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Philistia (Chapter29)

2006-08-28 23:28

  Chapter XXIX. A Man and a Maid.

  If Ernest and Edie had permitted it, Ronald Le Breton would have gone at once, after his coming of age, to club income and expenditure with his brother's household. But, as Edie justly remarked, when he proposed it, such a course would pretty nearly have amounted to clubbing his income with their expenditure; and even in their last extreme of poverty that was an injustice which neither she nor her husband could possibly permit. Ronald needed all his little fortune for his own simple wants, and though they themselves starved, they couldn't bear to deprive him of the small luxuries which had grown into absolute necessaries for one so feeble and weak. Indeed, ill as Ernest himself now was, he had never outgrown the fixed habit of regarding Ronald as the invalid of the family; and to have taken anything, though in the direst straits, from him, would have seemed like robbing the helpless poor of their bare necessities. So Ronald was fain at last to take lodgings for himself with a neighbour of good Mrs. Halliss's, and only to share in Ernest's troubles to the small extent of an occasional loan, which Edie would have repaid to time if she had to go without their own poor little dinner for the sake of the repayment.

  Meanwhile, Ronald had another interest on hand which to his enthusiastic nature seemed directly imposed upon him by the finger of Providence——to provide a home and occupation for poor Selah, whom Herbert had cast aside as a legacy to him. As soon as he had got settled down to his own new mode of life in the Holloway lodgings, he began to look about for a fit place for the homeless girl——a place, he thought to himself, which must combine several special advantages; plenty of work——she wanted that to take her mind off brooding; good, honest, upright people; and above all, no religion. Ronald recognised that last undoubted requirement as of absolutely paramount importance. 'She'll stand any amount of talk or anything else from me,' he said to himself often, 'because she knows I'm really in earnest; but she wouldn't stand it for a moment from those well-meaning, undiscriminating, religious busy-bodies, who are so awfully anxious about other people's souls, though they never seem for a single minute to consider in any way other people's feelings.' After a little careful hunting among his various acquaintances, however, he found at last a place that would exactly suit Selah at a stationer's in Netting Hill; and there he put her——with full confidence that Selah would do the work entrusted to her well and ably, if not from conscientiousness, at least from personal pride, 'which, after all,' Roland soliloquised dreamily, 'is as good a substitute for the genuine article as one can reasonably expect to find in poor fallen human nature.'

  'I wish, Mr. Le Breton,' Selah said, quite timidly for her (maidenly reserve, it must be admitted, was not one of Selah Briggs's strong points), 'that I wasn't going to be quite so far from you as Notting Hill. If I could see you sometimes, you know, I should feel that it might keep me more straight——keep me away from the river in future, I mean. I can't stand most people's preaching, but somehow, your preaching seems to do me more good than harm, really, which is just the exact opposite way, it seems to me, from everybody else's.'

  Ronald smiled sedately. 'I'm glad you want to see me sometimes,' he said, with a touch of something very like gallantry in his tone that was wholly unusual with him. 'I shall walk over every now and then, and look you up at your lodgings over yonder; and besides, you can come on Sundays to dear Edie's, and I shall be able to meet you there once a fortnight or thereabouts. But I'm not going to let you call me Mr. Le Breton any longer; it isn't friendly: and, what's more, it isn't Christian. Why should there be these artificial barriers between soul and soul, eh, Selah? I shall call you Selah in future: it seems more genuine and heartfelt, and unencumbered with needless conventions, than your misters and misses. After all, why should we keep up such idle formalities between brethren and fellow-workers?'

  Selah started a little——she knew better than Ronald himself did what such first advances really led to. 'Oh, Mr. Le Breton,' she said quickly, 'I really can't call you Ronald. I can never call any other man by his Christian name as long as I live, after——your brother.'

  'You mistake me, Selah,' Ronald put in hastily, with his quaint gravity. 'I mean it merely as a sign of confidence and a mark of Christian friendship. Sisters call their brothers by their Christian names, don't they? So there can be no harm in that, surely. It seems to me that if you call me Mr. Le Breton, you're putting me on the footing of a man merely; if you call me Ronald, you're putting me on the footing of a brother, which is really a much more harmless and unequivocal position for me to stand in. Do, please, Selah, call me Ronald.'

