The long green benches of the House of Commons were half-deserted as the evening session began, scattered with perhaps a few dozen men. It was only six o’clock. As the hours moved toward midnight these rows would fill, and the voices speaking would grow louder to be heard, but for now many of the Members of Parliament were still attending to the chops, the pints of porter, and the ceaseless gossip of the House’s private dining room.
In the front bench to the left side of the chamber sat a man with a short beard and kind, intelligent eyes, rather thinner than most gentlemen who were just beyond, as he was, the age of forty. He wore a quiet gray evening suit, and though by now many along the benches had begun to lounge backward and even, in some instances, close their eyes, his face and posture evinced no rebellion against the more or less limitless boredom that the House was capable of inflicting upon its observers. His name was Charles Lenox: Once upon a time he had been a practicing detective, and though he still kept a careful eye upon the criminal world, for some years he had been the Member of Parliament for Stirrington, and politics now comprised the chief work of his life.
“Lenox?” whispered a voice behind him.
He turned and saw that it was the Prime Minister. In his early days in Parliament an informal address from such a figure would have awed Lenox, but now, having moved by his own industry from the back benches to the front, he was accustomed to Disraeli’s presence—if perhaps not his company. Rising to an inconspicuous stoop, he said, “Good evening, Prime Minister.”
Disraeli motioned him down and sat beside him, then went on, still in a low voice, “I cannot imagine why you have brought yourself here so early in the evening. Not to hear Swick?”
Across the aisle, several rows up, a gentleman was speaking. He was Augustus Swick, a notorious crank. His speech had begun several minutes before, with the comforting assertion that in his view England had never been in a worse position. Now he had moved on to more personal issues. As he spoke, his enormous white mustache shook at its fringes.
“It is 1875, gentlemen, and still I cannot walk across St. James’s Street to the Carlton Club without being harassed by every variety of vehicle, your omnibus, your reckless hansom cab, your landau, your rapid, far too rapid, clarence—”
“Pierpont!” called out a lazy voice from a back bench.
“I am delighted to hear that name, sir!” cried Swick, reddening, his brow set so grimly that this profession of delight seemed less than sincere. “Yes, Pierpont! I had hoped his name might arise, because I must inquire of this chamber, are we all to go to private expense, as Colonel Pierpont did, to install islands in the middle of every road we wish to cross? Do every man’s means extend so far? Can private citizens be expected to bear such a burden? I ask you, gentlemen, where will it end? Will it take a horse trampling me to death in Jermyn Street before the attention of this chamber is drawn to the problem of London’s traffic?”
“May as well try it and find out,” called out the same voice, to mild laughter.
Swick, outraged, drew himself up further, and Disraeli, with a wink, took the opportunity to move to the front bench across the aisle—for he was a Conservative, though he liked to stop in among his foes for a friendly word when the chamber was empty. He was sharp, this fellow. He had turned out Lenox’s own party’s leader, William Gladstone, the year before, but since then he had very carefully won around both sides of the House by tempering his imperial ambitions for England with an unexpected social conscience. Just that evening they were going to discuss the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act—a bill that sounded as if it might have come from Gladstone himself.
In fact, this was why Lenox had come to the chamber early. He had a word to get in.
By the time Swick had finished speaking, ten or fifteen more men had filed into the Commons, and the serious business of the evening was near its commencement. The Speaker recognized the only man to stand after Swick—Edward Twinkleton, a midlands glue baron. He began to address Disraeli’s act.
The housing of the poor was a serious issue, perhaps the one to which Lenox had, in recent months, devoted more time than to any other. Only that morning he had driven to the slums of Hungerford to see the problem firsthand.
Despite its origin in his own Conservative benches, Twinkleton stood firmly against the bill and was now making a long-winded argument about the idle poor. When he had concluded, Lenox stood up and, after recognition from the Speaker, began his response.
“The chief issue is not, as my honorable friend presumes, one of the comfort of our poorer citizens, but of their health. May I ask whether he is familiar with the usual, and vile, practice of the builders in these neighborhoods? Commissioned by Her Majesty’s government to construct new edifices, they take the very fine gravel we, the taxpayers, have purchased—for the construction of the foundation—and they sell it on the black market. Then they replace it with something called ‘dry core,’ gentlemen, a mixture of trash, dead animals, and vegetables. It is only March, but in the summer, I am informed, the smell is beyond belief. Can we rightly call this England, if Parliament gives its endorsement, this evening, to such practices?”
