PRECONTRACT OF MARRIAGE.
Whether Ronald Le Breton's abstruse speculations on the theory of heredity were well founded or not, it certainly did happen, at any rate, that the more he saw of Selah Briggs the better he liked her; and the more Selah saw of him the better she liked him in return. Curiously enough, too, Selah did actually recognise in him what he fancied he recognised in himself, that part of his brother's nature (not all wholly assumed) which was just what Selah had first been drawn to admire in Herbert himself. It wasn't merely the originality of his general point of view: it was something more deep-seated and undefinable than that—in a word, his idiosyncrasy. Selah Briggs, with her peculiar fiery soul and rebellious nature, found in both the Le Bretons something that seemed at once to satisfy her wants, to fulfil her desires, to saturate her affinities: and with Ronald, as with Herbert before, she was conscious of a certain awe and respect which was all the more pleasant to her because her untamed spirit had never felt anything like it with any other human being. She didn't understand them, and she didn't want to understand them: that constituted just the very charm of their whole personality to her peculiar fancy. All the other people she had ever met were as transparent as glass, for good or for evil; she could see through all their faults and virtues as easily as one sees through a window: the Le Bretons were to her inscrutable, novel, incomprehensible, inexplicable, and she prized them for their very inscrutability. And so it came to pass, that almost by a process of natural and imperceptible transference, she passed on at last to Ronald's account very much the same intensity of feeling that she had formerly felt towards his brother Herbert.
But at the same time, Selah never for a moment let him see it. She was too proud to confess now that she could ever love another man: the Mr. Walters she had once believed in had never, never, never existed: and she would raise no other idol in future to take the place of that vanished ideal. She was grateful to Ronald, and even fond of him: but that was all-outwardly at least. She never let him see, by word or act, that in her heart of hearts she was beginning to love him. And yet Ronald instinctively knew it. He himself could not have told you why; but he knew it. Even a woman cannot hide a secret from a man with that peculiarly penetrating intuitive temperament which belongs to sensitive, delicate types like Ronald Le Breton's.
One Sunday evening, when Selah had been spending a few hours at Edie's lodgings (Ronald always made it an excuse for finding them a supper, on the ground that Selah was really his guest, though he could not conveniently ask her to his own rooms), he walked home towards Notting Hill with Selah; and as they crossed the Regent's Park, he took the opportunity to say something to her that he had had upon his mind for a few weeks past, in some vague, indefinite, half-unconscious fashion.
'Selah,' he began, a little timidly, 'don't you think it's very probable we shan't have Ernest here much longer with us?'
'I'm afraid it is, Ronald,' Selah answered. She had got quite accustomed now to calling him Ronald. With such a poor, weak, sickly fellow as that, why really, after all, it did not much matter.
'Well, Selah,' Ronald went on, gravely, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke, 'in that case, you know, I can't think what's to become of poor Edie. It's a dreadful contingency to talk about, Selah, and I can't bear talking about it; but we MUST face these things, however terrible, mustn't we? and in this case one's absolutely bound to face it for poor Edie's sake as well as for Ernest's. Selah, she must have a home to go to, when dear Ernest's taken from us.'
'I'm very sorry for her, Ronald,' Selah answered, with unusual softness of manner, 'but I really don't see how a home can possibly be provided for her.'
'I do,' Ronald answered, more calmly; 'and for their sakes, Selah, I want you to help me in trying to provide it.'
'How?' Selah asked, looking up in his face curiously, as they passed into a ray of lamplight.
'Listen, Selah, and I'll tell you. Why, by marrying me.'
'Never?' Selah answered, firmly, and with a decided tinge of the old Adam in her trembling voice. 'Never, Ronald! Never, never, never!'
'Wait a minute, Selah,' Ronald pleaded, 'till you've heard the end of what I have to say to you. Consider that when dear Ernest's gone (oh! Selah, you must excuse me; it makes me cry so to think of it), there'll be nowhere on earth for poor little Edie and Dot to go to.'
'Did ever a man propose to a girl so extraordinarily in all this world,' Selah thought to herself, angrily. 'He actually expects me to marry him in order to provide a home for his precious sister-in-law. That's really carrying unselfishness a step too far, I call it.'
'Edie couldn't come and live with me, of course,' Ronald went on, quickly, 'if I were a bachelor; but if I were married, why then, naturally, she and Dot could come and live with us; and she could earn a little money somehow, no doubt; and, at any rate, it'd be better for her than starvation.'
Selah stopped a minute, and tapped the hard ground two or three times angrily with the point of her umbrella. 'And me, Ronald?' she said in a curious defiant voice. 'And ME? I suppose you've forgotten all about ME. You don't ask me to marry you because you love me; you don't ask me whether I love you or not; you only propose to me that I should quietly turn domestic housekeeper for Mrs. Ernest Le Breton. And for my part, I answer you plainly, once for all, that I'm not going to do it—no, never, never, never!'
She spoke haughtily, flashing her eyes at him in the fierce old fashion, and Ronald was almost frightened at the angry intensity of her contemptuous gestures. 'Selah,' he cried, trying to take her hand, which she tore away from him hurriedly: 'Selah, you misunderstand me. I only approached the subject that way because I didn't want to seem overweening and presumptuous. It's a very great piece of vanity, it seems to me, for any man to ask a woman whether she loves him. I'm too conscious of all my own faults and failings, Selah, to venture upon asking you ever to love me; but I do love you, Selah, I'm sure I do love you; and I hoped, I somehow fancied—it may have been mere fancy, but I DID imagine—that I detected, I can't say how, that you did really love me, too, just a very very little. Oh, Selah, it's because I really love you that I ask you whether you'll marry me, such as I am; I know I'm a poor sort of person to marry, but I ventured to hope you might love me just a little for all that.'
He looked so frail and gentle as he stood there pleading in the pale moonlight, that Selah could have taken him to her bosom then and there and fondled him as one would pet a sick child, for pure womanliness; but the devil in her blood kept her from doing it, and she answered haughtily, instead: 'Ronald, if you wanted to marry me, you ought to have asked me for my own sake. Now that you've asked me for another's, you can't expect me to give you an answer. Keep your money, my poor boy; you'll want it all for you and her hereafter; don't go sharing it and spending it on perfect strangers such as me. And don't go talking to me again about this business as long as your sister-in-law is unprovided for. I'm not going to take the bread out of her mouth, and I'm not going to marry a man who doesn't utterly and entirely love me.'
'But I do,' Ronald answered, earnestly; 'I do, Selah; I love you truly and faithfully from the very bottom of my heart.'
'Leave off, Roland,' Selah said in the same angry tone. 'If you ever talk to me of this again, I give you my word of honour about it, I'll never speak another word to you.'
And Ronald, who deeply respected the sanctity of a promise, were it only a threat, bided his time, and said no more about it for the present.
Next day, as Ronald sat reading in his own rooms, he was much surprised at hearing a well-known voice at the door, inquiring with some asperity whether Mr. Le Breton was at home. He listened to the voice in intense astonishment. It was his mother's.
'Ronald,' Lady Le Breton began, the moment she had been shown into his little sitting-room, 'I didn't think, after your undutiful, ungrateful conduct—with that abominable woman, too—that I should ever have come to see you, unless you came first, as you ought clearly to do, and begged my pardon penitently for your disgraceful behaviour. It's hard, I know, to acknowledge oneself in the wrong, but every Christian ought to be above vindictiveness and obstinate self-will; and I expect you, therefore, sooner or later, to come and ask forgiveness for your dreadful unkindness to me. Till then, as I said, I didn't expect to call upon you in any way. But I've felt compelled to-day to come and speak to you about a matter of duty, and as a matter of duty strictly I regard it, not as any relaxation of my just attitude of indignant expectancy towards yourself; no parent ought rightly to overlook such conduct as yours on the part of a son.' Ronald inclined his head respectfully. 'Well, what I've come to speak to you about to-day, Ronald, is about your poor misguided brother Ernest. He, too, as you know, has behaved very badly to me.'
'No,' Ronald answered stoutly, without further note or comment. Where the matter touched himself only he could maintain a decent silence, but where it touched poor dying Ernest he couldn't possibly restrain himself, even from a sense of filial obligation.
'Very badly to me,' Lady Le Breton went on sternly, without in any way noticing the brief interruption, 'and I can't, of course, go to see him either, especially not as I should by so doing expose myself to meeting the person whom he has chosen to make his wife. Still, as I hear that Ernest a in a very serious or even dangerous condition——'
'He's dying,' Ronald answered, the quick tears once more finding the easy road to his eyes as usual.
'I considered, as a mother, it was my duty to warn him to take a little thought about his soul.'
'His soul!' Ronald exclaimed in astonishment. 'Ernest's soul! Why, mother, dear Ernest has no need to look after his soul. He doesn't take that sordid, petty, limited view of our relations with eternity, and of our relations with the Infinite, which makes them all consist of the miserable, selfish, squalid desire to save our own poor personal little souls at all hazards. Ernest has something better and nobler to think of, I can assure you, than such a mere self-centred idea as that.'
