The Fixed Period, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter X.

The Town-Hall.

When I went home and told them what was to be done, they were of course surprised, but apparently not very unhappy. Mrs Neverbend suggested that she should accompany me, so as to look after my linen and other personal comforts. But I told her, whether truly or not I hardly then knew, that there would be no room for her on board a ship of war such as the John Bright. Since I have lived on board her, I have become aware that they would willingly have accommodated, at my request, a very much larger family than my own. Mrs Neverbend at once went to work to provide for my enforced absence, and in the course of the day Eva Crasweller came in to help her. Eva’s manner to myself had become perfectly altered since the previous morning. Nothing could be more affectionate, more gracious, or more winning, than she was now; and I envied Jack the short moments of tête-à-tête retreat which seemed from time to time to be necessary for carrying out the arrangements of the day.

I may as well state here, that from this time Abraham Grundle showed himself to be a declared enemy, and that the partnership was dissolved between Crasweller and himself. He at once brought an action against my old friend for the recovery of that proportion of his property to which he was held to be entitled under our marriage laws. This Mr Crasweller immediately offered to pay him; but some of our more respectable lawyers interfered, and persuaded him not to make the sacrifice. There then came on a long action, with an appeal, — all which was given against Grundle, and nearly ruined the Grundles. It seemed to me, as far as I could go into the matter, that Grundle had all the law on his side. But there arose certain quibbles and questions, all of which Jack had at his fingers’-ends, by the strength of which the unfortunate young man was trounced. As I learned by the letters which Eva wrote to me, Crasweller was all through most anxious to pay him; but the lawyers would not have it so, and therefore so much of the property of Little Christchurch was saved for the ultimate benefit of that happy fellow Jack Neverbend.

On the afternoon of the one day which, as a matter of grace, had been allowed to me, Sir Ferdinando declared his intention of making a speech to the people of Gladstonopolis. “He was desirous,” he said, “of explaining to the community at large the objects of H.M. Government in sending him to Britannula, and in requesting the inhabitants to revert to their old form of government.” “Request indeed,” I said to Crasweller, throwing all possible scorn into the tone of my voice, — “request! with the North-north-west Birmingham regiment, and his 250-ton steam-swiveller in the harbour! That Ferdinando Brown knows how to conceal his claws beneath a velvet glove. We are to be slaves, — slaves because England so wills it. We are robbed of our constitution, our freedom of action is taken from us, and we are reduced to the lamentable condition of a British Crown colony! And all this is to be done because we had striven to rise above the prejudices of the day.” Crasweller smiled, and said not a word to oppose me, and accepted all my indignation with assent; but he certainly did not show any enthusiasm. A happier old gentleman, or one more active for his years, I had never known. It was but yesterday that I had seen him so absolutely cowed as to be hardly able to speak a word. And all this change had occurred simply because he was to be allowed to die out in the open world, instead of enjoying the honour of having been the first to depart in conformity with the new theory. He and I, however, spent thus one day longer in sweet friendship; and I do not doubt but that, when I return to Britannula, I shall find him living in great comfort at Little Christchurch.

At three o’clock we all went into our great town-hall to hear what Sir Ferdinando had to say to us. The chamber is a very spacious one, fitted up with a large organ, and all the arrangements necessary for a music-hall; but I had never seen a greater crowd than was collected there on this occasion. There was not a vacant corner to be found; and I heard that very many of the inhabitants went away greatly displeased in that they could not be accommodated. Sir Ferdinando had been very particular in asking the attendance of Captain Battleax, and as many of the ship’s officers as could be spared. This, I was told, he did in order that something of the éclat of his oration might be taken back to England. Sir Ferdinando was a man who thought much of his own eloquence, — and much also of the advantage which he might reap from it in the opinion of his fellow-countrymen generally. I found that a place of honour had been reserved for me too at his right hand, and also one for my wife at his left. I must confess that in these last moments of my sojourn among the people over whom I had ruled, I was treated with the most distinguished courtesy. But, as I continued to say to myself, I was to be banished in a few hours as one whose intended cruelties were too abominable to allow of my remaining in my own country. On the first seat behind the chair sat Captain Battleax, with four or five of his officers behind him. “So you have left Lieutenant Crosstrees in charge of your little toy,” I whispered to Captain Battleax.

“With a glass,” he replied, “by which he will be able to see whether you leave the building. In that case, he will blow us all into atoms.”

