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Philistia (Chapter16)

2006-08-28 23:24

  Chapter XVI. Flat Rebellion.

  For the next fortnight Ernest remained at the Red Lion, though painfully conscious that he was sadly wasting his little reserve of funds from his late tutorship, in order to find out exactly what the Oswalds' position would be after the loss of poor Harry. Towards the end of that time he took Edie, pale and pretty in her simple new mourning, out once more into the Bourne Close for half an hour's quiet conversation. Very delicate and sweet and refined that tiny girlish face and figure looked in the plain unostentatious black and white of her great sorrow, and Ernest felt as he walked along by her side that she seemed to lean upon him naturally now; the loss of her main support and chief advisor in life seemed to draw her closer and closer every day to her one remaining prop and future husband.

  'Edie,' he said to her, as they rested once more beside the old wooden bridge across the little river, 'I think it's time now we should begin to talk definitely over our common plans for the future. I know you'd naturally rather wait a little longer before discussing them; I wish for both our sakes we could have deferred it; but time presses, and I'm afraid from what I hear in the village that things won't go on henceforth exactly as they used to do with your dear father and mother.'

  Edie coloured slightly as she answered, 'Then you've heard of all that already, Ernest'——she was learning to call him 'Ernest' now quite naturally. 'The Calcombe tattle has got round to you so soon! I'm glad of it, though, for it saves me the pain of having to tell you. Yes, it's quite true, and I'm afraid it will be a terrible, dreadful struggle for poor darling father and mother.' And the tears came up afresh, as she spoke, into her big black eyes——too familiar with them of late to make her even try to brush them away hastily from Ernest's sight with her little handkerchief.

  'I'm sorry to know it's true,' Ernest said, taking her hand gently; 'very, very sorry. We must do what we can to lighten the trouble for them.'

  'Yes,' Edie replied, looking at him through her tears; 'I mean to try. At any rate, I won't be a burden to them myself any longer. I've written already up to an agency in London to see whether they can manage to get me a place as a nursery-governess.'

  'You a governess, Edie!' Ernest exclaimed hastily, with a gesture of deprecation. 'You a governess! Why, my own precious darling, you would never do for it!'

  'Oh yes, indeed,' Edie answered quickly, 'I really think I could, Ernest. Of course I don't know very much——not judged by a standard like yours or our dear Harry's. Harry used to say all a woman could ever know was to find out how ignorant she was. Dear fellow! he was so very learned himself he couldn't understand the complacency of little perky, half-educated schoolmistresses. But still, I know quite as much, I think, in my little way, as a great many girls who get good places in London as governesses. I can speak French fairly well, you know, and read German decently; and then dear Harry took such a lot of pains to make me get up books that he thought were good for me——history and so forth——and even to teach me a little, a very little, Latin. Of course I know I'm dreadfully ignorant; but not more so, I really believe, than a great many girls whom people consider quite well-educated enough to teach their daughters. After all, the daughters themselves are only women, too, you see, Ernest, and don't expect more than a smattering of book-knowledge, and a few showy fashionable accomplishments.'

  'My dear Edie,' Ernest answered, smiling at her gently in spite of her tearful earnestness; 'you quite misunderstand me. It wasn't that I was thinking of at all. There are very few governesses and very few women anywhere who have half the knowledge and accomplishments and literary taste and artistic culture that you have; very few who have had the advantage of associating daily with such a man as poor Harry; and if you really wanted to get a place of the sort, the mere fact that you're Harry's sister, and that he interested himself in superintending your education, ought, by itself, to ensure your getting a very good one. But what I meant was rather this——I couldn't endure to think that you should be put to all the petty slights and small humiliations that a governess has always to endure in rich families. You don't know what it is, Edie; you can't imagine the endless devices for making her feel her dependence and her artificial inferiority that these great people have devised in their cleverness and their Christian condescension. You don't know what it is, Edie, and I pray heaven you may never know; but I do, for I've seen it——and, darling, I can't let you expose yourself to it.'

