She and I. A Love Story. A Life History. Volume Two.
by John Conroy Hutcheson ___________ In Volume Two we have much the same personnel as in Volume One; the vicar and his sister Miss Pimpernell; Lady Dasher and her two daughters; Miss Spight and Mawley the curate; Min and Mrs Clyde; Catch the dog. Having set the scene in Volume One, Hutcheson goes on to weave a beautiful story round the love-affair between the hero, Lorton, and Min, she with the admirable grey eyes. We will not tell you how it fared—you must find that out for yourself.
While I think the story was well-written, and it makes a very good audiobook to listen to, Hutcheson is still up to his tricks. Just to prove how brainy he is, he quotes extensively from French, German, Italian, Latin, and even in one place, Greek. In these days when our educations have been so dummed down, I find this unhelpful. To read a quotation from a good English poet is a joy and a pleasure, so why go elsewhere for a poetic quotation, except it be to show off.
As in Volume One, Hutcheson sometimes invents words never seen elsewhere, but for which there is a good word in current use, but spelt slightly differently. And his punctuation is weird, too. I particularly dislike the dashes in his speech paragraphs, something like the following:
"Hello,"—said the vicar;—"what a nice day it is."
I have left these in, though I've corrected the novel spelling whenever possible. ___________ SHE AND I. A LOVE STORY. A LIFE HISTORY. VOLUME TWO.
BY JOHN CONROY HUTCHESON
True, I talk of dreams; Which are the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, Which is as thin of substance as the air; And more inconstant than the wind, who woos Even now the frozen bosom of the north, And, being anger'd, puffs away from thence, Turning his face to the dew-dropping south.
Il est naturel que nos idees les plus vives et les plus familieres se retracent pendant le sommeil.
I had a most curious dream about Min that very night.
Probably this was owing to the reactionary mental relief I experienced after all my doubts and jealousies—you know, "joie fait peur" sometimes. It might also have resulted from the stronger impression which my last interview with her had made upon my mind, coupled with all the sweet hopes and darling imaginings that had sprung suddenly into existence, when her rose-red lips told me in liquid accents that she loved me. How deliciously the words had sounded! I seemed to hear them now once more; and, that kiss of ecstasy—I almost felt it again in all its passionate intensity!
But, the physiology of dreams, and their origin and connection with our day life, are subjects that have never been clearly explained, frequently investigated though they have been by intellects that have groped to the bottom of almost every phenomenal possibility in the finite world. We have not yet succeeded in piercing through the thick veil that hides from our gaze the unseen, ideal, and spiritual cosmos that surrounds, with its ghostly atmosphere, the more material universe in which we move and breathe and have our being. We are oblivious, in most cases, of that thought-peopled, encircling essence; although, it influences our motives and actions, perhaps, in a greater degree than we may be willing to allow.
I shall not attempt to solve the workings of the varied phantasmagoria that flitted across the horizon of my brain that night, curious as they were; nor, will I try to track out how, and in what way, they retraced the events of the past, and prognosticated the possibilities of the future. The task in either direction would be as hopeless as it is uninteresting; consequently, I will abandon it to the attention of more inquiring psychological minds than my own, hurrying on to tell what it was that I dreamt.
My vision was a threefold one—a series of dreams within dreams.
First, I thought that I was on a wide, whitened Alpine plain. It was night. In front of me, towered on high the rugged peaks of the Matterhorn, imposing in their grandeur; further on, in the illimitable distance, I could descry the rounded, snowcapp'd head of Mont Blanc, rearing itself heavenward, where the pale, treacherous moon kept her silent watch, and from whence the glistening stars twinkled down through an ocean of space, touching frosted particles of matter with scintillations of light, and making them glitter like diamonds—world- old, transparent jewels, set in the cold, ice-blue crown of the eternal glacier.
I could thus see myself, gazing through my dream eyes on my eidolon, as if it were only a reflection in a mirror. It was walking here on this wide Alpine plain, all alone; and I recognised also that I had the power to analyse and appreciate the motives by which it was led hither, the desires by which it was actuated—the strange thing, being, that I felt, within myself, all the thoughts and ideas that must have occurred to my other self.
At the same time, however, I seemed to be, as it were, but an inactive spectator of all that happened; looking on the visionary events of my dream as if I had no share or part in them. I appeared to possess, while they occurred, a sort of dual existence, of which I was perfectly cognisant, then and afterwards.
I knew that I—my other self—wished to reach the heights of the Matterhorn before and above me: the region of perpetual snow. I sympathised with that wish; and yet, I could look on at all my efforts to accomplish it, as if I were uninterested in their success, whilst I still felt, within myself, all the agony and suspense that must have filled the mind of my wraith, I could see myself making repeated exertions to reach the heights; constantly climbing, never getting any higher. I appeared to patrol a narrow circle, whose circumference I was unable to cross. Round and round I went, continually striving to get upwards and onwards:—still, always finding myself in the same identical spot, as if I had not advanced an inch. I grew tired, weary, exhausted. I felt sick at heart and in body. A nameless, indefinable horror seized upon me.
Then, all of a sudden, Min appeared.
She stood on the peaks above me; her figure presented in strong relief against the dead, neutral tint of the ice-wall behind her. I could see her face plainly—the look of entreaty in her eyes and the beckoning motion of her hands. She was calling to me, and urging me to join her; and—I could not!
A wide crevasse yawned before me, preventing any forward movement. It yawned deep down in front of my feet, fathoms below fathoms, piercing down, seemingly, to the centre of the earth. Looking over its edge I could mark how the vaulted arc of heaven and the starry firmament were reflected in its bottomless abyss; while, its breadth, seemed immeasurable. I saw that I could not cross it by the path I had hitherto pursued; and yet, whenever I turned aside, and tried to reach the mountain top by some other way, the horrible crevasse curved its course likewise, still confronting me. It was always before me, to arrest my progress. I could not evade it, I could not overleap it; and yet, there stood Min calling to me, and beckoning to me—and, I could not join her. It was maddening!
The moonlight faded. The twinkling stars went in one by one. There was a subdued darkness for a moment; and then, day appeared to break.
The snowy expanse appeared to blush all over—
"And on the glimmering limit far withdrawn God made himself an awful rose of dawn."
Did you ever watch an Alpine sunrise? How the light leaps from peak to peak, warming the monotonous white landscape in an instant with a tinge of crimson lake, and making the ice prisms sparkle like sapphires!
It was just so in my dream:—not a detail was omitted.
With the brightening of the dawn my troubles began to disappear. The crevasse narrowed, and the distant peaks of the Matterhorn approached nearer. Min was close to me, so close that I could almost touch the hand she held out to guide my steps. I heard her say, "Come, Frank, come! courage, and you're safe!" I was stepping across a thin ice bridge, which I suddenly perceived in front of me, leading over the gulf that separated us. I felt her warm, violet breath on my cheek. I was just planting my feet on the further side of the glacier, and going to clasp her in my arms, when—the frail platform on which I was crossing gave way:—I fell downward through the chasm with a shriek of terror that she re-echoed, and—I awoke!
Again, I was in the midst of an arid, sandy desert. The sun's rays seemed to pelt down with blistering intensity on my uncovered head. There was not a single tree, nor a scrap of foliage anywhere in sight, to afford a moment's shelter:—all was barrenness; parching heat; death!
I felt faint—dying of thirst. I fancied I could hear the rippling of waters near me, the splashing of grateful fountains; but, none could I see. Around me, as I lay stretched on the scorching sands, were only sun-baked rocks, and the scattered bones and skeletons of former travellers, who had perished by the same dreadful, lingering agony through which I was, apparently, doomed to die.
After a time, I thought I could distinguish the murmuring of waters more plainly; and, stay—did I not perceive a stately grove of palms in the distance? The water must be there!
I totter to my feet: I bend my feeble steps thither, and sink down beneath the welcome shade. I hear a sweet voice calling to me: I see an angel form stretching out a goblet of crystal water to my parching lips; and, as I reach my hand forth to grasp it, I see that the face is that of Min! I give vent to a cry of ecstasy; but, at the same moment, the goblet falls from my shaking hand, shattering into a thousand pieces on the sands of the desert; and—the vision fades away from my gaze.
All is darkness again. I am awake!
Once more the kaleidoscope of my dream changed.
I am now floating in a battered boat, without either sails or oars, on the boundless waters of the ocean. I can hear the lap, lapping of the sobbing sea against the sides of my frail craft; and the ripple of the current, hurrying along in its devious course the boat, which is as powerless to resist its influence as a straw upon the stream.
Presently the current spins onward faster and more furiously. I see the faint outlines of purple hills breaking the vacant curve of the horizon. A delicious fragrance from tropic flowers fills the air—the perfumes of the jessamine, the magnolia, the cereus. A sweet, delicious languor creeps over me. I feel a vague sense of rest and happiness, which, to my onlooking self, seems almost unaccountable; for, there am I, still all alone on the ocean, swept onward towards the purple hills in the distance, over the smooth-flowing surface of azure liquid, while, not a sound is to be heard, save the restless murmuring of the many-voiced sea.
The boat glides on.
Now I find myself encircled by radiant groups of picturesque coral islands, all covered with palm-trees, whose waving branches are entwined with varied-hued passion-flowers. Lilies and ferns, narcissi and irises, are intermingled in one chaos of beauty, skirting the velvet sward that runs down to the water's edge.
On each tiny islet, the lavish wealth of nature, freely outpoured, seemed to make it a perfect paradise. Brilliantly-plumaged birds flitted here and there, their colours contrasting with the green foliage. Gauzy-winged insects buzzed to and fro. The notes of the nightingale, or some kindred songster, could be heard, singing an ecstatic soprano to the cooing bass of the dove and the rippling obbligato of babbling brooks—that filtered through golden-yellow sands into the lap of the mother of waters—amid the sympathetic harmony of gushing cascades, whose noisy cadence was toned down by distance to a melodious hum.
And now I find that I am alone no longer.
I see Min stepping forward to greet me, advancing down the sloping turf- bank of the first island I reach; but, I cannot land. I cannot touch her hand.
