The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXIII

To Stand, or Not to Stand

Sir Gregory Hardlines had been somewhat startled by Alaric’s announcement of his parliamentary intentions. It not unnaturally occurred to that great man that should Mr. Tudor succeed at Strathbogy, and should he also succeed in being allowed to hold his office and seat together, he, Tudor, would very soon become first fiddle at the Civil Service Examination Board. This was a view of the matter which was by no means agreeable to Sir Gregory. Not for this had he devoted his time, his energy, and the best powers of his mind to the office of which he was at present the chief; not for this had he taken by the hand a young clerk, and brought him forward, and pushed him up, and seated him in high places. To have kept Mr. Jobbles would have been better than this; he, at any rate, would not have aspired to parliamentary honours.

And when Sir Gregory came to look into it, he hardly knew whether those bugbears with which he had tried to frighten Tudor were good serviceable bugbears, such as would stand the strain of such a man’s logic and reason. Was there really any reason why one of the commissioners should not sit in Parliament? Would his doing so be subversive of the constitution? Or would the ministers of the day object to an additional certain vote? This last point of view was one in which it did not at all delight Sir Gregory to look at the subject in question. He determined that he would not speak on the matter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or to any of the Government wigs who might be considered to be bigger wigs than himself.

And Alaric thought over the matter coolly also. He looked at it till the bugbears shrank into utter insignificance; till they became no more than forms of shreds and patches put up to frighten birds out of cherry-orchards.

Why should the constitution be wounded by the presence of one more commissioner in Parliament? Why should not he do his public duty and hold his seat at the same time, as was done by so many others? But he would have to go out if the ministry went out. That was another difficulty, another bugbear, more substantial perhaps than the others; but he was prepared to meet even that. He was a poor man; his profession was that of the Civil Service; his ambition was to sit in Parliament. He would see whether he could not combine his poverty with his profession, and with his ambition also. Sir Gregory resolved in his fear that he would not speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the matter; Alaric, on the other hand, in his audacity, resolved that he would do so.

It was thus that Sir Gregory regarded the matter. ‘See all that I have done for this man,’ said he to himself; ‘see how I have warmed him in my bosom, how I have lifted him to fortune and renown, how I have heaped benefits on his head! If gratitude in this world be possible, that man should be grateful to me; if one man can ever have another’s interest at heart, that man should have a heartfelt anxiety as to my interest. And yet how is it? I have placed him in the chair next to my own, and now he is desirous of sitting above me!’

’Twas thus Sir Gregory communed with himself. But Alaric’s soliloquy was very different. A listener who could have overheard both would hardly have thought that the same question was being discussed by the two. ‘I have got so high,’ said Alaric, ‘by my own labour, by my own skill and tact; and why should I stop here? I have left my earliest colleagues far behind me; have distanced those who were my competitors in the walk of life; why should I not still go on and distance others also? why stop when I am only second or third? It is very natural that Sir Gregory should wish to keep me out of Parliament; I cannot in the least blame him; let us all fight as best each may for himself. He does not wish a higher career; I do. Sir Gregory will now do all that he can to impede my views, because they are antagonistic to his own; very well; I must only work the harder to overcome his objections.’ There was no word in all this of gratitude; there was no thought in Alaric’s mind that it behoved him to be grateful to Sir Gregory. It was for his own sake, not for his pupil’s, that Sir Gregory had brought this pupil forward. Grateful, indeed! In public life when is there time for gratitude? Who ever thinks of other interest than his own?

Such was Alaric’s theory of life. But not the less would he have expected gratitude from those whom he might serve. Such also very probably was Sir Gregory’s theory when he thought of those who had helped him, instead of those whom he himself had helped.

And so they met, and discussed Alaric’s little proposition.

‘Since I saw you yesterday,’ said Sir Gregory, ‘I have been thinking much of what you were saying to me of your wish to go into Parliament.’

‘I am very much obliged to you,’ said Alaric.

‘I need hardly tell you, Tudor, how anxious I am to further your advancement. I greatly value your ability and diligence, and have shown that I am anxious to make them serviceable to the public.’

‘I am fully aware that I owe you a great deal, Sir Gregory.’

‘Oh, I don’t mean that; that’s nothing; I am not thinking of myself. I only want you to understand that I am truly anxious to see you take that line in public matters which may make your services most valuable to the public, and which may redound the most to your own advantage. I have thought of what you said to me with the most mature deliberation, and I am persuaded that I shall best do my duty to you, and to the service, by recommending you to abandon altogether your idea of going into Parliament.’

