The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XI

The Three Kings

And now came the all-important week. On the Saturday the three young men went down to Hampton. Charley had lately been leading a very mixed sort of life. One week he would consort mainly with the houri of the Norfolk Street beer-shop, and the next he would be on his good behaviour, and live as respectably as circumstances permitted him to do. His scope in this respect was not large. The greatest respectability which his unassisted efforts could possibly achieve was to dine at a cheap eating-house, and spend his evenings, at a cigar divan. He belonged to no club, and his circle of friends, except in the houri and navvy line, was very limited. Who could expect that a young man from the Internal Navigation would sit for hours and hours alone in a dull London lodging, over his book and tea-cup? Who should expect that any young man will do so? And yet mothers, and aunts, and anxious friends, do expect it — very much in vain.

During Alaric’s absence at Tavistock, Norman had taken Charley by the hand and been with him a good deal. He had therefore spent an uncommonly respectable week, and the Norfolk Street houri would have been au désespoir, but that she had other Charleys to her bow. When he found himself getting into a first-class carriage at the Waterloo-bridge station with his two comrades, he began to appreciate the comfort of decency, and almost wished that he also had been brought up among the stern morals and hard work of the Weights and Measures.

Nothing special occurred at Surbiton Cottage. It might have been evident to a watchful bystander that Alaric was growing in favour with all the party, excepting Mrs. Woodward, and that, as he did so, Harry was more and more cherished by her.

This was specially shown in one little scene. Alaric had brought down with him to Hampton the documents necessary to enable him to draw out his report on Mary Jane. Indeed, it was all but necessary that he should do so, as his coming examination would leave him but little time for other business during the week. On Saturday night he sat up at his inn over the papers, and on Sunday morning, when Mrs. Woodward and the girls came down, ready bonneted, for church, he signified his intention of remaining at his work.

‘I certainly think he might have gone to church,’ said Mrs. Woodward, when the hall-door closed behind the party, as they started to their place of worship.

‘Oh! mamma, think how much he has to do,’ said Gertrude.

‘Nonsense,’ said Mrs. Woodward; ‘it’s all affectation, and he ought to go to church. Government clerks are not worked so hard as all that; are they, Harry?’

‘Alaric is certainly very busy, but I think he should go to church all the same,’ said Harry, who himself never omitted divine worship.

‘But surely this is a work of necessity?’ said Linda.

‘Fiddle-de-de,’ said Mrs. Woodward; ‘I hate affectation, my dear. It’s very grand, I dare say, for a young man’s services to be in such request that he cannot find time to say his prayers. He’ll find plenty of time for gossiping by and by, I don’t doubt.’

Linda could say nothing further, for an unbidden tear moistened her eyelid as she heard her mother speak so harshly of her lover. Gertrude, however, took up the cudgels for him, and so did Captain Cuttwater.

‘I think you are a little hard upon him, mamma,’ said Gertrude, ‘particularly when you know that, as a rule, he always goes to church. I have heard you say yourself what an excellent churchman he is.’

‘Young men change sometimes,’ said Mrs. Woodward.

‘Upon my word, Bessie, I think you are very uncharitable this fine Sunday morning,’ said the captain. ‘I wonder how you’ll feel if we have that chapter about the beam and the mote.’

Mrs. Woodward did not quite like being scolded by her uncle before her daughters, but she said nothing further. Katie, however, looked daggers at the old man from out her big bright eyes. What right had any man, were he ever so old, ever so much an uncle, to scold her mamma? Katie was inclined to join her mother and take Harry Norman’s side, for it was Harry Norman who owned the boat.

They were now at the church door, and they entered without saying anything further. Let us hope that charity, which surpasseth all other virtues, guided their prayers while they were there, and filled their hearts. In the meantime Alaric, unconscious how he had been attacked and how defended, worked hard at his Tavistock notes.

Mrs. Woodward was quite right in this, that the Commissioner of the Mines, though he was unable to find time to go to church, did find time to saunter about with the girls before dinner. Was it to be expected that he should not do so? for what other purpose was he there at Hampton?

