Read INTRODUCTION of The Altar Fire, free online book, by Arthur Christopher Benson, on ReadCentral.com.

I had intended to allow the records that follow - the records of a pilgrimage sorely beset and hampered by sorrow and distress - to speak for themselves.  Let me only say that one who makes public a record so intimate and outspoken incurs, as a rule, a certain responsibility.  He has to consider in the first place, or at least he cannot help instinctively considering, what the wishes of the writer would have been on the subject.  I do not mean that one who has to decide such a point is bound to be entirely guided by that.  He must weigh the possible value of the record to other spirits against what he thinks that the writer himself would have personally desired.  A far more important consideration is what living people who play a part in such records feel about their publication.  But I cannot help thinking that our whole standard in such matters is a very false and conventional one.  Supposing, for instance, that a very sacred and intimate record, say, two hundred years old, were to be found among some family papers, it is inconceivable that any one would object to its publication on the ground that the writer of it, or the people mentioned in it, would not have wished it to see the light.  We show how weak our faith really is in the continuance of personal identity after death, by allowing the lapse of time to affect the question at all; just as we should consider it a horrible profanation to exhume and exhibit the body of a man who had been buried a few years ago, while we approve of the action of archaeologists who explore Egyptian sepulchres, subscribe to their operations, and should consider a man a mere sentimentalist who suggested that the mummies exhibited in museums ought to be sent back for interment in their original tombs.  We think vaguely that a man who died a few years ago would in some way be outraged if his body were to be publicly displayed, while we do not for an instant regard the possible feelings of delicate and highly-born Egyptian ladies, on whose seemly sepulture such anxious and tender care was expended so many centuries ago.

But in this case there is no such responsibility.  None of the persons concerned have any objection to the publication of these records, and as for the writer himself he was entirely free from any desire for a fastidious seclusion.  His life was a secluded one enough, and he felt strongly that a man has a right to his own personal privacy.  But his own words sufficiently prove, if proof were needed, that he felt that to deny the right of others to participate in thoughts and experiences, which might uplift or help a mourner or a sufferer, was a selfish form of individualism with which he had no sympathy whatever.  He felt, and I have heard him say, that one has no right to withhold from others any reflections which can console and sustain, and he held it to be the supreme duty of a man to ease, if he could, the burden of another.  He knew that there is no sympathy in the world so effective as the sharing of similar experiences, as the power of assuring a sufferer that another has indeed trodden the same dark path and emerged into the light of Heaven.  I will even venture to say that he deliberately intended that his records should be so used, for purposes of alleviation and consolation, and the bequest that he made of his papers to myself, entrusting them to my absolute discretion, makes it clear to me that I have divined his wishes in the matter.  I think, indeed, that his only doubt was a natural diffidence as to whether the record had sufficient importance to justify its publication.  In any case, my own duty in the matter is to me absolutely clear.

But I think that it will be as well for me to sketch a brief outline of my friend’s life and character.  I would have preferred to have done this, if it had been possible, by allowing him to speak for himself.  But the earlier Diaries which exist are nothing but the briefest chronicle of events.  He put his earlier confessions into his books, but he was in many ways more interesting than his books, and so I will try and draw a portrait of him as he appeared to one of his earliest friends.  I knew him first as an undergraduate, and our friendship was unbroken after that.  The Diary, written as it is under the shadow of a series of calamities, gives an impression of almost wilful sadness which is far from the truth.  The requisite contrast can only be attained by representing him as he appeared to those who knew him.

He was the son of a moderately wealthy country solicitor, and was brought up on normal lines.  His mother died while he was a boy.  He had one brother, younger than himself, and a sister who was younger still.  He went to a leading public school, where he was in no way distinguished either in work or athletics.  I gathered, when I first knew him, that he had been regarded as a clever, quiet, good-natured, simple-minded boy, with a considerable charm of manner, but decidedly retiring.  He was not expected to distinguish himself in any way, and he did not seem to have any particular ambitions.  I went up to Cambridge at the same time as he, and we formed a very close friendship.  We had kindred tastes, and we did not concern ourselves very much with the social life of the place.  We read, walked, talked, played games, idled, and amused ourselves together.  I was more attached to him, I think, than he was to me; indeed, I do not think that he cared at that time to form particularly close ties.  He was frank, engaging, humorous, and observant; but I do not think that he depended very much upon any one; he rather tended to live an interior life of his own, of poetical and fanciful reflection.  I think he tended to be pensive rather than high-spirited - at least, I do not often remember any particular ebullition of youthful enthusiasm.  He liked congenial company, but he was always ready to be alone.  He very seldom went to the rooms of other men, except in response to definite invitations; but he was always disposed to welcome any one who came spontaneously to see him.  He was a really diffident and modest fellow, and I do not think it even entered into his head to imagine that he had any social gifts or personal charm.  But I gradually came to perceive that his mind was of a very fine quality.  He had a mature critical judgment, and, though I used to think that his tastes were somewhat austere, I now see that he had a very sure instinct for alighting upon what was best and finest in books and art alike.  He used to write poetry in those days, but he was shy of confessing it, and very conscious of the demerits of what he wrote.  I have some of his youthful verses by me, and though they are very unequal and full of lapses, yet he often strikes a firm note and displays a subtle insight.  I think that he was more ambitious than I perhaps knew, and had that vague belief in his own powers which is characteristic of able and unambitious men.  His was certainly, on the whole, a cold nature in those days.  He could take up a friendship where he laid it down, by virtue of an easy frankness and a sympathy that was intellectual rather than emotional.  But the suspension of intercourse with a friend never troubled him.

