The Four Just Men (1920)/PART 1/Chapter 3
THE FAITHFUL COMMONS
Somebody—was it Mr Gladstone?—placed it on record that there is nothing quite so dangerous, quite so ferocious, quite so terrifying as a mad sheep. Similarly, as we know, there is no person quite so indiscreet, quite so foolishly talkative, quite so amazingly gauche, as the diplomat who for some reason or other has run off the rails.
There comes a moment to the man who has trained himself to guard his tongue in the Councils of Nations, who has been schooled to walk warily amongst pitfalls digged cunningly by friendly Powers, when the practice and precept of many years are forgotten, and he behaves humanly. Why this should be has never been discovered by ordinary people, although the psychological minority who can generally explain the mental processes of their fellows, have doubtless very adequate and convincing reasons for these acts of disbalancement.
Sir Philip Ramon was a man of peculiar temperament. I doubt whether anything in the wide world would have arrested his purpose once his mind had been made up. He was a man of strong character, a firm, square-jawed, big-mouthed man, with that shade of blue in his eyes that one looks for in peculiarly heartless criminals, and particularly famous generals. And yet Sir Philip Ramon feared, as few men imagined he feared, the consequence of the task he had set himself.
There are thousands of men who are physically heroes and morally poltroons, men who would laugh at death—and live in terror of personal embarrassments. Coroner’s courts listen daily to the tale of such men’s lives—and deaths.
The foreign secretary reversed these qualities. Good animal men would unhesitatingly describe the Minister as a coward, for he feared pain and he feared death.
“If this thing is worrying you so much,” the premier said kindly— it was at the Cabinet Council two days following the publication of the Megaphone’s story—”why don’t you drop the Bill? After all, there are matters of greater importance to occupy the time of the House, and we are getting near the end of the session.”
An approving murmur went round the table.
“We have every excuse for dropping it. There must be a horrible slaughtering of the innocents—Braithewaite’s Unemployed Bill must go; and what the country will say to that, Heaven only knows.”
“No, no!” The foreign secretary brought his fist down on the table with a crash. “It shall go through; of that I am determined. We are breaking faith with the Cortes, we are breaking faith with France, we are breaking faith with every country in the Union. I have promised the passage of this measure—and we must go through with it, even though there are a thousand ‘Just Men’, and a thousand threats.”
The premier shrugged his shoulders.
“Forgive me for saying so, Ramon,” said Bolton, the solicitor general, “but I can’t help feeling you were rather indiscreet to give particulars to the Press as you did. Yes, I know we were agreed that you should have a free hand to deal with the matter as you wished, but somehow I did not think you would have been quite so—what shall I say?—candid.”
“My discretion in the matter, Sir George, is not a subject that I care to discuss,” replied Ramon stiffly.
Later, as he walked across Palace Yard with the youthful-looking chancellor, Mr Solicitor-General, smarting under the rebuff, said, à propos of nothing, “Silly old ass.” And the youthful guardian of Britain’s finances smiled.
“If the truth be told,” he said, “Ramon is in a most awful funk. The story of the Four Just Men is in all the clubs, and a man I met at the Carlton at lunch has rather convinced me that there is really something to be feared. He was quite serious about it—he’s just returned from South America and has seen some of the work done by these men.”
“What was that?”
“A president or something of one of these rotten little republics … about eight months ago—you’ll see it in the list… They hanged him … most extraordinary thing in the world. They took him out of bed in the middle of the night, gagged him, blindfolded him, carried him to the public jail, gained admission, and hanged him on the public gallows—and escaped!”
Mr Solicitor-General saw the difficulties of such proceedings, and was about to ask for further information when an under-secretary buttonholed the chancellor and bore him off. “Absurd,” muttered Mr Solicitor crossly.
