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Philistia (Chapter7)

2006-08-28 23:21

  Chapter VII. Ghostly Counsel.

  November came, and with it came the Pembroke fellowship examination. Ernest went in manfully, and tried hard to do his best; for somehow, in spite of the immorality of fellowships, he had a sort of floating notion in his head that he would like to get one, because he was beginning to paint himself a little fancy picture of a home that was to be, with a little fairy Edie flitting through it, and brightening it all delightfully with her dainty airy presence. So he even went so far as to mitigate considerably the native truculence of his political economy paper, after Edie's advice——not, of course, by making any suggestion of opinions he did not hold, but by suppressing the too-prominent expression of those he actually believed in. Max Schurz's name was not once mentioned throughout the whole ten or twelve pages of closely written foolscap; 'Gold and the Proletariate' was utterly ignored; and in place of the strong meat served out for men by the apostles of socialism in the Marylebone dancing-saloon, Ernest dished up for his examiner's edification merely such watery milk for babes as he had extracted from the eminently orthodox economical pages of Fawcett, Mill, and Thorold Rogers. He went back to his rooms, satisfied that he had done himself full justice, and anxiously waited for the result to be duly announced on the Saturday morning.

  Was it that piece of Latin prose, too obviously modelled upon the Annals of Tacitus, while the senior tutor was a confirmed Ciceronian, with the Second Philippic constitutionally on the brain? Was it the Greek verse, containing one senarius with a long syllable before the caesura in the fifth foot, as Herbert pointed out to his brother on the very evening when that hideous oversight——say rather crime——had been openly perpetrated in plain black and white on a virgin sheet of innocent paper? Was it some faint ineffaceable savour of the Schurzian economics, peeping through in spite of all disguises, like the garlic in an Italian ragout, from under the sedulous cloak of Ricardo's theory of rent? Was it some flying rumour, extra-official, and unconnected with the examination in any way, to the effect that young Le Breton was a person of very dubious religious, political, and social orthodoxy? Or was it merely that fortunate dispensation of Providence whereby Oxford almost invariably manages to let her best men slip unobserved through her fingers, and so insures a decent crop of them to fill up her share of the passing vacancies in politics, literature, science, and art? Heaven or the Pembroke examiners alone can answer these abstruse and difficult questions; but this much at least is certain, that when Ernest Le Breton went into the Pembroke porter's lodge on the predestined Saturday, he found another name than his placarded upon the notice board, and turned back, sick at heart and disappointed, to his lonely lodgings. There he spent an unhappy hour or two, hewing down what remained of his little aerial castle off-hand; and then he went out for a solitary row upon the upper river, endeavouring to work off his disappointment like a man, with a good hard spell of muscular labour.

  Edie had already returned to Calcombe-Pomeroy, so in the evening he went to tell his misfortune to Harry Oswald. Harry was really sorry to hear it, for Ernest was his best friend in Oxford, and he had hoped to have him settled close by. 'You'll stop up and try again for Christ Church in February, won't you, Le Breton?' he asked.

  'No,' said Ernest, shaking his head a little gloomily; 'I don't think I will. It's clear I'm not up to the Oxford standard for a fellowship, and I couldn't spend another term in residence without coming down upon my mother to pay my expenses——a thing she can't easily afford to do. So I suppose I must fall back for the present upon the Exmoor tutorship. That'll give me time to look about me, till I can get something else to do; and after all, it isn't a bit more immoral than a fellowship, when one comes to look it fairly in the face. However, I shall go first and ask Herr Max's opinion upon the matter.'

  'I'm going to spend a fortnight in town in the Christmas vac,' said Oswald, 'and I should like to go with you to Max's again, if I may.'

  Ernest coloured up a little, for he would have liked to invite Oswald to his mother's house; and yet he felt there were two reasons why he should not do so; he must himself be dependent this time upon his mother's hospitality, and he didn't think Lady Le Breton would be perfectly cordial in her welcome to Harry Oswald.

  In the end, however, it was arranged that Harry should engage rooms at his former lodgings in London, and that Ernest should take him once more to call upon the old socialist when he went to consult him on the question of conscience.

