The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 70

I HAD begun to like him on the night Towneley had sent for me, and on the following day I thought he had shaped well. I had liked him also during our interview in prison, and wanted to see more of him, so that I might make up my mind about him. I had lived long enough to know that some men who do great things in the end are not very wise when they are young; knowing that he would leave prison on the 30th, I had expected him, and, as I had a spare bedroom, pressed him to stay with me till he could make up his mind what he would do.

Being so much older than he was, I anticipated no trouble in getting my own way, but he would not hear of it. The utmost he would assent to was that he should be my guest till he could find a room for himself, which he would set about doing at once.

He was still much agitated, but grew better as he ate a breakfast, not of prison fare and in a comfortable room. It pleased me to see the delight he took in all about him; the fireplace with a fire in it; the easy chairs, the Times, my cat, the red geraniums in the window, to say nothing of coffee, bread and butter, sausages, marmalade, etc. Everything was pregnant with the most exquisite pleasure to him. The plane trees were full of leaf still; he kept rising from the breakfast table to admire them; never till now, he said, had he known what the enjoyment of these things really was. He ate, looked, laughed and cried by turns, with an emotion which I can neither forget nor describe.

He told me how his father and mother had lain in wait for him, as he was about to leave prison. I was furious, and applauded him heartily for what he had done. He was very grateful to me for this. Other people, he said, would tell him he ought to think of his father and mother rather than of himself, and it was such a comfort to find someone who saw things as he saw them himself. Even if I had differed from him I should not have said so, but I was of his opinion, and was almost as much obliged to him for seeing things as I saw them, as he to me for doing the same kind office by himself. Cordially as I disliked Theobald and Christina, I was in such a hopeless minority in the opinion I had formed concerning them that it was pleasant to find someone who agreed with me.

Then there came an awful moment for both of us.

A knock, as of a visitor and not a postman, was heard at my door.

“Goodness gracious,” I exclaimed, “why didn’t we sport the oak? Perhaps it is your father. But surely he would hardly come at this time of day! Go at once into my bedroom.”

I went to the door, and, sure enough, there were both Theobald and Christina. I could not refuse to let them in and was obliged to listen to their version of the story, which agreed substantially with Ernest’s. Christina cried bitterly — Theobald stormed. After about ten minutes, during which I assured them that I had not the faintest conception where their son was, I dismissed them both. I saw they looked suspiciously upon the manifest signs that someone was breakfasting with me, and parted from me more or less defiantly, but I got rid of them, and poor Ernest came out again, looking white, frightened, and upset. He had heard voices, but no more, and did not feel sure that the enemy might not be gaining over me. We sported the oak now, and before long he began to recover.

After breakfast, we discussed the situation. I had taken away his wardrobe and books from Mrs. Jupp’s, but had left his furniture, pictures, and piano, giving Mrs. Jupp the use of these, so that she might let her room furnished, in lieu of charge for taking care of the furniture. As soon as Ernest heard that his wardrobe was at hand, he got out a suit of clothes he had had before he had been ordained, and put it on at once, much, as I thought, to the improvement of his personal appearance.

Then we went into the subject of his finances. He had had ten pounds from Pryer only a day or two before he was apprehended, of which between seven and eight were in his purse when he entered the prison. This money was restored to him on leaving. He had always paid cash for whatever he bought, so that there was nothing to be deducted for debts. Besides this, he had his clothes, books, and furniture. He could, as I have said, have had L100 from his father if he had chosen to emigrate, but this both Ernest and I (for he brought me round to his opinion) agreed it would be better to decline. This was all he knew of as belonging to him.

He said he proposed at once taking an unfurnished top back attic in as quiet a house as he could find, say at three or four shillings a week, and looking out for work as a tailor. I did not think it much mattered what he began with, for I felt pretty sure he would ere long find his way to something that suited him, if he could get a start with anything at all. The difficulty was how to get him started. It was not enough that he should be able to cut out and make clothes — that he should have the organs, so to speak, of a tailor; he must be put into a tailor’s shop and guided for a little while by someone who knew how and where to help him.

The rest of the day he spent in looking for a room, which he soon found, and in familiarising himself with liberty. In the evening I took him to the Olympic, where Robson was then acting in a burlesque on Macbeth, Mrs. Keeley, if I remember rightly, taking the part of Lady Macbeth. In the scene before the murder, Macbeth had said he could not kill Duncan when he saw his boots upon the landing. Lady Macbeth put a stop to her husband’s hesitation by whipping him up under her arm, and carrying him off the stage, kicking and screaming. Ernest laughed till he cried. “What rot Shakespeare is after this,” he exclaimed, involuntarily. I remembered his essay on the Greek tragedians, and was more epris with than ever.

Next day he set about looking for employment, and I did not see him til about five o’clock, when he came and said that he had had no success. The same thing happened the next day and the day after that. Wherever he went he was invariably refused and often ordered point blank out of the shop; I could see by the expression of his face, though he said nothing, that he was getting frightened, and began to think I should have to come to the rescue. He said he had made a great many enquiries and had always been told the same story. He found that it was easy to keep on in an old line, but very hard to strike out into a new one.

He talked to the fishmonger in Leather Lane, where he went to buy a bloater for his tea, casually as though from curiosity and without any interested motive. “Sell,” said the master of the shop, “why, nobody wouldn’t believe what can be sold by penn’orths and twopenn’orths if you go the right way to work. Look at whelks, for instance. Last Saturday night me and my little Emma here, we sold L7 worth of whelks between eight and half past eleven o’clock — and almost all in penn’orths and twopenn’orths — a few hap’orths, but not many. It was the steam that did it. We kept aboiling of ‘em hot and hot, and whenever the steam came strong up from the cellar onto the pavement, the people bought, but whenever the steam went down they left off buying; so we boiled them over and over again till they was all sold. That’s just where it is; if you know your business you can sell, if you don’t you’ll soon make a mess of it. Why, but for the steam, I should not have sold 10s. worth of whelks all the night through.”

This and many another yarn of kindred substance which he heard from other people determined Ernest more than ever to stake on tailoring as the one trade about which he knew anything at all, nevertheless, here were three or four days gone by and employment seemed as far off as ever.

I now did what I ought to have done before, that is to say, I called on my own tailor whom I had dealt with for over a quarter of a century and asked his advice. He declared Ernest’s plan to be hopeless. “If,” said Mr. Larkins, for this was my tailor’s name, “he had begun at fourteen, it might have done, but no man of twenty-four could stand being turned to work into a workshop full of tailors; he would not get on with the men, nor the men with him; you could not expect him to be ‘hail fellow, well met’ with them, and you could not expect his fellow-workmen to like him if he was not. A man must have sunk low through drink or natural taste for low company, before he could get on with those who have had such a different training from his own.”

Mr. Larkins said a great deal more and wound up by taking me to see the place where his own men worked. “This is a paradise,” he said, “compared to most workshops. What gentleman could stand this air, think you, for a fortnight?”

I was glad enough to get out of the hot, fetid atmosphere in five minutes, and saw that there was no brick of Ernest’s prison to be loosened by going and working among tailors in a workshop.

Mr. Larkins wound up by saying that even if my protege were a much better workman than he probably was, no master would give him employment, for fear of creating a bother among the men.

I left feeling that I ought to have thought of all this myself, and was more than ever perplexed as to whether I had not better let my young friend have a few thousand pounds and send him out to the colonies, when, on my return home at about five o’clock, I found him waiting for me, radiant, and declaring that he had found all he wanted.

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