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Philistia (Chapter30)

2006-08-28 23:29

  Chapter XXX. The Environment Finally Triumphs.

  Winter had come, and on a bitter cold winter's night, Ernest Le Breton once more received an unexpected telegram asking him to hurry down without a moment's delay on important business to the 'Morning Intelligence' office. The telegram didn't state at all what the business was; it merely said it was urgent and immediate without in any way specifying its nature. Ernest sallied forth in some perturbation, for his memories of the last occasion when the 'Morning Intelligence' required his aid on important business were far from pleasant ones; but for Edie's sake he felt he must go, and so he went without a murmur.

  'Sit down, Le Breton,' Mr. Lancaster said slowly when Ernest entered. 'The matter I want to see you about's a very peculiar one. I understand from some of my friends that you're a son of Sir Owen Le Breton, the Indian general.'

  'Yes, I am,' Ernest answered, wondering within himself to what end this curious preamble could possibly be leading up. If there's any one profession, he thought, which is absolutely free from the slightest genealogical interest in the persons of its professors, surely that particular calling ought to be the profession of journalism.

  'Well, so I hear, Le Breton. Now, I believe I'm right in saying, am I not, that it was your father who first subdued and organised a certain refractory hill-tribe on the Tibetan frontier, known as the Bodahls, wasn't it?'

  'Quite right,' Ernest replied, with a glimmering idea slowly rising in his mind as to what Mr. Lancaster was now driving at.

  'Ah, that's good, very good indeed, certainly. Well, tell me, Le Breton, do you yourself happen to know anything on earth about these precious insignificant people?'

  'I know all about them,' Ernest answered quickly. 'I've read all my father's papers and despatches, and seen his maps and plans and reports in our house at home from my boyhood upward. I know as much about the Bodahls, in fact, as I know about Bayswater, or Holborn, or Fleet Street.'

  'Capital, capital,' the editor said, fondling his big hands softly; 'that'll exactly suit us. And could you get at these plans and papers now, this very evening, just to refresh the gaps in your memory?'

  'I could have them all down here,' Ernest answered, 'at an hour's notice.'

  'Good,' the editor said again. 'I'll send a boy for them with a cab. Meanwhile, you'd better be perpending this telegram from our Simla correspondent, just received. It's going to be the question of the moment, and we should very much like you to give us a leader of a full column about the matter.'

  Ernest took the telegram and read it over carefully. It ran in the usual very abbreviated newspaper fashion: 'Russian agents revolted Bodahls Tibetan frontier. Advices Peshawur state Russian army marching on Merv. Bodahls attacked Commissioner, declared independence British raj.'

  'Will you write us a leader?' the editor asked, simply.

  Ernest drew a long breath. Three guineas! Edie, Dot, an empty exchequer! If he could only have five minutes to make his mind up! But he couldn't. After all, what did it matter what he said about these poor unknown Bodahls? If he didn't write the leader, somebody else who knew far less about the subject than he did would be sure to do it. He wasn't responsible for that impalpable entity 'the policy of the paper.' Beside the great social power of the 'Morning Intelligence,' of the united English people, what was he, Ernest Le Breton, but a miserable solitary misplaced unit? One way or the other, he could do very little indeed, for good or for evil. After half a minute's internal struggle, he answered back the editor faintly, 'Yes, I will.' 'For Edie,' he muttered half audibly to himself; 'I must do it for dear Edie.'

  'And you'll allow me to make whatever alterations I think necessary in the article to suit the policy of the paper?' the editor asked once more, looking through him with his sleepy keen grey eyes. 'You see, Le Breton, I don't want to annoy you, and I know your own principles are rather peculiar; but of course all we want you for is just to give us the correct statement of facts about these outlandish people. All that concerns our own attitude towards them as a nation falls naturally under the head of editorial matter. You must see yourself that it's quite impossible for us to let any one single contributor dictate from his own standpoint the policy of the paper.'

  Ernest bent his head slowly. 'You're very kind to argue out the matter with me so, Mr. Lancaster,' he said, trembling with excitement. 'Yes, I suppose I must bury my scruples. I'll write a leader about these Bodahls, and let you deal with it afterwards as you think proper.'

