The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XVIII

A Day with One of the Navvies. — Morning

On the morning after this conversation with Alaric, Charley left his lodgings with a heavy heart, and wended his way towards Mecklenburg Square. At the corner of Davies Street he got an omnibus, which for fourpence took him to one of the little alleys near Gray’s Inn, and there he got down, and threading the well-known locality, through Bedford Place and across Theobald’s Road, soon found himself at the door of his generous patron. Oh! how he hated the house; how he hated the blear-eyed, cross-grained, dirty, impudent fish-fag of an old woman who opened the door for him; how he hated Mr. Jabesh M’Ruen, to whom he now came a supplicant for assistance, and how, above all, he hated himself for being there.

He was shown into Mr. M’Ruen’s little front parlour, where he had to wait for fifteen minutes, while his patron made such a breakfast as generally falls to the lot of such men. We can imagine the rancid butter, the stale befingered bread, the ha’porth of sky-blue milk, the tea innocent of China’s wrongs, and the soiled cloth. Mr. M’Ruen always did keep Charley waiting fifteen minutes, and so he was no whit surprised; the doing so was a part of the tremendous interest which the wretched old usurer received for his driblets of money.

There was not a bit of furniture in the room on which Charley had not speculated till speculation could go no further; the old escritoire or secrétaire which Mr. M’Ruen always opened the moment he came into the room; the rickety Pembroke table, covered with dirty papers which stood in the middle of it; the horsehair-bottomed chairs, on which Charley declined to sit down, unless he had on his thickest winter trousers, so perpendicular had become some atoms on the surface, which, when new, had no doubt been horizontal; the ornaments (!) on the chimney, broken bits of filthy crockery, full of wisps of paper, with a china duck without a tail, and a dog to correspond without a head; the pictures against the wall, with their tarnished dingy frames and cracked glasses, representing three of the Seasons; how the fourth had gone before its time to its final bourne by an unhappy chance, Mr. M’Ruen had once explained to Charley, while endeavouring to make his young customer take the other three as a good value for £7 10s. in arranging a little transaction, the total amount of which did not exceed £15.

In that instance, however, Charley, who had already dabbled somewhat deeply in dressing-cases, utterly refused to trade in the articles produced.

Charley stood with his back to the dog and duck, facing Winter, with Spring on his right and Autumn on his left; it was well that Summer was gone, no summer could have shed light on that miserable chamber. He knew that he would have to wait, and was not therefore impatient, and at the end of fifteen minutes Mr. M’Ruen shuffled into the room in his slippers.

He was a little man, with thin grey hair, which stood upright from his narrow head — what his age might have been it was impossible to guess; he was wizened, and dry, and grey, but still active enough on his legs when he had exchanged his slippers for his shoes; and as keen in all his senses as though years could never tell upon him.

He always wore round his neck a stiff-starched deep white handkerchief, not fastened with a bow in front, the ends being tucked in so as to be invisible. This cravat not only covered his throat but his chin also, so that his head seemed to grow forth from it without the aid of any neck; and he had a trick of turning his face round within it, an inch or two to the right or to the left, in a manner which seemed to indicate that his cranium was loose and might be removed at pleasure.

He shuffled into the room where Charley was standing with little short quick steps, and putting out his hand, just touched that of his customer, by way of going through the usual process of greeting.

Some short statement must be made of Charley’s money dealings with Mr. M’Ruen up to this period. About two years back a tailor had an over-due bill of his for £20, of which he was unable to obtain payment, and being unwilling to go to law, or perhaps being himself in Mr. M’Ruen’s power, he passed this bill to that worthy gentleman — what amount of consideration he got for it, it matters not now to inquire; Mr. M’Ruen very shortly afterwards presented himself at the Internal Navigation, and introduced himself to our hero. He did this with none of the overbearing harshness of the ordinary dun, or the short caustic decision of a creditor determined to resort to the utmost severity of the law. He turned his head about and smiled, and just showed the end of the bill peeping out from among a parcel of others, begged Mr. Tudor to be punctual, he would only ask him to be punctual, and would in such case do anything for him, and ended his visit by making an appointment to meet Charley in the little street behind Mecklenburg Square. Charley kept his appointment, and came away from Mr. M’Ruen’s with a well-contented mind. He had, it is true, left £5 behind him, and had also left the bill, still entire; but he had obtained a promise of unlimited assistance from the good-natured gentleman, and had also received instructions how he was to get a brother clerk to draw a bill, how he was to accept it himself, and how his patron was to discount it for him, paying him real gold out of the Bank of England in exchange for his worthless signature.

