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Ecce Mr. Chamberlain.

Having said so much of what Mr. Chamberlain has done in, and for, Birmingham, perhaps I may be permitted to say a few words, “mostly all” my own, respecting a much biographed man. Although Mr. Chamberlain is so prominently identified with Birmingham and Birmingham with him, it is well known that he is not a native of the place. He was born in London in 1836, and came to Birmingham in 1854. We took him in and he did for us. His father joined the well-known firm of Nettlefold, the wood screw makers, and in the course of time his eldest son, Joseph, succeeded him. Mr. Joseph Chamberlain soon found his feet in trade, and by his business acumen, his foresight, capacity, and shrewdness he advanced the business, which had already been highly successful, to a rare pitch of prosperity.

At one time I saw and heard much of Mr. Chamberlain, especially in the earlier part of his Birmingham public career. He was always what he is now a sharp, smart, and ready man. A man to inspire admiration and confidence. There was always a promptness and “all thereness” in his nature, with a decided touch of self-reliance, and I may even say audacity. In fact, without intending any reflection upon him, I might perhaps suggest that he could appropriately take as his motto “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace.” In proof of this I may cite one or two incidents that came under my notice.

Some thirty years or more ago Mr. Chamberlain was a prominent member of a local debating society. Now, this society used to have every year two social gatherings, and it was observed that many members who rarely or never came to the debates were not conspicuous by their absence when the summer “outings” and other little feasts took place. The committee thought it would be rather good sport to give these knife and fork debaters a little mild and gentle rub. Consequently they made them the subject of a toast at one of their social meetings, held at the Lyttelton Arms, Hagley. A word was coined for the occasion, and they were toasted as the “Artopsareocoluthic Members” (signifying the lovers of the loaves and fishes), and to Mr. Chamberlain was entrusted the task of proposing the toast.

In a smart and brilliant speech he poked rare fun at the dinner-debating members who were so ready to participate in the festivities of the society and so lax in attending the discussions. He not only did this with delicious banter and pointed sarcasm; but, with an audacious touch all his own, he coupled the toast with the name of one member present. This brought the ruffled gentleman up on to his legs, and, smarting under Mr. Chamberlain’s ironical philippics, he tried to pay back “our young friend” for what he considered his unwarrantable impertinence.

But Mr. Chamberlain was not in the least disconcerted by the hotly expressed resentment of the offended member. With his cigar in his mouth and his eye-glass in his eye he smiled with amused complacency, while his irate friend tried to pay him back, though hardly in his own sharp, ringing coin.

The other incident to which I have referred took place when the Birmingham Corporation Gas Bill was under consideration. A town’s meeting was held to discuss and decide whether the gas undertakings should be purchased by the municipal authorities. As there was considerable difference of opinion upon the question there was a large gathering in the Town Hall, and the opponents of the scheme were in strong force.

Mr. Chamberlain, in the course of his speech advocating the purchase, pointed out with characteristic force all the advantages of the proposed scheme, and when he mentioned the satisfactory sum for which the gas undertaking could be bought a prominent opponent called out, “Will you give that for it?” “Yes, I will,” was the prompt reply, which rather surprised and silenced his antagonist.

And no doubt he meant what he said. He regarded the amount named as an advantageous price for the purchase as it has proved to be and he would have been willing, and would doubtless, with the aid of his friends, have been able, to find the money to secure such a valuable monopoly. It was, however, the decisive and ready manner in which he answered his interrogator that was so characteristic of the man, and which so appealed to the meeting as to elicit a hearty volley of cheers.

Mr. Chamberlain was never easily disconcerted, nor was he ever a touchy, over-sensitive man. In fact, he has been heard to say, I believe, that a man who takes to public life must not be thin-skinned. If he is to give blows, he must be prepared to take blows in return, and whether he takes his punishment fighting or lying down, he must take it smiling, or at least with complacency. This he does himself, as a rule, and whatever he may feel under the blows of his adversaries, he does not wince nor whine, but always appears more or less imperturbable, good-humoured, and unscathed. We see him demonstrative, combative, even saucy sometimes on the platform, but rarely or never ruffled, sour, or out of temper.

