The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 29

SOON after his father and mother had left him Ernest dropped asleep over a book which Mrs. Jay had given him, and he did not awake till dusk. Then he sat down on a stool in front of the fire, which showed pleasantly in the late January twilight, and began to muse. He felt weak, feeble, ill at ease, and unable to see his way out of the innumerable troubles that were before him. Perhaps, he said to himself, he might even die, but this, far from being an end of his troubles, would prove the beginning of new ones; for at the best he would only go to Grandpapa Pontifex and Grandmamma Allaby, and though they would perhaps be more easy to get on with than papa and mamma, yet they were undoubtedly not so really good, and were more worldly; moreover they were grown-up people — especially Grandpapa Pontifex, who so far as he could understand had been very much grown-up, and he did not know why, but there was always something that kept him from loving any grown-up people very much — except one or two of the servants, who had indeed been as nice as anything that he could imagine. Besides even if he were to die and go to Heaven he supposed he should have to complete his education somewhere.

In the meantime his father and mother were rolling along the muddy roads, each in his or her own corner of the carriage, and each revolving many things which were and were not to come to pass. Times have changed since I last showed them to the reader as sitting together silently in a carriage, but except as regards their mutual relations, they have altered singularly little. When I was younger I used to think the Prayer Book was wrong in requiring us to say the General Confession twice a week from childhood to old age, without making provision for our not being quite such great sinners at seventy as we had been at seven; granted that we should go to the wash like table-cloths at least once a week, still I used to think a day ought to come when we should want rather less rubbing and scrubbing at. Now that I have grown older myself I have seen that the Church has estimated probabilities better than I had done.

The pair said not a word to one another, but watched the fading light and naked trees, the brown fields with here and there a melancholy cottage by the roadside, and the rain that fell fast upon the carriage windows. It was a kind of afternoon on which nice people for the most part like to be snug at home, and Theobald was a little snappish at reflecting how many miles he had to post before he could be at his own fireside again. However, there was nothing for it, so the pair sat quietly and watched the roadside objects flit by them, and get greyer and grimmer as the light faded.

Though they spoke not to one another, there was one nearer to each of them with whom they could converse freely. “I hope,” said Theobald to himself, “I hope he’ll work — or else that Skinner will make him. I don’t like Skinner, I never did like him, but he is unquestionably a man of genius, and no one turns out so many pupils who succeed at Oxford and Cambridge, and that is the best test. I have done my share towards starting him well. Skinner said he had been well grounded and was very forward. I suppose he will presume upon it now and do nothing, for his nature is an idle one. He is not fond of me, I’m sure he is not. He ought to be after all the trouble I have taken with him, but he is ungrateful and selfish. It is an unnatural thing for a boy not to be fond of his own father. If he was fond of me I should be fond of him, but I cannot like a son who, I am sure, dislikes me. He shrinks out of my way whenever he sees me coming near him. He will not stay five minutes in the same room with me if he can help it. He is deceitful. He would not want to hide himself away so much if he were not deceitful. That is a bad sign and one which makes me fear he will grow up extravagant. I am sure he will grow up extravagant. I should have given him more pocket-money if I had not known this — but what is the good of giving him pocket-money? It is all gone directly. If he doesn’t buy something with it he gives it away to the first little boy or girl he sees who takes his fancy. He forgets that it’s my money he is giving away. I give him money that he may have money and learn to know its uses, not that he may go and squander it immediately. I wish he was not so fond of music; it will interfere with his Latin and Greek. I will stop it as much as I can. Why, when he was translating Livy the other day he slipped out Handel’s name in mistake for Hannibal’s, and his mother tells me he knows half the tunes in the ‘Messiah’ by heart. What should a boy of his age know about the ‘Messiah’? I had shown half as many dangerous tendencies when I was a boy, my father would have apprenticed me to a greengrocer, of that I’m very sure,” etc., etc.

Then his thoughts turned to Egypt and the tenth plague. It seemed to him that if the little Egyptians had been anything like Ernest, the plague must have been something very like a blessing in disguise. If the Israelites were to come to England now he should be greatly tempted not to let them go.

Mrs. Theobald’s thoughts ran in a different current. “Lord Lonsford’s grandson — it’s a pity his name is Figgins; however, blood is blood as much through the female line as the male; indeed, perhaps even more so if the truth were known. I wonder who Mr. Figgins was. I think Mrs. Skinner said he was dead; however, I must find out all about him. It would be delightful if young Figgins were to ask Ernest home for the holidays. Who knows but he might meet Lord Lonsford himself, or at any rate some of Lord Lonsford’s other descendants?”

Meanwhile the boy himself was still sitting moodily before the fire in Mrs. Jay’s room. “Papa and mamma,” he was saying to himself, “are much better and cleverer than anyone else, but, I, alas! shall never be either good or clever.”

