I took the train three days later from King’s Cross to Edinburgh. I went to the Pentland Hotel in Princes Street and left there a suit-case containing some clean linen and a change of clothes. I had been thinking the thing out, and had come to the conclusion that I must have a base somewhere and a fresh outfit. Then in well-worn tweeds and with no more luggage than a small trench kit-bag, I descended upon the city of Glasgow.
I walked from the station to the address which Blenkiron had given me. It was a hot summer evening, and the streets were filled with bareheaded women and weary-looking artisans. As I made my way down the Dumbarton Road I was amazed at the number of able-bodied fellows about, considering that you couldn’t stir a mile on any British front without bumping up against a Glasgow battalion. Then I realized that there were such things as munitions and ships, and I wondered no more.
A stout and dishevelled lady at a close-mouth directed me to Mr Amos’s dwelling. ‘Twa stairs up. Andra will be in noo, havin’ his tea. He’s no yin for overtime. He’s generally hame on the chap of six.’ I ascended the stairs with a sinking heart, for like all South Africans I have a horror of dirt. The place was pretty filthy, but at each landing there were two doors with well-polished handles and brass plates. On one I read the name of Andrew Amos.
A man in his shirt-sleeves opened to me, a little man, without a collar, and with an unbuttoned waistcoat. That was all I saw of him in the dim light, but he held out a paw like a gorilla’s and drew me in.
The sitting-room, which looked over many chimneys to a pale yellow sky against which two factory stalks stood out sharply, gave me light enough to observe him fully. He was about five feet four, broad-shouldered, and with a great towsy head of grizzled hair. He wore spectacles, and his face was like some old-fashioned Scots minister’s, for he had heavy eyebrows and whiskers which joined each other under his jaw, while his chin and enormous upper lip were clean-shaven. His eyes were steely grey and very solemn, but full of smouldering energy. His voice was enormous and would have shaken the walls if he had not had the habit of speaking with half-closed lips. He had not a sound tooth in his head.
A saucer full of tea and a plate which had once contained ham and eggs were on the table. He nodded towards them and asked me if I had fed.
‘Ye’ll no eat onything? Well, some would offer ye a dram, but this house is staunch teetotal. I door ye’ll have to try the nearest public if ye’re thirsty.’
I disclaimed any bodily wants, and produced my pipe, at which he started to fill an old clay. ‘Mr Brand’s your name?’ he asked in his gusty voice. ‘I was expectin’ ye, but Dod! man ye’re late!’
He extricated from his trousers pocket an ancient silver watch, and regarded it with disfavour. ‘The dashed thing has stoppit. What do ye make the time, Mr Brand?’
He proceeded to prise open the lid of his watch with the knife he had used to cut his tobacco, and, as he examined the works, he turned the back of the case towards me. On the inside I saw pasted Mary Lamington’s purple-and-white wafer.
I held my watch so that he could see the same token. His keen eyes, raised for a second, noted it, and he shut his own with a snap and returned it to his pocket. His manner lost its wariness and became almost genial.
‘Ye’ve come up to see Glasgow, Mr Brand? Well, it’s a steerin’ bit, and there’s honest folk bides in it, and some not so honest. They tell me ye’re from South Africa. That’s a long gait away, but I ken something aboot South Africa, for I had a cousin’s son oot there for his lungs. He was in a shop in Main Street, Bloomfountain. They called him Peter Dobson. Ye would maybe mind of him.’
