Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The previous question - Part 1
THE PREVIOUS QUESTION.
THE STORY OF AN INDEPENDENT MEMBER.
I was, and am, a Patriot in the true sense of the word. I would scorn to sacrifice the interests of the nation to the low exigencies of party conflict. What mattered it to me whether the Forward-Backwards or the Backward-Forwards faction were in possession of "the sweets of office?" What those "sweets" were, I could never exactly discover. After some little experience of what is called public life, I will venture to assert, with considerable confidence, that as a lucrative calling the trade of politics is about the most beggarly pursuit which any gentleman can take up. It is all very well to have the confidence of your Sovereign, but I would a good deal rather have the confidence of my baker. It really signified not one straw to me whether Lord Merryton "held the reins of office," or the Earl of Tarboy "guided the helm of the State." Merryton, of course, had my general adhesion; but it was surprising what bids the Tarboy party would occasionally make for the support of independent members. What to do was often a puzzle to the most patriotic brains; for the conviction was gradually forced upon you, that if the Earl of Tarboy would see you far enough upon any question of liberal policy, as soon as he could do without your help, Viscount Merryton was not disposed to see you much nearer. Of course there were occasions when both of these eminent statesmen gave utterance to sentiments which really took your unwary reason captive; but it always unfortunately happened that time and occasion did not serve for the immediate fulfilment of their promises—just when, to all appearance, they were in the humour to keep them.
But of all these things presently. First, in order of time, I must relate how it was that I—even I—became involved in what is called the vortex of politics. I am inclined to attribute this great event of my life ultimately to an observation I let fall one morning during breakfast, in the little dining-room of Marigold Lodge, to the effect that a small white and lavender check silk dress, which my dear Flora had worn more frequently than I should have desired, was getting rather shabby.
The immediate consequence of this observation was a quiet connubial turn with Flora in the little garden behind Marigold Lodge, during the course of which she was pleased to insist upon the sufficiency of her existing wardrobe; but my excellent little consort argued the question so badly, or rather the facts were so dead against her, that she was forced to confess at last, that unless vigorous measures were taken she would be compelled to make her appearance at the next Botanic Show in the very identical dress in which she had revealed herself to the promenaders upon two previous occasions. What did it matter? It mattered a good deal to me, if not to her; so for my sake she suffered herself to be convinced. The affair was ultimately settled under the lime-tree, just out of sight of the house, to my—and I trust to Flora's—entire satisfaction.
That day we drove up in a little open carriage to Lewis & Allenby's, and there it was that my senatorial career may be said, practically, to have commenced.
Whilst Flora and I were investigating the silken treasures which were freely offered to our inspection on the counters of those eminent warehouse-men, I grieve to say that we almost got to words upon the subject of our intended purchase. It was perfectly maddening to an ardent husband, to see displayed before his enraptured gaze various forms of delicate drapery which, as he could not but be aware, would make the partner of his toils the cynosure—yes—the cynosure of every eye at the next Botanic Show, and to find that partner of those very toils, so blind to her own fascinations, so lost to all sense of the Beautiful and the Becoming, that she deliberately preferred, and would not be dissuaded from purchasing some trumpery fabric which would have entirely neutralised her advantages of feature, figure, and expression. I generally triumph in these little contests with Flora—but not without a severe struggle.
Now, as a man is a bad, or at least a partial, judge of a dispute in which he has been an active champion, I will state the subject-matter of the contention between F. and myself, and leave the decision to the judgment of the human race. The young gentleman who acted upon this occasion for the firm of L. & A. had been at the pains of bringing to us, and opening, various bales of goods: and I must say that, although we gave him a great deal of trouble, his demeanour towards us was characterised by the greatest suavity and urbanity. At length, after we had examined some fifty or sixty dresses (I am coming presently to the House of Commons and the destinies of nations), the inclination of our joint judgment was in favour of a mousseline-de-soie—a sweet thing, as F. was pleased to observe. It was a kind of delicate dove-colour, and in all respects unobjectionable. When this dress was opened I had observed that F. had stepped back a pace from the counter, and whilst she slightly moved her head from side to side, as though to contemplate the fabric under different lights, a quiet smile of satisfaction stole over her features. Her emotion was too deep for words. My mind was made up.
