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Philistia (Chapter21)

2006-08-28 23:26

  Chapter XXI. Off with the Old Love.

  'It's really very annoying, this letter from Selah,' Herbert Le Breton murmured to himself, as he carefully burnt the compromising document, envelope and all, with a fusee from his oriental silver pocket match-case. 'I had hoped the thing had all been forgotten by this time, after her long silence, and my last two judiciously chilly letters——a sort of slow refrigerating process for poor shivering naked little Cupid. But here, just at the very moment when I fancied the affair had quite blown over, comes this most objectionable letter, telling me that Selah has actually betaken herself to London to meet me; and what makes it more annoying still, I wanted to go up myself this week to dine at home with Ethel Faucit. Mother's plan about Ethel Faucit is exceedingly commendable; a girl with eight hundred a year, cultivated tastes, and no father or other encumbrances dragging after her. I always said I should like to marry a poor orphan. A very desirable young woman to annex in every way! And now, here's Selah Briggs——ugh! how could I ever have gone and entangled myself in my foolish days with a young woman burdened by such a cognomen!——here's Selah Briggs must needs run away from Hastings, and try to hunt me up on her own account in London. If I dared, I wouldn't go up to see her at all, and would let the thing die a natural death of inanition——sine Cerere et Baccho, and so forth——(I'm afraid, poor girl, she'll be more likely to find Bacchus than Ceres if she sticks in London); but the plain fact is, I don't dare——that's the long and the short of it. If I did, Selah'd be tracking me to earth here in Oxford, and a nice mess that'd make of it! She doesn't know my name, to be sure; but as soon as she called at college and found nobody of the name of Walters was known there, she'd lie in wait for me about the gates, as sure as my name's Herbert Le Breton, and sooner or later she'd take it out of me, one way or the other. Selah has as many devils in her as the Gergesene who dwelt among the tombs, I'll be sworn to it; and if she's provoked, she'll let them all loose in a legion to crush me. I'd better see her and have it out quietly, once for all, than try to shirk it here in Oxford and let myself in at the end for the worse condemnation.'

  Under this impression, Herbert Le Breton, leaning back in his well-padded oak armchair, ordered his scout to pack his portmanteau, and set off by the very first fast train for Paddington station. He would get over his interview with Selah Briggs in the afternoon, and return to Epsilon Terrace in good time for Lady Le Breton's dinner. Say what you like of it, Ethel Faucit and eight hundred a year, certe redditum, was a thing in no wise to be sneezed at by a judicious and discriminating person.

  Herbert left his portmanteau in the cloakroom at Paddington, and drove off in a hansom to the queer address which Selah had given him. It was a fishy lodging of the commoner sort in a back street at Notting Hill, not far from the Portobello Road. At the top of the stairs, Selah stood waiting to meet him, and seemed much astonished when, instead of kissing her, as was his wont, he only shook her hand somewhat coolly. But she thought to herself that probably he didn't wish to be too demonstrative before the eyes of the lodging-house people, and so took no further notice of it.

  'Well, Selah,' Herbert said, as soon as he entered the room, and seated himself quietly on one of the straight-backed wooden chairs, 'why on earth have you come to London?'

  'Goodness gracious, Herbert,' Selah answered, letting loose the floodgates of her rapid speech after a week's silence, 'don't you go and ask me why I've done it. Ask me rather why I didn't go and do it long ago. Father, he's got more and more aggravating every day for the last twelve-month, till at last I couldn't atand him any longer. Prayer meetings, missionary meetings, convention meetings, all that sort of thing I could put up with somehow; but when it came to private exhortations and prayer over me with three or four of the godliest neighbours, I made up my mind not to put up with it one day longer. So last week I packed up two or three little things hurriedly, and left a note behind to say I felt I was too unregenerate to live in such spiritual company any longer; and came straight up here to London, and took these lodgings. Emily Lucas, she wrote to me from Hastings——she's the daughter of the hairdresser in our street, you know, and I told her to write to me to the Post-office. Emily Lucas wrote to me that there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, and swearing almost, when they found out I'd really left them. And well there might be, indeed, for I did more work for them (mostly just to get away for a while from the privileges) than they'll ever get a hired servant to do for them in this world, Herbert.' Herbert moved uneasily on his chair, as he noticed how glibly she called him now by his Christian name instead of saying 'Mr. Walters.' 'And Emily says,' Selah went on, without stopping to take breath for a second, 'that father put an advertisement at once into the "Christian Mirror"——pah, as if it was likely I should go buying or reading the "Christian Mirror," indeed——to say that if "S. B." would return at once to her affectionate and injured parents, the whole past would be forgotten and forgiven. Forgotten and forgiven! I should think it would, indeed! But he didn't ask me whether their eternal bothering and plaguing of me about my precious soul for twenty years past would also be forgotten and forgiven! He didn't ask me whether all their meetings, and conventions, and prayers, and all the rest of it, would be forgotten and forgiven! My precious soul! In Turkey they say the women have no souls! I often wished it had been my happy lot to be born in Turkey, and then, perhaps, they wouldn't have worried me so much about it. I'm sure I often said to them, "Oh don't bother on account of my poor unfortunate misguided little soul any longer. It's lost altogether, I don't doubt, and it doesn't in the least trouble me. If it was somebody else's, I could understand your being in such a fearful state of mind about it; but as it's only mine, you know, I'm sure it really doesn't matter." And then they'd only go off worse than ever,——mother doing hysterics, and so forth——and say I was a wicked, bad, abominable scoffer, and that it made them horribly frightened even to listen to me. As if I wasn't more likely to know the real value of my own soul than anybody else was!'

