The very full account of Father Byles's life and death written by his own brother and published by the Tablet within a month of the Titanic shipwreck may be thought to leave little or nothing to add. But perhaps not all readers of the Edmundian are readers of the Tablet, and if so I may be pardoned if I fall into some repetitions; but moreover, while Mr. Esdaile Byles has the first and every claim and qualification to treat of a subject so well known and so dear to him, the Atlantic distance which has separated the brothers for the last six years may possibly justify the tribute of a friendship which has occupied the gap. I say occupied, not filled, for I am far from presuming to think I was ever much to the friend we have lost. But I was his nearest neighbour among priests, and we saw one another frequently in Church, in our studies, at table and on the road, and, of course took counsel together on all sorts of subjects great and small, in heaven and earth, but excepting questions of taste in material things he did not often follow my opinion. I recall as characteristic our last conversation, on Easter Monday, two days before he sailed, when the packing was going on:--As the regulation space was more than he needed would it be better to fill up with the larger trunk? I thought it would, because he would want space to bring back purchases. So he went and finished off with the smaller saying he was not going to buy in the States where everything was so much dearer than here. But had I any particular objective to suggest? Well of course Niagara. Yes of course, but anything else? Well, I should make a point of seeing Red Indians, and verifying the common opinion that perfectly straight hair accompanies the unpoetic temperament. But he had no interest, anthropological or other in that degraded race. Then, I started a subject which seemed to have occurred to him. I wondered whether he would find a new opening and not return, whether he would be attracted by some educational work and settle near his Catholic relatives, and prefer it very much to a poverty-stricken life devoted to a small flock mostly peasants. He admitted it would attract him. But he had evidently formed no purpose of deserting his people, for he went on to tell me of the cases which gave him anxiety in his parish and would need the care of his deputy. We spoke much of the ship and the voyage and its safety till I remembered and emphasised the danger of icebergs at that season, over-ruled perhaps to give a premonition which may have broken the shock and surprise of the catastrophe. Having drunk the last glass of wine in the house I rose to go home, and he came out with me to visit a poor person, and the last I saw of him was at the cottage door, and as I said good-bye the ominous words slipped out of my mouth, "I hope you'll come back again."
And it is not disparagement to recall to the mind's eye that fragile frame of little stature, carless of dress, and the features which bore traces of disease, and a certain nervousness in gait, speech and action. Such disadvantages enhanced immeasureably the merits of a life spent in duties which could not be done without very considerable physical exertion. For truth's sake, however, I must say parenthetically that he was not so feeble in all respects as he may have seemed. When I first made his acquaintance and he proposed to go with me on the bicycle, I opened my eyes; he would have to go a considerable pace, I understand he was an invalid. Yes: but not in that way; not in the matter of bicycling. So I found to my cost, especially going up-hill, and I shall not forget the effort it wrung from me to keep the lead on a certain evening late in last September, or how, I was urged to greater flight and fright by the sight I saw over my shoulder in the gathering gloom, as of some preternatural jockey, bending to his work, heated, hatless, weird, dogging every revolution of my wheels. Nevertheless, he suffered from a deep-seated infirmity, which was a heavy handicap in the race of life, and more to intellectual exertion than to physical. I believe sustained thought and writing cost him much more fatigue than the same labour cost men of very inferior ability and equipment. But all his work was good, in the judgment of all, whether conference papers, or the ensuing debates, or public controversy. A thorough grasp of facts, exact reasoning, clear enunciation of conclusions characterised his writing. In a word he was just what one would expect a scholar of Balliol to be.
"Mil nisi bonum de mortuis" is no doubt a sound maxim. The Church adopts it in the technical term, panegyric, for the address delivered about the desceased after his requiem. But it has the drawback of implying of itself that there may be something besides bonum to be said. And the obervance of the maxim is apt to generate the suspicion that the bonum itself is not trustworthy, and laudatory epitaphs are commonly regarded as flatly mendacious. I think it therefore more honourable to the dead, if one writes or speaks of them at all, to give the whole truth, or what seems such to the narrator.
Fr. Byles's independence of character was sometimes strained into too great self-confidence, his clear and strong convictions left little patience for those who differed. He was argumentative to a 't.' I see him now pursuing an already vanquished opponent from seat to seat in the common room at St. Edmund's to insist on the dotting of the last 'i'. In politics, as I told him to his face, he was perverse; wedded to free-trade, and yet a champion of trade-unionism and of strikers, defender of the recent unjust legislation: he betrayed a certain hauteur by the silence into which he was wont to sink in the presence of unanswerable or at least incorrigible adversaries. I can quite believe that the great Jowett affected his society. And that's the worst I have to say of him.
But how much heavier is the other scale! The devotion of a highly educated man to very humble duty, of a man of little strength to hard and rough duty--with full recognition of its true dignity--that alone, to which I testify without a shadow of doubt, is a halo about his head perceptible to every priest. Nor did he measure duty by obligation, or by the bounds of his own parish. Poor as he was he was more munificent to the Crusade of Rescue, than many a wealthy man might be. Less capable of scouting than anyone I know he was a most enthusiastic advocate of the noble game as a most excellent training for youth. And it was after the great catastrophe that I found in his room the certificate of having qualified himself to give first aid to sufferers. I never heard him boast about anything; the tutelage of the German Prince, the intimacy with Jowett, to say nothing of things really worthy of honourable mention I learnt only recently. Whatever Thomas Byles was in physique, in him there was nothing low or mean or little, nothing vulgar. Keenly am I reminded of a certain essay of Bacon's in which he points out that while personal disadvantages are to the mean an occasion of malice, to the nobly inclined they are a stimulus to virtue, as though in that at least the unfortunate would rise above the world.
When the news came of the appalling disaster the vision came to mind of that little priest nervously active, getting hold of a few Catholics he had learnt to trust and instructing them to bring together all others they could find; then a brief address and general heartfelt act of contrition, followed by many private confessions till a critical moment came and his friends urged the priest, perhaps forced him to take a place in a boat. I was substantially right. I was not in the least surprised when I heard from his brother on the testimony of survivors that he twice refused a place in the boat, determined to remain for the spiritual succour of his perishing friends. There was no little pathos in the inequalities and disappointments of his life, but what an enviable glory in his death!
Source - Watson, Right Rev. Msgr. Edward. "Reminiscences." The Edmundian Volume X, No. 58 (July 1912): 111-112.
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