Chapter 71

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 inquired 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's 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. Mrs 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.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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