Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 24

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“Sensible people get the greater part of their own dying done during their own lifetime.  A man at five and thirty should no more regret not having had a happier childhood than he should regret not having been born a prince of the blood.  He might be happier if he had been more fortunate in childhood, but, for aught he knows, if he had, something else might have happened which might have killed him long ago.  If I had to be born again I would be born at Battersby of the same father and mother as before, and I would not alter anything that has ever happened to me.”

The most amusing incident that I can remember about his childhood was that when he was about seven years old he told me he was going to have a natural child.  I asked him his reasons for thinking this, and he explained that papa and mamma had always told him that nobody had children till they were married, and as long as he had believed this of course he had had no idea of having a child, till he was grown up; but not long since he had been reading Mrs Markham’s history of England and had come upon the words “John of Gaunt had several natural children” he had therefore asked his governess what a natural child was—were not all children natural?

“Oh, my dear,” said she, “a natural child is a child a person has before he is married.”  On this it seemed to follow logically that if John of Gaunt had had children before he was married, he, Ernest Pontifex, might have them also, and he would be obliged to me if I would tell him what he had better do under the circumstances.

I enquired how long ago he had made this discovery.  He said about a fortnight, and he did not know where to look for the child, for it might come at any moment.  “You know,” he said, “babies come so suddenly; one goes to bed one night and next morning there is a baby.  Why, it might die of cold if we are not on the look-out for it.  I hope it will be a boy.”

“And you have told your governess about this?”

“Yes, but she puts me off and does not help me: she says it will not come for many years, and she hopes not then.”

“Are you quite sure that you have not made any mistake in all this?”

“Oh, no; because Mrs Burne, you know, called here a few days ago, and I was sent for to be looked at.  And mamma held me out at arm’s length and said, ‘Is he Mr Pontifex’s child, Mrs Burne, or is he mine?’  Of course, she couldn’t have said this if papa had not had some of the children himself.  I did think the gentleman had all the boys and the lady all the girls; but it can’t be like this, or else mamma would not have asked Mrs Burne to guess; but then Mrs Burne said, ‘Oh, he’s Mr Pontifex’s child of course,’ and I didn’t quite know what she meant by saying ‘of course’: it seemed as though I was right in thinking that the husband has all the boys and the wife all the girls; I wish you would explain to me all about it.”

This I could hardly do, so I changed the conversation, after reassuring him as best I could.