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Philistia (Chapter26)

2006-08-28 23:27

  Chapter XXVI. Irreclaimable.

  The occasional social articles for the 'Morning Intelligence' supplied Ernest with work enough for the time being to occupy part of his leisure, and income enough to keep the ship floating somehow, if not securely, at least in decent fair-weather fashion. His frequent trips with Ronald into the East-end gave him something comparatively fresh to write about, and though he was compelled to conceal his own sentiments upon many points, in order to conform to that impersonal conscience, 'the policy of the paper,' he was still able to deal with subjects that really interested him, and in which he fancied he might actually be doing a little good. A few days after he had taken seriously to the new occupation, good Mrs. Halliss made her appearance in the tiny sitting-room one morning, and with many apologies and much humming and hawing ventured to make a slight personal representation to wondering little Edie.

  'If you please, mum,' she said nervously, fumbling all the while with the corner of the table cloth she was folding on the breakfast-table, 'if I might make so bold, mum, without offence, I should like to say as me an' John 'as been talkin' it hover, an' we think now as your good gentleman 'as so much writin' to do, at 'is littery work, mum, as I may make bold to call it, perhaps you wouldn't mind, so as not to disturb 'im with the blessed baby——not as that dear child couldn't never disturb nobody, bless 'er dear 'eart, the darling, not even when she's cryin', she's that sweet and gentle,——but we thought, mum, as littery gentlemen likes to 'ave the coast clear, in the manner of speakin', and perhaps you wouldn't mind bein' so good as to use the little front room upstairs, mum, for a sort o' nursery, as I may call it, for the dear baby. It was our bedroom, that was, where John an' me used to sleep; but we've been an' putt our things into the front hattic, mum, as is very nice and comfortable in every way, so as to make room for the dear baby. An' if you won't take it as a liberty, mum, me an' John 'ud be more'n glad if you'd kindly make use of that there room for a sort of occasional nursery for the dear baby.'

  Edie bit her lip hard in her momentary confusion. 'Oh, dear, Mrs. Halliss,' she said, almost crying at the kindly meant offer, 'I'm afraid we can't afford to have three rooms all for ourselves as things go at present. How much do you propose to charge us for the additional nursery?'

  'Charge you for it, mum,' Mrs. Halliss echoed, almost indignantly; 'charge our lodgers for any little hextry accommodation like the small front room upstairs, mum——now, don't you go and say that to John, mum, I beg of you; for 'is temper's rather short at times, mum, thro' boin' asmatic and the rheumatiz, though you wouldn't think it to look at 'im, that you wouldn't; an' I'm reely afraid, mum, he might get angry if anybody was to holler 'im anythink for a little bit of hextry accommodation like that there. Lord bless your dear 'eart, mum, don't you say nothink more about that, I beg of you; for if John was to 'ear of it, he'd go off in a downright tearin' tantrum at the bare notion. An' about dinner, mum, you'll 'ave the cold mutton an' potatoes, and a bit of biled beetroot; and I'll just run round to the greengrocer's this moment to order it for early dinner.' And before Edie had time to thank her, the good woman was out of tha room again, and down in the kitchen at her daily preparations, with tears trickling slowly down both her hard red cheeks in her own motherly fashion.

  So from that time forth, Ernest had the small sitting-room entirely to himself, whenever he was engaged in his literary labours, while Edie and Dot turned the front bedroom on the first floor into a neat and commodious nursery. As other work did not turn up so rapidly as might have been expected, and as Ernest grew tired after a while of writing magazine articles on 'The Great Social Problem,' which were invariably 'declined with thanks' so promptly as to lead to a well-founded suspicion that they had never even been opened by the editor, he determined to employ his spare time in the production of an important economical volume, a treatise on the ultimate ethics of a labouring community, to be entitled 'The Final Rule of Social Right Living.' This valuable economical work he continued to toil at for many months in the intervals of his other occupations; and when at last it was duly completed, he read it over at full length to dear little Edie, who considered it one of the most profoundly logical and convincing political treatises ever written. The various leading firms, however, to whom it was afterwards submitted with a view to publication, would appear, oddly enough, to have doubted its complete suitability to the tastes and demands of the reading public in the present century; for they invariably replied to Ernest's inquiries that they would be happy to undertake its production for the trilling sum of one hundred guineas, payable in advance; but that they did not see their way to accepting the risk and responsibility of floating so speculative a volume on their own account. In the end, the unhappy manuscript, after many refusals, was converted into cock-boats, hats, and paper dollies for little Dot; and its various intermediate reverses need enter no further into the main thread of this history. It kept Ernest busy in the spare hours of several months, and prevented him from thinking too much of his own immediate prospects, in his dreams for the golden future of humanity; and insomuch it did actually subserve some indirectly useful function; but on the other hand it wasted a considerable quantity of valuable tenpenny foolscap, and provided him after all with one more severe disappointment, to put on top of all the others to which he was just then being subjected. Clearly, the reading public took no paying interest in political economy; or if they did, then the article practically affected by the eternal laws of supply and demand was at least not the one meted out to them from the enthusiastic Schurzian pen of Ernest Le Breton.