As I have hinted, I heard a good deal of Mr. Chamberlain’s public speaking when he first came to the front as a public man, and it was impossible not to be interested, edified, and oftentimes amused by the intelligence, point, and smartness of his speech. At the same time there was especially in the earlier days of his public career a certain setness and formality of style that suggested the idea that his speeches were anything but the inspiration of the moment, but had been made beforehand, and were being reeled off. Indeed, many of those who knew him well maintained that his speeches were at this time the result of painstaking study, care, and elaboration, and that those who had a nose for oratory might detect in them a strong smell of the lamp.

One incident that came under my notice certainly went far to corroborate this view. I refer to the occasion of a little semi-public dinner at which Mr. Chamberlain was put down to propose a certain toast. He proceeded for a time in his usually happy, characteristic manner, when all at once in the middle of a sentence he came to a full stop! We all looked up, and he looked down embarrassed and confused. He apparently had lost the thread of the discourse he had so carefully woven; he could not pick up the dropped stiches; and, if I remember rightly, he sat down, his speech not safely delivered.

It seems difficult now to fancy Mr. Chamberlain making such a fiasco. He is at the present time probably one of the most ready and fluent speakers we have, and although many strange things might happen in the House of Commons, one of the most astonishing would be to see Mr. Chamberlain break down in a speech. It would create a sensation in that unserene assembly which would almost be enough to make a seasoned pressman swoon, and before the incident had been completely realised the unexpected and startling fact would probably be known at the Antipodes. Mr. Chamberlain can now make his speeches as he goes on although the material may be prepared beforehand and, as we know, he can turn from the course of his argument to answer quickly and effectively some pertinent or impertinent question or interruption.

Since Mr. Chamberlain has become such a leading light in Parliament, his speeches have taken a much more solid, sedate, and serious tone than they had in his early Birmingham days. They have become considerably more weighty perhaps some of his unfriendly critics would say more heavy than they were in bygone times. Without being open to the charge of levity or flippancy, Mr. Chamberlain’s speeches used to be remarkable for a certain amount of humour, banter, touch-and-go smartness, as well as terse argumentative force.

At one time he was an appreciative student of the American humorists, and he was very fond of spicing his remarks with apt and amusing quotations from Hosea Biglow, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and other comic classics. Indeed, at one time, no speech of his would have been complete without some little sallies of this kind. Now, however, he rarely indulges in such pleasantries. Mr. Chamberlain’s speeches in the House of Commons though never dull are never funny. He soon learned his lesson. He very quickly discovered that members of the House may not object to be amused, and are often, it must be admitted, easily moved to mirth. At the same time the members of that assembly do not place a high value upon the words of funny or would-be funny speakers.

Unless he has changed very much, Mr. Chamberlain has a very keen sense and appreciation of humour. Probably he would like sometimes to indulge himself and amuse the House by firing off some humorous hits and quotations, but he knows the importance of suppressing such instincts and tendencies if he is to be taken seriously and regarded as a statesman. Blue books and Biglow, Bills and Sam Slick, do not make the sort of political punch that an influential leader can afford to ladle out at St. Stephen’s. At the same time, if he cared to indulge his own ready wit, or to make use of the amusing extracts he has stored away in his memory, he could doubtless make some lively and diverting speeches.

I remember when Mr. Chamberlain was Mayor of Birmingham, the late Mr. George Dawson at a little dinner proposed his health, and in doing so indulged in some characteristic banter and chaff. Mr. Chamberlain, then as now, was not a man of Aldermanic girth, and Mr. Dawson in the course of his humorous remarks took occasion to allude to his slight and slender proportions, and said he wished there was more of the Mayor to look at, and that he should like to see him “go to scale better.”

When he rose to reply Mr. Chamberlain, in a quiet, dry manner, and without a smile on his face, remarked, “Mr. Dawson has been good enough to refer to me as a Mayor without a Corporation.” This was so neat and smart that I need hardly say the company laughed most amusedly. Probably, if I had kept a notebook, or were now to search well my memory, I might give other instances of Mr. Chamberlain’s smart, ready wit.

Now, however, as most people know, his speeches are remarkable for their point, force, logical reasoning, incisive language, and straight, hard hitting, but, as I have observed, he rarely if ever essays to be funny. By his sharp remarks and his adept turns of speech he often, however, creates much laughter as, for instance, when he once spoke of an ex-Premier’s opportunism and readiness to make promises which, when they ought to be fulfilled, “snap went the Gladstone bag” but he never degenerates into anything approaching buffoonery.

