The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XLV

The Fate of the Navvies

And now, having dispatched Alaric and his wife and bairns on their long journey, we must go back for a while and tell how Charley had been transformed from an impudent, idle young Navvy into a well-conducted, zealous young Weights.

When Alaric was convicted, Charley had, as we all know, belonged to the Internal Navigation; when the six months’ sentence had expired, Charley was in full blow at the decorous office in Whitehall; and during the same period Norman had resigned and taken on himself the new duties of a country squire. The change which had been made had affected others than Charley. It had been produced by one of those far-stretching, world-moving commotions which now and then occur, sometimes twice or thrice in a generation, and, perhaps, not again for half a century, causing timid men to whisper in corners, and the brave and high-spirited to struggle with the struggling waves, so that when the storm subsides they may be found floating on the surface. A moral earthquake had been endured by a portion of the Civil Service of the country.

The Internal Navigation had — No, my prognostic reader, it had not been reformed; no new blood had been infused into it; no attempt had been made to produce a better discipline by the appointment of a younger secretary; there had been no carting away of decayed wood in the shape of Mr. Snape, or gathering of rank weeds in the form of Mr. Corkscrew; nothing of the kind had been attempted. No — the disease had gone too far either for phlebotomy, purging, or cautery. The Internal Navigation had ceased to exist! Its demise had been in this wise. — It may be remembered that some time since Mr. Oldeschole had mentioned in the hearing of Mr. Snape that things were going wrong. Sir Gregory Hardlines had expressed an adverse opinion as to the Internal Navigation, and worse, ten times worse than that, there had been an article in the Times. Now, we all know that if anything is ever done in any way towards improvement in these days, the public press does it. And we all know, also, of what the public press consists. Mr. Oldeschole knew this well, and even Mr. Snape had a glimmering idea of the truth. When he read that article, Mr. Oldeschole felt that his days were numbered, and Mr. Snape, when he heard of it, began to calculate for the hundredth time to what highest amount of pension he might be adjudged to be entitled by a liberal-minded Treasury minute.

Mr. Oldeschole began to set his house in order, hopelessly; for any such effort the time was gone by. It was too late for the office to be so done by, and too late for Mr. Oldeschole to do it. He had no aptitude for new styles and modern improvements; he could not understand Sir Gregory’s code of rules, and was dumbfounded by the Civil Service requisitions that were made upon him from time to time. Then came frequent calls for him to attend at Sir Gregory’s office. There a new broom had been brought in, in the place of our poor friend Alaric, a broom which seemed determined to sweep all before it with an unmitigable energy. Mr. Oldeschole found that he could not stand at all before this young Hercules, seeing that his special stall was considered to be the foulest in the whole range of the Augean stables. He soon saw that the river was to be turned in on him, and that he was to be officially obliterated in the flood.

The civility of those wonder-doing demigods — those Magi of the Civil Service office — was most oppressive to him. When he got to the board, he was always treated with a deference which he knew was but a prelude to barbaric tortures. They would ask him to sit down in a beautiful new leathern arm-chair, as though he were really some great man, and then examine him as they would a candidate for the Custom House, smiling always, but looking at him as though they were determined to see through him.

They asked him all manner of questions; but there was one question which they put to him, day after day, for four days, that nearly drove him mad. It was always put by that horrid young lynx-eyed new commissioner, who sat there with his hair brushed high from off his forehead, peering out of his capacious, excellently-washed shirt-collars, a personification of conscious official zeal.

‘And now, Mr. Oldeschole, if you have had leisure to consider the question more fully, perhaps you can define to us what is the — hum — hm — the use — hm — hm — the exact use of the Internal Navigation Office?’

And then Sir Warwick would go on looking through his millstone as though now he really had a hope of seeing something, and Sir Gregory would lean back in his chair, and rubbing his hands slowly over each other, like a great Akinetos as he was, wait leisurely for Mr. Oldeschole’s answer, or rather for his no answer.

What a question was this to ask of a man who had spent all his life in the Internal Navigation Office! O reader! should it chance that thou art a clergyman, imagine what it would be to thee, wert thou asked what is the exact use of the Church of England; and that, too, by some stubborn catechist whom thou wert bound to answer; or, if a lady, happy in a husband and family, say, what would be thy feelings if demanded to define the exact use of matrimony? Use! Is it not all in all to thee?

