From The Race to Reach the South Pole in Stefan Zweig’s Shooting Stars:
The Dying Man’s Letters
In those moments, facing invisible but now imminent death while the blizzard attacks the thin walls of the tent like a madman, Captain Scott remembers all to whom he is close. Alone in the iciest silence, silence never broken by a human voice, he is heroically aware of his fraternal feelings for his country, for all mankind. In this white wilderness, a mirage of the mind conjures up the image of all who were ever linked to him by love, loyalty and friendship, and he addresses them. Captain Scott writes with freezing fingers, writes letters at the hour of his death to all the living men and women he loves.
They are wonderful letters. In the mighty presence of death all that is small and petty is dismissed; the crystalline air of that empty sky seems to breathe through his words. They are meant for individuals, but speak to all mankind. They are written at a certain time, they speak for eternity.
He writes to his wife, asking her to take good care of his son, the best legacy he can leave her, and above all, he says, “he must guard and you must guard him against indolence. Make him into a strenuous man.” Of himself he says—at the end of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the world—“I had to force myself into being strenuous, as you know—had always an inclination to be idle.” Even so close to death he does not regret but approves of his own decision to go on the expedition. “What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging in too great comfort at home.”
And he writes in loyal comradeship to the wife of one of his companions in misfortune, to the mother of another, men who will have died with him when the letters reach home, bearing witness to their heroism. Although he is dying himself, he comforts the bereaved families of the others with his strong, almost superhuman sense of the greatness of the moment and the memorable nature of their deaths.
And he writes to his friends, speaking modestly for himself but with a fine sense of pride for the whole nation, whose worthy son he feels himself to be at this moment. “I may not have proved a great explorer,” he admits, “but I think [this diary] will show that the spirit of pluck and the power to endure has not passed out of our race.” And death now impels him to tell one friend what manly reserve and his own modesty has kept him from saying all his life. “I never met a man in my life whom I loved and admired more than you, but I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me, for you had much to give and I had nothing.”
He writes one last letter, the finest of all, to the British nation, feeling bound to give a reckoning of what he did for the fame of the country on the expedition, blaming only misfortune for its end. He enumerates the various accidents that conspired against him, and in a voice to which the echo of death lends pathos he calls on “our countrymen to see that those who depend upon us are properly cared for”.
His last thought is not of his own fate, but of the lives of others. “For God’s sake look after our people.” The remaining pages are blank.
Captain Scott kept his diary until the last moment, when his fingers were so frozen that the pencil slipped out of them. Only the hope that the pages he had written would be found with his body, as a record of what he had done and of the courage of his countrymen, enabled him to make such a superhuman effort. The last thing he wrote, his frozen fingers shaking, was, “Send this diary to my wife.” But then, in cruel certainty, he crossed out the words “my wife”, and wrote over them the terrible “my widow”.