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Philistia (Chapter12)

2006-08-28 23:23

  Chapter XII. The More Excellent Way.

  At the very top of the winding footpath cut deeply into the sandstone side of the East Cliff Hill at Hastings, a wooden seat, set a little back from the road, invites the panting climber to rest for five minutes after his steep ascent from the primitive fisher village of Old Hastings, which nestles warmly in the narrow sun-smitten gulley at his feet. On this seat, one bright July morning, Herbert Le Breton lay at half length, basking in the brilliant open sunshine and evidently waiting for somebody whom he expected to arrive by the side path from the All Saints' Valley. Even the old coastguardsman, plodding his daily round over to Ecclesbourne, noticed the obvious expectation implied in his attentive attitude, and ventured to remark, in his cheery familiar fashion, 'She won't be long a-comin' now, sir, you may depend upon it: the gals is sure to be out early of a fine mornin' like this 'ere.' Herbert stuck his double eye-glass gingerly upon the tip of his nose, and surveyed the bluff old sailor through it with a stony British stare of mingled surprise and indignation, which drove the poor man hastily off, with a few muttered observations about some people being so confounded stuck up that they didn't even understand the point of a little good-natured seafarin' banter.

  As the coastguardsman disappeared round the corner of the flagstaff, a young girl came suddenly into sight by the jutting edge of sandstone bluff near the High Wickham; and Herbert, jumping up at once from his reclining posture, raised his bat to her with stately politeness, and moved forward in his courtly graceful manner to meet her as she approached. 'Well, Selah,' he said, taking her hand a little warmly (judged at least by Herbert Le Breton's usual standard), 'so you've come at last! I've been waiting here for you for fully half an hour. You see, I've come down to Hastings again as I promised, the very first moment I could possibly get away from my pressing duties at Oxford.'

  The girl withdrew her hand from his, blushing deeply, but looking into his face with evident pleasure and admiration. She was tall and handsome, with a certain dashing air of queenliness about her, too; and she was dressed in a brave, outspoken sort of finery, which, though cheap enough in its way, was neither common nor wholly wanting in a touch of native good taste and even bold refinement of contrast and harmony. 'It's very kind of you to come, Mr. Walters,' she answered in a firm but delicate voice. 'I'm so sorry I've kept you waiting. I got your letter, and tried to come in time; but father he's been more aggravating than usual, almost, this morning, and kept saying he'd like to know what on earth a young woman could want to go out walking for, instead of stopping at home at her work and minding her Bible like a proper Christian. In his time young women usen't to be allowed to go walking except on Sundays, and then only to chapel or Bible class. So I've not been able to get away till this very minute, with all this bundle of tracts, too, to give to the excursionists on the way. Father feels a most incomprehensible interest, somehow, in the future happiness of the Sunday excursionists.'

  'I wish he'd feel a little more interest in the present happiness of his own daughter,' Herbert said smiling. 'But it hasn't mattered your keeping me waiting here, Selah. Of course I'd have enjoyed it all far better in your society——I don't think I need tell you that now, dear——but the sunshine, and the sea breeze, and the song of the larks, and the plash of the waves below, and the shouts of the fishermen down there on the beach mending their nets and putting out their smacks, have all been so delightful after our humdrum round of daily life at Oxford, that I only wanted your presence here to make it all into a perfect paradise.——Why, Selah, how pretty you look in that sweet print! It suits your complexion admirably. I never saw you wear anything before so perfectly becoming.'

  Selah drew herself up with the conscious pride of an unaffected pretty girl. 'I'm so glad you think so, Mr. Walters,' she said, playing nervously with the handle of her dark-blue parasol. 'You always say such very flattering things.'

  'No, not flattering,' Herbert answered, smiling; 'not flattering, Selah, simply truthful. You always extort the truth from me with your sweet face, Selah. Nobody can look at it and not forget the stupid conventions of ordinary society. But please, dear, don't call me Mr. Walters. Call me Herbert. You always do, you know, when you write to me.'

