The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 39

ERNEST had been out all the morning, but came into the yard of the Rectory from the spinney behind the house just as Ellen’s things were being put into the carriage. He thought it was Ellen whom he then saw get into the carriage, but as her face had been hidden by her handkerchief he had not been able to see plainly who it was, and dismissed the idea as improbable.

He went to the back-kitchen window, at which the cook was standing peeling the potatoes for dinner, and found her crying bitterly. Ernest was much distressed, for he liked the cook, and, of course, wanted to know what all the matter was, who it was that had just gone off in the pony carriage, and why? The cook told him it was Ellen, but said that no earthly power should make it cross her lips why it was she was going away; when, however, Ernest took her au pied de la lettre and asked no further questions, she told him all about it after extorting the most solemn promises of secrecy.

It took Ernest some minutes to arrive at the facts of the case, but when he understood them he leaned against the pump, which stood near the back-kitchen window, and mingled his tears with the cook’s.

Then his blood began to boil within him. He did not see that after all his father and mother could have done much otherwise than they actually did. They might perhaps have been less precipitate, and tried to keep the matter a little more quiet, but this would not have been easy, nor would it have mended things very materially. The bitter fact remains that if a girl does certain things she must do them at her peril, no matter how young and pretty she is nor to what temptation she has succumbed. This is the way of the world, and as yet there has been no help found for it.

Ernest could only see what he gathered from the cook, namely, that his favourite, Ellen, was being turned adrift with a matter of three pounds in her pocket, to go she knew not where, and to do she knew not what, and that she had said she should hang or drown herself, which the boy implicitly believed she would.

With greater promptitude than he had shown yet, he reckoned up his money and found he had two shillings and threepence at his command; there was his knife which might sell for a shilling, and there was the silver watch his Aunt Alethea had given him shortly before she died. The carriage had been gone now a full quarter of an hour, and it must have got some distance ahead, but he would do his best to catch it up, and there were short cuts which would perhaps give him a chance. He was off at once, and from the top of the hill just past the Rectory paddock he could see the carriage, looking very small, on a bit of road which showed perhaps a mile and a half in front of him.

One of the most popular amusements at Roughborough was an institution called “the hounds”— more commonly known elsewhere as “hare and hounds,” but in this case the hare was a couple of boys who were called foxes, and boys are so particular about correctness of nomenclature where their sports are concerned that I dare not say they played “hare and hounds”; these were “the hounds,” and that was all. Ernest’s want of muscular strength did not tell against him here; there was no jostling up against boys who, though neither older nor taller than he, were yet more robustly built; if it came to mere endurance he was as good as anyone else, so when his carpentering was stopped he had naturally taken to “the hounds” as his favourite amusement. His lungs thus exercised had become developed, and as a run of six or seven miles across country was not more than he was used to, he did not despair by the help of the short cuts of overtaking the carriage, or at the worst of catching Ellen at the station before the train left. So he ran and ran and ran till his first wind was gone and his second came, and he could breathe more easily. Never with “the hounds” had he run so fast and with so few breaks as now, but with all his efforts and the help of the short cuts he did not catch up the carriage, and would probably not have done so had not John happened to turn his head and seen him running and making signs for the carriage to stop a quarter of a mile off. He was now about five miles from home, and was nearly done up.

He was crimson with his exertion; covered with dust, and with his trousers and coat sleeves a trifle short for him he cut a poor figure enough as he thrust on Ellen his watch, his knife, and the little money he had. The one thing he implored of her was not to do those dreadful things which she threatened — for his sake if for no other reason.

Ellen at first would not hear of taking anything from him, but the coachman, who was from the north country, sided with Ernest. “Take it, my lass,” he said kindly; “take what thou canst get whiles thou canst get it; as for Master Ernest here — he has run well after thee; therefore let him give thee what he is minded.”

Ellen did what she was told, and the two parted with many tears, the girl’s last words being that she should never forget him, and that they should meet again hereafter, she was sure they should, and then she would repay him.

Then Ernest got into a field by the roadside, flung himself on the grass, and waited under the shadow of a hedge till the carriage should pass on its return from the station and pick him up, for he was dead beat. Thoughts which had already occurred to him with some force now came more strongly before him, and he saw that he had got himself into one mess — or rather into a half-a-dozen messes — the more.

In the first place he should be late for dinner, and this was one of the offences on which Theobald had no mercy. Also he should have to say where he had been, and there was a danger of being found out if he did not speak the truth. Not only this, but sooner or later it must come out that he was no longer possessed of the beautiful watch which his dear aunt had given him — and what, pray, had he done with it, or how had he lost it? The reader will know very well what he ought to have done. He should have gone straight home, and if questioned should have said, “I have been running after the carriage to catch our housemaid Ellen, whom I am very fond of; I have given her my watch, my knife, and all my pocket-money, so that I have now no pocket-money at all and shall probably ask you for some more sooner than I otherwise might have done, and you will also have to buy me a new watch and a knife.” But then fancy the consternation which such an announcement would have occasioned! Fancy the scowl and flashing eyes of the infuriated Theobald! “You unprincipled young scoundrel,” he would exclaim, “do you mean to vilify your own parents by implying that they have dealt harshly by one whose profligacy has disgraced their house?”

Or he might take it with one of those sallies of sarcastic calm, of which he believed himself to be a master.

“Very well, Ernest, very well: I shall say nothing; you can please yourself; you are not yet twenty-one, but pray act as if you were your own master; your poor aunt doubtless gave you the watch that you might fling it away upon the first improper character you came across; I think I can now understand, however, why she did not leave you her money; and, after all, your godfather may just as well have it as the kind of people on whom you would lavish it if it were yours.”

Then his mother would burst into tears and implore him to repent and seek the things belonging to his peace while there was yet time, by falling on his knees to Theobald and assuring him of his unfailing love for him as the kindest and tenderest father in the universe. Ernest could do all this just as well as they could, and now, as he lay on the grass, speeches, some one or other of which was as certain to come as the sun to set, kept running in his head till they confuted the idea of telling the truth by reducing it to an absurdity. Truth might be heroic, but it was not within the range of practical domestic politics.

Having settled then that he was to tell a lie, what lie should he tell? Should he say he had been robbed? He had enough imagination to know that he had not enough imagination to carry him out here. Young as he was, his instinct told him that the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way — who husbands it too carefully to waste it where it can be dispensed with. The simplest course would be to say that he had lost the watch, and was late for dinner because he had been looking for it. He had been out for a long walk — he chose the line across the fields that he had actually taken — and the weather being very hot, he had taken off his coat and waistcoat; in carrying them over his arm his watch, his money, and his knife had dropped out of them. He had got nearly home when he found out his loss, and had run back as fast as he could, looking along the line he had followed, till at last he had given it up; seeing the carriage coming back from the station, he had let it pick him up and bring him home.

This covered everything, the running and all; for his face still showed that he must have been running hard; the only question was whether he had been seen about the Rectory by any but the servants for a couple of hours or so before Ellen had gone, and this he was happy to believe was not the case; for he had been out except during his few minutes’ interview with the cook. His father had been out in the parish; his mother had certainly not come across him, and his brother and sister had also been out with the governess. He knew he could depend upon the cook and the other servants — the coachman would see to this; on the whole, therefore, both he and the coachman thought the story as proposed by Ernest would about meet the requirements of the case.

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