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Denzil Quarrier By George Gissing Characters: 15108

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05

The Polterham Literary Institute was a "hot-bed of Radicalism." For the last year or two this had been generally understood. Originating in the editorial columns of the Polterham Mercury, the remark was now a commonplace on the lips of good Conservatives, and the liberals themselves were not unwilling to smile an admission of its truth. At the founding of the Institute no such thing was foreseen; but in 1859 Polterham was hardly conscious of the stirrings of that new life which, in the course of twenty years, was to transform the town. In those days a traveller descending the slope of the Banwell Hills sought out the slim spire of Polterham parish church amid a tract of woodland, mead and tillage; now the site of the thriving little borough was but too distinctly marked by trails of smoke from several gaunt chimneys-that of Messrs. Dimes & Nevison's blanket-factory, that of Quarrier & Son's sugar-refinery, and, higher still (said, indeed, to be one of the tallest chimneys in England), that of Thomas & Liversedge's soap-works. With the character of Polterham itself, the Literary Institute had suffered a noteworthy change. Ostensibly it remained non-political: a library, reading-room and lecture-hall, for the benefit of all the townsfolk; but by a subtle process the executive authority had passed into the hands of new men with new ideas. A mere enumeration of the committee sufficed to frighten away all who held by Church, State, and Mr. Welwyn-Baker: the Institute was no longer an Institute, but a "hot-bed."

How could respectable people make use of a library which admitted works of irreligious and immoral tendency? It was an undoubted fact (the Mercury made it known) that of late there had been added to the catalogue not only the "Essays of David Hume" and that notorious book Buckle's "History of Civilization," but even a large collection of the writings of George Sand and Balzac-these latter in the original tongue; for who, indeed, would ever venture to publish an English translation? As for the reading-room, was it not characterization enough to state that two Sunday newspapers, reeking fresh from Fleet Street, regularly appeared on the tables? What possibility of perusing the Standard or the Spectator in such an atmosphere? It was clear that the supporters of law and decency must bestir themselves to establish a new Society. Mr. Mumbray, long prominent in the municipal and political life of the town, had already made the generous offer of a large house at a low rental-one of the ancient buildings which had been spoilt for family residence by the erection of a mill close by. The revered Member for the borough was willing to start the new library with a gift of one hundred volumes of "sterling literature." With dissolution of Parliament in view, not a day should be lost in establishing this centre of intellectual life for right-thinking inhabitants. It was a strange thing, a very strange thing indeed, that interlopers should have been permitted to oust the wealth and reputability of Polterham from an Institute which ought to have been one of the bulwarks of Conservatism. Laxity in the original constitution, and a spirit of supine confidence, had led to this sad result. It seemed impossible that Polterham could ever fall from its honourable position among the Conservative strongholds of the country; but the times were corrupt, a revolutionary miasma was spreading to every corner of the land. Polterham must no longer repose in the security of conscious virtue, for if it did happen that, at the coming election, the unprincipled multitude even came near to achieving a triumph, oh what a fall were there!

Thus spoke the Mercury. And in the same week Mr. Mumbray's vacant house was secured by a provisional committee on behalf of the Polterham Constitutional Literary Society.

The fine old crusted party had some reason for their alarm. Since Polterham was a borough it had returned a Tory Member as a matter of course. Political organization was quite unknown to the supporters of Mr. Welwyn-Baker; such trouble had never seemed necessary. Through the anxious year of 1868 Mr. Welwyn-Baker sat firm as a rock; an endeavour to unseat him ended amid contemptuous laughter. In 1874 the high-tide of Toryism caused only a slight increase of congratulatory gurgling in the Polterham backwater; the triumphant party hardly cared to notice that a Liberal candidate had scored an unprecedented proportion of votes. Welwyn-Baker sat on, stolidly oblivious of the change that was affecting his constituency, denying indeed the possibility of mutation in human things. Yet even now the Literary Institute was passing into the hands of people who aimed at making it something more than a place where retired tradesmen could play draughts and doze over Good Words; already had offensive volumes found harbourage on the shelves, and revolutionary periodicals been introduced into the reading-room. From time to time the Mercury uttered a note of warning, of protest, but with no echo from the respectable middle-class abodes where Polterham Conservatism dozed in self-satisfaction. It needed another five years of Liberal activity throughout the borough to awaken the good people whose influence had seemed unassailable, and to set them uttering sleepy snorts of indignation But the Mercury had a new editor, a man who was determined to gain journalistic credit by making a good fight in a desperate cause. Mr. Mumbray, who held the post of Mayor, had at length learnt that even in municipal matters the old order was threatened; on the Town Council were several men who gave a great deal of trouble, and who openly boasted that in a very short time all the affairs of the town would be managed by members of the Progressive party. If so, farewell public morality! farewell religion!

