The Voice Of The National Conscience
These battles with Schultz did not cost him much sleep. A much more serious episode in his parliamentary career was the collision with the leader of his party into which he was most reluctantly driven by the notorious Pacific Scandal. It was in this painful shape that he first made acquaintance in grim earnest with the great railway which afterwards bulked so largely in his life work. He was doomed to begin his connection with that undertaking by making bitter enemies of his old friends and natural allies, of the very men without whose daring help the arduous business would scarcely have been taken in hand, much less accomplished in his day. The part which he took was none the less a man's part. In order to see quite clearly that it was, we must once more go rather carefully into this unedifying chapter of our history.
The election of 1872, in which Donald A. Smith was again returned for Selkirk as one of his supporters, was the toughest Sir John Macdonald ever fought in his life. He had heavy odds against him. The rage of Ontario over Scott's unavenged death was still blazing. It had already made his opponents masters of the Provincial Legislature and therefore of the most formidable influence and patronage. He had incurred bitter unpopularity in many quarters by his admirable conduct in the negotiation of the Washington treaty. But the real issue was the Canadian Pacific Railway. By his bold forward policy in that affair, wise as it was in facing risks to avoid risks still more deadly, and vital to the growth of the country—nay, as he believed, even to its integrity as it already stood and to the maintenance of Confederation,—he demanded an output of national effort, courage, faith in the future, and readiness to spend large sums of money which it was hazardous to expect of a somewhat unimaginative and extremely hardworking and frugal people such as the great bulk of the farmers and tradesmen of Canada then were. His rivals had hoisted the untimely but attractive banner of economy and all the hosts of inertia and a short-sighted parsimony were sure to march under it with them to the polls. Sir John was determined to beat them. It was an hour of fate, he thought, and the Liberals had already plainly shown that they were not equal to it. There was in his view one thing needful at that moment, the immediate construction of a transcontinental railway, and the Opposition had unmistakably decided to gather votes from the cowardice and niggardliness of the electors by a policy of indefinite postponement of the indispensable. Therefore they must be kept out of office and he must be kept in at all costs. He did keep them out—for a time. He went back to Ottawa with a significantly diminished majority. But it soon appeared beyond all question that the cost in every sense had been intolerably high.
Neither of the two parties in the state had ever been squeamish in such things. The principle formulated on the one side in the maxim—elections are not won by prayer, on the other in the proposition that—the methods of the Sunday-School are not effective at the polls, was a fundamental axiom for both. But on this occasion it had been applied in an orgy of corruption hitherto unheard of in Canada, and there could be no doubt that the Conservatives had had the most money to spend. A grossly disproportionate amount of it, too, had come from one man. Sir Hugh Allan had been promised the charter of the railway, and the very first act of the new administration in March, 1873, was to pass a bill handing over that charter to him and his company . Thus the stipulated goods were duly delivered. A heavy price had been paid for them in the interval. Sir Hugh, as it soon came out, had contributed to the campaign fund of the party whose continuance in office was indispensable to the ratification of his contract a total or such portentous magnitude as to suggest irresistibly, first that it was altogether too well worth his while to secure it, second that he had made it too well worth the government's while to give it to him, and thirdly that the issue or the election which he had assisted providence so much to bring about could hardly be regarded as a pure and unmixed expression of spontaneous will on the part or the constituencies. There was also a widespread suspicion that a good deal of the peculiarly filthy lucre which had circulated so freely had come from American capitalists. It looked very much as if the statesmen of Canada, who passed for the standard-bearers of the most jealous Canadian patriotism, had sold the dearest interests of their country to a gang of alien speculators for the means of corrupting their countrymen.
The suspicion was much strengthened by the source from which light fell on this uncleanness. It was an American of the lowest type, called McMullen, that blew upon Sir Hugh Allan and compromised Sir John. The fellow had carefully kept Sir Hugh's frank letters and telegrams to himself, sold them back to him at a high price, and then sold them once more to his enemies. Further correspondence to the same illuminating effect was stolen out of locked desks for the benefit of these seekers after truth, one being a letter from Sir Hugh Allan to Sir Georges Cartier containing the interesting information that by the 7th of August, 1872, the former gentleman had paid out $250,000 and that he expected, humbly hoping that this would be the last of it, to add another $50,000 before the end of the month.
Once they had got upon a scent so hot the hounds of the Opposition were not long in closing upon their "old fox." First blood was drawn by Lucius Seth Huntington in April, 1873. Evidently going upon McMullen's material, which, however, he did not then produce, he made two charges, first against Allan, whose charter had been ratified by Parliament in March on the distinct understanding that his company was to be an exclusively Canadian one, that he was merely the stalking horse of American speculators, second against Her Majesty's Government who had, it was alleged, sold him the contract for large sums to be advanced by him for electioneering purposes. Such serious incriminations could not be passed over in silence. It was not, however, until the following August, after a good deal of fumbling and sparring for position, that the effective form which the inquiry actually took was finally decided upon, a Royal Commission consisting of three judges. In the meantime the whole country had been wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement. The McMullen correspondence had appeared in the Montreal Herald on the 4th of July. The blow was parried to some extent by an affidavit of Sir Hugh Allan's, published on the next day, which denied Huntington's charges of American control and all formal bargaining between himself and Sir John. But on the 18th of July the second batch of fatal documents came to light. These had every mark of authenticity and seemed to indicate very broadly that if there had been no express compact between them there had been a tacit understanding, and to prove conclusively that the men who had procured his railway charter for Allan had poured out Allan's money like water to procure their own return to power.