Then he discoursed of the Clyde. He was an incomer, he told me, from the Borders, his native place being the town of Galashiels, or, as he called it, ‘Gawly’. ‘I began as a powerloom tuner in Stavert’s mill. Then my father dee’d and I took up his trade of jiner. But it’s no world nowadays for the sma’ independent business, so I cam to the Clyde and learned a shipwright’s job. I may say I’ve become a leader in the trade, for though I’m no an official of the Union, and not likely to be, there’s no man’s word carries more weight than mine. And the Goavernment kens that, for they’ve sent me on commissions up and down the land to look at wuds and report on the nature of the timber. Bribery, they think it is, but Andrew Amos is not to be bribit. He’ll have his say about any Goavernment on earth, and tell them to their face what he thinks of them. Ay, and he’ll fight the case of the workingman against his oppressor, should it be the Goavernment or the fatted calves they ca’ Labour Members. Ye’ll have heard tell o’ the shop stewards, Mr Brand?’
I admitted I had, for I had been well coached by Blenkiron in the current history of industrial disputes.
‘Well, I’m a shop steward. We represent the rank and file against office-bearers that have lost the confidence o’ the workingman. But I’m no socialist, and I would have ye keep mind of that. I’m yin o’ the old Border radicals, and I’m not like to change. I’m for individual liberty and equal rights and chances for all men. I’ll no more bow down before a Dagon of a Goavernment official than before the Baal of a feckless Tweedside laird. I’ve to keep my views to mysel’, for thae young lads are all drucken-daft with their wee books about Cawpital and Collectivism and a wheen long senseless words I wouldna fyle my tongue with. Them and their socialism! There’s more gumption in a page of John Stuart Mill than in all that foreign trash. But, as I say, I’ve got to keep a quiet sough, for the world is gettin’ socialism now like the measles. It all comes of a defective eddication.’
‘And what does a Border radical say about the war?’ I asked.
He took off his spectacles and cocked his shaggy brows at me. ‘I’ll tell ye, Mr Brand. All that was bad in all that I’ve ever wrestled with since I cam to years o’ discretion — Tories and lairds and manufacturers and publicans and the Auld Kirk — all that was bad, I say, for there were orra bits of decency, ye’ll find in the Germans full measure pressed down and running over. When the war started, I considered the subject calmly for three days, and then I said: “Andra Amos, ye’ve found the enemy at last. The ones ye fought before were in a manner o’ speakin’ just misguided friends. It’s either you or the Kaiser this time, my man!”’
His eyes had lost their gravity and had taken on a sombre ferocity. ‘Ay, and I’ve not wavered. I got a word early in the business as to the way I could serve my country best. It’s not been an easy job, and there’s plenty of honest folk the day will give me a bad name. They think I’m stirrin’ up the men at home and desertin’ the cause o’ the lads at the front. Man, I’m keepin’ them straight. If I didna fight their battles on a sound economic isshue, they would take the dorts and be at the mercy of the first blagyird that preached revolution. Me and my like are safety-valves, if ye follow me. And dinna you make ony mistake, Mr Brand. The men that are agitating for a rise in wages are not for peace. They’re fighting for the lads overseas as much as for themselves. There’s not yin in a thousand that wouldna sweat himself blind to beat the Germans. The Goavernment has made mistakes, and maun be made to pay for them. If it were not so, the men would feel like a moose in a trap, for they would have no way to make their grievance felt. What for should the big man double his profits and the small man be ill set to get his ham and egg on Sabbath mornin’? That’s the meaning o’ Labour unrest, as they call it, and it’s a good thing, says I, for if Labour didna get its leg over the traces now and then, the spunk o’ the land would be dead in it, and Hindenburg could squeeze it like a rotten aipple.’
I asked if he spoke for the bulk of the men.
‘For ninety per cent in ony ballot. I don’t say that there’s not plenty of riff-raff — the pint-and-a-dram gentry and the soft-heads that are aye reading bits of newspapers, and muddlin’ their wits with foreign whigmaleeries. But the average man on the Clyde, like the average man in ither places, hates just three things, and that’s the Germans, the profiteers, as they call them, and the Irish. But he hates the Germans first.’
‘The Irish!’ I exclaimed in astonishment.
