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Philistia (Chapter11)

2006-08-28 23:22

  Chapter XI. Culture and Culture.

  'I wonder, Berkeley,' said Herbert Le Breton, examining a coin curiously, 'what on earth can ever have induced you, with your ideas and feelings, to become a parson!'

  'My dear Le Breton, your taste, like good wine, improves with age,' answered Berkeley, coldly. 'There are many reasons, any one of which may easily induce a sensible man to go into the Church. For example, he may feel a disinterested desire to minister to the souls of his poorer neighbours; or he may be first cousin to a bishop; or he may be attracted by an ancient and honourable national institution; or he may possess a marked inclination for albs and chasubles; or he may reflect upon the distinct social advantages of a good living; or he may have nothing else in particular to do; or he may simply desire to rouse the impertinent curiosity of all the indolent quidnuncs of his acquaintance, without the remotest intention of ever gratifying their underbred Paul Pry proclivities.'

  Herbert Le Breton winced a little——he felt he had fairly laid himself open to this unmitigated rebuff——but he did not retire immediately from his untenable position. 'I suppose,' he said quietly, 'there are still people who really do take a practical interest in other people's souls——my brother Ronald does for one——but the idea is positively too ridiculous. Whenever I read any argument upon immortality it always seems to me remarkably cogent, if the souls in question were your soul and my soul; but just consider the transparent absurdity of supposing that every Hodge Chawbacon, and every rheumatic old Betty Martin, has got a soul, too, that must go on enduring for all eternity! The notion's absolutely ludicrous. What an infinite monotony of existence for the poor old creatures to endure for ever——being bored by their own inane personalities for a million aeons! It's simply appalling to think of!'

  But Berkeley wasn't going to be drawn into a theological discussion——that was a field which he always sedulously and successfully avoided. 'The immortality of the soul,' he said quietly, 'is a Platonic dogma too frequently confounded, even by moderately instructed persons like yourself, Le Breton, with the Church's very different doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Upon this latter subject, my dear fellow, about which you don't seem to be quite clear or perfectly sound in your views, you'll find some excellent remarks in Bishop Pearson on the Creed——a valuable work which I had the pleasure of studying intimately for my ordination examination.'

  'Really, Berkeley, you're the most incomprehensible and mysterious person I ever met in my whole lifetime!' said Herbert, dryly. 'I believe you take a positive delight in deceiving and mystifying one. Do you seriously mean to tell me you feel any interest at the present time of day in books written by bishops?'

  'A modern bishop,' Berkeley answered calmly, 'is an unpicturesque but otherwise estimable member of a very distinguished ecclesiastical order, who ought not lightly to be brought into ridicule by lewd or lay persons. On that ground, I have always been in favour myself of gradually reforming his hat, his apron, and even his gaiters, which doubtless serve to render him at least conspicuous if not positively absurd in the irreverent eyes of a ribald generation. But as to criticising his literary or theological productions, my dear fellow, that would be conduct eminently unbecoming in a simple curate, and savouring of insubordination even in the person of an elderly archdeacon. I decline, therefore, to discuss the subject, especially with a layman on whose orthodoxy I have painful doubts.——Where's Oswald? Is he up yet?'

  'No; he's down in Devonshire, my brother Ernest writes me.'

  'What, at Dunbude? What's Oswald doing there?'

  'Oh dear no; not at Dunbude: the peerage hasn't yet adopted him——at a place called Calcombe Pomeroy, where it seems he lives. Ernest has gone down there from Exmoor for a fortnight's holiday. You remember, Oswald has a pretty sister——I met her here in your rooms last October, in fact——and I apprehend she may possibly form a measurable portion of the local attractions. A pretty face goes a long way with some people.'

