The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXIV

Westminster Hall

The parliamentary committee pursued their animated inquiries respecting the Limehouse bridge all through the sultry month of July. How Mr. Vigil must have hated Mr. Nogo, and the M’Carthy Desmond! how sick he must have been of that eternal witness who, with imperturbable effrontery, answered the 2,250 questions put to him without admitting anything! To Mr. Vigil it was all mere nonsense, sheer waste of time. Had he been condemned to sit for eight days in close contiguity to the clappers of a small mill, he would have learnt as much as he did from the witnesses before the committee. Nevertheless he went through it and did not lose his temper. He smiled sweetly on Mr. Nogo every morning, and greeted the titled Irishman with his easy familiar nod, as though the continued sitting of this very committee was of all things to him the most desirable. Such is Mr. Vigil’s peculiar tact, such his special talent; these are the gifts — gifts by no means ordinary — which have made him Right Honourable, and recommended him to the confidence of successive badgers.

But though the committee was uninteresting to Mr. Vigil, it was not so to the speculative inhabitants of Limehouse, or to the credulous shopkeepers of Rotherhithe. On the evening of the day on which Mr. Blocks was examined, the shares went up 20 per cent; and when his evidence was published in extenso the next Saturday morning by the Capel Court Share-buyer, a periodical which served for Bible and Prayer-book, as well as a Compendium of the Whole Duty of Man, to Undy Scott and his friends, a further rise in the price of this now valuable property was the immediate consequence.

Now, then, was the time for Alaric to sell and get out of his difficulties if ever he could do so. Shares which he bought for 30s. were now worth nearly £2 10s. He was strongly of opinion that they would fall again, and that the final result of the committee would leave them of a less value than their original purchase-money, and probably altogether valueless. He could not, however, act in the matter without consulting Undy, so closely linked were they in the speculation; and even at the present price his own shares would not enable him to pay back the full amount of what he had taken.

The joint property of the two was, however, at its present market price, worth £12,000 —£10,000 would make him a free man. He was perfectly willing to let Undy have the full use of the difference in amount; nay, he was ready enough to give it to him altogether, if by so doing he could place the whole of his ward’s money once more in safety. With the power of offering such a douceur to his friend’s rapacity, he flattered himself that he might have a chance of being successful. He was thus prepared to discuss the matter with his partner.

It so happened that at the same moment Undy was desirous of discussing the same subject, their joint interest, namely, in the Limehouse bridge; there was no difficulty therefore in their coming together. They met at the door of the committee-room when Mr. Nogo had just put his 999th question to the adverse witness; and as the summons to prayers prevented the 1,000th being proceeded with at that moment, Undy and Alaric sauntered back along the passages, and then walking up and down the immense space of Westminster Hall, said each to the other what he had to say on the matter mooted between them.

Undy was in great glee, and seemed to look on his fortune as already made. They had at first confined their remarks to the special evidence of the witness who had last been in the chair; and Undy, with the volubility which was common to him when he was in high spirits, had been denouncing him as an ass who was injuring his own cause by his over obstinacy.

‘Nothing that he can say,’ said Undy, ‘will tell upon the share-market. The stock is rising from hour to hour; and Piles himself told me that he knew from sure intelligence that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is prepared to give way, whatever Vigil may say to the contrary. Their firm, Piles says, is buying every share they can lay their hands on.’

‘Then in God’s name let them buy ours,’ said Alaric.

‘Buy ours!’ said Undy. ‘You don’t mean to tell me that you wish to sell now? You don’t mean to say that you want to back out, now that the game is all going our own way?’

‘Indeed I do, and I intend to do so; just listen to me, Undy ——’

‘I tell you fairly, Tudor, I will not sell a share; what you may choose to do with your own I cannot say. But if you will be guided by me you will keep every share you have got. Instead of selling we should both add to our stock. I at any rate am resolved to do so.’

‘Listen to me, Undy,’ said Alaric.

‘The truth is,’ said Undy — who at the present moment preferred talking to listening —‘the truth is, you do not understand buying and selling shares. We should both be ruined very quickly were I to allow myself to be led by you; you are too timid, too much afraid of risking your money; your speculative pluck hardly rises higher than the Three per cents, and never soars above a first-class mortgage on land.’

