The Bedford-Row Conspiracy, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER II.

Shows How the Plot Began to Thicken in or About Bedford Row.

“Miss Lucy!”

“Upon my word!”

“I’m hanged if it arn’t Lucy! How do, Lucy?” uttered Lady, the Misses, and Master Gorgon in a breath.

Lucy came forward, bending down her ambrosial curls, and blushing, as a modest young woman should: for, in truth, the scrape was very awkward. And as for John Perkins, he made a start, and then a step forwards, and then two backwards, and then began laying hands upon his black satin stock — in short, the sun did not shine at that moment upon a man who looked so exquisitely foolish.

“Miss Lucy Gorgon, is your aunt — is Mrs. Briggs here?” said Lady Gorgon, drawing herself up with much state.

“Mrs. Biggs, Aunt?” said Lucy demurely.

“Biggs or Briggs, madam, it is not of the slightest consequence. I presume that persons in my rank of life are not expected to know everybody’s name in Magdeburg Square?” (Lady Gorgon had a house in Baker Street, and a dismal house it was.) “NOT here,” continued she, rightly interpreting Lucy’s silence, “NOT here? — and may I ask how long is it that young ladies have been allowed to walk abroad without chaperons, and to — to take a part in such scenes as that which we have just seen acted?”

To this question — and indeed it was rather difficult to answer — Miss Gorgon had no reply. There were the six grey eyes of her cousins glowering at her; there was George Augustus Frederick examining her with an air of extreme wonder, Mademoiselle the governess turning her looks demurely away, and awful Lady Gorgon glancing fiercely at her in front. Not mentioning the footman and poodle, what could a poor modest timid girl plead before such an inquisition, especially when she was clearly guilty? Add to this, that as Lady Gorgon, that majestic woman, always remarkable for her size and insolence of demeanour, had planted herself in the middle of the path, and spoke at the extreme pitch of her voice, many persons walking in the neighbourhood had heard her Ladyship’s speech and stopped, and seemed disposed to await the rejoinder.

“For Heaven’s sake, Aunt, don’t draw a crowd around us,” said Lucy, who, indeed, was glad of the only escape that lay in her power. “I will tell you of the — of the circumstances of — of my engagement with this gentleman — with Mr. Perkins,” added she, in a softer tone — so soft that the ‘ERKINS was quite inaudible.

“A Mr. What? An engagement without consulting your guardians!” screamed her Ladyship. “This must be looked to! Jerningham, call round my carriage. Mademoiselle, you will have the goodness to walk home with Master Gorgon, and carry him, if you please, where there is wet; and, girls, as the day is fine, you will do likewise. Jerningham, you will attend the young ladies. Miss Gorgon, I will thank you to follow me immediately.” And so saying, and looking at the crowd with ineffable scorn, and at Mr. Perkins not at all, the lady bustled away forwards, the files of Gorgon daughters and governess closing round and enveloping poor Lucy, who found herself carried forward against her will, and in a minute seated in her aunt’s coach, along with that tremendous person.

Her case was bad enough, but what was it to Perkins’s? Fancy his blank surprise and rage at having his love thus suddenly ravished from him, and his delicious tete-a-tete interrupted. He managed, in an inconceivably short space of time, to conjure up half-a-million obstacles to his union. What should he do? he would rush on to Baker Street, and wait there until his Lucy left Lady Gorgon’s house.

He could find no vehicle in the Regent’s Park, and was in consequence obliged to make his journey on foot. Of course, he nearly killed himself with running, and ran so quick, that he was just in time to see the two ladies step out of Lady Gorgon’s carriage at her own house, and to hear Jerningham’s fellow-footman roar to the Gorgonian coachman, “Half-past seven!” at which hour we are, to this day, convinced that Lady Gorgon was going out to dine. Mr. Jerningham’s associate having banged to the door, with an insolent look towards Perkins, who was prying in with the most suspicious and indecent curiosity, retired, exclaiming, “That chap has a hi to our great-coats, I reckon!” and left John Perkins to pace the street and be miserable.

