I SAW a mighty Spirit, traversing the world without any rest or pause. It was omnipresent, it was all-powerful, it had no compunction, no pity, no relenting sense that any appeal from any of the race of men could reach. It was invisible to every creature born upon the earth, save once to each. It turned its shaded face on whatsoever living thing, one time; and straight the end of that thing was come. It passed through the forest, and the vigorous tree it looked on shrunk away; through the garden, and the leaves perished and the flowers withered; through the air, and the eagles flagged upon the wing and dropped; through the sea, and the monsters of the deep floated, great wrecks, upon the waters. It met the eyes of lions in their lairs, and they were dust; its shadow darkened the faces of young children lying asleep, and they awoke no more.
It had its work appointed; it inexorably did what was appointed to it to do; and neither sped nor slackened. Called to, it went on unmoved, and did not come. Besought, by some who felt that it was drawing near, to change its course, it turned its shaded face upon them, even while they cried, and they were dumb. It passed into the midst of palace chambers, where there were lights and music, pictures, diamonds, gold and silver; crossed the wrinkled and the grey, regardless of them; looked into the eyes of a bright bride; and vanished. It revealed itself to the baby on the old crone’s knee, and left the old crone wailing by the fire. But, whether the beholder of its face were, now a King, or now a labourer, now a Queen, or now a seamstress; let the hand it palsied, be on the sceptre, or the plough, or yet too small and nerveless to grasp anything: the Spirit never paused in its appointed work, and, sooner or later, turned its impartial face on all.
I saw a Minister of State, sitting in his Closet; and, round about him, rising from the country which he governed, up to the Eternal Heavens, was a low dull howl of Ignorance. It was a wild, inexplicable mutter, confused, but full of threatening, and it made all hearers’ hearts to quake within them. But, few heard. In the single city where this Minister of State was seated, I saw Thirty Thousand children, hunted, flogged, imprisoned, but not taught—who might have been nurtured by the wolf or bear, so little of humanity had they, within them or without—all joining in this doleful cry. And, ever among them, as among all ranks and grades of mortals, in all parts of the globe, the Spirit went; and ever by thousands, in their brutish state, with all the gifts of God perverted in their breasts or trampled out, they died.
The Minister of State, whose heart was pierced by even the little he could hear of these terrible voices, day and night rising to Heaven, went among the Priests and Teachers of all denominations, and faintly said:
“Harken to this dreadful cry! What shall we do to stay it?”
One body of respondents answered, “Teach this!”
Another said, “Teach that!”
Another said, ” Teach neither this nor that, but t’other!”
Another quarrelled with all the three; twenty others quarrelled with all the four, and quarrelled no less bitterly among themselves. The voices, not stayed by this, cried out day and night; and still, among those many thousands, as among all mankind, went the Spirit who never rested from its labour; and still, in brutish sort, they died.
Then, a whisper murmured to the Minister of State:
“Correct this for thyself. Be bold! Silence these voices, or virtuously lose thy power in the attempt to do it. Thou cans’t not sow a> grain of good seed in vain. Thou knowest it well. Be bold, and do thy duty!”
The Minister shrugged his shoulders, and replied, “It is a great wrong—BUT IT WILL LAST MY TIME.” And so he put it from him.
Then, the whisper went among the Priests and Teachers, saying to each, “In thy soul thou knowest it is a truth, O man, that there are good things to be taught, on which all men may agree. Teach those, and stay this cry.”
To which, each answered in like manner, “It is a great wrong—BUT IT WILL LAST MY TIME.” And so he put it from him.
I saw a poisoned air, in which Life drooped. I saw Disease, arrayed in all its store of hideous aspects and appalling shapes, triumphant in every alley, bye-way, court, back street, and poor abode, in every place where human beings congregated—in the proudest and most boastful places, most of all. I saw innumerable hosts, fore-doomed to darkness, dirt, pestilence, obscenity, misery, and early death. I saw, wheresoever I looked, cunning preparations made for defacing the Creator’s Image, from the moment of its appearance here on earth, and stamping over it the image of the Devil. I saw, from those reeking and pernicious stews, the avenging consequences of such Sin issuing forth, and penetrating to the highest places. I saw the rich struck down in their strength, their darling children weakened and withered, their marriageable sons and daughters perish in their prime. I saw that not one miserable wretch breathed out his poisoned life in the deepest cellar of the most neglected town, but, from the surrounding atmosphere, some particles of his infection were borne away, charged with heavy retribution on the general guilt.
