Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX: the woes of a politician - Law in a Free State
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CHAPTER IX: the woes of a politician - Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Law in a Free State 
Law in a Free State (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895).
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the woes of a politician
That barrel-organ outside my window goes near to driving me mad (I mean madder than I was before). What am I to do? I cannot ask the State, as embodied in the person of a blue-coated gentleman at the corner, to move him on; because I have given notice that I intend to move on the said blue-coated gentleman himself. In other words, I have given the State notice to quit. Ask the organ - grinder politely to carry his melody elsewhere? I have tried that, but he only executes a double-shuffle and puts out his tongue. Ought I to rush out and punch his head? But, firstly, that might be looked upon as an invasion of his personal liberty; and, secondly, he might punch mine; and the last state of this man would be worse than the first. Ought I to move out of the way myself? But I cannot conveniently take my house with me, or even my library. I tried another plan. I took out my cornet, and, standing by his side, executed a series of cadences that would have moved the bowels of Cerberus. The only effect produced was a polite note from a neighbour (whom I respect) begging me to postpone my solo, as it interfered with the pleasing harmonies of the organ. Now Fate forbid that I should curtail the happiness of an esteemed fellow-streetsman. What then was I to do? I put on my hat and sallied forth into the square with a heavy heart full of the difficulties of my individualist creed. The first person I met was a tramp, who accosted me and exposed a tongue white with cancer,—whether real or artificial I do not know. It nearly made me sick, and I really do not think that persons ought to go about exposing disgusting objects with a view to gain. I did not hand him the expected penny, but I briefly—very briefly—expressed the hope that an infinite being would be pleased to consign him to infinite torture, and passed on. I wandered through street after street, all full of houses painted in different shades of custard-colour, toned with London fog, and all just sufficiently like one another to make one wish that they were either quite alike or very different. And I wondered whether something might not be done to compel all the owners to paint at the same time and with the same tints. At last I reached a place where the road was rendered impassable by a crowd which had gathered to listen to an orator who was shouting from an inverted tub. He was explaining that many years ago Jesus died to save sinners like us, and therefore the best thing we could do was to deprive the publicans of their licenses without compensation. I ventured to remark that, although this might be perfectly true, still I wanted to get into the country along the common highway, and that the crowd he had collected prevented me from doing so. He replied that he knew my sort, whatever that may mean; but his words seemed to act like magic on his hearers, for, although I did at last elbow my way through the throng, it was not without damage to the afore-mentioned hat.
It was a relief to reach the country and to sit down by a stream and watch the children gathering blackberries. I was, however, surprised to find that the berries were still pink and far from ripe. “Why don't you wait till they are ripe?” I asked. “Coz if we did there would be none left by then,” was the somewhat puzzling reply. “But surely, if you all agreed to wait, it could be managed,” I said. “Oh yes, sir,” responded a little girl, with a pitying laugh at my simplicity, “but the others always come and gather them just before they are ripe.” I don't quite know who the others are, but surely something ought to be done to put a stop to this extravagant haste and ruinous competition. The result of the present system is that nobody gets any ripe blackberries. I mentioned the subject to an old gentleman who was fishing in the rivulet. “Exactly so,” said he, “it is just the same with fish. You see there is a close season for salmon and some sorts; but those scoundrels are steadily destroying the rest by catching the immature fish, instead of waiting till they are fit for anything. I suppose they think that they will not have the luck to catch them again, and that a sprat in hand is worth a herring in a bush.” I admitted the force and beauty of the metaphor, and proceeded on my journey.