Sir Gregory said this in his weightiest manner. He endeavoured to assume some of that authority with which he had erst cowed the young Tudor at the Weights and Measures, and as he finished his speech he assumed a profound look which ought to have been very convincing.

But the time was gone by with Alaric when such tricks of legerdemain were convincing to him. A grave brow, compressed lips, and fixed eyes, had no longer much effect upon him. He had a point to gain, and he was thinking of that, and not of Sir Gregory’s grimaces.

‘Then you will not see the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject?’

‘No,’ said Sir Gregory; ‘it would be useless for me to do so. I could not advocate such a scheme, feeling certain that it would be injurious both to yourself and to the service; and I would not desire to see the Chancellor with the view of opposing your wishes.’

‘I am much obliged to you for that, at any rate,’ said Alaric.

‘But I do hope that you will not carry your plan any farther. When I tell you, as I do with the utmost sincerity, that I feel certain that an attempt to seat yourself in Parliament can only lead to the ruin of your prospects as a Civil servant — prospects which are brighter now than those of any other young man in the service — I cannot but think that you must hesitate before you take any step which will, in my opinion, render your resignation necessary.’

‘I shall be sorry to resign, Sir Gregory, as I have such true pleasure in serving with you.’

‘And, I presume, a salary of £1,200 a year is not unacceptable?’ said Sir Gregory, with the very faintest of smiles.

‘By no means,’ said Alaric; ‘I am a poor man, depending altogether on my own exertions for an income. I cannot afford to throw away a chance.’

‘Then take my word for it, you should give up all idea of Parliament,’ said Sir Gregory, who thought that he had carried his point.

‘But I call a seat in Parliament a chance,’ said Alaric; ‘the best chance that a man, circumstanced as I am, can possibly have. I have the offer of a seat, Sir Gregory, and I can’t afford to throw it away.’

‘Then it is my duty to tell you, as the head of your office, that it will be your duty to resign before you offer yourself as a candidate.’

‘That you mean is your present opinion, Sir Gregory?’

‘Yes, Mr. Tudor, that is my opinion — an opinion which I shall be forced to express to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if you persist in this infatuation.’

Alaric looked very grave, but not a whit angry. ‘I am sorry for it, Sir Gregory, very sorry; I had hoped to have had your countenance.’

‘I would give it you, Mr. Tudor, if I could consistently with my duty as a public servant; but as I cannot, I am sure you will not ask for it.’ How Fidus Neverbend would have admired the chief commissioner could he have seen and heard him at this moment! ‘But,’ he continued, relaxing for a while the muscles of his face, ‘I hope, I do hope, you will think better of this. What are you to gain? Come, Tudor, think of it that way. What are you to gain? You, with a wife and young family coming up about your heels, what are you to gain by going into Parliament? That is what I ask you. What are you to gain?’ It was delightful to see how pleasantly practical Sir Gregory could become when he chose to dismount from his high horse.

‘It is considered a high position in this country, that of a member of Parliament,’ said Alaric. ‘A man in gaining that is generally supposed to have gained something.’

‘True, quite true. It is a desirable position for a rich man, or a rich man’s eldest son, or even for a poor man, if by getting into Parliament he can put himself in the way of improving his income. But, my dear Tudor, you are in none of these positions. Abandon the idea, my dear Tudor — pray abandon it. If not for your own sake, at any rate do so for that of your wife and child.’

Sir Gregory might as well have whistled. Not a word that he said had the slightest effect on Alaric. How was it possible that his words should have any effect, seeing that Alaric was convinced that Sir Gregory was pleading for his own advantage, and not for that of his listener? Alaric did listen. He received all that Sir Gregory said with the most profound attention; schooled his face into a look of the most polite deference; and then, with his most cruel tone, informed Sir Gregory that his mind was quite made up, and that he did intend to submit himself to the electors of Strathbogy.

‘And as to what you say about my seat at the board, Sir Gregory, you may probably be right. Perhaps it will be as well that I should see the Chancellor of the Exchequer myself.’

‘“Who will to Cupar maun to Cupar,”’ said Sir Gregory; ‘I can only say, Mr. Tudor, that I am very sorry for you, and very sorry for your wife — very sorry, very sorry indeed.’