Jones. "I think, Flora, dear, this is the sort of thing that will do? Those dabs of flowers" (I always think that masculine dignity requires a slight infusion of contempt into one's commendations upon these occasions); "those dabs of flowers on the what-d'ye-call-'ems—"
Flora. "Bouquets, dear, upon the skirts. They are positively charming."
Jones. "What sort of bonnet would go with it, Flo? Some pink thing, eh?"
Flora. (Still balancing her head, and in a dreamy way.) "Pink crape, dear; I saw the very bonnet, the other day, at Mrs. Smith's, when I went with Ada Poddle about her bridesmaid's dress."
Jones. "Well, that's settled; let's be off to Mrs. Smith's. We'd better take the gown there, and we can get the pink bonnet at once, clap it under the seat, and drive home."
Flora. (Compassionately didactic.) "Mrs. Smith has the greatest objection to make up one's own materials—still—but it's no matter."
Why was it that Flora gave me a sort of wan, protecting smile? Why did she forbid the shopman to pack up the dress at once? Why did she request that courteous youth to show her a balzerine? I was soon to know. The young gentleman departed, and returned presently, struggling with a bale of what are called "goods.' In the interval between his departure and return, Flora, with the mousseline-de-soie open before her, and emphasizing her periods by little taps on the very flowers which the skill of some foreign artist had depictured upon those too fascinating skirts, entered largely into the subject of our household expenses, and into the various claims of a pecuniary nature now—as she said—"hanging over us." I protest there is not a cleaner balance-sheet in the county of Middlesex than our own; but, upon these occasions, F. has a way of going through our liabilities on a system of double-entry peculiar to herself, in which she brings forward the debits twice; and if she does not suppress the credits altogether, she introduces them in such a loose and perfunctory manner, that they seem scarcely worthy of account. Thirty cart-loads of gravel for the garden—little Jemmy's wardrobe—the chances that the family might collectively become the victims of zymotic disease—a little trip which we had taken in Belgium, two years back, and which I have no hesitation in saying my Flora thoroughly enjoyed—and other matters of the like kind were successively paraded before my apprehension as reasons against the investment in mousseline-de-soie then under negotiation.
I confess I was very much put out. It was not so much the fact, as the inconclusive reasoning, which wounded me. No, I was not angry;—how could I be angry with that dear young face which had so often hung over me in sickness and trouble?—about a trumpery dress, too?—but after so protracted a cohabitation with a sound reasoner like myself, F. should have been a better logician. Well, I'll keep my temper. I had not calculated though on the look of the balzerine.
I do not—I most positively declare—pay more attention to feminine drapery than beseems a man and a philosopher; but still I have eyes in my head. Of all the hideous, nasty, worstedy things that I ever saw, commend me to a striped balzerine, which the young Hierophant in the white neck-cloth at L. & A.'s displayed to my disgusted vision upon the afternoon in question. It was just fit for a governess endimanchée, or for any unhappy lady who is compelled by hard fate to wear, not what she would, but what she must. Flora tested it slightly between her finger and thumb, and still casting a last fond look at the mousseline-de-soie, told the shopman that that was the article upon which she had fixed. She informed me at the same time, with a kind of made-up smile (she was well aware that I could not make a scene before the shopman) that we would drive home by the Burlington Arcade, where she would purchase a "fancy straw" with green ribbon, which, as she considered, would harmonise perfectly with the odious balzerine. All this was done with such marvellous dexterity of feature that the only inference open to the young gentleman behind the counter was that F. and I had been accomplices in duplicity throughout the whole transaction. I can stand a good deal—but I was not going to stand that. I desired him instantly—instantly—to pack up the mousseline-de-soie, and to give me the bill. I can have no doubt that my countenance must, in a certain degree, have betrayed the exceeding exasperation of mind under which I was labouring, inasmuch as dear Flora, now in full retreat, attempted no further act of hostility than a faint sigh, in which, as I thought, resignation was not altogether unmixed with satisfaction. "Oh! John, how can you be so foolish?" was the only word which passed between us; for, on my side, my dignity was far too seriously compromised to admit of further argument. Between ourselves, I may be permitted to say that the severity of manner was entirely assumed, and indeed I am not altogether without the impression that the look of blank consternation upon F.'s features was not an exact index to her internal emotions at the moment.
I must not linger too long in this—the vestibule of my public career—so be it sufficient to say that I discharged the bill in a very emphatic way—seized the parcel myself with a look at the shopman, which convinced him that the sooner he left off bowing, and offering to convey it to the carriage for me, the better for himself—and when F. was safely deposited in the phaeton, dashed off at once in the direction of Hanover Square.
