The Patrician


Polling was already in brisk progress when Courtier arrived in Bucklandbury; and partly from a not unnatural interest in the result, partly from a half-unconscious clinging to the chance of catching another glimpse of Barbara, he took his bag to the hotel, determined to stay for the announcement of the poll. Strolling out into the High Street he began observing the humours of the day. The bloom of political belief had long been brushed off the wings of one who had so flown the world's winds. He had seen too much of more vivid colours to be capable now of venerating greatly the dull and dubious tints of blue and yellow. They left him feeling extremely philosophic. Yet it was impossible to get away from them, for the very world that day seemed blue and yellow, nor did the third colour of red adopted by both sides afford any clear assurance that either could see virtue in the other; rather, it seemed to symbolize the desire of each to have his enemy's blood. But Courtier soon observed by the looks cast at his own detached, and perhaps sarcastic, face, that even more hateful to either side than its antagonist, was the philosophic eye. Unanimous was the longing to heave half a brick at it whenever it showed itself. With its d—-d impartiality, its habit of looking through the integument of things to see if there might be anything inside, he felt that they regarded it as the real adversary—the eternal foe to all the little fat 'facts,' who, dressed up in blue and yellow, were swaggering and staggering, calling each other names, wiping each other's eyes, blooding each other's noses. To these little solemn delicious creatures, all front and no behind, the philosophic eye, with its habit of looking round the corner, was clearly detestable. The very yellow and very blue bodies of these roistering small warriors with their hands on their tin swords and their lips on their tin trumpets, started up in every window and on every wall confronting each citizen in turn, persuading him that they and they alone were taking him to Westminster. Nor had they apparently for the most part much trouble with electors, who, finding uncertainty distasteful, passionately desired to be assured that the country could at once be saved by little yellow facts or little blue facts, as the case might be; who had, no doubt, a dozen other good reasons for being on the one side or the other; as, for instance, that their father had been so before them; that their bread was buttered yellow or buttered blue; that they had been on the other side last time; that they had thought it over and made up their minds; that they had innocent blue or naive yellow beer within; that his lordship was the man; or that the words proper to their mouths were 'Chilcox for Bucklandbury'; and, above all, the one really creditable reason, that, so far as they could tell with the best of their intellect and feelings, the truth at the moment was either blue or yellow.

The narrow high street was thronged with voters. Tall policemen stationed there had nothing to do. The certainty of all, that they were going to win, seemed to keep everyone in good humour. There was as yet no need to break anyone's head, for though the sharpest lookout was kept for any signs of the philosophic eye, it was only to be found—outside Courtier—in the perambulators of babies, in one old man who rode a bicycle waveringly along the street and stopped to ask a policeman what was the matter in the town, and in two rather green-faced fellows who trundled barrows full of favours both blue and yellow.

But though Courtier eyed the 'facts' with such suspicion, the keenness of everyone about the business struck him as really splendid. They went at it with a will. Having looked forward to it for months, they were going to look back on it for months. It was evidently a religious ceremony, summing up most high feelings; and this seemed to one who was himself a man of action, natural, perhaps pathetic, but certainly no matter for scorn.

It was already late in the afternoon when there came debouching into the high street a long string of sandwichmen, each bearing before and behind him a poster containing these words beautifully situated in large dark blue letters against a pale blue ground:

                    “NEW COMPLICATIONS.
                      DANGER NOT PAST.
                    AND SAVE THE EMPIRE.”

Courtier stopped to look at them with peculiar indignation. Not only did this poster tramp in again on his cherished convictions about Peace, but he saw in it something more than met the unphilosophic eye. It symbolized for him all that was catch-penny in the national life-an epitaph on the grave of generosity, unutterably sad. Yet from a Party point of view what could be more justifiable? Was it not desperately important that every blue nerve should be strained that day to turn yellow nerves, if not blue, at all events green, before night fell? Was it not perfectly true that the Empire could only be saved by voting blue? Could they help a blue paper printing the words, 'New complications,' which he had read that morning? No more than the yellows could help a yellow journal printing the words 'Lord Miltoun's Evening Adventure.' Their only business was to win, ever fighting fair. The yellows had not fought fair, they never did, and one of their most unfair tactics was the way they had of always accusing the blues of unfair fighting, an accusation truly ludicrous! As for truth! That which helped the world to be blue, was obviously true; that which didn't, as obviously not. There was no middle policy! The man who saw things neither was a softy, and no proper citizen. And as for giving the yellows credit for sincerity—the yellows never gave them credit! But though Courtier knew all that, this poster seemed to him particularly damnable, and he could not for the life of him resist striking one of the sandwich-boards with his cane. The resounding thwack startled a butcher's pony standing by the pavement. It reared, and bolted forward, with Courtier, who had naturally seized the rein, hanging on. A dog dashed past. Courtier tripped and fell. The pony, passing over, struck him on the head with a hoof. For a moment he lost consciousness; then coming to himself, refused assistance, and went to his hotel. He felt very giddy, and, after bandaging a nasty cut, lay down on his bed.

Miltoun, returning from that necessary exhibition of himself, the crowning fact, at every polling centre, found time to go and see him.

“That last poster of yours!” Courtier began, at once.

“I'm having it withdrawn.”

“It's done the trick—congratulations—you'll get in!”

“I knew nothing of it.”

“My dear fellow, I didn't suppose you did.”

