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Philistia (Chapter37)

2006-08-28 23:31

  Chapter XXXVII. Land at Last: But What Land?

  Long before the 'Social Reformer' had fully made its mark in the world, another event had happened of no less importance to some of the chief actors in the little drama whose natural termination it seemed to form. While the pamphlet and the paper were in course of maturation, Arthur Berkeley had been running daily in and out of the house in Wilton Place in what Lady Exmoor several times described as a positively disgraceful and unseemly manner. ('What Hilda can mean,' her ladyship observed to her husband more than once, 'by encouraging that odd young man's extraordinary advances in the way she does is really more than I can understand even in her.') But when the Le Bretons were fairly launched at last on the favourable flood of full prosperity, both Hilda and Arthur began to feel as though they had suddenly been deprived of a very pleasant common interest. After all, benevolent counsel on behalf of other people is not so entirely innocent and impersonal in certain cases as it seems to be at first sight. 'Do you know, Lady Hilda,' Berkeley said one afternoon, when he had come to pay, as it were, a sort of farewell visit, on the final completion of their joint schemes for restoring happiness to the home of the Le Bretons, 'our intercourse together has been very delightful, and I'm quite sorry to think that in future we must see so much less of one another than we've been in the habit of doing for the last month or so.'

  Hilda looked at him straight and said in her own frank unaffected fashion, 'So am I, Mr. Berkeley, very sorry, very sorry indeed.'

  Arthur looked back at her once more, and their eyes met. His look was full of admiration, and Hilda saw it. She moved a little uneasily upon the ottoman, waiting apparently as though she expected Arthur to say something else. But Arthur looked at her long and steadfastly, and said nothing.

  At last he seemed to wake from his reverie, and make up his mind for a desperate venture. Could he be mistaken? Could he have read either record wrong——his own heart, or Hilda's eyes? No, no, both of them spoke to him too plainly and evidently. His heart was fluttering like a wind-shaken aspen-leaf; and Hilda's eyes were dimming visibly with a tender moisture. Yes, yes, yes, there was no misreading possible. He knew he loved her! he knew she loved him!

  Bending over towards where Hilda sat, he took her hand in his dreamily: and Hilda let him take it without a movement. Then he looked deeply into her eyes, and felt a curious speechlessness coming over him, deep down in the ball of his throat.

  'Lady Hilda,' he began at last with an effort, in a low voice, not wholly untinged with natural timidity, 'Lady Hilda, is a working man's son——'

  Hilda looked back at him with a sudden look of earnest deprecation. 'Not that way, Mr. Berkeley,' she said quietly: 'not that way, please: you'll hurt me if you do: you know that's not the way I look at the matter. Why not simply "Hilda"?'

  Berkeley clasped her hand eagerly and raised it to his lips. 'Hilda, then,' he said, kissing it twice over. 'It shall be Hilda.'

  Hilda rose and stood before him erect in all her queenlike beauty. 'So now that's settled,' she said, with a vain endeavour to control her tears of joy. 'Don't let's talk about it any more, now; I can't bear to talk about it: there's nothing to arrange, Arthur. Whenever you like will suit me. But, oh, I'm so happy, so happy, so happy——I never thought I could be so happy.'

  'Nor I,' Arthur answered, holding her hand a moment in his tenderly.

  'How strange,' Hilda said again, after a minute's delicious silence; 'it's the poor Le Bretons who have brought us two thus together. And yet, they were both once our dearest rivals. You were in love with Edie Le Breton: I was half in love with Ernest Le Breton: and now——why, now, Arthur, I do believe we're both utterly in love with one another. What a curious little comedy of errors!'

  'And yet only a few months ago it came very near being a tragedy, rather,' Arthur put in softly.

  'Never mind!' Hilda answered in her brightest and most joyous tone, as she wiped the joyful tears from her eyes. 'It isn't a tragedy, now, after all, Arthur, and all's well that ends well!'

