The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories


It is an old saying that the man who makes a nation's ballads has more power than any legislator over the minds and deeds of his fellows.

        Its truth is so apparent that it is frequently quoted as a fact that need only be stated to be approved.

        Yet it was not to be observed that any modern statesman had attempted to utilise the poser which this knowledge held, until Levi T. Salaman, the Home Secretary in the Conservative Government which succeeded the defeat of Mr. Braithwaite's unfortunate coalition, put the proposition seriously before a startled cabinet, which was engaged in discussing a draft of the King's Speech with which they were to meet the new parliament.

        "It means," he said, "that we can remain in office just as long as we may desire to do so."

        Mr. Bridger, who was first tasting the sweets of office as Postmaster-General, remarked that no sacrifice was too great when the welfare of the nation required it.

        The Premier, who considered that the speech he had drafted was not easily to be improved, and that it was sufficiently long already, observed coldly that he was no good at song, and didn't propose to try.

        Mr. Salaman retorted that he had not intended to suggest that the Premier should charm the country, or even the House, by singing ballads of his own composition.

        "But suppose," he said, "that every band in England were to parade the streets next Tuesday playing martial music of the most inspiring selections. Suppose that it were echoed that night in every theatre and concert-hall in the land. Suppose that this atmosphere were supported by stage and film, and broadcasted without cessation, and that the programme were continued till the end of the week, to be followed by sermons in every Sunday pulpit of the most bellicose kind, would not a condition of national feeling have been aroused such as would support a declaration of war upon anything from the moon to Mammon?"

        Lord Blackenstill considered thoughtfully that a feller couldn't tell what would happen - they couldn't all go abroad.

        Sir Chilton Chillworth looked at the Premier, and remarked that he had an appointment at 5.30.

        Mr. Huntley-Johnson, who held that exalted office, replied that his appointment was at 5.15.

        Mr. Bridger asked if Mr. Salaman were really serious.

        The Hon. Tarker Bentham, who had not spoken previously, remarked that any proposal that Mr. Salaman put forward seriously must deserve attention.

        This observation somewhat sobered the meeting, bringing it to their minds that Mr. Salaman had no reputation for idle jocularity, and that there had been a somewhat similar scene at the party headquarters before the election, when Mr. Salaman had urged upon them that they could gain an overwhelming majority by promising economy in taxation as though they meant it.

        He had been ridiculed then. Had been told that the Conservative Party had always stood for economy - sound economy was their watchword - they fought the communist, socialist, etc., etc., parties of waste and extravagance. What more would he have?

        When they had understood, they had gasped and protested. But they had wanted to win. They had little hope, as feeling then was. In the end, they had agreed. They had promised that the income tax should be halved or quartered. That penny-postage should be restored. That taxes on tea and sugar should be abolished. They had said it as though they meant it. They had practiced the necessary facial expressions in the secrecy of their own rooms, and to the admiration of their private secretaries.

        "Nothing," Mr. Huntley-Johnson had declaimed, in a speech which had been twice broadcast, so that none need miss it, "nothing shall be allowed to thwart us in this sacred enterprise. No longer shall the crushing burden of unjust taxation take the stale crusts from the starving mouths of our mothers: no longer shall the cradles be left empty in the lumber-rooms of the Nation's homes.

        "To the civil servants who clamour to increase a taxation which is already ten times the amount at which our fathers winced and grumbled, I say that the nation shall be bled white no longer. Where you have had tenfold, you shall be content with four."

        After this, they had established the Fourfold League, to which millions of voters had allied themselves. The shilling entrance-fees had paid the entire expenses of many of the Conservative candidates, every one of whom had taken the solemn oath of the League.

        And the country had believed; yes, it had believed the incredible. And they had been elected by such majorities that almost all their opponents, of whatever party, had forfeited their deposits, the total sum accruing to the nation in this way amounting to nearly £1,000,000, and forming a first evidence of how easily money could be obtained if their policy did not err through a too-scrupulous cowardice.

        And now, in their hour of triumph, when there were only seventeen of the House of Commons (besides the Speaker) who were not members of the victorious party, they could scarcely refuse a hearing to the one whose advice had led them to so amazing a victory.

        Mr. Huntley-Johnson put back his watch.

        "I know it sounds silly at first," Mr. Salaman began, when he felt that he had gained the attention of his colleagues, "but I think you know I shouldn't bring it before you if I had not thought it out carefully.

