John Caldigate, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XLVII

Curlydown and Bagwax

There had been a sort of pledge given at the trial by Sir John Joram that the matter of the envelope should be further investigated. He had complained in his defence that the trial had been hurried on — that time had not been allowed for full inquiries, seeing that the character of the deed by which his client had been put in jeopardy depended upon what had been done on the other side of the globe. ‘This crime,’ he had said, ‘if it be a crime, was no doubt committed in the parish church of Utterden in the early part of last year; but all the evidence which has been used or which could be used to prove it to have been a crime, has reference to things done long ago, and far away. Time has not been allowed us for rebutting this evidence by counter-evidence.’ And yet much time had been allowed. The trial had been postponed from the spring to the summer assizes; and then the offence was one which, from its very nature, required speedy notice. The Boltons, who became the instigators of the prosecution, demanded that the ill-used woman should be relieved as quickly as possible from her degradation. There had been a general feeling that the trial should not be thrown over to another year; and, as we are aware, it had been brought to judgment and the convicted criminal was in jail. But Sir John still persevered, and to this perseverance he had been instigated very much by a certain clerk in the post-office.

Two post-office clerks had been used as witnesses at the trial, of whom the elder, Mr. Curlydown, had been by no means a constant or an energetic witness. A witness, when he is brought up for the defence, should not be too scrupulous, or he will be worse than useless. In a matter of fact a man can only say what he saw, or tell what he heard, or declare what he knew. He should at least do no more. Though it be to save his father, he should not commit perjury. But when it comes to opinion, if a man allows himself to waver, he will be taken as thinking the very opposite of what he does think. Such had been the case with Mr. Curlydown. He had intended to be very correct. He had believed that the impression of the Sydney stamp was on the whole adverse to the idea that it had been obtained in the proper way; and yet he had, when cross-examined, acknowledged that it might very probably have been obtained in the proper way. It certainly had not been ‘smudged’ at all, and such impressions generally did become ‘smudged.’ But then he was made to say also that impressions very often did not become smudged. And as to the word ‘Nobble’ which should have been stamped upon the envelope, he thought that in such a case its absence was very suspicious; but still he was brought to acknowledge that post-masters in provincial offices far away from inspection, frequently omit that part of their duty. All this had tended to rob the envelope of those attributes of deceit and conspiracy which Sir John Joram attributed to it, and had justified the judge in his opinion that Mr. Curlydown’s evidence had told them little or nothing. But even Mr. Curlydown had found more favour with the judge than Samuel Bagwax, the junior of the two post-office witnesses. Samuel Bagwax had perhaps been a little too energetic. He had made the case his own, and was quite sure that the envelope had been tampered with. I think that the counsel for the Crown pressed his witness unfairly when he asked Mr. Bagwax whether he was absolutely certain that an envelope with such an impression could not have passed through the post-office in the ordinary course of business. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ Mr. Bagwax had replied. ‘Is it not very much within the sphere of possibility?’ the learned gentleman had asked. The phrase was misleading, and Mr. Bagwax was induced to say that it might be so. But still his assurance would probably have had weight with the jury but for the overstrained honesty of his companion. The judge had admonished the jury that in reference to such a point they should use their own common-sense rather than the opinion of such a man as Mr. Bagwax. A man of ordinary common-sense would know how the mark made by a die on a letter would be affected by the sort of manipulation to which the letter bearing it would be subjected; — and so on. From all which it came to pass that the judge was understood to have declared that that special envelope might very well have passed in ordinary course through the Sydney post-office.

But Samuel Bagwax was not a man to be put down by the injustice of lawyers. He knew himself to have been ill-treated. He was confident that no man alive was more competent than himself to form an opinion on such a subject; and he was sure, quite sure — perhaps a little too sure — that there had been some dishonesty with that envelope. And thus he became a strong partisan of John Caldigate and of Mrs. John Caldigate. If there had been tampering with that envelope, then the whole thing was fraudulent, false, and the outcome of a base conspiracy. Many points were present to his mind which the lawyers between them would not allow him to explain properly to a jury. When had that die been cut, by which so perfect an impression had been formed? If it could be proved that it had been cut since the date it bore, then of course the envelope would be fraudulent. But it was only in Sydney that this could be ascertained. He was sure that a week’s ordinary use would have made the impression less perfect. Some letters must of course be subjected to new dies, and this letter might in due course have been so subjected. But it was more probable that a new stamp should have been selected for a surreptitious purpose. All this could be ascertained by the book of daily impressions kept in the Sydney post-office; — but there had not been time to get this evidence from Sydney since this question of the impression had been ventilated. It was he who had first given importance to the envelope; and being a resolute and almost heroic man, he was determined that no injustice on the part of a Crown prosecutor, no darkness in a judge’s mind, no want of intelligence in a jury, should rob him of the delight of showing how important to the world was a proper understanding of post-office details. He still thought that that envelope might be made to prove a conspiracy on the part of Crinkett and the others, and he succeeded in getting Sir John Joram to share that belief.

