The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter I

The Weights and Measures

All the English world knows, or knows of, that branch of the Civil Service which is popularly called the Weights and Measures. Every inhabitant of London, and every casual visitor there, has admired the handsome edifice which generally goes by that name, and which stands so conspicuously confronting the Treasury Chambers. It must be owned that we have but a slip-slop way of christening our public buildings. When a man tells us that he called on a friend at the Horse Guards, or looked in at the Navy Pay, or dropped a ticket at the Woods and Forests, we put up with the accustomed sounds, though they are in themselves, perhaps, indefensible. The ‘Board of Commissioners for Regulating Weights and Measures’, and the ‘Office of the Board of Commissioners for Regulating Weights and Measures’, are very long phrases; and as, in the course of this tale, frequent mention will be made of the public establishment in question, the reader’s comfort will be best consulted by maintaining its popular though improper denomination.

It is generally admitted that the Weights and Measures is a well-conducted public office; indeed, to such a degree of efficiency has it been brought by its present very excellent secretary, the two very worthy assistant-secretaries, and especially by its late most respectable chief clerk, that it may be said to stand quite alone as a high model for all other public offices whatever. It is exactly antipodistic of the Circumlocution Office, and as such is always referred to in the House of Commons by the gentleman representing the Government when any attack on the Civil Service, generally, is being made.

And when it is remembered how great are the interests entrusted to the care of this board, and of these secretaries and of that chief clerk, it must be admitted that nothing short of superlative excellence ought to suffice the nation. All material intercourse between man and man must be regulated, either justly or unjustly, by weights and measures; and as we of all people depend most on such material intercourse, our weights and measures should to us be a source of never-ending concern. And then that question of the decimal coinage! is it not in these days of paramount importance? Are we not disgraced by the twelve pennies in our shilling, by the four farthings in our penny? One of the worthy assistant-secretaries, the worthier probably of the two, has already grown pale beneath the weight of this question. But he has sworn within himself, with all the heroism of a Nelson, that he will either do or die. He will destroy the shilling or the shilling shall destroy him. In his more ardent moods he thinks that he hears the noise of battle booming round him, and talks to his wife of Westminster Abbey or a peerage. Then what statistical work of the present age has shown half the erudition contained in that essay lately published by the secretary on The Market Price of Coined Metals? What other living man could have compiled that chronological table which is appended to it, showing the comparative value of the metallic currency for the last three hundred years? Compile it indeed! What other secretary or assistant-secretary belonging to any public office of the present day, could even read it and live? It completely silenced Mr. Muntz for a session, and even The Times was afraid to review it.

Such a state of official excellence has not, however, been obtained without its drawbacks, at any rate in the eyes of the unambitious tyros and unfledged novitiates of the establishment. It is a very fine thing to be pointed out by envying fathers as a promising clerk in the Weights and Measures, and to receive civil speeches from mammas with marriageable daughters. But a clerk in the Weights and Measures is soon made to understand that it is not for him to —

Sport with Amaryllis in the shade.

It behoves him that his life should be grave and his pursuits laborious, if he intends to live up to the tone of those around him. And as, sitting there at his early desk, his eyes already dim with figures, he sees a jaunty dandy saunter round the opposite corner to the Council Office at eleven o’clock, he cannot but yearn after the pleasures of idleness.

Were it not better done, as others use?

he says or sighs. But then comes Phoebus in the guise of the chief clerk, and touches his trembling ears —

As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame, in Downing Street — expect the meed.

And so the high tone of the office is maintained.

Such is the character of the Weights and Measures at this present period of which we are now treating. The exoteric crowd of the Civil Service, that is, the great body of clerks attached to other offices, regard their brethren of the Weights as prigs and pedants, and look on them much as a master’s favourite is apt to be regarded by other boys at school. But this judgement is an unfair one. Prigs and pedants, and hypocrites too, there are among them, no doubt — but there are also among them many stirred by an honourable ambition to do well for their country and themselves, and to two such men the reader is now requested to permit himself to be introduced.

