In a short but very striking tale, Count Tolstoy has pictured the end of ill-directed human ambition. It is the story of a man who has been granted as much land as he can walk round between sunrise and sunset.
His ever-increasing desires, his frantic efforts are briefly yet powerfully sketched. As the sun declines, he struggles on with feverish breathless haste towards the goal, but only reaches it to fall down dead. The conclusion strikes home in its relentless brevity—
"Pakhorn's man took the how, dug a grave for him, made it just long enough, from head to foot—three arshins—and buried him."
Few could read the story this pitilessly summed up without receiving a momentary shock. The grave, three arshins long, thus pictured by a master hand, seems yawning at our feet, and human nature naturally shrinks.
Yet it is from no mere trench, however deep, that those whose steps are guided by the light of reason, should recoil, but only from the grave that might cut across our pathway before our day's work should be fully done.
But since our faces are all turned towards a common goal, it would be consoling to know that we regarded it in such a spirit as to be no more disturbed by its occasional remembrance than a traveler is troubled when he thinks of the end of his journey.
There is one grave, and one grave only, from which a man who is no coward has cause to shrink, and that is the grave which he digs for himself; but alas, how many a man by wild disregard, even by mad defiance of Nature's laws, is digging for himself today a grave "just long enough."
But this, a painful and prolific subject, is entirely beyond the scope of the present article, since this premature and self-prepared grave is not our common goal, but rather a pitfall which we must carefully, even scientifically avoid.
As a rule, there is no cause so sacred, no, not even the Social Good, as to require of a man that he shall cast his health, his strength, and all his future hopes of doing good into a gulf that shall swallow them up without compunction, leaving only the single word "Finis," that most misleading of all inscription, to mark the spot whence we had hoped to hear the cry "Excelsior!"
Those who are rightly occupied with their life's work will have neither time nor inclination to think its end. What man in the freshness and vigor of the early morning thinks of the bed where he will lie at night, but when the shadows lengthen and the darkness comes he will go gladly to his rest.
Skull and crossbones belong to a day that is dead, and we consign them gladly to the dusty lumber room of the past. Let the Trappist delve a grave if he will. Men of the present have to hew a path up the steep mountain side, steps by which generations coming after shall climb to a wider vision and a purer air.
Ever upwards, ever working till our powers begin to fail, though in our minds there lingers still the sunset glow of happy memories, of glad and helpful days, and on our lips the aspiration—
"One labor more, and I will welcome death in struggle and in joy."
In the old days men said, "We have sinned, but we will repent, yea, even in sackcloth and ashes, and a merciful God will forgive." But Nature knows neither favor nor revenge: her watchwords are Cause and Effect. Standing calm and passionless at her high tribunal, she enunciates her unsparing sentence: What a man sows, he shall reap, and every debt he shall pay even to the uttermost farthing.
Therefore, if a man desire fullness of days and a happy life, he can scarcely do better than impress upon his mind some personal paraphrase of these words of a great poet—
I henceforth tread the world chaste, temperate, and early
riser, a steady grower;
Every hour the sermon of centuries, and still of centuries.
I must follow up these continual lessons of the air,
I perceive I have no time to lose.
The concluding line especially might well be laid to heart by every practical idealist.
It belongs entirely to the modern idea of death that it is now possible to write of it and say little or nothing of the Beyond.
Our daily lives are now very slightly influenced by thoughts of futurity.
"We were all taught," writes Emerson, "that we were born to die, and, over that, all the terrors that theology could gather from savage nations were added to increase gloom." But to a younger, happier generation these terrors are comparatively unknown. Our incentive to virtuous actions is no longer the fear of dying but the joy of living, a joy which is none the less actual and tangible because fools who have bartered it for a mess of pottage question its reality.
Lastly, as regards that vast debatable land whose shores are washed by "the measureless waters of human tears," lust us carefully refrain from every dogmatic opinion, let us shrink from words that might trouble that faith which seeks to span the gulf, reaching out toward the loved and lost who have passed into the Land of Shadows.
Moreover there are times when even the most cheerful and busy of mankind are subject to depression, and the heart at such moments may well ache with uncertainty. Should this ever be the case, we can scarcely face the unanswerable questions with thoughts more clear and all-sufficing than those to which Tolstoy gives utterance when he says—
"One thing alone is certain and indubitable, that which Christ said when He was dying, 'Into Thy hands I comment My spirit,' that is to say, at death I return whence I came. And if I believe that from which I emanated to be Reason and Love (and these two realities I know), then I shall joyously return to Hum, knowing that it will be well with me. Not only have I no regret, but I rejoice at the thought of the passage which awaits me."
With such words engraven in our hearts we may travel cheerily through life, outwardly oblivious of the end, until the parting beams of a declining day rest tenderly upon Common Goal.
—R. Dimsdale Stocker
—J. K. Jerome
—Sir Philip Sidney