‘Ay, the Irish,’ cried the last of the old Border radicals. ‘Glasgow’s stinkin’ nowadays with two things, money and Irish. I mind the day when I followed Mr Gladstone’s Home Rule policy, and used to threep about the noble, generous, warm-hearted sister nation held in a foreign bondage. My Goad! I’m not speakin’ about Ulster, which is a dour, ill-natured den, but our own folk all the same. But the men that will not do a hand’s turn to help the war and take the chance of our necessities to set up a bawbee rebellion are hateful to Goad and man. We treated them like pet lambs and that’s the thanks we get. They’re coming over here in thousands to tak the jobs of the lads that are doing their duty. I was speakin’ last week to a widow woman that keeps a wee dairy down the Dalmarnock Road. She has two sons, and both in the airmy, one in the Cameronians and one a prisoner in Germany. She was telling me that she could not keep goin’ any more, lacking the help of the boys, though she had worked her fingers to the bone. “Surely it’s a crool job, Mr Amos,” she says, “that the Goavernment should tak baith my laddies, and I’ll maybe never see them again, and let the Irish gang free and tak the bread frae our mouth. At the gasworks across the road they took on a hundred Irish last week, and every yin o’ them as young and well set up as you would ask to see. And my wee Davie, him that’s in Germany, had aye a weak chest, and Jimmy was troubled wi’ a bowel complaint. That’s surely no justice!”. . . . ’
He broke off and lit a match by drawing it across the seat of his trousers. ‘It’s time I got the gas lichtit. There’s some men coming here at half-ten.’
As the gas squealed and flickered in the lighting, he sketched for me the coming guests. ‘There’s Macnab and Niven, two o’ my colleagues. And there’s Gilkison of the Boiler-fitters, and a lad Wilkie — he’s got consumption, and writes wee bits in the papers. And there’s a queer chap o’ the name o’ Tombs — they tell me he comes frae Cambridge, and is a kind of a professor there — anyway he’s more stuffed wi’ havers than an egg wi’ meat. He telled me he was here to get at the heart o’ the workingman, and I said to him that he would hae to look a bit further than the sleeve o’ the workin’-man’s jaicket. There’s no muckle in his head, poor soul. Then there’ll be Tam Norie, him that edits our weekly paper —Justice for All. Tam’s a humorist and great on Robert Burns, but he hasna the balance o’ a dwinin’ teetotum . . . Ye’ll understand, Mr Brand, that I keep my mouth shut in such company, and don’t express my own views more than is absolutely necessary. I criticize whiles, and that gives me a name of whunstane common-sense, but I never let my tongue wag. The feck o’ the lads comin’ the night are not the real workingman — they’re just the froth on the pot, but it’s the froth that will be useful to you. Remember they’ve heard tell o’ ye already, and ye’ve some sort o’ reputation to keep up.’
‘Will Mr Abel Gresson be here?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not yet. Him and me havena yet got to the point o’ payin’ visits. But the men that come will be Gresson’s friends and they’ll speak of ye to him. It’s the best kind of introduction ye could seek.’
The knocker sounded, and Mr Amos hastened to admit the first comers. These were Macnab and Wilkie: the one a decent middle-aged man with a fresh-washed face and a celluloid collar, the other a round-shouldered youth, with lank hair and the large eyes and luminous skin which are the marks of phthisis. ‘This is Mr Brand boys, from South Africa,’ was Amos’s presentation. Presently came Niven, a bearded giant, and Mr Norie, the editor, a fat dirty fellow smoking a rank cigar. Gilkison of the Boiler-fitters, when he arrived, proved to be a pleasant young man in spectacles who spoke with an educated voice and clearly belonged to a slightly different social scale. Last came Tombs, the Cambridge ‘professor, a lean youth with a sour mouth and eyes that reminded me of Launcelot Wake.
‘Ye’ll no be a mawgnate, Mr Brand, though ye come from South Africa,’ said Mr Norie with a great guffaw.