The envelope itself was still preserved among the sacred archives of the trial. That had not been bodily confided to Samuel Bagwax. But various photographs had been made of the document, which no doubt reproduced exactly every letter, every mark, and every line which was to be seen upon it by the closest inspection. There was the direction, which was admitted to be in Caldigate’s handwriting — the postage-stamp, with its obliterating lines — and the impression of the Sydney postmark. That was nearly all. The paper of the envelope had no water-marks. Bagwax thought that if he could get hold of the envelope itself something might be done even with that; but here Sir John could not go along with him, as it had been fully acknowledged that the envelope had passed from the possession of Caldigate into the hands of the woman bearing the written address. If anything could be done, it must be done by the postmarks — and those postmarks Bagwax studied morning, noon, and night.

It had now been decided that Bagwax was to be sent out to Sydney at the expense of the Caldigates. There had been difficulty as to leave of absence for such a purpose. The man having been convicted, the postmaster-general was bound to regard him as guilty, and hesitated to allow a clerk to be absent so long on behalf of a man who was already in prison. But the Secretary of State overruled this scruple, and the leave was to be given. Bagwax was elate — first and chiefly because he trusted that he would become the means of putting right a foul and cruel wrong. For in these days Bagwax almost wept over the hardships inflicted on that poor lady at Folking. But he was elated also by the prospect of his travels, and by the godsend of a six months’ leave of absence. He was a little proud, too, at having had this personal attention paid to him by the Secretary of State. All this was very gratifying. But that which gratified him was not so charming to his brother clerks. They had never enjoyed the privilege of leaving that weary office for six months. They were not allowed to occupy themselves in contemplating an envelope. They were never specially mentioned by the Secretary of State. Of course there was a little envy, and a somewhat general feeling that Bagwax, having got to the weak side of Sir John Joram, was succeeding in having himself sent out as a first-class overland passenger to Sydney, merely as a job. Paris to be seen, and the tunnel, and the railways through Italy, and the Suez Canal — all these places, not delightful to the wives of Indian officers coming home or going out, were an Elysium to the post-office mind. His expenses to be paid for six months on the most gentleman-like footing, and his salary going on all the time! Official human nature, good as it generally is, cannot learn that such glories are to be showered on one not specially deserving head without something akin to enmity. The general idea, therefore, in the office, was that Bagwax would do no good in Sydney, that others would have been better than Bagwax — in fact, that of all the clerks in all the departments, Bagwax was the very last man who ought to have been selected for an enterprise demanding secrecy, discretion, and some judicial severity.

Curlydown and Bagwax occupied the same room at the office in St. Martin’s-le-Grand; and there it was their fate in life to arrange, inspect, and generally attend to those apparently unintelligible hieroglyphics with which the outside coverings of our correspondence are generally bedaubed. Curlydown’s hair had fallen from his head, and his face had become puckered with wrinkles, through anxiety to make these markings legible and intelligible. The popular newspaper, the popular member of Parliament, and the popular novelist — the name of Charles Dickens will of course present itself to the reader who remembers the Circumlocution office — have had it impressed on their several minds — and have endeavoured to impress the same idea on the minds of the public generally — that the normal Government clerk is quite indifferent to his work. No greater mistake was ever made, or one showing less observation of human nature. It is the nature of a man to appreciate his own work. The felon who is made simply to move shot, perishes because he knows his work is without aim. The fault lies on the other side. The policeman is ambitious of arresting everybody. The lawyer would rather make your will for you gratis than let you make your own. The General can believe in nothing but in well-trained troops. Curlydown would willingly have expended the whole net revenue of the post-office — and his own — in improving the machinery for stamping letters. But he had hardly succeeded in life. He had done his duty, and was respected by all. He lived comfortably in a suburban cottage with a garden, having some private means, and had brought up a happy family in prosperity; — but he had done nothing new. Bagwax, who was twenty years his junior, had with manifest effects, added a happy drop of turpentine to the stamping-oil — and in doing so had broken Curlydown’s heart. The ‘Bagwax Stamping Mixture’ had absolutely achieved a name, which was printed on the official list of stores. Curlydown’s mind was vacillating between the New River and a pension — between death in the breach and acknowledged defeat — when a new interest was lent to his life by the Caldigate envelope. It was he who had been first sent by the Postmaster-General to Sir John Joram’s chambers. But the matter had become too large for himself alone, and in an ill-fated hour Bagwax had been consulted. Now Bagwax was to be sent to Sydney — almost with the appointments of a lawyer!

They still occupied the same room — a fact which infinitely increased the torments of Curlydown’s position. They ought to have been moved very far asunder. Curlydown was still engaged in the routine ordinary work of the day, seeing that the proper changes were made in all the stamps used during the various hours of the day — assuring himself that the crosses and letters and figures upon which so much of the civilisation of Europe depended, were properly altered and arranged. And it may well be that his own labours were made heavier by the devotion of his colleagues to other matters. And yet from time to time Bagwax would ask him questions, never indeed taking his advice, but still demanding his assistance. Curlydown was not naturally a man of ill-temper or an angry heart. But there were moments in which he could hardly abstain from expressing himself with animosity.

