The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter X

Wheal Mary Jane

Mr. Manylodes was, at any rate, right in this, that that beverage, which men call bishop, is a doctored tipple; and Alaric Tudor, when he woke in the morning, owned the truth. It had been arranged that certain denizens of the mine should meet the two Commissioners at the pit-mouth at eight o’clock, and it had been settled at dinner-time that breakfast should be on the table at seven, sharp. Half an hour’s quick driving would take them to the spot.

At seven Mr. Fidus Neverbend, who had never yet been known to be untrue to an appointment by the fraction of a second, was standing over the breakfast-table alone. He was alone, but not on that account unhappy. He could hardly disguise the pleasure with which he asked the waiter whether Mr. Tudor was yet dressed, or the triumph which he felt when he heard that his colleague was not quite ready.

‘Bring the tea and the eggs at once,’ said Neverbend, very briskly.

‘Won’t you wait for Mr. Tudor?’ asked the waiter, with an air of surprise. Now the landlord, waiter, boots, and chambermaid, the chambermaid especially, had all, in Mr. Neverbend’s estimation, paid Tudor by far too much consideration; and he was determined to show that he himself was first fiddle.

‘Wait! no; quite out of the question — bring the hot water immediately — and tell the ostler to have the fly at the door at half-past seven exact.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said the man, and disappeared.

Neverbend waited five minutes, and then rang the bell impetuously. ‘If you don’t bring me my tea immediately, I shall send for Mr. Boteldale.’ Now Mr. Boteldale was the landlord.

‘Mr. Tudor will be down in ten minutes,’ was the waiter’s false reply; for up to that moment poor Alaric had not yet succeeded in lifting his throbbing head from his pillow. The boots was now with him administering soda-water and brandy, and he was pondering in his sickened mind whether, by a manful effort, he could rise and dress himself; or whether he would not throw himself backwards on his coveted bed, and allow Neverbend the triumph of descending alone to the nether world.

Neverbend nearly threw the loaf at the waiter’s head. Wait ten minutes longer! what right had that vile Devonshire napkin-twirler to make to him so base a proposition? ‘Bring me my breakfast, sir,’ shouted Neverbend, in a voice that made the unfortunate sinner jump out of the room, as though he had been moved by a galvanic battery.

In five minutes, tea made with lukewarm water, and eggs that were not half boiled were brought to the impatient Commissioner. As a rule Mr. Neverbend, when travelling on the public service, made a practice of enjoying his meals. It was the only solace which he allowed himself; the only distraction from the cares of office which he permitted either to his body or his mind. But on this great occasion his country required that he should forget his comforts; and he drank his tasteless tea, and ate his uncooked eggs, threatening the waiter as he did so with sundry pains and penalties, in the form of sixpences withheld.

‘Is the fly there?’ said he, as he bolted a last morsel of cold roast beef.

‘Coming, sir,’ said the waiter, as he disappeared round a corner.

In the meantime Alaric sat lackadaisical on his bedside, all undressed, leaning his head upon his hand, and feeling that his struggle to dress himself was all but useless. The sympathetic boots stood by with a cup of tea — well-drawn comfortable tea — in his hand, and a small bit of dry toast lay near on an adjacent plate.

‘Try a bit o’ toast, sir,’ said boots.

‘Ugh!’ ejaculated poor Alaric.

‘Have a leetle drop o’ rum in the tea, sir, and it’ll set you all to rights in two minutes.’

The proposal made Alaric very sick, and nearly completed the catastrophe. ‘Ugh!’ he said.

‘There’s the trap, sir, for Mr. Neverbend,’ said the boots, whose ears caught the well-known sound.

‘The devil it is!’ said Alaric, who was now stirred up to instant action. ‘Take my compliments to Mr. Neverbend, and tell him I’ll thank him to wait ten minutes.’

Boots, descending with the message, found Mr. Neverbend ready coated and gloved, standing at the hotel door. The fly was there, and the lame ostler holding the horse; but the provoking driver had gone back for his coat.

