Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 2

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Chapter II

Old Mr Pontifex had married in the year 1750, but for fifteen years his wife bore no children.  At the end of that time Mrs Pontifex astonished the whole village by showing unmistakable signs of a disposition to present her husband with an heir or heiress.  Hers had long ago been considered a hopeless case, and when on consulting the doctor concerning the meaning of certain symptoms she was informed of their significance, she became very angry and abused the doctor roundly for talking nonsense.  She refused to put so much as a piece of thread into a needle in anticipation of her confinement and would have been absolutely unprepared, if her neighbours had not been better judges of her condition than she was, and got things ready without telling her anything about it.  Perhaps she feared Nemesis, though assuredly she knew not who or what Nemesis was; perhaps she feared the doctor had made a mistake and she should be laughed at; from whatever cause, however, her refusal to recognise the obvious arose, she certainly refused to recognise it, until one snowy night in January the doctor was sent for with all urgent speed across the rough country roads.  When he arrived he found two patients, not one, in need of his assistance, for a boy had been born who was in due time christened George, in honour of his then reigning majesty.

To the best of my belief George Pontifex got the greater part of his nature from this obstinate old lady, his mother—a mother who though she loved no one else in the world except her husband (and him only after a fashion) was most tenderly attached to the unexpected child of her old age; nevertheless she showed it little.

The boy grew up into a sturdy bright-eyed little fellow, with plenty of intelligence, and perhaps a trifle too great readiness at book learning.  Being kindly treated at home, he was as fond of his father and mother as it was in his nature to be of anyone, but he was fond of no one else.  He had a good healthy sense of meum, and as little of tuum as he could help.  Brought up much in the open air in one of the best situated and healthiest villages in England, his little limbs had fair play, and in those days children’s brains were not overtasked as they now are; perhaps it was for this very reason that the boy showed an avidity to learn.  At seven or eight years old he could read, write and sum better than any other boy of his age in the village.  My father was not yet rector of Paleham, and did not remember George Pontifex’s childhood, but I have heard neighbours tell him that the boy was looked upon as unusually quick and forward.  His father and mother were naturally proud of their offspring, and his mother was determined that he should one day become one of the kings and councillors of the earth.

It is one thing however to resolve that one’s son shall win some of life’s larger prizes, and another to square matters with fortune in this respect.  George Pontifex might have been brought up as a carpenter and succeeded in no other way than as succeeding his father as one of the minor magnates of Paleham, and yet have been a more truly successful man than he actually was—for I take it there is not much more solid success in this world than what fell to the lot of old Mr and Mrs Pontifex; it happened, however, that about the year 1780, when George was a boy of fifteen, a sister of Mrs Pontifex’s, who had married a Mr Fairlie, came to pay a few days’ visit at Paleham.  Mr Fairlie was a publisher, chiefly of religious works, and had an establishment in Paternoster Row; he had risen in life, and his wife had risen with him.  No very close relations had been maintained between the sisters for some years, and I forget exactly how it came about that Mr and Mrs Fairlie were guests in the quiet but exceedingly comfortable house of their sister and brother-in-law; but for some reason or other the visit was paid, and little George soon succeeded in making his way into his uncle and aunt’s good graces.  A quick, intelligent boy with a good address, a sound constitution, and coming of respectable parents, has a potential value which a practised business man who has need of many subordinates is little likely to overlook.  Before his visit was over Mr Fairlie proposed to the lad’s father and mother that he should put him into his own business, at the same time promising that if the boy did well he should not want some one to bring him forward.  Mrs Pontifex had her son’s interest too much at heart to refuse such an offer, so the matter was soon arranged, and about a fortnight after the Fairlies had left, George was sent up by coach to London, where he was met by his uncle and aunt, with whom it was arranged that he should live.