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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA People's Man - Chapter 14
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A People's Man - Chapter 14 Post by :lcpl10 Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2026

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A People's Man - Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

From the atmosphere of Lyndwood Park and its surroundings--fragrant, almost epicurean--Maraton passed to the hard squalor of the great smoke-hung city of the north. There were no beautiful women or cultured men to bid him welcome. The Labour Member and his companion, who hastened him out of the train at Derby and into an open motor-car, were hard-featured Lancashire men, keen on their work and practical as the day. As they talked together in that long, ugly ride, Maraton almost smiled as he thought of those perfervid dreams of his which had always been at the back of his head; that creed of life, some part of which he had intended to unfold to the people during these few days.

"Plain-speaking is what our folk like," John Henneford assured him, as they sat side by side in the small open car driven by one of the committee; "plain, honest words; sound advice, with a bit o' grit in it."

"'To hell with the masters!' is the motto they like best," Preston remarked, moving his pipe to the corner of his mouth. "It's an old text but it's an ever popular one. There's the mill where I work, now, fourteen hundred of us. The girls average from eighteen bob to a pound a week, men twenty-four to twenty-eight, foremen thirty-five to two pounds. It's not much of wages. The house rent's high in these parts, and food, too. The business has just been turned into a company--capital three hundred thousand pounds, profits last year forty-two thousand. That's after paying us our bit. That's the sort of thing turns the blood of the people sour up here. It was the aristocrats brought about the revolution in France. It will be the manufacturers who do it here, and do it quick unless things are altered. They tell me you're a bit of a revolutionist, Mr. Maraton."

"I'm anything," Maraton answered, "that will do away with such profits as you've been speaking of. I am anything which will bring a fair share of the profits of his labour to the operative who now gets none. I hate capital. It's a false quantity, a false value. It's got to come back to the people. It belongs to them."

"You're right, man," Henneford declared grimly. "How are you going to get it back, eh? Show us. We are powerful up here. We could paralyse trade from the Clyde to the Thames, if we thought it would do any good. What's your text to-night, Mr. Maraton?"

"I haven't thought," Maraton replied. "I have plenty to say to the people though."

"You gave 'em what for in Chicago," Preston remarked, with a grin.

"I haven't been used to mince words," Maraton admitted.

"There's four thousand policemen told off to look after you," Henneford informed him. "By-the-bye, is it true that Dale and all of them are coming up to-night?"

Maraton nodded.

"I wired for some of them," he assented. "So long as I am going to make a definite pronouncement, they may as well hear it."

"Been spending the week-end with Foley, haven't you?" Preston enquired, closing his eyes a little.

Maraton nodded. "Yes," he confessed, "I have been there."

"There are many that don't think much of Foley," Henneford remarked. "Myself I am not sure what to make of him. I think he'd be a people's man, right enough, if it wasn't for the Cabinet."

"I believe, in my heart," Maraton said, "that he is a people's man."

They sped on through deserted spaces, past smoke-stained factories, across cobbled streets, past a wilderness of small houses, grimy, everywhere repellent. Soon they entered Manchester by the back way and pulled up presently at a small and unimposing hotel.

"We've taken a room for you here," Henneford announced. "It's close to the hall, and it's quiet and clean enough. The big hotels I doubt whether you'd ever be able to get out of, when once they found where you were."

"As a matter of fact," Preston added, "there's a room taken in your name at the Midland, to put folks off a bit. We'll have to smuggle you out here if there's any trouble to-night. The people are rare and restless."

"It will do very nicely, I am sure," Maraton replied.

The place was an ordinary commercial hotel, clean apparently but otherwise wholly unattractive. Henneford led the way up-stairs and with some pride threw open the door of a room on the first floor. "We've got you a sitting-room," he said. "Thought you might want to talk to these Press people, perhaps, or do a bit of work. Your secretary's somewhere about the place--turned up with a typewriter early this morning. And there's a young woman--"

"A what?" Maraton asked.

"A young woman," Henneford continued,--"secretary's sister or something."

Maraton smiled.

"Miss Thurnbrein."

"What, the tailoress?" Preston replied. "She's a good sort. Wrote rare stuff, she did, about her trade. They are out together, seeing the sights. Didn't expect you quite so soon, I expect."

Maraton looked around the little sitting-room. It was furnished with a carpet of bright green thrown over a foundation of linoleum, a suite of stamped magenta plush, an overmantel, gilt cornices over the windows, a piano, a table covered with a gaudy tablecloth. On the walls were hung some oleographs. The lighting of the room was of gas with incandescent mantles. There had been, apparently, judging by an odour which still remained, a great deal of beer consumed in the apartment at one time or another.

