Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 78

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Chapter LXXVIII

Ernest was now well turned twenty-six years old, and in little more than another year and a half would come into possession of his money.  I saw no reason for letting him have it earlier than the date fixed by Miss Pontifex herself; at the same time I did not like his continuing the shop at Blackfriars after the present crisis.  It was not till now that I fully understood how much he had suffered, nor how nearly his supposed wife’s habits had brought him to actual want.

I had indeed noted the old wan worn look settling upon his face, but was either too indolent or too hopeless of being able to sustain a protracted and successful warfare with Ellen to extend the sympathy and make the inquiries which I suppose I ought to have made.  And yet I hardly know what I could have done, for nothing short of his finding out what he had found out would have detached him from his wife, and nothing could do him much good as long as he continued to live with her.

After all I suppose I was right; I suppose things did turn out all the better in the end for having been left to settle themselves—at any rate whether they did or did not, the whole thing was in too great a muddle for me to venture to tackle it so long as Ellen was upon the scene; now, however, that she was removed, all my interest in my godson revived, and I turned over many times in my mind, what I had better do with him.

It was now three and a half years since he had come up to London and begun to live, so to speak, upon his own account.  Of these years, six months had been spent as a clergyman, six months in gaol, and for two and a half years he had been acquiring twofold experience in the ways of business and of marriage.  He had failed, I may say, in everything that he had undertaken, even as a prisoner; yet his defeats had been always, as it seemed to me, something so like victories, that I was satisfied of his being worth all the pains I could bestow upon him; my only fear was lest I should meddle with him when it might be better for him to be let alone.  On the whole I concluded that a three and a half years’ apprenticeship to a rough life was enough; the shop had done much for him; it had kept him going after a fashion, when he was in great need; it had thrown him upon his own resources, and taught him to see profitable openings all around him, where a few months before he would have seen nothing but insuperable difficulties; it had enlarged his sympathies by making him understand the lower classes, and not confining his view of life to that taken by gentlemen only.  When he went about the streets and saw the books outside the second-hand book-stalls, the bric-a-brac in the curiosity shops, and the infinite commercial activity which is omnipresent around us, he understood it and sympathised with it as he could never have done if he had not kept a shop himself.

He has often told me that when he used to travel on a railway that overlooked populous suburbs, and looked down upon street after street of dingy houses, he used to wonder what kind of people lived in them, what they did and felt, and how far it was like what he did and felt himself.  Now, he said he knew all about it.  I am not very familiar with the writer of the Odyssey (who, by the way, I suspect strongly of having been a clergyman), but he assuredly hit the right nail on the head when he epitomised his typical wise man as knowing “the ways and farings of many men.”  What culture is comparable to this?  What a lie, what a sickly debilitating debauch did not Ernest’s school and university career now seem to him, in comparison with his life in prison and as a tailor in Blackfriars.  I have heard him say he would have gone through all he had suffered if it were only for the deeper insight it gave him into the spirit of the Grecian and the Surrey pantomimes.  What confidence again in his own power to swim if thrown into deep waters had not he won through his experiences during the last three years!