Read CHAPTER IX - THE PRIVATE SECRETARY of The Dictator , free online book, by Justin McCarthy, on

Soame Rivers was in some ways, and not a few, a model private secretary for a busy statesman. He was a gentleman by birth, bringing-up, appearance, and manners; he was very quick, adroit and clever; he had a wonderful memory, a remarkable faculty for keeping documents and ideas in order; he could speak French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and conduct a correspondence in these languages. He knew the political and other gossip of most or all of the European capitals, and of Washington and Cairo just as well. He could be interviewed on behalf of his chief, and could be trusted not to utter one single word of which his chief could not approve. He would see any undesirable visitor, and in five minutes talk him over into the belief that it was a perfect grief to the Minister to have to forego the pleasure of seeing him in person. He was to be trusted with any secret which concerned his position, and no power on earth could surprise him into any look or gesture from which anybody could conjecture that he knew more than he professed to know. He was a younger son of very good family, and although his allowance was not large, it enabled him, as a bachelor, to live an easy and gentlemanly life. He belonged to some good clubs, and he always dined out in the season. He had nice little chambers in the St. James’s Street region, and, of course, he spent the greater part of every day in Sir Rupert’s house, or in the lobby of the House of Commons. It was understood that he was to be provided with a seat in Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity, not, indeed, so much for the good of the State as for the convenience of his chief, who, naturally, found it unsatisfactory to have to go out into the lobby in order to get hold of his private secretary. Rivers was devoted to his chief in his own sort of way. That way was not like the devotion of Hamilton to the Dictator; for it is very likely that, in his own secret soul, Rivers occasionally made fun of Sir Rupert, with his Quixotic ideas and his sentimentalisms, and his views of life. Rivers had no views on the subject of life or of anything else. But Hamilton himself could not be more careful of his chief’s interests than was Rivers. Rivers had no beliefs and no prejudices. He was not an immoral man, but he had no prejudice in favour of morality; he was not cruel, but he had no objection to other people being as cruel as they liked, as cruel as the law would allow them to be, provided that their cruelty was not exercised on himself, or any one he particularly cared about. He never in his life professed or felt one single impulse of what is called philanthropy. It was to him a matter of perfect indifference whether ten thousand people in some remote place did or did not perish by war, or fever, or cyclone, or inundation. Nor did he care in the least, except for occasional political purposes, about the condition of the poor in our rural villages or in the East End of London. He regarded the poor as he regarded the flies that is, with entire indifference so long as they did not come near enough to annoy him. He did not care how they lived, or whether they lived at all. For a long time he could not bring himself to believe that Helena Langley really felt any strong interest in the poor. He could not believe that her professed zeal for their welfare was anything other than the graceful affectation of a pretty and clever girl.