‘And who will to Strathbogy maun to Strathbogy,’ said Alaric, laughing; ‘there is certainly an air of truth about the proverb as applied to myself just at present. But the fact is, whether for good or for bad, I maun to Strathbogy. That is my present destiny. The fact that I have a wife and a child does make the step a most momentous one. But, Sir Gregory, I should never forgive myself were I to throw away such an opportunity.’

‘Then I have nothing more to say, Mr. Tudor.’

‘Of course I shall try to save my place,’ continued Alaric.

‘I look upon that as quite impossible,’ said Sir Gregory.

‘It can do me no harm at any rate to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If he tells me that a seat in Parliament and a seat at the board are incompatible, and that as one of the Civil Service Commissioners I am not free to stand for the borough, I will in that case, Sir Gregory, put my resignation in your hands before I publish my address.’

And so they parted, each determined to do all that in him lay to thwart the wishes of the other. Alaric was not in the least influenced by anything that Sir Gregory had said to him; he had made up his mind, and was determined to be turned from it by no arguments that his colleague could use; but nevertheless he could not but be meditative, as, walking home across the Parks, he thought of his wife and child. It is true that he had a second trade; he was a stock-jobber as well as a Civil Service Commissioner; but he already perceived how very difficult it was to realize an income to which he could trust from that second precarious pursuit. He had also lived in a style considerably beyond that which his official income would have enabled him to assume. He had on the whole, he thought, done very well; but yet it would be a dreadful thing to have to trust to so precarious a livelihood. He had realized nothing; he had not yet been able to pay back the money which he had so fraudulently taken, and to acquit himself of a debt which now lay daily heavier and heavier on his soul. He felt that he must repay not only that but Undy’s share also, before he could again pass a happy day or a quiet night. This plan of throwing up £1,200 a year would badly assist him in getting rid of this incubus.

But still that watchword of his goaded him on —‘Excelsior!’ he still said to himself; ‘Excelsior!’ If he halted now, now when the ball was at his foot, he might never have another chance. Very early in life before a beard was on his chin, before he could style himself a man according to the laws of his country, he had determined within himself that a seat in Parliament was the only fitting ambition for an Englishman. That was now within his reach. Would he be such a dastard as to draw back his hand, and be deterred from taking it, by old women’s tales of prudence, and the self-interested lectures of Sir Gregory Hardlines?

‘Excelsior!’ There was not much that could be so styled in that debt of his to M. and Madame Jaquêtanàpe. If he could only pay that off he felt that he could brave the world without a fear. Come what come might he would sell out and do so. The bridge committee was sitting, and his shares were already worth more than he had paid for them. Mr. Blocks had just given his evidence, and the commercial world was willing enough to invest in the Limehouse bridge. He would sell out and put his conscience at rest.

But then to do so successfully, he must induce Undy to do so too; and that he knew would not at present be an easy task. Who had ever been successful in getting back money from Undy Scott? He had paid the last half-year’s interest with most commendable punctuality, and was not that a great deal from Undy Scott?

But what if this appropriation of another’s money, what if this fraud should be detected and exposed before he had succeeded in paying back the £10,000. What if he should wake some morning and find himself in the grip of some Newgate myrmidon? A terrible new law had just been passed for the protection of trust property; a law in which he had not felt the slightest interest when he had first seen in the daily newspapers some tedious account of the passing of the various clauses, but which was now terrible to his innermost thoughts.

His walk across the Parks was not made happy by much self-triumph. In spite of his commissionership and coming parliamentary honours, his solitary moments were seldom very happy. It was at his club, when living with Undy and Undy’s peers, that he was best able to throw off his cares and enjoy himself. But even then, high as he was mounted on his fast-trotting horse, black Care would sit behind him, ever mounted on the same steed.

And bitterly did poor Gertrude feel the misery of these evenings which her husband passed at his club; but she never reviled him or complained; she never spoke of her sorrow even to her mother or sister. She did not even blame him in her own heart. She knew that he had other business than that of his office, higher hopes than those attached to his board; and she taught herself to believe that his career required him to be among public men.

He had endeavoured to induce her to associate constantly with Mrs. Val, so that her evenings might not be passed alone; but Gertrude, after trying Mrs. Val for a time, had quietly repudiated the closeness of this alliance. Mrs. Val had her ideas of ‘Excelsior,’ her ambition to rule, and these ideas and this ambition did not at all suit Gertrude’s temper. Not even for her husband’s sake could she bring herself to be patronized by Mrs. Val. They were still very dear friends, of course; but they did not live in each other’s arms as Alaric had intended they should do.