'Ronald!' Lady Breton exclaimed, drawing herself up with much dignity; 'how on earth you, who have always pretended to be a religious person, can utter such a shocking and wicked sentiment as that, really passes my comprehension. What in the world is religion for, I should like to know, if it isn't to teach us how to save our own souls? But the particular thing I want to speak to you about is just this: couldn't you manage to induce Ernest to see the Archdeacon a little, and let the Archdeacon speak to him about his deplorable spiritual condition? I thought about you both so much at church yesterday, when the dear Archdeacon was preaching such a beautiful sermon; his text was like this, as far as I can remember it. "There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death." I couldn't help thinking all the time of my own two poor rebellious boys, and of the path that their misguided notions were leading them on. For I believe Ernest does really somehow persuade himself that he's in the right—it's inconceivable, but it's the fact; and I'm afraid the end thereof will be the ways of death; and then, as the dear Archdeacon said, "After death the judgment." Oh, Ronald, when I think of your poor dear brother Ernest's open unbelief, it makes me tremble for his future, so that I couldn't rest upon my bed until I'd been to see you and urged you to go and try to save him.'
'Mother,' Ronald said with that tone in which he was well accustomed to answering Lady Le Breton's religious harangues; 'I don't think you need feel any uneasiness whatever on dear Ernest's account, so far as all that's concerned. What does HE want with saving his soul, mother? "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it." Remember what is written: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."'
'But, Ronald,' Lady Le Breton continued, half angrily, 'consider his unbelief, his dreadful opinions, his errors of doctrine! How on earth can we be happy about him when we think of those?'
'I don't think, Mother,' Ronald answered gently, 'that Infinite Justice and Infinite Love take much account of a man's opinions. They take account of his life and soul only, not of the correctness of his propositions in dogmatic theology; "Other sheep have I which are not of this fold—them also must I bring."'
'It seems to me, Ronald,' Lady Le Breton rejoined coldly, 'that you don't in the least care for whatever is most distinctive and characteristic in the whole of Christian doctrine. You talk so very very differently on religious subjects from that dear, good, excellent Archdeacon.'
A GLEAM OF SUNSHINE.
Lady Hilda Tregellis rang the bell resolutely. 'I shall have no more nonsense about it,' she said to herself in her most decisive and determined manner. 'Whether mamma wishes it or not, I shall go and see them this very day without another word upon the subject.'
The servant answered the bell and stood waiting for his orders by the doorway.
'Harris, will you tell Jenkins at once that I shall want the carriage at half-past eleven?'
'Yes, my lady.'
'All right then. That'll do. Don't stand staring at me there like an image, but go this minute and do as I tell you.'
'Beg pardon, my lady, but her ladyship said she wanted the carriage herself at twelve puncshual.'
'She can't have it, then, Harris. That's all. Go and give my message to Jenkins at once, and I'll settle about the carriage with my lady myself.'
'She's the rummest young lady ever I come across,' the man murmured to himself in a dissatisfied fashion, as he went down the stairs again: 'but there, it's none of my business, thank goodness. The places and the people she does go and hunt up when she's got the fit on are truly ridic'lous: blest if she didn't acshally make Mr. Jenkins drive her down into Camberwell the other mornin', to see 'ow the poor lived, she said; as if it mattered tuppence to us in our circles of society 'ow the poor live. I wonder what little game she's up to now? Well, well, what the aristocracy is coming to in these days is more'n I can fathom, as sure as my name's William 'Arris.'
The little game that Lady Hilda was up to that morning was one that a gentleman in Mr. Harris's position was certainly hardly like to appreciate or sympathise with.
The evening before, she had met Arthur Berkeley once more at a small At Home, and had learned from him full particulars as to the dire straits into which the poor Le Bretons had finally fallen. Now, Hilda Tregellis was a kind-hearted girl at bottom, and when she heard all about it, she said at once to Arthur, 'I shall go and see them myself to-morrow, Mr. Berkeley, whether mamma allows me or not.'
'What good will it do?' Arthur had answered her quickly. 'You can't find work for poor Le Breton, can you? and of course if you can't do that you can be of no earthly use in any way to the poor creatures.'
'I don't know about that,' Hilda responded warmly. 'Sympathy's always something, isn't it, Mr. Berkeley? Nobody ought to know that better than you do. Besides, there's no saying when one may happen to turn up useful. Of course, I've never been of the slightest use to anybody in all my life, myself, I know, and I dare say I never shall be, but at least there's no harm in trying, is there? I'm on speaking terms with such an awful lot of people, all of them rich and many of them influential—Parliament, and Government offices, and all that sort of nonsense, you know—people who have no end of things to give away, and can't tell who on earth they'd better give them to, for fear of offending all the others, that I might possibly hear of something or other.'
'I'm afraid, Lady Hilda,' Berkeley answered smiling, 'none of those people would have anything to offer that could possibly be of the slightest use to poor Le Breton. If he's to be saved at all, he must be saved in his own time and by his own methods. For my own part, I don't see what conceivable chance of success in life there is left for him. You can't imagine a man like him making money and living comfortably. It's a tragedy—all the dramas of real life always ARE tragedies; but I'm terribly afraid there's no conceivable way out of it.'
Lady Hilda only looked at him with bold good humour. 'Nonsense,' she said bravely. 'All pure rubbishing pessimistic nonsense. (I hope pessimistic's the right word—it's a very good word, anyhow, even if it isn't in the proper place.) Well, I don't agree with you at all about this question, Mr. Berkeley. I'm very fond of Mr. Le Breton, really very fond of him; and I believe there's a corner somewhere for every man if only he can jog down properly into his own corner instead of being squeezed forcibly into somebody else's. The worst of it is, all the holes are round, and Mr. Le Breton's a square man, I allow: he wants all the angles cutting down off him.'
'But you can't cut them off; that's the very trouble,' Arthur answered, with just a faint rising suspicion that he was half jealous of the interest Hilda showed even in poor lonely Ernest Le Breton. Gracious heavens! could he be playing false at last to the long-cherished memory of little Miss Butterfly? could he be really beginning to fall just a little in love, after all, with this bold beautiful Lady Hilda Tregellis? He didn't know, and yet he somehow hardly liked himself to think it. And while Edie was still so poor too!
'No, you can't cut them off; I know that perfectly well,' Hilda rejoined quickly. 'I wouldn't care twopence for him if I thought you could. It's the angles that give him all his charming delicious originality. But you can look out a square hole for him somewhere, you know, and that of course would be a great deal better. Depend upon it, Mr. Berkeley, there are square holes up and down in the world, if only we knew where to look for them; and the mistake that everybody has made in poor Mr. Le Breton's case has been that instead of finding one to suit him, they've gone on trying to poke him down anyhow by main force into one of the round ones. That goes against the grain, you know; besides which I call it a clear waste of the very valuable solid mahogany corners.'
Arthur Berkeley looked at her silently for a moment, as if a gleam of light had burst suddenly in upon him. Then he said to her slowly and deliberately, 'Perhaps you're right, Lady Hilda, though I never thought of it quite in that light before. But one thing certainly strikes me now, and that is that you're a great deal cleverer after all than I ever thought you.'
Lady Hilda made a little mock curtsey. 'It's very good of you to say so,' she answered, half-saucily. 'Only the compliment is rather double-edged, you must confess, because it implies that up to now you've had a dreadfully low opinion of my poor little intelligence.'
So after that conversation Lady Hilda made up her mind that she would certainly go the very next day and call as soon as possible upon Edie Le Breton. Nobody could tell what good might possibly come of it; but at least there could come no harm. And so, when the carriage drew up it the door at half-past eleven, Hilda Tregellis stepped into it with a vague consciousness of an important mission, and ordered Jenkins to drive at once to the side street in Holloway, whose address Arthur Berkeley had last night given her. Jenkins touched his hat with mechanical respect, but inwardly wondered what the dickens my lady would think if only she came to know of these 'ere extrornary goin's on.
At the door of the lodgings Hilda alighted and rang the bell herself. Good Mrs. Halliss opened the door, and answered quickly that Mrs. Le Breton was at home. Her woman's eye detected at once the coronet on the carriage, and she was ready to burst with delight when the tall visitor handed her a card for Edie, bearing the name of Lady Hilda Tregellis. It was almost the first time that Edie had had any lady callers; certainly the first time she had had any of such social distinction; and Mrs. Halliss made haste to usher her up in due form, and then ran down hastily to communicate the good news to honest John, who in his capacity of past coachman was already gazing out of the area window with deep interest at the carriage and horses.
