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The Reverend Arthur Collingham Berkeley, curate of St. Fredegond's, lounged lazily in his own neatly padded wickerwork easy-chair, opposite the large lattice-paned windows of his pretty little first-floor rooms in the front quad of Magdalen.
'There's a great deal to be said, Le Breton, in favour of October term,' he observed, in his soft, musical voice, as he gazed pensively across the central grass-plot to the crimson drapery of the Founder's Tower. 'Just look at that magnificent Virginia creeper over there, now; just look at the way the red on it melts imperceptibly into Tyrian purple and cloth of gold! Isn't that in itself argument enough to fling at Hartmann's head, if he ventured to come here sprinkling about his heresies, with his affected little spray-shooter, in the midst of a drowsy Oxford autumn? The Cardinal never saw Virginia creeper, I suppose; a man of his taste wouldn't have been guilty of committing such a gross practical anachronism as that, any more than he would have smoked a cigarette before tobacco was invented; but if only he could have seen the October effect on that tower yonder, he'd have acknowledged that his own hat and robe were positively nowhere in the running, for colour, wouldn't he?'
'Well,' answered Herbert, putting down the Venetian glass goblet he had been examining closely with due care into its niche in the over-mantel, 'I've no doubt Wolsey had too much historical sense ever to step entirely out of his own century, like my brother Ernest, for instance; but I've never heard his opinion on the subject of colour-harmonies, and I should suspect it of having been distinctly tinged with nascent symptoms of renaissance vulgarity. This is a lovely bit of Venetian, really, Berkeley. How the dickens do you manage to pick up all these pretty things, I wonder? Why can't I afford them, now?'
'What a question for the endowed and established to put to a poor starving devil of a curate like me!' said Berkeley lightly. 'You, an incarnate sinecure and vested interest, a creature revelling in an unearned income of fabulous Oriental magnificence--I dare say, putting one thing with another, fully as much as five hundred a year--to ask me, the unbeneficed and insignificant, with my wretched pittance of eighty pounds per annum and my three pass-men a term for classical mods, how I scrape together the few miserable, hoarded ha'pence which I grudgingly invest in my pots and pipkins! I save them from my dinner, Mr. Bursar--I save them. If the Church only recognised modest merit as it ought to do!--if the bishops only listened with due attention to the sound and scholarly exegesis of my Sunday evening discourses at St. Fredegond's!--then, indeed, I might be disposed to regard things through a more satisfied medium --the medium of a nice, fat, juicy country living. But for you, Le Breton--you, sir, a pluralist and a sanguisorb of the deepest dye--to reproach me with my Franciscan poverty--oh, it's too cruel!'
'I'm an abuse, I know,' Herbert answered, smiling and waving his hand gracefully. 'I at once admit it. Abuses exist, unhappily; and while they continue do so, isn't it better they should envisage themselves as me than as some other and probably less deserving fellow?'
'No, it's not, decidedly. I should much prefer that one of them envisaged itself as me.'
'Ah, of course. From your own strictly subjective point of view that's very natural. I also look at the question abstractly from the side of the empirical ego, and correctly deduce a corresponding conclusion. Only then, you see, the terms of the minor premiss are luckily reversed.'
'Well, my dear fellow,' said the curate, 'the fact about the tea-things is this. You eat up your income, devour your substance in riotous living; I prefer to feast my eyes and ears to my grosser senses. You dine at high table, and fare sumptuously every day; I take a commons of cold beef for lunch, and have tea off an egg and roll in my own rooms at seven. You drink St. Emilion or still hock; I drink water from the well or the cup that cheers but not obfuscates. The difference goes to pay for the crockery. Do likewise, and with your untold wealth you might play Aunt Sally at Oriental blue, and take cock-shots with a boot-jack at hawthorn-pattern vases.'
'At any rate, Berkeley, you always manage to get your money's worth of amusement out of your money.'
