"Ah, Bold! how are you? You haven't breakfasted?"
"Oh yes, hours ago. And how are you?"
When one Esquimau meets another, do the two, as an invariable rule, ask after each other's health? is it inherent in all human nature to make this obliging inquiry? Did any reader of this tale ever meet any friend or acquaintance without asking some such question, and did anyone ever listen to the reply? Sometimes a studiously courteous questioner will show so much thought in the matter as to answer it himself, by declaring that had he looked at you he needn't have asked; meaning thereby to signify that you are an absolute personification of health: but such persons are only those who premeditate small effects.
"I suppose you're busy?" inquired Bold.
"Why, yes, rather;—or I should say rather not. If I have a leisure hour in the day, this is it."
"I want to ask you if you can oblige me in a certain matter."
Towers understood in a moment, from the tone of his friend's voice, that the certain matter referred to the newspaper. He smiled, and nodded his head, but made no promise.
"You know this lawsuit that I've been engaged in," said Bold.
Tom Towers intimated that he was aware of the action which was pending about the hospital.
"Well, I've abandoned it."
Tom Towers merely raised his eyebrows, thrust his hands into his trowsers pockets, and waited for his friend to proceed.
"Yes, I've given it up. I needn't trouble you with all the history; but the fact is that the conduct of Mr Harding—Mr Harding is the—"
"Oh yes, the master of the place; the man who takes all the money and does nothing," said Tom Towers, interrupting him.
"Well, I don't know about that; but his conduct in the matter has been so excellent, so little selfish, so open, that I cannot proceed in the matter to his detriment." Bold's heart misgave him as to Eleanor as he said this; and yet he felt that what he said was not untrue. "I think nothing should now be done till the wardenship be vacant."
"And be again filled," said Towers, "as it certainly would, before anyone heard of the vacancy; and the same objection would again exist. It's an old story, that of the vested rights of the incumbent; but suppose the incumbent has only a vested wrong, and that the poor of the town have a vested right, if they only knew how to get at it: is not that something the case here?"
Bold couldn't deny it, but thought it was one of those cases which required a good deal of management before any real good could be done. It was a pity that he had not considered this before he crept into the lion's mouth, in the shape of an attorney's office.
"It will cost you a good deal, I fear," said Towers.
"A few hundreds," said Bold—"perhaps three hundred; I can't help that, and am prepared for it."
"That's philosophical. It's quite refreshing to hear a man talking of his hundreds in so purely indifferent a manner. But I'm sorry you are giving the matter up. It injures a man to commence a thing of this kind, and not carry it through. Have you seen that?" and he threw a small pamphlet across the table, which was all but damp from the press.
Bold had not seen it nor heard of it; but he was well acquainted with the author of it,—a gentleman whose pamphlets, condemnatory of all things in these modern days, had been a good deal talked about of late.
Dr Pessimist Anticant was a Scotchman, who had passed a great portion of his early days in Germany; he had studied there with much effect, and had learnt to look with German subtilty into the root of things, and to examine for himself their intrinsic worth and worthlessness. No man ever resolved more bravely than he to accept as good nothing that was evil; to banish from him as evil nothing that was good. 'Tis a pity that he should not have recognised the fact, that in this world no good is unalloyed, and that there is but little evil that has not in it some seed of what is goodly.
Returning from Germany, he had astonished the reading public by the vigour of his thoughts, put forth in the quaintest language. He cannot write English, said the critics. No matter, said the public; we can read what he does write, and that without yawning. And so Dr Pessimist Anticant became popular. Popularity spoilt him for all further real use, as it has done many another. While, with some diffidence, he confined his objurgations to the occasional follies or shortcomings of mankind; while he ridiculed the energy of the squire devoted to the slaughter of partridges, or the mistake of some noble patron who turned a poet into a gauger of beer-barrels, it was all well; we were glad to be told our faults and to look forward to the coming millennium, when all men, having sufficiently studied the works of Dr Anticant, would become truthful and energetic. But the doctor mistook the signs of the times and the minds of men, instituted himself censor of things in general, and began the great task of reprobating everything and everybody, without further promise of any millennium at all. This was not so well; and, to tell the truth, our author did not succeed in his undertaking. His theories were all beautiful, and the code of morals that he taught us certainly an improvement on the practices of the age. We all of us could, and many of us did, learn much from the doctor while he chose to remain vague, mysterious, and cloudy: but when he became practical, the charm was gone.
