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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XX

page 118

Chapter XX.

A meeting of the Bloomsbury Racing Club was called for that same evening at eight o'clock, in the Criterion Hotel; and, about an hour before the time appointed, several of the boarders and two or three others were seated in the snug semi-private parlour of that hostelry, most of them enjoying an after-dinner smoke.

Wilmot was there, and also Spalding, the Bank agent—both being boarders, and Ponsonby also; and amongst others Frank Ashwin, who had come in for the meeting. Morton was also there, having only returned from town that evening. He had dined at the Criterion, and intended riding home shortly. He was not a member of the racing club, and rarely or never put in an appearance on a racecourse.

"The 'grand old English sport' has borne transplanting well, and is making vigorous growth in the colonies," he said on one occasion when asked to join the club. "The 'sport of kings' is now the sport of everybody; but as we find it now it is only a pretence—nothing but a pleasant and convenient machine for gambling with, a machine that can be pulled and manipulated by every rogue—and rogues are plentiful enough—that owns a horse or rides one. Your 'noble sport' would be dead as Pharaoh's donkey in six months, if it were possible to set it on its own feet and shake it clear of gambling. Why, even your wives and daughters wouldn't sit out two events if they couldn't invest in a tote ticket or a half-crown sweep. A man must have a long purse or loose principles who can stick page 119to racing for any considerable length of time. The happy hunting-ground of blacklegs, the spieler's harvest field are your race meetings—the baited trap for youth, the outer court of embezzlement and crime, the passage-way to prison. The racehorse is a noble animal, I admit, but he appears to exercise a strangely demoralising influence over those who have most to do with him."

Bob Powlet, the landlord and proprietor of the Criterion, was also in the room, standing with his back to the fire, which he had just replenished with another log. Rotund and rubicund he was as usual, and with his habitual good-humoured expression of face. Bob took the world pretty easy in general now; and he was the better enabled to do so for the reason that his helpmate, Mrs. Powlet, seemed to find her greatest pleasure in bustling about—keeping an eye on everything, a strict supervision over all that was going on in or about the hotel, excepting, of course, the stables, which Powlet kept pridefully under his own particular inspection.

The house was a model of cleanliness in all departments—the beds and bedrooms being especially noted for this, and their more than ordinary comfort. From early morning till late at night Mrs. Powlet's viligance knew little abatement; and the decisive though cheery tones of her voice were to be heard in one place or another—directing her servants, or sometimes perhaps admonishing her husband in a pleasant way, or returning in similar vein the cordial greeting of a caller, or the humorous raillery of some frequenter of the place, or, it might be, on some rare occasion, ordering an objectionable fellow in the bar to conduct himself properly, or leave, else she would be obliged to have him turned out with little ceremony.

Her servants were all of irreproachable character and of a superior class; and over the female portion of them she kept a motherly eye. There was no loitering in the passages for them; no flirting or skylarking between the domestics and any of the visitors or boarders was allowed al the Criterion.

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Mr. Ponsonby felt the weight of Mrs. Powlet's reproof, given in a way that he remembered, when on one occasion she caught him attempting to kiss one of the girls in the long corridor upstairs.

"Gentlemen," she said," ought to know better. It might be all very well for them to take a kiss in innocent frolic; but the girl mightn't look at it in that way—and it mightn't be done in innocent frolic at all; and one thing might lead to another. You must remember, Mr. Ponsonby, it is very easy to injure a girl's good name. My girls are respectable, and I mean to keep them so, as far as lies in my power. I don't object to any of them having a lover in a decent young man of their own class, willing to wed; but you know, Mr. Ponsonby, that you have no intention of being a lover of that kind, and so you must understand that this sort of thing mustn't take place. Powlet and I"—she always liked to combine her husband's authority with her own, though it is doubtful if in this matter Bob would have taken quite so serious a view—"Powlet and I intend to keep this house respectable and above the breath of scandal, and if any gentleman boarders don't like the way we conduct it, why, they can just seek fresh quarters."

Ponsonby, in his drawling way, said the house was everything that could be desired, and promised that he would not again give occasion for rebuke; but added to himself, after she left him, "What a demmed over-scrupulous little martinet she is, to be sure, to deny a girl the luxury of a kiss when a gentleman is condescending enough to take one." And Ponsonby carefully kept his promise, as far as the maids of the Criterion were concerned; but just now he was anxious to press his condescensions in another quarter.

Powlet was very fond of his wife, and proud of her, speaking in her praise whenever opportunity offered, and holding her up as a model of all wifely virtues.