  To say the truth, at that moment there rose very vividly before Ernest's eyes the picture of poor shy Miss Merivale, the governess at Dunbude to little Lady Sybil, Lynmouth's younger sister. Miss Merivale was a rector's daughter——an orphan, and a very nice girl in her way; and Ernest had often thought to himself while he lived at the Exmoors', 'With just the slightest turn of Fortune's wheel that might be my own Edie.' Now, for himself he had never felt any sense of social inferiority at all at Dunbude; he was an Oxford man, and by the ordinary courtesy of English society he was always treated accordingly in every way as an equal. But there were galling distinctions made in Miss Merivale's case which he could not think of even at the time without a blush of ingenuous shame, and which he did not like now even to mention to pretty, shrinking, eager little Edie. One thing alone was enough to make his cheeks burn whenever he thought of it——a little thing, and yet how unendurable! Miss Merivale lunched with the family and with her pupil in the middle of the day, but she did not dine with them in the evening. She had tea by herself instead in Lady Sybil's little school-room. Many a time when Ernest had been out walking with her on the terrace just before dinner, and the dressing-gong sounded, he had felt almost too ashamed to go in at the summons and leave the poor little governess out there alone with her social disabilities. The gong seemed to raise such a hideous artificial barrier between himself and that delicately-bred, sensitive, cultivated English lady. That Edie should be subjected to such a life of affronts as that was simply unendurable. True, there are social distinctions of the sort which even Ernest Le Breton, communist as he was, could not practically get over; but then they were distinctions familiarised to the sufferers from childhood upward, and so perhaps a little less insupportable. But that Harry Oswald's sister——that Edie, his own precious delicate little Edie, a dainty English wild-flower of the tenderest, should be transplanted from her own appreciative home to such a chilly and ungenial soil as that——the very idea of it was horribly unspeakable.

  'But, Ernest,' Edie answered, breaking in upon his bitter meditation, 'I assure you I wouldn't mind it a bit. I know——it's very dreadful, but then,'——and here she blushed one of her pretty apologetic little blushes——'you know I'm used to it. People in business always are. They expect to be treated just like servant——now that, I know you'll say, is itself a piece of hubris, the expression of a horrid class prejudice. And so it is, no doubt. But they do, for all that. As dear Harry used to say, even the polypes in aristocratic useless sponges at the sea-bottom won't have anything to say to the sponges of commerce. I'm sure nobody I could meet in a governess's place could possibly be worse in that respect than poor old Miss Catherine Luttrell.'

  'That may be true, Edie darling,' Ernest answered, not caring to let her know that he had overheard a specimen of the Calcombe squirearchy, 'but in any case I don't want you to be troubled now, either with old Miss Luttrell or any other bitter old busybodies. I want to speak seriously to you about a very different project. Just look at this advertisement.'

  He took a scrap of paper from his pocket and handed it to Edie. It ran thus:——

  'WANTED at Pilbury Regis Grammar School, Dorset, a Third Classical Master. Must be a Graduate of Oxford or Cambridge; University Prizeman preferred. If unmarried, to take house duty. Commence September 20th. Salary, 200L a year. Apply, as above, to the Rev. J. Greatrex, D.D., Head Master.'

  Edie read it through slowly. 'Well, Ernest?' she said, looking up from it into his face. 'Do you think of taking this mastership?'

  'If I can get it,' Ernest answered. 'You see, I'm not a University Prizeman, and that may be a difficulty in the way; but otherwise I'm not unlikely to suit the requirements. Herbert knows something of the school——he's been down there to examine; and Mrs. Greatrex had a sort of distant bowing acquaintance with my mother; so I hope their influence might help me into it.'

  'Well, Ernest?' Edie cried again, feeling pretty certain in her own heart what was coming next, and reddening accordingly.

