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- Philistia - 70/74 -


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.'

CHAPTER XXXV.

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,


Philistia - 70/74

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