The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 72

ERNEST told Ellen of his difficulty about finding employment. “But what do what do you think of going into a shop for, my dear,” said Ellen. “Why not take a little shop yourself?”

Ernest asked how much this would cost. Ellen told him that he might take a house in some small street, say near the “Elephant and Castle,” for 17s. or 18s. a week, and let off the two top floors for 10s., keeping the back parlour and shop for themselves. If he could raise five or six pounds to buy some second-hand clothes to stock the shop with, they could mend them and clean them, and she could look after the women’s clothes while he did the men’s. Then he could mend and make, if he could get the orders.

They could soon make a business of L2 a week in this way; she had a friend who began like that and had now moved to a better shop, where she made L5 or L6 a week at least — and she, Ellen, had done the greater part of the buying and selling herself.

Here was a new light indeed. It was as though he had got his L5000 back again all of a sudden, and perhaps ever so much more later on into the bargain. Ellen seemed more than ever to be his good genius.

She went out and got a few rashers of bacon for his and her breakfast. She cooked them much more nicely than he had been able to do, and laid breakfast for him and made coffee, and some nice brown toast. Ernest had been his own cook and housemaid for the last few days and had not given himself satisfaction. Here he suddenly found himself with someone to wait on him again. Not only had Ellen pointed out to him how he could earn a living when no one except himself had known how to advise him, but here she was so pretty and smiling, looking after even his comforts, and restoring him practically in all respects that he much cared about to the position which he had lost — or rather putting him in one that he already liked much better. No wonder he was radiant when he came to explain his plans to me.

He had some difficulty in telling all that had happened. He hesitated, blushed, hummed, and hawed. Misgivings began to cross his mind when he found himself obliged to tell his story to someone else. He felt inclined to slur things over, but I wanted to get at the facts, so I helped him over the bad places, and questioned him tin I had got out pretty nearly the whole story as I have given it above.

I hope I did not show it, but I was very angry. I had begun to like Ernest. I don’t know why, but I never have heard that any young man to whom I had become attached was going to get married without hating his intended instinctively, though I had never seen her; I have observed that most bachelors feel the same thing, though we are generally at some pains to hide the fact. Perhaps it is because we know we ought to have got married ourselves. Ordinarily we say we are delighted — in the present case I did not feel obliged to do this, though I made an effort to conceal my vexation. That a young man of much promise who was heir also to what was now a handsome fortune, should fling himself away upon such a person as Ellen was quite too provoking, and the more so because of the unexpectedness of the whole affair.

I begged him not to marry Ellen yet — not at least until he had known her for a longer time. He would not hear of it; he had given his word, and if he had not given it he should go and give it at once. I had hitherto found him upon most matters singularly docile and easy to manage, but on this point I could do nothing with him. His recent victory over his father and mother had increased his strength, and I was nowhere. I would have told him of his true position, but I knew very well that this would only make him more bent on having his own way — for with so much money why should he not please himself? I said nothing, therefore, on this head, and yet all that I could urge went for very little with one who believed himself to be an artisan or nothing.

Really from his own standpoint there was nothing very outrageous in what he was doing. He had known and been very fond of Ellen years before. He knew her to come of respectable people, and to have borne a good character, and to have been universally liked at Battersby. She was then a quick, smart, hard-working girl — and a very pretty one. When at last they met again she was on her best behaviour — in fact, she was modesty and demureness itself. What wonder, then, that his imagination should fail to realise the changes that eight years must have worked? He knew too much against himself, and was too bankrupt in love to be squeamish; if Ellen had been only what he thought her, and if his prospects had been in reality no better than he believed they were, I do not know that there is anything much more imprudent in what Ernest proposed than there is in half the marriages that take place every day.

There was nothing for it, however, but to make the best of the inevitable, so I wished my young friend good fortune, and told him he could have whatever money he wanted to start his shop with, if what he had in hand was not sufficient. He thanked me, asked me to be kind enough to let him do all my mending and repairing, and to get him any other like orders that I could, and left me to my own reflections.

I was even more angry when he was gone than I had been while he was with me. His frank, boyish face had beamed with a happiness that had rarely visited it. Except at Cambridge he had hardly known what happiness meant, and even there his life had been clouded as of a man for whom wisdom at the greatest of its entrances was quite shut out. I had seen enough of the world and of him to have observed this, but it was impossible, or I thought it had been impossible, for me to have helped him.

