The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXVIII

The Board

Crosbie, as we already know, went to his office in Whitehall on the morning after his escape from Sebright’s, at which establishment he left the Squire of Allington in conference with Fowler Pratt. He had seen Fowler Pratt again that same night, and the course of the story will have shown what took place at that interview.

He went early to his office, knowing that he had before him the work of writing two letters, neither of which would run very glibly from his pen. One was to be his missive to the squire, to be delivered by his friend; the other, that fatal epistle to poor Lily, which, as the day passed away, he found himself utterly unable to accomplish. The letter to the squire he did write, under certain threats; and, as we have seen, was considered to have degraded himself to the vermin rank of humanity by the meanness of his production.

But on reaching his office he found that other cares awaited him — cares which he would have taken much delight in bearing, had the state of his mind enabled him to take delight in anything. On entering the lobby of his office, at ten o’clock, he became aware that he was received by the messengers assembled there with almost more than their usual deference. He was always a great man at the General Committee Office; but there are shades of greatness and shades of deference, which, though quite beyond the powers of definition, nevertheless manifest themselves clearly to the experienced ear and eye. He walked through to his own apartment, and there found two official letters addressed to him lying on his table. The first which came to hand, though official, was small, and marked private, and it was addressed in the handwriting of his old friend, Butterwell, the outgoing secretary.

“I shall see you in the morning, nearly as soon as you get this,” said the semi-official note; “but I must be the first to congratulate you on the acquisition of my old shoes. They will be very easy in the wearing to you, though they pinched my corns a little at first. I dare say they want new soling, and perhaps they are a little down at the heels; but you will find some excellent cobbler to make them all right, and will give them a grace in the wearing which they have sadly lacked since they came into my possession. I wish you much joy with them,” etc., etc. He then opened the larger official letter, but that had now but little interest for him. He could have made a copy of the contents without seeing them. The Board of Commissioners had had great pleasure in promoting him to the office of secretary, vacated by the promotion of Mr Butterwell to a seat at their own Board; and then the letter was signed by Mr Butterwell himself.

How delightful to him would have been this welcome on his return to his office had his heart in other respects been free from care! And as he thought of this, he remembered all Lily’s charms. He told himself how much she excelled the noble scion of the De Courcy stock, with whom he was now destined to mate himself; how the bride he had rejected excelled the one he had chosen in grace, beauty, faith, freshness, and all feminine virtues. If he could only wipe out the last fortnight from the facts of his existence! But fortnights such as those are not to be wiped out — not even with many sorrowful years of tedious scrubbing.

And at this moment it seemed to him as though all those impediments which had frightened him when he had thought of marrying Lily Dale were withdrawn. That which would have been terrible with seven or eight hundred a year, would have been made delightful with twelve or thirteen. Why had his fate been so unkind to him? Why had not this promotion come to him but one fortnight earlier? Why had it not been declared before he had made his visit to that terrible castle?’ He even said to himself that if he had positively known the fact before Pratt had seen Mr Dale, he would have sent a different message to the squire, and would have braved the anger of all the race of the De Courcys. But in that he lied to himself, and he knew that he did so. An earl, in his imagination, was hedged by so strong a divinity, that his treason towards Alexandrina could do no more than peep at what it would. It had been considered but little by him, when the: project first offered itself to his mind, to jilt the niece of a small rural squire; but it was not in him to jilt the daughter of a countess.

That house full of babies’ in St. John’s Wood appeared to him now under a very different guise from that which it wore as he sat in his room at Courcy Castle on the evening of his arrival there. Then such an establishment had to him the flavour of a graveyard. It was as though he were going to bury himself alive. Now that it was out of his reach, he thought of it as a paradise upon earth. And then he considered what sort of a paradise Lady Alexandrina would make for him. It was astonishing how ugly was the Lady Alexandrina, how old, how graceless, how destitute of all pleasant charm, seen through the spectacles which he wore at the present moment.

During his first hour at the office he did nothing. One or two of the younger clerks came in and congratulated him with much heartiness. He was popular at his office, and they had got a step by his promotion. Then he met, one or two of the elder clerks, and was congratulated with much less heartiness.

