The Death of Speke.
Blackwood's Magazine Oct 1864, Pp. 514-516
In the season when the leaves change from green to brown, and are swept round and round by the eerie autumn winds--when the summer purposes are ended, and those of winter are not yet begun--in the midst of the customary changes though which, year after year, we have all passed from summer into winter,--the electric wires startle us with the astounding news that the boldest explorer of the age has been killed in an English stubble-field by the accidental discharge of a gun. The world stands in breathless awe at such an event. It had but bare time to master that stirring history of patience, faith, endurance, and courage crowned with success, when it learned that the hero of the great triumph had become for ever deaf to the echoes of its applause--that the great heart beat no more with aspirations of achievements to come. It is impossible to overlook the parallel with Bruce, and the life extinguished by such an accident as might befall a London alderman, whose whole perils of existence lie in the transit between the drawing-room and the dining-room; and those who are least prone to read special meanings in the decrees of Providence cannot well avoid an inference from events which seem to justify their favourite scepticism by confounding the knowledge of the wise, and proving how little is to be predicted of ultimate effects from apparent causes. He who had for years stood face to face with death in all its forms--who had thus more fully than perhaps any other living man mastered all the causes and sources of danger to life--swept away by the kind of casualty that occasionally picks off an inexperienced schoolboy! What a terrible reminder of the fallibility of man! What an awfully solemn sermon on the text which tells us that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong! Had the event occurred in that classic age when seeking the source of the Nile was proverbial as a hunt after the unattainable, the great lyric might have grouped it with the abstulit clarum cita mors Achillem, and the other incongruities which show that human nature is not constituted to achieve perfection.
The world knows what it has lost in the tired soldier, the bold explorer, and the sagacious discoverer; but to a little special world nearer to him, his death is the closing of a friendly eye--the extinction of a sunny smile. In the best sense of the word, he was very amiable. The charm of his sweet temper and kindly ways fell on all who came into friendly intercourse with him; and it was a sincere and fundamental amiability, fulfilling the precept of a modern sage, who said, "The best way to make people like you is to appear to like them, and the best way to appear to like them is really to like them." By the friendly hearth, in fact, he had so much good-humour, docility, and pliability about trifles, that people who saw no more of him might have formed the utterly mistaken notion that he was infirm of purpose, and wanting in the hardness of character necessary for great achievements. And so he realised that fine old idea of true chivalry, in which the hero in the field became a lamb at home.
Children, the most sure of judges of true goodness of nature, were delighted with him. He took to them, not with the patronising air of people doing the benevolent, but as one of themselves. De Quincey in one of the most spiritual of his essays, speaks of "the eternal child" that dwells in fine natures--the remnant of the simplicity and candour of childhood surviving through the sagacity and strength of manhood and its contests with the world. No man had more of this than Speke. In a group of children he took and communicated enjoyment; and their sports were actually sport to the hunter of the tiger and hippopotamus. Even while these reminiscences are passing through the mind, a little group, with subdued voices, are recalling his kindly romps, and especially that occasion when an illustrious table was spread for him in vain, because it was a gala-day, and he could not drag himself from the genuine enjoyment he felt in the sports of a group of children who were making the long passages and hiding-holes of a quaint old house ring with their shouts and their laughter.
This genial assimilation with young folks and their enjoyments was a very pleasing feature, but it was one of many that went together to form the noble simplicity of his nature. This was shown powerfully in the way in which he bore his honours. Both when he returned triumphant, and when he issued the wondrous narrative of his difficulties and their conquest, the great lionising world was roaring at his heels, demanding him as its prey, but he heeded it not. He did not, like vulgar repudiators of popularity, let it overtake him that he might conspicuously repel it, but he kept quiet at his work and among his friends, avoiding all occasions of notoriety. To this line of conduct he made one characteristic exception. Like many Englishmen who became famous, he had a little world of his own in his own county of Somerset, where his social position was possibly an object of as much real pride and satisfaction as his wide fame. He belonged to an old county family of worshipful repute for many centuries. So when one of the Spekes of Jordans became famous over the world, his fame was part of the property of the district, in which its inhabitants must partake; and in his kindly nature he submitted with the best grace to the ovation offered him in his native district, knowing that to evade it would be a sore mortification to old friends and good neighbours.
