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Philistia (Chapter5)

2006-08-28 23:20

  Chapter V. Askelon Villa, Gath.

  Number, 28, Epsilon Terrace, Bayswater, was one of the very smallest houses that a person with any pretensions to move in that Society which habitually spells itself with a capital initial could ever possibly have dreamt of condescending to inhabit. Indeed, if Dame Eleanor, relict of the late Sir Owen Le Breton, Knight, had consulted merely the length of her purse and the interests of her personal comfort, she would doubtless have found for the same rental a far more convenient and roomy cottage in Upper Clapton or Stoke Newington. But Lady Le Breton was a thoroughly and conscientiously religious woman, who in all things consulted first and foremost the esoteric interests of her ingrained creed. It was a prime article of this cherished social faith that nobody with any shadow of personal self-respect could endure to live under any other postal letter than W. or S.W. Better not to be at all than to drag out a miserable existence in the painful obscurity of N. or S.E. Happily for people situated like Lady Le Breton, the metropolitan house-contractor (it would be gross flattery to describe him as a builder) has divined, with his usual practical sagacity, the necessity for supplying this felt want for eligible family residences at once comparatively cheap and relatively fashionable. By driving little culs-de-sac and re-entrant alleys at the back of his larger rows of shoddy mansions, he is enabled to run up a smaller terrace, or crescent, or place, as the case may be, composed of tiny shallow cottages with the narrowest possible frontage, and the tallest possible elevation, which will yet entitle their occupiers to feel themselves within the sacred pale of social salvation, in the blest security of the mystic W. Narrowest, shallowest, and tallest of these marginal Society residences is the little block of blank-faced, stucco-fronted, porticoed rabbit-hutches, which blazons itself forth in the Court Guide under the imposing designation of Epsilon Terrace, Bayswater.

  The interior of No. 28 in this eminently respectable back alley was quite of a piece, it must be confessed, with the vacant Philistinism of its naked exterior. 'Mother has really an immense amount of taste,' Herbert Le Breton used to say, blandly, 'and all of it of the most atrocious description; she picked it up, I believe, when my poor father was quartered at Lahore, a station absolutely fatal to the aesthetic faculties; and she will never get rid of it again as long as she lives.' Indeed, when once Lady Le Breton got anything whatsoever into her head, it was not easy for anybody else to get it out again; you might much more readily expect to draw one of her double teeth than to eliminate one of her pet opinions. Not that she was a stupid or a near-sighted woman——the mother of clever sons never is——but she was a perfectly immovable rock of social and political orthodoxy. The three Le Breton boys——for there was a third at home——would gladly have reformed the terrors of that awful drawing-room if they had dared; but they knew it was as much as their places were worth, Herbert said, to attempt a remonstrance, and they wisely left it alone, and said nothing.

  Of course the house was not vulgarly furnished, at least in the conventional sense of the word; Lady Le Breton was far too rigid in her social orthodoxy to have admitted into her rooms anything that savoured of what she considered bad form, according to her lights. It was only vulgar with the underlying vulgarity of mere tasteless fashionable uniformity. There was nothing in it that any well-bred footman could object to; nothing that anybody with one grain of genuine originality could possibly tolerate. The little occasional chairs and tables set casually about the room were of the strictest neglige Belgravian type, a sort of studied protest against the formal stiffness of the ordinary unused middle-class drawing-room. The portrait of the late Sir Owen in the wee library, presented by his brother-officers, was painted by that distinguished R. A., Sir Francis Thomson, a light of the middle of this century; and an excellent work of art it was too, in its own solemn academic kind. The dining-room, tiny as it was, possessed that inevitable Canaletti without which no gentleman's dining-room in England is ever considered to be complete. Everything spoke at once the stereotyped Society style of a dozen years ago (before Mr. Morris had reformed the outer aspect of the West End), entirely free from anything so startling or indecorous as a gleam of spontaneity in the possessor's mind. To be sure, it was very far indeed from the centre round-table and brilliant-flowered-table-cover style of the utter unregenerate Philistine household; but it was further still from the simple natural taste acd graceful fancy of Edie Oswald's cosy little back parlour behind the village grocer's shop at Calcombe-Pomeroy.