  'But it's so much harder to do it to your face, Mr. Walters,' Selah said, again blushing. 'Every time you go away I say to myself, "I shall call him Herbert as soon as ever he comes back again;" and every time you come back, I feel too much afraid of you, the moment I see you, ever to do it. And yet of course I ought to, you know, for when we're married, why, naturally, then I shall have to learn to call you Herbert, shan't I?'

  'You will, I suppose,' Herbert answered, rather chillily: 'but that subject is one upon which we shall be able to form a better opinion when the time comes for actually deciding it. Meanwhile, I want you to call me Herbert, if you please, as a personal favour and a mark of confidence. Suppose I were to go on calling you Miss Briggs all the time! a pretty sort of thing that would be! what inference would you draw as to the depth of my affection? Well, now, Selah, how have these dreadful home authorities of yours been treating you, my dear girl, all the time since I last saw you?'

  'Much the same as usual, Mr. Walters——Herbert, I mean,' Selah answered, hastily correcting herself. 'The regular round. Prayers; clean the shop; breakfast, with a chapter; serve in the shop all morning; dinner, with a chapter; serve in the shop all afternoon; tea, with a chapter; prayer meeting in the evening; supper, with a chapter; exhortation; and go to bed, sick of it all, to get up next morning and repeat the entire performance da capo, as they always say in the music to the hymn-books. Occasional relaxations,——Sunday at chapel three times, and Wednesday evening Bible class; mothers' assembly, Dorcas society, missionary meeting, lecture on the Holy Land, dissolving views of Jerusalem, and Primitive Methodist district conference in the Mahanaim Jubilee meeting hall. Salvation privileges every day and all the year round, till I'm ready to drop with it, and begin to wish I'd only been lucky enough to have been born one of those happy benighted little pagans in a heathen land where they don't know the value of the precious Sabbath, and haven't yet been taught to build Primitive Methodist district chapels for crushing the lives out of their sons and daughters!'

  Herbert smiled a gentle smile of calm superiority at this vehement outburst of natural irreligion. 'You must certainly be bored to death with it all, Selah,' he said, laughingly. 'What a funny sort of creed it really is, after all, for rational beings! Who on earth could believe that the religion these people use to render your life so absolutely miserable is meant for the same thing as the one that makes my poor dear brother Ronald so perfectly and inexpressibly serene and happy? The formalism of lower natures, like your father's, has turned it into a machine for crushing all the spontaneity out of your existence. What a regime for a high-spirited girl like you to be compelled to live under, Selah!'

  'It is, it is!' Selah answered, vehemently. 'I wish you could only see the way father goes on at me all the time about chapel, and so on, Mr. Wal——Herbert, I mean. You wouldn't wonder, if you were to hear him, at my being anxious for the time to come when you can leave Oxford and we can get comfortably married. What between the drudgery of the shop and the drudgery of the chapel my life's positively getting almost worn out of me.'

  Herbert took her hand in his, quietly. It was not a very small hand, but it was prettily, though cheaply, gloved, and the plain silver bracelet that encircled the wrist, though simple and inexpensive, was not wanting in rough tastefulness. 'You're a bad philosopher, Selah,' he said, turning with her along the path towards Ecclesbourne; 'you're always anxious to hurry on too fast the lagging wheels of an unknown future. After all, how do you know whether we should be any the happier if we were really and truly married? Don't you know what Swinburne says, in "Dolores"——you've read it in the Poems and Ballads I gave you——

  Time turns the old days to derision,Our loves into corpses or wives,And marriage and death and division Make barren our lives?'

  'I've read it,' Selah answered, carelessly, 'and I thought it all very pretty. Of course Swinburne always is very pretty: but I'm sure I never try to discover what on earth he means by it. I suppose father would say I don't read him tearfully and prayerfully——at any rate, I'm quite sure I never understand what he's driving at.'