Mr. Oldeschole felt a hearty inward conviction that his office had been of very great use. In the first place, had he not drawn from it a thousand a year for the last five-and-twenty years? had it not given maintenance and employment to many worthy men who might perhaps have found it difficult to obtain maintenance elsewhere? had it not always been an office, a public office of note and reputation, with proper work assigned to it? The use of it — the exact use of it? Mr. Oldeschole at last declared, with some indignation in his tone, that he had been there for forty years and knew well that the office was very useful; but that he would not undertake to define its exact use. ‘Thank you, thank you, Mr. Oldeschole — that will do, I think,’ said the very spruce-looking new gentleman out of his shirt-collars.

In these days there was a kind of prescience at the Internal Navigation that something special was going to be done with them. Mr. Oldeschole said nothing openly; but it may be presumed that he did whisper somewhat to those of the seniors around him in whom he most confided. And then, his frequent visits to Whitehall were spoken of even by the most thoughtless of the navvies, and the threatenings of the coming storm revealed themselves with more or less distinctness to every mind.

At last the thundercloud broke and the bolt fell. Mr. Oldeschole was informed that the Lords of the Treasury had resolved on breaking up the establishment and providing for the duties in another way. As the word duties passed Sir Gregory’s lips a slight smile was seen to hover round the mouth of the new commissioner. Mr. Oldeschole would, he was informed, receive an official notification to this effect on the following morning; and on the following morning accordingly a dispatch arrived, of great length, containing the resolution of my Lords, and putting an absolute extinguisher on the life of every navvy.

How Mr. Oldeschole, with tears streaming down his cheeks, communicated the tidings to the elder brethren; and how the elder brethren, with palpitating hearts and quivering voices, repeated the tale to the listening juniors, I cannot now describe. The boldest spirits were then cowed, the loudest miscreants were then silenced, there were but few gibes, but little jeering at the Internal Navigation on that day; though Charley, who had already other hopes, contrived to keep up his spirits. The men stood about talking in clusters, and old animosities were at an end. The lamb sat down with the wolf, and Mr. Snape and Dick Scatterall became quite confidential.

‘I knew it was going to happen,’ said Mr. Snape to him. ‘Indeed, Mr. Oldeschole has been consulting us about it for some time; but I must own I did not think it would be so sudden; I must own that.’

‘If you knew it was coming,’ said Corkscrew, ‘why didn’t you tell a chap?’

‘I was not at liberty,’ said Mr. Snape, looking very wise.

‘We shall all have liberty enough now,’ said Scatterall; ‘I wonder what they’ll do with us; eh, Charley?’

‘I believe they will send the worst of us to Spike Island or Dartmoor prison,’ said Charley; ‘but Mr. Snape, no doubt, has heard and can tell us.’

‘Oh, come, Charley! It don’t do to chaff now,’ said a young navvy, who was especially down in the mouth. ‘I wonder will they do anything for a fellow?’

‘I heard my uncle, in Parliament Street, say, that when a chap has got any infested interest in a thing, they can’t turn him out,’ said Corkscrew; ‘and my uncle is a parliamentary agent.’

‘Can’t they though!’ said Scatterall. ‘It seems to me that they mean to, at any rate; there wasn’t a word about pensions or anything of that sort, was there, Mr. Snape?’

‘Not a word,’ said Snape. ‘But those who are entitled to pensions can’t be affected injuriously. As far as I can see they must give me my whole salary. I don’t think they can do less.’

‘You’re all serene then, Mr. Snape,’ said Charley; ‘you’re in the right box. Looking at matters in that light, Mr. Snape, I think you ought to stand something handsome in the shape of lunch. Come, what do you say to chops and stout all round? Dick will go over and order it in a minute.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t, Charley,’ said the navvy who seemed to be most affected, and who, in his present humour, could not endure a joke, As Mr. Snape did not seem to accede to Charley’s views, the liberal proposition fell to the ground.

‘Care killed a cat,’ said Scatterall. ‘I shan’t break my heart about it. I never liked the shop — did you, Charley?’

‘Well, I must say I think we have been very comfortable here, under Mr. Snape,’ said Charley. But if Mr. Snape is to go, why the office certainly would be deuced dull without him.’

‘Charley!’ said the broken-hearted young navvy, in a tone of reproach.

