The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXVII

Excelsior

The last words that Katie spoke as she walked down Mrs. Val’s hall, leaning on Charley’s arm, as he led her to the carriage, were these —

‘You will be steady, Charley, won’t you? you will try to be steady, won’t you, dear Charley?’ and as she spoke she almost imperceptibly squeezed the arm on which she was leaning. Charley pressed her little hand as he parted from her, but he said nothing. What could he say, in that moment of time, in answer to such a request? Had he made the reply which would have come most readily to his lips, it would have been this: ‘It is too late, Katie — too late for me to profit by a caution, even from you — no steadiness now will save me.’ Katie, however, wanted no other answer than the warm pressure which she felt on her hand.

And then, leaning back in the carriage, and shutting her eyes, she tried to think quietly over the events of the night. But it was, alas! a dream, and yet so like reality that she could not divest herself of the feeling that the ball was still going on. She still seemed to see the lights and hear the music, to feel herself whirled round the room, and to see others whirling, whirling, whirling on every side of her. She thought over all the names on her card, and the little contests that had taken place for her hand, and all Charley’s jokes, and M. de l’Empereur’s great disaster; and then as she remembered how long she had gone on twisting round with the poor unfortunate ill-used Frenchman, she involuntarily burst out into a fit of laughter.

‘Good gracious, Katie, what is the matter? I thought you were asleep,’ said Gertrude.

‘So did I,’ said Linda. ‘What on earth can you be laughing at now?’

‘I was laughing at myself,’ said Katie, still going on with her half-suppressed chuckle, ‘and thinking what a fool I was to go on dancing so long with that M. de l’Empereur. Oh dear, Gertrude, I am so tired: shall we be home soon?’ and then she burst out crying.

The excitement and fatigue of the day had been too much for her, and she was now completely overcome. Ugolina Neverbend’s advice, though not quite given in the kindest way, had in itself been good. Mrs. Woodward would, in truth, have been unhappy could she have seen her child at this moment. Katie made an attempt to laugh off her tears, but she failed, and her sobs then became hysterical, and she lay with her head on her married sister’s shoulder, almost choking herself in her attempts to repress them.

‘Dear Katie, don’t sob so,’ said Linda —‘don’t cry, pray don’t cry, dear Katie.’

‘She had better let it have its way,’ said Gertrude; ‘she will be better directly, won’t you, Katie?’

In a little time she was better, and then she burst out laughing again. ‘I wonder why the man went on when he was so tired. What a stupid man he must be!’

Gertrude and Linda both laughed in order to comfort her and bring her round.

‘Do you know, I think it was because he didn’t know how to say ‘stop’ in English;’ and then she burst out laughing again, and that led to another fit of hysterical tears.

When they reached home Gertrude and Linda soon got her into bed. Linda was to sleep with her, and she also was not very long in laying her head on her pillow. But before she did so Katie was fast asleep, and twice in her sleep she cried out, ‘Oh, Charley! Oh, Charley!’ Then Linda guessed how it was with her sister, and in the depths of her loving heart she sorrowed for the coming grief which she foresaw.

When the morning came Katie was feverish, and had a headache. It was thought better that she should remain in town, and Alaric took Linda down to Hampton. The next day Mrs. Woodward came up, and as the invalid was better she took her home. But still she was an invalid. The doctor declared that she had never quite recovered from her fall into the river, and prescribed quiet and cod-liver oil. All the truth about the Chiswick fête and the five hours’ dancing, and the worn-out shoes, was not told to him, or he might, perhaps, have acquitted the water-gods of the injury. Nor was it all, perhaps, told to Mrs. Woodward.

‘I’m afraid she tired herself at the ball,’ said Mrs. Woodward.

‘I think she did a little,’ said Linda.

‘Did she dance much?’ said Mrs. Woodward, looking anxiously.

‘She did dance a good deal,’ said Linda.

Mrs. Woodward was too wise to ask any further questions.

As it was a fine night Alaric had declared his intention of walking home from Mrs. Val’s party, and he and Charley started together. They soon parted on their roads, but not before Alaric had had time to notice Charley’s perverse stupidity as to Miss Golightly.

‘So you wouldn’t take my advice about Clementina?’ said he.

‘It was quite impossible, Alaric,’ said Charley, in an apologetic voice. ‘I couldn’t do it, and, what is more, I am sure I never shall.’

‘No, not now; you certainly can’t do it now. If I am not very much mistaken, the chance is gone. I think you’ll find she engaged herself to that Frenchman tonight.’

‘Very likely,’ said Charley.

