In this second installment the two radicals, one old, one young, discuss their views and methods. The piece relies mostly on dialogue.
‘Can I interest you in a glass of gin?’ he asked, mustering a kindly tone.
Spence was grateful. ‘That would be welcome. You know a gin-shop nearby?’
‘Yes, I know where there’s a gin-shop. Sometimes I think it’s all I know.’
In a low-ceilinged tavern near the foot of Ludgate Hill, Spence explained the salient points of his theories. He had no need to lower his voice, for they sat alone, huddled over their glasses in the dimly-lit bar, whose landlord, a man favourable to the radical cause, had already apologised in his gruff tones for having no coals, and would they mind supping in the cold? Spence, content, it seemed, no matter what the temperature, glanced at the empty grate and gave his habitual response: ‘I have warm thoughts to keep out the cold.’
The landlord winked lewdly. ‘Oh aye? Then yer might make ‘em warmer out there,’ he said, meaning the whores to be found in that quarter of town. But the joke looked lost on Spence, who gave his gin a stir with his finger, and stared again into the blackness of the hearth.
‘He thinks I didn’t catch his meaning,’ he said, when the landlord had left them alone. ‘You thought so too, didn’t you?’ Calvert shrugged non-committally, and took a sip of gin. ‘I know what you think,’ Spence added, wagging his forefinger, ‘you think that I’m ignorant in the ways of the world. You wouldn’t be the first to think so.’
‘Don’t confess, and don’t apologise,’ said Spence, unmoved. ‘I don’t expect you to have read anything of mine. But I do expect you to read a little more after tonight, after I’ve instructed you in the ways of the mind.’
‘But not of the flesh,’ said Calvert, venturing a rare jest.
‘I’m not a prude, if that’s what you think,’ said Spence, with equally rare testiness.
‘I never meant …’
‘I know exactly what you meant,’ interrupted Spence, still on his dignity. ‘Coupling between man and woman is all well and good – I haven’t been a monk in my time – it’s just that I don’t approve of prostitution. I love women, and all mankind, too much to want to see them exploited.’
Calvert shuffled awkwardly in his chair. ‘You’ve been with whores, I can tell,’ said Spence, nodding assuredly. ‘Don’t try to hide it.’ He leaned across the rough deal table to add, ‘I’m not here to condemn you, bonny lad, simply to instruct you, make a man of you in a better sense.’
The younger man felt embarrassed, most of all wronged. After all, he hadn’t been with a whore, least not yet. But he had wanted to, desperately so at times, and had once gone as far as following one as she made her way across St James’s Park. He had followed only at a distance, and had never intended asking for her favours. It wasn’t so much the courage he had lacked as a willingness to debase himself, to expose the vulnerability of his sexual desire which made absurd all his manly bearing. No, Spence must understand that he was guilty only in thought, not in deed. He would have told him so too had it been worth it to split hairs. ‘Go ahead then – instruct me,’ he said, and topped up their glasses from the bottle. ‘Perhaps you can start by telling me how better to bear the cold,’ he added, with an opportune shiver.
‘I can tell you nothing you don’t already know,’ said Spence. ‘The task is to make you realise what it is that you know, to make you feel it, feel it here where it matters …’ – he slapped his hand against his heart – ‘ …to give you the desire to act upon it selflessly, for that word – selflessly – Mr Calvert, is the operative one.’
What was the mystery about to be brought forth? thought Calvert, with excited anticipation, what key to the great vault of wisdom? He’d expected to be listening a long time, to be in need of quill and paper for all those important details. Instead, less than a minute had elapsed when the little radical smiled, and said, ‘There. ‘Tis done. You’ve heard all you need to hear, learned all you need to learn. Now you must dwell upon it till it becomes your philosophy of life, the goal of your life-blood as it courses through your veins.’
Single-minded, Calvert knew Spence to be, but was he also simple-minded? All that he had said was this: Love mankind in all his manifestations, and work solely towards that day when men can be virtuous, wise and happy.
‘Is that it?’ he barked in annoyance. ‘Is that the sum total of your world knowledge?’
‘The only part that matters,’ said Spence, crossing his slender legs so that he sat there perched like a benevolent imp.