But we all have our weaknesses, even the strongest of us, and Soame Rivers found, when he began to be much in companionship with Helena Langley, where the weak point was to be hit in his panoply of pride. To him love and affection and all that sort of thing were mere sentimental nonsense, encumbering a rising man, and as likely as not, if indulged in, to spoil his whole career. He had always made up his mind to the fact that, if he ever did marry, he must marry a woman with money. He would not marry at all unless he could have a house and entertain as other people in society were in the habit of doing. As a bachelor he was all right. He could keep nice chambers; he could ride in the Row; he could have a valet; he could wear good clothes and he was a man whom Nature had meant, and tailor recognised, for one to show off good clothes. But if he should ever marry it was clear to him that he must have a house like other people, and that he must give dinner parties. He did not reason this out in his mind he never reasoned anything out in his mind it was all clear and self-evident to him. Therefore, after a while, the question began to arise why should he not marry Helena Langley? He knew perfectly well that if she wished to be married to him Sir Rupert would not offer the slightest objection. Any man whom his daughter really loved Sir Rupert would certainly accept as a son-in-law. Rivers even fancied, not, perhaps, altogether without reason, that Sir Rupert personally would regard it as a convenient arrangement if his daughter were to fall in love with his secretary and get married to him. But above and beyond all this, Rivers, as a practical philosopher, had broken down, and he found himself in love with Helena Langley. For herself, Helena never suspected it. She had grown to be very fond of Soame Rivers. He seemed to fill for her exactly the part that a good-tempered brother might have done. Indeed, not any brother, however good-natured, would have been as attentive to a sister as Rivers was to her. He had a quiet, unobtrusive way of putting his personal attentions as part of his official duty which absolutely relieved Helena’s mind of any idea of lover-like consideration. At many a dinner party or evening party her father had to leave her prematurely, and go down to the House of Commons. It became to her a matter of course that in such a case Rivers was always sure to be there to put her into her carriage and see that she got safely home. There was nothing in it. He was her father’s secretary a gentleman, to be sure; a man of social position, as good as the best; but still, her father’s secretary looking after her because of his devotion to her father. She began to like him every day more and more for his devotion to her father. She did not at first like his cynical ways his trick of making out that every great deed was really but a small one, that every seemingly generous and self-sacrificing action was actually inspired by the very principle of selfishness; that love of the poor, sympathy with the oppressed, were only with the better classes another mode of amusing a weary social life. But she soon made out a generous theory to satisfy herself on that point. Soame Rivers, she felt sure, put on that panoply of cynicism only to guard himself against the weakness of yielding to a futile sensibility. He was very poor, she thought. She had lordly views about money, and she thought a man without a country house of his own must needs be wretchedly poor, and she knew that Soame Rivers passed all his holiday seasons in the country houses of other people. Therefore, she made out that Soame Rivers was very poor; and, of course, if he was very poor, he could not lend much practical aid to those who, in the East End or otherwise, were still poorer than he. So she assumed that he put on the mask of cynicism to hide the flushings of sensibility. She told him as much; she said she knew that his affected indifference to the interests of humanity was only a disguise put on to conceal his real feelings. At first he used to laugh at her odd, pretty conceits. After a while he came to encourage her in the idea, even while formally assuring her that there was nothing in it, and that he did not care a straw whether the poor were miserable or happy.

Chance favoured him. There were some poor people whom Helena and her father were shipping off to New Zealand. Sir Rupert, without Helena’s knowledge, asked his secretary to look after them the night of their going aboard, as he could not be there himself. Helena, without consulting her father, drove down to the docks to look after her poor friends, and there she found Rivers installed in the business of protector. He did the work well as he did every work that came to his hand. The emigrants thought him the nicest gentleman they had ever known. Helena said to him, ‘Come now! I have found you out at last.’ And he only said, ‘Oh, nonsense! this is nothing.’ But he did not more directly contradict her theory, and he did not say her father had sent him for he knew Sir Rupert would never say that of himself.

Rivers found himself every day watching over Helena with a deepening interest and anxiety. Her talk, her companionship, were growing to be indispensable to him. He did not pay her compliments indeed, sometimes they rather sparred at one another in a pleasant schoolboy and schoolgirl sort of way. But she liked his society, and felt herself thoroughly companionable and comrade-like with him, and she never thought of concealing her liking. The result was that Soame Rivers began to think it quite on the cards that, if nothing should interpose, he might marry Helena Langley and that, too, before very long. Then he should have in every way his heart’s desire.

If nothing should interpose? Yes, but there was where the danger came in! If nothing should interpose? But was it likely that nothing and nobody would interpose? The girl was well known to be a rich heiress; she was the only child of a most distinguished statesman; she would be very likely to have Dukes and Marquises competing for her hand, and where might Soame Rivers be then? The young man sometimes thought that, if through her unconventional and somewhat romantic nature he could entangle her in a love affair, he might be able to induce her to get secretly married to him before any of the possible Dukes and Marquises had time to put in a claim. But, of course, there would be always the danger of his turning Sir Rupert hopelessly against him by any trick of that kind, and he saw no use in having the daughter on his side if he could not also have the father. Besides, he had a sore conviction that the girl would not do anything to displease her father. So he gave up the idea of the romantic elopement, or the secret marriage, and he reminded himself that, after all, Helena Langley, with all her unconventional ways, was not exactly another Lydia Languish.