'There, John dear,' she cried, with tears of joy in her eyes, forgetting in her excitement to drat the man for not being in the back kitchen, 'to think that we should see a carriage an' pair like that there a-drawin' up in front of out own very 'ouse, and Lady 'Ilder Tergellis, or summat o' the sort, a-comin' 'ere to see that dear little lady in the parlour, why, it's enough to make one's 'eart burst, nearly, just you see now if it reelly isn't. You could a' knocked me down with a feather, a'most, when that there Lady 'Ilder 'anded me 'er curd, and asked so sweet-like if Mrs. Le Breting was at 'ome. Mr. Le Breting's people is comin' round, you may be sure of it; 'is mother's a lady of title, that much we know for certing; and she wouldn't go and let 'er own flesh an' blood die 'ere of downright poverty, as they're like to do and won't let us 'elp it, pore dears, without sendin' round to inquire and assist 'em. Married against 'er will, I understand, from what that dear Mr. Berkeley, bless 'is kind 'eart, do tell me; not as I can believe 'e married beneath 'im, no, not no ways; for a sweeter, dearer, nicer little lady than our Mrs. Le Breting I never did, an' that I tell you. Sweeter manners you never did see yourself, John, for all you've lived among the aristocracy: an' I always knew 'is people 'ud come round at last, and do what was right by 'im. An' you may depend upon it, John, this 'ere Lady 'Ilder's one of his relations, an' she's come round on a message from Lady Le Breting, to begin a reconciliation. And though we should be sorry to lose 'em, as 'as stood by 'em through all their troubles, I'm glad to 'ear it, John, that I am, for I can't a-bear to see that dear young fellow a-eatin' 'is life out with care and anxiety.' And Mrs. Halliss, who had always felt convinced in her own mind that Ernest must really be the unacknowledged heir to a splendid fortune, began to wipe her eyes violently in her delight at this evident realisation of her wildest fancies and wishes.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the little parlour, Edie had risen in some trepidation as Mrs. Halliss placed in her hands Lady Hilda Tregellis's card. Ernest was out, gone to walk feebly around the streets of Holloway, and she hardly knew at first what to say to so unexpected a visitor. But Lady Hilda put her almost at her ease at once by coming up to her with both her arms outstretched, as to an old friend, and saying, with one of her pleasantest smiles:
'You must forgive me, Mrs. Le Breton, for never having come to call on you before; but I have been long meaning to, and doubting whether you would care to see me or not. You know, I'm a very old friend of your husband's—he was SO kind to me always when he was down at our place in dear old Devonshire. (You're a Devonshire girl yourself, aren't you? just as I am. I thought so. I'm so glad of it. I always get on so well with the dear old Devonshire folk.) Well, I've been meaning to come for ever so long, and putting it off, and putting it off, and putting it off, as one WILL put things off, you know, when you're not quite sure about them, until last evening. And then our friend, Mr. Arthur Berkeley, who knows everybody, talked to me about your husband and you, and told me he thought you wouldn't mind my coming to see you, for he fancied you hadn't much society up here that you cared for or sympathised with: though, of course, I'm dreadfully afraid of coming to call upon you, because I know you're the sister of that very clever Mr. Oswald, whose sad death we were all so sorry to hear about in the papers; and naturally, as you've lived so much with him and with Mr. Le Breton, you must be so awfully learned and all that sort of thing, and no doubt despise ignorant people like myself dreadfully. But you really mustn't despise me, Mrs. Le Breton, because, you see, I haven't had all the advantages that you've had; indeed, the only clever people I've ever met in all my life are your husband and Mr. Arthur Berkeley, except, of course, Cabinet ministers and so forth, and they don't count, because they're political, and so very old, and solemn, and grand, and won't take any notice of us girls, except to sit upon us. So that's what's made me rather afraid to call upon you, because I thought you'd be quite too much in the higher education way for a girl like me; and I haven't got any education at all, except in rubbish, as your husband used always to tell me. And now I want you to tell me all about Mr. Le Breton, and the baby—Dot, you call her, Mr. Berkeley told me—and yourself, too; for, though I've never seen you before, I feel, of course, like an old friend of the family, having known your husband so very intimately.'
Lady Hilda designedly delivered all this long harangue straight off without a break, in her go-ahead, breathless, voluble fashion, because she felt sure Edie wouldn't feel perfectly at her ease at first, and she wanted to give her time to recover from the first foolish awe of that meaningless prefix, Lady. Moreover, Lady Hilda, in spite of her offhand manner was a good psychologist, and a true woman: and she had concocted her little speech on the spur of the moment with some cleverness, so as just to suit her instinctive reading of Edie's small personal peculiarities. She saw in a moment that that slight, pale, delicate girl was lost in London, far from her own home and surroundings; and that the passing allusion to their common Devonshire origin would please and conciliate her, as it always does with the clannish, warm-hearted, simple-minded West Country folk. Then again, the deft hints as to their friendship with Arthur Berkeley, as to Ernest's stay at Dunbude, and as to her own fear lest Edie should be too learned for her, all tended to bring out whatever points of interest they had together: while the casual touch about poor Harry's reputation, and the final mention of little Dot by name, completed the conquest of Edie's simple, gentle little woman's heart. So this was the great Lady Hilda Tregellis, she thought, of whom she had heard so much, and whom she had dreaded so greatly as a grand rival! Why, after all, she was exactly like any other Devonshire girl in Calcombe Pomeroy, except, perhaps, that she was easier to get on with, and smiled a great deal more pleasantly than ten out of a dozen.
'It's very kind indeed of you to come,' Edie answered, smiling back as well as she was able the first moment that Lady Hilda allowed her a chance to edge in a word sideways. 'Ernest will be so very very sorry that he's missed you when he comes in. He's spoken to me a great deal about you ever so many times.'
'No, has he really?' Lady Hilda asked quickly, with unmistakable interest and pleasure. 'Well, now, I'm so glad of that, for to tell you the truth, Mrs. Le Breton, though he was really always very kind to me, and so patient with all my stupidity, I more than half fancied he didn't exactly like me. In fact, I was dreadfully afraid he thought me a perfect nuisance. I'm so sorry he isn't in, because the truth is, I came partly to see him as well as to see you, and I should be awfully disappointed if I had to miss him. Where's he gone, if I may ask? Perhaps I may be able to wait and see him.'
'Oh, he's only out walking somewhere—ur—somewhere about Holloway,' Edie answered, half blushing at the nature of their neighbourhood, and glancing round the little room to see how it was likely to strike so grand a person as Lady Hilda Tregellis.
Hilda noticed the glance, and made as if she did not notice it. Her heart had begun to warm at once to this poor, pale, eager-looking little woman, who had had the doubtful happiness of winning Ernest Le Breton's love. 'Then I shall certainly wait and see him, Mrs. Le Breton.' she said cordially. 'What a dear cosy little room you've got here, to be sure. I do so love those nice bright little cottage parlours, with their pretty pots of flowers and cheerful furniture—so much warmer and more comfortable, you know, than the great dreary empty barns that most people go and do penance by living in. If ever I marry—which I don't suppose I ever shall do, for nobody'll have me, I'm sorry to say: at least, nobody but stupid people in the peerage, Algies and Berties and Monties I always call them—well, if I ever do marry, I shall have a cosy little house just like this one, with no unnecessary space to walk over every time you come in or out, and with a chance of keeping yourself warm without having to crone over the fire in order to get safely out of the horrid draughts. And Dot, now let me see, how old is she by this time? I ought to remember, I'm sure, for Mr. Berkeley told me all about her at the time; and I said should I write and ask if I might stand as godmother; and Mr. Berkeley laughed at me, and said what could I be dreaming of, and did I think you were going to make your baby liable to fine and imprisonment if it ever published works hereafter on philosophy or something of the sort. So delightfully original of all of you, really.'
Once started on that fertile theme of female conversation, Edie and Hilda got on well enough in all conscience to satisfy the most exacting mind. Dot was duly brought in and exhibited by Mrs. Halliss; and was pronounced to be the very sweetest, dearest, darlingest little duck ever seen on earth since the beginning of all things. Her various points of likeness to all her relations were duly discussed; and Hilda took particular pains to observe that she didn't in the very faintest degree resemble that old horror, Lady Le Breton. Then her whole past history was fully related, she had been fed on, and what illnesses she had had, and how many teeth she had got, and all the other delightful nothings so perennially interesting to the maternal heart. Hilda listened to the whole account with unfeigned attention, and begged leave to be allowed to dance Dot in her own strong arms, and tickled her fat cheek with her slender forefinger, and laughed with genuine delight when the baby smiled again at her and turned her face to be tickled a second time. Gradually Hilda brought the conversation round to Ernest's journalistic experiences, and at last she said very quietly, 'I'm sorry to learn from Mr. Berkeley, dear, that your husband doesn't get quite as much work to do as he would like to have.'
Edie's tender eyes filled at once with swimming tears. That one word 'dear,' said so naturally and simply, touched her heart at once with its genuine half unspoken sympathy. 'Oh, Lady Hilda,' she answered falteringly, 'please don't make me talk about that. We are so very, very, very poor. I can't bear to talk about it to you. Please, please don't make me.'