Whether I ought to have tried to help him or not I do not know, but I am sure that the young of all animals often do want help upon matters about which anyone would say a priori that there should be no difficulty. One would think that a young seal would want no teaching how to swim, nor yet a bird to fly, but in practice a young seal drowns if put out of its depth before its parents have taught it to swim; and so again, even the young hawk must be taught to fly before it can do so.

I grant that the tendency of the times is to exaggerate the good which teaching can do, but in trying to teach too much, in most matters, we have neglected others in respect of which a little sensible teaching would do no harm.

I know it is the fashion to say that young people must find out things for themselves, and so they probably would if they had fair play to the extent of not having obstacles put in their way. But they seldom have fair play; as a general rule they meet with foul play, and foul play from those who live by selling them stones made into a great variety of shapes and sizes so as to form a tolerable imitation of bread.

Some are lucky enough to meet with few obstacles, some are plucky enough to override them, but in the greater number of cases, if people are saved at all they are saved so as by fire.

While Ernest was with me Ellen was looking out for a shop on the south side of the Thames near the “Elephant and Castle,” which was then almost a new and a very rising neighbourhood. By one o’clock she had found several from which a selection was to be made, and before night the pair had made their choice.

Ernest brought Ellen to me. I did not want to see her, but could not well refuse. He had laid out a few of his shillings upon her wardrobe, so that she was neatly dressed, and, indeed, she looked very pretty and so good that I could hardly be surprised at Ernest’s infatuation when the other circumstances of the case were taken into consideration. Of course we hated one another instinctively from the first moment we set eyes on one another, but we each told Ernest that we had been most favourably impressed.

Then I was taken to see the shop. An empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed. Decay sets in at once in every part of it, and what mould and wind and weather would spare, street boys commonly destroy. Ernest’s shop in its untenanted state was a dirty, unsavoury place enough. The house was not old, but it had been run up by a jerry-builder and its constitution had no stamina whatever. It was only by being kept warm and quiet that it would remain in health for many months together. Now it had been empty for some weeks and the cats had got in by night, while the boys had broken the windows by day. The parlour floor was covered with stones and dirt, and in the area was a dead dog which had been killed in the street and been thrown down into the first unprotected place that could be found. There was a strong smell throughout the house, but whether it was bugs, or rats, or cats, or drains, or a compound of all four, I could not determine. The sashes did not fit, the flimsy doors hung badly; the skirting was gone in several places, and there were not a few holes in the floor; the locks were loose, and paper was torn and dirty; the stairs were weak and one felt the treads give as one went up them.

Over and above these drawbacks the house had an ill name, by reason of the fact that the wife of the last occupant had hanged herself in it not very many weeks previously. She had set down a bloater before the fire for her husband’s tea, and had made him a round of toast. She then left the room as though about to return to it shortly, but instead of doing so she went into the back kitchen and hanged herself without a word. It was this which had kept the house empty so long in spite of its excellent position as a corner shop. The last tenant had left immediately after the inquest, and if the owner had had it done up then people would have got over the tragedy that had been enacted in it, but the combination of bad condition and bad fame had hindered many from taking it, who, like Ellen, could see that it had great business capabilities. Almost anything would have sold there, but it happened also that there was no second-hand clothes shop in close proximity, so that everything combined in its favour, except its filthy state and its reputation.

When I saw it, I thought I would rather die than live in such an awful place — but then I had been living in the Temple for the last five-and-twenty years. Ernest was lodging in Laystall Street and had just come out of prison; before this he had lived in Ashpit Place, so that this house had no terrors for him provided he could get it done up. The difficulty was that the landlord was hard to move in this respect. It ended in my finding the money to do everything that was wanted, and taking a lease of the house for five years at the same rental as that paid by the last occupant. I then sublet it to Ernest, of course taking care that it was put more efficiently into repair than his landlord was at all likely to have put it.

A week later I called and found everything so completely transformed that I should hardly have recognised the house. All the ceilings had been whitewashed, all the rooms papered, the broken glass hacked out and reinstated, the defective wood-work renewed, all the sashes, cupboards and doors had been painted. The drains had been thoroughly overhauled, everything in fact that could be done had been done, and the rooms now looked as cheerful as they had been forbidding when I had last seen them. The people who had done the repairs were supposed to have cleaned the house down before leaving, but Ellen had given it another scrub from top to bottom herself after they were gone, and it was as clean as a new pin. I almost felt as though I could have lived in it myself, and as for Ernest, he was in the seventh heaven. He said it was all my doing and Ellen’s.

