Chapter 42

ABOUT A WEEK BEFORE HE WENT BACK to school his father again sent for him into the dining- room, and told him that he should restore him his watch, but that he should deduct the sum he had paid for it - for he had thought it better to pay a few shillings rather than dispute the ownership of the watch, seeing that Ernest had undoubtedly given it to Ellen - from his pocket-money, in payments which should extend over two half-years. He would therefore have to go back to Roughborough this half-year with only five shillings' pocket-money. If he wanted more he must earn more merit money.

Ernest was not so careful about money as a pattern boy should be. He did not say to himself, `Now I have got a sovereign which must last me fifteen weeks, therefore I may spend exactly one shilling and fourpence in each week' - and spent exactly one and fourpence in each week accordingly. He ran through his money at about the same rate as other boys did, being pretty well cleaned out a few days after he had got back to school. When he had no more money, he got a little into debt, and when as far in debt as he could see his way to repaying, he went without luxuries. Immediately he got any money he would pay his debts; if there was any over he would spend it; if there was not - and there seldom was - he would begin to go on tick again.

His finance was always based upon the supposition that he should go back to school with £1 in his pocket - of which he owed say a matter of fifteen shillings. There would be five shillings for sundry school subscriptions - but when these were paid the weekly allowance of sixpence given to each boy in the hall, his merit money (which this half he was resolved should come to a good sum) and renewed credit, would carry him through the half.

The sudden failure of 15s. was disastrous to my hero's scheme of finance. His face betrayed his emotions so clearly that Theobald said he was determined `to learn the truth at once, and this time without days and days of falsehood' before he reached it. The melancholy fact was not long in coming out, namely, that the wretched Ernest added debt to the vices of idleness, falsehood, and possibly - for it was not impossible immorality.

How had he come to get into debt? Did the other boys do so? Ernest reluctantly admitted that they did.

With what shops did they get into debt?

This was asking too much. Ernest said he didn't know!

`Oh, Ernest, Ernest,' exclaimed his mother, who was in the room, `do not so soon a second time presume upon the forbearance of the tenderest-hearted father in the world. Give time for one stab to heal before you wound him with another.'

This was all very fine, but what was Ernest to do? How could he get the school shopkeepers into trouble by owning that they let some of the boys go on tick with them? There was Mrs. Cross, a good old soul, who used to sell hot rolls and butter for breakfast, or eggs and toast, or it might be the quarter of a fowl with bread sauce and mashed potatoes for which she would charge 6d. If she made a farthing out of the sixpence it was as much as she did. When the boys would come trooping into her shop after `the hounds' how often had not Ernest heard her say to her servant girls, `Now then, you wanches, git some cheers.' All the boys were fond of her, and was he, Ernest, to tell tales about her? It was horrible.

`Now look here, Ernest,' said his father with his blackest cowl, `I am going to put a stop to this nonsense once for all. Either take me fully into your confidence, as a son should take a father, and trust me to deal with this matter as a clergyman and a man of the world - or understand distinctly that I shall take the whole story to Dr Skinner, who, I imagine, will take much sterner measures than I should.'

`Oh, Ernest, Ernest,' sobbed Christina, `be wise in time, and trust those who have already shown you that they know but too well how to be forbearing.'

  By PanEris using Melati.

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