  The portrait and the Canaletti were relics of Lady Le Breton's best days, when Sir Owen was alive, and the boys were still in their first babyhood. Sir Owen was an Indian officer of the old school, a simple-minded, gentle, brave man, very religious after his own fashion, and an excellent soldier, with the true Anglo-Indian faculty for administration and organisation. It was partly from him, no doubt, that the boys inherited their marked intelligence; and it was wholly from him, beyond any doubt at all, that Ernest and his younger brother Ronald inherited their moral or religious sincerity——for that was an element in which poor formally orthodox Lady Le Breton was wholly deficient. The good General had been brought up in the strictest doctrines of the Clapham sect; he had gone to India young, as a cadet from Haileybury; and he had applied his intellect all his life long rather to the arduous task of extending 'the blessings of British rule' to Sikhs and Ghoorkas, than to those abstract ethical or theological questions which agitated the souls of a later generation. If a new district had to be assimilated in settlement to the established model of the British raj, if a tribe of hill-savages had to be conciliated by gentler means than rifles or bayonets, if a difficult bit of diplomatic duty had to be performed on the debateable frontiers, Sir Owen Le Breton was always the person chosen to undertake it. An earnest, honest, God-fearing man he remained to the end, impressed by a profound sense of duty as he understood it, and a firm conviction that his true business in life consisted in serving his Queen and country, and in bringing more and more of the native populations within the pale of the Company's empire, and the future evangelisation that was ultimately to follow. But during the great upheaval of the Mutiny, he fell at the head of his own unrevolted regiment in one of the hottest battles of that terrible time, and my Lady Le Breton found herself left alone with three young children, on little more than the scanty pension of a general officer's widow on the late Company's establishment.

  Happily, enough remained to bring up the boys, with the aid of their terminable annuities (which fell in on their attaining their majority), in decent respect for the feelings and demands of exacting Society; and as the two elder were decidedly clever boys, they managed to get scholarships at Oxford, which enabled them to tide over the dangerous intermediate period as far as their degree. Herbert then stepped at once into a fellowship and sundry other good things of like sort; and Ernest was even now trying to follow in his brother's steps, in this particular. Only the youngest boy, Ronald, still remained quite unprovided for. Ronald was a tall, pale, gentle, weakly, enthusiastic young fellow of nineteen, with so marked a predisposition to lung disease that it had not been thought well to let him run the chance of over-reading himself; and so he had to be content with remaining at home in the uncongenial atmosphere of Epsilon Terrace, instead of joining his two elder brothers at the university. Uncongenial, because Ronald alone followed Sir Owen in the religious half of his nature, and found the 'worldliness' and conventionality of his unflinching mother a serious bar to his enjoyment of home society.

  'Ronald,' said my lady, at the breakfast-table on the very morning of Arthur Berkeley's little luncheon party, 'here's a letter for you from Mackenzie and Anderson. No doubt your Aunt Sarah's will has been recovered and proved at last, and I hope it'll turn out satisfactory, as we wish it.'

  'For my part, I really almost hope it won't, mother,' said Ronald, turning it over; 'for I don't want to be compelled to profit by Ernest's excessive generosity. He's too good to me, just because he thinks me the weaker vessel; but though we must bear one another's burdens, you know, we should each bear his own cross as well, shouldn't we, mother?'

  'Well, it can't be much in any case,' said his mother, a little testily, 'whoever gets it. Open the envelope at once, my boy, and don't stand looking at it like a goose in that abstracted way.'

  'Oh, mother, she was my father's only sister, and I'm not in such a hurry to find out how she has disposed of her mere perishing worldly goods,' answered Ronald, gravely. 'It seems to me a terrible thing that before poor dear good Aunt Sarah is cold in her grave almost, we should be speculating and conjecturing as to what she has done with her poor little trifle of earthly riches.'

  'It's always usual to read the will immediately after the funeral,' said Lady Le Breton, firmly, to whom the ordinary usage of society formed an absolutely unanswerable argument; 'and how you, Ronald, who haven't even the common decency to wear a bit of crape around your arm for her——a thing that Ernest himself, with all his nonsensical theories, consents to do——can talk in that absurd way about what's quite right and proper to be done, I for my part, really can't imagine.'