  'And yet he's worth understanding,' Herbert answered in his clear musical voice——'well worth understanding, Selah, especially for you, dearest. If, in imitation of obsolete fashions, you wished to read a few verses of some improving volume every night and morning, as a sort of becoming religious exercise in the elements of self-culture, I don't know that I could recommend you a better book to begin upon than the Poems and Ballads. Don't you see the moral of those four lines I've just quoted to you? Why should we wish to change from anything so free and delightful and poetical as lovers into anything so fettered, and commonplace, and prosaic, and banal, as wives and husbands? Why should we wish to give up the fanciful paradise of fluttering hope and expectation for the dreary reality of housekeeping and cold mutton on Mondays? Why should we not be satisfied with the real pleasure of the passing moment, without for ever torturing our souls about the imaginary but delusive pleasure of the unrealisable, impossible future?'

  'But we must get married some time or other, Herbert,' Selah said, turning her big eyes full upon him with a doubtful look of interrogation. 'We can't go on courting in this way for ever and ever, without coming to any definite conclusion. We must get married by-and-by, now mustn't we?'

  'Je n'en vois pas la necessite, moi,' Herbert answered with just a trace of cynicism in his curling lip. 'I don't see any must about it, that is to say, in English, Selah. The fact is, you see, I'm above all things a philosopher; you're a philosopher, too, but only an instinctive one, and I want to make your instinctive philosophy assume a rather more rational and extrinsic shape. Why should we really be in any hurry to go and get married? Do the actual married people of our acquaintance, as a matter of fact, seem so very much more ethereally happy——with their eight children to be washed and dressed and schooled daily, for example——than the lovers, like you and me, who walk arm-in-arm out here in the sunshine, and haven't yet got over their delicious first illusions? Depend upon it, the longer you can keep your illusions the better. You haven't read Aristotle in all probability; but as Aristotle would put it, it isn't the end that is anything in love-making, it's the energy, the active pursuit, the momentary enjoyment of it. I suppose we shall have to get married some day, Selah, though I don't know when; but I confess to you I don't look forward to the day quite so rapturously as you do. Shall we feel more the thrill of possession, do you think, than I feel it now when I hold your hand in mine, so, and catch the beating of your pulse in your veins, even through the fingers of your pretty little glove? Shall we look deeper into one another's eyes and hearts than I look now into the very inmost depths of yours? Shall we drink in more fully the essence of love than when I touch your lips here——one moment, Selah, the gorse is very deep here——now don't be foolish——ah, there, what's the use of philosophising, tell me, by the side of that? Come over here to the bench, Selah, by the edge of the cliff; look down yonder into Ecclesbourne glen; hear the waves dashing on the shore below, and your own heart beating against your bosom within——and then ask yourself what's the good of living in any moment, in any moment but the present.'

  Selah turned her great eyes admiringly upon him once more. 'Oh, Herbert,' she said, looking at him with a clever uneducated girl's unfeigned and undisguised admiration for any cultivated gentleman who takes the trouble to draw out her higher self. 'Oh, Herbert, how can you talk so beautifully to me, and then ask me why it is I'm longing for the day to come when I can be really and truly married to you? Do you think I don't feel the difference between spending my life with such a man as you, and spending it for years and years together with a ranting, canting Primitive Methodist?'

  Herbert smiled to himself a quiet, unobtrusive, self-satisfied smile. 'She appreciates me,' he thought silently in his own heart, 'she appreciates me at my true worth; and, after all, that's a great thing. Well, Selah,' he went on aloud, toying unreproved with her pretty little silver bracelet, 'let us be practical. You belong to a business family and you know the necessity for being practical. There's a great deal to be said in favour of my hanging on at Oxford a little longer. I must get a situation somewhere else as soon as possible, in which I can get married; but I can't give up my fellowship without having found something else to do which would enable me to put my wife in the position I should like her to occupy.'

  'A very small income would do for me, with you, Herbert,' Selah put in eagerly. 'You see, I've been brought up economically enough, heaven knows, and I could live extremely well on very little.'

  'But I could not, Selah,' Herbert answered, in his colder tone. 'Pardon me, but I could not. I've been accustomed to a certain amount of comfort, not to say luxury, which I couldn't readily do without. And then, you know, dear,' he added, seeing a certain cloud gathering dimly on Selah's forehead, 'I want to make my wife a real lady.'

