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DEATH AND THE CROWN

I

     THE months of June and July of the year 1902 set for the meditation of men one of those tragic spectacles which, to speak truly, we encounter every day in the little life that surrounds us, although, like so many great things, they there pass unperceived. They do not assume their full significance, nor finally capture our gaze, except when performed on one of those enormous stages on which are heaped, so to speak, all the thoughts of a people and on which the latter loves to behold its own existence made greater and more solemn by royal actors.

     As is said in a modern play, "We must add something to ordinary life before we can understand it." Fate added, in this case, the power and the pomp of one of the most glorious thrones on earth. Thanks to the resplendency of that pomp and that power, we saw exactly what a man is in himself and what he remains when the imposing laws of nature strip him cruelly naked before their tribunal. We learnt also – the force of love, pity, religion and science having been suddenly exerted to the utmost – we learnt also to know better the value of the aid which all that we have acquired since we inhabited this planet can give in our distress. We assisted at a struggle, ever confused, but as fierce as though it were doomed to be supreme, between the different powers, physical and moral, visible and invisible, that to-day guide mankind.

II

     Edward VII. King of England, the illustrious victim of a whim of fate, lay pitifully hovering between the crown and death. This fate, with one hand, held to his brow one of the most magnificent diadems that the revolutions have spared; and, with the other, it forced that same brow, moist with the sweat of the death-agony, to bend down towards a wide-open tomb. In sinister fashion, it prolonged this game for more than two months.

     If we contemplate the event from a point a little higher than the elevation of the humble hills on which life's numberless anecdotes unfold themselves, it is here not only a question of the tragedy of an opulent monarch stricken by nature at the very moment when thousands of men are aspiring to place some small portion of their hopes and of their fairest dreams in his person, beyond the reach of destiny and above humanity. Neither is it a question of appreciating the irony of that moment in which they would assert and establish something supernatural that declined upon something most normally natural; something that should be contradictory to the pitiless levelling laws of the indifferent planet which we all inhabit with a sort of heedless tolerance; something that should reassure them and console them as an admirable exception to their misery and frailty. No, it is here a question of the essential tragedy of man, of the universal and perpetual drama enacted between his feeble will and the enormous unknown force that encompasses him, between the little flame of his mind or soul, that inexplicable phenomenon of nature, and vast matter, that other, equally inexplicable, phenomenon of the same nature. This drama, with its thousand undetermined catastrophes, has not ceased to unfold itself for a single day since a portion of blind and colossal life conceived the somewhat strange idea of taking in us a sort of consciousness of itself.

     This time, a more resplendent accident than the others came to display the drama on a loftier height, which was illumined for an instant by all the longings, all the wishes, all the fears, all the uncertainties, all the prayers, all the doubts, all the illusions, all the wills, all the looks, lastly, of the inhabitants of our globe hastening in thought to the foot of the solemn mountain.

III

     Slowly, then, it unfolded itself up there; and we were able to compute our resources. We had the opportunity to weigh in luminous scales our illusions and our realities. All the confidence and all the wretchedness of our kind were symbolically concentrated in a single hour and in a single being. Would it be proved once more that the longings, the most ardent wishes, the will and the most imperious love of a prodigious assembly of men are powerless to cause the most insignificant of physical laws to swerve by one line's breadth? Would it be established once more that, when standing in the face of nature, we must seek our defensive laws not in the moral or sentimental, but in another world? It is salutary therefore to look at that which happened upon that summit firmly and with an eye that no longer attributes things to spells.

IV

     Some beheld in it the mighty manifestation of a jealous and all-powerful God, Who holds us in His hand and laughs at our poor glory; the scornful gesture of a Providence too long neglected and incensed because man does not recognize with greater docility Its hidden existence nor fathom more easily Its enigmatic will. Were they mistaken? And who are they that are never mistaken in the darkness that is over us? But why does this God, more perfect than men, ask of us what a perfect man would not ask? Why does He make a too willing, an almost blindly accepted faith the first, the most necessary and indeed the only virtue ? If He is incensed because He is not understood, because He is disobeyed, would it not be just that He should manifest Himself in such a manner that human reason, which He Himself created with its admirable demands, should not have to surrender the most precious, the most essential of its privileges in order to approach His throne? Now was this gesture, like so many others, clear enough, significant enough to force reason to its knees? And yet, if He loves that man should adore Him, as those who speak in His name proclaim, it would be easy for Him to constrain us all to adore Him alone. We only await an unexceptionable sign. In the name of that direct reflection of His light which He has set at the topmost point of our being, where burns, with an ardour, with a purity that grow fairer day by day, the single passion for certainty and truth, does it not seem that we have a right to it?

