V.C. Magazine, August 6, 1903

The Man in the Study.

A Talk With Mr. Oscar Browning.

If you passed Oscar Browning striding forward on the King’s Parade at Cambridge, you would not set him down, perhaps, as a man who goes from academic labour of the severest kind to the snow-capped Alps—a man full of energy, at one time a brave swimmer, always a keen golfer, a vigorous traveller, fond of cities and men. There is more of the scholar than the athlete in the mould of this man, for all his broad shoulders; but though he has piled up many a famous monument of literature he has ever had his face turned to the open sky, and drunk deep of the joy of action. A good type of the University don.

I asked him what he thought of courage in the estimate of things.

“There is this difficulty,” he answered, “in selecting an instance of moral courage, that, while physical courage is generally the action of a moment, moral may be extended through many years or an entire lifetime. It is not easy to exhibit it in such a way that people will immediately understand its full merit. The results of an act of physical courage are definite. If a man saves another man’s life, everybody can see what a fine thing he has done. But if he makes a sacrifice it passes unnoticed. Only a few can estimate it at its true worth. I can tell you two stories of courage. One was a rescue on the ice. The other was a case where a man made a sacrifice to what he considered was his duty, and it is hard to say which of the two deserves the more praise. The case I have in mind was that of Professor Sedgwick. I think that, as he is dead, there can be no objection to your mentioning his name. He had been made a Fellow of Trinity in the days when every Fellow was obliged to be a member of the Church of England. This regulation seemed to him unjust. Not that he wasn’t a member of the Church of England, but he could not reconcile such a rule with his sense of right. His Fellowship was practically all that he had to depend on, but he determined to resign it. He went to London previously to acquire the art of living cheaply. Sixpence a day, I believe, was the sum on which he lived. And he resigned the Fellowship. That action, it seems to me, required fully as much courage as a fireman needs to save life at a fire.

“There are several degrees of moral courage, I think. Many men make a practice of sacrificing their comfort either for the good of others or because they feel that they ought to. Mr. Benjamin Kidd takes that as one of the chief points of evidence in favour of a supernatural law. But there is something more difficult to forego than comfort, and that is reputation. Many men who would give up a chance of comfort, shrink from losing their reputations for the sake of others. I remember one case, however. A man was asked to edit a certain manuscript. Before this could be done, it was necessary that a transcript should be made of the manuscript. This was done for the editor by a friend, who was secretary to the society to which the editor belonged, and for the benefit of which the manuscript was to be edited. After the book had been published over five hundred mistakes were found in the text, and it was naturally supposed that the editor was responsible for them. The society requested him to hand in his resignation, and his reputation as an editor suffered considerably. But he could not justify himself without exposing his friend, an action which would, of course, have meant his dismissal from his secretaryship—and he kept silence. In that instance only a few know the true facts of the case. But there is not the glamour about moral courage that surrounds physical courage, though it is nearly always equally fine. George Eliot put the thing in a nutshell in one of her letters to me. ‘Perhaps the most difficult heroism,’ she said, ‘is that which consists in the daily conquest of private demons, not in the slaying of world-notorious dragons.’ That is a very true observation.”

“It is so difficult,” I said, “for moral courage to be striking without being stagey.”

“The action which seemed to me the most remarkable I have ever seen in the way of physical heroism was one that took place on the ice near Cambridge. The hero of the episode was a friend of mine in the diplomatic service. I think he would prefer, from what I know of him, that I did not tell you his name. He was skating at a time when the ice was beginning to be dangerous. There had been a thaw on the previous day, and he and another man——”

“A friend?”

“No, a stranger. He looked like a working-man. He and my friend were the only two persons out on the ice at the time. The man happened to pass on to a more than usually weak piece of ice, and the next instant he had fallen right through and disappeared. My friend, who was some distance off at the moment, skated rapidly up to the spot, and, without the slightest hesitation, flung himself through the hole into the water. It was a most wonderfully brave thing to do. Apart from the coldness of the water, and the fact that he was hampered by thick clothes and skates, he must have known that the chances were enormously against his finding the hole again when he had happened upon the drowning man. It was quite a small hole, for the man had gone straight through, and very suddenly. But by good luck he managed to do it, and they were both brought out safely. My friend did not give me the impression of thinking that he had done anything at all out of the common. He seemed to consider that it was all he could have done under the circumstances.

“That, I think, I may safely say is the most heroic action I have ever witnessed. Instances of cowardice would be easier to recall. I remember one occasion on the Alps. A party of us, three Englishmen and two guides, were going down a ravine. There was a precipice on one side, and above us a glacier, fragments of which kept breaking off and falling round us. And the rocks were covered with snow, so that it was impossible to be certain of one’s foothold without having previously probed the snow with one’s alpenstock. We reached the bottom safely, but one of the guides sobbed bitterly all the way, and continued to lament loudly that he would never see his friends again, until he actually did see them, when he cheered up again. But he was not a good guide,” added Mr. Browning thoughtfully.

“So,” I said, as I went, “I should be disposed to imagine.”

And certainly it does not strike one as the most tactful conduct for an Alpine guide. It falls short of one’s ideal.

P. G. Wodehouse.