Chapter 45

Some people say that their school days were the happiest of their lives. They may be right, but I always look with suspicion upon those whom I hear saying this. It is hard enough to know whether one is happy or unhappy now, and still harder to compare the relative happiness or unhappiness of different times of one's life; the utmost that can be said is that we are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable. As I was talking with Ernest one day not so long since about this, he said he was so happy now that he was sure he had never been happier, and did not wish to be so, but that Cambridge was the first place where he had ever been consciously and continuously happy.

How can any boy fail to feel an ecstasy of pleasure on first finding himself in rooms which he knows for the next few years are to be his castle? Here he will not be compelled to turn out of the most comfortable place as soon as he has ensconced himself in it because papa or mamma happens to come into the room, and he should give it up to them. The most cosy chair here is for himself, there is no one even to share the room with him, or to interfere with his doing as he likes in it—smoking included. Why, if such a room looked out both back and front on to a blank dead wall it would still be a paradise, how much more then when the view is of some quiet grassy court or cloister or garden, as from the windows of the greater number of rooms at Oxford and Cambridge.

Theobald, as an old fellow and tutor of Emmanuel—at which college he had entered Ernest—was able to obtain from the present tutor a certain preference in the choice of rooms; Ernest's, therefore, were very pleasant ones, looking out upon the grassy court that is bounded by the Fellows' gardens.

Theobald accompanied him to Cambridge, and was at his best while doing so. He liked the jaunt, and even he was not without a certain feeling of pride in having a full-blown son at the University. Some of the reflected rays of this splendour were allowed to fall upon Ernest himself. Theobald said he was "willing to hope"—this was one of his tags—that his son would turn over a new leaf now that he had left school, and for his own part he was "only too ready"—this was another tag—to let bygones be bygones.

Ernest, not yet having his name on the books, was able to dine with his father at the Fellows' table of one of the other colleges on the invitation of an old friend of Theobald's; he there made acquaintance with sundry of the good things of this life, the very names of which were new to him, and felt as he ate them that he was now indeed receiving a liberal education. When at length the time came for him to go to Emmanuel, where he was to sleep in his new rooms, his father came with him to the gates and saw him safe into college; a few minutes more and he found himself alone in a room for which he had a latch-key.

From this time he dated many days which, if not quite unclouded, were upon the whole very happy ones. I need not however describe them, as the life of a quiet steady-going undergraduate has been told in a score of novels better than I can tell it. Some of Ernest's schoolfellows came up to Cambridge at the same time as himself, and with these he continued on friendly terms during the whole of his college career. Other schoolfellows were only a year or two his seniors; these called on him, and he thus made a sufficiently favourable entree into college life. A straightforwardness of character that was stamped upon his face, a love of humour, and a temper which was more easily appeased than ruffled made up for some awkwardness and want of savoir faire. He soon became a not unpopular member of the best set of his year, and though neither capable of becoming, nor aspiring to become, a leader, was admitted by the leaders as among their nearer hangers-on.

Of ambition he had at that time not one particle; greatness, or indeed superiority of any kind, seemed so far off and incomprehensible to him that the idea of connecting it with himself never crossed his mind. If he could escape the notice of all those with whom he did not feel himself en rapport, he conceived that he had triumphed sufficiently. He did not care about taking a good degree, except that it must be good enough to keep his father and mother quiet. He did not dream of being able to get a fellowship; if he had, he would have tried hard to do so, for he became so fond of Cambridge that he could not bear the thought of having to leave it; the briefness indeed of the season during which his present happiness was to last was almost the only thing that now seriously troubled him.

