If Theobald and Christina had not been too well pleased when Miss Pontifex first took Ernest in hand, they were still less so when the connection between the two was interrupted so prematurely. They said they had made sure from what their sister had said that she was going to make Ernest her heir. I do not think she had given them so much as a hint to this effect. Theobald indeed gave Ernest to understand that she had done so in a letter which will be given shortly, but if Theobald wanted to make himself disagreeable, a trifle light as air would forthwith assume in his imagination whatever form was most convenient to him. I do not think they had even made up their minds what Alethea was to do with her money before they knew of her being at the point of death, and as I have said already, if they had thought it likely that Ernest would be made heir over their own heads without their having at any rate a life interest in the bequest, they would have soon thrown obstacles in the way of further intimacy between aunt and nephew.
This, however, did not bar their right to feeling aggrieved now that neither they nor Ernest had taken anything at all, and they could profess disappointment on their boy's behalf which they would have been too proud to admit upon their own. In fact, it was only amiable of them to be disappointed under these circumstances.
Christina said that the will was simply fraudulent, and was convinced that it could be upset if she and Theobald went the right way to work. Theobald, she said, should go before the Lord Chancellor, not in full court but in chambers, where he could explain the whole matter; or, perhaps it would be even better if she were to go herself—and I dare not trust myself to describe the reverie to which this last idea gave rise. I believe in the end Theobald died, and the Lord Chancellor (who had become a widower a few weeks earlier) made her an offer, which, however, she firmly but not ungratefully declined; she should ever, she said, continue to think of him as a friend—at this point the cook came in, saying the butcher had called, and what would she please to order.
I think Theobald must have had an idea that there was something behind the bequest to me, but he said nothing about it to Christina. He was angry and felt wronged, because he could not get at Alethea to give her a piece of his mind any more than he had been able to get at his father. "It is so mean of people," he exclaimed to himself, "to inflict an injury of this sort, and then shirk facing those whom they have injured; let us hope that, at any rate, they and I may meet in Heaven." But of this he was doubtful, for when people had done so great a wrong as this, it was hardly to be supposed that they would go to Heaven at all—and as for his meeting them in another place, the idea never so much as entered his mind.
One so angry and, of late, so little used to contradiction might be trusted, however, to avenge himself upon someone, and Theobald had long since developed the organ, by means of which he might vent spleen with least risk and greatest satisfaction to himself. This organ, it may be guessed, was nothing else than Ernest; to Ernest therefore he proceeded to unburden himself, not personally, but by letter.
"You ought to know," he wrote, "that your Aunt Alethea had given your mother and me to understand that it was her wish to make you her heir—in the event, of course, of your conducting yourself in such a manner as to give her confidence in you; as a matter of fact, however, she has left you nothing, and the whole of her property has gone to your godfather, Mr Overton. Your mother and I are willing to hope that if she had lived longer you would yet have succeeded in winning her good opinion, but it is too late to think of this now.
"The carpentering and organ-building must at once be discontinued. I never believed in the project, and have seen no reason to alter my original opinion. I am not sorry for your own sake, that it is to be at an end, nor, I am sure, will you regret it yourself in after years.
"A few words more as regards your own prospects. You have, as I believe you know, a small inheritance, which is yours legally under your grandfather's will. This bequest was made inadvertently, and, I believe, entirely through a misunderstanding on the lawyer's part. The bequest was probably intended not to take effect till after the death of your mother and myself; nevertheless, as the will is actually worded, it will now be at your command if you live to be twenty-one years old. From this, however, large deductions must be made. There will be legacy duty, and I do not know whether I am not entitled to deduct the expenses of your education and maintenance from birth to your coming of age; I shall not in all likelihood insist on this right to the full, if you conduct yourself properly, but a considerable sum should certainly be deducted, there will therefore remain very little—say 1000 pounds or 2000 pounds at the outside, as what will be actually yours—but the strictest account shall be rendered you in due time.
"This, let me warn you most seriously, is all that you must expect from me (even Ernest saw that it was not from Theobald at all) at any rate till after my death, which for aught any of us know may be yet many years distant. It is not a large sum, but it is sufficient if supplemented by steadiness and earnestness of purpose. Your mother and I gave you the name Ernest, hoping that it would remind you continually of—" but I really cannot copy more of this effusion. It was all the same old will- shaking game and came practically to this, that Ernest was no good, and that if he went on as he was going on now, he would probably have to go about the streets begging without any shoes or stockings soon after he had left school, or at any rate, college; and that he, Theobald, and Christina were almost too good for this world altogether.
After he had written this Theobald felt quite good-natured, and sent to the Mrs Thompson of the moment even more soup and wine than her usual not illiberal allowance.
