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Chapter 15 CANOSSA

  • Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, stood on his trial for _erious offence, and the eyes of the political world were focussed on th_ury.  The offence, it should be stated, was serious for the Government rathe_han for the prisoner.  He had blown up the Albert Hall on the eve of th_reat Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor o_he Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: “Do partridges sprea_nfectious diseases?”  Platterbaff had chosen his time well; the Tango Tea ha_een hurriedly postponed, but there were other political fixtures which coul_ot be put off under any circumstances.  The day after the trial there was t_e a by-election at Nemesis-on-Hand, and it had been openly announced in th_ivision that if Platterbaff were languishing in gaol on polling day th_overnment candidate would be “outed” to a certainty.  Unfortunately, ther_ould be no doubt or misconception as to Platterbaff’s guilt.  He had not onl_leaded guilty, but had expressed his intention of repeating his escapade i_ther directions as soon as circumstances permitted; throughout the trial h_as busy examining a small model of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.  Th_ury could not possibly find that the prisoner had not deliberately an_ntentionally blown up the Albert Hall; the question was: Could they find an_xtenuating circumstances which would permit of an acquittal?  Of course an_entence which the law might feel compelled to inflict would be followed by a_mmediate pardon, but it was highly desirable, from the Government’s point o_iew, that the necessity for such an exercise of clemency should not arise.  _eadlong pardon, on the eve of a bye-election, with threats of a heavy votin_efection if it were withheld or even delayed, would not necessarily be _urrender, but it would look like one.  Opponents would be only too ready t_ttribute ungenerous motives.  Hence the anxiety in the crowded Court, and i_he little groups gathered round the tape-machines in Whitehall and Downin_treet and other affected centres.
  • The jury returned from considering their verdict; there was a flutter, a_xcited murmur, a deathlike hush.  The foreman delivered his message:
  • “The jury find the prisoner guilty of blowing up the Albert Hall.  The jur_ish to add a rider drawing attention to the fact that a by-election i_ending in the Parliamentary division of Nemesis-on-Hand.”
  • “That, of course,” said the Government Prosecutor, springing to his feet, “i_quivalent to an acquittal?”
  • “I hardly think so,” said the Judge, coldly; “I feel obliged to sentence th_risoner to a week’s imprisonment.”
  • “And may the Lord have mercy on the poll,” a Junior Counsel exclaime_rreverently.
  • It was a scandalous sentence, but then the Judge was not on the Ministeria_ide in politics.
  • The verdict and sentence were made known to the public at twenty minutes pas_ive in the afternoon; at half-past five a dense crowd was massed outside th_rime Minister’s residence lustily singing, to the air of “Trelawney”:
  • > “And should our Hero rot in gaol, >    For e’en a single day, > There’s Fifteen Hundred Voting Men >    Will vote the other way.”
  • “Fifteen hundred,” said the Prime Minister, with a shudder; “it’s too horribl_o think of.  Our majority last time was only a thousand and seven.”
  • “The poll opens at eight to-morrow morning,” said the Chief Organiser; “w_ust have him out by 7 a.m.”
  • “Seven-thirty,” amended the Prime Minister; “we must avoid any appearance o_recipitancy.”
  • “Not later than seven-thirty, then,” said the Chief Organiser; “I hav_romised the agent down there that he shall be able to display poster_nnouncing ‘Platterbaff is Out,’ before the poll opens.  He said it was ou_nly chance of getting a telegram ‘Radprop is In’ to-night.”
  • At half-past seven the next morning the Prime Minister and the Chief Organise_at at breakfast, making a perfunctory meal, and awaiting the return of th_ome Secretary, who had gone in person to superintend the releasing o_latterbaff.  Despite the earliness of the hour a small crowd had gathered i_he street outside, and the horrible menacing Trelawney refrain of the “Fifteen Hundred Voting Men” came in a steady, monotonous chant.
  • “They will cheer presently when they hear the news,” said the Prime Ministe_opefully; “hark!  They are booing some one now!  That must be McKenna.”
  • The Home Secretary entered the room a moment later, disaster written on hi_ace.
  • “He won’t go!” he exclaimed.
  • “Won’t go?  Won’t leave gaol?”
  • “He won’t go unless he has a brass band.  He says he never has left priso_ithout a brass band to play him out, and he’s not going to go without on_ow.”
  • “But surely that sort of thing is provided by his supporters and admirers?” said the Prime Minister; “we can hardly be supposed to supply a release_risoner with a brass band.  How on earth could we defend it on th_stimates?”
  • “His supporters say it is up to us to provide the music,” said the Hom_ecretary; “they say we put him in prison, and it’s our affair to see that h_eaves it in a respectable manner.  Anyway, he won’t go unless he has a band.”
  • The telephone squealed shrilly; it was a trunk call from Nemesis.
  • “Poll opens in five minutes.  Is Platterbaff out yet?  In Heaven’s name, why—”
  • The Chief Organiser rang off.
  • “This is not a moment for standing on dignity,” he observed bluntly; “musicians must be supplied at once.  Platterbaff must have his band.”
  • “Where are you going to find the musicians?” asked the Home Secretary wearily; “we can’t employ a military band, in fact, I don’t think he’d have one if w_ffered it, and there ain’t any others.  There’s a musicians’ strike on, _uppose you know.”
  • “Can’t you get a strike permit?” asked the Organiser.
  • “I’ll try,” said the Home Secretary, and went to the telephone.
  • Eight o’clock struck.  The crowd outside chanted with an increasing volume o_ound:
  • > “Will vote the other way.”
  • A telegram was brought in.  It was from the central committee rooms a_emesis.  “Losing twenty votes per minute,” was its brief message.
  • Ten o’clock struck.  The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Chie_rganiser, and several earnest helpful friends were gathered in the inne_ateway of the prison, talking volubly to Demosthenes Platterbaff, who stoo_ith folded arms and squarely planted feet, silent in their midst.  Golden- tongued legislators whose eloquence had swayed the Marconi Inquiry Committee, or at any rate the greater part of it, expended their arts of oratory in vai_n this stubborn unyielding man.  Without a band he would not go; and they ha_o band.
  • A quarter past ten, half-past.  A constant stream of telegraph boys poured i_hrough the prison gates.
  • “Yamley’s factory hands just voted you can guess how,” ran a despairin_essage, and the others were all of the same tenour.  Nemesis was going th_ay of Reading.
  • “Have you any band instruments of an easy nature to play?” demanded the Chie_rganiser of the Prison Governor; “drums, cymbals, those sort of things?”
  • “The warders have a private band of their own,” said the Governor, “but o_ourse I couldn’t allow the men themselves—”
  • “Lend us the instruments,” said the Chief Organiser.
  • One of the earnest helpful friends was a skilled performer on the cornet, th_abinet Ministers were able to clash cymbals more or less in tune, and th_hief Organiser has some knowledge of the drum.
  • “What tune would you prefer?” he asked Platterbaff.
  • “The popular song of the moment,” replied the Agitator after a moment’_eflection.
  • It was a tune they had all heard hundreds of times, so there was no difficult_n turning out a passable imitation of it.  To the improvised strains of “_idn’t want to do it” the prisoner strode forth to freedom.  The word of th_ong had reference, it was understood, to the incarcerating Government and no_o the destroyer of the Albert Hall.
  • The seat was lost, after all, by a narrow majority.  The local Trade Unionist_ook offence at the fact of Cabinet Ministers having personally acted a_trike-breakers, and even the release of Platterbaff failed to pacify them.
  • The seat was lost, but Ministers had scored a moral victory.  They had show_hat they knew when and how to yield.