Wrecked in Port/Book I, Chapter IX

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Chapter IX.The Tenth Earl.

Hetherington House stands in Beaufort-square, forming one side of that confessedly aristocratic quarter. The house stands back in melancholy "grounds" of dirty gravel, brown turf, and smutted trees, while the dwarf wall which forms the side of the square, and is indeed a sufficiently huge brick screen, fences off the commonalty, and prevents them from ever catching so much as a glimpse of the Paradise within, save when the great gates are flung open for the entrance or exit of vehicles, or when the porter, so gorgeous and yet so simple, is sunning himself in the calm evening air at the small postern door. The Countess of Hetherington likes this brick screen, and looks upon it as a necessary appanage of her rank. When visitors, having exhausted every topic of conversation possible to their great minds, a feat which is easily performed in the space of five minutes, and beginning to fear the immediate advent of brain softening if not of idiocy, suddenly become possessed with a fresh idea after a lengthened contemplation of the wall in front of them, and with an air of desperation ask whether it does not make the house dull, Lady Hetherington says that, on the contrary, it is the only thing that renders the house habitable. She confesses that, during the time she is compelled to be in London, the sight of hack cabs, and policemen on their beat, and those kind of things, are not absolutely necessary to her existence, and as Sir Charles Dumfunk insists on her rooms facing the west, she is glad that the wall is there to act as a screen. Oh yes, she is perfectly aware that Lord Letterkenney had the screen of Purcell House pulled down and an open Italian façade erected in its place, the picture of which was in the illustrated papers, but as Lady Letterkenney until her marriage had lived in Ireland, and had probably never seen anything human except priests and pigs, the sight of civilised beings was doubtless an agreeable novelty to her. The same circumstances did not exist in her, Lady Hetherington's, case, and she decidedly liked the screen.

The Earl likes the screen also, but he never says anything about it, chiefly because no one ever asks his opinion on any subject. He likes it because it is his, the Earl of Hetherington's, and he likes looking at it as he likes looking at the coronet on his plate, on his carriage panels, and his horses' harness; at his family history as set forth by Burke and Debrett, and at the marginal illustrations of his coat of arms as given in those charming volumes; at his genealogical tree, a mysterious work of art which hangs in the library looking something like an enlarged "sampler" worked by a school-girl, and from the contemplation of which he derives intense delight. It does not take a great deal to fill Lord Hetherington's soul with rapture. Down in Norfolk villages, in the neighbourhood of his ancestral home, and far away in scattered cottages on the side of green Welsh mountains, where the cross-tree rears its inopportune head in the midst of the lovely landscape, and where smoke and coal-dust permeate the soft delicious air, his lordship, as landlord and mine-holder, is spoken of with bated breath by tenants and workmen, and regarded as one of the hardest-headed, tightest-fisted men of business by stewards and agents. They do not see much, scarcely anything, of him, they say, and they don't need to, if he's to be judged by the letters he writes and the orders he sends. To screw up the rents and to lengthen the hours of labour was the purport of these letters, while their style was modelled on that used by the Saxon Franklin to his hog-hind—curt, overbearing, and offensive. Agents and stewards, recipients of these missives, say bitter words about Lord Hetherington in private, and tenants and workmen curse him secretly as they bow to his decree. To them he is a haughty, selfish, grinding aristocrat, without a thought for any one but himself; whereas in reality he is a chuckle-headed nobleman, with an inordinate idea of his position certainly, but kindly hearted, a slave to his wife, and with one great desire in life, a desire to distinguish himself somehow, no matter how.

He had tried politics. When a young man he had sat as Lord West for his county, and the first Conservative ministry which came into office after he had succeeded to his title, remembering the service which Lord West had done them in roaring, hooting, and yar-yaring in the House of Commons, repaid the obligation by appointing the newly fledged Earl of Hetherington to be the head of one of the inferior departments. Immensely delighted was his lordship at first, went down to the office daily, to the intense astonishment of the departmental private secretary, whose official labours had hitherto been confined to writing about four letters a day, took upon himself to question some of the suggestions which were made for his approval, carped at the handwriting of the clerks, and for at least a week thought he had at length found his proper place in the world, and had made an impression. But it did not last. The permanent heads of the department soon found him out, scratched through the external cuticle of pride and pomposity, and discovered the true obstinate dullard underneath. And then they humoured him, and led him by the nose, as they had led many a better man before him, and he subsided into a nonentity; and then his party went out of office, and when they came in again they declined to reappoint Lord Hetherington, though he clamoured ever so loudly.