Having less to attend to in the matter of growing, and having got his head more free, he took to reading fairly well—not because he liked it, but because he was told he ought to do so, and his natural instinct, like that of all very young men who are good for anything, was to do as those in authority told him. The intention at Battersby was (for Dr Skinner had said that Ernest could never get a fellowship) that he should take a sufficiently good degree to be able to get a tutorship or mastership in some school preparatory to taking orders. When he was twenty-one years old his money was to come into his own hands, and the best thing he could do with it would be to buy the next presentation to a living, the rector of which was now old, and live on his mastership or tutorship till the living fell in. He could buy a very good living for the sum which his grandfather's legacy now amounted to, for Theobald had never had any serious intention of making deductions for his son's maintenance and education, and the money had accumulated till it was now about five thousand pounds; he had only talked about making deductions in order to stimulate the boy to exertion as far as possible, by making him think that this was his only chance of escaping starvation—or perhaps from pure love of teasing.

When Ernest had a living of 600 or 700 pounds a year with a house, and not too many parishioners—why, he might add to his income by taking pupils, or even keeping a school, and then, say at thirty, he might marry. It was not easy for Theobald to hit on any much more sensible plan. He could not get Ernest into business, for he had no business connections—besides he did not know what business meant; he had no interest, again, at the Bar; medicine was a profession which subjected its students to ordeals and temptations which these fond parents shrank from on behalf of their boy; he would be thrown among companions and familiarised with details which might sully him, and though he might stand, it was "only too possible" that he would fall. Besides, ordination was the road which Theobald knew and understood, and indeed the only road about which he knew anything at all, so not unnaturally it was the one he chose for Ernest.

The foregoing had been instilled into my hero from earliest boyhood, much as it had been instilled into Theobald himself, and with the same result—the conviction, namely, that he was certainly to be a clergyman, but that it was a long way off yet, and he supposed it was all right. As for the duty of reading hard, and taking as good a degree as he could, this was plain enough, so he set himself to work, as I have said, steadily, and to the surprise of everyone as well as himself got a college scholarship, of no great value, but still a scholarship, in his freshman's term. It is hardly necessary to say that Theobald stuck to the whole of this money, believing the pocket-money he allowed Ernest to be sufficient for him, and knowing how dangerous it was for young men to have money at command. I do not suppose it even occurred to him to try and remember what he had felt when his father took a like course in regard to himself.

Ernest's position in this respect was much what it had been at school except that things were on a larger scale. His tutor's and cook's bills were paid for him; his father sent him his wine; over and above this he had 50 pounds a year with which to keep himself in clothes and all other expenses; this was about the usual thing at Emmanuel in Ernest's day, though many had much less than this. Ernest did as he had done at school—he spent what he could, soon after he received his money; he then incurred a few modest liabilities, and then lived penuriously till next term, when he would immediately pay his debts, and start new ones to much the same extent as those which he had just got rid of. When he came into his 5000 pounds and became independent of his father, 15 or 20 pounds served to cover the whole of his unauthorised expenditure.

He joined the boat club, and was constant in his attendance at the boats. He still smoked, but never took more wine or beer than was good for him, except perhaps on the occasion of a boating supper, but even then he found the consequences unpleasant, and soon learned how to keep within safe limits. He attended chapel as often as he was compelled to do so; he communicated two or three times a year, because his tutor told him he ought to; in fact he set himself to live soberly and cleanly, as I imagine all his instincts prompted him to do, and when he fell—as who that is born of woman can help sometimes doing?—it was not till after a sharp tussle with a temptation that was more than his flesh and blood could stand; then he was very penitent and would go a fairly long while without sinning again; and this was how it had always been with him since he had arrived at years of indiscretion.

Even to the end of his career at Cambridge he was not aware that he had it in him to do anything, but others had begun to see that he was not wanting in ability and sometimes told him so. He did not believe it; indeed he knew very well that if they thought him clever they were being taken in, but it pleased him to have been able to take them in, and he tried to do so still further; he was therefore a good deal on the look- out for cants that he could catch and apply in season, and might have done himself some mischief thus if he had not been ready to throw over any cant as soon as he had come across another more nearly to his fancy; his friends used to say that when he rose he flew like a snipe, darting several times in various directions before he settled down to a steady straight flight, but when he had once got into this he would keep to it.