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Philistia (Chapter35)

2006-08-28 23:31

  Chapter XXXV. The Tide Turns.

  When Ernest Le Breton got a letter from the business house of a well-known publishing firm, asking him whether he would consent to supply appropriate letterpress for an illustrated work on the poor of London, then in course of preparation, his delight and relief were positively unbounded. That anyone should come and ask him for work, instead of his asking them, was in itself a singular matter for surprise and congratulation; that the request should be based on the avowed ground of his known political and social opinions was almost incredible. Ernest felt that it was a triumph, not only for him, but for his dearly-loved principles and beliefs as well. For the first time in his life, he was going to undertake a piece of work which he not only thought not wrong, but even considered hopeful and praise-worthy. Arthur Berkeley, who called round as if by accident the same morning, saw with delight that Lady Hilda's prognostication seemed likely to be fulfilled, and that if only Ernest could be given some congenial occupation there was still a chance, after all, for his permanent recovery; for it was clear enough that as there was hope, there must be a little life yet left in him.

  It was Lady Hilda who, as she herself expressively phrased it, had squared the publishers. She had called upon the head of the well-known house in person, and had told him fully and frankly exactly what was the nature of the interest she took in the poor of London. At first the publisher was scandalised and obdurate: the thing was not regular, he said——not in the ordinary way of business; his firm couldn't go writing letters of that sort to unknown young authors and artists. If she wanted the work done, she must let them give her own name as the promoter of the undertaking. But Hilda persevered, as she always did; she smiled, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, and made desperate love to the publisher to gain his acquiescence in her benevolent scheme. After all, even publishers are only human (though authors have been frequently known to deny the fact); and human nature, especially in England, is apt to be very little proof against the entreaties of a pretty girl who happens also to be an earl's daughter. So in the end, when Lady Hilda said most bewitchingly, 'I put it upon the grounds of a personal favour, Mr. Percival,' the obdurate publisher gave way at last, and consented to do her bidding gladly.

  For six weeks Ernest went daily with Ronald and the young artist into the familiar slums of Bethnal Green, and Bermondsey, and Lambeth, whose ins and outs he was beginning to know with painful accuracy; and every night he came back, and wrote down with a glowing pen all that he had seen and heard of distressing and terrible during his day's peregrination. It was an awful task from one point of view, for the scenes he had to visit and describe were often heart-rending; and Arthur feared more than once that the air of so many loathsome and noxious dens might still further accelerate the progress of Ernest's disease; but Lady Hilda said emphatically, No; and somehow Arthur was beginning now to conceive an immense respect for the practical value of Lady Hilda's vehement opinions. As a matter of fact, indeed, Ernest did not visibly suffer at all either from the unwonted hard work or from the strain upon mind and body to which he had been so little accustomed. Distressing as it all was, it was change, it was variety, it was occupation, it was relief from that terrible killing round of perpetual personal responsibility. Above all, Ernest really believed that here at last was an opportunity of doing some practical good in his generation, and he threw himself into it with all the passionate ardour of a naturally eager and vivid nature. The enthusiasm of humanity was upon him, and it kept him going at high-pressure rate, with no apparent loss of strength and vigour throughout the whole ordeal. To Arthur Berkeley's intense delight, he was even visibly fatter to the naked eye at the end of his six weeks' exploration of the most dreary and desolate slums in all London.