No. The current sweeps my boat onward, past each tiny paradise in turn; and, on each, I still see Min always coming towards me, yet never reaching me! Swiftly the boat glides, swiftly and more swift; until, at last, Min, the palm-tree-shaded coral islets and all, are lost to sight—gradually yet in a moment.
I now seem to be borne along on the tide of a tempestuous torrent, through rocky defiles and beneath frowning precipices.
I am in the centre of a cyclone. The sickly lightning plays around me. The thunder mutters—growls—rolls—peals forth—in grand ear-breaking crashes, that appear to shake the dense sky overhead; but still, whenever the electric coruscations light up the sable darkness, I can see Min's face, apparently ever before me, ever inviting me on, ever inapproachable!
Anon, the boat glides back into the ocean again. Soon after, I find myself floating amongst an army of icebergs, all glittering with distinct gradations of tint, from that of pale sea-green up to intense blue. In front of me stretches a frozen field of hummocky ice, like that I had seen in my first vision.
There, too, stands Min. The current is bearing me to her; but, again, ere I can touch the spot where she stands, my boat careens heavily against a drifting berg, and is dashed to pieces.
Instead of sinking in the water, however, I feel myself floating in air. The atmosphere that encircles me is all rosy illumination, as it had been during the Alpine sunrise. I hear the most beautiful, heavenly music, and the sound as of many voices singing together in the sweetest of harmonies.
I see the gilded domes and minarets of a wondrous city that seems to be built in the centre of the zenith. I am wafted nearer and nearer to it, borne up on the pinions of the air. And, now, I can discern its golden gates!
There, stands Min, again, before them. She is clothed all in a white garment, that gives out a radiance as of light; while, on her head is a jewelled crown, fashioned in the shape of olive leaves and fastened in front with a single diamond star, whose beams almost blind me. Both her outstretched hands are extended to greet me. A loving smile is on her lips, in her eyes. I can hear the beautiful music chiming louder and louder; the harmony of the voice-chorus echoing more and more distinctly; I am on the threshold of the golden gates; I am just clasping Min's outstretched welcoming hands with oh, such a fond, enduring clasp; when—I awake.
This time my reveil is in real earnest:—the vision had passed!
It is broad daylight; and, a bright summer morning.
The London sparrows are chirping away at a fine rate in the garden. I fancy, too, that I can hear my favourite thrush in the distance.
Dog Catch, also, is whining and scratching at my door to tell me that it is time for me to get up, and take him out for his walk.
And, then, I recollect all.
I realise that I've only been dreaming; although, I almost believe that I can see Min's dear face and outstretched arms still before me.
Of course, it was only a dream.
But, curious, wasn't it?
O! slippery state of things. What sudden turns, What strange vicissitudes in the first leaf Of man's sad history. To-day most happy, And ere to-morrow's sun has set, most abject! How scant the space between these vast extremes.
The recollection of my strange visions which, I confess, somewhat affected me on my first waking, I put off from me at once. What were they, after all, but dreams, "begot of nothing but vain fantasy?"
I reasoned thus, philosophically, reflectively, rationally, within myself, as I dressed.
I determined to dismiss the matter from my thought at once; for, even if it prognosticated anything and was intended to withdraw the veil from futurity, it ought only to convince me of one fact, or fancy, namely, that, notwithstanding that I might have a hard struggle to win my darling, I should win her in the end:—that, also, in spite of antagonistic mammas and contrary circumstances, she would then be my own, my very own Min!
Would you not have thought the same in a like case?
I trow, yes!
I will not deny that I expended the most elaborate pains on my toilet that afternoon, before waiting upon Mrs Clyde in accordance with my promise to Min. I did not otherwise comply fully with the essential requirements of Madame la Comtesse de Bassanville's Code Complet du Ceremonial—such as causing an influential friend, who could speak of my morals and position, to have a previous audience with "the responsible relation" of "the young person who had attracted my notice;" nor, did I don a pair of "light fresh-butter-coloured kid gloves." Still, I undoubtedly betrayed a considerable nicety of apparel all the same.
Indeed, I absolutely out-Hornered Horner; and, had anybody detected me when engaged in the mysteries of the dressing-room, I would certainly have been supposed to have been as anxiously considerate respecting the choice I should make between light trousers and dark, a black coat and a blue one, and whether I would wear a white waistcoat or not, as a young lady costuming herself for a ball, and debating with her maid the rival merits of blush roses and pink silk, or of white tarlatan and clematis.
It was, also, some time ere I could summon up enough resolution to knock at the door of Mrs Clyde's residence, when, my decorative preparations accomplished, I at length succeeded in getting round to her house.
The expedition strangely reminded me of a visit I was once forced to pay to a dentist, owing to the misdeeds of one of my best molars; the dread of the impending interview almost inducing me to turn back on the threshold and put off my painful purpose for a while—even as had been my course of procedure when calling at Signor Odonto's agonising establishment. On that occasion, I remember, I recoiled in fright from the dreaded ordeal, seeking refuge in "instant flight."
I could not do so now, however. I had promised Min to speak to her mother as soon as possible; and, independently of that engagement, the interview would have to be gone through sooner or later, at all hazards. "An' it were done quickly, it were well done;" so, at last, my hesitation passed away under the influence of this, really vital, consideration. I nerved myself up to the knocking point. I gave a loud rat, tat, tat! that thrilled through my very boots, causing a passing butcher's boy, awed by its important sound, to inquire, with the cynical empressement of his race, whether I thought myself the "Emperoar of Rooshia." I turned my back on him with contempt; but, his ribald remark made me feel all the more nervous.
"Mrs Clyde at home?" I asked of the handmaiden, who answered my summons.
Yes, Mrs Clyde was at home.
Would I walk in?
I would; and did.
So far, all was plain sailing:—now, came the tug of war.
Mrs Clyde was standing up, facing the door, as I entered the drawing- room into which the handmaiden had ushered me.
"Won't you sit down, Mr Lorton?" she said, politely.
She never forgot her good breeding; and, I verily believe, if it had ever been her lot to officiate in Calcraft's place, she would have asked the culprit, whom she was about to hasten on his way to "kingdom come," whether he found the fatal noose too tight, or comfortable and easy, around his doomed neck! She would do this, too, I'm sure, with the most charming solicitude possible!
I noticed of her, that, whenever she was bent on using her sharpest weapons—of "society's" armoury and, methinks, the devil's forge-mark!— she always put on an extra gloss of politeness over her normal smooth and varnished style of address.
I didn't like it, either.
Civility may be all very well in its way, but I cannot say that I admire that way of knocking a man down with a kid glove. It is a treacherous mode of attack; and very much resembles the plan Mr Chucks, the boatswain in Peter Simple, used to adopt when correcting the ship's boys.
That gentleman would, if you recollect, courteously beckon an offender to approach him, doffing his hat the while as if speaking to the quarter-deck; and then, begging the trembling youngster's pardon for detaining him, would proceed to inform him in the "politest and most genteel manner in the world" that he was "the d—-d son of a sea cook,"—subsequently rattaning him furiously, amidst a plethora of expletives before which the worst Billingsgate faded into insignificance.
I may be singular in the fancy, but, do you know, I prefer civil words to be accompanied with civil deeds, and contrariwise:—the "poison of asps" does not go well with honied accents!
"Pray take a seat, Mr Lorton," said Mrs Clyde. "I was expecting you to call; and waited in, on purpose not to miss seeing you. My daughter has told me,"—she went on, taking the initiative, ere I had a chance to speak—cutting the ground from under my feet, as it were, and rendering my task each moment more arduous—"My daughter has told me that she and you were talking some nonsense together last night, which it is best for all parties, my dear Mr Lorton, should be at once forgotten! You'll agree with me, I'm sure?"
And she looked at me with a steady gaze of determination and set purpose in her eyes, before which I quailed.
"You will agree with me, I'm sure, Mr Lorton,"—she repeated again, after a pause, as I was so bewildered by her flank attack that I could not get out a word at first. I declare to you, I only sat looking at her in hopeless dismay, powerless—idiotic, in fact!
"But I love Min, Mrs Clyde,"—I stammered—"and she has promised—"
"Dear me! This is quite delicious," laughed Mrs Clyde—a cold sneering laugh, which made me shiver as if cold water were running down my back—"quite a comedy, I do declare, Mr Lorton. I did not think you were so good an actor. Love! Ha, ha, ha!" and she gave forth a merry peal—to my intense enjoyment, you may be sure.
Oh, yes! I enjoyed it, without doubt:—it was dreadfully comical!
"It is no laughing matter to me, Mrs Clyde," I replied at last, emboldened by her ridicule—"I love Min; and she has promised to marry me, if you will only give your consent, which I have come to ask to- day."
I got up as I spoke, and faced her.
I was prepared to do battle till the death. Desperation had now made me brave.
"Now, do let us be serious," said the lady, presently.
She apparently found it difficult to stifle her laughter at the humour of the whole thing:—it was really such a very good joke!
"I am serious, Mrs Clyde," I said, half-petulantly, although I tried to be impressive. I was solemn enough over it all; but, my temper has always been, unfortunately for me, too easily provoked.
"I never heard of such a thing in my life," she continued, taking no notice, apparently, either of me or of my answer. "Fancy, any sane person talking of love and marriage between a boy and girl like that! You must be joking, Mr Lorton. Really, it is too absurd to be credible!" and she affected a laugh again, in her provoking way.
A capital joke, wasn't it?
"I am not joking, I assure you, Mrs Clyde," I answered sturdily, endeavouring, vainly, to bear down her raillery by my gravity. "I was never more serious in my life. I'm not a boy, Mrs Clyde; and I'm sure Min is old enough to know her own mind, too!"
This was an impertinent addendum on my part; and, my opponent quickly retorted, with a thrust, which recalled my good manners.
"You are very good to say so, Mr Lorton; but permit me to judge best in that matter! Pray, how old are you, Mr Lorton, if I may be allowed to ask the question?"—she said, looking at me with great "society" interest, as if she were examining a specimen of the extinct dodo.
