The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 86

AND now I must bring my story to a close.

The preceding chapter was written soon after the events it records — that is to say in the spring of 1867. By that time my story had been written up to this point; but it has been altered here and there from time to time occasionally. It is now the autumn of 1882, and if I am to say more I should do so quickly, for I am eighty years old and though well in health cannot conceal from myself that I am no longer young. Ernest himself is forty-seven, though he hardly looks it.

He is richer than ever, for he has never married and his London and North-Western shares have nearly doubled themselves. Through sheer inability to spend his income he has been obliged to hoard in self-defence. He still lives in the Temple in the same rooms I took for him when he gave up his shop, for no one has been able to induce him to take a house. His house, he says, is wherever there is a good hotel. When he is in town he likes to work and to be quiet. When out of town he feels that he has left little behind him that can go wrong, and he would not like to be tied to a single locality. “I know no exception,” he says, “to the rule that it is cheaper to buy milk than to keep a cow.”

As I have mentioned Mrs. Jupp, I may as well say here the little that remains to be said about her. She is a very old woman now, but no one now living, as she says triumphantly, can say how old, for the woman in the Old Kent Road is dead, and presumably has carried her secret to the grave. Old, however, though she is, she lives in the same house, and finds it hard work to make the two ends meet, but I do not know that she minds this very much, and it has prevented her from getting more to drink than would be good for her. It is no use trying to do anything for her beyond paying her allowance weekly, and absolutely refusing to let her anticipate it. She pawns her flat iron every Saturday for 4d., and takes it out every Monday morning for 4 1/2d. when she gets her allowance, and has done this for the last ten years as regularly as the week comes round. As long as she does not let the flat iron actually go we know that she can still worry out her financial problems in her own hugger-mugger way and had better be left to do so. If the flat iron were to go beyond redemption, we should know that it was time to interfere. I do not know why, but there is something about her which always reminds me of a woman who was as unlike her as one person can be to another — I mean Ernest’s mother.

The last time I had a long gossip with her was about two years ago when she came to me instead of to Ernest. She said she had seen a cab drive up just as she was going to enter the staircase, and had seen Mr. Pontifex’s pa put his Beelzebub old head out of the window, so she had come on to me, for she hadn’t greased her sides for no curtsey, not for the likes of him. She professed to be very much down on her luck. Her lodgers did use her so dreadful going away without paying and leaving not so much as a stick behind, but to-day she was as pleased as a penny carrot. She had had such a lovely dinner -a cushion of ham and green peas. She had had a good cry over it, but then she was so silly, she was.

“And there’s that Bell,” she continued, though I could not detect any appearance of connection, “it’s enough to give anyone the hump to see him now that he’s taken to chapel-going, and his mother’s prepared to meet Jesus and all that to me, and now she ain’t a-going to die, and drinks half a bottle of champagne a day, and then Grigg, him as preaches, you know, asked Bell if I really was too gay, not but what when I was young I’d snap my fingers at any ‘fly by night’ in Holborn, and if I was togged out and had my teeth I’d do it now. I lost my poor dear Watkins, but of course that couldn’t be helped, and then I lost my dear Rose. Silly faggot to go and ride on a cart and catch the bronchitics. I never thought when I kissed my dear Rose in Pullen’s Passage and she gave me the chop, that I should never see her again, and her gentleman friend was fond her too, though he was a married man. I daresay she’s gone to bits by now. If she could rise and see me with my bad finger, she would cry, and I should say, ‘Never mind, ducky, I’m all right.’ Oh! dear, it’s coming on to rain. I do hate a wet Saturday night — poor women with their nice white stockings and their living to get,” etc., etc.

And yet age does not wither this godless old sinner, as people would say it ought to do. Whatever life she has led, it has agreed with her very sufficiently. At times she gives us to understand that she is still much solicited; at others she takes quite a different tone. She has not allowed even Joe King so much as to put his lips to hers this ten years. She would rather have a mutton chop any day. “But ah! you should have seen me when I was sweet seventeen. I was the very moral of my poor dear mother, and she was a pretty woman, though I say it that shouldn’t. She had such a splendid mouth of teeth. It was a sin to bury her in her teeth.”

