The Fixed Period, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter VII.

Columbus and Galileo.

I had left Graybody with a lie on my tongue. I said that I was bound to suppose that Crasweller would do his duty as a citizen, — by which I had meant Graybody to understand that I expected my old friend to submit to deposition. Now I expected nothing of the kind, and it grieved me to think that I should be driven to such false excuses. I began to doubt whether my mind would hold its proper bent under the strain thus laid upon it, and to ask myself whether I was in all respects sane in entertaining the ideas which filled my mind. Galileo and Columbus, — Galileo and Columbus! I endeavoured to comfort myself with these names, — but in a vain, delusive manner; and though I used them constantly, I was beginning absolutely to hate them. Why could I not return to my wool-shed, and be contented among my bales, and my ships, and my credits, as I was of yore, before this theory took total possession of me? I was doing good then. I robbed no one. I assisted very many in their walks of life. I was happy in the praises of all my fellow-citizens. My health was good, and I had ample scope for my energies then, even as now. But there came on me a day of success, — a day, shall I say, of glory or of wretchedness? or shall I not most truly say of both? — and I persuaded my fellow-citizens to undertake this sad work of the Fixed Period. From that moment all quiet had left me, and all happiness. Still, it is not necessary that a man should be happy. I doubt whether Cæsar was happy with all those enemies around him, — Gauls, and Britons, and Romans. If a man be doing his duty, let him not think too much of that condition of mind which he calls happiness. Let him despise happiness and do his duty, and he will in one sense be happy. But if there creep upon him a doubt as to his duty, if he once begin to feel that he may perhaps be wrong, then farewell all peace of mind, — then will come that condition in which a man is tempted to ask himself whether he be in truth of sane mind.

What should I do next? The cricketing Englishmen, I knew, were going. Two or three days more would see their gallant ship steam out of the harbour. As I returned in my cab to the city, I could see the English colours fluttering from her topmast, and the flag of the English cricket-club waving from her stern. But I knew well that they had discussed the question of the Fixed Period among them, and that there was still time for them to go home and send back some English mandate which ought to be inoperative, but which we should be unable to disobey. And letters might have been written before this, — treacherous letters, calling for the assistance of another country in opposition to the councils of their own.

But what should I do next? I could not enforce the law vi et armis against Crasweller. I had sadly but surely acknowledged so much as that to myself. But I thought that I had seen signs of relenting about the man, — some symptoms of sadness which seemed to bespeak a yielding spirit. He only asked for a year. He was still in theory a supporter of the Fixed Period, — pleading his own little cause, however, by a direct falsehood. Could I not talk him into a generous assent? There would still be a year for him. And in old days there had been a spice of manliness in his bosom, to which it might be possible that I should bring him back. Though the hope was poor, it seemed at present to be my only hope.

As I returned, I came round by the quays, dropping my cab at the corner of the street. There was the crowd of Englishmen, all going off to the vessel to see their bats and bicycles disposed of, and among them was Jack the hero. They were standing at the water’s-edge, while three long-boats were being prepared to take them off. “Here’s the President,” said Sir Kennington Oval; “he has not seen our yacht yet: let him come on board with us.” They were very gracious; so I got into one boat, and Jack into another, and old Crasweller, who had come with his guests from Little Christchurch, into the third; and we were pulled off to the yacht. Jack, I perceived, was quite at home there. He had dined there frequently, and had slept on board; but to me and Crasweller it was altogether new. “Yes,” said Lord Marylebone; “if a fellow is to make his home for a month upon the seas, it is as well to make it as comfortable as possible. Each of us has his own crib, with a bath to himself, and all the et-ceteras. This is where we feed. It is not altogether a bad shop for grubbing.” As I looked round I thought that I had never seen anything more palatial and beautiful. “This is where we pretend to sit,” continued the lord; “where we are supposed to write our letters and read our books. And this,” he said, opening another door, “is where we really sit, and smoke our pipes, and drink our brandy-and-water. We came out under the rule of that tyrant King MacNuffery. We mean to go back as a republic. And I, as being the only lord, mean to elect myself president. You couldn’t give me any wrinkles as to a pleasant mode of governing? Everybody is to be allowed to do exactly what he pleases, and nobody is to be interfered with unless he interferes with somebody else. We mean to take a wrinkle from you fellows in Britannula, where everybody seems, under your presidency, to be as happy as the day is long.”

“We have no Upper House with us, my lord,” said I.

“You have got rid, at any rate, of one terrible bother. I daresay we shall drop it before long in England. I don’t see why we should continue to sit merely to register the edicts of the House of Commons, and be told that we’re a pack of fools when we hesitate.” I told him that it was the unfortunate destiny of a House of Lords to be made to see her own unfitness for legislative work.

