Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 18

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I called a day or two afterwards and found Mr Pontifex still at Battersby, laid up with one of those attacks of liver and depression to which he was becoming more and more subject.  I stayed to luncheon.  The old gentleman was cross and very difficult; he could eat nothing—had no appetite at all.  Christina tried to coax him with a little bit of the fleshy part of a mutton chop.  “How in the name of reason can I be asked to eat a mutton chop?” he exclaimed angrily; “you forget, my dear Christina, that you have to deal with a stomach that is totally disorganised,” and he pushed the plate from him, pouting and frowning like a naughty old child.  Writing as I do by the light of a later knowledge, I suppose I should have seen nothing in this but the world’s growing pains, the disturbance inseparable from transition in human things.  I suppose in reality not a leaf goes yellow in autumn without ceasing to care about its sap and making the parent tree very uncomfortable by long growling and grumbling—but surely nature might find some less irritating way of carrying on business if she would give her mind to it.  Why should the generations overlap one another at all?  Why cannot we be buried as eggs in neat little cells with ten or twenty thousand pounds each wrapped round us in Bank of England notes, and wake up, as the sphex wasp does, to find that its papa and mamma have not only left ample provision at its elbow, but have been eaten by sparrows some weeks before it began to live consciously on its own account?

About a year and a half afterwards the tables were turned on Battersby—for Mrs John Pontifex was safely delivered of a boy.  A year or so later still, George Pontifex was himself struck down suddenly by a fit of paralysis, much as his mother had been, but he did not see the years of his mother.  When his will was opened, it was found that an original bequest of £20,000 to Theobald himself (over and above the sum that had been settled upon him and Christina at the time of his marriage) had been cut down to £17,500 when Mr Pontifex left “something” to Ernest.  The “something” proved to be £2500, which was to accumulate in the hands of trustees.  The rest of the property went to John Pontifex, except that each of the daughters was left with about £15,000 over and above £5000 a piece which they inherited from their mother.

Theobald’s father then had told him the truth but not the whole truth.  Nevertheless, what right had Theobald to complain?  Certainly it was rather hard to make him think that he and his were to be gainers, and get the honour and glory of the bequest, when all the time the money was virtually being taken out of Theobald’s own pocket.  On the other hand the father doubtless argued that he had never told Theobald he was to have anything at all; he had a full right to do what he liked with his own money; if Theobald chose to indulge in unwarrantable expectations that was no affair of his; as it was he was providing for him liberally; and if he did take £2500 of Theobald’s share he was still leaving it to Theobald’s son, which, of course, was much the same thing in the end.

No one can deny that the testator had strict right upon his side; nevertheless the reader will agree with me that Theobald and Christina might not have considered the christening dinner so great a success if all the facts had been before them.  Mr Pontifex had during his own lifetime set up a monument in Elmhurst Church to the memory of his wife (a slab with urns and cherubs like illegitimate children of King George the Fourth, and all the rest of it), and had left space for his own epitaph underneath that of his wife.  I do not know whether it was written by one of his children, or whether they got some friend to write it for them.  I do not believe that any satire was intended.  I believe that it was the intention to convey that nothing short of the Day of Judgement could give anyone an idea how good a man Mr Pontifex had been, but at first I found it hard to think that it was free from guile.

The epitaph begins by giving dates of birth and death; then sets out that the deceased was for many years head of the firm of Fairlie and Pontifex, and also resident in the parish of Elmhurst.  There is not a syllable of either praise or dispraise.  The last lines run as follows:—