“I suppose it’s all right,” said one bluff old gentleman. “My time is gone by, I know. I married too early to be able to wear a good coat when I was young, and I never was acquainted with any lords or lords’ families.” The sting of this was the sharper because Crosbie had begun to feel how absolutely useless to him had been all that high interest and noble connection which he had formed. He had really been promoted because he knew more about his work than any of the other men, and Lady de Courcy’s influential relation at the India Board had not yet even had time to write a note upon the subject.

At eleven Mr Butterwell came into Crosbie’s room, and the new secretary was forced to clothe himself in smiles. Mr Butterwell was a pleasant, handsome man of about fifty, who had never yet set the Thames on fire, and had never attempted to do so. He was perhaps a little more civil to great men and a little more patronising to those below him than he would have been had he been perfect. But there was something frank and English even in his mode of bowing before the mighty ones, and to those who were not mighty he was rather too civil than either stern or supercilious. He knew that he was not very clever, but he knew also how to use those who were clever. He seldom made any mistake, and was very scrupulous not to tread on men’s corns. Though he had no enemies, yet he had a friend or two; and we may therefore say of Mr Butterwell that he had walked his path in life discreetly. At the age of thirty-five he had married a lady with some little fortune, and now he lived a pleasant, easy, smiling life in a villa at Putney. When Mr Butterwell heard, as he often did hear, of the difficulty which an English gentleman has of earning his bread in his own country, he was wont to look back on his own career with some complacency. He knew that he had not given the world much; yet he had received largely, and no one had begrudged it to him.

“Tact,” Mr Butterwell used to say to himself, as he walked along the paths of his Putney villa. “Tact. Tact. Tact.”

“Crosbie,” he said, as he entered the room cheerily, “I congratulate you with all my heart. I do, indeed. You have got the step early in life, and you deserve it thoroughly — much better than I did when I was appointed to the same office.”

“Oh, no,” said Crosbie, gloomily.

“But I say, Oh, yes. We are deuced lucky to have such a man, and so I told the commissioners.”

“I’m sure I’m very much obliged to you.”

“I’ve known it all along — before you left even. Sir Raffle Buffle had told me he was to go to the Income-tax Office. The chair is two thousand there, you know; and I had been promised the first seat at the Board.”

“Ah — I wish I’d known,” said Crosbie.

“You are much better as you are,” said Butterwell.

“There’s no pleasure like a surprise! Besides, one knows a thing of that kind, and yet doesn’t know it. I don’t mind saying now that I knew it — swearing that I knew it — but I wouldn’t have said so to a living being the day before yesterday. There are such slips between the cups and the lips. Suppose Sir Raffle had not gone to the Income Tax!”

“Exactly so,” said Crosbie.

“But it’s all right now. Indeed I sat at the Board yesterday, though I signed the letter afterwards. I’m not sure that I don’t lose more than I gain.”

“What! with three hundred a year more and less work?”

“Ah, but look at the interest of the thing. The secretary sees everything and knows everything. But I’m getting old, and, as you say, the lighter work will suit me. By-the-by, will you come down to Putney tomorrow? Mrs Butterwell will be delighted to see the new secretary. There’s nobody in town now, so you can have no ground for refusing.”

But Mr Crosbie did find some ground for refusing. It would have been impossible for him to have sat and smiled at Mrs Butterwell’s table in his present frame of mind. In a mysterious, half-explanatory manner, he let Mr Butterwell know that private affairs of importance made it absolutely necessary that he should remain that evening in town.

“And indeed,” as he said, “he was not his own master just at present.”

“By-the-by — of course not. I had quite forgotten to congratulate you on that head. So you’re going to be married? Well; I’m very glad, and hope you’ll be as lucky as I have been.”

“Thank you,” said Crosbie, again rather gloomily.

“A young lady from near Guestwick, isn’t it; or somewhere in those parts?”

“N-no,” stammered Crosbie. “The lady comes from Barsetshire.”

“Why, I heard the name. Isn’t she a Bell, or Tait, or Ball, or some such name as that?”

“No.” said Crosbie, assuming what boldness he could command. “Her name is De Courcy.”

“One of the earl’s daughters?”

“Yes,” said Crosbie.

