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An essay by Charles Lever

Pensions For Governors

Title:     Pensions For Governors
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

I do not remember ever to have read more pompons nonsense than was talked a few days ago in Parliament on the subject of pensions for retired colonial governors.

On all ordinary occasions the strongest case a man can have with the British public is to be an ill-used man--that is to say, if you be a man of mark, or note, or station. To be ill-used, as one poor, friendless, and ignoble, is no more than the complement of your condition. It is in the fitness of things that pauperism, which we English have declared to be illegal, should neither be fondled nor caressed. To be ill-used profitably there must be something pictorial in your case; it must have its reliefs of light as well as shade. There must be little touches, a bright "has been," sunny spots of a happy past Without the force of these contrasts, there is no possibility of establishing the grand grievance which is embodied in ill-usage.

Now, Mr B. C. who brought on this motion was a sorry artist, and the whole sum and substance of his case was, that as we secured the services of eminent and able men, we ought to pay them "properly." Why, in that one word "properly" lay the whole question. What constitutes proper payment? Every career in life carries with it some circumstance either of advantage or the reverse, which either compensates for the loss of a material benefit, or is requited by some addition of a tangible profit. The educated man who accepts three hundred a-year in the Church is not recompensed, or considered to be recompensed, by this miserable pittance. It is in the respect, the influence, the power, and the reverence that attach to his calling he is rewarded. Place a layman in the parish beside him with that income, and mark the difference of their stations! The same of the soldier. Why or how does seven-and-sixpence diurnally represent one the equal of the best in any society of the land? Simply by a conventional treaty, by which we admit that a man, at the loss of so much hard cash, may enjoy a station which bears no imaginable proportion to his means.

On the other hand, there are large communities who, addressing themselves to acquire wealth and riches, care very little for the adventitious advantages of social state. As it is told of Theodore Hook, at a Lord Mayor's feast, that he laid down his knife and fork at the fifth course, and declared "he would take the rest out in money;" so there are scores of people who "go in" for the actual and the real. They have no sympathy with those who "take out" their social status partly in condition partly in cash, as is the case with the curate and the captain.

Almost every man, at his outset in life, makes some computation of how much his career can pay him in money, how much in the advantages of rank and station. The bailiff on the estate makes very often a far better income than the village doctor; but do you believe that AEsculapius would change places with him for all that? Is not the unbought deference to his opinion, the respect to his acquirements, the obedience to his counsel, something in the contract he makes with the world? Does he not recognise, every day of his life, that he is not measured by the dimensions of the small house he resides in, or the humble qualities of the hack he rides, but that he has an acceptance in society totally removed from every question of his fortune?

In the great lottery we call life, the prizes differ in many things besides degree. If the man of high ambition determine to strain every nerve to attain a station of eminence and power, it may be that his intellectual equal, fonder of ease, more disposed to tranquillity, will settle down with a career that at the very best will only remove him a step above poverty; and shall we dare to say that either is wrong? My brother the Lord Chancellor is a great man, no doubt. The mace is a splendid club, and the woolsack a most luxurious sofa; but as I walk my village rounds of a summer's morning, inhaling perfume of earth and plant, following with my eye the ever-mounting lark, have I not a lighter heart, a freer step, a less wearied head? Have I not risen refreshed from sleep? not nightmared by the cutting sarcasms of some noble earl on my fresh-gilt coronet, some slighting allusion to my "newness in that place"? Depend upon it, the grand law of compensation which we recognise throughout universal nature extends to the artificial conditions of daily life, and regulates the action and adjusts the inequalities of our social state.

What is a viceroy or a colonial governor? A man of eminence and ability, doubtless, but who is satisfied to estrange himself from home and country, and occupy himself with cares and interests totally new and strange to him, for some five or fifteen thousand pounds a-year, plus a great variety of other things, which to certain minds unquestionably represent high value--the--station, the power, the prestige of a great position, with all its surroundings of deference and homage. Large as his salary is, it is the least distinctive feature of his high office. In every attribute of rank the man is a king. In his presence the wisest and the most gifted do no more than insinuate the words of their wisdom, and beauty retires curtsying, after a few commonplaces from his lips. Why, through all the employments of life, who ever attains to the like of this? His presence is an honour, his notice is fame. To be his guest is a distinction for a day; to be his host is to be illustrious for a lifetime. Are these things nothing? Ask the noble earl as he sits in his howdah; ask my lord marquis as he rides forth with a glittering staff.

Did any one, even Mr B. C. himself, ever imagine that Mr Macready ought to be pensioned after he had played Cardinal Wolsey? Was it ever proposed, even in Parliament, that Mr Kean should have a retiring allowance when he had taken off his robes as Henry IV.? These eminent men were, however, just as real, just as actual, during their brief hour on the stage, as His Excellency the Viceroy or the "Lord High." They were there under a precisely similar compact. They had to represent a state which had no permanence, and a power that had no stability. They were to utter words which would be ridiculous from their lips to-morrow, and to assume a port and bearing that must be abandoned when they retired to change their clothes.

