The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 58

NEXT day he felt stronger again. He had been listening to the voice of the evil one on the night before, and would parley no more with such thoughts. He had chosen his profession, and his duty was to persevere with it. If he was unhappy it was probably because he was not giving up all for Christ. Let him see whether he could not do more than he was doing now, and then perhaps a light would be shed upon his path.

It was all very well to have made the discovery that he didn’t very much like poor people, but he had got to put up with them, for it was among them that his work must lie. Such men as Towneley were very kind and considerate, but he knew well enough it was only on condition that he did not preach to them. He could manage the poor better, and, let Pryer sneer as he liked, he was resolved to go more among them, and try the effect of bringing Christ to them if they would not come and seek Christ of themselves. He would begin with his own house.

Whom then should he take first? Surely he could not do better than begin with the tailor who lived immediately over his head. This would be desirable, not only because he was the one who seemed to stand most in need of conversion, but also because, if he were once converted, he would no longer beat his wife at two o’clock in the morning, and the house would be much pleasanter in consequence. He would therefore go upstairs at once, and have a quiet talk with this man.

Before doing so, he thought it would be well if he were to draw up something like a plan of a campaign; he therefore reflected over some pretty conversations which would do very nicely if Mr. Holt would be kind enough to make the answers proposed for him in their proper places. But the man was a great hulking fellow, of a savage temper, and Ernest was forced to admit that unforeseen developments might arise to disconcert him. They say it takes nine tailors to make a man, but Ernest felt that it would take at least nine Ernests to make a Mr. Holt. How if, as soon as Ernest came in, the tailor were to become violent and abusive? What could he do? Mr. Holt was in his own lodgings, and had a right to be undisturbed. A legal right, yes, but had he a moral right? Ernest thought not, considering his mode of life. But put this on one side; if the man were to be violent, what should he do? Paul had fought with wild beasts at Ephesus — that must indeed have been awful — but perhaps they were not very wild wild beasts; a rabbit and a canary are wild beasts; but, formidable or not as wild beasts go, they would, nevertheless, stand no chance against St. Paul, for he was inspired; the miracle would have been if the wild beasts escaped, not that St. Paul should have done so; but, however all this might be, Ernest felt that he dared not begin to convert Mr. Holt by fighting him. Why, when he had heard Mrs. Holt screaming “murder,” he had cowered under the bed clothes and waited, expecting to hear the blood dripping through the ceiling onto his own floor. His imagination translated every sound into a pat, pat, pat, and once or twice he thought he had felt it dropping onto his counterpane, but he had never gone upstairs to try and rescue poor Mrs. Holt. Happily it had proved next morning that Mrs. Holt was in her usual health.

Ernest was in despair about hitting on any good way of opening up spiritual communication with his neighbour, when it occurred to him that he had better perhaps begin by going upstairs, and knocking very gently at Mr. Holt’s door. He would then resign himself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and act as the occasion, which, I suppose, was another name for the Holy Spirit, suggested. Triply armed with this reflection, he mounted the stairs quite jauntily, and was about to knock when he heard Holt’s voice inside swearing savagely at his wife. This made him pause to think whether after all the moment was an auspicious one, and while he was thus pausing, Mr. Holt, who had heard that someone was on the stairs, opened the door and put his head out. When he saw Ernest, he made an unpleasant, not to say offensive movement, which might or might not have been directed at Ernest, and looked altogether so ugly that my hero had an instantaneous and unequivocal revelation from the Holy Spirit to the effect that he should continue his journey upstairs at once, as though he had never intended arresting it at Mr. Holt’s room, and begin by converting Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, the Methodists in the top floor front. So this was what he did.

These good people received him with open arms, and were quite ready to talk. He was beginning to convert them from Methodism to the Church of England, when all at once he found himself embarrassed by discovering that he did not know what he was to convert them from. He knew the Church of England, or thought he did, but he knew nothing of Methodism beyond its name. When he found that, according to Mr. Baxter, the Wesleyans had a vigorous system of Church discipline (which worked admirably in practice) it appeared to him that Wesley had anticipated the spiritual engine which he and Pryer were preparing, and when he left the room he was aware that he had caught more of a spiritual Tartar than he had expected. But he must certainly explain to Pryer that the Wesleyans had a system of Church discipline. This was very important.

Mr. Baxter advised Ernest on no account to meddle with Mr. Holt, and Ernest was much relieved at the advice. If an opportunity arose of touching the man’s heart, he would take it; he would pat the children on the head when he saw them on the stairs, and ingratiate himself with them as far as he dared; they were sturdy youngsters, and Ernest was afraid even of them, for they were ready with their tongues, and knew much for their ages. Ernest felt that it would indeed be almost better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of the little Holts. However, he would try not to offend them; perhaps an occasional penny or two might square them. This was as much as he could do, for he saw that the attempt to be instant out of season, as well as in season, would, St. Paul’s injunction notwithstanding, end in failure.

Mrs. Baxter gave a very bad account of Miss Emily Snow, who lodged in the second floor back next to Mr. Holt. Her story was quite different from that of Mrs. Jupp, the landlady. She would doubtless be only too glad to receive Ernest’s ministrations or those of any other gentleman, but she was no governess, she was in the ballet at Drury Lane, and besides this, she was a very bad young woman, and if Mrs. Baxter was landlady would not be allowed to stay in the house a single hour, not she indeed.

Miss Maitland in the next room to Mrs. Baxter’s own was a quiet and respectable young woman to all appearance; Mrs. Baxter had never known of any goings on in that quarter, but, bless you, still waters run deep, and these girls were all alike, one as bad as the other. She was out at all kinds of hours, and when you knew that you knew all.

Ernest did not pay much heed to these aspersions of Mrs. Baxter’s. Mrs. Jupp had got round the greater number of his many blind sides, and had warned him not to believe Mrs. Baxter, whose lip she said was something awful.

Ernest had heard that women were always jealous of one another, and certainly these young women were more attractive than Mrs. Baxter was, so jealousy was probably at the bottom of it. If they were maligned there could be no objection to his making their acquaintance; if not maligned they had all the more need of his ministrations. He would reclaim them at once.

He told Mrs. Jupp of his intention. Mrs. Jupp at first tried to dissuade him, but seeing him resolute, suggested that she should herself see Miss Snow first, so as to prepare her and prevent her from being alarmed by his visit. She was not at home now, but in the course of the next day, it should be arranged. In the meantime he had better try Mr. Shaw, the tinker, in the front kitchen. Mrs. Baxter had told Ernest that Mr. Shaw was from the North Country, and an avowed freethinker; he would probably, she said, rather like a visit, but she did not think Ernest would stand much chance of making a convert of him.

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