The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 24

THE storm which I have described in the previous chapter was a sample of those that occurred daily for many years. No matter how clear the sky, it was always liable to cloud over now in one quarter now in another, and the thunder and lightning were upon the young people before they knew where they were.

“And then, you know,” said Ernest to me, when I asked him not long since to give me more of his childish reminiscences for the benefit of my story, “we used to learn Mrs. Barbauld’s hymns; they were in prose, and there was one about the lion which began, ‘Come, and I will show you what is strong. The lion is strong; when he raiseth himself from his lair, when he shaketh his mane, when the voice of his roaring is heard the cattle of the field fly, and the beasts of the desert hide themselves, for he is very terrible.’ I used to say this to Joey and Charlotte about my father himself when I got a little older, but they were always didactic, and said it was naughty of me.

“One great reason why clergymen’s households are generally unhappy is because the clergyman is so much at home or close about the house. The doctor is out visiting patients half his time: the lawyer and the merchant have offices away from home, but the clergyman has no official place of business which shall ensure his being away from home for many hours together at stated times. Our great days were when my father went for a day’s shopping to Gildenham. We were some miles from this place, and commissions used to accumulate on my father’s list till he would make a day of it and go and do the lot. As soon as his back was turned the air felt lighter; as soon as the hall door opened to let him in again, the law with its all-reaching ‘touch not, taste not, handle not’ was upon us again. The worst of it was that I could never trust Joey and they would go a good way with me and then turn back, or even the whole way and then their consciences would compel them to tell papa and mamma. They liked running with the hare up to a certain point, but their instinct was towards the hounds.

“It seems to me,” he continued, “that the family is a survival of the principle which is more logically embodied in the compound animal — and the compound animal is a form of life which has been found incompatible with high development. I would do with the family among mankind what nature has done with the compound animal, and confine it to the lower and less progressive races. Certainly there is no inherent love for the family system on the part of nature herself. Poll the forms of life and you will find it in a ridiculously small minority. The fishes know it not, and they get along quite nicely. The ants and the bees, who far outnumber man, sting their fathers to death as a matter of course, and are given to the atrocious mutilation of nine-tenths of the offspring committed to their charge, yet where shall we find communities more universally respected? Take the cuckoo again — is there any bird which we like better?”

I saw he was running off from his own reminiscences and tried to bring him back to them, but it was no use.

“What a fool,” he said, “a man is to remember anything that happened more than a week ago unless it was pleasant, or unless he wants to make some use of it.

“Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime. A man at five-and-thirty should no more regret not having had a happier childhood than he should regret not having been born a prince of the blood. He might be happier if he had been more fortunate in childhood, but, for aught he knows, if he had, something else might have happened which might have killed him long ago. If I had to be born again I would be born at Battersby of the same father and mother as before, and I would not alter anything that has ever happened to me.”

The most amusing incident that I can remember about his childhood was that when he was about seven years old he told me he was going to have a natural child. I asked him his reasons for thinking this, and he explained that papa and mamma had always told him that nobody had children till they were married, and as long as he had believed this of course he had had no idea of having a child till he was grown-up; but not long since he had been reading Mrs. Markham’s history of England and had come upon the words, “John of Gaunt had several natural children”; he had therefore asked his governess what a natural child was — were not all children natural?

“Oh, my dear,” said she, “a natural child is a child a person has before he is married.” On this it seemed to follow logically that if John of Gaunt had had children before he was married, he, Ernest Pontifex, might have them also, and he would be obliged to me if I would tell him what he had better do under the circumstances.

I enquired how long ago he had made this discovery. He said about a fortnight, and he did not know where to look for the child, for it might come at any moment. “You know,” he said, “babies come so suddenly; one goes to bed one night and next morning there is a baby. Why, it might die of cold if we are not on the lookout for it. I hope it will be a boy.”

“And you have told your governess about this?”

“Yes, but she puts me off and does not help me: she says it will not come for many years, and she hopes not then.”

“Are you quite sure that you have not made any mistake in all this?”

“Oh, no; because Mrs. Burne, you know, called here a few days ago, and I was sent for to be looked at. And mamma held me out at arm’s length and said, ‘Is he Mr. Pontifex’s child, Mrs. Burne, or is he mine?’ Of course, she couldn’t have said this if papa had not had some of the children himself. I did think the gentleman had all the boys and the lady all the girls; but it can’t be like this, or else mamma would not have asked Mrs. Burne to guess; but then Mrs. Burne said, ‘Oh, he’s Mr. Pontifex’s child of course,’ and I didn’t quite know what she meant by saying ‘of course’: it seemed as though I was right in thinking that the husband has all the boys and the wife all the girls; I wish you would explain to me all about it.”

This I could hardly do, so I changed the conversation, after reassuring him as best I could.

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