The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 28

ERNEST had heard awful accounts of Dr. Skinner’s temper, and of the bullying which the younger boys at Roughborough had to put up with at the hands of the bigger ones. He had now got about as much as he could stand, and felt as though it must go hard with him if his burdens of whatever kind were to be increased. He did not cry on leaving home, but I am afraid he did on being told that he was getting near Roughborough. His father and mother were with him, having posted from home in their own carriage; Roughborough had as yet no railway, and as it was only some forty miles from Battersby, this was the easiest way of getting there.

On seeing him cry, his mother felt flattered and caressed him. She said she knew he must feel very sad at leaving such a happy home, and going among people who, though they would be very good to him, could never, never be as good as his dear papa and she had been; still, she was herself, if he only knew it, much more deserving of pity than he was, for the parting was more painful to her than it could possibly be to him, etc., and Ernest, on being told that his tears were for grief at leaving home, took it all on trust, and did not trouble to investigate the real cause of his tears. As they approached Roughborough he pulled himself together, and was fairly calm by the time he reached Dr. Skinner’s.

On their arrival they had luncheon with the Doctor and his wife, and then Mrs. Skinner took Christina over the bedrooms, and showed her where her dear little boy was to sleep.

Whatever men may think about the study of man, women do really believe the noblest study for womankind to be woman, and Christina was too much engrossed with Mrs. Skinner to pay much attention to anything else; I daresay Mrs. Skinner, too, was taking pretty accurate stock of Christina. Christina was charmed, as indeed she generally was with any new acquaintance, for she found in them (and so must we all) something of the nature of a cross; as for Mrs. Skinner, I imagine she had seen too many Christinas to find much regeneration in the sample now before her; I believe her private opinion echoed the dictum of a well-known head-master who declared that all parents were fools, but more especially mothers; she was, however, all smiles and sweetness, and Christina devoured these graciously as tributes paid more particularly to herself, and such as no other mother would have been at all likely to have won.

In the meantime Theobald and Ernest were with Dr. Skinner in his library — the room where new boys were examined and old ones had up for rebuke or chastisement. If the walls of that room could speak, what an amount of blundering and capricious cruelty would they not bear witness to!

Like all houses, Dr. Skinner’s had its peculiar smell. In this case the prevailing odour was one of Russia leather, but along with it there was a subordinate savour as of a chemist’s shop. This came from a small laboratory in one corner of the room — the possession of which, together with the free chattery and smattery use of such words as “carbonate,” “hyposulphite,” “phosphate,” and “affinity,” were enough to convince even the most sceptical that Dr. Skinner had a profound knowledge of chemistry.

I may say in passing that Dr. Skinner had dabbled in a great many other things as well as chemistry. He was a man of many small knowledges, and each of them dangerous. I remember Alethea Pontifex once said in her wicked way to me, that Dr. Skinner put her in mind of the Bourbon princes on their return from exile after the battle of Waterloo, only that he was their exact converse; for whereas they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, Dr. Skinner had learned everything and forgotten everything. And this puts me in mind of another of her wicked sayings about Dr. Skinner. She told me one day that he had the harmlessness of the serpent and the wisdom of the dove.

But to return to Dr. Skinner’s library; over the chimney-piece there was a Bishop’s half length portrait of Dr. Skinner himself, painted by the elder Pickersgill, whose merit Dr. Skinner had been among the first to discern and foster. There were no other pictures in the library, but in the dining-room there was a fine collection, which the Doctor had got together with his usual consummate taste. He added to it largely in later life, and when it came to the hammer at Christie’s, as it did not long since, it was found to comprise many of the latest and most matured works of Solomon Hart, O’Neil, Charles Landseer, and more of our recent Academicians than I can at the moment remember. There were thus brought together and exhibited at one view many works which had attracted attention at the Academy Exhibitions, and as to whose ultimate destiny there had been some curiosity. The prices realised were disappointing to the executors, but, then, these things are so much a matter of chance. An unscrupulous writer in a well-known weekly paper had written the collection down. Moreover there had been one or two large sales a short time before Dr. Skinner’s, so that at this last there was rather a panic, and a reaction against the high prices that had ruled lately.

The table of the library was loaded with books many deep; MSS. of all kinds were confusedly mixed up with them — boys’ exercises, probably, and examination papers — but all littering untidily about. The room in fact was as depressing from its slatternliness as from its atmosphere of erudition. Theobald and Ernest, as they entered it, stumbled over a large hole in the Turkey carpet, and the dust that rose showed how long it was since it had been taken up and beaten. This, I should say, was no fault of Mrs. Skinner’s but was due to the Doctor himself, who declared that if his papers were once disturbed it would be the death of him. Near the window was a green cage containing a pair of turtle doves, whose plaintive cooing added to the melancholy of the place. The walls were covered with book shelves from floor to ceiling, and on every shelf the books stood in double rows. It was horrible. Prominent among the most prominent upon the most prominent shelf were a series of splendidly bound volumes entitled “Skinner’s Works.”

