The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 55

I HAD called on Ernest as a matter of course when he first came to London, but had not seen him. I had been out when he returned my call, so that he had been in town for some weeks before I actually saw him, which I did not very long after he had taken possession of his new rooms. I liked his face, but except for the common bond of music, in respect of which our tastes were singularly alike, I should hardly have known how to get on with him. To do him justice he did not air any of his schemes to me until I had drawn him out concerning them. I, to borrow the words of Ernest’s landlady, Mrs. Jupp, “am not a very regular church-goer” — I discovered upon cross-examination that Mrs. Jupp had been to church once when she was churched for her son Tom some five-and-twenty years since, years since, but never either before or afterwards; not even, I fear, to be married, for though she called herself “Mrs.” she wore no wedding ring, and spoke of the person who should have been Mr. Jupp as “my poor dear boy’s father,” not as “my husband.” But to return. I was vexed at Ernest’s having been ordained. I was not ordained myself and I did not like my friends to be ordained, nor did I like having to be on my best behaviour and to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, and all for a boy whom I remembered when he knew yesterday and to-morrow and Tuesday, but not a day of the week more — not even Sunday itself — and when he said he did not like the kitten because it had pins in its toes.

I looked at him and thought of his Aunt Alethea, and how fast the money she had left him was accumulating; and it was all to go to this young man, who would use it probably in the very last ways with which Miss Pontifex would have sympathised. I was annoyed. “She always said,” I thought to myself, “that she should make a mess of it, but I did not think she would have made as great a mess of it as this.” Then I thought that perhaps if his aunt had lived he would not have been like this.

Ernest behaved quite nicely to me and I own that the fault was mine if the conversation drew towards dangerous subjects. I was the aggressor, presuming I suppose upon my age and long acquaintance with him, as giving me a right to make myself unpleasant in a quiet way.

Then he came out, and the exasperating part of it was that up to a certain point he was so very right. Grant him his premises and his conclusions were sound enough, nor could I, seeing that he was already ordained, join issue with him about his premises as I should certainly have done if I had had a chance of doing so before he had taken orders. The result was that I had to beat a retreat and went away not in the best of humours. I believe the truth was that I liked Ernest, and was vexed at his being a clergyman, and at a clergyman having so much money coming to him.

I talked a little with Mrs. Jupp on my way out. She and I had reckoned one another up at first sight as being neither of us “very regular church-goers,” and the strings of her tongue had been loosened. She said Ernest would die. He was much too good for the world and he looked so sad “just like young Watkins of the ‘Crown’ over the way who died a month ago, and his poor dear skin was white as alablaster; least-ways they say he shot hisself. They took him from the Mortimer, I met them just as I was going with my Rose to get a pint o’ four ale, and she had her arm in splints. She told her sister she wanted to go to Perry’s to get some wool, instead o’ which it was only a stall to get me a pint o’ ale, bless her heart; there’s nobody else would do that much for poor old Jupp, and it’s a horrid lie to say she is gay; not but what I like a gay woman, I do: I’d rather give a gay woman half-a-crown than stand a modest woman a pot o’ beer, but I don’t want to go associating with bad girls for all that. So they took him from the Mortimer; they wouldn’t let him go home no more; and he done it that artful, you know. His wife was in the country living with her mother, and she always spoke respectful o’ my Rose. Poor dear, I hope his soul is in Heaven. Well, sir, would you believe it, there’s that in Mr. Pontifex’s face which is just like young Watkins; he looks that worrited and scrunched up at times, but it’s never for the same reason, for he don’t know nothing at all, no more than a unborn babe, no he don’t; why there’s not a monkey going about London with an Italian organ grinder but knows more than Mr. Pontifex do. He don’t know — well I suppose —”

Here a child came in on an errand from some neighbour and interrupted her, or I can form no idea where or when she would have ended her discourse. I seized the opportunity to run away, but not before I had given her five shillings and made her write down my address, for I was a little frightened by what she said. I told her if she thought her lodger grew worse, she was to come and let me know.

Weeks went by and I did not see her again. Having done as much as I had, I felt absolved from doing more, and let Ernest alone as thinking that he and I should only bore one another.

He had now been ordained a little over four months, but these months had not brought happiness or satisfaction with them. He had lived in a clergyman’s house all his life, and might have been expected perhaps to have known pretty much what being a clergyman was like, and so he did — a country clergyman; he had formed an ideal, however, as regards what a town clergyman could do, and was trying in a feeble, tentative way to realise it, but somehow or other it always managed to escape him.

He lived among the poor, but he did not find that he got to know them. The idea that they would come to him proved to be a mistaken one. He did indeed visit a few tame pets whom his rector desired him to look after. There was an old man and his wife who lived next door but one to Ernest himself; then there was a plumber of the name of Chesterfield; an aged lady of the name of Gover, blind and bed-ridden, who munched and munched her feeble old toothless jaws as Ernest spoke or read to her, but who could do little more; a Mr. Brookes, a rag and bottle merchant in Birdsey’s Rents, in the last stage of dropsy, and perhaps half-a-dozen or so others. What did it all come to, when he did go to see them? The plumber wanted to be flattered, and liked fooling a gentleman into wasting his time by scratching his ears for him. Mrs. Gover, poor old woman, wanted money; she was very good and meek, and when Ernest got her a shilling from Lady Anne Jones’s bequest, she said it was “small but seasonable,” and munched and munched in gratitude. Ernest sometimes gave her a little money himself, but not, as he says now, half what he ought to have given.