  Herbert looked at her curiously and anxiously as she delivered this long harangue in a voluble stream, without a single pause or break; and then he said, in his quiet voice, 'How old are you, Selah?'

  'Twenty-two,' Selah answered, carelessly. 'Why, Herbert?'

  'Oh, nothing,' Herbert replied, turning away his eyes from her keen, searching gaze uncomfortably. He congratulated himself inwardly on the lucky fact that she was fully of age, for then at least he could only get into a row with her, and not with her parents. 'And now, Selah, do you know what I strongly advise you?'

  'To get married at once,' Selah put in promptly.

  Herbert drew himself up stiffly, and looked at her cautiously out of the corner of his eyes. 'No,' he said slowly, 'not to get married, but to go back again for the present to your people at Hastings. Consider, Selah, you've done a very foolish thing indeed by coming here alone in this way. You've compromised yourself, and you've compromised me. Indeed, if it weren't for the lasting affection I bear you'——he put this in awkwardly, but he felt it necessary to do so, for the flash of Selah's eyes fairly cowed him for the moment——'I wouldn't have come here at all this afternoon to see you. It might get us both into very serious trouble, and——and——and delay the prospect of our marriage. You see, everything depends upon my keeping my fellowship until I can get an appointment to marry on. Anything that risks loss of the fellowship is really a measurable danger for both of us.'

  Selah looked at him very steadily with her big eyes, and Herbert felt that he was quailing a little under their piercing, withering inquisition. By Jove, what a splendid woman she was, though, when she was angry! 'Herbert,' she said, rising from her chair and standing her full height imperiously before him, 'Herbert, you're deceiving me. I almost believe you're shilly-shallying with me. I almost believe you don't ever really mean to marry me.'

  Herbert moved uneasily upon his wooden seat. What was he to do? Should he make a clean breast of it forthwith, and answer boldly, 'Well, Selah, you have exactly diagnosed my mental attitude'? Or should he try to put her off a little with some meaningless explanatory platitudes? Or should he——by Jove, she was a very splendid woman!——should he take her in his arms that moment, kiss her doubts and fears away like a donkey, and boldly and sincerely promise to marry her? Pooh! not such a fool as all that comes to! not even with Selah before him now; for he was no boy any longer, and not to be caught by the mere vulgar charms of a flashy, self-asserting greengrocer's daughter.

  'Selah,' he said at last, after a long pause, 'I strongly advise you once more to return to Hastings for the present. You'll find it better for you in the end. If your people are quite unendurable——as I don't doubt they are from what you tell me——you could look about meanwhile for a temporary appointment, say as'——he checked himself from uttering the word 'shop girl,' and substituted for it, 'draper's assistant.'

  Selah looked at him angrily. 'What fools you men are about such things!' she said in a voice of utter scorn. 'When do you suppose I ever learnt the drapery? Or who do you suppose would ever give me a place in a shop of that sort without having learnt the drapery? I dare say you think it takes ten years to make one of you fine gentlemen at college, with your Greek and your Latin, but that the drapery, or the millinery, or the confectionery, comes by nature! However, that's not the question now. The question's simply this——Herbert Walters, do you or don't you mean to marry me?'