I became aware, in the course of a walking tour that I took with him in those days, that he had a deep perception of the beauties of nature; it was not a vague accessibility to picturesque impressions, but a critical discernment of quality.  He always said that he cared more for little vignettes, which he could grasp entire, than for wide and majestic prospects; and this was true of his whole mind.

I suppose that I tended to idealise him; but he certainly seems to me, in retrospect, to have then been invested with a singular charm.  He was pure-minded and fastidious to a fault.  He had considerable personal beauty, rather perhaps of expression than of feature.  He was one of those people with a natural grace of movement, gesture and speech.  He was wholly unembarrassed in manner, but he talked little in a mixed company.  No one had fewer enemies or fewer intimate friends.  The delightful ears soon came to an end, and one of the few times I ever saw him exhibit strong emotion was on the evening before he left Cambridge, when he altogether broke down.  I remember his quoting a verse from Omar Khayyam: -

  “Yet ah! that spring should vanish with the rose,
   That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close,”

and breaking off in the middle with sudden tears.

It was necessary for me to adopt a profession, and I remember envying him greatly when he told me that his father, who, I gathered, rather idolised him, was quite content that he should choose for himself at his leisure.  He went abroad for a time; and I met him next in London, where he was proposing to read for the bar; but I discovered that he had really found his metier.  He had written a novel, which he showed me, and though it was in some ways an immature performance, it had, I felt, high and unmistakable literary qualities.  It was published soon afterwards and met with some success.  He thereupon devoted himself to writing, and I was astonished at his industry and eagerness.  He had for the first time found a congenial occupation.  He lived mostly at home in those days, but he was often in London, where he went a good deal into society.  I do not know very much about him at this time, but I gather that he achieved something of a social reputation.  He was never a voluble talker; I do not suppose he ever set the table in a roar, but he had a quiet, humorous and sympathetic manner.  His physical health was then, as always, perfect.  He was never tired or peevish; he was frank, kindly and companionable; he talked little about himself, and had a genuine interest in the study of personality, so that people were apt to feel at their best in his society.  Meanwhile his books came out one after another - not great books exactly, but full of humour and perception, each an advance on the last.  By the age of thirty he was accepted as one of the most promising novelists of the day.

Then he did what I never expected he would do; he fell wildly and enthusiastically in love with the only daughter of a Gloucestershire clergyman, a man of good family and position.  She was the only child; her mother had died some years before, and her father died shortly after the marriage.  She was a beautiful, vigorous girl, extraordinarily ingenuous, simple-minded, and candid.  She was not clever in the common acceptance of the term, and was not the sort of person by whom I should have imagined that my friend would have been attracted.  They settled in a pleasant house, which they built in Surrey, on the outskirts of a village.  Three children were born to them - a boy and a girl, and another boy, who survived his birth only a few hours.  From this time he almost entirely deserted London, and became, I thought, almost strangely content with a quiet domestic life.  I was often with them in those early days, and I do not think I ever saw a happier circle.  It was a large and comfortable house, very pleasantly furnished, with a big garden.  His father died in the early years of the marriage, and left him a good income; with the proceeds of his books he was a comparatively wealthy man.  His wife was one of those people who have a serene and unaffected interest in human beings.  She was a religious woman, but her relations with others were rather based on the purest kindliness and sympathy.  She knew every one in the place, and, having no touch of shyness, she went in and out among their poorer neighbours, the trusted friend and providence of numerous families; but she had not in the least what is called a parochial mind.  She had no touch of the bustling and efficient Lady Bountiful.  The simple people she visited were her friends and neighbours, not her patients and dependents.  She was simply an overflowing fountain of goodness, and it was a natural to her to hurry to a scene of sorrow and suffering as it is for most people to desire to stay away.  My friend himself had not the same taste; it was always rather an effort to him to accommodate himself to people in a different way of life; but it ought to be said that he was universally liked and respected for his quiet courtesy and simplicity, and fully as much for his own sake as for that of his wife.  This fact could hardly be inferred from his Diary, and indeed he was wholly unconscious of it himself, because he never realised his natural charm, and indeed was unduly afraid of boring people by his presence.

