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Philistia (Chapter25)

2006-08-28 23:27

  Chapter XXV. Hard Pressed.

  A week or two later, while 'The Primate of Fiji' was still running vigorously at the Ambiguities Theatre, Arthur Berkeley's second opera, 'The Duke of Bermondsey; or, the Bold Buccaneers of the Isle of Dogs,' was brought out with vast success and immense exultation at the Marlborough. There is always a strong tendency to criticise a little severely the second work of a successful beginner: people like to assume a knowing air, and to murmur self-complacently that they felt sure from the beginning he couldn't keep up permanently to his first level. But in spite of that natural tendency of the unregenerate human mind, and in spite, too, of a marked political bias on the author's part, 'The Duke of Bermondsey' took the town by storm almost as completely as 'The Primate of Fiji' had done before it. Everybody said that though the principles of the piece were really quite atrocious, when one came to think of them seriously, yet the music and the dialogue were crisp and brisk enough to float any amount of social or economical heresy that that clever young man, Mr. Arthur Berkeley, might choose to put into one of his amusing and original operas.

  The social and economical heresies, of course, were partly due to Ernest Le Breton's insidious influence. At the same time that Berkeley was engaged in partially converting Ernest, Ernest was engaged in the counter process of partially converting Berkeley. To say the truth, the conversion was not a very difficult matter to effect; the neophyte had in him implicitly already the chief saving doctrines of the socialistic faith, or, if one must put it conversely, the germs of the disease were constitutionally implanted in his system, and only needed a little external encouragement to cring the poison out fully in the most virulent form of the complaint. The great point of 'The Duke of Bermondsey' consisted in the ridiculous contrast it exhibited between the wealth, dignity, and self-importance of the duke himself, and the squalid, miserable, shrinking poverty of the East-end purlieus from which he drew his enormous revenues. Ernest knew a little about the East-end from practical experience; he had gone there often with Ronald, on his rounds of mercy, and had seen with his own eyes those dens of misery which most people have only heard or read about. It was Ernest who had suggested this light satirical treatment of the great social problem, whose more serious side he himself had learnt to look at in Max Schurz's revolutionary salon; and it was to Ernest that Arthur Berkeley owed the first hint of that famous scene where the young Countess of Coalbrookdale converses familiarly on the natural beauties of healthful labour with the chorus of intelligent colliery hands, in the most realistic of grimy costumes, from her father's estates in Staffordshire. The stalls hardly knew whether to laugh or frown when the intelligent colliers respectfully invited the countess, in her best Ascot flounces and furbelows, to enjoy the lauded delights of healthful mine labour in propria persona: but they quite recovered their good humour when the band of theatrical buccaneers, got up by the duke in Spanish costumes, with intent to deceive his lawless tenants in the East-end, came unexpectedly face to face with the genuine buccaneers of the Isle of Dogs, clothed in real costermonger caps and second-hand pilot-jackets of the marine-storedealers' fashionable pattern. It was all only the ridiculous incongruity of our actual society represented in the very faintest shades of caricature upon the stage; but it made the incongruities more incongruous still to see them crowded together so closely in a single concentrated tableau. Unthinking people laughed uproariously at the fun and nonsense of the piece; thinking people laughed too, but not without an uncomfortable side twinge of conscientious remorse at the pity of it all. Some wise heads even observed with a shrug that when this sort of thing was applauded upon the stage, the fine old institutions of England were getting into dangerous contact with these pernicious continental socialistic theories. And no doubt those good people were really wise in their generation. 'When Figaro came,' Arthur Berkeley said himself to Ernest, 'the French revolution wasn't many paces behind on the track of the ages.'

  'Better even than the Primate, Mr. Berkeley,' said Hilda Tregellis, as she met him in a London drawing-room a few days later. 'What a delightful scene, that of the Countess of Coalbrookdale! You're doing real good, I do believe, by making people think about these things more seriously, you know. As poor dear Mr. Le Breton would have said, you've got an ethical purpose——isn't that the word?——underlying even your comic operas. By the way, do you ever see the Le Bretons now? Poor souls, I hear they're doing very badly. The elder brother, Herbert Le Breton——horrid wretch!——he's here to-night; going to marry that pretty Miss Faucit, they say; daughter of old Mr. Faucit, the candle-maker——no, not candles, soap I think it is——but it doesn't matter twopence nowadays, does it? Well, as I was saying, you're doing a great deal of good with characters like this Countess of Coalbrookdale. We want more mixture of classes, don't we? more free intercourse between them; more familiarity of every sort. For my part, now, I should really very much like to know more of the inner life of the working classes.' 'If only he'd ask me to go to lunch,' she thought, 'with his dear old father, the superannuated shoemaker! so very romantic, really!'

