"Crasweller, it must be done. The law demands it."
"No, no; not by me. You and young Grundle together are in a conspiracy to get rid of me. I am not going to be shut up a whole year before my time."
With that he stalked into the inner house, leaving me alone on the verandah. I had nothing for it but to turn on the electric lamp of my tricycle and steam back to Government House at Gladstonopolis with a sad heart.
Six months passed away, which, I must own to me was a period of great doubt and unhappiness, though it was relieved by certain moments of triumph. Of course, as the time drew nearer, the question of Crasweller's deposition became generally discussed by the public of Gladstonopolis. And so also did the loves of Abraham Grundle and Eva Crasweller. There were "Evaites" and "Abrahamites" in the community; for though the match had not yet been altogether broken, it was known that the two young people differed altogether on the question of the old man's deposition. It was said by the defendents of Grundle, who were to be found for the most part among the young men and young women, that Abraham was simply anxious to carry out the laws of his country. It happened that, during this period, he was elected to a vacant seat in the Assembly, so that, when the matter came on for discussion there, he was able to explain publicly his motives; and it must be owned that he did so with good words and with a certain amount of youthful eloquence. As for Eva, she was simply intent on preserving the lees of her father's life, and had been heard to express an opinion that the college was "all humbug," and that people ought to be allowed to live as long as it pleased God to let them. Of course she had with her the elderly ladies of the community, and among them my own wife as the foremost. Mrs Neverbend had never made herself prominent before in any public question; but on this she seemed to entertain a very warm opinion. Whether this arose entirely from her desire to promote Jack's welfare, or from a reflection that her own period of deposition was gradually becoming nearer, I never could quite make up my mind. She had, at any rate, ten years to run, and I never heard from her any expressed fear of, – departure. She was, – and is, – a brave, good woman, attached to her household duties, anxious for her husband's comfort, but beyond measure solicitous for all good things to befall that scapegrace Jack Neverbend, for whom she thinks that nothing is sufficiently rich or sufficiently grand. Jack is a handsome boy, I grant, but that is about all that can be said of him; and in this matter he has been diametrically opposed to his father from first to last.
It will be seen that, in such circumstances, none of these moments of triumph to which I have alluded can have come to me within my own home. There Mrs Neverbend and Jack, and after a while Eva, sat together in perpetual council against me. When these meetings first began, Eva still acknowledged herself to be the promised bride of Abraham Grundle. There were her own vows, and her parent's assent, and something perhaps of remaining love. But presently she whispered to my wife that she could not but feel horror for the man who was anxious to "murder her father;" and by-and-by she began to own that she thought Jack a fine fellow. We had a wonderful cricket club in Gladstonopolis, and Britannula had challenged the English cricketers to come and play on the Little Christchurch ground, which they declared to be the only cricket ground as yet prepared on the face of the earth which had all the accomplishments possible for the due prosecution of the game. Now Jack, though very young, was captain of the club, and devoted much more of his time to that occupation than to his more legitimate business as a merchant. Eva, who had not hitherto paid much attention to cricket, became on a sudden passionately devoted to it; whereas Abraham Grundle, with a steadiness beyond his years, gave himself up more than ever to the business of the Assembly, and expressed some contempt for the game, though he was no mean player.
It had become necessary during this period to bring forward in the Assembly the whole question of the Fixed Period, as it was felt that, in the present state of public opinion, it would not be expedient to carry out the established law without the increased sanction which would be given to it by a further vote in the House. Public opinion would have forbidden us to deposit Crasweller without some such further authority. Therefore it was deemed necessary that a question should be asked, in which Crasweller's name was not mentioned, but which might lead to some general debate. Young Grundle demanded one morning whether it was the intention of the Government to see that the different clauses as to the new law respecting depositions were at once carried out. "The House is aware, I believe," he said, "that the first operation will soon be needed." I may as well state here that this was repeated to Eva, and that she pretended to take huff at such a question from her lover. It was most indecent, she said; and she, after such words, must drop him for ever. It was not for some months after that, that she allowed Jack's name to be mentioned with her own; but I was aware that it was partly settled between her and Jack and Mrs Neverbend. Grundle declared his intention of proceeding against old Crasweller in reference to the breach of contract, according to the laws of Britannula; but that Jack's party disregarded altogether. In telling this, however, I am advancing a little beyond the point in my story to which I have as yet carried my reader.