Charley stepped lighter on the ground as he left Mr. M’Ruen’s house on that eventful morning than he had done for many a day. There was something delightful in the feeling that he could make money of his name in this way, as great bankers do of theirs, by putting it at the bottom of a scrap of paper. He experienced a sort of pride too in having achieved so respectable a position in the race of ruin which he was running, as to have dealings with a bill-discounter. He felt that he was putting himself on a par with great men, and rising above the low level of the infernal navvies. Mr. M’Ruen had pulled the bill out of a heap of bills which he always carried in his huge pocket-book, and showed to Charley the name of an impoverished Irish peer on the back of it; and the sight of that name had made Charley quite in love with rum. He already felt that he was almost hand-and-glove with Lord Mount-Coffeehouse; for it was a descendant of the nobleman so celebrated in song. ‘Only be punctual, Mr. Tudor; only be punctual, and I will do anything for you,’ Mr. M’Ruen had said, as Charley left the house. Charley, however, never had been punctual, and yet his dealings with Mr. M’Ruen had gone on from that day to this. What absolute money he had ever received into his hand he could not now have said, but it was very little, probably not amounting in all to £50. Yet he had already paid during the two years more than double that sum to this sharp-clawed vulture, and still owed him the amounts of more bills than he could number. Indeed he had kept no account of these double-fanged little documents; he had signed them whenever told to do so, and had even been so preposterously foolish as to sign them in blank. All he knew was that at the beginning of every quarter Mr. M’Ruen got nearly the half of his little modicum of salary, and that towards the middle of it he usually contrived to obtain an advance of some small, some very small sum, and that when doing so he always put his hand to a fresh bit of paper.

He was beginning to be heartily sick of the bill-discounter. His intimacy with the lord had not yet commenced, nor had he experienced any of the delights which he had expected to accrue to him from the higher tone of extravagance in which he entered when he made Mr. M’Ruen’s acquaintance. And then the horrid fatal waste of time which he incurred in pursuit of the few pounds which he occasionally obtained, filled even his heart with a sort of despair. Morning after morning he would wait in that hated room; and then day after day, at two o’clock, he would attend the usurer’s city haunt — and generally all in vain. The patience of Mr. Snape was giving way, and the discipline even of the Internal Navigation felt itself outraged.

And now Charley stood once more in that dingy little front parlour in which he had never yet seen a fire, and once more Mr. Jabesh M’Ruen shuffled into the room in his big cravat and dirty loose slippers.

‘How d’ye do, Mr. Tudor, how d’ye do? I hope you have brought a little of this with you;’ and Jabesh opened out his left hand, and tapped the palm of it with the middle finger of his right, by way of showing that he expected some money: not that he did expect any, cormorant that he was; this was not the period of the quarter in which he ever got money from his customer.

‘Indeed I have not, Mr. M’Ruen; but I positively must get some.’

‘Oh — oh — oh — oh — Mr. Tudor — Mr. Tudor! How can we go on if you are so unpunctual? Now I would do anything for you if you would only be punctual.’

‘Oh! bother about that — you know your own game well enough.’

‘Be punctual, Mr. Tudor, only be punctual, and we shall be all right — and so you have not got any of this?’ and Jabesh went through the tapping again.

‘Not a doit,’ said Charley; ‘but I shall be up the spout altogether if you don’t do something to help me.’

‘But you are so unpunctual, Mr. Tudor.’

‘Oh, d —— it; you’ll make me sick if you say that again. What else do you live by but that? But I positively must have some money from you today. If not I am done for.’

‘I don’t think I can, Mr. Tudor; not today, Mr. Tudor — some other day, say this day month; that is, if you’ll be punctual.’

‘This day month! no, but this very day, Mr. M’Ruen — why, you got £18 from me when I received my last salary, and I have not had a shilling back since.’

‘But you are so unpunctual, Mr. Tudor,’ and Jabesh twisted his head backwards and forwards within his cravat, rubbing his chin with the interior starch.

