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Philistia (Chapter15)

2006-08-28 23:24

  Chapter XV. Evil Tidings.

  Ernest had packed his portmanteau, and ordered a hansom, meaning to take temporary refuge at Number 28 Epsilon Terrace; and he went down again for a few minutes to wait in the breakfast-room, where he saw the 'Times' lying casually on the little table by the front window. He took it up, half dreamily, by way of having something to do, and was skimming the telegrams in an unconcerned manner, when his attention was suddenly arrested by the name Le Breton, printed in conspicuous type near the bottom of the third column. He looked closer at the paragraph, and saw that it was headed 'Accident to British Tourists in Switzerland.' A strange tremor seized him immediately. Could anything have happened, then, to Herbert? He read the telegram through at once, and found this bald and concise summary before him of the fatal Pontresina accident:——

  'As Mr. H. Oswald, F.R.S., of Oriel College, Oxford, and Mr. Le Breton, Fellow and Bursar of St. Aldate's College, along with three guides, were making the ascent of the Piz Margatsch, in the Bernina Alps, this morning, one of the party happened to slip near the great gulley known as the Gouffre. Mr. Oswald and two of the guides were precipitated over the edge of the cliff and killed immediately: the breaking of the rope at a critical moment alone saved the lives of Mr. Le Breton and the remaining guide. The bodies have been recovered this evening, and brought back to Pontresina.'

  Ernest laid down the paper with a thrill of horror. Poor Edie! How absolutely his own small difficulties with Lord Exmoor faded out of has memory at once in the face of that terrible, irretrievable calamity. Harry dead! The hope and mainstay of the family——the one great pride and glory of all the Oswalds, on whom their whole lives and affections centred, taken from them unexpectedly, without a chance of respite, without a moment's warning! Worst of all, they would probably learn it, as he did, for the first time by reading it accidentally in the curt language of the daily papers. Pray heaven the shock might not kill poor Edie!

  There was only a minute in which to make up his mind, but in that minute Ernest had fully decided what he ought to do, and how to do it. He must go at once down to Calcombe Pomeroy, and try to lighten this great affliction for poor little Edie. Nay, lighten it he could not, but at least he could sympathise with her in it, and that, though little, was still some faint shade better than nothing at all. How fortunate that his difference with the Exmoors allowed him to go that very evening without a moment's delay. When the hansom arrived at the door, Ernest told the cabman to drive at once to Paddington Station. Almost before he had had time to realise the full meaning of the situation, he had taken a third-class ticket for Calcombe Road, and was rushing out of London by the Plymouth express, in one of the convenient and commodious little wooden horse-boxes which the Great Western Railway Company provide as a wholesome deterrent for economical people minded to save half their fare by going third instead of first or second.

  Didcot, Swindon, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Newton Abbot, all followed one after another, and by the time Ernest had reached Calcombe Road Station he had begun to frame for himself a definite plan of future action. He would stop at the Red Lion Inn that evening, send a telegram from Exeter beforehand to Edie, to say he was coming next day, and find out as much as possible about the way the family had borne the shock before he ventured actually to see them.

  The Calcombe omnibus, drawn by two lean and weary horses, toiled its way slowly up the long steep incline for six miles to the Cross Foxes, and then rattled down the opposite slope, steaming and groaning, till it drew up at last with a sudden jerk and a general collapse in front of the old Red Lion Inn in the middle of the High Street. There Ernest put up for the present, having seen by the shutters at the grocer's shop on his way down that the Oswalds had already heard of Harry's accident. He had dinner by himself, with a sick heart, in the gloomy, close little coffee-room of the village inn, and after dinner he managed to draw in the landlord in person for a glass of sherry and half an hour's conversation.

  'Very sad thing, sir, this 'ere causality in Switzerland,' said the red-faced landlord, coming round at once to the topic of the day at Calcombe, after a few unimportant preliminary generalities. 'Young Mr. Oswald, as has been killed, he lived here, sir; leastways his parents do. He was a very promising young gentleman up at Oxford, they do tell me——not much of a judge of horses, I should say, but still, I understand, quite the gentleman for all that. Very sad thing, the causality, sir, for all his family. 'Pears he was climbing up some of these 'ere Alps they have over there in them parts, covered with snow from head to foot in the manner of speaking, and there was another gentleman from Oxford with him, a Mr. Le Breton——'

  'My brother,' Ernest put in, interrupting him; for he thought it best to let the landlord know at once who he was talking to.

  'Oh, your brother, sir!' said the red-faced landlord, with a gleam of recognition, growing redder and hotter than ever; 'well, now you mention it, sir, I find I remember your face somehow. No offence, sir, but you're the young gentleman as come down in the spring to see young Mr. Oswald, aren't you?'

  Ernest nodded assent.