Sorrow, however, did not take away their appetite, and as Mr. Snape did not see fitting occasion for providing a banquet, they clubbed together, and among them managed to get a spread of beefsteaks and porter. Scatterall, as requested, went across the Strand to order it at the cookshop, while Corkscrew and Charley prepared the tables. ‘And now mind it’s the thing,’ said Dick, who, with intimate familiarity, had penetrated into the eating-house kitchen; ‘not dry, you know, or too much done; and lots of fat.’

And then, as the generous viands renewed their strength, and as the potent stout warmed their blood, happier ideas came to them, and they began to hope that the world was not all over. ‘Well, I shall try for the Customs,’ said the unhappy one, after a deep pull at the pewter. ‘I shall try for the Customs; one does get such stunning feeds for tenpence at that place in Thames Street.’ Poor youth! his ideas of earning his bread did not in their wildest flight spread beyond the public offices of the Civil Service.

For a few days longer they hung about the old office, doing nothing — how could men so circumstanced do anything? — and waiting for their fate. At last their fate was announced. Mr. Oldeschole retired with his full salary. Secretaries and such-like always retire with full pay, as it is necessary that dignity should be supported. Mr. Snape and the other seniors were pensioned, with a careful respect to their years of service; with which arrangement they all of them expressed themselves highly indignant, and loudly threatened to bring the cruelty of their treatment before Parliament, by the aid of sundry members, who were supposed to be on the look out for such work; but as nothing further was ever heard of them, it may be presumed that the members in question did not regard the case as one on which the Government of the day was sufficiently vulnerable to make it worth their while to trouble themselves. Of the younger clerks, two or three, including the unhappy one, were drafted into other offices; some others received one or more years’ pay, and then tore themselves away from the fascinations of London life; among those was Mr. R. Scatterall, who, in after years, will doubtless become a lawgiver in Hong-Kong; for to that colony has he betaken himself. Some few others, more unfortunate than the rest, among whom poor Screwy was the most conspicuous, were treated with a more absolute rigour, and were sent upon the world portionless. Screwy had been constant in his devotion to pork chops, and had persisted in spelling blue without the final ‘e.’ He was therefore, declared unworthy of any further public confidence whatever. He is now in his uncle’s office in Parliament Street; and it is to be hoped that his peculiar talents may there be found useful.

And so the Internal Navigation Office came to an end, and the dull, dingy rooms were vacant. Ruthless men shovelled off as waste paper all the lock entries of which Charley had once been so proud; and the ponderous ledgers, which Mr. Snape had delighted to haul about, were sent away into Cimmerian darkness, and probably to utter destruction. And then the Internal Navigation was no more.

Among those who were drafted into other offices was Charley, whom propitious fate took to the Weights and Measures. But it must not be imagined that chance took him there. The Weights and Measures was an Elysium, the door of which was never casually open.

Charley at this time was a much-altered man; not that he had become a good clerk at his old office — such a change one may say was impossible; there were no good clerks at the Internal Navigation, and Charley had so long been among navvies the most knavish or navviest, that any such transformation would have met with no credence — but out of his office he had become a much-altered man. As Katie had said, it was as though some one had come to him from the dead. He could not go back to his old haunts, he could not return like a dog to his vomit, as long as he had that purse so near his heart, as long as that voice sounded in his ear, while the memory of that kiss lingered in his heart.

He now told everything to Gertrude, all his debts, all his love, and all his despair. There is no relief for sorrow like the sympathy of a friend, if one can only find it. But then the sympathy must be real; mock sympathy always tells the truth against itself, always fails to deceive. He told everything to Gertrude, and by her counsel he told much to Norman. He could not speak to him, true friend as he was, of Katie and her love. There was that about the subject which made it too sacred for man’s ears, too full of tenderness to be spoken of without feminine tears. It was only in the little parlour at Paradise Row, when the evening had grown dark, and Gertrude was sitting with her baby in her arms, that the boisterous young navvy could bring himself to speak of his love.

During these months Katie’s health had greatly improved, and as she herself had gained in strength, she had gradually begun to think that it was yet possible for her to live. Little was now said by her about Charley, and not much was said of him in her hearing; but still she did learn how he had changed his office, and with his office his mode of life; she did hear of his literary efforts, and of his kindness to Gertrude, and it would seem as though it were ordained that his moral life and her physical life were to gain strength together.

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