Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 37

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“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 grandfather’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 £1000 or £2000 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 saw it that he remembered it as the first thing that made him begin to rise against his father in a rebellion which he recognised as righteous, though he dared not openly avow it.  Not the least serious thing was that it would, he feared, be his duty to give up the legacy his grandfather had left him; for if it was his only through a mistake, how could he keep it?

During the rest of the half year Ernest was listless and unhappy.  He was very fond of some of his schoolfellows, but afraid of those whom he believed to be better than himself, and prone to idealise everyone into being his superior except those who were obviously a good deal beneath him.  He held himself much too cheap, and because he was without that physical strength and vigour which he so much coveted, and also because he knew he shirked his lessons, he believed that he was without anything which could deserve the name of a good quality; he was naturally bad, and one of those for whom there was no place for repentance, though he sought it even with tears.  So he shrank out of sight of those whom in his boyish way he idolised, never for a moment suspecting that he might have capacities to the full as high as theirs though of a different kind, and fell in more with those who were reputed of the baser sort, with whom he could at any rate be upon equal terms.  Before the end of the half year he had dropped from the estate to which he had been raised during his aunt’s stay at Roughborough, and his old dejection, varied, however, with bursts of conceit rivalling those of his mother, resumed its sway over him.  “Pontifex,” said Dr Skinner, who had fallen upon him in hall one day like a moral landslip, before he had time to escape, “do you never laugh?  Do you always look so preternaturally grave?”  The doctor had not meant to be unkind, but the boy turned crimson, and escaped.