"Three-and-twenty," I said sententiously, like a catechumen responding to the questions supposed to be addressed to "N or M."
"Dear me!" she ejaculated in seeming surprise. "Three—and—twenty? I really would not have thought it! I wouldn't have taken you to be more than eighteen at the outside!"
She hit me on my tenderest point. I looked young for my age; and, like most young fellows, before time teaches them wisdom, making them strive to disguise the effect of each additional lustrum, I felt sore always when supposed to be more youthful than I actually was. I was, consequently, nettled at her remarks. She saw this, and smiled in amusement.
"I am twenty-three, however, Mrs Clyde, I assure you," I said warmly; "old enough to get married, I suppose!"
"That entirely depends on circumstances," she said coldly, as if the matter was of no interest to her whatever; "years are no criterion for judgment"—and she then stopped, throwing the burden of the next move on my shoulders.
I did not hesitate any longer, however.
"Will you allow Min to become engaged to me?" I said, valiantly, plunging at once into the thick of the combat.
"Pray, Mr Lorton," she replied, ignoring my query, "what means have you for supporting a wife? People cannot live upon nothing, you know; and 'love in a cottage' is an exploded fallacy."
She spoke as lightly and pleasantly as if she were conversing upon some ordinary society topic with another lady of the world like herself. She very well knew what she was about, however. She was "developing her main attack"—as military strategists would say!
You see, I had never given the subject of ways and means an instant's consideration, having remitted the matter to Providence with that implicit trust and cheerful hopefulness to which most enraptured swains are prone. I had only thought of loving Min and being loved by her:— engagement naturally following between us; and, that, was all I had thought of as yet.
When the time came for us to be married, our guardian angels would, no doubt, take care to provide us with the wherewithal!
"Sufficient for the day" was "the evil thereof." Till then, I was quite satisfied to let the matter rest; living, for the present, in the fairy land of my imagination where such a thing as filthy lucre was undreamt of.
Mrs Clyde's inquiry, therefore, took me all aback. "What means had I for supporting a wife?" Really, it was a very uncalled-for remark!
I had to answer it, nevertheless. Of course I could only tell the truth.
"I've only got two hundred and fifty pounds a-year of my own at present, Mrs Clyde," I said; "but—"
"Two—hundred—a-year!"—she said, interrupting me ere I could finish my statement, placing a horribly sneering emphasis on each word, which made the sum mentioned appear so paltry and insignificant, that it struck me with shame.—"I beg your pardon—two hundred and fifty! Why, how young you are, Mr Lorton. Do you really think you could support a wife and establishment on that income? I thought you were joking, my dear young friend,"—she added—"you know it would barely pay your tailor's bill!"
And she looked at me from head to foot with her merciless quizzing eyes, taking in all the elaborateness of the apparel that I had donned for her personal subjugation.
"You have not heard me out, Mrs Clyde," I answered, spurred upon my mettle.—"I am not quite dependent on that income. I also write for the press!"
I said this quite grandly, on the strength of my contributing an occasional magazine article at stray intervals to one of the current periodicals—getting one accepted for every dozen that were "declined with thanks;" and, being the "musical critic" of a very weakly weekly!
"O-oh, indeed!" she exclaimed.
There was a most aggravating tone of pity mingled with her surprise.
She evidently now looked upon me as more presumptuous than ever, and hopelessly beyond the pale of her social circle!
"And how much,"—she asked, in a patronising way which galled me to the quick,—"do you derive from this source? That is, if you will kindly excuse my saying so? The proposal which you have done my daughter and myself the honour to suggest, necessitates my making such delicate inquiries, you know."
"I do not earn very much by my pen, as yet, Mrs Clyde," I answered—"but, I hope to do more in a little time, when my name gets recognised. I'm only a beginner as yet."
"Well, if you would take my advice, Mr Lorton, you would remain so. I've heard it frequently said by some of your penny-a-liners—I believe that is what you literary gentlemen call yourselves—that, authorship reaps very poor pay. It makes a very good stick, but a bad crutch; and I don't think you can expect to increase your income very largely from that quarter! The only author I ever knew personally, sank into it, poor fellow, because he could do nothing else; and, he led a wretched existence from hand to mouth! He was never recognised afterwards in society, of course!"
"Genius is not always acknowledged at first, Mrs Clyde," I said loftily.
Her sneers at the profession, which I regarded as one of the highest in the world, provoked me.
Fancy her calling all authors "penny-a-liners!"
"So, all unsuccessful men say!" she replied curtly.—"But,"—she went on, putting aside all my literary prospects as beneath her notice, and returning to the main point at issue,—"is that all you have got to depend upon for your anticipated wife and establishment?"
She smiled sweetly, playing with me as a cat would with a mouse.
"All I have, certainly, at present, Mrs Clyde,"—I said, abashed at the sarcasm thus directed against my miserable income, which she did not take the slightest pains to conceal.—"But I shall have more by-and-by. We are both young; and, if you will only give me some hope of gaining your consent, when I have achieved what you may consider sufficient for the purpose, I will work for her and win her. O Mrs Clyde!"—I pleaded,—"let me only have the assurance that you will allow her to wait for me. I will work most nobly that I may deserve her!"
"All this is mere rhapsody, Mr Lorton,"—she said in her icy accents, throwing a shower of metaphorical cold water on my earnest enthusiasm.—"Do you seriously think for a moment that I would give my consent to my daughter's engagement to you in your present position?"
"I hoped so, Mrs Clyde," I replied, timidly.
I did not know what else to say.
"Then you hoped wrongly," she said. "You are really very young, Mr Lorton! I do not mean merely in years, but in knowledge of the world! You positively wish me to sacrifice all my daughter's prospects, and let her be bound to a wearisome engagement, on the mere chance of your being able at some distant period to marry her! Do I understand you aright? I certainly gave you credit for possessing more good sense, Mr Lorton, or I should never have admitted you to my house."
"O, Mrs Clyde," I said, "be considerate! Be merciful! Remember, that you were young once."
"I am considerate," she answered—"still, I must think of my daughter's welfare, before regarding the foolish wishes of a comparative stranger!"
Throughout the interview, she invariably alluded to Min as "her daughter," never mentioning her name.
It seemed as if she wished to avoid even the idea of our intimacy, and to make me understand how great a gulf lay between us.
"But I love her so, Mrs Clyde!" I pleaded again, in one last effort. "I love her dearly, and she loves me, I know. Do not, oh! do not part us so cruelly!"
"This is very foolish, Mr Lorton,"—she replied, coldly;—"and there is not much use, I think, in our prolonging the conversation; for, none of your arguments would convince me to give my consent to any such hair- brained scheme. Even if your offer had otherwise my approval, which it has not, I could not bear the idea of a long engagement for my daughter. You yourself ought to be more generous than to wish to tie a girl down to an arrangement which would waste her best years, blight her life; and, probably, end in her being a sour, disappointed woman—as I have known hundreds of such cases to end!"
"I do not wish to bind her," I said. "I only want your provisional consent, Mrs Clyde. I will diligently try to deserve it; and you will never regret it, you may be assured."
"I cannot give it, Mr Lorton,"—she replied in a decisive way.—"And if you meet my daughter again, you must promise me that it shall be only as a friend."
"And, what if I refuse to do so?"—I said defiantly.
"I should leave the neighbourhood," she said promptly.—"And, if you were so very ungentlemanlike, as still to persecute her with your attentions, I should soon take measures to put a stop to them."
What could I say or do? She was armed at all points, and I was powerless!
"Will you let me see your daughter; and, learn from her own lips if she be of the same opinion as yourself?" I asked.
I was longing to see Min. I wanted to know whether she had been convinced by her mother's worldly policy, or no.
"It is impossible for me to grant your request," said Mrs Clyde. "My daughter is not at home. She went down to the country this morning on a visit to her aunt; and the date of her return depends mainly on your decision now."
This was the finishing blow.
I succumbed completely before this master-stroke of policy, which my wary antagonist had not disclosed until the last.
"Oh! Mrs Clyde," I said; "how very hard you are to me!"
"Pardon me, Mr Lorton," she replied, as suave as ever.—"But, you will think differently by-and-by, and thank me for acting as I have done! Your foolish fancy for my daughter will soon wear off; and you will live to laugh at your present folly!"
"Never!" I said, determinedly, with a full heart.
"But you will promise not to speak to my daughter otherwise than as a friend, when you see her again?" she urged:—not at all eagerly, but, quite coolly, as she had spoken all along.
I would have preferred her having been angry, to that calm, irritating impassiveness she displayed. She appeared to be a patent condenser of all emotion.
"I suppose I must consent to your terms!"—I said, despairingly.—"Although, Mrs Clyde, I give you fair warning that, when I am in a position to renew my suit under better auspices, I will not hold myself bound by this promise."
"Very well, Mr Lorton," she said, "I accept your proviso; but, when you make your fortune it will be time enough to talk about it! In the meanwhile, relying upon your solemn word as a gentleman not to renew your offer to my daughter, or single her out with your attentions—which might seriously interfere with her future prospects—I shall still be pleased to welcome you occasionally"—with a marked emphasis on the word—"at my house. What we have spoken about had, now, better be forgotten by all parties as soon as possible, excepting your promise, of course, mind!" and she bowed me out triumphantly—she victorious, I thoroughly defeated.
What a sad, sad change had occurred since happy last night!
All my bright hopes were obscured, my ardent longings quenched by fashionable matter-of-fact; and, Min herself had gone from me, without one single parting word!
I was born to be unlucky, I think; everything went wrong with me now. Like the lonely, hopeless hero in Longfellow's translation of Min's favourite Coplas de Manrique, I might well exclaim in my misery—
"Let no one fondly dream again, That Hope and all her shadowy train Will not decay; Fleeting as were the dreams of old, Remembered like a tale that's told, They pass away!"
How did I know, too, but, that, ere I saw my darling again, months might elapse, during which time all thoughts of me might be banished from her heart?
One proverb tells us that "absence makes the heart grow fonder;" another, equally entitled to belief, warns anxious lovers that "out of sight" is to be "out of mind."
Which of the two could I credit?
