The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 50

ERNEST felt now that the turning point of his life had come. He would give up all for Christ-even his tobacco.

So he gathered together his pipes and pouches, and locked them up in his portmanteau under his bed where they should be out of sight, and as much out of mind as possible. He did not burn them, because someone might come in who wanted to smoke, and though he might abridge his own liberty, yet, as smoking was not a sin, there was no reason why he should be hard on other people.

After breakfast he left his rooms to call on a man named Dawson, who had been one of Mr. Hawke’s hearers on the preceding evening, and who was reading for ordination at the forthcoming Ember Weeks, now only four months distant. This man had been always of a rather serious turn of mind — a little too much so for Ernest’s taste; but times had changed, and Dawson’s undoubted sincerity seemed to render him a fitting counsellor for Ernest at the present time. As he was going through the first court of John’s on his way to Dawson’s rooms, he met Badcock, and greeted him with some deference. His advance was received with one of those ecstatic gleams which shone occasionally upon the face of Badcock, and which, if Ernest had known more, would have reminded him of Robespierre. As it was, he saw it and unconsciously recognised the unrest and self-seekingness of the man, but could not yet formulate them; he disliked Badcock more than ever, but as he was going to profit by the spiritual benefits which he had put in his way, he was bound to be civil to him, and civil he therefore was.

Badcock told him that Mr. Hawke had returned to town immediately his discourse was over, but that before doing so he had enquired particularly who Ernest and two or three others were. I believe each one of Ernest’s friends was given to understand that he had been more or less particularly enquired after. Ernest’s vanity — for he was his mother’s son — was tickled at this; the idea again presented itself to him that he might be the one for whose benefit Mr. Hawke had been sent. There was something, too, in Badcock’s manner which conveyed the idea that he could say more if he chose, but had been enjoined to silence.

On reaching Dawson’s rooms, he found his friend in raptures over the discourse of the preceding evening. Hardly less delighted was he with the effect it had produced on Ernest. He had always known, he said, that Ernest would come round; he had been sure of it, but he had hardly expected the conversion to be so sudden. Ernest said no more had he, but now that he saw his duty so clearly he would get ordained as soon as possible, and take a curacy, even though the doing so would make him have to go down from Cambridge earlier, which would be a great grief to him. Dawson applauded this determination, and it was arranged that as Ernest was still more or less of a weak brother, Dawson should take him, so to speak, in spiritual tow for a while, and strengthen and confirm his faith.

An offensive and defensive alliance therefore was struck up between this pair (who were in reality singularly ill assorted), and Ernest set to work to master the books on which the Bishop would examine him. Others gradually joined them till they formed a small set or church (for these are the same things), and the effect of Mr. Hawke’s sermon, instead of wearing off in a few days, as might have been expected, became more and more marked, so much so that it was necessary for Ernest’s friends to hold him back rather than urge him on, for he seemed likely to develop — as indeed he did for a time — into a religious enthusiast.

In one matter only did he openly backslide. He had, as I said above, locked up his pipes and tobacco, so that he might not be tempted to use them. All day long on the day after Mr. Hawke’s sermon he let them lie in his portmanteau bravely; but this was not very difficult, as he had for some time given up smoking till after hall. After hall this day he did not smoke till chapel time, and then went to chapel in self-defence. When he returned he determined to look at the matter from a common sense point of view. On this he saw that, provided tobacco did not injure his health — and he really could not see that it did — it stood much on the same footing as tea or coffee.

Tobacco had nowhere been forbidden in the Bible, but then it had not yet been discovered, and had probably only escaped proscription for this reason. We can conceive of St. Paul or even our Lord Himself as drinking a cup of tea, but we cannot imagine either of them as smoking a cigarette, or a churchwarden. Ernest could not deny this, and admitted that Paul would almost certainly have condemned tobacco in good round terms if he had known of its existence. Was it not then taking rather a mean advantage of the Apostle to stand on his not having actually forbidden it? On the other hand, it was possible that God knew Paul would have forbidden smoking, and had purposely arranged the discovery of tobacco for a period at which Paul should be no longer living. This might seem rather hard on Paul, considering all he had done for Christianity, but it would be made up to him in other ways.

These reflections satisfied Ernest that on the whole he had better smoke, so he sneaked to his portmanteau and brought out his pipes and tobacco again. There should be moderation, he felt, in all things, even in virtue; so for that night he smoked immoderately. It was a pity, however, that he had bragged to Dawson about giving up smoking. The pipes had better be kept in a cupboard for a week or two, till in other and easier respects Ernest should have proved his steadfastness. Then they might steal out again little by little — and so they did.