Hilda looked at her with the moisture welling up in her own eyes too, and said softly, 'I'm SO sorry: dear, dear little Mrs. Le Breton, I'm so very, very, very sorry for you! from the bottom of my heart I'm sorry for you.'
'It isn't for myself, you know,' Edie answered quickly: 'for myself, of course, I could stand anything; but it's the trouble and privations for darling Ernest. Oh, Lady Hilda, I can't bear to say it, but he's dying, he's dying.'
Hilda took the pretty small hand affectionately in hers. 'Don't, dear, don't,' she said, brushing away a tear from her own eyes at the same time. 'He isn't, believe me, he isn't. And don't call me by that horrid stiff name, dear, please don't. Call me Hilda. I should be so pleased and flattered if you would call me Hilda. And may I call you Edie? I know your husband calls you Edie, because Mr. Ronald Le Breton told me so. I want to be a friend of yours; and I feel sure, if only you will let me, that we might be very good and helpful friends indeed together.'
Edie pressed her hand softly. How very different from the imaginary Lady Hilda she had. pictured to herself in her timid, girlish fancy! How much even dear Ernest had been mistaken as to what there was of womanly really in her. 'Oh, don't speak so kindly to me,' she said imploringly; 'don't speak so kindly, or else you'll make me cry. I can't bear to hear you speak so kindly.'
'Cry, dear,' Lady Hilda whispered in a gentle tone, kissing her forehead delicately as she spoke: 'cry and relieve yourself. There'a nothing gives one so much comfort when one's heart is bursting as a regular good downright cry.' And, suiting the action to the word, forthwith Lady Hilda laid her own statuesque head down beside Edie's, and so those two weeping women, rivals once in a vague way, and now bound to one another by a new-found tie, mingled their tears silently together for ten minutes in unuttered sympathy.
As they sat there, both tearful and speechless, with Lady Hilda soothing Edie's wan hand tenderly in hers, and leaning above her, and stroking her hair softly with a sister's fondness, the door opened very quietly, and Arthur Berkeley stood for a moment pausing in the passage, and looking in without a word upon the unexpected sight that greeted his wondering vision. He had come to call upon Ernest about some possible opening for a new writer on a paper lately started; and hearing the sound of sobs within had opened the door quietly and tentatively. He could hardly believe his own eyes when he actually saw Lady Hilda Tregellis sitting there side by side with Edie Le Breton, kissing her pale forehead a dozen times in a minute, and crying over her like a child with unwonted tears of unmistakable sympathy. For ten seconds Arthur held the door ajar in his hands, and gazed silently with the awe of chivalrous respect upon the tearful, beautiful picture. Then he shut the door again noiselessly and unperceived, and stole softly out into the street to wait alone for Ernest's return. It was not for him to intrude his unbidden presence upon the sacred sorrow of those two weeping sister-women.
He lighted a cigar outside, and walked up and down a neighbouring street feverishly till he thought it likely the call would be finished. 'Dear little Mrs. Le Breton,' he said to himself softly, 'dear little Miss Butterfly of the days that are dead; softened and sweetened still more by suffering, with the beauty of holiness glowing in your face, how I wish some good for you could unexpectedly come out of this curious visit. Though I don't see how it's possible: I don't see how it's possible. The stream carries us all down unresistingly before its senseless flood, and sweeps us at last, sooner or later, like helpless logs, into the unknown sea. Poor Ernest is drifting fast thitherwards before the current, and nothing on earth, it seems to me, can conceivably stop him!'
He paced up and down a little, with a quick, unsteady tread, and took a puff or two again at his cigar abstractedly. Then he held it thoughtfully between his fingers for a while and began to hum a few bars from his own new opera then in course of composition—a stately long-drawn air, it was. something like the rustle of Hilda Tregellis's satin train as she swept queenlike down the broad marble staircase of some great Elizabethan country palace. 'And dear Lady Hilda too,' he went on, musingly: 'dear, kind, sympathising Lady Hilda. Who on earth would ever have thought she had it in her to comfort that poor, weeping, sorrowing girl as I just now saw her doing? Dear Lady Hilda! Kind Lady Hilda! I have undervalued you and overlooked you, because of the mere accident of your titled birth, but I could have kissed you myself, for pure gratitude, that very minute, Hilda Tregellis, when I saw you stooping down and kissing that dear white forehead that looked so pale and womanly and beautiful. Yes, Hilda, I could have kissed you. I could have kissed your own grand, smooth, white marble forehead. And no very great trial of endurance, either, Arthur Berkeley, if it comes to that; for say what you will of her, she's a beautiful, stately, queenlike woman indeed; and it somehow strikes me she's a truer and better woman, too, than you have ever yet in your shallow superficiality imagined. Not like little Miss Butterfly! Oh, no, not like little Miss Butterfly! But still, there are keys and keys in music; and if every tune was pitched to the self-same key, even the tenderest, what a monotonous, dreary world it would be to live and sing in after all. Perhaps a man might make himself a little shrine not wholly without sweet savour of pure incense for beautiful, stately, queenlike Hilda Tregellis too! But no; I mustn't think of it. I have no other duty or prospect in life possible as yet while dear little Miss Butterfly still remains practically unprovided for!'
From Edie Le Breton's lodgings, Hilda Tregellis drove straight, without stopping all the way, to Arthur Berkeley's house at Chelsea; for Arthur had long since risen to the dignity of an enfranchised householder, and had bought himself a pretty cottage near the Embankment, with room enough for himself and the Progenitor, and even for any possible future domestic contingency in the way of wife and children. It was a very unconventional thing for her to do, no doubt; but Lady Hilda was certainly not the person to be deterred from doing anything she contemplated on the bare ground of its extreme unconventionally; and so far was she from objecting personally to her visit on this score, that before she rang the Berkeleys' bell she looked quietly at her little bijou watch, and said with a bland smile to the suspicious Mr. Jenkins, 'Let me see, Jenkins; it's one o'clock. I shall lunch with my friends here this morning; so you may take the carriage home now for my lady, and I shall cab it back, or come round by Metropolitan.' Jenkins was too much accustcmed to Lady Hilda's unaccountable vagaries to express any surprise at her wildest resolutions, even if she had proposed to go home on a costermonger's barrow; so he only touched his hat respectfully, in his marionette fashion, and drove away at once without further colloquy.
'Is Mr. Berkeley at home?' Hilda asked of the pretty servant girl who opened the door to her, mentally taking note at the same time that Arthur's aesthetic tendencies evidently extended even to his human surroundings.
'Which Mr. Berkeley?' the girl asked in reply. 'Mr. Berkeley senerer, 'e's at 'ome, but Mr. Arthur, 'e's gone up this mornin' to 'Olloway.'
Hilda seized with avidity upon this unexpected and almost providential opening. 'No, is he?' she said, delighted. 'Then I'll go in and see Mr. Berkeley senior. No card, thank you: no name: tell him merely a lady would like to see him. I dare say Mr. Arthur'll be back before long from Holloway.'
The girl hesitated a moment as if in doubt, and surveyed Lady Hilda from head to foot. Hilda, whose eyes were still red from crying, couldn't help laughing outright at the obvious cause of the girl's hesitation. 'Do as I tell you,' she said in her imperious way. 'Who on earth do you take me for, my good girl? That's my card, see: but you needn't give it to Mr. Berkeley senior. Now go and tell him at once that a lady is waiting to see him.'
The innate respect of the English working classes for the kind of nobility that is supposed to be represented by the British peerage made the girl drop an instinctive curtsey as she looked at the card, and answer in a voice of hushed surprise, 'Yes, my lady.' She had heard Lady Hilda Tregellis spoken of more than once at her master's table, and she knew, of course, that so great a personage as that could do no wrong. So she merely ushered her visitor at once into Arthur Berkeley's beautiful little study, with its delicate grey pomegranate wall paper and its exquisite unpolished oak fittings, and said simply, in an overawed manner, 'A lady wishes to speak to you, sir.'
The old shoemaker looked up from the English translation of Ribot's 'Psychologie Anglaise Contemporaine,' with whose intricacies he was manfully struggling, and rose with native politeness to welcome Hilda.
'Good morning,' Hilda said, extending her hand to him with one of her beaming disarming smiles, and annihilating all that was most obtrusively democratic in him at once by her pleasant manner. 'I'm a friend of your son's, Mr. Berkeley, and I've come here to see him about very particular private business—in short, on an errand of charity. Will he be long gone, do you know?'
'Not very,' the Progenitor answered, in a somewhat embarrassed manner, surveying her curiously. 'At least, I should think not. He's gone to Holloway for an hour or two, but I fancy he'll be back for two o'clock luncheon, Miss——ur, I don't think I caught your name, did I?'
'To Holloway,' Hilda echoed, taking no notice of his suggested query. 'Oh, then he's gone to see the poor dear Le Bretons, of course. Why, that's just what I wanted to see him about. If you'll allow me then, I'll just stop and have lunch with you.'