  'Well, Edie, in that case, would you care to marry at once, and try the experiment of beginning life with me upon two hundred a year? I know it's very little, darling, for our wants and necessities, brought up as you and I have been: but Herr Max says, you know, it's as much as any one family ought ever to spend upon its own gratifications; and at any rate I dare say you and I could manage to be very happy upon it, at least for the present. In any case it wnuld be better than being a governess. Will you risk it, Edie?'

  'To me, Ernest,' Edie answered with her unaffected simplicity, 'it really seems quite a magnificent income. I don't suppose any of our friends or neighbours in Calcombe spend nearly as much as two hundred a year upon their own families.'

  'Ah, yes, they do, darling. But that isn't the only thing. Two hundred a year is a very different matter in quiet, old-world, little Calcombe and in a fashionable modern watering-place like Pilbury Regis. We shall have to live in lodgings, Edie, and live very quietly indeed; but epen so I think it will be better than for you to go out and endure the humiliation of becoming a governess. Then I may understand that, if I can get this mastership, you'll consent to be married, Edie, before the end of September?'

  'Oh, Ernest, that's dreadfully soon!'

  'Yes, it is, darling; but you must have a very quiet wedding; and I can't bear to leave you here now any longer without Harry to cheer and protect you. Shall we look upon it as settled?'

  Edie blushed and looked down as she answered almost inaudibly, 'As you think best, dear Ernest.'

  So that very evening Ernest sent off an application to Pilbury Regis, together with such testimonials as he had by him, mentioning at the same time his intention to marry, and his recent engagement at Lord Exmoor's. 'I hope they won't make a point about the University Prize, Edie,' he said timidly; 'but I rather think they don't mean to insist upon it. I'm afraid it may be put in to some extent mainly as a bait to attract parents. Advertisements are often so very dishonest. At any rate, we can only try; and if I get it, I shall be able to call you my little wife in September.'

  So soon after poor Harry's death he hardly liked to say much about how happy that consciousness would make him; but he sent off the letter with a beating heart, and waited anxiously for the head master's answer.

  'Maria,' said Dr. Greatrex to his wife next morning, turning over the pile of letters at the breakfast table, 'who do you think has applied for the third mastership? Very lucky, really, isn't it?'

  'Considering that there are some thirty millions of people in England, I believe, Dr. Greatrex,' said his wife with dignity, 'that some seventy of those have answered your advertisement, and that you haven't yet given me an opportunity even of guessing which it is of them all, I'm sure I can't say so far whether it's lucky or otherwise.'

  'You're pleased to be satirical, my dear,' the doctor answered blandly; he was in too good a humour to pursue the opening further. 'But no matter. Well, I'll tell you, then; it's young Le Breton.'

  'Not Lady Le Breton's son!' cried Mrs. Greatrex, forgetting her dignity in her surprise. 'Well, that certainly is very lucky. Now, if we could only get her to come down and stay with us for a week sometimes, after he's been here a little while, what a splendid advertisement it would be for the place, to be sure, Joseph!'

  'Capital!' the head master said, eyeing the letter complacently as he sipped his coffee. 'A perfect jewel of a master, I should say, from every possible point of view. Just the sort of person to attract parents and pupils. "Allow me to introduce you to our third master, Mr. Le Breton; I hope Lady Le Breton was quite well when you heard from her last, Le Breton?" and all that sort of thing. Depend upon it, Maria, there's nothing in the world that makes a middle-class parent——and our parents are unfortunately all middle-class——prick up his ears like the faintest suspicion or echo of a title. "Very good school," he goes back and says to his wife immediately; "we'll send Tommy there; they have a master who's an honourable or something of the sort; sure to give the boys a thoroughly high gentlemanly tone." It's snobbery, I admit, sheer snobbery: but between ourselves, Maria, most people are snobs, and we have to live, professionally, by accommodating ourselves to their foolish prejudices.'

  'At the same time, doctor,' said his wife severely, 'I don't think we ought to allow it too freely, at least with the door open.'

