The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXIV

Mr. M’buffer Accepts the Chiltern Hundreds

It was an anxious hour for the Honourable Undecimus Scott when he first learnt that Mr. M’Buffer had accepted the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. The Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds! Does it never occur to anyone how many persons are appointed to that valuable situation? Or does anyone ever reflect why a Member of Parliament, when he wishes to resign his post of honour, should not be simply gazetted in the newspapers as having done so, instead of being named as the new Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds? No one ever does think of it; resigning and becoming a steward are one and the same thing, with this difference, however, that one of the grand bulwarks of the British constitution is thus preserved.

Well, Mr. M’Buffer, who, having been elected by the independent electors of the Tillietudlem burghs to serve them in Parliament, could not, in accordance with the laws of the constitution, have got himself out of that honourable but difficult position by any scheme of his own, found himself on a sudden a free man, the Queen having selected him to be her steward for the district in question. We have no doubt but that the deed of appointment set forth that her Majesty had been moved to this step by the firm trust she had in the skill and fidelity of the said Mr. M’Buffer; but if so her Majesty’s trust would seem to have been somewhat misplaced, as Mr. M’Buffer, having been a managing director of a bankrupt swindle, from which he had contrived to pillage some thirty or forty thousand pounds, was now unable to show his face at Tillietudlem, or in the House of Commons; and in thus retreating from his membership had no object but to save himself from the expulsion which he feared. It was, however, a consolation for him to think that in what he had done the bulwarks of the British constitution had been preserved.

It was an anxious moment for Undy. The existing Parliament had still a year and a half, or possibly two years and a half, to run. He had already been withdrawn from the public eye longer than he thought was suitable to the success of his career. He particularly disliked obscurity for he had found that in his case obscurity had meant comparative poverty. An obscure man, as he observed early in life, had nothing to sell. Now, Undy had once had something to sell, and a very good market he had made of it. He was of course anxious that those halcyon days should return. Fond of him as the electors of Tillietudlem no doubt were, devoted as they might be in a general way to his interests still, still it was possible that they might forget him, if he remained too long away from their embraces. ‘Out of sight out of mind’ is a proverb which opens to us the worst side of human nature. But even at Tillietudlem nature’s worst side might sometimes show itself.

Actuated by such feelings as these, Undy heard with joy the tidings of M’Buffer’s stewardship, and determined to rush to the battle at once. Battle he knew there must be. To be brought in for the district of Tillietudlem was a prize which had never yet fallen to any man’s lot without a contest. Tillietudlem was no poor pocket borough to be disposed of, this way or that way, according to the caprice or venal call of some aristocrat. The men of Tillietudlem knew the value of their votes, and would only give them according to their consciences. The way to win these consciences, to overcome the sensitive doubts of a free and independent Tillietudlem elector, Undy knew to his cost.

It was almost a question, as he once told Alaric, whether all that he could sell was worth all that he was compelled to buy. But having put his neck to the collar in this line of life, he was not now going to withdraw. Tillietudlem was once more vacant, and Undy determined to try it again, undaunted by former outlays. To make an outlay, however, at any rate, in electioneering matters, it is necessary that a man should have in hand some ready cash; at the present moment Undy had very little, and therefore the news of Mr. M’Buffer’s retirement to the German baths for his health was not heard with unalloyed delight.

He first went into the city, as men always do when they want money; though in what portion of the city they find it, has never come to the author’s knowledge. Charley Tudor, to be sure, did get £5 by going to the ‘Banks of Jordan;’ but the supply likely to be derived from such a fountain as that would hardly be sufficient for Undy’s wants. Having done what he could in the city, he came to Alaric, and prayed for the assistance of all his friend’s energies in the matter. Alaric would not have been, and was not unwilling to assist him to the extent of his own immediate means; but his own immediate means were limited, and Undy’s desire for ready cash was almost unlimited.

There was a certain railway or proposed railway in Ireland, in which Undy had ventured very deeply, more so indeed than he had deemed it quite prudent to divulge to his friend; and in order to gain certain ends he had induced Alaric to become a director of this line. The line in question was the Great West Cork, which was to run from Skibbereen to Bantry, and the momentous question now hotly debated before the Railway Board was on the moot point of a branch to Ballydehob. If Undy could carry the West Cork and Ballydehob branch entire, he would make a pretty thing of it; but if, as there was too much reason to fear, his Irish foes should prevail, and leave — as Undy had once said in an eloquent speech at a very influential meeting of shareholders — and leave the unfortunate agricultural and commercial interest of Ballydehob steeped in Cimmerian darkness, the chances were that poor Undy would be well nigh ruined.

