The Conservative Committee was sitting at the White Hart, with Potter and Piper in attendance. The Parliamentary Huskinson had sent down word that the Government would support Mr. Cyril Chatteris, of Matcham, and that Mr. Rupert Dacre would also stand, to make assurance doubly sure.
“I suppose that Dacre is the man they want,” said Piper, when the two were in consultation.
“I don’t think that they care much,” says Potter. “But Huskinson says that we must return one of them. The plan is to divide the interest until the last minute, and then put in the most popular man.”
In the meantime the town was blazing with placards, and volcanic with eruption of hand-bills. Old Saville paid visits to all the county interest, and had obtained promises without end. The wool-stapler—by name Ebenezer Crofts—held his court at the Potter’s Arms, in the New-town, and made dogmatic speeches to the people.
Binns had been set to work to collect facts, and had collected that the general tone of the pottery-hands was dead against Rupert Dacre. They were not so antagonistic to Chatteris, because the name was to some extent familiar to them, and they could say nothing against him save that he was a gentleman, But the wool-stapler was the favourite. In the Old-town, of course, Crofts was quite out of the race, and Cyril Chatteris was the chosen of Respectability. Dacre’s chance seemed a poor one. But Huskinson, who held the electoral strings in his hand, had told Lord Nantwich that he would return his protegé if he wished it. Nantwich—cautious ever—said that he thought Mr. Dacre was a safe man, and that he had claims upon him, but that if the agent saw that Chatteris would get in without much difficulty to let him do it.
Consequently, when Dacre arrived he did not find his prospects so bright as he had expected. But Nantwich had promised him that he would not forget him in any case, and his mind was tolerably easy. The morning after he had arrived he sent for Binns. Binns was chap-fallen.
“I don’t like the work, Mr. Dacre,” he said. “It is underhand and disagreeable.”
Dacre, who, being secure of his prey, cared little now for Binns’ interference, said that it was the sort of thing that must be done by somebody, and that, if he objected, Potter could find someone else. “You have done all we wanted, I fancy, already,” said he. “You say that the pottery hands don’t like me, eh?”
“No—they do not. I have been among them a good deal, and they seem more inclined for Crofts than anybody.”
“Did they know that you had been connected with the Association?”
“No,” said Binns, and blushed a little.
“Well, there is no harm done, you see.”
“And no good.”
“That remains to be seen. It is the wish of the Government that either Mr. Chatteris or myself should represent the borough, and if you further their wishes, I don’t suppose they will forget it.”
“Mr. Dacre—that looks to me very like a bribe.”
Dacre pointed out of the open window into the street, where a knot of the pottery hands had collected.
“Look at them,” he said.
Binns looked. At the opposite corner was a public-house. Some ten men were gathered round the steps—smoking, lounging, and talking. It was market day, and the town was full of farmers come to hire, and farm labourers come to be hired. One of these last was leading a big-boned blood horse up and down, while Farmer Giles, or Jones, was absorbing beer at the White Hart bar. The contrast was sufficiently great. The rustic was a big stout-built animal, with huge boots and brawny shoulders. He looked the incarnation of solid strength. The pottery men were shambling, ungainly, sodden-faced fellows, and their attitudes all betokened laziness and debauchery. Binns was not familiar enough with the “British Agriculturalist” to rate him at his true value. He saw only the beery, tobacco-smoking crew on the one hand, and the sturdy holder of the pawing horse on the other.
“Which do you like the best?” asked Dacre—amusing himself by watching the other’s face. “There are your masses, and here are your people.”
The distinction was fallaciously subtle.
“You are a democrat, you say,” he went on. “Very well, here is the raw material—work it up. Which would you rather make ruler or judge over you?”
“King Log and King Stork?” said the friend of the metaphorical Bland.
“Exactly. You want to get rid of the present system of government, but you have no other to put in its place.—Fancy being ruled over by that fellow!” he added, as a pottery-hand staggered across the road, singing some drunken ditty.
“I don’t want him to rule over me, but I want him to know that he has an interest in the government as well as other people,” says Binns, plucking up courage as the recollection of his oft-made speeches flashed across him.