On a certain morning in August, Bagwax was seated at his table, which as usual was laden with the envelopes of many letters. There were some hundreds before him, the marks on which he was perusing with a strong magnifying-glass. It had been arranged that he was to start on his great journey in the first week in September, and he employed his time before he went in scanning all the envelopes bearing the Sydney postmark which he had been able to procure in England. He spent the entire day with a magnifying-glass in his hand; — but as Curlydown was also always armed in the same fashion, that was not peculiar. They did much of their work with such tools.

The date on the envelope — the date conveyed by the impression, to which so much attention had been given — was 10th May 1873. Bagwax had succeeded in getting covers bearing dates very close to that. The 7th of May had been among his treasures for some time, and now he had acquired an entire letter, envelope and all, which bore the Sydney impression of the 13th May. This was a great triumph. ‘I have brought it within a week,’ he said to Curlydown, bending down over his glass, and inspecting at the same time the two dates.

‘What’s the good of that?’ asked Curlydown, as he passed rapidly under his own glass the stamps which it was his duty to inspect from day to day.

‘All the good in the world,’ said Bagwax, brandishing his own magnifier with energy. ‘It is almost conclusive.’ Now the argument with Bagwax was this — that if he found in the Sydney postmarks of 7th May, and in those of 13th May, the same deviations or bruises in the die, those deviations must have existed also on the days between these two dates; — and as the impression before him was quite perfect, without any deviation, did it not follow that it must have been obtained in some manner outside the ordinary course of business?

‘There are a dozen stamps in use at the Sydney office,’ said Curlydown.

‘Perhaps so; or, at any rate, three or four. But I can trace as well as possible the times at which new stamps were supplied. Look here.’ Then he threw himself over the multitude of envelopes, all of which had been carefully arranged as to dates, and began to point out the periods. ‘Here, you see, in 1873, there is nothing that quite tallies with the Caldigate letter. I have measured them to the twentieth part of an inch, and I am sure that early in May ‘73 there was not a stamp in use in the Sydney office which could have made that impression. I have eighteen Mays ‘73, and not one of them could have been made by the stamp that did this.’ As he spoke thus, he rapped his finger down on the copy of the sacred envelope which he was using. ‘Is not that conclusive?’

‘If it was not conclusive to keep a man from going to prison,’ said Curlydown, remembering the failure of his own examination, ‘it will not be conclusive to get him out again.’

‘There I differ. No doubt further evidence is necessary and therefore I must go to Sydney.’

‘If it is conclusive, I don’t see why you should go to Sydney at all. If your proof is so perfect, why should that fellow be kept in prison while you are running about the world?’

This idea had also occurred to Bagwax, and he had thought whether it would be possible for him to be magnanimous enough to perfect his proof in England, so as to get a pardon from the Secretary of State at once, to his own manifest injury. ‘What would satisfy you and me,’ said Bagwax, ‘wouldn’t satisfy the ignorant.’ To the conductor of an omnibus on the Surrey side of the river, the man who does not know what ‘The Castle’ means is ignorant. The outsider who is in a mist as to the ‘former question,’ or ‘the order of the day,’ is ignorant to the member of Parliament. To have no definite date conveyed by the term ‘Rogation Sunday’ is to the clerical mind gross ignorance. The horsey man thinks you have been in bed all your life if the ‘near side’is not as descriptive to you as ‘the left hand.’ To Bagwax and Curlydown, not to distinguish postmarks was to be ignorant. ‘I fear it wouldn’t satisfy the ignorant,’ said Bagwax, thinking of his projected journey to Sydney.

‘Proof is proof,’ said Curlydown. ‘I don’t think you’ll ever get him out. The time has gone by. But you may do just as much here as there.’

‘I’m sure we shall get him out. I’ll never rest in my bed till we have got him out.’

‘Mr. Justice Bramber won’t mind whether you rest in your bed or not — nor yet the Secretary of State.’

‘Sir John Joram —’ began Bagwax. In these discussions Sir John Joram was always his main staff.

‘Sir John Joram has got other fish to fry before this time. It’s a marvel to me, Bagwax, that they should give way to all this nonsense. If anything could be done, it could be done in half the time — and if anything could be done, it could be done here. By the time you’re back from Sydney, Caldigate’s time will be half out. Why don’t you let Sir John see your proof? You don’t want to lose your trip, I suppose.’

Caldigate was languishing in prison, and that poor, nameless lady was separated from her husband and he had the proof lying there on the table before him — sufficient proof, as he did in his heart believe! But how often does it fall to the lot of a post-office clerk to be taken round the world free of expense? The way Curlydown put it was ill-natured and full of envy. Bagwax was well aware that Curlydown was instigated solely by envy. But still, these were his own convictions — and Bagwax was in truth a soft-hearted, conscientious man.

‘I do think it ought to be enough for any Secretary of State,’ said he, ‘and I’ll go to Sir John Joram to-morrow Of course, I should like to see the world; — who wouldn’t? But I’d rather be the means of restoring that fellow to his poor wife, than be sent to all the four quarters of the globe with a guinea a-day for personal expenses.’ In this way he nobly made up his mind to go at once to Sir John Joram.

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