“Are you a friend of Mr. Dacre?”
“Not exactly,” said Binns, who, though vain, was honest. “Mr. Dacre heard of me through the Working Men’s Association.”
“He said that he wished me to join his party, and—”
“Well,” said Binns, as near laughing as he dared, as the thought struck him that that was all Dacre had said, “he told me that you would explain.”
“Oh! Are you in any profession?”
Binns flushed a pimply crimson. The hated shop to crush him here again!
“I am going into trade.”
“In fact, I—I—I am about to be made partner in a grocery business.”
The little eye twinkled, and Mr. Huskinson meditatively tapped a very fine front tooth with a paper knife.
“You prefer politics, however?”
There was a silence; and, as poor Binns sat upon the edge of his chair, he felt like a rabbit in the presence of a boa-constrictor, and that Mr. Jonas Huskinson was sliming him over with his eye previous to swallowing him noiselessly. Having apparently expended all his mental saliva, Mr. Huskinson changed the venue of the paper-knife to the palm of his hand, and said,
“Mr. Dacre says in this letter that you are ready to go down to Kirkminster as an agent for the Conservative interest.”
“Not exactly the Conservative interest,” says Binns.
“Well, the idea was that I should discover the feelings of the working men about there—that is the pottery people—and see if they were favourable to the political views of Mr. Dacre.”
Mr. Jonas Huskinson stopped the paper-knife suddenly, and said,
“I beg your pardon; of whom?”
“Of Mr. Dacre.”
“Oh yes—ah! Pray, go on.”
“Well,” says Binns, fairly driven to speak out, “I have come to you for instructions.”
Mr. Huskinson struck a hand-bell, which brought the staid clerk to the door, rigidly, as if his room was a cuckoo clock, and he was the cuckoo.
“Bring me ‘K,’” said Mr. Huskinson.
“K” turned out to be a huge ledger, brass bound, and locked.
Mr. Huskinson unlocked it, turned over the leaves with a cat-like cleanliness, and signalled to Binns to approach.
The first thing that he saw was the word KIRKMINSTER, in large letters, then a printed description of the town, cut out of some cyclopaedia or gazetteer; and, last of all, an array of names, with remarks appended, in a minute handwriting.
“This,” said Mr. Huskinson, blowing away a speck of dust from it, “is a full account of the town of Kirkminster, you see. Pop., 17,000. Man., glass, earthenware, cloth, bricks. Rivers, the Kirke, the Axe, and so on. I have also jotted down, for my private information and guidance, any little interesting items of news concerning the county families and the most influential electors in the place. It will be your task, I imagine, to add to such a scanty store as I have collected.”
“I do not quite understand you, sir.”
Mr. Huskinson shut up “K” and began to slime.
“You are to go down to Kirkminster, Mr. Binns, to find out all you can about the feeling of the working population. Do you understand?”
There seemed to be a diplomatic delicacy about such a mission that fascinated Binns. He would try what he could do, at all events; if he did not like the mission, he could return.
“I am to report progress to you?”
A smile glimmered on one side of Mr. Huskinson’s mouth.
“Not exactly. You will find a committee there already, I expect, and you will be guided by their directions. All you have to do is to mingle with the electors, and—”
Binns flushed again. “That is something like a spy,” he interrupted.
“Impress upon them the great principles of coalition and temperance.”
Binns felt sorry for his haste.
“The object of Mr. Dacre, I expect, is to convince the people that he means good, not harm. Of course, if you should obtain any important information—concerning the formation of a clique, for instance, or anything of that sort—you may write to me. But I shall be down there myself when the election comes off. You will want money, of course.”
He took out a cheque book, and wrote a cheque, and then a letter.
“Here is a cheque for £20, and here is a letter to Mr. Potter, our agent. He will give you as much more when you want it. If you are extravagant, you will have to come back again. Elections are not what they used to be, you know. You can go by the last train to-night, or the first to-morrow morning, if you like. Good day!” and he handed the cheque and the letter with an indifferent air, as though he had met Binns every day for the last ten years, and was going to meet him again every day for ten more.
Bland was not very sanguine about the wisdom of the proceeding, and shook his head when Binns told him the result of his expedition.
“It is a great risk,” said he, “you will have to give up your secretaryship, you know.”
“I have got somebody to do the work while I am away.”
“Yes. But what do you think will be the end of all this?”
“We must leave that to time, you know,” says Binns. “I think Mr. Dacre is an honourable man, and means well.”
“I hope he does; but I shall keep an eye upon him for all that.”
Binns sighed. “I think we have both been mistaken about Chatteris. It was my fancy—my jealousy, if you like—that made me suspect all sorts of things. I think he loves her.”
Strange to say, the two minds seemed to have changed places. Binns was hopeful, and Bland despondent.
However, they shook hands and parted.
“You will let me know if you hear anything?” says Binns.
“Yes, yes; and be careful what you do, my boy.”
“Oh, I’ll be careful enough!” says Binns, with all the delightful confidence of youth. “Good-bye, old fellow—good-bye;” and he went off as though he were already Prime Minister.
When he reached his destination, however, he did not feel so sanguine.
Mr. Potter was a fat-headed man, with an overweening sense of his own importance. He lived in a staring red brick house in High-street, and wore all the brass about it polished to dazzlement. He was an attorney of the stolid sort, and was very proud of his connection with the Parliamentary Huskinson. The real work of the firm was transacted by Piper—a little black-visaged man, who never looked you straight in the face. Potter grew stolid over his chief’s letter, and then sent for Piper. Piper bit his nails to the quick, and said, “Of course—of course—of course,” like a magpie. All this time Binns was growing uncomfortable, and thinking about dinner.
“Find out about the public feeling!” says Piper, stealing a vicious side glance at Binns—“Why, we could have told him that. Eh, Potter?”
Potter’s forehead veins grew turgid.
“Mr. Huskinson’s reasons are always excellent, Piper,” said he. “We will give the young man every facility.”
The young man, whose best coat was cutting him under the arms, brightened up a little at this.
“You can live at the Angel,” said Piper, looking everywhere but at the person he addressed.
“An excellent coffee-room,” said Potter, “and reasonable terms.”
“Reasonable terms?” says Piper to the inkstand.
“Oh yes, I think so,” says Potter. So, after Piper had concluded a short interview with the fire-irons on the subject of the dullness of London at that time of year, Binns rose to go.
“There will be no business of importance for a week or two,” said Mr. Potter. “But I gather from my friend Mr. Huskinson’s letter that he expects you to be of some service in your secretarial capacity.”
Binns felt a little confused. He did not understand all this vague talk, out of which nothing arose. He had some dim idea that he should find the task of disseminating the New Political Gospel an entirely different thing from what he had expected. However, he was wise enough to say nothing, and went out.