I must now return to Miss Alethea Pontifex, of whom I have said perhaps too little hitherto, considering how great her influence upon my hero’s destiny proved to be.
On the death of her father, which happened when she was about thirty-two years old, she parted company with her sisters, between whom and herself there had been little sympathy, and came up to London. She was determined, so she said, to make the rest of her life as happy as she could, and she had clearer ideas about the best way of setting to work to do this than women, or indeed men, generally have.
Her fortune consisted, as I have said, of 5000 pounds, which had come to her by her mother’s marriage settlements, and 15,000 pounds left her by her father, over both which sums she had now absolute control. These brought her in about 900 pounds a year, and the money being invested in none but the soundest securities, she had no anxiety about her income. She meant to be rich, so she formed a scheme of expenditure which involved an annual outlay of about 500 pounds, and determined to put the rest by. “If I do this,” she said laughingly, “I shall probably just succeed in living comfortably within my income.” In accordance with this scheme she took unfurnished apartments in a house in Gower Street, of which the lower floors were let out as offices. John Pontifex tried to get her to take a house to herself, but Alethea told him to mind his own business so plainly that he had to beat a retreat. She had never liked him, and from that time dropped him almost entirely.
Without going much into society she yet became acquainted with most of the men and women who had attained a position in the literary, artistic and scientific worlds, and it was singular how highly her opinion was valued in spite of her never having attempted in any way to distinguish herself. She could have written if she had chosen, but she enjoyed seeing others write and encouraging them better than taking a more active part herself. Perhaps literary people liked her all the better because she did not write.
I, as she very well knew, had always been devoted to her, and she might have had a score of other admirers if she had liked, but she had discouraged them all, and railed at matrimony as women seldom do unless they have a comfortable income of their own. She by no means, however, railed at man as she railed at matrimony, and though living after a fashion in which even the most censorious could find nothing to complain of, as far as she properly could she defended those of her own sex whom the world condemned most severely.