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Chapter 35
ALL went well for the first part of the following half year. Miss Pontifex spent the greater part of her holidays in London, and I also saw her at Roughborough, where I spent a few days, staying at the “Swan.” I heard all about my godson in whom, however, I took less interest than I said I did. I took more interest in the stage at that time than in anything else, and as for Ernest, I found him a nuisance for engrossing so much of his aunt’s attention, and taking her so much from London. The organ was begun, and made fair progress during the first two months of the half year. Ernest was happier than he had ever been before, and was struggling upwards. The best boys took more notice of him for his aunt’s sake, and he consorted less with those who led him into mischief.

But much as Miss Pontifex had done, she could not all at once undo the effect of such surroundings as the boy had had at Battersby. Much as he feared and disliked his father (though he still knew not how much this was), he had caught much from him; if Theobald had been kinder Ernest would have modelled himself upon him entirely, and ere long would probably have become as thorough a little prig as could have easily been found.

Fortunately his temper had come to him from his mother, who, when not frightened, and when there was nothing on the horizon which might cross the slightest whim of her husband, was an amiable, good-natured woman. If it was not such an awful thing to say of anyone, I should say that she meant well.

Ernest had also inherited his mother’s love of building castles in the air, and — so I suppose it must be called — her vanity. He was very fond of showing off, and, provided he could attract attention, cared little from whom it came, nor what it was for. He caught up, parrot-like, whatever jargon he heard from his elders, which he thought was the correct thing, and aired it in season and out of season, as though it were his own.

Miss Pontifex was old enough and wise enough to know that this is the way in which even the greatest men as a general rule begin to develop, and was more pleased with his receptiveness and reproductiveness than alarmed at the things he caught and reproduced.

She saw that he was much attached to herself, and trusted to this rather than to anything else. She saw also that his conceit was not very profound, and that his fits of self-abasement were as extreme as his exaltation had been. His impulsiveness and sanguine trustfulness in anyone who smiled pleasantly at him, or indeed was not absolutely unkind to him, made her more anxious about him than any other point in his character; she saw clearly that he would have to find himself rudely undeceived many a time and oft, before he would learn to distinguish friend from foe within reasonable time. It was her perception of this which led her to take the action which she was so soon called upon to take.

Her health was for the most part excellent, and she had never had a serious illness in her life. One morning, however, soon after Easter, 1850, she awoke feeling seriously unwell. For some little time there had been a talk of fever in the neighbourhood, but in those days the precautions that ought to be taken against the spread of infection were not so well understood as now, and nobody did anything. In a day or two it became plain that Miss Pontifex had got an attack of typhoid fever and was dangerously ill. On this she sent off a messenger to town, and desired him not to return without her lawyer and myself.

We arrived on the afternoon of the day on which we had been summoned, and found her still free from delirium: indeed, the cheery way in which she received us made it difficult to think she could be in danger. She at once explained her wishes, which had reference, as I expected, to her nephew, and repeated the substance of what I have already referred to as her main source of uneasiness concerning him. Then she begged me by our long and close intimacy, by the suddenness of the danger that had fallen on her and her powerlessness to avert it, to undertake what she said she well knew, if she died, would be an unpleasant and invidious trust.

She wanted to leave the bulk of her money ostensibly to me, but in reality to her nephew, so that I should hold it in trust for him till he was twenty-eight years old, but neither he nor anyone else, except her lawyer and myself, was to know anything about it. She would leave L5000 in other legacies, and L15,000 to Ernest — which by the time he was twenty-eight would have accumulated to, say, L30,000, “Sell out the debentures,” she said, “where the money now is — and put it into Midland Ordinary.

“Let him make his mistakes,” she said, &l............
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