The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter VI

Sir Gregory Hardlines

Great changes had been going on at the Weights and Measures; or rather it might be more proper to say that great changes were now in progress. From that moment in which it had been hinted to Mr. Hardlines that he must relax the rigour of his examinations, he had pondered deeply over the matter. Hitherto he had confined his efforts to his own office, and, so far from feeling personally anxious for the amelioration of the Civil Service generally, had derived no inconsiderable share of his happiness from the knowledge that there were such sinks of iniquity as the Internal Navigation. To be widely different from others was Mr. Hardlines’ glory. He was, perhaps, something of a Civil Service Pharisee, and wore on his forehead a broad phylactery, stamped with the mark of Crown property. He thanked God that he was not as those publicans at Somerset House, and took glory to himself in paying tithes of official cumin.

But now he was driven to a wider range. Those higher Pharisees who were above him in his own pharisaical establishment, had interfered with the austerity of his worship. He could not turn against them there, on their own ground. He, of all men, could not be disobedient to official orders. But if he could promote a movement beyond the walls of the Weights and Measures; if he could make Pharisees of those benighted publicans in the Strand; if he could introduce conic sections into the Custom House, and political economy into the Post Office; if, by any effort of his, the Foreign Office clerks could be forced to attend punctually at ten; and that wretched saunterer, whom five days a week he saw lounging into the Council Office — if he could be made to mend his pace, what a wide field for his ambition would Mr. Hardlines then have found!

Great ideas opened themselves to his mind as he walked to and from his office daily. What if he could become the parent of a totally different order of things! What if the Civil Service, through his instrumentality, should become the nucleus of the best intellectual diligence in the country, instead of being a byword for sloth and ignorance! Mr. Hardlines meditated deeply on this, and, as he did so, it became observed on all sides that he was an altered man as regarded his solicitude for the Weights and Measures. One or two lads crept in, by no means conspicuous for their attainments in abstract science; young men, too, were observed to leave not much after four o’clock, without calling down on themselves Mr. Hardlines’ usual sarcasm. Some said he was growing old, others that he was broken-hearted. But Mr. Hardlines was not old, nor broken in heart or body. He was thinking of higher things than the Weights and Measures, and at last he published a pamphlet.

Mr. Hardlines had many enemies, all in the Civil Service, one of the warmest of whom was Mr. Oldeschole, of the Navigation, and at first they rejoiced greatly that Job’s wish had been accomplished on their behalf, and that their enemy had written a book. They were down on Mr. Hardlines with reviews, counter pamphlets, official statements, and indignant contradiction; but Mr. Hardlines lived through this storm of missiles, and got his book to be fêted and made much of by some Government pundits, who were very bigwigs indeed. And at last he was invited over to the building on the other side, to discuss the matter with a President, a Secretary of State, a Lord Commissioner, two joint Secretaries, and three Chairmen.

And then, for a period of six months, the light of Mr. Hardlines’ face ceased to shine on the children of the Weights and Measures, and they felt, one and all, that the glory had in a certain measure departed from their house. Now and again Mr. Hardlines would look in, but he did so rather as an enemy than as a friend. There was always a gleam of antagonistic triumph in his eye, which showed that he had not forgotten the day when he was called in question for his zeal. He was felt to be in opposition to his own Board, rather than in co-operation with it. The Secretary and the Assistant-Secretaries would say little caustic things about him to the senior clerks, and seemed somewhat to begrudge him his new honours. But for all this Mr. Hardlines cared little. The President and the Secretary of State, the joint Secretaries and the Chairmen, all allowed themselves to be led by him in this matter. His ambition was about to be gratified. It was his destiny that he should remodel the Civil Service. What was it to him whether or no one insignificant office would listen to his charming? Let the Secretary at the Weights and Measures sneer as he would; he would make that hero of the metallic currency know that he, Mr. Hardlines, was his master.

At the end of six months his budding glory broke out into splendid, full-blown, many-coloured flowers. He resigned his situation at the Weights and Measures, and was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Board of Civil Service Examination, with a salary of £2,000 a year; he was made a K.C.B., and shone forth to the world as Sir Gregory Hardlines; and he received a present of £1,000, that happy ne plus ultra of Governmental liberality. Sir Gregory Hardlines was forced to acknowledge to himself that he was born to a great destiny.