Henry Norman, the senior of the two, is the second son of a gentleman of small property in the north of England. He was educated at a public school, and thence sent to Oxford; but before he had finished his first year at Brasenose his father was obliged to withdraw him from it, finding himself unable to bear the expense of a university education for his two sons. His elder son at Cambridge was extravagant; and as, at the critical moment when decision became necessary, a nomination in the Weights and Measures was placed at his disposal, old Mr. Norman committed the not uncommon injustice of preferring the interests of his elder but faulty son to those of the younger with whom no fault had been found, and deprived his child of the chance of combining the glories and happiness of a double first, a fellow, a college tutor, and a don.

Whether Harry Norman gained or lost most by the change we need not now consider, but at the age of nineteen he left Oxford and entered on his new duties. It must not, however, be supposed that this was a step which he took without difficulty and without pause. It is true that the grand modern scheme for competitive examinations had not as yet been composed. Had this been done, and had it been carried out, how awful must have been the cramming necessary to get a lad into the Weights and Measures! But, even as things were then, it was no easy matter for a young man to convince the chief clerk that he had all the acquirements necessary for the high position to which he aspired.

Indeed, that chief clerk was insatiable, and generally succeeded in making every candidate conceive the very lowest opinion of himself and his own capacities before the examination was over. Some, of course, were sent away at once with ignominy, as evidently incapable. Many retired in the middle of it with a conviction that they must seek their fortunes at the bar, or in medical pursuits, or some other comparatively easy walk of life. Others were rejected on the fifth or sixth day as being deficient in conic sections, or ignorant of the exact principles of hydraulic pressure. And even those who were retained were so retained, as it were, by an act of grace. The Weights and Measures was, and indeed is, like heaven — no man can deserve it. No candidate can claim as his right to be admitted to the fruition of the appointment which has been given to him. Henry Norman, however, was found, at the close of his examination, to be the least undeserving of the young men then under notice, and was duly installed in his clerkship.

It need hardly be explained, that to secure so high a level of information as that required at the Weights and Measures, a scale of salaries equally exalted has been found necessary. Young men consequently enter at £100 a year. We are speaking, of course, of that more respectable branch of the establishment called the Secretary’s Department. At none other of our public offices do men commence with more than £90 — except, of course, at those in which political confidence is required. Political confidence is indeed as expensive as hydraulic pressure, though generally found to be less difficult of attainment.

Henry Norman, therefore, entered on his labours under good auspices, having £10 per annum more for the business and pleasures of life in London than most of his young brethren of the Civil Service. Whether this would have sufficed of itself to enable him to live up to that tone of society to which he had been accustomed cannot now be surmised, as very shortly after his appointment an aunt died, from whom he inherited some £150 or £200 a year. He was, therefore, placed above all want, and soon became a shining light even in that bright gallery of spiritualized stars which formed the corps of clerks in the Secretary’s Office at the Weights and Measures.

Young Norman was a good-looking lad when he entered the public service, and in a few years he grew up to be a handsome man. He was tall and thin and dark, muscular in his proportions, and athletic in his habits. From the date of his first enjoyment of his aunt’s legacy he had a wherry on the Thames, and was soon known as a man whom it was hard for an amateur to beat. He had a racket in a racket-court at St. John’s Wood Road, and as soon as fortune and merit increased his salary by another £100 a year, he usually had a nag for the season. This, however, was not attained till he was able to count five years’ service in the Weights and Measures. He was, as a boy, somewhat shy and reserved in his manners, and as he became older he did not shake off the fault. He showed it, however, rather among men than with women, and, indeed, in spite of his love of exercise, he preferred the society of ladies to any of the bachelor gaieties of his unmarried acquaintance. He was, nevertheless, frank and confident in those he trusted, and true in his friendships, though, considering his age, too slow in making a friend. Such was Henry Norman at the time at which our tale begins. What were the faults in his character it must be the business of the tale to show.

