All went well for the first part of the following half year. Miss Pontifex spent the greater part of her holidays in London, and I also saw her at Roughborough, where I spent a few days, staying at the "Swan." I heard all about my godson in whom, however, I took less interest than I said I did. I took more interest in the stage at that time than in anything else, and as for Ernest, I found him a nuisance for engrossing so much of his aunt's attention, and taking her so much from London. The organ was begun, and made fair progress during the first two months of the half year. Ernest was happier than he had ever been before, and was struggling upwards. The best boys took more notice of him for his aunt's sake, and he consorted less with those who led him into mischief.
But much as Miss Pontifex had done, she could not all at once undo the effect of such surroundings as the boy had had at Battersby. Much as he feared and disliked his father (though he still knew not how much this was), he had caught much from him; if Theobald had been kinder Ernest would have modelled himself upon him entirely, and ere long would probably have become as thorough a little prig as could have easily been found.
Fortunately his temper had come to him from his mother, who, when not frightened, and when there was nothing on the horizon which might cross the slightest whim of her husband, was an amiable, good-natured woman. If it was not such an awful thing to say of anyone, I should say that she meant well.
Ernest had also inherited his mother's love of building castles in the air, and—so I suppose it must be called—her vanity. He was very fond of showing off, and, provided he could attract attention, cared little from whom it came, nor what it was for. He caught up, parrot-like, whatever jargon he heard from his elders, which he thought was the correct thing, and aired it in season and out of season, as though it were his own.
Miss Pontifex was old enough and wise enough to know that this is the way in which even the greatest men as a general rule begin to develop, and was more pleased with his receptiveness and reproductiveness than alarmed at the things he caught and reproduced.
She saw that he was much attached to herself, and trusted to this rather than to anything else. She saw also that his conceit was not very profound, and that his fits of self-abasement were as extreme as his exaltation had been. His impulsiveness and sanguine trustfulness in anyone who smiled pleasantly at him, or indeed was not absolutely unkind to him, made her more anxious about him than any other point in his character; she saw clearly that he would have to find himself rudely undeceived many a time and oft, before he would learn to distinguish friend from foe within reasonable time. It was her perception of this which led her to take the action which she was so soon called upon to take.
Her health was for the most part excellent, and she had never had a serious illness in her life. One morning, however, soon after Easter 1850, she awoke feeling seriously unwell. For some little time there had been a talk of fever in the neighbourhood, but in those days the precautions that ought to be taken against the spread of infection were not so well understood as now, and nobody did anything. In a day or two it became plain that Miss Pontifex had got an attack of typhoid fever and was dangerously ill. On this she sent off a messenger to town, and desired him not to return without her lawyer and myself.
We arrived on the afternoon of the day on which we had been summoned, and found her still free from delirium: indeed, the cheery way in which she received us made it difficult to think she could be in danger. She at once explained her wishes, which had reference, as I expected, to her nephew, and repeated the substance of what I have already referred to as her main source of uneasiness concerning him. Then she begged me by our long and close intimacy, by the suddenness of the danger that had fallen on her and her powerlessness to avert it, to undertake what she said she well knew, if she died, would be an unpleasant and invidious trust.
She wanted to leave the bulk of her money ostensibly to me, but in reality to her nephew, so that I should hold it in trust for him till he was twenty-eight years old, but neither he nor anyone else, except her lawyer and myself, was to know anything about it. She would leave 5000 pounds in other legacies, and 15,000 pounds to Ernest—which by the time he was twenty-eight would have accumulated to, say, 30,000 pounds. "Sell out the debentures," she said, "where the money now is—and put it into Midland Ordinary."
"Let him make his mistakes," she said, "upon the money his grandfather left him. I am no prophet, but even I can see that it will take that boy many years to see things as his neighbours see them. He will get no help from his father and mother, who would never forgive him for his good luck if I left him the money outright; I daresay I am wrong, but I think he will have to lose the greater part or all of what he has, before he will know how to keep what he will get from me."
Supposing he went bankrupt before he was twenty-eight years old, the money was to be mine absolutely, but she could trust me, she said, to hand it over to Ernest in due time.
"If," she continued, "I am mistaken, the worst that can happen is that he will come into a larger sum at twenty-eight instead of a smaller sum at, say, twenty-three, for I would never trust him with it earlier, and—if he knows nothing about it he will not be unhappy for the want of it."
She begged me to take 2000 pounds in return for the trouble I should have in taking charge of the boy's estate, and as a sign of the testatrix's hope that I would now and again look after him while he was still young. The remaining 3000 pounds I was to pay in legacies and annuities to friends and servants.
In vain both her lawyer and myself remonstrated with her on the unusual and hazardous nature of this arrangement. We told her that sensible people will not take a more sanguine view concerning human nature than the Courts of Chancery do. We said, in fact, everything that anyone else would say. She admitted everything, but urged that her time was short, that nothing would induce her to leave her money to her nephew in the usual way. "It is an unusually foolish will," she said, "but he is an unusually foolish boy;" and she smiled quite merrily at her little sally. Like all the rest of her family, she was very stubborn when her mind was made up. So the thing was done as she wished it.
No provision was made for either my death or Ernest's—Miss Pontifex had settled it that we were neither of us going to die, and was too ill to go into details; she was so anxious, moreover, to sign her will while still able to do so that we had practically no alternative but to do as she told us. If she recovered we could see things put on a more satisfactory footing, and further discussion would evidently impair her chances of recovery; it seemed then only too likely that it was a case of this will or no will at all.
When the will was signed I wrote a letter in duplicate, saying that I held all Miss Pontifex had left me in trust for Ernest except as regards 5000 pounds, but that he was not to come into the bequest, and was to know nothing whatever about it directly or indirectly, till he was twenty- eight years old, and if he was bankrupt before he came into it the money was to be mine absolutely. At the foot of each letter Miss Pontifex wrote, "The above was my understanding when I made my will," and then signed her name. The solicitor and his clerk witnessed; I kept one copy myself and handed the other to Miss Pontifex's solicitor.
When all this had been done she became more easy in her mind. She talked principally about her nephew. "Don't scold him," she said, "if he is volatile, and continually takes things up only to throw them down again. How can he find out his strength or weakness otherwise? A man's profession," she said, and here she gave one of her wicked little laughs, "is not like his wife, which he must take once for all, for better for worse, without proof beforehand. Let him go here and there, and learn his truest liking by finding out what, after all, he catches himself turning to most habitually—then let him stick to this; but I daresay Ernest will be forty or five and forty before he settles down. Then all his previous infidelities will work together to him for good if he is the boy I hope he is.
"Above all," she continued, "do not let him work up to his full strength, except once or twice in his lifetime; nothing is well done nor worth doing unless, take it all round, it has come pretty easily. Theobald and Christina would give him a pinch of salt and tell him to put it on the tails of the seven deadly virtues;"—here she laughed again in her old manner at once so mocking and so sweet—"I think if he likes pancakes he had perhaps better eat them on Shrove Tuesday, but this is enough." These were the last coherent words she spoke. From that time she grew continually worse, and was never free from delirium till her death—which took place less than a fortnight afterwards, to the inexpressible grief of those who knew and loved her.