There were many attentive and alarmed persons looking on, who saw these things too. They were well clothed, and had purses in their pockets; they were educated, full of kindness, and loved mercy. They said to one another, “This is horrible, and shall not be!” and there was a stir among them to set it right. But, opposed to these, came a small multitude of noisy fools and greedy knaves, whose harvest was in such horrors; and they, with impudence and turmoil, and with scurrilous jests at misery and death, repelled the better lookers-on, who soon fell back, and stood aloof.
Then, the whisper went among those better lookers-on, saying, “Over the bodies of those fellows, to the remedy!”
But, each of them moodily shrugged his shoulders, and replied, “It is a great wrong —BUT IT WILL LAST MY TIME!” And so they put it from them.
I saw a great library of laws and law- proceedings, so complicated, costly, and unintelligible, that, although numbers of lawyers united in a public fiction that these were wonderfully just and equal, there was scarcely an honest man among them, but who said to his friend, privately consulting him, “Better put up with a fraud or other injury than grope for redress through the manifold blind turnings and strange chances of this system.”
I saw a portion of the system, called (of all things) EQUITY, which was ruin to suitors, ruin to property, a shield for wrong-doers having money, a rack for right-doers having none: a by-word for delay, slow agony of mind, despair, impoverishment, trickery, confusion, insupportable injustice. A main part of it, I saw prisoners wasting in jail; mad people babbling in hospitals; suicides chronicled in the yearly records; orphans robbed of their inheritance; infants righted (perhaps) when they were grey.
Certain lawyers and laymen came together, and said to one another, “In only one of these our Courts of Equity, there are years of this dark perspective before us at the present moment. We must change this.”
Uprose, immediately, a throng of others, Secretaries, Petty Bags, Hanapers, Chaffwaxes, and what not, singing (in answer) “Rule Britannia,” and “God save the Queen”; making flourishing speeches, pronouncing hard names, demanding committees, commissions, commissioners, and other scarecrows, and terrifying the little band of innovators out of their five wits.
Then, the whisper went among the latter, as they shrunk back, saying, “If there is anything wrong within the universal knowledge, this wrong is. Go on! Set it right!”Whereon, each of them sorrowfully thrust his hands in his pockets, and replied, “It is indeed a great wrong;—BUT IT WILL LAST MY TIME!”—and so they put it from them.
The Spirit, with its face concealed, summoned all the people who had used this phrase about their Time, into its presence. Then, it said, beginning with the Minister of State:
“Of what duration is your Time?”
The Minister of State replied, “My ancient family has always been long-lived. My father died at eighty-four; my grandfather, at ninety-two. We have the gout, but bear it (like our honours) many years.”
“And you,” said the Spirit to the Priests and Teachers, “what may your time be?”
Some, believed they were so strong, as that they should number many more years than threescore and ten; others, were the sons of old incumbents who had long outlived youthful expectants. Others, for any means they had of calculating, might be long-lived or short-lived—generally (they had a strong persuasion) long. So, among the well-clothed lookers on. So, among the lawyers and laymen.
“But, every man, as I understand you, one and all,” said the Spirit, “has his time?”
“Yes!” they exclaimed together.
“Yes,” said the Spirit; “and it is— ETERNITY! Whosoever is a consenting party to a wrong, comforting himself with the base reflection that it will last his time, shall bear his portion of that wrong throughout ALL TIME. And, in the hour when he and I stand face to face, he shall surely know it, as my name is Death!”
It departed, turning its shaded face hither and thither as it passed along upon its ceaseless work, and blighting all on whom it looked.
Then went among many trembling hearers the whisper, saying, “See, each of you, before you take your ease, O wicked, selfish, men, that what will ‘last your time,’ be Just enough to last for ever!”