A still greater pitfall before us is that we read history not as men, but as gods, knowing the event. The name of Marathon to us implies not struggle, not danger, but triumph; and as we think of the little band of Athenians defiling from the mountains and looking on the sea, with the utmost determination we cannot quite enter into their thoughts. Of how little avail must have seemed this handful of lives, their last and best gift to Athens, against the might and majesty of Persia afloat before them. We know of that runner and of the rejoicing that broke out upon his words; and at the very opening of the scene the darkness is pierced by a gleam they could not see, a gleam which for us will not go out. Or think of Edwardes besieging the Sikhs in Multan with his puny force, half of whom, when he began, were in sympathy with the besieged. We know that the terrier’s courage kept the tiger in; and, conscious of that, we cannot really place ourselves beside the young Engineer of 29, as with only one or two volunteers of his own race round him he kept the field during those four burning months in which British troops were not allowed to move. The tiger’s paw had crushed those whom he had hastened to avenge: he did not know, as we know, that it was not to fall on him too.
There is the same difficulty with the course of years. With the history of four centuries before our minds, only by sustained effort of thought can we realize that the men of 1514 looked onward to 1600, as we to-day look towards 2000, as to a misty blank. We hardly trouble our heads with the future. The air is full of speculations, of attempts to forecast coming developments, the growth, the improvement that is to be. But we do not really look forward, more than a little way. The darkness is too dense: and besides, the needs of the present are very urgent. As we think of the sixteenth century, behind Henry VIII’s breach with Rome, behind Edward VI’s prayer-books, waits the figure of Pole, steadfast, biding his time; coming to salute Mary with the words of the angel to the Virgin; coming, as he hoped, to set things right for ever. And behind Pole are the Elizabethan settlement and the Puritans; ineradicable from our consciousness. To the Englishmen of 1514 Henry VIII was the divine young king whose prowess at Tournay, whose victory at Flodden seemed to his happy bride the reward of his piety: the name of Luther was unknown: Pole was an unconsidered child. Into their minds we cannot really enter unless we can think away everything that has happened since and call up a mist over the face of time.