‘Well — I did the best I could for you. Good night, old fellow.’

‘I’m sure I’m much obliged to you. Good night,’ said Charley.

Alaric’s suggestion with reference to the heiress was quite correct: M. Jaquêtanàpe had that night proposed, and been duly accepted. He was to present himself to his loved one’s honourable mother on the following morning as her future son-inlaw, comforted and supported in his task of doing so by an assurance from the lady that if her mother would not give her consent the marriage should go on all the same without it. How delightful to have such a dancer for her lover! thought Clementina. That was her ‘Excelsior.’

Charley walked home with a sad heart. He had that day given a pledge that he would on the morrow go to the ‘Cat and Whistle,’ and visit his lady-love. Since the night when he sat there with Norah Geraghty on his knee, now nearly a fortnight since, he had spent but little of his time there. He had, indeed, gone there once or twice with his friend Scatterall, but had contrived to avoid any confidential intercourse with either the landlady or the barmaid, alleging, as an excuse for his extra-ordinary absence, that his time was wholly occupied by the demands made on it by the editor of the Daily Delight. Mrs. Davis, however, was much too sharp, and so also we may say was Miss Geraghty, to be deceived. They well knew that such a young man as Charley would go wherever his inclination led him. Till lately it had been all but impossible to get him out of the little back parlour at the ‘Cat and Whistle’; now it was nearly as difficult to get him into it. They both understood what this meant.

‘You’d better take up with Peppermint and have done with it,’ said the widow. ‘What’s the good of your shilly-shallying till you’re as thin as a whipping-post? If you don’t mind what you’re after he’ll be off too.’

‘And the d —— go along with him,’ said Miss Geraghty, who had still about her a twang of the County Clare, from whence she came.

‘With all my heart,’ said Mrs. Davis; ‘I shall save my hundred pounds: but if you’ll be led by me you’ll not throw Peppermint over till you’re sure of the other; and, take my word for it, you’re ——’

‘I hate Peppermint.’

‘Nonsense; he’s an honest good sort of man, and a deal more likely to keep you out of want than the other.’

Hereupon Norah began to cry, and to wipe her beautiful eyes with the glass-cloth. Hers, indeed, was a cruel position. Her face was her fortune, and her fortune she knew was deteriorating from day to day. She could not afford to lose the lover that she loved, and also the lover that she did not love. Matrimony with her was extremely desirable, and she was driven to confess that it might very probably be either now or never. Much as she hated Peppermint, she was quite aware that she would take him if she could not do better. But then, was it absolutely certain that she must lose the lover that so completely suited her taste? Mrs. Davis said it was. Norah herself, confiding, as it is so natural that ladies should do, a little too much in her own beauty, thought that she couldn’t but have a chance left. She also had her high aspirations; she desired to rise in the world, to leave goes of gin and screws of tobacco behind her, and to reach some position more worthy of the tastes of a woman. ‘Excelsior,’ translated doubtless into excellent Irish, was her motto also. It would be so great a thing to be the wife of Charles Tudor, Esq., of the Civil Service, and more especially as she dearly and truly loved the same Charles Tudor in her heart of hearts.

She knew, however, that it was not for her to indulge in the luxury of a heart, if circumstances absolutely forbade it. To eat and drink and clothe herself, and, if possible, to provide eating and drinking and clothes for her future years, this was the business of life, this was the only real necessity. She had nothing to say in opposition to Mrs. Davis, and therefore she went on crying, and again wiped her eyes with the glass-cloth.

Mrs. Davis, however, was no stern monitor, unindulgent to the weakness of human nature. When she saw how Norah took to heart her sad fate, she resolved to make one more effort in her favour. She consequently dressed herself very nicely, put on her best bonnet, and took the unprecedented step of going off to the Internal Navigation, and calling on Charley in the middle of his office.

Charley was poking over the Kennett and Avon lock entries, with his usual official energy, when the office messenger came up and informed him that a lady was waiting to see him.

‘A lady!’ said Charley: ‘what lady?’ and he immediately began thinking of the Woodwards, whom he was to meet that afternoon at Chiswick.

‘I’m sure I can’t say, sir: all that she said was that she was a lady,’ answered the messenger, falsely, for he well knew that the woman was Mrs. Davis, of the ‘Cat and Whistle.’

