The Way of All Flesh/Chapter 75

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In the month of September 1860 a girl was born, and Ernest was proud and happy. The birth of the child, and a rather alarming talk which the doctor had given to Ellen sobered her for a few weeks, and it really seemed as though his hopes were about to be fulfilled. The expenses of his wife's confinement were heavy, and he was obliged to trench upon his savings, but he had no doubt about soon recouping this now that Ellen was herself again; for a time indeed his business did revive a little, nevertheless it seemed as though the interruption to his prosperity had in some way broken the spell of good luck which had attended him in the outset; he was still sanguine, however, and worked night and day with a will, but there was no more music, or reading, or writing now. His Sunday outings were put a stop to, and but for the first floor being let to myself, he would have lost his citadel there too, but he seldom used it, for Ellen had to wait more and more upon the baby, and, as a consequence, Ernest had to wait more and more upon Ellen.

One afternoon, about a couple of months after the baby had been born, and just as my unhappy hero was beginning to feel more hopeful and therefore better able to bear his burdens, he returned from a sale, and found Ellen in the same hysterical condition that he had found her in in the spring. She said she was again with child, and Ernest still believed her.

All the troubles of the preceding six months began again then and there, and grew worse and worse continually. Money did not come in quickly, for Ellen cheated him by keeping it back, and dealing improperly with the goods he bought. When it did come in she got it out of him as before on pretexts which it seemed inhuman to inquire into. It was always the same story. By and by a new feature began to show itself. Ernest had inherited his father's punctuality and exactness as regards money; he liked to know the worst of what he had to pay at once; he hated having expenses sprung upon him which if not foreseen might and ought to have been so, but now bills began to be brought to him for things ordered by Ellen without his knowledge, or for which he had already given her the money. This was awful, and even Ernest turned. When he remonstrated with her—not for having bought the things, but for having said nothing to him about the moneys being owing—Ellen met him with hysteria and there was a scene. She had now pretty well forgotten the hard times she had known when she had been on her own resources and reproached him downright with having married her—on that moment the scales fell from Ernest's eyes as they had fallen when Towneley had said, "No, no, no." He said nothing, but he woke up once for all to the fact that he had made a mistake in marrying. A touch had again come which had revealed him to himself.

He went upstairs to the disused citadel, flung himself into the arm-chair, and covered his face with his hands.

He still did not know that his wife drank, but he could no longer trust her, and his dream of happiness was over. He had been saved from the Church—so as by fire, but still saved—but what could now save him from his marriage? He had made the same mistake that he had made in wedding himself to the Church, but with a hundred times worse results. He had learnt nothing by experience: he was an Esau—one of those wretches whose hearts the Lord had hardened, who, having ears, heard not, having eyes saw not, and who should find no place for repentance though they sought it even with tears.

Yet had he not on the whole tried to find out what the ways of God were, and to follow them in singleness of heart? To a certain extent, yes; but he had not been thorough; he had not given up all for God. He knew that very well he had done little as compared with what he might and ought to have done, but still if he was being punished for this, God was a hard taskmaster, and one, too, who was continually pouncing out upon his unhappy creatures from ambuscades. In marrying Ellen he had meant to avoid a life of sin, and to take the course he believed to be moral and right. With his antecedents and surroundings it was the most natural thing in the world for him to have done, yet in what a frightful position had not his morality landed him. Could any amount of immorality have placed him in a much worse one? What was morality worth if it was not that which on the whole brought a man peace at the last, and could anyone have reasonable certainty that marriage would do this? It seemed to him that in his attempt to be moral he had been following a devil which had disguised itself as an angel of light. But if so, what ground was there on which a man might rest the sole of his foot and tread in reasonable safety?

He was still too young to reach the answer, "On common sense"—an answer which he would have felt to be unworthy of anyone who had an ideal standard.

However this might be, it was plain that he had now done for himself. It had been thus with him all his life. If there had come at any time a gleam of sunshine and hope, it was to be obscured immediately—why, prison was happier than this! There, at any rate, he had had no money anxieties, and these were beginning to weigh upon him now with all their horrors. He was happier even now than he had been at Battersby or at Roughborough, and he would not now go back, even if he could, to his Cambridge life, but for all that the outlook was so gloomy, in fact so hopeless, that he felt as if he could have only too gladly gone to sleep and died in his arm-chair once for all.

