making up her mind to have nothing to do with either Joey or Charlotte, but to see so much of Ernest as should enable her to form an opinion about his disposition and abilities.

He had now been a year and a half at Roughborough and was nearly fourteen years old, so that his character had begun to shape. His aunt had not seen him for some little time and, thinking that if she was to exploit him she could do so now perhaps better than at any other time, she resolved to go down to Roughborough on some pretext which should be good enough for Theobald, and to take stock of her nephew under circumstances in which she could get him for some few hours to herself. Accordingly in August, 1849, when Ernest was just entering on his fourth half-year, a cab drove up to Dr Skinner's door with Miss Pontifex, who asked and obtained leave for Ernest to come and dine with her at the Swan Hotel. She had written to Ernest to say she was coming and he was of course on the look-out for her. He had not seen her for so long that he was rather shy at first, but her good nature soon set him at his ease. She was so strongly biased in favour of anything young that her heart warmed towards him at once, though his appearance was less prepossessing than she had hoped. She took him to a cake shop and gave him whatever he liked as soon as she had got him off the school premises; and Ernest felt at once that she contrasted favourably even with his aunts the Misses Allaby, who were so very sweet and good. The Misses Allaby were very poor; sixpence was to them what five shillings was to Alethea. What chance had they against one who, if she had a mind, could put by out of her income twice as much as they, poor women, could spend?

The boy had plenty of prattle in him when he was not snubbed, and Alethea encouraged him to chatter about whatever came uppermost. He was always ready to trust anyone who was kind to him; it took many years to make him reasonably wary in this respect - if indeed, as I sometimes doubt, he ever will be as wary as he ought to be - and in a short time he had quite dissociated his aunt from his papa and mamma and the rest, with whom his instinct told him he should be on his guard. Little did he know how great, as far as he was concerned, were the issues that depended upon his behaviour. If he had known, he would perhaps have played his part less successfully.

His aunt drew from him more details of his home and school life than his papa and mamma would have approved of, but he had no idea that he was being pumped. She got out of him all about the happy Sunday evenings, and how he and Joey and Charlotte quarrelled sometimes, but she took no side and treated everything as though it were a matter of course. Like all the boys, he could mimic Dr Skinner, and when warmed with dinner and two glasses of sherry which made him nearly tipsy, he favoured his aunt with samples of the Doctor's manner and spoke of him familiarly as `Sam.'

`Sam,' he said, `is an awful old humbug.' It was the sherry that brought out this piece of swagger, for whatever else he was Dr Skinner was a reality to Master Ernest, before which, indeed, he sank into his boots in no time. Alethea smiled and said, `I must not say anything to that, must I?' Ernest said, `I suppose not,' and was checked. By and by he vented a number of small second-hand priggishnesses which he had caught up believing them to be the correct thing, and made it plain that even at that early age Ernest believed in Ernest with a belief which was amusing from its absurdly. His aunt judged him charitably as she was sure to do; she knew very well where the priggishness came from, and seeing that the string of his tongue had been loosened sufficiently gave him no more sherry.

It was after dinner, however, that he completed the conquest of his aunt. She then discovered that, like herself, he was passionately fond of music, and that, too, of the highest class. He knew, and hummed or whistled to her all sorts of pieces out of the works of the great masters, which a boy of his age could hardly be expected to know, and it was evident that this was purely instinctive, inasmuch as music received no kind of encouragement at Roughborough. There was no boy in the school as fond of music as he was. He picked up his knowledge, he said, from the organist of St Michael's Church who used to practise sometimes on a weekday afternoon. Ernest had heard the organ booming away as he was passing outside the church and had sneaked inside and up into the organ loft. In the course of time the organist became accustomed to him as a familiar visitant, and the pair became friends.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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