The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 67

AS soon as Ernest found that he had no money to look to upon leaving prison he saw that his dreams about emigrating and farming must come to an end, for he knew that he was incapable of working at the plough or with the axe for long together himself. And now it seemed he should have no money to pay anyone else for doing so. It was this that resolved him to part once and for all with his parents. If he had been going abroad he could have kept up relations with them, for they would have been too far off to interfere with him.

He knew his father and mother would object to being cut; they would wish to appear kind and forgiving; they would also dislike having no further power to plague him; but he knew also very well that so long as he and they ran in harness together they would be always pulling one way and he another. He wanted to drop the gentleman and go down into the ranks, beginning on the lowest rung of the ladder, where no one would know of his disgrace or mind it if he did know; his father and mother on the other hand would wish him to clutch on to the fag-end of gentility at a starvation salary and with no prospect of advancement. Ernest had seen enough in Ashpit Place to know that a tailor, if he did not drink and attended to his business, could earn more money than a clerk or a curate, while much less expense by way of show was required of him. The tailor also had more liberty, and a better chance of rising. Ernest resolved at once, as he had fallen so far, to fall still lower — promptly, gracefully, and with the idea of rising again, rather than cling to the skirts of a respectability which would permit him to exist on sufferance only, and make him pay an utterly extortionate price for an article which he could do better without.

He arrived at this result more quickly than he might otherwise have done through remembering something he had once heard his aunt say about “kissing the soil.” This had impressed him and stuck by him perhaps by reason of its brevity; when later on he came to know the story of Hercules and Antaeus, lie found it one of the very few ancient fables which had a hold over him — his chiefest debt to classical literature. His aunt had wanted him to learn carpentering, as a means of kissing the soil should his Hercules ever throw him. It was too late for this now — or he thought it was — but the mode of carrying out his aunt’s idea was a detail; there were a hundred ways of kissing the soil besides becoming a carpenter.

He had told me this during our interview, and I had encouraged him to the utmost of my power. He showed so much more good sense than I had given him credit for that I became comparatively easy about him, and determined to let him play his own game, being always, however, ready to hand in case things went too far wrong. It was not simply because he disliked his father and mother that he wanted to have no more to do with them; if it had been only this he would have put up with them; but a warning voice within told him distinctly enough that if he was clean cut away from them he might still have a chance of success, whereas if they had anything whatever to do with him, or even knew where he was, they would hamper him and in the end ruin him. Absolute independence he believed to be his only chance of very life itself.

Over and above this — if this were not enough — Ernest had a faith in his own destiny such as most young men, I suppose, feel, but the grounds of which were not apparent to anyone but himself. Rightly or wrongly, in a quiet way he believed he possessed a strength which, if he were only free to use it in his own way, might do great things some day. He did not know when, nor where, nor how his opportunity was to come, but he never doubted that it would come in spite of all that had happened, and above all else he cherished the hope that he might know how to seize it if it came, for whatever it was it would be something that no one else could do so well as he could. People said there were no dragons and giants for adventurous men to fight with nowadays; it was beginning to dawn upon him that there were just as many now as at any past time.

Monstrous as such a faith may seem in one who was qualifying himself for a high mission by a term of imprisonment, he could no more help it than he could help breathing; it was innate in him, and it was even more with a view to this than for other reasons that he wished to sever the connection between himself and his parents; for he knew that if ever the day came in which it should appear that before him too there was a race set in which it might be an honour to have run among the foremost, his father and mother would be the first to let him and hinder him in running it. They had been the first to say that he ought to run such a race; they would also be the first to trip him up if he took them at their word, and then afterwards upbraid him for not having won. Achievement of any kind would be impossible for him unless he was free from those who would be for ever dragging him back into the conventional. The conventional had been tried already and had been found wanting.

He had an opportunity now, if he chose to take it, of escaping once for all from those who at once tormented him and would hold him earthward should a chance of soaring open before him. He should never have had it but for his imprisonment; but for this the force of habit and routine would have been too strong for him; he should hardly have had it if he had not lost all his money; the gap would not have been so wide but that he might have been inclined to throw a plank across it. He rejoiced now, therefore, over his loss of money as well as over his imprisonment, which had made it more easy for him to follow his truest and most lasting interests.

At times he wavered, when he thought of how his mother, who in her way, as he thought, had loved him, would weep and think sadly over him, or how perhaps she might even fall ill and die, and how the blame would rest with him. At these times his resolution was near breaking, but when he found I applauded his design, the voice within, which bade him see his father’s and mother’s faces no more, grew louder and more persistent. If he could not cut himself adrift from those who he knew would hamper him, when so small an effort was wanted, his dream of a destiny was idle; what was the prospect of a hundred pounds from his father in comparison with jeopardy to this? He still felt deeply the pain his disgrace had inflicted upon his father and mother, but he was getting stronger, and reflected that as he had run his chance with them for parents, so they must run theirs with him for a son.

He had nearly settled down to this conclusion when he received a letter from his father which made his decision final. If the prison rules had been interpreted strictly, he would not have been allowed to have this letter for another three months, as he had already heard from me, but the governor took a lenient view, and considered the letter from me to be a business communication hardly coming under the category of a letter from friends. Theobald’s letter therefore was given to his son. It ran as follows:

“MY DEAR ERNEST, My object in writing is not to upbraid you with the disgrace and shame you have inflicted upon your mother and myself, to say nothing of your brother Joey, and your sister. Suffer of course we must, but we know to whom to look in our affliction, and are filled with anxiety rather on your behalf than our own. Your mother is wonderful. She is pretty well in health, and desires me to send you her love.

“Have you considered your prospects on leaving prison? I understand from Mr. Overton that you have lost the legacy which your grandfather left you, together with all the interest that accrued during your minority, in the course of speculation upon the Stock Exchange! If you have indeed been guilty of such appalling folly it is difficult to see what you can turn your hand to, and I suppose you will try to find a clerkship in an office. Your salary will doubtless be low at first, but you have made your bed and must not complain if you have to lie upon it. If you take pains to please your employers they will not be backward in promoting you.

“When I first heard from Mr. Overton of the unspeakable calamity which had befallen your mother and myself, I had resolved not to see you again. I am unwilling, however, to have recourse to a measure which would deprive you of your last connecting link with respectable people. Your mother and I will see you as soon as you come out of prison; not at Battersby — we do not wish you to come down here at present — but somewhere else, probably in London. You need not shrink from seeing us; we shall not reproach you. We will then decide about your future.

“At present our impression is that you will find a fairer start probably in Australia or New Zealand than here, and I am prepared to find you L75 or even if necessary so far as L100 to pay your passage money. Once in the colony you must be dependent upon your own exertions.

“May Heaven prosper them and you, and restore you to us years hence a respected member of society. — Your affectionate father,

— “T. PONTIFEX.”

Then there was a postscript in Christina’s writing.

“My darling, darling boy, pray with me daily and hourly that we may yet again become a happy, united, God-fearing family as we were before this horrible pain fell upon us. — Your sorrowing but ever loving mother,

— “C. P.”

This letter did not produce the effect on Ernest that it would have done before his imprisonment began. His father and mother thought they could take him up as they had left him off They forgot the rapidity with which development follows misfortune, if the sufferer is young and of a sound temperament. Ernest made no reply to his father’s letter, but his desire for a total break developed into something like a passion. “There are orphanages,” he exclaimed to himself, “for children who have lost their parents — oh! why, why, why, are there no harbours of refuge for grown men who have not yet lost them?” And he brooded over the bliss of Melchisedek who had been born an orphan, without father, without mother, and without descent.

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