John Perkins then walked resolutely up and down dismal Baker Street, determined on an eclaircissement. He was for some time occupied in thinking how it was that the Gorgons were not at church, they who made such a parade of piety; and John Perkins smiled as he passed the chapel, and saw that two CHARITY SERMONS were to be preached that day — and therefore it was that General Gorgon read prayers to his family at home in the morning.

Perkins, at last, saw that little General, in blue frock-coat and spotless buff gloves, saunter scowling home; and half an hour before his arrival had witnessed the entrance of Jerningham, and the three gaunt Miss Gorgons, poodle, son-and-heir, and French governess, protected by him, into Sir George’s mansion.

“Can she be going to stay all night?” mused poor John, after being on the watch for three hours: when presently, to his inexpressible delight, he saw a very dirty hackney-coach clatter up to the Gorgon door, out of which first issued the ruby plush breeches and stalwart calves of Mr. Jerningham; these were followed by his body, and then the gentleman, ringing modestly, was admitted.

Again the door opened: a lady came out, nor was she followed by the footman, who crossed his legs at the door-post and allowed her to mount the jingling vehicle as best she might. Mr. Jerningham had witnessed the scene in the Park Gardens, had listened to the altercation through the library keyhole, and had been mighty sulky at being ordered to call a coach for this young woman. He did not therefore deign to assist her to mount.

But there was ONE who did! Perkins was by the side of his Lucy: he had seen her start back and cry, “La, John!”— had felt her squeeze his arm — had mounted with her into the coach, and then shouted with a voice of thunder to the coachman, “Caroline Place, Mecklenburgh Square.”

But Mr. Jerningham would have been much more surprised and puzzled if he had waited one minute longer, and seen this Mr. Perkins, who had so gallantly escaladed the hackney-coach, step out of it with the most mortified, miserable, chap-fallen countenance possible.

The fact is, he had found poor Lucy sobbing fit to break her heart, and instead of consoling her, as he expected, he only seemed to irritate her further: for she said, “Mr. Perkins — I beg — I insist, that you leave the carriage.” And when Perkins made some movement (which, not being in the vehicle at the time, we have never been able to comprehend), she suddenly sprang from the back-seat and began pulling at a large piece of cord which communicated with the wrist of the gentleman driving; and, screaming to him at the top of her voice, bade him immediately stop.

This Mr. Coachman did, with a curious, puzzled, grinning air.

Perkins descended, and on being asked, “Vere ham I to drive the young ‘oman, sir?” I am sorry to say muttered something like an oath, and uttered the above-mentioned words, “Caroline Place, Mecklenburgh Square,” in a tone which I should be inclined to describe as both dogged and sheepish — very different from that cheery voice which he had used when he first gave the order.

Poor Lucy, in the course of those fatal three hours which had passed while Mr. Perkins was pacing up and down Baker Street, had received a lecture which lasted exactly one hundred and eighty minutes — from her aunt first, then from her uncle, whom we have seen marching homewards, and often from both together.

Sir George Gorgon and his lady poured out such a flood of advice and abuse against the poor girl, that she came away from the interview quite timid and cowering; and when she saw John Perkins (the sly rogue! how well he thought he had managed the trick!) she shrank from him as if he had been a demon of wickedness, ordered him out of the carriage, and went home by herself, convinced that she had committed some tremendous sin.

While, then, her coach jingled away to Caroline Place, Perkins, once more alone, bent his steps in the same direction. A desperate, heart-stricken man, he passed by the beloved’s door, saw lights in the front drawing-room, felt probably that she was there; but he could not go in. Moodily he paced down Doughty Street, and turning abruptly into Bedford Row, rushed into his own chambers, where Mrs. Snooks, the laundress, had prepared his humble Sabbath meal.

A cheerful fire blazed in his garret, and Mrs. Snooks had prepared for him the favourite blade-bone he loved (blest four-days’ dinner for a bachelor — roast, cold, hashed, grilled bladebone, the fourth being better than the first); but although he usually did rejoice in this meal — ordinarily, indeed, grumbling that there was not enough to satisfy him — he, on this occasion, after two mouthfuls, flung down his knife and fork, and buried his two claws in his hair.

“Snooks,” said he at last, very moodily, “remove this d —— mutton, give me my writing things, and some hot brandy-and-water.”