Mr. Chamberlain is always prompt and straightforward in action, and is pleasant and agreeable in manner and speech. Moreover, he is a man of consummate tact. I remember in 1874, when he was Mayor, and the Prince and Princess of Wales paid a visit to Birmingham, there was much wondering and questioning as to how he would comport himself on the occasion. At that time he was credited with cherishing rather strong Republican sentiments. It was even said that he had been known to go so far as to remain seated when the loyal toasts were drunk. I certainly cannot say that I was ever witness of such a proceeding, nor have I been able to trace the statement to any authentic source. Still, there was a widespread idea that he was not overburdened with feelings of loyalty, and many people naturally wondered how he would manage decorously to entertain his Royal guests.

Mr. Chamberlain was quite equal to the occasion. In speech and manner his conduct was irreproachable, and he won golden opinions from all sorts of people. I remember that very curious stories were in circulation at the time as to the etiquette which, it had been laid down, should be observed on the occasion. It was, indeed, said that, in consequence of Mr. Chamberlain’s supposed Republican sentiments, special regulations were enjoined, and that the formalities to be observed in receiving and entertaining the Prince were to be of an extra rigid character. I, for one, never believed there was any foundation for these silly reports, but, if any special formalities were prescribed, Mr. Chamberlain brushed them aside, and simply conducted himself with quiet, easy grace, always calm and self-possessed, and never fussy or needlessly obsequious.

Mr. Chamberlain entertained the Royal visitors and others at luncheon at the Society of Artists’ rooms, and it struck me that if he had been a born courtier, and had been bred in the atmosphere of palaces, he could hardly have been more “at home” in the position in which he found himself. His speech, in which he proposed the health of the Prince and Princess of Wales, was a model of adroitness and good taste. Without giving himself away by indulging in effusiveness, or being carried away by the glamour of the occasion, he managed to make a very circumspect, clever, and appropriate speech, which, though closely scrutinised, brought no reproaches or even adverse criticisms from Republicans or Royalists. No doubt it was a somewhat scorching ordeal for Mr. Chamberlain to pass through, but he came out of it unsinged and triumphant, and was afterwards more popular than ever.

I have some hesitation in speaking of Mr. Chamberlain in his private and “at home” character, though in these days I hardly know that I need be very timid or scrupulous. The public has a ready, I might almost say a greedy, ear for personal details concerning the lives and habits of public men, and there are plenty of writers willing to gratify its desires in this respect, and that, too, with the knowledge and consent of the eminent personages themselves. Many people like to hear all about the characteristics of prominent men, and have a keen appetite for all particulars concerning their personal habits and peculiarities. They love to hear what a celebrated man eats, drinks, and avoids, what time he rises and at what hour he usually goes to bed; and even a little thimbleful of scandal touching his shortcomings, delinquencies, and, possibly, his small vices, is as nectar to the gossip-loving taste. To tell some people what they have no right to know is often to delight them.

Without at all professing to be in any sense an intimate friend of Mr. Chamberlain’s, I may, perhaps, say that I have many times had the pleasure of sitting at his table, and a more genial and interesting host it would be difficult to describe. He is bland and gentle to a degree that might surprise those who only know him as a vigorous, fighting politician.

I remember that once when Sir William Harcourt was a guest of Mr. Chamberlain’s at Highbury, he said that he went to stay with his honourable friend with feelings almost amounting to trepidation, but he soon found that Mr. Chamberlain was by no means the ogre he had been represented. Mr. Chamberlain eat his meals with an ordinary knife and fork; and he rose up in the morning and went to bed regularly like any other sane and well-conducted person. Indeed, he found him quite a tame and inoffensive creature compared with the rampant, rampageous autocratic being he had so often heard him described.

I do not pretend to quote Sir William Harcourt’s words literally. I am repeating entirely from memory, but I give the gist of some of his amusing, characteristic remarks when speaking in the Birmingham Town Hall at the time he was Mr. Chamberlain’s friend and guest. Certainly, I have always found Mr. Chamberlain a delightfully pleasant host. He is not given to monopolizing the talk. He does not dogmatize or lay down the law; in fact, when acting as host he is so mild, docile, and pleasant that a fossilized Tory, or even a fiery Nationalist, might play with him.