“That is what we want to teach him. Do you think that Ebenezer Crofts will do it?”
“Do you think that Ebenezer Crofts—the wool-stapler, the money-grubber—cares about Hodge yonder? He will promise enough, of course. What has Wheales done? Excited the people and made himself the laughing-stock of England. The best friend to the English people is the aristocrat after all. He can afford to do practical good.” Dacre was getting quite interested in the subject. “If ever the people rise against the nobility, we’ll put them down with the shoeblack-brigade.”
Binns did not reply. He felt that all this talk was chaff and dry dust, but he was unable to say why he felt it to be so. His mediocre intellect just allowed him to see the disease, but he did not know enough of political surgery to suggest a remedy.
“The prop of England,” said he, “is her peasantry!”
Just then Farmer Giles or Jones came out, burly, breeched, and booted. He swung himself to saddle, and flung Hodge a sixpence. The coin fell into the kennel, and the plunging hoofs of the farmer’s hunter splashed the water into Hodge’s face. He looked up and down the street, shook a brawny fist at the retreating figure, and with a bacon-fed curse that made the ears of the town-bred grocer’s lad tingle, picked up the money, and went straight into the public-house.
Binns turned away from the window, and Dacre laughed softly.
“You have too romantic ideas about the peasantry,” he said.
“There must be something wrong somewhere,” says poor Binns, vaguely.
“It will take wiser men than you or I to find it out I expect. And now I must really say good morning. I have to receive a deputation at half-past eleven, and it is nearly eleven now.”
Binns paused with his hand upon the door.
“But—but—what am I to do?” he asked.
The expectant member for Kirkminster shrugged his shoulders.
“Upon my word I don’t know. You had better ask Potter; but then you say that you don’t like Potter.”
The tone was so careless that Binns felt his heart sink. It was true! They did not want him any more. He had kicked against the pricks and must take the consequences. He felt very heart-sick at his hopes of fame and fortune ending thus; and, almost in spite of himself, made one more effort to retrieve his position.
“Mr. Potter said something about some ‘secretarial’ work,” said he.
“Indeed. Well, you’d better see Potter then. I shall be very glad to do all I can for you.” Then, seeing the other’s crestfallen look, “You see, Mr. Binns, that politics are a trade as much as anything else. If we don’t want an article, we can’t afford to pay for it. You have been very useful to us up to a certain point, but we have now got beyond that point—or rather Potter has. I never interfere in these matters of detail myself; but, as I said before, if my name is of any avail with Potter——”
Binns got angry.
“You sent me down here yourself, Mr. Dacre.”
“Yes, my good sir; but I am not responsible for your proceedings afterwards. I sent you to Huskinson. Huskinson sent you to Potter. Potter finds that you have done all that can be done, and of course cannot employ you farther.”
“In some other capacity——?” ventured Binns.
“Well, I’ll see Potter if you like,” returned the other, a little impatiently. And then it suddenly struck him that the young man might be useful in relieving him of some of the multifarious correspondence which his position entailed. Moreover, Dacre was not inclined to bruise broken reeds, and was rather good natured when he could be so without injury to himself, and poor Binns had been treated somewhat badly.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said; “you can stop here if you like, and answer some of my letters for me, and we’ll see then what Potter says.”
Binns overflowed with gratitude. He would be too happy to do anything that lay in his power.
Dacre was sure of it, but the deputation was within ten minutes or so, and Binns could return in the afternoon.