  'You're quite right, my dear,' the head master answered submissively, rising at the same time to shut the door. 'But what makes this particular application all the better is that young Le Breton would come here straight from the Earl of Exmoor's where he has been acting as tutor to the son and heir, Viscount Lynmouth. That's really admirable, now, isn't it? Just consider the advantages of the situation. A doubtful parent comes to inspect the arrangements; sniffs at the dormitories, takes the gauge of the studies, snorts over the playground, condescends to approve of the fives courts. Then, after doing the usual Christian principles business and working in the high moral tone a little, we invite him to lunch, and young Le Breton to meet him. You remark casually in the most unconscious and natural fashion——I admit, my dear, that you do these little things much better than I do——"Oh, talking of cricket, Mr. Le Breton, your old pupil, Lord Lynmouth, made a splendid score the other day at the Eton and Harrow." Fixes the wavering parent like a shot. "Third master something or other in the peerage, and has been tutor to a son of Lord Exmoor's. Place to send your boys to if you want to make perfect gentlemen of them." I think we'd better close at once with this young man's offer, Maria. He's got a very decent degree, too; a first in Mods and Greats; really very decent.'

  'But will he take a house-mastership do you think, doctor?' asked the careful lady.

  'No, he won't; he's married or soon going to be. We must let him off the house duty.'

  'Married!' said Mrs. Greatrex, turning it over cautiously. 'Who's he going to marry, I wonder? I hope somebody presentable.'

  'Why, of course!' Dr. Greatrex answered, as who should feel shocked at the bare suggestion that a young man of Ernest Le Breton's antecedents could conceivably marry otherwise.

  'His wife, or rather his wife that is to be, is a sister, he tells me, of that poor Mr. Oswald——the famous mathematician, you know, of Oriel——who got killed, you remember, by falling off the Matterhorn or somewhere, just the other day. You must have seen about it in the "Times."'

  'I remember,' Mrs. Greatrex answered, in placid contentment; 'and I should say you can't do better than take him immediately. It'd be an excellent thing for the school, certainly. As the third mastership's worth only two hundred a year, of course he can't intend to marry upon that; so he must have means of his own, which is always a good thing to encourage in an under-master: or if his wife has money, that comes in the end to the same thing. They'll take a house of their own, no doubt; and she'll probably entertain——very quietly, I daresay; still, a small dinner now and then gives a very excellent tone to the school in its own way. Social considerations, as I always say, Joseph, are all-important in school management; and I think we may take it for granted that Mr. Le Breton would be socially a real acquisition.'

  So it was shortly settled that Dr. Greatrex should write back accepting Ernest Le Breton as third master; and Mrs. Greatrex began immediately dropping stray allusions to 'Lady Le Breton, our new master's mother, you know,' among her various acquaintance, especially those with rising young families. The doctor and she thought a good deal of this catch they were making in the person of Ernest Le Breton. Poor souls, they little knew what sort of social qualities they were letting themselves in for. A firebrand or a bombshell would really have been a less remarkable guest to drop down straight into the prim and proper orthodox society of Pilbury Regis.

  When Ernest received the letter in which Dr. Greatrex informed him that he might have the third mastership, he hardly knew how to contain his joy. He kissed Edie a dozen times over in his excitement, and sat up late making plans with her which would have been delightful but for poor Edie's lasting sorrow. In a short time it was all duly arranged, and Ernest began to think that he must go back to London for a day or two, to let Lady Le Breton hear of his change of plans, and got everything in order for their quiet wedding. He grudged the journey sadly, for he was beginning to understand now that he must take care of the pence for Edie's sake as well as for humanity's——his abstraction was individualising itself in concrete form——but he felt so much at least was demanded of him by filial duty, and, besides, he had one or two little matters to settle at Epsilon Terrace which could not so well be managed in his absence even by his trusty deputy, Ronald. So he ran up to town once more in a hurry, and dropped in as if nothing had happened, at his mother's house. It was no unusual matter for him to pass a fortnight at Wilton Place without finding time to call round at Epsilon Terrace to see Ronald, and his mother had not heard at all as yet of his recent change of engagement.

