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AN ORATOR'S RIVAL.
The House was crowded, and every gallery full. Lady Eynesford and Eleanor Scaife, attended by Captain Heseltine, occupied their appointed seats; the members of the Legislative Council overflowed from their proper pen and mingled with humbler folk in the public galleries; reporters wrote furiously, and an endless line of boys bearing their slips came and went. The great hour had arrived: the battle-field was reached at last. Sir Robert Perry sat and smiled; Puttock played with the hair chain that wandered across his broad waistcoat; Coxon restlessly bit his nails; Norburn's face was pale with excitement, and he twisted his hands in his lap; the determined partisans cheered or groaned; the waverers looked important and felt unhappy; all eyes were steadily fixed on the Premier, and all ears intent on his words.
For the moment he had forgotten everything but the fight he was fighting. No thought of the wretched Benham, who lay dead, no thought of his daughter, who watched him as he spoke, no thought of Alicia Derosne, who stayed away that she might not see him, crossed his brain now, or turned his ideas from the task before him. It was no ordinary speech, and no ordinary occasion. He spoke only to five men out of all his audience--the rest were his, or were beyond the power of his charm; on those five important-looking, unhappy-feeling men he bent every effort of his will, and played every device of his mind and his tongue. Now and then he distantly threatened them, oftener he made as though to convince their cool judgment; again he would invoke the sentiment of old alliance in them, or stir their pity for the men whose cause he pleaded. Once he flashed out in bitter mockery at Coxon, then jested in mild irony at Puttock and his "rich man's revolution." Returning to his text, he minutely dissected his own measure, insisting on its promise, extenuating its fancied danger, claiming for it the merits of a courageous and well-conceived scheme. Through all the changes that he rang, he was heard with close attention, broken only by demonstrations of approval or of dissent. At last one of his periods extorted a cheer from a waverer. It acted on him as a spur to fresh exertions. He raised his voice till it filled the chamber, and began his last and most elaborate appeal.
Suddenly a change came over his hearers. The breathless silence of engrossed attention gave place to a subdued stir; whispers were heard here and there. Men were handing a newspaper about, accompanying its transfer with meaning looks. He was not surprised, for members made no scruple of reading their papers or writing their letters in the House, but he was vexed to see that he had not gripped them closer. He went on, but that ever-circulating paper had half his attention now. He noticed Kilshaw come in with it and press it on Sir Robert's notice. Sir Robert at first refused, but when Kilshaw urged, he read and glanced up at him, so Medland thought, with a look of sadness. Coxon had got a paper now, and left biting his nails to pore over it; he passed it to Puttock, and the fat man bulged his cheeks in seeming wonder. Even his waverer, the one who had cheered, was deep in it. Only Norburn was unconscious of it. And, when they had read, they all looked at him again, not as they had looked before, but, it seemed to him, with a curious wonder, half mocking, half pitying, as one looks at a man who does not know the thing that touches him most nearly. He glanced up at the galleries: there too was the ubiquitous sheet; the Chief Justice and the President of the Legislative Council were cheek by jowl over it, and it fell lightly from Lady Eynesford's slim fingers, to be caught at eagerly by Eleanor Scaife.
"What is it?" he whispered impatiently to Norburn; but his absorbed disciple only bewilderedly murmured "What?" and the Premier could not pause to tell him.
Now followed what Sir Robert maintained was the greatest feat of oratory he had ever witnessed. Gathering his wandering wits together, Medland plunged again whole-heartedly into his speech, and slowly, gradually, almost, it seemed, step by step and man by man, he won back the thoughts of his audience. He wrestled with that strange paper rival and overthrew it. Man after man dropped it; its course was stayed; it fell underfoot or fluttered idly down the gangways. The nods ceased, the whispers were hushed, the stir fell and rose no more. Once again he had them, and, inspired by that knowledge, the surest spur of eloquence, there rang from his lips the last burning words, the picture of the vision that ruled his life, the hope for the days that he might not see.
"Believe!" he cried, in passionate entreaty, "believe, and your sons shall surely see!"
He sank in his seat, and the last echo of his resonant voice died away. First came silence, and then a thunder of applause. Men stood up and waved what they had in their hands, hats or handkerchiefs or papers; women sat with their eyes still on him, or, with a gasp, leant back and closed their lids. He sat with his head sunk on his breast, till the tumult died away. No one rose. The Speaker looked round once and again. Could it be that no one----? Slowly he began to rise. The movement caught Sir Robert's attention: he signed to Puttock, who sprang heavily to his feet. Puttock was no favourite as a speaker, and generally his rising was a signal for the House to thin. He began his speech with his stolid deliberation. Not a man stirred. They waited for something still.