Ernest now wrote home a letter couched in a vein different from his ordinary ones. His letters were usually all common form and padding, for as I have already explained, if he wrote about anything that really interested him, his mother always wanted to know more and more about it — every fresh answer being as the lopping off of a hydra’s head and giving birth to half-a-dozen or more new questions — but in the end it came invariably to the same result, namely, that he ought to have done something else, or ought not to go on doing as he proposed. Now, however, there was a new departure, and for the thousandth time he concluded that he was about to take a course of which his father and mother would approve, and in which they would be interested, so at last he and they might get on more sympathetically than heretofore. He therefore wrote a gushing, impulsive letter, which afforded much amusement to myself as I read it, but which is too long for reproduction. One passage ran: “I am now going towards Christ; the greater number of my college friends are, I fear, going away from Him; we must pray for them that they may find the peace that is in Christ even as I have myself found it.” Ernest covered his face with his hands for shame as he read this extract from the bundle of letters he had put into my hands — they had been returned to him by his father on his mother’s death, his mother having carefully preserved them.

“Shall I cut it out?” said I. “I will, if you like.”

“Certainly not,” he answered, “and if good-natured friends have kept more records of my follies, pick out any plums that may amuse the reader, and let him have his laugh over them.” But fancy what effect a letter like this — so unled up to — must have produced at Battersby! Even Christina refrained from ecstasy over her son’s having discovered the power of Christ’s word, while Theobald was frightened out of his wits. It was well his son was not going to have any doubts or difficulties, and that he would be ordained without making a fuss over it, but he smelt mischief in this sudden conversion of one who had never yet shown any inclination towards religion. He hated people who did not know where to stop. Ernest was always so outre and strange; there was never any knowing what he would do next, except that it would be something unusual and silly. If he was to get the bit between his teeth after he had got ordained and bought his living, he would play more pranks than ever he, Theobald, had done. The fact, doubtless, of his being ordained and having bought a living would go a long way to steady him, and if he married, his wife must see to the rest; this was his only chance and, to do justice to his sagacity, Theobald in his heart did not think very highly of it.

When Ernest came down to Battersby in June, he imprudently tried to open up a more unreserved communication with his father than was his wont. The first of Ernest’s snipe-like flights on being flushed by Mr. Hawke’s sermon was in the direction of ultra-Evangelicalism. Theobald himself had been much more Low than High Church. This was the normal development of the country clergyman during the first years of his clerical life, between, we will say, the years 1825 and 1850; but he was not prepared for the almost contempt with which Ernest now regarded the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and priestly absolution (Hoity-toity, indeed, what business had he with such questions?) nor for his desire to find some means of reconciling Methodism and the Church. Theobald hated the Church of Rome, but he hated dissenters too, for he found them as a general rule troublesome people to deal with; he always found people who did not agree with him troublesome to deal with: besides, they set up for knowing as much as he did; nevertheless if he had been let alone he would have leaned towards them rather than towards the High Church party. The neighbouring clergy, however, would not let him alone. One by one they had come under the influence, directly or indirectly, of the Oxford movement which had begun twenty years earlier. It was surprising how many practices he now tolerated which in his youth he would have considered Popish; he knew very well therefore which way things were going in Church matters, and saw that as usual Ernest was setting himself the other way. The opportunity for telling his son that he was a fool was too favourable not to be embraced, and Theobald was not slow to embrace it. Ernest was annoyed and surprised, for had not his father and mother been wanting him to be more religious all his life? Now that he had become so they were still not satisfied. He said to himself that a prophet was not without honour save in his own country, but he had been lately — or rather until lately — getting into an odious habit of turning proverbs upside down, and it occurred to him that a country is sometimes not without honour save for its own prophet. Then he laughed, and for the rest of the day felt more as he used to feel before he had heard Mr. Hawke’s sermon.

He returned to Cambridge for the Long Vacation of 1858 — none too soon, for he had to go in for the Voluntary Theological Examination, which bishops were now beginning to insist upon. He imagined all the time he was reading that he was storing himself with the knowledge that would best fit him for the work he had taken in hand. In truth, he was cramming for a pass. In due time he did pass — creditably, and was ordained Deacon with half-a-dozen others of his friends in the autumn of 1858. He was then just twenty-three years old.

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