  'Ah, well, sir,' the landlord went on more freely——for of course all Calcombe had heard long since that Ernest was engaged to Edie Oswald——'you're one of the family like, in that case, if I may make bold to say so. Well, sir, this is a shocking trouble for poor old Mr. Oswald, and no mistake. The old gentleman was sort of centred on his son, you see, as the saying is: never thought of nobody else hardly, he didn't. Old Mr. Oswald, sir, was always a wonderful hand at figgers hisself, and powerful fond of measurements and such kinds of things. I've heard tell, indeed, as how he knew more mathematics, and trigononomy, and that, than the rector and the schoolmaster both put together. There's not one in fifty as knows as much mathematics as he do, I'll warrant. Well, you see, he brought up this son of his, little Harry as was——I can remember him now, running to and from the school, and figgerin' away on the slates, doin' the sums in algemer for the other boys when they went a-mitchin'——he brought him up like a gentleman, as you know very well, sir, and sent him to Oxford College: "to develop his mathematical talents, Mr. Legge," his father says to me here in this very parlour. What's the consequence? He develops that boy's talent sure enough, sir, till he comes to be a Fellow of Oxford College, they tell me, and even admitted into the Royal Society up in London. But this is how he did it, sir: and as you're a friend of the family like, and want to know all about it, no doubt, I don't mind tellin' you on the strict confidential, in the manner of speakin'.' Here the landlord drew his chair closer, and sipped the last drop in his glass of sherry with a mysterious air of very private and important disclosures. Ernest listened to his roundabout story with painful attention.

  'Well, sir,' the landlord went on after a short and pensive pause, 'old Mr. Oswald's business ain't never been a prosperous one——though he was such a clover hand at figgers, he never made it remunerative; a bare livin' for the family, I don't mind sayin'; and he always spent more'n he ought to 'a done on Mr. Harry, and on the young lady too, sir, savin' your presence. So when Mr. Harry was goin' to Oxford to college, he come to me, and he says to me, "Mr. Legge," says he, "it's a very expensive thing sending my boy to the University," says he, "and I'm going to borrow money to send him with." "Don't you go a-doin' that, Mr. Oswald," says I; "your business don't justify you in doin' it, sir," says I. For you see, I knowed all the ins and outs of that there business, and I knowed he hadn't never made more'n enough just to keep things goin' decent like, as you may say, without any money saved or put by against a emergence. "Yes, I will, Mr. Legge," says he; "I can trust confidentially in my son's abilities," says he; "and I feel confidential he'll be in a position to repay me before long." So he borrowed the money on an insurance of Mr. Harry's life. Mr. Harry he always acted very honourable, sir; he was a perfect gentleman in every way, as you know, sir; and he began repayin' his father the loan as fast as he was able, and I daresay doin' a great deal for the family, and especially for the young lady, sir, out of his own pocket besides. But he still owed his father a couple of hundred pound an' more when this causality happened, while the business, I know, had been a-goin' to rack and ruin for the last three year. To-day I seen the agent of the insurance, and he says to me, "Legge," says he, most private like, "this is a bad job about young Oswald, I'm afeard, worse'n they know for." "Why, sir?" says I. "Well, Legge," says he, "they'll never get a penny of that there insurance, and the old gentleman'll have to pay up the defissit on his own account," says he. "How's that, Mr. Micklethwaite?" says I. "Because," says he, "there's a clause in the policy agin exceptional risks, in which is included naval and military services, furrin residences, topical voyages, and mountain-climbin'," says he; "and you mark my words," says he, "they'll never get a penny of it." In which case, sir, it's my opinion that old Mr. Oswald'll be clean broke, for he can't never make up the defissit out of his own business, can he now?'

  Ernest listened with sad forebodings to the red-faced landlord's pitiful story, and feared in his heart that it was a bad look-out for the poor Oswalds. He didn't sleep much that evening, and next day he went round early to see Edie. The telegram he found would be a useless precaution, for the gossip of Calcombe Pomeroy had recognised him at once, and news had reached the Oswalds almost as soon as he arrived that young Mr. Le Breton was stopping that evening at the Red Lion.

  Edie opened the door for him herself, pale of face and with eyes reddened by tears, yet looking beautiful even so in her simple black morning dress, her mourning of course hadn't yet come home——and her deep white linen collar. 'It's very good of you to have come so soon, Mr. Le Breton,' she said, taking his hand quietly——he respected her sorrow too deeply to think of kissing her; 'he will be back with us to-morrow. Your brother is bringing him back to us, to lay him in our little churchyard, and we are all so very very grateful to him for it.'

  Ernest was more than half surprised to hear it. It was an unusual act of kindly thoughtfulness on the part of Herbert.

