The Way of All Flesh/Chapter 48
Once, recently, when he was down at home after taking his degree, his mother had had a short conversation with him about his becoming a clergyman, set on thereto by Theobald, who shrank from the subject himself. This time it was during a turn taken in the garden, and not on the sofa—which was reserved for supreme occasions.
"You know, my dearest boy," she said to him, "that papa" (she always called Theobald "papa" when talking to Ernest) "is so anxious you should not go into the Church blindly, and without fully realising the difficulties of a clergyman's position. He has considered all of them himself, and has been shown how small they are, when they are faced boldly, but he wishes you, too, to feel them as strongly and completely as possible before committing yourself to irrevocable vows, so that you may never, never have to regret the step you will have taken."
This was the first time Ernest had heard that there were any difficulties, and he not unnaturally enquired in a vague way after their nature.
"That, my dear boy," rejoined Christina, "is a question which I am not fitted to enter upon either by nature or education. I might easily unsettle your mind without being able to settle it again. Oh, no! Such questions are far better avoided by women, and, I should have thought, by men, but papa wished me to speak to you upon the subject, so that there might be no mistake hereafter, and I have done so. Now, therefore, you know all."
The conversation ended here, so far as this subject was concerned, and Ernest thought he did know all. His mother would not have told him he knew all—not about a matter of that sort—unless he actually did know it; well, it did not come to very much; he supposed there were some difficulties, but his father, who at any rate was an excellent scholar and a learned man, was probably quite right here, and he need not trouble himself more about them. So little impression did the conversation make on him, that it was not till long afterwards that, happening to remember it, he saw what a piece of sleight of hand had been practised upon him. Theobald and Christina, however, were satisfied that they had done their duty by opening their son's eyes to the difficulties of assenting to all a clergyman must assent to. This was enough; it was a matter for rejoicing that, though they had been put so fully and candidly before him, he did not find them serious. It was not in vain that they had prayed for so many years to be made "truly honest and conscientious."
"And now, my dear," resumed Christina, after having disposed of all the difficulties that might stand in the way of Ernest's becoming a clergyman, "there is another matter on which I should like to have a talk with you. It is about your sister Charlotte. You know how clever she is, and what a dear, kind sister she has been and always will be to yourself and Joey. I wish, my dearest Ernest, that I saw more chance of her finding a suitable husband than I do at Battersby, and I sometimes think you might do more than you do to help her."
Ernest began to chafe at this, for he had heard it so often, but he said nothing.
"You know, my dear, a brother can do so much for his sister if he lays himself out to do it. A mother can do very little—indeed, it is hardly a mother's place to seek out young men; it is a brother's place to find a suitable partner for his sister; all that I can do is to try to make Battersby as attractive as possible to any of your friends whom you may invite. And in that," she added, with a little toss of her head, "I do not think I have been deficient hitherto."
Ernest said he had already at different times asked several of his friends.
"Yes, my dear, but you must admit that they were none of them exactly the kind of young man whom Charlotte could be expected to take a fancy to. Indeed, I must own to having been a little disappointed that you should have yourself chosen any of these as your intimate friends."
Ernest winced again.
"You never brought down Figgins when you were at Roughborough; now I should have thought Figgins would have been just the kind of boy whom you might have asked to come and see us."
Figgins had been gone through times out of number already. Ernest had hardly known him, and Figgins, being nearly three years older than Ernest, had left long before he did. Besides he had not been a nice boy, and had made himself unpleasant to Ernest in many ways.
"Now," continued his mother, "there's Towneley. I have heard you speak of Towneley as having rowed with you in a boat at Cambridge. I wish, my dear, you would cultivate your acquaintance with Towneley, and ask him to pay us a visit. The name has an aristocratic sound, and I think I have heard you say he is an eldest son."
Ernest flushed at the sound of Towneley's name.
