The Last Galley Impressions and Tales HTML version

"De Profundis"
So long as the oceans are the ligaments which bind together the great broad-cast British
Empire, so long will there be a dash of romance in our minds. For the soul is swayed by
the waters, as the waters are by the moon, and when the great highways of an empire are
along such roads as these, so full of strange sights and sounds, with danger ever running
like a hedge on either side of the course, it is a dull mind indeed which does not bear
away with it some trace of such a passage. And now, Britain lies far beyond herself, for
the three-mile limit of every seaboard is her frontier, which has been won by hammer and
loom and pick rather than by arts of war. For it is written in history that neither king nor
army can bar the path to the man who having twopence in his strong box, and knowing
well where he can turn it to threepence, sets his mind to that one end. And as the frontier
has broadened, the mind of Britain has broadened too, spreading out until all men can see
that the ways of the island are continental, even as those of the Continent are insular.
But for this a price must be paid, and the price is a grievous one. As the beast of old must
have one young human life as a tribute every year, so to our Empire we throw from day
to day the pick and flower of our youth. The engine is world-wide and strong, but the
only fuel that will drive it is the lives of British men. Thus it is that in the grey old
cathedrals, as we look round upon the brasses on the walls, we see strange names, such
names as they who reared those walls had never heard, for it is in Peshawar, and
Umballah, and Korti and Fort Pearson that the youngsters die, leaving only a precedent
and a brass behind them. But if every man had his obelisk, even where he lay, then no
frontier line need be drawn, for a cordon of British graves would ever show how high the
Anglo-Celtic tide had lapped.
This, then, as well as the waters which join us to the world, has done something to tinge
us with romance. For when so many have their loved ones over the seas, walking amid
hillmen's bullets, or swamp malaria, where death is sudden and distance great, then mind
communes with mind, and strange stories arise of dream, presentiment or vision, where
the mother sees her dying son, and is past the first bitterness of her grief ere the message
comes which should have broken the news. The learned have of late looked into the
matter and have even labelled it with a name; but what can we know more of it save that
a poor stricken soul, when hard-pressed and driven, can shoot across the earth some ten-
thousand-mile-distant picture of its trouble to the mind which is most akin to it. Far be it
from me to say that there lies no such power within us, for of all things which the brain
will grasp the last will be itself; but yet it is well to be very cautious over such matters,
for once at least I have known that which was within the laws of nature seem to be far
upon the further side of them.
John Vansittart was the younger partner of the firm of Hudson and Vansittart, coffee
exporters of the Island of Ceylon, three-quarters Dutchman by descent, but wholly
English in his sympathies. For years I had been his agent in London, and when in '72 he
came over to England for a three months' holiday, he turned to me for the introductions
which would enable him to see something of town and country life. Armed with seven