The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter II

The Internal Navigation

The London world, visitors as well as residents, are well acquainted also with Somerset House; and it is moreover tolerably well known that Somerset House is a nest of public offices, which are held to be of less fashionable repute than those situated in the neighbourhood of Downing Street, but are not so decidedly plebeian as the Custom House, Excise, and Post Office.

But there is one branch of the Civil Service located in Somerset House, which has little else to redeem it from the lowest depths of official vulgarity than the ambiguous respectability of its material position. This is the office of the Commissioners of Internal Navigation. The duties to be performed have reference to the preservation of canal banks, the tolls to be levied at locks, and disputes with the Admiralty as to points connected with tidal rivers. The rooms are dull and dark, and saturated with the fog which rises from the river, and their only ornament is here and there some dusty model of an improved barge. Bargees not unfrequently scuffle with hobnailed shoes through the passages, and go in and out, leaving behind them a smell of tobacco, to which the denizens of the place are not unaccustomed.

Indeed, the whole office is apparently infected with a leaven of bargedom. Not a few of the men are employed from time to time in the somewhat lethargic work of inspecting the banks and towing-paths of the canals which intersect the country. This they generally do seated on a load of hay, or perhaps of bricks, in one of those long, ugly, shapeless boats, which are to be seen congregating in the neighbourhood of Brentford. So seated, they are carried along at the rate of a mile and a half an hour, and usually while away the time in gentle converse with the man at the rudder, or in silent abstraction over a pipe.

But the dullness of such a life as this is fully atoned for by the excitement of that which follows it in London. The men of the Internal Navigation are known to be fast, nay, almost furious in their pace of living; not that they are extravagant in any great degree, a fault which their scale of salaries very generally forbids; but they are one and all addicted to Coal Holes and Cider Cellars; they dive at midnight hours into Shades, and know all the back parlours of all the public-houses in the neighbourhood of the Strand. Here they leave messages for one another, and call the girl at the bar by her Christian name. They are a set of men endowed with sallow complexions, and they wear loud clothing, and spend more money in gin-and-water than in gloves.

The establishment is not unusually denominated the ‘Infernal Navigation’, and the gentlemen employed are not altogether displeased at having it so called. The ‘Infernal Navvies’, indeed, rather glory in the name. The navvies of Somerset House are known all over London, and there are those who believe that their business has some connexion with the rivers or railroads of that bourne from whence no traveller returns. Looking, however, from their office windows into the Thames, one might be tempted to imagine that the infernal navigation with which they are connected is not situated so far distant from the place of their labours.

The spirit who guards the entrance into this elysium is by no means so difficult to deal with as Mr. Hardlines. And it was well that it was so some few years since for young Charley Tudor, a cousin of our friend Alaric; for Charley Tudor could never have passed muster at the Weights and Measures. Charles Tudor, the third of the three clerks alluded to in our title-page, is the son of a clergyman, who has a moderate living on the Welsh border, in Shropshire. Had he known to what sort of work he was sending his son, he might probably have hesitated before he accepted for him a situation in the Internal Navigation Office. He was, however, too happy in getting it to make many inquiries as to its nature. We none of us like to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Old Mr. Tudor knew that a clerkship in the Civil Service meant, or should mean, a respectable maintenance for life, and having many young Tudors to maintain himself, he was only too glad to find one of them provided for.

Charley Tudor was some few years younger than his cousin Alaric when he came up to town, and Alaric had at that time some three or four years’ experience of London life. The examination at the Internal Navigation was certainly not to be so much dreaded as that at the Weights and Measures; but still there was an examination; and Charley, who had not been the most diligent of schoolboys, approached it with great dread after a preparatory evening passed with the assistance of his cousin and Mr. Norman.

Exactly at ten in the morning he walked into the lobby of his future workshop, and found no one yet there but two aged seedy messengers. He was shown into a waiting-room, and there he remained for a couple of hours, during which every clerk in the establishment came to have a look at him. At last he was ushered into the Secretary’s room.

‘Ah!’ said the Secretary, ‘your name is Tudor, isn’t it?’