  Selah looked at him tenderly, and gave the hand she hold in hers a faint pressure. And then Herbert began to talk about the waves, and the cliffs, and the sun, and the great red sails, and to quote Shelley and Swinburne; and the conversation glided off into more ordinary everyday topics.

  They sat for a couple of hours together on the edge of the cliff, talking to one another about such and other subjects, till, at last, Selah asked the time, hurriedly, and declared she must go off at once, or father'd be in a tearing passion. Herbert walked back with her through the green lanes in the golden mass of gorse, till he reached the brow of the hill by the fisher village. Then Selah said lightly, 'Not any nearer, Herbert——you see I can say Herbert quite naturally now——the neighbours will go talking about it if they see me standing here with a strange gentleman. Good-bye, good-bye, till Friday.' Herbert held her face up to his in his hands, and kissed her twice over in spite of a faint resistance. Then they each went their own way, Selah to the little green-grocer's shop in a back street of the red-brick fisher village, and Herbert to his big fashionable hotel on the Marine Parade in the noisy stuccoed modern watering place.

  'It's an awkward sort of muddle to have got oneself into.' he thought to himself as he walked along the asphalte pavement in front of the sea-wall: 'a most confoundedly awkward fix to have got oneself into with a pretty girl of the lower classes. She's beautiful certainly; that there's no denying; the handsomest woman on the whole I ever remember to have seen at any time anywhere; and when I'm actually by her side——though it's a weakness to confess it——I'm really not quite sure that I'm not positively quite in love with her! She'd make a grand sort of Messalina, without a doubt, a model for a painter, with her frank imperious face, and her splendid voluptuous figure; a Faustina, a Catherine of Russia, an Ann Boleyn——to be fitly painted only by a Rubens or a Gustave Courbet. Yet how I can ever have been such a particular fool as to go and get myself entangled with her I can't imagine. Heredity, heredity; it must run in the family, for certain. There's Ernest has gone and handed himself over bodily to this grocer person somewhere down in Devonshire; and I myself, who perfectly see the folly of his absurd proceeding, have independently put myself into this very similar awkward fix with Selah Briggs here. Selah Briggs, indeed! The very name reeks with commingled dissent, vulgarity, and greengrocery. Her father's deacon of his chapel, and goes out at night when there's no missionary meeting on, to wait at serious dinner parties! Or rather, I suppose he'd desert the most enticing missionary to earn a casual half-crown at even an ungodly champagne-drinking dinner! Then that's the difference between me and Ernest. Ernest's selfish, incurably and radically selfish. Because this Oswald girl happens to take his passing fancy, and to fit in with his impossible Schurzian notions, he'll actually go and marry her. Not only will he have no consideration for mother——who really is a very decent sort of body in her own fashion, if you don't rub her up the wrong way or expect too much from her——but he'll also interfere, without a thought, with my prospects and my advancement. Now, that I call really selfish; and selfishness is a vulgar piggish vice that I thoroughly abominate. I don't deny that I'm a trifle selfish myself, of course, in a refined and cultivated manner——I flatter myself, in fact, that introspective analysis is one of my strong points; and I don't conceal my own failings from my own consciousness with any weak girlish prevarications. But after all, as Hobbes very well showed (though our shallow modern philosophers pretend to laugh at him), selfishness in one form or another is at the very base of all human motives; the difference really is between sympathetic and unsympathetic selfishness——between piggishness and cultivated feelings. Now I will not give way to the foolish and selfish impulses which would lead me to marry Selah Briggs. I will put a curb upon my inclinations, and do what is really best in the end for all the persons concerned——and for myself especially.'