Now the clerks at the Internal Navigation were badly off for a waiting-room; and in no respect can the different ranks of different public offices be more plainly seen than in the presence or absence of such little items of accommodation as this. At the Weights and Measures there was an elegant little chamber, carpeted, furnished with leathern-bottomed chairs, and a clock, supplied with cream-laid note-paper, new pens, and the Times newspaper, quite a little Elysium, in which to pass half an hour, while the Secretary, whom one had called to see, was completing his last calculation on the matter of the decimal coinage. But there were no such comforts at the Internal Navigation. There was, indeed, a little room at the top of the stairs, in which visitors were requested to sit down; but even here two men were always at work — at work, or else at play.

Into this room Mrs. Davis was shown, and there Charley found her. Long and intimately as the young navvy had been acquainted with the landlady of the ‘Cat and Whistle,’ he had never before seen her arrayed for the outer world. It may be doubted whether Sir John Falstaff would, at the first glance, have known even Dame Quickly in her bonnet, that is, if Dame Quickly in those days had had a bonnet. At any rate Charley was at fault for a moment, and was shaking hands with the landlady before he quite recognized who she was.

The men in the room, however, had recognized her, and Charley well knew that they had done so.

‘Mr. Tudor,’ she began, not a bit abashed, ‘I want to know what it is you are a-going to do?’

Though she was not abashed, Charley was, and very much so. However, he contrived to get her out of the room, so that he might speak to her somewhat more privately in the passage. The gentlemen at the Internal Navigation were well accustomed to this mode of colloquy, as their tradesmen not unfrequently called, with the view of having a little conversation, which could not conveniently be held in the public room.

‘And, Mr. Tudor, what are you a-going to do about that poor girl there?’ said Mrs. Davis, as soon as she found herself in the passage, and saw that Charley was comfortably settled with his back against the wall.

‘She may go to Hong-Kong for me.’ That is what Charley should have said. But he did not say it. He had neither the sternness of heart nor the moral courage to enable him to do so. He was very anxious, it is true, to get altogether quit of Norah Geraghty; but his present immediate care was confined to a desire of getting Mrs. Davis out of the office.

‘Do!’ said Charley. ‘Oh, I don’t know; I’ll come and settle something some of these days; let me see when — say next Tuesday.’

‘Settle something,’ said Mrs. Davis. ‘If you are an honest man, as I take you, there is only one thing to settle; when do you mean to marry her?’

‘Hush!’ said Charley; for, as she was speaking, Mr. Snape came down the passage leading from Mr. Oldeschole’s room. ‘Hush!’ Mr. Snape as he passed walked very slowly, and looked curiously round into the widow’s face. ‘I’ll be even with you, old fellow, for that,’ said Charley to himself; and it may be taken for granted that he kept his word before long.

‘Oh! it is no good hushing any more,’ said Mrs. Davis, hardly waiting till Mr. Snape’s erect ears were out of hearing. ‘Hushing won’t do no good; there’s that girl a-dying, and her grave’ll be a-top of your head, Mr. Tudor; mind I tell you that fairly; so now I want to know what it to you’re a-going to do.’ And then Mrs. Davis lifted up the lid of a market basket which hung on her left arm, took out her pocket-handkerchief, and began to wipe her eyes.

Unfortunate Charley! An idea occurred to him that he might bolt and leave her. But then the chances were that she would make her way into his very room, and tell her story there, out before them all. He well knew that this woman was capable of many things if her temper were fairly roused. And yet what could he say to her to induce her to go out from that building, and leave him alone to his lesser misfortunes?

‘She’s a-dying, I tell you, Mr. Tudor,’ continued the landlady, ‘and if she do die, be sure of this, I won’t be slow to tell the truth about it. I’m the only friend she’s got, and I’m not going to see her put upon. So just tell me this in two words — what is it you’re a-going to do?’ And then Mrs. Davis replaced her kerchief in the basket, stood boldly erect in the middle of the passage, waiting for Charley’s answer.

Just at this moment Mr. Snape again appeared in the passage, going towards Mr. Oldeschole’s room. The pernicious old man! He hated Charley Tudor; and, to tell the truth, there was no love lost between them. Charley, afflicted and out of spirits as he was at the moment, could not resist the opportunity of being impertinent to his old foe: ‘I’m afraid you’ll make yourself very tired, Mr. Snape, if you walk about so much,’ said he. Mr. Snape merely looked at him, and then hard at Mrs. Davis, and passed on to Mr. Oldeschole’s room.

‘Well, Mr. Tudor, will you be so good as to tell me what it is you’re going to do about this poor girl?’

‘My goodness, Mrs. Davis, you know how I am situated — how can you expect me to give an answer to such a question in such a place as this? I’ll come to the ‘Cat and Whistle’ on Tuesday.’

