The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 62

THIS advice, besides being obviously sensible, would end in saving Ernest both time and suspense of mind, so we had no hesitation in adopting it. The case was called on about eleven o’clock, but we got it adjourned till three, so as to give time for Ernest to set his affairs as straight as he could, and to execute a power of attorney enabling me to act for him as I should think fit while he was in prison.

Then all came out about Pryer and the College of Spiritual Pathology. Ernest had even greater difficulty in making a clean breast of this than he had had in telling us about Miss Maitland, but he told us all, and the upshot was that he had actually handed over to Pryer every halfpenny that he then possessed with no other security than Pryers I.O.U.’s for the amount. Ernest, though still declining to believe that Pryer could be guilty of dishonourable conduct, was becoming alive to the folly of what he had been doing; he still made sure, however, of recovering, at any rate, the greater part of his property as soon as Pryer should have had time to sell. Towneley and I were of a different opinion, but we did not say what we thought.

It was dreary work waiting all the morning amid such unfamiliar and depressing surroundings. I thought how the Psalmist had exclaimed with quiet irony, “One day in thy courts is better than a thousand,” and I thought that I could utter a very similar sentiment in respect of the courts in which Towneley and I were compelled to loiter. At last, about three o’clock the case was called on, and we went round to the part of the court which is reserved for the general public, while Ernest was taken into the prisoner’s dock. As soon as he had collected himself sufficiently he recognised the magistrate as the old gentleman who had spoken to him in the train on the day he was leaving school, and saw, or thought he saw, to his great grief, that he too was recognised.

Mr. Ottery, for this was our attorney’s name, took the line he had proposed. He called no other witnesses than the rector, Towneley and myself, and threw himself on the mercy of the magistrate. When he had concluded, the magistrate spoke as follows: “Ernest Pontifex, yours is one of the most painful cases that I have ever had to deal with. You have been singularly favoured in your parentage and education. You have had before you the example of blameless parents, who doubtless instilled into you from childhood the enormity of the offence which by your own confession you have committed. You were sent to one of the best public schools in England. It is not likely that in the healthy atmosphere of such a school as you can have come across contaminating influences; you were probably, I may say certainly, impressed at school with the heinousness of any attempt to depart from the strictest chastity until such time as you had entered into a state of matrimony. At Cambridge you were shielded from impurity by every obstacle which virtuous and vigilant authorities could devise, and even had the obstacles been fewer, your parents probably took care that your means should not admit of your throwing money away upon abandoned characters. At night proctors patrolled the street and dogged your steps if you tried to go into any haunt where the presence of vice was suspected. By day the females who were admitted within the college walls were selected mainly on the score of age and ugliness. It is hard to see what more can be done for any young man than this. For the last four or five months you have been a clergyman, and if a single impure thought had still remained within your mind, ordination should have removed it: nevertheless, not only does it appear that your mind is as impure as though none of the influences to which I have referred had been brought to bear upon it, but it seems as though their only result had been this — that you have not even the common sense to be able to distinguish between a respectable girl and a prostitute.

“If I were to take a strict view of my duty I should commit you for trial, but in consideration of this being your first offence, I shall deal leniently with you and sentence you to imprisonment with hard labour for six calendar months.”

Towneley and I both thought there was a touch of irony in the magistrate’s speech, and that he could have given a lighter sentence if he would, but that was neither here nor there. We obtained leave to see Ernest for a few minutes before he was removed to Coldbath Fields, where he was to serve his term, and found him so thankful to have been summarily dealt with that he hardly seemed to care about the miserable plight in which he was to pass the next six months. When he came out, he said, he would take what remained of his money, go off to America or Australia and never be heard of more.

We left him full of this resolve, I, to write to Theobald, and also to instruct my solicitor to get Ernest’s money out of Pryer’s hands, and Towneley to see the reporters and keep the case out of the newspapers. He was successful as regards all the higher-class papers. There was only one journal, and that of the lowest class, which was incorruptible.

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