“But if we were abolished,” continued he, “then I might get into the other place and do something. You have to be elected a Peer of Parliament, or you can sit nowhere. A ship can only be a ship, after all; but if we must live in a ship, we are not so bad here. Come and take some tiffin.” An Englishman, when he comes to our side of the globe, always calls his lunch tiffin.

I went back to the other room with Lord Marylebone; and as I took my place at the table, I heard that the assembled cricketers were all discussing the Fixed Period.

“I’d be shot,” said Mr Puddlebrane, “if they should deposit me, and bleed me to death, and cremate me like a big pig.” Then he perceived that I had entered the saloon, and there came a sudden silence across the table.

“What sort of wind will be blowing next Friday at two o’clock?” asked Sir Lords Longstop.

It was evident that Sir Lords had only endeavoured to change the conversation because of my presence; and it did not suit me to allow them to think that I was afraid to talk of the Fixed Period. “Why should you object to be cremated, Mr Puddlebrane,” said I, “whether like a big pig or otherwise? It has not been suggested that any one shall cremate you while alive.”

“Because my father and mother were buried. And all the Puddlebranes were always buried. There are they, all to be seen in Puddlebrane Church, and I should like to appear among them.”

“I suppose it’s only their names that appear, and not their bodies, Mr Puddlebrane. And a cremated man may have as big a tombstone as though he had been allowed to become rotten in the orthodox fashion.”

“What Puddlebrane means is,” said another, “that he’d like to have the same chance of living as his ancestors.”

“If he will look back to his family records he will find that they very generally died before sixty-eight. But we have no idea of invading your Parliament and forcing our laws upon you.”

“Take a glass of wine, Mr President,” said Lord Marylebone, “and leave Puddlebrane to his ancestors. He’s a very good Slip, though he didn’t catch Jack when he got a chance. Allow me to recommend you a bit of ice-pudding. The mangoes came from Jamaica, and are as fresh as the day they were picked.” I ate my mango-pudding, but I did not enjoy it, for I was sure that the whole crew were returning to England laden with prejudices against the Fixed Period. As soon as I could escape, I got back to the shore, leaving Jack among my enemies. It was impossible not to feel that they were my enemies, as I was sure that they were about to oppose the cherished conviction of my very heart and soul. Crasweller had sat there perfectly silent while Mr Puddlebrane had spoken of his own possible cremation. And yet Crasweller was a declared Fixed–Periodist.

On the Friday, at two o’clock, the vessel sailed amidst all the plaudits which could be given by mingled kettle-drums and trumpets, and by a salvo of artillery. They were as good a set of fellows as ever wore pink-flannel clothing, and as generous as any that there are born to live upon pâté and champagne. I doubt whether there was one among them who could have earned his bread in a counting-house, unless it was Stumps the professional. When we had paid all honour to the departing vessel, I went at once to Little Christchurch, and there I found my friend in the verandah with Eva. During the last month or two he seemed to be much older than I had ever before known him, and was now seated with his daughter’s hand within his own. I had not seen him since the day on board the yacht, and he now seemed to be greyer and more haggard than he was then. “Crasweller,” said I, taking him by the hand, “it is a sad thing that you and I should quarrel after so many years of perfect friendship.”

“So it is; so it is. I don’t want to quarrel, Mr President.”

“There shall be no quarrel. Well, Eva, how do you bear the loss of all your English friends?”

“The loss of my English friends won’t hurt me if I can only keep those which I used to have in Britannula.” I doubted whether she alluded to me or to Jack. It might be only to me, but I thought she looked as if she were thinking of Jack.

“Eva, my dear,” said Mr Crasweller, “you had better leave us. The President, I think, wishes to speak to me on business.” Then she came up and looked me in the face, and pressed my hand, and I knew that she was asking for mercy for her father. The feeling was not pleasant, seeing that I was bound by the strongest oath which the mind can conceive not to show him mercy.

I sat for a few minutes in silence, thinking that as Mr Crasweller had banished Eva, he would begin. But he said nothing, and would have remained silent had I allowed him to do so. “Crasweller,” I said, “it is certainly not well that you and I should quarrel on this matter. In your company I first learned to entertain this project, and for years we have agreed that in it is to be found the best means for remedying the condition of mankind.”

“I had not felt then what it is to be treated as one who was already dead.”

“Does Eva treat you so?”

“Yes; with all her tenderness and all her sweet love, Eva feels that my days are numbered unless I will boldly declare myself opposed to your theory. She already regards me as though I were a visitant from the other world. Her very gentleness is intolerable.”