Flora. "Oh! John dear—mind the Hansom! Where are we going?"
Jones. "To Mrs. Smith's."
Our quarrel was of short duration, for I am bound to say that F. appeared to have forgotten all about the gravel, and Jemmy's wardrobe, and whilst she placed one of her little hands upon my arm, kept on smiling in the direction of Langham Church, in a manner which did not seem to be at all indicative of internal agony. We were soon at the portal of Mrs. Smith's studio. I confess that it is not without a feeling of awe that I ever enter one of these establishments. There is a sort of gloomy solemnity about the tall attendant who jerks the door open at one effort, and gazes at you with preternatural respect. The graceful Page who glides upstairs before you to introduce you to the presence; the magnificent ladies who, having completed their negotiations in the upper regions, sweep past you with a bold stare as you endeavour to back out of the way of their amazing draperies; the ministering Houris attached to the establishment, with longer waists and bandeaux larger and glossier than are ever seen in real life; the demure repose of the show-room; the manner in which orders are whispered about regardless of expense; when taken in conjunction with your own internal consciousness of the entirely trumpery nature of the business on which you have come there yourself;—all combine to inspire me with a feeling of dread upon these occasions, in which F. does not seem to participate. That excellent person is quite capable of tearing away even Madame herself from a Duchess, and demanding that lady's attention to some trivial detail connected with a bonnet-cap! I feel my cheeks growing red at F.'s shameless pertinacity, and try to hide behind a mantilla, or endeavour to throw an expression into my face which is intended to convey to the by-standers the idea that F. does not belong to my party. It is, however, of no use. I am invariably dragged forward and exposed. The truth seems to be that men are as much misplaced in these labyrinths of gauze, and silks, and satins, as a lady would be in a cavalry-charge, or at a cattle-show. We have not the nerve for it.
I knew it was worse than idle for me to struggle against my destiny when once fairly committed to the terrors of this establishment, so I permitted the page to carry the mousseline-de-soie up-stairs without remonstrance. Indeed, at L. & A.'s both Flora and I had thought it exceedingly pretty; but when the parcel was opened by a young lady who officiated in the studio, and who glanced at its contents in a contemptuous way, I did not feel by any means so certain that we had not made a mistake. F., however, was not to be put down, but, in her own turn, scarcely condescended to pay any attention to the murmured remonstrances of the attendant sylph, whilst she stood entranced before the identical pink crape bonnet which had left so indelible a mark upon her internal consciousness some days before. My favourite pointer, Don, when he snuffs the first partridge of the season, on the 1st of September, at 7.45, a.m., in a fresh turnip-field, is affected much in the same way as dear Flora appeared to be with the pink crape bonnet. She passed her hand into my arm, without removing her eye from the fascinating object, and, slowly raising her parasol, and pointing at the P.C.B., whispered gently: "There it is, dear!"
Certainly it was very pretty: but if we had ever been inclined to indulge any doubt as to the propriety of the purchase, our hesitation was at once removed by an assurance from the young lady before-mentioned, that this particular bonnet was known as "Le chapeau rose à l'Impératrice trompée." It appeared that on the occasion of Madame's last visit to Paris, a friend of hers, likewise an eminent artiste, had conceived the design of this bonnet, and had mentioned the general outlines of her idea to a few intimate friends, who in their turn mentioned the matter to a few intimate friends, until at last it was spoken of in the presence of the French Empress. The Imperial Eugenie would have that bonnet, and no other: but there was a difficulty. Madame Hortense Babillard had not given in her adhesion to the Napoleonian ideas; she was still Orleanist—pure blood. However, an emissary from the château was appointed to conduct the negotiations between the Court and the atéliers of Madame Babillard. Madame B. conceived the idea of inflicting a blow on the dynasty of the parvenus. The Empress was to wear the bonnet on a given day, at a review on the plain of Satory, which was to take place at 2 p.m. It was calculated that the Empress would leave St. Cloud at 1 p.m. Now, at that very hour there was to be a great choral festivity in the neighbourhood of London, at which certain of the Orleanist Princesses were to assist, with their attendant ladies. It was therefore arranged that at 1 p.m. precisely all the Orleans ladies were to make their appearance in public, each one wearing a chapeau rose, as conceived by Madame B. At 1·15 p.m. the intelligence would be telegraphed to Paris; but by the time the contents of the telegram could be spread about that capital, the Empress would be fairly en route for the military solemnity at Satory. It would be too late! This remarkable conspiracy was actually carried out: and although super-human efforts were made by the French Court to hush it up, all that could be accomplished was to keep all mention of it out of the French papers.
