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Chapter 66
ERNEST was now so far convalescent as to be able to sit up for the greater part of the day. He had been three months in prison, and, though not strong enough to leave the infirmary, was beyond all fear of a relapse. He was talking one day with Mr. Hughes about his future, and again expressed his intention of emigrating to Australia or New Zealand with the money he should recover from Pryer. Whenever he spoke of this he noticed that Mr. Hughes looked grave and was silent: he had thought that perhaps the chaplain wanted him to return to his profession, and disapproved of his evident anxiety to turn to something else; now, however, he asked Mr. Hughes point blank why it was that he disapproved of his idea of emigrating.

Mr. Hughes endeavoured to evade him, but Ernest was not to be put off. There was something in the chaplain’s manner which suggested that he knew more than Ernest did, but did not like to say it. This alarmed him so much that he begged him not to keep him in suspense; after a little hesitation Mr. Hughes, thinking him now strong enough to stand it, broke the news as gently as he could that the whole of Ernest’s money had disappeared.

The day after my return from Battersby I called on my solicitor, and was told that he had written to Pryer, requiring him to refund the monies for which he had given his I.O.U.’s. Pryer replied that he had given orders to his broker to close his operations, which unfortunately had resulted so far in heavy loss, and that the balance should be paid to my solicitor on the following settling day, then about a week distant. When the time came, we heard nothing from Pryer, and going to his lodgings, found that he had left with his few effects on the very day after he had heard from us, and had not been seen since.

I had heard from Ernest the name of the broker who had been employed, and went at once to see him. He told me Pryer had closed all his accounts for cash on the day that Ernest had been sentenced, and had received L2315, which was all that remained of Ernest’s original L5000. With this he had decamped, nor had we enough clue as to his whereabouts to be able to take any steps to recover the money. There was in fact nothing to be done but to consider the whole as lost. I may say here that neither I nor Ernest ever heard of Pryer again, nor have any idea what became of him.

This placed me in a difficult position. I knew, of course, that in a few years Ernest would have many times over as much money as he had lost, but I knew also that he did not know this, and feared that the supposed loss of all he had in the world might be more than he could stand when coupled with his other misfortunes.

The prison authorities had found Theobald’s address from a letter in Ernest’s pocket, and had communicated with him more than once concerning his son’s illness, but Theobald had not written to me, and I supposed my godson to be in good health. He would be just twenty-four years old when he left prison, and if I followed out his aunt’s instructions, would have to battle with fortune for another four years as well as he could. The question before me was whether it was right to let him run so much risk, or whether I should not to some extent transgress my instructions — which there was nothing to prevent my doing if I thought Miss Pontifex would have wished it — and let him have the same sum that he would have recovered from Pryer.

If my godson had been an older man, and more fixed in any definite groove, this is what I should have done, but he was still very young, and more than commonly unformed for his age. If, again, I had known of his illness I should not have dared to lay any heavier burden on his back than he had to bear already; but not being uneasy about his health, I thought a few years of roughing it and of experience concerning the importance of not playing tricks with money would do him no harm. So I decided to keep a sharp eye upon him as soon as he came out of prison, and to let him splash about in deep water as best he could till I saw whether he was able to swim, or was about to sink. In the first case I would let him go on swimming till he was nearly eight-and-twenty, when I would prepare him gradually for the good fortune that awaited him; in the second I would hurry up to the rescue. So I wrote to say that Pryer had absconded, and that he could have L100 from his father when he came out of prison. I then waited to see what effect these tidings would have, not expecting to receive an answer for three months, for I had been told on enquiry that no letter could be received by a prisoner till after he had been three months in gaol. I also wrote to Theobald and told him of Pryer’s disappearance.

As a matter of fact, when my letter arrived the governor of the gaol read it, and in a case of such importance would have relaxed the rules if Ernest’s state had allowed it; his illness prevented this, and the governor left it to the chaplain and the doctor to break the news to him when they thought him strong enough to bear it, which was now the case. In the meantime I received a formal official document saying that my letter had been received and would be communicated to the prisoner in due course; I believe it was simply through a mistake on the part of a clerk that I was not informed of Ernest’s illness, but I heard nothing of it till I saw him by his own desire a few days after the chaplain had broken to him the substance of what I had written.

Ernest was terribly shocked when he heard of the loss of his mone............
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