Long before Ernest reached the dining-room his ill-divining soul had told him that his sin had found him out. What head of a family ever sends for any of its members into the dining-room if his intentions are honourable?
When he reached it he found it empty—his father having been called away for a few minutes unexpectedly upon some parish business—and he was left in the same kind of suspense as people are in after they have been ushered into their dentist's ante-room.
Of all the rooms in the house he hated the dining-room worst. It was here that he had had to do his Latin and Greek lessons with his father. It had a smell of some particular kind of polish or varnish which was used in polishing the furniture, and neither I nor Ernest can even now come within range of the smell of this kind of varnish without our hearts failing us.
Over the chimney-piece there was a veritable old master, one of the few original pictures which Mr George Pontifex had brought from Italy. It was supposed to be a Salvator Rosa, and had been bought as a great bargain. The subject was Elijah or Elisha (whichever it was) being fed by the ravens in the desert. There were the ravens in the upper right- hand corner with bread and meat in their beaks and claws, and there was the prophet in question in the lower left-hand corner looking longingly up towards them. When Ernest was a very small boy it had been a constant matter of regret to him that the food which the ravens carried never actually reached the prophet; he did not understand the limitation of the painter's art, and wanted the meat and the prophet to be brought into direct contact. One day, with the help of some steps which had been left in the room, he had clambered up to the picture and with a piece of bread and butter traced a greasy line right across it from the ravens to Elisha's mouth, after which he had felt more comfortable.
Ernest's mind was drifting back to this youthful escapade when he heard his father's hand on the door, and in another second Theobald entered.
"Oh, Ernest," said he, in an off-hand, rather cheery manner, "there's a little matter which I should like you to explain to me, as I have no doubt you very easily can." Thump, thump, thump, went Ernest's heart against his ribs; but his father's manner was so much nicer than usual that he began to think it might be after all only another false alarm.
"It had occurred to your mother and myself that we should like to set you up with a watch again before you went back to school" ("Oh, that's all," said Ernest to himself quite relieved), "and I have been to-day to look out for a second-hand one which should answer every purpose so long as you're at school."
Theobald spoke as if watches had half-a-dozen purposes besides time-keeping, but he could hardly open his mouth without using one or other of his tags, and "answering every purpose" was one of them.
Ernest was breaking out into the usual expressions of gratitude, when Theobald continued, "You are interrupting me," and Ernest's heart thumped again.
"You are interrupting me, Ernest. I have not yet done." Ernest was instantly dumb.
"I passed several shops with second-hand watches for sale, but I saw none of a description and price which pleased me, till at last I was shown one which had, so the shopman said, been left with him recently for sale, and which I at once recognised as the one which had been given you by your Aunt Alethea. Even if I had failed to recognise it, as perhaps I might have done, I should have identified it directly it reached my hands, inasmuch as it had 'E. P., a present from A. P.' engraved upon the inside. I need say no more to show that this was the very watch which you told your mother and me that you had dropped out of your pocket."
Up to this time Theobald's manner had been studiously calm, and his words had been uttered slowly, but here he suddenly quickened and flung off the mask as he added the words, "or some such cock and bull story, which your mother and I were too truthful to disbelieve. You can guess what must be our feelings now."
Ernest felt that this last home-thrust was just. In his less anxious moments he had thought his papa and mamma "green" for the readiness with which they believed him, but he could not deny that their credulity was a proof of their habitual truthfulness of mind. In common justice he must own that it was very dreadful for two such truthful people to have a son as untruthful as he knew himself to be.
"Believing that a son of your mother and myself would be incapable of falsehood I at once assumed that some tramp had picked the watch up and was now trying to dispose of it."
This to the best of my belief was not accurate. Theobald's first assumption had been that it was Ernest who was trying to sell the watch, and it was an inspiration of the moment to say that his magnanimous mind had at once conceived the idea of a tramp.
"You may imagine how shocked I was when I discovered that the watch had been brought for sale by that miserable woman Ellen"—here Ernest's heart hardened a little, and he felt as near an approach to an instinct to turn as one so defenceless could be expected to feel; his father quickly perceived this and continued, "who was turned out of this house in circumstances which I will not pollute your ears by more particularly describing.
"I put aside the horrid conviction which was beginning to dawn upon me, and assumed that in the interval between her dismissal and her leaving this house, she had added theft to her other sin, and having found your watch in your bedroom had purloined it. It even occurred to me that you might have missed your watch after the woman was gone, and, suspecting who had taken it, had run after the carriage in order to recover it; but when I told the shopman of my suspicions he assured me that the person who left it with him had declared most solemnly that it had been given her by her master's son, whose property it was, and who had a perfect right to dispose of it.
