The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 80

WE left by the night mail, crossing from Dover. The night was soft, and there was a bright moon upon the sea. “Don’t you love the smell of grease about the engine of a Channel steamer? Isn’t there a lot of hope in it?” said Ernest to me, for he had been to Normandy one summer as a boy with his father and mother, and the smell carried him back to days before those in which he had begun to bruise himself against the great outside world. “I always think one of the best parts of going abroad is the first thud of the piston, and the first gurgling of the water when the paddle begins to strike it.”

It was very dreamy getting out at Calais, and trudging about with luggage in a foreign town at an hour when we were generally both of us in bed and fast asleep, but we settled down to sleep as soon as we got into the railway carriage, and dozed till we had passed Amiens. Then waking when the first signs of morning crispness were beginning to show themselves, I saw that Ernest was already devouring every object we passed with quick sympathetic curiousness. There was not a peasant in a blouse driving his cart betimes along the road to market, not a signalman’s wife in her husband’s hat and coat waving a green flag, not a shepherd taking out his sheep to the dewy pastures, not a bank of opening cowslips as we passed through the railway cuttings, but he was drinking it all in with an enjoyment too deep for words. The name of the engine that drew us was Mozart, and Ernest liked this too.

We reached Paris by six, and had just time to get across the town and take a morning express train to Marseilles, but before noon my young friend was tired out and had resigned himself to a series of sleeps which were seldom intermitted for more than an hour or so together. He fought against this for a time, but in the end consoled himself by saying it was so nice to have so much pleasure that he could afford to throw a lot of it away. Having found a theory on which to justify himself, he slept in peace.

At Marseilles we rested, and there the excitement of the change proved, as I had half feared it would, too much for my godson’s still enfeebled state. For a few days he was really ill, but after this he righted. For my own part I reckon being ill as one of the great pleasures of life, provided one is not too ill and is not obliged to work till one is better. I remember being once in a foreign hotel myself and how much I enjoyed it. To lie there careless of everything, quiet and warm, and with no weight upon the mind, to hear the clinking of the plates in the far-off kitchen as the scullion rinsed them and put them by; to watch the soft shadows come and go upon the ceiling as the sun came out or went behind a cloud; to listen to the pleasant murmuring of the fountain in the court below, and the shaking of the bells on the horses’ collars and the clink of their hoofs upon the ground as the flies plagued them; not only to be a lotus-eater but to know that it was one’s duty to be a lotus-eater. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “if I could only now, having so forgotten care, drop off to sleep for ever, would not this be a better piece of fortune than any I can ever hope for?”

Of course it would, but we would not take it though it were offered us. No matter what evil may befall us, we will mostly abide by it and see it out.

I could see that Ernest felt much as I had felt myself. He said little, but noted everything. Once only did he frighten me. He called me to his bedside just as it was getting dusk and said in a grave, quiet manner that he should like to speak to me.

“I have been thinking,” he said, “that I may perhaps never recover from this illness, and in case I do not I should like you to know that there is only one thing which weighs upon me. I refer,” he continued after a slight pause, “to my conduct towards my father and mother. I have been much too good to them. I treated them much too considerately,” on which he broke into a smile which assured me that there was nothing seriously amiss with him.

On the walls of his bedroom were a series of French Revolution prints representing events in the life of Lycurgus. There was “Grandeur d’ame de Lycurgue,” and “Lycurgue consulte l’oracle,” and then there was “Calciope a la Cour.” Under this was written in French and Spanish: “Modele de grace et de beaute, la jeune Calciope non moins sage que belle avait merite l’estime et l’attachement du vertueux Lycurgue. Vivement epris de tant de charmes, l’illustre philosophe la conduisait dans le temple de Junon, ou ils s’unirent par un serment sacre. Apres cette auguste ceremonie, Lycurgue s’empressa de conduire sa jeune epouse au palais de son frere Polydecte, Roi de Lacedemon. Seigneur, lui dit-il, la vertueuse Calciope vient de recevoir mes voeux aux pieds de sautels, j’ose vous prier d’approuver cette union. Le Roi temoigna d’abord quelque surprise, mais l’estime qu’il avait pour son frere lui inspira une reponse pleine de bienveillance. Il s’approcha aussitot de Calciope qu’il embrassa tendrement, combla ensuite Lycurgue de prevenances et parut tres satisfait.”