Then the Dictator and Hamilton came on the scene, and Rivers had many an unhappy hour of it. At first he was more alarmed about Hamilton than about the Dictator. He could easily understand an impulsive girl’s hero-worship for the Dictator, and he did not think much about it. The Dictator, he assured himself, must seem quite an elderly sort of person to a girl of Helena’s age; but Hamilton was young and handsome, of good family, and undoubtedly rich. Hamilton and Helena fraternised very freely and openly in their adoration for Ericson, and Rivers thought moodily that that partnership of admiration for a third person might very well end in a partnership of still closer admiration for each other. So, although from the very first he disliked the Dictator, yet he soon began to detest Hamilton a great deal more.

His dislike of Ericson was not exclusively and altogether because of Helena’s hero-worship. According to his way of thinking, all foreign adventure had something more or less vulgar in it, but that was especially objectionable in the case of an Englishman. What business had an Englishman one who claims apparently to be an English gentleman what business had he with a lot of South American Republicans? What did he want among such people? Why should he care about them? Why should he want to govern them? And if he did want to govern them, why did he not stay there and govern? The thing was in any case mere bravado, and melodramatic enterprise.

It was the morning after the day when the Dictator had proposed to Helena for poor Hamilton. Soame Rivers met Helena on the staircase.

‘Of course,’ he said, with an emphasis, ’you will be at luncheon to-day?’

‘Why, of course?’ she asked, carelessly.

‘Well your hero is coming didn’t you know?’

‘I didn’t know; and who is my hero?’

‘Oh, come now! the Dictator, of course.’

‘Is he coming?’ she asked, with a sudden gleam of genuine emotion flashing over her face.

‘Yes; your father particularly wants him to meet Sir Lionel Rainey.’

’Oh, I didn’t know. Well, yes I shall be there, I suppose, if I feel well enough.’

‘Are you not well?’ Rivers asked, with a tone of somewhat artificial tenderness in his voice.

’Oh, yes, I am all right; but I might not feel quite up to the level of Sir Lionel Rainey. Only men, of course?’

‘Only men.’

‘Well, I shall think it over.’

‘But you can’t want to miss your Dictator?’

‘My Dictator will probably not miss me,’ the girl said in scornful tones which brought no comfort to the heart of Soame Rivers.

‘You would be very sorry if he did not miss you,’ Soame Rivers said blunderingly. Your cynical man of the world has his feelings and his angers.

‘Very sorry!’ Helena defiantly declared.

The Dictator came punctually at two he was always punctual. To-to was friendly, but did not conduct him. He was shown at once into the dining-room, where luncheon was laid out. The room looked lonely to the Dictator. Helena was not there.

‘My daughter is not coming down to luncheon,’ Sir Rupert said.

‘I am so sorry,’ the Dictator said. ‘Nothing serious, I hope?’

’Oh, no! a cold, or something like that she didn’t tell me. She will be quite well, I hope, to-morrow. You see how To-to keeps her place.’

Ericson then saw that To-to was seated resolutely on the chair which Helena usually occupied at luncheon.

‘But what is the use if she is not coming?’ the Dictator suggested not to disparage the intelligence of To-to, but only to find out, if he could, the motive of that undoubtedly sagacious animal’s taking such a definite attitude.

’Well, To-to does not like the idea of anyone taking Helena’s place except himself. Now, you will see; when we all settle down, and no one presumes to try for that chair, To-to will quietly drop out of it and allow the remainder of the performance to go undisturbed. He doesn’t want to set up any claim to sit on the chair himself; all he wants is to assert and to protect the right of Helena to have that chair at any moment when she may choose to join us at luncheon.’

The rest of the party soon came in from various rooms and consultations. Soame Rivers was the first.

‘Miss Langley not coming?’ he said, with a glance at To-to.