  Berkeley drew a deep breath, and looked uneasily out of the window. This was dangerous news, indeed! What, little Miss Butterfly, has the boy with the gauze net caught sight of you already? Will he trap you and imprison you so soon in his little gilded matrimonial cage, enticing you thereinto with soft words and, sugared compliments to suit your dainty, delicate palate? and must I, who have meant to chase you for the chief ornament of my own small cabinet, be only in time to see you pinioned and cabined in your white lace veils and other pretty disguised entanglements, for his special and particular delectation? This must be looked into, Miss Butterfly; this must be prevented. Off to Calcombe Pomeroy, then, or other parts unknown, this very next to-morrow; and let us fight out the possession of little Miss Butterfly with our two gauze nets in opposition——mine tricked as prettily as I can trick it with tags and ends of art-allurements and hummed to in a delicate tune——before this interloping anticipating Le Breton has had time to secure you absolutely for himself. Too austere for you, little Miss Butterfly; good in his way, and kindly meaning, but too austere. Better come and sun yourself in the modest wee palace of art that I mean to build myself some day in some green, sunny, sloping valley, where your flittings will not be rudely disturbed by breath of poverty, nor your pretty feathery wings ruthlessly clipped with a pair of doctrinaire, ethico-socialistic scissors. To Calcombe, then, to Calcombe——and not a day's delay before I get there. So much of thought, in his own quaint indefinite fashion, flitted like lightning through Arthur Berkeley's perturbed mind, as he stood gazing wistfully for one second out of his pretty latticed creeper-clad window. Then he remembered himself quickly with a short little sigh, and turned to answer Herbert Le Breton's last half-sneering innuendo.

  'Something more than a pretty face merely,' he said, surveying Herbert coldly from head to foot; 'a heart too, and a mind, for all her flitting, not wholly unfurnished with good, sensible, solid mahogany English furniture. You may be sure Harry Oswald's sister isn't likely to be wanting in wits, at any rate.'

  'Oswald's a curious fellow,' Herbert went on, changing the venue, as he always did when he saw Berkeley was really in earnest; 'he's very clever, certainly, but he can never outlive his bourgeois origin. The smell of tea sticks about him somehow to the end of the chapter. Don't you know, Berkeley, there are some fellows whose clothes seem to have been born with them, they fit so perfectly and impede their movement so little; while there are other fellows whose clothes look at once as if they'd been made for them by a highly respectable but imperfectly successful tailor. That's just what I always think about Harry Oswald in the matter of culture. He's got a great deal of culture, the very best culture, from the very best shop——Oxford, in fact——dressed himself up in the finest suit of clothes from the most fashionable mental tailor; but it doesn't seem to fit him naturally. He moves about in it uneasily, like a man unaccustomed to be clothed by a good workman. He looks in his mental upholstery like a greengrocer in evening dress. Now there's all the difference in the world between that sort of put-on culture and culture in the grain, isn't there? You may train up a grocer's son to read Dante, and to play Mendelssohn's Lieder, and to admire Fra Angelico; but you can't train him up to wear these things lightly and gracefully upon him as you and I do, who come by them naturally. We are born to the sphere; he rises to it.'

  'You think so, Le Breton?' asked the curate with a quiet and suppressed smile, as he thought silently of the placid old shoemaker.

  'Think so! my dear fellow, I'm sure of it. I can spot a man of birth from a man of mere exterior polish any day, anywhere. Talk as much nonsense as you like about all men being born free and equal——they're not. They're born with natural inequalities in their very nerve and muscle. When I was an undergraduate, I startled one of the tutors of that time by beginning my English essay once, "All men are by nature born free and unequal." I stick to it still; it's the truth. They say it takes three generations to make a gentleman; nonsense utterly; it takes at least a dozen. You can't work out the common fibre in such a ridiculous hurry. That results as a simple piece of deductive reasoning from all modern theories of heredity and variation.'

