Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 72

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Chapter LXXII

Ernest told Ellen of his difficulty about finding employment.

“But what do you think of going into a shop for, my dear,” said Ellen.  “Why not take a little shop yourself?”

Ernest asked how much this would cost.  Ellen told him that he might take a house in some small street, say near the “Elephant and Castle,” for 17s. or 18s. a week, and let off the two top floors for 10s., keeping the back parlour and shop for themselves.  If he could raise five or six pounds to buy some second-hand clothes to stock the shop with, they could mend them and clean them, and she could look after the women’s clothes while he did the men’s.  Then he could mend and make, if he could get the orders.

They could soon make a business of £2 a week in this way; she had a friend who began like that and had now moved to a better shop, where she made £5 or £6 a week at least—and she, Ellen, had done the greater part of the buying and selling herself.

Here was a new light indeed.  It was as though he had got his £5000 back again all of a sudden, and perhaps ever so much more later on into the bargain.  Ellen seemed more than ever to be his good genius.

She went out and got a few rashers of bacon for his and her breakfast.  She cooked them much more nicely than he had been able to do, and laid breakfast for him and made coffee, and some nice brown toast.  Ernest had been his own cook and housemaid for the last few days and had not given himself satisfaction.  Here he suddenly found himself with someone to wait on him again.  Not only had Ellen pointed out to him how he could earn a living when no one except himself had known how to advise him, but here she was so pretty and smiling, looking after even his comforts, and restoring him practically in all respects that he much cared about to the position which he had lost—or rather putting him in one that he already liked much better.  No wonder he was radiant when he came to explain his plans to me.

He had some difficulty in telling all that had happened.  He hesitated, blushed, hummed and hawed.  Misgivings began to cross his mind when he found himself obliged to tell his story to someone else.  He felt inclined to slur things over, but I wanted to get at the facts, so I helped him over the bad places, and questioned him till I had got out pretty nearly the whole story as I have given it above.

I hope I did not show it, but I was very angry.  I had begun to like Ernest.  I don’t know why, but I never have heard that any young man to whom I had become attached was going to get married without hating his intended instinctively, though I had never seen her; I have observed that most bachelors feel the same thing, though we are generally at some pains to hide the fact.  Perhaps it is because we know we ought to have got married ourselves.  Ordinarily we say we are delighted—in the present case I did not feel obliged to do this, though I made an effort to conceal my vexation.  That a young man of much promise who was heir also to what was now a handsome fortune, should fling himself away upon such a person as Ellen was quite too provoking, and the more so because of the unexpectedness of the whole affair.

I begged him not to marry Ellen yet—not at least until he had known her for a longer time.  He would not hear of it; he had given his word, and if he had not given it he should go and give it at once.  I had hitherto found him upon most matters singularly docile and easy to manage, but on this point I could do nothing with him.  His recent victory over his father and mother had increased his strength, and I was nowhere.  I would have told him of his true position, but I knew very well that this would only make him more bent on having his own way—for with so much money why should he not please himself?  I said nothing, therefore, on this head, and yet all that I could urge went for very little with one who believed himself to be an artisan or nothing.

Really from his own standpoint there was nothing very outrageous in what he was doing.  He had known and been very fond of Ellen years before.  He knew her to come of respectable people, and to have borne a good character, and to have been universally liked at Battersby.  She was then a quick, smart, hard-working girl—and a very pretty one.  When at last they met again she was on her best behaviour, in fact, she was modesty and demureness itself.  What wonder, then, that his imagination should fail to realise the changes that eight years must have worked?  He knew too much against himself, and was too bankrupt in love to be squeamish; if Ellen had been only what he thought her, and if his prospects had been in reality no better than he believed they were, I do not know that there is anything much more imprudent in what Ernest proposed than there is in half the marriages that take place every day.