‘Gammon!’ said the eloquent lady. ‘You know you means gammon.’

Charley, perhaps, did mean gammon; but he protested that he had never been more truthfully in earnest in his life. Mr. Oldeschole’s door opened, and Mrs. Davis perceiving it, whipped out her handkerchief in haste, and again began wiping her eyes, not without audible sobs. ‘Confound the woman!’ said Charley to himself; ‘what on earth shall I do with her?’

Mr. Oldeschole’s door opened, and out of it came Mr. Oldeschole, and Mr. Snape following him. What means the clerk had used to bring forth the Secretary need not now be inquired. Forth they both came, and passed along the passage, brushing close by Charley and Mrs. Davis; Mr. Oldeschole, when he saw that one of the clerks was talking to a woman who apparently was crying, looked very intently on the ground, and passed by with a quick step; Mr. Snape looked as intently at the woman, and passed very slowly. Each acted according to his lights.

‘I don’t mean gammon at all, Mrs. Davis — indeed, I don’t — I’ll be there on Tuesday night certainly, if not sooner — I will indeed — I shall be in a desperate scrape if they see me here talking to you any longer; there is a rule against women being in the office at all.’

‘And there’s a rule against the clerks marrying, I suppose,’ said Mrs. Davis.

The colloquy ended in Charley promising to spend the Saturday evening at the ‘Cat and Whistle,’ with the view of then and there settling what he meant to do about ‘that there girl’; nothing short of such an undertaking on his part would induce Mrs. Davis to budge. Had she known her advantage she might have made even better terms. He would almost rather have given her a written promise to marry her barmaid, than have suffered her to remain there till Mr. Oldeschole should return and see her there again. So Mrs. Davis, with her basket and pocket-handkerchief, went her way about her marketing, and Charley, as he returned to his room, gave the strictest injunctions to the messenger that not, on any ground or excuse whatever, was any woman to be again allowed to see him at the office.

When, therefore, on the fine summer morning, with the early daylight all bright around him, Charley walked home from Mrs. Val’s party, he naturally felt sad enough. He had one sixpence left in his pocket; he was engaged to spend the evening of the following day with the delightful Norah at the ‘Cat and Whistle,’ then and there to plight her his troth, in whatever formal and most irretrievable manner Mrs. Davis might choose to devise; and as he thought of these things he had ringing in his ears the last sounds of that angel voice, ‘You will be steady, Charley, won’t you? I know you will, dear Charley — won’t you now?’

Steady! Would not the best thing for him be to step down to Waterloo Bridge and throw himself over? He still had money enough left to pay the toll — though not enough to hire a pistol. And so he went home and got into bed.

On that same day, the day that was to witness Charley’s betrothal to Miss Geraghty, and that of M. Jaquêtanàpe with Miss Golightly, Alaric Tudor had an appointment with Sir Gregory Hardlines at the new office of the Civil Service Examination Board. Alaric had been invited to wait upon the great man, in terms which made him perfectly understand that the communication to be made was one which would not be unpleasing or uncomplimentary to himself. Indeed, he pretty well guessed what was to be said to him. Since his promotion at the Weights and Measures he had gone on rising in estimation as a man of value to the Civil Service at large. Nearly two years had now passed since that date, and in these pages nothing has been said of his official career during the time. It had, however, been everything that he or his friends could have wished it to be. He had so put himself forward as absolutely to have satisfied the actual chief clerk of his office, and was even felt by some of the secretaries to be treading very closely on their heels.

And yet a great portion of his time had been spent, not at the Weights and Measures, but in giving some sort of special assistance to Sir Gregory’s Board. The authorities at the Weights and Measures did not miss him; they would have been well content that he should have remained for ever with Sir Gregory.

He had also become somewhat known to the official world, even beyond the confines of the Weights and Measures, or the Examination Board, He had changed his club, and now belonged to the Downing. He had there been introduced by his friend Undy to many men, whom to know should be the very breath in the nostrils of a rising official aspirant. Mr. Whip Vigil, of the Treasury, had more than once taken him by the hand, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer usually nodded to him whenever that o’ertasked functionary found a moment to look in at the official club.

Things had not been going quite smoothly at the Examination Board. Tidings had got about that Mr. Jobbles was interfering with Sir Gregory, and that Sir Gregory didn’t like it. To be sure, when this had been indiscreetly alluded to in the House by one of those gentlemen who pass their leisure hours in looking out for raws in the hide of the Government carcass, some other gentleman, some gentleman from the Treasury bench, had been able to give a very satisfactory reply. For why, indeed, should any gentleman sit on the Treasury bench if he be not able, when so questioned, to give very satisfactory replies? Giving satisfactory replies to ill-natured questions is, one may say, the constitutional work of such gentlemen, who have generally well learned how to do so, and earned their present places by asking the selfsame questions themselves, when seated as younger men in other parts of the House.