‘I could be as sanguine as you are, and as bold,’ said Alaric, ‘were I venturing with my own money.’

‘In the name of goodness get that bugbear out of your head,’ said Undy. ‘Whatever good it might have done you to think of that some time ago, it can do you no good now.’ There was a bitter truth in this which made Alaric’s heart sink low within his breast. ‘Wherever the money came from, whose property it may have been or be, it has been used; and now your only safety is in making the best use of it. A little daring, a little audacity — it is that which ruins men. When you sit down to play brag, you must brag it out, or lose your money.’

‘But, my dear fellow, there is no question here of losing money. If we sell now we shall realize about £2,000.’

‘And will that, or the half of that, satisfy you? Is that your idea of a good thing? Will that be sufficient to pay for the dozen of bad things which a fellow is always putting his foot into? It won’t satisfy me. I can tell you that, at any rate.’

Alaric felt very desirous of keeping Undy in a good humour. He wished, if possible, to persuade him rather than to drive him; to coax him into repaying this money, and not absolutely to demand the repayment. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘what do you call a good thing yourself?’

‘I call cent per cent a good thing, and I’ll not sell a share till they come up to that.’

‘They’ll never do that, Undy.’

‘That’s your opinion. I think differently. And I’m sure you will own I have had more experience of the share-market than you have. When I see such men as Blocks and Piles buying fast, I know very well which way the wind blows. A man may be fishing a long time, Tudor, in these waters, before he gets such a haul as this; but he must be a great fool to let go his net when he does get it.’

They both then remained silent for a time, for each was doubtful how best to put forward the view which he himself wished to urge. Their projects were diametrically different, and yet neither could carry his own without the assistance of the other.

‘I tell you what I propose,’ said Undy.

‘Wait a moment, Undy,’ said Alaric; ‘listen to me for one moment. I can hear nothing till you do so, and then I will hear anything.’

‘Well, what is it?’

We have each of us put something near to £5,000 into this venture.’

‘I have put more,’ said Scott.

‘Very well. But we have each of us withdrawn a sum equal to that I have named from my ward’s fortune for this purpose.’

‘I deny that,’ said Undy. ‘I have taken nothing from your ward’s fortune. I have had no power to do so. You have done as you pleased with that fortune. But I am ready to admit that I have borrowed £5,000 — not from your ward, but from you.’

Alaric was nearly beside himself; but he still felt that he should have no chance of carrying his point if he lost his temper.

‘That is ungenerous of you, Scott, to say the least of it; but we’ll let that pass. To enable me to lend you the £5,000, and to enable me to join you in this speculation, £10,000 has been withdrawn from Clementina’s fortune.’

‘I know nothing about that,’ said Scott.

‘Know nothing about it!’ said Alaric, looking at him with withering scorn. But Undy was not made of withering material, and did not care a straw for his friend’s scorn.

‘Nothing whatever,’ said he.

‘Well, so be it,’ said Alaric; ‘but the fact is, the money has been withdrawn.’

‘I don’t doubt that in the least,’ said Undy. ‘I am not now going to argue whether the fault has been most mine or yours,’ continued Alaric.

‘Well, that is kind of you,’ said Undy, ‘considering that you are the girl’s trustee, and that I have no more to do with it than that fellow in the wig there.’

‘I wish at any rate you would let me explain myself,’ said Alaric, who felt that his patience was fast going, and who could hardly resist the temptation of seizing his companion by the throat, and punishing him on the spot for his iniquity.

‘I don’t prevent you, my dear fellow — only remember this: I will not permit you to assert, without contradicting you, that I am responsible for Clem’s fortune. Now, go on, and explain away as hard as you like.’

Alaric, under these circumstances, found it not very easy to put what he had to say into any words that his companion would admit. He fully intended at some future day to thrust Scott’s innocence down his throat, and tell him that he was not only a thief, but a mean, lying, beggarly thief. But the present was not the time. Too much depended on his inducing Undy to act with him.