We instantly concluded the purchase of the pink bonnet which figured in so remarkable a manner in cotemporary history; and whilst Flora withdrew into some inner sanctum sanctorum, where her pattern was to be rectified, I was amused by the endeavours of a stout, and—may I say it?—rather vulgar lady, to make a strange looking black mantilla, which, as it appeared, was now in great vogue, look as well upon her cob-like figure as it did upon that of the tall, graceful, elegant being who was attached to Madame S.'s establishment for the sole purpose of trying on mantillas, cloaks, and other drapery of the like description, between two huge cheval glasses.
"You see, madam, that the waggoner's piece should fit tight to the shoulders. It can be put in plaits at the waist; then there's a ribbon inside attached, which is drawn round the waist, and fastened, so; and then a lady's figure is shown in its full perfection. It will just become you, madam. Or it may hang full from the waist to the ground in graceful folds."
As she uttered these little phrases, the young lady who tried on the cloaks moved about in a graceful sinuous manner—now glancing slightly over one shoulder, now over the other—and smiling at Mrs. Moppen—for such was the name of the stout customer—in an affable and condescending manner. Mrs. M. was finally induced to try on one of these mantillas, and she certainly did present rather a remarkable contrast to the lithe young lady with the great natural advantages. It was very funny to watch them as they swam about like rival dancers before the cheval glasses. Certainly, had justice been done, Mrs. M. would not have received the largest number of bouquets upon this occasion. Little did I think, whilst I was indulging in internal mirth at her uncouth attempts at grace, that Mrs. M.'s presence in the atéliers of the distinguished modiste on the day in question would exercise so great an influence upon my own career.
Flora came out from the inner room just at the most critical moment of the performance. No sooner did her eyes meet those of the stout lady, than there was an exclamation upon either side of
They had known each other, as it appeared, in former years; and, as I afterwards was informed, Jane Slomax—the daughter of a distiller of considerable eminence—had intermarried with Mr. Thomas Moppen, the member for one of the metropolitan boroughs—I decline to say which. As I wish to pass over this portion of my story as speedily as possible, I will briefly mention that the political circumstances of the day were such that Mr. M.'s vote in favour of Government upon a particular division was a point which must be won at all hazards. There was no particular job on which Mr. M. could be obliged, for the constituency which he represented was so large that if he got a place for one of his supporters, he was sure to disoblige a thousand others. There was no little railway business—no anything. At last the Secretary to the Treasury—a very bland and vigilant gentleman—discovered that there was a Mrs. M.—that Mrs. M. had been presented at Court with all becoming splendour of diamonds and feathers, but that Mrs. M. had never received an invitation to a Court Ball. One was duly forwarded, and it was very remarkable to observe that on the very evening of the day when that invitation had been received at Juniper Hall, Clapham Rise, a speech which Mr. Moppen had originally set in five sharps, and which was intended by that gentleman as a root and branch attack upon the Government for their profligate expenditure of public money on military preparations, was toned down to five flats. Mr. Moppen, on leaving home, had informed his consort that the blandishments of a luxurious Court were entirely thrown away upon him, and that rather than betray his country, he was prepared to die in his place in the House of Commons: but all I know is, that his speech did give great satisfaction to the Treasury Bench. He was answered by the Secretary of War—who had been observed during the course of Mr. Moppen's most telling periods to be in close consultation with Viscount Merryton— with, great courtesy, but at the same time with much firmness.
The Right Honourable Gentlemen "was free to acknowledge that Mr. Moppen had done no more than his duty in bringing the subject before the attention of the House; but, at the same time, in the critical state of European politics—a subject which he declined to discuss, as it fell rather within the province of his Right Honourable Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs,—he knew the extent of his responsibilities to his own conscience, to his Sovereign, and to his country. The Right Honourable Gentleman was fully aware of the formidable character of the Honourable Member's motion, but he submitted it with great deference to his own candour and public spirit— whether it was just, whether it was fair, whether it was—he would say, in a public sense—honourable, to endeavour to overthrow a young Administration by a side-wind. Let the Honourable Gentleman provoke a substantive vote of want of confidence, and Her Majesty's confidential advisers were quite prepared to meet him on that broad and intelligible battle-field."
