Chapter 42

About a week before he went back to school his father again sent for him into the dining-room, and told him that he should restore him his watch, but that he should deduct the sum he had paid for it—for he had thought it better to pay a few shillings rather than dispute the ownership of the watch, seeing that Ernest had undoubtedly given it to Ellen—from his pocket money, in payments which should extend over two half years. He would therefore have to go back to Roughborough this half year with only five shillings' pocket money. If he wanted more he must earn more merit money.

Ernest was not so careful about money as a pattern boy should be. He did not say to himself, "Now I have got a sovereign which must last me fifteen weeks, therefore I may spend exactly one shilling and fourpence in each week"—and spend exactly one and fourpence in each week accordingly. He ran through his money at about the same rate as other boys did, being pretty well cleaned out a few days after he had got back to school. When he had no more money, he got a little into debt, and when as far in debt as he could see his way to repaying, he went without luxuries. Immediately he got any money he would pay his debts; if there was any over he would spend it; if there was not—and there seldom was—he would begin to go on tick again.

His finance was always based upon the supposition that he should go back to school with 1 pound in his pocket—of which he owed say a matter of fifteen shillings. There would be five shillings for sundry school subscriptions—but when these were paid the weekly allowance of sixpence given to each boy in hall, his merit money (which this half he was resolved should come to a good sum) and renewed credit, would carry him through the half.

The sudden failure of 15/- was disastrous to my hero's scheme of finance. His face betrayed his emotions so clearly that Theobald said he was determined "to learn the truth at once, and this time without days and days of falsehood" before he reached it. The melancholy fact was not long in coming out, namely, that the wretched Ernest added debt to the vices of idleness, falsehood and possibly—for it was not impossible—immorality.

How had he come to get into debt? Did the other boys do so? Ernest reluctantly admitted that they did.

With what shops did they get into debt?

This was asking too much, Ernest said he didn't know!

"Oh, Ernest, Ernest," exclaimed his mother, who was in the room, "do not so soon a second time presume upon the forbearance of the tenderest-hearted father in the world. Give time for one stab to heal before you wound him with another."

This was all very fine, but what was Ernest to do? How could he get the school shop-keepers into trouble by owning that they let some of the boys go on tick with them? There was Mrs Cross, a good old soul, who used to sell hot rolls and butter for breakfast, or eggs and toast, or it might be the quarter of a fowl with bread sauce and mashed potatoes for which she would charge 6d. If she made a farthing out of the sixpence it was as much as she did. When the boys would come trooping into her shop after "the hounds" how often had not Ernest heard her say to her servant girls, "Now then, you wanches, git some cheers." All the boys were fond of her, and was he, Ernest, to tell tales about her? It was horrible.

"Now look here, Ernest," said his father with his blackest scowl, "I am going to put a stop to this nonsense once for all. Either take me fully into your confidence, as a son should take a father, and trust me to deal with this matter as a clergyman and a man of the world—or understand distinctly that I shall take the whole story to Dr Skinner, who, I imagine, will take much sterner measures than I should."

"Oh, Ernest, Ernest," sobbed Christina, "be wise in time, and trust those who have already shown you that they know but too well how to be forbearing."

No genuine hero of romance should have hesitated for a moment. Nothing should have cajoled or frightened him into telling tales out of school. Ernest thought of his ideal boys: they, he well knew, would have let their tongues be cut out of them before information could have been wrung from any word of theirs. But Ernest was not an ideal boy, and he was not strong enough for his surroundings; I doubt how far any boy could withstand the moral pressure which was brought to bear upon him; at any rate he could not do so, and after a little more writhing he yielded himself a passive prey to the enemy. He consoled himself with the reflection that his papa had not played the confidence trick on him quite as often as his mamma had, and that probably it was better he should tell his father, than that his father should insist on Dr Skinner's making an inquiry. His papa's conscience "jabbered" a good deal, but not as much as his mamma's. The little fool forgot that he had not given his father as many chances of betraying him as he had given to Christina.

Then it all came out. He owed this at Mrs Cross's, and this to Mrs Jones, and this at the "Swan and Bottle" public house, to say nothing of another shilling or sixpence or two in other quarters. Nevertheless, Theobald and Christina were not satiated, but rather the more they discovered the greater grew their appetite for discovery; it was their obvious duty to find out everything, for though they might rescue their own darling from this hotbed of iniquity without getting to know more than they knew at present, were there not other papas and mammas with darlings whom also they were bound to rescue if it were yet possible? What boys, then, owed money to these harpies as well as Ernest?

Here, again, there was a feeble show of resistance, but the thumbscrews were instantly applied, and Ernest, demoralised as he already was, recanted and submitted himself to the powers that were. He told only a little less than he knew or thought he knew. He was examined, re-examined, cross-examined, sent to the retirement of his own bedroom and cross-examined again; the smoking in Mrs Jones' kitchen all came out; which boys smoked and which did not; which boys owed money and, roughly, how much and where; which boys swore and used bad language. Theobald was resolved that this time Ernest should, as he called it, take him into his confidence without reserve, so the school list which went with Dr Skinner's half-yearly bills was brought out, and the most secret character of each boy was gone through seriatim by Mr and Mrs Pontifex, so far as it was in Ernest's power to give information concerning it, and yet Theobald had on the preceding Sunday preached a less feeble sermon than he commonly preached, upon the horrors of the Inquisition. No matter how awful was the depravity revealed to them, the pair never flinched, but probed and probed, till they were on the point of reaching subjects more delicate than they had yet touched upon. Here Ernest's unconscious self took the matter up and made a resistance to which his conscious self was unequal, by tumbling him off his chair in a fit of fainting.

Dr Martin was sent for and pronounced the boy to be seriously unwell; at the same time he prescribed absolute rest and absence from nervous excitement. So the anxious parents were unwillingly compelled to be content with what they had got already—being frightened into leading him a quiet life for the short remainder of the holidays. They were not idle, but Satan can find as much mischief for busy hands as for idle ones, so he sent a little job in the direction of Battersby which Theobald and Christina undertook immediately. It would be a pity, they reasoned, that Ernest should leave Roughborough, now that he had been there three years; it would be difficult to find another school for him, and to explain why he had left Roughborough. Besides, Dr Skinner and Theobald were supposed to be old friends, and it would be unpleasant to offend him; these were all valid reasons for not removing the boy. The proper thing to do, then, would be to warn Dr Skinner confidentially of the state of his school, and to furnish him with a school list annotated with the remarks extracted from Ernest, which should be appended to the name of each boy.

Theobald was the perfection of neatness; while his son was ill upstairs, he copied out the school list so that he could throw his comments into a tabular form, which assumed the following shape—only that of course I have changed the names. One cross in each square was to indicate occasional offence; two stood for frequent, and three for habitual delinquency.

          Smoking Drinking beer Swearing Notes
                      at the "Swan and Obscene
                      and Bottle." Language.
Smith O O XX Will smoke
                                                     next half
Brown XXX O X
Jones X XX XXX
Robinson XX XX X

And thus through the whole school.

Of course, in justice to Ernest, Dr Skinner would be bound over to secrecy before a word was said to him, but, Ernest being thus protected, he could not be furnished with the facts too completely