‘Yes, yes, I understand that,’ said Calvert impatiently, ‘but what about the meantime? What about the means to bring about that paradise of ends? Should we not fight the good fight with all our might? There are many out there whose brains need blowing out, men who would never bow down before simple reason. Do you see no tyrants at large any more? If I remember anything of what you’ve written it’s your diatribe against the evils of aristocracy. Something about all the land, and the waters …’
Spence took up the chant, as if from a sermon, ‘All the land, the waters, the mines, the houses, and all permanent feudal property, must return to the people and be administered in partnership. Yes,’ he said, breaking off, ‘I wrote that, and this: “Do you think mankind will ever enjoy any tolerable degree of liberty and felicity, by having a reform of Parliament, if landlords were still suffered to remain?” ‘And this too: “We must destroy not only hereditary Lordship but the cause, which is private property in land.” I stand by all that I wrote, every word. My views haven’t changed, Mr Calvert, not one bit. I want rid of the tyrants as much as yourself. We disagree only in our methods.’
‘A fundamental disagreement though, is it not?’ said Calvert, sourly. ‘How can you be so naive as to think the hereditary aristocracy will relinquish their claims without a fight? They don’t want to pray in your Temple of Liberty, they want no part of your beautiful new republic. They want their lands, they want their titles, and they want their power. Nay, the middling folk want the same things too, or they want a share of them. They’re just as much our enemy in their way.’
Spence took out his pipe a moment, glanced at the empty fire where he would have lit it, and popped it back in his coat pocket. ‘And what do you want, Mr Calvert? – what do you really want? – ask yourself that in your heart of hearts.’
‘It’s irrelevant, what I want,’ answered Calvert, defensively.
‘Oh but it is relevant, you see,’ said Spence, smiling. ‘If what animates you stems not from the purest of motives, comes instead from personal ambition and greed, then the Tree of Liberty you plant will have no nourishment for its roots. It will become a blighted tree, do you understand my meaning?’
‘You question my motives?’ said Calvert, feigning bewilderment, for he was stung by the truth of the accusation.
‘I do,’ said Spence, solemnly. Calvert shrugged, this time feigning speechlessness. ‘Answer me this,’ said Spence pressed him further, ‘where, when the utopia has been built, do men such as you go? Can you tell me, with your hand on your heart, that you would lay down your arms, take up pipe and tankard and sit quietly by the fire stroking the dog till your days were done? Come, come, Mr Calvert, those who love adventure, those whose ambition is always just beyond the horizon can never live like that. They will always be restless, always yearning for that indefinable something. Then there are the killers among you: once a killer, always a killer.’
‘Is that how you see me? – a killer?’ Calvert demanded to know, demanded it on his feet, for he had risen from his chair.
The old man’s face showed no flicker of alarm; he continued to sit calmly and reflectively, his fingers playing lightly about the rim of his glass. ‘I think you have answered that question yourself,’ he said. ‘It seems I may have been wrong to try to win you for my pupil.’
‘Good God, Spence, anyone would think I was the Devil incarnate to hear you talk,’ said Calvert, breathing hard in his outrage. ‘I’m no such thing, do you hear? No such bloody thing! I have as much conscience as the next man. And besides,’ he went on, recollecting something he’d heard, ‘some of the others in your pack are no angels.’
‘You are right – they are not,’ said Spence, conceding the point. ‘And I’m at odds with them too. I’ve warned them I’ll have nothing to do with their arming and drilling. The secret press, the anonymous handbill, the tavern club debate – I say yes to all of that, but armed insurrection, no. I want none of it, not a morsel. The force I advocate is the moral one of peaceful persuasion, not that of physical violence.’
‘Then you’re a dreamer,’ said Calvert, and downed his gin in one draught. ‘I can’t work with you Spence. I thought I could, but I was wrong. You put me all at odds.’
‘At odds with yourself, you mean,’ said the other, stabbing straight to the soul again, as was his habit.
‘No!’ said Calvert, without conviction, wanting to be gone, out of his stinging company.
Spence nodded, a trifle too smugly for Calvert’s liking. He had to stay the hand that wanted to take the little man by the throat, punch him in the face till he saw the blood brimming in his nostrils. ‘I’m sorry I feel the way I do,’ said Calvert, with a pained look. ‘I feel that I hate you of a sudden.’
‘Hate me then, if it makes you feel better,’ said Spence, with enraging placidity. ‘I’m content that we’ve forced things out in to the open, spilled right here and now the bad blood you harbour. We know where we stand from now on. More importantly, and this I think is the best of the night’s work, you know where you stand in relation to yourself.’ He rose, and held out his hand for Calvert to shake. ‘I bid you good evening, sir. I bear you no ill will, and hope you will think on what I’ve said.’
Calvert refused the proffered hand. ‘Get out, before I throw you out,’ he said, and as Spence left, he smashed his glass against the door as it closed on him. He resented his knack of making windows in his soul, resented it so much that as he pictured his barrow squeaking its way back towards Holborn, he wished that the clerks who’d threatened him earlier in the evening would find him again and carry on where they’d left off.