Politics and Pauline

Soon after this visit debates arose in Zachariah’s club which afterwards ended in the famous march of the Blanketeers, as they were called. Matters were becoming very serious, and the Government was thoroughly alarmed, as well it might be, at the discontent which was manifest all over the country. The Prince Regent was insulted as he went to open Parliament, and the windows of his carriage were broken. It was thought, and with some reason, that the army could not be trusted. One thing is certain, that the reformers found their way into the barracks at Knightsbridge and had lunch there at the expense of the soldiers, who discussed Hone’s pamphlets and roared with laughter over the Political Litany. The Prince Regent communicated to both Houses certain papers, and recommended that they should at once be taken into consideration. They contained evidence, so the royal message asserted, of treasonable combinations “to alienate the affections of His Majesty’s subjects from His Majesty’s person and Government,” etc. Secret committees were appointed to consider them both by Lords and Commons, and in about a fortnight they made their reports. The text was the Spitalfields meeting of the preceding 2nd of December. A mob had made it an excuse to march through the city and plunder some shops. Some of the charges brought against the clubs by the Lords’ Committee do not now seem so very appalling. One was, that they were agitating for universal suffrage and annual Parliaments⁠—“projects,” say the Committee, “which evidently involve, not any qualified or partial change but a total subversion of the British constitution.” Another charge was the advocacy of “parochial partnership in land, on the principle that the landholders are not proprietors in chief; that they are but stewards of the public; that the land is the people’s farm; that landed monopoly is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and destructive of the independence and morality of mankind.” The Reform party in Parliament endeavoured to prove that the country was in no real danger, and that the singularly harsh measures proposed were altogether unnecessary. That was true. There was nothing to be feared, because there was no organisation; but nevertheless, especially in the manufacturing towns, the suffering was fearful and the hatred of the Government most bitter. What is so lamentable in the history of those times is the undisciplined wildness and feebleness of the attempts made by the people to better themselves. Nothing is more saddening than the spectacle of a huge mass of humanity goaded, writhing, starving, and yet so ignorant that it cannot choose capable leaders, cannot obey them if perchance it gets them, and does not even know how to name its wrongs. The governing classes are apt to mistake the absurdity of the manner in which a popular demand expresses itself for absurdity of the demand itself; but in truth the absurdity of the expression makes the demand more noteworthy and terrible. Bamford, when he came to London in the beginning of 1817, records the impression which the clubs made upon him. He went to several and found them all alike; “each man with his porter-pot before him and a pipe in his mouth; many speaking at once, more talkers than thinkers; more speakers than listeners. Presently ‘Order’ would be called, and comparative silence would ensue; a speaker, stranger or citizen, would be announced with much courtesy and compliment. ‘Hear, hear, hear’ would follow, with clapping of hands and knocking of knuckles on the tables, till the half-pints danced; then a speech, with compliments to some brother orator or popular statesman; next a resolution in favour of Parliamentary Reform, and a speech to second it; an amendment on some minor point would follow; a seconding of that; a breach of order by some individual of warm temperament; half a dozen would rise to set him right; a dozen to put them down; and the vociferation and gesticulation would become loud and confounding.”

The Manchester clubs had set their hearts upon an expedition to London⁠—thousands strong; each man with a blanket to protect him and a petition in his hand. The discussion on this project was long and eager. The Major, Caillaud and Zachariah steadfastly opposed it; not because of its hardihood, but because of its folly. They were outvoted; but they conceived themselves loyally bound to make it a success. Zachariah and Caillaud were not of much use in organisation, and the whole burden fell upon the Major. Externally gay, and to most persons justifying the charge of frivolity, he was really nothing of the kind when he had once settled down to the work he was born to do. His levity was the mere idle sport of a mind unattached and seeking its own proper object. He was like a cat, which will play with a ball or its own tail in the sunshine, but if a mouse or a bird crosses its path will fasten on it with sudden ferocity. He wrought like a slave during the two months before the eventful 10th March 1817, and well nigh broke his heart over the business. Everything had to be done subterraneously; for though the Habeas Corpus Act was not yet suspended, preparations for what looked like war were perilous. But this was not the greatest difficulty. He pleaded for dictatorial powers, and at once found he had made himself suspected thereby. He was told bluntly that working men did not mean to exchange one despot for another, and that they were just as good as he was. Any other man would have thrown up his commission in disgust, but not so Major Maitland. He persevered unflaggingly, although a subcommittee had been appointed to act with him and check his proceedings. The secretary of this very subcommittee, who was also treasurer, was one of the causes of the failure of the enterprise, for when the march began neither he nor the funds with which he had been entrusted could be found. After the club meetings in the evening there was often an adjournment to Caillaud’s lodgings, where the Major, Zachariah, Caillaud, and Pauline sat up till close upon midnight. One evening there was an informal conference of this kind prior to the club meeting on the following night. The Major was not present, for he was engaged in making some arrangements for the commissariat on the march. He had always insisted on it that they were indispensable, and he had been bitterly opposed the week before by some of his brethren, who were in favour of extempore foraging which looked very much like plunder. He carried his point, notwithstanding some sarcastic abuse and insinuations of half-heartedness, which had touched also Caillaud and Zachariah, who supported him. Zachariah was much depressed.

Mr. Coleman, you are dull,” said Pauline. “What is the matter?”

“Dull!⁠—that’s not exactly the word. I was thinking of tomorrow.”

“Ah! I thought so. Well?”

Zachariah hesitated a little. “Is it worth all the trouble?” at last he said, an old familiar doubt recurring to him⁠—“Is it worth all the trouble to save them? What are they?⁠—and, after all, what can we do for them? Suppose we succeed, and a hundred thousand creatures like those who blackguarded us last week get votes, and get their taxes reduced, and get all they want, what then?”