They were all very serious this Sunday afternoon, and Katie could make nothing of them. She and Charley, indeed, went off by themselves to a desert island, or a place that would have been a desert island had the water run round it, and there built stupendous palaces and laid out glorious gardens. Charley was the most good-natured of men, and could he have only brought a boat with him, as Harry so often did, he would soon have been first favourite with Katie.

‘It shan’t be at all like Hampton Court,’ said Katie, speaking of the new abode which Charley was to build for her.

‘Not at all,’ said Charley.

‘Nor yet Buckingham Palace.’

‘No,’ said Charley, ‘I think we’ll have it Gothic.’

‘Gothic!’ said Katie, looking up at him with all her eyes. ‘Will Gothic be most grand? What’s Gothic?’

Charley began to consider. ‘Westminster Abbey,’ said he at last.

‘Oh — but Charley, I don’t want a church. Is the Alhambra Gothic?’

Charley was not quite sure, but thought it probably was. They decided, therefore, that the new palace should be built after the model of the Alhambra.

The afternoon was but dull and lugubrious to the remainder of the party. The girls seemed to feel that there was something solemn about the coming competition between two such dear friends, which prevented and should prevent them all from being merry. Harry perfectly sympathized in the feeling; and even Alaric, though depressed himself by no melancholy forebodings, was at any rate conscious that he should refrain from any apparent anticipation of a triumph. They all went to church in the evening; but even this amendment in Alaric’s conduct hardly reconciled him to Mrs. Woodward.

‘I suppose we shall all be very clever before long,’ said she, after tea; ‘but really I don’t know that we shall be any the better for it. Now in this office of yours, by the end of next week, there will be three or four men with broken hearts, and there will be one triumphant jackanapes, so conceited and proud, that he’ll never bring himself to do another good ordinary day’s work as long as he lives. Nothing will persuade me but that it is not only very bad, but very unjust also.’

‘The jackanapes must learn to put up with ordinary work,’ said Alaric, ‘or he’ll soon find himself reduced to his former insignificance.’

‘And the men with the broken hearts; they, I suppose, must put up with their wretchedness too,’ said Mrs. Woodward; ‘and their wives, also, and children, who have been looking forward for years to this vacancy as the period of their lives at which they are to begin to be comfortable. I hate such heartlessness. I hate the very name of Sir Gregory Hardlines.’

‘But, mamma, won’t the general effect be to produce a much higher class of education among the men?’ said Gertrude.

‘In the army and navy the best men get on the best,’ said Linda.

‘Do they, by jingo!’ said Uncle Bat. ‘It’s very little you know about the navy, Miss Linda.’

‘Well, then, at any rate they ought,’ said Linda.

‘I would have a competitive examination in every service,’ said Gertrude. ‘It would make young men ambitious. They would not be so idle and empty as they now are, if they had to contend in this way for every step upwards in the world.’

‘The world,’ said Mrs. Woodward, ‘will soon be like a fishpond, very full of fish, but with very little food for them. Every one is scrambling for the others’ prey, and they will end at last by eating one another. If Harry gets this situation, will not that unfortunate Jones, who for years has been waiting for it, always regard him as a robber?’

‘My maxim is this,’ said Uncle Bat; ‘if a youngster goes into any service, say the navy, and does his duty by his country like a man, why, he shouldn’t be passed over. Now look at me; I was on the books of the Catamaran, one of the old seventy-fours, in ‘96; I did my duty then and always; was never in the black book or laid up sick; was always rough and ready for any work that came to hand; and when I went into the Mudlark as lieutenant in year ‘9, little Bobby Howard had just joined the old Cat. as a young middy. And where am I now? and where is Bobby Howard? Why, d —— e, I’m on the shelf, craving the ladies’ pardon; and he’s a Lord of the Admiralty, if you please, and a Member of Parliament. Now I say Cuttwater’s as good a name as Howard for going to sea with any day; and if there’d been a competitive examination for Admiralty Lords five years ago, Bobby Howard would never have been where he is now, and somebody else who knows more about his profession than all the Howards put together, might perhaps have been in his place. And so, my lads, here’s to you, and I hope the best man will win.’

Whether Uncle Bat agreed with his niece or with his grandnieces was not very apparent from the line of his argument; but they all laughed at his eagerness, and nothing more was said that evening about the matter.

