The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXVI

Ticklish Stock

Alaric returned from his office worn and almost as wretched as he had been on the day before. He had spent a miserable day. In the morning Sir Gregory had asked him whether he had finally made up his mind to address the electors of Strathbogy. ‘No, not finally,’ said Alaric, ‘but I think I shall do so.’

‘Then I must tell you, Tudor,’ said Sir Gregory, speaking more in sorrow than in anger, ‘that you will not have my countenance. I cannot but think also that you are behaving with ingratitude.’ Alaric prepared to make some petulant answer, but Sir Gregory, in the meantime, left the room.

Every one was falling away from him. He felt inclined to rush after Sir Gregory, and promise to be guided in this matter solely by him, but his pride prevented him: though he was no longer sanguine and confident as he had been a week ago, still his ambition was high. ‘Those who play brag must brag it out, or they will lose their money.’ This had been said by Undy; but it was not the less true on that account. Alaric felt that he was playing brag, and that his only game was to brag it out.

He walked home slowly through the Parks. His office and house were so circumstanced that, though they were some two miles distant, he could walk from one to the other almost without taking his feet off the grass. This had been the cause of great enjoyment to him; but now he sauntered on with his hands behind his back, staring straight before him, with fixed eyes, going by his accustomed route, but never thinking for a moment where he was. The tune was gone when he could watch the gambols of children, smile at the courtships of nursery-maids, watch the changes in the dark foliage of the trees, and bend from his direct path hither and thither to catch the effects of distant buildings, and make for his eye half-rural landscapes in the middle of the metropolis. No landscapes had beauty for him now; the gambols even of his own baby were unattractive to him; leaves might bud forth and nourish and fall without his notice. How went the share-market? that was the only question that had an interest for him. The dallyings of Capel Court were the only courtships that he now cared to watch.

And with what a terribly eager eye had he now to watch them! If his shares went up quickly, at once, with an unprecedented success, he might possibly be saved. That was all. But if they did not —! Such was the phase of life under which at the present moment it behoved him to exist.

And then, when he reached his home, how was he welcomed? With all the fond love which a loving wife can show; so much at least was his; but before he had felt the sweetness of her caresses, before he had acknowledged how great was the treasure that he possessed, forth from her eager lips had come the whole tale of Mrs. Val’s impertinence.

‘I will never see her again, Alaric! never; she talked of her daughter’s money, and said something of suspicion!’ Suspicion! Gertrude’s eye again flashed fire with anger; and she all but stamped with her little foot upon the ground. Suspicion! suspect him, her husband, the choice of her heart, her Alaric, the human god whom she worshipped! suspect him of robbery! her lord, her heart, her soul, the strong staff on which she leaned so securely, with such true feminine confidence! Suspect him of common vile dishonesty! —‘You will never ask me to see her again — will you, Alaric?’

What was he to say to her? how was he to bear this? His heart yearned to tell her all; he longed for the luxury of having one bosom to whom he could entrust his misery, his slight remaining hope. But how could he himself, at one blow, by one word, destroy the high and polished shaft on which she whom he loved had placed him? He could not do it. He would suffer by himself; hope by himself, cease to hope by himself, and endure all, till either his sufferings or his hopes should be over.

He had to pretend that he was indignant at Mrs. Val’s interference; he had to counterfeit the feelings of outraged honour, which was so natural to Gertrude. This he failed to do well. Had he been truly honest — had that woman’s suspicion really done him injustice — he would have received his wife’s tidings with grave displeasure, and have simply resolved to acquit himself as soon as possible of the disagreeable trust which had been reposed in him. But such was not now his conduct. He contented himself by calling Mrs. Val names, and pretended to laugh at her displeasure.

‘But you will give up this trust, won’t you?’ said Gertrude.

‘I will think about it,’ said he. ‘Before I do anything I must consult old Figgs. Things of that kind can’t be put out of their course by the spleen of an old woman like Mrs. Val.’

‘Oh, Alaric, I do so wish you had had nothing to do with these Scotts!’

‘So do I,’ said he, bitterly; ‘I hate them — but, Gertrude, don’t talk about them now; my head aches, and I am tired.’

He sat at home the whole evening; and though he was by no means gay, and hardly affectionate in his demeanour to her, yet she could not but feel that some good effect had sprung from his recent dislike to the Scotts, since it kept him at home with her. Lately he had generally spent his evenings at his club. She longed to speak to him of his future career, of his proposed seat in Parliament, of his office-work; but he gave her no encouragement to speak of such things, and, as he pleaded that he was ill, she left him in quiet on the sofa.