‘No,’ Sir Rupert answered. ’She is a little out of sorts to-day nothing much but she won’t come down just yet.’

‘So To-to keeps her seat reserved, I see.’

The Dictator felt in his heart as if he and To-to were born to be friends.

The other guests were Lord Courtreeve and Sir Lionel Rainey, the famous Englishman, who had settled himself down at the Court of the King of Siam, and taken in hand the railway and general engineering and military and financial arrangements of that monarch; and, having been somewhat hurt in an expedition against the Black Flags, was now at home, partly for rest and recovery, and partly in order to have an opportunity of enlightening his Majesty of Siam, who had a very inquiring mind, on the immediate condition of politics and house-building in England. Sir Lionel said that, above all things, the King of Siam would be interested in learning something about Ericson and the condition of Gloria, for the King of Siam read everything he could get hold of about politics everywhere. Therefore, Sir Rupert had undertaken to invite the Dictator to this luncheon, and the Dictator had willingly undertaken to come. Soame Rivers had been showing Sir Lionel over the house, and explaining all its arrangements to him for the King of Siam had thoughts of building a palace after the fashion of some first-class and up-to-date house in London. Sir Lionel was a stout man, rather above the middle height, but looking rather below it, because of his stoutness. He had a sharply turned-up dark moustache, and purpling cheeks and eyes that seemed too tightly fitted into the face for their own personal comfort.

Lord Courtreeve was a pale young man, with a very refined and delicate face. He was a member of the London County Council, and was a chairman of a County Council in his own part of the country. He was a strong advocate of Local Option, and wore at his courageous buttonhole the blue ribbon which proclaimed his devotion to the cause of temperance. He was an honoured and a sincere member of the League of Social Purity. He was much interested in the increase of open spaces and recreation grounds for the London poor. He was an unaffectedly good young man, and if people sometimes smiled quietly at him, they respected him all the same. Soame Rivers had said of him that Providence had invented him to be the chief living argument in favour of the principle of hereditary legislation.

Sir Lionel Rainey and Lord Courtreeve did not get on at all. Sir Lionel had too many odd and high-flavoured anecdotes about life in Siam to be a congenial neighbour for the champion of social purity. He had a way, too, of referring everything to the lower instincts of man, and roughly declining to reckon in the least idea of any of man’s, or woman’s, higher qualities. Therefore, the Dictator did not take to him any more than Lord Courtreeve did; and Sir Rupert began to think that his luncheon party was not well mixed. Soame Rivers saw it too, and was determined to get the company out of Siam.

’Do you find London society much changed since you were here last, Sir Lionel?’ he asked.

‘Didn’t come to London to study society,’ Sir Lionel answered, somewhat gruffly, for he thought there was much more to be said about Siam. ’I mean in that sort of way. I want to get some notions to take back to the King of Siam.’

’But might it not interest his Majesty to know of any change, if there were any, in London society during that time?’ Rivers blandly asked.

’No, sir. His Majesty never was in England, and he could not be expected to take any interest in the small and superficial changes made in the tone or the talk of society during a few years. You might as well expect him to be interested in the fact that whereas when I was here last the ladies wore eel-skin dresses, now they wear full skirts, and some of them, I am told, wear a divided skirt.’

‘But I thought such changes of fashion might interest the King,’ Rivers remarked with an elaborate meekness.

‘The King, sir, does not care about divided skirts,’ Sir Lionel answered, with scorn and resentment in his voice.

‘I must confess,’ the Dictator said, glad to be free of Siam, ’that I have been much interested in observing the changes that have been made in the life of England I mean in the life of London since I was living here.’

‘We have all got so Republican,’ Sir Rupert said sadly.

‘And we all profess to be Socialists,’ Soame Rivers added.

‘There is much more done for the poor than ever there was before,’ Lord Courtreeve pleaded.

‘Because so many of the poor have got votes,’ Rivers observed.