Besides, even if she were constant and true to me, Mrs Clyde would certainly never give her consent to our engagement, I was confident—no, not if we both lived and loved until doomsday!
All these bitter thoughts flashed through my mind in a moment, one after the other.
I was angry, indignant, wretched.
To-morrow's sun shall warmer glow, And o'er this gloomy vale of woe Diffuse a brighter ray!
"O you lovers, you lovers!"—exclaimed little Miss Pimpernell, on my unbosoming myself to her, and recounting the incidents of my unhappy interview with Min's mother, shortly after I quitted the scene of my discomfiture.—"O you lovers, you lovers! You are always, either on the heights of ecstasy, or deep down in the depths of despair! Be a man, Frank, and let her see what noble stuff there is in you! There is nothing in this world worth the having, which can be obtained by merely looking at it and longing for it. Bear in mind Monsieur Parole's favourite proverb, 'On ne peut pas faire une omelette sans casser les oeufs!' You mustn't expect that a girl is going to drop into your mouth, like a ripe cherry, the moment you gape for her! Young ladies are not so easily won as that, Master Frank, let me tell you! Put your shoulder to the wheel, my boy! You will have to work and wait. Remember how long it was that Jacob remained in suspense about his first love, Rachel—seven, long years; and, then, he had to serve seven more for her after that!"
"Ah, Miss Pimpernell!"—said I,—"but, seven years were not so much to the long-lived men who existed in those times, as seven months are to us ephemerals of the nineteenth century! Jacob could very well afford to wait that time; for he was not over what we call 'middle-age' when he married; and was, most likely, in the flower of his youth on his ninetieth birthday!—He did not die you know, until he had reached the ripe age of 'an hundred and forty and seven years.'—Besides, he had Laban's promise to keep him up to his work; but, I have no promise, and no hope to lead me on, if I do wait—and what would I be at the end of seven years? Why, I would be thirty—quite old."
"Nonsense, Frank!"—replied the dear old lady, in her brisk cheery way, jumping round in her chair, and looking me full in the face with her twinkling black eyes.—"When you are as old as I am, you will not think thirty such a very great age, you may be sure! And, I didn't say, too, that you should have to wait seven years, or anything like it—although, if you really love Miss Min, you would think nothing of twice that time of probation. As for Jacob's age, the vicar could explain about that better than I, Master Frank, sharp though you are; you had best ask him what he thinks on the subject? What I say, is, my boy, that you must make up your mind to work, and wait for your sweetheart; work, at any rate—and wait, if needs be. 'Rome wasn't built in a day;' and, when did you ever hear of the course of true love running smooth? Be a man, Frank! Say to yourself, 'I'll work and win her,' and you will. Put your heart in it, and it will soon be done—sooner than you now think. There's no good in your sitting down and whining at your present defeat, like the naughty child that cried for the moon! You must be up and doing. A man's business is to overcome obstacles; it is only us, women, who are allowed to cry at home!"
"But, Mrs Clyde dislikes me," I said.
"What of that?" retorted Miss Pimpernell; "her dislike may be overcome."
"I don't think it ever will be," I said, despondingly.
"Pooh, Frank," replied the old lady;—"'never is a long day.' She's only a woman, and will change her mind fast enough when it suits her purpose to do so! You say, that she only objected on the score of your position, and from your not having a sufficient income?"
"Yes,"—I said,—"that was her ostensible reason; but, I think, she objects to me personally—in addition to having other and grander designs for Min."
"Ah, well,"—said Miss Pimpernell,—"we haven't got to consider those other motives now; she rejected your offer, at all events, on the plea of your want of fortune?"
"Yes," said I, mechanically, again.
"Then, that is all we've got to deal with, my boy,"—she said.—"Mrs Clyde is quite right, too, you know, Frank. You have got no profession, or any regular occupation. Let us see if we cannot mend matters. In the first place, are you willing to work? Would you like some certain employment on which you can depend?"—And she looked at me kindly but searchingly over her spectacles.
"Would a duck swim?" said I, using an expressive Hibernicism.
"Well, what sort of employment would you like?" she asked.
"Anything," I replied.
"Come, that's good!" she said.—"And what can you do?"
"Everything," I said.
She laughed good-humouredly.—"You've a pretty good opinion of yourself at any rate, Master Frank, if that's any recommendation:—you will never fail through want of impudence. But, I'll speak to the vicar about this. I think he could get you a nomination for a Government office."
"What, a clerkship?"—I said, ruefully, having hitherto affected to despise all the race of her Majesty's quill drivers, from Horner downwards.
"Yes, sir,"—she said,—"'a clerkship;' and a very good thing, too! You need not turn up your nose at it, Master Frank; I can see you, although I do wear glasses! Grander men than you think yourself, sir, have not despised such an opening! Here is the vicar,"—she added, as her brother walked into the room.—"How lucky! we can ask him now."
The vicar overheard her remark.
"Hullo, Frank!" said he; "what is it, that Sally and you are conspiring together? Can I do anything for you, my boy?"—he continued, in his nice kind way,—"if so, only ask me; and if it is in my power, you know that I will do it."
"He wishes to get into a Government office; don't you think you could help him?" said Miss Pimpernell.
"You want to be in harness, my boy, eh?"—said the vicar, turning to me.—"That's right, Frank. Literature will come on, in due course, all in good time. There's nothing like having regular work to do, however trifling. It not only gives you a daily object in life, but also steadies your mind, causing you better to appreciate higher intellectual employment! I thought, however, my boy, that you looked down on 'Her Majesty's hard bargains,' as poor Government clerks are somewhat unjustly termed?"
"That was, because I thought they were a pack of idlers, doing nothing, and earning a menial salary for it. 'Playing from ten to to four, like the fountains in Trafalgar Square,' as Punch declares," I said.
"Ah!" said the vicar, "that is a mistake, as you will soon find out when you belong to their body. They do work, and well, too. Many of the grand things on which departmental ministers pride themselves—and get the credit, too, of effecting by their own unaided efforts—are really achieved by the plodding office hacks, who work on unrecognised in our midst! Our whole public service is a blunder, my boy. There is no effective rise given in it to talent or merit, as is the case in other official circles. The 'big men,' who are appointed for political purposes, get on, it is true; but, the 'little men,' who labour from year's end to year's end, like horses in a mill, never have a chance of distinguishing themselves. When they are of a certain age, and attain a particular height in their office, they become superannuated, and retire; for, should a vacancy occur, of a higher standing in the public secretariat, it is not given to them—although the training of their whole life may peculiarly fit them for the post! No, it is bestowed on some young political adherent of the party then in power, who may be as unacquainted with the duties connected with the position, as I am ignorant of double fluxions! This naturally disgusts men with the service; and, that is why you generally hear Government offices spoken of as playgrounds for idle youths, who enter them to saunter through life—on the strength of the constituent-influence of their fathers on the seats of budding MP's."
"I really thought they never worked," said I. "There's Horner, for instance. You don't suppose, sir, that he confers such inestimable benefit on his country by his daily avocations in Downing Street?"
"Ah, poor Jack Horner!" laughed the vicar; "he's really not very bright. But, we need not be so uncharitable as to think that he does not do his money's worth for his money! He writes a beautiful hand, you know; and, I dare say, his mere services as a copying machine are of some value. Government clerks do not all play every day, Frank:—you will, I'm sure, find plenty to do, if you go into office life. I remember, in the time of the Crimean war, that a friend of mine, employed in the Admiralty at Whitehall, used to have to stop up every alternate night at his office, the whole night through; and this was the case, too, at all the other public departments! The clerks in each room were obliged to take it in turn for night duty; while, those who were free to go home—and they did not leave work until long after the traditional 'four o'clock' on most days—had to specify where they could be found every evening, in case they should be suddenly wanted on the arrival of despatches from the seat of war. Of course this state of affairs is not ordinary; still, Government clerks are not idlers as a body:—on the contrary, you will find them thorough working-men."
"Working-men!" ejaculated little Miss Pimpernell, raising her beady black eyes in astonishment to her brother, "why, I thought all working- men, properly so-called, were mechanics!"
"That is the radical politician's view, my dear," answered the vicar. "Let a man be apprenticed to a skilled trade, and carry a bricklayer's hod, or a carpenter's rule. Let him only wear slops and work in an engine-room, or use a mason's trowel—so long as he does these things and receives his wages weekly, he is a 'working-man;' and, must have the hours of labour made to suit him, the legislation of the country altered on his behalf, the taxation of the public judiciously contrived to steer clear of him. He is the typical 'working-man,' my dear, of whom demagogues are always prating:—the fetish, before which so-called 'liberal' statesmen fall down and worship!
"But, your poor agricultural labourer, who lives in poverty, and dirt, and misery—starving annually on a tenth portion of the wages that the skilled mechanic gets—he is no working-man; oh no! Nor the wretched London clerk; he, also, is no working-man; nor the Government hack; nor the striving, hard-worked doctor; besides, many professional men and struggling tradesmen, who, for the larger portion of their lives, inch and pinch to scrape out existence!
"None of these are working-men; although they work harder—and for many more hours per diem than the mechanic—on, in most instances, a less income than the happy protege of the radical law-maker gets by the addition of his weekly wages at the year's end.
"And yet, the clerks, and the struggling tradesmen, and professional men, have to pay poor-rates and house-rates, and all sorts of petty taxes, from which the fetish 'working-man' is free; besides the income- tax, which never approaches him. The latter, often getting from three to five pounds in wages, can dress as he pleases, live in a single room for five shillings a week, pay no rates or taxes; and may, finally, disport himself as he likes—leaving off work whenever the fancy strikes him and resuming it again at his pleasure—without consulting the convenience or the wishes of his employer, who is, through trades' unions and special class legislation, entirely at his mercy!
"Clerks, shopkeepers, and struggling professional men, cannot do this, however. They have to conform to certain rules of society; and keep up an appearance of respectability on, frequently, half the sum that the mechanic gets in wages, as I've said already—while groaning under a burden of taxation from which the great 'liberal' fetish is completely free. He is a 'working-man,' my dear:—they, are nothing of the sort.—Oh, no!"