  When the Countess heard of Hilda's determination——Hilda didn't pretend to go through the domestic farce of asking her mother's consent to her approaching marriage——she said that so far as she was concerned a more shocking or un-Christian piece of conduct on the part of a well-brought-up girl had never yet been brought to her knowledge. To refuse Lord Connemara, and then go and marry the son of a common cobbler! But the Earl only puffed away vigorously at his cheroot, and observed philosophically that for his part he just considered himself jolly well out of it. This young fellow Berkeley mightn't be a man of the sort of family Hilda would naturally expect to marry into, but he was decently educated and in good society, and above all, a gentleman, you know, don't you know: and, hang it all, in these days that's really everything. Besides, Berkeley was making a pot of money out of these operas of his, the Earl understood, and as he had always expected that Hilda'd marry some penniless painter or somebody of that sort, and be a perpetual drag upon the family exchequer, he really didn't see why they need trouble their heads very much about it. By George, if it came to that, he rather congratulated himself that the girl hadn't taken it into her nonsensical head to run away with the groom or the stable-boy! As to Lynmouth, he merely remarked succinctly in his own dialect, 'Go it, Hilda, go it, my beauty! You always were a one-er, you know, and it's my belief you always will be.'

  It was somewhere about the same time that Ronald Le Breton, coming back gladdened in soul from a cheerful talk with Ernest, called round of an evening in somewhat unwonted exultation at Selah's lodgings. 'Selah,' he said to her calmly, as she met him at the door to let him in herself, 'I want to have a little talk with you.'

  'What is it about, Ronald?' Selah asked, with a perfect consciousness in her own mind of what the subject he wished to discourse about was likely to be.

  'Why, Selah,' Ronald went on in his quiet, matter-of-fact, unobtrusive manner, 'do you know, I think we may fairly consider Ernest and Edie out of danger now.'

  'I hope so, Ronald,' Selah answered imperturbably. 'I've no doubt your brother'll get along all right in future, and I'm sure at least that he's getting stronger, for he looks ten per cent. better than he did three months ago.'

  'Well, Selah!'

  'Well, Ronald!'

  'Why, in that case, you see, your objection falls to the ground. There can be no possible reason on either side why you should any longer put off marrying me. We needn't consider Edie now; and you can't have any reasonable doubt that I want to marry you for your own sake this time.'

  'What a nuisance the man is!' Selah cried impetuously. 'Always bothering a body out of her nine senses to go and marry him. Have you never read what Paul says, that it's good for the unmarried and widows to abide? He was always dead against the advisability of marriage, Paul was.'

  'Brother Paul was an able and earnest preacher,' Ronald murmured gravely, 'from whose authority I should be sorry to dissent except for sufficient and weighty reason; but you must admit that on this particular question he was prejudiced, Selah, decidedly prejudiced, and that the balance of the best opinion goes distinctly the other way.'

  Selah laughed lightly. 'Oh, does it?' she said, in her provoking, mocking manner. 'Then you propose to marry me, I suppose, on the balance of the best Scriptural opinion.'

  'Not at all, Selah,' Ronald replied without a touch of anything but grave earnestness in his tone——it must be admitted Ronald was distinctly lacking in the sense of humour. 'Not at all, I assure you. I propose to marry you because I love you, and I believe in your heart of hearts you love me, too, you provoking girl, though you're too proud or too incomprehensible ever to acknowledge it.'

  'And even if I do?' Selah asked. 'What then?'

  'Why, then, Selah,' Ronald answered confidently, taking her hand boldly in his own and actually kissing her——yes, kissing her; 'why, then, Selah, suppose we say Monday fortnight?'

  'It's awfully soon,' Selah replied, half grumbling. 'You don't give a body time to think it over.'

  'Certainly not,' Ronald responded, quickly, taking the handsome face firmly between his two spare hands, and kissing her lips half a dozen times over in rapid succession.

  'Let me go, Ronald,' Selah cried, struggling to be free, and trying in vain to tear down his thin wiry arms with her own strong shapely hands. 'Let me go at once,——there's a good boy, and I'll marry you on Monday fortnight, or do anything else you like, just to keep you quiet. After all, you're a kind-hearted fellow enough, and you want looking after and taking care of, and if you insist upon it, I don't mind giving way to you in this small matter.'

