So important did Theobald consider this matter that he made a special journey to Roughborough before the half year began. It was a relief to have him out of the house, but though his destination was not mentioned, Ernest guessed where he had gone.
To this day he considers his conduct at this crisis to have been one of the most serious laches of his life—one which he can never think of without shame and indignation. He says he ought to have run away from home. But what good could he have done if he had? He would have been caught, brought back and examined two days later instead of two days earlier. A boy of barely sixteen cannot stand against the moral pressure of a father and mother who have always oppressed him any more than he can cope physically with a powerful full-grown man. True, he may allow himself to be killed rather than yield, but this is being so morbidly heroic as to come close round again to cowardice; for it is little else than suicide, which is universally condemned as cowardly.
On the re-assembling of the school it became apparent that something had gone wrong. Dr Skinner called the boys together, and with much pomp excommunicated Mrs Cross and Mrs Jones, by declaring their shops to be out of bounds. The street in which the "Swan and Bottle" stood was also forbidden. The vices of drinking and smoking, therefore, were clearly aimed at, and before prayers Dr Skinner spoke a few impressive words about the abominable sin of using bad language. Ernest's feelings can be imagined.
Next day at the hour when the daily punishments were read out, though there had not yet been time for him to have offended, Ernest Pontifex was declared to have incurred every punishment which the school provided for evil-doers. He was placed on the idle list for the whole half year, and on perpetual detentions; his bounds were curtailed; he was to attend junior callings-over; in fact he was so hemmed in with punishments upon ever side that it was hardly possible for him to go outside the school gates. This unparalleled list of punishments inflicted on the first day of the half year, and intended to last till the ensuing Christmas holidays, was not connected with any specified offence. It required no great penetration therefore, on the part of the boys to connect Ernest with the putting Mrs Cross's and Mrs Jones's shops out of bounds.
Great indeed was the indignation about Mrs Cross who, it was known, remembered Dr Skinner himself as a small boy only just got into jackets, and had doubtless let him have many a sausage and mashed potatoes upon deferred payment. The head boys assembled in conclave to consider what steps should be taken, but hardly had they done so before Ernest knocked timidly at the head-room door and took the bull by the horns by explaining the facts as far as he could bring himself to do so. He made a clean breast of everything except about the school list and the remarks he had made about each boy's character. This infamy was more than he could own to, and he kept his counsel concerning it. Fortunately he was safe in doing so, for Dr Skinner, pedant and more than pedant though he was, had still just sense enough to turn on Theobald in the matter of the school list. Whether he resented being told that he did not know the characters of his own boys, or whether he dreaded a scandal about the school I know not, but when Theobald had handed him the list, over which he had expended so much pains, Dr Skinner had cut him uncommonly short, and had then and there, with more suavity than was usual with him, committed it to the flames before Theobald's own eyes.
Ernest got off with the head boys easier than he expected. It was admitted that the offence, heinous though it was, had been committed under extenuating circumstances; the frankness with which the culprit had confessed all, his evidently unfeigned remorse, and the fury with which Dr Skinner was pursuing him tended to bring about a reaction in his favour, as though he had been more sinned against than sinning.
As the half year wore on his spirits gradually revived, and when attacked by one of his fits of self-abasement he was in some degree consoled by having found out that even his father and mother, whom he had supposed so immaculate, were no better than they should be. About the fifth of November it was a school custom to meet on a certain common not far from Roughborough and burn somebody in effigy, this being the compromise arrived at in the matter of fireworks and Guy Fawkes festivities. This year it was decided that Pontifex's governor should be the victim, and Ernest though a good deal exercised in mind as to what he ought to do, in the end saw no sufficient reason for holding aloof from proceedings which, as he justly remarked, could not do his father any harm.
It so happened that the bishop had held a confirmation at the school on the fifth of November. Dr Skinner had not quite liked the selection of this day, but the bishop was pressed by many engagements, and had been compelled to make the arrangement as it then stood. Ernest was among those who had to be confirmed, and was deeply impressed with the solemn importance of the ceremony. When he felt the huge old bishop drawing down upon him as he knelt in chapel he could hardly breathe, and when the apparition paused before him and laid its hands upon his head he was frightened almost out of his wits. He felt that he had arrived at one of the great turning points of his life, and that the Ernest of the future could resemble only very faintly the Ernest of the past.
This happened at about noon, but by the one o'clock dinner-hour the effect of the confirmation had worn off, and he saw no reason why he should forego his annual amusement with the bonfire; so he went with the others and was very valiant till the image was actually produced and was about to be burnt; then he felt a little frightened. It was a poor thing enough, made of paper, calico and straw, but they had christened it The Rev. Theobald Pontifex, and he had a revulsion of feeling as he saw it being carried towards the bonfire. Still he held his ground, and in a few minutes when all was over felt none the worse for having assisted at a ceremony which, after all, was prompted by a boyish love of mischief rather than by rancour.
I should say that Ernest had written to his father, and told him of the unprecedented way in which he was being treated; he even ventured to suggest that Theobald should interfere for his protection and reminded him how the story had been got out of him, but Theobald had had enough of Dr Skinner for the present; the burning of the school list had been a rebuff which did not encourage him to meddle a second time in the internal economics of Roughborough. He therefore replied that he must either remove Ernest from Roughborough altogether, which would for many reasons be undesirable, or trust to the discretion of the head master as regards the treatment he might think best for any of his pupils. Ernest said no more; he still felt that it was so discreditable to him to have allowed any confession to be wrung from him, that he could not press the promised amnesty for himself.
It was during the "Mother Cross row," as it was long styled among the boys, that a remarkable phenomenon was witnessed at Roughborough. I mean that of the head boys under certain conditions doing errands for their juniors. The head boys had no bounds and could go to Mrs Cross's whenever they liked; they actually, therefore, made themselves go-betweens, and would get anything from either Mrs Cross's or Mrs Jones's for any boy, no matter how low in the school, between the hours of a quarter to nine and nine in the morning, and a quarter to six and six in the afternoon. By degrees, however, the boys grew bolder, and the shops, though not openly declared in bounds again, were tacitly allowed to be so.