Then Sir Ferdinando rose to his legs, and began his speech. I had never before heard a specimen of that special oratory to which the epithet flowery may be most appropriately applied. It has all the finished polish of England, joined to the fervid imagination of Ireland. It streams on without a pause, and without any necessary end but that which the convenience of time may dictate. It comes without the slightest effort, and it goes without producing any great effect. It is sweet at the moment. It pleases many, and can offend none. But it is hardly afterwards much remembered, and is efficacious only in smoothing somewhat the rough ways of this harsh world. But I have observed that in what I have read of British debates, those who have been eloquent after this fashion are generally firm to some purpose of self-interest. Sir Ferdinando had on this occasion dressed himself with minute care; and though he had for the hour before been very sedulous in manipulating certain notes, he now was careful to show not a scrap of paper; and I must do him the justice to declare that he spun out the words from the reel of his memory as though they all came spontaneous and pat to his tongue.

“Mr Neverbend,” he said, “ladies and gentlemen, — I have to-day for the first time the great pleasure of addressing an intelligent concourse of citizens in Britannula. I trust that before my acquaintance with this prosperous community may be brought to an end, I may have many another opportunity afforded me of addressing you. It has been my lot in life to serve my Sovereign in various parts of the world, and humbly to represent the throne of England in every quarter of the globe. But by the admitted testimony of all people, — my fellow-countrymen at home in England, and those who are equally my fellow-countrymen in the colonies to which I have been sent, — it is acknowledged that in prosperity, intelligence, and civilisation, you are excelled by no English-speaking section of the world. And if by none who speak English, who shall then aspire to excel you? Such, as I have learned, has been the common verdict given; and as I look round this vast room, on a spot which fifty years ago the marsupial races had under their own dominion, and see the feminine beauty and manly grace which greet me on every side, I can well believe that some peculiarly kind freak of nature has been at work, and has tended to produce a people as strong as it is beautiful, and as clever in its wit as it is graceful in its actions.” Here the speaker paused, and the audience all clapped their hands and stamped their feet, which seemed to me to be a very improper mode of testifying their assent to their own praises. But Sir Ferdinando took it all in good part, and went on with his speech.

“I have been sent here, ladies and gentlemen, on a peculiar mission, — on a duty as to which, though I am desirous of explaining it to all of you in every detail, I feel a difficulty of saying a single word.” “Fixed Period,” was shouted from one of the balconies in a voice which I recognised as that of Mr Tallowax. “My friend in the gallery,” continued Sir Ferdinando, “reminds me of the very word for which I should in vain have cudgelled my brain. The Fixed Period is the subject on which I am called upon to say to you a few words; — the Fixed Period, and the man who has, I believe, been among you the chief author of that system of living, — and if I may be permitted to say so, of dying also.” Here the orator allowed his voice to fade away in a melancholy cadence, while he turned his face towards me, and with a gentle motion laid his right hand upon my shoulder. “Oh, my friends, it is, to say the least of it, a startling project.” “Uncommon, if it was your turn next,” said Tallowax in the gallery. “Yes, indeed,” continued Sir Ferdinando, “if it were my turn next! I must own, that though I should consider myself to be affronted if I were told that I were faint-hearted, — though I should know myself to be maligned if it were said of me that I have a coward’s fear of death, — still I should feel far from comfortable if that age came upon me which this system has defined, and were I to live in a country in which it has prevailed. Though I trust that I may be able to meet death like a brave man when it may come, still I should wish that it might come by God’s hand, and not by the wisdom of a man.

“I have nothing to say against the wisdom of that man,” continued he, turning to me again. “I know all the arguments with which he has fortified himself. They have travelled even as far as my ears; but I venture to use the experience which I have gathered in many countries, and to tell him that in accordance with God’s purposes the world is not as yet ripe for his wisdom.” I could not help thinking as he spoke thus, that he was not perhaps acquainted with all the arguments on which my system of the Fixed Period was founded; and that if he would do me the honour to listen to a few words which I proposed to speak to the people of Britannula before I left them, he would have clearer ideas about it than had ever yet entered into his mind. “Oh, my friends,” said he, rising to the altitudes of his eloquence, “it is fitting for us that we should leave these things in the hands of the Almighty. It is fitting for us, at any rate, that we should do so till we have been brought by Him to a state of god-like knowledge infinitely superior to that which we at present possess.” Here I could perceive that Sir Ferdinando was revelling in the sounds of his own words, and that he had prepared and learnt by heart the tones of his voice, and even the motion of his hands. “We all know that it is not allowed to us to rush into His presence by any deed of our own. You all remember what the poet says, —

‘Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!’