"He told me further that, thinking the circumstances in which the watch was offered for sale somewhat suspicious, he had insisted upon the woman's telling him the whole story of how she came by it, before he would consent to buy it of her.
"He said that at first—as women of that stamp invariably do—she tried prevarication, but on being threatened that she should at once be given into custody if she did not tell the whole truth, she described the way in which you had run after the carriage, till as she said you were black in the face, and insisted on giving her all your pocket money, your knife and your watch. She added that my coachman John—whom I shall instantly discharge—was witness to the whole transaction. Now, Ernest, be pleased to tell me whether this appalling story is true or false?"
It never occurred to Ernest to ask his father why he did not hit a man his own size, or to stop him midway in the story with a remonstrance against being kicked when he was down. The boy was too much shocked and shaken to be inventive; he could only drift and stammer out that the tale was true.
"So I feared," said Theobald, "and now, Ernest, be good enough to ring the bell."
When the bell had been answered, Theobald desired that John should be sent for, and when John came Theobald calculated the wages due to him and desired him at once to leave the house.
John's manner was quiet and respectful. He took his dismissal as a matter of course, for Theobald had hinted enough to make him understand why he was being discharged, but when he saw Ernest sitting pale and awe- struck on the edge of his chair against the dining-room wall, a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and turning to Theobald he said in a broad northern accent which I will not attempt to reproduce:
"Look here, master, I can guess what all this is about—now before I goes I want to have a word with you."
"Ernest," said Theobald, "leave the room."
"No, Master Ernest, you shan't," said John, planting himself against the door. "Now, master," he continued, "you may do as you please about me. I've been a good servant to you, and I don't mean to say as you've been a bad master to me, but I do say that if you bear hardly on Master Ernest here I have those in the village as 'll hear on't and let me know; and if I do hear on't I'll come back and break every bone in your skin, so there!"
John's breath came and went quickly, as though he would have been well enough pleased to begin the bone-breaking business at once. Theobald turned of an ashen colour—not, as he explained afterwards, at the idle threats of a detected and angry ruffian, but at such atrocious insolence from one of his own servants.
"I shall leave Master Ernest, John," he rejoined proudly, "to the reproaches of his own conscience." ("Thank God and thank John," thought Ernest.) "As for yourself, I admit that you have been an excellent servant until this unfortunate business came on, and I shall have much pleasure in giving you a character if you want one. Have you anything more to say?"
"No more nor what I have said," said John sullenly, "but what I've said I means and I'll stick to—character or no character."
"Oh, you need not be afraid about your character, John," said Theobald kindly, "and as it is getting late, there can be no occasion for you to leave the house before to-morrow morning."
To this there was no reply from John, who retired, packed up his things, and left the house at once.
When Christina heard what had happened she said she could condone all except that Theobald should have been subjected to such insolence from one of his own servants through the misconduct of his son. Theobald was the bravest man in the whole world, and could easily have collared the wretch and turned him out of the room, but how far more dignified, how far nobler had been his reply! How it would tell in a novel or upon the stage, for though the stage as a whole was immoral, yet there were doubtless some plays which were improving spectacles. She could fancy the whole house hushed with excitement at hearing John's menace, and hardly breathing by reason of their interest and expectation of the coming answer. Then the actor—probably the great and good Mr Macready—would say, "I shall leave Master Ernest, John, to the reproaches of his own conscience." Oh, it was sublime! What a roar of applause must follow! Then she should enter herself, and fling her arms about her husband's neck, and call him her lion-hearted husband. When the curtain dropped, it would be buzzed about the house that the scene just witnessed had been drawn from real life, and had actually occurred in the household of the Rev. Theobald Pontifex, who had married a Miss Allaby, etc., etc.
As regards Ernest the suspicions which had already crossed her mind were deepened, but she thought it better to leave the matter where it was. At present she was in a very strong position. Ernest's official purity was firmly established, but at the same time he had shown himself so susceptible that she was able to fuse two contradictory impressions concerning him into a single idea, and consider him as a kind of Joseph and Don Juan in one. This was what she had wanted all along, but her vanity being gratified by the possession of such a son, there was an end of it; the son himself was naught.
No doubt if John had not interfered, Ernest would have had to expiate his offence with ache, penury and imprisonment. As it was the boy was "to consider himself" as undergoing these punishments, and as suffering pangs of unavailing remorse inflicted on him by his conscience into the bargain; but beyond the fact that Theobald kept him more closely to his holiday task, and the continued coldness of his parents, no ostensible punishment was meted out to him. Ernest, however, tells me that he looks back upon this as the time when he began to know that he had a cordial and active dislike for both his parents, which I suppose means that he was now beginning to be aware that he was reaching man's estate.