As a result of this nice adjustment, the Don, Benno, and Billy King were in a corresponding condition of exaltation and noble pride. Their admiration for each other was only exceeded by the appreciation each had of his own splendid qualities as a man and a brother, a public-spirited citizen, a friend of virtue, and a heroic champion of the poor and downtrodden.
The conversation had taken a philosophical turn; it bore gravely on the shocking inequalities fostered by the existing social system, the increasing tyranny of the rich, the sweat and agony of the toiling masses. There were moments when the little clerk felt strongly impelled to go out and kill a plutocrat in the interests of the working man. He had mentioned it more than once.
Nicholas Don set down his pewter where the counter should have been, but wasn’t, and gazed at Benno with brimming eyes. He embraced him. “I’m ver’ fon’ iv you, Benno,” he said. “You’re splennid fel’r. Man iv me own ’eart Brave’s er lion. Tr-ue’s steel. What I like in you, Dickson, is there’s no beas’ly pride ’bout you—n’ you’re brave!”
Benno was much moved. He seized the Don’s hand, and wrung it with silent fervour. It was a touching scene. Billy King, from under whose hat tiny drops of perspiration were oozing, surveyed it with symptoms of profound emotion.
“Yes y’ are,” said Nicholas, defiantly “ye’re brave. You stan’ up fer the suf’rin’ masses, same’s me”.
“Me too,” said Billy King. He was very pale, but determined. “Le’s do ’r die,” he said.
Nicholas Don embraced Billy with the other arm. He regarded him with tender pride. “’Ere, ’ere!” he said. “We’ll stan’ t’gether. ’S time somethin’ was put down. There’s too much unnecessary suf’rin’ poor in th’ worl’. The rich is gettin’ richer, ’n’ the poor’s gettin’ poorer! Look et th’ widder ’n’ th’ orphan,” he cried. “Look et th’ widder ’n’ th’ orphan!” he repeated still more vehemently.
Benno burst into tears. There was silence for a few moments. The other two regarded ‘our Mr. Dickson’ in puzzled melancholy. They were struggling to recall the circumstances.
“Widder ’n’ orphan,” said Billy King, prompting, but his brilliant mind refused to connect Benno’s tears with the argument.
The two fell on Dickson, they smothered him with sympathy. Billy King wiped his eye. The Don patted him on the back, and murmured soothingly. “Buck up, ol’ man,” he said. “Buck up. Never say die while yeh got strong ’eart ’n’ stout ’ead.”
It appeared that Mr. Dickson was crying over the widow and the orphan in a general sort of way. He thought he once knew a widow and orphan somewhere. He could not recollect where. He thought she was pale and beautiful with a look of heavenly resignation, but he was not sure. However, his grief was not for any individual case; it was for widows and orphans as a class. He wept on principle.
Benno’s friends did not despise his tears; they respected him for them.
“Shows ten’er, symp’thetic nature,” said Nicholas. “’Aver drink?”
The Don looked narrowly at the two pewters on the counter. His own was on the floor. He counted the pots, and a worried calculation fled across his mind.
“Where’s ol’ Billy gone?” he said. He counted the pewters again. Billy was still absent, so he drank Billy’s beer.
They had another, and the conversation developed greater fervour. It became evident that the democracy must awake and arise. In the absence of a general awakening and arising the three were prepared to awake and arise entirely on their own responsibility.
“There’s their wireless telegraphy ’n’ their preferential votin’,” said the Don, argumentatively; “what good ’re they t’ the workin’ man? What we want’s ’quality iv opporchewnity. ’Quality iv opporchewnity,” he repeated.
“Yesh,” said Benno, “quali vopertunity.”
“’N’ liberty iv the subjec’,” said Billy King. “’Ow ’ave they bin treatin’ Hemming? What price a free country where they pinch a pore man fer speakin’ his mind?”
“Tha’s right,” said the Don, sagaciously; “tha’s right. It’s hinfringement iv the rights iv free speech.”
“Somethin’ ’ll ’ave t’ be done!” Benno was quite positive about it. He saw the country sliding to ruin. Immediate action was called for. “’N’ it’s up to us t’ do it,” he said. “Hemming’s a frien’ iv the str-ugglin’ masses Damn it, he’s frien’ o’mine!”
Hemming had been arrested that morning for inflammatory language in the course of a Yarrabank oration dealing with constituted authorities, conventional religions, and great persons, and was then languishing in a prison cell. Billy’s reminder gave point and purpose to the fine emotions of the brothers in beer. Their aspirations took form. Here was an object, a mission.
“It’s outragis,” said Nicholas Don. “Hemmin’s a decent bloke. He hasn’t done nobody any ’arm; ’n’ jist because he’s speakin’ up fer suf’rin’ humanity the Johns runs him in. This ’as gotter be put a stop to.” He hit the counter with his pint. “This ’as gotter be put a stop to!” he said decisively, addressing the barmaid. “Don’ care hang washer say.”
“Righto,” cried the little clerk. “It’s up t’ us t’ use our influence.”
“We’ll see someone ’bout it,” said Billy King, vaguely.
Determination was stamped upon their brows. Enthusiasm was in their hearts. Their souls were suffused with a righteous scorn for the oppressor and a hatred of wrong-doing. They had another drink.
“Now we’ll go t’ get that man out,” said the Don.
“Yesh, now we’ll gettimout ’r perish in attempt,” said Kingie.
“Liberty ’r death!” cried Benno.