‘Not me. I’m a working engineer,’ I said. ‘My father was from Scotland, and this is my first visit to my native country, as my friend Mr Amos was telling you.’
The consumptive looked at me suspiciously. ‘We’ve got two — three of the comrades here that the cawpitalist Government expelled from the Transvaal. If ye’re our way of thinking, ye will maybe ken them.’
I said I would be overjoyed to meet them, but that at the time of the outrage in question I had been working on a mine a thousand miles further north.
Then ensued an hour of extraordinary talk. Tombs in his sing-song namby-pamby University voice was concerned to get information. He asked endless questions, chiefly of Gilkison, who was the only one who really understood his language. I thought I had never seen anyone quite so fluent and so futile, and yet there was a kind of feeble violence in him like a demented sheep. He was engaged in venting some private academic spite against society, and I thought that in a revolution he would be the class of lad I would personally conduct to the nearest lamp-post. And all the while Amos and Macnab and Niven carried on their own conversation about the affairs of their society, wholly impervious to the tornado raging around them.
It was Mr Norie, the editor, who brought me into the discussion.
‘Our South African friend is very blate,’ he said in his boisterous way. ‘Andra, if this place of yours wasn’t so damned teetotal and we had a dram apiece, we might get his tongue loosened. I want to hear what he’s got to say about the war. You told me this morning he was sound in the faith.’
‘I said no such thing,’ said Mr Amos. ‘As ye ken well, Tam Norie, I don’t judge soundness on that matter as you judge it. I’m for the war myself, subject to certain conditions that I’ve often stated. I know nothing of Mr Brand’s opinions, except that he’s a good democrat, which is more than I can say of some o’ your friends.’
‘Hear to Andra,’ laughed Mr Norie. ‘He’s thinkin’ the inspector in the Socialist State would be a waur kind of awristocrat then the Duke of Buccleuch. Weel, there’s maybe something in that. But about the war he’s wrong. Ye ken my views, boys. This war was made by the cawpitalists, and it has been fought by the workers, and it’s the workers that maun have the ending of it. That day’s comin’ very near. There are those that want to spin it out till Labour is that weak it can be pit in chains for the rest o’ time. That’s the manoeuvre we’re out to prevent. We’ve got to beat the Germans, but it’s the workers that has the right to judge when the enemy’s beaten and not the cawpitalists. What do you say, Mr Brand?’
Mr Norie had obviously pinned his colours to the fence, but he gave me the chance I had been looking for. I let them have my views with a vengeance, and these views were that for the sake of democracy the war must be ended. I flatter myself I put my case well, for I had got up every rotten argument and I borrowed largely from Launcelot Wake’s armoury. But I didn’t put it too well, for I had a very exact notion of the impression I wanted to produce. I must seem to be honest and in earnest, just a bit of a fanatic, but principally a hard-headed businessman who knew when the time had come to make a deal. Tombs kept interrupting me with imbecile questions, and I had to sit on him. At the end Mr Norie hammered with his pipe on the table.
‘That’ll sort ye, Andra. Ye’re entertain’ an angel unawares. What do ye say to that, my man?’
Mr Amos shook his head. ‘I’ll no deny there’s something in it, but I’m not convinced that the Germans have got enough of a wheepin’.’ Macnab agreed with him; the others were with me. Norie was for getting me to write an article for his paper, and the consumptive wanted me to address a meeting.
‘Wull ye say a’ that over again the morn’s night down at our hall in Newmilns Street? We’ve got a lodge meeting o’ the I.W.B., and I’ll make them pit ye in the programme.’ He kept his luminous eyes, like a sick dog’s, fixed on me, and I saw that I had made one ally. I told him I had come to Glasgow to learn and not to teach, but I would miss no chance of testifying to my faith.
‘Now, boys, I’m for my bed,’ said Amos, shaking the dottle from his pipe. ‘Mr Tombs, I’ll conduct ye the morn over the Brigend works, but I’ve had enough clavers for one evening. I’m a man that wants his eight hours’ sleep.’
