The Toys of Peace and Other Papers/Canossa
Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, stood on his trial for a serious offence, and the eyes of the political world were focussed on the jury. The offence, it should be stated, was serious for the Government rather than for the prisoner. He had blown up the Albert Hall on the eve of the great Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: “Do partridges spread infectious diseases?” Platterbaff had chosen his time well; the Tango Tea had been hurriedly postponed, but there were other political fixtures which could not be put off under any circumstances. The day after the trial there was to be a by-election at Nemesis-on-Hand, and it had been openly announced in the division that if Platterbaff were languishing in gaol on polling day the Government candidate would be “outed” to a certainty. Unfortunately, there could be no doubt or misconception as to Platterbaff’s guilt. He had not only pleaded guilty, but had expressed his intention of repeating his escapade in other directions as soon as circumstances permitted; throughout the trial he was busy examining a small model of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The jury could not possibly find that the prisoner had not deliberately and intentionally blown up the Albert Hall; the question was: Could they find any extenuating circumstances which would permit of an acquittal? Of course any sentence which the law might feel compelled to inflict would be followed by an immediate pardon, but it was highly desirable, from the Government’s point of view, that the necessity for such an exercise of clemency should not arise. A headlong pardon, on the eve of a bye-election, with threats of a heavy voting defection if it were withheld or even delayed, would not necessarily be a surrender, but it would look like one. Opponents would be only too ready to attribute ungenerous motives. Hence the anxiety in the crowded Court, and in the little groups gathered round the tape-machines in Whitehall and Downing Street and other affected centres.
The jury returned from considering their verdict; there was a flutter, an excited murmur, a deathlike hush. The foreman delivered his message:
“The jury find the prisoner guilty of blowing up the Albert Hall. The jury wish to add a rider drawing attention to the fact that a by-election is pending in the Parliamentary division of Nemesis-on-Hand.”
“That, of course,” said the Government Prosecutor, springing to his feet, “is equivalent to an acquittal?”
“I hardly think so,” said the Judge, coldly; “I feel obliged to sentence the prisoner to a week’s imprisonment.”
“And may the Lord have mercy on the poll,” a Junior Counsel exclaimed irreverently.
It was a scandalous sentence, but then the Judge was not on the Ministerial side in politics.
The verdict and sentence were made known to the public at twenty minutes past five in the afternoon; at half-past five a dense crowd was massed outside the Prime Minister’s residence lustily singing, to the air of “Trelawney”:
“And should our Hero rot in gaol,
For e’en a single day,
There’s Fifteen Hundred Voting Men
Will vote the other way.”
“Fifteen hundred,” said the Prime Minister, with a shudder; “it’s too horrible to think of. Our majority last time was only a thousand and seven.”
“The poll opens at eight to-morrow morning,” said the Chief Organiser; “we must have him out by 7 a.m.”
“Seven-thirty,” amended the Prime Minister; “we must avoid any appearance of precipitancy.”
“Not later than seven-thirty, then,” said the Chief Organiser; “I have promised the agent down there that he shall be able to display posters announcing ‘Platterbaff is Out,’ before the poll opens. He said it was our only chance of getting a telegram ‘Radprop is In’ to-night.”
At half-past seven the next morning the Prime Minister and the Chief Organiser sat at breakfast, making a perfunctory meal, and awaiting the return of the Home Secretary, who had gone in person to superintend the releasing of Platterbaff. Despite the earliness of the hour a small crowd had gathered in the street outside, and the horrible menacing Trelawney refrain of the “Fifteen Hundred Voting Men” came in a steady, monotonous chant.
“They will cheer presently when they hear the news,” said the Prime Minister hopefully; “hark! They are booing some one now! That must be McKenna.”
The Home Secretary entered the room a moment later, disaster written on his face.
“He won’t go!” he exclaimed.
“Won’t go? Won’t leave gaol?”
“He won’t go unless he has a brass band. He says he never has left prison without a brass band to play him out, and he’s not going to go without one now.”
“But surely that sort of thing is provided by his supporters and admirers?” said the Prime Minister; “we can hardly be supposed to supply a released prisoner with a brass band. How on earth could we defend it on the Estimates?”
“His supporters say it is up to us to provide the music,” said the Home Secretary; “they say we put him in prison, and it’s our affair to see that he leaves it in a respectable manner. Anyway, he won’t go unless he has a band.”
The telephone squealed shrilly; it was a trunk call from Nemesis.
“Poll opens in five minutes. Is Platterbaff out yet? In Heaven’s name, why—”
The Chief Organiser rang off.
“This is not a moment for standing on dignity,” he observed bluntly; “musicians must be supplied at once. Platterbaff must have his band.”
“Where are you going to find the musicians?” asked the Home Secretary wearily; “we can’t employ a military band, in fact, I don’t think he’d have one if we offered it, and there ain’t any others. There’s a musicians’ strike on, I suppose you know.”
“Can’t you get a strike permit?” asked the Organiser.
“I’ll try,” said the Home Secretary, and went to the telephone.
Eight o’clock struck. The crowd outside chanted with an increasing volume of sound:
- “Will vote the other way.”
A telegram was brought in. It was from the central committee rooms at Nemesis. “Losing twenty votes per minute,” was its brief message.
Ten o’clock struck. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Chief Organiser, and several earnest helpful friends were gathered in the inner gateway of the prison, talking volubly to Demosthenes Platterbaff, who stood with folded arms and squarely planted feet, silent in their midst. Golden-tongued legislators whose eloquence had swayed the Marconi Inquiry Committee, or at any rate the greater part of it, expended their arts of oratory in vain on this stubborn unyielding man. Without a band he would not go; and they had no band.
A quarter past ten, half-past. A constant stream of telegraph boys poured in through the prison gates.
“Yamley’s factory hands just voted you can guess how,” ran a despairing message, and the others were all of the same tenour. Nemesis was going the way of Reading.
“Have you any band instruments of an easy nature to play?” demanded the Chief Organiser of the Prison Governor; “drums, cymbals, those sort of things?”
“The warders have a private band of their own,” said the Governor, “but of course I couldn’t allow the men themselves—”
“Lend us the instruments,” said the Chief Organiser.
One of the earnest helpful friends was a skilled performer on the cornet, the Cabinet Ministers were able to clash cymbals more or less in tune, and the Chief Organiser has some knowledge of the drum.
“What tune would you prefer?” he asked Platterbaff.
“The popular song of the moment,” replied the Agitator after a moment’s reflection.
It was a tune they had all heard hundreds of times, so there was no difficulty in turning out a passable imitation of it. To the improvised strains of “I didn’t want to do it” the prisoner strode forth to freedom. The word of the song had reference, it was understood, to the incarcerating Government and not to the destroyer of the Albert Hall.
The seat was lost, after all, by a narrow majority. The local Trade Unionists took offence at the fact of Cabinet Ministers having personally acted as strike-breakers, and even the release of Platterbaff failed to pacify them.
The seat was lost, but Ministers had scored a moral victory. They had shown that they knew when and how to yield.