There was already a counter in the shop and a few fittings, so that nothing now remained but to get some stock and set them out for sale. Ernest said he could not begin better than by selling his clerical wardrobe and his books, for though the shop was intended especially for the sale of second-hand clothes, yet Ellen said there was no reason why they should not sell a few books too; so a beginning was to be made by selling the books he had had at school and college at about one shilling a volume, taking them all round, and I have heard him say that he learned more that proved of practical use to him through stocking his books on a bench in front of his shop and selling them, than he had done from all the years of study which he had bestowed upon their contents.

For the enquiries that were made of him, whether he had such and such a book, taught him what he could sell and what he could not; how much he could get for this, and how much for that. Having made ever such a little beginning with books, he took to attending book sales as well as clothes sales, and ere long this branch of his business became no less important than the tailoring, and would, I have no doubt, have been the one which he would have settled down to exclusively, if he had been called upon to remain a tradesman; but this is anticipating.

I made a contribution and a stipulation. Ernest wanted to sink the gentleman completely, until such time as he could work his way up again. If he had been left to himself he would have lived with Ellen in the shop back parlour and kitchen, and have let out both the upper floors according to his original programme. I did not want him, however, to cut himself adrift from music, letters, and polite life, and feared that unless he had some kind of den into which he could retire he would ere long become the tradesman and nothing else. I therefore insisted on taking the first floor front and back myself, and furnishing them with the things which had been left at Mrs. Jupp’s. I bought these things of him for a small sum and had them moved into his present abode.

I went to Mrs. Jupp’s to arrange all this, as Ernest did not like going to Ashpit Place. I had half expected to find the furniture sold and Mrs. Jupp gone, but it was not so; with all her faults the poor old woman was perfectly honest.

I told her that Pryer had taken all Ernest’s money and run away with it. She hated Pryer. “I never knew anyone,” she exclaimed, “as white-livered in the face as that Pryer; he hasn’t got an upright vein in his whole body. Why, all that time when he used to come breakfasting with Mr. Pontifex morning after morning, it took me to a perfect shadow the way he carried on. There was no doing anything to please him right. First I used to get them eggs and bacon, and he didn’t like that; and then I got him a bit of fish, and he didn’t like that, or else it was too dear, and you know fish is dearer than ever; and then I got him a bit of German, and he said it rose on him; then I tried sausages, and he said they hit him in the eye worse even than German; oh! how I used to wander my room and fret about it inwardly and cry for hours, and all about them paltry breakfasts — and it wasn’t Mr. Pontifex; he’d like anything that anyone chose to give him.

“And so the piano’s to go,” she continued. “What beautiful tunes Mr. Pontifex did play upon it, to be sure; and there was one I liked better than any I ever heard. I was in the room when he played it once and when I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Pontifex, that’s the kind of woman I am,’ he said, ‘No, Mrs. Jupp, it isn’t, for this tune is old, but no one can say you are old.’ But, bless you, he meant nothing by it, it was only his mucky flattery.”

Like myself, she was vexed at his getting married. She didn’t like his being married, and she didn’t like his not being married — but, anyhow, it was Ellen’s fault, not his, and she hoped he would be happy. “But after all,” she concluded, “it ain’t you and it ain’t me, and it ain’t him and it ain’t her. It’s what you must call the fortunes of matterimony, for there ain’t no other word for it.”

In the course of the afternoon the furniture arrived at Ernest’s new abode. In the first floor we placed the piano, table, pictures, bookshelves, a couple of armchairs, and all the little household gods which he had brought from Cambridge. The back room was furnished exactly as his bedroom at Ashpit Place had been — new things being got for the bridal apartment downstairs. These two first-floor rooms I insisted on retaining as my own, but Ernest was to use them whenever he pleased; he was never to sublet even the bedroom, but was to keep it for himself in case his wife should be ill at any time, or in case he might be ill himself.

In less than a fortnight from the time of his leaving prison all these arrangements had been completed, and Ernest felt that he had again linked himself on to the life which he had led before his imprisonment — with a few important differences, however, which were greatly to his advantage. He was no longer a clergyman; he was about to marry a woman to whom he was much attached, and he had parted company for ever with his father and mother.

True, he had lost all his money, his reputation, and his position as a gentleman; he had, in fact, had to burn his house down in order to get his roast sucking pig; but if asked whether he would rather be as he was now or as he was on the day before his arrest, he would not have had a moment’s hesitation in preferring his present to his past. If his present could only have been purchased at the expense of all that he had gone through, it was still worth purchasing at the price, and he would go through it all again if necessary. The loss of the money was the worst, but Ellen said she was sure they would get on, and she knew all about it. As for the loss of reputation — considering that he had Ellen and me left, it did not come to much.