“But, Crasweller, the convictions of your mind cannot be changed.”

“I do not know. I will not say that any change has taken place. But it is certain that convictions become vague when they operate against one’s self. The desire to live is human, and therefore God-like. When the hand of God is felt to have struck one with coming death, the sufferer, knowing the blow to be inevitable, can reconcile himself; but it is very hard to walk away to one’s long rest while health, and work, and means of happiness yet remain.”

There was something in this which seemed to me to imply that he had abandoned the weak assertion as to his age, and no longer intended to ask for a year of grace by the use of that falsehood. But it was necessary that I should be sure of this. “As to your exact age, I’ve been looking at the records,” I began.

“The records are right enough,” he said; “you need trouble yourself no longer about the records. Eva and I have discussed all that.” From this I became aware that Eva had convinced him of the baseness of the falsehood.

“Then there is the law,” said I, with, as I felt, unflinching hardness.

“Yes, there is the law, — if it be a law. Mr Exors is prepared to dispute it, and says that he will ask permission to argue the case out with the executive.”

“He would argue about anything. You know what Exors is.”

“And there is that poor man Barnes has gone altogether out of his mind, and has become a drivelling idiot.”

“They told me yesterday that he was a raging lunatic; but I learn from really good authority that whether he takes one part or the other, he is only acting.”

“And Tallowax is prepared to run amuck against those who come to fetch him. He swears that no one shall lead him up to the college.”

“And you?” Then there was a pause, and Crasweller sat silent with his face buried in his hands. He was, at any rate, in a far better condition of mind for persuasion than that in which I had last found him. He had given up the fictitious year, and had acknowledged that he had assented to the doctrine with which he was now asked to comply. But it was a hard task that of having to press him under such circumstances. I thought of Eva and her despair, and of himself with all that natural desire for life eager at his heart. I looked round and saw the beauty of the scenery, and thought how much worse to such a man would be the melancholy shades of the college than even departure itself. And I am not by nature hard-hearted. I have none of that steel and fibre which will enable a really strong man to stand firm by convictions even when opposed by his affections. To have liberated Crasweller at this moment, I would have walked off myself, oh, so willingly, to the college! I was tearing my own heart to pieces; — but I remembered Columbus and Galileo. Neither of them was surely ever tried as I was at this moment. But it had to be done, or I must yield, and for ever. If I could not be strong to prevail with my own friend and fellow-labourer, — with Crasweller, who was the first to come, and who should have entered the college with an heroic grandeur, — how could I even desire any other to immure himself? how persuade such men as Barnes, or Tallowax, or that pettifogger Exors, to be led quietly up through the streets of the city? “And you?” I asked again.

“It is for you to decide.”

The agony of that moment! But I think that I did right. Though my very heart was bleeding, I know that I did right. “For the sake of the benefits which are to accrue to unknown thousands of your fellow-creatures, it is your duty to obey the law.” This I said in a low voice, still holding him by the hand. I felt at the moment a great love for him, — and in a certain sense admiration, because he had so far conquered his fear of an unknown future as to promise to do this thing simply because he had said that he would do it. There was no high feeling as to future generations of his fellow-creatures, no grand idea that he was about to perform a great duty for the benefit of mankind in general, but simply the notion that as he had always advocated my theory as my friend, he would not now depart from it, let the cost to himself be what it might. He answered me only by drawing away his hand. But I felt that in his heart he accused me of cruelty, and of mad adherence to a theory. “Should it not be so, Crasweller?”

“As you please, President.”

“But should it not be so?” Then, at great length, I went over once again all my favourite arguments, and endeavoured with the whole strength of my eloquence to reach his mind. But I knew, as I was doing so, that that was all in vain. I had succeeded, — or perhaps Eva had done so, — in inducing him to repudiate the falsehood by which he had endeavoured to escape. But I had not in the least succeeded in making him see the good which would come from his deposition. He was ready to become a martyr, because in years back he had said that he would do so. He had now left it for me to decide whether he should be called upon to perform his promise; and I, with an unfeeling pertinacity, had given the case against him. That was the light in which Mr Crasweller looked at it. “You do not think that I am cruel?” I asked.

“I do,” said Crasweller. “You ask the question, and I answer you. I do think that you are cruel. It concerns life and death, — that is a matter of course, — and it is the life and death of your most intimate friend, of Eva’s father, of him who years since came hither with you from another country, and has lived with you through all the struggles and all the successes of a long career. But you have my word, and I will not depart from it, even to save my life. In a moment of weakness I was tempted to a weak lie. I will not lie. I will not demean myself to claim a poor year of life by such means, though I do not lack evidence to support the statement. I am ready to go with you;” and he rose up from his seat as though intending to walk away and be deposited at once.