'The dickens you will,' the Progenitor thought to himself in speechless astonishment. 'That's really awfully cool of you. However, I dare say it's usual to invite oneself in the state of life that that boy Artie has gone and hoisted himself into, most unnaturally. A fine lady, no doubt, of their modern pattern; but in my day, up in Paddington, we should have called her a brazen hussey.—Certainly, if you will,' he added aloud. 'If you've come on any errand that will do any good to the Le Bretons, I'm sure my son'll be delighted to see you. He's greatly grieved at their unhappy condition.'
'I'm afraid I've nothing much to suggest of any very practical sort,' Hilda answered, with a slight sigh; 'but at least I should like to talk with him about the matter. Something must be done for these two poor young people, you know, Mr. Berkeley. Something must really be done to help them.'
'Then you're interested in them, Miss—ur—ur—ah, yes—are you?'
'Look at my eyes,' Hilda said plumply. 'Are they very red, Mr. Berkeley?'
'Well....ur...yes, if I may venture to say so to a lady,' the old shoemaker answered hesitatingly, with unwonted gallantry. 'I should say they were a trifle, ur, just a trifle roseate, you know.'
'Quite so,' Hilda went on, seriously. 'That's it. They're red with crying. I've been crying like a baby all the morning with that poor, dear, sweet little angel of a Mrs. Le Breton.'
'Then you're a great friend of hers, I suppose,' the Progenitor suggested mildly.
'Never set eyes on her in my life before this morning, on the contrary,' Hilda continued in her garrulous fashion. 'But, oh, Mr. Berkeley, if you'd only seen that dear little woman, crying as if her heart would break, and telling me that dear Ernest was dying, actually dying; why—there—excuse me—I can't help it, you know; we women are always crying about something or other, aren't we?'
The old man laid his hand on hers quietly. 'Don't mind ME, my dear,' he said with genuine tenderness. 'Don't mind me a bit; I'm only an old shoemaker, as I dare say you've heard before now; but I know you'll be the better for crying—women always are—and tears shed on somebody else's account are never thrown away, my dear, are they?'
Hilda took his hand between hers, and wiping her eyes once more whispered softly, 'No, Mr. Berkeley, no; perhaps they're not; but oh, they're so useless; so very, very, very useless. Do you know, I never felt my own powerlessness and helplessness in all my life so much as I did at that dear, patient little Mrs. Le Breton's this very morning. There I sat, knowing she was in dire need of money for her poor husband, and wanting sufficient food and drink, perhaps, for herself, and him, and the dear darling baby; and in my hand in my muff I had my purse there with five tenners—Bank of England ten-pound uotes, you know—fifty pounds altogether, rolled up inside it; and I would have given anything if only I could have pulled them out and made them a present to her then and there; and I couldn't, you see: and, oh, Mr. Berkeley, isn't it terrible to look at them? And then, before I left, poor Mr. Le Breton himself came in, and I was quite shocked to see him. I used to know him a few years ago, and even then he wasn't what you'd call robust by any means; but now, oh, dear me, he does look so awfully ill and haggard and miserable that it quite made me break down again, and I cried about him before his very face; and the moment I got away, I said to the coachman, "Jenkins, drive straight off to the Embankment at Chelsea;" and here I am, you see, waiting to talk with your clever son about it; for, really, Mr. Berkeley, the poor Le Bretons haven't got a single friend anywhere like your son Arthur.'
And then Lady Hilda went on to praise Arthur's music to the Progenitor, and to speak of how much admired he was everywhere, and to hint that so much genius and musical power must of course be largely hereditary. Whereat the old man, not unmoved by her gentle insinuating flattery, at last confessed to his own lifelong musical tastes, and even casually acknowledged that the motive for one or two of the minor songs in the famous operas was not entirely of Arthur's own unaided invention. And so, from one subject to another, they passed on so quickly, and hit it off with one another so exactly (for Hilda had a wonderful knack of leading up to everybody's strong points), that long before lunch was ready, the Progenitor had been quite won over by the fascinations of the brazen hussey, and was prepared to admit that she was really a very nice, kind, tender-hearted, intelligent, appreciative, and discriminating young lady. True, she had not read Mill or Fawcett, and was ignorant of the very name of Herbert Spencer; but she had a vast admiration for his dear boy Artie, and she saw that he himself knew a thing or two in his own modest way, though he was only what the grand world she moved in would doubtless call an old superannuated journeyman shoemaker.
'Ah, yes, a shoemaker! so I've heard somewhere, I fancy,' Lady Hilda remarked brightly, when for the third time in the course of their conversation he informed her with great dignity of the interesting fact; 'how very delightful and charming that is, really, now isn't it? So original, you know, to make shoes instead of going into some useless profession, especially when you're such a great reader and student and thinker as you are—for I see you're a philosopher and a psychologist already, Mr. Berkeley'—Hilda considered it rather a bold effort on her part to pronounce the word 'psychologist' at the very first trial without stumbling; but though she was a little doubtful about the exact pronunciation of that fearful vocable, she felt quite at her ease about the fact at least, because she carefully noticed him lay down Ribot on the table beside him, name upward; 'one can't help finding that much out on a very short acquaintance, can one? Though, indeed, now I come to think of it, I believe I've heard often that men of your calling generally ARE very fond of reading, and are very philosophical, and clever, and political, and all that sort of thing; and they say that's the reason, of course, why Northampton's such an exceptionally intelligent constituency, and always returns such thoroughgoing able logical Radicals.'
The old man's eyes beamed, as she spoke, with inexpressible pride and pleasure. 'I'm very glad indeed to hear you say so,' he answered promptly with a complacent self-satisfied smile, 'and I believe you're right too, Miss, ur—ur—ur—quite so. The practice of shoemaking undoubtedly tends to develop a very high and exceptional level of general intelligence and logical power.'
'I'm sure of it,' Hilda answered demurely, in a tone of the deepest and sincerest conviction; 'and when I heard somebody say somewhere, that your son was...—well, WAS your son, I said to myself at once, "Ah, well, there now, that quite accounts, of course, for young Mr. Berkeley's very extraordinary and unusual abilities!"'
'She's really a most sensible, well-informed young woman, whoever she is,' the Progenitor thought to himself silently; 'and it's certainly a pity that dear Artie couldn't take a fancy to some nice, appreciative, kind-hearted, practical girl like that now, instead of wearing away all the best days of his life in useless regret for that poor slender, unsubstantial nonentity of a watery little Mrs. Le Breton.'
By two o'clock lunch was ready, and just as it had been announced, Arthur Berkeley ran up the front steps, and let himself in with his proprietory latch-key. Turning straight into the dining-room, he was just in time to see his own father walking into lunch arm in arm with Lady Hilda Tregellis. As Mrs. Hallis had graphically expressed it, he felt as if you might have knocked him down with a feather! Was she absolutely ubiquitous, then, this pervasive Lady Hilda? and was he destined wherever he went to come upon her suddenly in the most unexpected and incomprehensible situations?
'Will you sit down here, my dear,' the Progenitor was saying to Hilda at the exact moment he entered, 'or would you prefer your back to the fire?'
Arthur Berkeley opened his eyes wide with unspeakable amazement. 'What, YOU here,' he exclaimed, coming forward suddenly to shake hands with Hilda; 'why, I saw you only a couple of hours since at the Le Bretons' at Holloway.'
'You did!' Hilda cried with almost equal astonishment, 'Why, how was that? I never saw YOU.'
Arthur sighed quietly. 'No,' he answered, with a curious look at the Progenitor; 'you were engaged when I opened the door, and I didn't like to disturb you. You were—you were speaking with poor little Mrs. Le Breton. But I'm so much obliged to you for your kindness to them, Lady Hilda; so very much obliged to you for your great kindness to them.'
It was the Progenitor's turn now to start in surprise. 'What! Lady Hilda!' he cried with a bewildered look. 'Lady Hilda! Did I hear you say "Lady Hilda"? Is this Lady Hilda Tregellis, then, that I've heard you talk about so often, Artie?'
'Why, of course, Father. You didn't know who it was, then, didn't you? Lady Hilda, I'm afraid you've been stealing a march upon the poor unsuspecting hostile Progenitor.'
'Not quite that, Mr. Berkeley,' Hilda replied, laughing; 'only after the very truculent character I had heard of your father as a regular red-hot militant Radical, I thought I'd better not send in my name to him at once for fear it might prejudice him against me before first acquaintance.'
The Progenitor looked at her steadfastly from head to foot, standing before him there in her queenly beauty, as if she were some strange wild beast that he had been requested to inspect and report upon for a scientific purpose. 'Lady Hilda Tregellis!' he said slowly and deliberately; 'Lady Hilda Tregellis! So this is Lady Hilda Tregellis, is it? Well, all I can say is this, then, that as far as I can judge her, Lady Hilda Tregellis is a very sensible, modest, intelligent, well-conducted young woman, which is more than I could possibly have expected from a person of her unfortunate and distressing hereditary antecedents. But you know, my dear, it was a very mean trick of you to go and take an old man's heart by guile and stratagem in that way!'
