( Originally Published 1907 )
I LOVE to sit in the Gallery on a sleepy afternoon and watch Mr. Henry Chaplin looking after the affairs of the Empire. Near him, on the Front Opposition Bench, Mr. Balfour reclines with an air of graceful indolence, and, beyond, Mr. Walter Long gently dozes, his arms folded, his head sunk back upon the cushion, his ruddy October face giving a touch of warmth and colour to the scene. Perhaps Mr. Austen Chamberlain sits up alert and watchful; but for the real picture of Britain guarding her own you must turn to Mr. Chaplin. There is no laxity here The afternoon may be drowsy and the cushioned seats seductive; but the stern sentinel of Empire knows no rest. If the sun of Britain is to go down it shall not be because he slept. Let the enemy look to it:
They shall find him 'ware and wakin'
His eye is upon them in stern reproof of their knaveries. He seizes some paper and makes notes, not unconscious that the enemy are trembling visibly at the menace that overshadows them. He takes off his hat under the stress of emotion, and you are surprised at the youthful hue of the chestnut hair. He returns it resolutely and firmly to his brows. A new point has struck him: more notes: more craven fear opposite.
He rises, and then what Jovian thunders echo round the House in sonorous reverberation! With what pomp the portly platitude stalks forth to combat ! See the noble sweep of the right arm, the graceful handling of the cambric handkerchief, the fine fervour of the monocle. Hear the deep chest notes sink into unimaginable depths under the burden of Britain's woes and Radical iniquities. You feel that he would weep but for the Spartan spirit that sustains him.
For the splendid thing about Mr. Chaplin is that he takes himself seriously. There, as Corporal Nym would say, is the humour of it. There is the respect that fills the House with joy at his rising and makes his florid flourishes so gay an interlude. It is not vanity in any mean or unworthy sense. It is the calm, ineradicable conviction of the governing class, the ancien régime. He is a statesman not by virtue of so dangerous and democratic a thing as intellect ; but by divine right, by right of blood and race. Brains may be necessary in business, but what you want in statesmanship, sir, is blood. It is blood that tells, sir. What is wrong with the House of Commons to-day is that there is not enough blood in it. Shopkeepers, lawyers, coal-miners, journalists, sitting here in the seats of the mighty, some of them even on the Front Bench opposite—oh, sir, the pity of it! Oh, my poor, misguided, fallen country! But, sir and the portly frame distends with magnanimity —I will never desert her. I will never leave the burning deck.
It is this portentous gravity and detachment from reality that make him, if not witty himself, the cause of wit in other men. He is not merely " a thing of beauty," but " a joy for ever." What moment, for example, ever rivalled the hilarity that shook the House when, speaking on the Old Age Pensions Bill, he declaimed, his left hand upon his heart, his right uplifted to the heavenly witness: " It has ever been the purpose of my life to do nothing that would sap the foundations of thrift among the poor "? He paused, puzzled by the hurricane of laughter, for his mind moves with bucolic leisure, and it did not occur to him that his noble sentiment had any application to himself, a gentleman of blood and birth, whose career was a legend of splendid lavishness, and who, in his old age, honoured the State by receiving from it a trifling pension of £1200 a year, a mere bagatelle, a thankoffering, as it were, from a grateful public, almost, indeed, in the nature of conscience money.
The incident revealed the true workings of a type of mind so remote from the thought of our day as to be well-nigh incredible. It is a type of mind that be-longs to the eighteenth century. It sees society in two clearly defined strata a small, select aristocracy born booted and spurred to ride; a large, dim mass born saddled and bridled to be ridden. It is a divine arrangement. Does not even the Catechism support this theory of human society by bidding you " to order yourself lowly and reverently toward your betters "? He loves the poor in a fine old English way; that is, he loves them from the point of view of a kindly Providence. They are poor by the grace of God, as he is an aristocrat by the same divine authority. I think he would probably spend his pension in scattering benefactions among his retainers. But it would never occur to him that they belonged to the same hemisphere as himself, that the moral code which was for them was for him also. Thrift, for example, is a noble thing in the labourer earning fifteen shillings a week; but thrift in a gentle-man of blood, sir ?—God forbid! For his view of the aristocracy is the view of the French lady in the days before the Revolution, who, speaking of the vices of a certain nobleman and his prospective career in another world, said with reverent abasement, " But the Almighty will think twice before damning a gentleman of his quality." If Mr. Chaplin ever reads Carlyle, how his heart must be stirred by that moving passage, probably the only one in all that turgid torrent that would be quite clear to his simple faith! It is a faith which regards the established order of things as sacred and eternal. It is: there-fore it ought to be. It is the view summed up by Thwackum in Tom Jones. When I mention religion," said Thwackum, " I mean the Christian religion, and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion, and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England."