Charley confessed to the fact.

‘Yea,’ said the Secretary, ‘I have heard about you from Sir Gilbert de Salop.’ Now Sir Gilbert de Salop was the great family friend of this branch of the Tudors. But Charley, finding that no remark suggested itself to him at this moment concerning Sir Gilbert, merely said, ‘Yes, sir.’

‘And you wish to serve the Queen?’ said the Secretary.

Charley, not quite knowing whether this was a joke or not, said that he did.

‘Quite right — it is a very fair ambition,’ continued the great official functionary —‘quite right — but, mind you, Mr. Tudor, if you come to us you must come to work. I hope you like hard work; you should do so, if you intend to remain with us.’

Charley said that he thought he did rather like hard work. Hereupon a senior clerk standing by, though a man not given to much laughter, smiled slightly, probably in pity at the unceasing labour to which the youth was about to devote himself.

‘The Internal Navigation requires great steadiness, good natural abilities, considerable education, and — and — and no end of application. Come, Mr. Tudor, let us see what you can do.’ And so saying, Mr. Oldeschole, the Secretary, motioned him to sit down at an office table opposite to himself.

Charley did as he was bid, and took from the hands of his future master an old, much-worn quill pen, with which the great man had been signing minutes.

‘Now,’ said the great man, ‘just copy the few first sentences of that leading article — either one will do,’ and he pushed over to him a huge newspaper.

To tell the truth, Charley did not know what a leading article was, and so he sat abashed, staring at the paper.

‘Why don’t you write?’ asked the Secretary.

‘Where shall I begin, sir?’ stammered poor Charley, looking piteously into the examiner’s face.

‘God bless my soul! there; either of those leading articles,’ and leaning over the table, the Secretary pointed to a particular spot.

Hereupon Charley began his task in a large, ugly, round hand, neither that of a man nor of a boy, and set himself to copy the contents of the paper. ‘The name of Pacifico stinks in the nostril of the British public. It is well known to all the world how sincerely we admire the vers_i_tility of Lord Palmerston’s genius; how cordially we s_i_mpathize with his patriotic energies. But the admiration which even a Palmerston inspires must have a bound, and our s_i_mpathy may be called on too far. When we find ourselves asked to pay —’. By this time Charley had half covered the half-sheet of foolscap which had been put before him, and here at the word ‘pay’ he unfortunately suffered a large blot of ink to fall on the paper.

‘That won’t do, Mr. Tudor, that won’t do — come, let us look,’ and stretching over again, the Secretary took up the copy.

‘Oh dear! oh dear! this is very bad; versatility with an ‘i!’- sympathy with an ‘i!’ sympathize with an ‘i!’ Why, Mr. Tudor, you must be very fond of ‘i’s’ down in Shropshire.’

Charley looked sheepish, but of course said nothing.

‘And I never saw a viler hand in my life. Oh dear, oh dear, I must send you back to Sir Gilbert. Look here, Snape, this will never do — never do for the Internal Navigation, will it?’

Snape, the attendant senior clerk, said, as indeed he could not help saying, that the writing was very bad.

‘I never saw worse in my life,’ said the Secretary. ‘And now, Mr. Tudor, what do you know of arithmetic?’

Charley said that he thought he knew arithmetic pretty well; —‘at least some of it,’ he modestly added.

‘Some of it!’ said the Secretary, slightly laughing. ‘Well, I’ll tell you what — this won’t do at all;’ and he took the unfortunate manuscript between his thumb and forefinger. ‘You had better go home and endeavour to write something a little better than this. Mind, if it is not very much better it won’t do. And look here; take care that you do it yourself. If you bring me the writing of any one else, I shall be sure to detect you. I have not any more time now; as to arithmetic, we’ll examine you in ‘some of it’ tomorrow.’

So Charley, with a faint heart, went back to his cousin’s lodgings and waited till the two friends had arrived from the Weights and Measures. The men there made a point of staying up to five o’clock, as is the case with all model officials, and it was therefore late before he could get himself properly set to work. But when they did arrive, preparations for calligraphy were made on a great scale; a volume of Gibbon was taken down, new quill pens, large and small, and steel pens by various makers were procured; cream-laid paper was provided, and ruled lines were put beneath it. And when this was done, Charley was especially cautioned to copy the spelling as well as the wording.