  'I must temporise,' Herbert thought to himself, placidly. 'This girl's quite too unreservedly categorical! She eliminates modality with a vengeance!' 'Well, Selah,' he said in his calmest and most deliberate manner, 'we must take a great many points into consideration before deciding on that matter.' And then he went on to tell her what seemed to him the pros and cons of an immediate marriage. Couldn't she get a place meanwhile of some sort? Couldn't she let him have time to look about him? Couldn't she go back just for a few days to Hastings, until he could hear of something feasible for either of them? Selah interrupted him more than once with forcible interjectional observations such as 'bosh!' and 'rubbish!' and when he had finished she burst out once more into a long and voluble statement.

  For more than an hour Herbert Le Breton and Selah Briggs fenced with one another, each after their own fashion, in the little fishy lodgings; and at every fresh thrust, Herbert parried so much the worse that at last Selah lost patience utterly, and rose in the end to the dignity of the situation. 'Herbert Walters,' she said, looking at him with unspeakable contempt, 'I see through your flimsy excuses now, and I feel certain you don't mean to marry me! You never did mean to marry me! You wanted to amuse yourself by making love to a poor girl in a country town, and now you'd like to throw her overboard and leave her alone to her own devices. I knew you meant that when you didn't write to me; but I wouldn't condemn you unheard; I gave you a chance to clear yourself. I see now you were trying to drop the acquaintance quietly, and make it seem as if I had backed out of it as well as you.'

  Herbert felt the moment for breaking through all reserve had finally arrived. 'You admirably interpret my motives in the matter, Selah,' he said coldly. 'I don't think it would be just of me to interfere with your prospects in life any longer. I can't say how long it may be before I am able to afford marriage; and, meanwhile, I'm preventing you from forming a natural alliance with some respectable and estimable young man in your own station. I should be sorry to stand in your way any further; but if I could offer you any small pecuniary assistance at any time, either now or hereafter, you know I'd be very happy indeed to do so, Selah.'

  The angry girl turned upon him fiercely. 'Selah!' she cried in a tone of crushing contempt. 'What do you mean by calling me Selah, sir? How dare you speak to me by my Christian name in the same breath you tell me you don't mean to marry me? How dare you have the insolence and impertinence to offer me money! Never say another word to me as long as you live, Herbert Walters; and leave me now, for I don't want to have anything more to say to you or your money for ever.'

  Herbert took up his hat doubtfully. 'Selah!——Selah!——Miss Briggs, I mean,' he said, falteringly, for at that moment Selah's face was terrible to look at. 'I'm very sorry, I can assure you, that this interview——and our pleasant acquaintance——should unfortunately have had such a disagreeable termination. For my own part'——Herbert was always politic——'I should have wished to part with you in no unfriendly spirit. I should have wished to learn your plans for the future, and to aid you in forming a suitable settlement in life hereafter. May I venture to ask, before I go, whether you mean to remain in London or to return to Hastings? As one who has been your sincere friend, I should at least like to know what are your movements for the immediate present. How long do you mean to stop here, and when you leave these rooms where do you think you will next go to?'——'Confoundedly awkward,' he thought to himself, 'to have her prowling about and dogging one's footsteps here in London.'

  Selah read through his miserable transparent little pretences at once with a woman's quick instinctive insight. 'Ugh!' she cried, pushing him away from her, figuratively, with a gesture of disgust, 'do you think, you poor suspicious creature, I want to go spying you or following you all over London? Are you afraid, in your sordid little respectable way, that I'll come up to Oxford to pry and peep into that snug comfortable fellowship of yours? Do you suppose I'm so much in love with you, Herbert Walters, that I can't let you go without wanting to fawn upon you and run after you ever afterwards! Pah! you miserable, pitiable, contemptible cur and coward, are you afraid even of a woman! Go away, and don't be frightened. I never want to see you or speak to you again as long as I live, you wretched, lying, shuffling hypocrite. I'd rather go back to my own people at Hastings a thousand times over than have anything more to do with you. They may be narrow-minded, and bigoted, and ignorant, and stupid, but at least they're honest——they're not liars and hypocrites. Go this minute, Herbert Walters, go away this minute, and don't stand there fiddling and quivering with your hat like a whipped schoolboy, but go at once, and take my eternal loathing and contempt for a parting present with you!'