  The book was written at white heat, as the best of such books always are, and it was engraved and printed at the very shortest possible notice. Terrible and ghastly it certainly was at last——instinct with all the grim local colouring of those narrow, squalid, fever-stricken dens, where misfortune and crime huddle together indiscriminately in dirt and misery——a book to make one's blood run cold with awe and disgust, and to stir up even the callous apathy of the great rich capitalist West End to a passing moment's ineffective remorse; but very clever and very graphic after its own sort beyond the shadow of a question, for all its horror. When Arthur Berkeley turned over the first proof-sheets of 'London's Shame,' with its simple yet thrilling recital of true tales taken down from the very lips of outcast children or stranded women, with its awful woodcuts and still more awful descriptions——word-pictures reeking with the vice and filth and degradation of the most pestilent, overcrowded, undrained tenements——he felt instinctively that Ernest Le Breton's book would not need the artificial aid of Lady Hilda's influential friends in order to make it successful and even famous. The Cabinet ministers might be as silent as they chose, the indignant duke might confine his denunciations to the attentive and sympathetic ear of his friend Lord Connemara; but nothing on earth could prevent Ernest Le Breton's fiery and scathing diatribe from immediately enthralling the public attention. Lady Hilda had hit upon the exact subject which best suited his peculiar character and temperament, and he had done himself full justice in it. Not that Ernest had ever thought of himself, or even of his style, or the effect he was producing by his narrative; it was just the very non-self-consciousness of the thing that gave it its power. He wrote down the simple thoughts that came up into his own eager mind at the sight of so much inequality and injustice; and the motto that Arthur prefixed upon the title-page, 'Facit indignatio versum,' aptly described the key-note of that fierce and angry final denunciation. 'Yes, Lady Hilda had certainly hit the right nail on the head,' Arthur Berkeley said to himself more than once: 'A wonderful woman, truly, that beautiful, stately, uncompromising, brilliant, and still really tender Hilda Tregellis.'

  Hilda, on her part, worked hard and well for the success of Ernest's book as soon as it appeared. Nay, she even condescended (not being what Ernest himself would have described as an ethical unit) to practise a little gentle hypocrisy in suiting her recommendations of 'London's Shame' to the tastes and feelings of her various acquaintances. To her Radical Cabinet minister friend, she openly praised its outspoken zeal for the cause of the people, and its value as a wonderful storehouse of useful facts at first hand for political purposes in the increasingly important outlying Metropolitan boroughs. 'Just think, Sir Edmund,' she said, persuasively, 'how you could crush any Conservative candidate for Hackney or the Tower Hamlets out of that awful chapter on the East End match-makers;' while with the Duke, to whom she presented a marked copy as a sample of what our revolutionary thinkers were really coming to, she insisted rather upon its wicked interference with the natural rights of landlords, and its abominable insinuation (so subversive of all truly English ideas as to liberty and property) that they were bound not to poison their tenants by total neglect of sanitary precautions. 'If I were you, now,' she said to the Duke in the most seemingly simple-minded manner possible, 'I'd just quote those passages I've marked in pencil in the House to-night on the Small Urban Holdings Bill, and point out how the wave of Continental Socialism is at last invading England with its devastating flood.' And the Duke, who was a complacent, thick-headed, obstinate old gentleman, congenitally incapable of looking at any question from any other point of view whatsoever except that of his own order, fell headlong passively into Lady Hilda's cruel little trap, and murmured to himself as he rolled down luxuriously to the august society of his peers that evening, 'Tremendous clever girl, Hilda Tregellis, really. "Wave of Continental Socialism at last invading England with its what-you-may-call-it flood," she said, if I remember rightly. Capital sentence to end off one's speech with, I declare. Devizes'll positively wonder where I got it from. I'd no idea before that girl took such an intelligent interest in political questions. So they want their cottages whitewashed, do they? What'll they ask for next, I wonder? Do they think we're to be content at last with one and a-half per cent, upon the fee-simple value of our estates, I should like to know? Why, some of the places this writer-fellow talks about are on my own property in The Rookery——"one of the most noisome court-yards in all London," he actually calls it. Whitewash their cottages, indeed! The lazy improvident creatures! They'll be asking us to put down encaustic tiles upon the floors next, and to paper their walls with Japanese leather or fashionable dados. Really, the general ignorance that prevails among the working classes as to the clearest principles of political economy is something absolutely appalling, absolutely appalling.' And his Grace scribbled a note in his memorandum-book of Hilda's ready-made peroration, for fear he should forget its precise wording before he began to give the House the benefit of his views that night upon the political economy of Small Urban Holdings.

