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Splendid as was his eloquence at that time, Mr. Bradlaugh did not draw the large audiences that flocked around him a few years later. The Hall of Science was at first but half its present size, the platform standing on the right as you entered, with a small gallery on the opposite side. Its holding capacity could not have been more than half what it is at present, yet I have seen the place far from full. But the audiences grew larger and larger, and eventually the hall was increased to its present proportions, although for a long time there was not cash enough to put on a proper roof, and the building was defaced by a huge unsightly beam, on each side of which there was an arch of corrugated iron.
Those were glorious times. Difficulties were great, but there was a spirit at the Hall that laughed at them. How the foremost men about the place did work! Mr. R. O. Smith and Mr. Trevilion, senior, could a tale unfold. Whenever Freethinkers are at all dejected they should have a chat with one of those gentleman. Perhaps it would make them ashamed of their dejection, and fill them with the spirit of the heroic days.
Friends have told me with what energy Mr. Bradlaugh fought the battles of the old Reform League. I know with what energy he threw himself into the Republican agitation that followed the downfall of Napoleon III. He tried to get to Paris but failed. Jules Favre and his friends did not want him. Favre himself was an eloquent historion, and no doubt he felt afraid of a man like Mr. Bradlaugh. But if Mr. Bradlaugh could not get to Paris he fought hard for France in London. Meetings at the Hall of Science did not suffice. There was money from French sources and St. James's Hall was taken for a big demonstration.
The Positivists shared in the proceedings. Their chief man was Mr. Frederic Harrison. Mr. Bradlaugh and he were a tremendous contrast. In fact a London paper (I think the Echo) remarked that Mr. Bradlaugh spoke as well as Mr. Harrison wrote, and Mr. Harrison spoke as badly as Mr. Bradlaugh wrote. There was some truth in this, though like most epigrams it was not all true. Mr. Bradlaugh was a born orator, but not a born writer. Yet he often wrote with a forthright power, naked and unadorned, which could dispense with the aid of literary artifices. During this English agitation on behalf of France, held firmly under German feet, Mr. Bradlaugh came into contact with a French countess, who, I believe, either supplied or was the channel of supplying the necessary funds. As the lady is mentioned in Mr Headingley's Life of Charles Bradlaugh, which was published with Mr. Bradlaugh's sanction, there is no reason why I should not refer to her. She came several times to the Hall of Science, and I was introduced to her. She had been a beauty, and although time was beginning to tell on her, she retained a good deal of charm and distinction, which, like a true Frenchwoman, she heightened by the art of dressing. Then as now, of course, foul tongues wagged in foolish heads, and Mr. Bradlaugh's enemies were not slow to point to the French countess with prurient grimaces. Unable to understand friendship between man and woman, owing to their Puritan training or incurable rankness, they invited the orthodox in religion and politics to note this suspicious connection. Something of this malicious folly must have reached Mr. Brad-laugh's ears, but I imagine he was too proud and self-contained to let it disturb him.
After the Birmingham meeting, and the founding of the Republican League, of which Mr. Bradlaugh became president, and I secretary, he visited Spain on private business, taking with him a message from the Conference to Senor Castelar, the leading spirit of the short-lived Spanish Republic. I remember writing out the message in a clear, bold hand, and addressing the foolscap envelope in the same way. When Mr. Bradlaugh fell among the Carlists he cursed my caligraphy. Happily, however, the officer who scrutinised that envelope could not read at all, and Mr. Bradlaugh escaped the consequences of being known to carry about letters addressed to the devilish Castelar.
During Mr. Bradlaugh's first visit to America I was a frequent contributor to his journal, and I corresponded with him privately. I went down to Northampton and delivered a lecture at his request, under the auspices of his electoral committee. The old theatre—a dirty, ramshackle place as I recollect it—was crowded, and I had my first taste of the popularity of Mr. Bradlaugh in the borough. Every mention of his name excited the wildest enthusiasm.
While Mr. Bradlaugh was lecturing in the States a general election took place in England. It was impossible for him to return in time, but his friends looked after his interests. A committee was formed at the Hall of Science to raise the necessary funds, and Mr. Charles Watts and I went down to Northampton to conduct the election. We addressed outdoor meetings in the day, and crowded indoor meetings at night.
Again I saw what a hold Mr. Bradlaugh had on his Northampton followers. They sang "Bradlaugh for Northampton" in the Circus with all the fervor of Scotch Covenanters on their hillsides "rolling the psalm to wintry skies."
Mr. Watts and I did not win the seat for Mr. Bradlaugh, nor did he win it himself at the next election, but we managed to increase his vote, and he expressed his pleasure at the result.
Soon after the election Mr. Bradlaugh returned to England. Mr. Watts and I went down with him to Northampton. There was a crowded public meeting, I believe in the Circus; and I saw Mr. Bradlaugh, for the first time, in the presence of his future constituents. They were simply intoxicated with excitement. The shouts of "Bradlaugh" and "Charley" were deafening. Hats and handkerchiefs were waved in the air. The multitude rose to its feet and gave its hero a splendid welcome. Then we settled down to speech-making, but all that followed was somewhat tame and flat after that first glorious outburst of popular devotion.
The next election came quickly. It resulted in the return of a Tory majority for Benjamin Disraeli, and Mr. Gladstone went off to sulk in his tent. Two Tories were returned for Radical Northampton. Mr. Bradlaugh let them in. He was determined to have one of the Northampton seats. To get it he had to make himself inevitable. He had to prove that if Northampton wanted two Liberal members, one of them must be Charles Bradlaugh. It took him thirteen years to demonstrate this, but he succeeded, as he succeeded in most things. At last, in 1880, he ran as official Liberal candidate with Mr. Labouchere, and both were returned. I assisted Mr. Bradlaugh during his second (1874) election. It was then that I first saw Mrs. Besant. She had not yet taken to the platform, but she was writing for the National Reformer, and her pen was active during the contest. Mr. Watts was also there. Another figure I remember was Mr. George Odger, who labored among the Trade unionists of Northampton in Mr. Bradlaugh's interest. George Odger was one of the ablest of all the working-class leaders I have ever met. He came from my own county, Devonshire, being born at Horrabridge, on the road between Plymouth and Tavistock. He was honest to the heart's core, as well as very able, but he was incurably indolent. You never could be sure of him at a public meeting. He had to be looked up beforehand, or he might forget the engagement and spend his time more agreeably. He was passionately fond of the theatre, and could talk by the hour on famous performances of old actors and actresses. During the daytime at Northampton I had long chats with him. He objected to fine hotels, and he objected to walking; so I had to sit with him in the garden of a semi-rural public-house, where our conversation was altogether out of proportion to our liquor. Odger liked beer; not much of it, but just enough; it suited his palate and his purse; and as I drank next to nothing, the landlord must have thought us unprofitable customers.