  Herbert held the door gingerly ajar for half a second, trying to think of a neat and appropriate epigram, but at that particular moment, for the life of him, he couldn't hit on one. So he closed the door after him quietly, and walking out alone into the street, immediately nailed a passing hansom. 'I didn't come out of that dilemma very creditably to myself, I must admit,' he thought with a burning face, as he rolled along quickly in the hansom; 'but anyhow, now I'm well out of it. The coast's all clear at last for Ethel Faucit. It's well to be off with the old love before you're on with the new, as that horrid vulgar practical proverb justly though somewhat coarsely puts it. Still, she's a perfectly magnificent creature, is Selah; and by Jove, when she got into that towering rage (and no wonder, for I won't be unjust to her in that respect), her tone and attitude would have done credit to any theatre. I should think Mrs. Siddons must have looked like that, say as Constance. Poor girl, I'm really sorry for her; from the very bottom of my heart, I'm really sorry for her. If it rested with me alone, hang me if I don't think I would positively have married her. But after all, the environment, you know, the environment is always too strong for us!'

  Meanwhile, in the shabby lodgings near the Portobello Road, poor Selah, the excitement once over, was lying with her proud face buried in the pillows, and crying her very life out in great sobs of utter misery. The daydream of her whole existence was gone for ever: the bubble was burst; and nothing stood before her but a future of utter drudgery. 'The brute, the cur, the mean wretch,' she said aloud between her sobs; 'and yet I loved him. How beautifully he talked, and how he made me love him. If it had only been a common everyday Methodist sweetheart, now! but Herbert Walters! Oh, God, how I hate him, and how I did love him!'

  When Herbert reached his mother's house in Epsilon Terrace, Lady Le Breton met him anxiously at the door. 'Herbert,' she said, almost weeping, 'my dear boy, what on earth should I do if it were not for you! You're the one comfort I have in all my children. Would you believe it——no, you won't believe it——as I was walking back here this afternoon with Mrs. Faucit (Ethel's aunt, of all people in the world), what do you think I saw, in our own main street, too, but a young man, decently dressed, in his shirt sleeves. No coat, I assure you, but only his shirt sleeves. Imagine my horror when he came up to us——Mrs. Faucit, too, you know——and said to me out loud, in the most unconcerned voice, "Well, mother!" I couldn't believe my eyes. Herbert, but I solemnly declare to you it was positively Ronald! You really could have knocked me down with a feather. Disgraceful, wasn't it, perfectly disgraceful!'

  'How on earth did he come so?' asked Herbert, almost smiling in spite of himself.

  'Why, do you know, Herbert,' Lady Le Breton answered somewhat obliquely, 'a few days since, I met him wheeling along a barrow full of coals for a dirty, grimy, ragged little girl from some alley or gutter somewhere. I believe they call the place the Mews——at the back of the terrace, you remember. He pretended the child wasn't big enough to wheel the coals, which was absurd, of course, or else her parents wouldn't have sent her; but I'm sure he really did it on purpose to annoy me. He never does these things when I'm not by to see; or if he does, I never see him. Now, that was bad enough in all conscience, wasn't it? but to-day what he did was still more outrageous. He met a poor man, as he calls him, in Westbourne Grove, who was one of his Christian brethren (is that the right expression?) and who declared he was next door to starving. So what must Ronald do, but run into a pawnbroker's——I shouldn't have thought he could ever have heard of such a place——and sell his coat, or something of the sort, and give the man (who was doubtless an impostor) all the money. Then he positively walked home in his shirt sleeves. I call it a most unchristian thing to do——and to walk straight into my very arms, too, as I was coming along with Mrs. Faucit.'

  Herbert offered at once such condolences as were in his power. 'And are the Faucits coming to night?' he asked eagerly.

  Lady Le Breton kissed him again gently on the forehead. 'Oh, Herbert,' she said warmly, 'I can't tell you what a comfort you always are to me. Oh yes, the Faucits are coming; and do you know, Herbert, my dear boy, I'm quite sure that old Mr. Faucit, the uncle, wouldn't at all object to the match, and that Ethel's really very much disposed indeed to like you immensely. You've only to follow up the advantage, my dear boy, and I don't for a moment think she'd ever refuse you. And I've been talking to Sir Sydney Weatherhead about your future, too, and he tells me (quite privately, of course) that, with your position and honours at Oxford, he fully believes he can easily push you into the first good vacant post at the Education Office; only you must be careful to say nothing about it beforehand, or the others will say it's a job, as they call it. Oh, Herbert, I really and truly can't tell you what a joy and a comfort you always are to me!'

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