“Not now, Crasweller.”

“I shall be ready when you may come for me. I shall not again leave my home till I have to leave it for the last time. Days and weeks mean nothing with me now. The bitterness of death has fallen upon me.”

“Crasweller, I will come and live with you, and be a brother to you, during the entire twelve months.”

“No; it will not be needed. Eva will be with me, and perhaps Jack may come and see me, — though I must not allow Jack to express the warmth of his indignation in Eva’s hearing. Jack had perhaps better leave Britannula for a time, and not come back till all shall be over. Then he may enjoy the lawns of Little Christchurch in peace, — unless, perchance, an idea should disturb him, that he has been put into their immediate possession by his father’s act.” Then he got up from his chair and went from the verandah back into the house.

As I rose and returned to the city, I almost repented myself of what I had done. I had it in my heart to go back and yield, and to tell him that I would assent to the abandonment of my whole project. It was not for me to say that I would spare my own friend, and execute the law against Barnes and Tallowax; nor was it for me to declare that the victims of the first year should be forgiven. I could easily let the law die away, but it was not in my power to decide that it should fall into partial abeyance. This I almost did. But when I had turned on my road to Little Christchurch, and was prepared to throw myself into Crasweller’s arms, the idea of Galileo and Columbus, and their ultimate success, again filled my bosom. The moment had now come in which I might succeed. The first man was ready to go to the stake, and I had felt all along that the great difficulty would be in obtaining the willing assent of the first martyr. It might well be that these accusations of cruelty were a part of the suffering without which my great reform could not be carried to success. Though I should live to be accounted as cruel as Cæsar, what would that be if I too could reduce my Gaul to civilisation? “Dear Crasweller,” I murmured to myself as I turned again towards Gladstonopolis, and hurrying back, buried myself in the obscurity of the executive chambers.

The following day occurred a most disagreeable scene in my own house at dinner. Jack came in and took his chair at the table in grim silence. It might be that he was lamenting for his English friends who were gone, and therefore would not speak. Mrs Neverbend, too, ate her dinner without a word. I began to fear that presently there would be something to be said, — some cause for a quarrel; and as is customary on such occasions, I endeavoured to become specially gracious and communicative. I talked about the ship that had started on its homeward journey, and praised Lord Marylebone, and laughed at Mr Puddlebrane; but it was to no effect. Neither would Jack nor Mrs Neverbend say anything, and they ate their dinner gloomily till the attendant left the room. Then Jack began. “I think it right to tell you, sir, that there’s going to be a public meeting on the Town Flags the day after to-morrow.” The Town Flags was an open unenclosed place, over which, supported by arches, was erected the Town Hall. It was here that the people were accustomed to hold those outside assemblies which too often guided the responsible Assembly in the Senate-house.

“And what are you all going to talk about there?”

“There is only one subject,” said Jack, “which at present occupies the mind of Gladstonopolis. The people don’t intend to allow you to deposit Mr Crasweller.”

“Considering your age and experience, Jack, don’t you think that you’re taking too much upon yourself to say whether people will allow or will not allow the executive of the country to perform their duty?”

“If Jack isn’t old,” said Mrs Neverbend, “I, at any rate, am older, and I say the same thing.”

“Of course I only said what I thought,” continued Jack. “What I want to explain is, that I shall be there myself, and shall do all that I can to support the meeting.”

“In opposition to your father?” said I.

“Well; — yes, I am afraid so. You see it’s a public subject on a public matter, and I don’t see that father and son have anything to do with it. If I were in the Assembly, I don’t suppose I should be bound to support my father.”

“But you’re not in the Assembly.”

“I have my own convictions all the same, and I find myself called upon to take a part.”

“Good gracious — yes! and to save poor old Mr Crasweller’s life from this most inhuman law. He’s just as fit to live as are you and I.”

“The only question is, whether he be fit to die, — or rather to be deposited, I mean. But I’m not going to argue the subject here. It has been decided by the law; and that should be enough for you two, as it is enough for me. As for Jack, I will not have him attend any such meeting. Were he to do so, he would incur my grave displeasure, — and consequent punishment.”

“What do you mean to do to the boy?” asked Mrs Neverbend.

“If he ceases to behave to me like a son, I shall cease to treat him like a father. If he attends this meeting he must leave my house, and I shall see him no more.”

“Leave the house!” shrieked Mrs Neverbend.