Such being the case, he had striven, not unsuccessfully, to draw Alaric into the concern. Alaric had bought very cheaply a good many shares, which many people said were worth nothing, and had, by dint of Undy’s machinations, been chosen a director on the board. Undy himself meanwhile lay by, hoping that fortune might restore him to Parliament, and haply put him on that committee which must finally adjudicate as to the great question of the Ballydehob branch.

Such were the circumstances under which he came to Alaric with the view of raising such a sum of money as might enable him to overcome the scruples of the Tillietudlem electors, and place himself in the shoes lately vacated by Mr. M’Buffer.

They were sitting together after dinner when he commenced the subject. He and Mrs. Val and Clementina had done the Tudors the honour of dining with them; and the ladies had now gone up into the drawing-room, and were busy talking over the Chiswick affair, which was to come off in the next week, and after which Mrs. Val intended to give a small evening party to the most élite of her acquaintance.

‘We won’t have all the world, my dear,’ she had said to Gertrude, ‘but just a few of our own set that are really nice. Clementina is dying to try that new back step with M. Jaquêtanàpe, so we won’t crowd the room.’ Such were the immediate arrangements of the Tudor and Scott party.

‘So M’Buffer is off at last,’ said Scott, as he seated himself and filled his glass, after closing the dining-room door. ‘He brought his pigs to a bad market after all.’

‘He was an infernal rogue,’ said Alaric.

‘Well, I suppose he was,’ said Undy; ‘and a fool into the bargain to be found out.’

‘He was a downright swindler,’ said Alaric.

‘After all,’ said the other, not paying much attention to Alaric’s indignation, ‘he did not do so very badly. Why, M’Buffer has been at it now for thirteen years. He began with nothing; he had neither blood nor money; and God knows he had no social merits to recommend him. He is as vulgar as a hog, as awkward as an elephant, and as ugly as an ape. I believe he never had a friend, and was known at his club to be the greatest bore that ever came out of Scotland; and yet for thirteen years he has lived on the fat of the land; for five years he has been in Parliament, his wife has gone about in her carriage, and every man in the city has been willing to shake hands with him.’

‘And what has it all come to?’ said Alaric, whom the question of M’Buffer’s temporary prosperity made rather thoughtful.

‘Well, not so bad either; he has had his fling for thirteen years, and that’s something. Thirteen good years out of a man’s life is more than falls to the lot of every one. And then, I suppose, he has saved something.’

‘And he is spoken of everywhere as a monster for whom hanging is too good.’

‘Pshaw! that won’t hang him. Yesterday he was a god; today he is a devil; tomorrow he’ll be a man again; that’s all.’

‘But you don’t mean to tell me, Undy, that the consciousness of such crimes as those which M’Buffer has committed must not make a man wretched in this world, and probably in the next also?’

‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged,’ said Undy, quoting Scripture as the devil did before him; ‘and as for consciousness of crime, I suppose M’Buffer has none at all. I have no doubt he thinks himself quite as honest as the rest of the world. He firmly believes that all of us are playing the same game, and using the same means, and has no idea whatever that dishonesty is objectionable.’

‘And you, what do you think about it yourself?’

‘I think the greatest rogues are they who talk most of their honesty; and, therefore, as I wish to be thought honest myself, I never talk of my own.’

They both sat silent for a while, Undy bethinking himself what arguments would be most efficacious towards inducing Alaric to strip himself of every available shilling that he had; and Alaric debating in his own mind that great question which he so often debated, as to whether men, men of the world, the great and best men whom he saw around him, really endeavoured to be honest, or endeavoured only to seem so. Honesty was preached to him on every side; but did he, in his intercourse with the world, find men to be honest? Or did it behove him, a practical man like him, a man so determined to battle with the world as he had determined, did it behove such a one as he to be more honest than his neighbours?