When Sir Gregory, as we must now call him, was first invited to give his attendance at another office, he found it expedient to take with him one of the young men from the Weights and Measures, and he selected Alaric Tudor. Now this was surprising to many, for Tudor had been brought into the office not quite in accordance with Sir Gregory’s views. But during his four years of service Alaric had contrived to smooth down any acerbity which had existed on this score; either the paper on the strike-bushel, or his own general intelligence, or perhaps a certain amount of flattery which he threw into his daily intercourse with the chief clerk, had been efficacious, and when Sir Gregory was called upon to select a man to take with him to his new temporary office, he selected Alaric Tudor.

The main effect which such selection had upon our story rises from the circumstance that it led to an introduction between Tudor and the Honourable Undecimus Scott, and that this introduction brought about a close alliance.

We will postpone for a short while such description of the character and position of this gentleman as it may be indispensable to give, and will in this place merely say that the Honourable Undecimus Scott had been chosen to act as secretary to the temporary commission that was now making inquiry as to the proposed Civil Service examinations, and that in this capacity he was necessarily thrown into communication with Tudor. He was a man who had known much of officialities, had filled many situations, was acquainted with nearly all the secretaries, assistant-secretaries, and private secretaries in London, had been in Parliament, and was still hand-and-glove with all young members who supported Government. Tudor, therefore, thought it a privilege to know him, and allowed himself to become, in a certain degree, subject to his influence.

When it was declared to the world of Downing Street that Sir Gregory Hardlines was to be a great man, to have an office of his own, and to reign over assistant-commissioners and subject secretaries, there was great commotion at the Weights and Measures; and when his letter of resignation was absolutely there, visible to the eyes of clerks, properly docketed and duly minuted, routine business was, for a day, nearly suspended. Gentlemen walked in and out from each other’s rooms, asking this momentous question — Who was to fill the chair which had so long been honoured by the great Hardlines? Who was to be thought worthy to wear that divine mantle?

But even this was not the question of the greatest moment which at that period disturbed the peace of the office. It was well known that the chief clerk must be chosen from one of the three senior clerks, and that he would be so chosen by the voice of the Commissioners. There were only three men who were deeply interested in this question. But who would then be the new senior clerk, and how would he be chosen? A strange rumour began to be afloat that the new scheme of competitive examination was about to be tried in filling up this vacancy, occasioned by the withdrawal of Sir Gregory Hardlines. From hour to hour the rumour gained ground, and men’s minds began to be much disturbed.

It was no wonder that men’s minds should be disturbed. Competitive examinations at eighteen, twenty, and twenty-two may be very well, and give an interesting stimulus to young men at college. But it is a fearful thing for a married man with a family, who has long looked forward to rise to a certain income by the worth of his general conduct and by the value of his seniority — it is a fearful thing for such a one to learn that he has again to go through his school tricks, and fill up examination papers, with all his juniors round him using their stoutest efforts to take his promised bread from out of his mouth. Detur digno is a maxim which will make men do their best to merit rewards; every man can find courage within his heart to be worthy; but detur digniori is a fearful law for such a profession as the Civil Service. What worth can make a man safe against the possible greater worth which will come treading on his heels? The spirit of the age raises, from year to year, to a higher level the standard of education. The prodigy of 1857, who is now destroying all the hopes of the man who was well enough in 1855, will be a dunce to the tyro of 1860.

There were three or four in the Weights and Measures who felt all this with the keenest anxiety. The fact of their being there, and of their having passed the scrutiny of Mr. Hardlines, was proof enough that they were men of high attainments; but then the question arose to them and others whether they were men exactly of those attainments which were now most required. Who is to say what shall constitute the merits of the dignior? It may one day be conic sections, another Greek iambics, and a third German philosophy. Rumour began to say that foreign languages were now very desirable. The three excellent married gentlemen who stood first in succession for the coveted promotion were great only in their vernacular.

Within a week from the secession of Sir Gregory, his immediate successor had been chosen, and it had been officially declared that the vacant situation in the senior class was to be thrown open as a prize for the best man in the office. Here was a brilliant chance for young merit! The place was worth £600 a-year, and might be gained by any one who now received no more than £100. Each person desirous of competing was to send in his name to the Secretary, on or before that day fortnight; and on that day month, the candidates were to present themselves before Sir Gregory Hardlines and his board of Commissioners.