I saw the house on the afternoon of the day on which all was finished, and there remained nothing but to buy some stock and begin selling. when was gone, after he had had his tea, he stole up to his castle — the first floor front. He lit his pipe and sat down to the piano. He played Handel for an hour or so, and then set himself to the table to read and write. He took all his sermons and all the theological works he had begun to compose during the time he had been a clergyman and put them in the fire; as he saw them consume he felt as though he had got rid of another incubus. Then he took up some of the little pieces he had begun to write during the latter part of his undergraduate life at Cambridge, and began to cut them about and rewrite them. As he worked quietly at these till he heard the clock strike ten and it was time to go to bed, he felt that he was now not only happy but supremely happy.

Next day Ellen took him to Debenham’s auction rooms, and they surveyed the lots of clothes which were hung up all round the auction room to be viewed. Ellen had had sufficient experience to know about how much each lot ought to fetch; she overhauled lot after lot, and valued it; in a very short time Ernest himself began to have a pretty fair idea what each lot should go for, and before the morning was over valued a dozen lots running at prices about which Ellen said he would not hurt if he could get them for that.

So far from disliking this work or finding it tedious, he liked it very much, indeed he would have liked anything which did not overtax his physical strength, and which held out a prospect of bringing him in money. Ellen would not let him buy anything on the occasion of this sale; she said he had better see one sale first and watch how prices actually went. So at twelve o’clock when the sale began, he saw the lots sold which he and Ellen had marked, and by the time the sale was over he knew enough to be able to bid with safety whenever he should actually want to buy. Knowledge of this sort is very easily acquired by anyone who is in bona fide want of it.

But Ellen did not want him to buy at auctions — not much at least at present. Private dealing, she said, was best. If I, for example, had any cast-off clothes, he was to buy them from my laundress, and get a connection with other laundresses to whom he might give a trifle more than they got at present for whatever clothes their masters might give them, and yet make a good profit. If gentlemen sold their things, he was to try and get them to sell to him. He flinched at nothing; perhaps he would have flinched if he had had any idea how outre his proceedings were, but the very ignorance of the world which had ruined him up till now, by a happy irony began to work its own cure. If some malignant fairy had meant to curse him in this respect, she had overdone her malice. He did not know he was doing anything strange. He only knew that he had no money, and must provide for himself, a wife, and a possible family. More than this, he wanted to have some leisure in an evening, so that he might read and write and keep up his music. If anyone would show him how he could do better than he was doing, he should be much obliged to them, but to himself it seemed that he was doing sufficiently well; for at the end of the first week the pair found they had made a clear profit of L3. In a few weeks this had increased to L4, and by the New Year they had made a profit of L5 in one week.

Ernest had by this time been married some two months, for he had stuck to his original plan of marrying Ellen on the first day he could legally do so. This date was a little delayed by the change of abode from Laystall Street to Blackfriars, but on the first day that it could be done it was done. He had never had more than L250 a year, even in the times of his affluence, so that a profit of L5 a week, if it could be maintained steadily, would place him where he had been as far as income went, and, though he should have to feed two mouths instead of one, yet his expenses in other ways were so much curtailed by his changed social position, that, take it all round, his income was practically what it had been a twelvemonth before. The next thing to do was to increase it, and put by money.

Prosperity depends, as we all know, in great measure upon energy and good sense, but it also depends not a little upon pure luck that is to say, upon connections which are in such a tangle that it is more easy to say that they do not exist than to try to trace them. A neighbourhood may have an excellent reputation as being likely to be a rising one, and yet may become suddenly eclipsed by another, which no one would have thought so promising. A fewer hospital may divert the stream of business, or a new station attract it; so little, indeed, can be certainly known, that it is better not to try to know more than is in everybody’s mouth, and to leave the rest to chance.

Luck, which certainly had not been too kind to my hero hitherto. now seemed to have taken him under her protection. The neighbourhood prospered, and he with it. It seemed as though he no sooner bought a thing and put it into his shop, than it sold with a profit of from thirty to fifty per cent. He learned bookkeeping, and watched his accounts carefully, following up any success immediately; he began to buy other things besides clothes — such as books, music, odds and ends of furniture, etc. Whether it was luck or business aptitude, or energy, or the politeness with which he treated all his customers, I cannot say — but to the surprise of no one more than himself, he went ahead faster than he had anticipated, even in his wildest dreams, and by Easter was established in a strong position as the owner of a business which was bringing him in between four and five hundred a year, and which he understood how to extend.

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