‘Ten thousand pounds has at any rate been taken.’

‘That I won’t deny.’

‘And half that sum has been lent to you.’

‘I acknowledge a debt of £5,000.’

‘It is imperative that £10,000 should at once be repaid.’

‘I have no objection in life.’

‘I can sell my shares in the Limehouse bridge,’ continued Alaric, ‘for £6,000, and I am prepared to do so.’

‘The more fool you,’ said Undy,’ if you do it; especially as £6,000 won’t pay £10,000, and as the same property, if overheld another month or two, in all probability will do so.’

‘I am ready to sacrifice that and more than that,’ said Alaric. ‘If you will sell out £4,000, and let me at once have that amount, so as to make up the full sum I owe, I will make you a free present of the remainder of the debt. Come, Undy, you cannot but call that a good thing. You will have pocketed two thousand pounds, according to the present market value of the shares, and that without the slightest risk.’

Undy for a while seemed staggered by the offer. Whether it was Alaric’s extreme simplicity in making it, or his own good luck in receiving it, or whether by any possible chance some all but dormant remnant of feeling within his heart was touched, we will not pretend to say. But for a while he walked on silent, as though wavering in his resolution, and looking as if he wished to be somewhat more civil, somewhat less of the bully, than he had been.

There was no one else to whom Alaric could dare to open his heart on this subject of his ward’s fortune; there was none other but this ally of his to whom he could confide, whom he could consult. Unpromising, therefore, though Undy was as a confederate, Alaric, when he thought he saw this change in his manner, poured forth at once the full tide of his feelings.

‘Undy,’ said he, ‘pray bear with me a while. The truth is, I cannot endure this misery any longer. I do not now want to blame anyone but myself. The thing has been done, and it is useless now to talk of blame. The thing has been done, and all that now remains for me is to undo it; to put this girl’s money back again, and get this horrid weight from off my breast.’

‘Upon my word, my dear fellow, I did not think that you took it in such a light as that,’ said Undy.

‘I am miserable about it,’ said Alaric. ‘It keeps me awake all night, and destroys all my energy during the day.’

‘Oh, that’s all bile,’ said Undy. ‘You should give up fish for a few days, and take a blue pill at night.’

‘Scott, this money must be paid back at once, or I shall lose my senses. Fortune has so far favoured me as to enable me to put my hand at once on the larger portion of it. You must let me have the remainder. In God’s name say that you will do so.’

Undy Scott unfortunately had not the power to do as he was asked. Whether he would have done so, had he had the power, may be doubtful. He was somewhat gravelled for an answer to Alaric’s earnest supplication, and therefore made none till the request was repeated.

‘In God’s name let me have this money,’ repeated Alaric. ‘You will then have made two thousand pounds by the transaction.’

‘My dear Tudor,’ said he, ‘your stomach is out of order, I can see it as well as possible from the way you talk.’

Here was an answer for a man to get to the most earnest appeal which he could make! Here was comfort for a wretch suffering from fear, remorse, and shame, as Alaric was suffering. He had spoken of his feelings and his heart, but these were regions quite out of Undy Scott’s cognizance. ‘Take a blue pill,’ said he, ‘and you’ll be as right as a trivet in a couple of days.’

What was Alaric to say? What could he say to a man who at such a crisis could talk to him of blue pills? For a while he said nothing; but the form of his face changed, a darkness came over his brow which Scott had never before seen there, the colour flew from his face, his eyes sparkled, and a strange appearance of resolute defiance showed itself round his mouth. Scott began to perceive that his medical advice would not be taken in good part.

‘Scott,’ said he, stopping short in his walk and taking hold of the collar of his companion’s coat, not loosely by the button, but with a firm grip which Undy felt that it would be difficult to shake off —‘Scott, you will find that I am not to be trifled with. You have made a villain of me. I can see no way to escape from my ruin without your aid; but by the living God, if I fall, you shall fall with me. Tell me now; will you let me have the sum I demand? If you do not, I will go to your brother’s wife and tell her what has become of her daughter’s money.’