I only knew of one thing at which she professes to be shocked. It is that her son Tom and his wife Topsy are teaching the baby to swear. “Oh! it’s too dreadful awful,” she exclaimed; “I don’t know the meaning of the words, but I tell him he’s a drunken sot.” I believe the old woman in reality rather likes it.

“But surely, Mrs. Jupp,” said I, “Tom’s wife used not to be Topsy. You used to speak of her as Pheeb.”

“Ah! yes,” she answered, “but Pheeb behaved bad, and it’s Topsy now.”

Ernest’s daughter Alice married the boy who had been her playmate more than a year ago. Ernest gave them all they said they wanted and a good deal more. They have already presented him with a grandson, and I doubt not will do so with many more. Georgie though only twenty-one is owner of a fine steamer which his father has bought for him. He began when about thirteen going with old Rollings and Jack in the barge from Rochester to the upper Thames with bricks; then his father bought him and Jack barges of their own, and then he bought them both ships, and then steamers. I do not exactly know how people make money by having a steamer, but he does whatever is usual, and from I can gather makes it pay extremely well. He is a good deal like his father in the face, but without a spark — so far as I have been able to observe — of any literary ability; he has a fair sense of humour and abundance of common sense, but his instinct is clearly a practical one. I am not sure that he does not put me in mind almost more of what Theobald would have been if he had been a sailor, than of Ernest. Ernest used to go down to Battersby and stay with his father for a few days twice a year until Theobald’s death, and the pair continued on excellent terms, in spite of what the neighbouring clergy call “the atrocious books which Mr. Ernest Pontifex” has written. Perhaps the harmony, or rather absence of discord, which subsisted between the pair was due to the fact that Theobald had never looked into the inside of one of his son’s works, and Ernest, of course, never alluded to them in his father’s presence. The pair, as I have said, got on excellently, but it was doubtless as well that Ernest’s visits were short and not too frequent. Once Theobald wanted Ernest to bring his children, but Ernest knew they would not like it, so this was not done.

Sometimes Theobald came up to town on small business matters and paid a visit to Ernest’s chambers; he generally brought with him a couple of lettuces, or a cabbage, or half-a-dozen turnips done up in a piece of brown paper, and told Ernest that he knew fresh vegetables were rather hard to get in London, and he had brought him some. Ernest had often explained to him that the vegetables were of no use to him, and that he had rather he would not bring them; but Theobald persisted, I believe through sheer love of doing something which his son did not like, but which was too small to take notice of.

He lived until about twelve months ago, when he was found dead in his bed on the morning after having written the following letter to his son:

“DEAR ERNEST — I’ve nothing particular to write about, but your letter has been lying for some days in the limbo of unanswered letters, to wit my pocket, and it’s time it was answered.

“I keep wonderfully well and am able to walk my five or six miles with comfort, but at my age there’s no knowing how long it will last, and time flies quickly. I have been busy potting plants all the morning, but this afternoon is wet.

“What is this horrid Government going to do with Ireland? I don’t exactly wish they’d blow up Mr. Gladstone, but if a mad bull would chivy him there, and he would never come back any more, I should not be sorry. Lord Hartington is not exactly the man I should like to set in his place, but he would be immeasurably better than Gladstone.

“I miss your sister Charlotte more than I can express. She kept my household accounts, and I could pour out to her all my little worries, and now that Joey is married too, I don’t know what I should do if one or other them did not come sometimes and take care of me. My only comfort is that Charlotte will make her husband happy, and that he is as nearly worthy of her as a husband can well be.-Believe me, Your affectionate father,

— “THEOBALD PONTIFEX.”

I may say in passing that though Theobald speaks of Charlotte’s marriage as though it were recent, it had really taken place some six years previously, she being then about thirty-eight years old, and her husband about seven years younger.

There was no doubt that Theobald passed peacefully away during his sleep. Can a man who died thus be said to have died at all? He has presented the phenomena of death to other people, but in respect of himself he has not only not died, but has not even thought that he was going to die. This is not more than half dying, but then neither was his life more than half living. He presented so many of the phenomena of living that I suppose on the whole it would be less trouble to think of him as having been alive than as never having been born at all, but this is only possible because association does not stick to the strict letter of its bond.

This, however, was not the general verdict concerning him, and the general verdict is often the truest.