‘Yes,’ Sir Lionel struck in with a laugh, ’and you fellows all want to get into the House of Commons or the County Council, or some such place. By Jove! in my time a gentleman would not want to become a County Councillor.’

‘I am not troubling myself about English politics,’ the Dictator said. ’I do not care to vex myself about them. I should probably only end by forming opinions quite different from some of my friends here, and, as I have no mission for English political life, what would be the good of that? But I am much interested in English social life, and even in what is called Society. Now, what I want to know is how far does society in London represent social London, and still more, social England?’

‘Not the least in the world,’ Sir Rupert promptly replied.

‘I am not quite so sure of that,’ Soame Rivers interposed, ’I fancy most of the fellows try to take their tone from us.’

‘I hope not,’ the Dictator said.

‘So do I,’ added Sir Rupert emphatically; ’and I am quite certain they do not. What on earth do you know about it, Rivers?’ he asked almost sharply.

‘Why shouldn’t I know all about it, if I took the trouble to find out?’ Rivers answered languidly.

‘Yes, yes. Of course you could,’ Sir Rupert said benignly, correcting his awkward touch of anger as a painter corrects some sudden mistake in drawing. ’I didn’t mean in the least to disparage your faculty of acquiring correct information on any subject. Nobody appreciates more than I do what you are capable of in that way nobody has had so much practical experience of it. But what I mean is this that I don’t think you know a great deal of English social life outside the West End of London.’

’Is there anything of social life worth knowing to be known outside the West End of London?’ Soame Rivers asked.

’Well, you see, the mere fact that you put the question shows that you can’t do much to enlighten Mr. Ericson on the one point about which he asks for some enlightenment. He has been out of England for a great many years, and he finds some fault with our ways or, at least, he asks for some explanation about them.’

’Yes, quite so. I am afraid I have forgotten the point on which Mr. Ericson desired to get information.’ And Rivers smiled a bland smile without looking at Ericson. ’May I trouble you, Lord Courtreeve, for the cigarettes?’

’It was not merely a point, but a whole cresset of points a cluster of points,’ Ericson said, ’on every one of which I wished to have a tip of light. Is English social life to be judged of by the conversation and the canons of opinion which we find received in London society?’

‘Certainly not,’ Sir Rupert explained.

‘Heaven forbid!’ Lord Courtreeve added fervently.

‘I don’t quite understand,’ said Soame Rivers.

‘Well,’ the Dictator explained, ’what I mean is this. I find little or nothing prevailing in London society but cheap cynicism the very cheapest cynicism cynicism at a farthing a yard or thereabouts. We all admire healthy cynicism cynicism with a great reforming and purifying purpose the cynicism that is like a corrosive acid to an evil system; but this West End London sham cynicism what does that mean?’

‘I don’t quite know what you mean,’ Soame Rivers said.

’I mean this, wherever you go in London society at all events, wherever I go I notice a peculiarity that I think did not exist, at all events to such an extent, in my younger days. Everything is taken with easy ridicule. A divorce case is a joke. Marriage is a joke. Love is a joke. Patriotism is a joke. Everybody is assumed, as a matter of course, to have a selfish motive in everything. Is this the real feeling of London society, or is it only a fashion, a sham, a grimace?’

‘I think it is a very natural feeling,’ Soame Rivers replied, with the greatest promptitude.

’And represents the true feeling of what are called the better classes of London?’

‘Why, certainly.’

‘I think the thing is detestable, anyhow,’ Lord Courtreeve interposed, ‘and I am quite sure it does not represent the tone of English society.’

‘So am I,’ Sir Rupert added.

‘But you must admit that it is the tone which does prevail,’ the Dictator said pressingly, for he wanted very much to study this question down to its roots.

’I am afraid it is the prevailing social tone of London I mean the West End,’ Sir Rupert admitted reluctantly. ’But you know what a fashion there is in these things, as well as in others. The fashion in a woman’s gown or a man’s hat does not always represent the shape of a woman’s body or the size of a man’s head.’