  'I agree with you in part, Le Breton,' the parson said, eyeing him closely; 'in part but not altogether. What you say about Oswald's very largely true. His culture sits upon him like a suit made to order, not like a skin in which he was born. But don't you think that's due more to the individual man than to the class he happens to belong to? It seems to me there are other men who come from the same class as Oswald, or even from lower classes, but whose culture is just as much ingrained as, say, my dear fellow, yours is. They were born, no doubt, of naturally cultivated parents. And that's how your rule about the dozen generations that go to make a gentleman comes really true. I believe myself it takes a good many generations; but then none of them need have been gentlemen, in the ordinary sense of the word, before him. A gentleman, if I'm to use the expression as implying the good qualities conventionally supposed to be associated with it, a gentleman may be the final outcome and efflorescence of many past generations of quiet, unobtrusive, working-man culture——don't you think so?'

  Herbert Le Breton smiled incredulously. 'I don't know that I do, quite,' he answered languidly. 'I confess I attach more importance than you do to the mere question of race and family. A thoroughbred differs from a cart-horse, and a greyhound from a vulgar mongrel, in mind and character as well as in body. Oswald seems to me in all essentials a bourgeois at heart even now.'

  'But remember,' Berkeley said, rather warmly for him, 'the bourgeois class in England is just the class which must necessarily find it hardest to throw off the ingrained traces of its early origin. It has intermarried for a long time——long enough to have produced a distinct racial type like those you speak of among dogs and horses——the Philistine type, in fact——and when it tries to emerge, it must necessarily fight hard against the innate Philistinism of which it is conscious in its own constitution. No class has had its inequality with others, its natural inferiority, so constantly and cruelly thrust in its face; certainly the working-man has not. The working-man who makes efforts to improve himself is encouraged; the working-man who rises is taken by the hand; the working-man, whatever he does, is never sneered at. But it's very different with the shopkeeper. Naturally a little prone to servility——that comes from the very necessities of the situation——and laudably anxious to attain the level of those he considers his superiors, he gets laughed at on every hand. Being the next class below society, society is always engaged in trying to keep him out and keep him down. On the other hand, he naturally forms his ideal of what is fine and worth imitating from the example of the class above him; and therefore, considering what that class is, he has unworthy aims and snobbish desires. Either in his own person, or in the persons of his near relations, the wholesale merchant and the manufacturer——all bourgeois alike——he supplies the mass of nouveaux riches who are the pet laughing-stock of all our playwrights, and novelists, and comic papers. So the bourgeois who really knows he has something in him, like Harry Oswald, feels from the beginning painfully conscious of the instability of his position, and of the fact that men like you are cutting jokes behind his back about the smell of tea that still clings to him. That's a horrible drag to hold a man back——the sense that he must always be criticised as one of his own class——and that a class with many recognised failings. It makes him self-conscious, and I believe self-consciousness is really at the root of that slight social awkwardness you think you notice in Harry Oswald. A working-man's son need never feel that. I feel sure there are working-men's sons who go through the world as gentlemen mixing with gentlemen, and never give the matter of their birth one moment's serious consideration. Their position never troubles them, and it never need trouble them. Put it to yourself, now, Le Breton. Suppose I were to tell you my father was a working shoemaker, for example, or a working carpenter, you'd never think anything more about it; but if I were to tell you he was a grocer, or a baker, or a confectioner, or an ironmonger, you'd feel a certain indefinable class barrier set up between us two immediately and ever after. Isn't it so, now?'

  'Perhaps it is,' Herbert answered dubitatively. 'But as he's probably neither the one nor the other, the hypothesis isn't worth seriously discussing. I must go off now; I've got a lecture at twelve. Good-bye. Don't forget the tickets for Thursday's concert.'