'Of course, because I lay myself out to do it. Buy a bottle of champagne, drink it off, and there you have to show for your total permanent investment on the transaction the memory of a noisy evening and a headache the next morning. Buy a flute, or a book of poems, or a little picture, or a Palissy platter, and you have something to turn to with delight and admiration for half a lifetime.'
'Ah, but it isn't everybody who can isolate himself so utterly from the workaday world and live so completely in his own little paradise of art as you can, my dear fellow. Non omnia possumus omnes. You seem to be always up in the aesthetic clouds, with your own music automatically laid on, and no need of cherubim or seraphim to chant continually for your gratification. Play me something of your own on your flute now, like a good fellow.'
'No, I won't; because the spirit doesn't move me. It's treachery to the divine gift to play when you don't want to. Besides, what's the use of playing before you when you're not the dean of a musical cathedral? David was wiser; he played only before Saul, who had of course all the livings in his own gift, no doubt. I've got a new thing running in my head this very minute that you shall hear though, all the same, as soon as I've hammered it into shape--a sort of villanette in music, a little whiff of country freshness, suggested by the new ethereal acquisition, little Miss Butterfly. Have you seen Miss Butterfly yet?'
'Not by that name, at any rate. Who is she?'
'Oh, the name's my own invention. Mademoiselle Volauvent, I mean--the little bit of whirligig thistledown from Devonshire, Oswald's sister, you know, of Oriel.'
'Ah, that one! Yes; just caught a glimpse of her in the High on Thursday. Very pretty, certainly, and as airy as a humming-bird.'
'That's her! She's coming here to lunch this morning. If you're a good boy, and will promise not to say anything naughty, you may stop and meet her. She's a nice little thing, but rather timid at seeing so many fresh faces. You mustn't frighten her by discussing the Absolute and the Unconditioned, or bore her by talking about Aristotle's Politics, or the revolutions in Corcyra. For you know, my dear Le Breton, if you have a fault, it is that you're such a consummate and irrepressible prig; now aren't you really?'
'I'm hardly a fair judge on that subject, I suppose, Berkeley; but if you have a rudimentary glimmering of a virtue, it is that you're such a deliciously frank and yet considerate critic. I'll pocket your rudeness though, and eat your lunch, in spite of it. Is Miss Butterfly, as you call her, as stand-off as her brother?'
'Not at all. She's accueillante to the last degree.'
'Very restricted, I suppose--a country girl of the first water? Horizon absolutely bounded by the high hedges of her native parish?'
'Oh dear no! Anything but that. She's like her brother, naturally quick and adaptive.'
'Oswald's an excellent fellow in his way,' said Herbert, button-holing his own waistcoat; 'but he's spoilt by two bad traits. In the first place, he's so dreadfully conscious of the fact that he has risen from a lower position; and then, again, he's so engrossingly and pervadingly mathematical. X square seems to have seized upon him bodily, and to have wormed its fatal way into his very marrow.'
'Ah, you must remember, he's true to his first love. Culture came to him first, while yet he abode in Philistia, under the playful disguise of a conic section. He scaled his way out of Gath by means of a treatise on elementary trigonometry, and evaded Askelon on the wings of an undulatory theory of light. It is different with us, you know, who have emerged from the land of darkness by the regular classical and literary highway. We feed upon Rabelais and Burton; he flits carelessly from flower to flower of the theory of Quantics. If he were an idealist painter, like Rossetti, he would paint great allegorical pictures for us, representing an asymptotic curve appearing to him in a dream, and introducing that blushing maiden, Hyperbola, to his affectionate consideration.'
As Berkeley spoke, a rap sounded on the oak, and Ernest Le Breton entered the room.
'What, you here, Herbert?' he said with a shade of displeasure in his tone. 'Are you, too, of the bidden?'
'Berkeley has asked me to stop and lunch with him, if that's what you mean.'