The old fellow saw them to the door, and came back to me with the ghost of a grin in his face.
‘A queer crowd, Mr Brand! Macnab didna like what ye said. He had a laddie killed in Gallypoly, and he’s no lookin’ for peace this side the grave. He’s my best friend in Glasgow. He’s an elder in the Gaelic kirk in the Cowcaddens, and I’m what ye call a free-thinker, but we’re wonderful agreed on the fundamentals. Ye spoke your bit verra well, I must admit. Gresson will hear tell of ye as a promising recruit.’
‘It’s a rotten job,’ I said.
‘Ay, it’s a rotten job. I often feel like vomiting over it mysel’. But it’s no for us to complain. There’s waur jobs oot in France for better men . . . A word in your ear, Mr Brand. Could ye not look a bit more sheepish? Ye stare folk ower straight in the een, like a Hieland sergeant-major up at Maryhill Barracks.’ And he winked slowly and grotesquely with his left eye.
He marched to a cupboard and produced a black bottle and glass. ‘I’m blue-ribbon myself, but ye’ll be the better of something to tak the taste out of your mouth. There’s Loch Katrine water at the pipe there . . . As I was saying, there’s not much ill in that lot. Tombs is a black offence, but a dominie’s a dominie all the world over. They may crack about their Industrial Workers and the braw things they’re going to do, but there’s a wholesome dampness about the tinder on Clydeside. They should try Ireland.’
Supposing,’ I said, ‘there was a really clever man who wanted to help the enemy. You think he could do little good by stirring up trouble in the shops here?’
‘And if he were a shrewd fellow, he’d soon tumble to that?’
‘Then if he still stayed on here he would be after bigger game — something really dangerous and damnable?’
Amos drew down his brows and looked me in the face. ‘I see what ye’re ettlin’ at. Ay! That would be my conclusion. I came to it weeks syne about the man ye’ll maybe meet the morn’s night.’
Then from below the bed he pulled a box from which he drew a handsome flute. ‘Ye’ll forgive me, Mr Brand, but I aye like a tune before I go to my bed. Macnab says his prayers, and I have a tune on the flute, and the principle is just the same.’
So that singular evening closed with music — very sweet and true renderings of old Border melodies like ‘My Peggy is a young thing’, and ‘When the kye come hame’. I fell asleep with a vision of Amos, his face all puckered up at the mouth and a wandering sentiment in his eye, recapturing in his dingy world the emotions of a boy.
The widow-woman from next door, who acted as house-keeper, cook, and general factotum to the establishment, brought me shaving water next morning, but I had to go without a bath. When I entered the kitchen I found no one there, but while I consumed the inevitable ham and egg, Amos arrived back for breakfast. He brought with him the morning’s paper.
‘The Herald says there’s been a big battle at Eepers,’ he announced.
I tore open the sheet and read of the great attack of 31 July which was spoiled by the weather. ‘My God!’ I cried. ‘They’ve got St Julien and that dirty Frezenberg ridge . . . and Hooge . . . and Sanctuary Wood. I know every inch of the damned place. . . . ’
‘Mr Brand,’ said a warning voice, ‘that’ll never do. If our friends last night heard ye talk like that ye might as well tak the train back to London . . . They’re speakin’ about ye in the yards this morning. ye’ll get a good turnout at your meeting the night, but they’re Sayin’ that the polis will interfere. That mightna be a bad thing, but I trust ye to show discretion, for ye’ll not be muckle use to onybody if they jyle ye in Duke Street. I hear Gresson will be there with a fraternal message from his lunatics in America . . . I’ve arranged that ye go down to Tam Norie this afternoon and give him a hand with his bit paper. Tam will tell ye the whole clash o’ the West country, and I look to ye to keep him off the drink. He’s aye arguin’ that writin’ and drinkin’ gang thegither, and quotin’ Robert Burns, but the creature has a wife and five bairns dependin’ on him.’