Beginning to feel hungry, I made tracks for the nearest village, where I knew I should find an inn. A few hundred yards from the houses I observed a party of hulking fellows stripping on the bank with a view to a plunge and a swim. It struck me they were rather close to the road, but I nevertheless thought it my duty to resent the interference of a policeman who appeared on the scene and rather roughly ordered the fellows off. “I suppose,” said I, that free citizens have a right to wash in a free stream.'1 But the representative of law and order fixed upon me a pair of boiled eyes, and, without trusting his tongue, pointed to a black board stuck on a post some little way off. I guessed his meaning and went on. When I reached the inn, I ordered a chop and potatoes and a pint of bitter, and was surprised to find that some other persons were served before me, although they had come in later. Presently I observed one of them in the act of tipping the waiter. “Excuse me, sir,” said I, “but that is not fair; you are bribing that man to give you an undue share of attention. I presume you also tip porters at a railway station, and perhaps custom-house officers?” “Of course I do; what's that to you? Mind your own business,” was the reply I received. I had evidently made myself unpopular with these gentlemen. One of them was chewing a quid and spitting about the floor. One was walking up and down the room in a pair of creaking boots, and taking snuff the while; and a third was voraciously tackling a steak, and removing lumps of gristle from his mouth to his plate in the palm of his hand. After each gulp of porter, he seemed to take a positive pride in yielding to the influences of flatulence in a series of reports which might have raised Lazarus. My own rations appeared at last, and I congratulated myself that, by ago the delay, I had been spared the torture of feeding in company with Æolus, who was already busy with the toothpick, when to my dismay he produced a small black clay pipe and proceeded to stuff it with black shag. “There is, I believe, a smoking-room in the house,” I remarked deprecatingly; “otherwise I would not ask you to allow me to finish my chop before lighting your pipe here; don't you think tobacco rather spoils one's appetite?” I thought I had spoken politely, but all the answer I got was this, “Look 'ere, governor, if this 'ere shanty ain't good enough for the like of you, you'd better walk on to the Star and Garter.” And, awaiting my reply with an expression of mingled contempt and defiance, he proceeded to emphasise his argument by boisterously coughing across the table without so much as raising his hand. I am not particularly squeamish, but I draw the line at victuals that have been coughed over. To all practical purposes, my lunch was gone, -stolen. I looked round for sympathy, but the feeling of the company was clearly against me. The gentleman in the creaking boots laughed, and, walking up to the table, laid his hand upon it in the manner of an orator in labour. He paused to marshal his thoughts, and I had an opportunity of observing him with several senses at once. His nails were in deep mourning, his clothes reeked of stale tobacco and perspiration, and his breath of onions and beer. His face was broad and rubicund, but not ill-featured, and his expression bore the stamp of honesty and independence. No one could mistake him for other than he was,—a sturdy British farmer. After about half a minute's incubation, his ideas found utterance. “I'll tell you what it is, sir,” he said, “I don't know who you are, but this is a free country, and it's market day an' all.” I could not well dispute any of these propositions, and, inasmuch as they appeared to be conclusive to the minds of the company, my position was a difficult one. “I do not question your rights, friend,” I ventured to say at last, “but I think a little consideration for other people's feelings … eh?” “Folks shouldn't have feelings that isn't usual and proper, and if they has, they should go where their feelings is usual and proper, that's me,” was the reply; and it is not without philosophy. The same idea had already dimly shimmered in my own mind; besides, was I not an individualist? “You are right, friend,” said I, “so I will wish you good morning and betake myself elsewhere.” “Good morning,” said the farmer, offering his hand, and “Good riddance,” added the gentleman with the toothpick.
As I emerged from the inn, not a little crestfallen, a cat shot across the road followed by a yelping terrier, who in his turn was urged on by two rosy little boys. “Stop that game,” I shouted, “what harm has pussy done you?” The lads did stop, but the merry twinkle in their eyes betokened a fixed intention to renew the sport as soon as old Marplot was out of the way. But the incident was not thrown away on a pale man with a long black coat and a visage to match. “It is of no use, my dear sir,” said he, shaking his head and smiling dreamily, “it is the nature of the dog to worry cats; and it is the nature of the boys to urge on the dog; we are all born in sin and the children of wrath. I used to enjoy cat-hunts myself before I was born again. You must educate, sir, educate before you can reform. Mark my words, sir, the school board is the ladder to the skies.” “The school board!” I ejaculated, “you do not mean to say you approve