The other young clerk in this office to whom we alluded is Alaric Tudor. He is a year older than Henry Norman, though he began his official career a year later, and therefore at the age of twenty-one. How it happened that he contrived to pass the scrutinizing instinct and deep powers of examination possessed by the chief clerk, was a great wonder to his friends, though apparently none at all to himself. He took the whole proceeding very easily; while another youth alongside of him, who for a year had been reading up for his promised nomination, was so awe-struck by the severity of the proceedings as to lose his powers of memory and forget the very essence of the differential calculus.

Of hydraulic pressure and the differential calculus young Tudor knew nothing, and pretended to know nothing. He told the chief clerk that he was utterly ignorant of all such matters, that his only acquirements were a tolerably correct knowledge of English, French, and German, with a smattering of Latin and Greek, and such an intimacy with the ordinary rules of arithmetic and with the first books of Euclid, as he had been able to pick up while acting as a tutor, rather than a scholar, in a small German university.

The chief clerk raised his eyebrows and said he feared it would not do. A clerk, however, was wanting. It was very clear that the young gentleman who had only showed that he had forgotten his conic sections could not be supposed to have passed. The austerity of the last few years had deterred more young men from coming forward than the extra £10 had induced to do so. One unfortunate, on the failure of all his hopes, had thrown himself into the Thames from the neighbouring boat-stairs; and though he had been hooked out uninjured by the man who always attends there with two wooden legs, the effect on his parents’ minds had been distressing. Shortly after this occurrence the chief clerk had been invited to attend the Board, and the Chairman of the Commissioners, who, on the occasion, was of course prompted by the Secretary, recommended Mr. Hardlines to be a leetle more lenient. In doing so the quantity of butter which he poured over Mr. Hardlines’ head and shoulders with the view of alleviating the misery which such a communication would be sure to inflict, was very great. But, nevertheless, Mr. Hardlines came out from the Board a crestfallen and unhappy man. ‘The service,’ he said, ‘would go to the dogs, and might do for anything he cared, and he did not mind how soon. If the Board chose to make the Weights and Measures a hospital for idiots, it might do so. He had done what little lay in his power to make the office respectable; and now, because mammas complained when their cubs of sons were not allowed to come in there and rob the public and destroy the office books, he was to be thwarted and reprimanded! He had been,’ he said, ‘eight-and-twenty years in office, and was still in his prime — but he should,’ he thought, ‘take advantage of the advice of his medical friends, and retire. He would never remain there to see the Weights and Measures become a hospital for incurables!’

It was thus that Mr. Hardlines, the chief clerk, expressed himself. He did not, however, send in a medical certificate, nor apply for a pension; and the first apparent effect of the little lecture which he had received from the Chairman, was the admission into the service of Alaric Tudor. Mr. Hardlines was soon forced to admit that the appointment was not a bad one, as before his second year was over, young Tudor had produced a very smart paper on the merits — or demerits — of the strike bushel.

Alaric Tudor when he entered the office was by no means so handsome a youth as Harry Norman; but yet there was that in his face which was more expressive, and perhaps more attractive. He was a much slighter man, though equally tall. He could boast no adventitious capillary graces, whereas young Norman had a pair of black curling whiskers, which almost surrounded his face, and had been the delight and wonder of the maidservants in his mother’s house, when he returned home for his first official holiday. Tudor wore no whiskers, and his light-brown hair was usually cut so short as to give him something of the appearance of a clean Puritan. But in manners he was no Puritan; nor yet in his mode of life. He was fond of society, and at an early period of his age strove hard to shine in it. He was ambitious; and lived with the steady aim of making the most of such advantages as fate and fortune had put in his way. Tudor was perhaps not superior to Norman in point of intellect; but he was infinitely his superior in having early acquired a knowledge how best to use such intellect as he had.