On the next morning he again went to his office, and in the course of the morning a note was brought to him from Undy. It ran as follows:—

‘MY DEAR TUDOR,

‘Is Val to have the shares? Let me have a line by the bearer.

‘Yours ever,

‘U. S.’

To this he replied by making an appointment to meet Undy before dinner at his own office.

At the time fixed Undy came, and was shown by the sole remaining messenger into Alaric’s private room. The two shook hands together in their accustomed way. Undy smiled good-humouredly, as he always did; and Alaric maintained his usual composed and uncommunicative look.

‘Well,’ said Undy, sitting down, ‘how about those shares?’

‘I am glad you have come,’ said Alaric, ‘because I want to speak to you with some earnestness.’

‘I am quite in earnest myself,’ said Undy; ‘and so, by G — is Val. I never saw a fellow more in earnest — nor yet apparently more hard up. I hope you have the shares ready, or else a cheque for the amount.’

‘Look here, Undy; if my doing this were the only means of saving both you and me from rotting in gaol, by the Creator that made me I would not do it!’

‘I don’t know that it will have much effect upon me, one way or the other,’ said Undy, coolly; ‘but it seems to me to be the only way that can save yourself from some such fate. Shall I tell you what the clauses are of this new bill about trust property?’

‘I know the clauses well enough; I know my own position; and I know yours also.’

‘D—— your impudence!’ said Undy; ‘how do you dare to league me with your villany? Have I been the girl’s trustee? have I drawn, or could I have drawn, a shilling of her money? I tell you, Tudor, you are in the wrong box. You have one way of escape, and one only. I don’t want to ruin you; I’ll save you if I can; I think you have treated the girl in a most shameful way, nevertheless I’ll save you if I can; but mark this, if this money be not at once produced I cannot save you.’

Alaric felt that he was covered with cold perspiration. His courage did not fail him; he would willingly have taken Undy by the throat, could his doing so have done himself or his cause any good; but he felt that he was nearly overset by the cool deep villany of his companion.

‘I have treated the girl badly — very badly,’ he said, after a pause; ‘whether or no you have done so too I leave to your own conscience, if you have a conscience. I do not now mean to accuse you; but you may know this for certain — my present anxiety is to restore to her that which I have taken from her; and for no earthly consideration — not to save my own wife — will I increase the deficiency.’

‘Why, man, what nonsense you talk — as if I did not know all the time that you have your pocket full of these shares.’

‘Whatever I have, I hold for her. If I could succeed in getting out of your hands enough to make up the full sum that I owe her —’

‘You will succeed in getting nothing from me. When I borrowed £5,000 from you, it was not understood that I was to be called upon for the money in three or four months’ time.’

‘Now look here, Scott; you have threatened me with ruin and a prison, and I will not say but your threats may possibly prove true. It may be that I am ruined; but, if I fall, you shall share my fall.’

‘That’s false,’ said Undy. ‘I am free to hold my head before the world, which you are not. I have done nothing to bring me to shame.’

‘Nothing to bring you to shame, and yet you would now have me give you a further portion of this girl’s money!’

‘Nothing! I care nothing about the girl’s money. I have not touched it, nor do I want to touch it. I bring you a message from my brother; you have ample means of your own to comply with his request.’

‘Then tell your brother,’ said Alaric, now losing all control over his temper —‘tell your brother, if indeed he have any part in this villany — tell your brother that if it were to save me from the gallows, he should not have a shilling. I have done very badly in this matter; I have acted shamefully, and I am ashamed, but ——’

‘Oh, I want to hear none of your rhapsodies,’ said Undy. ‘If you will not now do what I ask you, I may as well go, and you may take the consequences;’ and he lifted his hat as though preparing to take his leave.

‘But you shall hear me,’ said Alaric, rising quickly from his seat, and standing between Undy and the door. Undy very coolly walked to the bell and rang it. ‘I have much to answer for,’ continued Alaric, ‘but I would not have your sin on my soul, I would not be as black as you are, though, by being so, I could save myself with certainty from all earthly punishment.’

As he finished, the messenger opened the door. ‘Show Mr. Scott out,’ said Alaric.

‘By, by,’ said Undy. ‘You will probably hear from Mrs. Val and her daughter tomorrow,’ and so saying he walked jauntily along the passage, and went jauntily to his dinner at his club. It was part of his philosophy that nothing should disturb the even tenor of his way, or interfere with his animal comforts. He was at the present moment over head and ears in debt; he was playing a game which, in all human probability, would end in his ruin; the ground was sinking beneath his feet on every side; and yet he thoroughly enjoyed his dinner. Alaric could not make such use of his philosophy. Undy Scott might be the worse man of the two, but he was the better philosopher.

