The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 69

IN coming to the conclusion that he would sever the connection between himself and his family once for all Ernest had reckoned without his family. Theobald wanted to be rid of his son, it is true, in so far as he wished him to be no nearer at any rate than the Antipodes; but he had no idea of entirely breaking with him. He knew his son well enough to have a pretty shrewd idea that this was what Ernest would wish himself, and perhaps as much for this reason as for any other he was determined to keep up the connection, provided it did not involve Ernest’s coming to Battersby nor any recurring outlay.

When the time approached for him to leave prison, his father and mother consulted as to what course they should adopt.

“We must never leave him to himself,” said Theobald impressively; “we can neither of us wish that.”

“Oh, no! no! dearest Theobald,” exclaimed Christina. “Whoever else deserts him, and however distant he may be from us, he must still feel that he has parents whose hearts beat with affection for him no matter how cruelly he has pained them.”

“He has been his own worst enemy,” said Theobald. “He has never loved us as we deserved, and now he will be withheld by false shame from wishing to see us. He will avoid us if he can.”

“Then we must go to him ourselves,” said Christina; “whether he likes it or not we must be at his side to support him as he enters again upon the world.”

“If we do not want him to give us the slip we must catch him as he leaves prison.”

“We will, we will; our faces shall be the first to gladden his eyes as he comes out, and our voices the first to exhort him to return to the paths of virtue.”

“I think,” said Theobald, “if he sees us in the street he will turn round and run away from us. He is intensely selfish.”

“Then we must get leave to go inside the prison, and see him before he gets outside.”

After a good deal of discussion this was the plan they decided on adopting, and having so decided, Theobald wrote to the governor of the gaol asking whether he could be admitted inside the gaol to receive Ernest when his sentence had expired. He received answer in the affirmative, and the pair left Battersby the day before Ernest was to come out of prison.

Ernest had not reckoned on this, and was rather surprised on being told a few minutes before nine that he was to go into the receiving room before he left the prison, as there were visitors waiting to see him. His heart fell, for he guessed who they were, but he screwed up his courage and hastened to the receiving room. There, sure enough, standing at the end of the table nearest the door were the two people whom he regarded as the most dangerous enemies he had in all the world — his father and mother.

He could not fly, but he knew that if he wavered he was lost.

His mother was crying, but she sprang forward to meet him and clasped him in her arms. “Oh, my boy, my boy,” she sobbed, and she could say no more.

Ernest was as white as a sheet. His heart beat so that he could hardly breathe. He let his mother embrace him, and then withdrawing himself stood silently before her with the tears falling from his eyes.

At first he could not speak. For a minute or so the silence on all sides was complete. Then, gathering strength, he said in a low voice:

“Mother” (it was the first time he had called her anything but (”mamma”), “we must part.” On this, turning to the warder, he said: “I believe I am free to leave the prison if I wish to do so. You cannot compel me to remain here longer. Please take me to the gates.”

Theobald stepped forward. “Ernest, you must not, shall not, leave us in this way.”

“Do not speak to me,” said Ernest, his eyes flashing with a fire that was unwonted in them. Another warder then came up and took Theobald aside, while the first conducted Ernest to the gates.

“Tell them,” said Ernest, “from me that they must think of me as one dead, for I am dead to them. Say that my greatest pain is the thought of the disgrace I have inflicted upon them, and that above all things else I will study to avoid paining them hereafter; but say also that if they write to me I will return their letters unopened, and that if they come and see me I will protect myself in whatever way I can.”

By this time he was at the prison gate, and in another moment was at liberty. After he had got a few steps out he turned his face to the prison wall, leant against it for support, and wept as though his heart would break.

Giving up father and mother for Christ’s sake was not such an easy matter after all. If a man has been possessed by devils for long enough they will rend him as they leave him, however imperatively they may have been cast out. Ernest did not stay long where he was, for he feared each moment that his father and mother would come out. He pulled himself together and turned into the labyrinth of small streets which opened out in front of him.