"Do they really obtain such good wages?" I inquired;—"if so, what on earth do they do with the money?"
"Yes,"—said the vicar, in full swing of his favourite political argument,—"if anything, I have rather understated the case than exaggerated it. The manager of one of the telegraph-cable manufactories down the river, told me the other day, that, many of the hands drew four and five pounds regularly each Saturday. And these men, he further informed me, spent the greater part of this in drink and pleasuring on their off-days. They will have good food and the best, too—such as I cannot afford, in these days of high butchers' bills; notwithstanding that they make such a poor show for their money, and save none of it, either! I do not complain of this, politically speaking, for, 'an Englishman's house is his castle,' you know, and he has the right to live as he pleases; but, I do say, that when poor curates and clerks are so taxed, these men ought to bear their share of the taxation, possessing, as they do, incomes quite as large and in many cases greater."
"But, they are taxed indirectly, though, are they not?"—I asked.
"Certainly; but, so also are all of us, the larger number of real working-men of the country—quite in addition to the heavy burden we have to bear of local and direct taxation! The pseudo 'working-man' should fairly contribute his quota to all this—particularly, since his bottle-holders have been so clamourous for giving him a share in the government of the state. If he wants 'a share in the government,' why, he should help to support it:—that's what I say!"
And the vicar then went off into a tirade against class legislators and radical politics, not forgetting to animadvert, too, on the "Manchester School"—his great bete noir.
"I wonder what Mr Mawley would say, to hear you run down his favourite party so!"—I said, when he gave me another opening to put in a word.—"He's such a rabid Liberal."
"Mawley is thorough," said the vicar; "I do not agree with his views, certainly; but he really believes in them and acts up to his theories, which is more than can be said for a good many of our 'Liberal' statesmen! What can one think of them when one hears them talking of 'economy,' and cutting down the poor clerk's salary, without dreaming of touching their own little snug incomes of five thousand a-year!"
"But what has all this got to do with Frank's appointment, brother?" asked Miss Pimpernell, with a sly chuckle of satisfaction. She always said she disliked arguments; but, she was never better pleased than to hear the vicar expressing his sentiments on topics of the day. He was so earnest and delighted when he got a good listener—although, he was rather shy of speaking before strangers.
"Dear me!"—exclaimed the vicar, rubbing his forehead vigorously.—"I declare, I thought I was talking to Parole d'Honneur! You must forgive me, Frank."
"Do you think you could manage to get him an appointment, my dear?"— repeated my little old friend, bringing the vicar back to our main question, now that she had unhorsed him from his Radical charger.
"Yes, certainly,"—replied the vicar, cordially,—"I do not see why I should not. I'll speak to the bishop to-morrow, if I can catch him in. He's got some good influence with the ministry; and, with mine in conjunction, the two of us together ought to manage it, eh, Sally?"
"And how soon do you think, sir,"—I asked,—"would you be likely to procure it for me? I've been a long time idle; and, I am, now, anxious, you know, to make up for lost time."
Miss Pimpernell's words had thoroughly spurred me up. I wanted to set to work for Min at once.
"How soon, eh, my boy?"—said he, kindly.—"You must have some special object to be so anxious for employment! But, you need not be shy, Frank; I can guess it, I think, without your telling me; and, I'm glad of it. How soon, eh? Let me consider. If I see the bishop to-morrow, as I very likely shall, we might arrange to get you a nomination in a fortnight, I think; but, I'm certain, I can promise obtaining it within a month at the outside. Will that do, Frank?"
"Oh, thank you, sir!"—I exclaimed, in grateful gladness,—"that is ever so much sooner than I expected! I thought it might take months to get me an appointment! I shall be ready for it, however, when it comes, all the same, dear sir."
"You had better get crammed in the meantime, however, my boy," said the vicar, reflectively.
"'Get crammed,' brother!"—said Miss Pimpernell, aghast at the term, of which she clearly did not understand the slang sense. "Get crammed! Why, what do you mean? Frank is thin, certainly, and he might be a little stouter to advantage; but, has he got to be of a particular weight, the same as the height of recruits is measured for the army?"
The vicar laughed, and held his sides in hearty merriment.—"Sally, Sally!"—he exclaimed after a while.—"You will be the death of me some day! I did not allude to physical cramming, such as the Strasbourg geese undergo; but, mental stuffing. A 'crammer' is a 'coach,' you know."
"I'm sure I don't,"—said little Miss Pimpernell, energetically;—"for, what with your crammers and coaches, I really do not know what you are speaking about!"
"Well, my dear, I'll now enlighten you,"—said the vicar, still laughing at the old lady's very natural mistake.—"Crammers and coaches, are certain high-pressure machines, in the form of man, for forcing any amount of superficial knowledge into uneducated youths within a fixed time. It is an unnatural process, resulting pretty much in the same way as does the artificial mode of fattening geese:—the latter have diseased livers; while, the subjects of high-pressure cram are usually afterwards subject to unmitigated ignorance—of the worst kind, because it pretends to learning—in addition to an insufferable pedantry, which can never convince judges acquainted with the genuine article! Ah, my dear, as Pope wisely wrote, 'a little learning is a dangerous thing!'"
"Then you mean tutors,"—said Miss Pimpernell.—"Why could you not call them by their proper name?"
"I could, my dear,"—said the vicar, good-humouredly,—"but, the term I used, is an old relic of college jargon; you see how hard it is to cure oneself of bad habits!"
"And you think Frank will want to be 'crammed,' then?"—asked Miss Pimpernell, making use of the very word she had just abused, because she thought her brother might feel hurt at her implied reproach. The dear old lady would have talked slang all day if she had believed it would have given the vicar any satisfaction!
"Yes, my dear,"—he replied.—"You see, he might have to compete for his appointment with a dozen others; and, as the examination for the civil service is now pretty stiff in its way, it would not do for him to fail. Frank has received a good sound public school education; but, they ask so many purely-routine questions of candidates, that he had better have a tutor who makes these subjects his speciality, to put him up in the little details of the machinery."
"I never thought of that,"—said I.—"It is so long since I left school, that I fear I may be plucked!"
"Oh, you'll be quite ready for the examination in a week, my boy,"—said the vicar, to encourage me.—"The examiners only require superficial knowledge; not, honest groundwork—although, they pretend to test the effects of a 'good liberal education!' One of these public crammers would make you fit to pass in any certified time, if you could barely read and write. He would hardly require even that preliminary basis to work upon, for that matter. But, I ought not to blame them; for, I am a coach myself, or, rather, was one, once, when I had the time to read with pupils for the university. These competitive examinations are a mistake, I think,"—he continued,—"for the men who pass them the most brilliantly seldom make the best clerks, which one would imagine to be the result mainly desired. I would prefer, myself, the present middle- class examinations at Oxford—which they lately instituted, for discovering talent and merit—to all these hot-house tests; although, of course, I may be biassed against them, through the recollection of my old don days, when I was at college.
"Not but what the idea of throwing open all appointments in the public service is better than the former custom of close patronage. The system is only abused, that's all, in consequence of the Competition-Wallah business being carried to excess. Your poor man, whom the change was especially supposed to benefit, has no chance now, unless he has the money to pay for the services of a crammer—be his attainments never so great. The examinations have really degenerated into a technical groove, into which aspirants have to be regularly initiated by a 'coach,' or they will never succeed in getting out of it, to receive their certificates of proficiency.
"I will write you down the name of a good man to apply to, Frank,"—he added.—"He'll pass you, I warrant, or I will eat my hat! And now I must be off, my boy. I have a lot of visiting to do to-night ere I can hope to go to bed. I'll not forget to speak to the bishop, as I have promised; and, I think, you may rely upon getting a nomination for a good office within the time I have named. Have you anything to do out, Sally—any letters to post?"—he then said, turning to his sister, and putting on the hat he had just volunteered to eat.—"No? Then I'm off. Good-night, Frank! Mind you go to that tutor to-morrow,"—he said, handing me the address he had hastily scribbled down; and, he went out on some errand of mercy, leaving Miss Pimpernell and myself to resume our tete-a-tete conversation, which he had so satisfactorily interrupted.
"Well, Frank!"—said she, as his coat tails disappeared out of the doorway,—"will not that do for you?"
"I should just think it would!"—I replied, buoyantly;—"and I do not know how to thank you and the vicar for all your kindness. I can't tell what I should have done without your help!"
"Oh, never mind that, my boy,"—she answered kindly;—"we are both only too glad to assist any one, especially you, Frank, whom the vicar calls his 'old maid's son!' All you have to do now, is, to be hopeful and persevere! Only let me see you and Miss Min happily married in the end—for I, you know, like to see young lovers happy:—I have such a large amount of romance in me!" Indeed she had, I thought, when she laughed cheerily at the idea.
"I'll work, never fear,"—I said—"but, promotion is very slow in Government offices. It may be years before I have a decent income such as would satisfy Mrs Clyde!"
"Don't think of that, my boy,"—she said, presently.—"Don't look too far ahead! Let me see what my Keble says," she added, taking down the volume of the Christian Year, which she constantly consulted each day, from its regular place on her corner of the mantelpiece, where it always stood guard over her favourite chair.—"Ah,"—she continued, turning over the pages,—"I knew that I would find something to suit you. Just hear what he says of the 'lilies of the field'—
"'Alas! of thousand bosoms kind That daily court you and caress, How few the happy secret find Of your calm loveliness! Live for to-day! to-morrow's light To-morrow's cares shall bring to sight, Go, sleep like closing flowers at night, And Heaven thy morn shall bless.'"
"Ah! But do you think I shall be successful?"—I asked, wishing to have my own hopes corroborated.
"To be sure you will, my boy. Why, there you will have another hundred a-year at once added to your income, besides what you make from your literary work! In a short time you will be quite 'an eligible person,' I do declare!"—she said, laughing away my fit of the blues, in her bright brisk way.
"And do you think Min will wait for me?"
"Certainly, Frank. You wrong her by the very question. She's not the girl to change, or, I'm very much mistaken in her honest, noble face. She will be constant and true, after what she has said to you, until death!"
