Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XLII

Touching Pitch

In these hot midsummer days, the end of June and the beginning of July, Mr Sowerby had but an uneasy time of it. At his sister’s instance, he had hurried up to London and there had remained for days in attendance on the lawyers. He had to see new lawyers, Miss Dunstable’s men of business, quiet old cautious gentlemen whose place of business was in a dark alley behind the bank, Messrs Slow & Bideawhile by name, who had no scruple in detaining him for hours while they or their clerks talked to him about anything or about nothing. It was of vital consequence to Mr Sowerby that this business of his should be settled without delay, and yet these men, to whose care this settling was now confided, went on as though law processes were a sunny bank on which men delighted to bask easily. And then, too, he had to go more than once to South Audley Street, which was a worse infliction; for the men in South Audley Street were less civil now than had been their wont. It was well understood there that Mr Sowerby was no longer a client of the duke’s but his opponent; no longer his nominee and dependant, but his enemy in the county. ‘Chaldicotes,’ as old Mr Gumption remarked to young Mr Gagebee; ‘Chaldicotes, Gagebee, is a cooked goose, as far as Sowerby is concerned. And what difference could it make to him whether the duke is to own it or Miss Dunstable? For my part I cannot understand how a gentleman like Sowerby can like to see his property go into the hands of a gallipot wench whose money smells of bad drugs. And nothing can be more ungrateful,’ he said, ‘than Sowerby’s conduct. He has held the county five-and-twenty years without expense; and now that the time for payment has come, he begrudges the price.’ He called it no better than cheating, he did not — he, Mr Gumption. According to his ideas Sowerby was attempting to cheat the duke. It may be imagined, therefore, that Mr Sowerby did not feel any great delight in attending at South Audley Street. And then rumour was spread about among all the bill-discounting leeches that blood was once more to be sucked from the Sowerby carcass. The rich Miss Dunstable had taken up his affairs; so much as that became known in the purlieus of the Goat and Compasses. Tom Tozer’s brother declared that she and Sowerby were going to make a match of it, and that any scrap of paper with Sowerby’s name on it, would become worth its weight in bank-notes; but Tom Tozer himself — Tom, who was the real hero of the family — pooh-poohed at this, screwing up his nose, and alluding in most contemptuous terms to his brother’s softness. He knew better — as was indeed the fact. Miss Dunstable was buying up the squire, and by Jingo she should buy them up — them, the Tozers as well as others! They knew their value, the Tozers did; — whereupon they became more than ordinarily active. From them and all their brethren Mr Sowerby at this time endeavoured to keep his distance, but his endeavours were not altogether effectual. Whenever he could escape for a day or two from the lawyers he ran down to Chaldicotes; but Tom Tozer in his perseverance followed him there, and boldly sent in his name by the servant at the front door.

‘Mr Sowerby is not just at home at the present moment,’ said the well-trained domestic.

‘I’ll wait about, then,’ said Tom, seating himself on an heraldic griffin which flanked the big stone steps before the house. And in this way Mr Tozer gained his purpose. Sowerby was still contesting the county, and it behoved him not to let his enemies say that he was hiding himself. It had been a part of his bargain with Miss Dunstable that he should contest the county. She had taken it into her head that the duke had behaved badly, and she had resolved that he should be made to pay for it. ‘The duke,’ she said, ‘had meddled long enough;’ she would now see whether the Chaldicotes interest would not suffice of itself to return a member for the county, even in opposition to the duke. Mr Sowerby himself was so harrassed at the time, that he would have given way on this point if he had had the power; but Miss Dunstable was determined, and he was obliged to yield to her. In this manner Mr Tom Tozer succeeded and did make his way into Mr Sowerby’s presence — of which intrusion one effect was the following letter from Mr Sowerby to his friend Mark Robarts:—

‘Chaldicotes, July, 185-‘MY DEAR ROBARTS,

‘I am so harrassed at the present moment by an infinity of troubles of my own that I am almost callous to those of other people. They say that prosperity makes a man selfish. I have never tried that, but I am quite sure that adversity does so. Nevertheless I am anxious about these bills of yours,’

‘Bills of mine!’ said Robarts to himself, as he walked up and down the shrubbery path at the parsonage, reading this letter. This happened a day or two after his visit to the lawyer at Barchester.

‘— and would rejoice greatly if I thought that I could save you from any further annoyance about them. That kite, Tom Tozer, has just been with me, and insists that both of them shall be paid. He knows — no one better — that no consideration was given for the latter. But he knows also that the dealing was not with him, nor even with his brother and he will be prepared to swear that he gave value for both. He would swear anything for five hundred pounds — or for half the money, for that matter. I do not think that the father of mischief ever let loose upon the world a greater rascal than Tom Tozer.

