Chapter 61

Pryer had done well to warn Ernest against promiscuous house to house visitation. He had not gone outside Mrs Jupp's street door, and yet what had been the result?

Mr Holt had put him in bodily fear; Mr and Mrs Baxter had nearly made a Methodist of him; Mr Shaw had undermined his faith in the Resurrection; Miss Snow's charms had ruined—or would have done so but for an accident—his moral character. As for Miss Maitland, he had done his best to ruin hers, and had damaged himself gravely and irretrievably in consequence. The only lodger who had done him no harm was the bellows' mender, whom he had not visited.

Other young clergymen, much greater fools in many respects than he, would not have got into these scrapes. He seemed to have developed an aptitude for mischief almost from the day of his having been ordained. He could hardly preach without making some horrid faux pas. He preached one Sunday morning when the Bishop was at his Rector's church, and made his sermon turn upon the question what kind of little cake it was that the widow of Zarephath had intended making when Elijah found her gathering a few sticks. He demonstrated that it was a seed cake. The sermon was really very amusing, and more than once he saw a smile pass over the sea of faces underneath him. The Bishop was very angry, and gave my hero a severe reprimand in the vestry after service was over; the only excuse he could make was that he was preaching ex tempore, had not thought of this particular point till he was actually in the pulpit, and had then been carried away by it.

Another time he preached upon the barren fig-tree, and described the hopes of the owner as he watched the delicate blossom unfold, and give promise of such beautiful fruit in autumn. Next day he received a letter from a botanical member of his congregation who explained to him that this could hardly have been, inasmuch as the fig produces its fruit first and blossoms inside the fruit, or so nearly so that no flower is perceptible to an ordinary observer. This last, however, was an accident which might have happened to any one but a scientist or an inspired writer.

The only excuse I can make for him is that he was very young—not yet four and twenty—and that in mind as in body, like most of those who in the end come to think for themselves, he was a slow grower. By far the greater part, moreover, of his education had been an attempt, not so much to keep him in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether.

But to return to my story. It transpired afterwards that Miss Maitland had had no intention of giving Ernest in charge when she ran out of Mrs Jupp's house. She was running away because she was frightened, but almost the first person whom she ran against had happened to be a policeman of a serious turn of mind, who wished to gain a reputation for activity. He stopped her, questioned her, frightened her still more, and it was he rather than Miss Maitland, who insisted on giving my hero in charge to himself and another constable.

Towneley was still in Mrs Jupp's house when the policeman came. He had heard a disturbance, and going down to Ernest's room while Miss Maitland was out of doors, had found him lying, as it were, stunned at the foot of the moral precipice over which he had that moment fallen. He saw the whole thing at a glance, but before he could take action, the policemen came in and action became impossible.

He asked Ernest who were his friends in London. Ernest at first wanted not to say, but Towneley soon gave him to understand that he must do as he was bid, and selected myself from the few whom he had named. "Writes for the stage, does he?" said Towneley. "Does he write comedy?" Ernest thought Towneley meant that I ought to write tragedy, and said he was afraid I wrote burlesque. "Oh, come, come," said Towneley, "that will do famously. I will go and see him at once." But on second thoughts he determined to stay with Ernest and go with him to the police court. So he sent Mrs Jupp for me. Mrs Jupp hurried so fast to fetch me, that in spite of the weather's being still cold she was "giving out," as she expressed it, in streams. The poor old wretch would have taken a cab, but she had no money and did not like to ask Towneley to give her some. I saw that something very serious had happened, but was not prepared for anything so deplorable as what Mrs Jupp actually told me. As for Mrs Jupp, she said her heart had been jumping out of its socket and back again ever since.

I got her into a cab with me, and we went off to the police station. She talked without ceasing.

"And if the neighbours do say cruel things about me, I'm sure it ain't no thanks to him if they're true. Mr Pontifex never took a bit o' notice of me no more than if I had been his sister. Oh, it's enough to make anyone's back bone curdle. Then I thought perhaps my Rose might get on better with him, so I set her to dust him and clean him as though I were busy, and gave her such a beautiful clean new pinny, but he never took no notice of her no more than he did of me, and she didn't want no compliment neither, she wouldn't have taken not a shilling from him, though he had offered it, but he didn't seem to know anything at all. I can't make out what the young men are a-coming to; I wish the horn may blow for me and the worms take me this very night, if it's not enough to make a woman stand before God and strike the one half on 'em silly to see the way they goes on, and many an honest girl has to go home night after night without so much as a fourpenny bit and paying three and sixpence a week rent, and not a shelf nor cupboard in the place and a dead wall in front of the window.

"It's not Mr Pontifex," she continued, "that's so bad, he's good at heart. He never says nothing unkind. And then there's his dear eyes—but when I speak about that to my Rose she calls me an old fool and says I ought to be poleaxed. It's that Pryer as I can't abide. Oh he! He likes to wound a woman's feelings he do, and to chuck anything in her face, he do—he likes to wind a woman up and to wound her down." (Mrs Jupp pronounced "wound" as though it rhymed to "sound.") "It's a gentleman's place to soothe a woman, but he, he'd like to tear her hair out by handfuls. Why, he told me to my face that I was a-getting old; old indeed! there's not a woman in London knows my age except Mrs Davis down in the Old Kent Road, and beyond a haricot vein in one of my legs I'm as young as ever I was. Old indeed! There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle. I hate his nasty insinuendos."

Even if I had wanted to stop her, I could not have done so. She said a great deal more than I have given above. I have left out much because I could not remember it, but still more because it was really impossible for me to print it.

When we got to the police station I found Towneley and Ernest already there. The charge was one of assault, but not aggravated by serious violence. Even so, however, it was lamentable enough, and we both saw that our young friend would have to pay dearly for his inexperience. We tried to bail him out for the night, but the Inspector would not accept bail, so we were forced to leave him.

Towneley then went back to Mrs Jupp's to see if he could find Miss Maitland and arrange matters with her. She was not there, but he traced her to the house of her father, who lived at Camberwell. The father was furious and would not hear of any intercession on Towneley's part. He was a Dissenter, and glad to make the most of any scandal against a clergyman; Towneley, therefore, was obliged to return unsuccessful.

Next morning, Towneley—who regarded Ernest as a drowning man, who must be picked out of the water somehow or other if possible, irrespective of the way in which he got into it—called on me, and we put the matter into the hands of one of the best known attorneys of the day. I was greatly pleased with Towneley, and thought it due to him to tell him what I had told no one else. I mean that Ernest would come into his aunt's money in a few years' time, and would therefore then be rich.

Towneley was doing all he could before this, but I knew that the knowledge I had imparted to him would make him feel as though Ernest was more one of his own class, and had therefore a greater claim upon his good offices. As for Ernest himself, his gratitude was greater than could be expressed in words. I have heard him say that he can call to mind many moments, each one of which might well pass for the happiest of his life, but that this night stands clearly out as the most painful that he ever passed, yet so kind and considerate was Towneley that it was quite bearable.

But with all the best wishes in the world neither Towneley nor I could do much to help beyond giving our moral support. Our attorney told us that the magistrate before whom Ernest would appear was very severe on cases of this description, and that the fact of his being a clergyman would tell against him. "Ask for no remand," he said, "and make no defence. We will call Mr Pontifex's rector and you two gentlemen as witnesses for previous good character. These will be enough. Let us then make a profound apology and beg the magistrate to deal with the case summarily instead of sending it for trial. If you can get this, believe me, your young friend will be better out of it than he has any right to expect."