The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 68

WHEN I think over all that Ernest told me about his prison meditations, and the conclusions he was drawn to, it occurs to me that in reality he was wanting to do the very last thing which it would have entered into his head to think of wanting. I mean that he was trying to give up father and mother for Christ’s sake. He would have said he was giving them up because he thought they hindered him in the pursuit of his truest and most lasting happiness. Granted, but what is this if it is not Christ? What is Christ if He is not this? He who takes the highest and most self-respecting view of his own welfare which it is in his power to conceive, and adheres to it in spite of conventionality, is a Christian whether he knows it and calls himself one, or whether he does not. A rose is not the less a rose because it does not know its own name.

What if circumstances had made his duty more easy for him than it would be to most men? That was his luck, as much as it is other people’s luck to have other duties made easy for them by accident of birth. Surely if people are born rich or handsome they have a right to their good fortune. Some, I know, will say that one man has no right to be born with a better constitution than another; others again will say that luck is the only righteous object of human veneration. Both, I daresay, can make out a very good case, but whichever may be right surely Ernest had as much right to the good luck of finding a duty made easier as he had had to the bad fortune of falling into the scrape which had got him into prison. A man is not to be sneered at for having a trump card in his hand; he is only to be sneered at if he plays his trump card badly.

Indeed, I question whether it is ever much harder for anyone to give up father and mother for Christ’s sake than it was for Ernest. The relations between the parties will have almost always been severely strained before it comes to this. I doubt whether anyone was ever yet required to give up those to whom he was tenderly attached for a mere matter of conscience: he will have ceased to be tenderly attached to them long before he is called upon to break with them; for differences of opinion concerning any matter of vital importance spring from differences of constitution, and these will already have led to so much other disagreement that the “giving up,” when it comes, is like giving up an aching but very loose and hollow tooth. It is the loss of those whom we are not required to give up for Christ’s sake which is really painful to us. Then there is a wrench in earnest. Happily, no matter how light the task that is demanded from us, it is enough if we do it; we reap our reward, much as though it were a Herculean labour.

But to return, the conclusion Ernest came to was that he would be a tailor. He talked the matter over with the chaplain, who told him there was no reason why he should not be able to earn his six or seven shillings a day by the time he came out of prison, if he chose to learn the trade during the remainder of his term — not quite three months; the doctor said he was strong enough for this, and that it was about the only thing he was as yet fit for; so he left the infirmary sooner than he would otherwise have done and entered the tailor’s shop, overjoyed at the thoughts of seeing his way again, and confident of rising some day if he could only get a firm foothold to start from.

Everyone whom he had to do with saw that he did not belong to what are called the criminal classes, and finding him eager to learn and to save trouble always treated him kindly and almost respectfully. He did not find the work irksome: it was far more pleasant than making Latin and Greek verses at Roughborough; he felt that he would rather be here in prison than at Roughborough again — yes, or even at Cambridge itself. The only trouble he was ever in danger of getting into was through exchanging words or looks with the more decent-looking of his fellow-prisoners. This was forbidden, but he never missed a chance of breaking the rules in this respect.

Any man of his ability who was at the same time anxious to learn would of course make rapid progress, and before he left prison the warder said he was as good a tailor with his three months’ apprenticeship as many a man was with twelve. Ernest had never before been so much praised by any of his teachers. Each day as he grew stronger in health and more accustomed to his surroundings he saw some fresh advantage in his position, an advantage which he had not aimed at, but which had come almost in spite of himself, and he marvelled at his own good fortune, which had ordered things so greatly better for him than he could have ordered them for himself.

His having lived six months in Ashpit Place was a case in point. Things were possible to him which to others like him would be impossible. If such a man as Towneley were told he must live henceforth in a house like those in Ashpit Place it would be more than he could stand. Ernest could not have stood it himself if he had gone to live there of compulsion through want of money. It was only because he had felt himself able to run away at any minute that he had not wanted to do so; now, however, that he had become familiar with life in Ashpit Place he no longer minded it, and could live gladly in lower parts of London than that so long as he could pay his way. It was from no prudence or forethought that he had served this apprenticeship to life among the poor. He had been trying in a feeble way to be thorough in his work: he had not been thorough, the whole thing had been a fiasco; but he had made a little puny effort in the direction of being genuine, and behold, in his hour of need it had been returned to him with a reward far richer than he had deserved. He could not have faced becoming one of the very poor unless he had had such a bridge to conduct him, over to them as he had found unwittingly in Ashpit Place. True, there had been drawbacks in the particular house he had chosen, but, he need not live in a house where there was a Mr. Holt, and he should no longer be tied to the profession which he so much hated; if there were neither screams nor scripture readings he could be happy in a garret at three shillings a week, such as Miss Maitland lived in.

