The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXII

The Parliamentary Committee

There is a sport prevalent among the downs in Hampshire to which, though not of a high degree, much interest is attached. Men and boys, with social glee and happy boyish shouts, congregate together on a hill-side, at the mouth of a narrow hole, and proceed, with the aid of a well-trained bull-dog, to draw a badger. If the badger be at all commendable in his class this is by no means an easy thing to do. He is a sturdy animal, and well fortified with sharp and practised teeth; his hide is of the toughest; his paws of the strongest, and his dead power of resistance so great as to give him more than an equal chance with the bull-dog. The delighted sportsmen stand round listening to the growls and snarls, the tearings, gnawings, and bloody struggles of the combatants within. —‘Well done, badger! — Well done, bull-dog! — Draw him, bulldog! — Bite him, badger!’ Each has his friends, and the interest of the moment is intense. The badger, it is true, has done no harm. He has been doing as it was appointed for him to do, poor badger, in that hole of his. But then, why were badgers created but to be drawn? Why, indeed, but to be drawn, or not to be drawn, as the case may be? See! the bull-dog returns minus an ear, with an eye hanging loose, his nether lip torn off, and one paw bitten through and through. Limping, dejected, beaten, glaring fearfully from his one remaining eye, the dog comes out; and the badger within rolls himself up with affected ease, hiding his bloody wounds from the public eye.

So it is that the sport is played in Hampshire; and so also at Westminster — with a difference, however. In Hampshire the two brutes retain ever their appointed natures. The badger is always a badger, and the bull-dog never other than a bull-dog. At Westminster there is a juster reciprocity of position. The badger when drawn has to take his place outside the hole, and fight again for the home of his love; while the victorious bull-dog assumes a state of badgerdom, dons the skin of his enemy, and, in his turn, submits to be baited.

The pursuit is certainly full of interest, but it is somewhat deficient in dignity.

The parliamentary committee, which was to sit with reference to the Limehouse and Rotherhithe Bridge, had been one of the effects of a baiting-match such as that above described. In this contest the enemies of the proud occupier of the den on the mountain-side had not been contented to attempt to expel him with a single bull-dog. A whole pack had been let loose at his devoted throat. Bull-dogs had been at him, and terriers, mastiffs, blood-hounds, lurchers, and curs; but so accustomed was he to the contest, so knowing in his fence, so ready with all the weapons given to him by nature, that, in spite of the numbers and venom of his enemies, he had contrived to hold his own. Some leading hounds had fallen to rise no more; others had retreated, yelping to their kennels, to lie quiet for a while, till time might give them courage for a new attack. The country round was filled with the noise of their plaints, and the yowling and howling of canine defeat. The grey old badger meanwhile sat proud in his hole, with all his badger kin around him, and laughed his well-known badger laugh at his disconsolate foes. Such a brock had not for years been seen in the country-side; so cool, so resolute, so knowing in his badger ways, so impregnable in his badger hole, and so good-humoured withal. He could bite full sore with those old teeth of his, and yet he never condescended to show them. A badger indeed of whom the country might well be proud!

But in the scramble of the fight some little curs had been permitted to run away with some little bones; and, in this way, Mr. Nogo, the member for Mile End, had been allowed to carry his motion for a committee to inquire as to the expediency of the Government’s advancing a quarter of a million towards the completion of that momentous national undertaking, the building of a bridge from Limehouse to Rotherhithe.

Very much had been said about this bridge, till men living out of the light of parliamentary life, nine hundred and ninety-nine men, that is, out of every thousand in the Queen’s dominions, had begun to think that it was the great want of the age. Men living in the light, the supporters of the bridge as well as its enemies, knew very well that such an erection was quite unneeded, and would in all probability never be made. But then the firm of Blocks, Piles, and Cofferdam, who held a vast quantity of the bridge shares, and who were to be the contractors for building it, had an all-powerful influence in the borough of Limehouse. Where would Mr. Nogo be if he did not cultivate the friendship of such men as Blocks, Piles, and Cofferdam?

