Nor because a man fails in the great moment is he necessarily all a coward. Mark Twain was once talking to a friend of mine on the subject of courage in men, and spoke of a man whose name is associated with a book that has become a classic. “I knew him well,” he said, “and I knew him as a brave man. Yet he once did the most cowardly thing I have ever heard of any man. He was in a shipwreck, and as the ship was going down he snatched a lifebelt from a woman passenger and put it on himself. He was saved, and she was drowned. And in spite of that frightful act I think he was not a coward. I know there was not a day of his life afterwards when he would not willingly and in cold blood have given his life to recall that shameful act.”
In this case the failure was not in moral courage, but in physical courage. He was demoralised by the peril, and the physical coward came uppermost. If he had had time to recover his moral balance he would have died an honourable death. It is no uncommon thing for a man to have in him the elements both of the hero and the coward. You remember that delightful remark of Mrs. Disraeli, one of the most characteristic of the many quaint sayings attributed to that strange woman. “Dizzy,” she said, “has wonderful moral courage, but no physical courage. I always have to pull the string of his shower bath.” It is a capital illustration of that conflict of the coward and the brave man that takes place in most of us. Dizzy’s moral courage carried him to the bath, but there his physical courage failed him. He could not pull the string that administered the cold shock. The bathroom is rich in such secrets, and life teems with them.
The true hero is he who unites the two qualities. The physical element is the more plentiful. For one man who will count the cost of sacrifice and, having counted it, pay the price with unfaltering heart, there are many who will answer the sudden call to meet peril with swift defiance. The courage that snatches a comrade from under the guns of the enemy or a child from the flames is, happily, not uncommon. It is inspired by an impulse that takes men out of themselves and by a certain spirit of challenge to fate that every one with a sporting instinct loves to take. But the act of the sailor of the Formidable was a much bigger thing. Here was no thrill of gallantry and no sporting risk. He dealt in cold certainties: the boat and safety; the ship and death; his life or the other’s. And he thought of his comrade’s old parents at home and chose death.
It was a great end. I wonder whether you or I would be capable of it. I would give much to feel that I could answer in the affirmative—that I could take my stand on the spiritual plane of that unknown sailor.