Social science was the field in which his lordship next disported himself, and prolix, pragmatical, and eccentric as are its professors generally, he managed to excel them all. Lord Hetherington had his theories on the utilisation of sewage and the treatment of criminals, on strikes and trades unions—the first of which he thought should be suppressed by the military, the second put down by Act of Parliament—and on the proper position of women; on which subject he certainly spoke with more than his usual spirit and fluency. But he was a bore upon all, and at length the social science audiences, so tolerant of boredom, felt that they could stand him no longer, and coughed him down gently but firmly when he attempted to address them. Lord Hetherington then gave up social science in disgust, and let his noble mind lie fallow for a few months, during which time he employed himself in cutting his noble fingers with a turning-lathe which he caused to be erected in his mansion, and which amused him very much: until it suddenly occurred to him that the art of bookbinding was one in which his taste and talent might find a vent. So the room in which the now deserted turning-lathe stood was soon littered with scraps of leather and floating fragments of gilt-leaf, and there his lordship spent hours every day looking on at two men very hard at work in their shirt sleeves, and occasionally handing them the tools they asked for, and thus he practised the art of bookbinding. Every one said it was an odd thing for a man to take to, but every one knew that Lord Hetherington was an odd man, consequently no one was astonished, after the bound volumes had been duly exhibited to dining or calling friends, and had elicited the various outbursts of "Jove!" "Ah!" "Charming!" "Quite too nice!" and "Can't think how he does it, eh?" which politeness demanded, no one was astonished to hear that his lordship, panting for something fresh in which to distinguish himself, had found it in taxidermy, which was now absorbing all the energies of his noble mind. The receipt of a packet of humming birds, presented by a poor relalation in the navy, first turned Lord Hetherington's thoughts to this new pursuit, and he acted with such promptitude that before the end of a week, Mr. Byrne—small, shrunken, and high-shouldered—had taken the place at the bench lately occupied by the stalwart men in shirt sleeves, but the smell of paste and gum had been supplanted by that of pungent chemicals, the floor was strewn with feathers and wool instead of leather and gilt-leaf, and his lordship, still looking on and handing tools to his companion, was stuffing birds very much in the same way as he had bound books.

It was a fine sight to see old Jack Byrne, "Bitter Byrne," the ultra-radical, the sourest-tongued orator of the Spartan Club, the ex-Chartist prisoner, waited on by gorgeous footmen in plush and silk stockings, fed on French dishes and dry sherry, and accepting it all as if he had been born to the situation.

"Why should I quarrel with my bread and butter, or what's a devilish deal better than bread and butter," he asked, in the course of a long evening's ramble with Walter Joyce, "because it comes from a representative of the class I hate? I earn it, I work honestly and hard for my wage, and suppose I am to act up to the sham self-denial preached in some of the prints which batten on the great cause without understanding or caring for it—suppose I were to refuse the meal which my lord's politeness ends me, as some of your self-styled Gracchi or Patriots would wish, how much further should we have developed the plans, or by what the more should we have dealt a blow at the institution we are labouring to destroy? Not one jot! My maxim, as I have told you before, is, use these people! Hate them if you will, despise them as you must, but use them!"

The old man's vehemence had a certain weight with Joyce, who, nevertheless, was not wholly convinced as to the propriety of his friend's position, and said, "You justify your conduct by Lord Hetherington's, then? You use each other?"

"Exactly! My Lord Hetherington in Parliament says, or would say if he was allowed the chance, but they know him too well for that, so he can only show by his votes and his proxies—proxies, by the Lord! isn't that a happy state of things when a minister can swamp any measure that he chooses by pulling from his pocket a few papers sent to him by a few brother peers, who care so little about the question in hand that they won't even leave their dinner tables to come down and hear it discussed!—says that he loathes what he is pleased to call the lower classes, and considers them unworthy of being represented in the legislature. But then he wants to stuff birds, or rather to be known as a bird stuffer of taste, and none of the House of Peers can help him there. So he makes inquiries, and is referred to me, and engages me, and we work together—neither abrogating our own sentiments. He uses my skill, I take his money, each has his quid pro quo, and if the time were ever to come—as it may come, Walter, mark my words—as it must come, for everything is tending towards it, when the battle of the poor against the rich, the bees against the drones, is fought in this country, fought out, I mean, practically and not theoretically, we shall each of us, my Lord Hetherington and I, be found on our respective sides without the slightest obligation from one to the other!"