Hilda laughed a little uneasily. The Progenitor's manner was perhaps a trifle too open and unconventional even for her. 'It wasn't for that I came, Mr. Berkeley,' she said again with one of her sunny smiles, which brought the Progenitor metaphorically to her feet again, 'but to talk over this matter of the poor Le Bretons with your son. Oh, Mr. Arthur, something must really be done to help them. I know you say there's nothing to be done; but there must be; we must find it out; we must invent it; we must compel it. When I sat there this morning with that dear little woman and saw her breaking her full heart over her husband's trouble, I said to myself, somehow, Hilda Tregellis, if you can't find a way out of this, you're not worth your salt in this world, and you'd better make haste and take a rapid through-ticket at once to the next, if there is one.'
'Which is more than doubtful, really,' the Progenitor muttered softly half under his breath; 'which, as Strauss has conclusively shown, is certainly a good deal more than doubtful.'
Arthur took no notice of the interruption, but merely answered imploringly, with a despairing gesture of his hands, 'What are we to do, Lady Hilda? What can we possibly do?'
'Why, sit down and have some lunch first,' Hilda rejoined with practical common-sense, 'and then talk it over rationally afterwards, instead of wringing our hands helplessly like a pair of Frenchmen in a street difficulty.' (Hilda had a fine old crusted English contempt, by the way, for those vastly inferior and foolish creatures known as foreigners.)
Thus adjured, Berkeley sat down promptly, and they proceeded to take counsel together in this hard matter over the cutlets and claret provided before them. 'Ernest and Mrs. Le Breton told me all about your visit,' Arthur went on, soon after; 'and they're so much obliged to you for having taken the trouble to look them up in their sore distress. Do you know, Lady Hilda, I think you've quite made a conquest of our dear little friend, Mrs. Le Breton.'
'I don't know about that,' Hilda responded with a smile, 'but I'm sure, at any rate, that the sweet little woman quite made a conquest of me, Mr. Berkeley. In fact, I can't say what you think, but for my part I'm determined an effort must be made one way or another to save them.'
'It's no use,' Arthur answered, shaking his head sadly; 'it can't be done. There's nothing for it but to let them float down helplessly with the tide, wherever it may bear them.'
'Stuff and nonsense,' Hilda replied energetically. 'All rubbish, utter rubbish, and if I were a man as you are, Mr. Berkeley, I should be ashamed to take such a desponding view of the situation. If we say it's got to be done, it will be done, and that's an end of it. Work must and can be found for him somehow or somewhere.'
'But the man's dying,' Arthur interrupted with a vehement gesture. 'There's no more work left in him. The only thing that's any use is to send him off to Madeira, or Egypt, or Catania, or somewhere of that sort, and let him die quietly among the palms and cactuses and aloes. That's Sir Antony Wraxall's opinion, and surely nobody in London can know half as well as he does about the matter.'
'Sir Antony's a fool,' Hilda responded with refreshing bluntness. 'He knows nothing on earth at all about it. He's accustomed to prescribing for a lot of us idle good-for-nothing rich people'—('Very true,' the Progenitor assented parenthetically;) 'and he's got into a fixed habit of prescribing a Nile voyage, just as he's got into a fixed habit of prescribing old wine, and carriage exercise, and ten thousand a year to all his patients. What Mr. Le Breton really wants is not Egypt, or old wine, or Sir Antony, or anything of the sort, but relief from this pressing load of anxiety and responsibility. Put him in my hands for six months, and I'll back myself at a hundred to six against Sir Antony to cure him for a monkey.'
'For a what!' the Progenitor asked with a puzzled expression of countenance.
'Back myself for a monkey, you know,' Hilda answered, without perceiving the cause of the old man's innocent confusion.
The Progenitor was evidently none the wiser still for Hilda's answer, though he forbore to pursue the subject any farther, lest he should betray his obvious ignorance of aristocratic manners and dialect.
But Arthur looked up at Lady Hilda with something like the gleam of a new-born hope on his distressed features. 'Lady Hilda,' he said almost cheerfully, 'you really speak as if you had some practicable plan actually in prospect. It seems to me, if anybody can pull them through, you can, because you've got such a grand reserve of faith and energy. What is it, now, you think of doing?'
'Well,' Hilda answered, taken a little aback at this practical question, 'I've hardly got my plan matured yet; but I've got a plan; and I thought it all out as far as it went as I came along here just now in the carriage. The great thing is, we must inspire Mr. Le Breton with a new confidence; we must begin by showing him we believe in him, and letting him see that he may still manage in some way or other to retrieve himself. He has lost all hope: we must begin with him over again. I've got an idea, but it'll take money. Now, I can give up half my allowance for the next year—the Le Bretons need never know anything about it—that'll be something: you're a rich man now, I believe, Mr. Berkeley; will you make up as much as I do, if my plan seems a feasible one to you for retrieving the position?'
The Progenitor answered quickly for him: 'Miss Tregellis,' he said, with a little tremor in his voice, '—you'll excuse me, my dear, but it's against my principles to call anybody my lady:—he will, I know he will; and if he wouldn't, why, my dear, I'd go back to my cobbling and earn it myself rather than that you or your friends should go without it for a single minute.'
Arthur said nothing, but he bowed his head silently. What a lot of good there was really in that splendid woman, and what a commanding, energetic, masterful way she had about her! To a feckless, undecided, faltering man like Arthur Berkeley there was something wonderfully attractive and magnificent, after all, in such an imperious resolute woman as Lady Hilda.
'Then this is my plan,' Hilda went on hastily. 'We must do something that'll take Mr. Le Breton out of himself for a short time entirely—that'll give him occupation of a kind he thinks right, and at the same time put money in his pocket. Now, he's always talking about this socialistic business of his; but why doesn't he tell us what he has actually seen about the life and habits of the really poor? Mrs. Le Breton tells me he knows the East End well: why doesn't he sit down and give us a good rattling, rousing, frightening description of all that's in it? Of course, I don't care twopence about the poor myself—not in the lump, I mean—I beg your pardon, Mr. Berkeley,'—for the Progenitor gave a start of surprise and astonishment—'you know we women are nothing if not concrete; we never care for anything in the abstract, Mr. Le Breton used to tell me; we want the particular case brought home to our sympathies before we can interest ourselves about it. After all, even YOU who are men don't feel very much for all the miserable wretched people there are in China, you know; they're too far away for even you to bother your heads about. But I DO care about the Le Bretons, and it strikes me we might help them a little in this way. I know a lot of artists, Mr. Berkeley; and I know one who I think would just do for the very work I want to set him. (He's poor, too, by the way, and I don't mind giving him a lift at the same time and killing two birds with one stone.) Very well, then; I go to him, and say, "Mr. Verney," I say,—there now, I didn't mean to tell you his name, but no matter; "Mr. Verney," I shall say, "a friend of mine in the writing line is going to pay some visits to the very poor quarters in the East End, and write about it, which will make a great noise in the world as sure as midday."'
'But how do you know it will?' asked the Progenitor, simply.
Hilda turned round upon him with an unfeigned look of startled astonishment. 'How do I know it will?' she said confidently. 'Why, because I mean it to, Mr. Berkeley. Because I say it shall. Because I choose to make it. Two Cabinet ministers shall quote it in the House, and a duke shall write letters to the "Times" denouncing it as an intensely wicked and revolutionary publication. If I choose to float it, I WILL float it.—Well, "Mr. Verney," I say for example, "will you undertake to accompany him and make sketches? It'll be unpleasant work, I know, because I've been there myself to see, and the places don't smell nice at all—worse than Genoa or the old town at Nice even, I can tell you: but it'll make you a name; and in any case the publisher who's getting it up'll pay you well for it." Of course, Mr. Verney says "Yes." Then we go on to Mr. Le Breton and say, "A young artist of my acquaintance is making a pilgrimage into the East End to see for himself how the people live, and to make pictures of them to stir up the sluggish consciences of the lazy aristocrats"—that's me and my people, of course: that'll be the way to work it. Play upon Mr. Le Breton's tenderest feelings. Make him feel he's fighting for the Cause; and he'll be ready to throw himself, heart and soul, into the spirit of the project. I don't care twopence about the Cause myself, of course, so that's flat, and I don't pretend to, either, Mr. Berkeley; but I care a great deal for the misery of that poor, dear, pale little woman, sitting there with me this morning and regularly sobbing her heart out; and if I can do anything to help her, why, I shall be only too delighted.'
'Le Breton's a well-meaning young fellow, certainly,' the Progenitor murmured gently in a voice of graceful concession; 'and I believe his heart's really in the Cause, as you call it; but you know, my dear, he's very far from being sound in his economical views as to the relations of capital and labour. Far from sound, as John Stuart Mill would have judged the question, I can solemnly assure you.'