  'For my part, Ernest,' said Lady Le Breton to her son, the morning after his return from Oxford, 'I'm not altogether sorry you didn't get this Pembroke fellowship. It would have kept you among the same set you are at present mixing in for an indefinite period. Of course now you'll accept Lady Exmoor's kind proposal. I saw her about it the same morning we got Hilda's letter; and she offers 200L. a year, which, of course, is mere pocket money, as your board and lodging are all found for you, so to speak, and you'll have nothing to do but to dress and amuse yourself.'

  'Well, mother, I shall see about it. I'm going to consult Herr Schurz upon the subject this morning.'

  'Herr Schurz!' said Lady Le Breton, in her bitterest tone of irony. 'It appears to me you make that snuffy old German microscope man your father confessor. It's very disagreeable to a mother to find that her sons, instead of taking her advice about what is most material to their own interests, should invariably go to confer with communist refugees and ignorant ranters. Ronald, what is your programme, if you please, for this morning's annoyance?'

  Ronald, with the fear of the fifth commandment steadily before his eyes, took no notice of the last word, and answered calmly, 'You know, mother, this is the regular day for the mission-house prayer-meeting.'

  'The mission-house prayer-meeting! I know nothing of the sort, I assure you. I don't keep a perfect calendar in my mind of all your meetings and your religious engagements. Then I suppose I must go alone to the Waltons' to see Mr. Walton's water-colours?'

  'I'll give up the prayer-meeting, if you wish it,' Ronald answered, with his unvarying meekness. 'Only, I'm afraid I must walk very slowly. My cough's rather bad this morning.'

  'No, no,' Ernest put in, 'you mustn't dream of going, Ronald; I couldn't allow you to walk so far on any account. I'll put off my engagement with Oswald, who was going with me to Herr Schurz's, and I'll take you round to the Waltons', mother, whenever you like.'

  'Dear me, dear me,' moaned Lady Le Breton, piteously, pretending to wring her hands in lady-like and mitigated despair; 'I can't do anything without its being made the opportunity for a scene, it seems. I shall not go to the Waltons'; and I shall leave you both to follow your own particular devices to your heart's content. I'm sorry I proposed anything whatsoever, I'm sure, and I shall take care never to do such an imprudent thing again.' And her ladyship walked in her stateliest and most chilly manner out of the freezing little dining-room.

  'It's a great cross, living always with poor mother, Ernest,' said Ronald, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke; 'but we must try to bear with her, you know, for after all she leads a very lonely life herself, because she's so very unsympathetic.' Ernest took the spare white hand in his and smoothed it compassionately. 'My dear, dear Ronald,' he said, 'I know it's hard for you. I must try the best I can to make it a little easier!'

  They walked together as far as the mission-house, arm in arm, for though in some things the two young Le Bretons were wide apart as the poles, in others they were fundamentally at one in inmost spirit; and even Ronald, in spite of his occasional little narrow sectarianisms, felt the underlying unity of purpose no less than Ernest. He was one of those enthusiastic ethereal natures which care little for outer forms or ceremonies, and nothing at all for churches and organisations, but love to commune as pure spirit with pure spirit, living every day a life of ecstatic spirituality, and never troubling themselves one whit about theological controversy or established religious constitutions. As long as Ronald Le Breton could read his Greek Testament every morning, and talk face to face in their own tongue with the Paul of First Corinthians or the John of the Epistles, in the solitude of his own bedroom, he was supremely indifferent about the serious question, of free-will and fore-knowledge, or about the important question of apostolical succession, or even about that other burning question of eternal punishment, which was just then setting his own little sect of Apostolic Christian Missioners roundly by the ears. These things seemed to his enthusiastic mind mere fading echoes of an alien language; all that he himself really cared for in religion was the constant sense of essential personal communion with that higher Power which spoke directly to his soul all day long and always; or the equally constant sense of moral exaltation which he drew from the reading of the written Word in its own original language. He had never become an Apostolic Christian; he had grown up to be one, unconsciously to himself. 'Your son Ronald's religion, my dear Lady Le Breton,' Archdeacon Luttrell used often to say, 'is, I fear, too purely emotional. He cannot be made to feel sufficiently the necessity for a sound practical grasp of doctrinal Christianity.' To Ronald himself, he might as well have talked about the necessity for a sound practical grasp of doctrinal Buddhism. And if Ronald had really met a devout Buddhist, he would doubtless have found, after half an hour's conversation, that they were at one in everything save the petty matter of dialect and vocabulary.