He also encouraged himself by that mystic word, ‘Excelsior!’ To him it was a watchword of battle, repeated morning, noon, and night. It was the prevailing idea of his life. ‘Excelsior’! Yes; how great, how grand, how all-absorbing is the idea! But what if a man may be going down, down to Tophet, and yet think the while that he is scaling the walls of heaven?

‘But you wish to think yourself honest,’ he said, disturbing Undy just as that hero had determined on the way in which he would play his present hand of cards.

‘I have not the slightest difficulty about that,’ said Undy; ‘and I dare say you have none either. But as to M’Buffer, his going will be a great thing for us, if, as I don’t doubt, I can get his seat.’

‘It will be a great thing for you,’ said Alaric, who, as well as Undy, had his Parliamentary ambition.

‘And for you too, my boy. We should carry the Ballydehob branch to a dead certainty; and even if we did not do that, we’d bring it so near it that the expectation of it would send the shares up like mercury in fine weather. They are at £2 12s. 6d. now, and, if I am in the House next Session, they’ll be up to £7 10s. before Easter; and what’s more, my dear fellow, if we can’t help ourselves in that way, they’ll be worth nothing in a very few months.’

Alaric looked rather blank; for he had invested deeply in this line, of which he was now a director, of a week’s standing, or perhaps we should say sitting. He had sold out all his golden hopes in the Wheal Mary Jane for the sake of embarking his money and becoming a director in this Irish Railway, and in one other speculation nearer home, of which Undy had a great opinion, viz.: the Limehouse Thames Bridge Company. Such being the case, he did not like to hear the West Cork with the Ballydehob branch spoken of so slightingly.

‘The fact is, a man can do anything if he is in the House, and he can do nothing if he is not,’ said Undy. ‘You know our old Aberdeen saying, ‘You scratch me and I’ll scratch you.’ It is not only what a man may do himself for himself, but it is what others will do for him when he is in a position to help them. Now, there are those fellows; I am hand-and-glove with all of them; but there is not one of them would lift a finger to help me as I am now; but let me get my seat again, and they’ll do for me just anything I ask them. Vigil moves the new writ to-night; I got a line from him asking me whether I was ready. There was no good to be got by waiting, so I told him to fire away.’

‘I suppose you’ll go down at once?’ said Alaric.

‘Well, that as may be — at least, yes; that’s my intention. But there’s one thing needful — and that is the needful.’

‘Money?’ suggested Alaric.

‘Yes, money — cash — rhino — tin — ready — or by what other name the goddess would be pleased to have herself worshipped; money, sir; there’s the difficulty, now as ever. Even at Tillietudlem money will have its weight.’

‘Can’t your father assist you?’ said Alaric.

‘My father! I wonder how he’d look if he got a letter from me asking for money. You might as well expect a goose to feed her young with blood out of her own breast, like a pelican, as expect that a Scotch lord should give money to his younger sons like an English duke. What would my father get by my being member for Tillietudlem? No; I must look nearer home than my father. What can you do for me?’

‘I?’

‘Yes, you,’ said Undy; ‘I am sure you don’t mean to say you’ll refuse to lend me a helping hand if you can. I must realize by the Ballydehobs, if I am once in the House; and then you’d have your money back at once.’

‘It is not that,’ said Alaric; ‘but I haven’t got it.’

‘I am sure you could let me have a thousand or so,’ said Undy. ‘I think a couple of thousand would carry it, and I could make out the other myself.’

‘Every shilling I have,’ said Alaric, ‘is either in the Ballydehobs or in the Limehouse Bridge. Why don’t you sell yourself?’

‘So I have,’ said Undy; ‘everything that I can without utter ruin. The Ballydehobs are not saleable, as you know.’

‘What can I do for you, then?’

Undy set himself again to think. ‘I have no doubt I could get a thousand on our joint names. That blackguard, M’Ruen, would do it.’

‘Who is M’Ruen?’ asked Alaric.

‘A low blackguard of a discounting Jew Christian. He would do it; but then, heaven knows what he would charge, and he’d make so many difficulties that I shouldn’t have the money for the next fortnight.’

‘I wouldn’t have my name on a bill in such a man’s hands on any account,’ said Alaric.

‘Well, I don’t like it myself,’ said Undy; ‘but what the deuce am I to do? I might as well go to Tillietudlem without my head as without money.’