  He strolled down on to the beach, and began throwing pebbles carelessly into the plashing water. 'Yes,' he went on in his internal colloquy, 'I can only account for my incredible stupidity in this matter by supposing that it depends somehow upon some incomprehensible hereditary leaning in the Le Breton family idiosyncrasy. It's awfully unlike me, I will do myself the justice to say, to have got myself into such a silly dilemma all for nothing. It was all very well a few years ago, when I first met Selah. I was an undergraduate in those days, and even if somebody had caught me walking with a young lady of unknown antecedents and doubtful aspirates on the East Cliff at Hastings, it really wouldn't have much mattered. She was beautiful even then——though not so beautiful as now, for she grows handsomer every day; and it was natural enough I should have taken to going harmless walks about the place with her. She attracted me by her social rebelliousness——another family trait, in me passive not active, contemplative not personal; but she certainly attracted me. She attracts me still. A man must have some outlet for the natural and instinctive emotions of our common humanity; and if a monastic Oxford community imposes celibacy upon one with mediaeval absurdity——why, Selah Briggs is, for the time being, the only possible sort of outlet. One needn't marry her in the end; but for the moment it is certainly very excellent fooling. Not unsentimental either——for my part I could never care for mere coarse, commonplace, venal wretches. Indeed, when I spoke to her just now about my wishing to make my wife a lady, upon my word, at the time, I almost think I was just then quite in earnest. The idea flitted across my mind vaguely——"Why not send her for a year or two to be polished up at Paris or somewhere, and really marry her afterwards for good and always?" But on second thoughts, it won't hold water. She's magnificent, she's undeniable, she's admirable, but she isn't possible. The name alone's enough to condemn her. Fancy marrying somebody with a Christian name out of the hundred and somethingth psalm! It's too atrocious! I really couldn't inflict her for a moment on poor suffering innocent society.'

  He paused awhile, watching the great russet sails of the fishing vessels flapping idly in the breeze as the men raised them to catch the faint breath of wind, and then he thought once more, 'But how to get rid of her, that's the question. Every time I come here now she goes on more and more about the necessity of our getting soon married——and I don't wonder at it either, for she has a perfect purgatory of a life with that snivelling Methodistical father of hers, one may be sure of it. It would be awfully awkward if any Oxford people were to catch me here walking with her on the cliff over yonder——some sniggering fellow of Jesus or Worcester, for example, or, worse than all, some prying young Pecksniff of a third-year undergraduate! Somehow, she seems to fascinate me, and I can't get away from her; but I must really do it and be done with it. It's no use going on this way much longer. I must stop here for a few days more only, and then tell her that I'm called away on important college business, say to Yorkshire or Worcestershire, or somewhere. I needn't tell her in person, face to face: I can write hastily at the last moment to the usual name at the Post Office——to be left till called for. And as a matter of fact I won't go to Yorkshire either——very awkward and undignified, though, these petty prevarications; when a man once begins lowering himself by making love to a girl in an inferior position, he lets himself in for all kinds of disagreeable necessities afterwards;——I shall go to Switzerland. Yes, no place better after the bother of running away like a coward from Selah: in the Alps, one would forget all petty human degradations; I shall go to Switzerland. Of course I won't break off with her altogether——that would be cruel; and I really like her; upon my word, even when she isn't by, up to her own level, I really like her; but I'll let the thing die a natural death of inanition. As they always put it in the newspapers, with their stereotyped phraseology, a gradual coldness shall intervene between us. That'll be the best and only way out of it.

  'And if I go to Switzerland, why not ask Oswald of Oriel to go with me? That, I fancy, wouldn't be a bad stroke of social policy. Ernest will marry this Oswald girl; unfortunately he's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile; and as he's going to drag her inevitably into the family, I may as well put the best possible face upon the disagreeable matter. Let's make a virtue of necessity. The father and mother are old: they'll die soon, and be gathered to their fathers (if they had any), and the world will straightway forget all about them. But Oswald will always be there en evidence, and the safest thing to do will be to take him as much as possible into the world, and let the sister rest upon his reputation for her place in society. It's quite one thing to say that Ernest has married the daughter of a country grocer down in Devonshire, and quite another thing to say that he has married the sister of Oswald of Oriel, the distinguished mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society. How beautifully that warm brown sail stands out in a curve against the cold grey line of the horizon——a bulging curve just like the swell of Selah's neck, when she throws her head back, so, and lets you see the contour of her throat, her beautiful rounded throat——ah, that's not giving her up now, is it?——What a confounded fool I am, to be sure! Anybody would say, if they could only have read my thoughts that moment, that I was really in love with this girl Selah!'

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