A Safety Match/Chapter 18

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A confused medley of men and women—not to mention the inevitable small boy element—was pouring up the road from Belton Pit in the direction of the Hall, which lay beyond the brow of the hill in a green hollow as yet unsullied by winding-wheels and waste-heaps. People who have made up their minds to do evil are usually in a hurry to get it over. Consequently our friends were advancing at a high rate of speed, keeping up their courage by giving forth unmelodious noises.

Juggernaut's prophecy had come true. The rebellion had been damped down by sheer starvation; and now that starvation was overpast, the rebellion was flaming out again with tenfold vigour. That fine unreasoning human instinct which under a certain degree of pressure bids logic and argument go hang, and impels us to go forth and break some one else's windows, held the reins that evening. As the night-shift assembled at the pit-head, what time the day-shift was being disgorged, a cageful at a time, from the depths below, a great and magnificent project suddenly hatched itself in the fertile brain of Mr Tom Winch, who had been haunting the neighbourhood on business connected with the propaganda of his own particular revolutionary organisation for the past six weeks. Now was his chance. Evil passions, hitherto dimmed by hunger and privation, were reviving. The men were ripe for any mischief. What they were asking for, reflected Mr Winch, was blood, or its equivalent, and a man to lead them to it.

Mr Winch was, to do him justice, a master of his own furtive trade. In five minutes his project was circulating through the throng. In fifteen the crowd had pledged itself to do something really big; and in half an hour most of the windows of the pit offices had been broken as a guarantee of good faith.

Having whetted its appetite on this hors d'œuvre, the mob listened readily to Mr Winch's suggestion of a brisk walk to Belton Hall and a personal interview with its proprietor. The notion ran through the excited mass of humanity like fire through dry grass; and presently, as if from one spontaneous impulse, the advance on Belton Hall began. No one quite knew what he proposed to do when he got there, but the possibilities of the expedition were great. It was a picturesque procession, for every man carried a safety-lamp in one hand and a missile in the other. It was probably owing to the multiplicity of the twinkling points of light thus produced that no one observed the flickering halo of a solitary bicycle-lamp, as the machine which bore it slipped out from the side-door of the pit offices and silently stole away through the darkness, carrying a frightened messenger over the hill to Belton Hall.

It may here be noted that Mr Tom Winch, having despatched his avenging host upon its way, remained behind at headquarters—doubtless to superintend the subsequent operations with that degree of perspective which is so necessary to a good general.

Mr Killick, an old acquaintance of ours, supported by his friend Mr Brash, led the procession.

"Supposin' the lodge gates is locked—what then?" enquired Mr Brash—ever a better critic than creator of an enterprise—as they trudged along the muddy road.

"We shall trample them down," replied Mr Killick, ever contemptuous of irritating detail.

But the lodge gates stood hospitably open. The lodge itself was shuttered and silent; and the procession, pausing momentarily to deliver a hilarious and irregular volley of small coal, proceeded on its way.

Up the long avenue they tramped. There were electric lamps at intervals, intended for the guidance of strange coachmen on dinner-party nights. These were all ablaze. Evidently Juggernaut was expecting friends. Five minutes later our glorious company of apostles rounded the last turn in the avenue, and the broad Elizabethan façade of Belton Hall loomed up before them. Every window was alight.

A flagged and balustraded terrace ran along the whole frontage of the Hall. In the middle of the balustrade was a gap, where a broad flight of shallow stone steps led down to a velvety lawn three hundred years old. Most of the crowd knew that lawn and terrace well. The grounds at Belton were constantly and freely granted for miners' fêtes, political demonstrations, and the like. On these occasions a band was nearly always playing upon the terrace, and not infrequently post-prandial orations were outpoured from the rostrum formed by the stone steps upon the heads of a gorged and tolerant audience on the grass below.

To-night no band was playing; but at the head of the steps—motionless, upright, inflexible—stood a solitary figure. It was the master of the house, waiting to receive his guests—one against four hundred.

But to one who knew, the odds were not overwhelming. In fact, provided that the crowd possessed no resolute leader, the chances were slightly in favour of the figure on the steps. One man with his wits about him has two great advantages over a crowd. In the first place, he knows exactly what he is going to do, and, in the second, he knows exactly what the crowd is going to do. The crowd knows neither. It is impossible to foretell how a single individual will behave upon emergency: the human temperament varies too widely. But there is nothing in the world so normal or conventional as a crowd. Mankind in the lump is a mere puppet in the hands of the law of averages. Given, as noted above, a resolute leader, the conditions are changed. The leader imbues the crowd with a portion of his own spirit, and creates an instinct of unanimity. Then the odds are once more in favour of the crowd; for now it is a resolute will, all alone, pitted against a resolute will with force behind it.