Mr. Moppen was thoroughly astonished, as well he might be, at this shower-bath of complimentary rhetoric; for hitherto the only notice he had received from the Treasury Bench had been of a sarcastic and sneering character, indeed the junior members of the Administration had not shrunk from entertaining the House with chaste imitations of Mr. Moppen's peculiar style of elocution, in which a certain coquetry with the aspirate formed a very leading feature. Not so long since, Lord Merryton had, in his own proper person, condescended to answer one of Mr. Moppen's speeches, which was not so much distinguished for historical accuracy as for patriotic zeal. The Honourable Member, speaking under a very pardonable confusion of ideas, had suggested to the House that a certain proposition with reference to the Ionian Parliament bore a very close resemblance to the tyrannical conduct of the First Charles, when that misguided monarch came down to the House for the purpose of arresting the Seven Bishops, and the Right Reverend Prelates were compelled to fly for refuge to the City of London. The Metropolitan Members of that day did their duty, as the Metropolitan Members of this day were prepared to perform theirs. How Lord Merryton did get up in his place, and poke fun at the unfortunate Moppen! How that Noble Lord did hum and haw, and keep the House waiting for the inevitable joke, which was lurking deep down in his malicious eye. What a picture he drew of Religion secure under the ægis of the Lord Mayor and Corporation! How he invented for the occasion a Civic Banquet, with the persecuted Bishops as the guests, and assumed that the good old air of Domine dirige nos! was sung upon that memorable occasion as a solo by the City Remembrancer. Now all was changed—not a syllable had been hinted about the hs absent without leave—Mr. M. had been answered by a Cabinet Minister—it had been vaguely suggested that the fate of the Government hung upon his decision— he was lifted at once into the proud position of leader of a section. Mr. M. withrew his motion, and the next day had 100,000 copies of his Great Speech printed off, and distributed amongst his constituents—the balance of the stock being sold off at the cheap rate of one penny.
So it came to pass that Mrs. Moppen was to go to the Queen's Ball, and the great M. himself was to be exposed to the blandishments of the luxurious Court. M. promised himself, however, that if the Prince Consort upon that occasion button-holed him, or got him up in a corner with two glasses and a bottle of champagne, he would tell him a bit of his mind; more especially upon the subject of the relations between the cabinet of St. James's and the German Confederation. Upon this point Moppen was inexorable—and he doubted not that he would be able to put the point in such a way to H.R.H. that that illustrious individual would from that moment forward be content to throw in his lot with the British Lion—without looking back to the flesh-pots of Germany.
After an interchange of courtesies in the purring manner usual among fair ladies when they are not quite sincere in their demonstrations of affection, Mrs. Moppen proceeded to inform Flora of her trials. The Queen's Ball was to take place in the middle of next week, and she, Mrs. Moppen, was here today for the purpose of trying on the dress which she was to wear upon that occasion. It was to be of white crape, over a satin slip—bouillonnés of same—looped up with white lilacs. But here was the rub. It seemed that within a very few days there was a strong probability that the illustrious House of Reuss-Preussichesblau might be thrown into mourning in consequence of the anticipated decease of the Reigning Duke. What would be the effect upon the costume to be worn at the ball? Mrs. Moppen withdrew Flora behind a table covered with bonnets, and, with a voice quivering with emotion, communicated her apprehensions with reference to the dear Duke. Could that august personage be induced to break through a long-confirmed habit of imbibing four bottles of Steinberger in the course of the afternoon, the physicians were not without hope that his glorious life might yet be prolonged. But upon this point argument seemed thrown away. What could Mrs. Moppen really care about the safety of this German potentate? Why was it that I saw traces of sympathetic emotion in Flora's eyes? One human being passes away every seven minutes within the jurisdiction of the London undertakers, and we do not give the matter a thought. Why this exaggerated sorrow for an august person of whose existence the two ladies were scarcely cognisant?
Mrs. Moppen asked if Flora would like to come over to Juniper Hall for a little friendly dinner on the night of the royal festivities, and to see her dressed for the ball. Flora declined her offer, and I, who am well aware of the meaning to be attached to the play of her sweet features, felt quite sure that Mrs. Moppen had not added to the harmony of the relations between herself and my admirable consort by this proposition. At length the ladies took leave of each other with great demonstrations of reciprocal good-will. The pink bonnet à l'Impératrice trompée was safely deposited in the back of the phaeton, and we drove away.