"Oh, thank you for that assurance,"—I said.
I went home completely contented and happy.
You may wonder, perhaps, at this buoyancy of temperament, that enabled me to get over so quickly the disappointment and dejection I was suffering from at Mrs Clyde's brusque rejection of my suit?
But, you must recollect that I was naturally sanguine, as I have previously told you; and, the memory of my unhappy defeat, although not quite forgotten, became merged into the hopeful anticipations I now had—of working for my darling, and being enabled to renew my offer, in a short time, with better chances of success.
Hang care! It killed a cat once, you know. Was it not Lord Palmerston, by the way, who once made that capital classic hit at the versatile chief of the Adullamites in Parliament during a debate on the budget, when he said—"Atra cura post equitem sedet?"
Care should not sit behind me, however; or, in front of me, either!
I wasn't going to be a martyr to it, I promise you.
I would soon see Min again; and, in the meantime, I could wait for her and love her, in spite of all the stern mammas in creation, and notwithstanding that my tongue might be tied for awhile.
As long as I knew that she loved me in return, whom or what had I to fear?
I was, at all events, emperor of my own thoughts;—and, she was mine, there!
"UP FOR EXAM."
Say, should the philosophic mind disdain That good which makes each humbler bosom vain? Let school-taught pride dissemble all it can, These little things are great to little man!
In pursuance of the vicar's advice, I hied me without delay to the tutor whom he had specially recommended; and, setting to work diligently, crammed, as hard as I could, for my expected examination.
"Cramming," nothing more nor less, was, undoubtedly, the system pursued by this modern instructor of maturity—I cannot say 'of youth,' as the majority of his pupils were men who had long cut their wisdom teeth, and worn the virile toga almost threadbare:—stalwart men, "bearded like the pard," in the fashion of Hamlet's warrior, which has now become so general that heroes and civilians are indistinguishable the one from the other.
The crammer dosed these with facts and figures at a five-hundred-horse- power rate, interlarding them with such stray skeleton scraps of popular information as mendicant scholars may pick up from the sumptuously- spread tables of the learned, through those crumb-like compilations of chronology and history, with which we are familiar, styled "treasures of knowledge:"—thus, he injected into the brain of his neophytes dates by the dozen and proper names—geographical ones in particular—by the score, impressing them on stubborn memories through the aid of some easily-learnt rhyme, or comic association, that made even the dullest comprehension retentive for awhile.
His entire curriculum consisted, mainly, in the getting by heart, with their answers, of sundry old civil service examination papers which he kept in stock—continually increasing his store as fresh ones were issued by the examining board, until he was at length master of every question which had ever puzzled a candidate from the era of the first competition down to the present day.
His motive in this was very obvious. The crammer argued, not only wisely, but well, that a certain proportion of these questions were pretty safe to be again propounded in subsequent contests, just as one sees antique Joe Millers appear again and again, at regular recurring intervals, in the excruciating "Facetiae" columns of those penny serials, of limited merit and "unlimited circulation," that delight the eyes and ears of below-stairs readers, the staple of whose mental pabulum they principally form.
The crammer was right in his premises, as I've said, the old queries being so frequently put and re-put, that they amount on average to fifty per cent, at least, of the total number that may be set to-morrow, to addle the brains of the Smiths, Browns, and Robinsons who may be ambitious of serving their country in a red-tape capacity.
It has often struck me that the general principles of our national system of education are open to considerable improvement.
We go to work on a wrong foundation.
Any plan of instruction, meant to be permanent in its effects, should be homogeneous: we, on the contrary, so break up and divide the different branches of ordinary knowledge, that they resemble more a number of disconnected particles, loosely strung together without order or uniformity, than the kindred units of a harmonious whole—as should properly be the case.
We mark out and specify, geography, history, science, and Belles Lettres, as distinct subjects for study—whereas, in reality, they dovetail into one another in the closest bonds of relationship; and, were they only thus judiciously intermingled, in one, thorough, cosmical course of learning, they would, most likely, be better understood in their separate parts, and, undoubtedly, be better remembered.
For instance, in grounding the young idea in the geography of any particular country, the main points of its history should follow as a natural sequence. Its seas and rivers would lead to the consideration of commerce and the polity of nations:—the mention of its towns, suggest the names of its great men in literature and art. Its scenery would call to mind the poets who might have made it famous, the artists who may have portrayed its beauties with their pencil; while, to pursue the theme, its valleys and mountains would remind the student of the value of agriculture and mineral wealth—besides attracting his notice to atmospherical and other scientific phenomena, that can be far more readily comprehended by young learners, when thus seen, as it were, in action, than if taught merely in separate dry treatises that seem to have little in common with the busy, bustling, moving world, whose laws they affect to expound.
My plan, indeed, would be a further development of the Kindergarten scheme, and the Pestalozzian system, generally.
As soon as children had passed through the rudimentary stages of instruction, being able to spell and read correctly, their advanced studies should be entirely shorn of their present routine characteristics. They might be made so full of life, and even amusement, that they would thenceforth lose their lesson look; and be, correspondingly, all the more easily-learnt. In fact, they would appear more as a series of interesting pastimes than school tasks.
Instead of making boys and girls con so many pages, say, of the geography of China, at the same time that they are wading through the history of the Norman Conquest, for instance; those two subjects should be made to bear the one upon the other.
The deeds of Duke Robert would lead to a consideration of the places mentioned in connection with them, their geographical position, geology, local traditions, celebrities, and other archaeological associations; while, their after-bearing on the history of our country should not be omitted.
The doings of the Black Prince might, also be exampled as inducing the study of the geography of northern France. Cressy, and Poitiers, and Agincourt, might, naturally, suggest the first use of gunpowder, its composition, and invention; and, then, the improvements in modern weapons of war would follow as a natural consequence, which would end in their being compared with the old flint implements, that are so frequently found to the delight of antiquaries' hearts.
In this way, the literature of any particular period might be combined with its history and geography:—science, and other technical matters, being incidentally introduced; and, the pupil's imagination, in addition, kept in play, by allowing him or her to peruse such good historical novels and light essays as would bear upon the life and times of the people of whom they were reading.
Celebrated battles of the world, memorable deeds, and famous men, would then no longer be classed in separate order, as so many bald facts, and dates, and names, to be learnt and remembered in chronological sequence; but, the young student would take such deep interest in them from the various pieces of desultory and comprehensive information he may have picked up in reference, that he could tell you "all about them" in succinct narrative—in lieu of merely being only able to mention their bare statistical connections.
You may urge, perhaps, that this system would take a long time to work; and that a large portion of the knowledge thus learnt would be quickly forgotten?
But, to the first objection I would reply, that, I do not see why it should take any longer than the ordinary practice of educating children, now in vogue; as, instead of considering the various subjects separately, they would only be taught the same things contemporaneously, as parts of a whole; and, I certainly would be inclined to "back" one of my scholars, if I instructed any on the principle, to know more of the general history and polity of the world and of the different countries respectively that compose it—besides possessing a fair acquaintance with modern literature and science—than one taught in the old fashion for thrice the time.
With regard to your second demurrer, I would say, that, granting that a good deal of this stray information might pass in at one ear and out of the other; still, much would remain—sufficient and more than sufficient to render the scholar better educated, as a rule, than many men who yearly obtain high honours at the university for special attainments in "the humanities."
Under my system, they would be educated to more practical purpose for future usefulness; for, the knowledge of college men is generally limited to certain class books, while, generously-schooled youths, on this plan, would have extracted the honey from almost every volume they could pick up, ranging from Pinnock's Catechism of Common Things at one extreme, to Ruskin's Ethics of the Dust at the other—and, I think, that allows a very fair margin for criticism!
But, you may now ask, what on earth have I, Frank Lorton, got to do with all this; especially at the present moment, when I have not yet passed my examination before Her Majesty's Polite Letter Writer Commissioners?
What, indeed! All I can say for my unpardonable digression is, that I was, I suppose, born a reformer at heart, having an itching desire to be continually setting matters straight around me of all kinds and bearings. The mention of those confounded "crammers," led me on to talk about examinations in general; and, while on the topic, I could not stop until I had thoroughly relieved my mind from an incubus of educational zeal that has long lain there dormant.
Now, I will proceed again, with your permission and pardon—which latter, I'm confident, is already granted.
Thanks to an excellent memory, and a firm resolve to succeed "by hook or by crook," I made the most of all my crammer taught me; although, like most of his pupils, I found it at first rather irksome. However, my work had to be done, and I did it. I consoled myself with the reflection that it was all for Min eventually; and, obeying the behests of my tutor, I quickly learnt all the endless series of names and dates that he entrusted to my memory—to the very letter and spirit thereof.
In a fortnight, he told me that he considered me "safe" to pass "the board"—an assurance which I was by no means sorry to hear; as, independently of my discovering that "cramming" is not the most interesting mode of beguiling one's time, I received at the end of the same period, through the kind exertions of the vicar on my behalf, a nomination to the Obstructor General's Office.
The official letter conveying the gratifying intelligence of my nomination, directed me, also, to present myself on the following Tuesday morning, at "ten of the clock" precisely, before the examining board of commissioners—taking care to furnish myself with a duly authenticated certificate of baptism and one testifying my moral character; neither of which had I any difficulty in procuring.
Thus provided, and crammed, "up to the nines," by my temporary pedagogue, I put in my due appearance, as required, to have my attainments tested:—in order that I might be reported upon as fit, or not, to undertake the very onerous duties of the office to which I had been probationally appointed.
I was quite hopeful as to the result, for my "crammer" again impressed me at the last moment with his entire conviction that I would pass with eclat; while, my good friend the vicar, who had given me the most flaming of testimonials, cheered me up with his cordial wishes for my success, as did also dear little Miss Pimpernell, in her customary impulsive way.
"Down along in Westminster, not far from the side of the wa—ter," as is sung in the eloquent strains of a certain "Pretty Little Ratcatcher's Daughter," who was known and admired "all around that quar—ter," stands the not-by-any-means-gloomy-looking mansion of Her Majesty's Polite Letter Writer Commissioners—over whose fell door so many trembling candidates for situations under Government might, very reasonably, trace the mystic characters of the inscription surmounting Dante's Inferno—"Lasciate ogni speranza doi ch' entrate!"