His allusion to the poet and the partridges was received very well. "Oh, my poor brother," said he, "slaughtered partridges a score of brace to each gun, and poets gauging ale-barrels, with sixty pounds a year, at Dumfries, are not the signs of a great era!—perhaps of the smallest possible era yet written of. Whatever economies we pursue, political or other, let us see at once that this is the maddest of the uneconomic: partridges killed by our land magnates at, shall we say, a guinea a head, to be retailed in Leadenhall at one shilling and ninepence, with one poacher in limbo for every fifty birds! our poet, maker, creator, gauging ale, and that badly, with no leisure for making or creating, only a little leisure for drinking, and such like beer-barrel avocations! Truly, a cutting of blocks with fine razors while we scrape our chins so uncomfortably with rusty knives! Oh, my political economist, master of supply and demand, division of labour and high pressure,—oh, my loud-speaking friend, tell me, if so much be in you, what is the demand for poets in these kingdoms of Queen Victoria, and what the vouchsafed supply?"
This was all very well: this gave us some hope. We might do better with our next poet, when we got one; and though the partridges might not be abandoned, something could perhaps be done as to the poachers. We were unwilling, however, to take lessons in politics from so misty a professor; and when he came to tell us that the heroes of Westminster were naught, we began to think that he had written enough. His attack upon despatch boxes was not thought to have much in it; but as it is short, the doctor shall again be allowed to speak his sentiments.
Could utmost ingenuity in the management of red tape avail anything to men lying gasping,—we may say, all but dead; could despatch boxes with never-so-much velvet lining and Chubb's patent be of comfort to a people in extremis, I also, with so many others, would, with parched tongue, call on the name of Lord John Russell; or, my brother, at your advice, on Lord Aberdeen; or, my cousin, on Lord Derby, at yours; being, with my parched tongue, indifferent to such matters. 'Tis all one. Oh, Derby! Oh, Gladstone! Oh, Palmerston! Oh, Lord John! Each comes running with serene face and despatch box. Vain physicians! though there were hosts of such, no despatch box will cure this disorder! What! are there other doctors' new names, disciples who have not burdened their souls with tape? Well, let us call again. Oh, Disraeli, great oppositionist, man of the bitter brow! or, Oh, Molesworth, great reformer, thou who promisest Utopia. They come; each with that serene face, and each,—alas, me! alas, my country!—each with a despatch box!
Oh, the serenity of Downing Street!
My brothers, when hope was over on the battle-field, when no dimmest chance of victory remained, the ancient Roman could hide his face within his toga, and die gracefully. Can you and I do so now? If so, 'twere best for us; if not, oh my brothers, we must die disgracefully, for hope of life and victory I see none left to us in this world below. I for one cannot trust much to serene face and despatch box!
There might be truth in this, there might be depth of reasoning; but Englishmen did not see enough in the argument to induce them to withdraw their confidence from the present arrangements of the government, and Dr Anticant's monthly pamphlet on the decay of the world did not receive so much attention as his earlier works. He did not confine himself to politics in these publications, but roamed at large over all matters of public interest, and found everything bad. According to him nobody was true, and not only nobody, but nothing; a man could not take off his hat to a lady without telling a lie;—the lady would lie again in smiling. The ruffles of the gentleman's shirt would be fraught with deceit, and the lady's flounces full of falsehood. Was ever anything more severe than that attack of his on chip bonnets, or the anathemas with which he endeavoured to dust the powder out of the bishops' wigs?
The pamphlet which Tom Towers now pushed across the table was entitled "Modern Charity," and was written with the view of proving how much in the way of charity was done by our predecessors,—how little by the present age; and it ended by a comparison between ancient and modern times, very little to the credit of the latter.