The reading-room of the Literary Institute heard many an animated conversation among the zealous partisans who hoped great things from the approaching contest. The talkers were not men of recognized standing, the manufacturers and landowners whose influence was of most importance-for these personages were seldom seen at the Institute; but certain "small" people, fidgety, or effervescent, or enthusiastic, eager to hear their own voices raised in declamation, and to get spoken of in the town as representatives of public opinion. Such a group had gathered early one afternoon in this month of October. The hour was unusual, for between one o'clock and four the reading-room was generally abandoned to a few very quiet, somnolent persons; but to-day an exciting piece of news had got about in Polterham, and two or three ardent politicians hastened from their dinner-tables to discuss the situation with Mr. Wykes, secretary of the Institute, or any one else who might present himself. It was reported that Mr. Welwyn-Baker had had a seizure of some kind, and that he lay in a dangerous state at his house just outside the town.

"It's perfectly true," affirmed Mr. Wykes. "I saw Dr. Staple on his way there. He'll never survive it. We shall have a bye-election-the very last thing desirable."

The Secretary was a man of intelligent features but painfully distorted body; his right leg, permanently bent double, was supported at the knee by metal mechanism, and his arm on the opposite side ended at the elbow. None the less he moved with much activity, gesticulated frequently with the normal arm, and seemed always to be in excellent spirits. He was a Cambridge graduate, but had never been able to mak

e much use of his education and abilities; having reached middle age, and finding himself without resources, he was glad to accept this post at the Institute.

About him stood three Polterham worthies: Mr. Chown, draper, a member of the Corporation; Mr. Vawdrey, coal-merchant; and Mr. Murgatroyd, dentist. The draper-tall, bearded, with goggle eyes and prominent cheek-bones-had just rushed in; as soon as Mr. Wykes had spoken, he exclaimed in a hard, positive voice:

"It's nothing! it's nothing! I have it on the best assurance that it was only a fall over a footstool. Muscles strained-a bruise or two-nothing worse."

"I'm very glad to hear it, on every ground," said Wykes. "But even if that is quite correct, it'll be a warning. A fall at that age generally dates the beginning of decrepitude. He won't come forward again-I'm convinced he won't."

"Let us hope they'll be foolish enough to set up his son," remarked Mr. Vawdrey, in deep tones, which harmonized with his broad, stunted body and lowering visage. "It'll be their ruin."

Mr. Wykes agreed.

"The waverers can hardly doubt-between Tobias Liversedge and Hugh Welwyn-Baker."

"Bear in mind," rang Mr. Chown's brassy voice, "that it's by no means certain Liversedge is to be our candidate. I am in a position to assure you that many of our most reliable men are not at all satisfied with that choice-not at all satisfied. I don't mind going so far as to declare that I share this dissatisfaction."

"Really," put in Mr. Murgatroyd, the dentist, "it's rather late in the day, Mr. Chown"--

His accents of studious moderation were interrupted by a shout from the dogmatic draper.

"Late? late? I consider that nothing whatever has been decided. I protest-I protest, most emphatically, against any attempt to force a candidate on the advanced section of the Liberal party! I will even go so far as to say-purely on my own responsibility-that the advanced section of the Liberal party is the essence of the Liberal party, and must be recognized as such, if we are to fight this campaign in union. I personally-I speak for myself-do not feel prepared to vote for Tobias Liversedge. I say it boldly, caring not who may report my words. I compromise no man, and no body of men; but my view is that, if we are to win the next election against the Tory candidate, it must be with the help, and in the name, of a Radical candidate!"

At the close of each period Mr. Chown raised his hand and made it vibrate in the air, his head vibrating in company therewith. His eyes glared, and his beard wagged up and down.