  They showed him into the bare little back room, and sent a boy up with a hastily written note to Ronald for the maps and papers. There Ernest sat for an hour or two, writing away for very life, and putting on paper everything that he knew about the poor Bodahls. By two o'clock, the proofs had all come up to him, and he took his hat in a shamefaced manner to sally out into the cold street, where he hoped to hide his rising remorse and agony under cover of the solitary night. He knew too well what 'the policy of the paper' would be, to venture upon asking any questions about it. As he left the office, a boy brought him down a sealed envelope from Mr. Lancaster. With his usual kindly thoughtfulness the editor had sent him at once the customary cheque for three guineas. Ernest folded it up with quivering fingers, and felt the blood burn in his cheeks as he put it away in his waistcoat pocket. That accursed money! For it he had that night sold his dearest principles! And yet, not for it, not for it, not for it——oh, no, not for it, but for Dot and Edie!

  The boy had a duplicate proof in his other hand, and Ernest saw at once that it was his own leader, as altered and corrected by Mr. Lancaster. He asked the boy whether he might see it; and the boy, knowing it was Ernest's own writing, handed it to him at once without further question. Ernest did not dare to look at it then and there for fear he should break down utterly before the boy; he put it for the moment into his inner pocket, and buttoned his thin overcoat tightly around him. It was colder still in the frosty air of early morning, and the contrast to the heated atmosphere of the printing house struck him with ominous chill as he issued slowly forth into the silent precincts of unpeopled Fleet Street.

  It was a terrible memorable night, that awful Tuesday; the coldest night known for many years in any English winter. Snow lay deep upon the ground, and a few flakes were falling still from the cloudy sky, for it was in the second week of January. The wind was drifting it in gusty eddies down the long streets, and driving the drifts before it like whirling dust in an August storm. Not a cab was to be seen anywhere, not even a stray hansom crawling home from clubs or theatres; and Ernest set out with a rueful countenance to walk as best he might alone through the snow all the way to Holloway. It is a long and dreary trudge at any time; it seemed very long and dreary indeed to Ernest Le Breton, with his delicate frame and weak chest, battling against the fierce wind on a dark and snowy winter's night, and with the fever of a great anxiety and a great remorse silently torturing his distracted bosom. At each step he took through the snow, he almost fancied himself a hunted Bodahl. Would British soldiers drive those poor savage women and children to die so of cold and hunger on their snowy hilltops? Would English fathers and mothers, at home at their ease, applaud the act with careless thoughtlessness as a piece of our famous spirited foreign policy? And would his own article, written with his own poor thin cold fingers in that day's 'Morning Intelligence,' help to spur them on upon that wicked and unnecessary war? What right had we to conquer the Bodahls? What right had we to hold them in subjection or to punish them for revolting? And above all, what right had he, Ernest Le Breton, upon whose head the hereditary guilt of the first conquest ought properly to have weighed with such personal heaviness——what right had he, of all men, directly or indirectly, to aid or abet the English people in their immoral and inhuman resolve? Oh, God, his sin was worse than theirs; for they sinned, thinking they did justly; but as for him, he sinned against the light; he knew the better, and, bribed by gold, he did the worse. At that moment, the little slip of printed paper in his waistcoat pocket seemed to burn through all the frosts of that awful evening like a chain of molten steel into his very marrow!

  Trudging on slowly through the white stainless snow, step by step,——snow that cast a sheet of pure white even over the narrow lanes behind the Farringdon Road,——cold at foot and hot at heart, he reached at last the wide corner by the Angel at Islington. The lights in the windows were all out long ago, of course, but the lamps outside were still flaring brightly, and a solitary policeman was standing under one of them, trying to warm his frozen hands by breathing rapidly on the curved and distorted fingers. Ernest was very tired of his tramp by that time, and emboldened by companionship he stopped awhile to rest himself in the snow and wind under the opposite lamplight. Putting his back against the post, he drew the altered proof of his article slowly out of his inner pocket. It had a strange fascination for him, and yet he dreaded to look at it. With an effort, he unfolded it in his stiff fingers, and held the paper up to the light, regardless of the fact that the policeman was watching his proceedings with the interest naturally due from a man of his profession to a suspicious-looking character who was probably a convicted pickpocket. The first sentence once more told him the worst. There was no doubt at all about it. The three guineas in his pocket were the price of blood!