And so Mr. Nogo, and those who acted with Mr. Nogo — men, that is, who had little jobs of their own to do, and in the doing of which Mr. Nogo occasionally assisted, Undy Scott, for instance, and such-like — these men, I say, had talked much about the bridge; and gentlemen on the Treasury bench, who could have afforded to show up the folly of the scheme, and to put Mr. Nogo down at once, had he been alone, felt themselves under the necessity of temporizing. As to giving a penny of the public money for such a purpose, that they knew was out of the question; that Mr. Nogo never expected; that they all knew Mr. Nogo never expected. But as Mr. Nogo’s numbers were so respectable, it was necessary to oppose him in a respectable parliamentary steady manner. He had fifteen with him! Had he been quite alone, Mr. Vigil would have sneered him off; had he had but four to back him, the old badger would have laughed them out of face with a brace of grins. But fifteen —! Mr. Whip Vigil thought that the committee would be the most safe. So would the outer world be brought to confess that the interests of Limehouse and Poplar, Rotherhithe and Deptford, had not been overlooked by a careful Government.

But of whom was the committee to be made up? That was now the question which to Mr. Nogo, in his hour of temporary greatness, was truly momentous. He of course was to be the chairman, and to him appertained the duty of naming the other members; of naming them indeed — so much he could undoubtedly do by the strength of his own privilege. But of what use to name a string of men to whom Mr. Vigil would not consent? Mr. Nogo, did he do so, would have to divide on every name, and be beaten at every division. There would be no triumph in that. No; Mr. Nogo fully understood that his triumph must be achieved — if he were destined to a triumph — by an astute skill in his selection, not by an open choice of friends. He must obtain a balance on his side, but one in which the scale would lean so slightly to his side that Mr. Vigil’s eyes might be deceived. Those who knew Mr. Vigil best were inclined to surmise that such an arrangement was somewhat beyond Mr. Nogo’s political capacity. There is a proverb which goes to show that a certain little lively animal may be shaved if he be caught napping; but then the difficulty of so catching him is extreme.

Mr. Nogo, at the head of the list, put Mr. Vigil himself. This, of course, was a necessity to him — would that he could have dispensed with it! Then he named sundry supporters of the Government, sundry members also of the opposition; and he filled up the list with certain others who could not be regarded as sure supporters of one side or the other, but with whom, for certain reasons, he thought he might in this particular case be safe. Undy Scott was of course not among the number, as Mr. Nogo would only have damaged his cause by naming a man known to have a pecuniary interest in the concern.

The member for Mile End was doubtless sharp, but Mr. Vigil was sharper. His object was, in fact, merely to do his duty to the country by preventing a profuse and useless expenditure of money. His anxiety was a perfectly honest one — to save the Exchequer namely. But the circumstances of the case required that he should fight the battle according to the tactics of the House, and he well understood how to do so.

When the list was read he objected to two or three names — only to two or three. They were not those of staunch enemies of the Government; nor did he propose in their places the names of staunch supporters. He suggested certain gentlemen who, from their acquaintance with bridges, tolls, rivers, &c., would, as he said, be probably of use. He, also, was sure of his men, and as he succeeded with two of them, he was also pretty sure of his committee.

And then the committee met, and a lot of witnesses were in attendance. The chairman opened his case, and proceeded to prove, by the evidence of sundry most respectable men connected with Limehouse, and with the portions of Surrey and Kent lying immediately opposite to it, that the most intense desire for friendly and commercial intercourse was felt; but that, though absolutely close to each other, the districts were so divided by adverse circumstances, circumstances which were monstrous considering the advance of science in the nineteenth century, that the dearest friends were constrained to perpetual banishment from each other; and that the men of Kent were utterly unable to do any trade at Limehouse, and the Limehousians equally unable to carry on traffic in Surrey.

It was wonderful that the narrow river should be so effective for injury. One gentleman from Poplar proved that, having given his daughter in marriage to a man of Deptford two years since, he had not yet been able to see her since that day. Her house, by the crow’s flight, was but seven furlongs from his own; but, as he kept no horse, he could not get to her residence without a four hours’ walk, for which he felt himself to be too old. He was, however, able to visit his married daughter at Reading, and be back to tea. The witness declared that his life was made miserable by his being thus debarred from his child, and he wiped his eyes with his pocket-handkerchief piteously, sitting there in front of the committee. In answer to Mr. Vigil he admitted that there might be a ferry, but stated that he did not know. Having had, from childhood, an aversion to the water, he had not inquired. He was aware that some rash people had gone through the Tunnel, but for himself he did not think the Tunnel a safe mode of transit.