'Very well,' Hilda went on, almost without noticing the interruption. 'We shall say to him, or rather we shall get our publisher to say to him, that as he's interested in the matter, and knows the East End well, he has been selected—shall we put it on somebody's recommendation?—to accompany the artist, and to supply the reading matter, the letter-press I think you call it; in fact, to write up to our illustrator's pictures; and that he is to be decently paid for his trouble. He must do something graphic, something stirring, something to wake up lazy people in the West End to a passing sense of what he calls their responsibilities. That'll seem like real work to Mr. Le Breton. It'll put new heart into him; he'll take up the matter vigorously; he'll do it well; he'll write a splendid book; and I shall guarantee its making a stir in the world this very dull season. What's the use of knowing half the odiously commonplace bores and prigs in all London if you can't float a single little heterodox pamphlet for a particular purpose? What do you think of it, Mr. Berkeley?'
Arthur sighed again. 'It seems to me, Lady Hilda,' he said, regretfully, 'a very slender straw indeed to hang Ernest Le Breton's life on: but any straw is better than nothing to a drowning man. And you have so much faith yourself, and mean to fling yourself into it so earnestly, that I shouldn't be wholly surprised if you were somehow to pull it through. If you do, Lady Hilda—if you manage to save these two poor young people from the verge of starvation—you'll have done a very great good work in your day, and you'll have made me personally eternally your debtor.'
Was it mere fancy, the Progenitor wondered, or did Hilda cast her eyes down a little and half blush as she answered in a lower and more tremulous tone than usual, 'I hope I shall, Mr. Berkeley; for their sakes, I hope I shall.' The Progenitor didn't feel quite certain about it, but somehow, more than once that evening, as he sat reading Spencer's 'Data of Ethics' in his easy-chair, a curious vision of Lady Hilda as a future daughter-in-law floated vaguely with singular persistence before the old shoemaker's bewildered eyes. 'It'd be a shocking falling away on Artie's part from his father's principles,' he muttered inarticulately to himself several times over; 'and yet, on the other hand, I can't deny that this bit of a Tregellis girl is really a very tidy, good-looking, respectable, well-meaning, intelligent, and appreciative sort of a young woman, who'd, maybe, make Artie as good a wife as anybody else he'd be likely to pitch on.'
THE TIDE TURNS.
When Ernest Le Breton got a letter from the business house of a well-known publishing firm, asking him whether he would consent to supply appropriate letterpress for an illustrated work on the poor of London, then in course of preparation, his delight and relief were positively unbounded. That anyone should come and ask him for work, instead of his asking them, was in itself a singular matter for surprise and congratulation; that the request should be based on the avowed ground of his known political and social opinions was almost incredible. Ernest felt that it was a triumph, not only for him, but for his dearly-loved principles and beliefs as well. For the first time in his life, he was going to undertake a piece of work which he not only thought not wrong, but even considered hopeful and praise-worthy. Arthur Berkeley, who called round as if by accident the same morning, saw with delight that Lady Hilda's prognostication seemed likely to be fulfilled, and that if only Ernest could be given some congenial occupation there was still a chance, after all, for his permanent recovery; for it was clear enough that as there was hope, there must be a little life yet left in him.
It was Lady Hilda who, as she herself expressively phrased it, had squared the publishers. She had called upon the head of the well-known house in person, and had told him fully and frankly exactly what was the nature of the interest she took in the poor of London. At first the publisher was scandalised and obdurate: the thing was not regular, he said—not in the ordinary way of business; his firm couldn't go writing letters of that sort to unknown young authors and artists. If she wanted the work done, she must let them give her own name as the promoter of the undertaking. But Hilda persevered, as she always did; she smiled, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, and made desperate love to the publisher to gain his acquiescence in her benevolent scheme. After all, even publishers are only human (though authors have been frequently known to deny the fact); and human nature, especially in England, is apt to be very little proof against the entreaties of a pretty girl who happens also to be an earl's daughter. So in the end, when Lady Hilda said most bewitchingly, 'I put it upon the grounds of a personal favour, Mr. Percival,' the obdurate publisher gave way at last, and consented to do her bidding gladly.
For six weeks Ernest went daily with Ronald and the young artist into the familiar slums of Bethnal Green, and Bermondsey, and Lambeth, whose ins and outs he was beginning to know with painful accuracy; and every night he came back, and wrote down with a glowing pen all that he had seen and heard of distressing and terrible during his day's peregrination. It was an awful task from one point of view, for the scenes he had to visit and describe were often heart-rending; and Arthur feared more than once that the air of so many loathsome and noxious dens might still further accelerate the progress of Ernest's disease; but Lady Hilda said emphatically, No; and somehow Arthur was beginning now to conceive an immense respect for the practical value of Lady Hilda's vehement opinions. As a matter of fact, indeed, Ernest did not visibly suffer at all either from the unwonted hard work or from the strain upon mind and body to which he had been so little accustomed. Distressing as it all was, it was change, it was variety, it was occupation, it was relief from that terrible killing round of perpetual personal responsibility. Above all, Ernest really believed that here at last was an opportunity of doing some practical good in his generation, and he threw himself into it with all the passionate ardour of a naturally eager and vivid nature. The enthusiasm of humanity was upon him, and it kept him going at high-pressure rate, with no apparent loss of strength and vigour throughout the whole ordeal. To Arthur Berkeley's intense delight, he was even visibly fatter to the naked eye at the end of his six weeks' exploration of the most dreary and desolate slums in all London.
The book was written at white heat, as the best of such books always are, and it was engraved and printed at the very shortest possible notice. Terrible and ghastly it certainly was at last—instinct with all the grim local colouring of those narrow, squalid, fever-stricken dens, where misfortune and crime huddle together indiscriminately in dirt and misery—a book to make one's blood run cold with awe and disgust, and to stir up even the callous apathy of the great rich capitalist West End to a passing moment's ineffective remorse; but very clever and very graphic after its own sort beyond the shadow of a question, for all its horror. When Arthur Berkeley turned over the first proof-sheets of 'London's Shame,' with its simple yet thrilling recital of true tales taken down from the very lips of outcast children or stranded women, with its awful woodcuts and still more awful descriptions—word-pictures reeking with the vice and filth and degradation of the most pestilent, overcrowded, undrained tenements—he felt instinctively that Ernest Le Breton's book would not need the artificial aid of Lady Hilda's influential friends in order to make it successful and even famous. The Cabinet ministers might be as silent as they chose, the indignant duke might confine his denunciations to the attentive and sympathetic ear of his friend Lord Connemara; but nothing on earth could prevent Ernest Le Breton's fiery and scathing diatribe from immediately enthralling the public attention. Lady Hilda had hit upon the exact subject which best suited his peculiar character and temperament, and he had done himself full justice in it. Not that Ernest had ever thought of himself, or even of his style, or the effect he was producing by his narrative; it was just the very non-self-consciousness of the thing that gave it its power. He wrote down the simple thoughts that came up into his own eager mind at the sight of so much inequality and injustice; and the motto that Arthur prefixed upon the title-page, 'Facit indignatio versum,' aptly described the key-note of that fierce and angry final denunciation. 'Yes, Lady Hilda had certainly hit the right nail on the head,' Arthur Berkeley said to himself more than once: 'A wonderful woman, truly, that beautiful, stately, uncompromising, brilliant, and still really tender Hilda Tregellis.'
Hilda, on her part, worked hard and well for the success of Ernest's book as soon as it appeared. Nay, she even condescended (not being what Ernest himself would have described as an ethical unit) to practise a little gentle hypocrisy in suiting her recommendations of 'London's Shame' to the tastes and feelings of her various acquaintances. To her Radical Cabinet minister friend, she openly praised its outspoken zeal for the cause of the people, and its value as a wonderful storehouse of useful facts at first hand for political purposes in the increasingly important outlying Metropolitan boroughs. 'Just think, Sir Edmund,' she said, persuasively, 'how you could crush any Conservative candidate for Hackney or the Tower Hamlets out of that awful chapter on the East End match-makers;' while with the Duke, to whom she presented a marked copy as a sample of what our revolutionary thinkers were really coming to, she insisted rather upon its wicked interference with the natural rights of landlords, and its abominable insinuation (so subversive of all truly English ideas as to liberty and property) that they were bound not to poison their tenants by total neglect of sanitary precautions. 'If I were you, now,' she said to the Duke in the most seemingly simple-minded manner possible, 'I'd just quote those passages I've marked in pencil in the House to-night on the Small Urban Holdings Bill, and point out how the wave of Continental Socialism is at last invading England with its devastating flood.' And the Duke, who was a complacent, thick-headed, obstinate old gentleman, congenitally incapable of looking at any question from any other point of view whatsoever except that of his own order, fell headlong passively into Lady Hilda's cruel little trap, and murmured to himself as he rolled down luxuriously to the august society of his peers that evening, 'Tremendous clever girl, Hilda Tregellis, really. "Wave of Continental Socialism at last invading England with its what-you-may-call-it flood," she said, if I remember rightly. Capital sentence to end off one's speech with, I declare. Devizes'll positively wonder where I got it from. I'd no idea before that girl took such an intelligent interest in political questions. So they want their cottages whitewashed, do they? What'll they ask for next, I wonder? Do they think we're to be content at last with one and a-half per cent, upon the fee-simple value of our estates, I should like to know? Why, some of the places this writer-fellow talks about are on my own property in The Rookery—"one of the most noisome court-yards in all London," he actually calls it. Whitewash their cottages, indeed! The lazy improvident creatures! They'll be asking us to put down encaustic tiles upon the floors next, and to paper their walls with Japanese leather or fashionable dados. Really, the general ignorance that prevails among the working classes as to the clearest principles of political economy is something absolutely appalling, absolutely appalling.' And his Grace scribbled a note in his memorandum-book of Hilda's ready-made peroration, for fear he should forget its precise wording before he began to give the House the benefit of his views that night upon the political economy of Small Urban Holdings.
