The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter VII

Mr. Fidus Neverbend

Immediately on entering the office, Tudor gave it to be understood that he intended to give in his name as a candidate; but he had hardly done so when his attention was called off from the coming examinations by another circumstance, which was ultimately of great importance to him. One of the Assistant-Secretaries sent for him, and told him that his services having been required by Sir Gregory Hardlines for a week or so, he was at once to go over to that gentleman’s office; and Alaric could perceive that, as Sir Gregory’s name was mentioned, the Assistant-Secretary smiled on him with no aspect of benign solicitude.

He went over accordingly, and found that Sir Gregory, having been desired to select a man for a special service in the country, had named him. He was to go down to Tavistock with another gentleman from the Woods and Forests, for the purpose of settling some disputed point as to the boundaries and privileges of certain mines situated there on Crown property.

‘You know nothing about mining, I presume?’ said Sir Gregory.

‘Nothing whatever,’ said Alaric.

‘I thought not; that was one reason why I selected you. What is wanted is a man of sharp intelligence and plain common sense, and one also who can write English; for it will fall to your lot to draw up the report on the matter. Mr. Neverbend, who is to be your colleague, cannot put two words together.’

‘Mr. Neverbend!’ said Alaric.

‘Yes, Fidus Neverbend, of the Woods and Forests; a very excellent public servant, and one in whom the fullest confidence can be placed. But between you and me, he will never set the Thames on fire.’

‘Does he understand mining?’ asked Alaric.

‘He understands Government properties, and will take care that the Crown be not wronged; but, Tudor, the Government will look to you to get the true common-sense view of the case. I trust — I mean that I really do trust, that you will not disgrace my choice.’

Alaric of course promised that he would do his best, expressed the deepest gratitude to his patron, and went off to put himself into communication with Mr. Neverbend at the Woods and Forests, having received an assurance that the examination in his own office should not take place till after his return from Tavistock. He was not slow to perceive that if he could manage to come back with all the éclat of a successful mission, the prestige of such a journey would go far to assist him on his coming trial.

Mr. Fidus Neverbend was an absolute dragon of honesty. His integrity was of such an all-pervading nature, that he bristled with it as a porcupine does with its quills. He had theories and axioms as to a man’s conduct, and the conduct especially of a man in the Queen’s Civil Service, up to which no man but himself could live. Consequently no one but himself appeared to himself to be true and just in all his dealings.

A quarter of an hour spent over a newspaper was in his eyes a downright robbery. If he saw a man so employed, he would divide out the total of salary into hourly portions, and tell him to a fraction of how much he was defrauding the public. If he ate a biscuit in the middle of the day, he did so with his eyes firmly fixed on some document, and he had never been known to be absent from his office after ten or before four.

When Sir Gregory Hardlines declared that Mr. Fidus Neverbend would never set the Thames on fire, he meant to express his opinion that that gentleman was a fool; and that those persons who were responsible for sending Mr. Neverbend on the mission now about to be undertaken, were little better than fools themselves for so sending him. But Mr. Neverbend was no fool. He was not a disciple of Sir Gregory’s school. He had never sat in that philosopher’s porch, or listened to the high doctrines prevalent at the Weights and Measures. He could not write with all Mr. Precis’ conventional correctness, or dispose of any subject at a moment’s notice as would Mr. Uppinall; but, nevertheless, he was no fool. Sir Gregory, like many other wise men, thought that there were no swans but of his own hatching, and would ask, with all the pompous conceit of Pharisees in another age, whether good could come out of the Woods and Forests?

Sir Gregory, however, perfectly succeeded in his object of imbuing Tudor with a very indifferent opinion of his new colleague’s abilities. It was his object that Tudor should altogether take the upper hand in the piece of work which was to be done between them, and that it should be clearly proved how very incapable the Woods and Forests were of doing their own business.

Mr. Fidus Neverbend, however, whatever others in the outer world might think of him, had a high character in his own office, and did not under-estimate himself. He, when he was told that a young clerk named Tudor was to accompany him, conceived that he might look on his companion rather in the light of a temporary private secretary than an equal partner, and imagined that new glory was added to him by his being so treated. The two men therefore met each other with very different views.

