The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 36

Letters had been written to Miss Pontifex’s brothers and sisters, one and all came post-haste to Roughborough. Before they arrived the poor lady was already delirious, and for the sake of her own peace at the last I am half glad she never recovered consciousness.

I had known these people all their lives, as none can know each other but those who have played together as children; I knew how they had all of them — perhaps Theobald least, but all of them more or less — made her life a burden to her until the death of her father had made her her own mistress, and I was displeased at their coming one after the other to Roughborough, and inquiring whether their sister had recovered consciousness sufficiently to be able to see them. It was known that she had sent for me on being taken ill, and that I remained at Roughborough, and I own I was angered by the mingled air of suspicion, defiance, and inquisitiveness, with which they regarded me. They would all, except Theobald, I believe, have cut me downright if they had not believed me to know something they wanted to know themselves, and might have some chance of learning from me — for it was plain I had been in some way concerned with the making of their sister’s will. None of them suspected what the ostensible nature of this would be, but I think they feared Miss Pontifex was about to leave money for public uses. John said to me in his blandest manner that he fancied he remembered to have heard his sister say that she thought of leaving money to found a college for the relief of dramatic authors in distress; to this I made no rejoinder, and I have no doubt his suspicions were deepened.

When the end came, I got Miss Pontifex’s solicitor to write and tell her brothers and sisters how she had left her money: they were not unnaturally furious, and went each to his her separate home without attending the funeral, and without paying any attention to myself. This was perhaps the kindest thing they could have done by me, for their behaviour made me so angry that I became almost reconciled to Alethea’s will out of pleasure at the anger it had aroused. But for this, I should have felt the will keenly, as having been placed by it in the position which of all others I had been most anxious to avoid, and as having saddled me with a very heavy responsibility. Still it was impossible for me to escape, and I could only let things take their course.

Miss Pontifex had expressed a wish to be buried at Paleham; in the course of the next few days I therefore took the body thither. I had not been to Paleham since the death of my father some six years earlier. I had often wished to go there, but had shrunk from doing so, though my sister had been two or three times. I could not bear to see the house which had been my home for so many years of my life in the hands of strangers; to ring ceremoniously at a bell which I had never yet pulled except as a boy in jest; to feel that I had nothing to do with a garden in which I had in childhood gathered so many a nosegay, and which had seemed my own for many years after I had reached man’s estate; to see the rooms bereft of every familiar feature, and made so unfamiliar in spite of their familiarity. Had there been any sufficient reason, I should have taken these things as a matter of course, and should no doubt have found them much worse in anticipation than in reality; but as there had been no special reason why I should go to Paleham I had hitherto avoided doing so. Now, however, my going was a necessity, and I confess I never felt more subdued than I did on arriving there with the dead playmate of my childhood.

I found the village more changed than I had expected. The railway had come there, and a brand new yellow brick station was on the site of old Mr. and Mrs. Pontifex’s cottage. Nothing but the carpenter’s shop was now standing. I saw many faces I knew, but even in six years they seemed to have grown wonderfully older. Some of the very old were dead, and the old were getting very old in their stead. I felt like the changeling in the fairy story who came back after a seven years’ sleep. Everyone seemed glad to see me, though I had never given them particular cause to be so, and everyone who remembered old Mr. and Mrs. Pontifex spoke warmly of them and were pleased at their granddaughter’s wishing to be laid near them. Entering the churchyard and standing in the twilight of a gusty, cloudy evening on the spot close beside old Mrs. Pontifex’s grave which I had chosen for Alethea’s, I thought of the many times that she, who would lie there henceforth, and I, who must surely lie one day in some such another place, though when and where I knew not, had romped over this very spot as childish lovers together.

Next morning I followed her to the grave, and in due course set up a plain upright slab to her memory as like as might be to those over the graves of her grandmother and grandfather. I gave the dates and places of her birth and death, but added nothing except that this stone was set up by one who had known and loved her. Knowing how fond she had been of music I had been half inclined at one time to inscribe a few bars of music, if I could find any which seemed suitable to her character, but I knew how much she would have disliked anything singular in connection with her tombstone, and did not do it.

Before, however, I had come to this conclusion, I had thought that Ernest might be able to help me to the right thing, and had written to him upon the subject. The following is the answer I received —

“DEAR GODPAPA, — I send you the best bit I can think of; it is the subject of the last of Handel’s six grand fugues and goes thus:

(See illustration.)

It would do better for a man, especially for an old man who was very sorry for things, than for a woman, but I cannot think of anything better; if you do not like it for Aunt Alethea I shall keep it for myself. — Your affectionate Godson, “ERNEST PONTIFEX.”

Was this the little lad who could get sweeties for twopence but not for twopence halfpenny? Dear, dear me, I thought to myself, how these babes and sucklings do give us the go-by surely. Choosing his own epitaph at fifteen as for a man who “had been very sorry for things,” and such a strain as that — why it might have done for Leonardo da Vinci himself. Then I set the boy down as a conceited young jackanapes, which no doubt he was — but so are a great many other young people of Ernest’s age.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/b98w/chapter36.html

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