He worked thus for an hour before dinner, and then for three hours in the evening, and produced a very legible copy of half a chapter of the ‘Decline and Fall.’

‘I didn’t think they examined at all at the Navigation,’ said Norman.

‘Well, I believe it’s quite a new thing,’ said Alaric Tudor. ‘The schoolmaster must be abroad with a vengeance, if he has got as far as that.’

And then they carefully examined Charley’s work, crossed his t’s, dotted his i’s, saw that his spelling was right, and went to bed.

Again, punctually at ten o’clock, Charley presented himself at the Internal Navigation; and again saw the two seedy old messengers warming themselves at the lobby fire. On this occasion he was kept three hours in the waiting-room, and some of the younger clerks ventured to come and speak to him. At length Mr. Snape appeared, and desired the acolyte to follow him. Charley, supposing that he was again going to the awful Secretary, did so with a palpitating heart. But he was led in another direction into a large room, carrying his manuscript neatly rolled in his hand. Here Mr. Snape introduced him to five other occupants of the chamber; he, Mr. Snape himself, having a separate desk there, being, in official parlance, the head of the room. Charley was told to take a seat at a desk, and did so, still thinking that the dread hour of his examination was soon to come. His examination, however, was begun and over. No one ever asked for his calligraphic manuscript, and as to his arithmetic, it may be presumed that his assurance that he knew ‘some of it,’ was deemed to be adequate evidence of sufficient capacity. And in this manner, Charley Tudor became one of the Infernal Navvies.

He was a gay-hearted, thoughtless, rollicking young lad, when he came up to town; and it may therefore be imagined that he easily fell into the peculiar ways and habits of the office. A short bargee’s pilot-coat, and a pipe of tobacco, were soon familiar to him; and he had not been six months in London before he had his house-of-call in a cross lane running between Essex Street and Norfolk Street. ‘Mary, my dear, a screw of bird’s-eye!’ came quite habitually to his lips; and before his fist year was out, he had volunteered a song at the Buckingham Shades.

The assurance made to him on his first visit to the office by Mr. Secretary Oldeschole, that the Internal Navigation was a place of herculean labours, had long before this time become matter to him of delightful ridicule. He had found himself to be one of six young men, who habitually spent about five hours a day together in the same room, and whose chief employment was to render the life of the wretched Mr. Snape as unendurable as possible. There were copies to be written, and entries to be made, and books to be indexed. But these things were generally done by some extra hand, as to the necessity of whose attendance for such purpose Mr. Snape was forced to certify. But poor Snape knew that he had no alternative. He rule six unruly young navvies! There was not one of them who did not well know how to make him tremble in his shoes.

Poor Mr. Snape had selected for his own peculiar walk in life a character for evangelical piety. Whether he was a hypocrite — as all the navvies averred — or a man sincere as far as one so weak could accomplish sincerity, it is hardly necessary for us to inquire. He was not by nature an ill-natured man, but he had become by education harsh to those below him, and timid and cringing with those above. In the former category must by no means be included the six young men who were nominally under his guidance. They were all but acknowledged by him as his superiors. Ignorant as they were, they could hardly be more so than he. Useless as they were, they did as much for the public service as he did. He sometimes complained of them; but it was only when their misconduct had been so loud as to make it no longer possible that he should not do so.

Mr. Snape being thus by character and predilection a religious man, and having on various occasions in olden days professed much horror at having his ears wounded by conversation which was either immoral or profane, it had of course become the habitual practice of the navvies to give continual utterance to every description of ribaldry and blasphemy for his especial edification. Doubtless it may be concluded from the habits of the men, that even without such provocation, their talk would have exceeded the yea, yea, and nay, nay, to which young men should confine themselves. But they especially concerted schemes of blasphemy and dialogues of iniquity for Mr. Snape’s particular advantage; and continued daily this disinterested amusement, till at last an idea got abroad among them that Mr. Snape liked it. Then they changed their tactics and canted through their noses in the manner which they imagined to be peculiar to methodist preachers. So on the whole, Mr. Snape had an uneasy life of it at the Internal Navigation.

