Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 77

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Chapter LXXVII

I do not think Ernest himself was much more pleased at finding that he had never been married than I was.  To him, however, the shock of pleasure was positively numbing in its intensity.  As he felt his burden removed, he reeled for the unaccustomed lightness of his movements; his position was so shattered that his identity seemed to have been shattered also; he was as one waking up from a horrible nightmare to find himself safe and sound in bed, but who can hardly even yet believe that the room is not full of armed men who are about to spring upon him.

“And it is I,” he said, “who not an hour ago complained that I was without hope.  It is I, who for weeks have been railing at fortune, and saying that though she smiled on others she never smiled at me.  Why, never was anyone half so fortunate as I am.”

“Yes,” said I, “you have been inoculated for marriage, and have recovered.”

“And yet,” he said, “I was very fond of her till she took to drinking.”

“Perhaps; but is it not Tennyson who has said: ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have lost at all’?”

“You are an inveterate bachelor,” was the rejoinder.

Then we had a long talk with John, to whom I gave a £5 note upon the spot.  He said, “Ellen had used to drink at Battersby; the cook had taught her; he had known it, but was so fond of her, that he had chanced it and married her to save her from the streets and in the hope of being able to keep her straight.  She had done with him just as she had done with Ernest—made him an excellent wife as long as she kept sober, but a very bad one afterwards.”

“There isn’t,” said John, “a sweeter-tempered, handier, prettier girl than she was in all England, nor one as knows better what a man likes, and how to make him happy, if you can keep her from drink; but you can’t keep her; she’s that artful she’ll get it under your very eyes, without you knowing it.  If she can’t get any more of your things to pawn or sell, she’ll steal her neighbours’.  That’s how she got into trouble first when I was with her.  During the six months she was in prison I should have felt happy if I had not known she would come out again.  And then she did come out, and before she had been free a fortnight, she began shop-lifting and going on the loose again—and all to get money to drink with.  So seeing I could do nothing with her and that she was just a-killing of me, I left her, and came up to London, and went into service again, and I did not know what had become of her till you and Mr Ernest here told me.  I hope you’ll neither of you say you’ve seen me.”

We assured him we would keep his counsel, and then he left us, with many protestations of affection towards Ernest, to whom he had been always much attached.

We talked the situation over, and decided first to get the children away, and then to come to terms with Ellen concerning their future custody; as for herself, I proposed that we should make her an allowance of, say, a pound a week to be paid so long as she gave no trouble.  Ernest did not see where the pound a week was to come from, so I eased his mind by saying I would pay it myself.  Before the day was two hours older we had got the children, about whom Ellen had always appeared to be indifferent, and had confided them to the care of my laundress, a good motherly sort of woman, who took to them and to whom they took at once.