Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXVII

Mr Sowerby Without Company

And now there were going to be wondrous doings in West Barsetshire, and men’s minds were much disturbed. The fiat had gone forth from the high places, and the Queen had dissolved her faithful Commons. The giants, finding that they could effect little or nothing with the old House, had resolved to try what a new venture would do for them, and the hubbub of a general election was to pervade the country. This produced no inconsiderable irritation and annoyance, for the House was not as yet quite three years old; and members of Parliament, though they naturally feel a constitutional pleasure in meeting their friends and in pressing the hands of their constituents, are, nevertheless, so far akin to the lower order of humanity that they appreciate the danger of losing their seats; and the certainty of a considerable outlay in their endeavours to retain them is not agreeable to the legislative mind. Never did the old family fury between the gods and giants rage higher than at the present moment. The giants declared that every turn which they attempted to take in their country’s service had been thwarted by faction, in spite of those benign promises of assistance made to them only a few weeks since by their opponents; and the gods answered by asserting that they were driven to this opposition by the Boeotian fatuity of the giants. They had no doubt promised their aid, and were ready to give it to measures that were decently prudent; but not to a bill enabling Government at its will to pension aged bishops! No; there must be some limit to their tolerance, and when such attempts as these were made that limit had been clearly passed. All this had taken place openly only a day or two after that casual whisper dropped by Tom Towers at Miss Dunstable’s party — by Tom Towers, that most pleasant of all pleasant fellows. And how should he have know it — he who flutters from one sweetest flower of the garden to another,

‘Adding sugar to the pink, and honey to the rose,
So loved for what he gives, but taking nothing as he goes’?

But the whisper had grown into a rumour, and the rumour into a fact, and the political world was in a ferment. The giants, furious about their bishops’ pension bill, threatened the House — most injudiciously; and then it was beautiful to see how indignant members got up, glowing with honesty, and declared that it was base to conceive that any gentleman in that House could be actuated in his vote by any hopes or fears with reference to his seat. And so matters grew from bad to worse, and these contending parties never hit at each other with some venomed wrath as they did now; — having entered the ring together so lately with such manifold promises of good-will, respect, and forbearance!

But going from the general to the particular, we may say that nowhere was a deeper consternation spread than in the electoral division of West Barsetshire. No sooner had the tidings of the dissolution reached the county than it was known that the duke intended to change his nominee. Mr Sowerby had now sat for the division since the Reform Bill! He had become one of the county’s institutions, and by the dint of custom and long establishment had been borne with and even liked by the county gentlemen, in spite of his well-known pecuniary irregularities. Now all this was to be changed. No reason had as yet been publicly given, but it was understood that Lord Dumbello was to be returned, although he did not own an acre of land in the county. It is true that rumour went on to say that Lord Dumbello was about to form close connexions with Barsetshire. He was on the eve of marrying a young lady, from the other division indeed, and was now engaged, so it was said, in completing arrangements with the Government for the purchase of that noble Crown property usually known as the Chase of Chaldicotes. It was also stated — this statement, however, had hitherto been only announced in confidential whispers — that Chaldicotes House itself would soon become the residence of the marquis. The duke was claiming it as his own — would very shortly have completed his claims and taken possession:— and then, by some arrangement between them, it was to be made over to Lord Dumbello. But very contrary rumours to these got abroad also. Men said — such as dared to oppose the duke, and some few also, who did not dare to oppose him when the day of battle came — that it was beyond his grace’s power to turn Lord Dumbello into a Barsetshire magnate. The Crown property — such men said — was to fall into the hands of young Mr Gresham, of Boxall Hill, in the other division, and that the terms of purchase had been already settled. And as to Mr Sowerby’s property and the house of Chaldicotes — these opponents of the Omnium interest went on to explain — it was by no means as yet so certain that the duke would be able to enter it and to take possession. The place was not to be given up to him quietly. A great fight would be made, and it was beginning to be believed that the enormous mortgages would be paid off by a lady of immense wealth. And then a dash of romance was not wanting to make these stories palatable. This lady of immense wealth had been courted by Mr Sowerby, had acknowledged her love — but had refused to marry him on account of his character. In testimony of her love, however, she was about to pay all his debts.