Lenox sat down and thought he saw Disraeli incline his head slightly across the aisle in thanks—though perhaps not.
Twinkleton rose. “I commend my honorable friend’s insight into the issue, and yet it cannot be lost on him that these people have always lived in the city, always in suchlike conditions, and that there seem to be more of them than ever! No amount of dry core reduces their number!”
Lenox stood to respond. “The honorable gentleman from Edgbaston neglects to consider, perhaps, the historical context of our time. During the period of the honorable gentleman’s childhood—”
“As I did not receive a card from my honorable friend upon the recent occasion of my birthday, I do not see how he can be so certain of my age.”
This drew a laugh, but Lenox bore onward. “During the period of the honorable gentleman’s childhood,” he said, “or thereabouts, one in five Britons lived in a city. Now it is edging toward four in five. Even to a very dim intellect that must be acknowledged a change.”
There was laughter on Lenox’s own side now, and a diffident round of hissing and catcalling on the other, all very usual, at this slight, and as Lenox sat down upon the green baize bench, smiling faintly, Twinkleton rose up, his face also traced with amusement, clearly raring for battle. Instead the Speaker, chary perhaps of any further devolution of courtesy in the chamber, chose to call for rebuttal on Montague, a Member from Liverpool. Twinkleton would have his chance again in a moment. In the meanwhile, Montague, who had all the charisma and verve of a dying houseplant, returned the tone of the House’s discourse to its proper tedium.
When Montague had been speaking for ten minutes or so, Lenox saw that a red-haired boy was approaching him, having darted down one of the aisles. This was Frabbs, his clerk, a bright and attentive lad. He handed Lenox a note. “Just came to the office, sir,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Lenox.
He tore the envelope and read the short note inside. Interesting. “Any reply, sir?” asked Frabbs.
“No, but find Graham and ask him whether the vote on this bill will come in this evening, or if he thinks there will be another day of debate. You can signal me from the door, I shall keep an eye on it.”
Graham was Lenox’s political secretary, his most important ally; it was a position in most instances occupied by some ambitious son of the upper classes, fresh from Charterhouse or Eton, but Graham was, unusually—perhaps even uniquely—a former servant. For many years he had been Lenox’s butler. A compact, sandy-haired, and shrewd fellow, he had taken to his new position without faltering, and now had more to do with the running of Parliament than fully half of the body’s own Members.
As Montague bore onward, down into the depths of his prepared remarks, Lenox’s eyes kept flitting to the side door where Frabbs would appear. Catching himself at it once too often, he smiled: It was the old internal debate, the mild pleasures of Parliament, the sense of duty he felt to be there, laid against the thrill of being out on the hunt. Detective work.
Lenox’s father had been a great man in the Commons, and now his older brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, stood among the two or three chiefs of the party. For his part, Charles had always taken a great interest in politics, too—had sometimes wished that the seat in the family’s bestowal, which of course Edmund took upon reaching maturity, might have been his—and had been thrilled when he won his own. It felt like an ascent, for in truth many of his class looked upon Lenox’s previous career as a folly, even an embarrassment.
How he missed the old life! Twice in the past two years he had emerged briefly from retirement, on both occasions in singular circumstances, and now he often thought of those cases, their particular details, with a longing to be back in the middle of them. No morning passed in which he did not pore over the crime columns of the newspapers, coffee growing cold in its cup.
He thought of all this because of the note Frabbs had passed him: It had come from his former protégé in detection, Lord John Dallington, asking for help on a case. Having read it ten minutes before, Lenox itched with irritation at his position already, eager to be gone from the Commons.
It was true that he had promised Disraeli, and several other men, that he would be an assiduous participant in these debates. Still, he had already exchanged words with Twinkleton once, and for an hour or two’s absence anyway he would hardly be missed. Particularly if the vote was to be delayed beyond that evening.
Ah! There was Frabbs’s head, popping around the doorjamb—and yes, there was the thumb in the air. With a murmured good-bye to the men on his bench, and a promise that he would return just after the break, Lenox stood and made for the exit, happier than he had been since he left the house that morning. A strange circumstance, Dallington’s note had promised. Lenox smiled. Who knew what might await him out there in the great fervid rousing muddle of London?
Copyright © 2013 by Charles Finch