  One afternoon, not long after Ernest and Edie had taken rooms at Mrs. Halliss's, they were somewhat surprised at receiving the honour of a casual visit from a very unexpected and unusual quarter. Ronald was with them, talking earnestly over the prospects of the situation, when a knock came at the door, and to their great astonishment the knock was quickly followed by the entrance of Herbert. He had never been there before, and Ernest felt sure he had come now for some very definite and sufficient purpose. And so he had indeed: it was a strange one for him; but Herbert Le Breton was actually bound upon a mission of charity. We have all of us our feelings, no doubt, and Herbert Le Breton, too, in his own fashion, had his. Ernest was after all a good fellow enough at bottom, and his own brother: (a man can't for very rospectability's sake let his own brother go utterly to the dogs if he can possibly help it); and so Herbert had made up his mind, much against his natural inclination, to warn Ernest of the danger he incurred in having anything more to do or say with this insane, disreputable old Schurz fellow. For his own part, he hated giving advice; people never took it; and that was a deadly offence against his amour propre and a gross insult to his personal dignity; but still, in this case, for Ernest's sake, he determined after an inward struggle to swallow his own private scruples, and make an effort to check his brother on the edge of the abyss. Not that he would come to the point at once; Herbert was a careful diplomatic agent, and he didn't spoil his hand by displaying all his cards too openly at the outset; he would begin upon comparatively indifferent subjects, and lead round the conversation gradually to the perils and errors of pure Schurzianism. So he set out by admiring his niece's fat arms——a remarkable stretch of kindliness on Herbert's part, for of course other people's babies are well known to be really the most uninteresting objects in the whole animate universe——and then he passed on by natural transitions to Ernest's housekeeping arrangements, and to the prospects of journalism as a trade, and finally to the necessity for a journalist to consult the tastes of his reading public. 'And by the way, Ernest,' he said quietly at last, 'of course after this row at Pilbury, you'll drop the acquaintance of your very problematical German socialist.'

  Edie started in surprise. 'What? Herr Schurz?' she said eagerly. 'Dear simple, kindly old Herr Schurz! Oh no, Herbert, that I'm sure he won't; Ernest will never drop his acquaintance, whatever happens.'

  Herbert coughed drily. 'Then there are two of them for me to contend against,' he said to himself with an inward smile. 'I should really hardly have expected that, now. One would have said a priori that the sound common-sense and practical regard for the dominant feelings of society, which is so justly strong in most women, would have kept her at any rate——with her own social disabilities, too——from aiding and abetting her husband in such a piece of egregious folly'——'I'm sorry to hear it, Mrs. Le Breton,' he went on aloud,——he never called her by her Christian name, and Edie was somehow rather pleased that he didn't: 'for you know Herr Schurz is far from being a desirable acquaintance. Quite apart from his own personal worth, of course——which is a question that I for my part am not called upon to decide——he's a snare and a stumbling-block in the eyes of society, and very likely indeed to injure Ernest's future prospects, as he has certainly injured his career in the past. You know he's going to be tried in a few weeks for a seditious libel and for inciting to murder the Emperor of Russia. Now, you will yourself admit, Mrs. Le Breton, that it's an awkward thing to be mixed up with people who are tried on a criminal charge for inciting to murder. Of course, we all allow that the Czar's a very despotic and autocratic sovereign, that his existence is an anomaly, and that the desire to blow him up is a very natural desire for every intelligent Russian to harbour privately in the solitude of his own bosom. If we were Russians ourselves, no doubt we'd try to blow him up too, if we could conveniently do so without detection. So much, every rational Englishman, who isn't blinded by prejudice or frightened by the mere sound of words, must at once frankly acknowledge. But unfortunately, you see, the mass of Englishmen are blinded by prejudice, and are frightened by the mere sound of words. To them, blowing up a Czar is murder (though of course blowing up any number of our own black people isn't); and inciting to blow up the Czar, or doing what seems to most Englishmen equivalent to such incitement, as for example, saying in print that the Czar's government isn't quite ideally perfect and ought gradually and tentatively to be abolished——why, that, I say, is a criminal offence, and is naturally punishable by a term of imprisonment. Now, is it worth while to mix oneself up with people like that, Ernest, when you can just as easily do without having anything on earth to say to them?'

  Edie's face burnt scarlet as she listened, but Ernest only answered more quietly——he never allowed anything that Herbert said to disturb his equanimity——'We don't think alike upon this subject, you know, Herbert; and I'm afraid the disagreement is fundamental. It doesn't matter so much to us what the world thinks as what is abstractly right; and Edie would prefer to cling to Herr Schurz, through good report and evil report, rather than to be applauded by your mass of Englishmen for having nothing to do with inciting to murder. We know that Herr Max never did anything of the kind; that he is the gentlest and best of men; and that in Russian affairs he has always been on the side of the more merciful methods, as against those who would have meted out to the Czar the harsher measure of pure justice.'

