In The Dark
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BY ROBERT HICHENS
UNTIL I became a special constable and took to patrolling by night, I did not realise that there are a great many people who never allow themselves to be in the dark, a great many people who cannot even sleep without a light in the room. How do I know this ? Well, I do not actually know it ; I infer it. I have been out, not in London but in a country district where there are a great many scattered houses, villas and cottages and bungalows, at all hours of the night, from twilight in winter till the winter dawn.' Sometimes I have gone on duty from ten o'clock till midnight, some-times from midnight till two o'clock, sometimes from two till four, or from four till six ; but there has never been an hour when all the houses I passed slowly by were dark. Always there have been windows in which, behind the flimsy blinds, lights were burning.
At first, as I passed these lighted windows in the dead of the night, or in the earliest hours of the morning, those hours when human vitality is at its lowest ebb, I used to think, " Someone must be ill in that cottage," or " There's a sufferer from insomnia in there under the eaves " ; or " Can there be some ardent searcher after knowledge, some seaside Faust, bending over ancient volumes behind that yellow blind ? " Perhaps I turned on my electric torch, and held it to gate or door, and read by its light, " Happy Cot," " Laurel Grove," " The Cedars," or " Balaclava " and then I stood for a moment wondering in the silence and the blackness of the still, or windy, night. Three in the morning, perhaps, and a light still burning ! It seemed extraordinary in a country place by the sea where people had little of gaiety or amusement to keep them up.
But presently I realised that these mysterious squares of light, scattered here and there in the inky blackness, did not necessarily betoken wakefulness. The explanation of them was simple enough. There are many people who always sleep in lighted rooms, who cannot bear to be in darkness. They are unreasonably afraid of it, perhaps, like children, or they feel as if it would crush them, or they think of it as something suffocating, like the poisonous gas used by the Germans against our troops in Flanders. So they set a lamp, or candle, or perhaps a homely " night light " beside the bed. Then they feel safe and comfortable. It's all right. They are not in the dark.
Sometimes, as I passed those lighted windows in the night, and thought of the sleepers within, I wondered what they would feel if they were stricken with blindness.
As a rule men are not highly imaginative. I doubt if they often imaginatively enter into the troubles and tragedies of their fellow-men. They are frequently kind and sympathetic. When they hear of some heavy blow falling on a friend or a neighbour, they are genuinely sorry, in their way. They say, perhaps, " Poor old chap ! It's fearfully hard lines on him ! " And they mean it. But, as Tolstoy with his deadly sincerity points out in one of his greatest stories, very often at the backs of their minds is the lurking thought, " After all it's a good thing that blow fell on him instead of on me." He's got to stand it, your friend or your neighbour, and you haven't. And how is he going to stand it ? Well, that isn't your affair.
I believe those who are stricken with great misfortunes often suffer intensely from the lack of sympathetic imagination in those who are about them. They feel they are alone in the knowledge of what their misfortune really means, and this is indeed a loneliness that may be felt.
In a huge war such as this struggle in which the greater part of Europe is now involved, the demands upon our sympathy are often in excess of our power of response. Many of us become dulled by the repeated strokes of Fate. We are not unkind. We have warm hearts. We mean well. But we have only a certain power of feeling, and when that power is too sharply and continuously tried, a sort of emotional collapse takes place within us. And then we fall into the habit of expressing what we no longer feel. We do lip service to tragedy, even perhaps to the tragedy of blindness.
When I am out on night duty and see the lighted windows of those who cannot even sleep in the dark, I often think of the men who have given their eyes to their country, who have returned from the Front to the new life at home, the life in the dark. Among the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have left our shores since this war began I sup-pose few, if any, have not had the thought in their minds, as the transports pushed out into the sea, " I wonder if I shall ever see old England again ? " And probably not one of them, when thinking that very natural thought, has envisaged anything but the end death. " I wonder if I shall be killed out there in Flanders ? "
And yet upon the ships English soldiers have come back to England who will never see England again. They are here in the midst of us now. They have left their sight at the Front.
It's a good deal to give to your country, isn't it ? It may be called a generous gift. Are we grateful enough for it, we who collectively are England ?