Into all these malpractices Charley Tudor plunged headlong. And how should it have been otherwise? How can any youth of nineteen or twenty do other than consort himself with the daily companions of his usual avocations? Once and again, in one case among ten thousand, a lad may be found formed of such stuff, that he receives neither the good nor the bad impulses of those around him. But such a one is a lapsus naturae. He has been born without the proper attributes of youth, or at any rate, brought up so as to have got rid of them.

Such, a one, at any rate, Charley Tudor was not. He was a little shocked at first by the language he heard; but that feeling soon wore off. His kind heart, also, in the first month of his novitiate, sympathized with the daily miseries of Mr. Snape; but he also soon learnt to believe that Mr. Snape was a counterfeit, and after the first half year could torture him with as much gusto as any of his brethren. Alas! no evil tendency communicates itself among young men more quickly than cruelty. Those infernal navvies were very cruel to Mr. Snape.

And yet young Tudor was a lad of a kindly heart, of a free, honest, open disposition, deficient in no proportion of mind necessary to make an estimable man. But he was easily malleable, and he took at once the full impression of the stamp to which he was subjected. Had he gone into the Weights and Measures, a hypothesis which of course presumes a total prostration of the intellects and energy of Mr. Hardlines, he would have worked without a groan from ten till five, and have become as good a model as the best of them. As it was, he can be hardly said to have worked at all, soon became facile princeps in the list of habitual idlers, and was usually threatened once a quarter with dismissal, even from that abode of idleness, in which the very nature of true work was unknown.

Some tidings of Charley’s doings in London, and non-doings at the Internal Navigation, of course found their way to the Shropshire parsonage. His dissipation was not of a very costly kind; but £90 per annum will hardly suffice to afford an ample allowance of gin-and-water and bird’s-eye tobacco, over and above the other wants of a man’s life. Bills arrived there requiring payment; and worse than this, letters also came through Sir Gilbert de Salop from Mr. Oldeschole, the Secretary, saying that young Tudor was disgracing the office, and lowering the high character of the Internal Navigation; and that he must be removed, unless he could be induced to alter his line of life, &c.

Urgent austere letters came from the father, and fond heart-rending appeals from the mother. Charley’s heart was rent. It was, at any rate, a sign in him that he was not past hope of grace, that he never laughed at these monitions, that he never showed such letters to his companions, never quizzed his ‘governor’s’ lectures, or made merry over the grief of his mother. But if it be hard for a young man to keep in the right path when he has not as yet strayed out of it, how much harder is it to return to it when he has long since lost the track! It was well for the father to write austere letters, well for the mother to make tender appeals, but Charley could not rid himself of his companions, nor of his debts, nor yet even of his habits. He could not get up in the morning and say that he would at once be as his cousin Alaric, or as his cousin’s friend, Mr. Norman. It is not by our virtues or our vices that we are judged, even by those who know us best; but by such credit for virtues or for vices as we may have acquired. Now young Tudor’s credit for virtue was very slight, and he did not know how to extend it.

At last papa and mamma Tudor came up to town to make one last effort to save their son; and also to save, on his behalf, the valuable official appointment which he held. He had now been three years in his office, and his salary had risen to £110 per annum. £110 per annum was worth saving if it could be saved. The plan adopted by Mrs. Tudor was that of beseeching their cousin Alaric to take Charley under his especial wing.

When Charley first arrived in town, the fact of Alaric and Norman living together had given the former a good excuse for not offering to share his lodgings with his cousin. Alaric, with the advantage in age of three or four years — at that period of life the advantage lies in that direction — with his acquired experience of London life, and also with all the wondrous éclat of the Weights and Measures shining round him, had perhaps been a little too unwilling to take by the hand a rustic cousin who was about to enter life under the questionable auspices of the Internal Navigation. He had helped Charley to transcribe the chapter of Gibbon, and had, it must be owned, lent him from time to time a few odd pounds in his direst necessities. But their course in life had hitherto been apart. Of Norman, Charley had seen less even than of his cousin.