V

     Others contemplated this King gasping for breath on the steps of the most splendid throne that still remains standing, this almost infinite power, shattered, broken, a prey to the dreadful enemies that assail suffering flesh, flesh destroyed under the most dazzling crown that the invisible and mocking hand of chance has ever suspended over a confused heap of anguish and distress ....

     They saw in it a new and terrifying proof of wretchedness, of human uselessness. They went about repeating to themselves what the wisdom of antiquity had already so well said, to wit that we are, that we probably always shall be, despite all our efforts, "but a grain in the proportion of substance and but the turning of a wimble in respect of time." Unbelieving in God, but believing in His shadow, they discovered in this, perhaps, a mysterious decree of that mysterious Justice which sometimes comes to place a little order in the shapeless history of men and to take vengeance on the kings for the iniquity of the nations ....

     They found in it many other things besides. They were not mistaken; all those things were there, because they are in ourselves and because the sense that we give to the incomprehensible actions of unknown forces soon becomes the sole human reality and peoples with more or less fraternal spectres the indifference and the nothingness that surround us.

VI

     As for us, without rejecting those seductive or terrible spectres, which perhaps represent interventions of which our instinct has a presentiment, though our senses do not perceive them, let us, before all, fix our eyes on the really human and certain parts of that great accomplished drama. In the centre of the obscure cloud wherein were amplified, until they exceeded the confines of this terrestrial world, the acts of the power that, turn by turn, brought nearer and separated a solemn death and an illusive crown, we distinguish a man who is at last about to attain the sole object, the essential moment of his life. Suddenly, an unseen enemy attacks him and lays him low. Forthwith, other men run up. They are the princes of Science. They do not ask if it be God, Destiny, Chance, Justice that comes to obstruct the road of the victim whom they raise. Believers or unbelievers in other spheres or at other moments, they put no questions to the murky cloud. They are here the qualified envoys of the reason of our kind, of naked reason, abandoned to itself as it wanders alone in a monstrous universe. Deliberately, they cast off from it sentiment, imagination, all that does not properly belong to it. They use only the purely human, almost animal portion of its flame, as though they had the certainty that every being can vanquish a force of nature only by the, so to speak, specific force which nature has set within him. Thus handled, this flame is perhaps narrow and weak, but precise, exclusive, invincible as that of the blow-pipe of the enameller or the chemist. It is fed with facts, with minute, but sure and innumerable observations. It lights only insignificant and successive points in the immense unknown; but it does not stray, it goes where it is directed by the keen eye that guides it, and the point which it reaches is screened from the influences once called supernatural. Humbly it interrupts or diverts the order pre-established by nature. Scarce two or three years ago, it would have been deranged and scattered before the same enigma. Its luminous ray had not yet settled with sufficient rigidity and obstinacy on that dark point; and we should have once more said that Fatality is invincible. But, now, it held history and destiny in suspense for several weeks and ended by casting them without the brassbound track which they reckoned to follow to the end. Henceforth, if God, Chance, Justice, or whatever name we may give to the hidden idea of the universe, wish to attain their object, to go their way and triumph as before, they can follow other roads; but this one remains forbidden to them. In future, they will have to avoid the imperceptible but insuperable cleft where will always watch the little jet of flame that turned them back.

     It is possible that this royal tragedy has definitely proved to us that wishes, love, pity, prayers, a whole portion of man's finest moral forces, are powerless in the face of one exercise of the will of nature. Immediately, as though to make good the loss and to maintain the rights of mind over matter at the necessary level, another moral force, or rather the same flame assuming another form, shoots up, shines forth and triumphs. Man loses an illusion to gain a certainty. Far from descending, he rises by one step among the unconscious forces. We have here, in spite of all the misery that surrounds it, a great and noble spectacle and something wherewith to arrest the attention of those who would lose confidence in the destinies of our kind.


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