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Chapter 37
IF Theobald and Christina had not been too well pleased when Miss Pontifex first took Ernest in hand, they were still less so when the connection between the two was interrupted so prematurely. They said they had made sure from what their sister had said that she was going to make Ernest her heir. I do not think she had given them so much as a hint to this effect. Theobald indeed gave Ernest to understand that she had done so in a letter which will be given shortly, but if Theobald wanted to make himself disagreeable, a trifle light as air would forthwith assume in his imagination whatever form was most convenient to him. I do not think they had even made up their minds what Alethea was to do with her money before they knew of her being at the point of death, and as I have said already, if they had thought it likely that Ernest would be made heir over their own heads without their having at any rate a life interest in the bequest, they would have soon thrown obstacles in the way of further intimacy between aunt and nephew.

This, however, did not bar their right to feeling aggrieved now that neither they nor Ernest had taken anything at all, and they could profess disappointment on their boy’s behalf which they would have been too proud to admit upon their own. In fact, it was only amiable of them to be disappointed under these circumstances.

Christina said that the will was simply fraudulent, and was convinced that it could be upset if she and Theobald went the right way to work. Theobald, she said, should go before the Lord Chancellor, not in full court but in chambers, where he could explain the whole matter; or, perhaps it would be even better if she were to go herself — and I dare not trust myself to describe the reverie to which this last idea gave rise. I believe in the end Theobald died, and the Lord Chancellor (who had become a widower a few weeks earlier) made her an offer, which, however, she firmly but not ungratefully declined; she should ever, she said, continue to think of him as a friend — at this point the cook came in, saying the butcher had called, and what would she please to order.

I think Theobald must have had an idea that there was something behind the bequest to me, but he said nothing about it to Christina. He was angry and felt wronged, because he could not get at Alethea to give her a piece of his mind any more than he had been able to get at his father. “It is so mean of people,” he exclaimed to himself, “to inflict an injury of this sort, and then shirk facing those whom they have injured; let us hope that, at any rate, they and I may meet in Heaven.” But of this he was doubtful, for when people had done so great a wrong as this, it was hardly to be supposed that they would go to Heaven at all — and as for his meeting them in another place, the idea never so much as entered his mind.

One so angry and, of late, so little used to contradiction might be trusted, however, to avenge himself upon someone, and Theobald had long since developed the organ by means of which he might vent spleen with least risk and greatest satisfaction to himself. This organ, it may be guessed, was nothing else than Ernest; to Ernest therefore he proceeded to unburden himself, not personally, but by letter.

“You ought to know,” he wrote, “that your Aunt Alethea had given your mother and me to understand that it was her wish to make you her heir — in the event, of course, of your conducting yourself in such a manner as to give her confidence in you; as a matter of fact, however, she has left you nothing, and the whole of her property has gone to your godfather, Mr. Overton. Your mother and I are willing to hope that if she had lived longer you would yet have succeeded in winning her good opinion, but it is too late to think of this now.

“The carpentering and organ-building must at once be dis. continued. I never believed in the project, and have seen no reason to alter my original opinion. I am not sorry for your own sake, that it is to be at an end, nor, I am sure, will you regret it yourself in after-years.

“A few words more as regards your own prospects. You have, as I believe you know, a small inheritance, which is yours legally under your granffather’s will. This bequest was made inadvertently, and, I believe, entirely through a misunderstanding on the lawyer’s part. The bequest was probably intended not to take effect till after the death of your mother and myself; nevertheless, as the will is actually worded, it will now be at your command if you live to be twenty-one years old. From this, however, large deductions must be made. There will be legacy duty, and I do not know whether I am not entitled to deduct the expenses of your education and maintenance from birth to your coming of age; I shall not in all likelihood insist on this right to the full, if you conduct yourself properly, but a considerable sum should certainly be deducted; there will therefore remain very little — say L1000 or L2000 at the outside, as what will be actually yours — but the strictest account shall be rendered you in due time.

“This, let me warn you most seriously, is all that you must expect from me” (even Ernest saw that it was not from Theobald at all), “at any rate till after my death, which for aught any of us know may be yet many years distant. It is not a large sum, but it is sufficient if supplemented by steadiness and earnestness of purpose. Your mother and I gave you the name Ernest, hoping that it would remind you continually of —” but I really cannot copy more of this effusion. It was all the same old will-shaking game and came practically to this, that Ernest was no good, and that if he went on as he was going on now, he would probably have to go about the streets begging without any shoes or stockings soon after he had left school, or at any rate, college; and that he, Theobald, and Christina were almost too good for this world altogether.

After he had written this Theobald felt quite good-natured, and sent to the Mrs. Thompson of the moment even more soup and wine than her usual not illiberal allowance.

Ernest was deeply, passionately upset by his father’s letter; to think that even his dear aunt, the one person of his relations whom he really loved, should have turned against him and thought badly of him after all. This was the unkindest cut of all. In the hurry of her illness Miss Pontifex, while thinking only of his welfare, had omitted to make such small present mention of him as would have made his father’s innuendoes stingless; and her illness being infectious, she had not seen him after its nature was known. I myself did not know of Theobald’s letter, nor think enough about my godson to guess what might easily be his state. It was not till many years afterwards that I found Theobald’s letter in the pocket of an old portfolio which Ernest had used at school, and in which other old letters and school documents were collected which I have used in this book. He had forgotten that he had it, but told me when he sa............
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