In this piece Eagle is frustrated by Sir Walter’s refusal to move against Calvert and his revolutionary radicals. He also doesn’t know where he personally stands: on the side of the rich or the poor. Probably both, and this is his dilemma. He needs to keep his conscience while sweetening his patron.
He had crossed the street by now and placed himself on Stanhope ground for the second time in as many days. The peacocks whined incessantly as he made his way up the avenue where, on either side, trees swayed in the stiff March wind. It felt good to be alive, but only in a tainted sense. That graveyard he had just visited was still on his mind. Death, it told him, came to every living thing. We were all gone tomorrow, with nothing to be done about it. Human beings – even Sir Walter – were only May Flies on a grand scale. Eagle had spotted him up ahead. Imposing as he was in genteel stature, the Baronet too would finish as dust. There was a terrifying pointlessness to life. What did anything matter if even kings and queens, whole empires, would one day vanish? And if such was our meagre span, why bother for a day to strive and endure? Why should he, so young but so mortal, dream longingly of worldly success? To be driven by the urge to succeed, to rise in the world till he’d reached Sir Walter’s position, to enjoy the life that he enjoyed with a sprawling mansion, numerous servants and fine chaise and pair – what did any of it signify?
‘Come then,’ said the Baronet, taking his arm when they’d met, ‘let us walk a while in the grounds.’ They talked inconsequentially at first – of the landscape, of nature and the like. There being little to say, however, they were soon discussing Eagle’s duties. He was willing to begin immediately as the great man’s steward – that ejectment case, for example, he had mentioned earlier. They returned a while to trivialities – the windy weather; Tom’s story about his mother’s underwear blown off the washing line, which made Sir Walter laugh; the numerous statues that littered the grounds. He explained his liking for such adornments, how he valued those which his gardeners had hidden so that the Baronet, on his perambulations, might come upon them unawares.
‘Here is a case in point,’ he said, as they turned a corner into an overgrown section dense with bracken. ‘It never ceases to startle me.’ The well-secluded Hercules startled Eagle too, for he didn’t see it until he’d cracked his ankle on the plinth and tripped over the figure’s outstretched club. He was in the wars too over a sleeping nymph housed in a grotto of marbled stone. One came upon the low doorway so much unawares there was no time to duck. He had a lump on his head to prove it and was glad to be out on the grass again, where their talk returned to weightier things. Eagle was keen to sound him out, find out where he stood on the nature of justice, how far the writ of the law should run. Mr Bolland’s words still simmered inside him and needed to come off the heat. The only way was to say them out loud. He did just that, barely pausing for air as he told him what he knew of the radical, Alan Calvert.
Sir Walter as he listened stared fixedly ahead. When Eagle had finished he began to speak pointedly of pleasantries again, drawing his attention to a crow blown perilously across the parkland on the buffeting breeze. Their tread was slowing now and tacitly they both halted. Sir Walter drew a silver snuff-box from his coat, opened the clasp and applied a generous pinch to each nostril. Returning the box to his pocket, he produced an embroidered handkerchief emblazoned with his family crest (a red-gloved hand) and blew his nose ostentatiously loud. The delay in his reply was intolerable.
‘These are difficult times,’ he said at length. ‘They call for extraordinary measures.’
Eagle didn’t follow, and said so. The Baronet looked him in the face for the first time, saying after a sigh, ‘We are at war now, are we not? This is no ordinary war, John. Its dangerous doctrines are finding root even in remote shires such as this. Why, I can name a dozen influential renegades around Leeds alone. To Liberty in France Triumphant – such is their toast over port at dinner. It is most regrettable and it’s got to stop. We need all the help we can get, however unintentional.’ He looked at him and smiled wryly. ‘I see I am still not making myself clear. Then I shall deal more plainly, and trust we’ll see eye to eye.’ To emphasise his point, he narrowed his eyes in a searching glance for solidarity. ‘As individuals, we better sort of men do as we like. If you said that we get away with murder you’d be nearer the truth than you imagine. Such is the way of the world, the common populace think, if they ever think at all. They would not dare, would not know how to criticise our affairs, which are not for the likes of them. Their hatred is reserved only for one another. But as I said before, these are abnormal times, and people may be manipulated. Thus do we need the help of our friend Calvert.’
‘Then it’s true – you know about him after all!’
Sir Walter laughed. ‘My dear young sir, do you give me no credit? I have known these past two years. Be sure of it, had it not been for the war I would have crushed him by now. I tolerate him only because it’s convenient to do so.’
‘But he’s a traitor,’ Eagle said in dismay.
‘If only things were so simple,’ replied Sir Walter, stabbing the earth with his Nigger’s head cane. ‘For a lawyer, you are clearly unfamiliar with the vagaries of the law.’