He had crossed his Rubicon — not perhaps very heroically or dramatically, but then it is only in dramas that people act dramatically. At any rate, by hook or by crook, he had scrambled over, and was out upon the other side. Already he thought of much which he would gladly have said, and blamed his want of presence of mind; but, after all, it mattered very little. Inclined though he was to make very great allowances for his father and mother, he was indignant at their having thrust themselves upon him without warning at a moment when the excitement of leaving prison was already as much as he was fit for. It was a mean advantage to have taken over Miss, but he was glad they had taken it, for it made him realise more fully than ever that his one chance lay in separating himself completely from them.

The morning was grey, and the first signs of winter fog were beginning to show themselves, for it was now the 30th of September. Ernest wore the clothes in which he had entered prison, and was therefore dressed as a clergyman. No one who looked at him would have seen any difference between his present appearance and his appearance six months previously; indeed, as he walked slowly through the dingy crowded lane called Eyre Street Hill (which he well knew, for he had clerical friends in that neighbourhood), the months he had passed in prison seemed to drop out of his life, and so powerfully did association carry him away that, finding himself in his old dress and in his old surroundings, he felt dragged back into his old self — as though his six months of prison life had been a dream from which he was now waking to take things up as he had left them. This was the effect of unchanged surroundings upon the unchanged part of him. But there was a changed part, and the effect of unchanged surroundings upon this was to make everything seem almost as strange as though he had never had any life but his prison one, and was now born into a new world.

All our lives long, every day and very hour, we are engaged in the process of accommodating our changed and unchanged selves to changed and unchanged surroundings; living, in fact, is nothing else than this process of accommodation; when we fail in it a little we are stupid, when we fail flagrantly we are mad, when we suspend it temporarily we sleep, when we give up the attempt altogether we die. In quiet, uneventful lives the changes internal and external are so small that there is little or no strain in the process of fusion and accommodation; in other lives there is great strain, but there is also great fusing and accommodating power; in others great strain with little accommodating power. A life will be successful or not according as the power of accommodation is equal to or unequal to the strain of fusing and adjusting internal and external changes.

The trouble is that in the end we shall be driven to admit the unity of the universe so completely as to be compelled to deny that there is either an external or an internal, but must see everything both as external and internal at one and the same time, subject and object -external and internal — being unified as much as everything else. This will knock our whole system over, but then every system has got to be knocked over by something.

Much the best way out of this difficulty is to go in for separation between internal and external — subject and object — when we find this convenient, and unity between the same when we find unity convenient. This is illogical, but extremes are alone logical, and they are always absurd, the mean is alone practicable and it is always illogical. It is faith and not logic which is the supreme arbiter. They say all roads lead to Rome, and all philosophies that I have ever seen lead ultimately either to some gross absurdity, or else to the conclusion already more than once insisted on in these pages, that the just shall live by faith, that is to say that sensible people will get through life by rule of thumb as they may interpret it most conveniently without asking too many questions for conscience sake. Take any fact, and reason upon it to the bitter end, and it will ere long lead to this as the only refuge from some palpable folly.

But to return to my story. When Ernest got to the top of the street and looked back, he saw the grimy, sullen walls of his prison filling up the end of it. He paused for a minute or two. “There,” he said to himself, “I was hemmed in by bolts which I could see and touch; here I am barred by others which are none the less real -poverty and ignorance of the world. It was no part of my business to try to break the material bolts of iron and escape from prison, but now that I am free I must surely seek to break these others.”

He had read somewhere of a prisoner who had made his escape by cutting up his bedstead with an iron spoon. He admired and marvelled at the man’s mind, but could not even try to imitate him; in the presence of immaterial barriers, however, he was not so easily daunted, and felt as though, even if the bed were iron and the spoon a wooden one, he could find some means of making the wood cut the iron sooner or later.

He turned his back upon Eyre Street Hill and walked down Leather Lane into Holborn. Each step he took, each face or object that he knew, helped at once to link him on to the life he had led before his imprisonment, and at the same time to make him feel how completely that imprisonment had cut his life into two parts, the one of which could bear no resemblance to the other.

He passed down Fetter Lane into Fleet Street and so to the Temple, to which I had just returned from my summer holiday. It was about half past nine, and I was having my breakfast, when I heard a timid knock at the door and opened it to find Ernest.

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