Chapter 32

I must now return to Miss Alethea Pontifex, of whom I have said perhaps too little hitherto, considering how great her influence upon my hero's destiny proved to be.

On the death of her father, which happened when she was about thirty-two years old, she parted company with her sisters, between whom and herself there had been little sympathy, and came up to London. She was determined, so she said, to make the rest of her life as happy as she could, and she had clearer ideas about the best way of setting to work to do this than women, or indeed men, generally have.

Her fortune consisted, as I have said, of 5000 pounds, which had come to her by her mother's marriage settlements, and 15,000 pounds left her by her father, over both which sums she had now absolute control. These brought her in about 900 pounds a year, and the money being invested in none but the soundest securities, she had no anxiety about her income. She meant to be rich, so she formed a scheme of expenditure which involved an annual outlay of about 500 pounds, and determined to put the rest by. "If I do this," she said laughingly, "I shall probably just succeed in living comfortably within my income." In accordance with this scheme she took unfurnished apartments in a house in Gower Street, of which the lower floors were let out as offices. John Pontifex tried to get her to take a house to herself, but Alethea told him to mind his own business so plainly that he had to beat a retreat. She had never liked him, and from that time dropped him almost entirely.

Without going much into society she yet became acquainted with most of the men and women who had attained a position in the literary, artistic and scientific worlds, and it was singular how highly her opinion was valued in spite of her never having attempted in any way to distinguish herself. She could have written if she had chosen, but she enjoyed seeing others write and encouraging them better than taking a more active part herself. Perhaps literary people liked her all the better because she did not write.

I, as she very well knew, had always been devoted to her, and she might have had a score of other admirers if she had liked, but she had discouraged them all, and railed at matrimony as women seldom do unless they have a comfortable income of their own. She by no means, however, railed at man as she railed at matrimony, and though living after a fashion in which even the most censorious could find nothing to complain of, as far as she properly could she defended those of her own sex whom the world condemned most severely.

In religion she was, I should think, as nearly a freethinker as anyone could be whose mind seldom turned upon the subject. She went to church, but disliked equally those who aired either religion or irreligion. I remember once hearing her press a late well-known philosopher to write a novel instead of pursuing his attacks upon religion. The philosopher did not much like this, and dilated upon the importance of showing people the folly of much that they pretended to believe. She smiled and said demurely, "Have they not Moses and the prophets? Let them hear them." But she would say a wicked thing quietly on her own account sometimes, and called my attention once to a note in her prayer-book which gave account of the walk to Emmaus with the two disciples, and how Christ had said to them "O fools and slow of heart to believe ALL that the prophets have spoken"—the "all" being printed in small capitals.

Though scarcely on terms with her brother John, she had kept up closer relations with Theobald and his family, and had paid a few days' visit to Battersby once in every two years or so. Alethea had always tried to like Theobald and join forces with him as much as she could (for they two were the hares of the family, the rest being all hounds), but it was no use. I believe her chief reason for maintaining relations with her brother was that she might keep an eye on his children and give them a lift if they proved nice.

When Miss Pontifex had come down to Battersby in old times the children had not been beaten, and their lessons had been made lighter. She easily saw that they were overworked and unhappy, but she could hardly guess how all-reaching was the regime under which they lived. She knew she could not interfere effectually then, and wisely forbore to make too many enquiries. Her time, if ever it was to come, would be when the children were no longer living under the same roof as their parents. It ended in her making up her mind to have nothing to do with either Joey or Charlotte, but to see so much of Ernest as should enable her to form an opinion about his disposition and abilities.

He had now been a year and a half at Roughborough and was nearly fourteen years old, so that his character had begun to shape. His aunt had not seen him for some little time and, thinking that if she was to exploit him she could do so now perhaps better than at any other time, she resolved to go down to Roughborough on some pretext which should be good enough for Theobald, and to take stock of her nephew under circumstances in which she could get him for some few hours to herself. Accordingly in August 1849, when Ernest was just entering on his fourth half year a cab drove up to Dr Skinner's door with Miss Pontifex, who asked and obtained leave for Ernest to come and dine with her at the Swan Hotel. She had written to Ernest to say she was coming and he was of course on the look- out for her. He had not seen her for so long that he was rather shy at first, but her good nature soon set him at his ease. She was so strongly biassed in favour of anything young that her heart warmed towards him at once, though his appearance was less prepossessing than she had hoped. She took him to a cake shop and gave him whatever he liked as soon as she had got him off the school premises; and Ernest felt at once that she contrasted favourably even with his aunts the Misses Allaby, who were so very sweet and good. The Misses Allaby were very poor; sixpence was to them what five shillings was to Alethea. What chance had they against one who, if she had a mind, could put by out of her income twice as much as they, poor women, could spend?

The boy had plenty of prattle in him when he was not snubbed, and Alethea encouraged him to chatter about whatever came uppermost. He was always ready to trust anyone who was kind to him; it took many years to make him reasonably wary in this respect—if indeed, as I sometimes doubt, he ever will be as wary as he ought to be—and in a short time he had quite dissociated his aunt from his papa and mamma and the rest, with whom his instinct told him he should be on his guard. Little did he know how great, as far as he was concerned, were the issues that depended upon his behaviour. If he had known, he would perhaps have played his part less successfully.

His aunt drew from him more details of his home and school life than his papa and mamma would have approved of, but he had no idea that he was being pumped. She got out of him all about the happy Sunday evenings, and how he and Joey and Charlotte quarrelled sometimes, but she took no side and treated everything as though it were a matter of course. Like all the boys, he could mimic Dr Skinner, and when warmed with dinner, and two glasses of sherry which made him nearly tipsy, he favoured his aunt with samples of the Doctor's manner and spoke of him familiarly as "Sam."

"Sam," he said, "is an awful old humbug." It was the sherry that brought out this piece of swagger, for whatever else he was Dr Skinner was a reality to Master Ernest, before which, indeed, he sank into his boots in no time. Alethea smiled and said, "I must not say anything to that, must I?" Ernest said, "I suppose not," and was checked. By-and-by he vented a number of small second-hand priggishnesses which he had caught up believing them to be the correct thing, and made it plain that even at that early age Ernest believed in Ernest with a belief which was amusing from its absurdity. His aunt judged him charitably as she was sure to do; she knew very well where the priggishness came from, and seeing that the string of his tongue had been loosened sufficiently gave him no more sherry.

It was after dinner, however, that he completed the conquest of his aunt. She then discovered that, like herself, he was passionately fond of music, and that, too, of the highest class. He knew, and hummed or whistled to her all sorts of pieces out of the works of the great masters, which a boy of his age could hardly be expected to know, and it was evident that this was purely instinctive, inasmuch as music received no kind of encouragement at Roughborough. There was no boy in the school as fond of music as he was. He picked up his knowledge, he said, from the organist of St Michael's Church who used to practise sometimes on a week-day afternoon. Ernest had heard the organ booming away as he was passing outside the church and had sneaked inside and up into the organ loft. In the course of time the organist became accustomed to him as a familiar visitant, and the pair became friends.

It was this which decided Alethea that the boy was worth taking pains with. "He likes the best music," she thought, "and he hates Dr Skinner. This is a very fair beginning." When she sent him away at night with a sovereign in his pocket (and he had only hoped to get five shillings) she felt as though she had had a good deal more than her money's worth for her money.