Is not this self-slaughter, this theory in accordance with which a man shall devote himself to death at a certain period? And if a man may not slay himself, how shall he then, in the exercise of his poor human wit, devote a fellow-creature to certain death?” “And he as well as ever he was in his life,” said Tallowax in the gallery.

“My friend does well to remind me. Though Mr Neverbend has named a Fixed Period for human life, and has perhaps chosen that at which its energies may usually be found to diminish, who can say that he has even approached the certainty of that death which the Lord sends upon us all at His own period? The poor fellow to whom nature has been unkind, departs from us decrepit and worn out at forty; whereas another at seventy is still hale and strong in performing the daily work of his life.”

“I am strong enough to do a’most anything for myself, and I was to be the next to go, — the very next.” This in a treble voice came from that poor fellow Barnes, who had suffered nearly the pangs of death itself from the Fixed Period.

“Yes, indeed; in answer to such an appeal as that, who shall venture to say that the Fixed Period shall be carried out with all its startling audacity? The tenacity of purpose which distinguishes our friend here is known to us all. The fame of his character in that respect had reached my ears even among the thick-lipped inhabitants of Central Africa.” I own I did wonder whether this could be true. “‘Justum et tenacem propositi virum!’ Nothing can turn him from his purpose, or induce him to change his inflexible will. You know him, and I know him, and he is well known throughout England. Persuasion can never touch him; fear has no power over him. He, as one unit, is strong against a million. He is invincible, imperturbable, and ever self-assured.”

I, as I sat there listening to this character of myself, heroic somewhat, but utterly unlike the person for whom it was intended, felt that England knew very little about me, and cared less; and I could not but be angry that my name should be used in this way to adorn the sentences of Sir Ferdinando’s speech. Here in Gladstonopolis I was well known, — and well known to be neither imperturbable nor self-assured. But all the people seemed to accept what he said, and I could not very well interrupt him. He had his opportunity now, and I perhaps might have mine by-and-by.

“My friends,” continued Sir Ferdinando, “at home in England, where, though we are powerful by reason of our wealth and numbers — ” “Just so,” said I. “Where we are powerful, I repeat, by reason of our wealth and numbers, though perhaps less advanced than you are in the philosophical arrangements of life, it has seemed to us to be impossible that the theory should be allowed to be carried to its legitimate end. The whole country would be horrified were one life sacrificed to this theory.” “We knew that, — we knew that,” said the voice of Tallowax. “And yet your Assembly had gone so far as to give to the system all the stability of law. Had not the John Bright steamed into your harbour yesterday, one of your most valued citizens would have been already — deposited.” When he had so spoken, he turned round to Mr Crasweller, who was sitting on my right hand, and bowed to him. Crasweller looked straight before him, and took no notice of Sir Ferdinando. He was at the present moment rather on my side of the question, and having had his freedom secured to him, did not care for Sir Ferdinando.

“But that has been prevented, thanks to the extraordinary rapidity with which my excellent friend Captain Battleax has made his way across the ocean. And I must say that every one of these excellent fellows, his officers, has done his best to place H.M. ship the John Bright in her commanding position with the least possible delay.” Here he turned round and bowed to the officers, and by keen eyes might have been observed to bow through the windows also to the vessel, which lay a mile off in the harbour. “There will not, at any rate for the present, be any Fixed Period for human life in Britannula. That dream has been dreamed, — at any rate for the present. Whether in future ages such a philosophy may prevail, who shall say? At present we must all await our death from the hands of the Almighty. ‘Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.’

“And now, gentlemen, I have to request your attention for a few moments to another matter, and one which is very different from this which we have discussed. I am to say a few words of the past and the present, — of your past constitution, and of that which it is my purpose to inaugurate.” Here there arose a murmur through the room very audible, and threatening by its sounds to disturb the orator. “I will ask your favour for a few minutes; and when you shall have heard me to-day, I will in my turn hear you to-morrow. Great Britain at your request surrendered to you the power of self-government. To so small an English-speaking community has this never before been granted. And I am bound to say that you have in many respects shown yourselves fit for the responsibility imposed upon you. You have been intelligent, industrious, and prudent. Ignorance has been expelled from your shores, and poverty has been forced to hide her diminished head.” Here the orator paused to receive that applause which he conceived to be richly his due; but the occupants of the benches before him sat sternly silent. There were many there who had been glad to see a ship of war come in to stop the Fixed Period, but hardly one who was pleased to lose his own independence. “But though that is so,” said Sir Ferdinando, a little nettled at the want of admiration with which his words had been received, “H.M. Government is under the necessity of putting an end to the constitution under which the Fixed Period can be allowed to prevail. While you have made laws for yourselves, any laws so made must have all the force of law.” “That’s not so certain,” said a voice from a distance, which I shrewdly suspect to have been that of my hopeful son, Jack Neverbend. “As Great Britain cannot and will not permit the Fixed Period to be carried out among any English-speaking race of people — ”

“How about the United States?” said a voice.