“When there is a desert, Courtier, between a man and the sacred city, he doesn't renounce his journey because he has to wash in dirty water on the way: The mob—how I loathe it!”

There was such pent-up fury in those words as to astonish even one whose life had been passed in conflict with majorities.

“I hate its mean stupidities, I hate the sound of its voice, and the look on its face—it's so ugly, it's so little. Courtier, I suffer purgatory from the thought that I shall scrape in by the votes of the mob. There is sin in using this creature and I am expiating it.”

To this strange outburst, Courtier at first made no reply.

“You've been working too hard,” he said at last, “you're off your balance. After all, the mob's made up of men like you and me.”

“No, Courtier, the mob is not made up of men like you and me. If it were it would not be the mob.”

“It looks,” Courtier answered gravely, “as if you had no business in this galley. I've always steered clear of it myself.”

“You follow your feelings. I have not that happiness.”

So saying, Miltoun turned to the door.

Courtier's voice pursued him earnestly.

“Drop your politics—if you feel like this about them; don't waste your life following whatever it is you follow; don't waste hers!”

But Miltoun did not answer.

It was a wondrous still night, when, a few minutes before twelve, with his forehead bandaged under his hat, the champion of lost causes left the hotel and made his way towards the Grammar School for the declaration of the poll. A sound as of some monster breathing guided him, till, from a steep empty street he came in sight of a surging crowd, spread over the town square, like a dark carpet patterned by splashes of lamplight. High up above that crowd, on the little peaked tower of the Grammar School, a brightly lighted clock face presided; and over the passionate hopes in those thousands of hearts knit together by suspense the sky had lifted; and showed no cloud between them and the purple fields of air. To Courtier descending towards the square, the swaying white faces, turned all one way, seemed like the heads of giant wild flowers in a dark field, shivered by wind. The night had charmed away the blue and yellow facts, and breathed down into that throng the spirit of emotion. And he realized all at once the beauty and meaning of this scene—expression of the quivering forces, whose perpetual flux, controlled by the Spirit of Balance, was the soul of the world. Thousands of hearts with the thought of self lost in one over-mastering excitement!

An old man with a long grey beard, standing close to his elbow, murmured:

“'Tis anxious work—I wouldn't ha' missed this for anything in the world.”

“Fine, eh?” answered Courtier.

“Aye,” said the old man, “'tis fine. I've not seen the like o' this since the great year—forty-eight. There they are—the aristocrats!”

Following the direction of that skinny hand Courtier saw on a balcony Lord and Lady Valleys, side by side, looking steadily down at the crowd. There too, leaning against a window and talking to someone behind, was Barbara. The old man went on muttering, and Courtier could see that his eyes had grown very bright, his whole face transfigured by intense hostility; he felt drawn to this old creature, thus moved to the very soul. Then he saw Barbara looking down at him, with her hand raised to her temple to show that she saw his bandaged head. He had the presence of mind not to lift his hat.

The old man spoke again.

“You wouldn't remember forty-eight, I suppose. There was a feeling in the people then—we would ha' died for things in those days. I'm eighty-four,” and he held his shaking hand up to his breast, “but the spirit's alive here yet! God send the Radical gets in!” There was wafted from him a scent as of potatoes.

Far behind, at the very edge of the vast dark throng, some voices began singing: “Way down upon the Swanee ribber.” The tune floated forth, ceased, spurted up once more, and died.

Then, in the very centre of the square a stentorian baritone roared forth: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot!”

The song swelled, till every kind of voice, from treble to the old Chartist's quavering bass, was chanting it; here and there the crowd heaved with the movement of linked arms. Courtier found the soft fingers of a young woman in his right hand, the old Chartist's dry trembling paw in his left. He himself sang loudly. The grave and fearful music sprang straight up into they air, rolled out right and left, and was lost among the hills. But it had no sooner died away than the same huge baritone yelled “God save our gracious King!” The stature of the crowd seemed at once to leap up two feet, and from under that platform of raised hats rose a stupendous shouting.

“This,” thought Courtier, “is religion!”

They were singing even on the balconies; by the lamplight he could see Lord Valleys mouth not opened quite enough, as though his voice were just a little ashamed of coming out, and Barbara with her head flung back against the pillar, pouring out her heart. No mouth in all the crowd was silent. It was as though the soul of the English people were escaping from its dungeon of reserve, on the pinions of that chant.

But suddenly, like a shot bird closing wings, the song fell silent and dived headlong back to earth. Out from under the clock-face had moved a thin dark figure. More figures came behind. Courtier could see Miltoun. A voice far away cried: “Up; Chilcox!” A huge: “Husill” followed; then such a silence, that the sound of an engine shunting a mile away could be heard plainly.

The dark figure moved forward, and a tiny square of paper gleamed out white against the black of his frock-coat.

“Ladies and gentlemen. Result of the Poll:

“Miltoun Four thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight. Chilcox Four thousand eight hundred and two.”

The silence seemed to fall to earth, and break into a thousand pieces. Through the pandemonium of cheers and groaning, Courtier with all his strength forced himself towards the balcony. He could see Lord Valleys leaning forward with a broad smile; Lady Valleys passing her hand across her eyes; Barbara with her hand in Harbinger's, looking straight into his face. He stopped. The old Chartist was still beside him, tears rolling down his cheeks into his beard.

Courtier saw Miltoun come forward, and stand, unsmiling, deathly pale.

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