‘Well, then, I’ll tell you what it is,’ said Charley, ‘I’ll be shot if you get a shilling from me on the 1st of October, and you may sell me up as quick as you please. If I don’t give a history of your business that will surprise some people, my name isn’t Tudor.’

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed Mr. M’Ruen, with a soft quiet laugh.

‘Well, really, Mr. Tudor, I would do more for you than any other young man that I know, if you were only a little more punctual. How much is it you want now?’

‘£15 — or £10 —£10 will do.’

‘Ten pounds!’ said Jabesh, as though Charley had asked for ten thousand —‘ten pounds! — if two or three would do —’

‘But two or three won’t do.’

‘And whose name will you bring?’

‘Whose name! why Scatterall’s, to be sure.’ Now Scatterall was one of the navvies; and from him Mr. M’Ruen had not yet succeeded in extracting one farthing, though he had his name on a volume of Charley’s bills.

‘Scatterall — I don’t like Mr. Scatterall,’ said Jabesh; ‘he is very dissipated, and the most unpunctual young man I ever met — you really must get some one else, Mr. Tudor; you really must.’

‘Oh, that’s nonsense — Scatterall is as good as anybody — I couldn’t ask any of the other fellows — they are such a low set.’

‘But Mr. Scatterall is so unpunctual. There’s your cousin, Mr. Alaric Tudor.’

‘My cousin Alaric! Oh, nonsense! you don’t suppose I’d ask him to do such a thing? You might as well tell me to go to my father.’

‘Or that other gentleman you live with; Mr. Norman. He is a most punctual gentleman. Bring me his name, and I’ll let you have £10 or £8 — I’ll let you have £8 at once.’

‘I dare say you will, Mr. M’Ruen, or £80; and be only too happy to give it me. But you know that is out of the question. Now I won’t wait any longer; just give me an answer to this: if I come to you in the city will you let me have some money today? If you won’t, why I must go elsewhere — that’s all.’

The interview ended by an appointment being made for another meeting to come off at two p.m. that day, at the ‘Banks of Jordan,’ a public-house in Sweeting’s Alley, as well known to Charley as the little front parlour of Mr. M’Ruen’s house. ‘Bring the bill-stamp with you, Mr. Tudor,’ said Jabesh, by way of a last parting word of counsel; ‘and let Mr. Scatterall sign it — that is, if it must be Mr. Scatterall; but I wish you would bring your cousin’s name.’

‘Nonsense!’

‘Well, then, bring it signed — but I’ll fill it; you young fellows understand nothing of filling in a bill properly.’

And then taking his leave the infernal navvy hurried off, and reached his office in Somerset House at a quarter past eleven o’clock. As he walked along he bought the bit of stamped paper on which his friend Scatterall was to write his name.

When he reached the office he found that a great commotion was going on. Mr. Snape was standing up at his desk, and the first word which greeted Charley’s ears was an intimation from that gentleman that Mr. Oldeschole had desired that Mr. Tudor, when he arrived, should be instructed to attend in the board-room.

‘Very well,’ said Charley, in a tone of great indifference, ‘with all my heart; I rather like seeing Oldeschole now and then. But he mustn’t keep me long, for I have to meet my grandmother at Islington at two o’clock;’ and Charley, having hung up his hat, prepared to walk off to the Secretary’s room.

‘You’ll be good enough to wait a few minutes, Mr. Tudor,’ said Snape. ‘Another gentleman is with Mr. Oldeschole at present. You will be good enough to sit down and go on with the Kennett and Avon lock entries, till Mr. Oldeschole is ready to see you.’

Charley sat down at his desk opposite to his friend Scatterall. ‘I hope, Mr. Snape, you had a pleasant meeting at evening prayers yesterday,’ said he, with a tone of extreme interest.

‘You had better mind the lock entries at present, Mr. Tudor; they are greatly in arrear.’

‘And the evening meetings are docketed up as close as wax, I suppose. What the deuce is in the wind, Dick?’ Mr. Scatterall’s Christian name was Richard. ‘Where’s Corkscrew?’ Mr. Corkscrew was also a navvy, and was one of those to whom Charley had specially alluded when he spoke of the low set.

‘Oh, here’s a regular go,’ said Scatterall. ‘It’s all up with Corkscrew, I believe.’

