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CHARITY THE "CRIME"
There followed a busy time for Brooks, the result of which was a very marked improvement in his prospects. For the younger Morrison and his partner, loth to lose altogether the valuable Enton connection, offered Brooks a partnership in their firm. Mr. Ascough, who was Lord Arranmore's London solicitor, and had been Brooks' guardian, after careful consideration advised his acceptance, and there being nothing in the way, the arrangements were pushed through almost at once. Mr. Ascough, on the morning of his return to London, took the opportunity warmly to congratulate Brooks.
"Lord Arranmore has been marvellously kind to me," Brooks agreed. "To tell you the truth, Mr. Ascough, I feel almost inclined to add incomprehensibly kind."
The older man stroked his grey moustache thoughtfully.
"Lord Arranmore is eccentric," he remarked. "Has always been eccentric, and will remain so, I suppose, to the end of the chapter. You are the one who profits, however, and I am very glad of it."
"Eccentricity," Brooks remarked, "is, of course, the only obvious explanation of his generosity so far as I am concerned. But it has occurred to me, Mr. Ascough, to wonder whether the friendship or connection between him and my father was in any way a less slight thing than I have been led to suppose."
Mr. Ascough shrugged his shoulders.
"Lord Arranmore," he said, "has told you, no doubt, all that there is to be told."
Brooks sat at his desk, frowning slightly, and tapping the blotting-paper with a pen-holder.
"All that Lord Arranmore has told me," he said, "is that my father occupied a cabin not far from his on the banks of Lake Ono, that they saw little of each other, and that he only found out his illness by accident. That my father then disclosed his name, gave him his papers and your address. There was merely the casual intercourse between two Englishmen coming together in a strange country."
"That is what I have always understood," Mr. Ascough agreed. "Have you any reason to think otherwise?
"No definite reason--except Lord Arranmore's unusual kindness to me," Brooks remarked. "Lord Arranmore is one of the most self-centred men I ever knew--and the least impulsive. Why, therefore, he should go out of his way to do me a kindness I cannot understand."
"If this is really an enigma to you," Mr. Ascough answered, "I cannot help you to solve it. Lord Arranmore has been the reverse of communicative to me. I am afraid you must fall back upon his lordship's eccentricity."
Mr. Ascough rose, but Brooks detained him.
"You have plenty of time for your train," he said. "Will you forgive me if I go over a little old ground with you--for the last time?"
The lawyer resumed his seat.
"I am in no hurry," he said, "if you think it worth while."
"My father came to you when he was living at Stepney--a stranger to you."
"A complete stranger," Mr. Ascough agreed. "I had never seen him before in my life. I did a little trifling business for him in connection with his property."
"He told you nothing of his family or relatives?"
"He told me that he had not a relation in the world."
"You knew him slightly, then?" Brooks continued, "all the time he was in London? And when he left for that voyage he came to you."
"He made over his small income then to my mother in trust for me. Did it strike you as strange that he should do this instead of making a will?"
"Not particularly," Mr. Ascough declared. "As you know, it is not an unusual course."
"It did not suggest to you any determination on his part never to return to England?"
"He left England on friendly terms with my mother?"
"Certainly. She and he were people for whom I and every one who knew anything of their lives had the highest esteem and admiration."
"You can imagine no reason, then, for my father leaving England for good?"
"You know of no reason why he should have abandoned his trip to Australia and gone to Canada?"
"His doing so is as inexplicable to you as to me?"
"You have never doubted Lord Arranmore's story of his death?"
"Never. Why should I?"
"One more question," Brooks said. "Do you know that lately I have met a traveller--a man who visited Lord Arranmore in Canada, and who declared to his certain knowledge there was no other human dwelling-house within fifty miles of Lord Arranmore's cabin?"
"He was obviously mistaken."
You think so?
"It is certain."
"My question," he said, "will have given you some idea of the uncertainty I have felt once or twice lately, owing to the report of the traveller Lacroix, and Lord Arranmore's unaccountable kindness to me. You see, he isn't an ordinary man. He is not a philanthropist by any means, nor in any way a person likely to do kindly actions from the love of them. Now, do you know of any facts, or can you suggest anything which might make the situation clearer to me?"
"I cannot, Mr. Brooks," the older man answered, without hesitation. "If you take my advice, you will not trouble yourself any more with fancies which seem to me--pardon me--quite chimerical. Accept Lord Arranmore's kindness as the offshoot of some sentimental feeling which he might well have entertained towards a fellow-countryman by whose death-bed he had stood in that far-away, lonely country. You may even yourself be mistaken in Lord Arranmore's character, and you can remember, too, that after all what means so much to you costs him nothing--is probably for his own advantage."
