Harold Smith had been made unhappy by that rumour of a dissolution; but the misfortune to him would be as nothing compared to the severity with which it would fall on Mr Sowerby. Harold Smith might or might not lose his borough; but Mr Sowerby would undoubtedly lose his county; and, in losing that, he would lose everything. He felt very certain that the duke would not support him again, let who would be master of Chaldicotes; and as he reflected on these things he found it very hard to keep up his spirits. Tom Towers, it seems, had known all about it, as he always does. The little remark which had dropped from him at Miss Dunstable’s, made, no doubt, after mature deliberation, and with profound political motives, was the forerunner, only by twelve hours, of a very general report that the giants had not a majority in Parliament, generous as had been the promises of support disinterestedly made to them by the gods. This indeed was manifest, and therefore they were going to the country, although they had been deliberately warned by a very prominent scion of Olympus that if they did do so that disinterested support must be withdrawn. This threat did not seem to weigh much, and by two o’clock on the day following Miss Dunstable’s party, the fiat was presumed to have gone forth. The rumour had begun with Tom Towers, but by that time it had reached Buggins at the Petty Bag Office. ‘It won’t make no difference to hus, sir; will it, Mr Robarts?’ said Buggins, as he leaned respectfully against the wall near the door, in the room of the private secretary at that establishment.
A good deal of conversation, miscellaneous, special, and political, went on between young Robarts and Buggins in the course of the day; as was natural, seeing that they were thrown in these evil times very much upon each other. The Lord Petty Bag of the present ministry was not such a one as Harold Smith. He was a giant indifferent to his private notes, and careless of the duties even of patronage; he rarely visited the office, and as there were no other clerks in the establishment — owing to a root and branch reform carried out in the short reign of Harold Smith — to whom could young Robarts talk, if not to Buggins? ‘No; I suppose not,’ said Robarts, as he completed on his blotting-paper an elaborate picture of a Turk seated on a divan.
‘‘Cause, you see, sir, we’re in the Upper ‘Ouse, now — as I always thinks we ought to be. I don’t think it ain’t constitutional for the Petty Bag to be in the Commons, Mr Robarts. Hany ways, it never usen’t.’
‘They’re changing all those sort of things nowadays, Buggins,’ said Robarts, giving the final touch to the Turk’s smoke.
‘Well; I’ll tell you what, Mr Robarts: I think I’ll go. I can’t stand all these changes. I’m turned of sixty now, and don’t want any ‘stifficates. I think I’ll take my pension and walk. The hoffice ain’t the same place at all since it come down among the Commons.’ And then Buggins retired sighing, to console himself with a pot of porter behind a large open office ledger, set up on end on a small table in the little lobby outside the private secretary’s room. Buggins sighed again as he saw that the date made visible on the open book was almost as old as his own appointment; for such a book as this lasted long in the Petty Bag Office. A peer of high degree had been Lord Petty Bag in those days; one whom a messenger’s heart could respect with infinite veneration, as he made his unaccustomed visits to the office with much solemnity — perhaps four times during the season. The Lord Petty Bag then was highly regarded by his staff, and his coming among them was talked about for some hours previously and for some days afterwards; but Harold Smith had bustled in and out like the managing clerk in a Manchester house. ‘The service is going to the dogs,’ said Buggins to himself, as he put down the porter pot, and looked up over the book at a gentleman who presented himself at the door. ‘Mr Robarts in his room?’ said Buggins, repeating the gentleman’s words. ‘Yes, Mr Sowerby; you’ll find him there — first door to the left.’ And then, remembering that the visitor was a county member — a position which Buggins regarded as next to that of a peer — he got up, and opening the private secretary’s door, ushered in the visitor.
Young Robarts and Sowerby had, of course, become acquainted in the days of Harold Smith’s reign. During that short time the member for East Barset had on most days dropped in at the Petty Bag Office for a minute or two, finding out what the energetic Cabinet minister was doing, chatting on semi-official subjects, and teaching the private secretary to laugh at his master. There was nothing, therefore, in his present visit which need appear to be singular, or which required any immediate special explanation. He sat himself down in his ordinary way, and began to speak of the subject of the day. ‘We’re all to go,’ said Sowerby.
‘So I hear,’ said the private secretary. ‘It will give me no trouble, for, as the respectable Buggins says, we’re in the Upper House now.’
‘What a delightful time those lucky dogs of lords do have!’ said Sowerby. ‘No constituents, no turning out, no fighting, no necessity for political opinions; and, as a rule, no such opinions at all!’
‘I suppose you’re tolerably safe in East Barsetshire?’ said Robarts. ‘The duke has it pretty much his own way there.’
‘Yes; the duke does have it pretty much his own way. By the by, where is your brother?’
‘At home,’ said Robarts; ‘at least I presume so.’
‘At Framley or at Barchester? I believe he was in residence at Barchester not long since.’
‘He’s at Framley now, I know. I got a letter only yesterday from his wife, with a commission. He was there, and Lord Lufton had just left.’
‘Yes; Lufton was down. He started for Norway this morning. I want to see your brother. You have not heard from him yourself, have you?’
