The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 33

NEXT day Miss Pontifex returned to town, with her thoughts full of her nephew and how she could best be of use to him.

It appeared to her that to do him any real service she must devote herself almost entirely to him; she must in fact give up living in London, at any rate for a long time, and live at Roughborough where she could see him continually. This was a serious undertaking; she had lived in London for the last twelve years, and naturally disliked the prospect of a small country town such as Roughborough. Was it a prudent thing to attempt so much? Must not people take their chances in this world? Can anyone do much for anyone else unless by making a will in his favour and dying then and there? Should not each look after his own happiness, and will not the world be best carried on if everyone minds his own business and leaves other people to mind theirs? Life is not a donkey race in which everyone is to ride his neighbour’s donkey and the last is to win, and the psalmist long since formulated a common experience when he declared that no man may deliver his brother nor make agreement unto God for him, for it cost more to redeem their souls, so that he must let that alone for ever.

All these excellent reasons for letting her nephew alone occurred to her, and many more, but against them there pleaded a woman’s love for children, and her desire to find someone among the younger branches of her own family to whom she could become warmly attached, and whom she could attach warmly to herself.

Over and above this she wanted someone to leave her money to; she was not going to leave it to people about whom she knew very little, merely because they happened to be sons and daughters of brothers and sisters whom she had never liked. She knew the power and value of money exceedingly well, and how many lovable people suffer and die yearly for the want of it; she was little likely to leave it without being satisfied that her legatees were square, lovable, and more or less hard up. She wanted those to have it who would be most likely to use it genially and sensibly, and whom it would thus be likely to make most happy; if she could find one such among her nephews and nieces, so much the better; it was worth taking a great deal of pains to see whether she could or could not; but if she failed, she must find an heir who was not related to her by blood.

“Of course,” she had said to me, more than once, “I shall make a mess of it. I shall choose some nice-looking, well-dressed screw, with gentlemanly manners which will take me in, and he will go and paint Academy pictures, or write for the Times, or do something just as horrid the moment the breath is out of my body.”

As yet, however, she had made no will at all, and this was one of the few things that troubled her. I believe she would have left most of her money to me if I had not stopped her. My father left me abundantly well off, and my mode of life has been always simple, so that I have never known uneasiness about money; moreover I was especially anxious that there should be no occasion given for ill-natured talk; she knew well, therefore, that her leaving her money to me would be of all things the most likely to weaken the ties that existed between us, provided that I was aware of it, but I did not mind her talking about whom she should make her heir, so long as it was well understood that I was not to be the person.

Ernest had satisfied her as having enough in him to tempt her strongly to take him up, but it was not till after many days’ reflection that she gravitated towards actually doing so, with all the break in her daily ways that this would entail. At least, she said it took her some days, and certainly it appeared to do so, but from the moment she had begun to broach the subject, I had guessed how things were going to end.

It was now arranged she should take a house at Roughborough, and go and live there for a couple of years. As a compromise, however, to meet some of my objections, it was also arranged that she should keep her rooms in Gower Street, and come to town for a week once in each month; of course, also, she would leave Roughborough for the greater part of the holidays. After two years, the thing was to come to an end, unless it proved a great success. She should by that time, at any rate, have made up her mind what the boy’s character was, and would then act as circumstances might determine.

The pretext she put forward ostensibly was that her doctor said she ought to be a year or two in the country after so many years of London life, and had recommended Roughborough on account of the purity of its air, and its easy access to and from London — for by this time the railway had reached it. She was anxious not to give her brother and sister any right to complain, if on seeing more of her nephew she found she could not get on with him, and she was also anxious not to raise false hopes of any kind in the boy’s own mind.

Having settled how everything was to be, she wrote to Theobald and said she meant to take a house in Roughborough from the Michaelmas then approaching, and mentioned, as though casually, that one of the attractions of the place would be that her nephew was at school there and she should hope to see more of him than she had done hitherto.

