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Philistia (Chapter36)

2006-08-28 23:31

  Chapter XXXVI. Out of the Hand op the Philistines.

  Ernest's unexpected success with 'London's Shame' was not, as Arthur Berkeley at first feared it might be, the mere last dying flicker of a weak and failing life. Arthur was quite right, indeed, when he said one day to Lady Hilda that its very brilliancy and fervour had the hectic glow about it, as of a man who was burning himself out too fiercely and rapidly; you could read the feverish eagerness of the writer in every line; but still, Lady Hilda answered with her ordinary calm assurance that it was all going well, and that Ernest only needed the sense of security to pull him round again; and as usual, Lady Hilda's practical sagacity was not at fault. The big pamphlet——for it was hardly more than that——soon proved an opening for further work, in procuring which Hilda and Arthur were again partially instrumental. An advanced Radical member of Parliament, famous for his declamations against the capitalist faction, and his enormous holding of English railway stock, was induced to come forward as the founder of a new weekly paper, 'in the interest of social reform.' Of course the thing was got up solely with an idea to utilising Ernest as editor, for, said the great anti-capitalist with his usual charming frankness, 'the young fellow has a positive money-value, now, if he's taken in hand at once before the sensation's over, and there can be no harm in turning an honest penny by exploiting him, you know, and starting a popular paper.' When Ernest was offered the post of editor to the new periodical, at a salary which almost alarmed him by its plutocratic magnificence (for it was positively no less than six hundred a year), he felt for a moment some conscientious scruples about accepting so splendid a post. And when Lady Hilda in her emphatic fashion promptly over-ruled these nascent scruples by the application of the very simple solvent formula, 'Bosh!' he felt bound at least to stipulate that he should be at perfect liberty to say whatever he liked in the new paper, without interference or supervision from the capitalist proprietor. To which the Radical member, in his business capacity, immediately responded, 'Why, certainly. What we want to pay you for is just your power of startling people, which, in its proper place, is a very useful marketable commodity. Every pig has its value——if only you sell it in the best market.'

  'The Social Reformer, a Weekly Advocate of the New Economy,' achieved at once an immense success among the working classes, and grew before long to be one of the most popular journals of the second rank in all London. The interest that Ernest had aroused by his big pamphlet was carried on to his new venture, which soon managed to gain many readers by its own intrinsic merits. 'Seen your brother's revolutionary broadsheet, Le Breton?' asked a friend at the club of Herbert not many weeks later——he was the same person who had found it 'so very embarrassing' to recognise Ernest——in his shabby days when walking with a Q.C.——'It's a dreadful tissue of the reddest French communism, I believe, but still, it's scored the biggest success of its sort in journalism, I'm told, since the days of Kenealy's "Englishman." Bradbury, who's found the money to start it——deuced clever fellow in his way, Bradbury!——is making an awful lot out of the speculation, they say. What do you think of the paper, eh?'

  Herbert drew himself up grimly. 'To tell you the truth,' he said in his stiffest style, 'I haven't yet had time to look at a copy. Ernest Le Breton's not a man in whose affairs I feel called upon to take any special interest; and I haven't put myself to the trouble of reading his second-hand political lucubrations. Faint echoes of Max Schurz, all of it, no doubt; and having read and disposed of Schurz himself long ago, I don't feel inclined now to go in for a second supplementary course of Schurz and water.'

  'Well, well, that may be so,' the friend answered, turning over the pages of the peccant periodical carelessly; 'but all the same I'm afraid your brother's really going to do an awful lot of mischief in the way of setting class against class, and stirring up the dangerous orders to recognise their own power. You see, Le Breton, the real danger of this sort of thing lies in the fact that your brother Ernest's a more or less educated and cultivated person. I don't say he's really got any genuine depth of culture——would you believe it, he told me once he'd never read Rabelais, and didn't want to?——and of course a man of true culture in the grain, like you and me now, my dear fellow, would never dream of going and mistaking these will-o'-the-wisps of socialism for the real guiding light of regenerated humanity——of course not. But the dangerous symptom at the present day lies just in the fact that while the papers written for the mob used to be written by vulgar, noisy, self-made, half-educated demagogues, they're sent out now with all the authority and specious respectability of decently instructed and comparatively literary English gentlemen. Now, nobody can deny that that's a thing very seriously to be regretted; and for my part I'm extremely sorry your brother has been ill-advised enough to join the mob that's trying to pull down our comfortably built and after all eminently respectable, even if somewhat patched up, old British constitution.'

