The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 9

Mr. ALLABY was rector of Crampsford, a village a few miles from Cambridge. He, too, had taken a good degree, had got a fellowship, and in the course of time had accepted a college living of about L400 a year and a house. His private income did not exceed L200 a year. On resigning his fellowship he married a woman a good deal younger than himself who bore him eleven children, nine of whom — two sons and seven daughters — were living. The two eldest daughters had married fairly well, but at the time of which I am now writing there were still five unmarried, of ages varying between thirty and twenty-two — and the sons were neither of them yet off their father’s hands. It was plain that if anything were to happen to Mr. Allaby the family would be left poorly off, and this made both Mr. and Mrs. Allaby as unhappy as it ought to have made them.

Reader, did you ever have an income at best none too large, which died with you all except L200 a year? Did you ever at the same time have two sons who must be started in life somehow, and five daughters still unmarried for whom you would only be too thankful to find husbands — if you knew how to find them? If morality is that which, on the whole, brings a man peace in his declining years — if, that is to say, it is not an utter swindle, can you under these circumstances flatter yourself that you have led a moral life?

And this, even though your wife has been so good a woman that you have not grown tired of her, and has not fallen into such ill health as lowers your own health in sympathy; and though your family has grown up vigorous, amiable, and blessed with common sense. I know many old men and women who are reputed moral, but who are living with partners whom they have long ceased to love, or who have ugly, disagreeable maiden daughters for whom they have never been able to find husbands — daughters whom they loathe and by whom they are loathed in secret, or sons whose folly or extravagance is a perpetual wear and worry to them. Is it moral for a man to have brought such things upon himself? Someone should do for morals what that old Pecksniff Bacon has obtained the credit of having done for science.

But to return to Mr. and Mrs. Allaby. Mrs. Allaby talked about having married two of her daughters as though it had been the easiest thing in the world. She talked in this way because she heard other mothers do so, but in her heart of hearts she did not know how she had done it, nor indeed, if it had been her doing at all. First there had been a young man in connection with whom she had tried to practise certain manoeuvres which she had rehearsed in imagination over and over again, but which she found impossible to apply in practice. Then there had been weeks of a wurra-wurra of hopes and fears and little stratagems which as often as not proved injudicious, and then somehow or other in the end, there lay the young man bound and with an arrow through his heart at her daughter’s feet. It seemed to her to be all a fluke which she could have little or no hope of repeating. She had indeed repeated it once, and might perhaps with good luck repeat it yet once again — five times over! It was awful: why, she would rather have three confinements than go through the wear and tear of marrying a single daughter.

Nevertheless it had got to be done, and poor Mrs. Allaby never looked at a young man without an eye to his being a future son-in-law. Papas and mammas sometimes ask young men whether their intentions are honourable towards their daughters. I think young men might occasionally ask papas and mammas whether their intentions are honourable before they accept invitations to houses where there are still unmarried daughters.

“I can’t afford a curate, my dear,” said Mr. Allaby to his wife when the pair were discussing what was next to be done. “It will be better to get some young man to come and help me for a time upon a Sunday. A guinea a Sunday will do this, and we can chop and change till we get someone who suits.” So it was settled that Mr. Allaby’s health was not so strong as it had been, and that he stood in need of help in the performance of his Sunday duty.

Mrs. Allaby had a great friend — a certain Mrs. Cowey, wife of the celebrated Professor Cowey. She was what was called a truly spiritually minded woman, a trifle portly, with an incipient beard, and an extensive connection among undergraduates, more especially among those who were inclined to take part in the great evangelical movement which was then at its height. She gave evening parties once a fortnight at which prayer was part of the entertainment. She was not only spiritually minded, but, as enthusiastic Mrs. Allaby used to exclaim, she was a thorough woman of the world at the same time and had such a fund of strong masculine good sense. She too had daughters, but, as she used to say to Mrs. Allaby, she had been less fortunate than Mrs. Allaby herself, for one by one they had married and left her, so that her old age would have been desolate indeed if her Professor had not been spared to her.

Mrs. Cowey, of course, knew the run of all the bachelor clergy in the University, and was the very person to assist Mrs. Allaby in finding an eligible assistant for her husband, so this last named lady drove over one morning in the November of 1825, by arrangement, to take an early dinner with Mrs. Cowey and spend the afternoon. After dinner the two ladies retired together, and the business of the day began. How they fenced, how they saw through one another, with what loyalty they pretended not to see through one another, with what gentle dalliance they prolonged the conversation discussing the spiritual fitness of this or that deacon, and the other pros and cons connected with him after his spiritual fitness had been disposed of, all this must be left to the imagination of the reader. Mrs. Cowey had been so accustomed to scheming on her own account that she would scheme for anyone rather than not scheme at all. Many mothers turned to her in their hour of need and, provided they were spiritually minded, Mrs. Cowey never failed to do her best for them; if the marriage of a young Bachelor of Arts was not made in Heaven, it was probably made, or at any rate attempted, in Mrs. Cowey’s drawing-room. On the present occasion all the deacons of the University in whom there lurked any spark of promise were exhaustively discussed, and the upshot was that our friend Theobald was declared by Mrs. Cowey to be about the best thing she could do that afternoon.

“I don’t know that he’s a particularly fascinating young man, my dear,” said Mrs. Cowey, “and he’s only a second son, but then he’s got his fellowship, and even the second son of such a man as Mr. Pontifex, the publisher, should have something very comfortable.”

“Why, yes, my dear,” rejoined Mrs. Allaby complacently, “that’s what one rather feels.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/b98w/chapter9.html

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