But though Mr. Neverbend was no fool, he was not an equal either in tact or ability to Alaric Tudor. Alaric had his interview with him, and was not slow to perceive the sort of man with whom he had to act. Of course, on this occasion, little more than grimaces and civility passed between them; but Mr. Neverbend, even in his grimaces and civility, managed to show that he regarded himself as decidedly No. 1 upon the occasion.

‘Well, Mr. Tudor,’ said he, ‘I think of starting on Tuesday. Tuesday will not, I suppose, be inconvenient to you?’

‘Sir Gregory has already told me that we are expected to be at Tavistock on Tuesday evening.’

‘Ah! I don’t know about that,’ said Neverbend; ‘that may be all very well for Sir Gregory, but I rather think I shall stay the night at Plymouth.’

‘It will be the same to me,’ said Tudor; ‘I haven’t looked at the papers yet, so I can hardly say what may be necessary.’

‘No, no; of course not. As to the papers, I don’t know that there is much with which you need trouble yourself. I believe I am pretty well up in the case. But, Mr. Tudor, there will be a good deal of writing to do when we are there.’

‘We are both used to that, I fancy,’ said Tudor, ‘so it won’t kill us.’

‘No, of course not. I understand that there will be a good many people for me to see, a great many conflicting interests for me to reconcile; and probably I may find myself obliged to go down two or three of these mines.’

‘Well, that will be good fun,’ said Alaric.

Neverbend drew himself up. The idea of having fun at the cost of Government was painful to him; however, he spared the stranger his reproaches, and merely remarked that the work he surmised would be heavy enough both for the man who went below ground, and for the one who remained above.

The only point settled between them was that of their starting by an early train on the Tuesday named; and then Alaric returned to Sir Gregory’s office, there to read through and digest an immense bulk of papers all bearing on the question at issue. There had, it appeared, been lately opened between the Tamar and the Tavy a new mine, which had become exceedingly prosperous — outrageously prosperous, as shareholders and directors of neighbouring mines taught themselves to believe. Some question had arisen as to the limits to which the happy possessors of this new tin El Dorado were entitled to go; squabbles, of course, had been the result, and miners and masters had fought and bled, each side in defence of its own rights. As a portion of these mines were on Crown property it became necessary that the matter should be looked to, and as the local inspector was accused of having been bribed and bought, and of being, in fact, an absolute official Judas, it became necessary to send some one to inspect the inspector. Hence had come Alaric’s mission. The name of the mine in question was Wheal Mary Jane, and Alaric had read the denomination half a score of times before he learnt that there was no real female in the case.

The Sunday before he went was of course passed at Hampton, and there he received the full glory of his special appointment. He received glory, and Norman in an equal degree fell into the background. Mrs. Woodward stuck kindly to Harry, and endeavoured, in her gentle way, to quiz the projected trip to Devonshire. But the other party was too strong, and her raillery failed to have the intended effect. Gertrude especially expressed her opinion that it was a great thing for so young a man to have been selected for such employment by such a person; and Linda, though she said less, could not prevent her tell-tale face from saying more. Katie predicted that Alaric would certainly marry Mary Jane Wheal, and bring her to Surbiton Cottage, and Captain Cuttwater offered to the hero introductions to all the old naval officers at Devonport.

‘By jingo! I should like to go with you,’ said the captain.

‘I fear the pleasure would not repay the trouble,’ said Alaric, laughing.

‘Upon my word I think I’ll do it,’ said the captain. ‘It would be of the greatest possible service to you as an officer of the Crown. It would give you so much weight there. I could make you known, you know ——’

‘I could not hear of such a thing,’ said Alaric, trembling at the idea which Uncle Bat had conjured up.

‘There is Admiral Starbod, and Captain Focassel, and old Hardaport, and Sir Jib Boom — why, d — n me, they would all do anything for me — craving the ladies’ pardon.’