“The United States have made no such attempt; but I will proceed. It has therefore sent me out to assume the reins, and to undertake the power, and to bear the responsibility of being your governor during a short term of years. Who shall say what the future may disclose? For the present I shall rule here. But I shall rule by the aid of your laws.”

“Not the Fixed Period law,” said Exors, who was seated on the floor of the chamber immediately under the orator.

“No; that law will be specially wiped out from your statute-book. In other respects, your laws and those of Great Britain are nearly the same. There may be divergences, as in reference to the non-infliction of capital punishment. In such matters I shall endeavour to follow your wishes, and so to govern you that you may still feel that you are living under the rule of a president of your own selection.” Here I cannot but think that Sir Ferdinando was a little rash. He did not quite know the extent of my popularity, nor had he gauged the dislike which he himself would certainly encounter. He had heard a few voices in the hall, which, under fear of death, had expressed their dislike to the Fixed Period; but he had no idea of the love which the people felt for their own independence, or, — I believe I may say, — for their own president. There arose in the hall a certain amount of clamour, in the midst of which Sir Ferdinando sat down.

Then there was a shuffling of feet as of a crowd going away. Sir Ferdinando having sat down, got up again and shook me warmly by the hand. I returned his greeting with my pleasantest smile; and then, while the people were moving, I spoke to them two or three words. I told them that I should start to-morrow at noon for England, under a promise made by me to their new governor, and that I purposed to explain to them, before I went, under what circumstances I had given that promise, and what it was that I intended to do when I should reach England. Would they meet me there, in that hall, at eight o’clock that evening, and hear the last words which I should have to address to them? Then the hall was filled with a mighty shout, and there arose a great fury of exclamation. There was a waving of handkerchiefs, and a holding up of hats, and all those signs of enthusiasm which are wont to greet the popular man of the hour. And in the midst of them, Sir Ferdinando Brown stood up upon his legs, and continued to bow without cessation.

At eight, the hall was again full to overflowing. I had been busy, and came down a little late, and found a difficulty in making my way to the chair which Sir Ferdinando had occupied in the morning. I had had no time to prepare my words, though the thoughts had rushed quickly, — too quickly, — into my mind. It was as though they would tumble out from my own mouth in precipitate energy. On my right hand sat the governor, as I must now call him; and in the chair on my left was placed my wife. The officers of the gunboat were not present, having occupied themselves, no doubt, in banking up their fires.

“My fellow-citizens,” I said, “a sudden end has been brought to that self-government of which we have been proud, and by which Sir Ferdinando has told you that ‘ignorance has been expelled from your shores, and poverty has been forced to hide her diminished head.’ I trust that, under his experience, which he tells us as a governor has been very extensive, those evils may not now fall upon you. We are, however, painfully aware that they do prevail wherever the concrete power of Great Britain is found to be in full force. A man ruling us, — us and many other millions of subjects, — from the other side of the globe, cannot see our wants and watch our progress as we can do ourselves. And even Sir Ferdinando coming upon us with all his experience, can hardly be able to ascertain how we may be made happy and prosperous. He has with him, however, a company of a celebrated English regiment, with its attendant officers, who, by their red coats and long swords, will no doubt add to the cheerfulness of your social gatherings. I hope that you may not find that they shall ever interfere with you after a rougher fashion.

“But upon me, my fellow-citizens, has fallen the great disgrace of having robbed you of your independence.” Here a murmur ran through the hall, declaring that this was not so. “So your new Governor has told you, but he has not told you the exact truth. With whom the doctrine of the Fixed Period first originated, I will not now inquire. All the responsibility I will take upon myself, though the honour and glory I must share with my fellow-countrymen.

