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Philistia (Chapter31)

2006-08-28 23:29

  Chapter XXXI. De Profundis.

  After all Ernest didn't get many more socials to write for the 'Morning Intelligence,' as it happened; for the war that came on shortly after crowded such trifles as socials fairly out of all the papers, and he had harder work than ever to pick up a precarious living somehow by the most casual possible contributions. Of course he tried many other channels; but he had few introductions, and then his views were really so absurdly ultra that no reasonable editor could ever be expected to put up with them. He got tired at last of seeing his well-meant papers return to him, morning after morning, with the unvarying legend, 'Declined with thanks;' and he might have gone to the wall utterly but for the kindly interest which Arthur Berkeley still took in his and Edie's future. On the very day after his conversation with Lancaster at the club Arthur dropped round casually at Holloway, and brought with him a proposal which he said had just been made him by a colonial newsagent. It was a transparent little ruse enough; but Ernest and Edie were not learned in the ways of the world and did not suspect it so readily as older and wiser heads might probably have done. Would Ernest supply a fortnightly letter, to go by the Australian mail, to the Paramatta 'Chronicle and News,' containing London political and social gossip of a commonplace kind——just the petty chit-chat he could pick up easily out of 'Truth' and the 'World'——for the small sum of thirty shillings a letter?

  Yes, Ernest thought he could manage that.

  Very well, then. The letter must be sent on alternate Wednesdays to the colonial newsagent's address, and it would be duly forwarded by mail to the office of the Paramatta 'Chronicle.' A little suspicious, that item, Berkeley thought, but Ernest swallowed it like a child and made no comment. It must be addressed to 'Paramatta, care of Lane & Co.,' and the payments would be made fortnightly through the same agency. Arthur watched his friend's face narrowly at this point again; but Ernest in his simple-minded, unsuspecting wasy, never noticed the obvious meaning of this little deception. He thanked Arthur over and over again for his kindness, but he never guessed how far it extended. The letters kept him employed for two days a week, or thereabouts, and though they never got to Paramatta, nor any farther than Arthur Berkeley's own study in the little house he had taken for himself at Chelsea, they were regularly paid for through the colonial newsagents, by means of a cheque which really owed its ultimate origin to Arthur Berkeley himsslf. Fifteen shillings a week is not a large fortune, certainly; but still it is considerably better than nothing, when you come to try both methods of living by practical experience.

  Even so, however, Ernest and Edie had a hard struggle, with their habits of life and Ernest's delicate health, to make both ends meet upon that modest income. They found the necessity for recourse to the imaginary pawnbroker growing upon them with alarming rapidity; and though the few small articles that they sent out for that purpose never really went beyond kind Mrs. Halliss's kitchen dresser, yet so far as Ernest and Edie were concerned, the effect was much the same as if they had been really pledged to the licensed broker. The good woman hid them away carefully in the back drawers of the dresser, sending up as much money for the poor little trinkets as she thought it at all credible that any man in his senses could possibly advance——if she had given altogether too much, she thought it probable that even the unsuspicious Le Bretons would detect the kindly deception——at the time remarking to John that 'if ever them pore dear young creechurs was able to redeem 'em again, why, well an' good; an' if not, why, they could just find some excuse to give 'em back to the dear lady after pore Mr. Le Breting was dead an' gone, as he must be, no doubt, afore many months was over.' What wretched stuff that is that some narrow-minded cynics love to talk, after their cheap moralising fashion, about the coldness and cruelty of the world! The world is not cold and cruel; it is brimming over everywhere with kindliness and warmth of heart; and you have only got to put yourself into the proper circumstances in order to call forth at once on every hand, and in all classes, its tenderest and truest sympathies. None but selfish, unsympathetic people themselves ever find it otherwise in the day of trouble. It is not the world that is cold and heartless——it is not the individual members of the world that are cruel and unkind——it is the relentless march of circumstances——the faulty organisation which none of us can control, and for which none of us is personally responsible, that grinds us to powder under its Juggernaut wheels. Private kindliness is for ever trying, feebly and unsuccessfully, but with its best efforts, to undo the evil that general mismanagement is for ever perpetrating in its fateful course.