  'Ah, but you know, mother, I object to wearing crape on the ground that it isn't allowable for us to sorrow as them that have no hope: and I'm sure I'm paying no disrespect to dear Aunt Sarah's memory in this matter, for she was always the first herself, you remember, to wish that I should follow the dictates of my own conscience.'

  'I remember she always upheld you in acts of opposition to your own mother, Ronald,' Lady Le Breton said coldly, 'and I suppose you're going to do honour to her religious precepts now by not opening that letter when your mother tells you to do so. In my Bible, sir, I find a place for the Fourth Commandment.'

  Ronald looked at her gently and unreprovingly; but though a quiet smile played involuntarily around the corners of his mouth, he resisted the natural inclination to correct her mistake, and to suggest blandly that she probably alluded to the fifth. He knew he must turn his left cheek also——a Christian virtue which he had abundant opportunities of practising in that household; and he felt that to score off his mother for such a verbal mistake as the one she had just made would not be in keeping with the spirit of the commandment to which, no doubt, she meant to refer him. So without another word he opened the envelope and glanced rapidly at the contents of the letter it enclosed.

  'They've found the second will,' he said, after a moment, with a rather husky voice, 'and they're taking steps to get it confirmed, whatever that may be.'

  'Broad Scotch for getting probate, I believe,' said Lady Le Breton, in a slight tone of irony; for to her mind any departure from the laws or language she was herself accustomed to use, assumed at once the guise of a rank and offensive provincialism. 'Your poor Aunt would go and marry a Scotchman, and he a Scotch business man too; so of course we must expect to put up with all kinds of ridiculous technicalities and Edinburgh jargon accordingly. All law's bad enough in the way of odd words, but commend me to Scotch law for utter and meaningless incomprehensibility. Well, and what does the second will say, Ronald?'

  'There, mother,' cried Ronald, flinging the letter down hurriedly with a burst of tears. 'Read it yourself, if you will, for I can't. Poor dear Aunt Sarah, and dear, good unselfish Ernest! It makes me cry even to think of them.'

  Lady Le Breton took the paper up from the table without a word and read it carefully through. 'I am very glad to hear it,' she said, 'very glad indeed to hear it. "And in order to guard against any misinterpretation of my reasons for making this disposition of my property," your Aunt says, "I wish to put it on record that I had previously drawn up another will, bequeathing my effects to be divided between my two nephews Ernest and Ronald Le Breton equally; that I communicated the contents of that will"——a horrid Scotticism——"to my nephew Ernest; and that at his express desire I have now revoked it, and drawn up this present testament, leaving the share intended for him to his brother Ronald." Why, she never even mentions dear Herbert!'

  'She knew that Herbert had provided for himself,' Ronald answered, raising his head from his hands, 'while Ernest and I were unprovided for. But Ernest said he could fight the world for himself, while I couldn't; and that unearned wealth ought only to be accepted in trust for those who were incapacitated by nature or misfortune from earning their own bread. I don't always quite agree with all Ernest's theories any more than you do, but we must both admit that at least he always conscientiously acts up to them himself, mother, mustn't we?'

  'It's a very extraordinary thing,' Lady Le Breton went on, 'that Aunt Sarah invariably encouraged both you boys in all your absurdities and Quixotisms. She was Quixotic herself at heart, that's the truth of it, just like your poor dear father. I remember once, when we were quartered at Meean Meer in the Punjaub, poor dear Sir Owen nearly got into disgrace with the colonel——he was only a sub. in those days——because he wanted to go trying to convert his syces, which was a most imprudent thing to do, and directly opposed to the Company's orders. Aunt Sarah was just the same. Herbert's the only one of you three who has never given me one moment's anxiety, and of course poor Herbert must be passed over in absolute silence. However, I'm very glad she's left the money to you, Ronald, as you need it the most, and Mackenzie and Anderson say it'll come to about a hundred and sixty a year.'

  'One can do a great deal of good with that much money,' said Ronald meditatively. 'I mean, after arranging with you, mother, for the expenses of my maintenance at home, which of course I shall do, as soon as the pension ceases, and after meeting one's own necessary expenditure in the way of clothing and so forth. It's more than any one Christian man ought to spend upon himself, I'm sure.'