"And now," whispered Medland to the Treasurer, who sat by him, "let's see what it was in that infernal paper."
The Treasurer handed him what he asked.
"You ought to see it," he whispered back.
Mr. Puttock's voice droned on, and his sheaf of notes rustled in his hand. No one looked at him or listened to him. Their eyes were still on Medland. The Premier read--it seemed so slowly--put the paper down, and gazed first up at the ceiling; then he glanced round, and found all the attentive eyes on him: he smiled--it was just a visible smile, no more--and his head fell again on his breast, while his hand idly twisted a button on his coat.
The show was over, or had never come, and the deferred rush to the doors began. They almost tumbled over one another now in their haste to reach where their tongues could play freely. Kilshaw and Perry, the Treasurer and the waverers, all slipped out, and Norburn, knowing nothing but simply wearied of Puttock, followed them. Scarce twenty were left in the House, and the galleries had poured half their contents into the great room which served for a lobby outside. There the talk ran swift and eager. The very name of "Benyon" was enough for many, who remembered that it had always been said to be the maiden name of Medland's wife. Could any one doubt who the other person in that strangely revealed photograph was, or fail to guess the relation between the man they had been listening to and the man who was dead? A few had known Benyon, more Gaspard, all Medland--the three figures of this drama; many remembered the fourth, the central character, who had not tarried for the end of it: the man was rare who did not spend a thought on the bright girl, whose face was so familiar in these walls, and who must be dragged into it. Where was she? asked one. She was gone. Norburn, with rapid instinct, as soon as he had read, had run to her and forced her to go home. He was back from escorting her now, and walked up and down with hands behind him, speaking to no one among all the busily babbling throng.
The waverers stood in a little group by themselves, talking earnestly in undertones, while men wondered whether the paper would undo what the speech had done, and whether the Premier's words had won a victory, only for his deeds to leap to light and rob it from him again.
Inside, the debate lagged on, surely the dullest, emptiest, most neglected debate that had ever decided the fate of a Government. The men who had been set down to speak came in and spoke and went out again; a House was kept, but with little to spare. Sir Robert went in and took his place, opposite Medland, who never stirred through all the hours. Presently Sir Robert wrote a note, twisted it, and flung it to the Premier. "A splendid performance of yours, mes compliments," it said, and, when Medland looked across to acknowledge it, Sir Robert smiled kindly, and nodded his silver head, and the Premier answered him with a glad gleam in his deep-set eyes. These two men, who were always fighting, knew one another, and liked one another for what they knew. And this little episode done, Sir Robert rose and pricked and pinked the Premier's points, making sharp fun of his heroics, and weightily criticising his proposals. Now the House did fill a little, for after all the debate was important, and the hour of the division drew near; and when the question was put and the bell rang, nearly half the House trooped out with virtuous air to join the other half, persistently gossiping in the lobby, and, with them, decide the fateful question.
One more strange thing was to happen at that sitting.
It was not strange that the Government were beaten by three votes, that only one of those wavering men voted with his old party at last, but it was strange that when this result was announced, and Medland's followers settled sturdily in their seats to endure the celebration of the triumph, the celebration did not come. There was hardly a cheer, and Medland himself, whom the result seemed hardly to have roused, woke with a start to the unwonted silence. It struck to his heart: it seemed like a tribute of respect to a dead enemy. But he rose and briefly said that on the next day an announcement of the Government's intentions would be made by himself--he paused here a moment--or one of his colleagues. He sat down again. The sitting was at an end, and the House adjourned. Members began to go out, but, as the Premier rose, they drew back and left a path for him down the middle of the House. As he went, one or two thrust out their hands to him, and one honest fellow shouted in his rough voice--he was a labouring-man member--"You're not done yet, Jimmy!"
The shout touched him, he lifted his head, looked round with a smile, and, just raising again the hat he had put on as he neared the door, took Norburn's arm and passed out of the House.
When Sir Robert followed, he found the Chief Justice waiting for him, and they walked off together. For a long while neither spoke, but at last Sir Robert said peevishly,
"I wish this confounded thing hadn't happened. It spoils our win."
The Chief Justice nodded, and whistled a bar or two of some sad ditty.
"I'm glad she's dead, poor soul, Perry," he said.
"There's the girl," said Sir Robert.
"Ay, there's the girl."
They did not speak again till they were just parting, when the Chief Justice broke out,
"Why the deuce couldn't the fellow take his beastly photograph with him?"
"It's very absurd," answered Sir Robert, "but I feel just the same about it."
"I'm hanged if you're not a gentleman, Perry," said the Chief Justice, and he hastened away, blowing his nose.
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