of State-regulated education? May I ask whether you also approve of a State religion,—a State church?” I thought this was a poser, but I was mistaken. “The two things are not in pan materia” replied the dissenting minister (for there was no mistaking his species); “the established church is the upas tree which poisons the whole forest. It was planted by the hand of a deluded aristocracy. The school board was planted by the people.” “I do not see that it much signifies who planted the tree, so long as it is planted; but, avoiding metaphor, the point is this,” said I emphatically: “is one fraction of the population to dictate to the other fraction what they are to believe, what they are to learn, what they are to do? And I do not care whether the dictating fraction is the minority or the majority. The principle is the same,—despotism.” The man of God started. “What!” he cried, “are we to have no laws? Is every man to do that which is right in his own eyes? Are you aware, sir, that you are preaching Anarchy?” It was now my turn to double. “Anarchy is a strong expression,” said I, most disingenuously; “all I meant to say is that the less the State interferes between man and man, the better; surely you will admit that?” And now I saw from my interlocutor's contracted brow and compressed lips that an answer was forthcoming which would knock all the wind out of me. And I was right. “Do you see that house with the flags on the roof and that sculptured group over the entrance representing the World, the Flesh, and the Devil?” “I see the house, but, if you will pardon me, I think the group is intended for the Three Graces.” The parson shot an angry glance at me; he knew well enough what the figures were meant for; but even the godly have their sense of grim humour. He continued: “That is the porch of Hell; and there at the corner yawns Hell itself: they are commonly called Old Joe's Theatre of Varieties, and the Green Griffin: but we prefer to call them by their right names.” “Dear me!” I said, somewhat appalled by the earnestness of his manner, “are they very dreadful places?” I was beginning to feel quite “creepy,” and could almost smell the brimstone. But, without heeding my query, he continued: “Are we to look on with folded hands, while innocent young girls crowd into that sink of iniquity, listen to ribald and obscene songs, witness semi - nude and licentious dances, meet with dissolute characters, and finally enter the jaws of the Green Griffin to drink of the stream that maddens the soul, that deadens the conscience, and that fires the passions?” Here he paused for breath, and then in a sepulchral whisper he added: “And what follows? What follows?” This question he asked several times, each time in a lower key, with his eyes fixed on mine as though he expected to read the answer at the back of my skull on the inside. “I will tell you what follows,” he continued, to my great relief; “the end is Mrs. Fletcher's.” There was something so grotesque in this anti-climax that I gave sudden vent to a short explosive laugh, like the snap of the electric spark. I could not help it, and I was truly sorry to be so rude, and, in order to avoid mutual embarrassment, I fairly bolted down the street, leaving my teacher transfixed with pious horror. To a denizen of the village, doubtless, long association had imbued the name of Mrs. Fletcher with a lurid connotation, like unto the soothing influence of that blessed word Mesopotamia,—only the reverse.
I was now in the position of the happy man of fiction “with a pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer”; only my cellar was nine miles off and my money was inconvertible, to all practical intents and purposes. There was no other inn; I dare not try the Green Griffin, and I did not know the way to “Mrs. Fletcher's.” I wanted to get back to town. “Is there a railway station anywhere near here?” I inquired of a bald-headed man, who was removing flower - pots from his front parlour window - sill. “Railway station?” he repeated with a snigger, “not much; how should there be a railway station?” “And pray why not?” I asked. “You may well ask,” replied the bald-headed man; “if you knew these parts, you would know that half the land between here and town belongs to Lord Brownmead; and he opposed the bill which the Company brought into Parliament; so of course the Lords threw it out and refused the concession: that is why there is no railway station. That is why you and I may walk or creep or go in balloons. I wonder his lordship or his lordship's ancestors ever allowed the high road to be made. Why should not you and I grub our way underground, like moles? It is good enough for us, I suppose. Railway station, indeed!” And down came a flower-pot with a crash, just to accentuate the absurdity of the idea. “Lord Brownmead belongs to the Liberty and Property Defence League, you know, and he says no one has a right to interfere with his liberty to do what he likes with his own land. Quite right; quite right,” he continued in the same tone of bitter irony, “nothing like liberty and property!” This was an awkward dig for me. I had always believed in liberty, and I was thinking of joining Lord Brownmead's association. “Perhaps there is a tramway or some other sufficient means of rapid communication,” I suggested, “in which case it may be that a railway is not