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At the same time, it was to a small detail in my religious training— or to be more exact in the explanation of the Bible given to me as a boy—that I harked back when it became plain to me that either I must conquer fear or fear must conquer me. Having fallen into my mind like a seed, it lay for well on to thirty years with no sign of germination, till that “need,” of which I shall have more to say presently, called it into life.
Let me state in a few words how the need made itself pressing.
It was, as life goes, a tolerably dark hour. I was on the borderland between young manhood and early middle age. For some years, I had been losing my sight, on top of which came one of those troubles with the thyroid gland, which medical science still finds obscure. For reasons which I need not go into, I was spending an autumn at Versailles in France, unoccupied and alone.
If you know Versailles, you know that it combines all that civilization has to offer of beauty, magnificence, and mournfulness. A day’s visit from Paris will give you an inkling of this, but only an inkling. To get it all, you must live there, to be interpenetrated by its glory of decay. It is always the autumn of the spirit at Versailles, even in summer, even in spring; but in the autumn of the year, the autumnal emotion of the soul is poignant beyond expression. Sad gardens stretch into sad parks; sad parks into storied and haunting forests. Long avenues lead to forgotten châteaux mellowing into ruin. Ghostly white statues astonish you far in the depths of woods where the wild things are now the most frequent visitors. A Temple of Love—pillared, Corinthian, lovely—lost in a glade to which lovers have probably not come in a hundred years—will remind you that there were once happy people where now the friendliest sound is that of the wood-chopper’s axe or the horn of some faraway hunt. All the old tales of passion, ambition, feud, hatred, violence, lust, and intrigue are softened here to an aching sense of pity. At night, you will hear the castle clock, which is said never once to have failed to strike the hour since Louis the Fourteenth put it in its place, tolling away your life as it has tolled away epochs.
Amid these surroundings, a man ill, lonely, and threatened with blindness, can easily feel what I may call the spiritual challenge of the ages. He must either be strong and rule, or he must be weak and go down. He must get the dominion over circumstance, or circumstance must get the dominion over him. To be merely knocked about by fate and submit to it, even in the case of seemingly inevitable physical infirmity, began to strike me as unworthy of a man.
It is one thing, however, to feel the impulse to get up and do something, and another to see what you can get up and do. For a time, the spectre of fear had me in its power. The physical facts couldn’t be denied, and beyond the physical facts, I could discern nothing. It was conceivable that one might react against a mental condition; but to react against a mysterious malady coupled with possibly approaching blindness was hardly to be thought of. When one added one’s incapacity to work and earn a living, with all that implies, it seemed as if it would take the faith that moves mountains to throw off the weight oppressing me. It is true that to move mountains, you only need faith as a grain of mustard seed, but as far as one can judge not many of us have that much.
It was then that my mind went back all of a sudden to the kernel planted so many years before, in my island home, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. If I become prolix over this, it is only that I want to show, how often it happens to parents, teachers, and others who deal with children, to throw out a thought that after lying dormant for years will become a factor in the life. Had it not been for the few words spoken then I should not, as far as I can see, now have such mastery over self as I have since attained—not very much—but I should not be writing these lines.