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FOR more than four years, evil tidings passed night and day over almost half the world of men. Never since our earth came into being were they known to spread in crowds so dense and busy and commanding. In the happy days of peace, we would come upon the gloomy visitants here and there, travelling over hill and dale, nearly always alone, sometimes in couples, rarely in companies of three, timid and shy, seeking to pass unnoticed and humbly undertaking the smallest messages of sorrow that destiny confided to their charge. Now they go with heads erect; they are almost arrogant; and swollen with their importance, they neglect any misfortunes that are not deathly. They encumber the roads, cross the seas and rivers, invade the streets, do not forget the by-ways and climb the most rugged and stony tracks. There is not a hovel cowering in the dingiest and most obscure suburb of a great city, not a cottage hidden in the recesses of the poorest hamlet of the most inaccessible mountain, which escapes their search and towards which one of them, detached from the sinister band, does not hasten with its little footstep, eager, pitiless and sure. Each has its goal whence nothing can divert it. Through time and space, over rocks and walls they press onward, swift and determined, blind and deaf to all that would retard them, thinking only of fulfilling their duty, which is to announce as soon as may be to the most sensitive and defenceless heart the greatest sorrow that can fall upon it.


We watch them pass as emissaries of destiny. To us they seem as fatal as the very misfortune of which they are but the heralds; and no one dreams of barring the way before them. So soon as one of them arrives, all unexpected, in our midst, we leave everything, we rush forward, we gather round it. Almost a religious fear compasses it about; we whisper reverently; and we should bow no lower in the presence of a messenger of God. Not only would no one dare to contradict it, or advise it, or beg it to be patient, to grant a few hours of respite, to hide in the darkness or to arrive by a longer road; on the contrary, all compete in offering it zealous if humble service. The most compassionate, the most pitiful are the most assiduous and obsequious, as though there were no duty more unmistakable, no act of charity more meritorious than to lead the dark envoy by the shortest and the quickest way to the heart which it is to strike.


Once again, we are here confounding that which belongs to destiny with that which belongs to ourselves. The misfortune was perhaps not to be avoided; but a great part of the sorrows that attend it remain in our power. It is for us to be careful of them, to direct them, to subdue them, disarm them, delay them, turn them aside and sometimes even to stop them altogether.

In effect, we hardly yet know the psychology of sorrow, which is as deep, as complex and as worthy of study as the passions to which we devote so much of our time. In everyday life, it is true, great sorrows, though not so rare as we could have wished, were nevertheless too widely scattered for us to study them easily, step by step. To-day, alas, they are the ground of all our thoughts; and we are learning at last that, even as love or happiness or vanity, they have their secrets, their habits, their illusions, their sophistries, their dark corners, their baffling mazes and their unforeseen abysses; for man, whether he love or rejoice or weep, remains ever constant to himself!

It is not true, as we too willingly agree, that, since unhappiness must be known sooner or later, our only duty is to reveal it at the earliest moment, for the sorrow that is yet green is very different from the sorrow that is already fading. It is not true, as we admit without question, that anything is better than ignorance or uncertainty and that there is a sort of cowardice in not forthwith announcing the bad news which we know to those whom it must prostrate in the dust. On the contrary, cowardice lies in ridding ourselves of the bad news as quickly as we may and in not bearing its whole burden, secretly and alone, as long as we are able. When the bad news arrives, our first duty is to set it apart, to prevent it from spreading, to master it as we would a malefactor or a stalking pestilence, to close all means of escape, to mount guard over it, so that it cannot break forth and do harm. Our duty is not merely, as the best of us and the most prudent seem to believe, to usher in the bad news with a thousand precautions, with short and muffled, sidelong and measured steps, by the back-door, into the dwelling which it is to devastate; rather is it our duty definitely to forbid its entrance and to have the courage to chain it in our own dwelling, which it will fill with unjust and insupportable reproaches and upbraidings. Instead of making ourselves the easy echo of its cries, we should think only of stifling its voice. Each hour that we thus pass in restless and painful intimacy with the hateful prisoner is an hour of suffering which we accept for ourselves and which we spare the victim of fate. It is almost certain that the malignant recluse will end by escaping our vigilance; but here the very minutes have their value and there is no gain, however small, that we are entitled to neglect. The hourglass that measures the phases of sorrow is much finer and truer than that which marks the stages of pleasure. The time that passes between the death of one whom we love and the moment when we hear of his death is as full of pain as it is of days. Most to be feared of all is the first blow of misfortune; it is then that the heart is smitten and torn with a wound that will never heal. But this blow has not its shattering and sometimes mortal force unless it strike its victim at once and, so to speak, fresh from the event. Every hour that is interposed deadens the sting and lessens its virulence. A death already some weeks old no longer wears the same face as that which is made known on the very day when it occurs; and, if a few months have covered it, it is no longer a death, it has become a memory. The days that divide us from it have almost the same value whether they pass before we hear of it or afterwards. They remove beforehand from the eyes and heart the blinding horror of the loss; they step forward and draw it out of the clutch of madness into a past like that which softens regret. They weave a sort of retrospective memory which stretches into the past and grants straightway all that true memory would have given little by little, hour by hour, during the long months that part the first despair from the sorrow which grows wise and reconciled and ready to hope anew.

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