‘Please, sir, Mr. Tudor says as how you’re not to go just at present, but to wait ten minutes till he be ready.’

Neverbend looked at the man, but he would not trust himself to speak. Wait ten minutes, and it now wanted five-and-twenty minutes to eight! — no — not for all the Tudors that ever sat upon the throne of England.

There he stood with his watch in his hand as the returning Jehu hurried round from the stable yard. ‘You are now seven minutes late,’ said he, ‘and if you are not at the place by eight o’clock, I shall not give you one farthing!’

‘All right,’ said Jehu. ‘We’ll be at Mary Jane in less than no time;’ and off they went, not at the quickest pace. But Neverbend’s heart beat high with triumph, as he reflected that he had carried the point on which he had been so intent.

Alaric, when he heard the wheels roll off, shook from him his lethargy. It was not only that Neverbend would boast that he alone had gone through the perils of their subterranean duty, but that doubtless he would explain in London how his colleague had been deterred from following him. It was a grievous task, that of dressing himself, as youthful sinners know but too well. Every now and then a qualm would come over him, and make the work seem all but impossible. Boots, however, stuck to him like a man, poured cold water over his head, renewed his tea-cup, comforted him with assurances of the bracing air, and put a paper full of sandwiches in his pocket.

‘For heaven’s sake put them away,’ said Alaric, to whom the very idea of food was repulsive.

‘You’ll want ’em, sir, afore you are half way to Mary Jane; and it a’n’t no joke going down and up again. I know what’s what, sir.’

The boots stuck to him like a man. He did not only get him sandwiches, but he procured for him also Mr. Boteldale’s own fast-trotting pony, and just as Neverbend was rolling up to the pit’s mouth fifteen minutes after his time, greatly resolving in his own mind to button his breeches pocket firmly against the recreant driver, Alaric started on the chase after him.

Mr. Neverbend had a presentiment that, sick as his friend might be, nauseous as doubtless were the qualms arising from yesterday’s intemperance, he would make an attempt to recover his lost ground. He of the Woods and Works had begun to recognize the energy of him of the Weights and Measures, and felt that there was in it a force that would not easily be overcome, even by the fumes of bishop. But yet it would be a great thing for the Woods and Works if he, Neverbend, could descend in this perilous journey to the deep bowels of the earth, leaving the Weights and Measures stranded in the upper air. This descent among the hidden riches of a lower world, this visit to the provocations of evils not yet dug out from their durable confinement, was the keystone, as it were, of the whole mission. Let Neverbend descend alone, alone inspect the wonders of that dirty deep, and Tudor might then talk and write as he pleased. In such case all the world of the two public offices in Question, and of some others cognate to them, would adjudge that he, Neverbend, had made himself master of the situation.

Actuated by these correct calculations, Mr. Neverbend was rather fussy to begin an immediate descent when he found himself on the spot. Two native gentlemen, who were to accompany the Commissioners, or the Commissioner, as appeared likely to be the case, were already there, as were also the men who were to attend upon them.

It was an ugly uninviting place to look at, with but few visible signs of wealth. The earth, which had been burrowed out by these human rabbits in their search after tin, lay around in huge ungainly heaps; the overground buildings of the establishment consisted of a few ill-arranged sheds, already apparently in a state of decadence; dirt and slush, and pods of water confined by muddy dams, abounded on every side; muddy men, with muddy carts and muddy horses, slowly crawled hither and thither, apparently with no object, and evidently indifferent as to whom they might overset in their course. The inferior men seemed to show no respect to those above them, and the superiors to exercise no authority over those below them. There was, a sullen equality among them all. On the ground around was no vegetation; nothing green met the eye, some few stunted bushes appeared here and there, nearly smothered by heaped-up mud, but they had about them none of the attractiveness of foliage. The whole scene, though consisting of earth alone, was unearthly, and looked as though the devil had walked over the place with hot hoofs, and then raked it with a huge rake.