  Arthur Berkeley looked after him with a contemptuous smile. 'The outcome of a race himself,' he thought, 'and not the best side of that race either. I was half tempted, in the heat of argument, to blurt out to him the whole truth about the dear gentle old Progenitor; but I'm glad I didn't now. After all, it's no use to cast your pearls before swine. For Herbert's essentially a pig——a selfish self-centred pig; no doubt a very refined and cultivated specimen of pigdom——the best breed; but still a most emphatic and consummate pig for all that. Not the same stuff in him that there is in Ernest——a fibre or two wanting somewhere. But I mustn't praise Ernest——a rival! a rival! It's war to the death between us two now, and no quarter. He's a good fellow, and I like him dearly; but all's fair in love and war; and I must go down to Calcombe to-morrow morning and forestall him immediately. Dear little Miss Butterfly, 'tis for your sake; you shall not be pinched and cramped to suit the Procrustean measure of Ernest Le Breton's communistic fancies. You shall fly free in the open air, and flash your bright silken wings, decked out bravely in scales of many hues, not toned down to too sober and quaker-like a suit of drab and dove-colour. You were meant by nature for the sunshine and the summer; you shall not be worried and chilled and killed with doses of heterodox political economy and controversial ethics. Better even a country rectory (though with a bad Late Perpendicular church), and flowers, and picnics, and lawn-tennis, and village small-talk, and the squire's dinner-parties, than bread and cheese and virtuous poverty in a London lodging with Ernest Le Breton. Romance lives again. The beautiful maiden is about to be devoured by a goggle-eyed monster, labelled on the back "Experimental Socialism"; the red cross knight flies to her aid, and drives away the monster by his magic music. Lance in rest! lyre at side! third class railway ticket in pocket! A Berkeley to the rescue! and there you have it.' And as he spoke, he tilted with his pen at an imaginary dragon supposed to be seated in the crimson rocking-chair by the wainscotted fireplace.

  'Yes, I must certainly go down to Calcombe. No use putting it off any longer. I've arranged to go next summer to London, to keep house for the dear old Progenitor; the music is getting asked for, two requests for more this very morning; trade is looking up. I shall throw the curacy business overboard (what chance for modest merit that isn't first cousin to a Bishop in the Church as at present constituted?) and take to composing entirely for a livelihood. I wouldn't ask Miss Butterfly before, because I didn't wish to tie her pretty wings prematurely; but a rival! that's quite a different matter. What right has he to go poaching on my preserves, I should like to know, and trying to catch the little gold fish I want to entice for my own private and particular fish-pond! An interloper, to be turned out unmercifully. So off to Calcombe, and that quickly.'

  He sat down to his desk, and taking out some sheets of blank music-paper, began writing down the score of a little song at which he had been working. So he continued till lunch-time, and then, turning to the table when the scout called him, took his solitary lunch of bread and butter, with a volume of Petrarch set open before him as he eat. He was lazily Englishing the soft lines of the original into such verse as suited his fastidious ear, when the scout came in suddenly once more, bringing in his hand the mid-day letters. One of them bore the Calcombe postmark. 'Strange,' Berkeley said to himself; 'at the very moment when I was thinking of going there. An invitation perhaps; the age of miracles is not yet past——don't they see spirits in a conjuror's room in Regent Street?——from Oswald, too; by Jove, it must be an invitation.' And he ran his eye down the page rapidly, to see if there was any mention of little Miss Butterfly. Yes; there was her name on the second sheet; what could her brother have to say to him about her?

  'We have Ernest Le Breton down here now,' Oswald wrote, 'on a holiday from the Exmoors', and you may be surprised to hear that I shall probably have him sooner or later for a brother-in-law. He has proposed to and been accepted by my sister Edith; and though it is likely, as things stand at present, to be a rather long engagement (for Le Breton has nothing to marry upon), we are all very much pleased about it here at Calcombe. He is just the exact man I should wish my sister to marry; so pleasant and good and clever, and so very well connected. Felicitate us, my dear Berkeley!'