"Look at this," said Towers, getting up and turning over the pages of the pamphlet, and pointing to a passage near the end. "Your friend the warden, who is so little selfish, won't like that, I fear." Bold read as follows—
Heavens, what a sight! Let us with eyes wide open see the godly man of four centuries since, the man of the dark ages; let us see how he does his godlike work, and, again, how the godly man of these latter days does his.
Shall we say that the former is one walking painfully through the world, regarding, as a prudent man, his worldly work, prospering in it as a diligent man will prosper, but always with an eye to that better treasure to which thieves do not creep in? Is there not much nobility in that old man, as, leaning on his oaken staff, he walks down the High Street of his native town, and receives from all courteous salutation and acknowledgment of his worth? A noble old man, my august inhabitants of Belgrave Square and such like vicinity,—a very noble old man, though employed no better than in the wholesale carding of wool.
This carding of wool, however, did in those days bring with it much profit, so that our ancient friend, when dying, was declared, in whatever slang then prevailed, to cut up exceeding well. For sons and daughters there was ample sustenance with assistance of due industry; for friends and relatives some relief for grief at this great loss; for aged dependents comfort in declining years. This was much for one old man to get done in that dark fifteenth century. But this was not all: coming generations of poor wool-carders should bless the name of this rich one; and a hospital should be founded and endowed with his wealth for the feeding of such of the trade as could not, by diligent carding, any longer duly feed themselves.
'Twas thus that an old man in the fifteenth century did his godlike work to the best of his power, and not ignobly, as appears to me.
We will now take our godly man of latter days. He shall no longer be a wool-carder, for such are not now men of mark. We will suppose him to be one of the best of the good, one who has lacked no opportunities. Our old friend was, after all, but illiterate; our modern friend shall be a man educated in all seemly knowledge; he shall, in short, be that blessed being,—a clergyman of the Church of England!
And now, in what perfectest manner does he in this lower world get his godlike work done and put out of hand? Heavens! in the strangest of manners. Oh, my brother! in a manner not at all to be believed, but by the most minute testimony of eyesight. He does it by the magnitude of his appetite,—by the power of his gorge; his only occupation is to swallow the bread prepared with so much anxious care for these impoverished carders of wool,—that, and to sing indifferently through his nose once in the week some psalm more or less long,—the shorter the better, we should be inclined to say.
Oh, my civilised friends!—great Britons that never will be slaves, men advanced to infinite state of freedom and knowledge of good and evil;—tell me, will you, what becoming monument you will erect to an highly-educated clergyman of the Church of England?
Bold certainly thought that his friend would not like that: he could not conceive anything that he would like less than this. To what a world of toil and trouble had he, Bold, given rise by his indiscreet attack upon the hospital!
"You see," said Towers, "that this affair has been much talked of, and the public are with you. I am sorry you should give the matter up. Have you seen the first number of 'The Almshouse'?"
No; Bold had not seen "The Almshouse." He had seen advertisements of Mr Popular Sentiment's new novel of that name, but had in no way connected it with Barchester Hospital, and had never thought a moment on the subject.
"It's a direct attack on the whole system," said Towers. "It'll go a long way to put down Rochester, and Barchester, and Dulwich, and St Cross, and all such hotbeds of peculation. It's very clear that Sentiment has been down to Barchester, and got up the whole story there; indeed, I thought he must have had it all from you; it's very well done, as you'll see: his first numbers always are."
Bold declared that Mr Sentiment had got nothing from him, and that he was deeply grieved to find that the case had become so notorious.
"The fire has gone too far to be quenched," said Towers; "the building must go now; and as the timbers are all rotten, why, I should be inclined to say, the sooner the better. I expected to see you get some éclat in the matter."
This was all wormwood to Bold. He had done enough to make his friend the warden miserable for life, and had then backed out just when the success of his project was sufficient to make the question one of real interest. How weakly he had managed his business! he had already done the harm, and then stayed his hand when the good which he had in view was to be commenced. How delightful would it have been to have employed all his energy in such a cause,—to have been backed by The Jupiter, and written up to by two of the most popular authors of the day! The idea opened a view into the very world in which he wished to live. To what might it not have given rise? what delightful intimacies,—what public praise,—to what Athenian banquets and rich flavour of Attic salt?