  At Oswald's lodging, Ernest found his friend ready and waiting for him. They went on together to the same street in Marylebone as before, and mounted the stair till they reached Herr Schurz's gloomy little work-room on the third floor. The old apostle was seated at his small table by the half-open window, grinding the edges of a lens to fit the brass mounting at his side; while his daughter Uta, a still good-looking, quiet, broad-faced South German woman, about forty or a little more, sat close by, busily translating a scientific book into English by alternate reading and consultation with her father. Harry saw the title on her page was 'Researches into the Embryology of the Isopodal Crustaceans,' and conceived at once an immense respect for the learning and wisdom of the communist exile's daughter. Herr Schurz hardly stopped a moment from his work——he never allowed his numerous visitors to interfere in any way with his daily duties——but motioned them both to seats on the bare bench beside him, and waited to bear the nature of their particular business. It was an understood thing that no one came to see the Socialist leader on week days except for a good and sufficient reason.

  The talk at first was general and desultory; but after a little time Ernest brought conversation round to its proper focus, and placed his case of conscience fairly before his father confessor. Was it allowable for a consistent socialist to accept the place of tutor to the son of a peer and a landowner?

  'For my part, Herr Schurz,' Oswald said confidently, 'I don't see any reason on earth, from the point of view of any political economy whatsoever, why Ernest shouldn't take the position. The question isn't how the Exmoors have come by their money, even allowing that private property in land is in itself utterly indefensible; which is a proposition I don't myself feel inclined unreservedly to admit, though I know you and Le Breton do: the real question's this,——since they've got this money into their hands to distribute, and since in any case they will have the distribution of it, isn't it better that some of it should go into Le Breton's pocket than that it should go into any other person's? That's the way I for my part look at the matter.'

  'What do you say to that, friend Ernest?' asked the old German, smiling and waiting to see whether Ernest would detect what from their own standpoint he regarded as the ethical fallacy of Harry Oswald's argument.

  'Well, to tell you the truth, Herr Schurz,' answered Ernest, in his deliberate, quiet way, 'I don't think I've envisaged the subject to myself from quite the same point of view as Oswald has done. I have rather asked myself whether it was right of a man to accept a function in which he would really be doing nothing worthy for humanity in return for his daily board and lodging. It isn't so much a question who exactly is to get certain sums out of the Exmoors' pockets, which ought no doubt never to have been in them; it's more a question whether a man has any right to live off the collective labour of the world, and do nothing of any good to the world on his own part by way of repayment.'

  'That's it, friend Ernest,' cried the old man, with a pleased nod of his big grey head; 'the socialistic Iliad in a nutshell! That's the very root of the question. Don't be deceived by capitalist sophisms. So long as we go on each of us trying to get as much as we can individually out of the world, instead of asking what the world is getting out of us, in return, there will be no revolution and no millennium. We must make sure that we're doing some good ourselves, instead of sponging upon the people perpetually to feed us for nothing. What's the first gospel given to man at the creation in your popular cosmogonies? Why, that in the sweat of his face shall he eat bread, and till the ground from which he was taken. That's the native gospel of the toiling many, always; your doctrines of fair exchange, and honest livelihoods, and free contract, and all the rest of it, are only the artificial gospel of the political economists, and of the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats into whose hands they play——the rascals!'

  'Then you think I oughtn't to take the post?' asked Ernest, a little ruefully.