He was not exactly a hard worker, but he was singularly regular; indeed, though he sometimes took a brief holiday after writing a book, he seldom missed a day without writing some few pages.  One of the reasons why they paid so few visits was that he tended, as he told me, to feel so much bored away from his work.  It was at once his occupation and his recreation.  He was not one of those who write fiercely and feverishly, and then fall into exhaustion; he wrote cheerfully and temperately, and never appeared to feel the strain.  They lived quietly, but a good many friends came and went.  He much preferred to have a single quest, or a husband and wife, at a time, and pursued his work quietly all through.  He used to see that one had all one could need, and then withdrew after tea-time, not reappearing until dinner.  His wife, it was evident, was devoted to him with an almost passionate adoration.  The reason why life went so easily there was that she studied unobtrusively his smallest desires and preferences; and thus there was never any sense of special contrivance or consideration for his wishes:  the day was arranged exactly as he liked, without his ever having to insist upon details.  He probably did not realise this, for though he liked settled ways, he was sensitively averse to feeling that his own convenience was in any way superseding or overriding the convenience of others.  It used to be a great delight and refreshment to stay there.  He was fond of rambling about the country, and was an enchanting companion in a tete-a-tete.  In the evening he used to expand very much into a genial humour which was very attractive; he had, too, the art of making swift and subtle transitions into an emotional mood; and here his poetical gift of seeing unexpected analogies and delicate characteristics gave his talk a fragrant charm which I have seldom heard equalled.

It was indeed a picture of wonderful prosperity, happiness, and delight.  The children were engaging, clever, and devotedly affectionate, and indeed the atmosphere of mutual affection seemed to float over the circle like a fresh and scented summer air.  One used to feel, as one drove away, that though one’s visit had been a pleasure, there would be none of the flatness which sometimes follows the departure of a guest, but that one was leaving them to a home life that was better than sociability, a life that was both sacred and beautiful, full to the brim of affection, yet without any softness or sentimentality.

Then came my friend’s great success.  He had written less since his marriage, and his books, I thought, were beginning to flag a little.  There was a want of freshness about them; he tended to use the same characters and similar situations; both thought and phraseology became somewhat mannerised.  I put this down myself to the belief that life was beginning to be more interesting to him than art.  But there suddenly appeared the book which made him famous, a book both masterly and delicate, full of subtle analysis and perception, and with that indescribable sense of actuality which is the best test of art.  The style at the same time seemed to have run clear; he had gained a perfect command of his instrument, and I had about this book, what I had never had about any other book of his, the sense that he was producing exactly the effects he meant to produce.  The extraordinary merit of the book was instantly recognised by all, I think, but the author.  He went abroad for a time after the book was published, and eventually returned; it was at that point of his life that the Diary began.

I went to see him not long after, and it became rapidly clear to me that something had happened to him.  Instead of being radiant with success, eager and contented, I found him depressed, anxious, haggard.  He told me that he felt unstrung and exhausted, and that his power of writing had deserted him.  But I must bear testimony at the same time to the fact which does not emerge in the Diary, namely, the extraordinary gallantry and patience of his conduct and demeanour.  He struggled visibly and pathetically, from hour to hour, against his depression.  He never complained; he never showed, at least in my presence, the smallest touch of irritability.  Indeed to myself, who had known him as the most equable and good-humoured of men, he seemed to support the trial with a courage little short of heroism.  The trial was a sore one, because it deprived him both of motive and occupation.  But he made the best of it; he read, he took long walks, and he threw himself with great eagerness into the education of his children - a task for which he was peculiarly qualified.  Then a series of calamities fell upon him:  he lost his boy, a child of wonderful ability and sweetness; he lost his fortune, or the greater part of it.  The latter calamity he bore with perfect imperturbability - they let their house and moved into Gloucestershire.  Here a certain measure of happiness seemed to return to him.  He made a new friend, as the Diary relates, in the person of the Squire of the village, a man who, though an invalid, had a strong and almost mystical hold upon life.  Here he began to interest himself in the people of the place, and tried all sorts of education and social experiments.  But his wife fell ill, and died very suddenly; and, not long after, his daughter died too.  He was for a time almost wholly broken down.  I went abroad with him at his request for a few weeks, but I was myself obliged to return to England to my professional duties.  I can only say that I did not expect ever to see him again.  He was like a man, the spring of whose life was broken; but at the same time he bore himself with a patience and a gentleness that fairly astonished me.  We were together day by day and hour by hour.  He made no complaint, and he used to force himself, with what sad effort was only too plain, to converse on all sorts of topics.  Some time after he drifted back to England; but at first he appeared to be in a very listless and dejected state.  Then there arrived, almost suddenly, it seemed to me, a change.  He had made the sacrifice; he had accepted the situation.  There came to him a serenity which was only like his old serenity from the fact that it seemed entirely unaffected; but it was based, I felt, on a very different view of life.  He was now content to wait and to believe.  It was at this time that the Squire died; and not long afterwards, the Squire’s niece, a woman of great strength and simplicity of character, married a clergyman to whom she had been long attached, both being middle-aged people; and the living soon afterwards falling vacant, her husband accepted it, and the newly-married pair moved into the Rectory; while my friend, who had been named as the Squire’s ultimate heir, a life-interest in the property being secured to the niece, went into the Hall.  Shortly afterwards he adopted a nephew - his sister’s son - who, with the consent of all concerned, was brought up as the heir to the estate, and is its present proprietor.