This, however, was now past hope. He had pledged himself to abandon the cause; and could he have forgotten the pledge, he had gone too far to retreat. He was now, this moment, sitting in Tom Towers' room with the object of deprecating any further articles in The Jupiter, and, greatly as he disliked the job, his petition to that effect must be made.
"I couldn't continue it," said he, "because I found I was in the wrong."
Tom Towers shrugged his shoulders. How could a successful man be in the wrong! "In that case," said he, "of course you must abandon it."
"And I called this morning to ask you also to abandon it," said Bold.
"To ask me," said Tom Towers, with the most placid of smiles, and a consummate look of gentle surprise, as though Tom Towers was well aware that he of all men was the last to meddle in such matters.
"Yes," said Bold, almost trembling with hesitation. "The Jupiter, you know, has taken the matter up very strongly. Mr Harding has felt what it has said deeply; and I thought that if I could explain to you that he personally has not been to blame, these articles might be discontinued."
How calmly impassive was Tom Towers' face, as this innocent little proposition was made! Had Bold addressed himself to the doorposts in Mount Olympus, they would have shown as much outward sign of assent or dissent. His quiescence was quite admirable; his discretion certainly more than human.
"My dear fellow," said he, when Bold had quite done speaking, "I really cannot answer for The Jupiter."
"But if you saw that these articles were unjust, I think that you would endeavour to put a stop to them. Of course nobody doubts that you could, if you chose."
"Nobody and everybody are always very kind, but unfortunately are generally very wrong."
"Come, come, Towers," said Bold, plucking up his courage, and remembering that for Eleanor's sake he was bound to make his best exertion; "I have no doubt in my own mind but that you wrote the articles yourself, and very well written they were: it will be a great favour if you will in future abstain from any personal allusion to poor Harding."
"My dear Bold," said Tom Towers, "I have a sincere regard for you. I have known you for many years, and value your friendship; I hope you will let me explain to you, without offence, that none who are connected with the public press can with propriety listen to interference."
"Interference!" said Bold, "I don't want to interfere."
"Ah, but, my dear fellow, you do; what else is it? You think that I am able to keep certain remarks out of a newspaper. Your information is probably incorrect, as most public gossip on such subjects is; but, at any rate, you think I have such power, and you ask me to use it: now that is interference."
"Well, if you choose to call it so."
"And now suppose for a moment that I had this power, and used it as you wish: isn't it clear that it would be a great abuse? Certain men are employed in writing for the public press; and if they are induced either to write or to abstain from writing by private motives, surely the public press would soon be of little value. Look at the recognised worth of different newspapers, and see if it does not mainly depend on the assurance which the public feel that such a paper is, or is not, independent. You alluded to The Jupiter: surely you cannot but see that the weight of The Jupiter is too great to be moved by any private request, even though it should be made to a much more influential person than myself: you've only to think of this, and you'll see that I am right."
The discretion of Tom Towers was boundless: there was no contradicting what he said, no arguing against such propositions. He took such high ground that there was no getting on to it. "The public is defrauded," said he, "whenever private considerations are allowed to have weight." Quite true, thou greatest oracle of the middle of the nineteenth century, thou sententious proclaimer of the purity of the press;—the public is defrauded when it is purposely misled. Poor public! how often is it misled! against what a world of fraud has it to contend!
Bold took his leave, and got out of the room as quickly as he could, inwardly denouncing his friend Tom Towers as a prig and a humbug. "I know he wrote those articles," said Bold to himself. "I know he got his information from me. He was ready enough to take my word for gospel when it suited his own views, and to set Mr Harding up before the public as an impostor on no other testimony than my chance conversation; but when I offer him real evidence opposed to his own views, he tells me that private motives are detrimental to public justice! Confound his arrogance! What is any public question but a conglomeration of private interests? What is any newspaper article but an expression of the views taken by one side? Truth! it takes an age to ascertain the truth of any question! The idea of Tom Towers talking of public motives and purity of purpose! Why, it wouldn't give him a moment's uneasiness to change his politics to-morrow, if the paper required it."