        "I don't know that we shall need to make any songs at all. There are lots of songs in the world already, and there are probably as many silly ones as we are ever likely to need.

        "What we've got to do is to control the films, and the gramophone records. We've got such a start with the B.B.C., and we can do it so easily on the same lines, partly by legislation, and partly by finance, that there's really very little to discuss except the effects which would follow such a practice, and if you think about it for a few minutes you may agree that there needn't be much doubt about that.

        "Of course, we shouldn't use it to start a war, or anything wicked, or socialistic. But it would be useful in lots of ways. Say to support a law that all votes given at this election should count at the next one. There's nothing undemocratic in that suggestion. It would be just emphasised democracy. Sacred voice of the people, and all that. Even six years after, you mustn't treat it too lightly. - Or you might make it that everyone's vote should count again if he had died in the meantime. That's good conservatism. Filial feeling. Reverence age. Voice of the dead. Mother's last word. Like a will. These votes could be tabulated first, and form the basis at which the candidates would start. Make some of them sick, wouldn't it? It's just the time to start it with the votes we've polled."

        (Yes. They all saw that.)

        "But we needn't do anything like that at first. Why not try it out on something simple? You can get the people to believe anything, if you say it as though you mean it. We've proved that, haven't we?

        ". . . I learnt that in the days when I wasn't Chairman of the Two Hemispheres. You know, I started as a weekly canvasser, and in three months I brought in so much new business that they made me Superintendent of Agents, and I used to go from district to district, showing them how to do it.

        "It isn't easy, when you come to think of it. You call on the man who wants a policy, and he says: 'Your premiums are ten per cent higher than the Globe & Universe's.' And you say: 'Yes, but our company started with a capital of £250, and now it's got a reserve of £36,000,000 - and the G. & U.'s reserves are only £23,500,000.' And the man doesn't ask how many mugs' pockets must have been emptied into them, he just pulls out his chequebook and makes another.

        "It just shows it doesn't much matter what you say. It's how you say it that counts. . . . Why shouldn't we start by taking over the Insurance Companies?"

        Mr. Salaman's fellow cabinet-ministers always felt a little breathless when he had been really roused to address them in earnest.

        You couldn't say he was exactly a socialist. They knew that a portrait of Mussolini met his waking eyes every morning on his bedroom's sunniest wall. But, somehow, he would go the pace. Not the slow pace suitable to the dignity of the party to which he gave the benefit of his support. Not at all.

        Now they blinked at each other uncertainly, and Mr. Huntley-Johnson coughed, and began: "I hope you don't propose a policy of confiscation . . . our most sacred principles . . ."

        "Confiscation? Of course not. I'd rather die. But you know that there are a good many hundreds of millions of money fructifying in the pockets of the Insurance Companies. (Yes, I know that's Gladstone. Good word 'fructify' all the same.) Well, we've got to get some money somewhere. You know what we promised. Of course, we needn't remember now, but if you can keep a promise I always think it is just as well. You can't deny that if we had those millions we should know what to do with them.

        "But I wouldn't confiscate a sixpence. You just leave it to me, and in ten days' time I'll have them just begging to be taken over.

        "Now look here, Johnson, I'll tell you what. I won't ask you to put anything in the King's Speech. It sounds rattling well as it is, and perhaps it wouldn't be wise. But just let me run loose on this. Give me a week from the 15th, and I'll get Noel Wallace to write two or three plays - it's Wednesday now, so he could have them ready for Saturday morning - that will cost us ten thousand; and Lord Merseypier can do the press, that will make twenty; and we'll get the Dean to help, say two-fifty; and the broadcasting won't cost us anything; and we shall want a good catchy song for the halls - only one - we want everybody humming the same thing, it's the chorus that matters; and there may be a few other things I shall think of later; the sermons will preach themselves at the weekend when this has gone on from Monday midday. . . ."

        Mr. Huntley-Johnson cut across the stream of eloquence with a remark that he really must go now, but they'd all got confidence in Mr. Salaman. If he felt sure - "You know, Levi, I shall have to drop you, if it goes wrong. It's your racket, and your risk."

        "I'm not worrying about that," Mr. Salaman replied cheerfully. He was well content with the ease of his victory. He went out talking earnestly to the new Postmaster-General.