“Oh. I beg your pardon. I’d heard wrong. You’re going to be allied to a very noble family, and I am heartily glad to hear of your success in life.” Then Butterwell shook him very cordially by the hand — having offered him no such special testimony of approval when under the belief that he was going to marry a Bell, a Tait, or a Ball. All the same, Mr Butterwell began to think that there was something wrong. He had heard from an indubitable source that Crosbie had engaged himself to a niece of a squire with whom he had been staying near Guestwick — a girl without any money; and Mr Butterwell, in his wisdom, had thought his friend Crosbie to be rather a fool for his pains. But now he was going to marry one of the De Courcys! Mr Butterwell was rather at his wits’ ends.

“Well; we shall be sitting at two, you know, and of course you’ll come to us. If you’re at leisure before that I’ll make over what papers I have to you. I’ve not been a Lord Eldon in my office, and they won’t break your back.”

Immediately after that Fowler Pratt had been shown into Crosbie’s room, and Crosbie had written the letter to the squire under Pratt’s eye.

He could take no joy in his promotion. When Pratt left him he tried to lighten his heart. He endeavoured to throw Lily and her wrongs behind him, and fix his thoughts on his advancing successes in life; but he could not do it. A self-imposed trouble will not allow itself to be banished. If a man lose a thousand pounds by a friend’s fault, or by a turn in the wheel of fortune, he can, if he be a man, put his grief down and trample it under foot; he can exercise the spirit of his grievance, and bid the evil one depart from out of his house. But such exorcism is not to be used when the sorrow has come from a man’s own folly and sin — especially not if it has come from his own selfishness. Such are the cases which make men drink; which drive them on to the avoidance of all thought; which create gamblers and reckless prodigals; which are the promoters of suicide. How could he avoid writing this letter to Lily? He might blow his brains out, and so let there be an end of it all. It was to such reflections that he came, when he sat himself down endeavouring to reap satisfaction from his promotion.

But Crosbie was not a man to commit suicide. In giving him his due I must protest that he was too good for that. He knew too well that a pistol-bullet could not be the be-all and the end-all here, and there was too much manliness in him for so cowardly an escape. The burden must be borne. But how was he to bear it? There he sat till it was two o’clock, neglecting Mr Butterwell and his office papers, and not stirring from his seat till a messenger summoned him before the Board. The Board, as he entered the room, was not such a Board as the public may, perhaps, imagine such Boards to be. There was a round table, with a few pens lying about, and a comfortable leathern arm-chair at the side of it, farthest from the door Sir Raffle Buffle was leaving his late colleagues, and was standing with his back to the fire-place, talking very loudly. Sir Raffle was a great bully, and the Board was uncommonly glad to be rid of him; but as this was to be his last appearance at the Committee Office, they submitted to his voice meekly. Mr Butterwell was standing close to him, essaying to laugh mildly at Sir Raffle’s jokes. A little man, hardly more than five feet high, with small but honest-looking eyes, and close-cut hair, was standing behind the arm-chair, rubbing his hands together, and longing for the departure of Sir Raffle, in order that he might sit down. This was Mr Optimist, the new chairman, in praise of whose appointment the Daily Jupiter had been so loud, declaring that the present Minister was showing himself superior to all Ministers who had ever gone before him, in giving promotion solely on the score of merit. The Daily Jupiter, a fortnight since, had published a very eloquent article, strongly advocating the claims of Mr Optimist, and was naturally pleased to find that its advice had been taken. Has not an obedient Minister a right to the praise of those powers which he obeys?

