IV

A Friend of the People

The Friends of the People continued their meetings, and Zachariah attended regularly, although, after about three months’ experience, he began to doubt whether any advance was being made. The immediate subject of discussion now was a projected meeting in Spitalfields, and each branch of the Society was to organise its own contingent. All this was perfectly harmless. There was a good deal of wild talk occasionally; but it mostly came from Mr. Secretary, especially when he had had his beer. One evening he had taken more than enough, and was decidedly staggering as he walked down Lamb’s Conduit Street homewards. Zachariah was at some distance, and in front of him, in close converse, were his shoemaking friend, the Major, and a third man whom he could not recognise. The Secretary swayed himself across Holborn and into Chancery Lane, the others following. Presently they came up to him, passed him, and turned off to the left, leaving him to continue his troubled voyage southwards. The night air, however, was a little too much for him, and when he got to Fleet Street he was under the necessity of supporting himself against a wall. He became more and more seditious as he became more and more muddled, so that at last he attracted the attention of a constable who laid hold of him and locked him up for the night. In the morning he was very much surprised to find himself in a cell, feeling very miserable, charged with being drunk and disorderly, and, what was ten times worse, with uttering blasphemy against the Prince Regent. It may as well be mentioned here that the greatest precautions had been taken to prevent any knowledge by the authorities of the proceedings of the Friends of the People. The Habeas Corpus Act was not yet suspended, but the times were exceedingly dangerous. The Friends, therefore, never left in a body nor by the same door. Watch was always kept with the utmost strictness, not only on the stairs, but from a window which commanded the street. No written summons was ever sent to attend any meeting, ordinary or extraordinary. Mr. Secretary, therefore, was much disconcerted when he found that his pockets were emptied of all his official documents. He languished in his cell till about twelve o’clock, very sick and very anxious, when he was put into a cab, and, to his great surprise, instead of being taken to a police court, was carried to Whitehall. There he was introduced to an elderly gentleman, who sat at the head of a long table covered with green cloth. A younger man, apparently a clerk, sat at a smaller table by the fire and wrote, seeming to take no notice whatever of what was going on. Mr. Secretary expected to hear something about transportation, and to be denounced as an enemy of the human race; but he was pleasantly disappointed.

“Sorry to see a respectable person like you in such a position.”

Mr. Secretary wondered how the gentleman knew he was respectable; but was silent. He was not now in an eloquent or seditious humour.

“You may imagine that we know you, or we should not have taken the trouble to bring you here. We should merely have had you committed for trial.”

The Secretary thought of his empty pockets. In truth it was the Major who had emptied them before he crossed Holborn; but of course he suspected the constable.

“You must be aware that you have exposed yourself to heavy penalties. I prefer, however, to think of you as a well-meaning but misguided person. What good do you think you can do? I can assure you that the Government are fully aware of the distress which prevails, and will do all they can to alleviate it. If you have any grievances, why not seek their redress by legitimate and constitutional means?”

The Secretary was flattered. He had never been brought face to face with one of the governing classes before. He looked round; everything was so quiet, so pacific; there were no fetters nor thumbscrews; the sun was lighting up the park; children were playing in it, and the necessity for a revolution was not on that particular spot quite apparent.

A messenger now entered carrying some sandwiches and a little decanter of wine on a tray, covered with the whitest of cloths.

“It struck me,” continued the official, taking a sandwich and pouring out a glass of wine, “when I heard of your arrest, that I should like myself to have a talk with you. We really are most loth to proceed to extremities, and you have, I understand, a wife and children. I need not tell you what we could do with you if we liked. Now, just consider, my friend. I don’t want you to give up one single principle; but is it worth your while to be sent to jail and to have your home broken up merely because you want to achieve your object in the wrong way, and in a foolish way? Keep your principles; we do not object; but don’t go out into the road with them. And you, as an intelligent man, must see that you will not get what you desire by violence as soon as you will by lawful methods. Is the difference between us worth such a price as you will have to pay?”

The Secretary hesitated; he could not speak; he was very faint and nervous.

“Ah, you’ve had nothing to eat, I dare say.”

The bell was rung, and was answered immediately.

“Bring some bread and cheese and beer.”

The bread and cheese and beer were brought.

“Sit down there and have something; I will go on with my work, and we will finish our talk afterwards.”

The Secretary could not eat much bread and cheese, but he drank the beer greedily.

When he had finished the clerk left the room. The Commissioner⁠—for he was one of the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury⁠—followed him to the door, closed it, not without satisfying himself that the constable was at his post outside, returned to his seat, opened his drawer, saw that a pistol and five guineas were there, and then began:

“Now, look here, my dear sir, let me speak plainly with you and come to an understanding. We have made inquiries about you; we believe you to be a good sort of fellow, and we are not going to prosecute you. We do hope, however, that, should you hear anything which is⁠—well⁠—really treasonable, you will let us know. Treason, I am sure, is as dreadful to you as it is to me. The Government, as I said before, are most desirous of helping those who really deserve it; and to prove this, as I understand you are out of work, just accept that little trifle.”

The guineas were handed to Mr. Secretary, who looked at them doubtfully. With the beer his conscience had returned, and he broke out:

“If you want me to be a d⁠⸺⁠d spy, d⁠⸺⁠d if I do!” The Commissioner was not in the least disconcerted. “Spy, my man!⁠—who mentioned the word? The money was offered because you haven’t got a sixpence. Haven’t I told you you are not required to give up a single principle? Have I asked you to denounce a single companion? All I have requested you to do, as an honest citizen, is to give me a hint if you hear of anything which would be as perilous to you as to me.”

The Secretary after his brief explosion felt flaccid. He was subject to violent oscillations, and he looked at the five guineas again. He was very weak⁠—weak naturally, and weaker through a long course of alcohol. He was, therefore, prone to obscure, crooked, silly devices, at any rate when he was sober. Half drunk he was very bold; but when he had no liquor inside him he could not do what was straight. He had not strength sufficient, if two courses were open, to cast aside the one for which there were the fewer and less conclusive reasons, and to take the proper path, as if no other were before him. A sane, strong person is not the prey of reasons: a person like Mr. Secretary can never free himself from them, and after he has arrived at some kind of determination is still uncertain and harks back. With the roar of the flames of the Cities of the Plain in his ears, he stops, and is half afraid that it was his duty after all to stay and try and put them out. The Secretary, therefore, pondered again. The money was given on no condition that was worth anything. For aught he knew, the Commissioner had his books and papers already. He could take the guineas and be just as free as he was before. He could even give a part of it to the funds of the Friends. There obtruded, moreover, visions of Newgate, and his hands slowly crept to the coins.

“I am a Radical, sir, and I don’t mind who knows it.”

“Nothing penal in that. Every man has a right to his own political creed.”

The fingers crept closer and touched the gold.

“If I thought you wanted to bribe me, I’d rot before I had anything to do with you.”

The Commissioner smiled. There was no necessity to say anything more, for the guineas were disappearing and finally, though slowly, chinked down into Mr. Secretary’s pocket.

The Commissioner held out his hand.

The Secretary before he took it looked loftier than ever.

“I hope you understand me, sir, clearly.”

“I do understand you clearly.”

The Secretary shook the hand; the Commissioner went with him to the door.

“Show this gentleman downstairs.”

The constable, without a look of surprise, went downstairs, and Mr. Secretary found himself in the street.

Mr. Commissioner drank another glass of wine, and then pencilled something in a little memorandum book, which he put under the pistol. The drawer had two locks, and he carefully locked both with two little keys attached to a ribbon which he wore round his neck.