  Next day the body came home as Edie had said, and Ernest helped to lay it reverently to rest in Calcombe churchyard. Poor old Mr. Oswald, standing bowed and broken-hearted by the open grave side, looked as though he could never outlive that solemn burial of all his hopes and aspirations in a single narrow coffin. Yet it was wonderful to Ernest to see how much comfort he took, even in this terrible grief, from the leader which appeared in the 'Times' that morning on the subject of the Pontresina accident. It contained only a few of the stock newspaper platitudes of regret at the loss of a distinguished and rising young light of science——the ordinary glib commonplaces of obituary notices which a practised journalist knows so well how to adapt almost mechanically to the passing event of the moment; but they seemed to afford the shattered old country grocer an amount of consolation and solemn relief that no mere spoken condolences could ever possibly have carried with them. 'See what a wonderful lot they thought of our boy up in London, Mr. Le Breton,' he said, looking up from the paper tearfully, and wiping his big gold spectacles, dim with moisture. 'See what the "Times" says about him: "One of the ablest among our young academical mathematicians, a man who, if his life had been spared to us, might probably have attained the highest distinction in his own department of pure science." That's our Harry, Mr. Le Breton; that's what the "Times" says about our dear, dead Harry! I wish he could have lived to read it himself, Edie——"a scholar of singularly profound attainments, whose abilities had recently secured him a place upon the historic roll of the Royal Society, and whom even the French Academy of Sciences had held worthy out of all the competitors of the civilised world, to be adjudged the highest mathematical honours of the present season." My poor boy! my poor, dear, lost boy! I wish you could have lived to hear it! We must keep the paper, Edie: we must keep all the papers; they'll show us at least what people who are real judges of these things thought about our dear, loved, lost Harry.'

  Ernest dared hardly glance towards poor Edie, with the tears trickling slowly down her face; but he felt thankful that the broken-hearted old father could derive so much incomprehensible consolation from those cold and stereotyped conventional phrases. Truly a wonderful power there is in mere printer's ink properly daubed on plain absorbent white paper. And truly the human heart, full to bursting and just ready to break will allow itself to be cheated and cajoled in marvellous fashions by extraordinary cordials and inexplicable little social palliatives. The concentrated hopes of that old man's life were blasted and blighted for ever; and he found a temporary relief from that stunning shock in the artificial and insincere condolences of a stock leader-writer on a daily paper!

  Walking back by himself in such sad meditations to the Red Lion, and sitting there by the open window, Ernest overheard a tremulous chattering voice mumbling out a few incoherent words at the Rector's doorway opposite. 'Oh, yes,' chirped out the voice in a tone of cheerful resignation, 'it's very sad indeed, very sad and shocking, and I'm naturally very sorry for it, of course. I always knew how it would be: I warned them of it; but they're a pig-headed, heedless, unmannerly family, and they wouldn't be guided by me. I said to him, "Now, Oswald, this is all very wrong and foolish of you. You go and put your son to Oxford, when he ought to be stopping at home, minding the shop and learning your business. You borrow money foolishly to send him there with. He'll go to Oxford; he'll fall in with a lot of wealthy young gentlemen——people above his own natural station——he'll take up expensive, extravagant ways, and in the end he'll completely ruin himself. He won't pay you back a penny, you may depend upon it——these boys never do, when you make fine gentlemen of them; they think only of their cigars and their horses, and their dog-carts and so forth, and neglect their poor old fathers and mothers, that brought them up and scraped and saved to make fine gentlemen of them. You just take my advice, Oswald, and don't send him to college." But Oswald was always a presumptuous, high-headed, independent sort of man, and instead of listening to me, what does he do but go and send this sharp boy of his up to Oxford. Well, now the boy's gone to Switzerland with one of the young Le Bretons——brother of the poor young man they've inveigled into what they call an engagement with Miss Edith, or Miss Jemima, or whatever the girl's name is——very well-connected people, the Le Bretons, and personal friends of the Archdeacon's——and there he's thrown himself over a precipice or something of the sort, no doubt to avoid his money-matters and debts and difficulties. At any rate, Micklethwaite tells me the poor old father'll have to pay up a couple of hundred pound to the insurance company: and how on earth he's ever to do it I don't know, for to my certain knowledge the rent of the shop is in arrears half-a-year already. But it's no business of mine, thank goodness!——and I only hope that exposure will serve to open that poor young Le Breton's eyes, and to warn him against having anything further to say to Miss Jemima. A designing young minx, if ever there was one! Poor young Le Breton's come down here for the funeral, I hear, which I must say was very friendly and proper and honourable of him; but now it's over, I hope he'll go back again, and see Miss Jemima in her true colours.'

  Ernest turned back into the stuffy little coffee-room with his face on fire and his ears tingling with mingled shame and indignation. 'Whatever happens,' he thought to himself, 'I can't permit Edie to be subjected any longer to such insolence as this! Poor, dear, guileless, sorrowing little maiden! One would have thought her childish innocence and her terrible loss would have softened the heart even of such a cantankerous, virulent old harridan as that, till a few weeks were over, at least. She spoke of the Archdeacon: it must be old Miss Luttrell! Whoever it is, though, Edie shan't much longer be left where she can possibly come in contact with such a loathsome mass of incredible and unprovoked malice. That Edie should lose her dearly-loved brother is terrible enough; but that she should be exposed afterwards to be triumphed over in her most sacred grief by that bad old woman's querulous "I told you so" is simply intolerable!' And he paced up and down the room with a boiling heart, unable to keep down his righteous anger.

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