The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 60

ERNEST now went home and occupied himself till luncheon with studying Dean Alford’s notes upon the various Evangelistic records of the Resurrection, doing as Mr. Shaw had told him, and trying to find out, not that they were all accurate, but whether they were all accurate or no. He did not care which result he should arrive at, but he was resolved that he would reach one or the other. When he had finished Dean Alford’s notes he found them come to this, namely, that no one yet had succeeded in bringing the four accounts into tolerable harmony with each other, and that the Dean, seeing no chance of succeeding better than his predecessors had done, recommended that the whole story should be taken on trust — and this Ernest was not prepared to do.

He got his luncheon, went out for a long walk, and returned to dinner at half past six. While Mrs. Jupp was getting him his dinner — a steak and a pint of stout — she told him that Miss Snow would be very happy to see him in about an hour’s time. This disconcerted him, for his mind was too unsettled for him to wish to convert anyone just then. He reflected a little, and found that, in spite of the sudden shock to his opinions, he was being irresistibly drawn to pay the visit as though nothing had happened. It would not look well for him not to go, for he was known to be in the house. He ought not to be in too great a hurry to change his opinions on such a matter as the evidence for Christ’s Resurrection all of a sudden — besides he need not talk to Miss Snow about this subject to-day — there were other things he might talk about. What other things? Ernest felt his heart beat fast and fiercely, and an inward monitor warned him that he was thinking of anything rather than of Miss Snow’s soul.

What should he do? Fly, fly, fly — it was the only safety. But would Christ have fled? Even though Christ had not died and risen from the dead there could be no question that He was the model whose example we were bound to follow. Christ would not have fled from Miss Snow; he was sure of that, for He went about more especially with prostitutes and disreputable people. Now, as then, it was the business of the true Christian to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. It would be inconvenient to him to change his lodgings, and he could not ask Mrs. Jupp to turn Miss Snow and Miss Maitland out of the house. Where was he to draw the line? Who would be just good enough to live in the same house with him, and who just not good enough?

Besides, where were these poor girls to go? Was he to drive them from house to house till they had no place to lie in? It was absurd; his duty was clear: he would go and see Miss Snow at once, and try if he could not induce her to change her present mode of life; if he found temptation becoming too strong for him he would fly then — so he went upstairs with his Bible under his arm, and a consuming fire in his heart.

He found Miss Snow looking very pretty in a neatly, not to say demurely, furnished room. I think she had bought an illuminated text or two, and pinned it up over her fireplace that morning. Ernest was very much pleased with her, and mechanically placed his Bible upon the table. He had just opened a timid conversation and was deep in blushes, when a hurried step came bounding up the stairs as though of one over whom the force of gravity had little power, and a man burst into the room saying, “I’m come before my time.” It was Towneley.

His face dropped as he caught sight of Ernest. “What, you here, Pontifex! Well, upon my word!”

I cannot describe the hurried explanations that passed quickly between the three — enough that in less than a minute Ernest, blushing more scarlet than ever, slunk off, Bible and all, deeply humiliated as he contrasted himself and Towneley. Before he had reached the bottom of the staircase leading to his own room he heard Towneley’s hearty laugh through Miss Snow’s door, and cursed the hour that he was born.

Then it flashed upon him that if he could not see Miss Snow he could at any rate see Miss Maitland. He knew well enough what he wanted now, and as for the Bible, he pushed it from him to the other end of his table. It fell over onto the floor, and he kicked it into a corner. It was the Bible given him at his christening by his affectionate aunt, Elizabeth Allaby. True, he knew very little of Miss Maitland, but ignorant young fools in Ernest’s state do not reflect or reason closely. Mrs. Baxter had said that Miss Maitland and Miss Snow were birds of a feather, and Mrs. Baxter probably knew better than that old liar, Mrs. Jupp. Shakespeare says:

O Opportunity, thy guilt is great,

‘Tis thou that execut’st the traitor’s treason:

Thou set’st the wolf where he the lamb may get:

Whoever plots the sin, thou ‘point’st the season;

‘Tis thou that spurn’st at right, at law, at reason;

And in thy shady cell, where none may spy him,

Sits Sin, to seize the souls that wander by him.

If the guilt of opportunity is great, how much greater is the guilt of that which is believed to be opportunity, but in reality is no opportunity at all. If the better part of valour is discretion, how much more is not discretion the better part of vice?

About ten minutes after we last saw Ernest, a scared, insulted girl, flushed and trembling, was seen hurrying from Mrs. Jupp’s house as fast as her agitated state would let her, and in another ten minutes two policemen were seen also coming out of Mrs. Jupp’s, between whom there shambled rather than walked our unhappy friend Ernest, with staring eyes, ghastly pale, and with despair branded upon every line of his face.

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