The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 74

ABOUT six months after he had set up his shop his prosperity had reached its climax. It seemed even then as though he were likely to go ahead no less fast than heretofore, and I doubt not that he would have done so, if success or non-success had depended upon himself alone. Unfortunately he was not the only person to be reckoned with.

One morning he had gone out to attend some sales, leaving his wife perfectly well, as usual in good spirits, and looking very pretty. When he came back he found her sitting on a chair in the back parlour, with her hair over her face, sobbing and crying as though her heart would break. She said she had been frightened in the morning by a man who had pretended to be a customer, and had threatened her unless she gave him some things, and she had had to give them to him in order to save herself from violence; she had been in hysterics ever since the man had gone. This was her story, but her speech was so incoherent that it was not easy to make out what she said. Ernest knew she was with child, and thinking this might have something to do with the matter, would have sent for a doctor if Ellen had not begged him not to do so.

Anyone who had had experience of drunken people would have seen at a glance what the matter was, but my hero knew nothing about them — nothing, that is to say, about the drunkenness of the habitual drunkard, which shows itself very differently from that of one who gets drunk only once in a way. The idea that his wife could drink had never even crossed his mind, indeed she always made a fuss about taking more than a very little beer, and never touched spirits. He did not know much more about hysterics than he did about drunkenness, but he had always heard that women who were about to become mothers were liable to be easily upset and were often rather flighty, so he was not greatly surprised, and thought he had settled the matter by registering the discovery that being about to become a father has its troublesome as well as its pleasant side.

The great change in Ellen’s life consequent upon her meeting Ernest and getting married had for a time actually sobered her by shaking her out of her old ways. Drunkenness is so much a matter of habit, and habit so much a matter of surroundings, that if you completely change the surroundings you will sometimes get rid of the drunkenness altogether. Ellen had intended remaining always sober henceforward, and never having had so long a steady fit before, believed she was now cured. So she perhaps would have been if she had seen none of her old acquaintances. When, however, her new life was beginning to lose its newness, and when her old acquaintances came to see her, her present surroundings became more like her past, and on this she herself began to get like her past too. At first she only got a little tipsy and struggled against a relapse; but it was no use, she soon lost the heart to fight, and now her object was not to try to keep sober, but to get gin without her husband’s finding it out.

So the hysterics continued, and she managed to make her husband still think that they were due to her being about to become a mother. The worse her attacks were, the more devoted he became in his attention to her. At last he insisted that a doctor should see her. The doctor of course took in the situation at a glance, but said nothing to Ernest except in such a guarded way that he did not understand the hints that were thrown out to him. He was much too downright and matter-of-fact to be quick at taking hints of this sort. He hoped that as soon as his wife’s confinement was over she would regain her health and had no thought save how to spare her as far as possible till that happy time should come.

In the mornings she was generally better, as long that is to say as Ernest remained at home; but he had to go out buying, and on his return would generally find that she had had another attack as soon as he had left the house. At times she would laugh and cry for half an hour together, at others she would lie in a semi-comatose state upon state upon the bed, and when he came back he would find that the shop had been neglected and all the work of the household left undone. Still he took it for granted that this was all part of the usual course when women were going to become mothers, and when Ellen’s share of the work settled down more and more upon his own shoulders he did it all and drudged away without a murmur. Nevertheless, he began to feel in a vague way more as he had felt in Ashpit Place, at Roughborough, or at Battersby, and to lose the buoyancy of spirits which had made another man of him during the first six months of his married life.

It was not only that he had to do so much household work, for even the cooking, cleaning up slops, bed-making, and fire-fighting ere long devolved upon him, but his business no longer prospered. He could buy as hitherto, but Ellen seemed unable to sell as she had sold at first. The fact was that she sold as well as ever, but kept back part of the proceeds in order to buy gin, and she did this more and more till even the unsuspecting Ernest ought to have seen that she was not telling the truth. When she sold better — that is to say when she did not think it safe to keep back more than a certain amount, she got money out of him on the plea that she had a longing for this or that, and that it would perhaps irreparably damage the baby if her longing was denied her. All seemed right, reasonable, and unavoidable, nevertheless Ernest saw that until the confinement was over he was likely to have a hard time of it. All, however, would then come right again.

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