'We shall be quite a party,' said Ernest, seating himself, and looking abstractedly round the room. 'Why, Berkeley,' as his eye fell upon the Venetian vase, 'you've positively got some more gew-gaws here. This one's new, isn't it? Eh!'
'Yes. I picked it up for a song, this long, at a stranded village in the Apennines. Literally for a song, for it cost me just what I got from Fradelli for that last little piece of mine. It's very pretty, isn't it?'
'Very; exquisite, really; the blending of the tones is so perfect. I wish I knew what to think about these things. I can't make up my mind about them. Sometimes I think it's all right to make them and buy them; sometimes I think it's all wrong.'
'Oh, if that's your difficulty,' said Berkeley, pulling his white tie straight at the tiny round looking-glass, 'I can easily reassure you. Do you think a hundred and eighty pounds a year an excessive sum for one person to spend upon his own entire living?'
'It doesn't seem so, as expenses go amongst us,' said Ernest, seriously, 'though I dare say it would look like shocking extravagance to a working man with a wife and family.'
'Very well, that's the very outside I ever spend upon myself in any one year, for the excellent reason that it's all I ever get to spend in any way. Now, why shouldn't I spend it on the things that please me best and are joys for ever, instead of on the things that disappear at once and perish in the using?'
'Ah, but that's not the whole question,' Ernest answered, looking at the curate fixedly. 'What right have you and I to spend so much when others are wanting for bread? And what right have you or I to make other people work at producing these useless trinkets for our sole selfish gratification?'
'Well now, Le Breton,' said the parson, assuming a more serious tone, 'you know you're a reasonable creature, so I don't mind discussing this question with you. You've got an ethical foundation to your nature, and you want to see things done on decent grounds of distributive justice. There I am one with you. But you've also got an aesthetic side to your nature, which makes you worth arguing with upon the matter. I won't argue with your vulgar materialised socialist, who would break up the frieze of the Parthenon for road metal, or pull down Giotto's frescoes because they represent scenes in the fabulous lives of saints and martyrs. You know what a work of art is when you see it; and therefore you're worth arguing with, which your vulgar Continental socialist really isn't. The one cogent argument for him is the whiff of grape-shot.'
'I recognise,' said Ernest, 'that the works of art, of poetry, or of music, which we possess are a grand inheritance from the past; and I would do all I could to preserve them intact for those that come after us.'
'I'm sure you would. No restoration or tinkering in you, I'm certain. Well, then, would you give anything for a world which hadn't got this aesthetic side to its corporate existence? Would you give anything for a world which didn't care at all for painting, sculpture, music, poetry? I wouldn't. I don't want such a world. I won't countenance such a world. I'll do nothing to further or advance such a world. It's utterly repugnant to me, and I banish it, as Themistocles banished the Athenians.'
'But consider,' said Ernest, 'we live in a world where men and women are actually starving. How can we reconcile to our consciences the spending of one penny on one useless thing when others are dying of sheer want, and cold, and nakedness? That's the great question that's always oppressing my poor dissatisfied conscience.'
'So it does everybody's--except Herbert's: he explains it all on biological grounds as the beautiful discriminative action of natural selection. Simple, but not consolatory. Still, look at the other side of the question. Suppose you and everybody else were to give up all superfluities, and confine all your energies to the unlimited production of bare necessaries. Suppose you occupy every acre of land with your corn-fields, or your piggeries; and sweep away all the parks, and woods, and heaths, and moorlands in England. Suppose you keep on letting your population multiply as fast as it chooses--and it will multiply, you know, in that ugly, reckless, anti-Malthusian fashion of its own--till every rood of ground maintains its man, and only just maintains him; and what will you have got then?'