Mr Optimist was, in truth, an industrious little gentleman, very well connected, who had served the public all his life, and who was, at any rate, honest in his dealings. Nor was he a bully, such as his predecessor. It might, however, be a question whether he carried guns enough for the command in which he was now to be employed. There was but one other member of the Board, Major Fiasco by name, a discontented, brokenhearted, silent man, who had been sent to the General Committee Office some few years before because he was not wanted anywhere else. He was a man who had intended to do great things when he entered public life, and had possessed the talent and energy for things moderately great. He had also possessed to a certain extent the ear of those high in office; but, in some way, matters had not gone well with him, and in running his course he had gone on the wrong side of the post. He was still in the prime of life, and yet all men knew that Major Fiasco had nothing further to expect from the public or from the Government. Indeed, there were not wanting those who said that Major Fiasco was already in receipt of a liberal income, for which he gave no work in return; that he merely filled a chair for four hours a day four or five days a week, signing his name to certain forms and documents, reading, or pretending to read, certain papers, but, in truth, doing no good. Major Fiasco, on the other hand, considered himself to be a deeply injured individual, and he spent his life in brooding over his wrongs. He believed now in nothing and in nobody. He had begun public life striving to be honest, and he now regarded all around him as dishonest. He had no satisfaction in any man other than that which he found when some event would show to him that this or that other compeer of his own had proved himself to be self-interested, false, or fraudulent.

“Don’t tell me, Butterwell,” he would say — for with Mr Butterwell he maintained some semi-official intimacy, and he would take that gentleman by the button-hole, holding him close.

“Don’t tell me. I know what men are. I’ve seen the world. I’ve been looking at things with my eyes open. I knew what he was doing.” And then he would tell of the sly deed of some official known well to them both, not denouncing it by any means, but affecting to take it for granted that the man in question was a rogue. Butterwell would shrug his shoulders, and laugh gently, and say that, upon his word, he didn’t think the world so bad as Fiasco made it out to be.

Nor did he; for Butterwell believed in many things. He believed in his Putney villa on this earth, and he believed also that he might achieve some sort of Putney villa in the world beyond without undergoing present martyrdom. His Putney villa first, with all its attendant comforts, and then his duty to the public afterwards. It was thus that Mr Butterwell regulated his conduct; and as he was solicitous that the villa should be as comfortable a home to his wife as to himself, and that it should be specially comfortable to his friends, I do not think that we need quarrel with his creed.

Mr Optimist believed in everything, but especially he believed in the Prime Minister, in the Daily Jupiter, in the General Committee Office, and in himself. He had long thought that everything was nearly right; but now that he himself was chairman at the General Committee Office, he was quite sure that everything must be right. In Sir Raffle Buffle, indeed, he had never believed; and now it was, perhaps, the greatest joy of his life that he should never again be called upon to hear the tones of that terrible knight’s hated voice.

Seeing who were the components of the new Board, it may be presumed that Crosbie would look forward to enjoying a not uninfluential position in his office. There were, indeed, some among the clerks who did not hesitate to say that the new secretary would have it pretty nearly all his own way. As for “old Opt,” there would be, they said, no difficulty about him. Only tell him that such and such a decision was his own, and he would be sure to believe the teller. Butterwell was not fond of work, and had been accustomed to lean upon Crosbie for many years. As for Fiasco, he would be cynical in words, but wholly indifferent in deed. If the whole office were made to go to the mischief, Fiasco, in his own grim way, would enjoy the confusion.

“Wish you joy, Crosbie,” said Sir Raffle, standing up on the rug, waiting for the new secretary to go up to him and shake hands. But Sir Raffle was going, and the new secretary did not indulge him.

“Thank ye, Sir Raffle,” said Crosbie, without going near the rug.

“Mr Crosbie, I congratulate you most sincerely,” said Mr Optimist. “Your promotion has been the result altogether of your own merit. You have been selected for the high office which you are now called upon to fill solely because it has been thought that you are the most fit man to perform the onerous duties attached to it. Hum-hum-ha. As, regards my share in the recommendation which we found ourselves bound to submit to the Treasury, I must say that I never felt less hesitation in my life, and I believe I may declare as much as regards the other members of the Board.” And Mr Optimist looked around him for approving words. He had come forward from his standing ground behind his chair to welcome Crosbie, and had shaken his hand cordially. Fiasco also had risen from his seat, and had assured Crosbie in a whisper that he had feathered, his nest uncommon well. Then he had sat down again.

“Indeed you may, as far as I am concerned,” said Butterwell.

“I told the Chancellor of the Exchequer,” said Sir Raffle, speaking very loud and with much authority, “that unless he had some first-rate man to send from elsewhere I could name a fitting candidate. ‘Sir Raffle,’ he said, ‘I mean to keep it in the office, and therefore shall be glad of your opinion.’ ‘In that case, Mr Chancellor,’ said I, ‘Mr Crosbie must be the man.’ ‘Mr Crosbie shall be the man,’ said the Chancellor. And Mr Crosbie is the man.”