  'I don't say that, Le Breton——I don't say that,' said Herr Schurz, more quietly than before, still grinding away at his lens. 'The question's a broad one, and it has many aspects. The best work a man can do is undoubtedly the most useful work——the work that conduces most to the general happiness. But we of the proletariate can't take our choice always: as your English proverb plainly puts it, with your true English bluntness, "beggars mustn't be choosers." We must, each in his place, do the work that's set before us by the privileged classes. It's impossible for us to go nicely discriminating between work that's useful for the community, work that's merely harmless, and work that's positively detrimental. How can we insure it? A man's a printer, say. There's a generally useful trade, in which, on the whole, he labours for the good and enlightenment of the world——for he may print scientific books, good books, useful books; and most printing, on the average, is useful. But how's he to know what sort of thing he's printing? He may be printing "Gold and the Proletariate," or he may be printing obscurantist and retrogressive treatises by the enemies of humanity. Look at my own trade, again. You'd say at first sight, Mr. Oswald, that to make microscopes must be a good thing in the end for the world at large: and so it is, no doubt; but half of them——ay, more than half of them——are thrown away: mere wasted labour, a good workman's time and skill lavished needlessly on some foolish rich man's caprices and amusement. Often enough, now, I make a good instrument——an instrument, with all its fittings, worth fifty or a hundred pounds. That takes a long time to make, and I'm a skilled workman; and the instrument may fall into the hands of a scientific man who'll use it in discovery, in verification, in promoting knowledge, in lessening disease and mitigating human suffering. That's the good side of my trade. But, mark you, now,' and the old man wiped his forehead rapidly with his sleeve, 'it has its bad side too. As often as not, I know, some rich man will buy that machine, that cost me so much time and trouble to make, and will buy a few dozen stock slides with it, and will bring it out once in a moon to show his children or a few idle visitors the scales on a butterfly's wing, or the hairs on the leg of a common flea. Uta sets those things up by the thousand for the dealers to sell to indolent dilettanti. The appetite of the world at large for the common flea is simply insatiable. And it's for that, perhaps, that I'm spoiling my eyesight now, grinding and grinding and grinding at this very lens, and fitting the thing to an accurate fraction of a millimetre, as we always fit these things——we who are careful and honest workmen——to show an idle man's friends the hairs on a flea's fore-leg. If that isn't enough to make a man ashamed of our present wasteful and chaotic organisation, I should think he must be a survival from the preglacial epoch——as, indeed, most of us actually are!'

  'But, after all, Herr Schurz,' said Harry, expostulating, 'you get paid for your labour, and the rich man is doing better by encouraging your skill than by encouraging the less useful skill of other workmen.'

  'Ah, yes,' cried Herr Schurz, warmly, 'that's the doctrine of the one-eyed economists; that's the capitalist way of looking at it; but it isn't our way——it isn't ours. Is it nothing, think you, that all that toil of mine——of a sensible man's——goes to waste, to gratify the senseless passing whim of a wealthy nobody? Is it nothing that he uselessly monopolises the valuable product of my labour, which in other and abler hands might be bringing forth good fruit for the bettering and furthering of universal humanity? I tell you, Mr. Oswald, half the best books, half the best apparatus, half the best appliances in all Europe, are locked up idle in rich men's cabinets, effecting no good, begetting no discoveries, bringing forth no interest, doing nothing but foster the anti-social pride of their wealthy possessors. But that isn't what friend Ernest wants to ask me about to-day. He wants to know about his own course in a difficult case; and instead of answering him, here am I, maundering away, like an old man that I am, into the generalised platitudes of "Gold and the Proletariate." Well, Le Breton, what I should say in your particular instance is this. A man with the fear of right before his eyes may, under existing circumstances, lawfully accept any work that will keep him alive, provided he sees no better and more useful work equally open to him. He may take the job the capitalists impose, if he can get nothing worthier to do elsewhere. Now, if you don't teach this young Tregellis, what alternative have you? Why, to become a master in a school——Eton, perhaps, or Rugby, or Marlborough——and teach other equally useless members of prospective aristocratic society. That being so, I think you ought to do what's best for yourself and your family for the present——for the present——till the time of deliverance comes. You see, there is one member of your family to whom the matter is of immediate importance.'

  'Ronald,' said Ernest, interrupting him.

  'Yes, Ronald. A good boy; a socialist, too, though he doesn't know it——one of us, born of us, and only apart from us in bare externals. Well, would it be most comfortable for poor Ronald that you should go to these Exmoor people, or that you should take a mastership, get rooms somewhere, and let him live with you? He's not very happy with your mother, you say. Wouldn't he be happier with you? What think you? Charity begins at home, you know: a good proverb——a good, sound, sensible, narrow-minded, practical English proverb!'