  Ronald stepped back a pace or two, and stood looking at her a little sadly with his hands folded. 'Oh, Selah,' he cried in a tone of bitter disappointment, 'don't speak like that to me, don't, please. Don't, don't tell me that you don't really love me——that you're going to marry me for nothing else but out of mere compassion for my weakness and helplessness!'

  Selah burst at once into a wild flood of uncontrollable tears: 'Oh, Ronald,' she cried in her old almost fiercely passionate manner, flinging her arms around his neck and covering him with kisses; 'Oh, Ronald, how can you ever ask me whether I really really love you! You know I love you! You know I love you! You've given me back life and everything that's dear in it, and I never want to live for anything any longer except to love you, and wait upon you, and make you happy. I'm stronger than you, Ronald, and I shall be able to do a little to make you happy, I do believe. My ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts, my darling; but I love you all the better for that, Ronald, I love you all the better for that; and if you were to kick me, beat me, trample on me now, Ronald, I should love you, love you, love you for ever still.'

  So they two were quietly married, with no audience save Ernest and Edie, on that very Monday fortnight.

  When Herbert Le Breton heard of it from his mother a few days later, he went home at once to his own eminently cultured home and told Mrs. Le Breton the news, of course without much detailed allusion to Selah's earlier antecedents. 'And do you know, Ethel,' he added significantly, 'I think it was an excellent thing that you decided not to call after all upon Ernest's wife, for I'm sure it'll be a great deal safer for you and me to have nothing to say in any way to the whole faction of them. A greengrocer's daughter, you know——quite unpresentable. They'll be all mixed up together in future, which'll make it quite impossible to know the one without at the same time knowing the other. Now, it'd be just practicable for you to call upon Mrs. Ernest, I must admit, but to call upon Mrs. Ronald would be really and truly too inconceivable.'

  At the end of the first year of the 'Social Reformer,' the annual balance was duly audited, and it showed a very considerable and solid surplus to go into the pocket of the enterprising Radical proprietor. Ernest and Herr Max scanned it closely together, and even Ernest could not refrain from a smile of pleasure when he saw how thoroughly successful the doubtful venture had finally turned out. 'And yet,' he said regretfully, as he looked at the heavy balance-sheet, 'what a strange occupation after all for the author of "Gold and the Proletariate," to be looking carefully over the sum-total of a capitalist's final balance! To think, too, that all that money has come out of the hard-earned scraped-up pennies of the toiling poor! I often wish, Herr Max, that even so I had been brought up an honest shoemaker! But whether I'm really earning my salt at the hands of humanity now or not is a deep problem I often have many an uncomfortable internal sigh over to this day.'

  'There is work and work, friend Ernest,' Herr Max answered, as gently as had been his wont in older years; 'and for my part it seems to me you are better here writing your Social Reformers than making shoes for a single generation. One man builds for to-day, another man builds for to-morrow; and he that plants a fruit tree for his children to eat of is doing as much good work in the world as he that sows the corn in spring to be reaped and eaten at this autumn's harvest.'

  'Perhaps so,' Ernest answered softly. 'I wish I could think so. But after all I'm not quite sure whether, if we had all starved eighteen months ago together, as seemed so likely then, it wouldn't have been the most right thing in the end that could possibly have happened to all of us. As things are constituted now, there seems only one life that's really worth living for an honest man, and that's a martyr's. A martyr's or else a worker's. And I, I greatly fear, have managed somehow to miss being either. The wind carries us this way and that, and when we would do that which is right, it drifts us away incontinently into that which is only profitable.'

  'Dear Ernest,' Edie cried in her bright old-fashioned manner from the ofice door, 'Dot has come in her new frock to bring Daddy home for her birthday dinner as she was promised. Come quick, or your little daughter'll be very angry with you. And Lady Hilda Berkeley has come, too, to drive us back in her own brougham. Now don't be a silly, there's a dear, or say that you can't drive away from the office of the "Social Reformer" in Lady Hilda's brougham!'

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