It seems he had been patrolling the streets for the last three or four nights—I suppose in search of something to do—at any rate knowing better what he wanted to get than how to get it. Nevertheless, what he wanted was in reality so easily to be found that it took a highly educated scholar like himself to be unable to find it. But, however this may be, he had been scared, and now saw lions where there were none, and was shocked and frightened, and night after night his courage had failed him and he had returned to his lodgings in Laystall Street without accomplishing his errand. He had not taken me into his confidence upon this matter, and I had not enquired what he did with himself in the evenings. At last he had concluded that, however painful it might be to him, he would call on Mrs Jupp, who he thought would be able to help him if anyone could. He had been walking moodily from seven till about nine, and now resolved to go straight to Ashpit Place and make a mother confessor of Mrs Jupp without more delay.
Of all tasks that could be performed by mortal woman there was none which Mrs Jupp would have liked better than the one Ernest was thinking of imposing upon her; nor do I know that in his scared and broken-down state he could have done much better than he now proposed. Miss Jupp would have made it very easy for him to open his grief to her; indeed, she would have coaxed it all out of him before he knew where he was; but the fates were against Mrs Jupp, and the meeting between my hero and his former landlady was postponed sine die, for his determination had hardly been formed and he had not gone more than a hundred yards in the direction of Mrs Jupp's house, when a woman accosted him.
He was turning from her, as he had turned from so many others, when she started back with a movement that aroused his curiosity. He had hardly seen her face, but being determined to catch sight of it, followed her as she hurried away, and passed her; then turning round he saw that she was none other than Ellen, the housemaid who had been dismissed by his mother eight years previously.
He ought to have assigned Ellen's unwillingness to see him to its true cause, but a guilty conscience made him think she had heard of his disgrace and was turning away from him in contempt. Brave as had been his resolutions about facing the world, this was more than he was prepared for; "What! you too shun me, Ellen?" he exclaimed.
The girl was crying bitterly and did not understand him. "Oh, Master Ernest," she sobbed, "let me go; you are too good for the likes of me to speak to now."
"Why, Ellen," said he, "what nonsense you talk; you haven't been in prison, have you?"
"Oh, no, no, no, not so bad as that," she exclaimed passionately.
"Well, I have," said Ernest, with a forced laugh, "I came out three or four days ago after six months with hard labour."
Ellen did not believe him, but she looked at him with a "Lor'! Master Ernest," and dried her eyes at once. The ice was broken between them, for as a matter of fact Ellen had been in prison several times, and though she did not believe Ernest, his merely saying he had been in prison made her feel more at ease with him. For her there were two classes of people, those who had been in prison and those who had not. The first she looked upon as fellow-creatures and more or less Christians, the second, with few exceptions, she regarded with suspicion, not wholly unmingled with contempt.
Then Ernest told her what had happened to him during the last six months, and by-and-by she believed him.
"Master Ernest," said she, after they had talked for a quarter of an hour or so, "There's a place over the way where they sell tripe and onions. I know you was always very fond of tripe and onions, let's go over and have some, and we can talk better there."
So the pair crossed the street and entered the tripe shop; Ernest ordered supper.
"And how is your pore dear mamma, and your dear papa, Master Ernest," said Ellen, who had now recovered herself and was quite at home with my hero. "Oh, dear, dear me," she said, "I did love your pa; he was a good gentleman, he was, and your ma too; it would do anyone good to live with her, I'm sure."
Ernest was surprised and hardly knew what to say. He had expected to find Ellen indignant at the way she had been treated, and inclined to lay the blame of her having fallen to her present state at his father's and mother's door. It was not so. Her only recollection of Battersby was as of a place where she had had plenty to eat and drink, not too much hard work, and where she had not been scolded. When she heard that Ernest had quarrelled with his father and mother she assumed as a matter of course that the fault must lie entirely with Ernest.
"Oh, your pore, pore ma!" said Ellen. "She was always so very fond of you, Master Ernest: you was always her favourite; I can't abear to think of anything between you and her. To think now of the way she used to have me into the dining-room and teach me my catechism, that she did! Oh, Master Ernest, you really must go and make it all up with her; indeed you must."