He allowed her to have her own way in most things; and page 121some people were uncharitable enough to say that he was entirely under her rule and domination—that the grey mare was the better horse, but this was hardly correct. He could put his foot down and assert his authority if the occasion called for this display of masculine firmness; but the occasion rarely or never did call for it in the domestic relations between himself and his wife, and he was content to sail along, no doubt very much under her guidance, but with full confidence in her management of affairs.

"It's a born gift," he would say, "a born gift with some women, is management. Look at my wife, now—this house and everything in it has got to go like clockwork. She has got it all between her finger and thumb"—and he snapped his own. There's never any hitch here; sale day or race time, it's all the same. What I'm afeard of is, she'll wear herself out. If she was to knock up, it would be the main-spring of the clockwork gone, I can tell you. But," he added, "I believe it agrees with her. What would wear many another woman to the bone is just meat and drink to her. If she was to be laid up for a fortnight, I don't know but what it might go hard with her; but it would be the lying in bed that would kill her, and not bein' able to keep her eye on things. But look at her—you wouldn't take her to be a grandmother, would you?"—(they had a married daughter). "She's as fresh and as young-looking as many a woman not half her age. Ha," he went on, "my advice to young fellows who want to marry is: look out for the girl that's likely to make a nice, good-looking old woman."

The occupants of the room on this evening spoke indifferently on several subjects, though Morton remained silent, smoking his pipe and turning over the leaves of a periodical till appealed to by Wilmot.

"Well, Mr. Morton," said that gentleman, in his rather pompous way, "and how are things just now in the city, from which, I understand, you have just returned? I suppose, now, page 122that our Members of Parliament have deserted the halls of legislation and gone back to their domestic hearths and usual avocations; the citizens will be beginning to complain of slackness of business again, viewing, with regret, the departure of that concourse of visitors which the Session necessarily brings to the Empire City."

"The Empire City I found very much as usual," answered Morton. "The struggle for existence is carried on there but little differently to what it is elsewhere—roguery and sharp practice generally have the best of it. These mostly can keep the dry and sunny side of the thoroughfare, while honesty has to foot the gutters. At any rate, whether rogues or honest, fools or wise, men keep jostling along, there as elsewhere, each in his own little miserable two-legged individuality. Most of them—and that's where the comicality comes in—most of them big with a sense of their own importance." And Morton laughed.

"True in a sense, no doubt, Mr. Morton," Wilmot replied: "but you will excuse me when I say that—ha, ha!—you are given to look too much, perhaps, on the—a—sombre and less hopeful side of things. The evils under which our present state of society labours are, surely, capable of cure or of amelioration. We must look to legislation to protect the honest against the depredations of the rogues; to guard the weak and incapable from the rapacity of the vicious and the strong; to hold its ægis over the deserving; to rescue poverty from beneath the grinding heel of a too grasping, a too unfeeling wealth. This may have been impossible in the past, sir," continued Mr. Wilmot, warming to his subject, "when legislation was in the hands of a few—of a select, a selfish, and a narrow-minded minority; but now, sir, when democracy has broken down the barriers which too long have held it confined, we may expect greater beneficence and wider sympathies to become apparent in our statutes and enactments, a more tender regard for the interests of our workers, a wider opening to them of the gates of opportunity."

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"Capital, Mr. Wilmot; capital!" laughed Morton in his cynical way. "That would take well from the hustings. I see you are preparing yourself for an election contest. 'A wider opening of the gates of opportunity'—a good idea certainly, and somewhat poetically expressed. To drop into poetry itself is sometimes a good thing in a public address, and a rousing verse or couplet will often bring the house down better than anything else—to finish up with one answers well. But cram the Statute-book, Act on Act, and pile them up, volume on volume, only take care you don't block up the 'gates of opportunity' with them. However, by all means let the working man, as he is called, or you gentlemen who are so anxious to take him under your wing, have a turn at the legislative machine, and see what can be done with it—not much good in my opinion. But he or you will not be much worse, I suppose, than your predecessors in power were. The big land-owners had their day, and tried to make the best of it. The missionaries had their opportunity first, and, people say, most of them didn't let it slip—bartered the bread of life—as they call it—for broad acres. Then your lawyers have grown fat on native pastures. Let Horny-hands now by all means shove his fist in—let him have an innings at law-making, if he thinks he can do himself any good by it, poor fool. The uselessness of legislation will come home to him in time, perhaps; but in the meanwhile let him amuse himself with it. He thinks he can revolutionise the world by making laws, but he'll find he'll have to leave it very much where he found it—in a worse state perhaps. It is too incorrigibly bad for any remedies, quack or other."