Arrived here, and mounting a series of stairs until I had reached the topmost floor, to which I was directed by the janitor, I found myself at last in a long, low, gothic-lighted room—whose windows had commanding views of the grand hotel over the way, the roof of the Abbey alongside, and the police station in the centre of the problematical "green" in front.
Here, the competitors could reflect—while awaiting their papers, or when chewing the cud of contentment or despair at the contemplation of the same—on what might be the vicissitudes of their lot in the event of their failure or success.
At a given signal, fifty-nine other persons and myself, all doomed to compete for six vacancies in the much-desired office of the Obstructor General, were ushered, like schoolboys, into another and inner room, opening out of the former and garnished with rows of green-baize-covered tables, running from end to end.
This room seemed to bring back to me a host of old recollections; and, each moment, I was expecting to see the ghost of "Old Jack," my head instructor at Queen's College School in days of yore, and hear him exclaiming in his well-remembered stentorian tones—"Boy Lorton—you are detained for inattention! Stop in and write five hundred lines!"—and, then, to see him come swooping down the room upon me, with wrath and majesty seated on his bald brow and his gown flowing behind him.
He generally took such enormous strides, when moved with a sudden desire to punish some lost soul, whom he might suspect of the heinous crimes of idleness or "cribbing"—both unforgivable offences in his calendar—that the aforesaid gown, I recollect, seemed frequently to float over his head—forming in conjunction with his square college cap, alias "mortar board," a regular "nimbus," like that surrounding the heads of the saints in old pictures.
The Polite Letter Writer Commissioners—or rather, their executive— were, I must confess, much quieter in their demeanour, moving about as stealthily as if they were engaged in any number of Gunpowder, or Rye House Plots, or other conspiracies.
Perhaps, you say, they were much too orderly in their proceedings for me?
Well, I don't think so, exactly; still, I do not believe much in the justice and impartiality of the Vehmgerichte, Parliamentary committees, the Berlin police, the prefects of the past empire, Monsieur Thiers's communistic courts-martial, or of the New York Erie Ring—nor, indeed of any representative, or, other body, which hides its deeds and decisions under a cloak of secrecy!
Be that as it may, the method of the examiners did not tend to reassure us, speaking collectively of the sixty of us who now awaited judgment— fifty-four of whom were pre-ordained to failure, and knew it, which certainly militated against any chance of their looking upon the preparations for their torture with a lenient eye.
At regular intervals along the green-baize tables were deposited small parcels of stationery, consisting of a large sheet of sanguinary blotting-paper, a quire or so of foolscap, a piece of indiarubber, an attenuated lead-pencil, a dozen of quill pens, with others of Gillott's or Mitchell's manufacture, and an ink bottle—the whole putting one in mind of those penny packets of writing requisites that itinerant pedlars, mostly seedy-looking individuals who "have seen better days," pester one's private house with in London; and which they are so anxious to dispose of, that they exhibit the greatest trust in your integrity, leaving their wares unsolicited behind them, and intimating that they will "call again for an answer."
The present parcels were also "left for answers"—answers on which depended our future prospects and position!
Seated in state, on a sort of dais in the centre of the room, was a courteous and urbane personage of affable exterior. He was further hedged in with a species of outwork of the sentry-box formation, which concealed his lower limbs from view:—a precaution evidently designed to protect him from the fierce onslaught of some demented candidate—who, when suffering from the continuous effect of "examination on the brain," might have been suddenly goaded to frenzy by a string of unsolvable questions.
This gentleman entreated us, as a first step, to "stand by" the forms— like a crew of sailors about to make sail; and then, in the words of the Unjust Steward, to "sit down and write quickly," each in front of one of the little piles of stationery.
We obeyed this injunction as well as we were able, although many of us, unaccustomed to rapid penmanship, found the latter part of the order rather difficult of accomplishment. It was all very well to say, "Sit down and write quickly!" but, what, if we had nothing to say, and didn't know how to say it?
Under the tutelage of the superintending chief, lesser satellites ministering occasionally to our wants in the matter of pens and paper, and distributing fresh series of questions to us every hour or so, we were for three days put through the paces of what the examiners held to be "the requirements of a sound liberal English education"—I, certainly, should, however, have thought but "small potatoes," as the Americans say, of the general attainments of the lot of us in this respect, if all we possessed were tested on the occasion, or even a tithe of our knowledge!
If one could have set aside one's own interest in the contest, the scene in that long low room of the Polite Letter Writer Commissioners was amusing enough.
You should only have watched the anxious glances we bent around on each other, after first scanning over the printed lists supplied to puzzle us! How we cordially sympathised with the hopeless vacant stare of ignorance, proceeding from some tall, bearded individual, well on in his twenties—who looked far more fit to shoulder a musket and go to the wars, like our French friend, "Malbrook," than to be thus condemned again to school-boy duties! How we glared, also, at any brilliant competitor, whose down-bent head seemed too intent on mastering the subject set before him; and, whose ready pen appeared to be travelling over paper at far too expeditious a rate for our chances of winning the clerkly race! With what horror and despair, we confronted a "poser" that was placed to catch us napping:—how we jumped at anything easy!
Taking note of the examiner's watchfulness; the hushed silence that reigned around, only broken by the scribbling sound of busy workers and the listless shuffling of the feet of others, who, having, as they sanguinely thought, completely mastered their tasks, had nothing further to occupy their time until "the gaudy pageant" should be "o'er"—the whole thing, really, was school all over again!
I believed, every moment, that I was back again once more in the well- remembered "B" schoolroom at Queen's—where and when Old Jack, promenading all in his glory, caused me often to "tremble for fear of his frown," like that "Sweet Alice," whom Ben Bolt loved and basely deserted.
To still further carry out the romantic resemblance, we were allowed an hour at noon for rest and refreshment each day that the examination lasted.
Many, undoubtedly, devoted this interval steadily to recruiting the wants of the inner man; but, one could well fancy them bursting off madly into some boyish game, with all the ardour that their previous application may have generated—the shouts of the Westminster scholars in the adjacent yard bearing out the illusion.
I spent my play-hour in wandering through the classic shades of the Abbey next door, looking over the memorial tablets of "sculptured brass and monumental marble," erected to the honour of departed worthies:—I wished, you know, to keep my mind in a properly reflective state for the afternoon hours of examination—history and other abstruse studies being usually then set.
A few mad, hair-brained youths, however, I was sorry to observe, beguiled the interregnum with billiards and beer; but, these, I'm delighted to add, got handsomely plucked for their pains—as they richly deserved. You and I, you know, never drink beer or play billiards. Oh, dear no! Never, on my word!
As all things must come to an end at some time or other, the examination proved no exception to the rule, duly dragging its weary length along until it came to a dead stop.
A week afterwards I learnt my fate. I had not passed with the "eclat" my tutor prophesied; but, I contrived to get numbered amongst those fortunate six who secured their appointments out of the entire sixty that competed.
I only got through "by the skin of my teeth," the crammer said; still, that was quite sufficient for me. I had, therefore, you see, no cause of quarrel with the examining board. They had, it is true, made me out to have only barely come up to the required standard in French—a language with which I had been familiar from childhood; but, they compensated for this, by according me full marks in book-keeping—which I had been totally ignorant of a week before the examination; and, I only answered the questions asked me therein through dint of the wholesale theoretical cramming of my tutor!
So much for the value of the ordeal.
I maintain that, in many instances, these competitive examinations are quite uncalled-for, and a great mistake.
In the one I was engaged in, for example, two-thirds of the candidates were men who had already been employed in the public service as "writers"—some for years. Now, if these were held competent to fulfil the duties of office life, as they must have been, or they would not be thus employed, surely, it was unnecessary, as well as unfair and absurd, to subject them to test the school-boy acquirements, that many had forgotten, which offered no real proof of their aptitude to be public accountants.
And, secondly, I firmly believe that competition neither produces the best clerks—out of those who thus initiate their official life, and who might not have been engaged beforehand, as writers or otherwise; nor does the system, as I've already said, afford any guarantee for a sound education on the part of those examined.
The Polite Letter Writer Commissioners, I have no doubt, do their duty as well as they can, in that position and state of life to which an enthusiastic reformer, backed up by an Act of Parliament, has called them; but, at the present time, ignorance has every facility afforded it for riding rampant over their "crucial" tests, while "crammers" drive, with the greatest glee, coaches and sixes by the score through their most zealous enactments.
If the competitive theory is to be the basis of our civil service organisation, it should be extended to all classes and grades in official life; and not be limited merely to the junior clerk at the bottom of the red-tape ladder.
Let every one, up to the under-secretaries of state and members of the cabinet even, be examined and tested and docketed in due order of merit—in the same way as the Chinese conduct their mandarin school—and distribute variously coloured buttons to graduates of different degrees, letting "the best man win," in accordance with the old motto of the now extinct "Prize Ring."
Perhaps, if ministers were subjected to some such ordeal—and there might be a good deal in it if it were only properly conducted—they would find themselves fit to grapple with more vital matters than political pyrotechnics, which are only fired off to suit popular clamour; and, were they better acquainted with history, especially that of their own country—as they would be, if forced to "cram" like the commissioners' candidates—they would hesitate before sacrificing the old renown of England, and the interests which she has consolidated with her blood and treasure for generations, to suit a bastard diplomacy invented by the "peace-at-any-price" party of patriotism-less patriots!
The vicar, naturally, was delighted with my success; and, as for little Miss Pimpernell, she was quite jubilant.
"Dear me, Frank!" she said, when I took the letter announcing my appointment to show her the same evening I received it. "I am so glad—I can't tell you how glad—my dear boy! Why, we will have you and Miss Min soon setting up house-keeping! Did I not tell you that things would be certain to come right, if you only waited, and worked, and hoped? Never you go against Keble again, my boy."