  'Well,' Herbert answered bravely, with a virtuous determination not to be angry at this open insult to his own opinion, but to persevere in his friendly efforts for his brother's sake, 'we won't take Herr Max into consideration at all, but will look merely at the general question. The fact is, Ernest, you've chosen the wrong side. The environment is too strong for you; and if you set yourself up against it, it'll crush you between the upper and the nether mill-stone. It isn't your business to reform the world; it's your business to live in it; and if you go on as you're doing now, it strikes me that you'll fail at the outset in that very necessary first particular.'

  'If I fail,' Ernest answered with a heavy heart, 'I can only die once; and after all every man can do no more than till to the best of his ability the niche in nature that he finds already cut out for him by circumstances.'

  'My dear Ernest,' Herbert continued quietly, twisting himself a cigarette with placid deliberateness, as a preliminary to his departure; 'your great mistake in life is that you will persist in considering the universe as a cosmos. Now the fact is, it isn't a cosmos; it's a chaos, and a very poor one at that.'

  'Ah, yes,' Ernest answered gravely; 'nobody recognises that fact more absolutely than I do; but surely it's the duty of man to try as far as in him lies to cosmise his own particular little corner of it.'

  'In the abstract, certainly: as a race, most distinctly so; but as individuals, why, the thing's clearly impossible. There was one man who once tried to do it, and his name was Don Quixote.'

  'There was another, I always thought,' Ernest replied more solemnly, 'and after his name we've all been taught as children to call ourselves Christians. At bottom, my ideal is only the Christian ideal.'

  'But, my dear fellow, don't you see that the survival of the fittest must succeed in elbowing your ideal, for the present at least, out of existence? Look here, Ernest, you're going the wrong way to work altogether for your own happiness and comfort. It doesn't matter to me, of course; you can do as you like with yourself, and I oughtn't to interfere with you; but I do it because I'm your brother, and because I take a certain amount of interest in you accordingly. Now, I quite grant with you that the world's in a very unjust social condition at present. I'm not a fool, and I can't help seeing that wealth is very badly distributed, and that happiness is very unequally meted. But I don't feel called upon to make myself the martyr of the cause of readjustment for all that. If I were a working man, I should take up the side that you're taking up now; I should have everything to gain, and nothing to lose by it. But your mistake is just this, that when you might identify your own interests with the side of the "haves," as I do, you go out of your way to identify them with the side of the "have-nots," out of pure idealistic Utopian philanthropy. You belong by birth to the small and intrinsically weak minority of persons specially gifted by nature and by fortune; and why do you lay yourself out with all your might to hound on the mass of your inferiors till they trample down and destroy whatever gives any special importance, interest, or value to intellectual superiority, vigour of character, political knowledge, or even wealth? I can understand that the others should wish to do this; I can understand that they will inevitably do it in the long run; but why on earth do you, of all men, want to help them in pulling down a platform on which you yourself might, if you chose, stand well above their heads and shoulders?'

  'Because I feel the platform's an unjust one,' Ernest answered, warmly.

  'An excellent answer for them,' Herbert chimed in, in his coldest and calmest tone, 'but a very insufficient one for you. The injustice, if any, tells all in your own favour. As long as the mob doesn't rise up and tear the platform down (as it will one day), why on earth should you be more anxious about it than they are?'

  'Because, Herbert, if there must be injustice, I would rather suffer it than do it.'

  'Well, go your own way,' Herbert answered, with a calm smile of superior wisdom; 'go your own way and let it land you where it will. For my part, I back the environment. But it's no business of mine; I have done my best to warn you. Liberavi animam meam. You won't take my advice, and I must leave you to your own devices.' And with just a touch of the hand to Edie, and a careless nod to his two brothers, he sauntered out of the room without another word. 'As usual,' he thought to himself as he walked down the stairs, 'I go out of my way to give good advice to a fellow-creature, and I get only the black ingratitude of a snubbing in return. This is really almost enough to make even me turn utterly and completely selfish!'

  'I wonder, Ernest,' said Ronald, looking up as Herbert shut the door gently behind him, 'how you and I ever came to have such a brother as Herbert!'

  'I think it's easy enough to understand, Ronald, on plain hereditary principles.'

  Ronald sighed. 'I see what you mean,' he said; 'it's poor mother's strain——the Whitaker strain——coming out in him.'

  'I often fancy, Ronald, I can see the same two strains in varying intensity, running through all three of us alike. In Herbert the Whitaker strain is uppermost, and the Le Breton comparatively in abeyance; in me, they're both more or less blended; in you, the Le Breton strain comes out almost unadulterated. Yet even Herbert has more of a Le Breton in him than one might imagine, for he's with us intellectually; it's the emotional side only that's wanting to him. Even when members of a family are externally very much unlike one another in the mere surface features of their characters, I believe you can generally see the family likeness underlying it for all that.'

  'Only you must know how to analyse the character to see it,' said Edie. 'I don't think it ever struck me before that there was anything in common between you and Herbert, Ernest, and yet now you point it out I believe there really is something after all. I'm sorry you told me, for I can't bear to think that you're like Herbert.'

  'Oh, no,' Ronald put in hastily; 'it isn't Ernest who has something in him like Herbert; it's Herbert who has something in him like Ernest. There's a great deal of difference between the one thing and the other. Besides, he hasn't got enough of it, Edie, and Ernest has.'

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