Joyce had come to look forward to those evening walks with the old man as the pleasantest portion of the day. From nine till six he laboured conscientiously at the natural history work which Mr. Byrne had procured for him, dull uninteresting work enough, but sufficiently fairly rewarded. Then he met his old friend at Bliffkins's, and after their frugal meal they set out for a long ramble through the streets. Byrne was full of information, which, in his worldly-wise fashion, he imparted, tinged with social philosophy or dashed with an undercurrent of his own peculiar views. Of which an example. Walter Joyce had been standing for five minutes, silent, rapt in delight at his first view of the Parliament Houses as seen from Westminster Bridge. A bright moonlight night, soft, dreamy, even here, with a big yellow harvest moon coming up from the back, throwing the delicate tracery into splendid relief, and sending out the shadows thick and black; the old man looking on calmly, quietly chuckling at the irrepressible enthusiasm mantling over his young friend's cheeks and gleaming in his eyes.

"A fine place, lad?"

"Fine! splendid, superb!"

"Well, not to put too fine a point upon it, we'll say fine. Ah, they may blackguard Barry as much as they like, and when it comes to calling names and flinging mud in print, mind you, I don't know anybody to beat your architect or your architect's friend, but there's not another man among 'em could have done anything like that! That's a proper dignified house for the Parliament of the People to sit in—when it comes!"

"But it does sit there, doesn't it?"

"It? What? The Parliament of the People? No, sir; that sits, if you would believe certain organs of the press, up a court in Fleet-street, where it discusses the affairs of the nation over screws of shag tobacco and pots of fourpenny ale. What sits there before us is the Cræsus Club, a select assemblage of between six and seven hundred members, who drop down here to levy taxes, and job generally, in the interval between dinner and bed."

"Are they—are they there now?" asked Joyce, eagerly, peering with outstretched neck at the building before him.

"Now? No, of course not, man! They're away at their own devices, nine-tenths of them breaking the laws which they helped to make, and all enjoying themselves, and wondering what the devil people find to grumble at!"

"One of the governors of the old school, down, down at Helmingham"—a large knot swelled in Joyce's throat as he said the word, and nearly choked him; never before had he felt the place so far away or the days spent there so long removed from his then life—"was a member of Parliament, I think! Lord Beachcroft. Did you ever hear of him?"

The old man smiled sardonically. "Hear of him, man? There's not one of them that has made his mark, or that is likely to make his mark in any way, that I don't know by sight, or that I haven't heard speak. I know Lord Beachcroft well enough; he's a philanthropist, wants camphorated chalk tooth-powder for the paupers, and horse exercise for the convicts. Registered among the noodles, ranks A 1, weakly built, leaden-headed, and wants an experienced keeper!"

"That doctrine would have been taken as heresy at Helmingham! I know he came there once on our speech-day to deliver the prizes, and the boys all cheered him to the echo!"

"The boys! of course they did! The child is father to the man! I forgot, people don't read Wordsworth now-a-days, but that's what he says, and he and Tennyson are the only poet-philosophers that have risen amongst us for many years, and boys shout, as men would, at the mere sight, at the mere taste of a lord! How they like to roll 'your lordship' round their mouths, and fear lest they should lose the slightest atom of its flavour! Not that the boys did wrong in cheering Lord Beachcroft! He's harmless enough and well-meaning, I'm sure, and stands well up among the noodles. And it's better to stand anywhere amongst them than to be affiliated to the other party!"

"The other party? Who are they, Mr. Byrne?"

"The rogues, lad, the rogues! Rogues and noodles make up the blessed lot of senators sitting in your gimcrack palace, who vote away your birthright and mine, tax the sweat of millions, bow to Gold Stick and kiss Black Rod's coat-tails, send our fleets to defend Von Sourkraut's honour, or our soldiers to sicken of jungle fever in pursuit of the rebel Lollum Dha's adversaries! Parliament? Representatives of the people? Very much! My gallant friend, all pipeclay and padded breast, who won't hear of the army estimates being reduced; my learned friend, who brings all his forensic skill and all his power of tongue-fence, first learned in three-guinea briefs at the Old Bailey, and now educated up into such silvery eloquence, into play for the chance of a judgeship and a knighthood; the volatile Irish member, who subsides finally into the consulate of Zanzibar; the honourable member, who, having in his early youth swept out a shop at Loughboro', and arrived in London with eightpence, has accumulated millions, and is, of course, a strong Tory, with but two desires in life, to keep down 'the people,' and to obtain a card for his wife for the Premier's Saturday evenings—these are the representatives of the people for you! Rogues and noodles, noodles and rogues. Don't you like the picture?"

"I should hate it, if I believed in it, Mr. Byrne!" said Joyce, moving away, "but I don't! You won't think me rude or unkind, but—but I've been brought up in so widely different a faith. I've been taught to hold in such reverence all that I hear you deny, that——"

"Stick to it, lad! hold to it while you can!" said the old man, kindly, laying his hand on his companion's arm. "My doctrines are strong meat for babes—too strong, I dare say—and you're but a toothless infant yet in these things, anyhow! So much the better for you. I recollect a story of some man who said he was never happy or well after he was told he had a liver! Go on as long as you can in pleasant ignorance of the fact that you have a political liver. Some day it will become torpid and sluggish, and then—then come and talk to old Dr. Byrne. Till then, he won't attempt to alarm you, depend upon it!"