        The campaign commenced on Monday, the 15th, as was first planned in Mr. Salaman's lively brain. The plays had been ready, as he expected, on the Saturday morning, a clear week beforehand. Mr. Noel Wallace had himself superintended the rehearsals at the three theatres. He had also written the required song for the halls, the refrain of which, on the morning of the 16th, was being hummed and whistled in hundreds of London streets. It was a very catchy chorus, implying that the misery of the slums had increased:

            ". . . ever since
        They came and took the pince,
        The Monday morning pince of the poor."

        . . . In the West End, Mr. Wallace's play "Contrasts" staged a more golden scene than had ever entered the imagination of Mr. Arnold Bennett, exhibiting an Insurance Magnate at dinner, nightingales' tongues being ladled on to his plate with a golden tablespoon, flunkeys seven deep behind his Parian-marble throne, and a surrounding magnificence before which description falters; while outside, in the frozen street, a widowed orphan, or perhaps it was an orphaned widow, who had already pawned her wedding-ring and her husband's miniature in a vain effort to pay the premium arrears, committed suicide by swallowing the cancelled policy. At the scene in the Coroner's Court, when the fatal policy was produced, as it had been recovered at the post-mortem, there were few who could control their tears. . . .

        The World approached the subject with its customary dignity. Its editorials took little part in the controversy. But its news columns gave increasing space to reports of the agitation as the week proceeded, and it also printed a series of daily articles, Insurance Buildings of To-Day, which did not disguise their author's indignation at the towering solidity of these structures, especially those of the great industrial companies. Dealing with one of these massive edifices in the London area, he had made an appealing calculation of the number of coppers of the poor which were required to hew and shape and carry and build-in a single one of the huge blocks of red granite of which it consisted - every coin, as he represented, being some reduction in the needed food or warmth or light or clothing of the poor - every coin paid over in foolish faith that it would be returned to them at their hour of need and then used to build this monument of cynical arrogance, which seemed to mock them with the impossibility of returning pence which had so securely rooted in the Holborn soil.

        "The weight of these stones," he wrote; " - what is it, but the weight of their oppression of the helpless poor? Their colour - what does it symbolise but that they have sucked successfully the richest lifeblood of the land?"

        Even Scrappy Bits and the Weekly Joker had a score of allusions to excessive premiums, and the agents' wiles.

        The Financial Standard had an alarmist article showing that every year the total investments of the great Insurance Companies increased at a more rapid pace than the nation's savings. "What," it asked, "is the inevitable end to which such a state of affairs must lead at last? It is not a matter for argument, but for simple arithmetic only. In seventy-three years, at the present rate of accumulation, the Insurance Companies will own the entire wealth of the land."

        An individual who was widely known as Uncle Jackie by followers of the B.B.C. (which has always considered that the British Public is enamoured of this relationship), gave a series of nightly talks to show that all premiums ought to be reduced by from 38.6 to 49.55% with fascinating speculations as to what his audience would most probably do with the rescued wealth - wealth which would not consist of solitary weekend harvest, but would be continued as each Monday morning came, like a perpetual endowment fund.

        The very catchwords which had been used to induce the individual to pass over his own money to be retained and accumulated by these organisations were now used against them. The Daily Pail. in a well-worded leader entitled A Penny Saved is a Penny Gained, produced an imagination of a whole nation engaged in a public effort to preserve its pennies from this ubiquitous rapacity. In the Westminster Post, the famous caricaturist 'Pow' had a picture of a huge mound of many millions of pennies occupying a double page of the periodical, while in a corner, so small as to observe with difficulty, an insurance agent was taking coins from a hole in the bottom of the pocket of a workingman as he dropped them in at the top, so that it remained empty continually - the ragged, abject, and yet dignified misery of the victim constituting the greatest triumph of the artist's career.

        But it would be wearisome to recount a tithe of the methods by which the idea was reiterated from sky and ground, from stage and hoarding by voice and pen, during that week - or, at least, during the earlier part of that week; for there was one point on which Mr. Salaman had to admit that he had miscalculated.

        A week would have been as needless as it would have been tragic. On Friday morning the campaign was over, and the Home Office was energetically stamping out the last cinders of the conflagration that it had raised.