This was done without much alarm: for you must know that Perkins used to dabble in poetry, and ordinarily prepare himself for composition by this kind of stimulus.

He wrote hastily a few lines.

“Snooks, put on your bonnet,” said he, “and carry this — YOU KNOW WHERE!” he added, in a hollow, heart-breaking tone of voice, that affected poor Snooks almost to tears. She went, however, with the note, which was to this purpose:—

“Lucy! Lucy! my soul’s love — what, what has happened? I am writing this”—(a gulp of brandy-and-water)—“in a state bordering on distraction — madness — insanity”(another). “Why did you send me out of the coach in that cruel cruel way? Write to me a word, a line — tell me, tell me, I may come to you — and leave me not in this agonising condition; your faithful”(glog — glog — glog — the whole glass)—

“J.P.”

He never signed John Perkins in full — he couldn’t, it was so unromantic.

Well, this missive was despatched by Mrs. Snooks, and Perkins, in a fearful state of excitement, haggard, wild, and with more brandy-and-water, awaited the return of his messenger.

When at length, after about an absence of forty years, as it seemed to him, the old lady returned with a large packet, Perkins seized it with a trembling hand, and was yet more frightened to see the handwriting of Mrs. or Miss Biggs.

“MY DEAR MR. PERKINS,” she began —“Although I am not your soul’s adored, I performed her part for once, since I have read your letter, as I told her. You need not be very much alarmed, although Lucy is at this moment in bed and unwell: for the poor girl has had a sad scene at her grand uncle’s house in Baker Street, and came home very much affected. Rest, however, will restore her, for she is not one of your nervous sort; and I hope when you come in the morning, you will see her as blooming as she was when you went out today on that unlucky walk.

“See what Sir George Gorgon says of us all! You won’t challenge him, I know, as he is to be your uncle, and so I may show you his letter.

“Good-night, my dear John. Do not go QUITE distracted before morning; and believe me your loving aunt,

“JEMIMA BIGGS.”

“41 BAKER STREET: 11th December.

“MAJOR-GENERAL SIR GEORGE GORGON has heard with the utmost disgust and surprise of the engagement which Miss Lucy Gorgon has thought fit to form.

“The Major-General cannot conceal his indignation at the share which Miss Biggs has taken in this disgraceful transaction.

“Sir George Gorgon puts an absolute veto upon all further communication between his niece and the low-born adventurer who has been admitted into her society, and begs to say that Lieutenant Fitch, of the Lifeguards, is the gentleman who he intends shall marry Miss Gorgon.

“It is the Major-General’s wish, that on the 28th Miss Gorgon should be ready to come to his house, in Baker Street, where she will be more safe from impertinent intrusions than she has been in Mucklebury Square.

“MRS. BIGGS,
“Caroline Place,
“Mecklenburgh Square.”

When poor John Perkins read this epistle, blank rage and wonder filled his soul, at the audacity of the little General, who thus, without the smallest title in the world, pretended to dispose of the hand and fortune of his niece. The fact is, that Sir George had such a transcendent notion of his own dignity and station, that it never for a moment entered his head that his niece, or anybody else connected with him, should take a single step in life without previously receiving his orders; and Mr. Fitch, a baronet’s son, having expressed an admiration of Lucy, Sir George had determined that his suit should be accepted, and really considered Lucy’s preference of another as downright treason.

John Perkins determined on the death of Fitch as the very least reparation that should satisfy him; and vowed too that some of the General’s blood should be shed for the words which he had dared to utter.

We have said that William Pitt Scully, Esquire, M.P., occupied the first floor of Mr. Perkins’s house in Bedford Row: and the reader is further to be informed that an immense friendship had sprung up between these two gentlemen. The fact is, that poor John was very much flattered by Scully’s notice, and began in a very short time to fancy himself a political personage; for he had made several of Scully’s speeches, written more than one letter from him to his constituents, and, in a word, acted as his gratis clerk. At least a guinea a week did Mr. Perkins save to the pockets of Mr. Scully, and with hearty good will too, for he adored the great William Pitt, and believed every word that dropped from the pompous lips of that gentleman.