Pauline broke in with all the eagerness of a woman who is struck with an idea⁠—“Stop, stop, Mr. Coleman. Here is the mistake you make. Grant it all⁠—grant your achievement is ridiculously small⁠—is it not worth the sacrifice of two or three like you and me to accomplish it? That is our error. We think ourselves of such mighty importance. The question is, whether we are of such importance, and whether the progress of the world one inch will not be cheaply purchased by the annihilation of a score of us. You believe in what you call salvation. You would struggle and die to save a soul; but in reality you can never save a man; you must be content to struggle and die to save a little bit of him⁠—to prevent one habit from descending to his children. You won’t save him wholly, but you may arrest the propagation of an evil trick, and so improve a trifle⁠—just a trifle⁠—whole generations to come. Besides, I don’t believe what you will do is nothing. ‘Give a hundred thousand blackguard creatures votes’⁠—well, that is something. You are disappointed they do not at once become converted and all go to chapel. That is not the way of the Supreme. Your hundred thousand get votes, and perhaps are none the better, and die as they were before they had votes. But the Supreme has a million, or millions, of years before Him.”

Zachariah was silent. Fond of dialectic, he generally strove to present the other side; but he felt no disposition to do so now, and he tried rather to connect what she had said with something which he already believed.

“True,” he said at last; “true, or true in part. What are we?⁠—what are we?” and so Pauline’s philosophy seemed to reconcile itself with one of his favourite dogmas, but it had not quite the same meaning which it had for him ten years ago.

“Besides,” said Caillaud, “we hate Liverpool and all his crew. When I think of that speech at the opening of Parliament I become violent. There it is; I have stuck it up over the mantelpiece:

“Deeply as I lament the pressure of these evils upon the country, I am sensible that they are of a nature not to admit of an immediate remedy. But whilst I observe with peculiar satisfaction the fortitude with which so many privations have been borne, and the active benevolence which has been employed to mitigate them, I am persuaded that the great sources of our national prosperity are essentially unimpaired; and I entertain a confident expectation that the native energy of the country will at no distant period surmount all the difficulties in which we are involved.”

“My God,” continued Caillaud, “I could drive a knife into the heart of the man who thus talks!”

“No murder, Caillaud,” said Zachariah.

“Well, no. What is it but a word? Let us say sacrifice. Do you call the death of your Charles a murder? No; and the reason why you do not is what? Not that it was decreed by a Court. There have been many murders decreed by Courts according to law. Was not the death of your Jesus Christ a murder? Murder means death for base, selfish ends. What said Jesus⁠—that He came to send a sword? Of course He did. Every idea is a sword. What a God He was! He was the first who ever cared for the people⁠—for the real people, the poor, the ignorant, the fools, the weak-minded, the slaves. The Greeks and Romans thought nothing of these. I salute thee, O Thou Son of the People!” and Caillaud took down a little crucifix which, strange to say, always hung in his room, and reverently inclined himself to it. “A child of the people,” he continued, “in everything, simple, foolish, wise, ragged, Divine, martyred Hero.”

Zachariah was not astonished at this melodramatic display, for he knew Caillaud well; and although this was a little more theatrical than anything he had ever seen before, it was not out of keeping with his friend’s character. Nor was it insincere, for Caillaud was not an Englishman. Moreover, there is often more insincerity in purposely lowering the expression beneath the thought, and denying the thought thereby, than in a little exaggeration. Zachariah, although he was a Briton, had no liking for that hypocrisy which takes a pride in reducing the extraordinary to the commonplace, and in forcing an ignoble form upon that which is highest. The conversation went no further. At last Caillaud said:

“Come, Pauline, a tune; we have not had one for a long time.”

Pauline smiled, and went into her little room. Meanwhile her father removed chairs and table, piling them one on another so as to leave a clear space. He and Zachariah crouched into the recess by the fireplace. Pauline entered in the self same short black dress trimmed with red, with the red artificial flower, wearing the same red stockings and dancing-slippers, but without the shawl. The performance this time was not quite what it was when Zachariah had seen it in London. Between herself and the corner where Zachariah and her father were seated she now had an imaginary partner, before whom she advanced, receded, bowed, displayed herself in the most exquisitely graceful attitudes, never once overstepping the mark, and yet showing every limb and line to the utmost advantage. Zachariah, as before, followed every movement with eager⁠—shall we say with hungry eyes? He was so unused to exhibitions of this kind that their grace was not, as it should have been, their only charm; for, as we before observed, in his chapel circle even ordinary dancing was a thing prohibited. The severity of manners to which he had been accustomed tended to produce an effect the very opposite to that which was designed; for it can hardly be doubted that if it were the custom in England for women to conceal the face, a glimpse of an eye or a nose would excite unpleasant thoughts.

The dance came to an end, and as it was getting late Zachariah rose.

“Stop,” said Caillaud. “It is agreed that if they persist on this march, one or the other of us goes too. The Major will be sure to go. Which shall it be, you or me?”

“We will draw lots.”

“Good.” And Zachariah departed, Pauline laughingly making him one of her costume curtseys. He was very awkward. He never knew how to conduct himself becomingly, or with even good manners, on commonplace occasions. When he was excited in argument he was completely equal to the best company, and he would have held his own on level terms at a Duke’s dinner-party, provided only the conversation were interesting. But when he was not intellectually excited he was lubberly. He did not know what response to make to Pauline’s graceful adieu, and retreated sheepishly. When he got home he found his wife waiting for him. The supper was cleared away, and, as usual, she was reading, or pretending to be reading, the Bible.

“You have had supper, of course?” There was a peculiar tone in the “of course,” as if she meant to imply not merely that it was late, but that he had preferred to have it with somebody else.

“I do not want any.”

“Then we had better have prayers.”