“Jack,” said I, with the kindest voice which I was able to assume, “you will pack up your portmanteau and go to New Zealand the day after to-morrow. I have business for you to transact with Macmurdo and Brown of some importance. I will give you the particulars when I see you in the office.”

“Of course he won’t go, Mr Neverbend,” cried my wife. But, though the words were determined, there was a certain vacillation in the tone of her voice which did not escape me.

“We shall see. If Jack intends to remain as my son, he must obey his father. I have been kind, and perhaps too indulgent, to him. I now require that he shall proceed to New Zealand the day after to-morrow. The boat sails at eight. I shall be happy to go down with him and see him on board.”

Jack only shook his head, — by which I understood that he meant rebellion. I had been a most generous father to him, and loved him as the very apple of my eye; but I was determined that I would be stern. “You have heard my order,” I said, “and you can have to-morrow to think about it. I advise you not to throw over, and for ever, the affection, the fostering care, and all the comforts, pecuniary as well as others, which you have hitherto had from an indulgent father.”

“You do not mean to say that you will disinherit the boy?” said Mrs Neverbend.

I knew that it was utterly out of my power to do so. I could not disinherit him. I could not even rob him of a single luxury without an amount of suffering much greater than he would feel. Was I not thinking of him day and night as I arranged my worldly affairs? That moment when he knocked down Sir Kennington Oval’s wicket, had I not been as proud as he was? When the trumpet sounded, did not I feel the honour more than he? When he made his last triumphant run, and I threw my hat in the air, was it not to me sweeter than if I had done it myself? Did I not even love him the better for swearing that he would make this fight for Crasweller? But yet it was necessary that I should command obedience, and, if possible, frighten him into subservience. We talk of a father’s power, and know that the old Romans could punish filial disobedience by death; but a Britannulan father has a heart in his bosom which is more powerful than law or even custom, and I believe that the Roman was much the same. “My dear, I will not discuss my future intentions before the boy. It would be unseemly. I command him to start for New Zealand the day after to-morrow, and I shall see whether he will obey me. I strongly advise him to be governed in this matter by his father.” Jack only shook his head, and left the room. I became aware afterwards that he slept that night at Little Christchurch.

That night I received such a lecture from Mrs Neverbend in our bedroom as might have shamed that Mrs Caudle of whom we read in English history. I hate these lectures, not as thinking them unbecoming, but as being peculiarly disagreeable. I always find myself absolutely impotent during their progress. I am aware that it is quite useless to speak a word, and that I can only allow the clock to run itself down. What Mrs Neverbend says at such moments has always in it a great deal of good sense; but it is altogether wasted, because I knew it all beforehand, and with pen and ink could have written down the lecture which she delivered at that peculiar moment. And I fear no evil results from her anger for the future, because her conduct to me will, I know by experience, be as careful and as kind as ever. Were another to use harsh language to me, she would rise in wrath to defend me. And she does not, in truth, mean a tenth of what she says. But I am for the time as though I were within the clapper of a mill; and her passion goes on increasing because she can never get a word from me. “Mr Neverbend, I tell you this, — you are going to make a fool of yourself. I think it my duty to tell you so, as your wife. Everybody else will think it. Who are you, to liken yourself to Galileo? — an old fellow of that kind who lived a thousand years ago, before Christianity had ever been invented. You have got nasty murderous thoughts in your mind, and want to kill poor Mr Crasweller, just out of pride, because you have said you would. Now, Jack is determined that you shan’t, and I say that he is right. There is no reason why Jack shouldn’t obey me as well as you. You will never be able to deposit Mr Crasweller, — not if you try it for a hundred years. The city won’t let you do it; and if you have a grain of sense left in your head, you won’t attempt it. Jack is determined to meet the men on the Town Flags the day after to-morrow, and I say that he is right. As for your disinheriting him, and spending all your money on machinery to roast pigs, — I say you can’t do it. There will be a commission to inquire into you if you do not mind yourself, and then you will remember what I told you. Poor Mr Crasweller, whom you have known for forty years! I wonder how you can bring yourself to think of killing the poor man, whose bread you have so often eaten! And if you think you are going to frighten Jack, you are very much mistaken. Jack would do twice more for Eva Crasweller than for you or me, and it’s natural he should. You may be sure he will not give up; and the end will be, that he will get Eva for his own. I do believe he has gone to sleep.” Then I gave myself infinite credit for the pertinacity of my silence, and for the manner in which I had put on an appearance of somnolency without overacting the part. Mrs Neverbend did in truth go to sleep, but I lay awake during the whole night thinking of the troubles before me.

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