‘You may go to the devil’s wife if you like it,’ said Undy, ‘and tell her whatever you please.’

‘You refuse, then?’ said Alaric, still keeping hold of Undy’s coat.

‘Come, take your hand off,’ said Undy. ‘You will make me think your head is wrong as well as your stomach, if you go on like this. Take your hand off and listen to me. I will then explain to you why I cannot do what you would have me. Take your hand away, I say; do you not see that people are looking at us.’

They were now standing at the upper end of the hall — close under the steps which lead to the Houses of Parliament; and, as Undy said, the place was too public for a display of physical resentment. Alaric took his hand away. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘now tell me what is to hinder you from letting me have the money you owe me?’

‘Only this,’ said Undy, ‘that every share I have in the concern is made over by way of security to old M’Cleury, and he now holds them. Till I have redeemed them, I have no power of selling.’

Alaric, when he heard these words, could hardly prevent himself from falling in the middle of the hall. All his hopes were then over; he had no chance of shaking this intolerable burden from his shoulders; he had taken the woman’s money, this money which had been entrusted to his honour and safe-keeping, and thrown it into a bottomless gulf.

‘And now listen to me,’ said Undy, looking at his watch. ‘I must be in the House in ten or fifteen minutes, for this bill about married women is on, and I am interested in it: listen to me now for five minutes. All this that you have been saying is sheer nonsense.’

‘I think you’ll find that it is not all nonsense,’ said Alaric.

‘Oh, I am not in the least afraid of your doing anything rash. You’ll be cautious enough I know when you come to be cool; especially if you take a little physic. What I want to say is this — Clem’s money is safe enough. I tell you these bridge shares will go on rising till the beginning of next session. Instead of selling, what we should do is to buy up six or seven thousand pounds more.’

‘What, with Clementina’s money?’

‘It’s as well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Besides, your doing so is your only safety. My brother Val insists upon having 250 shares.’

‘Your brother Val!’ said Alaric.

‘Yes, Val; and why shouldn’t he? I would give them to him if I could, but I can’t. M’Cleury, as I tell you, has every share of mine in his possession.’

‘Your brother Val wants 250 shares! And does he expect me to give them to him?’

‘Well — I rather think he does. That is, not to give them, of course; you don’t suppose he wants you to make him a present of money. But he wants you to accommodate him with the price of them. You can either do that, or let him have so many of your own; it will be as broad as it is long; and he’ll give you his note of hand for the amount.’

Now it was well known among the acquaintance of the Scott family, that the note of hand of the Honourable Captain Val was not worth the paper on which it was written.

Alaric was so astonished at this monstrous request, coming as it did after such a conversation, that he did not well know how to take it.

Was Undy mad, or was he in joke? What man in his senses would think of lending six or seven hundred pounds to Val Scott! ‘I suppose you are in jest,’ said he, somewhat bitterly.

‘I never was more in earnest in my life,’ said Undy. ‘I’ll just explain how the matter is; and as you are sharp enough, you’ll see at once that you had better oblige him. Val, you know, is always hard up; he can’t touch a shilling of that woman’s money, and just at present he has none of his own. So he came to me this morning to raise the wind.’

‘And you are kind enough to pass him on to me.’

‘Listen a moment. I did not do anything of the kind. I never lend money to Val. It’s a principle with me not to do so, and he knows it.’

‘Then just tell him that my principles in this respect are identical with your own.’

‘That’s all very well; and you may tell him so yourself, if you like it; but hear first of all what his arguments are. Of course I told him I could do nothing for him. ‘But,’ said he, ‘you can get Tudor to do it.’ I told him, of course, that I could do nothing of the kind. ‘Oh!’ said Val, ‘I know the game you are both playing. I know all about Clem’s money.’ Val, you know, never says much. He was playing pool at the time, at the club; but he came back after his stroke, and whispered to me —‘You and Tudor must let me have 250 of those shares, and then it’ll be all right.’ Now Val, you know, is a most determined fellow.

Alaric, when he heard this, looked up into his companion’s face to see whether he was talking to the Evil One himself. Oh, what a net of ruin was closing round him! — how inextricable were the toils into which he had fallen!