Sir John Carr knew all this. He had studied men all his life; and as he stood silent and observant, surveying the surging multitude at his feet—it had flowed to the base of the steps now—he noted that there was no leader in particular. The crowd were acting under the influence of blind impulse, and, if properly handled, could be swayed about and sent home.

Presently the hubbub ceased, and the men stood gazing upward, fingering lumps of coal and waiting for some one to fire the first shot.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," observed Juggernaut. (The ladies, be it noted, constituted the front row of the assemblage, their cavaliers having modestly retired a few paces under their employer's passionless scrutiny.) "If you have come to serenade me, I shall have pleasure presently in sending you out some refreshment. If you have merely come to burn the house down, I strongly advise you to go home and think twice about it."

The recipients of this piece of advice were undoubtedly a little taken aback. Playful badinage was the last thing they had expected. They murmured uneasily one to another, debating suitable retorts. Presently a shrill female voice opened fire.

"Tyrant!"

"Money-grubber!" corroborated another voice.

"Who starves women and children?" shrieked a third.

"Yah! Booh!" roared the crowd, taking heart.

"Chuck some of his own coals at 'im!" was the frantic adjuration of a foolish virgin who had already expended all her ammunition against the shutters of the gate-lodge.

A lump of something black and crystalline sang past Juggernaut's head, and struck a richly glowing stained-glass window twenty feet behind him. There was a sharp crash and a silvery tinkle, followed by a little gasp from the crowd. The first shot had been fired. Juggernaut knew well that a broadside was imminent, and countered swiftly. In the startled silence which succeeded the destruction of the great window—it had lighted the staircase at Belton for generations—his voice rang out like a trumpet.

"Listen to me!" he cried. "You have a grievance. You have come up here to square accounts with me. You think you have right on your side: I think it is on mine. Both of us are spoiling for a fight. In our present frame of mind nothing else will satisfy us. Now here is a fair offer. Send up any two men you like out of that multitude down there, and I will take them on, both together or one after the other, as you please. I am rising forty-seven, but if I fail to drop either of your representatives over this balustrade, back where he came from, inside of five minutes, I promise to remit the dues on that odd hundredweight that you are making all this to do about. Is it a bargain, gentlemen?"

He had struck the right note. The low, angry murmuring suddenly ceased, and a great wave of Homeric laughter rolled over the crowd. The British collier has his faults, but within his limits he is a sportsman. He appreciates pluck.

"Good lad!" roared a voice out of the darkness. Then there fell another silence.

"I am waiting, gentlemen," said Juggernaut presently.

But he had to continue waiting. His audience, as previously noted, were sportsmen within limits. The limits, alas! in those soft days are too often the rabbit-coursing, or the backing of a horse in a race which will not be witnessed by the backer. It is always gratifying to be invited to participate in a sporting event, but there is a difference between a seat on the platform and a stance in the arena. Getting hurt gratuitously is slipping into the Index Expurgatorius of modern field sports.

Men began to look sheepishly at one another. One or two had started forward instinctively, but the impulse died away. A humourist was heard imploring his friends to hold him back. There was something unutterably grim about the towering figure up on the terrace. Democracy and the equality of mankind to the contrary, Jack usually recognises his master when it comes to a pinch. No Jack seemed to desire advancement on this occasion.

Juggernaut waited for another minute. He wanted the silence to sink in. He wanted the crowd to feel ridiculous. That object achieved, he proposed to turn his visitors to the right-about and send them home. He had been through this experience before, and felt comparatively sure of his ground.

Provided, that is, that one thing did not occur. There were women present.

Now women are exempt from the law of averages; the sex snaps its fingers at computations based upon laboriously compiled statistics. If the women—or more likely a woman—gave the men a lead, anything might happen. And just as Juggernaut uplifted his voice to pronounce a valediction, the disaster befel.

"Now go home," he began. "You are not yourselves to-night. Go home, and think things over. Consult the older men: I see none of them here. If you are of the same mind to-morrow, I promise to—"

"Call yourselves men? Cowards! cowards! cowards! One of us is worth the lot of you!"