Not on the next day, or on the next, did Alaric hear from Mrs. Val, but on the following Monday he got a note from her begging him to call in Ebury Street. She underscored every line of it once or twice, and added, in a postscript, that he would, she was sure, at once acknowledge the NECESSITY of her request, as she wished to communicate with him on the subject of her DAUGHTER’S FORTUNE.

Alaric immediately sent an answer to her by a messenger. ‘My dear Mrs. Scott,’ said he, ‘I am very sorry that an engagement prevents my going to you this evening; but, as I judge by your letter, and by what I have heard from Gertrude, that you are anxious about this trust arrangement, I will call at ten tomorrow morning on my way to the office.’

Having written and dispatched this, he sat for an hour leaning with his elbows on the table and his hands clasped, looking with apparent earnestness at the rows of books which stood inverted before him, trying to make up his mind as to what step he should now take.

Not that he sat an hour undisturbed. Every five minutes some one would come knocking at the door; the name of some aspirant to the Civil Service would be brought to him, or the card of some influential gentleman desirous of having a little job perpetrated in favour of his own peculiarly interesting, but perhaps not very highly-educated, young candidate. But on this morning Alaric would see no one; to every such intruder he sent a reply that he was too deeply engaged at the present moment to see any one. After one he would be at liberty, &c., &c.

And so he sat and looked at the books; but he could in nowise make up his mind. He could in nowise bring himself even to try to make up his mind — that is, to make any true effort towards doing so. His thoughts would run off from him, not into the happy outer world, but into a multitude of noisy, unpleasant paths, all intimately connected with his present misery, but none of which led him at all towards the conclusions at which he would fain arrive. He kept on reflecting what Sir Gregory would think when he heard of it; what all those clerks would say at the Weights and Measures, among whom he had held his head so high; what shouts there would be among the navvies and other low pariahs of the service; how Harry Norman would exult —(but he did not yet know Harry Norman); — how the Woodwards would weep; how Gertrude — and then as he thought of that he bowed his head, for he could no longer endure the open light of day. At one o’clock he was no nearer to any decision than he had been when he reached his office.

At three he put himself into a cab, and was taken to the city. Oh, the city, the weary city, where men go daily to look for money, but find none; where every heart is eaten up by an accursed famishing after gold; where dark, gloomy banks come thick on each other, like the black, ugly apertures to the realms below in a mining district, each of them a separate little pit-mouth into hell. Alaric went into the city, and found that the shares were still rising. That imperturbable witness was still in the chair at the committee, and men said that he was disgusting the members by the impregnable endurance of his hostility. A man who could answer 2,250 questions without admitting anything must be a liar! Such a one could convince no one! And so the shares went on rising, rising, and rising, and Messrs. Blocks, Piles, and Cofferdam were buying up every share; either doing that openly — or else selling on the sly.

Alaric found that he could at once realize £7,600. Were he to do this, there would be at any rate seven-eighths of his ward’s fortune secure.

Might he not, in such a case, calculate that even Mrs. Val’s heart would be softened, and that time would be allowed him to make up the small remainder? Oh, but in such case he must tell Mrs. Val; and could he calculate on her forbearance? Might he not calculate with much more certainty on her love of triumphing? Would he not be her slave if she had the keeping of his secret? And why should he run so terrible a risk of destroying himself? Why should he confide in Mrs. Val, and deprive himself of the power of ever holding up his head again, when, possibly, he might still run out his course with full sails, and bring his vessel into port, giving no knowledge to the world of the perilous state in which she had been thus ploughing the deep? He need not, at any rate, tell everything to Mrs. Val at his coming visit on the morrow.

He consulted his broker with his easiest air of common concern as to his money; and the broker gave him a dubious opinion. ‘They may go a little higher, sir; indeed I think they will. But they are ticklish stock, sir — uncommon ticklish. I should not like to hold many myself, sir.’ Alaric knew that the man was right; they were ticklish stock: but nevertheless he made up his mind to hold on a little longer.