He returned home after his interview with Sir Gregory, and found his wife in the drawing-room with her child. He usually went down from his office to his club, and she was therefore the more ready to welcome him for having broken through his habit on the present occasion.

She left her infant sprawling on the floor, and came up to greet him with a kiss.

‘Ger,’— said he, putting his arm round her and embracing her —‘I have come home to consult you on business;’ and then he seated himself on the sofa, taking her with him, and still in his arms. There was but little doubt that she would consent to anything which he could propose to her after such a fashion, in such a guise as this; that he knew full well.

‘Well, love,’ said she, ‘and what is the business about? You know that I always think that to be best which you think to be best.’

‘Yes, Ger; but this is a very important matter;’ and then he looked grave, but managed at the same time to look happy and contented. ‘This is a matter of vital importance to you, and I will do nothing in it without your consent.’

‘What is best for you must be best for me,’ said Gertrude, kissing his forehead.

Then he explained to her what had passed between himself and Sir Gregory, and what his own ideas were as regarded the borough of Strathbogy. ‘Sir Gregory,’ said he, ‘is determined that I shall not remain at the board and sit in Parliament at the same time; but I do not see why Sir Gregory is to have his own way in everything. If you are not afraid of the risk, I will make up my mind to stand it at all events, and to resign if the Minister makes it imperative. If, however, you fear the result, I will let the matter drop, and tell the Scotts to find another candidate. I am anxious to go into Parliament, I confess; but I will never do so at the expense of your peace of mind.’

The way in which he put upon her the whole weight of the decision was not generous. Nor was the mode he adopted of inducing her to back his own wishes. If there were risk to her — and in truth there was fearful risk — it was his duty to guard her from the chance, not hers to say whether such danger should be encountered or no. The nature of her answer may be easily surmised. She was generous, though he was not. She would never retard his advance, or be felt as a millstone round his neck. She encouraged him with all her enthusiasm, and bade him throw prudence to the winds. If he rose, must she not rise also? Whatever step in life was good for him, must it not be good for her as well? And so that matter was settled between them — pleasantly enough.

He endured a fortnight of considerable excitement, during which he and Sir Gregory did not smile at each other, and then he saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That gentleman promised to speak to the Prime Minister, feeling himself unable to answer the question put to him, definitely out of his own head; and then another fortnight passed on. At the end of that time the Chancellor of the Exchequer sent for Alaric, and they had a second interview.

‘Well, Mr. Tudor,’ said the great man, ‘this is a matter of very considerable importance, and one on which I am not even yet prepared to give you a positive answer.’

This was very good news for Alaric. Sir Gregory had spoken of the matter as one on which there could be no possible doubt. He had asserted that the British lion would no longer sleep peaceably in his lair, if such a violence were put on the constitution as that meditated by the young commissioner. It was quite clear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Prime Minister also, looked at it in a very different light. They doubted, and Alaric was well aware that their doubt was as good as certainty to him.

The truth was that the Prime Minister had said to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a half-serious, half-jocular way, that he didn’t see why he should reject a vote when offered to him by a member of the Civil Service. The man must of course do his work — and should it be found that his office work and his seat in Parliament interfered with each other, why, he must take the consequences. And if — or — or — made a row about it in the House and complained, why in that case also Mr. Tudor must take the consequences. And then, enough having been said on that matter, the conversation dropped.

‘I am not prepared to give a positive answer,’ said the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who of course did not choose to commit himself.

Alaric assured the great man that he was not so unreasonable as to expect a positive answer. Positive answers, as he well knew, were not often forthcoming among official men; official men, as he had already learnt, prefer to do their business by answers which are not positive. He himself had become adverse to positive answers since he had become a commissioner, and was quite prepared to dispense with them in the parliamentary career which he hoped that he was now about to commence. This much, however, was quite clear, that he might offer himself as a candidate to the electors of Strathbogy without resigning; and that Sir Gregory’s hostile remonstrance on the subject, should he choose to make one, would not be received as absolute law by the greater powers.

Accordingly as Alaric was elated, Sir Gregory was depressed. He had risen high, but now this young tyro whom he had fostered was about to climb above his head. O the ingratitude of men!

Alaric, however, showed no triumph. He was more submissive, more gracious than ever to his chief. It was only to himself that he muttered ‘Excelsior!

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