He had hardly parted from Pryer before there occurred another incident which strengthened his discontent. He had fallen, as I have shown, among a gang of spiritual thieves or coiners, who passed the basest metal upon him without his finding it out, so childish and inexperienced was he in the ways of anything but those back eddies of the world, schools and universities. Among the bad threepenny pieces which had been passed off upon him, and which he kept for small hourly disbursement, was a remark that poor people were much nicer than the richer and better educated. Ernest now said that he always travelled third class not because it was cheaper, but because the people whom he met in third class carriages were so much pleasanter and better behaved. As for the young men who attended Ernest's evening classes, they were pronounced to be more intelligent and better ordered generally than the average run of Oxford and Cambridge men. Our foolish young friend having heard Pryer talk to this effect, caught up all he said and reproduced it more suo.
One evening, however, about this time, whom should he see coming along a small street not far from his own but, of all persons in the world, Towneley, looking as full of life and good spirits as ever, and if possible even handsomer than he had been at Cambridge. Much as Ernest liked him he found himself shrinking from speaking to him, and was endeavouring to pass him without doing so when Towneley saw him and stopped him at once, being pleased to see an old Cambridge face. He seemed for the moment a little confused at being seen in such a neighbourhood, but recovered himself so soon that Ernest hardly noticed it, and then plunged into a few kindly remarks about old times. Ernest felt that he quailed as he saw Towneley's eye wander to his white necktie and saw that he was being reckoned up, and rather disapprovingly reckoned up, as a parson. It was the merest passing shade upon Towneley's face, but Ernest had felt it.
Towneley said a few words of common form to Ernest about his profession as being what he thought would be most likely to interest him, and Ernest, still confused and shy, gave him for lack of something better to say his little threepenny-bit about poor people being so very nice. Towneley took this for what it was worth and nodded assent, whereon Ernest imprudently went further and said "Don't you like poor people very much yourself?"
Towneley gave his face a comical but good-natured screw, and said quietly, but slowly and decidedly, "No, no, no," and escaped.
It was all over with Ernest from that moment. As usual he did not know it, but he had entered none the less upon another reaction. Towneley had just taken Ernest's threepenny-bit into his hands, looked at it and returned it to him as a bad one. Why did he see in a moment that it was a bad one now, though he had been unable to see it when he had taken it from Pryer? Of course some poor people were very nice, and always would be so, but as though scales had fallen suddenly from his eyes he saw that no one was nicer for being poor, and that between the upper and lower classes there was a gulf which amounted practically to an impassable barrier.
That evening he reflected a good deal. If Towneley was right, and Ernest felt that the "No" had applied not to the remark about poor people only, but to the whole scheme and scope of his own recently adopted ideas, he and Pryer must surely be on a wrong track. Towneley had not argued with him; he had said one word only, and that one of the shortest in the language, but Ernest was in a fit state for inoculation, and the minute particle of virus set about working immediately.
Which did he now think was most likely to have taken the juster view of life and things, and whom would it be best to imitate, Towneley or Pryer? His heart returned answer to itself without a moment's hesitation. The faces of men like Towneley were open and kindly; they looked as if at ease themselves, and as though they would set all who had to do with them at ease as far as might be. The faces of Pryer and his friends were not like this. Why had he felt tacitly rebuked as soon as he had met Towneley? Was he not a Christian? Certainly; he believed in the Church of England as a matter of course. Then how could he be himself wrong in trying to act up to the faith that he and Towneley held in common? He was trying to lead a quiet, unobtrusive life of self-devotion, whereas Towneley was not, so far as he could see, trying to do anything of the kind; he was only trying to get on comfortably in the world, and to look and be as nice as possible. And he was nice, and Ernest knew that such men as himself and Pryer were not nice, and his old dejection came over him.
Then came an even worse reflection; how if he had fallen among material thieves as well as spiritual ones? He knew very little of how his money was going on; he had put it all now into Pryer's hands, and though Pryer gave him cash to spend whenever he wanted it, he seemed impatient of being questioned as to what was being done with the principal. It was part of the understanding, he said, that that was to be left to him, and Ernest had better stick to this, or he, Pryer, would throw up the College of Spiritual Pathology altogether; and so Ernest was cowed into acquiescence, or cajoled, according to the humour in which Pryer saw him to be. Ernest thought that further questions would look as if he doubted Pryer's word, and also that he had gone too far to be able to recede in decency or honour. This, however, he felt was riding out to meet trouble unnecessarily. Pryer had been a little impatient, but he was a gentleman and an admirable man of business, so his money would doubtless come back to him all right some day.
Ernest comforted himself as regards this last source of anxiety, but as regards the other, he began to feel as though, if he was to be saved, a good Samaritan must hurry up from somewhere—he knew not whence.