Alaric, Harry, and Charley, of course returned to town on the following day. Breakfast on Monday morning at Surbiton Cottage was an early affair when the young men were there; so early, that Captain Cuttwater did not make his appearance. Since his arrival at the cottage, Mrs. Woodward had found an excuse for a later breakfast in the necessity of taking it with her uncle; so that the young people were generally left alone. Linda was the family tea-maker, and was, therefore, earliest down; and Alaric being the first on this morning to leave the hotel, found her alone in the dining-room.

He had never renewed the disclosure of his passion; but Linda had thought that whenever he shook hands with her since that memorable walk, she had always felt a more than ordinary pressure. This she had been careful not to return, but she had not the heart to rebuke it. Now, when he bade her good morning, he certainly held her hand in his longer than he need have done. He looked at her too, as though his looks meant something more than ordinary looking; at least so Linda thought; but yet he said nothing, and so Linda, slightly trembling, went on with the adjustment of her tea-tray.

‘It will be all over, Linda, when we meet again,’ said Alaric. His mind she found was intent on his examination, not on his love. But this was natural, was as it should be. If — and she was certain in her heart that it would be so — if he should be successful, then he might speak of love without having to speak in the same breath of poverty as well. ‘It will be all over when we meet again,’ he said.

‘I suppose it will,’ said Linda.

‘I don’t at all like it; it seems so unnatural having to contend against one’s friend. And yet one cannot help it; one cannot allow one’s self to go to the wall’

‘I’m sure Harry doesn’t mind it,’ said Linda.

‘I’m sure I do,’ said he. ‘If I fail I shall be unhappy, and if I succeed I shall be equally so. I shall set all the world against me. I know what your mother meant when she talked of a jackanapes yesterday. If I get the promotion I may wish good-bye to Surbiton Cottage.’

‘Oh, Alaric!’

‘Harry would forgive me; but Harry’s friends would never do so.’

‘How can you say so? I am sure mamma has no such feeling, nor yet even Gertrude; I mean that none of us have.’

‘It is very natural all of you should, for he is your cousin.’

‘You are just the same as our cousin. I am sure we think quite as much of you as of Harry. Even Gertrude said she hoped that you would get it.’

‘Dear Gertrude!’

‘Because, you know, Harry does not want it so much as you do. I am sure I wish you success with all my heart. Perhaps it’s wicked to wish for either of you over the other; but you can’t both get it at once, you know.’

At this moment Katie came in, and soon afterwards Gertrude and the two other young men, and so nothing further was said on the subject.

Charley parted with the competitors at the corner of Waterloo Bridge. He turned into Somerset House, being there regarded on these Monday mornings as a prodigy of punctuality; and Alaric and Harry walked back along the Strand, arm-inarm, toward their own office.

‘Well, lads, I hope you’ll both win,’ said Charley. ‘And whichever wins most, why of course he’ll stand an uncommon good dinner.’

‘Oh! that’s of course,’ said Alaric. ‘We’ll have it at the Trafalgar.’

And so the two walked on together, arm-inarm, to the Weights and Measures.

The ceremony which was now about to take place at the Weights and Measures was ordained to be the first of those examinations which, under the auspices of Sir Gregory Hardlines, were destined to revivify, clarify, and render perfect the Civil Service of the country. It was a great triumph to Sir Gregory to see the darling object of his heart thus commencing its existence in the very cradle in which he, as an infant Hercules, had made his first exertions in the cause. It was to be his future fortune to superintend these intellectual contests, in a stately office of his own, duly set apart and appointed for the purpose. But the throne on which he was to sit had not yet been prepared for him, and he was at present constrained to content himself with exercising his power, now here and now there, according as his services might be required, carrying the appurtenances of his royalty about with him.

But Sir Gregory was not a solitary monarch. In days long gone by there were, as we all know, three kings at Cologne, and again three kings at Brentford. So also were there three kings at the Civil Service Examination Board. But of these three Sir Gregory was by far the greatest king. He sat in the middle, had two thousand jewels to his crown, whereas the others had only twelve hundred each, and his name ran first in all the royal warrants. Nevertheless, Sir Gregory, could he have had it so, would, like most other kings, have preferred an undivided sceptre.