‘I am afraid I am very late,’ said Neverbend, getting out of his fly in all the haste he could muster, and looking at his watch the moment his foot touched the ground, ‘very late indeed, gentlemen; I really must apologize, but it was the driver; I was punctual to the minute, I was indeed. But come, gentlemen, we won’t lose another moment,’ and Mr. Neverbend stepped out as though he were ready at an instant’s notice to plunge head foremost down the deepest shaft in all that region of mines.

‘Oh, sir, there a’n’t no cause of hurry whatsomever,’ said one of the mining authorities; ‘the day is long enough.’

‘Oh, but there is cause of hurry, Mr. Undershot,’ said Neverbend angrily ‘great cause of hurry; we must do this work very thoroughly; and I positively have not time to get through all that I have before me.

‘But-a’n’t the other gen’leman a-coming?’ asked Mr. Undershot.

‘Surely Mr. Tooder isn’t a going to cry off?’ said the other. ‘Why, he was so hot about it yesterday.’

‘Mr. Tudor is not very well this morning,’ said Mr. Neverbend. ‘As his going down is not necessary for the inquiry, and is merely a matter of taste on his part, he has not joined me this morning. Come, gentlemen, are we ready?’

It was then for the first time explained to Mr. Neverbend that he had to go through a rather complicated adjustment of his toilet before he would be considered fit to meet, the infernal gods. He must, he was informed, envelop himself from head to foot in miner’s habiliments, if he wished to save every stitch he had on him from dirt and destruction. He must also cover up his head with a linen cap, so constituted as to carry a lump of mud with a candle stuck in it, if he wished to save either his head from filth or his feet from falling. Now Mr. Neverbend, like most clerks in public offices, was somewhat particular about his wardrobe; it behoved him, as a gentleman frequenting the West End, to dress well, and it also behoved him to dress cheaply; he was, moreover, careful both as to his head and feet; he could not, therefore, reject the recommended precautions, but yet the time! — the time thus lost might destroy all.

He hurried into the shed where his toilet was to be made, and suffered himself to be prepared in the usual way. He took off his own great coat, and put on a muddy course linen jacket that covered the upper portion of his body completely; he then dragged on a pair of equally muddy overalls; and lastly submitted to a most uninviting cap, which came down over his ears, and nearly over his eyes, and on the brow of which a lump of mud was then affixed, bearing a short tallow candle.

But though dressed thus in miner’s garb, Mr. Neverbend could not be said to look the part he filled. He was a stout, reddish-faced gentleman, with round shoulders and huge whiskers, he was nearly bald, and wore spectacles, and in the costume in which he now appeared he did not seem to be at his ease. Indeed, all his air of command, all his personal dignity and dictatorial tone, left him as soon as he found himself metamorphosed into a fat pseudo-miner. He was like a cock whose feathers had been trailed through the mud, and who could no longer crow aloud, or claim the dunghill as his own. His appearance was somewhat that of a dirty dissipated cook who, having been turned out of one of the clubs for drunkenness, had been wandering about the streets all night. He began to wish that he was once more in the well-known neighbourhood of Charing Cross.

The adventure, however, must now be carried through. There was still enough of manhood in his heart to make him feel that he could not return to his colleague at Tavistock without visiting the wonders which he had come so far to see. When he reached the head of the shaft, however, the affair did appear to him to be more terrible than he had before conceived. He was invited to get into a rough square bucket, in which there was just room for himself and another to stand; he was specially cautioned to keep his head straight, and his hands and elbows from protruding, and then the windlass began to turn, and the upper world, the sunlight, and all humanity receded from his view.

The world receded from his view, but hardly soon enough; for as the windlass turned and the bucket descended, his last terrestrial glance, looking out among the heaps of mud, descried Alaric Tudor galloping on Mr. Boteldale’s pony up to the very mouth of the mine.