'A dead level of abject pauperism,' put in Herbert blandly; 'a reductio ad absurdum of all your visionary Schurzian philosophy, my dear Ernest. Look at it another way, now, and just consider. Which really and truly matters most to you and me, a great work of art or a highly respectable horny-handed son of toil, whose acquaintance we have never had the pleasure of personally making? Suppose you read in the Times that the respectable horny-handed one has fallen off a scaffolding and broken his neck; and that the Dresden Madonna has been burnt by an unexpected accident; which of the two items of intelligence affects you the most acutely? My dear fellow, you may push your humanitarian enthusiasm as far as ever you like; but in your heart of hearts you know as well as I do that you'll deeply regret the loss of the Madonna, and you'll never think again about the fate of the respectable horny-handed, his wife or children.'
Ernest's answer, if he had any to make, was effectually nipped in the bud by the entrance of the scout, who came in to announce Mr. and Miss Oswald and Mrs. Martindale. Edie wore the grey dress, her brother's present, and flitted into the room after her joyous fashion, full of her first fresh delight at the cloistered quad of Magdalen.
'What a delicious college, Mr. Berkeley!' she said, holding out her hand to him brightly. 'Good-morning, Mr. Le Breton; this is your brother, I know by the likeness. I thought New College very beautiful, but nothing I've seen is quite as beautiful as Magdalen. What a privilege to live always in such a place! And what an exquisite view from your window here!'
'Yes,' said Berkeley, moving a few music-books from the seat in the window-sill; 'come and sit by it, Miss Oswald. Mrs. Martindale, won't you put your shawl down? How's the Professor to-day? So sorry he couldn't come.'
'Ah, he had to go to sit on one of his Boards,' said the old lady, seating herself. 'But you know I'm quite accustomed to going out without him.'
Arthur Berkeley knew as much; indeed, being a person of minute strategical intellect, he had purposely looked out a day on which the Professor had to attend a meeting of the delegates of something or other, so as to secure Mrs. Martindale's services without the supplementary drawback of that prodigious bore. Not that he was particularly anxious for Mrs. Martindale's own society, which was of the most strictly negative character; but he didn't wish Edie to be the one lady in a party of four men, and he invited the Professor's wife as an excellent neutral figure-head, to keep her in countenance. Ladies were scarcer then in Oxford than they are nowadays. The married fellow was still a tentative problematical experiment in those years, and the invasion of the Parks by young couples had hardly yet begun in earnest. So female society was still at a considerable local premium, and Berkeley was glad enough to secure even colourless old Mrs. Martindale to square his party at any price.
'And how do you like Oxford, Miss Oswald?' asked Ernest, making his way towards the window.
'My dear Le Breton, what a question to put to her!' said Berkeley, smiling. 'As if Oxford were a place to be appraised offhand, on three days' acquaintance. You remind me of the American who went to look at Niagara, and made an approving note in his memorandum book to say that he found it really a very elegant cataract.'
'Oh, but you must form some opinion of it at least, at first sight,' cried Edie; 'you can't help having an impression of a place from the first moment, even if you haven't a judgment on it, can you now? I think it really surpasses my expectations, Mr. Le Breton, which is always a pleasant surprise. Venice fell below them; Florence just came up to them; but Oxford, I think, really surpasses them.'
'We have three beautiful towns in Britain,' Berkeley said. ('As if he were a Welsh Triad,' suggested Herbert Le Breton, parenthetically.) 'Torquay, Oxford, Edinburgh. Torquay is all nature, spoilt by what I won't call art; Oxford is all art, superimposed on a swamp that I won't call nature; Edinburgh is both nature and art, working pretty harmoniously together, to make up a unique and exquisite picture.'
'Just like Naples, Venice, and Heidelberg,' said Edie, half to herself; but Berkeley caught at the words quickly as she said them. 'Yes,' he answered; 'a very good parallel, only Oxford has a trifle more nature about it than Venice. The lagoon, without the palaces, would be simply hideous; the Oseney flats, without the colleges, would be nothing worse than merely dull.'