And yet the joy of the office was by no means great. The senior of those who might become competitors, was of course a miserable, disgusted man. He went about fruitlessly endeavouring to instigate rebellion against Sir Gregory, that very Sir Gregory whom he had for many years all but worshipped. Poor Jones was, to tell the truth, in a piteous case. He told the Secretary flatly that he would not compete with a lot of boys fresh from school, and his friends began to think of removing his razors. Nor were Brown and Robinson in much better plight. They both, it is true, hated Jones ruthlessly, and desired nothing better than an opportunity of supplanting him. They were, moreover, fast friends themselves; but not the less on that account had Brown a mortal fear of Robinson, as also had Robinson a mortal fear of Brown.

Then came the bachelors. First there was Uppinall, who, when he entered the office, was supposed to know everything which a young man had ever known. Those who looked most to dead knowledge were inclined to back him as first favourite. It had, however, been remarked, that his utility as a clerk had not been equal to the profundity of his acquirements. Of all the candidates he was the most self-confident.

The next to him was Mr. A. Minusex, a wondrous arithmetician. He was one who could do as many sums without pen and paper as a learned pig; who was so given to figures that he knew the number of stairs in every flight he had gone up and down in the metropolis; one who, whatever the subject before him might be, never thought but always counted. Many who knew the peculiar propensities of Sir Gregory’s earlier days thought that Mr. Minusex was not an unlikely candidate.

The sixth in order was our friend Norman. The Secretary and the two Assistant-Secretaries, when they first put their heads together on the matter, declared that he was the most useful man in the office.

There was a seventh, named Alphabet Precis. Mr. Precis’ peculiar forte was a singular happiness in official phraseology. Much that he wrote would doubtless have been considered in the purlieus of Paternoster Row as ungrammatical, if not unintelligible; but according to the syntax of Downing Street, it was equal to Macaulay, and superior to Gibbon. He had frequently said to his intimate friends, that in official writing, style was everything; and of his writing it certainly did form a very prominent part. He knew well, none perhaps so well, when to beg leave to lay before the Board — and when simply to submit to the Commissioners. He understood exactly to whom it behoved the secretary ‘to have the honour of being a very humble servant,’ and to whom the more simple ‘I am, sir,’ was a sufficiently civil declaration. These are qualifications great in official life, but were not quite so much esteemed at the time of which we are speaking as they had been some few years previously.

There was but one other named as likely to stand with any probability of success, and he was Alaric Tudor. Among the very juniors of the office he was regarded as the great star of the office. There was a dash about him and a quick readiness for any work that came to hand in which, perhaps, he was not equalled by any of his compeers. Then, too, he was the special friend of Sir Gregory.

But no one had yet heard Tudor say that he intended to compete with his seven seniors — none yet knew whether he would put himself forward as an adversary to his own especial friend, Norman. That Norman would be a candidate had been prominently stated. For some few days not a word was spoken, even between the friends themselves, as to Tudor’s intention.

On the Sunday they were as usual at Hampton, and then the subject was mooted by no less a person than Captain Cuttwater.

So you young gentlemen up in London are all going to be examined, are you?’ said he; ‘what is it to be about? Who’s to be first lieutenant of the ship, is that it?’

‘Oh no,’ said Alaric, ‘nothing half so high as that. Boatswain’s mate would be nearer the mark.’

‘And who is to be the successful man?’

‘Oh, Harry Norman, here. He was far the first favourite in yesterday’s betting.’

And how do you stand yourself?’ said Uncle Bat.

‘Oh! I’m only an outsider,’ said Alaric. ‘They put my name down just to swell the number, but I shall be scratched before the running begins.’

‘Indeed he won’t,’ said Harry. ‘He’ll run and distance us all. There is no one who has a chance with him. Why, he is Sir Gregory’s own pet.’

There was nothing more said on the subject at Surbiton Cottage. The ladies seemed instinctively to perceive that it was a matter which they had better leave alone. Not only were the two young men to be pitted against each other, but Gertrude and Linda were as divided in their wishes on the subject as the two candidates could be themselves.