  'The subject's one,' Herbert answered curtly, 'in which I for my part cannot pretend to feel the remotest personal interest.'

  Ernest and Edie, howerer, in the little lodgings up at Holloway, which they couldn't bear to desert even now in this sudden burst of incredible prosperity, went their own way as self-containedly as usual, wholly unconcerned by the non-arrival of Mrs. Herbert on a visit of ceremony, or the failure of the 'Social Reformer' to pierce the lofty ethereal regions of abstract contemplation where Herbert himself sat throned like an Epicurean god in the pure halo of cultivated pococurantism. Every day, as that eminent medical authority, Hilda Tregellis, had truly prophesied, Ernest's cheeks grew less and less sunken, and a little colour returned slowly to their midst; while Edie's face was less pale than of old, and her smile began to recover something of its old-fashioned girlish joyousness. She danced about once more as of old, and Arthur Berkeley, when he dropped in of a Sunday afternoon for a chat with Ernest, noticed with pleasure that little Miss Butterfly was beginning to flit round again almost as naturally as in the old days when he first saw her light little form among the grey old pillars of Magdalen Cloisters. Yet he couldn't help observing, too, that his feeling towards her was more one of mere benevolence now, and less of tender regret, than it used to be even a few short months before, in the darkest days of Edie's troubles. Could it be, he asked himself more than once, that the tall stately picture of Hilda Tregellis was overshadowing in his heart the natural photograph of that unwedded Edie Oswald that he once imagined was so firmly imprinted there? Ah well, ah well, it may be true that a man can love really but once in his whole lifetime; and yet, the second spurious imitation is positively sometimes a very good facsimile of the genuine first impression, for all that.

  As the months went slowly round, too, the time came in the end for good Herr Max to be released at last from his long imprisonment. On the day that he came out, there was a public banquet at the Marylebone dancing saloon; and all the socialists and communards were there, and all the Russian nihilists, and all the other wicked revolutionary plotters in all London: and in the chair sat Ernest Le Breton, now the editor of an important social paper, while at his left hand, to balance the guest of the evening, sat Arthur Berkeley, the well-known dramatic author, who was himself more than suspected of being the timid Nicodemus of the new faith. And when Ernest announced that Herr Schurz had consented to aid him on the 'Social Reformer,' and to add the wisdom of age to the impetuosity of youth in conducting its future, the simple enthusiasm of the wicked revolutionists knew no bounds. And they cried 'Hoch!' and 'Viva!' and 'Hooray!' and many other like inarticulate shouts in many varieties of interjectional dialect all the evening; and everybody agreed that after all Herr Max was very little grayer than before the trial, in spite of his long and terrible term of imprisonment.

  He was a little embittered by his troubles, no doubt;——what can you expect if you clap men in prison for the expression of their honest political convictions?——but Ernest tried to keep his eye steadily rather on the future than on the past; and with greater ease and unwonted comforts the old man's cheerfulness as well as his enthusiasm gradually returned. 'I'm too old now to do anything more worth doing myself before I die,' he used to say, holding Ernest's arm tightly in his vice-like grip: 'but I have great hopes in spite of everything for friend Ernest; I have very great hopes indeed for friend Ernest here. There's no knowing yet what he may accomplish.'

  Ernest only smiled a trifle sadly, and murmured half to himself that this was a hard world, and he began himself to fear there was no fitting feeling for a social reformer except one of a brave despair. 'We can do little or nothing, after all,' he said slowly; 'and our only consolation must be that even that little is perhaps just worth doing.'

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