He called my attention to this and then said somewhat timidly that he would rather have married Ellen than Calciope. I saw he was hardening and made no hesitation about proposing that in another day or two we should proceed upon our journey.

I will not weary the reader by taking him with us over beaten ground. We stopped at Siena, Cortona, Orvieto, Perugia, and many other cities, and then after a fortnight passed between Rome and Naples went to the Venetian provinces and visited all those wondrous towns that lie between the southern slopes of the Alps and the northern ones of the Apennines, coming back at last by the St. Gothard. I doubt whether he had enjoyed the trip more than I did myself, but it was not till we were on the point of returning that Ernest had recovered strength enough to be called fairly well, and it was not for many months that he so completely lost all sense of the wounds which the last four years had inflicted on him as to feel as though there were a scar and a scar only remaining.

They say that when people have lost an arm or a foot they feel pains in it now and again for a long while after they have lost it. One pain which he had almost forgotten came upon him on his return to England, I mean the sting of his having been imprisoned. As long as he was only a small shopkeeper his imprisonment mattered nothing; nobody knew of it, and if they had known they would not have cared; now, however, though he was returning to his old position he was returning to it disgraced, and the pain from which he had been saved in the first instance by surroundings so new that he had hardly recognised his own identity in the middle of them, came on him as from a wound inflicted yesterday.

He thought of the high resolves which he had made in prison about using his disgrace as a vantage ground of strength rather than trying to make people forget it. “That was all very well then,” he thought to himself, “when the grapes were beyond my reach, but now it is different.” Besides, who but a prig would set himself high aims, or make high resolves at all?

Some of his old friends, on learning that he had got rid of his supposed wife and was now comfortably off again, wanted to renew their acquaintance; he was grateful to them and sometimes tried to meet their advances half way, but it did not do, and ere long he shrank back into himself, pretending not to know them. An infernal demon of honesty haunted him which made him say to himself: “These men know a great deal, but do not know all — if they did they would cut me — and therefore I have no right to their acquaintance.”

He thought that everyone except himself was sans peur et sans reproche. Of course they must be, for if they had not been, would they not have been bound to warn all who had anything to do with them of their deficiencies? Well, he could not do this, and he would not have people’s acquaintance under false pretences, so he gave up even hankering after rehabilitation and fell back upon his old tastes for music and literature.

Of course he has long since found out how silly all this was, how silly I mean in theory, for in practice it worked better than it ought to have done, by keeping him free from liaisons which would have tied his tongue and made him see success elsewhere than where he came in time to see it. He did what he did instinctively and for no other reason than because it was most natural to him. So far as he thought at all, he thought wrong, but what he did was right. I said something of this kind to him once not so very long ago, and told him he had always aimed high. “I never aimed at all,” he replied a little indignantly, “and you may be sure I should have aimed low enough if I had thought I had thought I had got the chance.”