Next morning, all London was talking of the curious coincidence by which a book from the pen of an unknown author, published only one day previously, had been quoted and debated upon simultaneously in both Houses of Parliament on a single evening. In the Commons, Sir Edmund Calverley, the distinguished Radical minister, had read a dozen pages from the unknown work in his declamatory theatrical fashion, and had so electrified the House with its graphic and horrible details that even Mr. Fitzgerald-Grenville, the well-known member for the Baroness Drummond-Lloyd (whose rotten or at least decomposing borough of Cherbury Minor he faithfully represented in three successive Parliaments), had mumbled out a few half-inaudible apologetic sentences about this state of things being truly deplorable, and about the necessity for meeting such a distressing social crisis by the prompt and vigorous application of that excellent specific and familiar panacea, a spirited foreign policy. In the Lords, the Duke himself, by some untoward coincidence, had been moved to make a few quotations, accompanied by a running fire of essentially ducal criticism, from the very selfsame obscure author; and to his immense surprise, even the members of his own party moved uneasily in their seats during the course of his speech; while later in the evening, Lord Devizes muttered to him angrily in the robing-room, 'Look here, Duke, you've been and put your foot in it, I assure you, about that Radical book you were ill-advised enough to quote from. You ought never to have treated the Small Urban Holdings Bill in the way you did; and just you mark my words, the papers'll all be down upon you to-morrow morning, as sure as daylight. You've given the "Bystander" such an opening against you as you'll never forget till your dying day, I can tell you.' And as the Duke drove back again after his arduous legislative efforts that evening, he said to himself between the puffs at his Havana, 'This comes, now, of allowing oneself to be made a fool of by a handsome woman. How the dooce I could ever have gone and taken Hilda Tregellis's advice on a political question is really more than I can fathom:—and at my time of life too! And yet, all the same, there's no denying that she's a devilish fine woman, by Jove, if ever there was one.'
Of course, everybody asked themselves next day what this book 'London's Shame' was like, and who on earth its author could be; so much so, indeed, that a large edition was completely exhausted within a fortnight. It was the great sensational success of that London season. Everybody read it, discussed it, dissected it, corroborated it, refuted it, fought over it, and wrote lengthy letters to all the daily papers about its faults and its merits. Imitators added their sincerest flattery: rivals proclaimed themselves the original discoverers of 'London's Shame': one enterprising author even thought of going to law about it as a question of copyright. Owners of noisome lanes in the East End trembled in their shoes, and sent their agents to inquire into the precise degree of squalor to be found in the filthy courts and alleys where they didn't care to trust their own sensitive aristocratic noses. It even seemed as if a little real good was going to come at last out of Ernest Le Breton's impassioned pleading—as if the sensation were going to fall not quite flat at the end of its short run in the clubs and drawing-rooms of London as a nine days' wonder.
And Ernest Le Breton? and Edie? In the little lodgings at Holloway, they sat first trembling for the result, and ready to burst with excitement when Lady Hilda, up at the unwonted hour of six in the morning, tore into their rooms with an early copy of the 'Times' to show them the Duke's speech, and Sir Edmund's quotations, and the editorial leader in which even that most dignified and reticent of British journals condescended to speak with studiously moderated praise of the immense collection of facts so ably strung together by Mr. Ernest Le Breton (in all the legible glory of small capitals, too,) as to the undoubtedly disgraceful condition of some at least among our London alleys. How Edie clung around Lady Hilda and kissed her! and how Lady Hilda kissed her back and cried over her with tears of happier augury! and how they both kissed and cried over unconscious wondering little Dot! And how Lady Hilda could almost have fallen upon Ernest, too, as he sat gazing in blank astonishment and delight at his own name in the magnificent small capitals of a 'Times' leader. Between crying and laughing, with much efficient aid in both from good Mrs. Halliss, they hardly knew how they ever got through the long delightful hours of that memorable epoch-making morning.
And then there came the gradual awakening to the fact that this was really fame—fame, and perhaps also competence. First in the field, of course, was the editor of the 'Cosmopolitan Review,' with a polite request that Ernest would give the readers of that intensely hot-and-hot and thoughtful periodical the opportunity of reading his valuable views on the East End outcast question, before they had had time to be worth nothing for journalistic purposes, through the natural and inevitable cooling of the public interest in this new sensation. Then his old friends of the 'Morning Intelligence' once more begged that he would be good enough to contribute a series of signed and headed articles to their columns, on the slums and fever dens of poverty-stricken London. Next, an illustrated weekly asked him to join with his artist friend in getting up another pilgrimage into yet undiscovered metropolitan plague-spots. And so, before the end of a month, Ernest Le Breton, for the first time in his life, had really got more work to do than he could easily manage, and work, too, that he felt he could throw his whole life and soul into with perfect honesty.
When the first edition of 'London's Shame' was exhausted, there was already a handsome balance to go to Ernest and his artist coadjutor, who, by the terms of the agreement, were to divide between them half the profits. The other half, for appearance' sake, Lady Hilda and Arthur had been naturally compelled to reserve for themselves: for of course it would not have been probable that any publisher would have undertaken the work without any hope of profit in any way. Arthur called upon Hilda at Lord Exmoor's house in Wilton Place to show her the first balance-sheet and accompanying cheque. 'What on earth can we do with it?' he asked seriously. 'We can't divide it between us: and yet we can't give it to the poor Le Bretons. I don't see how we're to manage.'
'Why, of course,' Hilda answered promptly. 'Put it into the Consols or whatever you call it, for the benefit of little Dot.'
'The very thing!' Arthur answered in a tone of obvious admiration. 'What a wonderfully practical person you really are, Lady Hilda.'
As to Ernest and Edie, when they got their own cheque for their quarter of the proceeds, they gazed in awe and astonishment at the bigness of the figure; and then they sat down and cried together like two children, with their hands locked in one another's.
'And you'll get well, now, Ernest dear,' Edie whispered gently. 'Why, you're ever so much fatter, darling, already. I'm sure you'll get well in no time, now, Ernest.'
'Upon my word, Edie,' Ernest answered, kissing her white forehead tenderly, 'I really and truly believe I shall. It's my opinion that Sir Antony Wraxall's an unmitigated ignorant humbug.'
A few weeks later, when Ernest's remarkable article on 'How to Improve the Homes of the Poor' appeared in one of the leading magazines, Mr. Herbert Le Breton of the Education Office looked up from his cup of post-prandial coffee in his comfortable dining-room at South Kensington, and said musingly to his young wife, 'Do you know, Ethel, it seems to me that my brother Ernest's going to score a success at last with this slum-hunting business that he's lately invented. There's an awful lot about it now in all the papers and reviews. Perhaps it might be as well, after all, to scrape an acquaintance with him again, especially as he's my own brother. There's no knowing, really, when a man of his peculiar ill-regulated mercurial temperament may be going to turn out famous. Don't you think you'd better find out where they're living now—they've left Holloway, no doubt, since this turn of the tide—and go and call upon Mrs. Ernest?'
Whereto Mrs. Herbert Le Breton, raising her eyes for a moment from the pages of her last new novel, answered languidly: 'Don't you think, Herbert, it'd be better to wait a little while and see how things turn out with them in the long run, you know, before we commit ourselves by going to call upon them? One swallow, you see, doesn't make a summer, does it, dear, ever?' Whence the acute and intelligent reader will doubtless conclude that Mrs. Herbert Le Breton was a very prudent sensible young woman, and that perhaps even Herbert himself had met at last with his fitting Nemesis. For what worse purgatory could his bitterest foe wish for a selfishly prudent and cold-hearted man, than that he should pass his whole lifetime in congenial intercourse with a selfishly prudent and cold-hearted wife, exactly after his own pattern?