But though the answer given in this instance was so eminently satisfactory as to draw down quite a chorus of triumphant acclamations from the official supporters of Government, nevertheless things had not gone on at the Board quite as smoothly as might have been desirable. Mr. Jobbles was enthusiastically intent on examining the whole adult male population of Great Britain, and had gone so far as to hint that female competitors might, at some future time, be made subject to his all-measuring rule and compass. Sir Gregory, however, who, having passed his early days in an office, may, perhaps, be supposed to have had some slight prejudice remaining in favour of ancient customs, was not inclined to travel so quickly. Moreover, he preferred following his own lead, to taking any other lead whatever that Mr. Jobbles might point out as preferable.

Mr. Jobbles wanted to crush all patronage at a blow; any system of patronage would lamentably limit the number of candidates among whom his examination papers would be distributed. He longed to behold, crowding around him, an attendance as copious as Mr. Spurgeon’s, and to see every head bowed over the posing questions which he should have dictated. No legion could be too many for him. He longed to be at this great work; but his energies were crushed by the opposition of his colleagues. Sir Gregory thought — and Sir Warwick, though he hardly gave a firm support to Sir Gregory, would not lend his countenance to Mr. Jobbles — Sir Gregory thought that enough would be done for the present, if they merely provided that every one admitted into the Service should be educated in such a manner as to be fit for any profession or calling under the sun; and that, with this slight proviso, the question of patronage might for the present remain untouched. ‘Do you,’ he would have said to the great officers of Government, ‘appoint whom you like. In this respect remain quite unfettered. I, however, I am the St. Peter to whom are confided the keys of the Elysium. Do you send whatever candidates you please: it is for me merely to say whether or not they shall enter.’ But Mr. Jobbles would have gone much farther. He would have had all mankind for candidates, and have selected from the whole mass those most worthy of the high reward. And so there was a split at the Examination Board, which was not to be healed even by the very satisfactory reply given by the Treasury gentleman in the House of Commons.

Neither Sir Gregory nor his rival were men likely to give way, and it soon appeared manifest to the powers that be, that something must be done. It therefore came to light that Mr. Jobbles had found that his clerical position was hardly compatible with a seat at a lay board, and he retired to the more congenial duties of a comfortable prebendal stall at Westminster. ‘So that by his close vicinity,’ as was observed by a newspaper that usually supported the Government, ‘he might be able to be of material use, whenever his advice should be required by the Board of Commissioners.’ Sir Gregory in the meantime was instructed to suggest the name of another colleague; and, therefore, he sent for Alaric Tudor.

Alaric, of course, knew well what had been going on at the Board. He had been Sir Gregory’s confidential man all through; had worked out cases for him, furnished him with arguments, backed his views, and had assisted him, whenever such a course had been necessary, in holding Mr. Jobbles’ head under the pump. Alaric knew well on which side his bread was buttered, and could see with a glance which star was in the ascendant; he perfectly understood the points and merits of the winning horse. He went in to win upon Sir Gregory, and he won. When Mr. Jobbles made his last little speech at the Board, and retired to his house in the Dean’s yard, Alaric felt tolerably certain that he himself would be invited to fill the vacant place.

And he was so invited. ‘That is £1,200 a year, at any rate,’ said he to himself, as with many words of submissive gratitude he thanked his patron for the nomination. ‘That is £1,200 a year. So far, so good. And now what must be the next step? Excelsior! It is very nice to be a Commissioner, and sit at a Board at Sir Gregory’s right hand: much nicer than being a junior clerk at the Weights and Measures, like Harry Norman. But there are nicer things even than that; there are greater men even than Sir Gregory; richer figures than even £1,200 a year!’

So he went to his old office, wrote his resignation, and walked home meditating to what next step above he should now aspire to rise. ‘Excelsior!’ he still said to himself, ‘Excelsior!’

At the same moment Charley was leaving the Internal Navigation, and as he moved with unusual slowness down the steps, he bethought himself how he might escape from the fangs of his Norah; how, if such might still be possible, he might fit himself for the love of Katie Woodward. Excelsior! such also was the thought of his mind; but he did not dare to bring the word to utterance. It was destined that his thoughts should be interrupted by no very friendly hand.

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