I spent a fantastic day. For two hours I sat in Norie’s dirty den, while he smoked and orated, and, when he remembered his business, took down in shorthand my impressions of the Labour situation in South Africa for his rag. They were fine breezy impressions, based on the most whole-hearted ignorance, and if they ever reached the Rand I wonder what my friends there made of Cornelius Brand, their author. I stood him dinner in an indifferent eating-house in a street off the Broomielaw, and thereafter had a drink with him in a public-house, and was introduced to some of his less reputable friends.
About tea-time I went back to Amos’s lodgings, and spent an hour or so writing a long letter to Mr Ivery. I described to him everybody I had met, I gave highly coloured views of the explosive material on the Clyde, and I deplored the lack of clearheadedness in the progressive forces. I drew an elaborate picture of Amos, and deduced from it that the Radicals were likely to be a bar to true progress. ‘They have switched their old militancy,’ I wrote, ‘on to another track, for with them it is a matter of conscience to be always militant.’ I finished up with some very crude remarks on economics culled from the table-talk of the egregious Tombs. It was the kind of letter which I hoped would establish my character in his mind as an industrious innocent.
Seven o’clock found me in Newmilns Street, where I was seized upon by Wilkie. He had put on a clean collar for the occasion and had partially washed his thin face. The poor fellow had a cough that shook him like the walls of a power-house when the dynamos are going.
He was very apologetic about Amos. ‘Andra belongs to a past worrld,’ he said. ‘He has a big reputation in his society, and he’s a fine fighter, but he has no kind of Vision, if ye understand me. He’s an auld Gladstonian, and that’s done and damned in Scotland. He’s not a Modern, Mr Brand, like you and me. But tonight ye’ll meet one or two chaps that’ll be worth your while to ken. Ye’ll maybe no go quite as far as them, but ye’re on the same road. I’m hoping for the day when we’ll have oor Councils of Workmen and Soldiers like the Russians all over the land and dictate our terms to the pawrasites in Pawrliament. They tell me, too, the boys in the trenches are comin’ round to our side.’
We entered the hall by a back door, and in a little waiting-room I was introduced to some of the speakers. They were a scratch lot as seen in that dingy place. The chairman was a shop-steward in one of the Societies, a fierce little rat of a man, who spoke with a cockney accent and addressed me as ‘Comrade’. But one of them roused my liveliest interest. I heard the name of Gresson, and turned to find a fellow of about thirty-five, rather sprucely dressed, with a flower in his buttonhole. ‘Mr Brand,’ he said, in a rich American voice which recalled Blenkiron’s. ‘Very pleased to meet you, sir. We have Come from remote parts of the globe to be present at this gathering.’ I noticed that he had reddish hair, and small bright eyes, and a nose with a droop like a Polish Jew’s.
As soon as we reached the platform I saw that there was going to be trouble. The hall was packed to the door, and in all the front half there was the kind of audience I expected to see — working-men of the political type who before the war would have thronged to party meetings. But not all the crowd at the back had come to listen. Some were scallawags, some looked like better-class clerks out for a spree, and there was a fair quantity of khaki. There were also one or two gentlemen not strictly sober.
The chairman began by putting his foot in it. He said we were there tonight to protest against the continuation of the war and to form a branch of the new British Council of Workmen and Soldiers. He told them with a fine mixture of metaphors that we had got to take the reins into our own hands, for the men who were running the war had their own axes to grind and were marching to oligarchy through the blood of the workers. He added that we had no quarrel with Germany half as bad as we had with our own capitalists. He looked forward to the day when British soldiers would leap from their trenches and extend the hand of friendship to their German comrades.
‘No me!’ said a solemn voice. ‘I’m not seekin’ a bullet in my wame,’— at which there was laughter and cat-calls.
