The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 23

THE manservant William came and set the chairs for the maids, and presently they filed in. First Christina’s maid, then the cook, then the housemaid, then William, and then the coachman. I sat opposite them, and watched their faces as Theobald read a chapter from the Bible. They were nice people, but more absolute vacancy I never saw upon the countenances of human beings.

Theobald began by reading a few verses from the Old Testament, according to some system of his own. On this occasion the passage came from the fifteenth chapter of Numbers: it had no particular bearing that I could see upon anything which was going on just then, but the spirit which breathed throughout the whole seemed to me to be so like that of Theobald himself, that I could understand better after hearing it, how he came to think as he thought, and act as he acted.

The verses are as follows —

“But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously, whether he be born in the land or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

“Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken His commandments, that soul shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.

“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day.

“And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

“And they put him in ward because it was not declared what should be done to him.

“And the Lord said unto Moses, the man shall be surely put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

“And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.

“And the Lord spake unto Moses,

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue.

“And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them, and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes.

“That ye may remember and do all my commandments and be holy unto your God.

“I am the Lord your God which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

My thoughts wandered while Theobald was reading the above, and reverted to a little matter which I had observed in the course of the afternoon.

It happened that some years previously a swarm of bees had taken up their abode in the roof of the house under the slates, and had multiplied so that the drawing-room was a good deal frequented by these bees during the summer, when the windows were open. The drawing-room paper was of a pattern which consisted of bunches of red and white roses, and I saw several bees at different times fly up to these bunches and try them, under the impression that they were real flowers; having tried one bunch, they tried the next, and the next, and the next, till they reached the one that was nearest the ceiling, then they went down bunch by bunch as they had ascended, till they were stopped by the back of the sofa; on this they ascended bunch by bunch to the ceiling again; and so on, and so on till I was tired of watching them. As I thought of the family prayers being repeated night and morning, week by week, month by month, and year by year, I could not help thinking how like it was to the way in which the bees went up the wall and down the wall, bunch by bunch, without ever suspecting that so many of the associated ideas could be present, and yet the main idea be wanting hopelessly, and for ever.

When Theobald had finished reading we all knelt down and the Carlo Dolci and the Sassoferrato looked down upon a sea of upturned backs, as we buried our faces in our chairs. I noted that Theobald prayed that we might be made “truly honest and conscientious” in all our dealings, and smiled at the introduction of the “truly.” Then my thoughts ran back to the bees and I reflected that after all it was perhaps as well, at any rate for Theobald, that our prayers were seldom marked by any very encouraging degree of response, for if I had thought there was the slightest chance of my being heard I should have prayed that someone might ere long treat him as he had treated Ernest.

Then my thoughts wandered on to those calculations which people make about waste of time and how much one can get done if one gives ten minutes a day to it, and I was thinking what improper suggestion I could make in connection with this and the time spent on family prayers which should at the same time be tolerable, when I heard Theobald beginning, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and in a few seconds the ceremony was over, and the servants filed out again as they had filed in.

As soon as they had left the drawing-room Christina, who was a little ashamed of the transaction to which I had been a witness, imprudently returned to it, and began to justify it, saying that it cut her to the heart, and that it cut Theobald to the heart and a good deal more, but that “it was the only thing to be done.”

I received this as coldly as I decently could, and by my silence during the rest of the evening showed that I disapproved of what I had seen.

Next day I was to go back to London, but before I went I said I should like to take some new-laid eggs back with me, so Theobald took me to the house of a labourer in the village who lived a stone’s throw from the Rectory as being likely to supply me with them. Ernest, for some reason or other, was allowed to come too. I think the hens had begun to sit, but at any rate eggs were scarce, and the cottager’s wife could not find me more than seven or eight, which we proceeded to wrap up in separate pieces of paper so that I might take them to town safely.

This operation was carried on upon the ground in front of the cottage door, and while we were in the midst of it the cottager’s little boy, a lad much about Ernest’s age, trod upon one of the eggs that was wrapped up in paper and broke it.

“There now, Jack,” said his mother, “see what you’ve done, you’ve broken a nice egg and cost me a penny — here, Emma,” she added, calling her daughter, “take the child away, there’s a dear.”

Emma came at once, and walked off with the youngster, taking him out of harm’s way.

“Papa,” said Ernest, after we had left the house, “why didn’t Mrs. Heaton whip Jack when he trod on the egg?”

I was spiteful enough to give Theobald a grim smile which said as plainly as words could have done that I thought Ernest had hit him rather hard.

Theobald coloured and looked angry. “I daresay,” he said quickly, “that his mother will whip him now that we are gone.”

I was not going to have this and said I did not believe it, and so the matter dropped, but Theobald did not forget it, and my visits to Battersby were henceforth less frequent.

On our return to the house we found the postman had arrived and had brought a letter appointing Theobald to a rural deanery which had lately fallen vacant by the death of one of the neighbouring clergy who had held the office for many years. The bishop wrote to Theobald most warmly, and assured him that he valued him as among the most hard-working and devoted of his parochial clergy. Christina, of course, was delighted, and gave me to understand that it was only an instalment of the much higher dignities which were in store for Theobald when his merits were more widely known.

I did not then foresee how closely my godson’s life and mine were in after-years to be bound up together; if I had, I should doubtless have looked upon him with different eyes and noted much to which I paid no attention at the time. As it was, I was glad to get away from him, for I could do nothing for him, or chose to say that I could not, and the sight of so much suffering was painful to me. A man should not only have his own way as far as possible, but he should only consort with things that are getting their own way so far that they are at any rate comfortable. Unless for short times under exceptional circumstances, he should not even see things that have been stunted or starved, much less should he eat meat that has been vexed by having been over-driven or underfed, or afflicted with any disease; nor should he touch vegetables that have not been well grown. For all these things cross a man; whatever a man comes in contact with in any way forms a cross with him which will leave him better or worse, and the better things he is crossed with the more likely he is to live long and happily. All things must be crossed a little or they would cease to live — but holy things, such for example as Giovanni Bellini’s saints, have been crossed with nothing but what is good of its kind.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/b98w/chapter23.html

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