  'I'm afraid I can't,' Selah answered. 'I daren't. I mustn't.' But she faltered a little for a moment, notwithstanding.

  'You must, Selah,' Ronald said, with all the force of his enthusiastic nature, fixing his piercing eyes full upon her. 'You must, I tell you. Call me Ronald.'

  'Very well——Ronald,' Selah said at last, after a long pause. 'Good-bye, now. I must be going. Good-bye, and thank you. Thank you. Thank you.' There was a tear quivering even in Selah Briggs's eye, as she held his hand lingeringly a moment in hers before releasing it. He was a very good fellow, really, and he had been so very kind, too, in interesting himself about her future.

  'What a marvellous thread of sameness,' Ronald thought to himself, as he walked back rapidly to his solitary lodgings, 'runs through the warp and woof of a single family, after all! What an underlying unity of texture there must be throughout, in all its members, however outwardly dissimilar they may seem to be from one another! One would say at first sight there was very little, if anything, in common between me and Herbert. And yet this girl interests me wonderfully. Of course I'm not in love with her——the notion of my falling in love with anybody is clearly too ridiculous. But I'm attracted by her, drawn towards her, fascinated as it were; I feel a sort of curious spell upon me whenever I look into her deep big eyes, flashing out upon one with their strange luminousness. It isn't merely that the Hand has thrown her in my way: that counts for something, no doubt, but not for everything. Besides, the Hand doesn't act blindly——nay, rather, acts with supreme wisdom, surpassing the powers or the comprehension of man. When it threw Selah Briggs in my way, depend upon it, it was because the Infinite saw in me something that was specially adapted to her, and in her something that was specially adapted to me. The instrument is duly shaped by inscrutable Wisdom for its own proper work. Now, whatever interests me in her, must have also interested Herbert in her equally and for the same reason. We're drawn towards her, clearly; she exercises over both of us some curious electric power that she doesn't exercise, presumably, over other people. For Herbert must have been really in love with her——not that I'm in love with her, of course; but still, the phenomena are analogous, even if on a slightly different plane——Herbert must have been really in love with her, I'm sure, or such a prudent man as he is would never have let himself get into what he would consider such a dangerous and difficult entanglement. Yes, clearly, there's something in Selah Briggs that seems to possess a singular polarity, as Ernest would call it, for the Le Breton character and individuality!

  'And then, it cuts both ways, too, for Selah was once desperately in love with Herbert: of that I'm certain. She must have been, to judge from the mere strength of the final revulsion. She's a girl of intensely deep passions——I like people to have some depth to their character, even if it's only in the way of passion——and she'd never have loved him at all without loving him fervently and almost wildly: hers is a fervent, wild, indomitable nature. Yes, she was certainly in love with Herbert; and now, though of course I don't mean to say she's in love with me (I hope it isn't wrong to think in this way about an unmarried girl), still I can't help seeing that I have a certain influence over her in return——that she pays much attention to what I say and think, considers me a person worth considering, which she doesn't do, I'm sure, with most other people. Ah, well, there's a vast deal of truth, no doubt, in these new hereditary doctrines of Darwin's and Galton's that Herbert and Ernest talk about so much; a family's a family, that's certain, not a mere stray collection of casual acquaintances. How the likeness runs through the very inmost structure of our hearts and natures! I see in Selah very much what Herbert saw in Selah: Selah sees in me very much what she saw in Herbert. Extraordinary insight into human nature men like Darwin and Galton have, to be sure? And David, too, what a marvellous thinker he was, really! What unfathomed depths of meaning lie unexpected in that simple sentence of his, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." Fearfully and wonderfully, indeed, when one remembers that from one father and mother Herbert and I have both been compounded, so unlike in some things that we scarcely seem to be comparable with one another (look at Herbert's splendid intellect beside mine!), so like in others that Selah Briggs——goodness gracious, what am I thinking of? I was just going to say that Selah Briggs falls in love first with one of us and then with the other. I do hope and trust it isn't wrong of me to fill my poor distracted head so much with these odd thoughts about that unfortunate girl, Selah!'

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