Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 1

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Mrs Pontifex had no sense of humour, at least I can call to mind no signs of this, but her husband had plenty of fun in him, though few would have guessed it from his appearance.  I remember my father once sent me down to his workship to get some glue, and I happened to come when old Pontifex was in the act of scolding his boy.  He had got the lad—a pudding-headed fellow—by the ear and was saying, “What?  Lost again—smothered o’ wit.”  (I believe it was the boy who was himself supposed to be a wandering soul, and who was thus addressed as lost.)  “Now, look here, my lad,” he continued, “some boys are born stupid, and thou art one of them; some achieve stupidity—that’s thee again, Jim—thou wast both born stupid and hast greatly increased thy birthright—and some” (and here came a climax during which the boy’s head and ear were swayed from side to side) “have stupidity thrust upon them, which, if it please the Lord, shall not be thy case, my lad, for I will thrust stupidity from thee, though I have to box thine ears in doing so,” but I did not see that the old man really did box Jim’s ears, or do more than pretend to frighten him, for the two understood one another perfectly well.  Another time I remember hearing him call the village rat-catcher by saying, “Come hither, thou three-days-and-three-nights, thou,” alluding, as I afterwards learned, to the rat-catcher’s periods of intoxication; but I will tell no more of such trifles.  My father’s face would always brighten when old Pontifex’s name was mentioned.  “I tell you, Edward,” he would say to me, “old Pontifex was not only an able man, but he was one of the very ablest men that ever I knew.”

This was more than I as a young man was prepared to stand.  “My dear father,” I answered, “what did he do?  He could draw a little, but could he to save his life have got a picture into the Royal Academy exhibition?  He built two organs and could play the Minuet in Samson on one and the March in Scipio on the other; he was a good carpenter and a bit of a wag; he was a good old fellow enough, but why make him out so much abler than he was?”

“My boy,” returned my father, “you must not judge by the work, but by the work in connection with the surroundings.  Could Giotto or Filippo Lippi, think you, have got a picture into the Exhibition?  Would a single one of those frescoes we went to see when we were at Padua have the remotest chance of being hung, if it were sent in for exhibition now?  Why, the Academy people would be so outraged that they would not even write to poor Giotto to tell him to come and take his fresco away.  Phew!” continued he, waxing warm, “if old Pontifex had had Cromwell’s chances he would have done all that Cromwell did, and have done it better; if he had had Giotto’s chances he would have done all that Giotto did, and done it no worse; as it was, he was a village carpenter, and I will undertake to say he never scamped a job in the whole course of his life.”

“But,” said I, “we cannot judge people with so many ‘ifs.’  If old Pontifex had lived in Giotto’s time he might have been another Giotto, but he did not live in Giotto’s time.”

“I tell you, Edward,” said my father with some severity, “we must judge men not so much by what they do, as by what they make us feel that they have it in them to do.  If a man has done enough either in painting, music or the affairs of life, to make me feel that I might trust him in an emergency he has done enough.  It is not by what a man has actually put upon his canvas, nor yet by the acts which he has set down, so to speak, upon the canvas of his life that I will judge him, but by what he makes me feel that he felt and aimed at.  If he has made me feel that he felt those things to be loveable which I hold loveable myself I ask no more; his grammar may have been imperfect, but still I have understood him; he and I are en rapport; and I say again, Edward, that old Pontifex was not only an able man, but one of the very ablest men I ever knew.”

Against this there was no more to be said, and my sisters eyed me to silence.  Somehow or other my sisters always did eye me to silence when I differed from my father.

“Talk of his successful son,” snorted my father, whom I had fairly roused.  “He is not fit to black his father’s boots.  He has his thousands of pounds a year, while his father had perhaps three thousand shillings a year towards the end of his life.  He is a successful man; but his father, hobbling about Paleham Street in his grey worsted stockings, broad brimmed hat and brown swallow-tailed coat was worth a hundred of George Pontifexes, for all his carriages and horses and the airs he gives himself.”

“But yet,” he added, “George Pontifex is no fool either.”  And this brings us to the second generation of the Pontifex family with whom we need concern ourselves.