  Next morning, all London was talking of the curious coincidence by which a book from the pen of an unknown author, published only one day previously, had been quoted and debated upon simultaneously in both Houses of Parliament on a single evening. In the Commons, Sir Edmund Calverley, the distinguished Radical minister, had read a dozen pages from the unknown work in his declamatory theatrical fashion, and had so electrified the House with its graphic and horrible details that even Mr. Fitzgerald-Grenville, the well-known member for the Baroness Drummond-Lloyd (whose rotten or at least decomposing borough of Cherbury Minor he faithfully represented in three successive Parliaments), had mumbled out a few half-inaudible apologetic sentences about this state of things being truly deplorable, and about the necessity for meeting such a distressing social crisis by the prompt and vigorous application of that excellent specific and familiar panacea, a spirited foreign policy. In the Lords, the Duke himself, by some untoward coincidence, had been moved to make a few quotations, accompanied by a running fire of essentially ducal criticism, from the very selfsame obscure author; and to his immense surprise, even the members of his own party moved uneasily in their seats during the course of his speech; while later in the evening, Lord Devizes muttered to him angrily in the robing-room, 'Look here, Duke, you've been and put your foot in it, I assure you, about that Radical book you were ill-advised enough to quote from. You ought never to have treated the Small Urban Holdings Bill in the way you did; and just you mark my words, the papers'll all be down upon you to-morrow morning, as sure as daylight. You've given the "Bystander" such an opening against you as you'll never forget till your dying day, I can tell you.' And as the Duke drove back again after his arduous legislative efforts that evening, he said to himself between the puffs at his Havana, 'This comes, now, of allowing oneself to be made a fool of by a handsome woman. How the dooce I could ever have gone and taken Hilda Tregellis's advice on a political question is really more than I can fathom:——and at my time of life too! And yet, all the same, there's no denying that she's a devilish fine woman, by Jove, if ever there was one.'

  Of course, everybody asked themselves next day what this book 'London's Shame' was like, and who on earth its author could be; so much so, indeed, that a large edition was completely exhausted within a fortnight. It was the great sensational success of that London season. Everybody read it, discussed it, dissected it, corroborated it, refuted it, fought over it, and wrote lengthy letters to all the daily papers about its faults and its merits. Imitators added their sincerest flattery: rivals proclaimed themselves the original discoverers of 'London's Shame': one enterprising author even thought of going to law about it as a question of copyright. Owners of noisome lanes in the East End trembled in their shoes, and sent their agents to inquire into the precise degree of squalor to be found in the filthy courts and alleys where they didn't care to trust their own sensitive aristocratic noses. It even seemed as if a little real good was going to come at last out of Ernest Le Breton's impassioned pleading——as if the sensation were going to fall not quite flat at the end of its short run in the clubs and drawing-rooms of London as a nine days' wonder.

  And Ernest Le Breton? and Edie? In the little lodgings at Holloway, they sat first trembling for the result, and ready to burst with excitement when Lady Hilda, up at the unwonted hour of six in the morning, tore into their rooms with an early copy of the 'Times' to show them the Duke's speech, and Sir Edmund's quotations, and the editorial leader in which even that most dignified and reticent of British journals condescended to speak with studiously moderated praise of the immense collection of facts so ably strung together by Mr. Ernest Le Breton (in all the legible glory of small capitals, too,) as to the undoubtedly disgraceful condition of some at least among our London alleys. How Edie clung around Lady Hilda and kissed her! and how Lady Hilda kissed her back and cried over her with tears of happier augury! and how they both kissed and cried over unconscious wondering little Dot! And how Lady Hilda could almost have fallen upon Ernest, too, as he sat gazing in blank astonishment and delight at his own name in the magnificent small capitals of a 'Times' leader. Between crying and laughing, with much efficient aid in both from good Mrs. Halliss, they hardly knew how they ever got through the long delightful hours of that memorable epoch-making morning.