And now it became a difficult question with Alaric how he was to answer the direct appeal made to him by Mrs. Tudor; —‘Pray, pray let him live with you, if it be only for a year, Alaric,’ the mother had said, with the tears running down her cheeks. ‘You are so good, so discreet, so clever — you can save him.’ Alaric promised, or was ready to promise, anything else, but hesitated as to the joint lodgings. ‘How could he manage it,’ said he, ‘living, as he was, with another man? He feared that Mr. Norman would not accede to such an arrangement. As for himself, he would do anything but leave his friend Norman.’ To tell the truth, Alaric thought much, perhaps too much, of the respectability of those with whom he consorted. He had already begun to indulge ambitious schemes, already had ideas stretching even beyond the limits of the Weights and Measures, and fully intended to make the very most of himself.

Mrs. Tudor, in her deep grief, then betook herself to Mr. Norman, though with that gentleman she had not even the slightest acquaintance. With a sulking heart, with a consciousness of her unreasonableness, but with the eloquence of maternal sorrow, she made her request. Mr. Norman heard her out with all the calm propriety of the Weights and Measures, begged to have a day to consider, and then acceded to the request.

‘I think we ought to do it,’ said he to Alaric. The mother’s tears had touched his heart, and his sense of duty had prevailed. Alaric, of course, could now make no further objection, and thus Charley the Navvy became domesticated with his cousin Alaric and Harry Norman.

The first great question to be settled, and it is a very great question with a young man, was that of latch-key or no latch-key. Mrs. Richards, the landlady, when she made ready the third bedroom for the young gentleman, would, as was her wont in such matters, have put a latchkey on the toilet-table as a matter of course, had she not had some little conversation with Mamma Tudor regarding her son. Mamma Tudor had implored and coaxed, and probably bribed Mrs. Richards to do something more than ‘take her son in and do for him’; and Mrs. Richards, as her first compliance with these requests, had kept the latch-key in her own pocket. So matters went on for a week; but when Mrs. Richards found that her maidservant was never woken by Mr. Charley’s raps after midnight, and that she herself was obliged to descend in her dressing-gown, she changed her mind, declared to herself that it was useless to attempt to keep a grown gentleman in leading-strings, and put the key on the table on the second Monday morning.

As none of the three men ever dined at home, Alaric and Norman having clubs which they frequented, and Charley eating his dinner at some neighbouring dining-house, it may be imagined that this change of residence did our poor navvy but little good. It had, however, a salutary effect on him, at any rate at first. He became shamed into a quieter and perhaps cleaner mode of dressing himself; he constrained himself to sit down to breakfast with his monitors at half-past eight, and was at any rate so far regardful of Mrs. Richards as not to smoke in his bedroom, and to come home sober enough to walk upstairs without assistance every night for the first month.

But perhaps the most salutary effect made by this change on young Tudor was this, that he was taken by his cousin one Sunday to the Woodwards. Poor Charley had had but small opportunity of learning what are the pleasures of decent society. He had gone headlong among the infernal navvies too quickly to allow of that slow and gradual formation of decent alliances which is all in all to a young man entering life. A boy is turned loose into London, and desired to choose the good and eschew the bad. Boy as he is, he might probably do so if the opportunity came in his way. But no such chance is afforded him. To eschew the bad is certainly possible for him; but as to the good, he must wait till he be chosen. This it is, that is too much for him. He cannot live without society, and so he falls.

Society, an ample allowance of society, this is the first requisite which a mother should seek in sending her son to live alone in London; balls, routs, picnics, parties; women, pretty, well-dressed, witty, easy-mannered; good pictures, elegant drawing rooms, well got-up books, Majolica and Dresden china — these are the truest guards to protect a youth from dissipation and immorality.

These are the books, the arts, the academes
That show, contain, and nourish all the world,

if only a youth could have them at his disposal. Some of these things, though by no means all, Charley Tudor encountered at the Woodwards.

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