Pryer had done well to warn Ernest against promiscuous house to house visitation. He had not gone outside Mrs Jupp’s street door, and yet what had been the result?
Mr Holt had put him in bodily fear; Mr and Mrs Baxter had nearly made a Methodist of him; Mr Shaw had undermined his faith in the Resurrection; Miss Snow’s charms had ruined—or would have done so but for an accident—his moral character. As for Miss Maitland, he had done his best to ruin hers, and had damaged himself gravely and irretrievably in consequence. The only lodger who had done him no harm was the bellows’ mender, whom he had not visited.
Other young clergymen, much greater fools in many respects than he, would not have got into these scrapes. He seemed to have developed an aptitude for mischief almost from the day of his having been ordained. He could hardly preach without making some horrid faux pas. He preached one Sunday morning when the Bishop was at his Rector’s church, and made his sermon turn upon the question what kind of little cake it was that the widow of Zarephath had intended making when Elijah found her gathering a few sticks. He demonstrated that it was a seed cake. The sermon was really very amusing, and more than once he saw a smile pass over the sea of faces underneath him. The Bishop was very angry, and gave my hero a severe reprimand in the vestry after service was over; the only excuse he could make was that he was preaching ex tempore, had not thought of this particular point till he was actually in the pulpit, and had then been carried away by it.
Another time he preached upon the barren fig-tree, and described the hopes of the owner as he watched the delicate blossom unfold, and give promise of such beautiful fruit in autumn. Next day he received a letter from a botanical member of his congregation who explained to him that this could hardly have been, inasmuch as the fig produces its fruit first and blossoms inside the fruit, or so nearly so that no flower is perceptible to an ordinary observer. This last, however, was an accident which might have happened to any one but a scientist or an inspired writer.
The only excuse I can make for him is that he was very young—not yet four and twenty—and that in mind as in body, like most of those who in the end come to think for themselves, he was a slow grower. By far the greater part, moreover, of his education had been an attempt, not so much to keep him in blinkers as to gouge his eyes out altogether.
But to return to my story. It transpired afterwards that Miss Maitland had had no intention of giving Ernest in charge when she ran out of Mrs Jupp’s house. She was running away because she was frightened, but almost the first person whom she ran against had happened to be a policeman of a serious turn of mind, who wished to gain a reputation for activity. He stopped her, questioned her, frightened her still more, and it was he rather than Miss Maitland, who insisted on giving my hero in charge to himself and another constable.