‘Why, what’s the cheese now?’

‘Oh! it’s all about some pork chops, which Screwy had for supper last night.’ Screwy was a name of love which among his brother navvies was given to Mr. Corkscrew. ‘Mr. Snape seems to think they did not agree with him.’

‘Pork chops in July!’ exclaimed Charley.

‘Poor Screwy forgot the time of year,’ said another navvy; ‘he ought to have called it lamb and grass.’

And then the story was told. On the preceding afternoon, Mr. Corkscrew had been subjected to the dire temptation of a boating party to the Eel-pie Island for the following day, and a dinner thereon. There were to be at the feast no less than four-and-twenty jolly souls, and it was intimated to Mr. Corkscrew that as no soul was esteemed to be more jolly than his own, the party would be considered as very imperfect unless he could join it. Asking for a day’s leave Mr. Corkscrew knew to be out of the question; he had already taken too many without asking. He was therefore driven to take another in the same way, and had to look about for some excuse which might support him in his difficulty. An excuse it must be, not only new, but very valid; one so strong that it could not be overset; one so well avouched that it could not be doubted. Accordingly, after mature consideration, he sat down after leaving his office, and wrote the following letter, before he started on an evening cruising expedition with some others of the party to prepare for the next day’s festivities.

‘Thursday morning — July, 185-.

‘MY DEAR SIR,

‘I write from my bed where I am suffering a most tremendous indiggestion, last night I eat a stunning supper off pork chopps and never remembered that pork chopps always does disagree with me, but I was very indiscrete and am now teetotally unable to rise my throbing head from off my pillar, I have took four blu pills and some salts and sena, plenty of that, and shall be the thing tomorrow morning no doubt, just at present I feel just as if I had a mill stone inside my stomac — Pray be so kind as to make it all right with Mr. Oldeschole and believe me to remain,

‘Your faithful and obedient servant,

‘VERAX CORKSCREW.

‘Thomas Snape, Esq., &c.,

‘Internal Navigation Office, Somerset House.’

Having composed this letter of excuse, and not intending to return to his lodgings that evening, he had to make provision for its safely reaching the hands of Mr. Snape in due time on the following morning. This he did, by giving it to the boy who came to clean the lodging-house boots, with sundry injunctions that if he did not deliver it at the office by ten o’clock on the following morning, the sixpence accruing to him would never be paid. Mr. Corkscrew, however, said nothing as to the letter not being delivered before ten the next morning, and as other business took the boy along the Strand the same evening, he saw no reason why he should not then execute his commission. He accordingly did so, and duly delivered the letter into the hands of a servant girl, who was cleaning the passages of the office.

Fortune on this occasion was blind to the merits of Mr. Corkscrew, and threw him over most unmercifully. It so happened that Mr. Snape had been summoned to an evening conference with Mr. Oldeschole and the other pundits of the office, to discuss with them, or rather to hear discussed, some measure which they began to think it necessary to introduce, for amending the discipline of the department.

‘We are getting a bad name, whether we deserve it or not,’ said Mr. Oldeschole. ‘That fellow Hardlines has put us into his blue-book, and now there’s an article in the Times!’

Just at this moment, a messenger brought in to Mr. Snape the unfortunate letter of which we have given a copy.

‘What’s that?’ said Mr. Oldeschole.

‘A note from Mr. Corkscrew, sir,’ said Snape.

‘He’s the worst of the whole lot,’ said Mr. Oldeschole.

‘He is very bad,’ said Snape; ‘but I rather think that perhaps, sir, Mr. Tudor is the worst of all.’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ said the Secretary, muttering sotto voce to the Under-Secretary, while Mr. Snape read the letter —‘Tudor, at any rate, is a gentleman.’

Mr. Snape read the letter, and his face grew very long. There was a sort of sneaking civility about Corkscrew, not prevalent indeed at all times, but which chiefly showed itself when he and Mr. Snape were alone together, which somewhat endeared him to the elder clerk. He would have screened the sinner had he had either the necessary presence of mind or the necessary pluck. But he had neither. He did not know how to account for the letter but by the truth, and he feared to conceal so flagrant a breach of discipline at the moment of the present discussion.