‘I thought you’d kept a lot of the Mary Janes,’ said Alaric.

‘So I had, but they’re gone now. I tell you I’ve managed £1,000 myself. It would murder me now if the seat were to go into other hands. I’d get the Committee on the Limehouse Bridge, and we should treble our money. Vigil told me he would not refuse the Committee, though of course the Government won’t consent to a grant if they can help it.’

‘Well, Undy, I can let you have £250, and that is every shilling I have at my banker’s.’

‘They would not let you overdraw a few hundreds?’ suggested Undy.

‘I certainly shall not try them,’ said Alaric.

‘You are so full of scruple, so green, so young,’ said Undy, almost in an enthusiasm of remonstrance. ‘What can be the harm of trying them?’

‘My credit.’

‘Fal lal. What’s the meaning of credit? How are you to know whether you have got any credit if you don’t try? Come, I’ll tell you how you can do it. Old Cuttwater would lend it you for the asking.’

To this proposition Alaric at first turned a deaf ear; but by degrees he allowed Undy to talk him over. Undy showed him that if he lost the Tillietudlem burghs on this occasion it would be useless for him to attempt to stand for them again. In such case, he would have no alternative at the next general election but to stand for the borough of Strathbogy in Aberdeenshire; whereas, if he could secure Tillietudlem as a seat for himself, all the Gaberlunzie interest in the borough of Strathbogy, which was supposed to be by no means small, should be transferred to Alaric himself. Indeed, Sandie Scott, the eldest hope of the Gaberlunzie family, would, in such case, himself propose Alaric to the electors. Ca’stalk Cottage, in which the Hon. Sandie lived, and which was on the outskirts of the Gaberlunzie property, was absolutely within the boundary of the borough.

Overcome by these and other arguments, Alaric at last consented to ask from Captain Cuttwater the loan of £700. That sum Undy had agreed to accept as a sufficient contribution to that desirable public object, the re-seating himself for the Tillietudlem borough, and as Alaric on reflection thought that it would be uncomfortable to be left penniless himself, and as it was just as likely that Uncle Bat would lend him £700 as £500, he determined to ask for a loan of the entire sum. He accordingly did so, and the letter, as we have seen, reached the captain while Harry and Charley were at Surbiton Cottage. The old gentleman was anything but pleased. In the first place he liked his money, though not with any overweening affection; in the next place, he had done a great deal for Alaric, and did not like being asked to do more; and lastly, he feared that there must be some evil cause for the necessity of such a loan so soon after Alaric’s marriage.

Alaric in making his application had not done so actually without making any explanation on the subject. He wrote a long letter, worded very cleverly, which only served to mystify the captain, as Alaric had intended that it should do. Captain Cuttwater was most anxious that Alaric, whom he looked on as his adopted son, should rise in the world; he would have been delighted to think that he might possibly live to see him in Parliament; would probably have made considerable pecuniary sacrifice for such an object. With the design, therefore, of softening Captain Cuttwater’s heart, Alaric in his letter had spoken about great changes that were coming, of the necessity that there was of his stirring himself, of the great pecuniary results to be expected from a small present expenditure; and ended by declaring that the money was to be used in forwarding the election of his friend Scott for the Tillietudlem district burghs.

Now, the fact was, that Uncle Bat, though he cared a great deal for Alaric, did not care a rope’s end for Undy Scott, and could enjoy his rum-punch just as keenly if Mr. Scott was in obscurity as he could possibly hope to do even if that gentleman should be promoted to be a Lord of the Treasury. He was not at all pleased to think that his hard-earned moidores should run down the gullies of the Tillietudlem boroughs in the shape of muddy ale or vitriolic whisky; and yet this was the first request that Alaric had ever made to him, and he did not like to refuse Alaric’s first request. So he came up to town himself on the following morning with Harry and Charley, determined to reconcile all these difficulties by the light of his own wisdom.

In the evening he returned to Surbiton Cottage, having been into the city, sold out stock for £700, and handed over the money to Alaric Tudor.

On the following morning Undy Scott set out for Scotland, properly freighted, Mr. Whip Vigil having in due course moved for a new writ for the Tillietudlem borough in the place of Mr. M’Buffer, who had accepted the situation of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds.

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