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Full text of "Selected Essays Of Robert Louis Stevenson"

22                          AES  TRIPLEX

As a matter of fact, although few things are spoken of
with more fearful whisperings than this prospect of death,
few have less influence on conduct under healthy circum-
stances. We have all heard of cities in South America
built upon the side of fiery mountains, and how, even in
this tremendous neighbourhood, the inhabitants are not a
jot more impressed by the solemnity of mortal conditions
than if they were delving gardens in the greenest corner
of England. There are serenades and suppers and much
gallantry among the myrtles overhead ; and meanwhile
the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the
mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap
sky-high into the moonlight, and tumble man and his
merry-making in the dust. In the eyes of very young
people, and very dull old ones, there is something inde-
scribably reckless and desperate in such a picture. It
seems not credible that respectable married people, with
umbrellas, should find appetite for a bit of supper within
quite a long distance of a fiery mountain; ordinary life
begins to smell of high-handed debauch when it is carried
on so close to a catastrophe, and even cheese and salad,
it seems, could hardly be relished in such circumstances
without something like a defiance of the Creator. It
should be a place for nobody but hermits dwelling in
prayer and maceration, or mere born-devils drowning care
in a perpetual carouse.

And yet, when one comes to think upon it calmly, the
situation of these South American citizens forms only a
very pale figure for the state of ordinary mankind. This
world itself, travelling blindly and swiftly in overcrowded
space, among a million other worlds travelling blindly
and swiftly in contrary directions, may very well come by
a knock that would set it into explosion like a penny
squib. And what, pathologically looked at, is the human
body with all its organs, but a mere bagful of petards ?
The least of these is as dangerous to the whole economy
as the ship's powder-magazine to the ship ; and with every
breath we breathe, and every meal we eat, we are putting
one or more of them in peril. If we clung as devotedly
as some philosophers pretend we do to the abstract idea