imperatively necessary.” “Perhaps there is,” sneered the little man, “perhaps there is; only there isn't, don't you see, so that's where it is; and if you prefer walking or paying for a fly, I am sure I have no objection. You have my full permission, and Lord Brownmead's too; only mind you don't take the short cut by the bridle-path, because that is closed. It appears there is no right-of-way. It is private, quite private. Don't forget.” I did not want the irascible little man to take me for a toady, so I merely asked why there was no tramway. “Why?” he shouted, and I began to fear physical argument, “why? because Lord Brownmead and the carriage folk say that the tramways cut up the road and damage the wheels of their carriages: that's why. Isn't it a sufficient reason for you? We lower ten thousand must walk, for fear the upper ten should have to pay for an extra coat of paint at the carriage - builder's. That's reasonable, isn't it?” “I do not know that it is, my dear sir,” I replied, “but after all you know we have a right to use the common road in any way for which it was originally intended. They can do no more. And it does seem to me that a tramway monopolises for the benefit of a class (a large class, I grant you) more than its fair share of the common rights of way. Ordinary traffic is very much impeded by it, and the rails do certainly cause damage and annoyance to persons who never use the public vehicles. Trams may be expedient, friend, but they certainly are not just.” I thought this would have wound up the little man for at least another quarter of an hour, but who can read the human mind? Not another word did he utter. I fancy my last remark had satisfied him that I was a Tory or an aristocrat or one of the carriage folk, and consequently beneath contempt and outside the pale of reason. After an awkward pause, I ventured to say: “Well, thank you, I wish you good morning,” but even that elicited no response, and 1 walked slowly off, feeling some slight loss of dignity. I presently ascertained that coaches ran every two hours from the Green Griffin to the Royal Oak in London, a fact which the bald-headed man had maliciously (as I thought) concealed from me. The line had been established, as the barman of the Griffin told me, by Lord Brownmead himself some years ago and was maintained at considerable loss for the benefit of his tenantry and his poorer neighbours; and, as some people thought, to make amends for his opposition to the tramway. “Sometimes,” added the barman, “his lordship drives his self, and then, O lor!” There could be no doubt from the gusto with which the last words were pronounced that this individual derived a more tangible joy from these occasions than mere sympathy with the honoured guest who occupied a seat on the box next the distinguished whip: and I accordingly slipped half-a-crown into his hand à propos de bottes. He expressed no surprise whatever, but just as the coach was about to start, I found myself the pampered ward of a posse of ostlers, grooms, and hangers-on, who literally lifted me into the envied seat and evinced the most touching concern for my comfort and safety. My knees were swathed in rugs and the apron was firmly buckled across to keep me warm and dry, without any effort on my part; and as the leaders straightened out the traces and Lord Brownmead cracked the whip, half-a-dozen pair of eyes “looked towards me,” while their owners drank what they were pleased to call my health, but which looked to me more like beer. As we dashed down the high street, a little man with a bald head cast a withering glance at the coach and its occupants, and, when his eyes met mine, his expression said as plain as words: “I thought so.” I soon forgot him, and fell to reflecting on the curious circumstance that it should be in the power of a few potmen and stablemen to sell a nobleman's company and conversation for the sum of half-a-crown. Yet so it undoubtedly was. And yet, after all, it is hardly stranger than that these same potmen and millions more of their own class should have the power of selling to the highest bidder a six-hundred-and-seventieth part of kingly prerogative. The divine right of kings is just what it ever was,—the right of the strong to trample on the weak, the absolute despotism of the effective majority. Only to-day, instead of being conferred in its entirety on a single person, it is cut up into six hundred and seventy little bits, and sold in lots to the highest bidder, by a ring of five millions of potrnen and their like.
Such is the new democracy, I thought, and I might possibly have built up an essay on the reflection, when I was suddenly roused from my reverie by a grunt from the box seat. “I beg your pardon,” said I, “I did not quite catch what you said.” “Fine bird,” repeated his lordship in a louder grunt, and jerking his thumb in the direction of a distant coppice. “Begin to-morrow; capital prospect,” he continued. “Begin what?” I asked, a little ashamed of my stupidity. “October to-morrow,” he replied, “forgotten, eh?” “Oh, ah, yes, of course, October the 1st, pheasant-shooting, I see,” I replied, as soon as I caught his meaning. “Done any good this season, sir?” he went on. “Good, how? what good? what in? I don't quite understand,” said I. “Moors, moors,” explained Lord Brownmead, “grouse, sir, grouse: are you … er … er?”