Alaric, in his own defence, was obliged to declare that the rules of the service especially required that he should hold no friendly communication with any one during the time that he was employed on this special service. Poor Captain Cuttwater, grieved to have his good nature checked, was obliged to put up with this excuse, and consoled himself with abusing the Government which could condescend to give so absurd an order.

This was on the Saturday. On the Sunday, going to church, the captain suggested that Alaric might, at any rate, just call upon Sir Jib on the sly. ‘It would be a great thing for you,’ said Uncle Bat. ‘I’ll write a note to-night, and you can take it with you. Sir Jib is a rising man, and you’ll regret it for ever if you miss the opportunity.’ Now Sir Jib Boom was between seventy and eighty, and he and Captain Cuttwater had met each other nearly every day for the last twenty years, and had never met without a squabble.

After church they had their usual walk, and Linda’s heart palpitated as she thought that she might have to undergo another tête-à-tête with her lover. But it palpitated in vain. It so turned out that Alaric either avoided, or, at any rate, did not use the privilege, and Linda returned home with an undefined feeling of gentle disappointment. She had fully made up her mind to be very staid, very discreet, and very collected; to take a leaf out of her sister’s book, and give him no encouragement whatever; she would not absolutely swear to him that she did not now, and never could, return his passion; but she would point out how very imprudent any engagement between two young persons, situated as they were, must be — how foolish it would be for them to bind themselves, for any number of years, to a marriage which must be postponed; she would tell Alaric all this, and make him understand that he was not to regard himself as affianced to her; but she with a woman’s faith would nevertheless remain true to him. This was Linda’s great resolve, and the strong hope, that in a very few weeks, Alaric would be promoted to a marrying income of £600 per annum, made the prospect of the task not so painful as it might otherwise have been. Fate, however, robbed her of the pleasure, if it would have been a pleasure, of sacrificing her love to her duty; and ‘dear Linda, dearest Linda,’ was not again whispered into her ear.

‘And what on earth is it that you are to do down in the mines?’ asked Mrs. Woodward as they sat together in the evening.

‘Nothing on the earth, Mrs. Woodward — it is to be all below the surface, forty fathom deep,’ said Alaric.

‘Take care that you ever come up again,’ said she.

‘They say the mine is exceedingly rich — perhaps I may be tempted to stay down there.’

‘Then you’ll be like the gloomy gnome, that lives in dark, cold mines,’ said Katie.

‘Isn’t it very dangerous, going down into those places?’ asked Linda.

‘Men go down and come up again every day of their lives, and what other men can do, I can, I suppose.’

‘That doesn’t follow at all,’ said Captain Cuttwater, ‘What sort of a figure would you make on a yard-arm, reefing a sail in a gale of wind?’

‘Pray do take care of yourself,’ said Gertrude.

Norman’s brow grew black. ‘I thought that it was settled that Mr. Neverbend was to go down, and that you were to stay above ground,’ said he.

‘So Mr. Neverbend settled it; but that arrangement may, perhaps, be unsettled again,’ said Alaric, with a certain feeling of confidence in his own strong will.

‘I don’t at all doubt,’ said Mrs. Woodward, ‘that if we were to get a sly peep at you, we should find you both sitting comfortably at your inn all the time, and that neither of you will go a foot below the ground.’

‘Very likely. All I mean to say is, that if Neverbend goes down I’ll go too.’

‘But mind, you gloomy gnome, mind you bring up a bit of gold for me,’ said Katie.

On the Monday morning he started with the often-expressed good wishes of all the party, and with a note for Sir Jib Boom, which the captain made him promise that he would deliver, and which Alaric fully determined to lose long before he got to Plymouth.

That evening he and Norman passed together. As soon as their office hours were over, they went into the London Exhibition, which was then open; and there, walking up and down the long centre aisle, they talked with something like mutual confidence of their future prospects. This was a favourite resort with Norman, who had schooled himself to feel an interest in works of art. Alaric’s mind was of a different cast; he panted rather for the great than the beautiful; and was inclined to ridicule the growing taste of the day for torsos, Palissy ware, and Assyrian monsters.