I suppose after all that no one whose mind was not, to put it mildly, abnormal, ever yet aimed very high out of pure malice aforethought. I once saw a fly alight on a cup of hot coffee on which the milk had formed a thin skin; he perceived his extreme danger, and I noted with what ample strides and almost supermuscan effort he struck across the treacherous surface and made for the edge of the cup — for the ground was not solid enough to let him raise himself from it by his wings. As I watched him I fancied that so supreme a moment of difficulty and danger might leave him with an increase of moral and physical power which might even descend in some measure to his offspring. But surely he would not have got the increased moral power if he could have helped it, and he will not knowingly alight upon another cup of hot coffee. The more I see, the more sure I am that it does not matter why people do the right thing so long only as they do it, nor why they may have done the wrong if they have done it. The result depends upon the thing done and the motive goes for nothing. I have read somewhere, but cannot remember where, that in some country district there was once a great scarcity of food, during which the poor suffered acutely; many indeed actually died of starvation, and all were hard put to it. In one village, however, there was a poor widow with a family of young children, who, though she had small visible means of subsistence, still looked well-fed and comfortable, as also did all her little ones. “How,” everyone asked, “did they manage to live?” It was plain they had a secret, and it was equally plain that it could be no good one; for there came a harried, hunted look over the poor woman’s face if anyone alluded to the way in which she and hers throve when others starved; the family, moreover, were sometimes seen out at unusual hours of the night, and evidently brought things home, which could hardly have been honestly come by. They knew they were under suspicion, and, being hitherto of excellent name, it made them very unhappy, for it must be confessed that they believed what they did to be uncanny if not absolutely wicked; nevertheless, in spite of this they throve, and kept their strength when all their neighbours were pinched.

At length matters came to a head and the clergyman of the parish cross-questioned the poor woman so closely that with many tears and a bitter sense of degradation she confessed the truth; she and her children went into the hedges and gathered snails, which they made into broth and ate — could she ever be forgiven? Was there any hope of salvation for her either in this world or the next after such unnatural conduct?

So again I have heard of an old dowager countess whose money was all in Consols; she had had many sons, and in her anxiety to give the younger ones a good start, wanted a larger income than Consols would give her. She consulted her solicitor and was advised to sell her Consols and invest in the London and North Western Railway, then at about 85. This was to her what eating snails was to the poor widow whose story I have told above. With shame and grief, as of one doing an unclean thing — but her boys must have their start — she did as she was advised. Then for a long while she could not sleep at night and was haunted by a presage of disaster. Yet what happened? She started her boys, and in a few years found her capital doubled into the bargain, on which she sold out and went back again to Consols and died in the full blessedness of fund-holding.

She thought, indeed, that she was doing a wrong and dangerous thing, but this had absolutely nothing to do with it. Suppose she had invested in the full confidence of a recommendation by some eminent London banker whose advice was bad, and so had lost all her money, and suppose she had done this with a light heart and with no conviction of sin — would her innocence of evil purpose and the excellence of her motive have stood her in any stead? Not they.

But to return to my story. Towneley gave my hero most trouble. Towneley, as I have said, knew that Ernest would have money soon, but Ernest did not of course know that he knew it. Towneley was rich himself, and was married now; Ernest would be rich soon, had bona fide intended to be married already, and would doubtless marry a lawful wife later on. Such a man was worth taking pains with, and when Towneley one day met Ernest in the street, and Ernest tried to avoid him, Towneley would not have it, but with his usual quick good nature read his thoughts, caught him, morally speaking, by the scruff of his neck, and turned him laughingly inside out, telling him he would have no such nonsense.

Towneley was just as much Ernest’s idol now as he had ever been, and Ernest, who was very easily touched, felt more gratefully and warmly than ever towards him, but there was an unconscious something which was stronger than Towneley, and made my hero determine to break with him more determinedly perhaps than with any other living person; he thanked him in a low, hurried voice and pressed his hand, while tears came into his eyes in spite of all his efforts to repress them. “If we meet again he said, “do not look at me, but if hereafter you hear of me writing things you do not like, think of me as charitably as you can,” and so they parted.

“Towneley is a good fellow,” said I, gravely, “and you should not have cut him.”

“Towneley,” he answered, “is not only a good fellow, but he is without exception the very best man I ever saw in my life — except,” he paid me the compliment of saying, “yourself; Towneley is my notion of everything which I should most like to be — but there is no real solidarity between us. I should be in perpetual fear of losing his good opinion if I said things he did not like, and I mean to say a great many things,” he continued more merrily, “which Towneley will not like.”

A man, as I have said already, can give up father and mother for Christ’s sake tolerably easily for the most part, but it is not so easy to give up people like Towneley.

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