“Oh, I see,” I hastened to reply; “you mean have I shot many grouse this season; no; I have not been to Scotland this year; besides, I am short-sighted, and do not shoot at all.” A man who did not shoot was hardly worth talking to, and a long silence ensued. At last our Jehu took pity on me. “Fish, I suppose; can't hunt all the year round.” I replied that I did not care for fishing, and that I had no horses and could not afford to hunt. I was fast becoming an object of keen interest. My last admission was followed by a series of grunts at intervals' of about half a minute, and at last with a zeal and earnestness which he had not yet exhibited, and in a louder key than heretofore, Lord Brownmead turned upon me with this query: “Then what the doose do you do to kill time, dammy?” I explained that I should have no difficulty in killing double the quantity of that article if I could get it. “Out of the twenty-four hours,” said I, “which is the usual allowance in a day, I sleep seven, I work seven, I spend about two over my meals, and that only leaves eight for recreation.” “Ay, ay, but what do you mean by recreation, sir? That's just it, dammy.” “Oh, sometimes I go to the theatre, sometimes to some music-hall; then I go and spend the evening with friends, and all that sort of thing.” “Balls, eh?” “No, I am not fond of dancing.” “Ha, humph, that's better; the tenth don't dance, you know; never went to a prancing party in my life.” “Then last night I went to the Agricultural Hall to hear Mr. Gladstone,” I continued. “Eh? what? Mr. who? Be good enough not to mention that man's name in my presence, sir. He's an underground fellow, sir; an underground fellow.” I was evidently on thin ice; so, in order to turn the conversation, I remarked: “Pretty country this, my lord.” “Pretty country be damned!” was the amiable response; “it is not like the same country since that infernal bill was passed.” “Indeed! What bill is that?” Lord Brownmead cast upon me a look of ineffable scorn. “What bill do you suppose, sir? Are you a foreigner? I should like to feed that fellow on hares and rabbits for the rest of his life, sir.” “Has the Hares and Rabbits Act done much harm?” inquired. “Done much harm? Has it revolutionised the country, you mean; has it ruined the agriculturist? has it set class against class? has it turned honest farmers into poachers and vermin? See that spire in the trees over there? Well, that poor devil used to live on his glebe; he has about fifteen kids, all told; he used to have rabbit-pie every Sunday. And now there isn't a blessed rabbit in the place.” I presumed he was speaking of the pastor and not the steeple, so I expressed sympathy with one who was so very much a father under the melancholy circumstances. “Still,” said I, “the rabbits used to eat up a good deal of the crops, I am told.” “Nonsense, sir; nonsense! don't believe it,” growled his lordship, “they never ate a single blade more than they were worth; and if they did, the devils got it back out of their rents.” Most of my companion's neighbours appeared to be devils of one sort or another, but I think he was referring to the farmers on this occasion. “The devils have all got votes, sir, that's what it is; they've all got votes. I remember the time when a decent tenant would as as soon have shot his wife as a rabbit. The fact is, we are moving a deal too quickly; downhill too, and no brake on.” I did not wish to express agreement with this sentiment, so I merely said: “I believe you are a member of the Liberty and Property Defence League?” “Very likely; very likely; if it is a good thing got up to counteract that underground scoundrel. Yes, I think my secretary did put me down for £50 a year. He said they were going to block this Tenant's Compensation Bill, or something or other. Good society, very; ought to be supported by honest men.” “Then would you not give a tenant compensation for unexhausted improvements?” I asked. “Compensation!” bawled Lord Brownmead; “compensation for what? Good God! If one of those fellows on rny town property put up a conservatory, or raised his house a story, or built a new wing, do you suppose at the end of his lease he would ask for compensation? He would think himself mad to do it,—mad, sir. And why should the country be different from the town, eh? The devils go into the thing with their eyes open, I suppose. A bargain's a bargain, isn't it? What do they mean by compensation? I'd compensate them. Clap them into the stocks. 'That's what they want. Depend upon it, sir,” he added, lowering his voice to a husky whisper, “the old man is an unscrupulous agitator, and if I had my way I would lock him up. If he's loose much longer he will ruin the country. Whoa, Jerry; steady, my pet; damn that horse!” We were now drawing up at the Royal Oak, and, to say the truth, I was not altogether sorry to get out of the atmosphere of fine, old, crusted Toryism, and walk along the street among my equals. And yet there was about the man a rugged horror of mean meddling and State coddling which one could not but respect. “A bargain's a bargain.” Well, that is not very original; but it argues a healthy moral tone. The rabbit-pie argument struck me as rather weak, but, take him for all in all, I have met politicians who have disgusted me a good deal more than Lord Brownmead.