Well, after having discussed Sir George Gorgon’s letter, poor Perkins, in the utmost fury of mind that his darling should be slandered so, feeling a desire for fresh air, determined to descend to the garden and smoke a cigar in that rural quiet spot. The night was very calm. The moonbeams slept softly upon the herbage of Gray’s Inn gardens, and bathed with silver splendour Theobald’s Row. A million of little frisky twinkling stars attended their queen, who looked with bland round face upon their gambols, as they peeped in and out from the azure heavens. Along Gray’s Inn wall a lazy row of cabs stood listlessly, for who would call a cab on such a night? Meanwhile their drivers, at the alehouse near, smoked the short pipe or quaffed the foaming beer. Perhaps from Gray’s Inn Lane some broken sounds of Irish revelry might rise. Issuing perhaps from Raymond Buildings gate, six lawyers’ clerks might whoop a tipsy song — or the loud watchman yell the passing hour; but beyond this all was silence; and young Perkins, as he sat in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden, and contemplated the peaceful heaven, felt some influences of it entering into his soul, and almost forgetting revenge, thought but of peace and love.

Presently, he was aware there was someone else pacing the garden. Who could it be? — Not Blatherwick, for he passed the Sabbath with his grandmamma at Clapham; not Scully surely, for he always went to Bethesda Chapel, and to a select prayer-meeting afterwards. Alas! it WAS Scully; for though that gentleman SAID that he went to chapel, we have it for a fact that he did not always keep his promise, and was at this moment employed in rehearsing an extempore speech, which he proposed to deliver at St. Stephen’s.

“Had I, sir,” spouted he, with folded arms, slowly pacing to and fro —“Had I, sir, entertained the smallest possible intention of addressing the House on the present occasion — hum, on the present occasion — I would have endeavoured to prepare myself in a way that should have at least shown my sense of the greatness of the subject before the House’s consideration, and the nature of the distinguished audience I have the honour to address. I am, sir, a plain man — born of the people — myself one of the people, having won, thank Heaven, an honourable fortune and position by my own honest labour; and standing here as I do —”

* * *

Here Mr. Scully (it may be said that he never made a speech without bragging about himself: and an excellent plan it is, for people cannot help believing you at last)— here, I say, Mr. Scully, who had one arm raised, felt himself suddenly tipped on the shoulder, and heard a voice saying, “Your money or your life!”

The honourable gentleman twirled round as if he had been shot; the papers on which a great part of this impromptu was written dropped from his lifted hand, and some of them were actually borne on the air into neighbouring gardens. The man was, in fact, in the direst fright.

“It’s only I,” said Perkins, with rather a forced laugh, when he saw the effect that his wit had produced.

“Only you! And pray what the dev — what right have you to — to come upon a man of my rank in that way, and disturb me in the midst of very important meditations?” asked Mr. Scully, beginning to grow fierce.

“I want your advice,” said Perkins, “on a matter of the very greatest importance to me. You know my idea of marrying?”

“Marry!” said Scully; “I thought you had given up that silly scheme. And how, pray, do you intend to live?”

“Why, my intended has a couple of hundreds a year, and my clerkship in the Tape and Sealing-Wax Office will be as much more.”

“Clerkship — Tape and Sealing-Wax Office — Government sinecure! — Why, good heavens! John Perkins, you don’t tell ME that you are going to accept any such thing?”

“It is a very small salary, certainly,” said John, who had a decent notion of his own merits; “but consider, six months vacation, two hours in the day, and those spent over the newspapers. After all, it’s —”

“After all it’s a swindle,” roared out Mr. Scully —“a swindle upon the country; an infamous tax upon the people, who starve that you may fatten in idleness. But take this clerkship in the Tape and Sealing-Wax Office,” continued the patriot, his bosom heaving with noble indignation, and his eye flashing the purest fire — “TAKE this clerkship, John Perkins, and sanction tyranny, by becoming one of its agents; sanction dishonesty by sharing in its plunder — do this, BUT never more be friend of mine. Had I a child,” said the patriot, clasping his hands and raising his eyes to heaven, “I would rather see him dead, sir — dead, dead at my feet, than the servant of a Government which all honest men despise.” And here, giving a searching glance at Perkins, Mr. Scully began tramping up and down the garden in a perfect fury.