It was soon put beyond a rumour, and became manifest enough, that Mr Sowerby did not intend to retire from the county in obedience to the duke’s behest. A placard was posted through the whole division in which no allusion was made by name to the duke, but in which Mr Sowerby warned his friends not to be led away by any report that he intended to retire from the representation of West Barsetshire. ‘He had sat,’ the placard said, ‘for the same county during the full period of a quarter of a century, and he would not lightly give up an honour that had been extended to him so often and which he prized so dearly. There were but few men now in the House whose connexion with the same body of constituents had remained unbroken so long as had that which had bound him to West Barsetshire; and he confidently hoped that the connexion might be continued through another period of coming years, till he might find himself in the glorious position of being the father of the county members of the House of Commons.’ The placard said much more than this, and hinted at sundry and various questions, all of great interest to the county; but it did not say one word of the Duke of Omnium, though every one knew what the duke was supposed to be doing in the matter. He was, as it were, a great Llama, shut up in a holy of holies, inscrutable, invisible, inexorable — not to be seen by men’s eyes or heard by their ears, hardly to be mentioned by ordinary men at such periods as these without an inward quaking. But, nevertheless, it was he who was supposed to rule them. Euphemism required that his name should be mentioned at no public meetings in connexion with the coming election; but, nevertheless, most men in the county believed that he could send his dog up to the House of Commons as member for West Barsetshire if it so pleased him.

It was supposed, therefore, that our friend Sowerby would have no chance; but he was lucky in finding assistance in a quarter from which he certainly had not deserved it. He had been a staunch friend of the gods during the whole of his political life — as, indeed, was to be expected, seeing that he had been the duke’s nominee; but, nevertheless, on the present occasion, all the giants connected with the county came forward to his rescue. They did to do this with the acknowledged purpose of opposing the duke; they declared that they were actuated by a generous disinclination to see an old county member put from his seat; but the world knew that the battle was to be waged against the great Llama. It was to be a contest between the powers of aristocracy and the powers of oligarchy, as those powers existed in West Barsetshire — and it may be added, that democracy would have very little to say to it, on one side or on the other. The lower order of voters, the small farmers and tradesmen, would no doubt range themselves on the side of the duke, and would endeavour to flatter themselves that they were thereby furthering the views of the Liberal side; but they would in fact be led to the poll by an old-fashioned, time-honoured adherence to the will of their great Llama; and by an apprehension of evil if that Llama should arise and shake himself in his wrath. What might not come to the county if the Llama were to walk himself off, he with his satellites and armies and courtiers? There he was, a great Llama; and though he came among them but seldom, and was scarcely seen when he did come, nevertheless — and not the less but rather the more — was obedience to him considered as salutary and opposition regarded as dangerous. A great rural Llama is still sufficiently mighty in rural England. But the priest of the temple, Mr Fothergill, was frequent enough in men’s eyes, and it was beautiful to hear with how varied a voice he alluded to the things around him and to the changes which were coming. To the small farmers, not only on the Gatherum property, but on others also, he spoke of the duke as a beneficent influence, shedding prosperity on all around him, keeping up prices by his presence, and in forbidding the poor rates to rise above one and fourpence in the pound by the general employment which he occasioned. Men must be mad, he thought, who would willingly fly in the duke’s face. To the squire from a distance he declared that no one had a right to charge the duke with any interference; as far, at least, as he knew the duke’s mind. People would talk of things of which they understood nothing. Could any one say that he had traced a single request for a vote home to the duke? All this did not alter the settled conviction on men’s minds; but it had the effect, and tended to increase the mystery in which the duke’s doings were enveloped. But to his own familiars, to the gentry immediately around him, Mr Fothergill merely winked his eye. They knew what was what, and so did he. The duke had never been bit yet in such matters, and Mr Fothergill did not think that he would now submit himself to any such operation.