Things at any rate so turned out that Mr. Corkscrew’s letter was read in full conclave in the board-room of the office, just as he was describing the excellence of his manoeuvre with great glee to four or five other jolly souls at the ‘Magpie and Stump.’

At first it was impossible to prevent a fit of laughter, in which even Mr. Snape joined; but very shortly the laughter gave way to the serious considerations to which such an epistle was sure to give rise at such a moment. What if Sir Gregory Hardlines should get hold of it and put it into his blue-book! What if the Times should print it and send it over the whole world, accompanied by a few of its most venomous touches, to the eternal disgrace of the Internal Navigation, and probably utter annihilation of Mr. Oldeschole’s official career! An example must be made!

Yes, an example must be made. Messengers were sent off scouring the town for Mr. Corkscrew, and about midnight he was found, still true to the ‘Magpie and Stump,’ but hardly in condition to understand the misfortune which had befallen him. So much as this, however, did make itself manifest to him, that he must by no means join his jolly-souled brethren at the Eel-pie Island, and that he must be at his office punctually at ten o’clock the next morning if he had any intention of saving himself from dismissal. When Charley arrived at his office, Mr. Corkscrew was still with the authorities, and Charley’s turn was to come next.

Charley was rather a favourite with Mr. Oldeschole, having been appointed by himself at the instance of Mr. Oldeschole’s great friend, Sir Gilbert de Salop; and he was, moreover, the best-looking of the whole lot of navvies; but he was no favourite with Mr. Snape.

‘Poor Screwy — it will be all up with him,’ said Charley. ‘He might just as well have gone on with his party and had his fun out.’

‘It will, I imagine, be necessary to make more than one example, Mr. Tudor,’ said Mr. Snape, with a voice of utmost severity.

‘A-a-a-men,’ said Charley. ‘If everything else fails, I think I’ll go into the green line. You couldn’t give me a helping hand, could you, Mr. Snape?’ There was a rumour afloat in the office that Mr. Snape’s wife held some little interest in a small greengrocer’s establishment.

‘Mr. Tudor to attend in the board-room, immediately,’ said a fat messenger, who opened the door wide with a start, and then stood with it in his hand while he delivered the message.

‘All right,’ said Charley; ‘I’ll tumble up and be with them in ten seconds;’ and then collecting together a large bundle of the arrears of the Kennett and Avon lock entries, being just as much as he could carry, he took the disordered papers and placed them on Mr. Snape’s desk, exactly over the paper on which he was writing, and immediately under his nose.

‘Mr. Tudor — Mr. Tudor!’ said Snape.

‘As I am to tear myself away from you, Mr. Snape, it is better that I should hand over these valuable documents to your safe keeping. There they are, Mr. Snape; pray see that you have got them all;’ and so saying, he left the room to attend to the high behests of Mr. Oldeschole.

As he went along the passages he met Verax Corkscrew returning from his interview. ‘Well, Screwy,’ said he, ‘and how fares it with you? Pork chops are bad things in summer, ain’t they?’

‘It’s all U-P,’ said Corkscrew, almost crying. ‘I’m to go down to the bottom, and I’m to stay at the office till seven o’clock every day for a month; and old Foolscap says he’ll ship me the next time I’m absent half-an-hour without leave.’

‘Oh! is that all?’ said Charley. ‘If that’s all you get for pork chops and senna, I’m all right. I shouldn’t wonder if I did not get promoted;’ and so he went in to his interview.

What was the nature of the advice given him, what amount of caution he was called on to endure, need not here be exactly specified. We all know with how light a rod a father chastises the son he loves, let Solomon have given what counsel he may to the contrary. Charley, in spite of his manifold sins, was a favourite, and he came forth from the board-room an unscathed man. In fact, he had been promoted as he had surmised, seeing that Corkscrew who had been his senior was now his junior. He came forth unscathed, and walking with an easy air into his room, put his hat on his head and told his brother clerks that he should be there tomorrow morning at ten, or at any rate soon after.

‘And where are you going now, Mr. Tudor?’ said Snape.

‘To meet my grandmother at Islington, if you please, sir,’ said Charley. ‘I have permission from Mr. Oldeschole to attend upon her for the rest of the day — perhaps you would like to ask him.’ And so saying he went off to his appointment with Mr. M’Ruen at the ‘Banks of Jordan.’

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