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Chapter 68
WHEN I think over all that Ernest told me about his prison meditations, and the conclusions he was drawn to, it occurs to me that in reality he was wanting to do the very last thing which it would have entered into his head to think of wanting. I mean that he was trying to give up father and mother for Christ’s sake. He would have said he was giving them up because he thought they hindered him in the pursuit of his truest and most lasting happiness. Granted, but what is this if it is not Christ? What is Christ if He is not this? He who takes the highest and most self-respecting view of his own welfare which it is in his power to conceive, and adheres to it in spite of conventionality, is a Christian whether he knows it and calls himself one, or whether he does not. A rose is not the less a rose because it does not know its own name.

What if circumstances had made his duty more easy for him than it would be to most men? That was his luck, as much as it is other people’s luck to have other duties made easy for them by accident of birth. Surely if people are born rich or handsome they have a right to their good fortune. Some, I know, will say that one man has no right to be born with a better constitution than another; others again will say that luck is the only righteous object of human veneration. Both, I daresay, can make out a very good case, but whichever may be right surely Ernest had as much right to the good luck of finding a duty made easier as he had had to the bad fortune of falling into the scrape which had got him into prison. A man is not to be sneered at for having a trump card in his hand; he is only to be sneered at if he plays his trump card badly.

Indeed, I question whether it is ever much harder for anyone to give up father and mother for Christ’s sake than it was for Ernest. The relations between the parties will have almost always been severely strained before it comes to this. I doubt whether anyone was ever yet required to give up those to whom he was tenderly attached for a mere matter of conscience: he will have ceased to be tenderly attached to them long before he is called upon to break with them; for differences of opinion concerning any matter of vital importance spring from differences of constitution, and these will already have led to so much other disagreement that the “giving up,” when it comes, is like giving up an aching but very loose and hollow tooth. It is the loss of those whom we are not required to give up for Christ’s sake which is really painful to us. Then there is a wrench in earnest. Happily, no matter how light the task that is demanded from us, it is enough if we do it; we reap our reward, much as though it were a Herculean labour.

But to return, the conclusion Ernest came to was that he would be a tailor. He talked the matter over with the chaplain, who told him there was no reason why he should not be able to earn his six or seven shillings a day by the time he came out of prison, if he chose to learn the trade during the remainder of his term — not quite three months; the doctor said he was strong enough for this, and that it was about the only thing he was as yet fit for; so he left the infirmary sooner than he would otherwise have done and entered the tailor’s shop, overjoyed at the thoughts of seeing his way again, and confident of rising some day if he could only get a firm foothold to start from.

Everyone whom he had to do with saw that he did not belong to what are called the criminal classes, and finding him eager to learn and to save trouble always treated him kindly and almost respectfully. He did not find the work irksome: it was far more pleasant than making Latin and Greek verses at Roughborough; he felt that he would rather be here in prison than at Roughborough again — yes, or even at Cambridge itself. The only trouble he was ever in danger of getting into was through exchanging words or looks with the more decent-looking of his fellow-prisoners. This was forbidden, but he never missed a chance of breaking the rules in this respect.

Any man of his ability who was at the same time anxious to learn would of course make rapid progress, and before he left prison the warder said he was as good a tailor with his three months’ apprenticeship as many a man was with twelve. Ernest had never before been so much praised by any of his teachers. Each day as he grew stronger in health and more accustomed to his surroundings he saw some fresh advantage in his position, an advantage which he had not aimed at, but which had come almost in spite of himself, and he marvelled at his own good fortune, which had ordered things so greatly better for him than he could have ordered them for himself.

His having lived six months in Ashpit Place was a case in point. Things were possible to him which to others like him would be impossible. If such a man as Towneley were told he must live henceforth in a house like those in Ashpit Place it would be more than he could stand. Ernest could not have stood it himself if he had gone to live there of compulsion through want of money. It was only because he had felt himself able to run away at any minute that he had not wanted to do so; now, however, that he had become familiar with life in Ashpit Place he no longer minded it, and could live gladly in lower parts of London than that so long as he could pay his way. It was from no prudence or forethought that he had served this apprenticeship to life among the poor. He had been trying in a feeble way to be thorough in his work: he had not been thorough, the whole thing had been a fiasco; but he had made a little puny effort in the direction of being genuine, and behold, in his hour of need it had been returned to him with a reward far richer than he had deserved. He could not have faced becoming one of the very poor unless he had had such a bridge to conduct him, over to them as he had found unwittingly in Ashpit Place............
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