Sometimes I have been among a favoured few who have been asked to stay after most of his guests have left, and have a cigar with Mr. Chamberlain in his library. On such occasions there has been some rare good talk. I remember on one occasion the conversation did become warmly political, and there was quite a smart little tussle between our host and Mr. Jesse Collings. At that time Mr. Collings had a trifle more sympathy with Irish patriots than I fancy he has now, and with his naturally warm sympathetic feeling he was for liberating Mr. Parnell, who was then a prisoner at Kilmainham. But Mr. Chamberlain would have none of it. He maintained that Mr. Parnell and his friends had broken the law and must pay the penalty. He was quite willing to consider their demands, and what they considered to be their wrongs, but they must not defy the law. Yes, there was some pretty sparring between these two friends on that occasion, very earnest but, of course, perfectly good-tempered on both sides.

I have before remarked upon Mr. Chamberlain’s self-command and imperturbability. Some persons are, perhaps, inclined to think that because he keeps himself so well in hand and so rarely indulges in sentiment that he is devoid of feeling and emotion. Not so. I recollect that on the death of Mr. John Henry Chamberlain no relation of his, but a gentleman whose personal character, artistic skill, and intellectual gifts he, and many others, held in high esteem a meeting was held to consider the desirability of having some memorial of one whose loss was so deeply deplored. Mr. Chamberlain took a prominent part in the proceedings, and I well remember how deeply affected he was when, in the course of his touching references to his deceased friend, he said, “I feel that his death, then, is the crowning of a noble life. He has been called from us in the moment of victory, and we who remain behind are to be pitied, for we have lost a great leader, and there are none to take his place.”

“The task which is imposed upon us is certainly a very melancholy one. One by one our leaders are removed from us. The gaps in our ranks are becoming painfully apparent. Still, there is much work to be done, and we shall best honour those who are gone by endeavouring, as best we may, to continue and complete the work which they have so well commenced. In this spirit we may be content to bide our turn, hoping that when we, too, are called away our record may not shame the bright example of those who have gone before us.”

When making these touching remarks Mr. Chamberlain’s voice became tremulous with emotion. He evidently experienced the greatest difficulty in commanding his feelings, and when he sat down I saw tear-drops in his eyes. Never have I seen him so overcome, and it is only justice to him to cite this incident as showing that sentiment and feeling, though rarely manifested, are not foreign to his real nature.

With respect to Mr. Chamberlain’s personal appearance his form and features are now well known, but for a time he was a somewhat troublesome subject to caricaturists. When he was first budding out into national importance the clever artist of Vanity Fair at that time came down to Birmingham to draw him. He succeeded in making a good caricature, but it was said that he found his task by no means an easy one. It was the nose, I believe, that puzzled the artist. Mr. Chamberlain has a pointed, slightly upturned nose, and some cynical people may be disposed to say that it has become more pointed and sharp the more he has poked it into political business. Anyway, it is a characteristic, perhaps the characteristic, of Mr. Chamberlain’s face, and the skilful Vanity Fair artist caught it after a time, and just sufficiently exaggerated it to make a genuine caricature. Seeing, however, that Mr. Chamberlain was born to be a much-pictured man, one thing has stood him in fine stead his eye-glass. When “Mr. Punch” first took him in hand he could make little or nothing of him, but the eye-glass saved the Fleet Street artists from failure. They found nothing they could lay hold of at first, not even his nose. They saw a man with a pleasant, good-looking, closely-shaven face, some dark hair brushed back from his forehead, but there was nothing they could hit off with success, and the only way they could secure identity was by the eye-glass. “Mr. Punch” used at one time to represent Mr. Bright as wearing an eye-glass, but I don’t think he ever used one. Certainly I never saw Mr. Bright with an eye-glass, and never saw Mr. Chamberlain without one. Great and prominent men should have some characteristic peculiarity that should be their own special personal brand, and if they have it not, it must be made for them as in the case of Lord Palmerston and the wisp of straw that “Mr. Punch” always put in his mouth. Mr. Chamberlain, however, has kindly obliged, and given caricaturists and others something by which he can be unmistakably “featured.”