There was then some mutual confidence between the two young men. Norman, who was apt to examine himself and his own motives more strictly than Alaric ever did, had felt that something like suspicion as to his friend had crept over him; and he had felt also that there was no ground for such suspicion. He had determined to throw it off, and to be again cordial with his companion. He had resolved so to do before his last visit at Hampton; but it was at Hampton that the suspicion had been engendered, and there he found himself unable to be genial, kindly, and contented. Surbiton Cottage was becoming to him anything but the abode of happiness that it had once been. A year ago he had been the hero of the Hampton Sundays; he could not but now feel that Alaric had, as it were, supplanted him with his own friends. The arrival even of so insignificant a person as Captain Cuttwater — and Captain Cuttwater was very insignificant in Norman’s mind — had done much to produce this state of things. He had been turned out of his bedroom at the cottage, and had therefore lost those last, loving, lingering words, sometimes protracted to so late an hour, which had been customary after Alaric’s departure to his inn — those last lingering words which had been so sweet because their sweetness had not been shared with his friend.

He could not be genial and happy at Surbiton Cottage; but he was by no means satisfied with himself that he should not have been so. When he found that he had been surly with Alaric, he was much more angry with himself than Alaric was with him. Alaric, indeed, was indifferent about it. He had no wish to triumph over Harry, but he had an object to pursue, and he was not the man to allow himself to be diverted from it by any one’s caprice.

‘This trip is a great thing for you,’ said Harry.

‘Well, I really don’t know. Of course I could not decline it; but on the whole I should be just as well pleased to have been spared. If I get through it well, why it will be well. But even that cannot help me at this examination.’

‘I don’t know that.’

‘Why — a week passed in the slush of a Cornish mine won’t teach a man algebra.’

‘It will give you prestige.’

‘Then you mean to say the examiners won’t examine fairly; well, perhaps so. But what will be the effect on me if I fail? I know nothing of mines. I have a colleague with me of whom I can only learn that he is not weak enough to be led, or wise enough to lead; who is so self-opinionated that he thinks he is to do the whole work himself, and yet so jealous that he fears I shall take the very bread out of his mouth. What am I to do with such a man?’

‘You must manage him,’ said Harry.

‘That is much easier said than done,’ replied Alaric. ‘I wish you had the task instead of me.’

‘So do not I. Sir Gregory, when he chose you, knew what he was about.’

‘Upon my word, Harry, you are full of compliments today. I really ought to take my hat off.’

‘No, I am not; I am in no mood for compliments. I know very well what stuff you are made of. I know your superiority to myself. I know you will be selected to go up over all our heads. I feel all this; and Alaric, you must not be surprised that, to a certain degree, it is painful to me to feel it. But, by God’s help I will get over it; and if you succeed it shall go hard with me, but I will teach myself to rejoice at it. Look at that fawn there,’ said he, turning away his face to hide the tear in his eye, ‘did you ever see more perfect motion?’

Alaric was touched; but there was more triumph than sympathy in his heart. It was sweet, much too sweet, to him to hear his superiority thus acknowledged. He was superior to the men who worked round him in his office. He was made of a more plastic clay than they, and despite the inferiority of his education, he knew himself to be fit for higher work than they could do. As the acknowledgement was made to him by the man whom, of those around him, he certainly ranked second to himself, he could not but feel that his heart’s blood ran warm within him, he could not but tread with an elastic step.

But it behoved him to answer Harry, and to answer him in other spirit than this.

‘Oh, Harry,’ said he, ‘you have some plot to ruin me by my own conceit; to make me blow myself out and destroy myself, poor frog that I am, in trying to loom as largely as that great cow, Fidus Neverbend. You know I am fully conscious how much inferior my education has been to yours.’

‘Education is nothing,’ said Harry.

Education is nothing! Alaric triumphantly re-echoed the words in his heart —‘Education is nothing — mind, mind is everything; mind and the will.’ So he expressed himself to his own inner self; but out loud he spoke much more courteously.

