The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 12

THEOBALD’S engagement was all very well as far as it went, but there was an old gentleman with a bald head and rosy cheeks in a counting-house in Paternoster Row who must sooner or later be told of what his son had in view, and Theobald’s heart fluttered when he asked himself what view this old gentleman was likely to take of the situation. The murder, however, had to come out, and Theobald and his intended, perhaps imprudently, resolved on making a clean breast of it at once. He wrote what he and Christina, who helped him to draft the letter, thought to be everything that was filial, and expressed himself as anxious to be married with the least possible delay. He could not help saying this, as Christina was at his shoulder, and he knew it was safe, for his father might be trusted not to help him. He wound up by asking his father to use any influence that might be at his command to help him to get a living, inasmuch as it might be years before a college living fell vacant, and he saw no other chance of being able to marry, for neither he nor his intended had any money except Theobald’s fellowship, which would, of course, lapse on his taking a wife.

Any step of Theobald’s was sure to be objectionable in his father’s eyes, but that at three-and-twenty he should want to marry a penniless girl who was four years older than himself, afforded a golden opportunity which the old gentleman — for so I may now call him, as he was at least sixty — embraced with characteristic eagerness.

“The ineffable folly,” he wrote, on receiving his son’s letter, “of your fancied passion for Miss Allaby fills me with the gravest apprehensions. Making every allowance for a lover’s blindness, I still have no doubt that the lady herself is a well-conducted and amiable young person, who would not disgrace our family, but were she ten times more desirable as a daughter-in-law than I can allow myself to hope, your joint poverty is an insuperable objection to your marriage. I have four other children besides yourself, and my expenses do not permit me to save money. This year they have been especially heavy, indeed I have had to purchase two not inconsiderable pieces of land which happened to come into the market and were necessary to complete a property which I have long wanted to round off in this way. I gave you an education regardless of expense, which has put you in possession of a comfortable income, at an age when many young men are dependent. I have I have thus started you fairly in life, and may claim that you should cease to be a drag upon me further. Long engagements are proverbially unsatisfactory, and in the present case the prospect seems interminable. What interest, pray, do you suppose I have that I could get a living for you? Can I go up and down the country begging people to provide for my son because he has taken it into his head to want to get married without sufficient means?

“I do not wish to write unkindly, nothing can be farther from my real feelings towards you, but there is often more kindness in plain speaking than in any amount of soft words which can end in no substantial performance. Of course, I bear in mind that you are of age, and can therefore please yourself, but if you choose to claim the strict letter of the law, and act without consideration for your father’s feelings, you must not be surprised if you one day find that I have claimed a like liberty for myself. — Believe me, your affectionate father,

— “G. PONTIFEX.”.

I found this letter along with those already given and a few more which I need not give, but throughout which the same tone prevails, and in all of which there is the more or less obvious shake of the will near the end of the letter. Remembering Theobald’s general dumbness concerning his father for the many years I knew him after his father’s death, there was an eloquence in the preservation of the letters and in their endorsement, “Letters from my father,” which seemed to have with it some faint odour of health and nature.

Theobald did not show his father’s letter to Christina, nor, indeed, I believe to anyone. He was by nature secretive, and had been repressed too much and too early to be capable of railing or blowing off steam where his father was concerned. His sense of wrong was still inarticulate, felt as a dull, dead weight ever present day by day, and if he woke at night-time still continually present, but he hardly knew what it was. I was about the closest friend he had, and I saw but little of him, for I could not get on with him for long together. He said I had no reverence; whereas, I thought that I had plenty of reverence for what deserved to be revered, but that the gods which he deemed golden were in reality made of baser metal. He never, as I have said, complained of his father to me, and his only other friends were, like himself, staid and prim, of evangelical tendencies, and deeply imbued with a sense of the sinfulness of any act of insubordination to parents — good young men, in fact — and one cannot blow off steam to a good young man.

When Christina was informed by her lover of his father’s opposition, and of the time which must probably elapse before they could be married, she offered — with how much sincerity I know not to set him free from his engagement; but Theobald declined to be released —“not at least,” as he said, “at present.” Christina and Mrs. Allaby knew they could manage him, and on this not very satisfactory footing the engagement was continued.

His engagement and his refusal to be released at once raised Theobald in his own good opinion. Dull as he was, he had no small share of quiet self-approbation. He admired himself for his University distinction, for the purity of his life (I said of him once that if he had only a better temper he would be as innocent as a newlaid egg) and for his unimpeachable integrity in money matters. He did not despair of advancement in the Church when he had once got a living, and of course it was within the bounds of possibility that he might one day become a Bishop, and Christina said she felt convinced that this would ultimately be the case.

As was natural for the daughter and intended wife of a clergyman, Christina’s thoughts ran much upon religion, and she was resolved that even though an exalted position in this world were denied to her and Theobald, their virtues should be fully appreciated in the next. Her religious opinions coincided absolutely with Theobald’s own, and many a conversation did she have with him about the glory of God, and the completeness with which they would devote themselves to it, as soon as Theobald had got his living and they were married. So certain was she of the great results which would then ensue that she wondered at times at the blindness shown by Providence towards its own truest interests in not killing off the rectors who stood between Theobald and his living a little faster.