As he thought further he remembered that all things work together for good to them that love God; was it possible, he asked himself, that he too, however imperfectly, had been trying to love Him? He dared not answer Yes, but he would try hard that it should be so. Then there came into his mind that noble air of Handel’s: “Great God, who yet but darkly known,” and he felt it as he had never felt it before. He had lost his faith in Christianity, but his faith in something-he knew not what, but that there was a something as yet but darkly known, which made right right and wrong wrong — his faith in this grew stronger and stronger daily.

Again there crossed his mind thoughts of the power which he felt to be in him, and of how and where it was to find its vent. The same instinct which had led him to live among the poor because it was the nearest thing to him which he could lay hold of with any clearness came to his assistance here too. He thought of the Australian gold and how those who lived among it had never seen it though it abounded all around them: “Here is gold everywhere,” he exclaimed inwardly, “to those who look for it.” Might not his opportunity be close upon him if he looked carefully enough at his immediate surroundings? What was his position? He had lost all. Could he not turn his having lost all into an opportunity? Might he not, if he too sought the strength of the Lord, find, like St. Paul, that it was perfected in weakness?

He had nothing more to lose; money, friends, character, all were gone for a very long time if not for ever; but there was something else also that had taken its flight along with these. I mean the fear of that which man could do unto him. Cantabit vacuus. Who could hurt him more than he had been hurt already? Let him but be able to earn his bread, and he knew of nothing which he dared not venture if it would make the world a happier place for those who were young and lovable. Herein he found so much comfort that he almost wished he had lost his reputation even more completely — for he saw that it was like a man’s life which may be found of them that lose it and lost of them that would find it. He should not have had the courage to give up all for Christ’s sake, but now Christ had mercifully taken all, and lo! it seemed as though all were found.

As the days went slowly by he came to see that Christianity and the denial of Christianity after all met as much as any other extremes do; it was a fight about names — not about things; practically the Church of Rome, the Church of England, and the free-thinker have the same ideal standard and meet in the gentleman; for he is the most perfect saint who is the most perfect gentleman. Then he saw also that it matters little what profession, whether of religion or irreligion, a man may make, provided only he follows it out with charitable inconsistency, and without insisting on it to the bitter end. It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies. This was the crowning point of the edifice; when he had got here he no longer wished to molest even the Pope. The Archbishop of Canterbury might have hopped about all round him and even picked crumbs out of his hand without running risk of getting a sly sprinkle of salt. That wary prelate himself might perhaps have been of a different opinion, but the robins and thrushes that hop about our lawns are not more needlessly distrustful of the hand that throws them out crumbs of bread in winter, than the Archbishop would have been of my hero.

Perhaps he was helped to arrive at the foregoing conclusion by an event which almost thrust inconsistency upon him. A few days after he had left the infirmary the chaplain came to his cell and told him that the prisoner who played the organ in chapel had just finished his sentence and was leaving the prison; he therefore offered the post to Ernest, who, he already knew, played the organ. Ernest was at first in doubt whether it would be right for him to assist at religious services more than he was actually compelled to do, but the pleasure of playing the organ, and the privileges which the post involved, made him see excellent reasons for not riding consistency to death. Having, then, once introduced an element of inconsistency into his system, he was far too consistent not to be inconsistent consistently, and he lapsed ere long into an amiable indifferentism which to outward appearance differed but little from the indifferentism from which Mr. Hawke had aroused him.

By becoming organist he was saved from the treadmill, for which the doctor had said he was unfit as yet, but which he would probably have been put to in due course as soon as he was stronger. He might have escaped the tailor’s shop altogether and done only the comparatively light work of attending to the chaplain’s rooms if he had liked, but he wanted to learn as much tailoring as he could, and did not therefore take advantage of this offer; he was allowed, however, two hours a day in the afternoon for practice. From that moment his prison life ceased to be monotonous, and the remaining two months of his sentence slipped by almost as rapidly as they would have done if he had been free. What with music, books, learning his trade, and conversation with the chaplain, who was just the kindly, sensible person that Ernest wanted in order to steady him a little, the days went by so pleasantly that when the time came for him to leave prison, he did so, or thought he did so, not without regret.

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