‘It is the innate modesty of your own heart, Harry, that makes you think so highly of me and so meanly of yourself. But the proof of what we each can do is yet to be seen. Years alone can decide that. That your career will be honourable and happy, of that I feel fully sure! I wish I were as confident of mine.’

‘But, Alaric,’ said Norman, going on rather with the thread of his own thoughts, than answering or intending to answer what the other said, ‘in following up your high ambition — and I know you have a high ambition — do not allow yourself to believe that the end justifies the means, because you see that men around you act as though they believed so.’

‘Do I do so — do I seem to do so?’ said Alaric, turning sharply round.

‘Don’t be angry with me, Alaric; don’t think that I want to preach; but sometimes I fancy, not that you do so, but that your mind is turning that way; that in your eager desire for honourable success you won’t scrutinize the steps you will have to take.’

‘That I would get to the top of the hill, in short, even though the hillside be miry. Well, I own I wish to get to the top of the hill.’

‘But not to defile yourself in doing so.’

‘When a man comes home from a successful chase, with his bag well stuffed with game, the women do not quarrel with him because there is mud on his gaiters.’

‘Alaric, that which is evil is evil. Lies are evil —’

‘And am I a liar?’

‘Heaven forbid that I should say so: heaven forbid that I should have to think so! but it is by such doctrines as that that men become liars.’

‘What! by having muddy gaiters?’

‘By disregarding the means in looking to the end.’

‘And I will tell you how men become mere vegetables, by filling their minds with useless — needless scruples — by straining at gnats —’

‘Well, finish your quotation,’ said Harry.

‘I have finished it; in speaking to you I would not for the world go on, and seem to insinuate that you would swallow a camel. No insinuation could be more base or unjust. But, nevertheless, I think you may be too over-scrupulous. What great man ever rose to greatness,’ continued Alaric, after they had walked nearly the length of the building in silence, ‘who thought it necessary to pick his steps in the manner you have described?’

‘Then I would not be great,’ said Harry.

‘But, surely, God intends that there shall be great men on the earth?’

‘He certainly wishes that there should be good men,’ said Harry.

‘And cannot a man be good and great?’

‘That is the problem for a man to solve. Do you try that. Good you certainly can be, if you look to Him for assistance. Let that come first; and then the greatness, if that be possible.’

‘It is all a quibble about a word,’ said Alaric. ‘What is good? David was a man after God’s own heart, and a great man too, and yet he did things which, were I to do, I should be too base to live. Look at Jacob — how did he achieve the tremendous rights of patriarchal primogeniture? But, come, the policemen are trying to get rid of us; it is time for us to go,’ and so they left the building, and passed the remainder of the evening in concord together — in concord so soon to be dissolved, and, ah! perhaps never to be renewed.

On the next morning Alaric and his new companion met each other at an early hour at the Paddington station. Neverbend was rather fussy with his dispatch-box, and a large official packet, which an office messenger, dashing up in, a cab, brought to him at the moment of his departure. Neverbend’s enemies were wont to declare that a messenger, a cab, and a big packet always rushed up at the moment of his starting on any of his official trips. Then he had his ticket to get and his Times to buy, and he really had not leisure to do more than nod at Alaric till he had folded his rug around him, tried that the cushion was soft enough, and completed his arrangements for the journey.

‘Well, Mr. Tudor,’ at last he said, as soon as the train was in motion, ‘and how are you this morning — ready for work, I hope?’

‘Well, not exactly at this moment,’ said Alaric. ‘One has to get up so early for these morning trains.’

‘Early, Mr. Tudor! my idea is that no hour should be considered either early or late when the Crown requires our services.’

‘Just at present the Crown requires nothing else of us, I suppose, but that we should go along at the rate of forty miles an hour.’

‘There is nothing like saving time,’ said Neverbend. ‘I know you have, as yet, had no experience in these sort of cases, so I have brought you the papers which refer to a somewhat similar matter that occurred in the Forest of Dean. I was sent down there, and that is the report which I then wrote. I propose to take it for the model of that which we shall have to draw up when we return from Tavistock;’ and as he spoke he produced a voluminous document, or treatise, in which he had contrived to render more obscure some matter that he had been sent to clear up, on the Crown property in the Forest of Dean.