What had really happened in respect of Ernest's friends was briefly this. His mother liked to get hold of the names of the boys and especially of any who were at all intimate with her son; the more she heard, the more she wanted to know; there was no gorging her to satiety; she was like a ravenous young cuckoo being fed upon a grass plot by a water wag-tail, she would swallow all that Ernest could bring her, and yet be as hungry as before. And she always went to Ernest for her meals rather than to Joey, for Joey was either more stupid or more impenetrable—at any rate she could pump Ernest much the better of the two.
From time to time an actual live boy had been thrown to her, either by being caught and brought to Battersby, or by being asked to meet her if at any time she came to Roughborough. She had generally made herself agreeable, or fairly agreeable, as long as the boy was present, but as soon as she got Ernest to herself again she changed her note. Into whatever form she might throw her criticisms it came always in the end to this, that his friend was no good, that Ernest was not much better, and that he should have brought her someone else, for this one would not do at all.
The more intimate the boy had been or was supposed to be with Ernest the more he was declared to be naught, till in the end he had hit upon the plan of saying, concerning any boy whom he particularly liked, that he was not one of his especial chums, and that indeed he hardly knew why he had asked him; but he found he only fell on Scylla in trying to avoid Charybdis, for though the boy was declared to be more successful it was Ernest who was naught for not thinking more highly of him.
When she had once got hold of a name she never forgot it. "And how is So- and-so?" she would exclaim, mentioning some former friend of Ernest's with whom he had either now quarrelled, or who had long since proved to be a mere comet and no fixed star at all. How Ernest wished he had never mentioned So-and-so's name, and vowed to himself that he would never talk about his friends in future, but in a few hours he would forget and would prattle away as imprudently as ever; then his mother would pounce noiselessly on his remarks as a barn-owl pounces upon a mouse, and would bring them up in a pellet six months afterwards when they were no longer in harmony with their surroundings.
Then there was Theobald. If a boy or college friend had been invited to Battersby, Theobald would lay himself out at first to be agreeable. He could do this well enough when he liked, and as regards the outside world he generally did like. His clerical neighbours, and indeed all his neighbours, respected him yearly more and more, and would have given Ernest sufficient cause to regret his imprudence if he had dared to hint that he had anything, however little, to complain of. Theobald's mind worked in this way: "Now, I know Ernest has told this boy what a disagreeable person I am, and I will just show him that I am not disagreeable at all, but a good old fellow, a jolly old boy, in fact a regular old brick, and that it is Ernest who is in fault all through."
So he would behave very nicely to the boy at first, and the boy would be delighted with him, and side with him against Ernest. Of course if Ernest had got the boy to come to Battersby he wanted him to enjoy his visit, and was therefore pleased that Theobald should behave so well, but at the same time he stood so much in need of moral support that it was painful to him to see one of his own familiar friends go over to the enemy's camp. For no matter how well we may know a thing—how clearly we may see a certain patch of colour, for example, as red, it shakes us and knocks us about to find another see it, or be more than half inclined to see it, as green.
Theobald had generally begun to get a little impatient before the end of the visit, but the impression formed during the earlier part was the one which the visitor had carried away with him. Theobald never discussed any of the boys with Ernest. It was Christina who did this. Theobald let them come, because Christina in a quiet, persistent way insisted on it; when they did come he behaved, as I have said, civilly, but he did not like it, whereas Christina did like it very much; she would have had half Roughborough and half Cambridge to come and stay at Battersby if she could have managed it, and if it would not have cost so much money: she liked their coming, so that she might make a new acquaintance, and she liked tearing them to pieces and flinging the bits over Ernest as soon as she had had enough of them.
The worst of it was that she had so often proved to be right. Boys and young men are violent in their affections, but they are seldom very constant; it is not till they get older that they really know the kind of friend they want; in their earlier essays young men are simply learning to judge character. Ernest had been no exception to the general rule. His swans had one after the other proved to be more or less geese even in his own estimation, and he was beginning almost to think that his mother was a better judge of character than he was; but I think it may be assumed with some certainty that if Ernest had brought her a real young swan she would have declared it to be the ugliest and worst goose of all that she had yet seen.