Brooks rose and took up his hat.
"I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Ascough," he said. "Yours, after all, is the common-sense view of the affair. If you like I will walk up to the station. I am going that way. . . ."
So Brooks, convinced of their folly, finally discarded certain uncomfortable thoughts which once or twice lately had troubled him. He dined at Enton that night, and improved his acquaintance with Lady Caroom and her daughter, who were still staying there. Although this was not a matter which he had mentioned to Mr. Ascough, there was something which he found more inexplicable even than Lord Arranmore's transference of the care of his estates to him, and that was the apparent encouragement which both he and Lady Caroom gave to the friendship between Sybil and himself. They had lunched with him twice in Medchester, and more often still the Enton barouche had been kept waiting at his office whilst Lady Caroom and Sybil descended upon him with invitations from Lord Arranmore. After his talk with Mr. Ascough he put the matter behind him, but it remained at times an inexplicable puzzle.
On the evening of this particular visit he found Sybil alone in a recess of the drawing-room with a newspaper in her hand. She greeted him with obvious pleasure.
"Do come and tell me about things, Mr. Brooks," she begged. "I have been reading the local paper. Is it true that there are actually people starving in Medchester?"
"There is a great deal of distress," he admitted, gravely. "I am afraid that it is true."
She looked at him with wide-open eyes.
"But I don't understand," she said. "I thought that there were societies who dealt with all that sort of thing, and behind, the--the workhouse."
"So there are, Lady Sybil," he answered, "but you must remember that societies are no use unless people will subscribe to them, and that there are a great many people who would sooner starve than enter the workhouse."
"But surely," she exclaimed, "there is no difficulty about getting money--if people only understand."
He watched her for a moment in silence--suddenly appreciating the refinement, the costly elegance which seemed in itself to be a part of the girl, and yet for which surely her toilette was in some way also responsible. Her white satin dress was cut and fashioned in a style which he was beginning to appreciate as evidence of skill and costliness. A string of pearls around her throat gleamed softly in the firelight. A chain of fine gold studded with opals and diamonds reached almost to her knees. She wore few rings indeed, but they were such rings as he had never seen before he had come as a guest to Enton. And there were thousands like her. A momentary flash of thought carried him back to the days of the French Revolution. There was a print hanging in his room of a girl as fair and as proud as this one, surrounded by a fierce rabble mad with hunger and the pent-up rage of generations, tearing the jewels from her fingers, tearing even, he thought, the trimming from her gown.
"You do not answer me, Mr. Brooks," she reminded him.
He recovered himself with a start.
"I beg your pardon, Lady Sybil. Your question set me thinking. We have tried to make people understand, and many have given most generously, but for all that we cannot cope with such distress as there is to-day in Medchester. I am secretary for one of the distribution societies, and I have seen things which are enough to sadden a man for life, only during the last few days."
"You have seen people--really hungry?" she asked, with something like timidity in her face.
He laughed bitterly.
"That we see every moment of the time we spend down amongst them," he answered. "I have seen worse things. I have seen the sapping away of character--men become thieves and women worse--to escape from starvation. That, I think, is the greatest tragedy of all. It makes one shudder when one thinks that on the shoulders of many people some portion of the responsibility at any rate for these things must rest."
Her lips quivered. She emptied the contents of a gold chain purse into her hands.
"It is we who are wicked, Mr. Brooks," she said, "who spend no end of money and close our ears to all this. Do take this, will you; can it go to some of the women you know, and the children? There are only five or six pounds there, but I shall talk to mamma. We will send you a cheque."
He took the money without hesitation.
"I am very glad," he said, earnestly, "that you have given me this, that you have felt that you wanted to give it me. I hope you won't think too badly of me for coming over here to help you spend a pleasant evening, and talking at all of such miserable things."
"Badly!" she repeated. "No; I shall never be able to thank you enough for telling me what you have done. It makes one feel almost wicked to be sitting here, and wearing jewelry, and feeling well off, spending money on whatever you want, and to think that there are people starving. How they must hate us."
"It is the wonderful part of it," he answered. "I do not believe that they do. I suppose it is a sort of fatalism--the same sort of thing, only much less ignoble, as the indifference which keeps our rich people contented and deaf to this terribly human cry."