Now Alaric had been told of this very report, and was aware that he was going to Tavistock in order that the joint result of his and Mr. Neverbend’s labours might be communicated to the Crown officers in intelligible language.

The monster report before him contained twenty-six pages of close folio writing, and he felt that he really could not oblige Mr. Neverbend by reading it.

‘Forest of Dean! ah, that’s coal, is it not?’ said Alaric. ‘Mary Jane seems to be exclusively in the tin line. I fear there will be no analogy.’

‘The cases are in many respects similar,’ said Neverbend, ‘and the method of treating them ——’

‘Then I really cannot concur with you as to the propriety of my reading it. I should feel myself absolutely wrong to read a word of such a report, for fear I might be prejudiced by your view of the case. It would, in my mind, be positively dishonest in me to encourage any bias in my own feelings either on one side or the other.’

‘But really, Mr. Tudor ——’

‘I need not say how much personal advantage it would be to me to have the benefit of your experience, but my conscience tells me that I should not do it — so I think I’ll go to sleep.’

Mr. Neverbend did not know what to make of his companion; whether to admire the high tone of his official honesty, or to reprobate his idleness in refusing to make himself master of the report. While he was settling the question in his own mind, Tudor went to sleep, and did not wake till he was invited to partake of ten minutes’ refreshment at Swindon.

‘I rather think,’ said Mr. Neverbend, ‘that I shall go on to Tavistock to-night.’

‘Oh! of course,’ said Alaric. ‘I never for a moment thought of stopping short of it;’ and, taking out a book, he showed himself disinclined for further conversation.

‘Of course, it’s open to me to do as I please in such a matter,’ said Neverbend, continuing his subject as soon as they reached the Bristol station, ‘but on the whole I rather think we had better go on to Tavistock to-night.’

‘No, I will not stop at Plymouth,’ he said, as he passed by Taunton; and on reaching Exeter he declared that he had fully made up his mind on the subject.

‘We’ll get a chaise at Plymouth,’ said Alaric.

‘I think there will be a public conveyance,’ said Neverbend.

‘But a chaise will be the quickest,’ said the one.

‘And much the dearest,’ said the other.

‘That won’t signify much to us,’ said Alaric; ‘we shan’t pay the bill.’

‘It will signify a great deal to me,’ said Neverbend, with a look of ferocious honesty; and so they reached Plymouth.

On getting out of the railway carriage, Alaric at once hired a carriage with a pair of horses; the luggage was strapped on, and Mr. Neverbend, before his time for expostulation had fairly come, found himself posting down the road to Tavistock, followed at a respectful distance by two coaches and an omnibus.

They were soon drinking tea together at the Bedford Hotel, and I beg to assure any travelling readers that they might have drunk tea in a much worse place. Mr. Neverbend, though he made a great struggle to protect his dignity, and maintain the superiority of his higher rank, felt the ground sinking from beneath his feet from hour to hour. He could not at all understand how it was, but even the servants at the hotel seemed to pay more deference to Tudor than to him; and before the evening was over he absolutely found himself drinking port wine negus, because his colleague had ordered it for him.

‘And now,’ said Neverbend, who was tired with his long journey, ‘I think I’ll go to bed.’

‘Do,’ said Alaric, who was not at all tired, ‘and I’ll go through this infernal mass of papers. I have hardly looked at them yet. Now that I am in the neighbourhood I shall better understand the strange names.’

So Alaric went to work, and studied the dry subject that was before him. It will luckily not be necessary for us to do so also. It will be sufficient for us to know that Wheal Mary Jane was at that moment the richest of all the rich mines that had then been opened in that district; that the, or its, or her shares (which is the proper way of speaking of them I am shamefully ignorant) were at an enormous premium; that these two Commissioners would have to see and talk to some scores of loud and angry men, deeply interested in their success or failure, and that that success or failure might probably in part depend on the view which these two Commissioners might take.

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