Flora was absorbed in thought; but, as she muttered, or rather murmured (men mutter, ladies murmur), "That odious Jane Moppen!" I knew which way her thoughts were tending. At length, when we reached the hill by the third mile-stone, and I was letting the horse take it quietly up the ascent, Flora observed to me in a quiet, but at the same time in an emphatic, manner:
"John—why are you not in Parliament?"
I confess I had not been without some senatorial aspirations, even at a former period of my career; indeed, during the earlier portion of my residence at the University, had any one informed me that within four or five years I should not be leading the House of Commons, I should have supposed the speaker to have been under the influence of petty malice and envy. So many fellows, of whose abilities I had entertained the meanest opinion, both at school and at the University, had made for themselves something like a name in public life, that I could not but suppose that with equal opportunities I should have been further on the road to fame—and, what was of far more importance, to the well-earned respect of a grateful country. These dreams or aspirations had, however, faded away, in the midst of the domestic comfort which I had enjoyed for so many years.
Flora observed that she, in common with all my friends and well-wishers, had always entertained the highest opinion of my abilities—but that I was wanting in energy and decision of character. I could be whatever I liked—it was only necessary for me to will it, and the thing was done. With what a wonderful flow of language I had been gifted! F. was quite sure I should make a great speaker, for what was the difference between speaking in an upright or in a sitting position! It was only a chair which divided one situation from the other. After all, what was a chair? Surely a man could get over that. Then I was so richly endowed with a sense of the humorous! In what a roar I could keep my own dinner-table, especially when I amused my audience with my celebrated anecdote of the two boiled chickens and the stuttering Bagman. How masterly was my control over arithmetical quantities! Uncle Spillsby had always said that I was thrown away upon the West End, and if I had gone into the City I could have held my own against the best of them. Indeed, to come closer to the point, it was but three months back that I had addressed the company assembled at our friend Mrs. Prickett's, on the occasion of the Christening of the last babe, in a manner which had brought tears into the eyes of every lady present, and not, as I humbly hope, at all lowered me in the opinion of my fellow-men. Women, as dear Flora told me, were not bad judges of these things, and her opinion was made up on the point. She would have said just the same thing if she had not been connected with me in the remotest way.
All the way down by the Reservoir, and up by the Two Welsh Harps, this sweet poison was distilled into my not very reluctant ear. Of course I pooh-poohed the suggestions of my excellent wife, and informed her that upon more than one occasion I had endeavoured to address an assemblage of my fellow-creatures, but I appeared to suffer under this peculiarity, that, no matter how carefully I had prepared my speech beforehand—how thickly I had stuffed it with jokes—how dexterously I had infused the pathos—or how carefully I had fortified it with statistics—when I was once upon my legs, speech, jokes, pathos, and statistics seemed to have vanished from my mind like a morning cloud from the hillside, and I was left simply with the consciousness of being perfectly ridiculous. My success—since F. was good enough to say it was a success—at Mrs. Prickett's was entirely due to the fact that I had not prepared my speech beforehand, but had uttered a few sentences fresh from my heart, suggested by the spectacle of the domestic happiness then present before our very eyes. Anybody could have done that. At the same time, I certainly did inform F. that I had it upon excellent authority, that there was scarcely an instance upon record of any great actor or actress who had not upon his or her first appearance made a complete break-down. The preliminary failure seemed to be the inevitable condition of ultimate success. Surely, if this theory were correct, I was entitled to look forward to the highest offices in the state.