At first he had not suspected that his friends were wanted with a view to Charlotte; it was understood that Charlotte and they might perhaps take a fancy for one another; and that would be so very nice, would it not? But he did not see that there was any deliberate malice in the arrangement. Now, however, that he had awoke to what it all meant, he was less inclined to bring any friend of his to Battersby. It seemed to his silly young mind almost dishonest to ask your friend to come and see you when all you really meant was "Please, marry my sister." It was like trying to obtain money under false pretences. If he had been fond of Charlotte it might have been another matter, but he thought her one of the most disagreeable young women in the whole circle of his acquaintance.
She was supposed to be very clever. All young ladies are either very pretty or very clever or very sweet; they may take their choice as to which category they will go in for, but go in for one of the three they must. It was hopeless to try and pass Charlotte off as either pretty or sweet. So she became clever as the only remaining alternative. Ernest never knew what particular branch of study it was in which she showed her talent, for she could neither play nor sing nor draw, but so astute are women that his mother and Charlotte really did persuade him into thinking that she, Charlotte, had something more akin to true genius than any other member of the family. Not one, however, of all the friends whom Ernest had been inveigled into trying to inveigle had shown the least sign of being so far struck with Charlotte's commanding powers, as to wish to make them his own, and this may have had something to do with the rapidity and completeness with which Christina had dismissed them one after another and had wanted a new one.
And now she wanted Towneley. Ernest had seen this coming and had tried to avoid it, for he knew how impossible it was for him to ask Towneley, even if he had wished to do so.
Towneley belonged to one of the most exclusive sets in Cambridge, and was perhaps the most popular man among the whole number of undergraduates. He was big and very handsome—as it seemed to Ernest the handsomest man whom he ever had seen or ever could see, for it was impossible to imagine a more lively and agreeable countenance. He was good at cricket and boating, very good-natured, singularly free from conceit, not clever but very sensible, and, lastly, his father and mother had been drowned by the overturning of a boat when he was only two years old and had left him as their only child and heir to one of the finest estates in the South of England. Fortune every now and then does things handsomely by a man all round; Towneley was one of those to whom she had taken a fancy, and the universal verdict in this case was that she had chosen wisely.
Ernest had seen Towneley as every one else in the University (except, of course, dons) had seen him, for he was a man of mark, and being very susceptible he had liked Towneley even more than most people did, but at the same time it never so much as entered his head that he should come to know him. He liked looking at him if he got a chance, and was very much ashamed of himself for doing so, but there the matter ended.
By a strange accident, however, during Ernest's last year, when the names of the crews for the scratch fours were drawn he had found himself coxswain of a crew, among whom was none other than his especial hero Towneley; the three others were ordinary mortals, but they could row fairly well, and the crew on the whole was rather a good one.
Ernest was frightened out of his wits. When, however, the two met, he found Towneley no less remarkable for his entire want of anything like "side," and for his power of setting those whom he came across at their ease, than he was for outward accomplishments; the only difference he found between Towneley and other people was that he was so very much easier to get on with. Of course Ernest worshipped him more and more.
The scratch fours being ended the connection between the two came to an end, but Towneley never passed Ernest thenceforward without a nod and a few good-natured words. In an evil moment he had mentioned Towneley's name at Battersby, and now what was the result? Here was his mother plaguing him to ask Towneley to come down to Battersby and marry Charlotte. Why, if he had thought there was the remotest chance of Towneley's marrying Charlotte he would have gone down on his knees to him and told him what an odious young woman she was, and implored him to save himself while there was yet time.
But Ernest had not prayed to be made "truly honest and conscientious" for as many years as Christina had. He tried to conceal what he felt and thought as well as he could, and led the conversation back to the difficulties which a clergyman might feel to stand in the way of his being ordained—not because he had any misgivings, but as a diversion. His mother, however, thought she had settled all that, and he got no more out of her. Soon afterwards he found the means of escaping, and was not slow to avail himself of them.