’It sometimes represents the shape of the man’s mind, and the size of the woman’s heart,’ said Rivers.

‘Well, anyhow,’ Sir Rupert persevered, ’we all know that a great deal of this sort of talk is talked for want of anything else to say, and because it amuses most people, and because anybody can talk cheap cynicism; I believe that London society is healthy at the core.’

‘But come now let us understand?’ Ericson asked; ’how can the society be healthy at the core for which you yourself make the apology by saying that it parrots the jargon of a false and loathsome creed because it has nothing better to say, or because it hopes to be thought witty by parroting it? Come, Sir Rupert, you won’t maintain that?’

‘I will maintain,’ Sir Rupert said, ’that London society is not as bad as it seems.’

‘Oh, well, I have no doubt you are right in that,’ the Dictator hastily replied. ’But what I think so melancholy to see is that degeneracy of social life in England I mean in London which apes a cynicism it doesn’t feel.’

‘But I think it does feel it,’ Rivers struck in; ’and very naturally and justly.’

‘Then you think London society is really demoralised?’ the Dictator spoke, turning on him rather suddenly.

‘I think London society is just what is has always been,’ Rivers promptly answered.

‘Corrupt and cynical?’

‘Well, no. I should rather say corrupt and candid.’

‘If that is London society, that certainly is not English social life,’ Lord Courtreeve declared emphatically, patting the table with his hand. ‘It isn’t even London social life. Come down to the East End, sir ’

‘Oh, indeed, by Jove! I shall do nothing of the kind!’ Rivers replied, as with a shudder. ’I think, of all the humbugs of London society, slumming is about the worst.’

‘I was not speaking of that,’ Lord Courtreeve said, with a slight flush on his mild face. ’Perhaps I do not think very differently from you about some of it some of it although, Heaven be praised, not about all; but what I mean and was going to say when I was interrupted’ and he looked with a certain modified air of reproach at Rivers ’what I was going to say when I was interrupted,’ he repeated, as if to make sure that he was not going to be interrupted this time ’was, that if you would go down to the East End with me, I could show you in one day plenty of proofs that the heart of the English people is as sound and true as ever it was ’

‘Very likely,’ Rivers interposed saucily. ‘I never said it wasn’t.’

Lord Courtreevo gaped with astonishment.

‘I don’t quite grasp your meaning,’ he stammered.

‘I never said,’ Soame Rivers replied deliberately, ’that the heart of the English people was not just as sound and true now as ever it was I dare say it is just about the same meme jeu, don’t you know?’ and he took a languid puff at his cigarette.

‘Am I to be glad or sorry of your answer?’ Lord Courtreeve asked, with a stare.

‘How can I tell? It depends on what you want me to say.’

’Well, if you mean to praise the great heart of the English people now, and at other times ’

‘Oh dear, no; I mean nothing of the kind.’

‘I say, Rivers, this is all bosh, you know,’ Sir Rupert struck in.

‘I think we are all shams and frauds in our set in our class,’ Rivers said, composedly; ’and we are well brought up and educated and all that, don’t you know? I really can’t see why some cads who clean windows, or drive omnibuses, or sell vegetables in a donkey-cart, or carry bricks up a ladder, should be any better than we. Not a bit of it if we are bad, they are worse, you may put your money on that.’

‘Well I think I have had my answer,’ the Dictator said, with a smile.

‘And what is your interpretation of the Oracle’s answer?’ Rivers asked.

’I should have to interpret the Oracle itself before I could be clear as to the meaning of its answer,’ Ericson said composedly.

Soame Rivers knew pretty well by the words and by the tone that if he did not like the Dictator, neither did the Dictator very much like him.

‘You must not mind Rivers and his cynicism,’ Sir Rupert said, intervening somewhat hurriedly; ‘he doesn’t mean half he says.’

‘Or say half he means,’ Rivers added.

‘But, as I was telling you, about the police organisation of Siam,’ Sir Lionel broke out anew. And this time the others went back without resistance to a few moments more of Siam.