  'It's not at all too much for a young man in your position in society, Ronald; but there——I know you'll want to spend half of it on indiscriminate charity. However, there'll be time enough to talk about that when you've actually got it, thank goodness.'

  Ronald murmured a few words softly to himself, of which Lady Le Breton only caught the last echo——'laid them down at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.'

  'Just like Ernest's communistic notions,' she murmured in return, half audibly. 'I do declare, between them both, a plain woman hardly knows whether she's standing on her head or on her heels. I live in daily fear that one or other of them will be taken up by the police, for being implicated in some dynamite plot or other, to blow up the Queen or destroy the Houses of Parliament.' Ronald smiled again, gently, but answered nothing. 'There's another letter for you there, though, with the Exmoor coronet upon it. Why don't you open it? I hope it's an invitation for you to go down and stop at Dunbude for a week or two. Nothing on earth would do you so much good as to get away for a while from your ranters and canters, and mix occasionally in a little decent and rational society.'

  Ronald took up the second letter with a sigh. He feared as much himself, and had doleful visions of a painful fortnight to be spent in a big country house, where the conversation would be all concerning the slaughter of pheasants and the torture of foxes, which his soul loathed to listen to. 'It's from Lady Hilda,' he said, glancing through it, 'and it isn't an invitation after all.' He could hardly keep down a faint tone of gratification as he discovered this reprieve. 'Here's what she says:——

  '"DEAR MR. LE BRETON,——Mamma wishes me to write and tell you that Lynmouth's tutor, Mr. Walsh, is going to leave us at Christmas, and she thinks it just possible that one of your two brothers at Oxford might like to come down to Dunbude and give us their kind aid in taking charge of Lynmouth. He's a dreadful pickle, as you know; but we are very anxious to get somebody to look after him in whom mamma can have perfect confidence. We don't know your brothers' addresses or we would have written to them direct about it. Perhaps you will kindly let them hear this suggestion; and if they think the matter worth while, we might afterwards arrange details as to business and so forth. With kind regards to Lady Le Breton, believe me,

  '"Yours very sincerely,


  'My dear Ronald,' said Lady Le Breton, much more warmly than before, 'this is really quite providential. Are they at Dunbude now?'

  'No, mother. She writes from Wilton Place. They're up in town for Lord Exmoor's gout, I know. I heard they were on Sunday.'

  'Then I shall go and see Lady Exmoor this very morning about it. It's exactly the right place for Ernest. A little good society will get rid of all his nonsensical notions in a month or two. He's lived too exclusively among his radical set at Oxford. And then it'll be such a capital thing for him to be in the house continually with Hilda; she's a girl of such excellent tone. I fancy——I'm not quite sure, but I fancy——that Ernest has a decided taste for the company of people, and even of young girls, who are not in Society. He's so fond of that young man Oswald, who Herbert tells me is positively the son of a grocer——yes, I'm sure he said a grocer!——and it seems, from what Herbert writes me, that this Oswald has brought a sister of his up this term from behind the counter, on purpose to set her cap at Ernest. Now you boys have, unfortunately, no sisters, and therefore you haven't seen as much of girls of a good stamp——not daily and domestically I mean——as is desirable for you, from the point of view of Society. But if Ernest can only be induced to take this tutorship at the Exmoors', he'll have an opportunity of meeting daily with a really nice girl, like Hilda; and though of course it isn't likely that Hilda would take a fancy to her brother's tutor——the Exmoors are such very conservative people in matters of rank and wealth and family and so forth——quite un-Christianly so, I consider——yet it can't fail to improve Ernest's tone a great deal, and raise his standard of female society generally. It's really a very distressing thought to me, Ronald, that all my boys, except dear Herbert, should show such a marked preference for low and vulgar companionship. It seems to me, you both positively prefer as far as possible the society of your natural inferiors. There's Ernest must go and take up with the friendship of that snuffy old German Socialist glass-cutter; while you are always running after your Plymouth Brethren and your Bible Christians, and your other ignorant fanatical people, instead of going with me respectably to St. Alphege's to hear the dear Archdeacon! It's very discouraging to a mother, really, very discouraging.'

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