Facilis descensus Averni.’ The bucket went down easy enough, and all too quick. The manner in which it grounded itself on the first landing grated discordantly on Mr. Neverbend’s finer perceptibilities. But when he learnt, after the interchange of various hoarse and to him unintelligible bellowings, that he was to wait in that narrow damp lobby for the coming of his fellow-Commissioner, the grating on his feelings was even more discordant. He had not pluck enough left to grumble: but he grunted his displeasure. He grunted, however, in vain; for in about a quarter of an hour Alaric was close to him, shoulder to shoulder. He also wore a white jacket, &c., with a nightcap of mud and candle on his head; but somehow he looked as though he had worn them all his life. The fast gallop, and the excitement of the masquerade, which for him had charms the sterner Neverbend could not feel, had dissipated his sickness; and he was once more all himself.

‘So I’ve caught you at the first stage,’ said he, good-humouredly; for though he knew how badly he had been treated, he was much too wise to show his knowledge. ‘It shall go hard but I’ll distance you before we have done,’ he said to himself. Poor Neverbend only grunted.

And then they all went down a second stage in another bucket; and then a third in a third bucket; and then the business commenced. As far as this point passive courage alone had been required; to stand upright in a wooden tub and go down, and down, and down, was in itself easy enough, so long as the heart did not utterly faint. Mr. Neverbend’s heart had grown faintish, but still he had persevered, and now stood on a third lobby, listening with dull, unintelligent ears to eager questions asked, by his colleague, and to the rapid answers of their mining guides. Tudor was absolutely at work with paper and pencil, taking down notes in that wretched Pandemonium.

‘There now, sir,’ said the guide; ‘no more of them ugly buckets, Mr. Neverbend; we can trust to our own arms and legs for the rest of it, and so saying, he pointed out to Mr. Neverbend’s horror-stricken eyes a perpendicular iron ladder fixed firmly against the upright side of a shaft, and leading — for aught Mr. Neverbend could see — direct to hell itself.

‘Down here, is it?’ said Alaric peeping over.

‘I’ll go first,’ said the guide; and down he went, down, down, down, till Neverbend looking over, could barely see the glimmer of his disappearing head light. Was it absolutely intended that he should disappear in the same way? Had he bound himself to go down that fiendish upright ladder? And were he to go down it, what then? Would it be possible that a man of his weight should ever come up again?

‘Shall it be you or I next?’ said Alaric very civilly. Neverbend could only pant and grunt, and Alaric, with a courteous nod, placed himself on the ladder, and went down, down, down, till of him also nothing was left but the faintest glimmer. Mr. Neverbend remained above with one of the mining authorities; one attendant miner also remained with them.

‘Now, Sir,’ said the authority, ‘if you are ready, the ladder is quite free.’

Free! What would not Neverbend have given to be free also himself! He looked down the free ladder, and the very look made him sink. It seemed to him as though nothing but a spider could creep down that perpendicular abyss. And then a sound, slow, sharp, and continuous, as of drops falling through infinite space on to deep water, came upon his ear; and he saw that the sides of the abyss were covered with slime; and the damp air made him cough, and the cap had got over his spectacles and nearly blinded him; and he was perspiring with a cold, clammy sweat.

‘Well, sir, shall we be going on?’ said the authority. ‘Mr. Tooder’ll be at the foot of the next set before this.’

Mr. Neverbend wished that Mr. Tudor’s journey might still be down, and down, and down, till he reached the globe’s centre, in which conflicting attractions might keep him for ever fixed. In his despair he essayed to put one foot upon the ladder, and then looked piteously up to the guide’s face. Even in that dark, dingy atmosphere the light of the farthing candle on his head revealed the agony of his heart. His companions, though they were miners, were still men. They saw his misery, and relented.

‘Maybe thee be afeared?’ said the working miner, ‘and if so be thee bee’st, thee’d better bide.’

‘I am sure I should never come up again,’ said Neverbend, with a voice pleading for mercy, but with all the submission of one prepared to suffer without resistance if mercy should not be forthcoming.