"You are young," she said, looking at him, "to be so much interested in such serious things."
"It is my blood, I suppose," he answered. "My father was a police-court missionary, and my mother the matron of a pauper hospital."
"They are both dead, are they not?" she asked, softly.
"Many years ago," he answered.
Lady Caroom and Lord Arranmore came in together. A certain unusual seriousness in Sybil's face was manifest.
"You two do not seem to have been amusing yourselves," Lady Caroom remarked, giving her hand to Brooks.
"Mr. Brooks has been answering some of my questions about the poor people," Sybil answered, "and it is not an amusing subject."
Lord Arranmore laughed lightly, and there was a touch of scorn in the slight curve of his fine lips and his raised eyebrows. He stood away from the shaded lamplight before a great open fire of cedar logs, and the red glow falling fitfully upon his face seemed to Brooks, watching him with more than usual closeness, to give him something of a Mephistopheles aspect. His evening clothes hung with more than ordinary precision about his long slim body, his black tie and black pearl stud supplied the touch of sombreness so aptly in keeping with the mirthless, bitter smile which still parted his lips.
"You must not take Mr. Brooks too seriously on the subject of the poor people," he said, the mockery of his smile well matched in his tone. "Brooks is an enthusiast--one, I am afraid, of those misguided people who have barred the way to progress for centuries. If only they could be converted!"
Lady Caroom sighed.
"Oh, dear, how enigmatic!" she exclaimed. "Do be a little more explicit."
"Dear lady," he continued, turning to her, "it is not worth while. Yet I sometimes wonder whether people realize how much harm this hysterical philanthropy--this purely sentimental faddism, does; how it retards the natural advance of civilization, throws dust in people's eyes, salves the easy conscience of the rich man, who bargains for immortality with a few strokes of the pen, and finds mischievous occupation for a good many weak minds and parasitical females. Believe me, that all personal charity is a mistake. It is a good deal worse than that. It is a crime."
Sybil rose up, and a little unusual flush had stained her cheeks.
"I still do not understand you in the least, Lord Arranmore," she said. "It seems to me that you are making paradoxical and ridiculous statements, which only bewilder us. Why is charity a crime? That is what I should like to hear you explain."
Lord Arranmore bowed slightly.
"I had no idea," he said, leaning his elbow upon the mantelpiece, "that I was going to be inveigled into a controversy. But, my dear Sybil, I will do my best to explain to you what I mean, especially as at your age you are not likely to discover the truth for yourself. In the first place, charity of any sort is the most insidious destroyer of moral character which the world has ever known. The man who once accepts it, even in extremes, imbibes a poison from which his system can never be thoroughly cleansed. You let him loose upon society, and the evil which you have sown in him spreads. He is like a man with an infectious disease. He is a source of evil to the community. You have relieved a physical want, and you have destroyed a moral quality. I do not need to point out to you that the balance is on the wrong side."
Sybil glanced across at Brooks, and he smiled back at her.
"Lord Arranmore has not finished yet," he said. "Let us hear the worst."
Their host smiled.
"After all," he said, "why do I waste my breath? From the teens to the thirties sentiment smiles. It is only later on in life that reason has any show at all. Yet you should ask yourselves, you eager self-denying young people, who go about with a healthy moral glow inside because you have fed the poor, or given an hour or so of your time to the distribution of reckless charity-you should ask yourselves: What is the actual good of ministering to the outward signs of an internal disease? You are simply trying to renovate the outside when the inside is filthy. Don't you see, my dear young people, that to give a meal to one starving man may be to do him indeed good, but it does nothing towards preventing another starving man from taking his place to-morrow. You stimulate the disease, you help it to spread. Don't you see where instead you should turn--to the social laws, the outcome of which is that starving man? You let them remain unharmed, untouched, while you fall over one another in frantic efforts to brush away to-day's effect of an eternal cause. Let your starving man die, let the bones break through his skin and carry him up--him and his wife and their children, and their fellows--to your House of Commons. Tell them that there are more to-morrow, more the next day, let the millions of the lower classes look this thing in the face. I tell you that either by a revolution, which no doubt some of us would find worse than inconvenient, or by less drastic means, the thing would right itself. You, who work to relieve the individual, only postpone and delay the millennium. People will keep their eyes closed as long as they can. It is you who help them to do so."
"Dinner is served, my lord," the butler announced.
Lord Arranmore extended his arm to Lady Caroom.
"Come," he said, "let us all be charitable to one another, for I too am starving."
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