Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Old Mrs. Brand and Mabel were seated at a window of the new Admiralty Offices in Trafalgar Square to see Oliver deliver his speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Poor Laws Reform.
It was an inspiriting sight, this bright June morning, to see the crowds gathering round Braithwaite’s statue. That politician, dead fifteen years before, was represented in his famous attitude, with arms outstretched and down dropped, his head up and one foot slightly advanced, and to-day was decked, as was becoming more and more usual on such occasions, in his Masonic insignia. It was he who had given immense impetus to that secret movement by his declaration in the House that the key of future progress and brotherhood of nations was in the hands of the Order. It was through this alone that the false unity of the Church with its fantastic spiritual fraternity could be counteracted. St. Paul had been right, he declared, in his desire to break down the partition-walls between nations, and wrong only in his exaltation of Jesus Christ. Thus he had preluded his speech on the Poor Law question, pointing to the true charity that existed among Masons apart from religious motive, and appealing to the famous benefactions on the Continent; and in the enthusiasm of the Bill’s success the Order had received a great accession of members.
Old Mrs. Brand was in her best to-day, and looked out with considerable excitement at the huge throng gathered to hear her son speak. A platform was erected round the bronze statue at such a height that the statesman appeared to be one of the speakers, though at a slightly higher elevation, and this platform was hung with roses, surmounted by a sounding-board, and set with a chair and table.
The whole square round about was paved with heads and resonant with sound, the murmurs of thousands of voices, overpowered now and again by the crash of brass and thunder of drums as the Benefit Societies and democratic Guilds, each headed by a banner, deployed from North, South, East and West, and converged towards the wide railed space about the platform where room was reserved for them. The windows on every side were packed with faces; tall stands were erected along the front of the National Gallery and St. Martin’s Church, garden-beds of colour behind the mute, white statues that faced outwards round the square; from Braithwaite in front, past the Victorians–John Davidson, John Burns, and the rest–round to Hampden and de Montfort towards the north. The old column was gone, with its lions. Nelson had not been found advantageous to the Entente Cordiale, nor the lions to the new art; and in their place stretched a wide pavement broken by slopes of steps that led up to the National Gallery.
Overhead the roofs showed crowded friezes of heads against the blue summer sky. Not less than one hundred thousand persons, it was estimated in the evening papers, were collected within sight and sound of the platform by noon.
As the clocks began to tell the hour, two figures appeared from behind the statue and came forward, and, in an instant, the murmurs of talk rose into cheering.
Old Lord Pemberton came first, a grey-haired, upright man, whose father had been active in denouncing the House of which he was a member on the occasion of its fall over seventy years ago, and his son had succeeded him worthily. This man was now a member of the Government, and sat for Manchester (3); and it was he who was to be chairman on this auspicious occasion. Behind him came Oliver, bareheaded and spruce, and even at that distance his mother and wife could see his brisk movement, his sudden smile and nod as his name emerged from the storm of sound that surged round the platform. Lord Pemberton came forward, lifted his hand and made a signal; and in a moment the thin cheering died under the sudden roll of drums beneath that preluded the Masonic Hymn.
There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:
“_The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” ...
She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough–the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.
She glanced at Mabel, and saw that the girl was singing with all her might, with her eyes fixed on her husband’s dark figure a hundred yards away, and her soul pouring through them. So the mother, too, began to move her lips in chorus with that vast volume of sound.
As the hymn died away, and before the cheering could begin again, old Lord Pemberton was standing forward on the edge of the platform, and his thin, metallic voice piped a sentence or two across the tinkling splash of the fountains behind him. Then he stepped back, and Oliver came forward.
It was too far for the two to hear what was said, but Mabel slipped a paper, smiling tremulously, into the old lady’s hand, and herself bent forward to listen.
Old Mrs. Brand looked at that, too, knowing that it was an analysis of her son’s speech, and aware that she would not be able to hear his words.
There was an exordium first, congratulating all who were present to do honour to the great man who presided from his pedestal on the occasion of this great anniversary. Then there came a retrospect, comparing the old state of England with the present. Fifty years ago, the speaker said, poverty was still a disgrace, now it was so no longer. It was in the causes that led to poverty that the disgrace or the merit lay. Who would not honour a man worn out in the service of his country, or overcome at last by circumstances against which his efforts could not prevail?... He enumerated the reforms passed fifty years before on this very day, by which the nation once and for all declared the glory of poverty and man’s sympathy with the unfortunate.
So he had told them he was to sing the praise of patient poverty and its reward, and that, he supposed, together with a few periods on the reform of the prison laws, would form the first half of his speech.
The second part was to be a panegyric of Braithwaite, treating him as the Precursor of a movement that even now had begun.
Old Mrs. Brand leaned back in her seat, and looked about her.
The window where they sat had been reserved for them; two arm-chairs filled the space, but immediately behind there were others, standing very silent now, craning forward, watching, too, with parted lips: a couple of women with an old man directly behind, and other faces visible again behind them. Their obvious absorption made the old lady a little ashamed of her distraction, and she turned resolutely once more to the square.
Ah! he was working up now to his panegyric! The tiny dark figure was back, a yard nearer the statue, and as she looked, his hand went up and he wheeled, pointing, as a murmur of applause drowned for an instant the minute, resonant voice. Then again he was forward, half crouching–for he was a born actor–and a storm of laughter rippled round the throng of heads. She heard an indrawn hiss behind her chair, and the next instant an exclamation from Mabel.... What was that?
There was a sharp crack, and the tiny gesticulating figure staggered back a step. The old man at the table was up in a moment, and simultaneously a violent commotion bubbled and heaved like water about a rock at a point in the crowd immediately outside the railed space where the bands were massed, and directly opposite the front of the platform.
Mrs. Brand, bewildered and dazed, found herself standing up, clutching the window rail, while the girl gripped her, crying out something she could not understand. A great roaring filled the square, the heads tossed this way and that, like corn under a squall of wind. Then Oliver was forward again, pointing and crying out, for she could see his gestures; and she sank back quickly, the blood racing through her old veins, and her heart hammering at the base of her throat.
“My dear, my dear, what is it?” she sobbed.
But Mabel was up, too, staring out at her husband; and a quick babble of talk and exclamations from behind made itself audible in spite of the roaring tumult of the square.