Fears may die, but not remorse. John Randolph, when he was dying in Philadelphia, kept repeating, "Remorse! Remorse!" He demanded that a dictionary be brought so that he could study the meaning of the word; and, when no dictionary could be found, he had the physician write it out for him on a piece of paper—"Remorse."
If hell were just the invention of pale-faced theologians, long ago the race would have cast the idea overboard. But it still remains, because it is not the invention of men who write books or uphold systems of thought, but is the deep affirmation of the human heart.
Remorse is like the ground swell in the ocean after a storm. The storm has subsided, the sky is blue, the air is balmy, there is not a whitecap to be seen; but the ship heaves and tosses and leaves the traveler in misery because of the mighty swell that has remained after the original commotion has subsided. So remorse heaves the soul as the tides heave the ocean. Or, to change the figure, it is like a bell buoy, incessantly and dismally tolling because of the unrest in the sea. To sin is to say farewell to peace.
George Romney, the great English portrait painter, at the age of nineteen impulsively married a young woman who had nursed him through a fever. Then, having heard Sir Joshua Reynolds say that marriage spoiled an artist, he deserted his wife and two children and went to London to pursue fame as an artist. He scarcely saw his wife again till the end of his life, when old, nearly mad, and quite desolate, he went back to her, and she received him and nursed him till he died. "This quiet act of hers," writes Edward Fitzgerald," is worth all Romney's pictures, even as a model of art, I am sure."
The one who inspired the painting of Romney and whom he painted into a score or more of his characters, such as St. Cecilia, the Magdalene, and Joan of Arc, was the beautiful but notorious Emma Hart, afterward Lady Hamilton, the one at whose feet Lord Nelson cast away his honor and his fame. In "Romney's Remorse" Tennyson represents a friend trying to comfort Romney with the thought that although he has played a base part in the world he at least has won the painter's fame:
TaKe comfort, you have won the
But Romney answers:
The best in me that sees the worst in me,
And groans to see it, finds no comfort there.
When Andrew Jackson was preparing for the duel in which he shot and killed Dickinson, an old friend at Nashville asked him if he was ready to bear the responsibility of taking the life of a fellow being. He reminded Jackson of his friend Aaron Burr, and how Burr had had no ease of mind since he killed Hamilton. Thus conscience bestows its severest penalties in the shape of remorse—remorse for the thing done, and, strange to say, even more poignant remorse for things that have been left undone.
Look at that old man standing bareheaded in the market at Uttoxeter, the rain beating upon him, the cold winds smiting him, the children and the hoodlums jeering at him. Who is he and why does he stand there? The old man is Samuel Johnson, on every hand sought after and praised. But he stands there in the market place exposed to the bitter weather because fifty years before, when he was a student at Oxford, his sick father asked him to take his place in the bookstall, and his pride made him refuse. Half a century has passed, with its fleeting joys and sorrows, but the memory of that single act of filial disrespect remains to rankle in his breast; and by that act of public penance the old scholar hopes—but vainly—to atone for his deed of dishonor.
From his grave beneath the stone pile in Ephraim's wood the mutilated Absalom calls to his father with reproach and judgment, saying: "You might have saved me from this awful end, but you gave me nothing but kisses and caresses. You never told me that the way of the transgressor is hard, that the eye that mocketh at his father and refuseth to obey his mother the ravens shall pluck it out. A little less indulgence, a little less leniency with my faults, and I might have been saved from this lonely grave of guilt and shame."
James IV stood in arms against his father. In after years, as a penance, he wore beneath his purple robes an iron belt; and to that belt he added a link with each new year. Do not forge for yourself that heavy chain of woe!