'We owe a great deal,' said Ernest, gazing out towards the quadrangle, 'to the forgotten mass of labouring humanity who piled all those blocks of shapeless stone into beautiful forms for us who come after to admire and worship. I often wonder, when I sit here in Berkeley's window-seat, and look across the quad to the carved pinnacles on the Founder's Tower there, whether any of us can ever hope to leave behind to our successors any legacy at all comparable to the one left us by those nameless old mediaeval masons. It's a very saddening thought that we for whom all these beautiful things have been put together--we whom labouring humanity has pampered and petted from our cradles upward, feeding us on its whitest bread, and toiling for us with all its weary sinews--that we probably will never do anything at all for it and for the world in return, but will simply eat our way through life aimlessly, and die forgotten in the end like the beasts that perish. It ought to make us, as a class, terribly ashamed of our own utter and abject inutility.'
Edie looked at him with a sort of hushed surprise; she was accustomed to hear Harry talk radical talk enough after his own fashion, but radicalism of this particular pensive tinge she was not accustomed to. It interested her, and made her wonder what sort of man Mr. Le Breton might really be.
'Well, you know, Mr. Le Breton,' said old Mrs. Martindale, complacently, 'we must remember that Providence has wisely ordained that we shouldn't all of us be masons or carpenters. Some of us are clergymen, now, and look what a useful, valuable life a clergyman's is, after all, isn't it, Mr. Berkeley?' Berkeley smiled a faint smile of amusement, but said nothing. 'Others are squires and landed gentry; and I'm sure the landed gentry are very desirable in keeping up the tone of the country districts, and setting a pattern of virtue and refinement to their poorer neighbours. What would the country villages be, for example, if it weren't for the centres of culture afforded by the rectory and the hall, eh, Miss Oswald.' Edith thought of quavering old Miss Catherine Luttrell gossiping with the rector's wife, and held her peace. 'You may depend upon it Providence has ordained these distinctions of classes for its own wise purposes, and we needn't trouble our heads at all about trying to alter them.'
'I've always observed,' said Harry Oswald, 'that Providence is supposed to have ordained the existing order for the time being, whatever it may be, but not the order that is at that exact moment endeavouring to supplant it. If I were to visit Central Africa, I should confidently expect to be told by the rain-doctors that Providence had ordained the absolute power of the chief, and the custom of massacring his wives and slaves at his open grave side. I believe in Russia it's usually allowed that Providence has placed the orthodox Czar at the head of the nation, and that any attempt to obtain a constitution from him is simply flat rebellion and flying in the face of Providence. In England we had a King John once, and we extracted a constitution out of him and sundry other kings by main force; and here, it's acquiescence in the present limited aristocratic government that makes up obedience to the Providential arrangement of things apparently. But how about America? eh, Mrs. Martindale? Did Providence ordain that George Washington was to rebel against his most sacred majesty King George III., or did it not? And did it ordain that George Washington was to knock his most sacred majesty's troops into a cocked hat, or did it not? And did it ordain that Abraham Lincoln was to free the slaves, or did it not? What I want to know is this: can it be said that Providence has ordained every class distinction in the whole world, from Dahomey to San Francisco? And has it ordained every Government, past and present, from the Chinese Empire to the French Convention? Did it ordain, for example, the revolution of '89? That's the question I should like to have answered.'
'Dear me, Mr. Oswald,' said the old lady meekly, taken aback by Harry's voluble vehemence: 'I suppose Providence permits some things and ordains others.'
'And does it permit American democracy or ordain it?' asked the merciless Harry.
'Don't you see, Mrs. Martindale,' put in Berkeley, coming gently to her rescue, 'your principle amounts in effect to saying that whatever is, is right.'
'Exactly,' said the old lady, forgetting at once all about Dahomey or the Convention, and coming back mentally to her squires and rectors. 'The existing order is wisely arranged by Providence, and we mustn't try to set ourselves up against it.'
'But if whatever is, is right,' Edie said, laughing, 'then Mr. Le Breton's socialism must be right too, you see, because it exists in him no doubt for some wise purpose of Providence; and if he and those who think with him can succeed in changing things generally according to their own pattern, then the new system that they introduce will be the one that Providence has shown by the result to be the favoured one.'