Ernest was overwhelmed with expressions of condolence and respect for his father’s memory. “He never,” said Dr. Martin, the old doctor who brought Ernest into the world, “spoke an ill word against anyone. He was not only liked, he was beloved by all who had anything to do with him.”

“A more perfectly just and righteously dealing man,” said the family solicitor, “I have never had anything to do with — nor one more punctual in the discharge of every business obligation.”

“We shall miss him sadly,” the bishop wrote to Joey in the very warmest terms. The poor were in consternation. “The well’s never missed,” said one old woman, “till it’s dry,” and she only said what everyone else felt. Ernest knew that the general regret was unaffected as for a loss which could not be easily repaired. He felt that there were only three people in the world who joined insincerely in the tribute of applause, and these were the very three who could least show their want of sympathy. I mean Joey, Charlotte, and himself. He felt bitter against himself for being of a mind with either Joey or Charlotte upon any subject, and thankful that he must conceal his being so as far as possible, not because of anything his father had done to him — these grievances were too old to be remembered now — but because he would never allow him to feel towards him as he was always trying to feel. As long as communication was confined to the merest commonplace all went well, but if these were departed from ever such a little he invariably felt that his father’s instincts showed themselves in immediate opposition to his own. When he was attacked his father laid whatever stress was possible on everything which his opponents said. If he met with any check his father was clearly pleased. What the old doctor had said about Theobald’s speaking ill of no man was perfectly true as regards others than himself, but he knew very well that no one had injured his reputation in a quiet way, so far as he dared to do, more than his own father. This is a very common case and a very natural one. It often happens that if the son is right, the father is wrong, and the father is not going to have this if he can help it.

It was very hard, however, to say what was the true root of the mischief in the present case. It was not Ernest’s having been imprisoned. Theobald forgot all about that much sooner than nine fathers out of ten would have done. Partly, no doubt, it was due to incompatibility of temperament, but I believe the main ground of complaint lay in the fact that he had been so independent and so rich while still very young, and that thus the old gentleman had been robbed of his power to tease and scratch in the way which he felt he was entitled to do. The love of teasing in a small way when he felt safe in doing so had remained part of his nature from the days when he told his nurse that he would keep her on purpose to torment her. I suppose it is so with all of us. At any rate I am sure that most fathers, especially if they are clergymen, are like Theobald.

He did not in reality, I am convinced, like Joey or Charlotte one whit better than he liked Ernest. He did not like anyone or anything, or if he liked anyone at all it was his butler, who looked after him when he was not well, and took great care of him and believed him to be the best and ablest man in the whole world. Whether this faithful and attached servant continued to think this after Theobald’s will was opened and it was found what kind of legacy had been left him I know not. Of his children, the baby who had died at a day old was the only one whom he held to have treated him quite filially. As for Christina he hardly ever pretended to miss her and never mentioned her name; but this was taken as a proof that he felt her loss too keenly to be able ever to speak of her. It may have been so, but I do not think it.

Theobald’s effects were sold by auction, and among them the Harmony of the Old and New Testaments which he had compiled during many years with such exquisite neatness and a huge collection of MS. sermons — being all in fact that he had ever written. These and the Harmony fetched nine-pence a barrow load. I was surprised to hear that Joey had not given the three or four shillings which would have bought the whole lot, but Ernest tells me that Joey was far fiercer in his dislike of his father than ever he had been himself, and wished to get rid of that I reminded him of him.

It has already appeared that both Joey and Charlotte are Joey has a family, but he and Ernest very rarely have any intercourse. Of course, Ernest took nothing under his father’s will; this had long been understood, so that the other two are both well provided for.

Charlotte is as clever as ever, and sometimes asks Ernest to come and stay with her and her husband near Dover, I suppose because she knows that the invitation will not be agreeable to him. There is a de haut en bas tone in all her letters; it is rather hard to lay one’s finger upon it, but Ernest never gets a letter from her without feeling that he is being written to by one who has had direct communication with an angel. “What an awful creature,” he once said to me, “that angel must have been if it had anything to do with making Charlotte what she is.”

“Could you like,” she wrote to him not long ago, “the thoughts of a little sea change here? The top of the cliffs will soon be bright with heather: the gorse must be out already, and the heather I should think begun, to judge by the state of the hill at Ewell, and heather or no heather the cliffs are always beautiful, and if you come your room shall be cosy so that you may have a resting corner to yourself. Nineteen and sixpence is the price of a return ticket which covers a month. Would you decide just as you would yourself like, only if you come we would hope to try and make it bright for you; but you must not feel it a burden on your mind if you feel disinclined to come in this direction.”

