The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 81

SO he fell away from all old friends except myself and three or four old intimates of my own, who were as sure to take to him as he to them, and who like myself enjoyed getting hold of a young fresh mind. Ernest attended to the keeping of my account books whenever there was anything which could possibly be attended to, which there seldom was, and spent the greater part of the rest of his time in adding to the many notes and tentative essays which had already accumulated in his portfolios. Anyone who was used to writing could see at a glance that literature was his natural development, and I was pleased at seeing him settle down to it so spontaneously. I was less pleased, however, to observe that he would still occupy himself with none but the most serious, I had almost said solemn, subjects, just as he never cared about any but the most serious kind of music.

I said to him one day that the very slender reward which God had attached to the pursuit of serious enquiry was a sufficient proof that He disapproved of it, or at any rate that He did not set much store by it nor wish to encourage it.

He said: “Oh, don’t talk about rewards. Look at Milton, who only got L5 for ‘Paradise Lost.’

“And a great deal too much,” I rejoined promptly. “I would have given him twice as much myself not to have written it at all.”

Ernest was a little shocked. “At any rate,” he said laughingly, “I don’t write poetry.”

This was a cut at me, for my burlesques were, of course, written in rhyme. So I dropped the matter.

After a time he took it into his head to reopen the question of his getting L300 a year for doing, as he said, absolutely nothing, and said he would try to find some employment which should bring him in enough to live upon.

I laughed at this but let him alone. He tried and tried very hard for a long while, but I need hardly say was unsuccessful. The older I grow, the more convinced I become of the folly and credulity of the public; but at the same time the harder do I see it is to impose oneself upon that folly and credulity.

He tried editor after editor with article after article. Sometimes an editor listened to him and told him to leave his articles; he almost invariably, however, had them returned to him in the end with a polite note saying that they were not suited for the particular paper to which he had sent them. And yet many of these very articles appeared in his later works, and no one complained of them, not at least on the score of bad literary workmanship. “I see,” he said to me one day, “that demand is very imperious, and supply must be very suppliant.”

Once, indeed, the editor of an important monthly magazine accepted an article from him, and he thought he had now got a footing in the literary world. The article was to appear in the next issue but one, and he was to receive proof from the printers in about ten days or a fortnight; but week after week passed and there was no proof; month after month went by and there was still no room for Ernest’s article; at length after about six months the editor one morning told him that he had filled every number of his review for the next ten months, but that his article should definitely appear. On this he insisted on having his MS. returned to him.

Sometimes his articles were actually published, and he found the editor had edited them according to his own fancy, putting in jokes which he thought were funny, or cutting out the very passage which Ernest had considered the point of the whole thing, and then, though the articles appeared, when it came to paying for them it was another matter, and he never saw his money. “Editors,” he said to me one day about this time, “are like the people who bought and sold in the book of Revelation; there is not one but has the mark of the beast upon him.”

At last after months of disappointment and many a tedious hour wasted in dingy ante-rooms (and of all ante-rooms those of editors appear to me to be the dreariest), he got a bona fide offer of employment from one of the first class weekly papers through an introduction I was able to get for him from one who had powerful influence with the paper in question. The editor sent him a dozen long books upon varied and difficult subjects, and told him to review them in a single article within a week. In one book there was an editorial note to the effect that the writer was to be condemned. Ernest particularly admired the book he was desired to condemn, and feeling how hopeless it was for him to do anything like justice to the books submitted to him, returned them to the editor.

At last one paper did actually take a dozen or so of articles from him, and gave him cash down a couple of guineas apiece for them, but having done this it expired within a fortnight after the last of Ernest’s articles had appeared. It certainly looked very much as if the other editors knew their business in declining to have anything to do with my unlucky godson.

I was not sorry that he failed with periodical literature, for writing for reviews or newspapers is bad training for one who may aspire to write works of more permanent interest. A young writer should have more time for reflection than he can get as a contributor to the daily or even weekly press. Ernest himself, however, was chagrined at finding how unmarketable he was. “Why,” he said to me, “if I was a well-bred horse, or sheep, or a pure-bred pigeon, or lop-eared rabbit I should be more salable. If I was even a cathedral in a colonial town people would give me something, but as it is they do not want me”; and now that he was well and rested he wanted to set up a shop again, but this, of course, I would not hear of.

“What care I,” said he to me one day, “about being what they call a gentleman?” And his manner was almost fierce. “What has being a gentleman ever done for me except make me less able to prey and more easy to be preyed upon? It has changed the manner of my being swindled, that is all. But for your kindness to me I should be penniless. Thank heaven I have placed my children where I have.”

I begged him to keep quiet a little longer and not talk about taking a shop.

“Will being a gentleman,” he said, “bring me money at the last, and will anything bring me as much peace at the last as money will? They say that those who have riches enter hardly into the kingdom of Heaven. By Jove, they do; they are like Struldbrugs; they live and live and live and are happy for many a long year after they would have entered into the kingdom of Heaven if they had been poor. I want to live long and to raise my children, if I see they would be happier for the raising; that is what I want, and it is not what I am doing now that will help me. Being a gentleman is a luxury which I cannot afford, therefore I do not want it. Let me go back to my shop again, and do things for people which they want done and will pay me for doing for them. They know what they want and what is good for them better than I can tell them.”

It was hard to deny the soundness of this, and if he had been dependent only on the L300 a year which he was getting from me I should have advised him to open his shop again next morning. As it was, I temporised and raised obstacles, and quieted him from time to time as best I could.

Of course he read Mr. Darwin’s books as fast as they came out and adopted evolution as an article of faith. “It seems to me,” he said once, “that I am like one of those caterpillars which, if they have been interrupted in making their hammock, must begin again from the beginning. So long as I went back a long way down in the social scale I got on all right, and should have made money but for Ellen; when I try to take up the work at a higher stage I fail completely.” I do not know whether the analogy holds good or not, but I am sure Ernest’s instinct was right in telling him that after a heavy fall he had better begin life again at a very low stage, and as I have just said, I would have let him go back to his shop if I had not known what I did.

As the time fixed upon by his aunt drew nearer I prepared him more and more for what was coming, and at last, on his twenty-eighth birthday, I was able to tell him all and to show him the letter signed by his aunt upon her death-bed to the effect that I was to hold the money in trust for him. His birthday happened that year (1863) to be on a Sunday, but on the following day I transferred his shares into his own name, and presented him with the account books which he had been keeping for the last year and a half.

In spite of all that I had done to prepare him, it was a long while before I could get him actually to believe that the money was his own. He did not say much — no more did I, for I am not sure that I did not feel as much moved at having brought my long trusteeship to a satisfactory conclusion as Ernest did at finding himself owner of more than L70,000. When he did speak it was to jerk out a sentence or two of reflection at a time. “If I were rendering this moment in music,” he said, “I should allow myself free use of the augmented sixth.” A little later I remember his saying with a laugh that had something of a family likeness to his aunt’s: “It is not the pleasure it causes me which I enjoy so, it is the pain it will cause to all my friends except yourself and Towneley.”

I said: “You cannot tell your father and mother — it would drive them mad.”

“No, no, no,” said he, “it would be too cruel; it would be like Isaac offering up Abraham and no thicket with a ram in it near at hand. Besides, why should I? We have cut each other these four years.”

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