  One day, a few weeks later, Arthur Berkeley called in again, and on the stairs he met a child playing——a neighbour's child whom good Mrs. Halliss allowed to come in and amuse herself while the mother went out charing. The girl had a bright gold object in her hand; and Arthur, wondering how she came by it, took it from her and looked at it curiously. He recognised it in a moment for what it was——a gold bracelet, a well remembered gold bracelet——the very one that he himself had given as a wedding present to poor Edie. He turned it over and looked closely at the inside: cut into the soft gold he saw the one word 'Frustra,' that he himself had carved into it with his penknife the night before the memorable wedding.

  'Where did you get this?' he asked the child.

  'Mrs. 'Alliss give it me,' the little one answered, beginning to cry.

  Arthur ran lightly down the steps again, and knocked at the door of Mrs. Halliss's kitchen, with the tell-tale bracelet in his hand. Mrs. Halliss opened the dcor to him respectfully, and after a faint attempt at innocent prevarication, felt bound to let out all the pitiful little secret without further preamble. So Arthur, good, kind-hearted, delicate-souled Arthur, took his seat sadly upon one of the hard wooden kitchen chairs, and waited patiently while Mrs. Halliss and honest John, in their roundabout inarticulate fashion, slowly unfolded the story how them two pore young creechurs upstairs had been druv that low through want of funs that Mrs. Le Breting, God bless 'er 'eart, 'ad 'ad to pawn her poor little bits of jewelry and such like: and how they 'adn't 'ad the face to go an' pawn it for her, and so 'ad locked it up in their drawers, and waited hopefully for better times. Arthur listened to all this with an aching heart, and went home alone to ponder on the best way of still further assisting them.

  The only thing that occurred to him was a plan for giving Edie, too, a little relief, in the way of what she might suppose to be money-getting occupation. She used to paint a little in water-colours, he remembered, in the old days; so he put an advertisement in a morning paper, which he got Mrs. Halliss to show Edie, asking for drawings of orchids, the flowers to be supplied and accurately copied by an amateur at a reasonable price. Edie fell into the harmless friendly trap readily enough, and was duly supplied with orchids by a florist in Regent Street, who professed to receive his instructions from the advertiser. The pictures were all produced in due time, and were sent to a fixed address, where a gentleman in a hansom used to call for them at regular intervals. Arthur Berkeley kept those poor little water-colours long afterwards locked up in a certain drawer all by themselves: they were sacred mementoes to him of that old hopeless love for the little Miss Butterfly of his Oxford days.

  With the very first three guineas that Edie earned, carefully saved and hoarded out of her payments for the water-colours, she insisted in the pride of her heart that Ernest should go and visit a great London consulting physician. Sir Antony Wraxall was the best specialist in town on the subject of consumption, she had heard, and she was quite sure so clever a man must do Ernest a great deal of good, if he didn't even permanently cure him.

  'It's no use, Edie darling,' Ernest said to her imploringly. 'You'll only be wasting your hard-earned money. What I want is not advice or medicine; I want what no doctor on earth can possibly give me——relief from this terrible crushing responsibility.'

  But Edie would bear no refusal. It was her money, she said, the first she had ever earned in her whole life, and she should certainly do as she herself liked with it. Sir Antony Wraxall, she was quite confident, would soon be able to make him better.

  So Ernest, overborne by her intreaties, yielded at last, and made an appointment with Sir Antony Wraxall. He took his quarter-hour in due form, and told the great physician all his symptoms as though he believed in the foolish farce. Sir Antony held his head solemnly on one side, weighed him with puritanical scrupulosity to a quarter of an ounce on his delicate balance, listened attentively at the chest with his silver-mounted stethoscope, and perpended the net result of his investigation with professional gravity; then he gave Edie his full advice and opinion to the maximum extent of five minutes.

