Long Odds

Chapter XXIII

Political Plots

Marcus Clarke

WHEN Dacre said that Wheales had “spoken” of the ingenuous Binns, he did not tell an absolute untruth. The mighty Reformer had spoken of the sucking Leaguer, but in a very casual and unimpressive manner. The Branch of the Association to which Binns was secretary was an important one. It embraced many mechanics and skilled workmen, and was, perhaps, more intelligent and less bloodthirsty than others of its kind. It is true that the oratory heard at its meetings was not Demosthenic, but it was straightforward and to the purpose. The questions agitated were no useless quibbles upon Cromwell or Magna Charta; they were palpable, easy, every-day notions about work and wages. Honest men of the better class put down their names on the subscription list, and came week after week to hear the Doric eloquence of their brethren. There was much nonsense talked, of course, and the usual amount of plagiarised sentimentality about “hearths and homes,” and “rights,” and “horny hands,” and so on; but the men knew what they meant.

Societies of this kind are the political universities of the people, and they soon learn to sift the chaff from the wheat of democratic discussion. If they did not succeed in raising wages or lowering import duties, they developed their governing instincts, and found out that they were not beasts of burden merely. Constant organisation is not without its results; and, if the working men did nothing else, they learnt that they must sacrifice individual interests to attain a position as a body.

Putting aside the exquisite pleasure of telling a superior that they “were as good as he,” there is a fascination to men who possess quick sympathies and little education, fierce prejudices, and feeble reasoning power, in feeling that though as units they are despised, as a body they are feared, and that the master who despises the working man, respects the Working Men’s Association.

To guide these men to their impossible goal was Binns’s ambition. He was young, enthusiastic, and not without talent. His eloquence was of that fiery, youthful sort which is so good to hear, and so silly to read. He was illogical often, impassioned and earnest always. The great secret in talking to masses is to let them see that you believe in the sentiments you deliver; above all, to talk continuously, and to keep your best argument for the last. Binns was happy in this respect. Though only a grocer’s apprentice, he was gifted with some natural talent, and a desperate industry, that almost supplied the place of genius. He was made secretary to the Association, and he made an impression. Men called him an “uncommon clever feller,” and nodded their heads approvingly. He was listened to with an attention which was not vouchsafed to older speakers. He was spoken of amongst the heads as a useful man. In a word, he was just on the edge of the whirlpool.

In the meantime the popular agitation was as noisy as ever. The late Government had hitherto done nothing towards retrieving their position, and the Conservative journals began dimly to hint at the horrors of a Whig ministry. The Radicals were in high glee. Their party was in the ascendant at last, they thought, and the ark that held the New Moses fairly launched upon the waters.

The Earl of Foozleton had not recovered the blow dealt by the hand of Master Cyril. Ministries have been made and marred by lesser men before now, but the iron had entered into the ex-premier’s soul, and he was bitter against his enemy. To be overthrown by fair means would have been nothing, but to be ignominiously pulled down from his high estate by the treachery of a boy at college, was something unprecedented in Lord Foozleton’s political recollections; and he inwardly vowed that, if it should ever be in his power, he would return the debt with interest.

“This is the age of political adventurers,” he would say, in his confidential moments; “but they play a risky game, and if they lose it they have no chance to recoup themselves.”

There was much talk in “private circles” as to the new ministry. The “old stagers” averred that it was impossible that the Liberals could muster strongly enough.

“We must have a compromise,” said they. “The ‘trimmers’ will have it. Public feeling is all for the ‘Rads,’ but they can’t do it, sir—they can’t do it!”

So thought the private secretary of Lord Nantwich, and so thought, perhaps, Lord Nantwich himself. That gentleman had long been waiting for such a chance as this. He stood well with each party, and his policy had been to “wait.” Though the Tories had given him his place, he had not pledged himself to the Tory party, and he was now prepared “for either fortune.” Careful to a fault, quiet and reserved, he had long passed as a “man of sound common sense;” and perhaps none but his secretary knew how little he deserved the position he held. Mr. Rupert Dacre had been playing for high stakes, and took care to inform himself of the chances of the game. Lord Nantwich was his trump card, and he was in no hurry to play him. But he saw an opening now. He had not wasted his time. Nantwich looked upon him as his right-hand man, and had repeatedly given him to understand that, were he ever in power, he would not forget him. In the present condition of things he urged his chief to action.

