Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 41

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“Look here, master, I can guess what all this is about—now before I goes I want to have a word with you.”

“Ernest,” said Theobald, “leave the room.”

“No, Master Ernest, you shan’t,” said John, planting himself against the door.  “Now, master,” he continued, “you may do as you please about me.  I’ve been a good servant to you, and I don’t mean to say as you’ve been a bad master to me, but I do say that if you bear hardly on Master Ernest here I have those in the village as ’ll hear on’t and let me know; and if I do hear on’t I’ll come back and break every bone in your skin, so there!”

John’s breath came and went quickly, as though he would have been well enough pleased to begin the bone-breaking business at once.  Theobald turned of an ashen colour—not, as he explained afterwards, at the idle threats of a detected and angry ruffian, but at such atrocious insolence from one of his own servants.

“I shall leave Master Ernest, John,” he rejoined proudly, “to the reproaches of his own conscience.”  (“Thank God and thank John,” thought Ernest.)  “As for yourself, I admit that you have been an excellent servant until this unfortunate business came on, and I shall have much pleasure in giving you a character if you want one.  Have you anything more to say?”

“No more nor what I have said,” said John sullenly, “but what I’ve said I means and I’ll stick to—character or no character.”

“Oh, you need not be afraid about your character, John,” said Theobald kindly, “and as it is getting late, there can be no occasion for you to leave the house before to-morrow morning.”

To this there was no reply from John, who retired, packed up his things, and left the house at once.

When Christina heard what had happened she said she could condone all except that Theobald should have been subjected to such insolence from one of his own servants through the misconduct of his son.  Theobald was the bravest man in the whole world, and could easily have collared the wretch and turned him out of the room, but how far more dignified, how far nobler had been his reply!  How it would tell in a novel or upon the stage, for though the stage as a whole was immoral, yet there were doubtless some plays which were improving spectacles.  She could fancy the whole house hushed with excitement at hearing John’s menace, and hardly breathing by reason of their interest and expectation of the coming answer.  Then the actor—probably the great and good Mr Macready—would say, “I shall leave Master Ernest, John, to the reproaches of his own conscience.”  Oh, it was sublime!  What a roar of applause must follow!  Then she should enter herself, and fling her arms about her husband’s neck, and call him her lion-hearted husband.  When the curtain dropped, it would be buzzed about the house that the scene just witnessed had been drawn from real life, and had actually occurred in the household of the Rev. Theobald Pontifex, who had married a Miss Allaby, etc., etc.

As regards Ernest the suspicions which had already crossed her mind were deepened, but she thought it better to leave the matter where it was.  At present she was in a very strong position.  Ernest’s official purity was firmly established, but at the same time he had shown himself so susceptible that she was able to fuse two contradictory impressions concerning him into a single idea, and consider him as a kind of Joseph and Don Juan in one.  This was what she had wanted all along, but her vanity being gratified by the possession of such a son, there was an end of it; the son himself was naught.

No doubt if John had not interfered, Ernest would have had to expiate his offence with ache, penury and imprisonment.  As it was the boy was “to consider himself” as undergoing these punishments, and as suffering pangs of unavailing remorse inflicted on him by his conscience into the bargain; but beyond the fact that Theobald kept him more closely to his holiday task, and the continued coldness of his parents, no ostensible punishment was meted out to him.  Ernest, however, tells me that he looks back upon this as the time when he began to know that he had a cordial and active dislike for both his parents, which I suppose means that he was now beginning to be aware that he was reaching man’s estate.