‘He declares that nothing shall induce him to take one shilling less than the whole sum of nine hundred pounds. He has been brought to this by hearing that my debts are about to be paid. Heaven help me! The meaning of that is that these wretched acres, which are now mortgaged to one millionaire, are to change hands and be mortgaged to another instead. By this exchange I may possibly obtain the benefit of having a house to live in for the next twelve months, but no other. Tozer, however, is altogether wrong in his scent; and the worst of it is that his malice will fall on you rather than on me.

‘What I want you to do is this: let us pay him one hundred pounds between us. Though I sell the last sorry jade of a horse I have, I will make up fifty; and I know you can, at any rate, do as much as that. Then do you accept a bill conjointly with me, for eight hundred. It shall be done in Forrest’s presence, and handed to him; and you shall receive back the two old bills into your own hands at the same time. This new bill should be timed to run ninety days; and I will move heaven and earth, during that time, to have it included in the general schedule of my debts which are to be secured on the Chaldicotes property.

The meaning of which was that Miss Dunstable was to be cozened into paying the money under an idea that it was a part of the sum covered by the existing mortgage.

‘What you said the other day at Barchester, as to never executing another bill, is very well regards future transactions. Nothing can be wiser than such a resolution. But it would be folly — worse than folly — if you were to allow your furniture to be seized when the means of preventing it are so ready to your hand. By leaving the new bill in Forrest’s hands you may be sure that you are safe from the claws of such birds of prey as the Tozers. Even if I cannot get it settled when the three months are over, Forrest will enable you to make any arrangement that may be most convenient.

‘For Heaven’s sake, my dear fellow, do not refuse this. You can hardly conceive how it weighs upon me, this fear that bailiffs should make their way into your wife’s drawing-room. I know you think ill of me, and I do not wonder at it. But you would be less inclined to do so if you knew how terribly I am punished. Pray let me hear that you will do as I counsel you.

‘Yours always faithfully, ‘N.SOWERBY’

In answer to which the parson wrote a very short reply:-

‘Framley, July 185-‘MY DEAR SOWERBY, ‘I will sign no more bills on any consideration. ‘Yours truly, MARK ROBARTS’

And then having written this, and having shown it to his wife, he returned to the shrubbery walk and paced it up and down, looking every now and then to Sowerby’s letter as he thought over all the past circumstances of his friendship with that gentleman. That the man who had written this letter should be his friend — that very fact was a disgrace to him. Sowerby so well knew himself and his own reputation, that he did not dare to suppose that his own word would be taken for anything — not even when the thing promised was an act of the commonest honesty. ‘The old bills shall be given back into your own hands’, he had declared with energy, knowing that his friend and correspondent would not feel himself secure against further fraud under less stringent guarantee. This gentleman, this county member, the owner of Chaldicotes, with whom Mark Robarts had been so anxious to be on terms of intimacy, had now come to such a phase of life that he had given over speaking of himself as an honest man. He had become so used to suspicion that he argued of it as of a thing of course. He knew that no one could trust either his spoken or written word, and he was content to speak and to write without attempt to hide this conviction. And this was the man whom he had been so glad to call his friend; for whose sake he had been willing to quarrel with Lady Lufton, and at whose instance he had unconsciously abandoned so many of the best resolutions of his life. He looked back now, as he walked there slowly, still holding the letter in his hand, to the day when he had stopped at the school-house and written his letter to Mr Sowerby, promising to join the party at Chaldicotes. He had been so eager then to have his own way, that he would not permit himself to go home and talk the matter over with his wife. He thought also of the manner in which he had been tempted to the house of the Duke of Omnium, and the conviction on his mind at the time of giving way to that temptation would surely bring him no evil. And then he remembered the evening in Sowerby’s bed-room, when the bill had been brought out, and he had allowed himself to be persuaded to put his name upon it — not because he was willing in this way to assist his friend, but because he was unable to refuse. He had lacked the courage to say ‘No,’ though he knew at the time how gross was the error which he was committing. He had lacked the courage to say, ‘No’, and hence had come upon him and on his household all this misery and cause for bitter repentance.

