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.'
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