“Your Governor has told you that he is aware of all the arguments by which the Fixed Period is maintained; but I think that he must be mistaken here, as he has not ventured to attack one of them. He has told us that it is fitting that we should leave the question of life and death in the hands of the Almighty. If so, why is all Europe bristling at this moment with arms, — prepared, as we must suppose, for shortening life, — and why is there a hangman attached to the throne of Great Britain as one of its necessary executive officers? Why in the Old Testament was Joshua commanded to slay mighty kings? And why was Pharaoh and his hosts drowned in the Red Sea? Because the Almighty so willed it, our Governor will say, taking it for granted that He willed everything of which a record is given in the Old Testament. In those battles which have ravished the North-west of India during the last half-century, did the Almighty wish that men should perish miserably by ten thousands and twenty thousands? Till any of us can learn more than we know at present of the will of the Almighty, I would, if he will allow me, advise our Governor to be silent on that head.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it would be a long task, and one not to be accomplished before your bedtime, were I to recount to you, for his advantage, a few of the arguments which have been used in favour of the Fixed Period, — and it would be useless, as you are all acquainted with them. But Sir Ferdinando is evidently not aware that the general prolongation of life on an average, is one of the effects to be gained, and that, though he himself might not therefore live the longer if doomed to remain here in Britannula, yet would his descendants do so, and would live a life more healthy, more useful, and more sufficient for human purposes.

“As far as I can read the will of the Almighty, or rather the progress of the ways of human nature, it is for man to endeavour to improve the conditions of mankind. It would be as well to say that we would admit no fires into our establishments because a life had now and again been lost by fire, as to use such an argument as that now put forward against the Fixed Period. If you will think of the line of reasoning used by Sir Ferdinando, you will remember that he has, after all, only thrown you back upon the old prejudices of mankind. If he will tell me that he is not as yet prepared to discard them, and that I am in error in thinking that the world is so prepared, I may perhaps agree with him. The John Bright in our harbour is the strongest possible proof that such prejudices still exist. Sir Ferdinando Brown is now your Governor, a fact which in itself is strong evidence. In opposition to these witnesses I have nothing to say. The ignorance which we are told that we had expelled from our shores, has come back to us; and the poverty is about, I fear, to show its head.” Sir Ferdinando here arose and expostulated. But the people hardly heard him, and at my request he again sat down.

“I do think that I have endeavoured in this matter to advance too quickly, and that Sir Ferdinando has been sent here as the necessary reprimand for that folly. He has required that I shall be banished to England; and as his order is backed by a double file of red-coats, — an instrument which in Britannula we do not possess, — I purpose to obey him. I shall go to England, and I shall there use what little strength remains to me in my endeavour to put forward those arguments for conquering the prejudices of the people which have prevailed here, but which I am very sure would have no effect upon Sir Ferdinando Brown.

“I cannot but think that Sir Ferdinando gave himself unnecessary trouble in endeavouring to prove to us that the Fixed Period is a wicked arrangement. He was not likely to succeed in that attempt. But he was sure to succeed in telling us that he would make it impossible by means of the double file of armed men by whom he is accompanied, and the 250-ton steam-swiveller with which, as he informed me, he is able to blow us all into atoms, unless I would be ready to start with Captain Battleax to-morrow. It is not his religion but his strength that has prevailed. That Great Britain is much stronger than Britannula none of us can doubt. Till yesterday I did doubt whether she would use her strength to perpetuate her own prejudices and to put down the progress made by another people.

“But, fellow-citizens, we must look the truth in the face. In this generation probably, the Fixed Period must be allowed to be in abeyance.” When I had uttered these words there came much cheering and a loud sound of triumph, which was indorsed probably by the postponement of the system, which had its terrors; but I was enabled to accept these friendly noises as having been awarded to the system itself. “Well, as you all love the Fixed Period, it must be delayed till Sir Ferdinando and the English have — been converted.”

“Never, never!” shouted Sir Ferdinando; “so godless an idea shall never find a harbour in this bosom,” and he struck his chest violently.

“Sir Ferdinando is probably not aware to what ideas that bosom may some day give a shelter. If he will look back thirty years, he will find that he had hardly contemplated even the weather-watch which he now wears constantly in his waistcoat-pocket. At the command of his Sovereign he may still live to carry out the Fixed Period somewhere in the centre of Africa.”

“Never!”

“In what college among the negroes he may be deposited, it may be too curious to inquire. I, my friends, shall leave these shores to-morrow; and you may be sure of this, that while the power of labour remains to me, I shall never desist to work for the purpose that I have at heart. I trust that I may yet live to return among you, and to render you an account of what I have done for you and for the cause in Europe.” Here I sat down, and was greeted by the deafening applause of the audience; and I did feel at the moment that I had somewhat got the better of Sir Ferdinando.

I have been able to give the exact words of these two speeches, as they were both taken down by the reporting telephone-apparatus, which on the occasion was found to work with great accuracy. The words as they fell from the mouth of the speakers were composed by machinery, and my speech appeared in the London morning newspapers within an hour of the time of its utterance.

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