He then got into another cab and went back to his office; and as he went he began to bethink himself to whom of all his friends he might apply for such a loan as would enable him to make up this sum of money, if he sold his shares on the morrow. Captain Cuttwater was good for £1,000, but he knew that he could not get more from him. It would be bad borrowing, he thought, from Sir Gregory. Intimate as he had been with that great man, he knew nothing of his money concerns; but he had always heard that Sir Gregory was a close man. Sir Warwick, his other colleague, was in easy circumstances; but then he had never been intimate with Sir Warwick. Norman — ah, if he had known Norman now, Norman would have pulled him through; but hope in that quarter there was, of course, none. Norman was gone, and Norman’s place had been filled by Undy Scott! What could be done with Undy Scott he had already tried. Fidus Neverbend! he had a little money saved; but Fidus was not the man to do anything without security. He, he, Alaric Tudor, he, whose credit had stood, did stand, so high, did not know where to borrow, how to raise a thousand pounds; and yet he felt that had he not wanted it so sorely, he could have gotten it easily.

He was in a bad state for work when he got back to the office on that day. He was flurried, ill at ease, wretched, all but distracted; nevertheless he went rigidly to it, and remained there till late in the evening. He was a man generally blessed with excellent health; but now he suddenly found himself ill, and all but unable to accomplish the task which he had prescribed to himself. His head was heavy and his eyes weak, and he could not bring himself to think of the papers which lay before him.

Then at last he went home, and had another sad and solitary walk across the Parks, during which he vainly tried to rally himself again, and collect his energies for the work which he had to do. It was in such emergencies as this that he knew that it most behoved a man to fall back upon what manliness there might be within him; now was the time for him to be true to himself; he had often felt proud of his own energy of purpose; and now was the opportunity for him to use such energy, if his pride in this respect had not been all in vain.

Such were the lessons with which he endeavoured to strengthen himself, but it was in vain; he could not feel courageous — he could not feel hopeful — he could not do other than despair. When he got home, he again prostrated himself, again declared himself ill, again buried his face in his hands, and answered the affection of his wife by saying that a man could not always be cheerful, could not always laugh. Gertrude, though she was very far indeed from guessing the truth, felt that something extraordinary was the matter, and knew that her husband’s uneasiness was connected with the Scotts.

He came down to dinner, and though he ate but little, he drank glass after glass of sherry. He thus gave himself courage to go out in the evening and face the world at his club. He found Undy there as he expected, but he had no conversation with him, though they did not absolutely cut each other. Alaric fancied that men stared at him, and sat apart by himself, afraid to stand up among talking circles, or to put himself forward as it was his wont to do. He himself avoided other men, and then felt that others were avoiding him. He took up one evening paper after another, pretending to read them, but hardly noticing a word that came beneath his eye: at last, however, a name struck him which riveted his attention, and he read the following paragraph, which was among many others, containing information as to the coming elections.

‘STRATHBOGY. — We hear that Lord Gaberlunzie’s eldest son will retire from this borough, and that his place will be filled by his brother, the Honourable Captain Valentine Scott. The family have been so long connected with Strathbogy by ties of friendship and near neighbourhood, and the mutual alliance has been so much to the taste of both parties, that no severance need be anticipated.’

Alaric’s first emotion was one of anger at the whole Scott tribe, and his first resolve was to go down to Strathbogy and beat that inanimate fool, Captain Val, on his own ground; but he was not long in reflecting that, under his present circumstances, it would be madness in him to bring his name prominently forward in any quarrel with the Scott family. This disappointment he might at any rate bear; it would be well for him if this were all. He put the paper down with an affected air of easy composure, and walked home through the glaring gas-lights, still trying to think — still trying, but in vain, to come to some definite resolve.

And then on the following morning he went off to call on Mrs. Val. He had as yet told Gertrude nothing. When she asked him what made him start so early, he merely replied that he had business to do on his road. As lie went, he had considerable doubt whether or no it would be better for him to break his word to Mrs. Val, and not go near her at all. In such event he might be sure that she would at once go to work and do her worst; but, nevertheless, he would gain a day, or probably two, and one or two days might do all that he required; whereas he could not see Mrs. Val without giving her some explanation, which if false would be discovered to be false, and if true would be self-condemnatory. He again, however, failed to decide, and at last knocked at Mrs. Val’s door merely because he found himself there.

He was shown up into the drawing-room, and found, of course, Mrs. Val seated on a sofa; and he also found, which was not at all of course, Captain Val, on a chair on one side of the table, and M. Victoire Jaquêtanàpe on the other. Mrs. Val shook hands with him much in her usual way, but still with an air of importance in her face; the Frenchman was delighted to see M. Tudere, and the Honourable Val got up from his chair, said ‘How do?’ and then sat down again.

‘I requested you to call, Mr. Tudor,’ said Mrs. Val, opening her tale in a most ceremonious manner, ‘because we all think it necessary to know somewhat more than has yet been told to us of the manner in which my daughter’s money has been invested.’