Ernest felt rueful, but he had resisted so valiantly already that the devil might have saved himself the trouble of trying to get at him through Ellen in the matter of his father and mother. He changed the subject, and the pair warmed to one another as they had their tripe and pots of beer. Of all people in the world Ellen was perhaps the one to whom Ernest could have spoken most freely at this juncture. He told her what he thought he could have told to no one else.
"You know, Ellen," he concluded, "I had learnt as a boy things that I ought not to have learnt, and had never had a chance of that which would have set me straight."
"Gentlefolks is always like that," said Ellen musingly.
"I believe you are right, but I am no longer a gentleman, Ellen, and I don't see why I should be 'like that' any longer, my dear. I want you to help me to be like something else as soon as possible."
"Lor'! Master Ernest, whatever can you be meaning?"
The pair soon afterwards left the eating-house and walked up Fetter Lane together.
Ellen had had hard times since she had left Battersby, but they had left little trace upon her.
Ernest saw only the fresh-looking smiling face, the dimpled cheek, the clear blue eyes and lovely sphinx-like lips which he had remembered as a boy. At nineteen she had looked older than she was, now she looked much younger; indeed she looked hardly older than when Ernest had last seen her, and it would have taken a man of much greater experience than he possessed to suspect how completely she had fallen from her first estate. It never occurred to him that the poor condition of her wardrobe was due to her passion for ardent spirits, and that first and last she had served five or six times as much time in gaol as he had. He ascribed the poverty of her attire to the attempts to keep herself respectable, which Ellen during supper had more than once alluded to. He had been charmed with the way in which she had declared that a pint of beer would make her tipsy, and had only allowed herself to be forced into drinking the whole after a good deal of remonstrance. To him she appeared a very angel dropped from the sky, and all the more easy to get on with for being a fallen one.
As he walked up Fetter Lane with her towards Laystall Street, he thought of the wonderful goodness of God towards him in throwing in his way the very person of all others whom he was most glad to see, and whom, of all others, in spite of her living so near him, he might have never fallen in with but for a happy accident.
When people get it into their heads that they are being specially favoured by the Almighty, they had better as a general rule mind their p's and q's, and when they think they see the devil's drift with more special clearness, let them remember that he has had much more experience than they have, and is probably meditating mischief.
Already during supper the thought that in Ellen at last he had found a woman whom he could love well enough to wish to live with and marry had flitted across his mind, and the more they had chatted the more reasons kept suggesting themselves for thinking that what might be folly in ordinary cases would not be folly in his.
He must marry someone; that was already settled. He could not marry a lady; that was absurd. He must marry a poor woman. Yes, but a fallen one? Was he not fallen himself? Ellen would fall no more. He had only to look at her to be sure of this. He could not live with her in sin, not for more than the shortest time that could elapse before their marriage; he no longer believed in the supernatural element of Christianity, but the Christian morality at any rate was indisputable. Besides, they might have children, and a stigma would rest upon them. Whom had he to consult but himself now? His father and mother never need know, and even if they did, they should be thankful to see him married to any woman who would make him happy as Ellen would. As for not being able to afford marriage, how did poor people do? Did not a good wife rather help matters than not? Where one could live two could do so, and if Ellen was three or four years older than he was—well, what was that?
Have you, gentle reader, ever loved at first sight? When you fell in love at first sight, how long, let me ask, did it take you to become ready to fling every other consideration to the winds except that of obtaining possession of the loved one? Or rather, how long would it have taken you if you had had no father or mother, nothing to lose in the way of money, position, friends, professional advancement, or what not, and if the object of your affections was as free from all these impedimenta as you were yourself?
If you were a young John Stuart Mill, perhaps it would have taken you some time, but suppose your nature was Quixotic, impulsive, altruistic, guileless; suppose you were a hungry man starving for something to love and lean upon, for one whose burdens you might bear, and who might help you to bear yours. Suppose you were down on your luck, still stunned by a horrible shock, and this bright vista of a happy future floated suddenly before you, how long under these circumstances do you think you would reflect before you would decide on embracing what chance had thrown in your way?
It did not take my hero long, for before he got past the ham and beef shop near the top of Fetter Lane, he had told Ellen that she must come home with him and live with him till they could get married, which they would do upon the first day that the law allowed.
I think the devil must have chuckled and made tolerably sure of his game this time.