  'The insult to British prestige in the East,' ran that terrible opening paragraph, 'implied in the brief telegram which we publish this morning from our own Correspondent at Simla, calls for a speedy and a severe retribution. It must be washed out in blood.' Blood, blood, blood! The letters swam before his eyes. It was this, then, that he, the disciple of peace-loving Max Schurz, the hater of war and conquest, the foe of unjust British domination over inferior races——it was this that he had helped to make plausible with his special knowledge and his ready pen! Oh, heaven, what reparation could he make for this horrid crime he had knowingly and wilfully committed? What could he do to avoid the guilt of those poor savages' blood upon his devoted head? In one moment he thought out a hundred scenes of massacre and pillage——scenes such as he knew only too well always precede and accompany the blessings of British rule in distant dependencies. The temptation had been strong——the money had been sorely wanted——there was very little food in the house; but how could he ever have yielded to such a depth of premeditated wickedness! He folded the piece of paper into his pocket once more, and buried his face in his hands for a whole minute. The policeman now began to suspect that he was not so much a pickpocket as an escaped lunatic.

  And so he was, no doubt. Of course we who are practical men of the world know very well that all this foolish feeling on Ernest Le Breton's part was very womanish and weak and overwrought; that he ought to have done the work that was set before him, asking no questions for conscience' sake; and that he might honestly have pocketed the three guineas, letting his supposed duty to a few naked brown people somewhere up in the Indian hill-country take care of itself, as all the rest of us always do. But some allowance must naturally be made for his peculiar temperament and for his particular state of health. Consumptive people are apt to take a somewhat hectic view of life in every way; they lack the common-sense ballast that makes most of us able to value the lives of a few hundred poor distant savages at their proper infinitesimal figure. At any rate, Ernest Le Breton, as a matter of fact, rightly or wrongly, did take this curious standpoint about things in general; and did then and there turn back through the deep snow, all his soul burning within him, fired with dire remorse, and filled only with one idea——how to prevent this wicked article to which he had contributed so many facts and opinions from getting printed in to-morrow's paper. True, it was not he who had put in the usual newspaper platitudes about the might of England, and the insult to the British flag, and the immediate necessity for a stern retaliation; but all that vapouring wicked talk (as he thought it) would go forth to the world fortified by the value of his special facts and his obviously intimate acquaintance with the whole past history of the Bodahl people. So he turned back and battled once more with the wind and snow as far as Fleet Street; and then he rushed excitedly into the 'Morning Intelligence' office, and asked with the wildness of despair to see the editor.

  Mr. Lancaster had gone home an hour since, the porter said; but Mr. Wilks, the sub-editor, was still there, superintending the printing of the paper, and if Ernest liked, Mr. Wilks would see him immediately.

  Ernest nodded assent at once, and was forthwith ushered up into Mr. Wilks's private sanctum. The sub-editor was a dry, grizzly-bearded man, with a prevailing wolfish greyness of demeanour about his whole person; and he shook Ernest's proffered hand solemnly, in the dreary fashion that is always begotten of the systematic transposition of night and day.

  'For heaven's sake, Mr. Wilks,' Ernest cried imploringly, 'I want to know whether you can possibly suppress or at least alter my leader on the Bodahl insurrection!'

  Mr. Wilks looked at him curiously, as one might look at a person who had suddenly developed violent symptoms of dangerous insanity. 'Suppress the Bodahl leader,' he said slowly like one dreaming. 'Suppress the Bodahl leader! Impossible! Why, it's the largest type heading in the whole of to-day's paper, is this Bodahl business. "Shocking Outrage upon a British Commissioner on the Indian Frontier. Revolt of the Entire Bodahl Tribe. Russian Intrigue in Central Asia. Dangerous Position of the Viceroy at Simla." Oh, dear me, no; not to have a leader upon that, my dear sir, would be simply suicidal!'

