It had been the purpose of the younger brother to do a very magnificent thing, to celebrate this return to life by a dinner at some restaurant of indisputable quality, a dinner that should be followed by all that glittering succession of impressions the Music Halls of those days were so capable of giving. It was a worthy plan to wipe off the more superficial stains of the prison house by this display of free indulgence; but so far as the second item went the plan was changed. The dinner stood, but there was a desire already more powerful than the appetite for shows, already more efficient in turning the man’s mind away from his grim prepossession with his past than any theatre could be, and that was an enormous curiosity and perplexity about this Boomfood and these Boom children— this new portentous giantry that seemed to dominate the world. “I ’aven’t the ’ang of ’em,” he said. “They disturve me.”
His brother had that fineness of mind that can even set aside a contemplated hospitality. “It’s your evening, dear old boy,” he said. “We’ll try to get into the mass meeting at the People’s Palace.”
And at last the man from prison had the luck to find himself wedged into a packed multitude and staring from afar at a little brightly lit platform under an organ and a gallery. The organist had been playing something that had set boots tramping as the people swarmed in; but that was over now.
Hardly had the man from prison settled into place and done his quarrel with an importunate stranger who elbowed, before Caterham came. He walked out of a shadow towards the middle of the platform, the most insignificant little pigmy, away there in the distance, a little black figure with a pink dab for a face,— in profile one saw his quite distinctive aquiline nose— a little figure that trailed after it most inexplicably— a cheer. A cheer it was that began away there and grew and spread. A little spluttering of voices about the platform at first that suddenly leapt up into a flame of sound and swept athwart the whole mass of humanity within the building and without. How they cheered! Hooray! Hooray!
No one in all those myriads cheered like the man from prison. The tears poured down his face, and he only stopped cheering at last because the thing had choked him. You must have been in prison as long as he before you can understand, or even begin to understand, what it means to a man to let his lungs go in a crowd. (But for all that he did not even pretend to himself that he knew what all this emotion was about.) Hooray! O God!— Hoo-ray!
And then a sort of silence. Caterham had subsided to a conspicuous patience, and subordinate and inaudible persons were saying and doing formal and insignificant things. It was like hearing voices through the noise of leaves in spring. “Wawawawa—– ” What did it matter? People in the audience talked to one another. “Wawawawawa—– ” the thing went on. Would that grey-headed duffer never have done? Interrupting? Of course they were interrupting. “Wa, wa, wa, wa—– ” But shall we hear Caterham any better?
Meanwhile at any rate there was Caterham to stare at, and one could stand and study the distant prospect of the great man’s features. He was easy to draw was this man, and already the world had him to study at leisure on lamp chimneys and children’s plates, on Anti-Boomfood medals and Anti-Boomfood flags, on the selvedges of Caterham silks and cottons and in the linings of Good Old English Caterham hats. He pervades all the caricature of that time. One sees him as a sailor standing to an old-fashioned gun, a port-fire labelled “New Boomfood Laws” in his hand; while in the sea wallows that huge, ugly, threatening monster, “Boomfood;” or he is cap-a-pie in armour, St. George’s cross on shield and helm, and a cowardly titanic Caliban sitting amidst desecrations at the mouth of a horrid cave declines his gauntlet of the “New Boomfood Regulations;” or he comes flying down as Perseus and rescues a chained and beautiful Andromeda (labelled distinctly about her belt as “Civilisation”) from a wallowing waste of sea monster bearing upon its various necks and claws “Irreligion,” “Trampling Egotism,” “Mechanism,” “Monstrosity,” and the like. But it was as “Jack the Giant-killer” that the popular imagination considered Caterham most correctly cast, and it was in the vein of a Jack the Giant-killer poster that the man from prison, enlarged that distant miniature.
The “Wawawawa” came abruptly to an end.
He’s done. He’s sitting down. Yes! No! Yes! It’s Caterham! “Caterham!” “Caterham!” And then came the cheers.
It takes a multitude to make such a stillness as followed that disorder of cheering. A man alone in a wilderness;— it’s stillness of a sort no doubt, but he hears himself breathe, he hears himself move, he hears all sorts of things. Here the voice of Caterham was the one single thing heard, a thing very bright and clear, like a little light burning in a black velvet recess. Hear indeed! One heard him as though he spoke at one’s elbow.
It was stupendously effective to the man from prison, that gesticulating little figure in a halo of light, in a halo of rich and swaying sounds; behind it, partially effaced as it were, sat its supporters on the platform, and in the foreground was a wide perspective of innumerable backs and profiles, a vast multitudinous attention. That little figure seemed to have absorbed the substance from them all.
Caterham spoke of our ancient institutions. “Earearear,” roared the crowd. “Ear! ear!” said the man from prison. He spoke of our ancient spirit of order and justice. “Earearear!” roared the crowd. “Ear! Ear!” cried the man from prison, deeply moved. He spoke of the wisdom of our forefathers, of the slow growth of venerable institutions, of moral and social traditions, that fitted our English national characteristics as the skin fits the hand. “Ear! Ear!” groaned the man from prison, with tears of excitement on his cheeks. And now all these things were to go into the melting pot. Yes, into the melting pot! Because three men in London twenty years ago had seen fit to mix something indescribable in a bottle, all the order and sanctity of things— Cries of “No! No!”— Well, if it was not to be so, they must exert themselves, they must say good-bye to hesitation— Here there came a gust of cheering. They must say good-bye to hesitation and half measures.
“We have heard, gentlemen,” cried Caterham, “of nettles that become giant nettles. At first they are no more than other nettles— little plants that a firm hand may grasp and wrench away; but if you leave them— if you leave them, they grow with such a power of poisonous expansion that at last you must needs have axe and rope, you must needs have danger to life and limb, you must needs have toil and distress— men may be killed in their felling, men may be killed in their felling—– ”
There came a stir and interruption, and then the man from prison heard Caterham’s voice again, ringing clear and strong: “Learn about Boomfood from Boomfood itself and— ” He paused— “Grasp your nettle before it is too late!”
He stopped and stood wiping his lips. “A crystal,” cried some one, “a crystal,” and then came that same strange swift growth to thunderous tumult, until the whole world seemed cheering… .
The man from prison came out of the hall at last, marvellously stirred, and with that in his face that marks those who have seen a vision. He knew, every one knew; his ideas were no longer vague. He had come back to a world in crisis, to the immediate decision of a stupendous issue. He must play his part in the great conflict like a man— like a free, responsible man. The antagonism presented itself as a picture. On the one hand those easy gigantic mail-clad figures of the morning— one saw them now in a different light— on the other this little black-clad gesticulating creature under the limelight, that pigmy thing with its ordered flow of melodious persuasion, its little, marvellously penetrating voice, John Caterham— “Jack the Giant-killer.” They must all unite to “grasp the nettle” before it was “too late.”