Mrs. Pontifex continued —

“Perhaps it would be best to get young Figgins on a visit to ourselves first. That would be charming. Theobald would not like it, for he does not like children; I must see how I can manage it, for it would be so nice to have young Figgins — or stay! Ernest shall go and stay with Figgins and meet the future Lord Lonsford, who I should think must be about Ernest’s age, and then if he and Ernest were to become friends Ernest might ask him to Battersby, and he might fall in love with Charlotte. I think we have done most wisely in sending Ernest to Dr. Skinner’s. Dr. Skinner’s piety is no less remarkable than his genius. One can tell these things at a glance, and he must have felt it about me no less strongly than I about him. I think he seemed much struck with Theobald and myself — indeed, Theobald’s intellectual power must impress anyone, and I was showing, I do believe, to my best advantage. When I smiled at him and said I left my boy in his hands with the most entire confidence that he would be as well cared for as if he were at my own house, I am sure he was greatly pleased. I should not think many of the mothers who bring him boys can impress him so favourably, or say such nice things to him as I did. My smile is sweet when I desire to make it so. I never was perhaps exactly pretty, but I was always admitted to be fascinating. Dr. Skinner is a very handsome man — too good on the whole I should say for Mrs. Skinner. Theobald says he is not handsome, but men are no judges, and he has such a pleasant, bright face. I think my bonnet became me. As soon as I get home I will tell Chambers to trim my blue and yellow merino with-” etc., etc.

All this time the letter which has been given above was lying in Christina’s private little Japanese cabinet, read and re-read and approved of many times over, not to say, if the truth were known, rewritten more than once, though dated as in the first instance — and this, too, though Christina was fond enough of a joke in a small way.

Ernest, still in Mrs. Jay’s room, mused onward. “Grown-up people,” he said to himself, “when they were ladies and gentlemen, never did naughty things, but he was always doing them. He had heard that some grown-up people were worldly, which of course was wrong, still this was quite distinct from being naughty, and did not get them punished or scolded. His own papa and mamma were not even worldly; they had often explained to him that they were exceptionally unworldly; he well knew that they had never done anything naughty since they had been children, and that even as children they had been nearly faultless. Oh, how different from himself! When should he learn to love his papa and mamma as they had loved theirs? How could he hope ever to grow up to be as good and wise as they, or even tolerably good and wise? Alas! never. It could not be. He did not love his papa and mamma, in spite of all their goodness both in themselves and to him. He hated papa, and did not like mamma, and this was what none but a bad and ungrateful boy would do after all that had been done for him. Besides, he did not like Sunday; he did not like anything that was really good; his tastes were low and such as he was ashamed of. He liked people best if they sometimes swore a little, so long as it was not at him. As for his Catechism and Bible readings he had no heart in them. He had never attended to a sermon in his life. Even when he had been taken to hear Mr. Vaughan at Brighton, who, as everyone knew, preached such beautiful sermons for children, he had been very glad when it was all over, nor did he believe he could get through church at all if it was not for the voluntary upon the organ and the hymns and chanting. The Catechism was awful. He had never been able to understand what it was that he desired of his Lord God and Heavenly Father, nor had he yet got hold of a single idea in connection with the word Sacrament. His duty towards his neighbour was another bugbear. It seemed to him that he had duties towards everybody, lying in wait for him upon every side, but that nobody had any duties towards him. Then there was that awful and mysterious word ‘business.’ What did it all mean? What was ‘business’? His papa was a wonderfully good man of business, his mamma had often told him so — but he should never be one. It was hopeless, and very awful, for people were continually telling him that he would have to earn his own living. No doubt, but how — considering how stupid, idle, ignorant, self-indulgent, and physically puny he was? All grown-up people were clever, except servants — and even these were cleverer than ever he should be. Oh, why, why, why, could not people be born into the world as grown-up persons? Then he thought of Casabianca. He had been examined in that poem by his father not long before. ‘When only would he leave his position? To whom did he call? Did he get an answer? Why? How many times did he call upon his father? What happened to him? What was the noblest life that perished there? Do you think so? Why do you think so?’ And all the rest of it. Of course he thought Casabianca’s was the noblest life that perished there; there could be no two opinions about that; it never occurred to him that the moral of the poem was that young people cannot begin too soon to exercise discretion in the obedience they pay to their papa and mamma. Oh, no! the only thought in his mind was that he should never, never have been like Casabianca, and that Casabianca would have despised him so much, if he could have known him, that he would not have condescended to speak to him. There was nobody else in the ship worth reckoning at all: it did not matter how much they were blown up. Mrs. Hemans knew them all and they were a very indifferent lot. Besides, Casabianca was so good-looking and came of such a good family.”

And thus his small mind kept wandering on till he could follow it no longer, and again went off into a doze.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/b98w/chapter29.html

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