  'I've thought of that,' Ernest said, 'and I'll ask him about it. Whichever he prefers, then, I'd better decide upon, had I?'

  'Do so,' Herr Max answered, with a nod. 'Other things equal, our first duty is to those nearest to us.'

  What Herr Max said was law to his disciples, and Ernest went his way contented.

  'Mr. Oswald seems a very nice young man,' Uta Schurz said, looking up from the microscope slides she had begun to mount at the moment her regular translating work was interrupted by their sudden entry. She had been taking quiet glances at Harry all the while, in her unobtrusive fashion; for Uta had learned always to be personally unobtrusive——'the prophet's donkey,' those irreverent French exiles used to call her——and she had come to the conclusion that he was a decidedly handsome and manly fellow.

  'Which do you like best, Uta——Oswald or Le Breton?' asked her father.

  'Personally,' Uta answered, 'I should prefer Mr. Oswald. To live always with Mr. Le Breton would be like living with an abstraction. No woman would ever care for him; she might just as well marry Spinoza's Ethics or the Ten Commandments. He's a perfect model of a socialist, and nothing else. Mr. Oswald has some human nature in him as well.'

  'There are two kinds of socialists,' said Herr Max, bending once more over his glasses; 'the one kind is always thinking most of its rights; the other kind is always thinking most of its duties. Oswald belongs to the first, Le Breton to the second. I've often observed it so among men of their two sorts. The best socialists never come from the bourgeoisie, nor even from the proletariate; they come from among the voluntarily declasses aristocrats. Your workman or your bourgeois who has risen, and who interests himself in social or political questions, is always thinking, "Why shouldn't I have as many rights and privileges as these other people have?" The aristocrat who descends is always thinking, "Why shouldn't these other people have as many rights and privileges as I have?" The one type begets aggressive self-assertion, the other type begets a certain gentle spirit of self-effacement. You don't often find men of the aristocratic class with any ethical element in them——their hereditary antecedents, their breeding, their environment, are all hostile to it; but when you do find them, mark my words, Uta, they make the truest and most earnest friends of the popular cause of any. Their sympathy and interest in it is all unselfish.'

  'And yet,' Uta answered firmly, 'I still prefer Mr. Oswald. And if you care for my opinion, I should say that the aristocrat does all the dreaming, but the bourgeois does all the fighting; and that's the most important thing practically, after all.'

  An hour later, Ernest was talking his future plans over with his brother Ronald. Would it be best for Ronald that he should take a mastership, and both should live together, or that he should go for the present to the Exmoors', and leave the question of Ronald's home arrangements still unsettled?

  'It's so good of you to think of me in the matter, Ernest,' Ronald said, pressing his hand gently; 'but I don't think I ought to go away from mother before I'm twenty-one. To tell you the truth, Ernest, I hardly flatter myself she'd be really sorry to get rid of me; I'm afraid I'm a dreadful thorn in her side at present; she doesn't understand my ways, and perhaps I don't sympathise enough with hers; but still, if I were to propose to go, I feel sure she'd be very much annoyed, and treat it as a serious act of insubordination on my part. While I'm a minor, at least, I ought to remain with her; the Apostle tells us to obey our parents, in the Lord; and as long as she requires nothing from me that doesn't involve a dereliction of principle I think I must bear with it, though I acknowledge it's a cross, a heavy cross. Thank you so much for thinking of it, dearest Ernest.' And his eyes filled once more with tears as he spoke.

  So it was finally arranged that for the present at least Ernest should accept Lady Exmoor's offer, and that as soon as Ronald was twenty-one he should look about for a suitable mastership, in order for the two brothers to go immediately into rooms together. Lady Le Breton was surprised at the decision; but as it was in her favour, she wisely abstained from gratifying her natural desire to make some more uncomplimentary references to the snuffy old German socialist. Sufficient unto the day was the triumph thereof; and she had no doubt in her own mind that if once Ernest could be induced to live for a while in really good society the well-known charms and graces of that society must finally tame his rugged breast, and wean him away from his unaccountable devotion to those horrid continental communists.

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