They shook hands on it, and marched resolutely into the street.
The three patriots did not merely hail a tram, they commandeered one. They were public-spirited men with a great purpose. Already their quest had assumed the dignity of a popular rising. They did not stop the tram with insolence or hauteur, but there was a terrible impressiveness about their joint behest that might have stopped a universe. The whole tram system trembled and obeyed.
Benno explained to the conductor that they were bound for the city to secure the immediate release from durance vile of good Comrade Hemming. It was understood that in these circumstances the tram would be rushed straight through, and when presently it stopped to pick up passengers the public benefactors were hurt and indignant. It seemed to them that the conductor was showing a lamentable lack of enthusiasm in a great cause. Benno threatened to report him. He promised to hold the tramway system up to popular odium. He expressed the belief that that system was no friend of the working man.
When the three reached the city their grand purpose was still uppermost in their minds. They knew perfectly well what they were going to do. They were about to visit the powers, and by the exercise of their own enormous personal influence and their great perspicacity induce them to throw open the gaol doors to the martyred Hemming.
In the event of a failure of the methods, which however, was not likely, Nicholas Don was prepared to remind the Premier that their force of character alone was preventing a terrible rising, and that what restraint they exerted over an outraged and furious populace would be withdrawn at once if the just request of the democracy were not instantly complied with.
They met Fuzzy Ellis. Fuzzy was leading four little nephews and nieces. He did not seem overjoyed to see them. They backed him against the Town Hall and explained their mission to him. They explained it at great length. Fuzzy tried to get away, but they held him to the wall, saying that he must not detain them, as it was absolutely necessary that they should go at once and bring the Chief Justice to release Comrade Hemming.
Fuzzy Ellis was painfully propitiatory. He sympathised with everything. He agreed with everybody. His little nephews and nieces clung to his legs, and Benno and Nicholas and Billy King enlarged on the infamy of which constituted authority had been guilty in incarcerating that noble soul, Comrade Hemming. Finally they got very angry with Fuzzy for detaining them, knowing the importance and urgency of their mission, and Benno dismissed him with scorn and contempt.
“It’s no use yer talkin’, our min’s made up,” said the clerk. “We’ll ’ave ’im out ’r perish the ’tempt. What good ’re you t’ th’ workin’ man? You’re hireling iv the rich. Stan’ ’side! Stan’ ’side, I say!”
They passed on. The Don suggested that their next course was to have a drink. No doubt that was the proper procedure. There was not a dissentient voice. Don knew a pub.
In another dark, secluded bar they told the vague, furtive barmaid their splendid intention. They swore her to secrecy; and then, having looked up the address of the Prime Minister in a directory, they went forth again, firm in their purpose.
Billy King was ‘on the door’ at another pub, and after that they took tram to a northern suburb to visit a hotel where the Don was known and respected.
All this time their zeal in the interests of the people’s champion, Comrade Hemming, burned white hot. Through many dim, confused excursions, it remained with them. There was a project to rouse the people, and lead an armed insurrection to tear down the gaol. There was a passionate interview with a fat man in a motor car—a fat man whom the three patriots insisted was the Premier, and whom they afterwards wanted to fight for trying to impose himself upon them as the Premier.
The three reformers spent half-an-hour knocking up the Premier at a large city wool store; and Benno was publicly kicked by the watchman before he would desist. Later, a policeman drove them from the steps of Parliament House, where the Don was making a passionate speech to some lampposts, while his satellites slept at his feet.
At a quarter past eleven o’clock three splendid, public-spirited electors passed out over Prince’s Bridge, and along the St. Kilda-road in the soft and kindly light of the full moon. They were no longer eloquent. Their gait was eccentric; their minds were clouded. Still, they were true to their trust. The demands of a sublime duty drove them forward. A man tried to bar their way at the big gates. He seemed to have a gun. His behaviour was most extraordinary. The Don explained to him that there was not a moment to lose.
“Life ’n’ libity!” cried Benno.
“Nothin’ turn us ’side,” said Billy King. “Victim-iv-br-utal-tyranny-languishin’-prison.”
The man with the gun was obdurate, and the Don did something to him. The three heroes passed over that man’s body, and on to the residence of the Governor-General to accomplish their object.
“Pity we f’got t’ bring brass band,” said the Don.
Wild telephones summoned the police in numbers, and when they arrived they found three young men besieging Government House. One was hauling at the bell, another knocked at a window, the third was delivering a stirring oration from his seat on the door mat. The subsequent remarks of the young men conveyed the idea that they wanted the Governor-General’s assistance in striking for freedom. They thought His Excellency would get up and do justice to a wronged man if they were admitted to his bedside to put the matter to him in its true light.
When Benno awoke on Monday morning it was with a horrible sense of suffering and calamity. His bones were full of aches. His head was as heavy as a pig of lead. His mouth was littered with Dead Sea fruit, and a burning thirst consumed his vitals. He groaned, he blinked, he stirred on his bed of tumbled bricks. Then he uttered a cry of apprehension, and sat up. Wildly he shook his companions from their sleep, wildly they looked upon the four walls and the wretched furnishing.
“Jimmy Jee, we’re pinched!” The wail came from the lips of Billy King. It was terribly true—they were in a cell. There was a fourth man in the drear compartment. He sat on a bunk, and gazed at them with contempt. “It’s a damnable thing that a decent man should have to spend a night with a herd of stale drunks like you,” he said disgustedly. The fourth man was Comrade Hemming!