"Perhaps so," Wilmot answered, with a wave of his hand: "we do not expect to—a—make a heaven here just yet—we don't look for the millenium for some time, We are not—at least I am not—going to advocate any revolutionary measures—no socialism for me, sir; but look at the advances which the world has made during the last few generations. The diffusion page 124of knowledge has been widely extended; education has been placed within the reach of all. We have gained wisdom from the lessons, the mistakes, of those who have gone before. Our rising generation are, surely, better equipped for the battle of life than their forefathers were. The accumulated experience of the past is a legacy to them. They are the 'heirs of all the ages.'"

"Ha, ha, ha!" broke in Morton. "The 'heirs of all the ages'—look at them when you see them, and admire them. The soulless larrikins of your street-corners—the blackguard barrackers of your football fields; for these are they. Look at them and admire them."

"Well, well," said Wilmot, somewhat taken aback; "there are always exceptions, always exceptions. But Liberalism," he went on—"Liberalism has been marching onward with giant strides, sir; and she must continue to advance."

"Look out she doesn't turn the corner, and work backwards on you; or she may be travelling in a circle," said Morton, again interrupting.

"And must continue to advance," Wilmot went on, not heeding the interruption. "The State has a noble field before it for the exercise of its functions. We have accomplished much, but more remains to be done. The majority, sir, will now consider its own interests, and legislate for the furtherance and protection of these, whether we may like it or not. The working-classes especially will be taken under the guardianship of the State. The working-man will emancipate himself from the bondage of the past. He will fence himself round so that the avarice and cupidity of his employer may not deprive him of his rights. Legislative enactments will guard him on every side. Now that he has the power, he will clothe himself in a coat of proof against the assaults and exactions of a hitherto dominant and privileged class."

"He'll make a reg'lar hedgehog of himself if he does," Powlet here exclaimed. "Let the Government stick him full page 125of spikes, and no one that can help it will have anything to do with him, and then see if he'll get fat in his coat of proof, as you call it. The working-man used to be able to take care of himself in this country without a lot of Acts of Parliament stickin' in him, and it's my belief he can still do it. I carried my swag at first, and was often enough glad to get a job at anything; but I never wanted the Government to take care of me."

"Ah, but Powlet," said Spalding, "times have changed since then, and the Government is expected to have a fatherly eye over us now and all our belongings. The majority must rule, you know; and we'll have to do what they think right, and do it under their inspection too. The majority are going to have their own way in future."

"A man'll soon not be able to spank his youngsters, or kiss his wife, unless he gets a permit, and does it under some inspector sent round by the majority. D——n the majority," said Bob, warmly. "But here comes Mrs. Powlet," he continued, as that good lady appeared in the doorway. "Gad, I wonder what she would say to that sort of thing;" and he laughed his hearty laugh.

"Oh, here you are," said Mrs. Powlet—"you're wanted in the bar, Bob; and, Mr. Wilmot, there's a man wants to see you. He's waiting in the passage by the bar."

"Don't be long, Wilmot," said Spalding. "We must soon begin with the meeting. Time's about up; and you have got to take the chair, you know. We are all here now, I think, who are likely to attend." Two or three other members of the Racing Club had just entered, among whom was Corcoran, of the Guardian.

Morton took his departure now; and Wilmot went out to meet the person who had sent in the message by Mrs. Powlet.

It was our old acquaintance, Westall.

"Hullo, is it you?" Wilmot said, when he saw who it was, page 126and continued in a low but displeased voice as he led the way outside. "What the devil brought you here? Did I not tell you to keep to yourself and not cross my way, except when you come to the office for your remittance. I have no time to talk with you now. Money, I suppose you want? Well, you needn't expect more out of me than you have been getting."

"It's not that at all," Westall replied. "It's not money I want—and I may never again take any of your money from you. Look here," and Westall bent forward and whispered some words in Wilmot's ear. The latter started, and said, "Nonsense man—you've been drinking—got d.t's, and been seeing more than was to be seen. But I can't stop to hear your tale now. If there's anything in it come and see me on the quiet to-morrow—but let me see—to-morrow I'll be out in the country all day. I'll tell you, though—I'll be riding back toward evening by the Melton Road. Meet me a mile or two out, and then I'll listen to all you have got to say. Off you go now and brace up your nerves with another whisky or two;" and he added to himself as Westall turned and walked away, "I only wish you would make haste and kill yourself with whisky or something else."

He turned into the hotel again and joined his companions, and, though startled and deeply moved by that which Westall had communicated to him, he allowed no symptoms of the agitation to appear in his countenance or demeanour, but took a leading part in the meeting which was at once held, and entered into all matters affecting the coining races with as much zeal as any of the other members of the club.