‘Thee bee’st for sartan too thick and weazy like for them stairs,’ said the miner.

‘I am, I am,’ said Neverbend, turning on the man a look of the warmest affection, and shoving the horrid, heavy, encumbered cap from off his spectacles; ‘yes, I am too fat.’ How would he have answered, with what aspect would he have annihilated the sinner, had such a man dared to call him weazy up above, on terra firma, under the canopy of heaven?

His troubles, however, or at any rate his dangers, were brought to an end. As soon as it became plainly manifest that his zeal in the public service would carry him no lower, and would hardly suffice to keep life throbbing in his bosom much longer, even in his present level, preparations were made for his ascent. A bell was rung; hoarse voices were again heard speaking and answering in sounds quite unintelligible to a Cockney’s ears; chains rattled, the windlass whirled, and the huge bucket came tumbling down, nearly on their heads. Poor Neverbend was all but lifted into it. Where now was all the pride of the morn that had seen him go forth the great dictator of the mines? Where was that towering spirit with which he had ordered his tea and toast, and rebuked the slowness of his charioteer? Where the ambition that had soared so high over the pet of the Weights and Measures? Alas, alas! how few of us there are who have within us the courage to be great in adversity. ‘Aequam memento’—&c., &c.! — if thou couldst but have thought of it, O Neverbend, who need’st must some day die.

But Neverbend did not think of it. How few of us do remember such lessons at those moments in which they ought to be of use to us! He was all but lifted into the tub, and then out of it, and then again into another, till he reached the upper world, a sight piteous to behold. His spectacles had gone from him, his cap covered his eyes, his lamp had reversed itself, and soft globules of grease had fallen on his nose, he was bathed in perspiration, and was nevertheless chilled through to his very bones, his whiskers were fringed with mud, and his black cravat had been pulled from his neck and lost in some infernal struggle. Nevertheless, the moment in which he seated himself on a hard stool in that rough shed was perhaps the happiest in his life; some Christian brought him beer; had it been nectar from the brewery of the gods, he could not have drunk it with greater avidity.

By slow degrees he made such toilet as circumstances allowed, and then had himself driven back to Tavistock, being no more willing to wait for Tudor now than he had been in the early morning. But Jehu found him much more reasonable on his return; and as that respectable functionary pocketed his half-crown, he fully understood the spirit in which it was given. Poor Neverbend had not now enough pluck left in him to combat the hostility of a postboy.

Alaric, who of course contrived to see all that was to be seen, and learn all that was to be learnt, in the dark passages of the tin mine, was careful on his return to use his triumph with the greatest moderation. His conscience was, alas, burdened with the guilty knowledge of Undy’s shares. When he came to think of the transaction as he rode leisurely back to Tavistock, he knew how wrong he had been, and yet he felt a kind of triumph at the spoil which he held; for he had heard among the miners that the shares of Mary Jane were already going up to some incredible standard of value. In this manner, so said he to himself, had all the great minds of the present day made their money, and kept themselves afloat. ’Twas thus he tried to comfort himself; but not as yet successfully.

There were no more squabbles between Mr. Neverbend and Mr. Tudor; each knew that of himself, which made him bear and forbear; and so the two Commissioners returned to town on good terms with each other, and Alaric wrote a report, which delighted the heart of Sir Gregory Hardlines, ruined the opponents of the great tin mine, and sent the Mary Jane shares up, and up, and up, till speculating men thought that they could not give too high a price to secure them.

Alaric returned to town on Friday. It had been arranged that he, and Charley, and Norman, should all go down to Hampton on the Saturday; and then, on the following week, the competitive examination was to take place. But Alaric’s first anxiety after his return was to procure the £206, which he had to pay for the shares which he held in his pocket-book. He all but regretted, as he journeyed up to town, with the now tame Fidus seated opposite to him, that he had not disposed of them at Tavistock even at half their present value, so that he might have saved himself the necessity of being a borrower, and have wiped his hands of the whole affair.

