Grant Allen: War and blood money
From Philistia (1884)
‘But, Mr. Le Breton,’ Edie said, turning towards the path and drying her eyes quickly, ‘I really don’t think you ought to marry me. The difference in station is so great – even Harry would allow the difference in station. Your father was a great man, and a general and a knight, you know; and though my dear father is the best and kindest of men, he isn’t anything of that sort, of course.’
A slight shade of pain passed across Ernest’s face. ‘Edie,’ he said, ‘please don’t talk about that – please don’t. My father was a just and good man, whom I loved and honoured deeply; if there’s anything good in any of us boys, it comes to us from my dear father. But please don’t speak to me about his profession. It’s one of the griefs and troubles of my life. He was a soldier, and an Indian soldier too; and if there’s anything more certain to me than the principle that all fighting is very wrong and indefensible, it’s the principle that our rule in India is utterly unjust and wicked. So instead of being proud of my father’s profession, much as I respected him, I’m profoundly ashamed of it; and it has been a great question to me always how far I was justified at all in living upon the pension given me for his Indian services.’
‘Sit down, Le Breton,’ Mr. Lancaster said slowly when Ernest entered. ‘The matter I want to see you about’s a very peculiar one. I understand from some of my friends that you’re a son of Sir Owen Le Breton, the Indian general.’
‘Yes, I am,’ Ernest answered, wondering within himself to what end this curious preamble could possibly be leading up. If there’s any one profession, he thought, which is absolutely free from the slightest genealogical interest in the persons of its professors, surely that particular calling ought to be the profession of journalism.
‘Well, so I hear, Le Breton. Now, I believe I’m right in saying, am I not, that it was your father who first subdued and organised a certain refractory hill-tribe on the Tibetan frontier, known as the Bodahls, wasn’t it?’
It was a terrible memorable night, that awful Tuesday; the coldest night known for many years in any English winter. Snow lay deep upon the ground, and a few flakes were falling still from the cloudy sky, for it was in the second week of January. The wind was drifting it in gusty eddies down the long streets, and driving the drifts before it like whirling dust in an August storm. Not a cab was to be seen anywhere, not even a stray hansom crawling home from clubs or theatres; and Ernest set out with a rueful countenance to walk as best he might alone through the snow all the way to Holloway. It is a long and dreary trudge at any time; it seemed very long and dreary indeed to Ernest Le Breton, with his delicate frame and weak chest, battling against the fierce wind on a dark and snowy winter’s night, and with the fever of a great anxiety and a great remorse silently torturing his distracted bosom. At each step he took through the snow, he almost fancied himself a hunted Bodahl. Would British soldiers drive those poor savage women and children to die so of cold and hunger on their snowy hilltops? Would English fathers and mothers, at home at their ease, applaud the act with careless thoughtlessness as a piece of our famous spirited foreign policy? And would his own article, written with his own poor thin cold fingers in that day’s ‘Morning Intelligence,’ help to spur them on upon that wicked and unnecessary war? What right had we to conquer the Bodahls? What right had we to hold them in subjection or to punish them for revolting? And above all, what right had he, Ernest Le Breton, upon whose head the hereditary guilt of the first conquest ought properly to have weighed with such personal heaviness – what right had he, of all men, directly or indirectly, to aid or abet the English people in their immoral and inhuman resolve? Oh, God, his sin was worse than theirs; for they sinned, thinking they did justly; but as for him, he sinned against the light; he knew the better, and, bribed by gold, he did the worse. At that moment, the little slip of printed paper in his waistcoat pocket seemed to burn through all the frosts of that awful evening like a chain of molten steel into his very marrow…
The first sentence once more told him the worst. There was no doubt at all about it. The three guineas in his pocket were the price of blood!
‘The insult to British prestige in the East,’ ran that terrible opening paragraph, ‘implied in the brief telegram which we publish this morning from our own Correspondent at Simla, calls for a speedy and a severe retribution. It must be washed out in blood.’ Blood, blood, blood! The letters swam before his eyes. It was this, then, that he, the disciple of peace-loving Max Schurz, the hater of war and conquest, the foe of unjust British domination over inferior races – it was this that he had helped to make plausible with his special knowledge and his ready pen! Oh, heaven, what reparation could he make for this horrid crime he had knowingly and wilfully committed? What could he do to avoid the guilt of those poor savages’ blood upon his devoted head? In one moment he thought out a hundred scenes of massacre and pillage – scenes such as he knew only too well always precede and accompany the blessings of British rule in distant dependencies. The temptation had been strong – the money had been sorely wanted – there was very little food in the house; but how could he ever have yielded to such a depth of premeditated wickedness! He folded the piece of paper into his pocket once more, and buried his face in his hands for a whole minute…
‘It was a terrible temptation, darling,’ she said softly: ‘a terrible temptation, indeed, and I don’t wonder you gave way to it; but we mustn’t touch the three guineas. As you say rightly, it’s blood-money.’