“Your friend Sark spoke to Lord Brock about it,” said Fiasco. Now the Earl of Sark was a young nobleman of much influence at the present moment, and Lord Brock was the Prime Minister. “You should thank Lord Sark.”

“Had as much to do with it as if my footman had spoken,” said Sir Raffle.

“I am very much obliged to the Board for their good opinion,” said Crosbie, gravely. “I am obliged to Lord Sark as well-and also to your footman, Sir Raffle, if, as you seem to say, he has interested himself in my favour.”

“I didn’t say anything of the kind,” said Sir Raffle.

“I thought it right to make you understand that it was my opinion, given, of course, officially, which prevailed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Well, gentlemen, as I shall be wanted in the city, I will say good-morning to you. Is my carriage ready, Boggs?” Upon which the attendant messenger opened the door, and the great Sir Raffle Buffle took his final departure from the scene of his former labours.

“As to the duties of your new office”— and Mr Optimist continued his speech, taking no other notice of the departure of his enemy than what was indicated by an increased brightness of his eye and a more satisfactory tone of voice —” you will find yourself quite familiar with them.”

“Indeed he will,” said Butterwell.

“And I am quite sure that you will perform them with equal credit to yourself, satisfaction to the department, and advantage to the public. We shall always be glad to have your opinion on any subject of importance that may come before us; and as regards the internal discipline of the office, we feel that we may leave it safely in your hands. In any matter of importance you will, of course, consult us, and I feel very confident that we shall go on together with great comfort and with mutual confidence.” Then Mr Optimist looked at his brother commissioners, sat down in his arm-chair, and taking in his hands some papers before him, began the routine business of the day.

It was nearly five o’clock when, on this special occasion, the secretary returned from the board-room to his own office. Not for a moment had the weight been off his shoulders while Sir Raffle had been bragging or Mr Optimist making his speech. He had been thinking, not of them, but of Lily Dale; and though they had not discovered his thoughts, they had perceived that he was hardly like himself.

“I never saw a man so little elated by good fortune in my life,” said Mr Optimist.

“Ah, he’s got something on his mind,” said Butterwell. He’s going to be married, I believe.”

“If that’s the case, it’s no wonder he shouldn’t be elated,” said Major Fiasco, who was himself a bachelor.

When in his own room again, Crosbie at once seized on a sheet of note-paper, as though by hurrying himself on with it he could get that letter to Allington written. But thought the paper was before him, and the pen in his hand, the letter did not, would not, get itself written. With what words was he to begin it? To whom should it be written? How was he to declare himself the villain which he had made himself? The letters from his office were taken away every night shortly after six, and at six o’clock he had not written a word.

“I will do it at home to-night,” he said, to himself, and then, tearing off a scrap of paper, he scratched those few lines which Lily received, and which she had declined to communicate to her mother or sister. Crosbie, as he wrote them, conceived that they would in some way prepare the poor girl for the coming blow — that they would, at any rate, make her know that all was not right; but in so supposing he had not counted on the constancy of her nature, nor had he thought of the promise which, she had given him that nothing should make her doubt him. He wrote the scrap, and then taking his hat walked off through the gloom of the November evening up Charing Cross and St. Martin’s Lane, towards the Seven Dials and Bloomsbury into regions of the town with which he had no business, and which he never frequented. He hardly knew where he went or wherefore. How was he to escape from the weight of the burden which was now crushing him? It seemed to him as though he would change his position with thankfulness for that of the junior clerk in his office, if only that junior clerk had upon his mind no such betrayal of trust as that of which he was guilty.

At half-past seven he found himself at Sebright’s, and there he dined. A man will dine, even though his heart be breaking. Then he got into a cab, and had himself taken home to Mount Street. During his walk he had sworn to himself that he would not go to bed that night till the letter was written and posted. It was twelve before the first words were marked on the paper, and yet he kept his oath. Between two and three, in the cold moonlight, he crawled out and deposited his letter in the nearest post-office.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43