‘After all,’ continued Undy,’ what he asks is not much, and I really think you should do it for him. He is quite willing to give you his assistance at Strathbogy, and he is entitled to some accommodation.’

‘Some accommodation!’ repeated Alaric, almost lost in the consideration of his own misery.

‘Yes; I really think he is. And, Tudor, you may be sure of this, you know; you will be quite safe with him. Val is the very soul of honour. Do this for him, and you’ll hear no more about it. You may be quite sure he’ll ask for nothing further, and that he’ll never say a word to annoy you. He’s devilish honourable is Val; no man can be more so; though, perhaps, you wouldn’t think it.’

‘Devilish honourable!’ said Alaric. ‘Only he would like to have a bribe.’

‘A bribe!’ said Scott. ‘Come, my dear fellow, don’t you make an ass of yourself. Val is like the rest of us; when money is going, he likes to have a share of it. If you come to that, every man who is paid either for talking or for not talking is bribed.’

‘I don’t know that I ever heard of a much clearer case of a bribe than this which you now demand for your brother.’

‘Bribe or no bribe,’ said Undy, looking at his watch, ‘I strongly advise you to do for him what he asks; it will be better for all of us. And let me give you another piece of advice: never use hard words among friends. Do you remember the Mary Janes which Manylodes brought for you in his pocket to the hotel at Tavistock?’ Here Alaric turned as pale as a spectre. ‘Don’t talk of bribes, my dear fellow. We are all of us giving and taking bribes from our cradles to our graves; but men of the world generally call them by some prettier names. Now, if you are not desirous to throw your cards up altogether, get these shares for Val, and let him or me have them tomorrow morning.’ And so saying Undy disappeared into the House, through the side door out of the hall, which is appropriated to the use of honourable members.

And then Alaric was left alone. He had never hitherto realized the true facts of the position in which he had placed himself; but now he did so. He was in the hands of these men, these miscreants, these devils; he was completely at their mercy, and he already felt that they were as devoid of mercy as they were of justice. A cold sweat broke out all over him, and he continued walking up and down the hall, ignorant as to where he was and what he was doing, almost thoughtless, stunned, as it were, by his misery and the conviction that he was a ruined man. He had remained there an hour after Undy had left him, before he roused himself sufficiently to leave the hall and think of returning home. It was then seven o’clock, and he remembered that he had asked his cousin to dine with him. He got into a cab, therefore, and desired to be driven home.

What was he to do? On one point he instantly made up his mind. He would not give one shilling to Captain Val; he would not advance another shilling to Undy; and he would at once sell out his own shares, and make such immediate restitution as might now be in his power. The mention of Manylodes and the mining shares had come home to him with frightful reality, and nearly stunned him. What right, indeed, had he to talk of bribes with scorn — he who so early in his own life had allowed himself to be bought? How could he condemn the itching palm of such a one as Val Scott — he who had been so ready to open his own when he had been tempted by no want, by no poverty?

He would give nothing to Captain Val to bribe him to silence. He knew that if he did so, he would be a slave for ever. The appetite of such a shark as that, when once he has tasted blood, is unappeasable. There is nothing so ruinous as buying the silence of a rogue who has a secret.

What you buy you never possess; and the price that is once paid must be repaid again and again, as often as the rogue may demand it. Any alternative must be better than this.

And yet what other alternative was there? He did not doubt that Val, when disappointed of his prey, would reveal whatever he might know to his wife, or to his stepson. Then there would be nothing for Alaric but confession and ruin. And how could he believe what Undy Scott had told him? Who else could have given information against him but Undy himself? Who else could have put up so heavily stupid a man as Captain Scott to make such a demand? Was it not clear that his own colleague, his own partner, his own intimate associate, Undy Scott himself, was positively working out his ruin? Where were now his high hopes, where now his seat in Parliament, his authority at the board, his proud name, his soaring ambition, his constant watchword? ‘Excelsior’ — ah me — no! no longer ‘Excelsior’; but he thought of the cells of Newgate, of convict prisons, and then of his young wife and of his baby.

