The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 22

I USED to stay at Battersby for a day or two sometimes, while my godson and his brother and sister were children. I hardly know why I went, for Theobald and I grew more and more apart, but one gets into grooves sometimes, and the supposed friendship between myself and the Pontifexes continued to exist, though it was now little more than rudimentary. My godson pleased me more than either of the other children, but he had not much of the buoyancy of childhood, and was more like a puny, sallow little old man than I liked. The young people, however, were very ready to be friendly.

I remember Ernest and his brother hovered around me on the first day of one of these visits with their hands full of fading flowers, which they at length proffered me. On this I did what I suppose was expected: I inquired if there was a shop near where they could buy sweeties. They said there was, so I felt in my pockets, but only succeeded in finding twopence halfpenny in small money. This I gave them, and the youngsters, aged four and three, toddled off alone. Ere long they returned, and Ernest said, “We can’t get sweeties for all this money” (I felt rebuked, but no rebuke was intended); “we can get sweeties for this” (showing a penny), “and for this” (showing another penny), “but we cannot get them for all this,” and he added the halfpenny to the two pence. I suppose they had wanted a twopenny cake, or something like that. I was amused, and left them to solve the difficulty their own way, being anxious to see what they would do.

Presently Ernest said, “May we give you back this” (showing the halfpenny) “and not give you back this and this?” (showing the pence). I assented, and they gave a sigh of relief and went on their way rejoicing. A few more presents of pence and small toys completed the conquest and they began to take me into their confidence.

They told me a good deal which I am afraid I ought not to have listened to. They said that if grandpapa had lived longer he would most likely have been made a Lord, and that then papa would have been the Honourable and Reverend, but that grandpapa was now in heaven singing beautiful hymns with Grandmamma Allaby to Jesus Christ who was very fond of them; and that when Ernest was ill, his mamma had told him he need not be afraid of dying, for he would go straight to heaven, if he would only be sorry for having done his lessons so badly and vexed his dear papa, and if he would promise never, never to vex him any more; and that when he got to heaven Grandpapa and Grandmamma Allaby would meet him, and he would be always with them, and they would be very good to him and teach him to sing ever such beautiful hymns, more beautiful by far than those which he was now so fond of, etc., etc.; but he did not wish to die, and was glad when he got better, for there were no kittens in heaven, and he did not think there were cowslips to make cowslip tea with.

Their mother was plainly disappointed in them. “My children are none of them geniuses, Mr. Overton,” she said to me at breakfast one morning. “They have fair abilities, and, thanks to Theobald’s tuition, they are forward for their years, but they have nothing like genius: genius is a thing apart from this, is it not?”

Of course I said it was “a thing quite apart from this,” but if my thoughts had been laid bare, they would have appeared as “Give me my coffee immediately, ma’am, and don’t talk nonsense.” I have no idea what genius is, but so far as I can form any conception about it, I should say it was a stupid word which cannot be too soon abandoned to scientific and literary claqueurs.

I do not know exactly what Christina expected, but I should imagine it was something like this: “My children ought to be all geniuses, because they are mine and Theobald’s, and it is naughty of them not to be; but, of course, they cannot be so good and clever as Theobald and I were, and if they show signs of being so it will be naughty of them. Happily, however, they are not this, and yet it is very dreadful that they are not. As for genius — hoity-toity, indeed -why, a genius should turn intellectual somersaults as soon as it is born, and none of my children have yet been able to get into the newspapers. I will not have children of mine give themselves airs — it is enough for them that Theobald and I should do so.”

She did not know, poor woman, that the true greatness wears an invisible cloak, under cover of which it goes in and out among men without being suspected; if its cloak does not conceal it from itself always, and from all others for many years, its greatness will ere long shrink to very ordinary dimensions. What, then, it may be asked, is the good of being great? The answer is that you may understand greatness better in others, whether alive or dead, and choose better company from these and enjoy and understand that company better when you have chosen it — also that you may be able to give pleasure to the best people and live in the lives of those who are yet unborn. This, one would think, was substantial gain enough for greatness without its wanting to ride rough-shod over us, even when disguised as humility.

I was there on a Sunday, and observed the rigour with which the young people were taught to observe the Sabbath; they might not cut out things, nor use their paintbox on a Sunday, and this they thought rather hard, because their cousins the John Pontifexes might do these things. Their cousins might play with their toy train on Sunday, but though they had promised that they would run none but Sunday trains, all traffic had been prohibited. One treat only was allowed them — on Sunday evenings they might choose their own hymns.

In the course of the evening they came into the drawing-room, and, as an especial treat, were to sing some of their hymns to me, instead of saying them, so that I might hear how nicely they sang. Ernest was to choose the first hymn, and he chose one about some people who were to come to the sunset tree. I am no botanist, and do not know what kind of tree a sunset tree is, but the words began, “Come, come, come; come to the sunset tree, for the day is past and gone.” The tune was rather pretty and had taken Ernest’s fancy, for he was unusually fond of music and had a sweet little child’s voice which he liked using.

He was, however, very late in being able to sound a hard “c” or “k,” and, instead of saying “Come,” he said “Tum, tum, tum.”

“Ernest,” said Theobald, from the armchair in front of the fire, where he was sitting with his hands folded before him, “don’t you think it would be very nice if you were to say ‘come’ like other people, instead of ‘tum’?”

“I do say tum,” replied Ernest, meaning that he had said “come.”

Theobald was always in a bad temper on Sunday evening. Whether it is that they are as much bored with the day as their neighbours, or whether they are tired, or whatever the cause may be, clergymen are seldom at their best on Sunday evening; I had already seen signs that evening that my host was cross, and was a little nervous at hearing Ernest say so promptly, “I do say tum,” when his papa had said he did not say it as he should.

Theobald noticed the fact that he was being contradicted in a moment. He got up from his armchair and went to the piano.

“No, Ernest, you don’t,” he said, “you say nothing of the kind, you say ‘tum,’ not ‘come.’ Now say ‘come’ after me, as I do.”

“Tum,” said Ernest, at once; “is that better?” I have no doubt he thought it was, but it was not.

“Now, Ernest, you are not taking pains: you are not trying as you ought to do. It is high time you learned to say ‘come’; why, Joey can say ‘come,’ can’t you, Joey?”

“Yeth, I can,” replied Joey, and he said something which was not far off “come.”

“There, Ernest, do you hear that? There’s no difficulty about it, nor shadow of difficulty. Now, take your own time, think about it, and say ‘come’ after me.”

The boy remained silent a few seconds and then said “tum” again.

I laughed, but Theobald turned to me impatiently and said, “Please do not laugh, Overton; it will make the boy think it does not matter, and it matters a great deal”; then turning to Ernest he said, “Now, Ernest, I will give you one more chance, and if you don’t say ‘come,’ I shall know that you are self-willed and naughty.”

He looked very angry, and a shade came over Ernest’s face, like that which comes upon the face of a puppy when it is being scolded without understanding why. The child saw well what was coming now, was frightened, and, of course, said “tum” once more.

“Very well, Ernest,” said his father, catching him angrily by the shoulder. “I have done my best to save you, but if you will have it so, you will,” and he lugged the little wretch, crying by anticipation, out of the room. A few minutes more and we could hear screams coming from the dining-room, across the hall which separated the drawing-room from the dining-room, and knew that poor Ernest was being beaten.

“I have sent him up to bed,” said Theobald, as he returned to in the drawing-room, “and now, Christina, I think we will have the servants in to prayers,” and he rang the bell for them, red-handed as he was.

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