My friend lived some fifteen years after that, a quiet, active, and obviously contented life.  I was a frequent guest at the Hall, and I am sure that I never saw a more attached circle.  My friend became a magistrate, and he did a good deal of county business; but his main interest was in the place, where he was the trusted friend and counsellor of every household in the parish.  He took a great deal of active exercise in the open air; he read much.  He taught his nephew, whom he did not send to school.  He regained, in fuller measure than ever, his old delightful charm of conversation, and his humour, which had always been predominant in him, took on a deeper and a richer tinge; but whereas in old days he had been brilliant and epigrammatic, he was now rather poetical and suggestive; and whereas he had formerly been reticent about his emotions and his religion, he now acquired what is to my mind the profoundest conversational charm - the power of making swift and natural transitions into matters of what, for want of a better word, I will call spiritual experience.  I remember his once saying to me that he had learnt, from his intercourse with his village neighbours, that the one thing in the world in which every one was interested was religion; “even more,” he added, with a smile, “than is the one subject in which Sir Robert Walpole said that every one could join.”

I do not suppose that his religion was of a particularly orthodox kind; he was impatient of dogmatic definition and of ecclesiastical tendencies; but he cared with all his heart for the vital principles of religion, the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour.

He lived to see his adopted son grow up to maturity; and I do not think I ever saw anything so beautiful as the confidence and affection that subsisted between them; and then he died one day, as he had often told me he desired to die.  He had been ailing for a week, and on rising from his chair in the morning he was seized by a sudden faintness and died within half-an-hour, hardly knowing, I imagine, that he was in any danger.

It fell to me to deal with his papers.  There was a certain amount of scattered writing, but no completed work; it all dated from before the publication of his great book.  It was determined that this Diary should eventually see the light, and circumstances into which I need not now enter have rendered its appearance advisable at the present date.

The interest of the document is its candour and outspokenness.  If the tone of the record, until near the end, is one of unrelieved sadness, it must be borne in mind that all the time he bore himself in the presence of others with a singular courage and simplicity.  He said to me once, in an hour of dark despair, that he had drunk the dregs of self-abasement.  That he believed that he had no sense of morality, no loyal affection, no love of virtue, no patience or courage.  That his only motives had been timidity, personal ambition, love of respectability, love of ease.  He added that this had been slowly revealed to him, and that the only way out was a way that he had not as yet strength to tread; the way of utter submission, absolute confidence, entire resignation.  He said that there was one comfort, which was, that he knew the worst about himself that it was possible to know.  I told him that his view of his character was unjust and exaggerated, but he only shook his head with a smile that went to my heart.  It was on that day, I think, that he touched the lowest depth of all; and after that he found the way out, along the path that he had indicated.

This is no place for eulogy and panegyric.  My task has been just to trace the portrait of my friend as he appeared to others; his own words shall reveal the inner spirit.  The beauty of the life to me was that he attained, unconsciously and gradually, to the very virtues which he most desired and in which he felt himself to be most deficient.  He had to bear a series of devastating calamities.  He had loved the warmth and nearness of his home circle more deeply than most men, and the whole of it was swept away; he had depended for stimulus and occupation alike upon his artistic work, and the power was taken from him at the moment of his highest achievement.  His loss of fortune is not to be reckoned among his calamities, because it was no calamity to him.  He ended by finding a richer treasure than any that he had set out to obtain; and I remember that he said to me once, not long before his end, that whatever others might feel about their own lives, he could not for a moment doubt that his own had been an education of a deliberate and loving kind, and that the day when he realised that, when he saw that there was not a single incident in his life that had not a deep and an intentional value for him, was one of the happiest days of his whole existence.  I do not know that he expected anything or speculated on what might await him hereafter; he put his future, just as he put his past and his present, in the hands of God, to Whom he committed himself “as unto a faithful Creator.”