The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 66

ERNEST was now so far convalescent as to be able to sit up for the greater part of the day. He had been three months in prison, and, though not strong enough to leave the infirmary, was beyond all fear of a relapse. He was talking one day with Mr. Hughes about his future, and again expressed his intention of emigrating to Australia or New Zealand with the money he should recover from Pryer. Whenever he spoke of this he noticed that Mr. Hughes looked grave and was silent: he had thought that perhaps the chaplain wanted him to return to his profession, and disapproved of his evident anxiety to turn to something else; now, however, he asked Mr. Hughes point blank why it was that he disapproved of his idea of emigrating.

Mr. Hughes endeavoured to evade him, but Ernest was not to be put off. There was something in the chaplain’s manner which suggested that he knew more than Ernest did, but did not like to say it. This alarmed him so much that he begged him not to keep him in suspense; after a little hesitation Mr. Hughes, thinking him now strong enough to stand it, broke the news as gently as he could that the whole of Ernest’s money had disappeared.

The day after my return from Battersby I called on my solicitor, and was told that he had written to Pryer, requiring him to refund the monies for which he had given his I.O.U.’s. Pryer replied that he had given orders to his broker to close his operations, which unfortunately had resulted so far in heavy loss, and that the balance should be paid to my solicitor on the following settling day, then about a week distant. When the time came, we heard nothing from Pryer, and going to his lodgings, found that he had left with his few effects on the very day after he had heard from us, and had not been seen since.

I had heard from Ernest the name of the broker who had been employed, and went at once to see him. He told me Pryer had closed all his accounts for cash on the day that Ernest had been sentenced, and had received L2315, which was all that remained of Ernest’s original L5000. With this he had decamped, nor had we enough clue as to his whereabouts to be able to take any steps to recover the money. There was in fact nothing to be done but to consider the whole as lost. I may say here that neither I nor Ernest ever heard of Pryer again, nor have any idea what became of him.

This placed me in a difficult position. I knew, of course, that in a few years Ernest would have many times over as much money as he had lost, but I knew also that he did not know this, and feared that the supposed loss of all he had in the world might be more than he could stand when coupled with his other misfortunes.

The prison authorities had found Theobald’s address from a letter in Ernest’s pocket, and had communicated with him more than once concerning his son’s illness, but Theobald had not written to me, and I supposed my godson to be in good health. He would be just twenty-four years old when he left prison, and if I followed out his aunt’s instructions, would have to battle with fortune for another four years as well as he could. The question before me was whether it was right to let him run so much risk, or whether I should not to some extent transgress my instructions — which there was nothing to prevent my doing if I thought Miss Pontifex would have wished it — and let him have the same sum that he would have recovered from Pryer.

If my godson had been an older man, and more fixed in any definite groove, this is what I should have done, but he was still very young, and more than commonly unformed for his age. If, again, I had known of his illness I should not have dared to lay any heavier burden on his back than he had to bear already; but not being uneasy about his health, I thought a few years of roughing it and of experience concerning the importance of not playing tricks with money would do him no harm. So I decided to keep a sharp eye upon him as soon as he came out of prison, and to let him splash about in deep water as best he could till I saw whether he was able to swim, or was about to sink. In the first case I would let him go on swimming till he was nearly eight-and-twenty, when I would prepare him gradually for the good fortune that awaited him; in the second I would hurry up to the rescue. So I wrote to say that Pryer had absconded, and that he could have L100 from his father when he came out of prison. I then waited to see what effect these tidings would have, not expecting to receive an answer for three months, for I had been told on enquiry that no letter could be received by a prisoner till after he had been three months in gaol. I also wrote to Theobald and told him of Pryer’s disappearance.

As a matter of fact, when my letter arrived the governor of the gaol read it, and in a case of such importance would have relaxed the rules if Ernest’s state had allowed it; his illness prevented this, and the governor left it to the chaplain and the doctor to break the news to him when they thought him strong enough to bear it, which was now the case. In the meantime I received a formal official document saying that my letter had been received and would be communicated to the prisoner in due course; I believe it was simply through a mistake on the part of a clerk that I was not informed of Ernest’s illness, but I heard nothing of it till I saw him by his own desire a few days after the chaplain had broken to him the substance of what I had written.

