The House listened and looked on entranced, as though they were the spectators to a tragedy. And indeed it seemed as though they were. Necks were craned to see Mr. Harper; he didn't look like a hero, but one never can tell about these little men. He had hurled defiance at the Northeastern Railroads, and that was enough for Mr. Redbrook and Mr. Widgeon and their friends, who prepared to rush into the fray trusting to Heaven for speech and parliamentary law. O for a leader now! Horatius is on the bridge, scarce concealing his disdain for this puny opponent, and Lartius and Herminius not taking the trouble to arm. Mr. Bascom will crush this one with the flat of his sword.
"Mr. Speaker," said that gentleman, informally, "as Chairman of the Committee on Incorporations, I rise to protest against such an unheard-of motion in this House. The very essence of orderly procedure, of effective business, depends on the confidence of the House in its committees, and in all of my years as a member I have never known of such a thing. Gentlemen of the House, your committee are giving to this bill and other measures their undivided attention, and will report them at the earliest practicable moment. I hope that this motion will be voted down."
Mr. Bascom, with a glance around to assure himself that most of the hundred members of the Newcastle delegation--vassals of the Winona Corporation and subject to the Empire--had not made use of their passes and boarded, as usual, the six o'clock train, took his seat. A buzz of excitement ran over the house, a dozen men were on their feet, including the plainly agitated Mr. Harper himself. But who is this, in the lunar cockpit before the Speaker's desk, demanding firmly to be heard--so firmly that Mr. Harper, with a glance at him, sits down again; so firmly that Mr. Speaker Doby, hypnotized by an eye, makes the blunder that will eventually cost him his own head?
"The gentleman from Leith, Mr. Crewe."
As though sensing a drama, the mutterings were hushed once more. Mr. Jacob Botcher leaned forward, and cracked his seat; but none, even those who had tasted of his hospitality, recognized that the Black Knight had entered the lists--the greatest deeds of this world, and the heroes of them, coming unheralded out of the plain clay. Mr. Crewe was the calmest man under the roof as he saluted the Speaker, walked up to the clerk's desk, turned his back to it, and leaned both elbows on it; and he regarded the sea of faces with the identical self-possession he had exhibited when he had made his famous address on national affairs. He did not raise his voice at the beginning, but his very presence seemed to compel silence, and curiosity was at fever heat. What was he going to say?
"Gentlemen of the House," said Mr. Crewe, "I have listened to the gentleman from Putnam with some--amusement. He has made the statement that he and his committee are giving to the Pingsquit bill and other measures--some other measures--their undivided attention. Of this I have no doubt whatever. He neglected to define the species of attention he is giving them--I should define it as the kindly care which the warden of a penitentiary bestows upon his charges."
Mr. Crewe was interrupted here. The submerged four hundred and seventy had had time to rub their eyes and get their breath, to realize that their champion had dealt Mr. Bascom a blow to cleave his helm, and a roar of mingled laughter and exultation arose in the back seats, and there was more craning to see the glittering eyes of the Honourable Brush and the expressions of his two companions-in-arms. Mr. Speaker Doby beat the stone with his gavel, while Mr. Crewe continued to lean back calmly until the noise was over.
"Gentlemen," he went on, "I will enter at the proper time into a situation--known, I believe, to most of you--that brings about a condition of affairs by which the gentleman's committee, or the gentleman himself, with his capacious pockets, does not have to account to the House for every bill assigned to him by the Speaker. I have taken the trouble to examine a little into the gentleman's past record--he has been chairman of such committees for years past, and I find no trace that bills inimical to certain great interests have ever been reported back by him. The Pingsquit bill involves the vital principle of competition. I have read it with considerable care and believe it to be, in itself, a good measure, which deserves a fair hearing. I have had no conversation whatever with those who are said to be its promoters. If the bill is to pass, it has little enough time to get to the Senate. By the gentleman from Putnam's own statement his committee have given it its share of attention, and I believe this House is entitled to know the verdict, is entitled to accept or reject a report. I hope the motion will prevail."