  But Arthur only smiled a sphinx-like smile, and answered lightly, 'You would probably object to their treatment of you as much as the countess objected to the uupleasant griminess of the too-realistic coal galleries. Suppose you were to fall into the hands of a logical old radical workman, for example, who tore you to pieces, mentally speaking, with a shake or two of his big teeth, and calmly informed you that in his opinion you were nothing more than a very empty-headed, pretentious, ignorant young woman——perhaps even, after the plain-spoken vocabulary of hie kind, a regular downright minx and hussey?'

  'Charming,' Lady Hilda answered, with perfect candour; 'so very different from the senseless adulation of all the Hughs, and Guys, and Berties! What I do love in talking to clever men, Mr. Berkeley, is their delicious frankness and transparency. If they think one a fool, they tell one so plainly, or at least they let one see it without any reserve. Now that, you know, is really such a very delightful trait in clever people's characters!'

  'I don't know how you can have had the opportunity of judging, Lady Hilda,' Arthur answered, looking at her handsome open face with a momentary glance of passing admiration——Hilda Tregellis was improving visibly as she matured——'for no one can possibly ever have thought anything of the sort with you, I'm certain: and that I can say quite candidly, without the slightest tinge of flattery or adulation.'

  'What! you don't think me a fool, Mr. Berkeley,' cried Lady Hilda, delighted even with that very negative bit of favourable appreciation. 'Now, that I call a real compliment, I assure you, because I know you clever people pitch your standard of intelligence so very, very high! You consider everybody fools, I'm sure, except the few people who are almost as clever as you yourselves are. However, to return to the countess: I do think there ought to be more mixture of classes in England, and somebody told me'——this was a violent effort to be literary on Hilda's part, by way of rising to the height of the occasion——'somebody told me that Mr. Matthew Arnold, who's so dreadfully satirical, and cultivated, and so forth, thinks exactly the same thing, you know. Why shouldn't the Countess of Coalbrookdale have really married the foreman of the colliers? I daresay she'd have been a great deal happier with a kind-hearted sensible man like him than with that lumbering, hunting, pheasant-shooting, horse-racing lout of a Lord Coalbrookdale, who would go to Norway on a fishing tour without her——now wouldn't she?'

  'Very probably,' Berkeley answered: 'but in these matters we don't regard happiness only,——that, you see, would be mere base, vulgar, commonplace utilitarianism:——we regard much more that grand impersonal overruling entity, that unseen code of social morals, which we commonly call the convenances. Proper people don't take happiness into consideration at all, comparatively: they act religiously after the fashion that the convenances impose upon them.'

  'Ah, but why, Mr. Berkeley,' Lady Hilda said, vehemently, 'why should the whole world always take it for granted that because a girl happens to be born the daughter of people whose name's in the peerage, she must necessarily be the slave of the proprieties, devoid of all higher or better instincts? Why should they take it for granted that she's destitute of any appreciation for any kind of greatness except the kind that's represented by a million and a quarter in the three per cents., or a great-great-grandfather who fought at the battle of Naseby? Why mayn't she have a spark of originality? Why mayn't she be as much attracted by literature, by science, by art, by…… by…… by beautiful music, as, say, the daughter of a lawyer, a doctor, or, or, or a country shopkeeper? What I want to know is just this, Mr. Berkeley: if people don't believe in distinctions of birth, why on earth should they suppose that Lady Mary, or Lady Betty, or Lady Winifred, must necessarily be more banale and vulgar-minded, and common-place than plain Miss Jones, or Miss Brown, or Miss Robinson? You admit that these other girls may possibly care for higher subjects: then why on earth shouldn't we, can you tell me?'

  'Certainly,' Arthur Berkeley answered, looking down into Lady Hilda's beautiful eyes after a dreamy fashion, 'certainly there's no inherent reason why one person shouldn't have just as high tastes by nature as another. Everything depends, I suppose, upon inherited qualities, variously mixed, and afterwards modified by society and education.——It's very hot here, to-night, Lady Hilda, isn't it?'

  'Very,' Lady Hilda echoed, taking his arm as she spoke. 'Shall we go into the conservatory?'

  'I was just going to propose it myself,' Berkeley said, with a faint tremor thrilling in his voice. She was a very beautiful woman, certainly, and her unfeigned appreciation of his plays and his music was undeniably very flattering to him.

  'Unless I bring him fairly to book this evening,' Hilda thought to herself as she swept with him gracefully into the conservatory, 'I shall have to fall back upon the red-haired hurlyburlying Scotch professor, after all——if I don't want to end by getting into the clutches of one of those horrid Monties or Algies!'

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