“We want a moderate man, my lord,” he would say—“a man who has friends on both sides of the House. It is impossible to permit Liberalism to carry the day, and yet we dare not run the risk of a defeat of the Conservatives. Foozleton’s cabinet has gone to utter wreck, and it is absurd to attempt to reinstate it, even partially. Why do not you, my dear lord, take the tide at the flood? The late Government would rather see you at the head of their successors than anybody else; and the Liberals would support you against the Tories, because you are pledged to no extreme measures.”

“I am afraid to run the risk—it might end in a fatal rupture with both parties.”

“I think not. Moreover, the ‘half-measure’ men are numerous, and would hail your accession to office as a solution of a difficulty which they are afraid to face. If I might presume to advise your lordship, I would suggest that you should begin to make advances.”

So by degrees it began to be bruited abroad that a third party was in course of formation. Despite the attacks of the Radical papers, and the sneers of the haute école, such formation was looked upon with favour; and Lord Nantwich was spoken of as the Coming Man. In vain did the more furious of either side murmur of “incapacity,” and hint that the late Secretary for Foreign Affairs was effete and incompetent; he began to be looked upon as an excellent “stop-gap” by the more moderate and less sanguine.

The fact was, as Grosmith put it one night at the Pegasus—“Everybody’s afraid of everybody else, and as they can’t settle who shall knock under, they’ll go in for compromise.”

“The passion for comfort will carry the day, depend on it,” said Dacre. “Most Englishmen are just educated enough to be negative. They like the people—at a distance; they preach the Gospel—in evening dress and white kid gloves. We shall establish a Negative party.”

“Who will support you?” asked a young disciple of Matthew Arnold, who drank Maraschino and water, and tempered his unbelief with an infusion of Fine Arts.

“Why you will! You like to talk about Democracy, but you don’t like to touch it. You prate about Culture, because culture is exceptional. You are very hard upon Religion as long as the People go to church, but when ‘infidelity begins to smell of candle grease,’ as Heine says, you vote it vulgar, and talk about Neo-platonism. You tell the people that they are fools to suffer in silence, but when they speak, you laugh because they drop their h’s.”

“Well, perhaps I do,” said the young man, with a smile; “but for all that, I ‘go in’ for the ‘Masses,’ you know;” and with that he rang for a waiter to give him a book that was lying on the next table.

“Hang the ‘masses!’” cries little Figleaf, whose father was a grocer, and whose grandfather first saw the light of day in a gutter in the Haymarket— “I hate the ‘great unwashed’ myself.”

“T-they will be tutoo st-st-rong for you y-yet,” stammered Randon, “m-mark my words, D-D-Dacre. I have st-st-studied the signs of the tut-to-times, and I own, I f-fwankly own that I am well up in Puppolitical Eccuckcuck—onomy.”

Dacre got up to go. “Perhaps, that stammering booby is right,” he muttered, as he walked slowly home. “I have a very great mind to speak to the scorbutic admirer of Mrs. Chatteris. By the way, that reminds me I must call upon that little lady. ’Pon my soul, it is a weary life—this constant plotting and scheming. If I only had plenty of money and a good position, I’d settle down to be ‘good!’ But then—I haven’t!”

Following out this train of reflection, he wrote a note to Binns, in which he expressed a wish to see him at the Office.

Binns took the letter to Bland.

Bland hummed and hahed over it, and finally told him that he had better take care what he was about. “You can’t serve two masters you know,” said he.

“Oh, I’m all right!” cries Binns, with youthful self-confidence. “He won’t get much out of me.”

So he went, and was received by the astute secretary in a room littered with papers, and teeming with officialism.

“Glad to see you, my dear sir. Sit down. I expect our Italian budget in directly, and we have not much time to talk.”

Binns sat on the edge of his chair and said nothing.

“The fact is that I wanted to speak to you. I have taken an interest in you, Mr. Binns—if you will not feel offended at the expression—and as we are always on the look out for ‘new blood’ here, I wished to have a little conversation.”

Binns said that he imagined “new blood” was the last thing sought in the Foreign Office.