He made an effort to assume his ordinary demeanour, and partially succeeded. He went at once up to his drawing-room, and there he found Charley and Gertrude waiting dinner for him; luckily he had no other guests.

‘Are you ill, Alaric?’ said Gertrude, directly she saw him.

‘Ill! No,’ said he; ‘only fagged, dearest; fagged and worried, and badgered and bored; but, thank God, not ill;’ and he endeavoured to put on his usual face, and speak in his usual tone. ‘I have kept you waiting most unmercifully for your dinner, Charley; but then I know you navvies always lunch on mutton chops.’

‘Oh, I am not particularly in a hurry,’ said Charley; ‘but I deny the lunch. This has been a bad season for mutton chops in the neighbourhood of Somerset House; somehow they have not grown this year.’

Alaric ran up to prepare for dinner, and his wife followed him.

‘Oh! Alaric,’ said she, ‘you are so pale: what is the matter? Do tell me,’ and she put her arm through his, took hold of his hand, and looked up into his face.

‘The matter! Nothing is the matter — a man can’t always be grinning;’ and he gently shook her off, and walked through their bedroom to his own dressing-room. Having entered it he shut the door, and then, sitting down, bowed his head upon a small table and buried it in his hands. All the world seemed to go round and round with him; he was giddy, and he felt that he could not stand.

Gertrude paused a moment in the bedroom to consider, and then followed him. ‘What is it you want?’ said he, as soon as he heard the handle turn, ‘do leave me alone for one moment. I am fagged with the heat, and I want one minute’s rest.’

‘Oh, Alaric, I see you are ill,’ said she. ‘For God’s sake do not send me from you,’ and coming into the room she knelt down beside his chair. ‘I know you are suffering, Alaric; do let me do something for you.’

He longed to tell her everything. He panted to share his sorrows with one other bosom; to have one near him to whom he could speak openly of everything, to have one counsellor in his trouble. In that moment he all but resolved to disclose everything to her, but at last he found that he could not do it. Charley was there waiting for his dinner; and were he now to tell his secret to his wife, neither of them, neither he nor she, would be able to act the host or hostess. If done at all, it could not at any rate be done at the present moment.

‘I am better now,’ said he, giving a long and deep sigh; and then he threw his arms round his wife and passionately embraced her. ‘My own angel, my best, best love, how much too good or much too noble you are for such a husband as I am!’

‘I wish I could be good enough for you,’ she replied, as she began to arrange his things for dressing. ‘You are so tired, dearest; wash your hands and come down — don’t trouble yourself to dress this evening; unless, indeed, you are going out again.’

‘Gertrude,’ said he, ‘if there be a soul on earth that has not in it a spark of what is good or generous, it is the soul of Undy Scott;’ and so saying he began the operations of his toilet.

Now Gertrude had never liked Undy Scott; she had attributed to him whatever faults her husband might have as a husband; and at the present moment she was not inclined to fight for any of the Scott family.

‘He is a very worldly man, I think,’ said she.

‘Worldly! — no — but hellish,’ said Alaric; ‘hellish, and damnable, and fiendish.’

‘Oh, Alaric, what has he done?’

‘Never mind; I cannot tell you; he has done nothing. It is not that he has done anything, or can do anything to me — but his heart — but never mind — I wish — I wish I had never seen him.’

‘Alaric, if it be about money tell me the worst, and I’ll bear it without a murmur. As long as you are well I care for nothing else — have you given up your place?’

‘No, dearest, no; I can keep my place. It is nothing about that. I have lost no money; I have rather made money. It is the ingratitude of that man which almost kills me. But come, dearest, we will go down to Charley. And Gertrude, mind this, be quite civil to Mrs. Val at present. We will break from the whole set before long; but in the meantime I would have you be very civil to Mrs. Val.’

And so they went down to dinner, and Alaric, after taking a glass of wine, played his part almost as though he had no weight upon his soul. After dinner he drank freely, and as he drank his courage rose. ‘Why should I tell her?’ he said to himself as he went to bed. ‘The chances are that all will yet go well.’

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