Ernest was deeply, passionately upset by his father's letter; to think that even his dear aunt, the one person of his relations whom he really loved, should have turned against him and thought badly of him after all. This was the unkindest cut of all. In the hurry of her illness Miss Pontifex, while thinking only of his welfare, had omitted to make such small present mention of him as would have made his father's innuendoes stingless; and her illness being infectious, she had not seen him after its nature was known. I myself did not know of Theobald's letter, nor think enough about my godson to guess what might easily be his state. It was not till many years afterwards that I found Theobald's letter in the pocket of an old portfolio which Ernest had used at school, and in which other old letters and school documents were collected which I have used in this book. He had forgotten that he had it, but told me when he saw it that he remembered it as the first thing that made him begin to rise against his father in a rebellion which he recognised as righteous, though he dared not openly avow it. Not the least serious thing was that it would, he feared, be his duty to give up the legacy his grandfather had left him; for if it was his only through a mistake, how could he keep it?
During the rest of the half year Ernest was listless and unhappy. He was very fond of some of his schoolfellows, but afraid of those whom he believed to be better than himself, and prone to idealise everyone into being his superior except those who were obviously a good deal beneath him. He held himself much too cheap, and because he was without that physical strength and vigour which he so much coveted, and also because he knew he shirked his lessons, he believed that he was without anything which could deserve the name of a good quality; he was naturally bad, and one of those for whom there was no place for repentance, though he sought it even with tears. So he shrank out of sight of those whom in his boyish way he idolised, never for a moment suspecting that he might have capacities to the full as high as theirs though of a different kind, and fell in more with those who were reputed of the baser sort, with whom he could at any rate be upon equal terms. Before the end of the half year he had dropped from the estate to which he had been raised during his aunt's stay at Roughborough, and his old dejection, varied, however, with bursts of conceit rivalling those of his mother, resumed its sway over him. "Pontifex," said Dr Skinner, who had fallen upon him in hall one day like a moral landslip, before he had time to escape, "do you never laugh? Do you always look so preternaturally grave?" The doctor had not meant to be unkind, but the boy turned crimson, and escaped.
There was one place only where he was happy, and that was in the old church of St Michael, when his friend the organist was practising. About this time cheap editions of the great oratorios began to appear, and Ernest got them all as soon as they were published; he would sometimes sell a school-book to a second-hand dealer, and buy a number or two of the "Messiah," or the "Creation," or "Elijah," with the proceeds. This was simply cheating his papa and mamma, but Ernest was falling low again—or thought he was—and he wanted the music much, and the Sallust, or whatever it was, little. Sometimes the organist would go home, leaving his keys with Ernest, so that he could play by himself and lock up the organ and the church in time to get back for calling over. At other times, while his friend was playing, he would wander round the church, looking at the monuments and the old stained glass windows, enchanted as regards both ears and eyes, at once. Once the old rector got hold of him as he was watching a new window being put in, which the rector had bought in Germany—the work, it was supposed, of Albert Durer. He questioned Ernest, and finding that he was fond of music, he said in his old trembling voice (for he was over eighty), "Then you should have known Dr Burney who wrote the history of music. I knew him exceedingly well when I was a young man." That made Ernest's heart beat, for he knew that Dr Burney, when a boy at school at Chester, used to break bounds that he might watch Handel smoking his pipe in the Exchange coffee house—and now he was in the presence of one who, if he had not seen Handel himself, had at least seen those who had seen him.
These were oases in his desert, but, as a general rule, the boy looked thin and pale, and as though he had a secret which depressed him, which no doubt he had, but for which I cannot blame him. He rose, in spite of himself, higher in the school, but fell ever into deeper and deeper disgrace with the masters, and did not gain in the opinion of those boys about whom he was persuaded that they could assuredly never know what it was to have a secret weighing upon their minds. This was what Ernest felt so keenly; he did not much care about the boys who liked him, and idolised some who kept him as far as possible at a distance, but this is pretty much the case with all boys everywhere.
At last things reached a crisis, below which they could not very well go, for at the end of the half year but one after his aunt's death, Ernest brought back a document in his portmanteau, which Theobald stigmatised as "infamous and outrageous." I need hardly say I am alluding to his school bill.
This document was always a source of anxiety to Ernest, for it was gone into with scrupulous care, and he was a good deal cross-examined about it. He would sometimes "write in" for articles necessary for his education, such as a portfolio, or a dictionary, and sell the same, as I have explained, in order to eke out his pocket money, probably to buy either music or tobacco. These frauds were sometimes, as Ernest thought, in imminent danger of being discovered, and it was a load off his breast when the cross-examination was safely over. This time Theobald had made a great fuss about the extras, but had grudgingly passed them; it was another matter, however, with the character and the moral statistics, with which the bill concluded.
The page on which these details were to be found was as follows:
REPORT OF THE CONDUCT AND PROGRESS OF ERNEST PONTIFEX.
UPPER FIFTH FORM, HALF YEAR ENDING MIDSUMMER 1851
Classics—Idle, listless and unimproving.
Mathematics " " "
Divinity " " "
Conduct in house.—Orderly.
General Conduct—Not satisfactory, on account of his great unpunctuality and inattention to duties.
Monthly merit money 1s. 6d. 6d. 0d. 6d. Total 2s. 6d.
Number of merit marks 2 0 1 1 0 Total 4
Number of penal marks 26 20 25 30 25 Total 126
Number of extra penals 9 6 10 12 11 Total 48
I recommend that his pocket money be made to depend upon his merit money.
S. SKINNER, Head-master.