“When I have a bad nightmare,” said Ernest to me, laughing as he showed me this letter, “I dream that I have got to stay with Charlotte.”

Her letters are supposed to be unusually well written, and I believe it is said among the family that Charlotte has far more real literary power than Ernest has. Sometimes we think that she is writing at him as much as to say, “There now — don’t you think you are the only one of us who can write; read this! And if you want a telling bit of descriptive writing for your next book, you can make what use of it you like.” I daresay she writes very well, but she has fallen under the dominion of the words “hope,” “think,” “feel,” “try,” “bright,” and “little,” and can hardly write a page without introducing all these words and some of them more than once. All this has the effect of making her style monotonous.

Ernest is as fond of music as ever, perhaps more so, and of late years has added musical composition to the other irons in his fire. He finds it still a little difficult, and is in constant trouble through getting into the key of sharp after beginning in the key of and being unable to get back again.

“Getting into the key of C sharp,” he said, “is like an unprotected female travelling on the Metropolitan Railway, and finding herself at Shepherd’s Bush, without quite knowing where she wants to go to. How is she ever to get safe back to Clapham Junction? And Clapham Junction won’t quite do either, for Clapham Junction is like the diminished seventh — susceptible of such unharmonic change, that you can resolve it into all the possible termini of music.”

Talking of music reminds me of a little passage that took place between Ernest and Miss Skinner, Dr. Skinner’s eldest daughter, not so very long ago. Dr. Skinner had long left Roughborough, and had become Dean of a Cathedral in one of our Midland counties — a position which exactly suited him. Finding himself once in the neighbourhood Ernest called, for old acquaintance sake, and was hospitably entertained at lunch.

Thirty years had whitened the Doctor’s bushy eyebrows-his hair they could not whiten. I believe that but for that wig he would have been made a bishop.

His voice and manner were unchanged, and when Ernest, remarking upon a plan of Rome which hung in the hall, spoke inadvertently of the Quirinal, he replied with all his wonted pomp: “Yes, the Quirinal — or as I myself prefer to call it, the Quirinal.” After this triumph he inhaled a long breath through the corners of his mouth, and flung it back again into the face of Heaven, as in his finest form during his head-mastership. At lunch he did indeed once say, “next to impossible to think of anything else,” but he immediately corrected himself and substituted the words, “next to impossible to entertain irrelevant ideas,” after which he seemed to feel a good deal more comfortable. Ernest saw the familiar volumes of Dr. Skinner’s works upon the book-shelves in the Deanery dining-room, but he saw no copy of “Rome or the Bible-Which?”

“And are you still as fond of music as ever, Mr. Pontifex?” said Miss Skinner to Ernest during the course of lunch.

“Of some kinds of music, yes, Miss Skinner, but you know I never did like modern music.”

“Isn’t that rather dreadful? — Don’t you think you rather”-she was going to have added, “ought to?” but she left it unsaid, feeling doubtless that she had sufficiently conveyed her meaning.

“I would like modern music, if I could; I have been trying all my life to like it, but I succeed less and less the older I grow.”

“And pray, where do you consider modern music to begin?”

“With Sebastian Bach.”

“And don’t you like Beethoven?”

“No; I used to think I did, when I was younger, but I know now that I never really liked him.”

“Ah! how can you say so? You cannot understand him — you never could say this if you understood him. For me a simple chord of Beethoven is enough. This is happiness.”

Ernest was amused at her strong family likeness to her father — a likeness which had grown upon her as she had become older, and which extended even to voice and manner of speaking. He remembered how he had heard me describe the game of chess I had played with the Doctor in days gone by, and with his mind’s ear seemed to hear Miss Skinner saying, as though it were an epitaph:

“Stay: I may presently take

A simple chord of Beethoven

Or a small semiquaver

From one of Mendelssohn’s

Songs without Words.”

