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Chapter 72
ERNEST told Ellen of his difficulty about finding employment. “But what do what do you think of going into a shop for, my dear,” said Ellen. “Why not take a little shop yourself?”

Ernest asked how much this would cost. Ellen told him that he might take a house in some small street, say near the “Elephant and Castle,” for 17s. or 18s. a week, and let off the two top floors for 10s., keeping the back parlour and shop for themselves. If he could raise five or six pounds to buy some second-hand clothes to stock the shop with, they could mend them and clean them, and she could look after the women’s clothes while he did the men’s. Then he could mend and make, if he could get the orders.

They could soon make a business of L2 a week in this way; she had a friend who began like that and had now moved to a better shop, where she made L5 or L6 a week at least — and she, Ellen, had done the greater part of the buying and selling herself.

Here was a new light indeed. It was as though he had got his L5000 back again all of a sudden, and perhaps ever so much more later on into the bargain. Ellen seemed more than ever to be his good genius.

She went out and got a few rashers of bacon for his and her breakfast. She cooked them much more nicely than he had been able to do, and laid breakfast for him and made coffee, and some nice brown toast. Ernest had been his own cook and housemaid for the last few days and had not given himself satisfaction. Here he suddenly found himself with someone to wait on him again. Not only had Ellen pointed out to him how he could earn a living when no one except himself had known how to advise him, but here she was so pretty and smiling, looking after even his comforts, and restoring him practically in all respects that he much cared about to the position which he had lost — or rather putting him in one that he already liked much better. No wonder he was radiant when he came to explain his plans to me.

He had some difficulty in telling all that had happened. He hesitated, blushed, hummed, and hawed. Misgivings began to cross his mind when he found himself obliged to tell his story to someone else. He felt inclined to slur things over, but I wanted to get at the facts, so I helped him over the bad places, and questioned him tin I had got out pretty nearly the whole story as I have given it above.

I hope I did not show it, but I was very angry. I had begun to like Ernest. I don’t know why, but I never have heard that any young man to whom I had become attached was going to get married without hating his intended instinctively, though I had never seen her; I have observed that most bachelors feel the same thing, though we are generally at some pains to hide the fact. Perhaps it is because we know we ought to have got married ourselves. Ordinarily we say we are delighted — in the present case I did not feel obliged to do this, though I made an effort to conceal my vexation. That a young man of much promise who was heir also to what was now a handsome fortune, should fling himself away upon such a person as Ellen was quite too provoking, and the more so because of the unexpectedness of the whole affair.

I begged him not to marry Ellen yet — not at least until he had known her for a longer time. He would not hear of it; he had given his word, and if he had not given it he should go and give it at once. I had hitherto found him upon most matters singularly docile and easy to manage, but on this point I could do nothing with him. His recent victory over his father and mother had increased his strength, and I was nowhere. I would have told him of his true position, but I knew very well that this would only make him more bent on having his own way — for with so much money why should he not please himself? I said nothing, therefore, on this head, and yet all that I could urge went for very little with one who believed himself to be an artisan or nothing.

Really from his own standpoint there was nothing very outrageous in what he was doing. He had known and been very fond of Ellen years before. He knew her to come of respectable people, and to have borne a good character, and to have been universally liked at Battersby. She was then a quick, smart, hard-working girl — and a very pretty one. When at last they met again she was on her best behaviour — in fact, she was modesty and demureness itself. What wonder, then, that his imagination should fail to realise the changes that eight years must have worked? He knew too much against himself, and was too bankrupt in love to be squeamish; if Ellen had been only what he thought her, and if his prospects had been in reality no better than he believed they were, I do not know that there is anything much more imprudent in what Ernest proposed than there is in half the marriages that take place every day.

There was nothing for it, however, but to make the best of the inevitable, so I wished my young friend good fortune, and told him he could have whatever money he wanted to start his shop with, if what he had in hand was not sufficient. He thanked me, asked me to be kind enough to let him do all my mending and repairing, and to get him any other like orders that I could, and left me to my own reflections.

I was even more angry when he was gone than I had been while he was with me. His frank, boyish face had beamed with a happiness that had rarely visited it. Except at Cambridge he had hardly known what happiness meant, and even there his life had been clouded as of a man for whom wisdom at the greatest of its entrances was quite shut out. I had seen enough of the world and of him to have observed this, but it was impossible, or I thought it had been impossible, for me to have helped him.