  Lady Le Breton listened with severe displeasure to Ernest's account of his quarrel with Lord Exmoor. It was quite unnecessary and wrong, she said, to prevent Lynmnouth from his innocent boyish amusements. Pigeon-shooting was practised by the very best people, and she was quite sure, therefore, there could be no harm of any sort in it. She believed the sport was countenanced, not only by bishops, but even by princes. Pigeons, she supposed, had been specially created by Providence for our use and enjoyment——'their final cause being apparently the manufacture of pigeon-pie,' Ronald suggested parenthetically: but we couldn't use them without killing them, unfortunately; and shooting was probably as painless a form of killing as any other. Peter or somebody, she distinctly remembered, had been specially commanded to arise, kill, and eat. To object to pigeon-shooting indeed, in Lady Le Breton's opinion, was clearly flying in the face of Providence. Of Ronald's muttered reference to five sparrows being sold for two farthings, and yet not one of them being forgotten, she would not condescend to take any notice. However, thank goodness, the fault was none of hers; she could wash her hands entirely of all responsibility in the matter. She had done her best to secure Ernest a good place in a thoroughly nice family, and if he chose to throw it up at a moment's notice for one of his own absurd communistical fads, it was happily none of her business. She was glad, at any rate, that he'd got another berth, with a conscientious, earnest, Christian man like Dr. Greatrex. 'And indeed, Ernest,' she said, returning once more to the pigeon-shooting question, 'even your poor dear papa, who was full of such absurd religious fancies, didn't think that sport was unchristian, I'm certain; for I remember once, when we were quartered at Moozuffernugger in the North-West Provinces, he went out into a nullah near our compound one day, and with his own hand shot a man-eating tiger, which had carried off three little native children from the thanah; so that shows that he couldn't really object to sport; and I hope you don't mean to cast disrespect upon the memory of your own poor father!'. All of which profound moral and religious observations Ernest, as in duty bound, received with the most respectful and acquiescent silence.

  And now he had to approach the more difficult task of breaking to his mother his approaching marriage with Edie Oswald. He began the subject as delicately as he could, dwelling strongly upon poor Harry Oswald's excellent position as an Oxford tutor, and upon Herbert's visit with him to Switzerland——he knew his mother too well to suppose that the real merits of the Oswald family would impress her in any way, as compared with their accidental social status; and then he went on to speak as gently as possible about his engagement with little Edie. At this point, to his exceeding discomfiture, Lady Le Breton adopted the unusual tactics of bursting suddenly into a flood of tears.

  'Oh, Ernest,' she sobbed out inarticulately through her scented cambric handkerchief, 'for heaven's sake don't tell me that you've gone and engaged yourself to that designing girl! Oh, my poor, poor, misguided boy! Is there really no way to save you?'

  'No way to save me!' exclaimed Ernest, astonished and disconcerted by this unexpected outburst.

  'Yes, yes!' Lady Le Breton went on, almost passionately. 'Can't you manage somehow to get yourself out of it? I hope you haven't utterly compromised yourself! Couldn't dear Herbert go down to What's-his-name Pomeroy, and induce the father——a grocer, if I remember right——induce him, somehow or other, to compromise the matter?'

  'Compromise!' cried Ernest, uncertain whether to laugh or be angry.

  'Yes, compromise it!' Lady Le Breton answered, endeavouring to calm herself. 'Of course that Machiavellian girl has tried to drag you into it; and the family have aided and abetted her; and you've been weak and foolish——though not, I trust, wicked——and allowed them to get their net closed almost imperceptibly around you. But it isn't too late to withdraw even now, my poor, dear, deluded Ernest. It isn't too late to withdraw even now. Think of the disgrace and shame to the family! Think of your dear brothers and their blighted prospects! Don't allow this designing girl to draw you helplessly into such an ill-assorted marriage! Reflect upon your own future happiness! Consider what it will be to drag on years of your life with a woman, no longer perhaps externally attractive, whom you could never possibly respect or love for her own internal qualities! Don't go and wreck your own life, and your brothers' lives, for any mistaken and Quixotic notions of false honour! You mayn't like to throw her over, after you've once been inveigled into saying "Yes" (and the feeling, though foolish, does your heart credit); but reflect, my dear boy, such a promise, so obtained, can hardly be considered binding upon your conscience! I've no doubt dear Herbert, who's a capital man of business, would get them readily enough to agree to a compromise or a compensation.'