There were cheers for the secretary for foreign affairs as his brougham swept through the crowd that lined the approaches to the House. He was in no wise exalted, for popularity was not a possession he craved. He knew instinctively that the cheers were called forth by the public’s appreciation of his peril; and the knowledge chilled and irritated him. He would have liked to think that the people scoffed at the existence of this mysterious four—it would have given him some peace of mind had he been able to think “the people have rejected the idea.”
For although popularity or unpopularity was outside his scheme of essentials, yet he had an unswerving faith in the brute instincts of the mob. He was surrounded in the lobby of the House with a crowd of eager men of his party, some quizzical, some anxious, all clamouring for the latest information—all slightly in fear of the acid-tongued Minister.
“Look here, Sir Philip”—it was the stout, tactless member for West Brondesbury—“what is all this we hear about threatenin’ letters? Surely you’re not goin’ to take notice of things of that sort—why, I get two or three every day of my life.”
The Minister strode impatiently away from the group, but Tester—the member—caught his arm.
“Look here——” he began.
“Go to the devil,” said the foreign secretary plainly, and walked quickly to his room.
“Beastly temper that man’s got, to be sure,” said the honourable member despairingly. “Fact is, old Ramon’s in a blue funk. The idea of making a song about threatenin’ letters! Why, I get——”
A group of men in the members’ smokeroom discussed the question of the Just Four in a perfectly unoriginal way.
“It’s too ridiculous for words,” said one oracularly. “Here are four men, a mythical four, arrayed against all the forces and established agencies of the most civilised nation on earth.”
“Except Germany,” interrupted Scott, MP, wisely.
“Do you think Ramon will withdraw the bill?” asked the senior member for Aldgate East.
“Ramon? Not he—he’d sooner die.”
“It’s a most unusual circumstance,” said Aldgate East; and three boroughs, a London suburb, and a midland town nodded and “thought it was.”
“In the old days, when old Bascoe was a young member”—Aldgate East indicated an aged senator bent and white of beard and hair, who was walking painfully toward a seat—”in the old days——”
“Thought old Bascoe had paired?” remarked an irrelevant listener.
“In the old days,” continued the member for the East End, “before the Fenian trouble—”
“If I were Ramon,” resumed Aldgate East profoundly, “I know exactly what I should do. I should go to the police and say ‘Look here——’”
A bell rang furiously and continuously, and the members went scampering along the corridor. “Division—’vision.”
Clause Nine of the Medway Improvement Bill having been satisfactorily settled and the words “Or as may hereafter be determined” added by a triumphant majority of twenty-four, the faithful Commons returned to the interrupted discussion.
“What I say, and what I’ve always said about a man in the Cabinet,” maintained an important individual, “is that he must, if he is a true statesman, drop all consideration for his own personal feelings.”
“Hear!” applauded somebody.
“His own personal feelings,” repeated the orator. “He must put his duty to the state before all other—er—considerations. You remember what I said to Barrington the other night when we were talking out the Estimates? I said, ‘The right honourable gentleman has not, cannot have, allowed for the strong and almost unanimous desires of the great body of the electorate. The action of a Minister of the Crown must primarily be governed by the intelligent judgment of the great body of the electorate, whose fine, feelings’—no—’whose higher instincts’—no—that wasn’t it—at any rate I made it very clear what the duty of a Minister was,” concluded the oracle lamely.
“Now I—” commenced Aldgate East, when an attendant approached with a tray on which lay a greenish-grey envelope.
“Has any gentleman dropped this?” he inquired, and, picking up the letter, the member fumbled for his eyeglasses.
“To the Members of the House of Commons,” he read, and looked over his pince-nez at the circle of men about him.
“Company prospectus,” said the stout member for West Brondesbury, who had joined the party; “I get hundreds. Only the other day——”
“Too thin for a prospectus,” said Aldgate East, weighing the letter in his hand.
“Patent medicine, then,” persisted the light of Brondesbury. “I get one every morning—‘Don’t burn the candle at both ends’, and all that sort of rot. Last week a feller sent me——”
“Open it,” someone suggested, and the member obeyed. He read a few lines and turned red.