Tombs followed and made a worse hash of it. He was determined to speak, as he would have put it, to democracy in its own language, so he said ‘hell’ several times, loudly but without conviction. Presently he slipped into the manner of the lecturer, and the audience grew restless. ‘I propose to ask myself a question —’ he began, and from the back of the hall came —‘And a damned sully answer ye’ll get.’ After that there was no more Tombs.
I followed with extreme nervousness, and to my surprise got a fair hearing. I felt as mean as a mangy dog on a cold morning, for I hated to talk rot before soldiers — especially before a couple of Royal Scots Fusiliers, who, for all I knew, might have been in my own brigade. My line was the plain, practical, patriotic man, just come from the colonies, who looked at things with fresh eyes, and called for a new deal. I was very moderate, but to justify my appearance there I had to put in a wild patch or two, and I got these by impassioned attacks on the Ministry of Munitions. I mixed up a little mild praise of the Germans, whom I said I had known all over the world for decent fellows. I received little applause, but no marked dissent, and sat down with deep thankfulness.
The next speaker put the lid on it. I believe he was a noted agitator, who had already been deported. Towards him there was no lukewarmness, for one half of the audience cheered wildly when he rose, and the other half hissed and groaned. He began with whirlwind abuse of the idle rich, then of the middle-classes (he called them the ‘rich man’s flunkeys’), and finally of the Government. All that was fairly well received, for it is the fashion of the Briton to run down every Government and yet to be very averse to parting from it. Then he started on the soldiers and slanged the officers (‘gentry pups’ was his name for them), and the generals, whom he accused of idleness, of cowardice, and of habitual intoxication. He told us that our own kith and kin were sacrificed in every battle by leaders who had not the guts to share their risks. The Scots Fusiliers looked perturbed, as if they were in doubt of his meaning. Then he put it more plainly. ‘Will any soldier deny that the men are the barrage to keep the officers’ skins whole?’
‘That’s a bloody lee,’ said one of the Fusilier jocks.
The man took no notice of the interruption, being carried away by the torrent of his own rhetoric, but he had not allowed for the persistence of the interrupter. The jock got slowly to his feet, and announced that he wanted satisfaction. ‘If ye open your dirty gab to blagyird honest men, I’ll come up on the platform and wring your neck.’
At that there was a fine old row, some crying out ‘Order’, some ‘Fair play’, and some applauding. A Canadian at the back of the hall started a song, and there was an ugly press forward. The hall seemed to be moving up from the back, and already men were standing in all the passages and right to the edge of the platform. I did not like the look in the eyes of these new-comers, and among the crowd I saw several who were obviously plain-clothes policemen.
The chairman whispered a word to the speaker, who continued when the noise had temporarily died down. He kept off the army and returned to the Government, and for a little sluiced out pure anarchism. But he got his foot in it again, for he pointed to the Sinn Feiners as examples of manly independence. At that, pandemonium broke loose, and he never had another look in. There were several fights going on in the hall between the public and courageous supporters of the orator.
Then Gresson advanced to the edge of the platform in a vain endeavour to retrieve the day. I must say he did it uncommonly well. He was clearly a practised speaker, and for a moment his appeal ‘Now, boys, let’s cool down a bit and talk sense,’ had an effect. But the mischief had been done, and the crowd was surging round the lonely redoubt where we sat. Besides, I could see that for all his clever talk the meeting did not like the look of him. He was as mild as a turtle dove, but they wouldn’t stand for it. A missile hurtled past my nose, and I saw a rotten cabbage envelop the baldish head of the ex-deportee. Someone reached out a long arm and grabbed a chair, and with it took the legs from Gresson. Then the lights suddenly went out, and we retreated in good order by the platform door with a yelling crowd at our heels.