It is one of my very oldest memories as a boy that I dined in company with Charles Kemble. There was a good deal of talking, and a fair share of wine-drinking. In the course of the former came the question of the French Revolution of '30, and the conduct of the French King on that occasion. Kemble took no part in the discussion; he listened, or seemed to listen, filled his glass and emptied it, but never spoke. At last, when each speaker appeared to have said his say, and the subject approached exhaustion, the great actor, with the solemnity of a judge in a charge, and with a grand resonance of voice, said: "I'll tell you how it is, sirs; Charles X. has forfeited a--a--a right good engagement!" And that was exactly the measure that he and all his tribe took, and are now taking, of kings and rulers--and let us profit by it. The colonial king has his "engagement;" it is defined exactly like the actor's. He is to play certain parts, and for so many nights; he is to strut his hour in the very finest of properties, and is sure, which the actor is not always, of a certain amount of applause. No living creature believes seriously in him, far less he himself, except, perhaps, in some impassioned moment or other like that in which I once knew Othello so far carried away that he flung Iago into the orchestra.

Pension Carlisle, pension Storks, if you will; but be just as well as generous, and take care that you provide for Paul Bedford and Buckstone.

In Archbishop Whately's 'Historic Doubts,' we find that the existence of the first emperor can be disproven by the very train of argument employed to deny the apostles. Let me suggest the converse of this mode of reasoning, and ask, Is there a word you can say for the Viceroy you cannot equally say for the actor? Have you an argument for him who governs St Helena that will not equally apply to him who struts his hour at the Haymarket?

I perceive that the writer of a letter to the 'Times' advocates the claims of the ex-Governors, on the plausible plea that it is exactly the very men who best represent the dignity of the station--best reflect the splendour of the Sovereign--who come back poor and penniless from the high office: while the penurious Governor, who has given dissatisfaction everywhere, made the colony half rebellious by his narrow economies, and degraded his station by contemptible savings, comes back wealthy and affluent--self-pensioned, in fact, and independent.

To meet this end, the writer suggests that the Crown, as advised thereon, should have a discretionary power of rewarding the well-doer and refusing the claim of the unmeriting, which would distinctly separate the case of the worthy servant of the Sovereign from that of him who only employed his office to enrich himself.

There is a certain shallow--it is a very shallow--plausibility about this that attracts at first sight; and there would unquestionably be some force in it, if dinner-giving and hospitalities generally were the first requisites of a colonial ruler; but I cannot admit this. I cannot believe that the man who administers India or Canada, or even Jamaica or Barbadoes, is only an expatriated Lord Mayor. I will not willingly consent to accept it as qualification for a high trust that a man has a good cook and an admirable cellar, and an ostentatious tendency to display the merits of both. Mind, I am no ascetic who say this: I like good dinners; I like occasionally--only occasionally though--very good dinners. I feel with a clever countryman who said he liked being asked out to dine, "it was flattering, and it was nourishing;" but with all this I should never think of "elevating my host" to the dignity of high statesmanship on the mere plea of his hospitality.

We have had some able men in our dependencies who were not in the least given to social enjoyments, who neither understood them for themselves nor thought of them for others--Sir Charles Napier, for instance. And who, let me ask, would have lost the services of such a man to the State, because he had not the tastes of a Sir William Curtis, nor could add a "Cubitt" to his stature?

All discretionary powers are, besides, abuses. They are the snares and pitfalls of official jobbery; and there would be no end of bickering and complaining on the merits of this and the shortcomings of that man. Not to say that such a system as this writer recommends would place a Government in the false position of rewarding extravagance and offering a premium for profusion, and holding up for an example to our colonial fellow-subjects the very habits and tastes which are the bane and destruction of young communities.

Can any one imagine a Cabinet Council sitting to determine whether the ex-Governor of St Helena had or had not entertained the officers of the 509th Foot on their return from India, or whether he of Heligoland had really fed his family on molluscs during all the time of his administration, and sold the shells as magnesia? There could be but one undeniable test of an ex-Governor's due claim to a pension, since on the question of a man's hospitalities evidence would vary to eternity. There are those whose buttermilk is better than their neighbours' bordeaux. I repeat, there could be but one test as to the claim; and as we read in a police sheet, as a sufficient ground for arrest, the two words, "Drunk and Disorderly," so should any commission on pensions accept as valid grounds for a pension, "Insolvent and a Bankrupt."

To talk of these men as ill-used, or their case as a hard one, is simply nonsense! You might as well say that the man you asked to dinner to-day has a legitimate ground of complaint against you because you have not invited him to breakfast to-morrow.

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Pensions For Governors