The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 59

BEFORE going down into the kitchen to convert the tinker Ernest ran hurriedly over his analysis of Paley’s evidences, and put into his pocket a copy of Archbishop Whateley’s “Historic Doubts.” Then he descended the dark rotten old stairs and knocked at the tinker’s door. Mr. Shaw was very civil; he said he was rather throng just now, but if Ernest did not mind the sound of hammering he should be very glad of a talk with him. Our hero, assenting to this, ere long led the conversation to Whateley’s “Historic Doubts”— a work which, as the reader may know, pretends to show that there never was any such person as Napoleon Buonaparte, and thus satirises the arguments of those who have attacked the Christian miracles.

Mr. Shaw said he knew “Historic Doubts” very well.

“And what do you think of it?” said Ernest, who regarded the pamphlet as a masterpiece of wit and cogency.

“If you really want to know,” said Mr. Shaw, with a sly twinkle, “I think that he who was so willing and able to prove that what was would be equally able and willing to make a case for thinking that what was not was, if it suited his purpose.” Ernest was very much taken aback. How was it that all the clever people of Cambridge had never put him up to this simple rejoinder? The answer is easy: they did not develop it for the same reason that a hen had never developed webbed feet — that is to say, because they did not want to do so; but this was before the days of Evolution, and Ernest could not as yet know anything of the great principle that underlies it.

“You see,” continued Mr. Shaw, “these writers all get their living by writing in a certain way, and the more they write in that way, the more they are likely to get on. You should not call them dishonest for this any more than a judge should call a barrister dishonest for earning his living by defending one in whose innocence he does not seriously believe; but you should hear the barrister on the other side before you decide upon the case.”

This was another facer. Ernest could only stammer that he had endeavoured to examine these questions as carefully as he could.

“You think you have,” said Mr. Shaw; “you Oxford and Cambridge gentlemen think you have examined everything. I have examined very little myself except the bottoms of old kettles and saucepans, but if you will answer me a few questions, I will tell you whether or no you have examined much more than I have.”

Ernest expressed his readiness to be questioned.

“Then,” said the tinker, “give me the story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as told in St. John’s Gospel.”

I am sorry to say that Ernest mixed up the four accounts in, a deplorable manner; he even made the angel come down and roll away the stone and sit upon it. He was covered with confusion when the tinker first told him without the book of some of his many inaccuracies, and then verified his criticisms by referring to the New Testament itself.

“Now,” said Mr. Shaw good-naturedly, “I am an old man and you are a young one, so perhaps you’ll not mind my giving you a piece of advice. I like you, for I believe you mean well, but you’ve been real bad brought up, and I don’t think you have ever had so much as a chance yet. You know nothing of our side of the question, and I have just shown you that you do not know much more of your own, but I think you will make a kind of Carlyle sort of a man some day. Now go upstairs and read the accounts of the Resurrection correctly without mixing them up, and have a clear idea of what it is that each writer tells us, then if you feel inclined to pay me another visit I shall be glad to see you, for I shall know you have made a good beginning and mean business. Till then, sir, I must wish you a very good morning.”

Ernest retreated abashed. An hour sufficed him to perform the task enjoined upon him by Mr. Shaw; and at the end of that hour the “No, no, no,” which still sounded in his cars as he heard it from Towneley, came ringing up more loudly still from the very pages of the Bible itself, and in respect of the most important of all the events which are recorded in it. Surely Ernest’s first day’s attempt at more promiscuous visiting, and at carrying out his principles more thoroughly, had not been unfruitful. But he must go and have a talk with Pryer. He therefore got his lunch and went to Pryer’s lodgings. Pryer not being at home, he lounged to the British Museum Reading Room, then recently opened, sent for the “Vestiges of Creation,” which he had never yet seen, and spent the rest of the afternoon in reading it.

Ernest did not see Pryer on the day of his conversation with Mr. Shaw, but he did so next morning and found him in a good temper, which of late he had rarely been. Sometimes, indeed, he had behaved to Ernest in a way which did not bode well for the harmony with which the College of Spiritual Pathology would work when it had once been founded. It almost seemed as though he were trying to get a complete moral ascendency over him, so as to make him a creature of his own.

He did not think it possible that he could go too far, and, indeed, when I reflect upon my hero’s folly and inexperience, there is much to be said in excuse for the conclusion which Pryer came to.

As a matter of fact, however, it was not so. Ernest’s faith in Pryer had been too great to be shaken down all in a moment, but it had been weakened lately more than once. Ernest had fought hard against allowing himself to see this, nevertheless any third person who knew the pair would have been able to see that the connection between the two might end at any moment, for when the time for one of Ernest’s snipe-like changes of flight came, he was quick in making it; the time, however, was not yet come, and the intimacy between the two was apparently all that it had ever been. It was only that horrid money business (so said Ernest to himself) that caused any unpleasantness between them, and no doubt Pryer was right, and he, Ernest, much too nervous. However, that might stand over for the present.

In like manner, though he had received a shock by reason of his conversation with Mr. Shaw, and by looking at the “Vestiges,” he was as yet too much stunned to realise the change which was coming over him. In each case the momentum of old habits carried him forward in the old direction. He therefore called on Pryer, and spent an hour and more with him.

He did not say that he had been visiting among his neighbours; this to Pryer would have been like a red rag to a bull. He only talked in much his usual vein about the proposed College, the lamentable want of interest in spiritual things which was characteristic of modern society, and other kindred matters; he concluded by saying that for the present he feared Pryer was indeed right, and that nothing could be done.

“As regards the laity,” said Pryer, “nothing; not until we have a discipline which we can enforce with pains and penalties. How can a sheep dog work a flock of sheep unless he can bite occasionally as well as bark? But as regards ourselves we can do much.”

Pryer’s manner was strange throughout the conversation, as though he were thinking all the time of something else. His eyes wandered curiously over Ernest, as Ernest had often noticed them wander before: the words were about Church discipline, but somehow or other the discipline part of the story had a knack of dropping out after having been again and again emphatically declared to apply to the laity and not to the clergy: once indeed Pryer had pettishly exclaimed: “Oh, bother the College of Spiritual Pathology.” As regards the clergy, glimpses of a pretty large cloven hoof kept peeping out from under the saintly robe of Pryer’s conversation, to the effect, that so long as they were theoretically perfect, practical peccadilloes — or even peccadaccios, if there is such a word, were of less importance. He was restless, as though wanting to approach a subject which he did not quite venture to touch upon, and kept harping (he did this about every third day) on the wretched lack of definition concerning the limits of vice and virtue, and the way in which half the vices wanted regulating rather than prohibiting. He dwelt also on the advantages of complete unreserve, and hinted that there were mysteries into which Ernest had not yet been initiated, but which would enlighten him when he got to know them, as he would be allowed to do when his friends saw that he was strong enough.

Pryer had often been like this before, but never so nearly, as ft seemed to Ernest, coming to a point — though what the point was he could not fully understand. His inquietude was communicating itself to Ernest, who would probably ere long have come to know as much as Pryer could tell him, but the conversation was abruptly interrupted by the appearance of a visitor. We shall never know how it would have ended, for this was the very last time that Ernest ever saw Pryer. Perhaps Pryer was going to break him some bad news about his speculations.

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