He and Norman dined together at their club in Waterloo Place, the Pythagorean, a much humbler establishment than that patronized by Scott, and one that was dignified by no politics. After dinner, as they sat over their pint of sherry, Alaric made his request.

‘Harry,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you are always full of money — I want you to lend me £150.’

Norman was much less quick in his mode of speaking than his friend, and at the present moment was inclined to be somewhat slower than usual. This affair of the examination pressed upon his spirits, and made him dull and unhappy. During the whole of dinner he had said little or nothing, and had since been sitting listlessly gazing at vacancy, and balancing himself on the hind-legs of his chair.

‘O yes — certainly,’ said he; but he said it without the eagerness with which Alaric thought that he should have answered his request.

‘If it’s inconvenient, or if you don’t like it,’ said Alaric, the blood mounting to his forehead, ‘it does not signify. I can do without it.’

‘I can lend it you without any inconvenience,’ said Harry. ‘When do you want it — not to-night, I suppose?’

‘No — not to-night — I should like to have it early tomorrow morning; but I see you don’t like it, so I’ll manage it some other way.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by not liking it. I have not the slightest objection to lending you any money I can spare. I don’t think you’ll find any other of your friends who will like it better. You can have it by eleven o’clock tomorrow.’

Intimate as the two men were, there had hitherto been very little borrowing or lending between them; and now Alaric felt as though he owed it to his intimacy with his friend to explain to him why he wanted so large a sum in so short a time. He felt, moreover, that he would not himself be so much ashamed of what he had done if he could confess it to some one else. He could then solace himself with the reflection that he had done nothing secret. Norman, he supposed, would be displeased; but then Norman’s displeasure could not injure him, and with Norman there would be no danger that the affair would go any further.

‘You must think it very strange,’ said he, ‘that I should want such a sum; but the truth is I have bought some shares.’

‘Railway shares?’ said Norman, in a tone that certainly did not signify approval. He disliked speculation altogether, and had an old-fashioned idea that men who do speculate, should have money wherewith to do it.

‘No — not railway shares exactly.’

‘Canal?’ suggested Norman.

‘No — not canal.’

‘Gas?’

‘Mines,’ said Alaric, bringing out the dread truth at last.

Harry Norman’s brow grew very black. ‘Not that mine that you’ve been down about, I hope,’ said he.

‘Yes — that very identical Mary Jane that I went down, and down about,’ said Alaric, trying to joke on the subject. ‘Don’t look so very black, my dear fellow. I know all that you have to say upon the matter. I did what was very foolish, I dare say; but the idea never occurred to me till it was too late, that I might be suspected of making a false report on the subject, because I had embarked a hundred pounds in it.’

‘Alaric, if it were known —’

‘Then it mustn’t be known,’ said Tudor. ‘I am sorry for it; but, as I told you, the idea didn’t occur to me till it was too late. The shares are bought now, and must be paid for tomorrow. I shall sell them the moment I can, and you shall have the money in three or four days.’

‘I don’t care one straw about the money,’ said Norman, now quick enough, but still in great displeasure; ‘I would give double the amount that you had not done this.’

‘Don’t be so suspicious, Harry,’ said the other —‘don’t try to think the worst of your friend. By others, by Sir Gregory Hardlines, Neverbend, and such men, I might expect to be judged harshly in such a matter. But I have a right to expect that you will believe me. I tell you that I did this inadvertently, and am sorry for it; surely that ought to be sufficient.’

Norman said nothing more; but he felt that Tudor had done that which, if known, would disgrace him for ever. It might, however, very probably never be known; and it might also be that Tudor would never act so dishonestly again. On the following morning the money was paid; and in the course of the next week the shares were resold, and the money repaid, and Alaric Tudor, for the first time in his life, found himself to be the possessor of over three hundred pounds.

Such was the price which Scott, Manylodes, & Co., had found it worth their while to pay him for his good report on Mary Jane.

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