I promised her I would not. I should have liked also to have spoken to Mrs Clyde immediately, as Min was still away, and I could hear nothing of her; but, she had left town, too, and so I was unable to carry out my wish—which, indeed, Miss Pimpernell had strongly advised against my doing. The latter counselled me to wait awhile before I renewed my offer; and, it was just as well, perhaps, that Mrs Clyde was away. I might, you know, have put an end to all my hopes in a jiffey, if circumstances had not prevented my hurrying matters again to a crisis!
It was very sad for me not to be able to see Min, and hear her congratulations; but still, that could not be at present; and, in the meantime, other folk took interest in me.
It is wonderful, how people living in a small suburb, or remote country village, are obliged to submit to having their actions canvassed, and the incidents of their private life made public property of, by other persons with whom they may have nothing whatever in common!
For instance, what earthly concern was it of Mr Mawley's, whether I chose to accept a Government appointment, or not? Why should he have the impertinent officiousness to lecture me when he heard of my joining the Obstructor General's Office; and, I, be forced to submit to his remarks thereon?
He doubted, forsooth, whether I was really suited to the work! He "hoped" I would "get steadier," he was pleased to say; and, he was also kind enough to express the desire for me to learn that "deference towards my superiors," with which I was, at present, according to his idea, "sadly unacquainted!"
Indeed! It was just like his presumption.
I wonder if he thought himself one of the "superiors" in question. Did he wish me always to allow his ridiculous assertions to pass unquestioned?—
Lady Dasher, too, had her say. But, as she suggested a valuable hint to me, I condoned her offence.
I had gone to call one afternoon soon after the change in my condition, which everybody, by the way, seemed pleased at, that I cared about, save dog Catch. The poor fellow missed his walks sadly, having now to put up with a short morning and evening stroll, instead of being out with me all day, as he frequently had been before, when, my time being my own, I was free to roam.
"My lady" appeared more melancholic than ordinarily, when congratulating me on my successful entry into public life. She spoke as if she were condoling with me on the demise of a near relative.
I returned this by praising a new fuchsia with five pink bells and a golden coronal, which she had lately added to her collection; and, she then gave me the hint to which I have drawn attention.
"Ah! Mr Lorton," she said, after a pause, "life is very uncertain!"
"Just so," I said, acquiescing in her truism, in order to keep up the conversation,—"but we cannot help that, you know, Lady Dasher."
"No, indeed!" she sighed, rather than spoke.—"And that ought to make us more careful, especially on entering into life as you are now doing. My poor dear papa used to say that every young man should insure; and I would recommend your taking out a 'policy,' isn't that what they call it? He did not insure his life—poor dear papa did not require it; but he always advised every one else doing so!"
"That's what most people do,"—I said; still, I was thankful for the hint, and carried it into effect shortly afterwards.
While on the point of friendly congratulations and advice, I should not forget to mention, that Horner also had his fling at me, perpetrating what he considered a joke at my expense.
"Bai-ey Je-ove!" he said the very next Sunday when I met him outside the church after service. "You aah one of aws, now, Lorton, hay?"
"Yes," I said.
"Aw then, my de-ah fellah, you mustn't chawff me any mo-ah, you know. Dawg don't eat dawg, you know—ah, hay, Lorton!"
And he chuckled considerably at his feeble wit.
"LOVE LIES BLEEDING."
What is my guilt that makes me so with thee? Have I not languished prostrate at thy feet? Have I not lived whole days upon thy sight? Have I not seen thee where thou hast not been; And, mad with the idea, clasp'd the wind, And doated upon nothing?
Although Mr Mawley had expressed such a disparaging opinion anent my capabilities for official work, I do not think I made such an inefficient clerk on the whole.
I did not mulct my country of any portion of the hours appointed for my labour, pleading Charles Lamb's humorous excuse, that, if I did come late, I certainly made up for it "by going away early!" On the contrary, my attendance was so uniformly regular, that it attracted the notice of the chief of my room, getting me a word of commendation.
Praise from such a quarter was praise indeed, as the individual in question was one of the old order of clerks, stiff, prosaic and crabbed to a degree—who looked upon all the new race of young men that now entered the service as so many sons of Belial. "Their ways" were not "his ways;" and, their free and easy manners, and absence of all that wholesome awe of chiefs which had been customary in his day, proved, beyond doubt, that official life in general, and that of his department in particular, was decidedly "going to the devil!"
He lived in the office, I verily believe; coming there at some unearthly hour in the morning, and leaving long after every one else had sought their homes.
The messengers had been interrogated on the subject of his arrival, but they protested that they always found him installed at his usual desk, no matter how early they might set about clearing out the room in anticipation of the ordinary routine of the day; while, as for the time of his departure, nobody could give any reliable information respecting that!
The hall-porter, who remained in charge of the establishment when business was over, might, perhaps, have afforded us some data on which we could have decided the mooted point, but he was a moody, taciturn personage, who had never been known to utter a word to living man— consequently, it was of no use appealing to him.
One of the fellows reported, indeed, that once having to return to the office at midnight, in search of his latch-key which he had forgotten in his office-coat, and without which he was unable to obtain admittance to his lodgings, he found old "Smudge,"—as we somewhat irreverently termed the chief,—who was particularly neat and nice in his handwriting— working away; minuting and docketing papers, just as if it had been early in the afternoon. It was his firm persuasion, he said, that Smudge never went away at all, but remained in the office altogether, sleeping in a waste basket, his head pillowed on the debris of destroyed correspondence!
Of course we did not really believe in the latter part of this statement; still, it was quite feasible, I'm sure, now that I think it over.
His habit every morning was to draw a great black line, punctually as the clock chimed half-past ten, across the middle of the attendance— book, which stood on a bracket near the door, handy for everybody coming in; the clerks having to sign it on entering, inserting the exact time at which they put in an appearance. Our normal hour was supposed to be ten, the half-hour being only so much grace allowed for dilatory persons delayed by matters "over which they had no control"—although few they were who did not take advantage of it.
Why the old gentleman drew this line, none could tell; for, no bad results ensued to sinners who signed after its limitation—many of those who were invariably late, being subsequently duly promoted in their turn, as vacancies occurred.
But, the practice appeared to give Smudge great satisfaction. He, probably, took some malicious pleasure in scoring up the delinquencies of his staff, mentally consigning the underliners, most likely, to irretrievable ruin, both in this world and the next!
I, as I've already said, was an exception to this rule.
I must explain, however, that my good hours did not proceed from any intense wish on my part to ingratiate myself with the chief. They were rather owing to the fact, that the omnibus I specially patronised, generally arrived in town from the remote shades of Saint Canon's by ten o'clock sharp—a result usually obtained through hard driving, and on account of an "opposition" conveyance being on the road.
Smudge, nevertheless, took the deed for the will; and he complimented me accordingly, much to my surprise.
"Ha! Mr Lorton," he growled to me one morning, on my coming in just as the hour was striking. "You'll be picking up the worm soon, you come so uncommonly early! Never once down below the line—good sign! good sign! But, it won't last, it won't last,"—he added thinking he had spoken too graciously.—"All of you begin well and end badly; and you won't be any better than the rest!"
He then hid himself behind a foolscap folio, to signify that the audience was ended.
It was quite an event his saying so much to me, his conversation being mostly confined to finding fault with us in the briefest monosyllables of the most pungent and forcible character; for, he seldom uttered a word, save with reference to some document that might be submitted for his approval and signature.
During the entire time that I remained under his watchful leadership, he never spoke to me, but once again in this gracious manner. Indeed, when I mentioned the circumstance to all the fellows, they expressed considerable doubt as to his having spoken to me so at all, ascribing my account of our interview to the richness of my imagination; but, he really did say what I have related. I am rather proud of the fact than not.
My comrades as a body were a nice, gentlemanly set; and we got on very well together.
As a matter of course, we had one especial individual who was commonly regarded as the butt of the room—a good-natured, heavy man, with a dull face and a duller comprehension; but, he seemed proud and pleased always when singled out as a mark for our chaff:—he took it as an honour, I think, ascribing our fun to delicate attention.
We had also a "swell," who was as irreproachable in his dress as Horner:—I remember, the whole office felt flattered when his name once appeared in the list of those attending the Queen's Drawing-room; while, his fashionable doings, as recorded in the columns of the Morning Post, caused our room to be envied by every other division of "the branch."—Young and old, "swell" and butt not excepted—we consorted on the friendliest of footings. We were knit together in the closest bonds of brotherhood; and were in the habit of looking down upon all other departments as not to be compared to that, of which our room, was, in our opinion, the acknowledged head.
Generally speaking, men belonging to the public service are more gregarious, and stick to one another in a greater degree, imitating the clanship of Scotchmen and Jews, than those occupied in any other walk in life.
Professionals move, as a rule, in petty cliques; city people find their interests clash too much for them to associate in such harmony as do those engaged in Government offices. They may be said, certainly, to form a clique, and to have strong party interests also; but then, their clique is so large a one that the prominent features of narrow- mindedness and utter selfishness, which distinguish smaller coteries, are lost in its more extended circle; while, its interests are self- centred, its members having nothing to fear or expect from the outside public.
And yet, with all that good fellowship and staunch fidelity, as a class—when personal pique, and what I might call "promotion jealousy," does not interfere to mar the warm sympathies that exist between the units of this officially happy family—Government clerks are a very discontented set of men, grumbling from morning until night at their position, their prospects, their future.
Really, when I first joined, I thought them all so many Lady Dashers in disguise. I could hardly believe that such cheerful fellows should be at heart so morbidly exacerbated!
They do not, it is true, grumble at those of their own standing in the service; nor do they try to out-manoeuvre their fellows of the same department; but, third-class men are jealous of those in the second- class, second-class men of lucky "seniors," hankering after their shoes; and all, alike envious, both individually and collectively, of other branches, unite in one compact band of martyrs against the encroachments and tyrannies of higher officialdom—considering chiefs, secretaries of state, and such like birds of ill-omen, as virtual enemies and oppressors, with whom they are bound to prosecute a perpetual guerilla warfare:—a warfare in which, alas! they are sadly over-matched.