Another gentleman belonging to Rotherhithe, who was obliged to be almost daily at Blackwall, maintained two horses for the express purpose of going backwards and forwards, round by London Bridge. They cost him £70 per annum each. Such a bridge as that now proposed, and which the gentleman declared that he regarded as an embryo monument of national glory, would save him £140 per annum. He then proceeded to make a little speech about the spirit of the age, and the influence of routine, which he described as a gloomy gnome. But his oratory was cruelly cut short by Mr. Vigil, who demanded of him whether he ever used the river steamers. The witness shuddered fearfully as he assured the committee that he never did, and referred to the Cricket, whose boilers burst in the year 1842; besides, he had, he said, his things to carry with him.

Another witness told how unsafe was the transit of heavy goods by barge from one side of the river to another. He had had a cargo of marine stores which would go to sea before their time. The strong ebb of the tide, joined to the river current, had positively carried the barge away, and its course had not been stopped till it had drifted on shore at Purfleet. He acknowledged that something had transpired of the bargemen being drunk, but he had no knowledge himself that such had been the case. No other cargoes of his own had been carried away, but he had heard that such was often the case. He thought that the bridge was imperatively demanded. Would the tolls pay? He felt sure that they would. Why, then, should not the bridge be built as a commercial speculation, without Government aid? He thought that in such cases a fostering Government was bound to come forward and show the way. He had a few shares in the bridge himself. He had paid up £1 a share. They were now worth 2s. 6d. each. They had been worth nothing before the committee had been ordered to sit. He declined to give any opinion as to what the shares would be worth if the money were granted.

Ladies at Limehouse proved that if there were a bridge they could save 30s. a year each, by buying their tea and sugar at Rotherhithe; and so singular are the usages of trade, that the ladies of Rotherhithe would benefit their husbands equally, and return the compliment, by consuming the bread of Limehouse. The shores of Kent were pining for the beef of the opposite bank, and only too anxious to give in return the surplus stock of their own poultry.

‘Let but a bridge be opened,’ as was asserted by one animated vendor of rope, ‘and Poplar would soon rival Pimlico. Perhaps that might not be desirable in the eyes of men who lived in the purlieus of the Court, and who were desirous to build no new bridge, except that over the ornamental water in St. James’s Park.’ Upon uttering which the rope-vendor looked at Mr. Vigil as though he expected him to sink at once under the table.

Mr. Blocks, of the great firm of Blocks, Piles, and Cofferdam, then came forward. He declared that a large sum of money was necessary before this great national undertaking could be begun in a spirit worthy of the nineteenth century. It was intended to commence the approaches on each side of the river a quarter of a mile from the first abutment of the bridge, in order to acquire the necessary altitude without a steep ascent. He then described what a glorious bridge this bridge would be; how it would eclipse all bridges that had ever been built; how the fleets of all nations would ride under it; how many hundred thousand square feet of wrought iron would be consumed in its construction; how many tons of Portland stone in the abutments, parapets, and supporting walls; how much timber would be buried twenty fathoms deep in the mud of the river; how many miles of paving-stone would be laid down. Mr. Blocks went on with his astonishing figures till the committee were bewildered, and even Mr. Vigil, though well used to calculations, could hardly raise his mind to the dimensions of the proposed undertaking.

The engineer followed, and showed how easily this great work could be accomplished. There was no difficulty, literally none. The patronage of the Crown was all that was required. The engineer was asked whether by the word patronage he meant money, and after a little laughing and a few counter questions, he admitted that, in his estimation, patronage and money did mean the same thing.

Such was the case made out by the promoters of the bridge, and the chairman and his party were very sanguine of success. They conceived that Mr. Blocks’ figures had completely cowed their antagonists.

Mr. Vigil then took his case in hand, and brought forward his witnesses. It now appeared that the intercourse between the people living on each side of the river was immense, and ever on the increase. Limehouse, it would seem, had nothing to do but to go to Deptford, and that Deptford consumed all its time in returning the visit. Little children were sent across continually on the most trifling errands, going and coming for one halfpenny. An immense income was made by the owners of the ferry. No two adjacent streets in London had more to do with each other than had the lanes of Rotherhithe and the lanes of Limehouse. Westminster and Lambeth were further apart, and less connected by friendly intercourse. The frequenters of the ferry were found to outnumber the passengers over Waterloo Bridge by ten to one.