Ernest drew the cheque slowly from his pocket, and held it hesitatingly a moment in his hand. Edie looked at him curiously.
‘What are you going to do with it, darling?’ she asked in a low voice, as he gazed vacantly at the last dying embers in the little smouldering fireplace.
‘Nothing, Edie dearest,’ Ernest answered huskily, folding it up and putting it away in the drawer by the window. They neither of them dared to look the other in the face, but they bad not the heart to burn it boldly. It was blood-money, to be sure; but three guineas are really so very useful!
Four days later, little Dot was taken with a sudden illness. Ernest and Edie sat watching by her little cradle throughout the night, and saw with heavy hearts that she was rapidly growing feebler. Poor wee soul, they had nothing to keep her for: it would be better, perhaps, if she were gone; and yet, the human heart cannot be stifled by such calm deliverances of practical reason; it WILL let its hot emotions overcome the cold calculations of better and worse supplied it by the unbiassed intellect.
All night long they sat there tearfully, fearing she would not live till morning; and in the early dawn they sent round hastily for a neighbouring doctor. They had no money to pay him with, to be sure; but that didn’t much matter; they could leave it over for the present, and perhaps some day before long Ernest might write another social, and earn an honest three guineas. Anyhow, it was a question of life and death, and they could not help sending for the doctor, whatever difficulty they might afterwards find in paying him.
The doctor came, and looked with the usual professional seriousness at the baby patient. Did they feed her entirely on London milk? he asked doubtfully. Yes, entirely. Ah! then that was the sole root of the entire mischief. She was very dangerously ill, no doubt, and he didn’t know whether he could pull her through anyhow; but if anything would do it, it was a change to goat’s milk. There was a man who sold goat’s milk round the corner. He would show Ernest where to find him.
Ernest looked doubtfully at Edie, and Edie looked back again at Ernest. One thought rose at once in both their minds. They had no money to pay for it with, except – except that dreadful cheque. For four days it had lain, burning a hole in Ernest’s heart from its drawer by the window, and he had not dared to change it. Now he rose without saying a word, and opened the drawer in a solemn, hesitating fashion. He looked once more at Edie inquiringly; Edie nodded a faint approval. Ernest, pale as death, put on his hat, and went out totteringly with the doctor. He stopped on the way to change the cheque at the baker’s where they usually dealt, and then went on to the goat’s milk shop. How that sovereign he flung upon the counter seemed to ring the knell of his seif-respect! The man who changed it noticed the strangeness of Ernest’s look, and knew at once he had not come by the money honestly. He rang it twice to make sure it was good, and then gave the change to Ernest. But Dot, at least, was saved; that was a great thing. The milk arrived duly every morning for some weeks, and, after a severe struggle, Dot grew gradually better. While the danger lasted, neither of them dared think much of the cheque; but when Dot had got quite well again, Ernest was concious of a certain unwonted awkwardness of manner in talking to Edie. He knew perfectly well what it meant; they were both accomplices in crime together.
When Ernest wrote his ‘social’ after Max Schurz’s affair, he felt he had already touched the lowest depths of degradation. He knew now that he had touched a still lower one. Oh! horrible abyss of self-abasement! – he had taken the blood-money. And yet, it was to save Dot’s life! Herbert was right, after all: quite right. Yes, yes, all hope was gone: the environment had finally triumphed.
In the awful self-reproach of that deadly remorse for the acceptance of the blood-money, Ernest Le Breton felt at last in his heart that surely the bitterness of death was past. It would be better for them all to die together than to live on through such a life of shame and misery. Ah, Peter, Peter, you are not the only one that has denied his Lord and Master!
Their own petty round of selfish pleasures from week’s end to week’s end – no thought of anybody else, no thought of the world at large, no thought even of any higher interest in their own personalities. Their politics are just a selfish calculation of their own prospects – land, Church, capital, privilege. Their religion (when they have any) is just a selfish regard for their own personal future welfare. From the time I went to Dunbude to this day, I’ve never heard a single word about any higher thought of any sort – I don’t mean only about the troubles or the aspirations of other people, but even about books, about science, about art, about natural beauty. They live in a world of amusing oneself and of amusing oneself in vulgar fashions – as a born clown would do if he came suddenly into a large fortune. The women are just as bad as the men, only in a different way – not always even that; for most of them think only of the Four-in-hand Club and the pigeon-shooting at Hurlingham – things to sicken one. Now, I’ve known selfish people before, but not selfish people utterly without any tincture of culture.