“Good heavens!” exclaimed the timid John Perkins —“don’t say SO. My dear Mr. Scully, I’m not the dishonest character you suppose me to be — I never looked at the matter in this light. I’ll — I’ll consider of it. I’ll tell Crampton that I will give up the place; but for Heaven’s sake, don’t let me forfeit YOUR friendship, which is dearer to me than any place in the world.”

Mr. Scully pressed his hand, and said nothing; and though their interview lasted a full half-hour longer, during which they paced up and down the gravel walk, we shall not breathe a single syllable of their conversation, as it has nothing to do with our tale.

The next morning, after an interview with Miss Lucy, John Perkins, Esquire, was seen to issue from Mrs. Biggs’s house, looking particularly pale, melancholy, and thoughtful; and he did not stop until he reached a certain door in Downing Street, where was the office of a certain great Minister, and the offices of the clerks in his Lordship’s department.

The head of them was Mr. Josiah Crampton, who has now to be introduced to the public. He was a little old gentleman, some sixty years of age, maternal uncle to John Perkins; a bachelor, who had been about forty-two years employed in the department of which he was now the head.

After waiting four hours in an ante-room, where a number of Irishmen, some newspaper editors, many pompous-looking political personages asking for the “first lord,” a few sauntering clerks, and numbers of swift active messengers passed to and fro; — after waiting for four hours, making drawings on the blotting-book, and reading the Morning Post for that day week, Mr. Perkins was informed that he might go into his uncle’s room, and did so accordingly.

He found a little hard old gentleman seated at a table covered with every variety of sealing-wax, blotting-paper, envelopes, despatch-boxes, green tapers, etc. etc. An immense fire was blazing in the grate, an immense sheet-almanack hung over that, a screen, three or four chairs, and a faded Turkey carpet, formed the rest of the furniture of this remarkable room — which I have described thus particularly, because in the course of a long official life, I have remarked that such is the invariable decoration of political rooms.

“Well, John,” said the little hard old gentleman, pointing to an arm-chair, “I’m told you’ve been here since eleven. Why the deuce do you come so early?”

“I had important business,” answered Mr. Perkins, stoutly; and as his uncle looked up with a comical expression of wonder, John began in a solemn tone to deliver a little speech which he had composed, and which proved him to be a very worthy, easy, silly fellow.

“Sir,” said Mr. Perkins, “you have known for some time past the nature of my political opinions, and the intimacy which I have had the honour to form with one — with some of the leading members of the Liberal party.” (A grin from Mr. Crampton.) “When first, by your kindness, I was promised the clerkship in the Tape and Sealing-Wax Office, my opinions were not formed as they are now; and having taken the advice of the gentlemen with whom I act,”—(an enormous grin)—“the advice, I say, of the gentlemen with whom I act, and the counsel likewise of my own conscience, I am compelled, with the deepest grief, to say, my dear uncle, that I— I—”

“That you — what, sir?” exclaimed little Mr. Crampton, bouncing off his chair. “You don’t mean to say that you are such a fool as to decline the place?”

“I do decline the place,” said Perkins, whose blood rose at the word “fool.” “As a man of honour, I cannot take it.”

“Not take it! and how are you to live? On the rent of that house of yours? For, by gad, sir, if you give up the clerkship, I never will give you a shilling.”

“It cannot be helped,” said Mr. Perkins, looking as much like a martyr as he possibly could, and thinking himself a very fine fellow. “I have talents, sir, which I hope to cultivate; and am member of a profession by which a man may hope to rise to the very highest offices of the State.”

“Profession, talents, offices of the State! Are you mad, John Perkins, that you come to me with such insufferable twaddle as this? Why, do you think if you HAD been capable of rising at the bar, I would have taken so much trouble about getting you a place? No, sir; you are too fond of pleasure, and bed, and tea-parties, and small-talk, and reading novels, and playing the flute, and writing sonnets. You would no more rise at the bar than my messenger, sir. It was because I knew your disposition — that hopeless, careless, irresolute good-humour of yours — that I had determined to keep you out of danger, by placing you in a snug shelter, where the storms of the world would not come near you. You must have principles forsooth! and you must marry Miss Gorgon, of course: and by the time you have gone ten circuits, and had six children, you will have eaten up every shilling of your wife’s fortune, and be as briefless as you are now. Who the deuce has put all this nonsense into your head? I think I know.”