Then there arose a debate upon the whole principle of the measure, which was carried on with great warmth. I, as President, of course took no part in it; but, in accordance with our constitution, I heard it all from the chair which I usually occupied at the Speaker's right hand. The arguments on which the greatest stress was laid tended to show that the Fixed Period had been carried chiefly with a view to relieving the miseries of the old. And it was conclusively shown that, in a very great majority of cases, life beyond sixty-eight was all vanity and vexation of spirit. That other argument as to the costliness of old men to the state was for the present dropped. Had you listened to young Grundle, insisting with all the vehemence of youth on the absolute wretchedness to which the aged had been condemned by the absence of any such law, – had you heard the miseries of rheumatism, gout, stone, and general debility pictured in the eloquent words of five-and-twenty, – you would have felt that all who could lend themselves to perpetuate such a state of things must be guilty of fiendish cruelty. He really rose to a great height of parliamentary excellence, and altogether carried with him the younger, and luckily the greater, part of the House. There was really nothing to be said on the other side, except a repetition of the prejudices of the Old World. But, alas! so strong are the weaknesses of the world, that prejudice can always vanquish truth by the mere strength of its battalions. Not till it had been proved and re-proved ten times over, was it understood that the sun could not have stood still upon Gideon. Crasweller, who was a member, and who took his seat during these debates without venturing to speak, merely whispered to his neighbour that the heartless greedy fellow was unwilling to wait for the wools of Little Christchurch.
Three divisions were made on the debate, and thrice did the Fixed-Periodists beat the old party by a majority of fifteen in a House consisting of eighty-five members. So strong was the feeling in the empire, that only two members were absent, and the number remained the same during the whole week of the debate. This, I did think, was a triumph; and I felt that the old country, which had really nothing on earth to do with the matter, could not interfere with an opinion expressed so strongly. My heart throbbed with pleasureable emotion as I heard that old age, which I was myself approaching, depicted in terms which made its impotence truly conspicuous, – till I felt that, had it been proposed to deposit all of us who had reached the age of fifty-eight, I really think that I should joyfully have given my assent to such a measure, and have walked off at once and deposited myself in the college.
But it was only at such moments that I was allowed to experience this feeling of triumph. I was encountered not only in my own house but in society generally, and on the very streets of Gladstonopolis, by the expression of an opinion that Crasweller would not be made to retire to the college at his Fixed Period. "What on earth is there to hinder it?" I said once to my old friend Ruggles. Ruggles was now somewhat over sixty, and was an agent in the town for country wool-growers. He took no part in politics; and though he had never agreed to the principle of the Fixed Period, had not interested himself in opposition to it. He was a man whom I regarded as indifferent to length of life, but one who would, upon the whole, rather face such lot as Nature might intend for him, than seek to improve it by any new reform.
"Eva Crasweller will hinder it," said Ruggles.
"Eva is a mere child. Do you suppose that her opinion will be allowed to interrupt the laws of the whole community, and oppose the progress of civilisation?"
"Her feelings will," said Ruggles. "Who's to stand a daughter interceding for the life of her father?"
"One man cannot, but eighty-five can do so."
"The eighty-five will be to the community just what the one would be to the eighty-five. I am not saying anything about your law. I am not expressing an opinion whether it would be good or bad. I should like to live out my own time, though I acknowledge that you Assembly men have on your shoulders the responsibility of deciding whether I shall do so or not. You could lead me away and deposit me without any trouble, because I am not popular. But the people are beginning to talk about Eva Crasweller and Abraham Grundle, and I tell you that all the volunteers you have in Britannula will not suffice to take the old man to the college, and to keep him there till you have polished him off. He would be deposited again at Little Christchurch in triumph, and the college would be left a wreck behind him."
This view of the case was peculiarly distressing to me. As the chief magistrate of the community, nothing is so abhorrent to me as rebellion. Of a populace that are not law-abiding, nothing but evil can be predicted; whereas a people who will obey the laws cannot but be prosperous. It grieved me greatly to be told that the inhabitants of Gladstonopolis would rise in tumult and destroy the college merely to favour the views of a pretty girl. Was there any honour, or worse again, could there be any utility, in being the President of a republic in which such things could happen? I left my friend Ruggles in the street, and passed on to the executive hall in a very painful frame of mind.
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