“In the Foreign Office—yes. In political circles—no. In the present state of affairs, my dear sir, no one can know better than yourself that extreme anxiety is felt by all parties.”

This was vague, but true, and Binns could do nothing but bow assent. “The formation of a new party is a ticklish thing, you understand, and we find it impossible to pass over those young men who are—if I may use the term—the Free-lances of Young England.”

Binns grew hot. Was he going to offer him a “place?”

“The old method of ‘favouritism’ is dying out, and the Government has discovered that in order to rule the people, it must conciliate the leaders of the people.”

Binns blushed.

“Now you, Mr. Binns, have shown yourself in a marked manner to be one of our most rising speakers. I do not mean that you have achieved any success hitherto which is out of the common, but your speeches—which I hear of regularly—display an amount of consistency which is rare in so young a man. You know I am much older than you, my dear sir, and may take liberties.”

Binns coughed, and blushed again. The calm, smiling, bearded gentleman, surrounded with official documents, and sitting—as it seemed—at the receipt of foreign custom, did appear centuries older, and leagues higher in social position.

“Now I think, Mr. Binns, and I say it with all due respect to your private feelings, that you have done wrong in committing yourself to the Mob. Mobocracy will never prevail in England. Liberalism may. I should be loth to offend your prejudices, but if I may speak of self-interest to a disinterested man, I should urge that the Government holds out more rewards and more hope of political success than any ‘Association,’ however powerful.”

Binns flushed redder this time. Was the secretary offering him a bribe to betray his friends? He would be firm, and refuse.

“Do you mean—?”

“I mean nothing at all, my dear sir. I simply throw out a friendly hint for your future guidance. You may think it strange that I, who possess the confidence of the Earl of Nantwich, and am—undeservedly, I admit—of some importance in the political world, should broach these subjects to you. My dear sir, we do not always confine ourselves to foreign policy at the Foreign Office—at least, I do not. I am, my dear sir, like yourself, an aspirant for political honours, and I like to know that men of my own stamp of thought agree with me.”

Binns was paralysed. The compliment was too great, and it fairly choked him.

“I am very proud—very proud,” he stammered, “of your good opinion.”

“Oh, pooh—that goes without saying—I am only too glad to have had the opportunity of expressing my sentiments towards you. I should like to see you in a better position than you are now, Mr. Binns, as a friend of a friend of mine—for I believe that Chatteris and yourself are intimate?”

“W-well, not exactly intimate,” said Binns.

“Well, you know each other, at all events; and he has often spoken of you to me. I wished to point out to you that an opportunity is now coming which you will do wrong to lose sight of. You should join us, my dear sir.”

“How?” cried Binns, in utter astonishment.

“Belong to the new Party—the Party of Young England—the Party that stands midway between the two extremes of political faction. We have neither the blind rage of Democracy nor the stolid indifference of the Aristocracy. We are the Party of Intellect, and our aim is to reconcile the conflicting elements in the social world, and while placing the working man on the pedestal of his own integrity and honesty, to make the culture of the middle classes and the wealth of the upper, combine to cast out the devils of insouciance and neglect from the body politic. Do you comprehend?”

Binns did not, of course, the least in the world, but the studied tones, affected enthusiasm, and carefully-used catch-phrases had caught him, and he thought that he was listening to a new gospel.

“It is a grand scheme,” said he.

“Then you will be with us? But we must not show our cards, you know. We have a difficult game to play, and must be careful. The English mechanic, down-trodden for centuries, is incapable of appreciating the idea of moderation. You yourself can, of course, at once understand the whole plan of operations, but it will never do to show the Mysteries to the crowd, you know. Now good-bye. Keep this little conversation a secret, and we will work in concert.”

Binns promised, and bowed, and retired.

He went home upon air. He was accepted—picked out as a recruit for a new political Party of Culture and Intellect, and goodness knows what beside. He strove to exactly understand what this Party was to do, but beyond general philanthropy and “uniting” every one, he could not see the ultimate result of its operations. His ambition, however, was attained. He was in politics at last!

As the door closed on his visitor, Dacre threw himself back in his chair and laughed hugely. “What a consummate ass the fellow is!” he cried. “Now I’ll go and see Mrs. Chatteris.”

Long Odds - Contents    |     Chapter XXIV - Rupert Dacre in a New Rôle

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