After luncheon when Ernest was left alone for half an hour or so with the Dean he plied him so well with compliments that the old gentleman was pleased and flattered beyond his wont. He rose and bowed. “These expressions,” he said, voce sua, “are very valuable to me.” “They are but a small part, sir,” rejoined Ernest, “of what any one of your old pupils must feel towards you.” and the pair danced as it were a minuet at end of the dining-room table in front of the old bay window that looked upon the smooth shaven lawn. On this Ernest departed; but a few days afterwards, the Doctor wrote him a letter and told him that his critics were sklerhoi kai antitupoi, and at the same time anekplektoi. Ernest remembered sklerhoi, and knew that the other words were something of like nature, so it was all right. A month or two afterwards, Dr. Skinner was gathered to his fathers.

“He was an old fool, Ernest,” said I, “and you should not relent towards him.”

“I could not help it,” he replied; “he was so old that it was almost like playing with a child.”

Sometimes, like all whose minds are active, Ernest overworks himself, and then occasionally he has fierce and reproachful encounters with Dr. Skinner or Theobald in his sleep-but beyond this neither of these two worthies can now molest him further.

To myself he has been a son and more than a son; at times I am half afraid — as for example when I talk to him about his books — that I may have been to him more like a father than I ought; if I have, I trust he has forgiven me. His books are the only bone of contention between us. I want him to write like other people, and not to offend so many his readers; he says he can no more change his manner of writing than the colour of his hair and that he must write as he does or not at all.

With the public generally he is not a favourite. He is admitted to have talent, but it is considered generally to be of a queer, unpractical kind, and no matter how serious he is, he is always accused of being in jest. His first book was a success for reasons which I have already explained, but none of his others have been more than creditable failures. He is one of those unfortunate men, each one of whose books is sneered at by literary critics as soon as it comes out, but becomes “excellent reading” as soon as it has been followed by a later work which may in its turn be condemned.

He never asked a reviewer to dinner in his life. I have told him over and over again that this is madness, and find that this is the only thing I can say to him which makes him angry with me.

“What can it matter to me,” he says, “whether people read my books or not? It may matter to them — but I have too much money to want more, and if the books have any stuff in them it will work by-and-by. I do not know nor greatly care whether they are good or not. What opinion can any sane man form about his own work? Some people must write stupid books just as there must be juniors ops and third class poll men. Why should I complain of being among the mediocrities? If a man is not absolutely below mediocrity let him be thankful — besides, the books will have to stand by themselves some day, so the sooner they begin the better.”

I spoke to his publisher about him not long since. “Mr. Pontifex,” he said, “is a homo unius libri, but it doesn’t do to tell him so.”

I could see the publisher, who ought to know, had lost all faith in Ernest’s literary position, and looked upon him as a man whose failure was all the more hopeless for the fact of his having once made a coup. “He is in a very solitary position, Mr. Overton,” continued the publisher. “He has formed no alliances, and has made enemies not only of the religious world but of the literary and scientific brotherhood as well. This will not do nowadays. If a man wishes to get on he must belong to a set, and Mr. Pontifex belongs to no set — not even to a club.”

I replied, “Mr. Pontifex is the exact likeness of Othello, but with a difference-he hates not wisely but too well. He would dislike the literary and scientific swells if he were to come to know them and they him; there is no natural solidarity between him and them, and if he were brought into contact with them his last state would be worse than his first. His instinct tells him this, so he keeps clear of them, and attacks them whenever he thinks they deserve it — in the hope, perhaps, that a younger generation will listen to him more willingly than the present.”

“Can anything,” said the publisher, “be conceived more impracticable and imprudent?”

To all this Ernest replies with one word only —“Wait.”

Such is my friend’s latest development. He would not, it is true, run much chance at present of trying to found a College of Spiritual Pathology, but I must leave the reader to determine whether there is not a strong family likeness between the Ernest of the College of Spiritual Pathology and the Ernest who will insist on addressing the next generation rather than his own. He says he trusts that there is not, and takes the sacrament duly once a year as a sop to Nemesis lest he should again feel strongly upon any subject. It rather fatigues him, but “no man’s opinions,” he sometimes says, “can be worth holding unless he knows how to deny them easily and gracefully upon occasion in the cause of charity.” In politics he is a Conservative so far as his vote and interest are concerned. In all other respects he is an advanced Radical. His father and grandfather could probably no more understand his state of mind than they could understand Chinese, but those who know him intimately do not know that they wish him greatly different from what he actually is.

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