was eight days ago; and she had not had one moment of faltering since that.
Yet she had ceased to condemn. The logic had silenced her. All that she knew was that she could not bear it; that she had misconceived the New Faith; that for her, whatever it was for others, there was no hope.... She had not even a child of her own.
Those eight days, required by law, had passed very peacefully. She had taken with her enough money to enter one of the private homes furnished with sufficient comfort to save from distractions those who had been accustomed to gentle living: the nurses had been pleasant and sympathetic; she had nothing to complain of.
She had suffered, of course, to some degree from reactions. The second night after her arrival had been terrible, when, as she lay in bed in the hot darkness, her whole sentient life had protested and struggled against the fate her will ordained. It had demanded the familiar things–the promise of food and breath and human intercourse; it had writhed in horror against the blind dark towards which it moved so inevitably; and, in the agony had been pacified only by the half-hinted promise of some deeper voice suggesting that death was not the end. With morning light sanity had come back; the will had reassumed the mastery, and, with it, had withdrawn explicitly the implied hope of continued existence. She had suffered again for an hour or two from a more concrete fear; the memory came back to her of those shocking revelations that ten years ago had convulsed England and brought about the establishment of these Homes under Government supervision–those evidences that for years in the great vivisection laboratories human subjects had been practised upon–persons who with the same intentions as herself had cut themselves off from the world in private euthanasia-houses, to whom had been supplied a gas that suspended instead of destroying animation.... But this, too, had passed with the return of light. Such things were impossible now under the new system–at least, in England. She had refrained from making an end upon the Continent for this very reason. There, where sentiment was weaker, and logic more imperious, materialism was more consistent. Since men were but animals–the conclusion was inevitable.
There had been but one physical drawback, the intolerable heat of the days and nights. It seemed, scientists said, that an entirely unexpected heat-wave had been generated; there were a dozen theories, most of which were mutually exclusive one of another. It was humiliating, she thought, that men who professed to have taken the earth under their charge should be so completely baffled. The conditions of the weather had of course been accompanied by disasters; there had been earthquakes of astonishing violence, a ripple had wrecked not less than twenty-five towns in America; an island or two had disappeared, and that bewildering Vesuvius seemed to be working up for a denouement. But no one knew really the explanation. One man had been wild enough to say that some cataclysm had taken place in the centre of the earth.... So she had heard from her nurse; but she was not greatly interested. It was only tiresome that she could not walk much in the garden, and had to be content with sitting in her own cool shaded room on the second floor.
There was only one other matter of which she had asked, namely, the effect of the new decree; but the nurse did not seem to know much about that. It appeared that there had been an outrage or two, but the law had not yet been enforced to any great extent; a week, after all, was a short time, even though the decree had taken effect at once, and magistrates were beginning the prescribed census.
It seemed to her as she lay awake this morning, staring at the tinted ceiling, and out now and again at the quiet little room, that the heat was worse than ever. For a minute she thought she must have overslept; but, as she touched her repeater, it told her that it was scarcely after four o’clock. Well, well; she would not have to bear it much longer; she thought that about eight it would be time to make an end. There was her letter to Oliver yet to be written; and one or two final arrangements to be made.
As regarded the morality of what she was doing-the relation, that is to say, which her act bore to the common life of man–she had no shadow of doubt. It was her belief, as of the whole Humanitarian world, that just as bodily pain occasionally justified this termination of life, so also did mental pain. There was a certain pitch of distress at which the individual was no longer necessary to himself or the world; it was the most charitable act that could be performed. But she had never thought in old days that that state could ever be hers; Life had been much too interesting. But it had come to this: there was no question of it.
Perhaps a dozen times in that week she had thought over her conversation with Mr. Francis. Her going to him had been little more than instinctive; she did just wish to hear what the other side was–whether Christianity was as ludicrous as she had always thought. It seemed that it was not ludicrous; it was only terribly pathetic. It was just a lovely dream–an exquisite piece of poetry. It would be heavenly to believe it, but she did not. No–a transcendent God was unthinkable, although not quite so unthinkable as a merely immeasurable Man. And as for the Incarnation–well, well!
There seemed no way out of it. The Humanity-Religion was the only one. Man was God, or at least His highest manifestation; and He was a God with which she did not wish to have anything more to do. These faint new instincts after something other than intellect and emotion were, she knew perfectly well, nothing but refined emotion itself.
She had thought a great deal of Felsenburgh, however, and was astonished at her own feelings. He was certainly the most impressive man she had ever seen; it did seem very probable indeed that He was what He claimed to be–the Incarnation of the ideal Man the first perfect product of humanity. But the logic of his position was too much for her. She saw now that He was perfectly logical–that He had not been inconsistent in denouncing the destruction of Rome and a week later making His declaration. It was the passion of one man against another that He denounced–of kingdom against kingdom, and sect against sect–for this was suicidal for the race. He denounced passion, too, not judicial action. Therefore, this new decree was as logical as Himself–it was a judicial act on the part of an united world against a tiny majority that threatened the principle of life and faith: and it was to be carried out with supreme mercy; there was no revenge or passion or partisan spirit in it from beginning to end; no more than a man is revengeful or passionate when he amputates a diseased limb–Oliver had convinced her of that.
Yes, it was logical and sound. And it was because it was so that she could not bear it.... But ah! what a sublime man Felsenburgh was; it was a joy to her even to recall his speeches and his personality. She would have liked to see him again. But it was no good. She had better be done with it as tranquilly as possible. And the world must go forward without her. She was just tired out with Facts.
She dozed off again presently, and it seemed scarcely five minutes before she looked up to see a gentle smiling face of a white-capped nurse bending over her.
“It is nearly six o’clock, my dear–the time you told me. I came to see about breakfast.”
Mabel drew a long breath. Then she sat up suddenly, throwing back the sheet.