Theobald and Christina knew how dearly Alethea loved London and thought it very odd that she should want to go and live at Roughborough, but they did not suspect that she was going there solely on her nephew’s account, much less that she had thought of making Ernest her heir. If they had guessed this, they would have been so that I half believe they would have asked her to go and live somewhere else. Alethea, however, was two or three years younger than Theobald; she was still some years short of fifty, and might very well live to eighty-five or ninety; her money, therefore, was not worth taking much trouble about, and her brother and sister-in-law had dismissed it, so to speak, from their minds with costs, assuming, however, that if anything did happen to her while they were still alive, the money would, as a matter of course, come to them.

The prospect of Alethea seeing much of Ernest was a serious matter. Christina smelt mischief from afar, as indeed she often did. Alethea was worldly — as worldly, that is to say, as a sister of Theobald’s could be. In her letter to Theobald she had said she knew how much of his and Christina’s thoughts were taken up with anxiety for the boy’s welfare. Alethea had thought this handsome enough, but Christina had wanted something better and stronger. “How can she know how much we think of our darling?” she had exclaimed, when Theobald showed her his sister’s letter. “I think, my dear, Alethea would understand these things better if she had children of her own.” The least that would have satisfied Christina was to have been told that there never yet had been any parents comparable to Theobald and herself. She did not feel easy that an alliance of some kind would not grow up between aunt and nephew, and neither she nor Theobald wanted Ernest to have any allies. Joey and Charlotte were quite as many allies as were good for him. After all, however, if Alethea chose to go and live at Roughborough, they could not well stop her, and must make the best of it.

In a few weeks’ time Alethea did choose to go and live at Roughborough. A house was found with a field and a nice little garden which suited her very well. “At any rate,” she said to herself, “I will have fresh eggs and flowers.” She even considered the question of keeping a cow, but in the end decided not to do so. She furnished her house throughout anew, taking nothing whatever from her establishment in Gower Street, and by Michaelmas — for the house was empty when she took it — she was settled comfortably, and had begun to make herself at home.

One of Miss Pontifex’s first moves was to ask a dozen of the smartest and most gentlemanly boys to breakfast with her. From her seat in church she could see the faces of the upper-form boys, and soon made up her mind which of them it would be best to cultivate. Miss Pontifex, sitting opposite the boys in church, and reckoning them up with her keen eyes from under her veil by all a woman’s criteria, came to a truer conclusion about the greater number of those she scrutinized than even Dr. Skinner had done. She fell in love with one boy from seeing him put on his gloves.

Miss Pontifex, as I have said, got hold of some of these youngsters through Ernest, and fed them well. No boy can resist being fed well by a good-natured and still handsome woman. Boys are very like nice dogs in this respect — give them a bone and they will like you at once. Alethea employed every other little artifice which she thought likely to win their allegiance to herself, and through this their countenance for her nephew. She found the football club in a slight money difficulty and at once gave half a sovereign towards its removal. The boys had no chance against her, she shot them down one after another as easily as though they had been roosting pheasants. Nor did she escape scathless herself, for, as she wrote to me, she quite lost her heart to half a dozen of them. “How much nicer they are,” she said, “and how much more they know than those who profess to teach them!”

I believe it has been lately maintained that it is the young and fair who are the truly old and truly experienced, inasmuch as it is they who alone have a living memory to guide them; “the whole charm,” it has been said, “of youth lies in its advantage over age in respect of experience, and when this has for some reason failed or been misapplied, the charm is broken. When we say that we are getting old, we should say rather that we are getting new or young, and are suffering from inexperience; trying to do things which we have never done before, and failing worse and worse, till in the end we are landed in the utter impotence of death.”

Miss Pontifex died many a long year before the above passage was written, but she had arrived independently at much the same conclusion.

She first, therefore, squared the boys. Dr. Skinner was even more easily dealt with. He and Mrs. Skinner called, as a matter of course, as soon as Miss Pontifex was settled. She fooled him to the top of his bent, and obtained the promise of a MS. copy of one of his minor poems (for Dr. Skinner had the reputation of being quite one of our most facile and elegant minor poets) on the occasion of his first visit. The other masters and masters’ wives were not forgotten. Alethea laid herself out to please, as indeed she did whereever she went, and if any woman lays herself out to do this, she generally succeeds.

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