The long, low bar-room was full of people, and the “deputation” were forcing their way through. They were fat, rosy, sturdy men of the yeoman sort, and had come to ask some questions about malt or hops, or wheat or flour. Binns pushed past them, and went out into the street. He wanted to walk somewhere. To cool his mind in some shady solitude. As he walked up the flags depression began to fall on him. He felt that he had been “made use of;” that the unscrupulous Huskinson had employed him to extract information out of the “pottery people,” which could scarcely have been obtained by other means, and had then calmly let him drift away with the tide. He did not like the business from the first, but he had trusted to his own skill and “knowledge of the world” to steer him safely through all dangers. He blushed again as he remembered how he had gradually slipped away from virtue. When first he mingled with the “pottery hands,” he had refrained from spying out their secrets and questioning them as to their intentions; but by-and-bye, as Piper puffed complaint concerning “no information,” “waste of time,” and so on, he had been led into obtaining their confidences and betraying them. He knew well that the voters in the New Town were noted and marked down, and that Piper and Potter could pretty well guess how many votes would be recorded for the pet Government candidate; and he felt a pang of shame when he remembered that he had himself supplied the information. And yet there was no acknowledgment of his services. To speak them aloud was to proclaim his own baseness. Potter and Piper had “used him,” and despised him; and, as for the great Huskinson, he would blow him from his memory as he had blown away the speck of dust that rested upon the immaculate pages of his brass-bound ledger. This sort of thing was base, unmanly, unworthy of a friend of the people and a supporter of the “working man.” He would go back to London, admit his errors, and settle down to honest work. Better the grocer’s shop than this. It was the old story of the earthen pot.
“I am not clever enough for this sort of thing,” said he, bitterly. “I have been made a fool of, and duped, and laughed at. I’ll go back and tell Dacre that I won’t accept his offer;” and the memory of his old hopes came upon him, and a lump rose in his throat, and his eyes filled with tears of anger and shame.
He had got out of the town by this time, and was on the country road that wound far away into the level distance. On the right rose the cathedral with its clustering parasites of cloister, court, and close. Beyond and behind its grey, mournful towers, the tall parvenus chimneys of the New Town smoked and puffed in all the insolence of wealth. The struggle between Beauty and Utility modelled in stone. The glaring white houses and hard, jealous villas of the New Town princes dotted the expanse. The railway viaduct spanned the blackened, sluggish Axe, and seven times a day the train ran roaring and rattling past the tawdry poverty and stuccoed cheapness of the New Town tradesmen and hucksters. Binns turned his face to the left. There the country spread out bright and fair; the Axe ran murmuring through locks and weirs, swirled black and gloomy under the branches by Matcham Reach (ghost haunted), and glided broad and bright past the stately trees and sloping branches of Matcham Park. As far as the eye could see, the fair levels of the champaign spread out fat and fertile. A tender, blue wreath of smoke marked here and there a cottage, and through an opening in the trees the slight spire of Matcham church sprang upwards to the pure sky. Matcham Woods rolled away to right and left, and in the midst of their bosky depths a gleam of sunshine fell upon the sharp gables of the old house itself.
Binns looked at the fair landscape and sighed. That was his home! There lay the broad acres of the young man who, like wicked Dives of old story, had stolen the little ewe-lamb from his poorer brother.
There came the clatter of horses’ hoofs behind him, and turning round, Binns saw his rival of old days. He was riding by the side of a young girl. The spring breezes had blown back a curl or two from beneath her hat, and had given a shade of colour to her pale pure cheeks. Cyril was not speaking to her. His face was white, worn, and haggard, and his eyes wandered uneasily from side to side. He saw Binns, and started. The young grocer instinctively raised his hat, and the girl by Cyril’s side bent her fair head—carelessly—as though such salutes were customary and expected. Cyril flushed, and turned away his face.
Some vague terror seemed to strike the boy. Strangely enough, the sight of this fair, young unknown brought back to him all the suspicious terrors, fears, that he had so sedulously banished.
The little cavalcade swept past, and as the back of the following pad-groom disappeared round a turn of the road, Binns went up to an old man who was breaking stones under the hedgerow.
“Who is that?” he asked.
The old fellow looked up wonderingly.
“Mr. Cyril Chatteris, of Matcham.”
“I know him,—but the young lady?”
“Why, Miss Ffrench—God bless her! Mr. Chatteris’s niece. They be cousins,” and he fell to cracking his lumps of granite again, sulkily.
Binns walked slowly homewards. “His cousin.” Natural enough that they should ride out together. Natural enough, too, that Cyril Chatteris should be at Kirkminster. Yet why was poor Carry left to pine alone and unfriended? Binns decided that he would write that night to Bland, and ask that trusty friend’s opinion on the matter.