Boys are sadly apt to rush to conclusions, and Ernest believed that Dr. Skinner knew all the books in this terrible library, and that he, if he were to be any good, should have to learn them too. His heart fainted within him.

He was told to sit on a chair against the wall and did so, while Dr. Skinner talked to Theobald upon the topics of the day. He talked about the Hampden Controversy then raging, and discoursed learnedly about “Praemunire”; then he talked about the revolution which had just broken out in Sicily, and rejoiced that the Pope had refused to allow foreign troops to pass through his dominions in order to crush it. Dr. Skinner and the other masters took in the Times among them, and Dr. Skinner echoed the Times’ leaders. In those days there were no penny papers and Theobald only took in the Spectator — for he was at that time on the Whig side in politics; besides this he used to receive the Ecclesiastical Gazette once a month, but he saw no other papers, and was amazed at the ease and fluency with which Dr. Skinner ran from subject to subject.

The Pope’s action in the matter of the Sicilian revolution naturally led the Doctor to the reforms which his Holiness had introduced into his dominions, and he laughed consumedly over the joke which had not long since appeared in Punch, to the effect that Pio “No, No,” should rather have been named Pio “Yes, Yes,” because, as the Doctor explained, he granted everything his subjects asked for. Anything like a pun went straight to Dr. Skinner’s heart.

Then he went on to the matter of these reforms themselves. They opened up a new era in the history of Christendom, and would have such momentous and far-reaching consequences, that they might even lead to a reconciliation between the Churches of England and Rome. Dr. Skinner had lately published a pamphlet upon this subject, which had shown great learning, and had attacked the Church of Rome in a way which did not promise much hope of reconciliation. He had grounded his attack upon the letters A.M.D.G., which he had seen outside a Roman Catholic chapel, and which of course stood for Ad Mariam Dei Genetricem. Could anything be more idolatrous?

I am told, by the way, that I must have let my memory play me one of the tricks it often does play me, when I said the Doctor proposed Ad Mariam Dei Genetricem as the full harmonies, so to speak, which should be constructed upon the bass A.M.D.G., for that this is bad Latin, and that the doctor really harmonised the letters thus: Ave Maria Dei Genetrix. No doubt the Doctor did what was right in the matter of Latinity — I have forgotten the little Latin I ever knew, and am not going to look the matter up, but I believe the Doctor said Ad Mariam Dei Genetricem, and if so we may be sure that Ad Mariam Dei Genetricem is good enough Latin at any rate for ecclesiastical purposes.

The reply of the local priest had not yet appeared, and Dr. Skinner was jubilant, but when the answer appeared, and it was solemnly declared that A.M.D.G. stood for nothing more dangerous than Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, it was felt that though this subterfuge would not succeed with any intelligent Englishman, still it was a pity Dr. Skinner had selected this particular point for his attack, for he had to leave his enemy in possession of the field. When people are left in possession of the field, spectators have an awkward habit of thinking that their adversary does not dare to come to the scratch.

Dr. Skinner was telling Theobald all about his pamphlet, and I doubt whether this gentleman was much more comfortable than Ernest himself. He was bored, for in his heart he hated Liberalism, though he was ashamed to say so, and, as I have said, professed to be on the Whig side. He did not want to be reconciled to the Church of Rome; he wanted to make all Roman Catholics turn Protestants, and could never understand why they would not do so; but the Doctor talked in such a truly liberal spirit, and shut him up so sharply when he tried to edge in a word or two, that he had to let him have it all his own way, and this was not what he was accustomed to. He was wondering how he could bring it to an end, when a diversion was created by the discovery that Ernest had begun to cry — doubtless through an intense but inarticulate sense of a boredom greater than he could bear. He was evidently in a highly nervous state, and a good deal upset by the excitement of the morning; Mrs. Skinner therefore, who came in with Christina at this juncture, proposed that he should spend the afternoon with Mrs. Jay, the matron, and not be introduced to his young companions until the following morning. His father and mother now bade him an affectionate farewell, and the lad was handed over to Mrs. Jay.

O schoolmasters — if any of you read this book — bear in mind when any particularly timid, drivelling urchin is brought by his papa into your study, and you treat him with the contempt which he deserves, and afterwards make his life a burden to him for years — bear in mind that it is exactly in the disguise of such a boy as this that your future chronicler will appear. Never see a wretched little heavy-eyed mite sitting on the edge of a chair against your study wall without saying to yourselves, “Perhaps this boy is he who, if I am not careful, will one day tell the world what manner of man I was.” If even two or three schoolmasters learn this lesson and remember it, the preceding chapters will not have been written in vain.

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