Of his co-mates on the throne the elder in rank was a west country baronet, who, not content with fatting beeves and brewing beer like his sires, aspired to do something for his country. Sir Warwick Westend was an excellent man, full of the best intentions, and not more than decently anxious to get the good things of Government into his hand. He was, perhaps, rather too much inclined to think that he could see further through a millstone than another, and had a way of looking as though he were always making the attempt. He was a man born to grace, if not his country, at any rate his county; and his conduct was uniformly such as to afford the liveliest satisfaction to his uncles, aunts, and relations in general. If as a king he had a fault, it was this, that he allowed that other king, Sir Gregory, to carry him in his pocket.

But Sir Gregory could not at all get the third king into his pocket. This gentleman was a worthy clergyman from Cambridge, one Mr. Jobbles by name. Mr. Jobbles had for many years been examining undergraduates for little goes and great goes, and had passed his life in putting posing questions, in detecting ignorance by viva voce scrutiny, and eliciting learning by printed papers. He, by a stupendous effort of his mathematical mind, had divided the adult British male world into classes and sub-classes, and could tell at a moment’s notice how long it would take him to examine them all. His soul panted for the work. Every man should, he thought, be made to pass through some ‘go.’ The greengrocer’s boy should not carry out cabbages unless his fitness for cabbage-carrying had been ascertained, and till it had also been ascertained that no other boy, ambitious of the preferment, would carry them better. Difficulty! There was no difficulty. Could not he, Jobbles, get through 5,000 viva voces in every five hours — that is, with due assistance? and would not 55,000 printed papers, containing 555,000 questions, be getting themselves answered at the same time, with more or less precision?

So now Mr. Jobbles was about to try his huge plan by a small commencement.

On the present occasion the examination was actually to be carried on by two of the kings in person. Sir Gregory had declared that as so large a portion of his heart and affections was bound up with the gentlemen of the Weights and Measures, he could not bring himself actually to ask questions of them, and then to listen to or read their answers. Should any of his loved ones make some fatal faux pas, his tears, like those of the recording angel, would blot out the error. His eyes would refuse to see faults, if there should be faults, in those whom he himself had nurtured. Therefore, though he came with his colleagues to the Weights and Measures, he did not himself take part in the examination.

At eleven o’clock the Board-room was opened, and the candidates walked in and seated themselves. Fear of Sir Gregory, and other causes, had thinned the number. Poor Jones, who by right of seniority should have had the prize, declined to put himself in competition with his juniors, and in lieu thereof sent up to the Lords of the Treasury an awful memorial spread over fifteen folio pages — very uselessly. The Lords of the Treasury referred it to the three kings, whose secretary put a minute upon it. Sir Gregory signed the minute, and some gentleman at the Treasury wrote a short letter to Mr. Jones, apprising that unhappy gentleman that my Lords had taken the matter into their fullest consideration, and that nothing could be done to help him. Had Jones been consulted by any other disappointed Civil Service Werter as to the expediency of complaining to the Treasury Lords, Jones would have told him exactly what would be the result. The disappointed one, however, always thinks that all the Treasury Lords will give all their ears to him, though they are deafer than Icarus to the world beside.

Robinson stood his ground like a man; but Brown found out, a day or two before the struggle came, that he could not bring himself to stand against his friend. Jones, he said, he knew was incompetent, but Robinson ought to get it; so he, for one, would not stand in Robinson’s way.

Uppinall was there, as confident as a bantam cock; and so was Alphabet Precis, who had declared to all his friends that if the pure well of official English undefiled was to count for anything, he ought to be pretty safe. But poor Minusex was ill, and sent a certificate. He had so crammed himself with unknown quantities, that his mind — like a gourmand’s stomach — had broken down under the effort, and he was now sobbing out algebraic positions under his counterpane.

Norman and Alaric made up the five who still had health, strength, and pluck to face the stern justice of the new kings; and they accordingly took their seats on five chairs, equally distant, placing themselves in due order of seniority.

And then, first of all, Sir Gregory made a little speech, standing up at the head of the Board-room table, with an attendant king on either hand, and the Secretary, and two Assistant-Secretaries, standing near him. Was not this a proud moment for Sir Gregory?