It is this view of the divinity that doth hedge his class that is the motive of his politics. He honestly believes that the greatness of England consists in the prosperity of a noble, landed caste. Hence his one serious contribution to legislation, the Agricultural Rates Bill, by which ingenious device the task of paying the agricultural rates fell upon the towns with excellent results to the landlord's rent. Hence, too, his devotion to Protection, to which ----
But this is a subject which should be approached with more solemnity. For it is here that Mr. Chaplin must cease to be regarded as a politician. Rather he is a prophet. Through long, long years he was as one crying in the wilderness. The giddy world passed him by, heeded not his message, laughed him and Mr. " Jimmy " Lowther to scorn. " Give us a good thumping duty on corn," was their cry, " and all will be, well. Then shall the clouds drop fatness, and England, our brave little England, be merry England once more." Fleeting hopes passed before their vision. " Reciprocity " and " Fair Trade " came like the cup of Tantalus to the lip and vanished, and all again was dark, and the voice went on crying in the wilderness. But a day came when he who had been most scornful in his laughter at these antique jesters, suddenly saw a great light, suddenly saw that the way to make the people rich and happy was not to give them abundance, but scarcity, not to make things cheap, but dear. And, filled with this amazing marvel, he launched " My Policy " and changed the current of history. But it was the Squire of Blankney who was the prophet of the new dispensation; it is the Squire of Blankney who, after years of derision and mocking laughter, sits to-day under his vine and fig-tree, contemplating the work of his hand, thinking over the solitary days when he was a voice crying in the wilderness, looking forward confidently to the time when a thumping duty on corn will make us all happy and hungry and rejoicing in the rare privilege of the prophet who has lived to see the acceptance of his prophecy.
It is a rare revenge for the blow that was dealt him in 1900, when, having served his Queen and country, as he would say in that noble rhetoric of his, with prudence, and he would hope with some success, he was oh, miserable, ungrateful world!abandoned. Yes, abandoned. He, Henry Chaplin, left out of her Majesty's Ministry out in the cold, like a dog. Oh, the bitterness of that day! Not that he was sorry for himself, not at all ; but he mourned for his country, his betrayed and desolated country.
For the sad truth has to be told that the prophet was never appreciated by his friends at his real worth. I am afraid that they did not take up Protection earlier, not because they were not Protectionists at heart, but because they feared that anything which Mr. Chaplin advocated must be disastrous. They loved him as their licensed jester. They were grateful to him for his honest service, for the way he would plant his burly form in the breach when the enemy were nigh, as on that famous day of the Royal Hunt Cup, when the Conservative Government were in danger of defeat by a snap division, and he, like Horatius of old, rushed in to hold the bridge and save the town, and talked and talked and talked, while messengers hurried forth, West and east and south and north, To summon the array, and never ceased until the fear that was written on the face of the Whips was turned to the gladness of conscious victory.
But while they appreciated these heroisms, they did not take him seriously. And yet no man ever worked harder at his task according to his capacity than he has done. A friend of his tells how he was once staying with him at a country house, and in the midst of conversation Mr. Chaplin excused him-self on the ground of work. And later the friend, while wandering in the pastures, heard from the other side of the hedge a sonorous voice delivering itself thus: " Mr. Speaker sir Little did I think, when I came down to the House this afternoon, that I should feel it incumbent upon me, in pursuance of my duty to my country, and, Mr. Speaker, may I add to myself, to address this House upon and the friend fled from the august recital.
Mr. Chaplin, however, bore the whips and scorns of colleagues with the gallant spirit with which he took his losses on the Turf. For the decline of his fortunes is understood to be not wholly due to the lack of the thumping duty on corn, but to that sport of gentlemen to which his really serious life has been devoted. Not that he has been without his triumphs.
For is he not the Henry Chaplin, the owner of Hermit? And who that knows the Turf finds not in that name the music of the spheres? Who knows not the brave story, that epic of the racecourse, of how the unknown horse flashed on that June day, significantly heralded by a snowstorm, to victory in the Derby of 1867, winning for its owner £140,000 and a deathless fame? " Easy come, easy go," and Mr. Chaplin's fortune went easily, for he is a man of delicate tastes, a Lucullus of the restaurant, who is reputed to know as much about the gastronomic art as he does about horseflesh, and more if that be possible than he does about politics, with whom a noble hospitality is innate, and in whom, as in Charles Surface, that " hobbling beldame Economy cannot keep pace with Generosity." He has the gift of spending, and leaves the duty of saving to the poor. It is not that he is a prodigal; but that he has that princely point of view illustrated by the duke of whom Sir William Harcourt used to tell, who, having got into difficulties, applied for advice to Mr. Greville, a friend of Sir William's. Mr. Greville investigated the affairs of the duke, and he came to him and said: " Duke, I think your establishment is larger than it ought to be." And the duke said: " Really, Charles, do you think so? " And Mr. Greville said, " Yes. I find, for instance, you have got three confectioners in your kitchen, I think that is more than is indispensable." And the duke looked at him in great surprise, and he said: " You don't mean to say so! Why, after all, a man must have a biscuit." That is Mr. Chaplin's view. He must have a biscuit.
When Sleaford, forgetful of its long allegiance, forgetful of the lustre shed upon it by Mr. Chaplin, left him in the débâcle of 1906 at the bottom of the poll, he, with his long experience of the vicissitudes of fortune, took his coup de grâce with his habitual good temper, and gave to Wimbledon the distinction of being represented in Parliament by the owner of Hermit. It is an honour well fitted to Wimbledon.
Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale. He lingers on into these drab, prosaic times, a glorious reminiscence of the days of the dandies, defying the machinations alike of time and of the Radicals, cheerful and debonair, his ample hat sitting on his head with just a suspicion of a sporting angle, his cambric peeping from his breast pocket with a subtle suggestion of gallantry, his eye-glass worn as if to the manner born; a kindly, simple-hearted gentleman, with the spacious manners of an earlier day slightly exaggerated; a mirror in which we may see the England of long ago and the Toryism that is dead, or, if not dead, passed into a shape less reputable because less honest. Long may we see him, the last of his type, sitting on the Front Opposition Bench taking notes and watching over the Empire, a pleasant figure of industrious futility. We could better spare a greater man.