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We sat and stood and sprawled about him, occupying every inch of Redmayne's floor space except the hearthrug-platform, and we listened to him and thought him over. He was the voice of wrongs that made us indignant and eager. We forgot for a time that he had been shy and seemed not a little incompetent, his provincial accent became a beauty of his earnest speech, we were carried away by his indignations. We looked with shining eyes at one another and at the various dons who had dropped in and were striving to maintain a front of judicious severity. We felt more and more that social injustice must cease, and cease forthwith. We felt we could not sleep upon it. At the end we clapped and murmured our applause and wanted badly to cheer.
Then like a lancet stuck into a bladder came the heckling. Denson, that indolent, liberal-minded sceptic, did most of the questioning. He lay contorted in a chair, with his ugly head very low, his legs crossed and his left boot very high, and he pointed his remarks with a long thin hand and occasionally adjusted the unstable glasses that hid his watery eyes. “I don't want to carp,” he began. “The present system, I admit, stands condemned. Every present system always HAS stood condemned in the minds of intelligent men. But where it seems to me you get thin, is just where everybody has been thin, and that's when you come to the remedy.”
“Socialism,” said Chris Robinson, as if it answered everything, and Hatherleigh said “Hear! Hear!” very resolutely.
“I suppose I OUGHT to take that as an answer,” said Denson, getting his shoulder-blades well down to the seat of his chair; “but I don't. I don't, you know. It's rather a shame to cross-examine you after this fine address of yours”—Chris Robinson on the hearthrug made acquiescent and inviting noises—“but the real question remains how exactly are you going to end all these wrongs? There are the administrative questions. If you abolish the private owner, I admit you abolish a very complex and clumsy way of getting businesses run, land controlled and things in general administered, but you don't get rid of the need of administration, you know.”
“Democracy,” said Chris Robinson.
“Organised somehow,” said Denson. “And it's just the How perplexes me. I can quite easily imagine a socialist state administered in a sort of scrambling tumult that would be worse than anything we have got now.
“Nothing could be worse than things are now,” said Chris Robinson. “I have seen little children—”
“I submit life on an ill-provisioned raft, for example, could easily be worse—or life in a beleagured town.”
They wrangled for some time, and it had the effect upon me of coming out from the glow of a good matinee performance into the cold daylight of late afternoon. Chris Robinson did not shine in conflict with Denson; he was an orator and not a dialectician, and he missed Denson's points and displayed a disposition to plunge into untimely pathos and indignation. And Denson hit me curiously hard with one of his shafts. “Suppose,” he said, “you found yourself prime minister—”
I looked at Chris Robinson, bright-eyed and his hair a little ruffled and his whole being rhetorical, and measured him against the huge machine of government muddled and mysterious. Oh! but I was perplexed!
And then we took him back to Hatherleigh's rooms and drank beer and smoked about him while he nursed his knee with hairy wristed hands that protruded from his flannel shirt, and drank lemonade under the cartoon of that emancipated Worker, and we had a great discursive talk with him.
“Eh! you should see our big meetings up north?” he said.
Denson had ruffled him and worried him a good deal, and ever and again he came back to that discussion. “It's all very easy for your learned men to sit and pick holes,” he said, “while the children suffer and die. They don't pick holes up north. They mean business.”
He talked, and that was the most interesting part of it all, of his going to work in a factory when he was twelve—“when you Chaps were all with your mammies “—and how he had educated himself of nights until he would fall asleep at his reading.
“It's made many of us keen for all our lives,” he remarked, “all that clemming for education. Why! I longed all through one winter to read a bit of Darwin. I must know about this Darwin if I die for it, I said. And I could no' get the book.”
Hatherleigh made an enthusiastic noise and drank beer at him with round eyes over the mug.
“Well, anyhow I wasted no time on Greek and Latin,” said Chris Robinson. “And one learns to go straight at a thing without splitting straws. One gets hold of the Elementals.”
(Well, did they? That was the gist of my perplexity.)
“One doesn't quibble,” he said, returning to his rankling memory of Denson, “while men decay and starve.”
“But suppose,” I said, suddenly dropping into opposition, “the alternative is to risk a worse disaster—or do something patently futile.”
“I don't follow that,” said Chris Robinson. “We don't propose anything futile, so far as I can see.”
The prevailing force in my undergraduate days was not Socialism but Kiplingism. Our set was quite exceptional in its socialistic professions. And we were all, you must understand, very distinctly Imperialists also, and professed a vivid sense of the “White Man's Burden.”
It is a little difficult now to get back to the feelings of that period; Kipling has since been so mercilessly and exhaustively mocked, criticised and torn to shreds;—never was a man so violently exalted and then, himself assisting, so relentlessly called down. But in the middle nineties this spectacled and moustached little figure with its heavy chin and its general effect of vehement gesticulation, its wild shouts of boyish enthusiasm for effective force, its lyric delight in the sounds and colours, in the very odours of empire, its wonderful discovery of machinery and cotton waste and the under officer and the engineer, and “shop” as a poetic dialect, became almost a national symbol. He got hold of us wonderfully, he filled us with tinkling and haunting quotations, he stirred Britten and myself to futile imitations, he coloured the very idiom of our conversation. He rose to his climax with his “Recessional,” while I was still an undergraduate.
What did he give me exactly?
He helped to broaden my geographical sense immensely, and he provided phrases for just that desire for discipline and devotion and organised effort the Socialism of our time failed to express, that the current socialist movement still fails, I think, to express. The sort of thing that follows, for example, tore something out of my inmost nature and gave it a shape, and I took it back from him shaped and let much of the rest of him, the tumult and the bullying, the hysteria and the impatience, the incoherence and inconsistency, go uncriticised for the sake of it:—