  Arthur Berkeley laid the letter down with a quiet sigh, and folded his hands despondently before him. He hadn't seen very much of Edie, yet the disappointment was to him a very bitter one. It had been a pleasant day-dream, truly, and he was both to part with it so unexpectedly. 'Poor little Miss Butterfly,' he said to himself, tenderly and compassionately; 'poor, airy, flitting, bright-eyed little Miss Butterfly. I must give you up, must I, and Ernest Le Breton must take you for better, for worse, must he? La reyne le veult, it seems, and her word is law. I'm afraid he's hardly the man to make you happy, little lady; kind-hearted, well-meaning, but too much in earnest, too much absorbed in his ideas of right for a world where right's impossible, and every man for himself is the wretched sordid rule of existence. He will overshadow and darken your bright little life, I fear me; not intentionally——he couldn't do that——but by his Quixotic fads and fancies; good fads, honest fads, but fads wholly impracticable in this jarring universe of clashing interests, where he who would swim must keep his own head steadily above water, and he who minds his neighbour must sink like lead to the unfathomable bottom. He will sink, I doubt not, poor little Miss Butterfly; he will sink inevitably, and drag you down with him, down, down, down to immeasurable depths of poverty and despair. Oh, my poor little butterfly, I'm sorry for you, and sorry for myself. It was a pretty dream, and I loved it dearly. I had made you a queen in my fancy, and throned you in my heart, and now I have to dethrone you again, me miserable, and have my poor lonely heart bare and queenless!'

  The piano was open, and he went over to it instinctively, strumming a few wild bars out of his own head, made up hastily on the spur of the moment. 'No, not dethrone you,' he went on, leaning back on the music-stool, and letting his hand wander aimlessly over the keys; 'not dethrone you; I shall never, never be able to do that. Little Miss Butterfly, your image is stamped there too deep for dethronement, stamped there for ever, indelibly, ineffaceably, not to be washed out by tears or laughter. Ernest Le Breton may take you and keep you; you are his; you have chosen him, and you have chosen in most things not unwisely, for he's a good fellow and true (let me be generous in the hour of disappointment even to the rival, the goggle-eyed impracticable dragon monstrosity), but you are mine, too, for I won't give you up; I can't give you up; I must live for you still, even if you know it not. Little woman, I will work for you and I will watch over you; I will be your earthly Providence; I will try to extricate you from the quagmires into which the well-meaning, short-sighted dragon will infallibly lead you. Dear little bright soul, my heart aches for you; I know the trouble you are bringing upon yourself; but la reyne le veult, and it is not your humble servitor's business to interfere with your royal pleasure. Still, you are mine, for I am yours; yours, body and soul; what else have I to live for? The dear old Progenitor can't be with us many years longer; and when he is gone there will be nothing left me but to watch over little Miss Butterfly and her Don Quixote of a future husband. A man can't work and slave and compose sonatas for himself alone——the idea's disgusting, piggish, worthy only of Herbert Le Breton; I must do what I can for the little queen, and for her balloon-navigating Utopian Ernest. Thank heaven, no law prevents you from loving in your own heart the one woman whom you have once loved, no matter who may chance to marry her. Go, day-dream, fly, vanish, evaporate; the solid core remains still——my heart, and little Miss Butterfly. I have loved her once, and I shall love her, I shall love her for ever!'

  He crumpled the letter up in his fingers, and flung it half angrily into the waste-paper basket, as though it were the embodied day-dream he was mentally apostrophising. It was sermon-day, and he had to write his discourse that very afternoon. A quaint idea seized him. 'Aha,' he said, almost gaily, in his volatile irresponsible fashion, 'I have my text ready; the hour brings it to me unsought; a quip, a quip! I shall preach on the Pool of Bethesda: "While I am coming, another steppeth down before me." The verse seems as if it were made on purpose for me; what a pity nobody else will understand it!' And he smiled quietly at the conceit, as he got the scented sheets of sermon-paper out of his little sandalwood davenport. For Arthur Berkeley was one of those curiously compounded natures which can hardly ever be perfectly serious, and which can enjoy a quaintness or a neat literary allusion even at a moment of the bitterest personal disappointment. He could solace himself for a minute for the loss of Edie by choosing a text for his Sunday's sermon with a prettily-turned epigram on his own position.

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