The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 30

NEXT morning Theobald and Christina arose feeling a little tired from their journey, but happy in that best of all happiness, the approbation of their consciences. It would be their boy’s fault henceforth if he were not good, and as prosperous as it was at all desirable that he should be. What more could parents do than they had done? The answer “Nothing” will rise as readily to the lips of the reader as to those of Theobald and Christina themselves.

A few days later the parents were gratified at receiving the following letter from their son —

“MY DEAR MAMMA — I am very well. Dr. Skinner made me do about the horse free and exulting roaming in the wide fields in Latin verse, but as I had done it with Papa I knew how to do it, and it was nearly all right, and he put me in the fourth form under Mr. Templer, and I have to begin a new Latin grammar not like the old, but much harder. I know you wish me to work, and I will try very hard. With best love to Joey and Charlotte, and to Papa, I remain, your affectionate son,

— “ERNEST.”

Nothing could be nicer or more proper. It really did seem as though he were inclined to turn over a new leaf. The boys had all come back, the examinations were over, and the routine of the half year began; Ernest found that his fears about being kicked about and bullied were exaggerated. Nobody did anything very dreadful to him. He had to run errands between certain hours for the elder boys, and to take his turn at greasing the footballs, and so forth, but there was an excellent spirit in the school as regards bullying.

Nevertheless, he was far from happy. Dr. Skinner was much too like his father. True, Ernest was not thrown in with him much yet, but he was always there; there was no knowing at what moment he might not put in an appearance, and whenever he did show, it was to storm about something. He was like the lion in the Bishop of Oxford’s Sunday story — always liable to rush out from behind some bush and devour someone when he was least expected. He called Ernest “an audacious reptile” and said he wondered the earth did not open and swallow him up because he pronounced Thalia with a short i. “And this to me,” he thundered, “who never made a false quantity in my life.” Surely he would have been a much nicer person if he had made false quantities in his youth like other people. Ernest could not imagine how the boys in Dr. Skinner’s form continued to live; but yet they did, and even throve, and, strange as it may seem, idolised him, or professed to do so, in after life. To Ernest it seemed like living on the crater of Vesuvius.

He was himself, as has been said, in Mr. Templer’s form, who was snappish, but not downright wicked, and was very easy to crib under. Ernest used to wonder how Mr. Templer could be so blind, for he supposed Mr. Templer must have cribbed when he was at school, and would ask himself whether he should forget his youth when he got old, as Mr. Templer had forgotten his. He used to think he never could possibly forget any part of it.

Then there was Mrs. Jay, who was sometimes very alarming. A few days after the half year had commenced, there being some little extra noise in the hall, she rushed in with her spectacles on her forehead and her cap strings flying, and called the boy whom Ernest had selected as his hero the “rampingest-scampingest-rackety-tackety-tow-row-roaringest boy in the whole school.” But she used to say things that Ernest liked. If the Doctor went out to dinner, and there were no prayers, she would come in and say, “Young gentlemen, prayers are excused this evening”; and, take her for all in all, she was a kindly old soul enough.

Most boys soon discover the difference between noise and actual danger, but to others it is so unnatural to menace, unless they mean mischief, that they are long before they leave off taking turkey-cocks and ganders au serieux. Ernest was one of the latter sort, and found the atmosphere of Roughborough so gusty that he was glad to shrink out of sight and out of mind whenever he could. He disliked the games worse even than the squalls of the class-room and hall, for he was still feeble, not filling out and attaining his full strength till a much later age than most boys. This was perhaps due to the closeness with which his father had kept him to his books in childhood, but I think in part also to a tendency towards lateness in attaining maturity, hereditary in the Pontifex family, which was one also of unusual longevity. At thirteen or fourteen he was a mere bag of bones, with upper arms about as thick as the wrists of other boys of his age; his little chest was pigeon-breasted; he appeared to have no strength or stamina whatever, and finding he always went to the wall in physical encounters, whether undertaken in or earnest, even with boys shorter than himself, the timidity natural to childhood increased upon him to an extent that I am afraid amounted to cowardice. This rendered him even less capable than he might otherwise have been, for as confidence increases power, so want of confidence increases impotence. After he had had the breath knocked out of him and been well shinned half a dozen times in scrimmages at football — scrimmages in which he had become involved sorely against his will — he ceased to see any further fun in football, and shirked that noble game in a way that got him into trouble with the elder boys, who would stand no shirking on the part of the younger ones.

He was as useless and ill at ease with cricket as with football, nor in spite of all his efforts could he ever throw a ball or a stone. It soon became plain, therefore, to everyone that Pontifex was a young muff, a mollycoddle, not to be tortured, but still not to be rated highly. He was not, however, actively unpopular, for it was seen that he was quite square inter pares, not at all vindictive, easily pleased, perfectly free with whatever little money he had, no greater lover of his school work than of the games, and generally more inclinable to moderate vice than to immoderate virtue.

These qualities will prevent any boy from sinking very low in the opinion of his schoolfellows; but Ernest thought he had fallen lower than he probably had, and hated and despised himself for what he, as much as anyone else, believed to be his cowardice. He did not like the boys whom he thought like himself. His heroes were strong and vigorous, and the less they inclined towards him the more he worshipped them. All this made him very unhappy, for it never occurred to him that the instinct which made him keep out of games for which he was ill adapted, was more reasonable than the reason which would have driven him into them. Nevertheless he followed his instinct for the most part, rather than his reason. Sapiens suam si sapientiam norit.

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