  'But can't you cut out my part of it, at least,' Ernest said anxiously. 'Oh, Mr. Wilks, you don't know what I've suffered to-night on account of this dreadful unmerited leader. It's wicked, it's unjust, it's abominable, and I can't bear to think that I have had anything to do with sending it out into the world to inflame the passions of unthinking people! Do please try to let my part of it be left out, and only Mr. Lancaster's, at least, be printed.'

  Mr. Wilks looked at him again with the intensest suspicion.

  'A sub-editor,' he answered evasively, 'has nothing at all to do with the politics of a paper. The editor alone manages that department on his own responsibility. But what on earth would you have me do? I can't stop the machines for half an hour, can I, just to let you have the chance of doctoring your leader? If you thought it wrong to write it, you ought never to have written it; now it's written it must certainly stand.'

  Ernest sank into a chair, and said nothing; but he turned so deadly pale that Mr. Wilks was fain to have recourse to a little brown flask he kept stowed away in a corner of his desk, and to administer a prompt dose of brandy and water.

  'There, there,' he said, in the kindest manner of which he was capable, 'what are you going to do now? You can't be going out again in this state and in this weather, can you?'

  'Yes, I am,' Ernest answered feebly. 'I'm going to walk home at once to Holloway.'

  'To Holloway!' the sub-editor said in a tone of comparative horror. 'Oh! no, I can't allow that. Wait here an hour or two till the workmen's trains begin running. Or, stay; Lancaster left his brougham here for me to-night, as I have to be off early to-morrow on business; I'll send you home in that, and let Hawkins get me a cab from the mews by order.'

  Ernest made no resistance; and so the sub-editor sent him home at once in Lancaster's brougham.

  When he got home in the early grey of morning, he found Edie still sitting up for him in her chair, and wondering what could be detaining him so long at the newspaper office. He threw himself wildly at her feet, and, in such broken sentences as he was able to command, he told her all the pitiful story. Edie soothed him and kissed him as he went along, but never said a word for good or evil till he had finished.

  'It was a terrible temptation, darling,' she said softly: 'a terrible temptation, indeed, and I don't wonder you gave way to it; but we mustn't touch the three guineas. As you say rightly, it's blood-money.'

  Ernest drew the cheque slowly from his pocket, and held it hesitatingly a moment in his hand. Edie looked at him curiously.

  'What are you going to do with it, darling?' she asked in a low voice, as he gazed vacantly at the last dying embers in the little smouldering fireplace.

  'Nothing, Edie dearest,' Ernest answered huskily, folding it up and putting it away in the drawer by the window. They neither of them dared to look the other in the face, but they bad not the heart to burn it boldly. It was blood-money, to be sure; but three guineas are really so very useful!

  Four days later, little Dot was taken with a sudden illness. Ernest and Edie sat watching by her little cradle throughout the night, and saw with heavy hearts that she was rapidly growing feebler. Poor wee soul, they had nothing to keep her for: it would be better, perhaps, if she were gone; and yet, the human heart cannot be stifled by such calm deliverances of practical reason; it will let its hot emotions overcome the cold calculations of better and worse supplied it by the unbiassed intellect.

  All night long they sat there tearfully, fearing she would not live till morning; and in the early dawn they sent round hastily for a neighbouring doctor. They had no money to pay him with, to be sure; but that didn't much matter; they could leave it over for the present, and perhaps some day before long Ernest might write another social, and earn an honest three guineas. Anyhow, it was a question of life and death, and they could not help sending for the doctor, whatever difficulty they might afterwards find in paying him.

  The doctor came, and looked with the usual professional seriousness at the baby patient. Did they feed her entirely on London milk? he asked doubtfully. Yes, entirely. Ah! then that was the sole root of the entire mischief. She was very dangerously ill, no doubt, and he didn't know whether he could pull her through anyhow; but if anything would do it, it was a change to goat's milk. There was a man who sold goat's milk round the corner. He would show Ernest where to find him.