His education had been very miscellaneous, and disturbed by many causes, but yet not ineffective or deficient. His father had been an officer in a cavalry regiment, with a fair fortune, which he had nearly squandered in early life. He had taken Alaric when little more than an infant, and a daughter, his only other child, to reside in Brussels. Mrs. Tudor was then dead, and the remainder of the household had consisted of a French governess, a bonne, and a man-cook. Here Alaric remained till he had perfectly acquired the French pronunciation, and very nearly as perfectly forgotten the English. He was then sent to a private school in England, where he remained till he was sixteen, returning home to Brussels but once during those years, when he was invited to be present at his sister’s marriage with a Belgian banker. At the age of sixteen he lost his father, who, on dying, did not leave behind him enough of the world’s wealth to pay for his own burial. His half-pay of course died with him, and young Tudor was literally destitute.

His brother-inlaw, the banker, paid for his half-year’s schooling in England, and then removed him to a German academy, at which it was bargained that he should teach English without remuneration, and learn German without expense. Whether he taught much English may be doubtful, but he did learn German thoroughly; and in that, as in most other transactions of his early life, certainly got the best of the bargain which had been made for him.

At the age of twenty he was taken to the Brussels bank as a clerk; but here he soon gave visible signs of disliking the drudgery which was exacted from him. Not that he disliked banking. He would gladly have been a partner with ever so small a share, and would have trusted to himself to increase his stake. But there is a limit to the good nature of brothers-inlaw, even in Belgium; and Alaric was quite aware that no such good luck as this could befall him, at any rate until he had gone through many years of servile labour. His sister also, though sisterly enough in her disposition to him, did not quite like having a brother employed as a clerk in her husband’s office. They therefore put their heads together, and, as the Tudors had good family connexions in England, a nomination in the Weights and Measures was procured.

The nomination was procured; but when it was ascertained how very short a way this went towards the attainment of the desired object, and how much more difficult it was to obtain Mr. Hardlines’ approval than the Board’s favour, young Tudor’s friends despaired, and recommended him to abandon the idea, as, should he throw himself into the Thames, he might perhaps fall beyond the reach of the waterman’s hook. Alaric himself, however, had no such fears. He could not bring himself to conceive that he could fail in being fit for a clerkship in a public office, and the result of his examination proved at any rate that he had been right to try.

The close of his first year’s life in London found him living in lodgings with Henry Norman. At that time Norman’s income was nearly three times as good as his own. To say that Tudor selected his companion because of his income would be to ascribe unjustly to him vile motives and a mean instinct. He had not done so. The two young men had been thrown, together by circumstances. They worked at the same desk, liked each other’s society, and each being alone in the world, thereby not unnaturally came together. But it may probably be said that had Norman been as poor as Tudor, Tudor might probably have shrunk from rowing in the same boat with him.

As it was they lived together and were fast allies; not the less so that they did not agree as to many of their avocations. Tudor, at his friend’s solicitation, had occasionally attempted to pull an oar from Searle’s slip to Battersea bridge. But his failure in this line was so complete, and he had to encounter so much of Norman’s raillery, which was endurable, and of his instruction, which was unendurable, that he very soon gave up the pursuit. He was not more successful with a racket; and keeping a horse was of course out of the question.

They had a bond of union in certain common friends whom they much loved, and with whom they much associated. At least these friends soon became common to them. The acquaintance originally belonged to Norman, and he had first cemented his friendship with Tudor by introducing him at the house of Mrs. Woodward. Since he had done so, the one young man was there nearly as much as the other.

Who and what the Woodwards were shall be told in a subsequent chapter. As they have to play as important a part in the tale about to be told as our two friends of the Weights and Measures, it would not be becoming to introduce them at the end of this.

As regards Alaric Tudor it need only be further said, by way of preface, of him as of Harry Norman, that the faults of his character must be made to declare themselves in the course of our narrative.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/clerks/chapter1.html

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