It was now dusk, and the evening papers were out. I stopped to read the placards on the wall, giving a summary of the day's news. There was nothing very new. “Three children murdered by a mother.” “Great fire in the Strand.” “Loss of the Seagull with all hands.” On looking into the details to which these announcements referred, I found that the mother of the children was a widow, who had insured the lives of her little ones in the London and County Fire Office for £10 each, and had then pushed them into a reservoir. Her explanation that they had fallen in while playing would no doubt have met with general acceptance but for the discovery of marks of violence on the neck of the eldest daughter, who had evidently struggled resolutely for life. Other evidence then cropped up, which made it certain that the children were victims of foul play. The editor of the paper expressed himself to the effect that no insurance company ought to be allowed to insure the lives of children, thus putting temptation in the way of the poor. Oddly enough, the fire in the Strand seemed to have resulted from a similar motive and a similar transaction. A hairdresser had insured his fittings and stock for £150 and then set fire to his shop. Commenting on this, the editor had nothing to say about the iniquity of tempting people to commit arson, but he thought the State should see that all buildings in a public street were provided with concrete floors and asbestos paint; and that muslin curtains should be forbidden. The Seagull, laden with coals for Gibraltar, had gone down within sight of land, off “Holyhead, before assistance could be obtained. It appears she had been insured in the Liverpool Mutual Marine Association for double the value of hull and cargo. One of the crew had refused to go, on the ground that she was unseaworthy, and he was sentenced to fourteen days' imprisonment under the Merchant Shipping Act. The editor was of opinion that, although he had been justly sentenced, still he thought this fearful fulfilment of his prognostication would have such an effect on the minds of the public that his further incarceration would be highly inexpedient, and might lead to rioting. He was further of opinion that marine insurance ought to be entirely prohibited, except when undertaken by underwriters “in the usual way.” This article, I have since heard, made a great sensation at Lloyd's, and 4000 copies of the paper were gratuitously distributed in the neighbourhood of the docks both in Liverpool and London. A committee is being formed for the purpose of urging Parliament to make all marine policies void, except those which have been made “in the usual way.” It is obvious that the crew of the Seagull have not died in vain. They have perished in the cause of an ancient monopoly. The public indignation at their cruel fate is being used as a handy hook on which to hang all “new-fangled systems of marine insurance which have not stood the test of time, and which have hardly yet seen the light of day.”
I had reached my own door when I was attracted by a shout and the wrangling of many angry voices round the corner of the street. Running round, I saw the débris of an overturned dog-cart. Several persons seemed to be engaged in an animated debate in a small circle, while the crowd played the rôle of a Greek chorus. The disputants appeared to be a Young gentleman of mettle, in a high collar and dogskin gloves, a broken-down solicitor's clerk, the usual policeman, and a workman in corduroys. It was easy to explain the construction of the group. The “masher” was obviously the owner of the ill-fated dog-cart; the workman was the watchman in charge of the traction engine which was lying quietly at the side of the road with a red lamp at each side. The clerk was “the man in the street,” the vir pietate gravis called in as arbitrator by both disputants; and the policeman was there as a matter of course. When I reached the spot and worked my way to the inner circle, the debate had reached this stage: “I tell you, any well-bred horse would shy at a Godforsaken machine like that; your people had no right to leave it there. I will make them pay for this.” Workman—“Well, them's my instructions; here's my lights all a-burnin', and you shouldn't drive horses like that in the streets of London. They'll shy at anything, and it isn't safe.” Masher—“I beg your pardon, I tell you any horse would shy at that; and what is more, I believe traction engines are unlawful in the streets. I know I have heard so.” Clerk—“Well, I can't quite say, but I think so. I know elephants are not allowed to go through the streets without a special license in the daytime, because our people had a case in which a man wanted to ride an elephant through the city and distribute coloured leaflets, and the Bench said that …” Policeman—“Traction engines isn't elephants; we don't want to know about elephants; which way was you coming when your horse caught sight of this engine? That is what I want to get at.” Straight up King Street, constable, and this fellow was fast asleep near the machine.” “No, I warn't fast asleep; didn't I ketch 'old of the 'orse?” “Oh yes, you woke up, but you never gave any warning; why didn't you shout out, ' Beware of the traction engine'?” “What for? Ain't you got no eyes? Am I to be shouting all day? What is there worse about this 'ere engine than about a flappin' van? Eh, policeman, what is there worse, I say?” Policeman (firmly)—“That's not the question. The question is, was your lamp burning?” “A course they was a-burnin”; ain't they a-burnin' now?” Clerk (soothingly)—” They were burning. “Policeman (treading on clerk's toes)—” What do you want here? Be off. What have you got to do with it? Off with you. Now, sir, turning to the owner of the broken dog-cart, “was this man asleep on dooty?” “Well, I cannot exactly swear he was asleep, but” (contriving to slip something into the expectant hand of the officer) “but I am sure he was not awake—not wide awake.” “Thank you, sir”; turning to the watchman, “you see where you are now; I shall report you asleep on dooty.” “But I warn't asleep, I tell you.” “You was: didn't you hear the gentleman say you wasn't awake?” This was the conclusion; there was a slight and sullen murmur in the crowd; but it died away. The incident was at an end; law was vindicated; justice was done. Yes, done, and no mistake! But I left without any clear idea as to the right of an engine—owner to the use of the common roads. The story of the elephant seemed germane to the issue, but it was nipped in the bud. I went home, swallowed my dinner, not without appetite, and set forth in search of entertainment.