I have written much of clergymen, but in doing so, I have endeavoured to portray them as they bear on our social life rather than to describe the mode and working of their professional careers. Had I done the latter I could hardly have steered clear of subjects on which it has not been my intention to pronounce an opinion, and I should either have laden my fiction with sermons or I should have degraded my sermons into fiction. Therefore I have said but little in my narrative of this man’s feelings or doings as a clergyman. But I must protest against its being on this account considered that Mr Robarts was indifferent to the duties of his clerical position. He had been fond of pleasure and had given way to temptation — as is so customarily done by young men of six-and-twenty, who are placed beyond control and who have means at command. Had he remained as a curate still at that age, subject in all his movements to the eye of a superior, he would, we may say, have put his name to no bills, have ridden after no hounds, have seen nothing of the iniquities of Gatherum Castle. There are men of twenty-six as fit to stand alone as ever they will be — fit to be prime ministers, heads of schools, Judges on the Bench — almost fit to be bishops; but Mark Robarts had not been one of them. He had within him many aptitudes for good, but not the strengthened courage of a man to act up to them. The stuff of which his manhood was to be formed had been slow of growth, as it is with many men; and, consequently, when temptation was offered to him, he had fallen. But he deeply grieved over his own stumbling, and from time to time, as his periods of penitence came upon him, he resolved that he would once more put his shoulder to the wheel as became one who fights upon earth that battle for which he had put on the armour. Over and over again, did he think of those words of Mr Crawley, and now as he walked up and down the path crumpling Mr Sowerby’s letter in his hand, he thought of them again —‘it is a terrible falling off; terrible in the fall, but doubly terrible through that difficulty of returning.’ Yes; that is a difficulty which multiplies itself in a fearful ratio as one goes on pleasantly running down the path — witherward? Had it come to that with him that he could not return — that he could never again hold up his head with a safe conscience as the pastor of his parish! It was Sowerby who had led him into this misery, who had brought on him this ruin? But then had not Sowerby paid him? Had not that stall which he now held in Barchester been Sowerby’s gift? He was a poor man now — a distressed, poverty-stricken man; but nevertheless he wished with all his heart that he had never become a sharer in the good things of the Barchester chapter. ‘I shall resign the stall,’ he said to his wife that night. ‘I think I may say that I have made up my mind as to that.’

‘But, Mark, will not people say that it is odd?’

‘I cannot help it — they must say it. Fanny, I fear that we shall have to bear the saying of harder words than that.’

‘Nobody can ever say that you have done anything that is unjust or dishonourable. If there are such men as Mr Sowerby —’

‘The blackness of his fault will not excuse mine.’ And then again he sat silent, hiding his eyes, while his wife, sitting by him, held his hand.

‘Don’t make yourself wretched, Mark. Matters will all come right yet. It cannot be that the loss of a few hundred pounds should ruin you.’

‘It is not the money — it is not the money.’

‘But you have done nothing wrong, Mark.’

‘How am I to go into the church and take my place before them all, when every one will know that bailiffs are in the house?’ And then, dropping his head on to the table, he sobbed aloud.

Mark Robarts’s mistake had been mainly this — he had thought to touch pitch and not to be defiled. He, looking out from his pleasant parsonage into the pleasant upper ranks of the world around him, had seen that men and things in those quarters were very engaging. His own parsonage, with his sweet wife, were exceedingly dear to him, and Lady Lufton’s affectionate friendship had its value; but were not these things rather dull for one who had lived with the best sets at Harrow and Oxford; — unless, indeed, he could supplement them with some occasional bursts of more lively life? Cakes and ale were as pleasant to his palate as to the palates of those with whom he had formerly lived at college. He had the same eye to look at a horse, and the same heart to make him go across a country, as they. And then, too, he found that men liked him — men and women also; men and women who were high in worldly standing. His ass’s ears were tickled, and he learned to fancy that he was intended by nature for the society of high people. It seemed as though he were following his appointed course in meeting men and women of the world at the houses of the fashionable and rich. He was not the first clergyman that had so lived and had so prospered. Yes, clergymen had so lived, and had done their duties in the sphere of life altogether to the satisfaction of their countrymen — and of their sovereigns. Thus Mark Robarts had determined that he would touch pitch, and escape defilement if that were possible. With what result those who have read so far will have perceived. Late on the following afternoon who should drive up to the parsonage door but Mr Forrest, the bank manager from Barchester — Mr Forrest, to whom Sowerby had always pointed as the Deus ex machina who, if duly invoked, could relieve them all from their present troubles, and dismiss the whole Tozer family — not howling into the wilderness, as one would have wished to do with that brood of Tozers, but so gorged with prey that from them no further annoyance need be dreaded? All this Mr Forrest could do; nay, more, most willingly would do! Only let Mark Robarts put himself into the banker’s hand, and blandly sign what documentation the banker might desire. ‘This is a very unpleasant affair,’ said Mr Forrest as soon as they were closeted together in Mark’s book-room. In answer to which observation the parson acknowledged that it was a very unpleasant affair.

‘Mr Sowerby has managed to put you into the hands of about the worst set of rogues now existing in their line of business in London.’