Not very long to be deferred was the day in which the political patient was to come to the political physician for advice and for treatment.

Beaufort-square looked hideously dull as Lord Hetherington drove through it on his way to his home from the railway station a few days after the conversation above recorded, and the clanging of his own great gates as they shut behind him echoed and re-echoed through the vast deserted space. The gorgeous porter and all the regiment of domestics were down at Westhope, the family place in Norfolk, so the carriage gates were opened by a middle-aged female with her head tied up for toothache, and Mrs. Mason, the housekeeper, with a female retinue, was waiting to receive his lordship on the steps. Always affable to old servants of the family, whose age, long service, and comfortable comely appearance do him credit, as he thinks, Lord Hetherington exchanges a few gracious words with Mrs. Mason, desires that Mr. Byrne shall be shown in to him so soon as he arrives, and makes his way across the great hall to the library. The shutters of his room have been opened, but there has been no time given for further preparations, and the big writing-table, the globes, and the bookcases are all enswathed in ghostly holland drapery. The bust of the ninth earl, Lord Hetherington's father, has slipped its head out of its covering, and looks astonished and as if it had been suddenly called up in its nightclothes. My lord looks dismayed, as well he may, at the dreary room, but finds no more cheerful outlook from the window into the little square garden, where a few melancholy leaves are rotting in the dirty corners into which they have drifted, and where Mrs. Mason's grandson, unconscious of observation, is throwing stones at a cab. My lord rattles the loose silver in his trousers' pockets, walks up to the fireplace and inspects his tongue in the looking-glass, whistles thoughtfully, sighs heavily, and is beginning to think he shall go mad, when Mrs. Mason opens the door and announces "Mr. Byrne."

"How do, Byrne?" says his lordship, much relieved. "Glad to see you! Come up on purpose! Want your help!"

Mr. Byrne returns his lordship's salutations, and quietly asks in what way he can be of use. His lordship is rather taken aback at being so suddenly brought to book, but says, with some hesitation,

"Well, not exactly in your own way, Byrne; I don't think I shall do any more what-d'ye-call-ums, birds, any more—for the present, I mean, for the present. Her ladyship thought those last screens so good that it would be useless to try to improve on them, and so she's given me—I mean I've got—another idea."

Mr. Byrne, with the faintest dawn of a cynical grin on his face, bows and waits.

"Fact is," pursues his lordship, "my place down at Westhope, full of most monstrously interesting records of our family from the time of—oh, the Crusaders and Guy Fawkes and the Pretender, and all that kind of thing; records, don't you know, old papers, and what they call documents, you know, and those kind of things. Well, I want to take all these things and make 'em into a sort of history of the family, you know, to write it and have it published, don't they call it? You know what I mean."

Mr. Byrne intimates that they do call it published, and that he apprehends his lordship's meaning completely.

"Well, then, Byrne," his lordship continues, "what I sent for you for is this. 'Tisn't in your line, I know, but I've found you clever and all that kind of thing, and above your station. Oh, I mean it, I do indeed, and I want you to find me some person, respectable and educated and all that, who will just go through these papers, you know, and select the right bits, you know, and write them down, you know, and, in point of fact, just do——You know what I mean!"

Mr. Byrne, with a radiant look which his face but seldom wore, averred that he not merely understood what was meant, but that he could recommend the very man whom his lordship required, a young man of excellent address, good education, and great industry.

"And he'll understand——?" asked Lord Hetherington, hesitatingly, and with a curious look at Mr. Byrne.

"Everything!" replied the old man. "Your lordship's book will be the most successful thing you've done!"

"Then bring him to the Clarendon at twelve the day after to-morrow! As he's to live in the house, and that kind of thing, her ladyship must see him before he's engaged!"

"I suppose I may congratulate you, my boy!" said Byrne to Joyce; a day or two afterwards, as they walked away from the Clarendon Hotel after their interview, "though you don't look much pleased about it!"

"I'm an ungrateful brute," said Walter; "I ought to have thanked you the instant the door closed! For it is entirely owing to you and your kindness that I have obtained this splendid chance! But——"

"But what?" said the old man, kindly.

"Did you notice that woman's reception of me, and the way she spoke?"

"That woman? Oh, my lady! Hm—she's not too polite to those she considers her inferiors!"

"Polite! To me it was imperious, insolent, degrading! But I can put up with it!" And he added softly to himself, "For Marian's sake!"