‘No; not lately. Mark is a bad correspondent. He would not do at all for a private secretary.’
‘At any rate, not to Harold Smith. But you are sure I should not catch him at Barchester?’
‘Send down by telegraph, and he would meet you.’
‘I don’t want to do that. A telegraph message makes such a fuss in the country, frightening people’s wives, and setting all the horses about the place galloping.’
‘What is it about?’
‘Nothing of any great consequence. I didn’t know whether he might have told you. I’ll write down by to-night’s post, and then he can meet me at Barchester tomorrow. Or do you write. There’s nothing I hate so much as letter-writing; just tell him that I called, and that I shall be much obliged if he can meet me at the Dragon of Wantly — say at two tomorrow. I will go down by the express.’
Mark Robarts, in talking over this coming money trouble with Sowerby, had once mentioned that if it were necessary to take up the bill for a short time he might be able to borrow the money from his brother. So much of the father’s legacy still remained in the hands of the private secretary as would enable him to produce the amount of the latter bill, and there could be no doubt that he would lend it if asked. Mr Sowerby’s visit to the Petty Bag Office had been caused by a desire to learn whether any such request had been made — and also by a half-formed resolution to make the request himself if he should find that the clergyman had not done so. It seemed to him to be a pity that such a sum should be lying about, as it were, within reach, and that he should not stoop to put his hands on it. Such abstinence would be so contrary to him as it is for a sportsman to let pass a cock-pheasant. But yet something like remorse touched his heart as he sat there balancing himself on his chair in the private secretary’s room, and looking at the young man’s open face.
‘Yes; I’ll write to him,’ said John Robarts; ‘but he hasn’t said anything to me about anything particular.’
‘Hasn’t he? It does not much signify. I only mentioned it because I thought I understood him to say that he would.’ And then Mr Sowerby went on swinging himself. How was it that he felt so averse to mention that little sum of 500L to a young man like John Robarts, a fellow without wife or children or calls on him of any sort, who would not even by injured by the loss of the money, seeing that he had an ample salary on which to live? He wondered at his own weakness. The want of the money was urgent on him in the extreme. He had reasons for supposing that Mark would find it very difficult to renew the bills, but he, Sowerby, could stop their presentation if he could get this money at once into his own hands.
‘Can I do anything for you?’ said the innocent lamb, offering his throat to the butcher. But some unwonted feeling numbed the butcher’s fingers, and blunted his knife. He sat still for half a minute after the question, and then jumping from his seat, declined the offer. ‘No, no; nothing, thank you. Only write to Mark, and say that I shall be there tomorrow,’ and then, taking his hat, he hurried out of the office. ‘What an ass I am,’ he said to himself as he went: ‘as if it were of any use now to be particular.’
He then got into a cab and had himself driven half-way up Portman Street towards the New Road, and walking from thence a few hundred yards down a cross-street he came to a public-house. It was called the ‘Goat and Compasses’ — a very meaningless name, one would say; but the house boasted of being a place of public entertainment very long established on that site, having been a tavern out in the country in the days of Cromwell. At that time the pious landlord, putting up a pious legend for the benefit of his pious customers, had declared that —‘God encompasseth us.’ The ‘Goat and Compasses’ in these days does quite as well; and, considering the present character of the house, was perhaps less unsuitable than the old legend. ‘Is Mr Austen here?’ asked Mr Sowerby of the man at the bar.
‘Which on ’em? Not Mr John; he ain’t here. Mr Tom is in-the little room on the left-hand side.’ The man whom Mr Sowerby would have preferred to see was the elder brother John; but as he was not to be found, he did go into that little room. In that room he found — Mr Austen, junior, according to one arrangement of nomenclature, and Mr Tom Tozer according to another. To gentlemen of the legal profession he generally chose to introduce himself as belonging to the respectable family of the Austens; but among his intimates he had always been — Tozer. Mr Sowerby, though he was intimate with the family, did not love the Tozers: but he especially hated Tom Tozer. Tom Tozer was a bull-necked, beetle-browed fellow, the expression of whose face was eloquent with acknowledged roguery. ‘I am a rogue,’ it seemed to say. ‘I know it; all the world knows it: but you’re another. All the world don’t know that, but I do. Men are all rogues, pretty nigh. Some are soft rogues, and some are ‘cute rogues. I am a ‘cute one; so mind your eye.’ It was with such words that Tom Tozer’s face spoke out; and though a thorough liar in his heart, he was not a liar in his face. ‘Well, Tozer,’ said Mr Sowerby, absolutely shaking his hands with the dirty miscreant. ‘I wanted to see your brother.’
‘John ain’t here, and ain’t like; but it’s all as one.’
‘Yes, yes; I suppose it is. I know you two hunt in couples.’
‘I don’t know what you mean about hunting, Mr Sowerby. You gents ‘as all the hunting, and we poor folk ‘as all the work. I hope you’re going to make up this trifle of money we’re out of so long.’
‘It’s about that I’ve called. I don’t know what you call long, Tozer; but the last bill was only dated in February.’
‘It’s overdue; ain’t it?’