There was a good deal of choice. There always is in London, except on Sundays; and even then there is the choice between the church and the public-house. There were the brothers Goliah, and the infant Samuel on the high rope, and Miss Lottie Luzone the teetotautomaton, and John Ball the Stentor Comique, and the Sisters Delilah, and Signor Farini with his wonderful pigeons, and the tiger-tamer of Bengal, and the Pearl family with their unequalled aquatic feats, and I don't know what else. While I was dwelling on the merits of these rival attractions, I heard a familiar voice at the door: “Come on, old fellow; come to the National Liberal; Stewart Headlam is going to open a debate on the County Council and the Music-halls. We will have a high old time. Come and speak.” As a rule, I fear the Empire or the Aquarium would have prevailed over the great Liberal Club as a place of after-dinner entertainment; but on this occasion I had a newly-aroused interest in all such questions as the one about to be discussed. So I put on my hat and jumped into the hansom which was waiting at the door. En passant, you may have noticed that this is the second time I have recorded the fact that “I put on my hat.” English novelists are very careful about this precaution. “He put on his hat and walked out of the room.” “He wished her goodbye, and, putting on his hat, he went out as he had come in.” There is never a word said about the hero's topcoat or his gloves, no matter how cold the weather may be, but the putting on of the hat is always carefully chronicled. Now, there Is a reason for this. It is a well-established principle of English common law that, whenever a public disturbance or street mêléc or other shindy takes place, the representative of order shall single out a suitable scapegoat from among the crowd. In case of a mutiny in the Austrian army, I am told, it is usual to shoot every tenth man, who is chosen by lot. But here in merry England the instructions are to look round for a man without a hat. When found, he is marched off to the police station with the approval of all concerned. It is part of our unwritten law. Some time ago the principle was actually applied in a cause célèbre by the magistrate himself. A journalist summoned no less a personage than the Duke of Cambridge for assault. The facts were not denied, and the witnesses were all agreed, when succour came from an unexpected quarter. “Is it a fact, as I have seen it stated in the papers,” asked the worthy stipendiary, “is it a fact, I ask, that the plaintiff was without a hat?” There was no gainsaying this. The prosecutor was hatless at the time of the alleged assault. That settled the matter; and the commander-in-chief of the British army left the court (metaphorically speaking) without a stain on his character.
However, as I have said, I put on my hat, and off we drove to the conference room of the big club with the odd name. “National” was first used as a political term by the late Benjamin Disraeli to signify the patriotic as opposed to the cosmopolitan and anti-national. “Liberal” was first used in a political sense about 1815, to denote the advocates of liberty as opposed to the “serviles” who believed in State control. And yet the members of the club avowedly uphold State interference in all things, and dub the doctrine of laissez faire the creed of selfishness. Still the building is a fine and commodious one, and what's in a name, after all?