  And then there came the gradual awakening to the fact that this was really fame——fame, and perhaps also competence. First in the field, of course, was the editor of the 'Cosmopolitan Review,' with a polite request that Ernest would give the readers of that intensely hot-and-hot and thoughtful periodical the opportunity of reading his valuable views on the East End outcast question, before they had had time to be worth nothing for journalistic purposes, through the natural and inevitable cooling of the public interest in this new sensation. Then his old friends of the 'Morning Intelligence' once more begged that he would be good enough to contribute a series of signed and headed articles to their columns, on the slums and fever dens of poverty-stricken London. Next, an illustrated weekly asked him to join with his artist friend in getting up another pilgrimage into yet undiscovered metropolitan plague-spots. And so, before the end of a month, Ernest Le Breton, for the first time in his life, had really got more work to do than he could easily manage, and work, too, that he felt he could throw his whole life and soul into with perfect honesty.

  When the first edition of 'London's Shame' was exhausted, there was already a handsome balance to go to Ernest and his artist coadjutor, who, by the terms of the agreement, were to divide between them half the profits. The other half, for appearance' sake, Lady Hilda and Arthur had been naturally compelled to reserve for themselves: for of course it would not have been probable that any publisher would have undertaken the work without any hope of profit in any way. Arthur called upon Hilda at Lord Exmoor's house in Wilton Place to show her the first balance-sheet and accompanying cheque. 'What on earth can we do with it?' he asked seriously. 'We can't divide it between us: and yet we can't give it to the poor Le Bretons. I don't see how we're to manage.'

  'Why, of course,' Hilda answered promptly. 'Put it into the Consols or whatever you call it, for the benefit of little Dot.'

  'The very thing!' Arthur answered in a tone of obvious admiration. 'What a wonderfully practical person you really are, Lady Hilda.'

  As to Ernest and Edie, when they got their own cheque for their quarter of the proceeds, they gazed in awe and astonishment at the bigness of the figure; and then they sat down and cried together like two children, with their hands locked in one another's.

  'And you'll get well, now, Ernest dear,' Edie whispered gently. 'Why, you're ever so much fatter, darling, already. I'm sure you'll get well in no time, now, Ernest.'

  'Upon my word, Edie,' Ernest answered, kissing her white forehead tenderly, 'I really and truly believe I shall. It's my opinion that Sir Antony Wraxall's an unmitigated ignorant humbug.'

  A few weeks later, when Ernest's remarkable article on 'How to Improve the Homes of the Poor' appeared in one of the leading magazines, Mr. Herbert Le Breton of the Education Office looked up from his cup of post-prandial coffee in his comfortable dining-room at South Kensington, and said musingly to his young wife, 'Do you know, Ethel, it seems to me that my brother Ernest's going to score a success at last with this slum-hunting business that he's lately invented. There's an awful lot about it now in all the papers and reviews. Perhaps it might be as well, after all, to scrape an acquaintance with him again, especially as he's my own brother. There's no knowing, really, when a man of his peculiar ill-regulated mercurial temperament may be going to turn out famous. Don't you think you'd better find out where they're living now——they've left Holloway, no doubt, since this turn of the tide——and go and call upon Mrs. Ernest?'

  Whereto Mrs. Herbert Le Breton, raising her eyes for a moment from the pages of her last new novel, answered languidly: 'Don't you think, Herbert, it'd be better to wait a little while and see how things turn out with them in the long run, you know, before we commit ourselves by going to call upon them? One swallow, you see, doesn't make a summer, does it, dear, ever?' Whence the acute and intelligent reader will doubtless conclude that Mrs. Herbert Le Breton was a very prudent sensible young woman, and that perhaps even Herbert himself had met at last with his fitting Nemesis. For what worse purgatory could his bitterest foe wish for a selfishly prudent and cold-hearted man, than that he should pass his whole lifetime in congenial intercourse with a selfishly prudent and cold-hearted wife, exactly after his own pattern?

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