Ernest was terribly shocked when he heard of the loss of his money, but his ignorance of the world prevented him from seeing the full extent of the mischief. He had never been in serious want of money yet, and did not know what it meant. In reality, money losses are the hardest to bear of any by those who are old enough to comprehend them.

A man can stand being told that he must submit to a severe surgical operation, or that he has some disease which will shortly kill him, or that he will be a cripple or blind for the rest of his life; dreadful as such tidings must be, we do not find that they unnerve the greater number of mankind; most men, indeed, go coolly enough even to be hanged, but the strongest quail before financial ruin, and the better men they are, the more complete, as a general rule, is their prostration. Suicide is a common consequence of money losses; it is rarely sought as a means of escape from bodily suffering. If we feel that we have a competence at our backs, so that we can die warm and quietly in our beds, with no need to worry about expense, we live our lives out to the dregs, no matter how excruciating our torments. Job probably felt the loss of his flocks and herds more than that of his wife and family, for he could enjoy his flocks and herds without his family, but not his family — not for long — if he had lost all his money. Loss of money indeed is not only the worst pain in itself, but it is the parent of all others. Let a man have been brought up to a moderate competence, and have no specialty; then let his money be suddenly taken from him, and how long is his health likely to survive the change in all his little ways which loss of money will entail? How long again is the esteem and sympathy of friends likely to survive ruin? People may be very sorry for us, but their attitude towards us hitherto has been based upon the supposition that we were situated thus or thus in money matters; when this breaks down there must be a restatement of the social problem so far as we are concerned; we have been obtaining esteem under false pretences. Granted, then, that the three most serious losses which a man can suffer are those affecting money, health, and reputation. Loss of money is far the worst, then comes ill-health, and then loss of reputation; loss of reputation is a bad third, for, if a man keeps health and money unimpaired, it will be generally found that his loss of reputation is due to breaches of parvenu conventions only, and not to violations of those older, better established canons whose authority is unquestionable. In this case a man may grow a new reputation as easily as a lobster grows a new claw, or, if he have health and money, may thrive in great peace of mind without any reputation at all. The only chance for a man who has lost his money is that he shall still be young enough to stand uprooting and transplanting without more than temporary derangement, and this I believed my godson still to be.

By the prison rules he might receive and send a letter after he had been in gaol three months, and might also receive one visit from a friend. When he received my letter, he at once asked me to come and see him, which of course I did. I found him very much changed, and still so feeble that the exertion of coming from the infirmary to the cell in which I was allowed to see him, and the agitation of seeing me were too much for him. At first he quite broke down, and I was so pained at the state in which I found him, that I was on the point of breaking my instructions then and there. I contented myself, however, for the time, with assuring him that I would help him as soon as he came out of prison, and that, when he had made up his mind what he would do, he was to come to me for what money might be necessary, if he could not get it from his father. To make it easier for him I told him that his aunt, on her deathbed, had desired me to do something of this sort should an emergency arise, so that he would only be taking what his aunt had left him.

“Then,” said he, “I will not take the L100 from my father, and I will never see him or my mother again.”

I said: “Take the L100, Ernest, and as much more as you can get, and then do not see them again if you do not like.”

This Ernest would not do. If he took money from them, he could not cut them, and he wanted to cut them. I thought my godson would get on a great deal better if he would only have the firmness to do as he proposed, as regards breaking completely with his father and mother, and said so. “Then don’t you like them?” said he, with a look of surprise.

“Like them!” said I, “I think they’re horrid.”

“Oh, that’s the kindest thing of all you have done for me,” he exclaimed. “I thought all — all middle-aged people liked my father and mother.”

He had been about to call me old, but I was only fifty-seven, and was not going to have this, so I made a face when I saw him hesitating, which drove him into “middle-aged.”

“If you like it,” said I, “I will say all your family are horrid except yourself and your Aunt Alethea. The greater part of every family is always odious; if there are one or two good ones in a very large family, it is as much as can be expected.”

“Thank you,” he replied, gratefully, “I think I can now stand almost anything. I will come to see you as soon as I come out of gaol. Good-bye.” For the warder had told us that the time allowed for our interview was at an end.

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