Captain Val wiped his moustache with the middle finger of his right hand, by way of saying that he quite assented to his wife’s proposition; and Victoire remarked that ‘Madame was a leetle anxious, just a leetle anxious; not that anything could be wrong with M. Tudere, but because she was one excellent mamma.’

‘I thought you knew, Mrs. Scott,’ said Alaric, ‘that your daughter’s money is in the funds.’

‘Then I may understand clearly that none of the amount so invested has been sold out or otherwise appropriated by you.’ said Mrs. Val.

‘Will you allow me to inquire what has given rise to these questions just at the present moment?’ asked Alaric.

‘Yes, certainly,’ said Mrs. Val; ‘rumours have reached my husband — rumours which, I am happy to say, I do not believe — that my daughter’s money has been used for purposes of speculation.’ Whereupon Captain Val again wiped his upper lip, but did not find it necessary to speak.

‘May I venture to ask Captain Scott from what source such rumours have reached him!’

‘Ah-ha-what source? d —— lies, very likely; d —— lies, I dare say; but people do talk — eh — you know,’ so much the eloquent embryo member for Strathbogy vouchsafed.

‘And therefore, Mr. Tudor, you mustn’t be surprised that we should ask you this question.’

‘It is one simple, simple question,’ said Victoire, ‘and if M. Tudere will say that it is all right, I, for myself, will be satisfied.’ The amiable Victoire, to tell the truth, was still quite satisfied to leave his wife’s income in Alaric’s hands, and would not have been at all satisfied to remove it to the hands of his respected step-papa-inlaw, or even his admired mamma-inlaw.

‘When I undertook this trust,’ said Alaric, ‘which I did with considerable hesitation, I certainly did not expect to be subjected to any such cross-examination as this. I consider such questions as insults, and therefore I shall refuse to answer them. You, Mrs. Scott, have of course a right to look after your daughter’s interests, as has M. Jaquêtanàpe to look after those of his wife; but I will not acknowledge that Captain Scott has any such right whatsoever, nor can I think that his conduct in this matter is disinterested;’ and as he spoke he looked at Captain Val, but he might just as well have looked at the door; Captain Val only wiped his moustache with his finger once more. ‘My answer to your inquiries, Mrs. Scott, is this — I shall not condescend to go into any details as to Madame Jaquêtanàpe ‘s fortune with anyone but my co-trustee. I shall, however, on Saturday next, be ready to give up my trust to any other person who may be legally appointed to receive it, and will then produce all the property that has been entrusted to my keeping:’ and so saying, Alaric got up and took his hat as though to depart.

‘And do you mean to say, Mr. Tudor, that you will not answer my question?’ said Mrs. Scott.

‘I mean to say, most positively, that I will answer no questions,’ said Alaric.

‘Oh, confound, not do at all; d — — ’ said the captain. ‘The girl’s money all gone, and you won’t answer questions!’

‘No!’ shouted Alaric, walking across the room till he closely confronted the captain. ‘No — no — I will answer no questions that may be asked in your hearing. But that your wife’s presence protects you, I would kick you down your own stairs before me.’

Captain Val retreated a step — he could retreat no more — and wiped his moustache with both hands at once. Mrs. Val screamed. Victoire took hold of the back of a chair, as though he thought it well that he should be armed in the general battle that was to ensue; and Alaric, without further speech, walked out of the room, and went away to his office.

‘So you have given up Strathbogy?’ said Sir Gregory to him, in the course of the day.

‘I think I have,’ said Alaric; ‘considering all things, I believe it will be the best for me to do so.’

‘Not a doubt of it,’ said Sir Gregory —‘not a doubt of it, my dear fellow;’ and then Sir Gregory began to evince, by the cordiality of his official confidence, that he had fully taken Alaric back into his good graces. It was nothing to him that Strathbogy had given up Alaric instead of Alaric giving up Strathbogy. He was sufficiently pleased at knowing that the danger of his being supplanted by his own junior was over.

And then Alaric again went into the weary city, again made inquiries about his shares, and again returned to his office, and thence to his home.

But on his return to his office, he found lying on his table a note in Undy’s handwriting, but not signed, in which he was informed that things would yet be well, if the required shares should be forthcoming on the following day.

He crumpled the note tight in his hand, and was about to fling it among the waste paper, but in a moment he thought better of it, and smoothing the paper straight, he folded it, and laid it carefully on his desk.

That day, on his visit into the city, he had found that the bridge shares had fallen to less than the value of their original purchase-money; and that evening he told Gertrude everything. The author does not dare to describe the telling.

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