Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 23

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Chapter XXIII

The man-servant William came and set the chairs for the maids, and presently they filed in.  First Christina’s maid, then the cook, then the housemaid, then William, and then the coachman.  I sat opposite them, and watched their faces as Theobald read a chapter from the Bible.  They were nice people, but more absolute vacancy I never saw upon the countenances of human beings.

Theobald began by reading a few verses from the Old Testament, according to some system of his own.  On this occasion the passage came from the fifteenth chapter of Numbers: it had no particular bearing that I could see upon anything which was going on just then, but the spirit which breathed throughout the whole seemed to me to be so like that of Theobald himself, that I could understand better after hearing it, how he came to think as he thought, and act as he acted.

The verses are as follows—

“But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously, whether he be born in the land or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

“Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken His commandments, that soul shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.

“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day.

“And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

“And they put him in ward because it was not declared what should be done to him.

“And the Lord said unto Moses, the man shall be surely put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

“And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.

“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

“Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue.

“And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them, and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes.

“That ye may remember and do all my commandments and be holy unto your God.

“I am the Lord your God which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

My thoughts wandered while Theobald was reading the above, and reverted to a little matter which I had observed in the course of the afternoon.

It happened that some years previously, a swarm of bees had taken up their abode in the roof of the house under the slates, and had multiplied so that the drawing-room was a good deal frequented by these bees during the summer, when the windows were open.  The drawing-room paper was of a pattern which consisted of bunches of red and white roses, and I saw several bees at different times fly up to these bunches and try them, under the impression that they were real flowers; having tried one bunch, they tried the next, and the next, and the next, till they reached the one that was nearest the ceiling, then they went down bunch by bunch as they had ascended, till they were stopped by the back of the sofa; on this they ascended bunch by bunch to the ceiling again; and so on, and so on till I was tired of watching them.  As I thought of the family prayers being repeated night and morning, week by week, month by month, and year by year, I could nor help thinking how like it was to the way in which the bees went up the wall and down the wall, bunch by bunch, without ever suspecting that so many of the associated ideas could be present, and yet the main idea be wanting hopelessly, and for ever.

When Theobald had finished reading we all knelt down and the Carlo Dolci and the Sassoferrato looked down upon a sea of upturned backs, as we buried our faces in our chairs.  I noted that Theobald prayed that we might be made “truly honest and conscientious” in all our dealings, and smiled at the introduction of the “truly.”  Then my thoughts ran back to the bees and I reflected that after all it was perhaps as well at any rate for Theobald that our prayers were seldom marked by any very encouraging degree of response, for if I had thought there was the slightest chance of my being heard I should have prayed that some one might ere long treat him as he had treated Ernest.