  'Your husband's case is not a hopeful one, Mrs. Le Breton,' he said solemnly, 'but still, a great deal may be done for him.' Edie's face brightened visibly. 'With care, his life may be prolonged for many years,——I may even say, indeed, quite indefinitely.' Edie smiled with joy and gratitude. 'But you must strictly observe my rules and directions——the same that I've just given in a similar case to the Crown Prince of Servia who was here before you. In the first place, your husband must give up work altogether. He must be content to live perfectly and absolutely idle. Then, secondly, he must live quite away from England. I should recommend the Engadine in summer, and Algeria or the Nile trip every winter; but, if that's beyond your means——and I understand from Mr. Le Breton that you're in somewhat straitened circumstances——I don't object to Catania, or Malaga, or even Mentone and the Riviera. You can rent furnished villas for very little on the Riviera. But he must in no case come farther north, even in summer, than the Lake of Geneva. That, I assure you, is quite indispensable, if he wishes to live another twelvemonth. Take him south at once, in a coupe-lit of course, and break the journey once or twice at Lyons and Marseilles. Next, as to diet, he must live generously——very generously. Don't let him drink claret; claret's poor sour stuff; a pint of good champagne daily, or a good, full-bodied, genial vintage Burgundy would be far better and more digestible for him. Oysters, game, sweetbreads, red mullet, any little delicacy of that sort as much as possible. Don't let him walk; let him have carriage exercise daily; you can hire carriages for a mere trifle monthly at Cannes and Mentone. Above all things, give him perfect freedom from anxiety. Allow him to concentrate his whole attention on the act of getting well, and you'll find he'll improve astonishingly in no time. But if you keep him here in England and feed him badly and neglect my directions, I can't answer for his getting through another winter……Don't disturb yourself, I beg of you; don't, pray, give way to tears; there is really no occasion for it, my dear madam, no occasion for it at all, if you'll only do as I tell you……Quite right, thank you. Good morning.——Next case, McFarlane.——Good morning. Good morning.'

  So that was the end of weeping little Edie's poor hardly-spared three guineas.

  The very next day Arthur Berkeley happened to mount the stairs quietly, at an earlier hour than usual, and knocked at the door of Ernest's lodging. There was no answer, so he turned the handle, and entered by himself. The remains of breakfast lay upon the table. Arthur did not want to spy, but he couldn't help remarking that these remains were extremely meagre and scanty. Half a loaf of bread stood upon a solitary plate in the centre; a teapot and two cups occupied one side; and——that was all. In spite of himself, he couldn't restrain his curiosity, and he looked more closely at the knives and plates. Not a mark of anything but crumbs upon them, not even butter! He looked into the cups. Nothing but milkless tea at the bottom! Yes, the truth was only too evident; they had had no meat for breakfast, no butter, no milk, no sugar; it was quite clear that the meal had consisted entirely of dry bread with plain tea——call it hot water——and that for a dying man and a delicate over-worked lady! Arthur looked at that pitiable breakfast-table with a twinge of remorse, and the tears rose sharply and involuntarily into his eyes. He had not done enough for them, then; he had not done enough for them.

  Poor little Miss Butterfly! and had it really come to this! You, so bright, so light, so airy, in want, in positive want, in hunger even, with your good, impossible, impracticable Ernest! Had it come to this! Bread and water; dry bread and water! Down tears, down; a man must be a man; but, oh, what a bitter sight for Arthur Berkeley! And yet, what could he do to mend it? Money they would not take; he dare not even offer it; and he was at his wit's end for any other contrivance for serving them without their knowledge. He must do what he could; but how he was to do it, he couldn't imagine.

  As he stood there, ruminating bitterly over that poor bare table, he thought he heard sounds above, as of Edie coming downstairs with Dot on her shoulder. He knew she would not like to know that he had surprised the secret of their dire poverty; and he turned silently and cautiously to descend the stair. There was only just time enough to get away, for Edie was even then opening the door of the nursery. Noiselessly, with cat-like tread, he crept down the steps once more, and heard Edie descending, and singing as she came down to Dot. It was a plaintive little song, in a sad key——a plaintive little song of his own——but not wholly distressful, Arthur thought; she could still sing, then, to her baby! With the hot tears rising a second time to his eyes, he groped his way to the foot of the staircase. There he brushed them hurriedly aside with his hand, and turned out into the open street. The children were playing and tumbling in the sun, and a languid young man in a faultless frock coat and smooth silk hat was buying a showy button-hole flower from the little suburban florist's opposite.

  With a heavy heart Arthur Berkeley turned homeward to his own cosy little cottage; that modest palace of art which he had once hoped little Miss Butterfly might have shared with him. He went up the steps, and turned quickly into his own small study. The Progenitor was there, sitting reading in an easy-chair. 'At least,' Arthur thought to himself, 'I have made his old age happy. If I could only do as much for little Miss Butterfly! for little Miss Butterfly! for little Miss Butterfly! If I could only do as much for her, oh, how happy and contented I should be!'

  He flung himself down on his own sofa, and brushed big eyes nervously with his handkerchief before he dared lookup again towards the Progenitor. 'Father,' he said, clutching his watchchain hard and playing with it nervously to keep down his emotion, 'I'm afraid those poor Le Bretons are in an awfully bad way. I'm afraid, do you know, that they actually haven't enough to eat! I went into their rooms just now, and, would you believe it, I found nothing on the table for breakfast but dry bread and tea!'

