Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 39

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Ellen did what she was told, and the two parted with many tears, the girl’s last words being that she should never forget him, and that they should meet again hereafter, she was sure they should, and then she would repay him.

Then Ernest got into a field by the roadside, flung himself on the grass, and waited under the shadow of a hedge till the carriage should pass on its return from the station and pick him up, for he was dead beat.  Thoughts which had already occurred to him with some force now came more strongly before him, and he saw that he had got himself into one mess—or rather into half-a-dozen messes—the more.

In the first place he should be late for dinner, and this was one of the offences on which Theobald had no mercy.  Also he should have to say where he had been, and there was a danger of being found out if he did not speak the truth.  Not only this, but sooner or later it must come out that he was no longer possessed of the beautiful watch which his dear aunt had given him—and what, pray, had he done with it, or how had he lost it?  The reader will know very well what he ought to have done.  He should have gone straight home, and if questioned should have said, “I have been running after the carriage to catch our housemaid Ellen, whom I am very fond of; I have given her my watch, my knife and all my pocket money, so that I have now no pocket money at all and shall probably ask you for some more sooner than I otherwise might have done, and you will also have to buy me a new watch and a knife.”  But then fancy the consternation which such an announcement would have occasioned!  Fancy the scowl and flashing eyes of the infuriated Theobald!  “You unprincipled young scoundrel,” he would exclaim, “do you mean to vilify your own parents by implying that they have dealt harshly by one whose profligacy has disgraced their house?”

Or he might take it with one of those sallies of sarcastic calm, of which he believed himself to be a master.

“Very well, Ernest, very well: I shall say nothing; you can please yourself; you are not yet twenty-one, but pray act as if you were your own master; your poor aunt doubtless gave you the watch that you might fling it away upon the first improper character you came across; I think I can now understand, however, why she did not leave you her money; and, after all, your godfather may just as well have it as the kind of people on whom you would lavish it if it were yours.”

Then his mother would burst into tears and implore him to repent and seek the things belonging to his peace while there was yet time, by falling on his knees to Theobald and assuring him of his unfailing love for him as the kindest and tenderest father in the universe.  Ernest could do all this just as well as they could, and now, as he lay on the grass, speeches, some one or other of which was as certain to come as the sun to set, kept running in his head till they confuted the idea of telling the truth by reducing it to an absurdity.  Truth might be heroic, but it was not within the range of practical domestic politics.

Having settled then that he was to tell a lie, what lie should he tell?  Should he say he had been robbed?  He had enough imagination to know that he had not enough imagination to carry him out here.  Young as he was, his instinct told him that the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way—who husbands it too carefully to waste it where it can be dispensed with.  The simplest course would be to say that he had lost the watch, and was late for dinner because he had been looking for it.  He had been out for a long walk—he chose the line across the fields that he had actually taken—and the weather being very hot, he had taken off his coat and waistcoat; in carrying them over his arm his watch, his money, and his knife had dropped out of them.  He had got nearly home when he found out his loss, and had run back as fast as he could, looking along the line he had followed, till at last he had given it up; seeing the carriage coming back from the station, he had let it pick him up and bring him home.

This covered everything, the running and all; for his face still showed that he must have been running hard; the only question was whether he had been seen about the Rectory by any but the servants for a couple of hours or so before Ellen had gone, and this he was happy to believe was not the case; for he had been out except during his few minutes’ interview with the cook.  His father had been out in the parish; his mother had certainly not come across him, and his brother and sister had also been out with the governess.  He knew he could depend upon the cook and the other servants—the coachman would see to this; on the whole, therefore, both he and the coachman thought the story as proposed by Ernest would about meet the requirements of the case.