A woman, with a shawl over her head and a child in her arms, had mounted half-way up the steps, and was addressing the mob below. Sir John recognised her as Mrs Brash, a quiet little person as a rule.

"Come up, chaps!" she shrieked. "Are you going to let him stamp on us all? Look at his fine house, and his electrics, and his marble steps and all!" (They were plain freestone, but let that pass.) "Where did he get 'em all? From us!—us that he has starved and clemmed this last two months! Are you afraid of him—the lot of you? Great hulking cowards! I see you, Brash, hiding there! Isn't there one man here?"

"Yes—by God, there is!"

With a bound, Killick, the brooding visionary, the Utopian Socialist, was at the top of the steps, brandishing a pit-prop and haranguing his comrades. There was no stopping him. Mrs Brash had fired the train and Killick was the explosion. His words gushed out—hot, passionate, delirious. The man's sense of proportion, always unstable, was gone entirely. He burned with the conviction of his own wrongs and those of his fellows. Nobilis ira gave him eloquence. He laid violent hands upon wealth and power and greed and tyranny, and flung them one by one down the steps on to the heads of his hearers. Most of what he said was entirely irrelevant; a great deal more was entirely untrue; but it served. For the moment Sir John Carr stood for all the injustice and cruelty that strength has ever inflicted upon weakness. Every word told. The mob was aflame at last. They hung upon Killick's fiery sentences, surging ever more closely round the steps. The next wave, Juggernaut saw, would bring them in a flood upon the terrace; and then—what? He thought coolly and rapidly. There was Daphne to consider—also little Brian. Daphne, he knew, was close by, standing with beating heart behind the curtains of the library window. He had forbidden her to come farther. Perhaps, though, she had been sensible, and taken the opportunity of this delay to slip away—

There was a movement beside him, and he realised that his education in femininity still left something to be desired. A hand slid into his, and Daphne's voice whispered in his ear:—

"Jack, I want to speak to them."

Her husband turned and smiled upon her curiously.

"What are you going to say?" he asked.

"I am going to tell them about—about the tea and sugar. It's the only thing to do," said Daphne eagerly.

"I would rather be knocked on the head by a pit-prop!" said Juggernaut.

And he meant it. Some of us are terribly afraid of being exposed as sentimentalists.

Meanwhile the crowd had caught sight of Daphne. The men fell silent, as men are fain to do when a slim goddess, arrayed in black velvet, appears to them, silhouetted against a richly glowing window. But there was a vindictive shriek from the women.

"Get back at once, dear," said Juggernaut. "You are in great danger. Telephone to the police, and tell Graves to get the fire-hose out. It may be useful in two ways. I promise to come in if things get worse.—Hallo! who is that?"

A burly man in a bowler hat, panting with the unwonted exertion of a two-mile run, was approaching him along the terrace. He had come up the drive unnoticed, and having skirted the edge of the crowd had gained access to the terrace from another flight of steps at the end. It was Mr Walker, the mine manager.

"I tried to get you on the telephone," he shouted in Juggernaut's ear; "but they have cut the wire."

"What is it?" asked Juggernaut.

Walker told him.

There was just time to act. The mob were pouring up the steps in response to Killick's final invitation. Juggernaut strode forward.

"Stop!" he cried in a voice of thunder. "Stop, and listen to what Mr Walker has to tell you!"

His great voice carried, and there was a moment's lull. Walker seized his opportunity.

"There has been an accident at the pit," he bellowed. "Some of your lads went down after you had left, to see what damage they could do to the plant. Some of the older men went down to stop them. Something happened. The roofs of the main road and intake have fallen in, and Number Three Working is cut off—with eight men in it!"

There was a stricken silence, and the wave rolled back from the steps. Presently a hoarse voice cried,—

"Who are they?"

Mr Walker recited six names. Four of these belonged to young bloods who had been foremost in the riot at the pit-head. There were agonised cries from women in the crowd. All four men were married. The fifth name, that of Mr Adam Wilkie, who was a bachelor and a misogynist, passed without comment. The sixth was that of a pit-boy named Hopper.

Mr Walker paused.

"You said eight!" cried another woman's voice in an agony of suspense. "The other two—for the love of God!"

"Amos Entwistle," replied Mr Walker grimly—"and Mr Carthew."