‘Oh, yes; it’s overdue. There’s no doubt about that.’
‘Well; when a bit of paper is come round, the next thing is to take it up. Them’s my ideas. And to tell you the truth, Mr Sowerby, we don’t think as ‘ow you’ve been treating us just on the square lately. In that matter of Lord Lufton’s you was down on us uncommon.’
‘You know I couldn’t help myself.’
‘Well, and we can’t help ourselves now. That’s where it is, Mr Sowerby. Lord love you; we know what’s what, we do. And so, the fact is we’re uncommon low as to the ready just at present, and we must have them few hundred pounds. We must have them at once, or we must sell up that clerical gent. I’m dashed if it ain’t as hard to get money from a parson as it is to take a bone from a dog. ‘E’s ‘ad ‘is account, no doubt, and why don’t he pay?’ Mr Sowerby had called with the intention of explaining that he was about to proceed to Barchester on the following day with the express view of ‘making arrangements’ about this bill; and had he seen John Tozer, John would have been compelled to accord to him some little extension of time. Both Tom and John knew this; and, therefore, John — the soft-hearted one — kept out of the way. There was no danger that Tom would be weak; and, after some half-hour of parley, he was again left by Mr Sowerby, without having evinced any symptom of weakness.
‘It’s the dibs as we want, Mr Sowerby, that’s all,’ were the last words which he spoke as the member of Parliament left the room. Mr Sowerby then got into another cab, and had himself driven to his sister’s house. It is a remarkable thing with reference to men who are distressed for money — distressed as was now the case with Mr Sowerby — that they never seem at a loss for the luxuries which small sums purchase. Cabs, dinners, wine, theatres, and new gloves are always at the command of men who are drowned in pecuniary embarrassments, whereas those who don’t owe a shilling are so frequently obliged to go without them! It would seem that there is no gratification so costly as that of keeping out of debt. But then it is only fair that, if a man has a hobby, he should pay for it. Any one else would have saved a shilling, as Mrs Harold Smith’s house was only just across from Oxford Street, in the neighbourhood of Hanover Square; but Mr Sowerby never thought of this. He had never saved a shilling in his life, and it did not occur to him to begin now. He had sent word to her to remain at home for him, and he now found her waiting. ‘Harriet,’ said he, throwing himself back into an easy chair, ‘the game is pretty well up at last.’
‘Nonsense,’ said she. ‘The game is not up at all if you have the spirit to carry it on.’
‘I can only say that I got formal notice this morning from the duke’s lawyer, saying that he meant to foreclose at once; — not from Fothergill, but from those people in South Audley Street.’
‘You expected that,’ said his sister.
‘I don’t see how that makes it any better; besides, I am not quite sure that I did expect it; at any rate I did not feel certain. There is no doubt now.’
‘It is better that there should be no doubt. It is much better that you should know on what ground you have to stand.’
‘I shall soon have no ground to stand on, none at least of my own — not an acre,’ said the unhappy man, with great bitterness in his tone.
‘You can’t in reality be poorer now than you were last year. You have not spent anything to speak of. There can be no doubt that Chaldicotes will be ample to pay all you owe the duke.’
‘It’s as much as it will; and what am I to do then? I almost think more of the seat than I do of Chaldicotes.’
‘You know what I advise,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘Ask Miss Dunstable to advance the money on the same security which the duke holds. She will be as safe then as he is now. And if you can arrange that, stand for the county against him; perhaps you may be beaten.’
‘I shouldn’t have a chance.’
‘But it would show that you are not a creature in the duke’s hands. That’s my advice,’ said Mrs Smith, with much spirit; ‘and if you wish, I’ll broach it to Miss Dunstable, and ask her to get her lawyer to look into it.’
‘If I had done this before I had run my head into that other absurdity!’
‘Don’t fret yourself about that; she will lose nothing by such an investment, and therefore you are not asking any favour of her. Besides, did she not make the offer? and she is just the woman to do this for you now, because she refused to do that thing for you yesterday. You understand most things, Nathaniel; but I am not sure that you understand women; not, at any rate, such a woman as her.’ It went against the grain with Mr Sowerby, this seeking of pecuniary assistance from the very woman whose hand he had attempted to gain about a fortnight since; but he allowed his sister to prevail. What could any man do in such straits that would not go against the grain? At the present moment he felt in his mind an infinite hatred against the duke, Mr Fothergill, Gumption & Gagebee, and all the tribes of Gatherum Castle and South Audley Street; they wanted to rob of that which had belonged to the Sowerbys before the name of Omnium had been heard of in the county, or in England! The great leviathan of the deep was anxious to swallow him up as prey! He was to be swallowed up, and made away with, and put out of sight, without a pang of remorse. Any measure which could not present itself as a means of staving off so evil a day would be acceptable; and therefore he gave his sister the commission of making this second proposal to Miss Dunstable. In cursing the duke — for he did curse the duke lustily — it hardly occurred to him to think that, after all, the duke only asked for his own. As for Mrs Harold Smith, whatever may be the view taken of her general character as a wife and a member of society, it must be admitted that as a sister she had virtues.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55