I never heard in what manner and at what rate Mr Fothergill received remuneration for the various services performed by him with reference to the duke’s property in Barsetshire; but I am very sure that, whatever might be the amount, he earned it thoroughly. Never was there a more faithful partisan, or one who, in his partisanship, was more discreet. In this matter of the coming election he declared that he himself — personally, on his own hook — did intend to bestir himself actively on behalf of Lord Dumbello. Mr Sowerby was an old friend of his, and a very good fellow. That was true. But all the world must admit that Sowerby was not in the position which a county member ought to occupy. He was a ruined man, and it would not be for his own advantage that he should be maintained in a position which was fit only for a man of property. He knew — he, Fothergill — that Mr Sowerby must abandon all right and claim to Chaldicotes; and if so, what would be more absurd than to acknowledge that he had a right and claim for the seat in Parliament? As to Lord Dumbello, it was probable that he would soon become the largest landowner in the county; and, as such, who would be more fit for the representation? Beyond this, Mr Fothergill was not ashamed to confess — so he said — that he hoped to hold Lord Dumbello’s agency. It would be compatible with his other duties, and therefore, as a matter of course, he intended to support Lord Dumbello; he himself, that is. As to the duke’s mind in the matter —! But I have already explained how Mr Fothergill disposed of that.

In these days Mr Sowerby came down to his own house — for ostensibly it was still his own house — but he came very quietly, and his arrival was hardly known in his own village. Though his placard was stuck up so widely, he himself took no electioneering steps; none, at least, as yet. The protection against arrest which he derived from Parliament would soon be over, and those who were most bitter against the duke averred that steps would be taken to arrest him, should he give sufficient opportunity to the myrmidons of the law. That he would, in such case, be arrested was very likely; but it was not likely that this would be done in any way at the duke’s instance. Mr Fothergill declared indignantly that this insinuation made him very angry; but he was too prudent a man to be very angry at anything, and he knew how to make capital on his own side of charges such as these which overshot their own mark. Mr Sowerby came down very quietly to Chaldicotes, and there he remained for a couple of days, quite alone. The place bore a very different aspect now to that which we noticed when Mark Robarts drove up to it, in the early pages of this narrative. There were no lights in the windows now, and no voices came from the stables; no dogs barked, and all was dead and silent as the grave. During the greater portion of those two days he sat alone within the house, almost unoccupied. He did not even open his letters, which lay piled on a crowded table in the small breakfast parlour in which he sat; for the letters of such men come in piles, and there are few of them which are pleasant in the reading. There he sat, troubled with thoughts which were sad enough, now and then moving to and fro the house, but for the most part occupied in thinking over the position to which he had brought himself. What would he be in the world’s eye, if he ceased to be the owner of Chaldicotes, and ceased also to be the member for the county? He had lived ever before the world, and, though always harassed by encumbrances, had been sustained and comforted by the excitement of a prominent position. His debts and difficulties had hitherto been bearable, and he had borne them with ease so long that he had almost taught himself to think that they would never be unendurable. But now —

The order for foreclosing had gone forth, and the harpies of the law, by their present speed in sticking their claws into the carcass of his property, were atoning to themselves for the delay with which they had hitherto been compelled to approach their prey. And the order as to his seat had gone forth also. That placard had been drawn up by the combined efforts of his sister, Miss Dunstable, and a certain well-known electioneering agent, named Closerstill, presumed to be in the interest of the giants. But poor Sowerby had but little confidence in the placard. No one knew better than he how great was the duke’s power. He was hopeless, therefore, as he walked about through those empty rooms, thinking of his past life and of that life which was to come. Would it not be well for him that he were dead, now that he was dying to all that had made the world pleasant? We see and hear of such men as Mr Sowerby, and are apt to think that they enjoy that all without payment either in care or labour; but I doubt that, with even the most callous of them, their periods of wretchedness must be frequent, and that wretchedness very intense. Salmon and lamb in February, and green pease and new potatoes in March, can hardly make a man happy, even though nobody pays for them; and the feeling that one is antecedum scelestum after whom a sure, though lame, Nemesis is hobbling, must sometimes disturb one’s slumbers. On the present occasion Scelestus felt that his Nemesis had overtaken him. Lame as he had been, and swift as he had run, she had mouthed him at last, and there was nothing left for him but to listen to the ‘whoop’ set up at the sight of his own death-throes.