"Speaking as an individual," replied Mr. Murgatroyd, who, among other signs of nervousness, had the habit of constantly pulling down his waistcoat, "I can't say that I should regret to be called upon to vote for a really advanced man. But I may say-I really must say-and I think Mr. Wykes will support me-I think Mr. Vawdrey will bear me out-that it wouldn't be easy to find a candidate who would unite all suffrages in the way that Mr. Liversedge does. We have to remember"--

"Well," broke in the coal-merchant, with his muffled bass, "if any one cares to know what I think, I should say that we want a local man, a popular man, and a Christian man. I don't know whom you would set up in preference to Liversedge; but Liversedge suits me well enough. If the Tories are going to put forward such a specimen as Hugh Welwyn-Baker, a gambler, a drinker, and a profligate, I don't know, I say, who would look better opposed to him than Toby Liversedge."

Mr. Chown could not restrain himself.

"I fail altogether to see what Christianity has to do with politics! Christianity is all very well, but where will you find it? Old Welwyn-Baker calls himself a Christian, and so does his son. And I suppose the Rev. Scatchard Vialls calls himself a Christian! Let us have done with this disgusting hypocrisy! I say with all deliberation-I affirm it-that Radicalism must break with religion that has become a sham! Radicalism is a religion in itself. We have no right-no right, I say-to impose any such test as Mr. Vawdrey insists upon!"

"I won't quarrel about names," returned Vawdrey, stolidly, "What I meant to say was that we must have a man of clean life, a moral man."

"And do you imply," cried Chown, "that such men are hard to find among Radicals?"

"I rather think they're hard to find anywhere nowadays."

Mr. Wykes had made a gesture requesting attention, and was about to speak, when a boy came up to him and held out a telegram.

"What's this?" murmured the Secretary, as he opened the envelope. "Well, well, how very annoying! Our lecturer of to-morrow evening can't possibly keep his engagement. No reason given; says he will write."

"Another blank evening!" exclaimed Chown. "This is most unsatisfactory, I must say."

"We must fill it up," replied the Secretary. "I have an idea; it connects with something I was on the point of saying." He looked round the room cautiously, but saw only a young lad bent over an illustrated paper. "There is some one," he continued, subduing his voice, "who might possibly be willing to stand if Mr. Liversedge isn't finally adopted as our candidate-some one who, in my opinion, would suit us very well indeed. I am thinking of young Mr. Quarrier, Liversedge's brother-in-law, Mr. Sam Quarrier's nephew."

"I can't say I know much for or against him," said the draper.

"A barrister, I believe?" questioned Murgatroyd.

"Yes, but not practising his profession. I happened to meet him in the train yesterday; he was coming to spend a few days with his relatives. It occurs to me that he's the man to give us a lecture to-morrow evening."

The others lent ear, and Mr. Wykes talked at some length of Mr. Denzil Quarrier, with whom he had a slight personal acquaintance dating from a year or two ago. He represented that the young man was of late become wealthy, that he was closely connected with people in high local esteem, that his views were those of a highly cultured Radical. Mr. Chown, distrustful regarding any proposition that did not originate with himself, meditated with some intensity. Mr. Vawdrey's face indicated nothing whatever. It was the dentist who put the first question.

"I should like to know," he said, in his usual voice of studied inoffensiveness, "whether Mr. Quarrier is disposed to support the Female Suffrage movement?"

"If he is," growled Mr. Vawdrey, with sudden emphasis, "he mustn't expect my vote and interest. We've seen enough in Polterham lately of the Female question."

"Let it wait! Let it wait!" came from the draper. "The man," he glared at little Murgatroyd, "who divides his party on matters of detail, beyond the range of practical politics, is an enemy of popular progress. What I should desire to know is, whether Mr. Quarrier will go in heartily for Church Disestablishment? If not-well, I for my humble self must Decline to consider him a Radical at all."

"That, it seems to me," began the dentist, "is distinctly beyond"--

But politic Mr. Wykes interrupted the discussion.

"I shall go at once," he said, "and try to see Mr. Quarrier. A lecture to-morrow we must have, and I think he can be persuaded to help us. If so, we shall have an opportunity of seeing what figure he makes on the platform."

Mr. Vawdrey looked at his watch and hurried away without a word. The draper and the dentist were each reminded of the calls of business. In a minute or two the youth dozing over an illustrated paper had the room to himself.

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