Such were John Bold's inward exclamations as he made his way out of the quiet labyrinth of the Temple; and yet there was no position of worldly power so coveted in Bold's ambition as that held by the man of whom he was thinking. It was the impregnability of the place which made Bold so angry with the possessor of it, and it was the same quality which made it appear so desirable.
Passing into the Strand, he saw in a bookseller's window an announcement of the first number of "The Almshouse;" so he purchased a copy, and hurrying back to his lodgings, proceeded to ascertain what Mr Popular Sentiment had to say to the public on the subject which had lately occupied so much of his own attention.
In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so. If the world is to be set right, the work will be done by shilling numbers.
Of all such reformers Mr Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest. Namby-pamby in these days is not thrown away if it be introduced in the proper quarters. Divine peeresses are no longer interesting, though possessed of every virtue; but a pattern peasant or an immaculate manufacturing hero may talk as much twaddle as one of Mrs Ratcliffe's heroines, and still be listened to. Perhaps, however, Mr Sentiment's great attraction is in his second-rate characters. If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts, as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street: they walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life; yes, live, and will live till the names of their calling shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify a detective police officer or a monthly nurse.
"The Almshouse" opened with a scene in a clergyman's house. Every luxury to be purchased by wealth was described as being there: all the appearances of household indulgence generally found amongst the most self-indulgent of the rich were crowded into this abode. Here the reader was introduced to the demon of the book, the Mephistopheles of the drama. What story was ever written without a demon? What novel, what history, what work of any sort, what world, would be perfect without existing principles both of good and evil? The demon of "The Almshouse" was the clerical owner of this comfortable abode. He was a man well stricken in years, but still strong to do evil: he was one who looked cruelly out of a hot, passionate, bloodshot eye; who had a huge red nose with a carbuncle, thick lips, and a great double, flabby chin, which swelled out into solid substance, like a turkey-cock's comb, when sudden anger inspired him: he had a hot, furrowed, low brow, from which a few grizzled hairs were not yet rubbed off by the friction of his handkerchief: he wore a loose unstarched white handkerchief, black loose ill-made clothes, and huge loose shoes, adapted to many corns and various bunions: his husky voice told tales of much daily port wine, and his language was not so decorous as became a clergyman. Such was the master of Mr Sentiment's "Almshouse." He was a widower, but at present accompanied by two daughters, and a thin and somewhat insipid curate. One of the young ladies was devoted to her father and the fashionable world, and she of course was the favourite; the other was equally addicted to Puseyism and the curate.
The second chapter of course introduced the reader to the more especial inmates of the hospital. Here were discovered eight old men; and it was given to be understood that four vacancies remained unfilled, through the perverse ill-nature of the clerical gentleman with the double chin. The state of these eight paupers was touchingly dreadful: sixpence-farthing a day had been sufficient for their diet when the almshouse was founded; and on sixpence-farthing a day were they still doomed to starve, though food was four times as dear, and money four times as plentiful. It was shocking to find how the conversation of these eight starved old men in their dormitory shamed that of the clergyman's family in his rich drawing-room. The absolute words they uttered were not perhaps spoken in the purest English, and it might be difficult to distinguish from their dialect to what part of the country they belonged; the beauty of the sentiment, however, amply atoned for the imperfection of the language; and it was really a pity that these eight old men could not be sent through the country as moral missionaries, instead of being immured and starved in that wretched almshouse.
Bold finished the number; and as he threw it aside, he thought that that at least had no direct appliance to Mr Harding, and that the absurdly strong colouring of the picture would disenable the work from doing either good or harm. He was wrong. The artist who paints for the million must use glaring colours, as no one knew better than Mr Sentiment when he described the inhabitants of his almshouse; and the radical reform which has now swept over such establishments has owed more to the twenty numbers of Mr Sentiment's novel, than to all the true complaints which have escaped from the public for the last half century.