It was a melancholy, dreary place now, that big house of Chaldicotes; and though the woods were all green with their early leaves, and the garden thick with flowers, they were also melancholy and dreary. The lawns were untrimmed and weeds were growing through the gravel, and here and there a cracked Dryad, tumbled from her pedestal and sprawling in the grass, gave a look of disorder to the whole place. The wooden trellis-work was shattered here and bending there, the standard rose-trees were stooping to the ground, and the leaves of the winter still encumbered the borders. Of all the inanimate things of the world this wood of Chaldicotes was the dearest to him. He was not a man to whom his companions gave much credit for feelings or thoughts akin to poetry, but here, out in the Chace, his mind would be almost poetical. While wandering among the forest trees, he became susceptible of the tenderness of human nature: he would listen to the birds singing, and pick here and there a wild flower on his path. He would watch the decay of the old trees and the progress of the young, and make pictures in his eyes of every turn in the wood. He would mark the colour of a bit of road as it dipped into a dell, and then, passing through a water-course, rose brown, rough, irregular, and beautiful against the bank on the other side. And then he would sit and think of his old family: how they had roamed there time out of mind in those Chaldicotes woods, father and son and grandson in regular succession, each giving them over, without blemish or decrease, to his successor. So he would sit; and so did he sit even now, and, thinking of these things, wished that he had never been.

It was dark night when he returned to the house, and as he did so he resolved that he would quit the place altogether, and give up the battle as lost. The duke should take it and do as he pleased with it; and as for the seat in Parliament, Lord Dumbello, or any other equally gifted young patrician, might hold it for him. He would vanish from the scene and betake himself to some land whence he would be neither heard nor seen, and there — starve. Such were now his future outlooks into the world; and yet, as regards health and all physical capacities, he knew that he was still in the prime of his life. Yes; in the prime of his life! But what could he do with what remained to him of such prime? How could he turn either his mind or his strength to such account as might now be serviceable? How could he, in his sore need, earn for himself even the barest bread? Would it not be better for him that he should die? Let not any one covet the lot of a spendthrift, even though the days of his early pease and champagne seem to be unnumbered; for that lame Nemesis will surely be up before the game has been played all out. When Mr Sowerby reached his house he found that a message by telegraph had arrived for him in his absence. It was from his sister, and it informed him that she would be with him that night. She was coming down by the mail train, had telegraphed to Barchester for post-horses, and would be at Chaldicotes about two hours after midnight. It was therefore manifest enough that her business was of importance. Exactly at two the Barchester post-chaise did arrive, and Mrs Harold Smith, before she retired to her bed, was closeted for about an hour with her brother. ‘Well,’ she said, the following morning, as they sat together at the breakfast-table, ‘what do you say to it now? If you accept her offer you should be with her lawyer this afternoon.’

‘I suppose I must accept it,’ said he.

‘Certainly, I think so. No doubt it will take the property out of your own hands as completely as though the duke had it, but it will leave you the house, at any rate, for your life.’

‘What good will the house be, when I can’t keep it?’

‘But I am not so sure of that. She will not want more than her fair interest; and as it will be thoroughly well managed, I should think that there would be something over — something enough to keep up the house. And then, you know, we must have some place in the country.’

‘I tell you fairly, Harriet, that I will have nothing further to do with Harold in the way of money.’

‘Ah! that was because you would go to him. Why did you not come to me? And then, Nathaniel, it is the only way in which you can have a chance of keeping the seat. She is the queerest woman I ever met, but she seems resolved on beating the duke.’

‘I do not quite understand it, but I have not the slightest objection.’

‘She thinks that he is interfering with young Gresham about the Crown property. I have no idea that she had so much business at her fingers’ ends. When I first proposed the matter she took it up quite as a lawyer might, and seemed to have forgotten altogether what occurred about the other matter.’

‘I wish I could forget it also,’ said Mr Sowerby.

‘I really think that she does. When I was obliged to make some allusion to it — at least I felt myself obliged, and was very sorry afterwards that I did — she merely laughed — a great loud laugh as she always does, and then went on about the business. However, she was clear about this, that all expenses of the election should be added to the sum to be advanced by her, and that the house should be left to you without rent. If you choose to take the land round the house you must pay for it, by the acre, as the tenants do. She was clear about it all as though she had passed her life in a lawyer’s office.’

My readers will now pretty well understand what last step that excellent sister, Mrs Harold Smith, had taken on her brother’s behalf, nor will they be surprised to learn that in the course of the day, Mr Sowerby hurried back to town and put himself into communication with Miss Dunstable’s lawyer.

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