The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 77

I DO not think Ernest himself was much more pleased at finding that he had never been married than I was. To him, however, the shock of pleasure was positively numbing in its intensity. As he felt his burden removed, he reeled for the unaccustomed lightness of his movements; his position was so shattered that his identity seemed to have been shattered also; he was as one waking up from a horrible nightmare to find himself safe and sound in bed, but who can hardly even yet believe that the room is not fun of armed men who are about to spring upon him.

“And it is I,” he said, “who not an hour ago complained that I was without hope. It is I, who for weeks have been railing at fortune, and saying that though she smiled on others she never smiled at me. Why, never was anyone half so fortunate as I am.”

“Yes,” said I, “you have been inoculated for marriage, and have recovered.”

“And yet,” he said, “I was very fond of her till she took to drinking.”

“Perhaps; but is it not Tennyson who has said: ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have lost at all’?”

“You are an inveterate bachelor,” was the rejoinder.

Then we had a long talk with John, to whom I gave a L5 note upon the spot. He said Ellen had used to drink at Battersby; the cook had taught her; he had known it, but was so fond of her, that he had chanced it and married her to save her from the streets and in the hope of being able to keep her straight. She had done with just as she had done with Ernest — made him an excellent wife as long as she kept sober, but a very bad one afterwards.

“There isn’t,” said John, “a sweeter-tempered, handier, prettier girl than she was in all England, nor one as knows better what a man likes, and how to make him happy, if you can keep her from drink; but you can’t keep her; she’s that artful she’ll get it under your very eyes, without you knowing it. If she can’t get any more of your things to pawn or sell, she’ll steal her neighbours’. That’s how she got into trouble first when I was with her. During the six months she was in prison I should have felt happy if I had not known she would come out again. And then she did come out, and before she had been free a fortnight, she began shop-lifting and going on the loose again — and all to get money to drink with. So seeing I could do nothing with her and that she was just a-killing of me, I left her, and came up to London, and went into service again, and I did not know what had become of her till you and Mr. Ernest here told me. I hope you’ll neither of you say you’ve seen me.”

We assured him we would keep his counsel, and then he left us, with many protestations of affection towards Ernest, to whom he had been always much attached.

We talked the situation over, and decided first to get the children away, and then to come to terms with Ellen concerning their future custody; as for herself, I proposed that we should make her an allowance of, say, a pound a week to be paid so long as she gave no trouble. Ernest did not see where the pound a week was to come from, so I eased his mind by saying I would pay it myself. Before the day was two hours older we had got the children, about whom Ellen had always appeared to be indifferent, and had confided them to the care of my laundress, a good motherly sort of woman, who took to them and to whom they took at once.

Then came the odious task of getting rid of their unhappy mother. Ernest’s heart smote him at the notion of the shock the break-up would be to her. He was always thinking that people had a claim upon him for some inestimable service they had rendered him, or for some irreparable mischief done to them by himself, the case however was so clear, that Ernest’s scruples did not offer serious resistance.

I did not see why he should have the pain of another interview with his wife, so I got Mr. Ottery to manage the whole business. It turned out that we need not have harrowed ourselves so much about the agony of mind which Ellen would suffer on becoming an outcast again. Ernest saw Mrs. Richards, the neighbour who had called him down on the night when he had first discovered his wife’s drunkenness, and got from her some details of Ellen’s opinions upon the matter. She did not seem in the least conscience-stricken; she said: “Thank goodness, at last!” And although aware that her marriage was not a valid one, evidently regarded this as a mere detail which it would not be worth anybody’s while to go into more particularly. As regards his breaking with her, she said it was a good job both for him and for her.

“This life,” she continued, “don’t suit me. Ernest is too good for me; he wants a woman as shall be a bit better than me, and I want a man that shall be a bit worse than him. We should have got on all very well if we had not lived together as married folks, but I’ve been used to have a little place of my own, however small, for a many years, and I don’t want Ernest, or any other man, always hanging about it. Besides, he is too steady: his being in prison hasn’t done him a bit of good — he’s just as grave as those as have never been in prison at all, and he never swears nor curses, come what may; it makes me afeared of him, and therefore I drink the worse. What us poor girls wants is not to be jumped up all of a sudden and made honest women of; this is too much for us and throws us off our perch; what we wants is a regular friend or two, who’ll just keep us from starving, and force us to be good for a bit together now and again. That’s about as much as we can stand. He may have the children; he can do better for them than I can; and as for his money, he may give it or keep it as he likes; he’s never done me any harm, and I shall let him alone; but if he means me to have it, I suppose I’d better have it.”— And have it she did.

“And I,” thought Ernest to himself again when the arrangement was concluded, “am the man who thought himself unlucky!”

I may as well say here all that need be said further about Ellen. For the next three years she used to call regularly at Mr. Ottery’s every Monday morning for her pound. She was always neatly dressed, and looked so quiet and pretty that no one would have suspected her antecedents. At first she wanted sometimes to anticipate, but after three or four ineffectual attempts — on each of which occasions she told a most pitiful story — she gave it up and took her money regularly without a word. Once she came with a bad black eye, “which a boy had throwed a stone and hit her by “mistake”; but on the whole she looked pretty much the same at the end of the three years as she had done at the beginning. Then she explained that she was going to be married again. Mr. Ottery saw her on this, and pointed out to her that she would very likely be again committing bigamy by doing so. “You may call it what you like,” she replied, “but I am going off to America with Bill the butcher’s man, and we hope Mr. Pontifex won’t be too hard on us and stop the allowance.” Ernest was little likely to do this, so the pair went in peace. I believe it was Bill who had blacked her eye, and she liked him all the better for it.

From one or two little things I have been able to gather that the couple got on very well together, and that in Bill she has found a partner better suited to her than either John or Ernest. On his birthday Ernest generally receives an envelope with an American postmark containing a bookmarker with a flaunting text upon it, or a moral kettle-holder, or some other similar small token of recognition, but no letter. Of the children she has taken no notice.

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