  The Progenitor looked up quietly from the volume of Morley's 'Voltaire' which he was at that moment placidly engaged in devouring. 'Nothing but dry bread and tea,' he said, in what seemed to Arthur a horribly unconcerned tone. 'Really, hadn't they? Well, I dare say they are very badly off, poor people. But after all, you know, Artie, they can't be really poor, for Le Breton told me himself he was generally earning fifteen shillings or a pound a week, and that, you see, is really for three people a very good income, now isn't it?'

  Arthur, delicate-minded, gentle, chivalrous Arthur, gazed in surprise and sudden distress at that dear, good, unselfish old father of his. How extraordinary that the kindly old man couldn't grasp the full horror of the situation! How strange that he, who would himself have been so tender, so considerate, so womanly in his care and sympathy towards anything that seemed to him like real poverty or real suffering, should have been so blinded by his long hard workingman life towards the peculiar difficulties and trials of classes other than his own as not to recognise the true meaning of that dreadful disclosure! Arthur was not angry with him——he felt too fully at that moment what depths of genuine silent hardship uncomplainingly endured were implied in the stoically calm frame of mind which could treat Edie Le Breton's penury of luxuries as a comparatively slight matter: after all, his father was right at bottom; such mere sentimental middle-class poverty is as nothing to the privations of the really poor; yet he could not help feeling a little disappointed for all that. He wanted sympathy in his pity, and he could clearly expect none here. 'Why, father,' he cried bitterly, 'you don't throw yourself into the position as you ought to do. A pound a week, paid regularly, would be a splendid income of course for people brought up like you or me. But just consider how those two young people have been brought up! Consider their wants and their habits! Consider the luxury they have been accustomed to! And then think of their being obliged to want now almost for food in their last extremity!'

  His father answered in the same quiet tone——not hardly, but calmly, as though he were discussing a problem in political economy instead of the problem of Edie Le Breton's happiness——'Well, you see, it's all a matter of the standard of comfort. These two friends of yours have been brought up above their future; and now that they're got to come down to their natural level, why, of course, they feel it, depend upon it, they feel it. Their parents, of course, shouldn't have accustomed them to a style of life above their station. Good dry bread, not too stale, does nobody any harm: still, I dare say they don't like coming down to it. But bless your heart, Artie, if you'd seen the real want and poverty that I've seen, my boy——the actual hunger and cold and nakedness that I've known honest working people brought down to by no work, and nothing but the House open before them, or not that even, you wouldn't think so much of the sentimental grievances of people who are earning fifteen shillings a week in ease and comfort.'

  'But, Father,' Arthur went on, scarcely able to keep down the rising tone of indignation at such seeming heartlessness, 'Ernest doesn't earn even that always. Sometimes he earns nothing, or next to nothing; and it's the uncertainty and insecurity that tells upon them even more than the poverty itself. Oh, Father, Father, you who have always been so good and kind, I never heard you speak so cruelly about anyone before as you're speaking now about that poor, friendless, helpless, penniless, heart-broken little woman!'

  The old shoemaker caught at the word suddenly, and looking him through and through with an unexpected gleam of discovery, laid down the life of Voltaire on the table with a bang, and sat straight upright in his chair, nodding his head, and muttering slowly to himself, 'Little woman——he said "little woman!" Poor Artie, Poor Artie!' in a tone of inexpressible pity. At last he turned to Arthur and cried with a voice of womanly tenderness, 'My boy, my boy, I didn't know before it was the lassie you were thinking of; I thought it was only poor young Le Breton. I see it all now; I've surprised your secret; you've let it out to me without knowing it. Oh, Artie, if that's She, I'm sorry for her, and I'm sorry for you, my boy, from the bottom of my heart. If that's She, Artie, we'll put our heads together, and see what plan we can manage to save her from what she has never been accustomed to. Don't think too hardly of your old Progenitor, Artie; he hasn't mixed with these people all his life, and learned to sympathise with them as you've done, my son; he doesn't understand them or know their troubles as you do: but if that's her that you told me about one day, we shall find the means to make her happy and comfortable yet, if we have to starve for it. Dear Arthur, do not think I could be harsh or unfeeling for a moment to the woman that you ever once in passing fixed your heart upon. Let's talk it over and think it over, and sooner or later we'll surely find the way to accomplis

  h it.'

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