        It had been on Wednesday, at midday, that the body of the first victim, an insurance agent named Fortune, had been recovered from the canal at Shiffnal. One hundred and seventeen such bodies were scattered over the land when Thursday morning dawned. At Plymouth, where local journalist had attempted to assist the movement with an article entitled The Frugal Foreigner, showing how the exotic inhabitants the East End of London decline to share our folly, and when they recognise the excessive burden of fire insurance premiums, promptly and equitably adjust the burden in their own way, the householders of that ancient port caught the idea with such avidity that the same Thursday morning saw about two-thirds of them camping in tents in the surrounding fields, while they sat on the summer grass calculating the compensation which they could claim for their smouldering homes, the smoke of which a friendly north-west wind was blowing out to sea. At Birkenhead the premises of the Gas-pipe and Globe Insurance Company Limited, a particularly innocent corporation which had ceased the payment of dividends since the spread of electricity had reduced its profits, were wrecked completely, and the office-boy, who had only been engaged a week earlier, was taken to hospital with a broken leg.

        Hurried conferences during Thursday afternoon resulted in a deputation representing over twenty of the largest companies being received by the Premier, and, after some hours of fevered negotiation, an agreement was signed at 1.30 a.m. on Friday morning, by which the assets and liabilities of all Insurance Companies of every kind were to be transferred to National ownership as from 9 a.m. of that day. Ten per cent of the amount realised by the sale of Buildings which would become redundant under one administration was to be devoted to pensioning the Directors and Actuaries of the companies. Of the Staffs, two per cent were to be retained, and the remaining ninety-eight per cent were to have the option of being taken over by the Federation of British Industries, which would distribute them over the world to push the Overseas trade of the Empire.

        On Friday evening the Premier was able to announce to a delirious House that the Insurance Companies had been taken over by the Nation at their own urgent request, and that while it was too early to state the final results of this arrangement, a preliminary instruction had been issued that all premiums should be reduced by one-third, and he could say at once that there would be no occasion to make any further collection of income-tax during the present year.

        It was a fortnight later that Mr. Montague Rogers, the Chairman of the London and Northern Bank, Ltd., called upon Mr. Salaman, and was promptly shown into his private room.

        "Mr. Salaman," he said, coming to the point with his usual directness, "there's a report about the City that you're going to stampede the banks, as you did the insurance business three weeks ago."

        "It's quite baseless," Mr. Salaman assured him cheerfully. "But I shouldn't say we stampeded the insurance business. That's doing better than ever. It's the companies that are getting hard to find."

        "Well, I don't know," Mr. Rogers replied with a friendly scepticism, and ignoring the latter part of the Home Secretary's answer. "Anyway, we've been talking it over, and I've been asked to see you about it."

        "Who's we?" Mr. Salaman smiled upon him.

        "All the Big Five, as they call us in the city, and most of the smaller banks also. I think, Salaman," he continued easily, "I can speak for the banking interests of the country; except, of course, the Bank of England."

        "Well, I'm willing to listen."

        "I'm not here to threaten," Mr. Rogers replied, with the smile which a banker reserves for his richest customers, "I'm here to talk business reasonably. You've made a good thing of the Insurance Companies, and you might naturally think of another coup of the same kind. But it wouldn't really be the same kind at all. The banks could hit back. They could hit back in a hundred ways, some of which even you, Mr Salaman," he smiled with additional geniality, as recognising the exceptional penetration of the Home Secretary's mind, "may not have thought of. You see we're used to looking ahead. As a matter of fact we'd formed our plans within forty-eight hours of the insurance - " (he checked himself, having almost said 'ramp,' and continued), "campaign being started. Of course, we saw what you meant to do."

        He paused to observe the effect of his words, and Mr. Salaman took up the challenge immediately.

        "I always like to do business with men who've got brains; it's done so much more easily. What's the proposal?"

        "There's nothing really to discuss, if you assure me that there's no foundation for the rumour that's going about, and that you don't intend to attack us."

        "I said the rumour was baseless. I didn't go beyond that."

        "I see. Well, if you can't go further, it's fair to say that if you should make such an attack on the banking interest of the country, you will face such a financial position in twenty-four hours that no government could survive it."

"Well, it's a sporting risk," Mr. Salaman answered lightly. "I've half a mind to try."

        Mr. Rogers did not look happy. He changed the tone of the conversation with some adroitness.

        "I don't think," he said gravely, "that the prosperity of this great country can be regarded lightly. When we meet together I can assure you, Mr. Salaman, that we regard it as a sacred trust. A sacred responsibility, transcending any personal considerations whatever. I feel sure that you wouldn't do anything to risk it without the most anxious thought, and without the opportunity of further conference with us."

