The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 17

IN the course of time this sorrow was removed. At the beginning of the fifth year of her married life Christina was safely delivered of a boy. This was on the sixth of September, 1835.

Word was immediately sent to old Mr. Pontifex, who received the news with real pleasure. His son John’s wife had borne daughters only, and he was seriously uneasy lest there should be a failure in the male line of his descendants. The good news, therefore, was doubly welcome, and caused as much delight at Elmhurst as dismay in Woburn Square, where the John Pontifexes were then living.

Here, indeed, this freak of fortune was felt to be all the more cruel on account of the impossibility of resenting it openly; but the delighted grandfather cared nothing for what the John Pontifexes might feel or not feel; he had wanted a grandson and he had got a grandson, and this should be enough for everybody; and, now that Mrs. Theobald had taken to good ways, she might bring him more grandsons, which would be desirable, for he should not feel safe with fewer than three.

He rang the bell for the butler.

“Gelstrap,” he said solemnly, “I want to go down into the cellar.”

Then Gelstrap preceded him with a candle, and he went into the inner vault where he kept his choicest wines.

He passed many bins: there was 1803 Port, 1792 Imperial Tokay, 1800 Claret, 1812 Sherry, these and many others were passed, but it was not for them that the head of the Pontifex family had gone down into his inner cellar. A bin, which had appeared empty until the full light of the candle had been brought to bear upon it, was now found it, to contain a single pint bottle. This was the object of Mr. Pontifex’s search.

Gelstrap had often pondered over this bottle. It had been placed there by Mr. Pontifex himself about a dozen years previously, on his return from a visit to his friend the celebrated traveller, Dr. Jones — but there was no tablet above the bin which might give a clue to the nature of its contents. On more than one occasion when his master had gone out and left his keys accidentally behind him, as he sometimes did, Gelstrap had submitted the bottle to all the tests he could venture upon, but it was so carefully sealed that wisdom remained quite shut out from that entrance at which he would have welcomed her most gladly — and indeed from all other entrances, for he could make out nothing at all.

And now the mystery was to be solved. But alas! it seemed as though the last chance of securing even a sip of the contents was to be removed for ever, for Mr. Pontifex took the bottle into his own hands and held it up to the light after carefully examining the seal. He smiled and left the bin with the bottle in his hands.

Then came a catastrophe. He stumbled over an empty hamper; there was the sound of a fall — a smash of broken glass, and in an instant the cellar floor was covered with the liquid that had been preserved so carefully for so many years.

With his usual presence of mind Mr. Pontifex gasped out a month’s warning to Gelstrap. Then he got up, and stamped as Theobald had done when Christina had wanted not to order his dinner.

“It’s water from the Jordan,” he exclaimed furiously, “which I have been saving for the baptism of my eldest grandson. Damn you, Gelstrap, how dare you be so infernally careless as to leave that hamper littering about the cellar?”

I wonder the water of the sacred stream did not stand upright as a heap upon the cellar floor and rebuke him. Gelstrap told the other servants afterwards that his master’s language had made his backbone curdle.

The moment, however, that he heard the word “water” he saw his way again, and flew to the pantry. Before his master had well noted his absence he returned with a little sponge and a basin, and had begun sopping up the waters of the Jordan as though they had been a common slop.

“I’ll filter it, Sir,” said Gelstrap meekly. “It’ll come quite clean.”

Mr. Pontifex saw hope in this suggestion, which was shortly carried out by the help of a piece of blotting paper and a funnel, under his own eyes. Eventually it was found that half a pint was saved, and this was held to be sufficient.

Then he made preparations for a visit to Battersby. He ordered goodly hampers of the choicest eatables, he selected a goodly hamper of choice drinkables. I say choice and not choicest, for although in his first exaltation he had selected some of his very best wine, yet on reflection he had felt that there was moderation in all things, and as he was parting with his best water from the Jordan, he would only send some of his second best wine.

Before he went to Battersby he stayed a day or two in London, which he now seldom did, being over seventy years old, and having practically retired from business. The John Pontifexes, who kept a sharp eye on him, discovered to their dismay that he had had an interview with his solicitors.

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