Whether I ought to have tried to help him or not I do not know, but I am sure that the young of all animals often do want help upon matters about which anyone would say a priori that there should be no difficulty. One would think that a young seal would want no teaching how to swim, nor yet a bird to fly, but in practice a young seal drowns if put out of its depth before its parents have taught it to swim; and so again, even the young hawk must be taught to fly before it can do so.

I grant that the tendency of the times is to exaggerate the good which teaching can do, but in trying to teach too much, in most matters, we have neglected others in respect of which a little sensible teaching would do no harm.

I know it is the fashion to say that young people must find out things for themselves, and so they probably would if they had fair play to the extent of not having obstacles put in their way. But they seldom have fair play; as a general rule they meet with foul play, and foul play from those who live by selling them stones made into a great variety of shapes and sizes so as to form a tolerable imitation of bread.

Some are lucky enough to meet with few obstacles, some are plucky enough to override them, but in the greater number of cases, if people are saved at all they are saved so as by fire.

While Ernest was with me Ellen was looking out for a shop on the south side of the Thames near the “Elephant and Castle,” which was then almost a new and a very rising neighbourhood. By one o’clock she had found several from which a selection was to be made, and before night the pair had made their choice.

Ernest brought Ellen to me. I did not want to see her, but could not well refuse. He had laid out a few of his shillings upon her wardrobe, so that she was neatly dressed, and, indeed, she looked very pretty and so good that I could hardly be surprised at Ernest’s infatuation when the other circumstances of the case were taken into consideration. Of course we hated one another instinctively from the first moment we set eyes on one another, but we each told Ernest that we had been most favourably impressed.

Then I was taken to see the shop. An empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed. Decay sets in at once in every part of it, and what mould and wind and weather would spare, street boys commonly destroy. Ernest’s shop in its untenanted state was a dirty, unsavoury place enough. The house was not old, but it had been run up by a jerry-builder and its constitution had no stamina whatever. It was only by being kept warm and quiet that it would remain in health for many months together. Now it had been empty for some weeks and the cats had got in by night, while the boys had broken the windows by day. The parlour floor was covered with stones and dirt, and in the area was a dead dog which had been killed in the street and been thrown down into the first unprotected place that could be found. There was a strong smell throughout the house, but whether it was bugs, or rats, or cats, or drains, or a compound of all four, I could not determine. The sashes did not fit, the flimsy doors hung badly; the skirting was gone in several places, and there were not a few holes in the floor; the locks were loose, and paper was torn and dirty; the stairs were weak and one felt the treads give as one went up them.

Over and above these drawbacks the house had an ill name, by reason of the fact that the wife of the last occupant had hanged herself in it not very many weeks previously. She had set down a bloater before the fire for her husband’s tea, and had made him a round of toast. She then left the room as though about to return to it shortly, but instead of doing so she went into the back kitchen and hanged herself without a word. It was this which had kept the house empty so long in spite of its excellent position as a corner shop. The last tenant had left immediately after the inquest, and if the owner had had it done up then people would have got over the tragedy that had been enacted in it, but the combination of bad condition and bad fame had hindered many from taking it, who, like Ellen, could see that it had great business capabilities. Almost anything would have sold there, but it happened also that there was no second-hand clothes shop in close proximity, so that everything combined in its favour, except its filthy state and its reputation.

When I saw it, I thought I would rather die than live in such an awful place — but then I had been living in the Temple for the last five-and-twenty years. Ernest was lodging in Laystall Street and had just come out of prison; before this he had lived in Ashpit Place, so that this house had no terrors for him provided he could get it done up. The difficulty was that the landlord was hard to move in this respect. It ended in my finding the money to do everything that was wanted, and taking a lease of the house for five years at the same rental as that paid by the last occupant. I then sublet it to Ernest, of course taking care that it was put more efficiently into repair than his landlord was at all likely to have put it.

A week later I called and found everything so completely transformed that I should hardly have recognised the house. All the ceilings had been whitewashed, all the rooms papered, the broken glass hacked out and reinstated, the defective wood-work renewed, all the sashes, cupboards and doors had been painted. The drains had been thoroughly overhauled, everything in fact that could be done had been done, and the rooms now looked as cheerful as they had been forbidding when I had last seen them. The people who had done the repairs were supposed to have cleaned the house down before leaving, but Ellen had given it another scrub from top to bottom herself after they were gone, and it was as clean as a new pin. I almost felt as though I could have lived in it myself, and as for Ernest, he was in the seventh heaven. He said it was all my doing and Ellen’s.

There was already a counter in the shop and a few fittings, so that nothing............
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