Ambition had fairly fastened upon my mind, and I soon found that the simple pleasures which had before been sufficient to afford me contentment had now utterly lost their savour. A few days after the drive home from Mrs. Smith's I was fairly overwhelmed by the weight of public affairs. There was but one moment of intense happiness for me in the day, and that was when the various newspapers were placed on the breakfast table in the morning. And these were the men who guided the public opinion of the country! The paltry scribblers! I could have done better whilst I was shaving. There was a total want of earnestness about them which disgusted, whilst it surprised, me. Their chief effort seemed to be to make a series of low jokes upon matters of the gravest importance to the destinies of the world; or, in the absence of any true and fixed ideas upon the subjects on which they were writing, to pile up one rhetorical phrase upon another. The partisan writers one could see through, and despise. The miserable tools were simply doing the dirty work for which they were hired—but here were men who affected to be expressing the honest convictions of their minds. One or two articles which I addressed under cover to the editor of a very leading journal were treated with perfect disregard. Miserable man! What a chance he was throwing away! In these papers—they were upon the extension of the suffrage to lodgers—I had endeavoured to combine the sparkling epigrammatic vein of Walpole, with the sarcasm of Junius, and the robust common-sense of Cobbett—not as I flatter myself wholly in vain. The editor burked them; but, of course, had he permitted them to see the light, there was an end for ever of the painful efforts of his hired band of literary gladiators.
There was clearly nothing for it but to take the political world boldly by the horns. I would obtain a seat in the House, and when once there, I would see if a man could not run a clear and upright political career, unfettered by mere party-ties. Flora applauded my resolution. I asked but for a few days' delay, during which I would decisively settle the question with myself of whether or no I was fitted to address a public assembly. I committed to memory various passages from the speeches of the most celebrated worthies of the English Parliament, and endeavoured to deliver them in an oratorical manner, with Flora for my audience. Success crowned my attempts. Upon one occasion, indeed, when I had enunciated the conclusion of the late Mr. Canning's address to the House of Commons upon the South American Colonies with unusual fervour, I so completely carried my audience with me, that the House was pleased to acknowledge my merit in a very gratifying manner. In point of fact, Mrs. J. started from her seat; and, throwing her arms round my neck (the proceeding was unparliamentary but pleasant), exclaimed, with tears in her eyes, "Oh, John, dear, how beautiful!—You'll do!"
If the business was to be carried out at all, it must be undertaken in a business-like manner. Although I had lived very much out of the world, I was not so mere a simpleton as to suppose that a gentleman who was neither a great landlord, nor a railway contractor, nor a rising lawyer, nor connected by birth with any of the great families, could secure admission to Parliament for the first time without a little dexterous management. Bribery and corruption were, of course, out of the question; but still there were legitimate expenses, which in many instances mounted, as I had been informed, to a very considerable sum. Aunt Elizabeth's legacy to Flora had put us in a position in which we need not shrink from any little effort of this kind; so I resolved to go down to the lobby of the House of Commons, and see if I could not find some one or more members of the House with whom I was personally acquainted, who would put me in the way of securing a seat.
A curious place it is, that lobby of the House of Commons, where you see so many men, whose names are uppermost in every man's mouth, gossipping, and hanging about, like very ordinary mortals indeed. They are not, on the whole, beautiful to look at, but I am not aware that it is necessary for a British statesman to rival the personal grace of Adonis or the Apollo Belvedere. We, the mere outsiders, were pushed back and packed into corners by the assiduous policemen in attendance. It was, however, very gratifying to behold the simplicity with which an Honourable Member, who had been Prime Minister, and was now holding one of the most important offices in the State, munched his two-pennyworth of biscuits at the fruit-stall in the corner. It was also an imposing sight when Mr. Speaker with his little procession, passed through "to prayers." Yes, that was the first Commoner in England, the foremost man, to my apprehension, of the human race. He passed me by without notice; however I trusted soon to entitle myself to his regard in a particular way.
At length I caught the eye of my friend, Philip Poldadek—a Cornish member—a very fierce and independent politician—who has carried terror into the breasts of successive Administrations by his fervid speeches upon the Waste Territory of the Hudson's Bay Company—and the grievances of Dissenting Auctioneers. When I mentioned to him, in a confidential way, my intention of seeking for a seat in the House—with a withering sneer, he told me that I had better go home and hang myself at once, than have anything to do with that rotten and corrupt assembly. Phil had not hung himself—and indeed had contested his own seat at the last election, hotly enough.
My next effort was made with our own County Member, who warmly shook me by the hand—congratulated me on my intentions—informed me that seats were as plentiful as blackberries—and then disappeared into the body of the House. He had been returned for the county for forty years without opposition.
Was there no half-way house? Yes, surely that is my old class-fellow, Tom Rareton. I will try my fortune with him. He really did favour me with his attention—and finally said:—
"Well, if you have made up your mind, Jack, there's no more to be said about it. I'll tell you what to do—go and talk to the Sloth about it." Gamma.
(To be continued.)