  'My dear mother,'said Ernest white with indignation, but speaking very quietly, as soon as he could edge in a word, 'you quite misunderstand the whole question. Edie Oswald is a lady by nature, with all a lady's best feelings——I hate the word because of its false implications, but I can't use any other that will convey to you my meaning——and I love and admire and respect and worship her with all my heart and with all my soul. She hasn't inveigled me or set her cap at me, as you call it, in any way; she's the sweetest, timidest, most shrinking little thing that ever existed; on the contrary, it is I who have humbly asked her to accept me, because I know no other woman to whom I could give my whole heart so unreservedly. To tell you the truth, mother, with my ideas and opinions, I could hardly be happy with any girl of the class that you would call distinctively ladies: their class prejudices and their social predilections would jar and grate upon me at every turn. But Edie Oswald's a girl whom I could worship and love without any reserve——whom I can reverence for her beautiful character, her goodness, and her delicacy of feeling. She has honoured me by accepting me, and I'm going to marry her at the end of this month, and I want, if possible, to get your consent to the marriage before I do so. She's a wife of whom I shall be proud in every way; I wish I could think she would have equal cause to be proud of her husband.'

  Lady Le Breton threw herself once more into a paroxysm of tears. 'Oh, Ernest,' she cried, 'do spare me! do spare me! This is too wicked, too unfeeling, too cruel of you altogether! I knew already you were very selfish and heartless and headstrong, but I didn't know you were quite so unmanageable and so unkind as this. I appeal to your better nature——for you have a better nature——I'm sure you have a better nature: you're my son, and you can't be utterly devoid of good impulses. I appeal confidently to your better nature to throw off this unhappy, designing, wicked girl before it is too late! She has made you forget your duty to your mother, but not, I hope, irrevocably. Oh, my poor, dear, wandering boy, won't you listen to the voice of reason? won't you return once more like the prodigal son, to your neglected mother and your forgotten duty?'

  'My dear mother,' Ernest said, hardly knowing how to answer, 'you will persist in completely misunderstanding me. I love Edie Oswald with all my heart; I have promised to marry her, because she has done me the great and undeserved honour of accepting me as her future husband; and even if I wanted to break off the engagement (which it would break my own heart to do), I certainly couldn't break it off now without the most disgraceful and dishonourable wickedness. That is quite fixed and certain, and I can't go back upon it in any way.'

  'Then you insist, you unnatural boy,' said Lady Le Breton, wiping her eyes, and assuming the air of an injured parent, 'you insist, against my express wish, in marrying this girl Osborne, or whatever you call her?'

  'Yes, I do, mother,' Ernest answered quietly.

  'In that case,' said Lady Le Breton, coldly, 'I must beg of you that you won't bring this lady, whether as your wife or otherwise, under my roof. I haven't been accustomed to associate with the daughters of tradesmen, and I don't wish to associate with them now in any way.'

  'If so,' Ernest said, very softly, 'I can't remain under your roof myself any longer. I can go nowhere at all where my future wife will not be received on exactly the same terms that I am.'

  'Then you had bettor go,' said Lady Le Breton, in her chilliest manner. 'Ronald, do me the favour to ring ihe bell for a cab for your brother Ernest.'

  'I shall walk, thank you, mother,' said Ernest quietly. 'Good morning, dear Ronald.'

  Ronald rose solemnly and opened the door for him. 'Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother,' he said in his clear, soft voice, 'and shall cleave unto his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh. Amen.'

  Lady Le Breton darted a withering glance at her younger son as Ernest shut the door after him, and burst once more into a sudden flood of uncontrollable tears.

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