‘It had now become his duty,’ he said, ‘to take his position in that room, that well-known, well-loved room, under circumstances of which he had little dreamt when he first entered it with awe-struck steps, in the days of his early youth. But, nevertheless, even then ambition had warmed him. That ambition had been to devote every energy of his mind, every muscle of his body, every hour of his life, to the Civil Service of his country. It was not much, perhaps, that he had been able to do; he could not boast of those acute powers of mind, of that gigantic grasp of intellect, of which they saw in those days so wonderful an example in a high place.’ Sir Gregory here gratefully alluded to that statesman who had given him his present appointment. ‘But still he had devoted all his mind, such as it was, and every hour of his life, to the service; and now he had his reward. If he might be allowed to give advice to the gentlemen before him, gentlemen of whose, admirable qualifications for the Civil Service of the country he himself was so well aware, his advice should be this — That they should look on none of their energies as applicable to private purposes, regard none of their hours as their own. They were devoted in a peculiar way to the Civil Service, and they should feel that such was their lot in life. They should know that their intellects were a sacred pledge intrusted to them for the good of that service, and should use them accordingly. This should be their highest ambition. And what higher ambition,’ asked Sir Gregory, ‘could they have? They all, alas! knew that the service had been disgraced in other quarters by idleness, incompetency, and, he feared he must say, dishonesty; till incompetency and dishonesty had become, not the exception, but the rule. It was too notorious that the Civil Service was filled by the family fools of the aristocracy and middle classes, and that any family who had no fool to send, sent in lieu thereof some invalid past hope. Thus the service had become a hospital for incurables and idiots. It was,’ said Sir Gregory, ‘for him and them to cure all that. He would not,’ he said, ‘at that moment, say anything with reference to salaries. It was, as they were all aware, a very difficult subject, and did not seem to be necessarily connected with the few remarks which the present opportunity had seemed to him to call for.’ He then told them they were all his beloved children; that they were a credit to the establishment; that he handed them over without a blush to his excellent colleagues, Sir Warwick Westend and Mr. Jobbles, and that he wished in his heart that each of them could be successful. And having so spoken, Sir Gregory went his way.

It was beautiful then to see how Mr. Jobbles swam down the long room and handed out his examination papers to the different candidates as he passed them. ’Twas a pity there should have been but five; the man did it so well, so quickly, with such a gusto! He should have been allowed to try his hand upon five hundred instead of five. His step was so rapid and his hand and arm moved so dexterously, that no conceivable number would have been too many for him. But, even with five, he showed at once that the right man was in the right place. Mr. Jobbles was created for the conducting of examinations.

And then the five candidates, who had hitherto been all ears, of a sudden became all eyes, and devoted themselves in a manner which would have been delightful to Sir Gregory, to the papers before them. Sir Warwick, in the meantime, was seated in his chair, hard at work looking through his millstone.

It is a dreadful task that of answering examination papers — only to be exceeded in dreadfulness by the horrors of Mr. Jobbles’ viva voce torments. A man has before him a string of questions, and he looks painfully down them, from question to question, searching for some allusion to that special knowledge which he has within him. He too often finds that no such allusion is made. It appears that the Jobbles of the occasion has exactly known the blank spots of his mind and fitted them all. He has perhaps crammed himself with the winds and tides, and there is no more reference to those stormy subjects than if Luna were extinct; but he has, unfortunately, been loose about his botany, and question after question would appear to him to have been dictated by Sir Joseph Paxton or the head-gardener at Kew. And then to his own blank face and puzzled look is opposed the fast scribbling of some botanic candidate, fast as though reams of folio could hardly contain all the knowledge which he is able to pour forth.

And so, with a mixture of fast-scribbling pens and blank faces, our five friends went to work. The examination lasted for four days, and it was arranged that on each of the four days each of the five candidates should be called up to undergo a certain quantum of Mr. Jobbles’ viva voce. This part of his duty Mr. Jobbles performed with a mildness of manner that was beyond all praise. A mother training her first-born to say ‘papa,’ could not do so with a softer voice, or more affectionate demeanour.

