The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 79

THE question now arose what was to be done with the children. I explained to Ernest that their expenses must be charged to the estate, and showed him how small a hole all the various items I proposed to charge would make in the income at my disposal. He was beginning to make difficulties, when I quieted him by pointing out that the money had all come to me from his aunt over his own head, and reminded him there had been an understanding between her and me that I should do much as I was doing, if occasion should arise.

He wanted his children to be brought up in the fresh pure air, and among other children who were happy and contented; but being still ignorant of the fortune that awaited him, he insisted that they should pass their earlier years among the poor rather than the rich. I remonstrated, but he was very decided about it; and when I reflected that they were illegitimate, I was not sure but that what Ernest proposed might be as well for everyone in the end. They were still so young that it did not much matter where they were, so long as they were with kindly, decent people, and in a healthy neighbourhood.

“I shall be just as unkind to my children,” he said, “as my grandfather was to my father, or my father to me. If they did not succeed in making their children love them, neither shall I. I say to myself that I should like to do so, but so did they. I can make sure that they shall not know how much they would have hated me if they had had much to do with me, but this is all I can do. If I must ruin their prospects, let me do so at a reasonable time before they are old enough to feel it.”

He mused a little and added with a laugh:

“A man first quarrels with his father about three-quarters of a year before he is born. It is then he insists on setting up a separate establishment; when this has been once agreed to, the more complete the separation for ever after the better for both.” Then he said more seriously: “I want to put the children where they will be well and happy, and where they will not be betrayed into the misery of false expectations.”

In the end he remembered that on his Sunday walks he had more than once seen a couple who lived on the waterside a few miles below Gravesend, just where the sea was beginning, and who he thought would do. They had a family of their own fast coming on and the children seemed to thrive; both father and mother indeed were comfortable, well grown folks, in whose hands young people would be likely to have as fair a chance of coming to a good development as in those of any whom he knew.

We went down to see this couple, and as I thought no less well of them than Ernest did, we offered them a pound a week to take the children and bring them up as though they were their own. They jumped at the offer, and in another day or two we brought the children down and left them, feeling that we had done as well as we could by them, at any rate for the present. Then Ernest sent his small stock of goods to Debenham’s, gave up the house he had taken two and a half years previously, and returned to civilisation.

I had expected that he would now rapidly recover, and was disappointed to see him get as I thought decidedly worse. Indeed, before long I thought him looking so ill that I insisted on his going with me to consult one of the most eminent doctors in London. This gentleman said there was no acute disease but that my young friend was suffering from nervous prostration, the result of long and severe mental suffering, from which there was no remedy except time, prosperity, and rest.

He said that Ernest must have broken down later on, but that he might have gone on for some months yet. It was the suddenness of the relief from tension which had knocked him over now.

“Cross him,” said the doctor, “at once. Crossing is the great medical discovery of the age. Shake him out of himself by shaking something else into him.”

I had not told him that money was no object to us, and I think he had reckoned me up as not over rich. He continued:

“Seeing is a mode of touching, touching is a mode of feeding, feeding is a mode of assimilation, assimilation is a mode of re-creation and reproduction, and this is crossing — shaking yourself into something else and something else into you.” He spoke laughingly, but it was plain he was serious. He continued:

“People are always coming to me who want crossing, or change, if you prefer it, and who I know have not money enough to let them get away from London. This has set me thinking how I can best cross them even if they cannot leave home, and I have made a list of cheap London amusements which I recommend to my patients; none of them cost more than a few shillings or take more than half a day or a day.”

I explained that there was no occasion to consider money in this case.

“I am glad it,” he said, still laughing. “The homoeopathists use aurum as a medicine, but they do not give it in large enough doses; if you can dose your young friend with this pretty freely you will soon bring him round. However, Mr. Pontifex is not well enough to stand so great a change as going abroad yet; from what you tell me I should think he had had as much change lately as is good for him. If he were to go abroad now he would probably be taken seriously ill within a week. We must wait till he has recovered tone a little more. I will begin by ringing my London changes on him.”

He thought a little and then said:

“I have found the Zoological Gardens of service to many of my patients. I should prescribe for Mr. Pontifex a course of the larger mammals. Don’t let him think he is taking them medicinally, but let him go to their house twice a week for a fortnight, and stay with the hippopotamus, the rhinoceros, and the elephants, till they begin to bore him. I find these beasts do my patients more good than any others. The monkeys are not a wide enough cross; they do not stimulate sufficiently. The larger carnivora are unsympathetic. The reptiles are worse than useless, and the marsupials are not much better. Birds again, except parrots, are not very beneficial; he may look at them now and again, but with the elephants and the pig tribe generally he should mix just now as freely as possible.

“Then, you know, to prevent monotony I should send him, say, to morning service at the Abbey before he goes. He need not stay longer than the Te Deum. I don’t know why, but Jubilates are seldom satisfactory. Just let him look in at the Abbey, and sit quietly in Poets’ Corner till the main part of the music is over. Let him do this two or three times, not more, before he goes to the Zoo.

“Then next day send him down to Gravesend by boat. By all means let him go to the theatres in the evenings — and then let him come to me again in a fortnight.”

Had the doctor been less eminent in his profession I should have doubted whether he was in earnest, but I knew him to be a man of business who would neither waste his own time nor that of his patients. As soon as we were out of the house we took a cab to Regent’s Park, and spent a couple of hours in sauntering around the different houses. Perhaps it was on account of what the doctor had told me, but I certainly became aware of a feeling I had never experienced before. I mean that I was receiving an influx of new life, or deriving new ways of looking at life — which is the same thing — by the process. I found the doctor quite right in his estimate of the larger mammals as the ones which on the whole were most beneficial, and observed that Ernest, who had heard nothing of what the doctor had said to me, lingered instinctively in front of them. As for the elephants, especially the baby elephant, he seemed to be drinking in large draughts of their lives to the re-creation and regeneration of his own.

We dined in the gardens, and I noticed with pleasure that Ernest’s appetite was already improved. Since this time, whenever I have been a little out of sorts myself I have at once gone up to Regent’s Park, and have invariably been benefited. I mention this here in the hope that some one or other of my readers may find the hint a useful one.

At the end of his fortnight my hero was much better, more so even than our friend the doctor had expected. “Now,” he said, “Mr. Pontifex may go abroad, and the sooner the better. Let him stay a couple of months.”

This was the first Ernest had heard about his going abroad, and he talked about my not being able to spare him for so long. I soon made this all right.

“It is now the beginning April,” said I; “go down to Marseilles at once, and take steamer to Nice. Then saunter down the Riviera to Genoa — from Genoa go to Florence, Rome, and Naples, and come home by way of Venice and the Italian lakes.”

“And won’t you come too?” said he, eagerly.

I said I did not mind if I did, so we began to make our arrangements next morning, and completed them within a very few days.

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