'In short,' said Ernest, musingly, 'Mrs. Martindale's principle sanctifies success. It's the old theory of "treason never prospers--what's the reason? Because whene'er it prospers 'tis not treason." If we could only introduce a socialist republic, then it would be the reactionaries who would be setting themselves up against constituted authority, and so flying in the face of Providence.'
'Fancy lecturing a recalcitrant archbishop and a remonstrant ci-devant duchess,' cried Berkeley, lightly, 'upon the moral guilt and religious sinfulness of rebellion against the constituted authority of a communist phalanstery. It would be simply charming. I can imagine myself composing a dignified exhortation to deliver to his grace, entirely compiled out of his own printed pastorals, on the duty of submission and the danger of harbouring an insubordinate spirit. Do make me chaplain-in-ordinary to your house of correction for irreclaimable aristocrats, Le Breton, as soon as you once get your coming socialist republic fairly under way.'
'Luncheon is on the table, sir,' said the scout, breaking in unceremoniously upon their discussion.
If Arthur Berkeley lunched by himself upon a solitary commons of cold beef, he certainly did not treat his friends and guests in corresponding fashion. His little entertainment was of the daintiest and airiest character, so airy that, as Edie herself observed afterwards to Harry, it took away all the sense of meat and drink altogether, and left one only a pleased consciousness of full artistic gratification. Even Ernest, though he had his scruples about the aspic jelly, might eat the famous Magdalen chicken cutlets, his brother said, 'with a distinct feeling of exalted gratitude to the arduous culinary evolution of collective humanity.'
'Consider,' said Herbert, balancing neatly a little pyramid of whip cream and apricot jam upon his fork, 'consider what ages of slow endeavour must have gone to the development of such a complex mixture as this, Ernest, and thank your stars that you were born in this nineteenth century of Soyer and Francatelli, instead of being condemned to devour a Homeric feast with the unsophisticated aid of your own five fingers.'
'But do tell me, Mr. Le Breton,' asked Edie, with one of her pretty smiles, 'what will this socialist republic of yours be like when it actually comes about? I'm dying to know all about it.'
'Really, Miss Oswald,' Ernest answered, in a half-embarrassed tone, 'I don't quite know how to reply to such a very wide and indefinite question. I haven't got any cut-and-dried constitutional scheme of my own for reorganising the whole system of society, any distinct panacea to cure all the ills that collective flesh is heir to. I leave the details of the future order to your brother Harry. The thing that troubles me is not so much how to reform the world at large as how to shape one's own individual course aright in the actual midst of it. As a single unit of the whole, I want rather guidance for my private conduct than a scheme for redressing the universal dislocation of things in general. It seems to me, every man's first duty is to see that he himself is in the right attitude towards society, and afterwards he may proceed to enquire whether society is in the right attitude towards him and all its other members. But if we were all to begin by redressing ourselves, there would be nothing left to redress, I imagine, when we turned to attack the second half of our problem. The great difficulty I myself experience is this, that I can't discover any adequate social justification for my own personal existence. But I really oughtn't to bore other people with my private embarrassments upon that head.'
'You see,' said Herbert Le Breton, carelessly, 'my brother represents the ethical element in the socialist movement, Miss Oswald, while Harry represents the political element. Each is valuable in its way; but Oswald's is the more practical. You can move great masses into demanding their rights; you can't so easily move them into cordially recognising their duties. Hammer, hammer, hammer at the most obvious abuses; that's the way all the political victories are finally won. If I were a radical at all, I should go with you, Oswald. But happily I'm not one; I prefer the calm philosophic attitude of perfectly objective neutrality.'
'And if I were a radical,' said Berkeley, with a tinge of sadness in his voice as he poured himself out a glass of hock, 'I should go with Le Breton. But unfortunately I'm not one, Miss Oswald, I'm only a parson.'
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