In those days people believed with a simple downrightness which I do not observe among educated men and women now. It had never so much as crossed Theobald’s mind to doubt the literal accuracy of any syllable in the Bible. He had never seen any book in which this was disputed, nor met with anyone who doubted it. True, there was just a little scare about geology, but there was nothing in it. If it was said that God made the world in six days, why He did make it in six days, neither in more nor less; if it was said that He put Adam to sleep, took out one of his ribs and made a woman of it, why it was so as a matter of course. He, Adam, went to sleep as it might be himself, Theobald Pontifex, in a garden, as it might be the garden at Crampsford Rectory during the summer months when it was so pretty, only that it was larger, and had some tame wild animals in it. Then God came up to him, as it might be Mr. Allaby or his father, dexterously took out one of his ribs without waking him, and miraculously healed the wound so that no trace of the operation remained. Finally, God had taken the rib perhaps into the greenhouse, and had turned it into just such another young woman as Christina. That was how it was done; there was neither difficulty nor shadow of difficulty about the matter. Could not God do anything He liked, and had He not in His own inspired Book told us that He had done this?

This was the average attitude of fairly educated young men and women towards the Mosaic cosmogony fifty, forty, or even twenty years ago. The combating of infidelity, therefore, offered little scope for enterprising young clergymen, nor had the Church awakened to the activity which she has since displayed among the poor in our large towns. These were then left almost without an effort at resistance or co-operation to the labours of those who had succeeded Wesley. Missionary work indeed in heathen countries was being carried on with some energy, but Theobald did not feel any call to be a missionary. Christina suggested this to him more than once, and assured him of the unspeakable happiness it would be to her to be the wife of a missionary, and to share his dangers; she and Theobald might even be martyred; of course they would be martyred simultaneously, and martyrdom many years hence as regarded from the arbour in the Rectory garden was not painful; it would ensure them a glorious future in the next world, and at any rate posthumous renown in this — even if they were not miraculously restored to life again — and such things had happened ere now in the case of martyrs. Theobald, however, had not been kindled by Christina’s enthusiasm, so she fell back upon the Church of Rome — an enemy more dangerous, if possible, than paganism itself. A combat with Romanism might even yet win for her and Theobald the crown of martyrdom. True, the Church of Rome was tolerably quiet just then, but it was the calm before the storm, of this she was assured, with a conviction deeper than she could have attained by any argument founded upon mere reason.

“We, dearest Theobald,” she exclaimed, “will be ever faithful. We will stand firm and support one another even in the hour of death itself. God in His mercy may spare us from being burnt alive. He may or may not do so. O Lord” (and she turned her eyes prayerfully to Heaven), “spare my Theobald, or grant that he may be beheaded.”

“My dearest,” said Theobald gravely, “do not let us agitate ourselves unduly. If the hour of trial comes we shall be best prepared to meet it by having led a quiet, unobtrusive life of self-denial and devotion to God’s glory. Such a life let us pray God that it may please Him to enable us to pray that we may lead.”

“Dearest Theobald,” exclaimed Christina, drying the tears that had gathered in her eyes, “you are always, always right. Let us be self-denying, pure, upright, truthful in word and deed.” She clasped her hands and looked up to Heaven as she spoke.

“Dearest,” rejoined her lover, “we have ever hitherto endeavoured to be all of these things; we have not been worldly people; let us watch and pray that we may so continue to the end.”

The moon had risen and the arbour was getting damp, so they adjourned further aspirations for a more convenient season. At other times Christina pictured herself and Theobald as braving the scorn of almost every human being in the achievement of some mighty task which should redound to the honour of her Redeemer. She could face anything for this. But always towards the end of her vision there came a little coronation scene high up in the golden regions of the Heavens, and a diadem was set upon her head by the Son of Man Himself, amid a host of angels and archangels who looked on with envy and admiration — and here even Theobald himself was out of it. If there could be such a thing as the Mammon of Righteousness, Christina would have assuredly made friends with it. Her papa and mamma were very estimable people and would in the course of time receive Heavenly Mansions in which they would be exceedingly comfortable; so doubtless would her sisters; so perhaps, even might her brothers; but for herself she felt that a higher destiny was preparing, which it was her duty never to lose sight of. The first step towards it would be her marriage with Theobald. In spite, however, of these flights of religious romanticism, Christina was a good-tempered kindly-natured girl enough, who, if she had married a sensible layman — we will say a hotel-keeper — would have developed into a good landlady and been deservedly popular with her guests.

Such was Theobald’s engaged life. Many a little present passed between the pair, and many a small surprise did they prepare pleasantly for one another. They never quarrelled, and neither of them ever flirted with anyone else. Mrs. Allaby and his future sisters-in-law idolised Theobald in spite of its being impossible to get another deacon to come and be played for as long as Theobald was able to help Mr. Allaby, which now of course he did free gratis and for nothing; two of the sisters, however, did manage to find husbands before Christina was actually married, and on each occasion Theobald played the part of decoy elephant. In the end only two out of the seven daughters remained single.

After three or four years, old Mr. Pontifex became accustomed to his son’s engagement and looked upon it as among the things which had now a prescriptive right to toleration. In the spring of 1831 more than five years after Theobald had first walked over to Crampsford, one of the best livings in the gift of the College unexpectedly fell vacant, and was for various reasons declined by the two fellows senior to Theobald, who might each have been expected to take it. The living was then offered to and of course accepted by Theobald, being in value not less than not less than L500 a year with a suitable house and garden. Old Mr. Pontifex then came down more handsomely than was expected and settled L10,000 on his son and daughter-in-law for life with remainder to such of their issue as they might appoint. In the month of July, 1831, Theobald and Christina became man and wife.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31