‘So I suppose; Curling told me the same.’ Curling was the Barchester attorney whose aid he had lately invoked.

‘Curling has threatened them that he will expose their whole trade; but one of them was down here, a man named Tozer, replied, that you had much more to lose by exposure than he had. He went further, and declared that he would defy any jury in England to refuse him his money. He swore that he discounted both bills in the regular way of business; and, though this is of course false, I fear that it will be impossible to prove it so. He well knows that you are a clergyman, and that, therefore, he has a stronger hold on you than on other men.’

‘The disgrace shall fall on Sowerby,’ said Robarts hardly actuated at the moment by any strong feeling of Christian forgiveness.

‘I fear, Mr Robarts, that he is somewhat in the condition of the Tozers. He will not feel it as you do.’

‘I must bear it, Mr Forrest, as best I may.’

‘Will you allow me, Mr Robarts, to give you my advice? Perhaps I ought to apologize for intruding it upon you; but as the bills have been presented and dishonoured across my counter, I have, of necessity, become acquainted with the circumstances.’

‘I am very much obliged to you,’ said Mark.

‘You must pay this money, at any rate, the most considerable portion of it; — the whole of it, indeed, with such deduction as a lawyer may be able to induce these hawks to make on the sight of ready money. Perhaps 750L or 800L may see you clear of the whole affair.’

‘But I have not a quarter of that sum lying by me.’

‘No; I suppose not; but what I would recommend is this: that you should borrow the money from the bank, on your own responsibility — with the joint security of some friend who may be willing to assist you with his name. Lord Lufton would probably do it.’

‘No, Mr Forrest.’

‘Listen to me first, before you make up your mind. If you took this step, of course you would do so with the fixed intention of paying the money yourself — without any further reliance on Sowerby or on any one else.’

‘I shall not rely on Mr Sowerby again; you may be sure of that.’

‘What I mean is that you must teach yourself to recognize the debt as your own. If you can do that, with your income you can surely pay it, with interest, in two years. If Lord Lufton will assist you with his name, I will so arrange the bills that the payments shall be made to fall equally over that period. In that way the world will know nothing about it, and in two years’ time you will once more be a free man. Many men, Mr Robarts, have bought their experience much dearer than that, I can assure you.’

‘Mr Forrest, it is quite out of the question.’

‘You mean that Lord Lufton will not give you his name.’

‘I certainly shall not ask him; but that is not all. In the first place, my income will not be what you think it, for I shall probably give up the prebend at Barchester.’

‘Give up the prebend! Give up six hundred a year!’

‘And, beyond this, I think I may say that nothing shall tempt me to put my name to another bill. I have learned a lesson which I hope I may never forget.’

‘Then what do you intend to do?’

‘Nothing!’

‘Then those men will sell every stick of furniture about the place. They know that your property here is enough to secure all they claim.’

‘If they have the power, they must sell it.’

‘And all the world will know the facts.’

‘So it must be. Of the faults which a man commits he must bear the punishment. If it were only myself!’

‘That’s where it is, Mr Robarts. Think of what you wife will have to suffer in going through such misery as that! You had better take my advice. Lord Lufton, I am sure —’ But the very name of Lord Lufton, his sister’s lover, again gave him courage. He thought, too, of the accusations which Lord Lufton had brought against him on that night, when he had come to him in the coffee-room of the hotel, and he felt that it was impossible that he should apply to him for such aid. It would be better to tell all to Lady Lufton! That she would relieve him, let the cost to herself be what it might, he was very sure. Only this; — that in looking to her for assistance he would be forced to bite the dust in the very deed.

‘Thank you, Mr Forrest, but I have made up my mind. Do not think that I am the less obliged to you on your disinterested kindness — for I know that it is disinterested; but this I think I may confidently say, that not even to avert so terrible a calamity will I again put my name to any bill. Even if you could take my own promise to pay without the addition of any second name, I would not do it.’ There was nothing for Mr Forrest to do under such circumstances but simply to drive back to Barchester. He had done the best for the young clergyman according to his lights, and, perhaps, in a worldly view, his advice had not been bad. But Mark dreaded the very name of a bill. He was as a dog that had been terribly scorched, and nothing would again induce him to go near the fire.

‘Was not the man from the bank?’ said Fanny, coming into the room when the sound of the wheels had died away.

‘Yes; Mr Forrest.’

‘Well, dearest?’

‘We must prepare ourselves for the worst.’

‘You will not sign any more papers, eh Mark?’

‘No; I have just now positively refused to do so.’

‘Then I can bear anything. But, dearest, dearest Mark, will you not let me tell Lady Lufton?’

Let them look at the matter in any way the punishment was very heavy.

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