Mr. Perkins’s ears tingled as these hard words saluted them; and he scarcely knew whether he ought to knock his uncle down, or fall at his feet and say, “Uncle, I have been a, fool, and I know it.” The fact is, that in his interview with Miss Gorgon and her aunt in the morning, when he came to tell them of the resolution he had formed to give up the place, both the ladies and John himself had agreed, with a thousand rapturous tears and exclamations, that he was one of the noblest young men that ever lived, had acted as became himself, and might with perfect propriety give up the place, his talents being so prodigious that no power on earth could hinder him from being Lord Chancellor. Indeed, John and Lucy had always thought the clerkship quite beneath him, and were not a little glad, perhaps, at finding a pretext for decently refusing it. But as Perkins was a young gentleman whose candour was such that he was always swayed by the opinions of the last speaker, he did begin to feel now the truth of his uncle’s statements, however disagreeable they might be.

Mr. Crampton continued:—

“I think I know the cause of your patriotism. Has not William Pitt Scully, Esquire, had something to do with it?”

Mr. Perkins COULD not turn any redder than he was, but confessed with deep humiliation that “he HAD consulted Mr. Scully among other friends.”

Mr. Crampton smiled — drew a letter from a heap before him, and tearing off the signature, handed over the document to his nephew. It contained the following paragraphs:—

“Hawksby has sounded Scully: we can have him any day we want him. He talks very big at present, and says he would not take anything under a . . . This is absurd. He has a Yorkshire nephew coming up to town, and wants a place for him. There is one vacant in the Tape Office, he says: have you not a promise of it?”

“I can’t — I can’t believe it,” said John; “this, sir, is some weak invention of the enemy. Scully is the most honourable man breathing.”

“Mr. Scully is a gentleman in a very fair way to make a fortune,” answered Mr. Crampton. “Look you, John — it is just as well for your sake that I should give you the news a few weeks before the papers, for I don’t want you to be ruined, if I can help it, as I don’t wish to have you on my hands. We know all the particulars of Scully’s history. He was a Tory attorney at Oldborough; he was jilted by the present Lady Gorgon, turned Radical, and fought Sir George in his own borough. Sir George would have had the peerage he is dying for, had he not lost that second seat (by-the-by, my Lady will be here in five minutes), and Scully is now quite firm there. Well, my dear lad, we have bought your incorruptible Scully. Look here,”— and Mr. Crampton produced three Morning Posts.

“‘THE HONOURABLE HENRY HAWKSBY’S DINNER-PARTY. — Lord So-and-So — Duke of So-and-So — W. Pitt Scully, Esq. M.P.’

“Hawksby is our neutral, our dinner-giver.

“‘LADY DIANA DOLDRUM’S ROUT. — W. Pitt Scully, Esq,’ again.

“‘THE EARL OF MANTRAP’S GRAND DINNER.’— A Duke — four Lords —‘Mr. Scully, and Sir George Gorgon.’”

“Well, but I don’t see how you have bought him; look at his votes.”

“My dear John,” said Mr. Crampton, jingling his watch-seals very complacently, “I am letting you into fearful secrets. The great common end of party is to buy your opponents — the great statesman buys them for nothing.”

Here the attendant genius of Mr. Crampton made his appearance, and whispered something, to which the little gentleman said, “Show her Ladyship in,”— when the attendant disappeared.

“John,” said Mr. Crampton, with a very queer smile, “you can’t stay in this room while Lady Gorgon is with me; but there is a little clerk’s room behind the screen there, where you can wait until I call you.”

John retired, and as he closed the door of communication, strange to say, little Mr. Crampton sprang up and said, “Confound the young ninny, he has shut the door!”

Mr. Crampton then, remembering that he wanted a map in the next room, sprang into it, left the door half open in coming out, and was in time to receive Her Ladyship with smiling face as she, ushered by Mr. Strongitharm, majestically sailed in.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07