He was more familiar than most, though he listened to what the Baronet had to say. He explained how the war had divided the community, how many blamed the government for their hardships and how the radicals enjoyed much support, not only among the labouring poor. ‘So you see,’ said Sir Walter resignedly, ‘to move against Calvert now would upset a delicate equilibrium. And to try, and then fail, would be far more dangerous than not to try at all. As I have said already, there is growing opposition hereabouts. A mishandled treason charge might boost that opposition.’ He added that it was difficult enough to force a conviction in better times, for they had failed against Calvert before in a capital charge when he was acquitted against the evidence at Lent Assizes 1792. The evidence had looked sound indeed, but the defence had thrown it out.
‘Where indeed,’ reflected Sir Walter. ‘Perhaps in the end it is no more than an ideal. We magistrates must dispense it as we think fit.’
‘It all sounds so ordinary, so commonplace,’ said Eagle, struggling to speak his mind. ‘I thought he was more than you’ve made him out to be.’
‘Ah,’ said Sir Walter, ‘you have heard the stories people tell about him.’ There was distance in his hooded eyes, a hint of admiration in his voice. ‘He is certainly a cruel and masterful man – unworldly in some respects – some would say otherworldly, possessed of secret powers to steer men’s thoughts. All nonsense you understand, this business of the supernatural,’ and for the first time in a long time it felt exactly so, a series of trifles of the mind.
‘And Lady Calvert?’
‘Why mention her name? You think it pertinent to your case?’ It was a sharp retort, its sting uncalled for. Eagle read impatience in his voice, frustration too and something more, he didn’t know what. ‘My apologies, John, you must excuse my manner,’ he said presently, and pleaded pressure of work. It was a contagion Eagle knew well, the switching of mood from light to dark, though his mind right now was stable. He’d thought to tell him of his own dark forces, not to mention dark voices and a certain spider in a small glass jar. He was glad that he didn’t do so, for he’d surely have been ridiculed by a man whose feet were always on the ground, whose head was never in the clouds, though it did have its own – very earthly – secrets. Earthly, Eagle repeated, for a stark sense of realism was in the air, potent with overwhelming mundanity. He felt relieved yet also disappointed. The feeling was, that nothing had ever ruled mankind but mere ordinariness in the here and now; reality itself was unsettlingly fixed, nought but the sky above and the shabby earth below. Only nature existed, only the natural; the supernatural was impossible, a distant dream of acute proportions no sensible man should admit. Eagle felt relief mingled with disappointment. He wanted more to contend with than earthly tasks, earthly mysteries – he wanted to tempt fate. It was as if, deep down, he wanted to be insane, a candidate for York Asylum. Again, as he’d done so often lately, he took refuge in his own version of worldly things.
Meanwhile his patron was speaking again: ‘We will tolerate Calvert not a moment longer than is necessary,’ he said, shaking his head with affected solemnity. ‘He is a dangerous irritant, and needs to be nipped in the bud. More worrying for us, he has divided the community in a new way. Normally, we can make do with the usual scapegoats, which the people turn on rather than us.’ He laughed bitterly at the poorer sort of people. ‘If only they’d the sense to realise that those gypsies, blackamoors and Jews spring from the same filthy loins as themselves. But how can we expect them to realise it when they haven’t even the sense to blow on their porridge?’
The truth hurt and Eagle felt its pain. He too, when you stripped away the outer skin, felt the same. What lurked in his heart, however, was something worse than instinctively-shared philosophy; it was a frightening emptiness with little care how it was filled. In the name of ambition he might swallow anything: in short, he had his price. Sir Walter was in need of a good man, an able man whom he could trust to run his estate. Reading between the lines, imbibing the subtle scents of his talk, Eagle sensed added riches – perhaps riches he had only dreamed of – if that same good man proved right in every way. He was determined to be that person, to become, like Sir Walter, not the poorer sort, not even the middling sort – why should he settle for that? – but the better sort of man. He told the Baronet he need look no further for his loyal associate in all respects.
Sir Walter’s smile was scarcely perceptible. ‘Then take my hand, John,’ he said, proffering his own, ‘and come fully into the fold.’
He had emphasised the word fully, and during their walk towards the house he explained why. As their talk turned to matters of the law he mentioned what he’d heard that Eagle suffered the poor too gladly. Like love across the social divide, the poor were to be pitied from afar, not from across the desk where time was paid for and not dispensed for free. He trusted he’d rethink his attitude. The willingness to please still uppermost in his mind, Eagle told him that he would rethink it, that he’d been naive in his outlook.
‘We all have our puppy fat to shed,’ the other said jovially. ‘The sooner we shed it, the better.’
They parted very amicably, the Baronet genuinely so because he thought he had found his loyal servant, Eagle still masking his inner turmoil. True, he had found his patron and need only serve him well in order to rise in the world. Try as he might, however, he couldn’t go easily into that comfortable fold. The path was strewn with thorns of conscience. Not quite an empty vessel after all then; principles he had, however ill-defined. There was also the question of justice; justice to be had now, not when some great man thought it should be had. It was the old duality again: cowardice versus bravery; fair play versus selfishness and callous disregard. And one thing more was true; true for Eagle, whether mad or sane: darkness and light would battle inside him for months to come. As for which would win, not even he dared wager.
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