        "I am open to deal," Mr. Salaman assured him briskly.

        Mr. Rogers' hesitation was barely susceptible. Then he decided that he had gone too far not to go further.

        "What do you propose?" he said quietly.

        "It's 3.30 now," Mr. Salaman answered. "You couldn't make much mess before you open tomorrow. I propose to get a bill through both Houses tonight so that you'll find the government will control you all in the morning. But I'm willing to deal. If you'll take over the National Debt, and undertake that your charges to customers shall not be increased, nor your shareholders' dividends decreased for twenty years, we'll give you a free run for that time. That's fair enough, surely."

        Mr. Montague Rogers, taking up the hat which he had deposited on the carpet beside him, rose to go. His expression had changed to a stony aspect reserved for those who ask for overdrafts on inadequate security.

        "Then you mean war," he said curtly. "I think you'll regret it."

        "Of course I don't mean war. I shouldn't offer you a deal if I did."

        "You know you ask the impossible."

        "We both know I don't. Look here, Montague. Remember we've known each other since you were a cashier in Watford. We're both big enough to talk sense."

        He took the arm of the reluctant banker, and almost forced him to resume his seat before he continued.

        "I'd better talk plainly, and you'll know I mean what I say. If you'd gone out like that, you'd have found someone else in charge of your office when you entered tomorrow morning.

        "I know that every previous government has been afraid of the banks. International financiers - hidden hand - all that rot. But we're not. We've got the Bank of England. We've got the currency. We've got the House. We've no enmity to you, but if you think we're coming into the City any more to learn at what rate you'll lend us money you're wrong. You're miles out, and you have got to see it tonight, or you won't be a banker tomorrow.

        "I want to tell the House tomorrow night that the banks have patriotically offered to relieve the country of all charges in connection with the National Debt, and have undertaken that the shareholders' dividends shall not be affected. I want to mention that this offer is largely due to the farsighted patriotism of Mr. Montague Rogers. You know that's a sure peerage in January - And after that I shall add that this public-spirited offer will mean that we can abolish income-tax altogether; and, of course, super-tax goes with it; and probably death duties. But I shall have to talk that over with Sir Chilton. Not that he really matters. Everyone except Huntley-Johnson knows that I am running this government.

        "Now just think of the effect of that. Knocking off income-tax will increase the value of every security in the country by about twenty per cent to start with. And you've got twenty-four hours' notice - "

        Mr. Salaman paused, and stepped back to test the effect of his words, which, however rapidly he might use them, were yet distributed with a wise economy. He felt that conversion was about due, and had no mind to go on with a sermon which was no longer needed.

        Mr. Rogers, from whose arm Mr. Salaman had now released his grasp, made no further effort to escape, but his eyes showed his bewilderment.

        "I don't see how I could agree to that," he began weakly, "I've no power - "

        "Oh, yes, you have. They'll all follow your lead. You know that as well as I do."

        "I suppose it's the best way," he continued, but still doubtfully. In his heart he knew that it had got to be. In his acute financial mind he was already weighing its costs and effects, and the methods by which the benefit of the impetus which would be given to the country's trade would fall into the right hands. After all, it wasn't so impossible. It might even have been worse.

        "I won't sign anything tonight," he said, "I can't sign anything tonight," he said more firmly. "I can't sign anything till my colleagues have approved the settlement. But if my word - "

        "Of course I'll take your word. I'd take your word if I didn't know that you see the wisdom of agreeing. I know you'd scheme to clear a million out of the depression in the cotton trade without losing two minutes' sleep; but I know you couldn't sleep at all if you broke your word in a business deal. It's a queer world. Then that's settled. So glad, and thanks for calling."

        Mr. Montague Rogers once more got up to go.

        "Do you mind telling me whose turn comes next?" he asked curiously.

        "Not at all," the Home Secretary answered. "They'd have come before you, if you hadn't called. You might save me a lot of trouble if you'll give them a hint. I don't want to interfere with the F.B.I., nor to socialise anything. I'm an individualist. But we've no use for captains of industry who leave a million workers idle. You might drop a hint of that."

        As Mr. Montague Rogers settled himself into the comfort of his waiting car, he reflected wonderingly that the country was being governed again. He was a student of history.

        "After three hundred years," he said thoughtfully to himself. "After three hundred years!"

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