"Nice room, this," Mr. Henneford remarked approvingly. "Slap up, ain't it? Your bedroom's next door, and your secretary's just round the corner. Done you proud, I reckon. Like a royal suite, eh?"

He laughed good-humouredly. Mr. Preston removed his pipe and rang the bell.

"One drink, I think," he suggested, "and we'll leave Mr. Maraton alone for a bit. You and I'll go down to the station and meet the chaps from London, and we'll have a meeting up here--say at five o'clock. That suit you, Mr. Maraton?"

"Excellently," Maraton assented. "What shall I order?" he asked, as the waiter entered.

Beer, whiskey and cigars were brought. Maraton asked a few eager questions about the condition of one of the industries, and followed Henneford to the door, talking rapidly.

"I know so little about the state of woman labour over here," he said. "In America they are better paid in proportion. Perhaps, if Miss Thurnbrein is here, she will be able to give me some information."

"You'll soon get posted up," Mr. Henneford declared. "I can see you've got a quick way of dealing with things. So long till five o'clock, then. There's a dozen chaps waiting down-stairs to see you. We'll leave it to your judgment just what you want to say to the Press. Ring the bell and have the waiter bring their cards up."

They departed and Maraton returned to his sitting-room. He stood for a moment looking out over the city, the roar of which came to him clearly enough through the open window. He forgot the depressing tawdriness of his surroundings in the exhilaration of the sound. He was back again amongst the people, back again where the wheels of life were crashing. The people! He drew himself up and his eyes sought the furthest limits of that dim yellow haze. Somehow, notwithstanding a vague uneasiness which hung about him like an effort of wounded conscience, he had a still greater buoyancy of thought when he considered his possibly altered attitude towards the multitude who waited for his message. He felt his feet upon the earth with more certainty, with more implicit realism, than in those days when he had spoken to them of the future and had perhaps forgotten to tell them how far away that future must be. There was something more practical about his present attitude. What would they say here in Manchester, expecting fire and thunder from his lips and finding him hold out the olive branch? He shrugged his shoulders;--a useless speculation, after all. He rang the bell and glanced through the cards which the waiter brought him.

"I have nothing of importance to say to any reporters," he declared, "but I will see them all for two minutes. You can show them up in the order in which they came."

The waiter withdrew and Maraton was left for a few moments alone. Then the door was opened and closed again by the waiter, who made no announcement. A man came forward--a small man, very neatly dressed, with gold spectacles and a little black beard. Maraton welcomed him and pointed to a chair.

"I have nothing whatever to say to the newspapers," he explained, "until after I have addressed my first few meetings. You probably will have nothing to ask me then. All the same, I am very pleased to see you, and since you have been waiting, I thought I had better have you come up, if it were only for a moment. No one who has a great cause at their backs, you know, can afford to disregard the Press."

The man laid his hat upon the table. Maraton, glancing across the room at him, was instantly conscious that this newcomer was no ordinary person. He had a strong, intellectual forehead, a well-shaped mouth. His voice, when he spoke, was pleasant, although his accent was peculiar--almost foreign.

"Mr. Maraton," his visitor began, "I thank you very much for your courtesy, but I have nothing to do with the Press. My name is Beldeman. I have come to Manchester especially to see you."

Maraton nodded.

"We are strangers, I believe?" he asked.

"Strangers personally. No thinking man to-day is a stranger to Mr. Maraton in any other way."

"You are very kind," Maraton replied. "What can I do for you?"

Beldeman glanced towards the door so as to be sure that it was closed.

"Mr. Maraton," he enquired, "are you a bad-tempered man?"

"At times," Maraton admitted.

"I regret to see," his visitor proceeded, "that you are a man of superior physique to mine. I am here to make you an offer which you may consider an insult. If you are a narrow, ordinary Englishman, obstinate, with cast-iron principles and the usual prejudices, you will probably try to throw me down-stairs. It is part of my living to run the risk of being thrown down-stairs."

"I will do my best," Maraton promised him, "to restrain myself. You have at least succeeded in exciting my curiosity."

"I am, to look at," Mr. Beldeman continued, "an unimportant person. As a matter of fact, I represent a very great country, and I come to you charged with a great mission."

Maraton became a little graver. "Go on," he said.

"I am anxious--perhaps over-anxious," Mr. Beldeman proceeded, "that I should put this matter before you in the most favourable light. I must confess that I have spent hours trying to make up my mind exactly how I should tell you my business. I have changed my mind so many times that there is nothing left of my original intention. I speak now as the thoughts come to me. I am here on behalf of a syndicate of manufacturers--foreign manufacturers--to offer you a bribe."