As he was musing thus and looking upon the wreck of his hopes—for he saw well enough that as long as he was linked to Ellen he should never rise as he had dreamed of doing—he heard a noise below, and presently a neighbour ran upstairs and entered his room hurriedly—

"Good gracious, Mr Pontifex," she exclaimed, "for goodness' sake come down quickly and help. O Mrs Pontifex is took with the horrors—and she's orkard."

The unhappy man came down as he was bid and found his wife mad with delirium tremens.

He knew all now. The neighbours thought he must have known that his wife drank all along, but Ellen had been so artful, and he so simple, that, as I have said, he had had no suspicion. "Why," said the woman who had summoned him, "she'll drink anything she can stand up and pay her money for." Ernest could hardly believe his ears, but when the doctor had seen his wife and she had become more quiet, he went over to the public house hard by and made enquiries, the result of which rendered further doubt impossible. The publican took the opportunity to present my hero with a bill of several pounds for bottles of spirits supplied to his wife, and what with his wife's confinement and the way business had fallen off, he had not the money to pay with, for the sum exceeded the remnant of his savings.

He came to me—not for money, but to tell me his miserable story. I had seen for some time that there was something wrong, and had suspected pretty shrewdly what the matter was, but of course I said nothing. Ernest and I had been growing apart for some time. I was vexed at his having married, and he knew I was vexed, though I did my best to hide it.

A man's friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage—but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends. The rift in friendship which invariably makes its appearance on the marriage of either of the parties to it was fast widening, as it no less invariably does, into the great gulf which is fixed between the married and the unmarried, and I was beginning to leave my protege to a fate with which I had neither right nor power to meddle. In fact I had begun to feel him rather a burden; I did not so much mind this when I could be of use, but I grudged it when I could be of none. He had made his bed and he must lie upon it. Ernest had felt all this and had seldom come near me till now, one evening late in 1860, he called on me, and with a very woebegone face told me his troubles.

As soon as I found that he no longer liked his wife I forgave him at once, and was as much interested in him as ever. There is nothing an old bachelor likes better than to find a young married man who wishes he had not got married—especially when the case is such an extreme one that he need not pretend to hope that matters will come all right again, or encourage his young friend to make the best of it.

I was myself in favour of a separation, and said I would make Ellen an allowance myself—of course intending that it should come out of Ernest's money; but he would not hear of this. He had married Ellen, he said, and he must try to reform her. He hated it, but he must try; and finding him as usual very obstinate I was obliged to acquiesce, though with little confidence as to the result. I was vexed at seeing him waste himself upon such a barren task, and again began to feel him burdensome. I am afraid I showed this, for he again avoided me for some time, and, indeed, for many months I hardly saw him at all.

Ellen remained very ill for some days, and then gradually recovered. Ernest hardly left her till she was out of danger. When she had recovered he got the doctor to tell her that if she had such another attack she would certainly die; this so frightened her that she took the pledge.

Then he became more hopeful again. When she was sober she was just what she was during the first days of her married life, and so quick was he to forget pain, that after a few days he was as fond of her as ever. But Ellen could not forgive him for knowing what he did. She knew that he was on the watch to shield her from temptation, and though he did his best to make her think that he had no further uneasiness about her, she found the burden of her union with respectability grow more and more heavy upon her, and looked back more and more longingly upon the lawless freedom of the life she had led before she met her husband.

I will dwell no longer on this part of my story. During the spring months of 1861 she kept straight—she had had her fling of dissipation, and this, together with the impression made upon her by her having taken the pledge, tamed her for a while. The shop went fairly well, and enabled Ernest to make the two ends meet. In the spring and summer of 1861 he even put by a little money again. In the autumn his wife was confined of a boy—a very fine one, so everyone said. She soon recovered, and Ernest was beginning to breathe freely and be almost sanguine when, without a word of warning, the storm broke again. He returned one afternoon about two years after his marriage, and found his wife lying upon the floor insensible.

From this time he became hopeless, and began to go visibly down hill. He had been knocked about too much, and the luck had gone too long against him. The wear and tear of the last three years had told on him, and though not actually ill he was overworked, below par, and unfit for any further burden.

He struggled for a while to prevent himself from finding this out, but facts were too strong for him. Again he called on me and told me what had happened. I was glad the crisis had come; I was sorry for Ellen, but a complete separation from her was the only chance for her husband. Even after this last outbreak he was unwilling to consent to this, and talked nonsense about dying at his post, till I got tired of him. Each time I saw him the old gloom had settled more and more deeply upon his face, and I had about made up my mind to put an end to the situation by a coup de main, such as bribing Ellen to run away with somebody else, or something of that kind, when matters settled themselves as usual in a way which I had not anticipated.