On the following morning, however, Norman introduced the subject. ‘I suppose you were only jesting yesterday,’ said he, ‘when you told the captain that you were not going to be a candidate?’

‘Indeed I can hardly say that I was in jest or in earnest,’ said Alaric. ‘I simply meant to decline to discuss the subject with Uncle Bat.’

‘But of course you do mean to stand?’ said Harry. Alaric made no answer.

‘Perhaps you would rather decline to discuss the matter with me also?’ said Harry.

‘Not at all; I would much prefer discussing it openly and honestly. My own impression is, that I had better leave it alone.’

‘And why so?’ said Harry.

‘Why so?’ repeated Alaric. ‘Well, there are so many reasons. In the first place, there would be seven to one against me; and I must confess that if I did stand I should not like to be beaten.’

‘The same argument might keep us all back,’ said Norman.

‘That’s true; but one man will be more sensitive, more cowardly, if you will, than another; and then I think no one should stand who does not believe himself to have a fair chance. His doing so might probably mar his future prospects. How can I put myself in competition with such men as Uppinall and Minuses?’

Harry laughed slightly, for he knew it had been asked by many how such men as Uppinall and Minusex could think of putting themselves in competition with Alaric Tudor.

‘That is something like mock-modesty, is it not, Alaric?’

‘No, by heaven, it is not! I know well what those men are made of; and I know, or think I know, my own abilities. I will own that I rank myself as a human creature much higher than I rank them. But they have that which I have not, and that which they have is that which these examiners will chiefly require.’

‘If you have no other reason,’ said Norman, ‘I would strongly advise you to send in your name.’

‘Well, Harry, I have another reason; and, though last, it is by no means the least. You will be a candidate, and probably the successful one. To tell you the truth, I have no inclination to stand against you.’

Norman turned very red, and then answered somewhat gravely: ‘I would advise you to lay aside that objection. I fairly tell you that I consider your chance better than my own.’

‘And suppose it be so, which I am sure it is not — but suppose it be so, what then?’

‘Why, you will do right to take advantage of it.’

‘Yes, and so gain a step and lose a friend!’ said Alaric. ‘No; there can be no heartburn to me in your being selected, for though I am older than you, you are my senior in the office. But were I to be put over your head, it would in the course of nature make a division between us; and if it were possible that you should forgive it, it would be quite impossible that Gertrude should do so. I value your friendship and that of the Woodwards too highly to risk it.’

Norman instantly fired up with true generous energy. ‘I should be wretched,’ said he, ‘if I thought that such a consideration weighed with you; I would rather withdraw myself than allow such a feeling to interfere with your prospects. Indeed, after what you have said, I shall not send in my own name unless you also send in yours.’

‘I shall only be creating fuel for a feud,’ said Alaric. ‘To put you out of the question, no promotion could compensate to me for what I should lose at Hampton.’

‘Nonsense, man; you would lose nothing. Faith, I don’t know whether it is not I that should lose, if I were successful at your expense.’

‘How would Gertrude receive me?’ said Alaric, pushing the matter further than he perhaps should have done.

‘We won’t mind Gertrude,’ said Norman, with a little shade of black upon his brow. ‘You are an older man than I, and therefore promotion is to you of more importance than to me. You are also a poorer man. I have some means besides that drawn from my office, which, if I marry, I can settle on my wife; you have none such. I should consider myself to be worse than wicked if I allowed any consideration of such a nature to stand in the way of your best interests. Believe me, Alaric, that though I shall, as others, be anxious for success myself, I should, in failing, be much consoled by knowing that you had succeeded.’ And as he finished speaking he grasped his friend’s hand warmly in token of the truth of his assertion.

Alaric brushed a tear from his eye, and ended by promising to be guided by his friend’s advice. Harry Norman, as he walked into the office, felt a glow of triumph as he reflected that he had done his duty by his friend with true disinterested honesty. And Alaric, he also felt a glow of triumph as he reflected that, come what might, there would be now no necessity for him to break with Norman or with the Woodwards. Norman must now always remember that it was at his own instigation that he, Alaric, had consented to be a candidate.

As regarded the real fact of the candidature, the prize was too great to allow of his throwing away such a chance. Alaric’s present income was £200; that which he hoped to gain was £600!

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