What could he do else that would have been of the smallest use to her? Nothing indeed; but giving occasional half-crowns to Mrs. Gover was not regenerating the universe, and Ernest wanted nothing short of this. The world was all out of joint, and instead of feeling it to be a cursed spite that he was born to set it right, he thought he was just the kind of person that was wanted for the job, and was eager to set to work, only he did not exactly know how to begin, for the beginning he had made with Mr. Chesterfield and Mrs. Gover did not promise great developments.

Then poor Mr. Brookes — he suffered very much, terribly indeed; he was not in want of money; he wanted to die and couldn’t, just as we sometimes want to go to sleep and cannot. He had been a serious-minded man, and death frightened him as it must frighten anyone who believes that all his most secret thoughts will be shortly exposed in public. When I read Ernest the description of how his father used to visit Mrs. Thompson at Battersby, he coloured and said —“That’s just what I used to say to Mr. Brookes.” Ernest felt that his visits, so far from comforting Mr. Brookes, made him fear death more and more, but how could he help it?

Even Pryer, who had been curate a couple of years, did not know personally more than a couple of hundred people in the parish at the outside, and it was only at the houses of very few of these that he ever visited, but then Pryer had such a strong objection on principle to house visitations. What a drop in the sea were those with whom he and Pryer were brought into direct communication in comparison with those whom he must reach and move if he were to produce much effect of any kind, one way or the other. Why, there were between fifteen and twenty thousand poor in the parish, of whom but the merest fraction ever attended a place of worship. Some few went to dissenting chapels, a few were Roman Catholics; by far the greater number, however, were practically infidels, if not actively hostile, at any rate indifferent to religion, while many were avowed Atheists — admirers of Tom Paine, of whom he now heard for the first time; but he never met and conversed with any of these.

Was he really doing everything that could be expected of him? It was all very well to say that he was doing as much as other young clergymen did; that was not the kind of answer which Jesus Christ was likely to accept; why, the Pharisees themselves in all probability did as much as the other Pharisees did. What he should do was to go into the highways and byways, and compel people to come in. Was he doing this? Or were not they rather compelling him to keep out — outside their doors at any rate? He began to have an uneasy feeling as though ere long, unless he kept a sharp lookout, he should drift into being a sham.

True, all would be changed as soon as he could endow the College for Spiritual Pathology; matters, however, had not gone too well with “the things that people bought in the place that was called the Stock Exchange.” In order to get on faster, it had been arranged that Ernest should buy more of these things than he could pay for, with the idea that in a few weeks, or even days, they would be much higher in value, and he could sell them at a tremendous profit; but, unfortunately, instead of getting higher, they had fallen immediately after Ernest had bought, and obstinately refused to get up again; so, after a few settlements, he had got frightened, for he read an article in some newspaper, which said they would go ever so much lower, and, contrary to Pryer’s advice, he insisted on selling — at a loss of something like L500. He had hardly sold when up went the shares again, and he saw how foolish he had been, and how wise Pryer was, for if Pryer’s advice had been followed, he would have made instead of losing it. However, he told himself, he must live and learn.

Then Pryer made a mistake. They had bought some shares, and the shares went up delightfully for about a fortnight. This was a happy time indeed, for by the end of a fortnight the lost L500 had been recovered, and three or four hundred pounds had been cleared into the bargain. All the feverish anxiety of that miserable six weeks, when the L500 was being lost, was now being repaid with interest. Ernest wanted to sell and make sure of the profit, but Pryer would not hear of it; they would go ever so much higher yet, and he showed Ernest an article in some newspaper which proved that what he said was reasonable, and they did go up a little — but only a very little, for then they went down, down, and Ernest saw his first his clear profit of three or four hundred pounds go, and then the L500 loss, which he thought he had recovered, slipped away by falls of a half and one at a time, and then he lost L200 more. Then a newspaper said that these shares were the greatest rubbish that had ever been imposed upon the English public, and Ernest could stand it no longer, so he sold out, again this time against Pryer’s advice, so that when they went up, as they shortly did, Pryer scored off Ernest a second time.

Ernest was not used to vicissitudes of this kind, and they made him so anxious that his health was affected. It was arranged therefore that he had better know nothing of what was being done. Pryer was a much better man of business than he was, and would see to it all. This relieved Ernest of a good deal of trouble, and was better after all for the investments themselves; for, as Pryer justly said, a man must not have a faint heart if he hopes to succeed in buying and selling upon the Stock Exchange, and seeing Ernest nervous made Pryer nervous too — at least, he said it did. So the money drifted more and more into Pryer’s hands. As for Pryer himself, he had nothing but his curacy and a small allowance from his father.

Some of Ernest’s old friends got an inkling from his letters of what he was doing, and did their utmost to dissuade him, but he was as infatuated as a young lover of two-and-twenty. Finding that these friends disapproved, he dropped away from them, and they, being bored with his egotism and high-flown ideas, were not sorry to let him do so. Of course, he said nothing about his speculations — indeed, he hardly knew that anything done in so good a cause could be called speculation. At Battersby, when his father urged him to look out for a next presentation, and even brought one or two promising ones under his notice, he made objections and excuses, though always promising to do as his father desired very shortly.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/b98w/chapter55.html

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