“Well, I’m damned!” he gasped, and read aloud:
The Government is about to pass into law a measure which will place in the hands of the most evil Government of modern times men who are patriots and who are destined to be the saviours of their countries. We have informed the Minister in charge of this measure, the title of which appears in the margin, that unless he withdraws this Bill we will surely slay him.
We are loath to take this extreme step, knowing that otherwise he is an honest and brave gentleman, and it is with a desire to avoid fulfilling our promise that we ask the members of the Mother of Parliaments to use their every influence to force the withdrawal of this Bill.
Were we common murderers or clumsy anarchists we could with ease wreak a blind and indiscriminate vengeance on the members of this assembly, and in proof thereof, and as an earnest that our threat is no idle one, we beg you to search beneath the table near the recess in this room. There you will find a machine sufficiently charged to destroy the greater portion of this building.
Four Just Men
Postscript.—We have not placed either detonator or fuse in the machine, which may therefore be handled with impunity.
As the reading of the letter proceeded the faces of the listeners grew pallid.
There was something very convincing about the tone of the letter, and instinctively all eyes sought the table near the recess.
Yes, there was something, a square black something, and the crowd of legislators shrank back. For a moment they stood spellbound—and then there was a mad rush for the door.
“Was it a hoax?” asked the prime minister anxiously, but the hastily summoned expert from Scotland Yard shook his head.
“Just as the letter described it,” he said gravely, “even to the absence of fuses.”
“Was it really——”
“Enough to wreck the House, sir,” was the reply.
The premier, with a troubled face, paced the floor of his private room.
He stopped once to look moodily through the window that gave a view of a crowded terrace and a mass of excited politicians gesticulating and evidently all speaking at once.
“Very, very serious—very, very serious,” he muttered. Then aloud, “We said so much we might as well continue. Give the newspapers as full an account of this afternoon’s happenings as they think necessary—give them the text of the letter.” He pushed a button and his secretary entered noiselessly.
“Write to the Commissioner telling him to offer a reward of a thousand pounds for the arrest of the man who left this thing and a free pardon and the reward to any accomplice.”
The Secretary withdrew and the Scotland Yard expert waited.
“Have your people found how the machine was introduced?”
“No, sir; the police have all been relieved and been subjected to separate interrogation. They remember seeing no stranger either entering or leaving the House.”
The Premier pursed his lips in thought.
“Thank you,” he said simply, and the expert withdrew.
On the terrace Aldgate East and the oratorical member divided honours.
“I must have been standing quite close to it,” said the latter impressively; “’pon my word it makes me go cold all over to think about it. You remember, Mellin? I was saying about the duty of the Ministry——”
“I asked the waiter,” said the member for Aldgate to an interested circle, “when he brought the letter: ‘Where did you find it?’ ‘On the floor, sir!’ he said. I thought it was a medicine advertisement; I wasn’t going to open it, only somebody——”
“It was me,” claimed the stout gentleman from Brondesbury proudly; “you remember I was saying——”
“I knew it was somebody,” continued Aldgate East graciously. “I opened it and read the first few lines. ‘Bless my soul,’ I said——”
“You said, ‘Well, I’m damned,’” corrected Brondesbury.
“Well, I know it was something very much to the point,” admitted Aldgate East. “I read it—and, you’ll quite understand, I couldn’t grasp its significance, so to speak. Well—”
The three stalls reserved at the Star Music Hall in Oxford Street were occupied one by one. At half past seven prompt came Manfred, dressed quietly; at eight came Poiccart, a fairly prosperous middle-aged gentleman; at half past eight came Gonsalez, asking in perfect English for a programme. He seated himself between the two others.
When pit and gallery were roaring themselves hoarse over a patriotic song, Manfred smilingly turned to Leon, and said:
“I saw it in the evening papers.”
Leon nodded quickly.
“There was nearly trouble,” he said quietly. “As I went in somebody said, ‘I thought Bascoe had paired,’ and one of them almost came up to me and spoke.”