When we reached the political arena, Mr. Headlam, who is a socialist, was in the middle of a very able individualistic harangue. Indeed, I have never heard the case for moral liberty better stated and more courageously advocated than on this occasion. I was anxious to hear what the censor party might have to say. I half expected to see some weary ascetic—perhaps an austere cardinal—rise in his place and wade through some solemn passages from the sententious Hooker. I was agreeably disappointed when a chirpy little Scotchman with an amusing brogue and a moth-eaten appearance started off with prattle of this kind: “Gentlemen, there's no one loves liberty more than me. But we've got to draw a line at decency, you see. I've been elected to sit on the council and to see that that line is drawn at the right place. That is my duty, and my duty I mean to do. Everything which is calculated to bring a blush to the cheek of a pure maiden must be put down. “And there's another thing; I say that music-halls where intoxicating liquors is sold must be put down. We are not going to tolerate places what incites to fornication and drunkenness. But at the same time we are no foes to liberty—that is, liberty to do right, and that's the only liberty worth fighting for, depend upon it.” Mr. McDoodle slapped his knee with emphatic violence and sat down. “I should like to ask the last speaker”, said a thin gentleman in a back row, “whether it is altogether consistent for a State which has repealed every statute penalising fornication itself to keep up a lot of little worrying measures for the purpose of penalising conduct which may possibly lead to fornication. In other words, fornication is perfectly legal, but a song likely to lead to fornication is illegal. Is this consistent?” “Allow me,” shouted a stout man with a loud voice; “perhaps, being a lawyer, I know more about these matters than Mr. McDoodle possibly can. The gentleman who asks the question is in error. His major premise is false. Fornication in this country is a misdemeanour, by 23 & 24 Vict. c. 32.” “Pardon me,” replied the voice in the back row, “I also am a lawyer, and I say that the Act you refer to does not make fornication a misdemeanour; it refers only to conspiracy to induce a woman to commit the sin; that is a very different matter.” “I don't see that it is,” replied the stout man, “for what is a conspiracy but an agreement to do wrong? Very well, then, an agreement between a man and a woman to do wrong is itself a conspiracy. And since they cannot commit this sin without agreement (if they do, of course it comes under another head), it follows that I am right.” “Not at all,” rejoined the lawyer at the back, “not at all; I fear your ideas of conspiracy are a little mixed. If you will consult Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law, which I hold in my hand, you will find these words: ' provided that an agreement between a man and a woman to commit fornication is not a conspiracy.' I suppose Mr. Justice Stephen may be taken to know something about the law.” Chairman (coming to the rescue)—“I think, gentlemen, we are getting off the lines. Perhaps Mr. Gattie will favour us with a few words?” “I confess, sir,” responded that gentleman, “I confess I am in a difficulty. Are we discussing whether indecency is wrong or not? Or is the question before the meeting whether the State should undertake the definition? Or is it whether Mr. McDoodle and his coadjutors are the proper persons to act as censores morum? My own views on these three points are these: that indecency, when properly defined, is wrong; that Mr McDoodle and his friends are not competent to define it, nor to suggest means for suppressing it; and, finally, that the State had much better leave the settlement of the question to public opinion and the common sense and common taste of the people.” A whirl of arguments, relevant and irrelevant, followed his speech, which contained references to a pretty wide field of State interferences, showing their invariable and inevitable failure all along the line. One apoplectic little man was loudly demanding an answer to his question “whether we are going to allow people to run down the street in a state of complete nudity.” That is what he wanted to know. Some one replied that in this climate the danger was remote, and that the roughs would provide a sufficient deterrent. Some one else wanted to know whether it was decent to hawk a certain evening journal in the streets, and a very earnest young man inquired whether his hearers had ever read the thirty-sixth chapter of Genesis, and whether, if so, it was calculated to raise a blush to the cheek of virtue. A wag replied: “There is no cheek about virtue.” And so the ball was kept rolling. And we left without having formed the faintest notion as to whether the State should interfere with the amusements of the people or not; whether it should limit its interference to the enforcement of decency and propriety; what those terms signify for the practical purpose; whether in any case it should delegate this duty to local authorities, and if so, to what authorities; whether it should itself take the initiative, or leave it to persons considering themselves injured; whether such alleged injury should be direct or indirect, and, in either case, what those expressions mean. However, a good deal of dust had been kicked up, and even the most cocksure of those who had entered the lists went out, I doubt not, with a conviction that there was a good deal to be said on all sides of the question. That, in itself, was an unmixed good.
Walking home, in the neighbourhood of Oxford Circus, a respectable young woman asked if I would be good enough to tell her the nearest way to Russell Square. She had hardly got the words out of her mouth, when a policeman emerged from a doorway and charged her with solicitation, asking me to accompany them to the station and sign the charge-sheet. Not being a member of the profession, of course the young woman had neglected to “pay her footing”; hence the official zeal. Old hands had with impunity accosted me at least a dozen times in the same street. I ventured to remonstrate, when I was myself charged with being drunk and attempting a rescue, and I should certainly have ended my day in a State-furnished apartment, had not another keeper of the Queen's peace come alongside and drawn away my accuser, whispering something in his ear the while. I recognised the features of an old acquaintance with whom I have an occasional glass at the Bottle of Hay on my way home from the club.
I reached home at last, and the events of the day battled with one another for precedence in my dreams. Freedom, order; order, freedom. Which is it to be? When I arose in the morning, I tried to record the previous day's experiences just as they came to me, without offering any dogmatic opinion as to the rights and the wrongs of the several cases which arose.