‘The planet Jupiter,’ said he to Mr. Precis; ‘I have no doubt you know accurately the computed distance of that planet from the sun, and also that of our own planet. Could you tell me now, how would you calculate the distance in inches, say from London Bridge to the nearest portion of Jupiter’s disc, at twelve o’clock on the first of April?’ Mr. Jobbles, as he put his little question, smiled the sweetest of smiles, and spoke in a tone conciliating and gentle, as though he were asking Mr. Precis to dine with him and take part of a bottle of claret at half-past six.

But, nevertheless, Mr. Precis looked very blank.

‘I am not asking the distance, you know,’ said Mr. Jobbles, smiling sweeter than ever; ‘I am only asking how you would compute it.’

But still Mr. Precis looked exceedingly blank.

‘Never mind,’ said Mr. Jobbles, with all the encouragement which his voice could give, ‘never mind. Now, suppose that a be a milestone; b a turnpike-gate — ’ and so on.

But Mr. Jobbles, in spite of his smiles, so awed the hearts of some of his candidates, that two of them retired at the end of the second day. Poor Robinson, thinking, and not without sufficient ground, that he had not a ghost of a chance, determined to save himself from further annoyance; and then Norman, put utterly out of conceit with himself by what he deemed the insufficiency of his answers, did the same. He had become low in spirits, unhappy in temperament, and self-diffident to a painful degree. Alaric, to give him his due, did everything in his power to persuade him to see the task out to the last. But the assurance and composure of Alaric’s manner did more than anything else to provoke and increase Norman’s discomfiture. He had been schooling himself to bear a beating with a good grace, and he began to find that he could only bear it as a disgrace. On the morning of the third day, instead of taking his place in the Board-room, he sent in a note to Mr. Jobbles, declaring that he withdrew from the trial. Mr. Jobbles read the note, and smiled with satisfaction as he put it into his pocket. It was an acknowledgement of his own unrivalled powers as an Examiner.

Mr. Precis, still trusting to his pure well, went on to the end, and at the end declared that so ignorant was Mr. Jobbles of his duty that he had given them no opportunity of showing what they could do in English composition. Why had he not put before them the papers in some memorable official case, and desired them to make an abstract; those, for instance, on the much-vexed question of penny versus pound, as touching the new standard for the decimal coinage? Mr. Jobbles an Examiner indeed! And so Mr. Precis bethought himself that he also, if unsuccessful, would go to the Lords of the Treasury.

And Mr. Uppinall and Alaric Tudor also went on. Those who knew anything of the matter, when they saw how the running horses were reduced in number, and what horses were left on the course — when they observed also how each steed came to the post on each succeeding morning, had no doubt whatever of the result. So that when Alaric was declared on the Saturday morning to have gained the prize, there was very little astonishment either felt or expressed at the Weights and Measures.

Alaric’s juniors wished him joy with some show of reality in their manner; but the congratulations of his seniors, including the Secretary and Assistant-Secretaries, the new Chief Clerk and the men in the class to which he was now promoted, were very cold indeed. But to this he was indifferent. It was the nature of Tudor’s disposition, that he never for a moment rested satisfied with the round of the ladder on which he had contrived to place himself. He had no sooner gained a step than he looked upwards to see how the next step was to be achieved. His motto might well have been ‘Excelsior!’ if only he could have taught himself to look to heights that were really high. When he found that the august Secretary received him on his promotion without much empressement, he comforted himself by calculating how long it would be before he should fill that Secretary’s chair — if indeed it should ever be worth his while to fill it.

The Secretary at the Weights and Measures had, after all, but a dull time of it, and was precluded by the routine of his office from parliamentary ambition and the joys of government. Alaric was already beginning to think that this Weights and Measures should only be a stepping-stone to him; and that when Sir Gregory, with his stern dogma of devotion to the service, had been of sufficient use to him, he also might with advantage be thrown over. In the meantime an income of £600 a year brought with it to the young bachelor some very comfortable influence. But the warmest and the pleasantest of all the congratulations which he received was from his dear friend Undy Scott.

‘Ah, my boy,’ said Undy, pressing his hand, ‘you’ll soon be one of us. By the by, I want to put you up for the Downing; you should leave that Pythagorean: there’s nothing to be got by it.’

Now, the Downing was a political club, in which, however, politics had latterly become a good deal mixed. But the Government of the day generally found there a liberal support, and recognized and acknowledged its claim to consideration.

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