Maraton stood quite still upon the hearth-rug. His face showed no emotion whatever.

"You are, I believe," Mr. Beldeman went on, "only half an Englishman. That is why I am hoping that you will behave like a reasonable being, and that my person may be saved from violence. Upon your word rests the industrial future of this country for the next ten years. If your forges burn out and your factories are emptied, it will mean an era of prosperity for my country, indescribable. We are great trade rivals. We need just the opening. What we get we may not be able to hold altogether, when trade is once more good here, but that is of no consequence. We shall have it for a year or two, and that year or two will mean a good many millions to us."

Maraton's eyes began to twinkle.

"The matter," he remarked, "becomes clearer to me. You are either the most ingenuous person I ever met, or the most subtle. Tell me, is it a personal bribe you have brought?"

"It is not," Mr. Beldeman replied. "It did not occur to those in whose employment I am, or to me, to offer you a single sixpence. I am here to offer you, if you send your people out on strike within the next week--the coal strike, the railway strike, the ironfounders, the smelters, from the Clyde southwards--one million pounds as a subscription to your strike funds."

"You have it with you?" Maraton enquired, after a moment.

"I have four drafts for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds each, in my pocket-book at the present moment," Mr. Beldeman declared. "They are payable to your order. You can accept my offer and pay them into your private banking account or the banking account of any one of your Trades' Unions. There is not the slightest doubt but that they will be met."

"Are there any terms at all connected with this little subscription?"

"None," Beldeman replied.

"And your object," Maraton added, "is to benefit through our loss of trade?"

"Entirely," Mr. Beldeman assented, without a quiver upon his face.

Maraton was silent for a moment.

"I do not see my way absolutely clear," he announced, "to recommending a railway strike at the present moment. If I acceded to all the others, what would your position be? The railway strike is of little consequence to a foreign nation. The coal strike, and the iron and steel works of Sheffield and Leeds closed--that's where English trade would suffer most, especially if the cotton people came out."

Mr. Beldeman shook his head slowly. "My conditions," he said, "embrace the railways."

"Somehow, I fancied that they would," Maraton remarked. "Tell me why?"

Beldeman rose slowly to his feet.

"Are you an Englishman?" he asked.

"I can't deny it," Maraton replied. "I was born abroad. Why are you so interested in my nationality?"

Beldeman shrugged his shoulders.

"I cannot tell you. Just an idea. I do not wish to say too much. I wish you only to consider what a million pounds will do to help your work people. You, they say, are one of those who love the people as your own children. A million pounds may enable them to hold out until they can secure practically what terms they like. Those million pounds are yours to-day, yours for the people, if you pledge your word to a universal strike."

"Including the railways?"

"Including the railways," Mr. Beldeman assented.

Maraton smiled quietly.

"I do not ask you," he said, "what country you represent. I think that it is not necessary. You have come to me rather as though I were a dictator. There are others besides myself with whom influence rests."

"It is you only who count," Mr. Beldeman declared. "I am thankful that at any rate you have met my offer in a reasonable spirit. Accept it, Mr. Maraton. What concern have you for other things save only for the welfare of the people?"

"I have considered this matter," Maraton remarked, "many, many times. A universal strike, absolutely universal so far as regards transport and coal, would place the country in a paralytic and helpless condition. Still, so many people have assured us that an onslaught from any foreign country is never seriously to be considered, that I have come to believe it myself. What is your opinion?"

Mr. Beldeman remained silent for a few moments.

"One cannot tell," he said. "The stock of coal available for your home fleet happens to be rather low just now. One cannot tell what might happen. Do you greatly care? Wasn't it you who, in one of your speeches, pointed out that a war in your country would be welcome? That the class who would suffer would be the class who are your great oppressors--the manufacturers, the middle classes--and that with their downfall the working man would struggle upwards? Do you believe, Mr. Maraton, that a war would hurt your own people?"

"My own ideas," Maraton replied, "are in a state of transition. However, your offer is declined."

"Declined without conditions?" Mr. Beldeman enquired, taking up his hat.

"For the present it is declined without conditions. I will be quite frank with you. Your offer doesn't shock me as it might do if I were a right-feeling Imperialist of the proper Jingo type. I believe that a week ago I should have considered it very seriously indeed. Its acceptance would have been in accordance with my beliefs. And yet, since you have made it, you have made me wonder more than ever whether I have been right. I find a revulsion of feeling in considering it, which I cannot understand."

"I may approach you again," Mr. Beldeman asked, "if circumstances should change? Possibly you yourself may, upon reflection, appreciate my suggestion more thoroughly."

Maraton was silent for a moment. When he looked up he was alone. Mr. Beldeman had not waited for his reply.

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