One who had risen so high could not escape the fate of eminence to bring forth carpers and detractors. A solemn silence will now pervade the field of strife. We refer to it merely for the purpose of dropping a word of explanation on what seemed the most plausible charge brought forward by his censors--that in his books he has not done full justice to other persons who have laboured meritoriously, though with imperfect success, in the field of his triumph. It might me a sufficient answer to any such charge, that he does not profess to write the history of African exploration and discovery, but merely to narrate what he himself did and saw. But all who personally knew him would acquit him of any design to be even passively ungenerous. Every one who reads his fresh narratives will see that he has not been trained in the art and mystery of professional book-making. The book-writer, like the lawyer and the actor, has certain traditional conventionalities, and among them one of the most tiresome is the acknowledgment of obligations to intelligent assistants. If you analyse and estimate the rounded sentences in which these acknowledgements are usually expressed, you will invariably find that they tend to uplift the glory of the author. They place him in that rank most envied of all the niches in the temple of fame--that of the master-mind that can find good human tools wherewith his fame and fortune are to be hewn out. There are no better samples of insolent condescension to be found than these acknowledgments of assistance as they are commonly expressed. Speke was not sufficiently adroit in the craft of book-making to be acquainted with the method of that form of pride that apes humility; nor, if he had been instructed in it, would it probably have commended itself to his acceptance. He told his own story plainly and frankly, and left others to tell theirs. Before the world he thus put in no claim to the reputation of generosity; and the world did not know, and had no right to judge, whether generosity was or was not among his qualifications.
Those who came close to him saw that he possessed it in large measure, and that nothing could be more contrary to his nature than to be penurious, or unjust to any man. He was a cheerful giver. All men have their defects, and it was easy to see that careless profusion and inability to say "No" were among his. Without the unamiable antithesis attributed to the great Roman revolutionist of being alieni appetens, he had a disposition to be sui profusus. He was penurious to no one but himself. When saving funds for his great enterprise, he lived for some time with a parsimoniousness scarcely prudent; and, on the other hand, when he thought the Government had not dealt with proper generosity to his black assistants, he rewarded them liberally from his own resources.
Our own readers have had the privilege of a longer and fuller acquaintance with Captain Speke than the rest of the world has enjoyed. It was here that, some six years ago, he gave the stirring narrative of his first adventures in Africa, and announced the dawning of his great discovery.
In giving to the to the world a narrative of events so distant and marvellous, and so utterly out of the reach of all the ordinary checks on accuracy, everything depended on the character of the narrator; and the editor was thus brought into a communion with him much closer and more personal than is usually necessary in the communications of contributor and editor. The better he was known, the stronger became both the respect and the attachment he inspired. The two had many friendly communings, and one especially left an impression never to be effaced. It was a pleasant summer evening, and both were strolling together under the shadow of trees smoking and talking over the great project. It was remarked to him that he had already risked his life to an extent far beyond the average dangers which the human being is likely to escape, and he should consider the feelings of those to whom he was dear--of his parents especially--before setting forth again. With a light in his eye never to be forgotten, he expressed the inner force that was driving him on to his destiny. He knew, he said, that he had hit on the Source of the Nile; he must complete his work. How would he feel if any foreigner should take from Britain the honour of the discovery?--rather die a hundred times! In this and many other conversations, he communicated so much confidence in his indomitable nature to his auditor, that when the months passed on without tidings, and the world gave him up as lost, there remained in one breast, at least, a faith that he would return, and return triumphant, as he did. It is fortunate for the world that the triumph preceded the catastrophe. It is the remaining consolation of his friends that no man of the age is safer for immortality. He who achieved what mankind had been struggling after for three thousand years, is sure to be remembered as long as the earth exists and is inhabited.