  Ernest looked doubtfully at Edie, and Edie looked back again at Ernest. One thought rose at once in both their minds. They had no money to pay for it with, except——except that dreadful cheque. For four days it had lain, burning a hole in Ernest's heart from its drawer by the window, and he had not dared to change it. Now he rose without saying a word, and opened the drawer in a solemn, hesitating fashion. He looked once more at Edie inquiringly; Edie nodded a faint approval. Ernest, pale as death, put on his hat, and went out totteringly with the doctor. He stopped on the way to change the cheque at the baker's where they usually dealt, and then went on to the goat's milk shop. How that sovereign he flung upon the counter seemed to ring the knell of his seif-respect! The man who changed it noticed the strangeness of Ernest's look, and knew at once he had not come by the money honestly. He rang it twice to make sure it was good, and then gave the change to Ernest. But Dot, at least, was saved; that was a great thing. The milk arrived duly every morning for some weeks, and, after a severe struggle, Dot grew gradually better. While the danger lasted, neither of them dared think much of the cheque; but when Dot had got quite well again, Ernest was concious of a certain unwonted awkwardness of manner in talking to Edie. He knew perfectly well what it meant; they were both accomplices in crime together.

  When Ernest wrote his 'social' after Max Schurz's affair, he felt he had already touched the lowest depths of degradation. He knew now that he had touched a still lower one. Oh! horrible abyss of self-abasement!——he had taken the blood-money. And yet, it was to save Dot's life! Herbert was right, after all: quite right. Yes, yes, all hope was gone: the environment had finally triumphed.

  In the awful self-reproach of that deadly remorse for the acceptance of the blood-money, Ernest Le Breton felt at last in his heart that surely the bitterness of death was past. It would be better for them all to die together than to live on through such a life of shame and misery. Ah, Peter, Peter, you are not the only one that has denied his Lord and Master!

  And yet, Ernest Le Breton had only written part of a newspaper leader about a small revolt of the Bodahls. And he suffered more agony for it than many a sensitive man, even, has suffered for the commission of some obvious crime.

  'I say, Berkeley,' Lancaster droned out in the lobby of their club one afternoon shortly afterwards, 'what on earth am I ever to do about that socialistic friend of yours, Le Breton? I can't ever give him any political work again, you know. Just fancy! first, you remember, I set him upon the Schurz imprisonment business, and he nearly went mad then because I didn't back up Schurz for wanting to murder the Emperor of Russia. After that, just now the other day, I tried him on the Bodahl business, and hang me if he didn't have qualms of conscience about it afterwards, and trudge back through all the snow that awful Tuesday, to see if he couldn't induce Wilks to stop the press, and let him cut it all out at the last moment! He's as mad as a March hare, you know, and if it weren't that I'm really sorry for him I wouldn't go on taking socials from him any longer. But I will; I'll give him work as long as he'll do it for me on any terms; though, of course, it's obviously impossible under the circumstances to let him have another go at politics, isn't it?'

  'You're really awfully kind, Lancaster,' Berkeley answered warmly. 'No other fellow would do as much for Le Breton as you do. I admit he's absolutely impracticable, but I would give more than I can tell you if only I thought he could be made to pull through somehow.'

  'Impracticable!' the editor said shortly, 'I believe you, indeed. Why, do you remember that ridiculous Schurz business? Well, I sent Le Breton a cheque for eight guineas for that lot, and can you credit it, it's remained uncashed from that day to this. I really think he must have destroyed it.'

  'No doubt,' Arthur answered, with a smile. 'And the Bodahls? What about them?'

  'Oh! he kept that cheque for a few days uncashed——though I'm sure he wanted money at the time; but in the end, I'm happy to say, he cashed it.'

  Arthur's countenance fell ominously.

  'He did!' he said gloomily. 'He cashed it! That's bad news indeed, then. I must go and see them to-morrow morning early. I'm afraid they must be at the last pitch of poverty before they'd consent to do that. And yet, Solomon says, men do not despise a thief if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry. And Le Breton, after all, has a wife and child to think of.'

  Lancaster stared at him blankly, and turned aside to glance at the telegrams, saying to himself meanwhile, that all these young fellows of the new school alike were really quite too incomprehensible for a sensible, practical man like himself to deal with comfortably.

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