Maimed soldiers are as a rule so simple and uncomplaining that they lead us, the unmaimed, who for various reasons have not had to face what they have faced, into danger the danger of being ungrateful. They say so little that they almost tempt some of us to do little for them. Out of the fulness of the heart sometimes only a very beautiful, a very touching, and a very great and noble thing comes silence. Behind their silence, nevertheless, be sure that the soldiers are thinking ; they are watching us, they are " sizing us up," they are judging us who have not, as they have, risked literally everything for England, that is, for us. And behind their silence the soldiers are feeling. If we are ungrateful to those who make no clamour for sympathy, who lift no loud lamentations to our ears, we shall be ugly, almost as ugly as the Germans at whose ugliness the whole world shudders.
Maeterlinck has written of the august silence of the mothers stricken in this cruel war ; the silence of the stricken soldiers is not less august.
Now and then a soldier speaks out just what is in his mind, not in complaint, but simply, as a man moved to be frank, to say a word or two of truth. Not long ago a gunner who was in the retreat from Mons, and who was severely wounded in the advance which immediately followed it, was talking to me about war, and the many men broken by it. He had been in the Boer War when he was only sixteen, and returned to the army to help us against the Germans.
" I hope," he said, " England will behave better to the fellows who are disabled in this war than she did to those who were knocked to bits in South Africa."
I asked him for details. He gave me a few. And he concluded his remarks, which were not bitter, with these words :
" England isn't a generous country."
He did not say it angrily ; he said it wistfully.
When I see the lighted windows in the dead of the night and think of the men in the dark, I often remember those words.
We must prove them false now while this war is still raging ; we must prove them false when the war is over, whether we lose or win. And no men need more the proof of England's gratitude than the men in the dark, the men who will never see England again.
Shut your eyes for a moment and think of their sacrifice ; put out that candle by your bedside, you who sleep in a lighted room, and for a moment go with them into the darkness. You cannot sleep in the dark, but they are learning to work in the dark, so that they may be able to earn their livelihood. The courage of the battlefield is succeeded by the courage of the workshop. They saw the battlefield ; the workshop they cannot see. Which requires of men the greater courage, the seen battlefield or the unseen workshop ?
A long while ago, after the South African War, I was walking on a terrace in Sicily looking out on perhaps the most marvellous view in Europe. The day was brilliant, a blue and gold day of the south ; the white smoke from Etna floated up to the deep blue sky ; on the blue sea here and there a white sail faded away, going perhaps to the African coast. In front of me two men walked slowly up and down under the palms and the roses that climbed among the palms. Presently I heard one of them speaking. He was minutely describing the view to the other. And the other ? He was a soldier most of you have heard of who was blinded in the South African War. On that day for the first time I felt as if I understood something of the inner meaning of blindness. Probably I was wrong, probably I understood almost nothing, or nothing of what it means to live in the dark. But ever since that day I have thought very often about blindness.
A question that has come to some of us in connection with this war is this : Are we in England going to live in the dark when the war is over ? I think that perhaps if we could look into the minds and souls of some of the blinded soldiers we should find that they see more than we do, that they discern horizons which are as yet far beyond our vision. Perhaps upon the battlefields from which they have re-turned they, who, like many of us, have walked in darkness, have been allowed to see a great light. And by that light they may see us, not as we wish to seem to them and to all the soldiers, but as we are. They may even feel, some of them, that we are more in the dark than they are. For they have done a great thing that we have not done, and, perhaps, because of that, they are in secret pitying us. Soldiers are not great in expression, but now and then they drop words that pierce to the marrow, words which come out of minds terribly close to Truth.
" England isn't a generous country."
Many of those who have watched England during the last few years, the years before the war, have been anxious for England. Egoism, selfishness, an almost crazy passion for amusement, for change, for luxury, for aimless movement, for show and for pretence, were rampant in all classes of society. Old-fashioned people, and some who were not old-fashioned but who were merely thoughtful, and who cared for England, said, " Where will it end ? " We all know now where it has ended ; it has ended in blood and fire and tears, in effort, self-sacrifice and the purest heroism. Many have attained to the heights ; among them are the soldiers who have given their eyes for the cause of England. They are in the dark, but from their heights they can see a vast prospect, nevertheless, such as men can see from no sunlit valley ; and they can feel and hear the great winds, those mighty winds which come, like the voices of Eternity, singing over the world from a place where there is morning. They have been worthy, our blind soldiers, Let us be worthy of them. Never again will they see England ; but let them feel the hands of England closing on theirs, and in the pressure let them feel the gratitude of England.