It was here that the plain-clothes men came in handy. They held the door while the ex-deportee was smuggled out by some side entrance. That class of lad would soon cease to exist but for the protection of the law which he would abolish. The rest of us, having less to fear, were suffered to leak into Newmilns Street. I found myself next to Gresson, and took his arm. There was something hard in his coat pocket.
Unfortunately there was a big lamp at the point where we emerged, and there for our confusion were the Fusilier jocks. Both were strung to fighting pitch, and were determined to have someone’s blood. Of me they took no notice, but Gresson had spoken after their ire had been roused, and was marked out as a victim. With a howl of joy they rushed for him.
I felt his hand steal to his side-pocket. ‘Let that alone, you fool,’ I growled in his ear.
‘Sure, mister,’ he said, and the next second we were in the thick of it.
It was like so many street fights I have seen — an immense crowd which surged up around us, and yet left a clear ring. Gresson and I got against the wall on the side-walk, and faced the furious soldiery. My intention was to do as little as possible, but the first minute convinced me that my companion had no idea how to use his fists, and I was mortally afraid that he would get busy with the gun in his pocket. It was that fear that brought me into the scrap. The jocks were sportsmen every bit of them, and only one advanced to the combat. He hit Gresson a clip on the jaw with his left, and but for the wall would have laid him out. I saw in the lamplight the vicious gleam in the American’s eye and the twitch of his hand to his pocket. That decided me to interfere and I got in front of him.
This brought the second jock into the fray. He was a broad, thickset fellow, of the adorable bandy-legged stocky type that I had seen go through the Railway Triangle at Arras as though it were blotting-paper. He had some notion of fighting, too, and gave me a rough time, for I had to keep edging the other fellow off Gresson.
‘Go home, you fool,’ I shouted. ‘Let this gentleman alone. I don’t want to hurt you.’
The only answer was a hook-hit which I just managed to guard, followed by a mighty drive with his right which I dodged so that he barked his knuckles on the wall. I heard a yell of rage, and observed that Gresson seemed to have kicked his assailant on the shin. I began to long for the police.
Then there was that swaying of the crowd which betokens the approach of the forces of law and order. But they were too late to prevent trouble. In self-defence I had to take my jock seriously, and got in my blow when he had overreached himself and lost his balance. I never hit anyone so unwillingly in my life. He went over like a poled ox, and measured his length on the causeway.
I found myself explaining things politely to the constables. ‘These men objected to this gentleman’s speech at the meeting, and I had to interfere to protect him. No, no! I don’t want to charge anybody. It was all a misunderstanding.’ I helped the stricken jock to rise and offered him ten bob for consolation.
He looked at me sullenly and spat on the ground. ‘Keep your dirty money,’ he said. ‘I’ll be even with ye yet, my man — you and that red-headed scab. I’ll mind the looks of ye the next time I see ye.’
Gresson was wiping the blood from his cheek with a silk handkerchief. ‘I guess I’m in your debt, Mr Brand,’ he said. ‘You may bet I won’t forget it.’
I returned to an anxious Amos. He heard my story in silence and his only comment was —‘Well done the Fusiliers!’
‘It might have been worse, I’ll not deny,’ he went on. ‘Ye’ve established some kind of a claim upon Gresson, which may come in handy . . . Speaking about Gresson, I’ve news for ye. He’s sailing on Friday as purser in the Tobermory. The Tobermory’s a boat that wanders every month up the West Highlands as far as Stornoway. I’ve arranged for ye to take a trip on that boat, Mr Brand.’
I nodded. ‘How did you find out that?’ I asked.
‘It took me some finding,’ he said dryly, ‘but I’ve ways and means. Now I’ll not trouble ye with advice, for ye ken your job as well as me. But I’m going north myself the morn to look after some of the Ross-shire wuds, and I’ll be in the way of getting telegrams at the Kyle. Ye’ll keep that in mind. Keep in mind, too, that I’m a great reader of the Pilgrim’s Progress and that I’ve a cousin of the name of Ochterlony.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05