In old days, it was the habit to think and say that the House of Commons was an essentially “queer place,” which no one could understand until he was a member of it. It may, perhaps, be doubted whether that somewhat mysterious quality still altogether attaches to that assembly. “Our own Reporter,” has invaded it in all its purlieus. No longer content with giving an account of the speeches of its members, he is not satisfied unless he describes their persons, their dress, and their characteristic mannerisms. He tells us how they dine, even the wines and dishes which they favour, and follows them into the very mysteries of their smoking-room. And yet there is perhaps a certain fine sense of the feelings, and opinions, and humours of this assembly, which cannot be acquired by hasty notions and necessarily superficial remarks, but must be the result of long and patient observation, and of that quick sympathy with human sentiment, in all its classes, which is involved in the possession of that inestimable quality styled tact.
When Endymion Ferrars first took his seat in the House of Commons, it still fully possessed its character of enigmatic tradition. It had been thought that this, in a great degree, would have been dissipated by the Reform Act of 1832, which suddenly introduced into the hallowed precinct a number of individuals whose education, manners, modes of thought, were different from those of the previous inhabitants, and in some instances, and in some respects, quite contrary to them. But this was not so. After a short time it was observed that the old material, though at first much less in quantity, had leavened the new mass; that the tone of the former House was imitated and adopted, and that at the end of five years, about the time Endymion was returned to Parliament, much of its serene, and refined, and even classical character had been recovered.
For himself, he entered the chamber with a certain degree of awe, which, with use, diminished, but never entirely disappeared. The scene was one over which his boyhood even had long mused, and it was associated with all those traditions of genius, eloquence, and power that charm and inspire youth. His practical acquaintance with the forms and habits of the House from his customary attendance on their debates as private secretary to a cabinet minister, was of great advantage to him, and restrained that excitement which dangerously accompanies us when we enter into a new life, and especially a life of such deep and thrilling interests and such large proportions. This result was also assisted by his knowledge, at least by sight, of a large proportion of the old members, and by his personal and sometimes intimate acquaintance with those of his own party. There was much in his position, therefore, to soften that awkward feeling of being a freshman, which is always embarrassing.
He took his place on the second bench of the opposition side of the House, and nearly behind Lord Roehampton. Mr. Bertie Tremaine, whom Endymion encountered in the lobby as he was escaping to dinner, highly disapproved of this step. He had greeted Endymion with affable condescension. “You made your first mistake to-night, my dear Ferrars. You should have taken your seat below the gangway and near me, on the Mountain. You, like myself, are a man of the future.”
“I am a member of the opposition. I do not suppose it signifies much where I sit.”
“On the contrary, it signifies everything. After this great Tory reaction there is nothing to be done now by speeches, and, in all probability, very little that can be effectually opposed. Much, therefore, depends upon where you sit. If you sit on the Mountain, the public imagination will be attracted to you, and when they are aggrieved, which they will be in good time, the public passion, which is called opinion, will look to you for representation. My advice to my friends now is to sit together and say nothing, but to profess through the press the most advanced opinions. We sit on the back bench of the gangway, and we call ourselves the Mountain.”
Notwithstanding Mr. Bertie Tremaine’s oracular revelations, Endymion was very glad to find his old friend Trenchard generally his neighbour. He had a high opinion both of Trenchard’s judgment and acquirements, and he liked the man. In time they always managed to sit together. Job Thornberry took his seat below the gangway, on the opposition side, and on the floor of the House. Mr. Bertie Tremaine had sent his brother, Mr. Tremaine Bertie, to look after this new star, who he was anxious should ascend the Mountain; but Job Thornberry wishing to know whether the Mountain were going for “total and immediate,” and not obtaining a sufficiently distinct reply, declined the proffered intimation. Mr. Bertie Tremaine, being a landed proprietor as well as leader of the Mountain, was too much devoted to the rights of labour to sanction such middle-class madness.
“Peel with have to do it,” said Job. “You will see.”
“Peel now occupies the position of Necker,” said Mr. Bertie Tremaine, “and will make the same fiasco. Then you will at last have a popular government.”
“And the rights of labour?” asked Job. “All I hope is, I may have got safe to the States before that day.”
“There will be no danger,” said Mr. Bertie Tremaine. “There is this difference between the English Mountain and the French. The English Mountain has its government prepared. And my brother spoke to you because, when the hour arrives, I wished to see you a member of it.”
“My dear Endymion,” said Waldershare, “let us dine together before we meet in mortal conflict, which I suppose will be soon. I really think your Mr. Bertie Tremaine the most absurd being out of Colney Hatch.”
“Well, he has a purpose,” said Endymion; “and they say that a man with a purpose generally sees it realised.’
“What I do like in him,” said Waldershare, “is this revival of the Pythagorean system, and a leading party of silence. That is rich.”
One of the most interesting members of the House of Commons was Sir Fraunceys Scrope. He was the father of the House, though it was difficult to believe that from his appearance. He was tall, and had kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man, with a musical voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright, and once haughty. He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had ridden up to Westminster more than half a century ago, from his seat in Derbyshire, to support his dear friend Charles Fox; real top-boots, and a blue coat and buff waistcoat. He was a great friend of Lord Roehampton, had a large estate in the same county, and had refused an earldom. Knowing Endymion, he came and sate by him one day in the House, and asked him, good-naturedly, how he liked his new life.
“It is very different from what it was when I was your age. Up to Easter we rarely had a regular debate, never a party division; very few people came up indeed. But there was a good deal of speaking on all subjects before dinner. We had the privilege then of speaking on the presentation of petitions at any length, and we seldom spoke on any other occasion. After Easter there was always at least one great party fight. This was a mighty affair, talked of for weeks before it came off, and then rarely an adjourned debate. We were gentlemen, used to sit up late, and should have been sitting up somewhere else had we not been in the House of Commons. After this party fight, the House for the rest of the session was a mere club.”
“There was not much business doing then,” said Endymion.
“There was not much business in the country then. The House of Commons was very much like what the House of Lords is now. You went home to dine, and now and then came back for an important division.”
“But you must always have had the estimates here,” said Endymion.
“Yes, but they ran through very easily. Hume was the first man who attacked the estimates. What are you going to do with yourself today? Will you take your mutton with me? You must come in boots, for it is now dinner-time, and you must return, I fancy. Twenty years ago, no man would think of coming down to the House except in evening dress. I remember so late as Mr. Canning, the minister always came down in silk stockings and pantaloons, or knee breeches. All things change, and quoting Virgil, as that young gentleman has just done, will be the next thing to disappear. In the last parliament we often had Latin quotations, but never from a member with a new constituency. I have heard Greek quoted here, but that was long ago, and a great mistake. The House was quite alarmed. Charles Fox used to say as to quotation —‘No Greek; as much Latin as you like; and never French under any circumstances. No English poet unless he had completed his century.’ These were like some other good rules, the unwritten orders of the House of Commons.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53