Indeed, so lamentable a proposition as this of building a bridge across the river had never before been mooted by the public. Men conversant with such matters gave it as their opinion that no amount of tolls that could reasonably be expected would pay one per cent on the money which it was proposed to expend; that sum, however, they stated, would not more than half cover the full cost of the bridge. Traffic would be prohibited by the heavy charges which would be necessary, and the probability would be that the ferry would still continue to be the ordinary mode of crossing the river.

A gentleman, accustomed to use strong figures of speech, declared that if such a bridge were built, the wisest course would be to sow the surface with grass, and let it out for grazing. This witness was taken specially in hand by Mr. Nogo, and targed very tightly. Mr. Vigil had contrived to prove, out of the mouths of inimical witnesses, the very reverse of that which they had been summoned thither to assert. The secret of the ferry had been first brought to the light by the gentleman who could not visit his daughter at Deptford, and so on. These triumphs had evidently been very pleasant to Mr. Vigil, and Mr. Nogo thought that he might judiciously take a leaf out of the Treasury book. Actuated by this ambition, he, with the assistance of his friend, the M’Carthy Desmond, put no less than 2,250 questions to the gentleman who suggested the grazing, in order to induce him to say, that if there were a bridge, men would probably walk over it. But they could not bring him to own to a single passenger, unless they would abandon the tolls. The most that they could get from him was, that perhaps an old woman, with more money than wit, might go over it on a Sunday afternoon, if — which he did not believe — any old woman existed, in that part of the world, who had more money than wit.

This witness was kept in the chair for three days, during which Mr. Vigil was nearly driven wild by the loss of his valuable time. But he did not complain. Nor would he have complained, though he might have absented himself, had the witness been kept in the chair three weeks instead of three days. The expense of the committee, including witnesses, shorthand-writers, and printing, was about £60 a day, but it never occurred to any one of the number to get up and declare with indignation, that such a waste of money and time on so palpably absurd a scheme was degrading, and to demand an immediate close of their labours. It all went smoothly to the end, and Mr. Nogo walked off from his task with the approving conscience of a patriotic legislator.

At the close the members met to prepare their report. It was then the first week in August, and they were naturally in a hurry to finish their work. It was now their duty to decide on the merits of what they had heard, to form a judgement as to the veracity of the witnesses, and declare, on behalf of the country which they represented, whether or no this bridge should be built at the expense of the nation.

With his decision each was ready enough; but not one of them dreamed of being influenced by anything which had been said before them. All the world — that is, all that were in any way concerned in the matter — knew that the witnesses for the bridge were anxious to have it built, and that the witnesses against the bridge were anxious to prevent the building. It would be the worst of ignorance, ignorance of the usage of the world we live in, to suppose that any member of Parliament could be influenced by such manoeuvres. Besides, was not the mind of each man fully known before the committee met?

Various propositions were made by the members among themselves, and various amendments moved. The balance of the different parties had been nearly preserved. A decided victory was not to be expected on either side. At last the resolution to which the committee came was this: ‘That this committee is not prepared, under existing circumstances, to recommend a grant of public money for the purpose of erecting a bridge at Limehouse; but that the committee consider that the matter is still open to consideration should further evidence be adduced.’

Mr. Vigil was perfectly satisfied. He did not wish to acerbate the member for Mile End, and was quite willing to give him a lift towards keeping his seat for the borough, if able to do so without cost to the public exchequer. At Limehouse the report of the committee was declared by certain persons to be as good as a decision in their favour; it was only postponing the matter for another session. But Mr. Vigil knew that he had carried his point, and the world soon agreed with him. He at least did his work successfully, and, considering the circumstances of his position, he did it with credit to himself.

A huge blue volume was then published, containing, among other things, all Mr. Nogo’s 2,250 questions and their answers; and so the Limehouse and Rotherhithe bridge dropped into oblivion and was forgotten.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/clerks/chapter32.html

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