When Parliament assembled at length on the 23rd of October all eyes were turned toward Ottawa. The report of the Royal Commission, while disposing of the suspicions of foreign gold having been poured into Canada like a branch of the Styx, established the plain fact that the money of an interested beneficiary had been recklessly used to lift his friends and feeders into the saddle. Most quiet people felt in their hearts that Alexander Mackenzie did no more than express the verdict of the common conscience when he moved an Amendment to the Address demanding a vote of censure on the present advisers of His Excellency the Governor-General of the Dominion. The reply of the Government was no better than the ancient one "tu quoque." James Macdonald, the Conservative member for Pictou, proposed, in effect, that the House should assure His Excellency of their continued confidence in his existing Cabinet in spite of their unfeigned regret that it seemed as if both political parties thought it necessary to expend so many dollars in addressing the intelligence and patriotism of the Canadian electorate. In other words the accusing Opposition were no better than the convicted Government. His Excellency's choice was one of rotten apples.
That of the perplexed member for the Hudson's Bay Company was not much better. Poor Smith did not fully sympathise with either the amendment or the amendment to the amendment and could get no sanction for the characteristic independent "tertium quid" in which his own tormented soul would have found salvation. He had been summoned from far Fort Carlton where he was then upon his Company's business by an urgent message by letter from Sir John, had set out in hot haste for Winnipeg, whence he telegraphed that he would be in the Capital by the 23rd. In that at least he was as good as his word. On the 23rd, he turned up sure enough. Would he support his leader at this crisis or not? As it turned out, the fate of the administration largely depended on his decision. Not a soul knew how he would act until the very last moment. Perhaps he did not quite clearly know himself. Perhaps he thought "it would be given him in that hour." At all events he steadfastly refused to commit himself. Both Sir John and Sir Charles Tupper tried to get him to do so. Friends of the premier were despatched to sound him. He had an interview with Sir John, where it seemed Sir John was not quite himself. No sure word could be extracted from him that could be twisted by the most sanguine partisanship into a promise of support. Nay, according to his own public statement on a memorable occasion which we shall come to in due course, he declared in the most decided terms to the soliciting emissaries in the Speaker's private room that in conscience he could no possibly subscribe a vote of confidence like the member for Pictou's, based upon the audacious plea that two blacks made a white for the Conservatives. Their guilt had been brought home to them beyond question. He urged them to confess it frankly without seeking to extenuate or to shelter it behind the unproved guilt of others. The country might then like himself continue, notwithstanding, to cherish so high a sense of their merits in other respects as to be willing after all was said that they should still retain their present place. One need not be surprised that two practical politicians like Macdonald and Tupper should have waived aside this counsel of perfection. But there can be little doubt that they still clung to the fond surmise that their Mentor could not bring himself in the end to pronounce against them. Otherwise it would be impossible to fathom the extreme rancour which they kept up for many years against him. They seem to have counted upon the balance decisively inclining at last in his mind towards the side of old loyalty and strong approval of their forward policy.
So when at length, on the seventh day of the historic debate, in the very early morning hours of the Gunpowder Plot anniversary, the fifth of November, the member for Selkirk rose in his place, men looked towards him instinctively whether with hope or fear as a possible and perhaps who knew?—an effectively exploding Guy Fawkes. The house was full, the galleries overflowing; expectation on tensest tip-toe. He began with the modest remark that he had but little to say. Nobody had the slightest idea what that little might be and everybody felt in his bones that it would turn the scale. He spoke hesitatingly as if he were thinking aloud, feeling his way, and growing up as it were to some as yet unshaped conclusion. Almost up to his last sentence it seemed as if he were screwing up his courage to take the leap over all obstructing scruples and land on the bank by the side of his admired and beloved chief. Was he really equal to that heroic degree of party fealty, so much prized by Sir John, which could follow to the mouth of the bottomless pit and hack its way through all entangling undergrowth of doubt, or certainty, as to questions of right and wrong? Had this Scot a Scottish-Calvinistic conscience or had he not? That was what the Liberals were asking themselves in hushed suspense. It did not yet appear. The tardy orator dwelt long on his lofty appreciation of our great statesman's services, on his own hearty agreement with all his legislative measures and the brisk forward movement of his direction of the affairs of state, went so far even as to acquit him of any corrupt intentions in taking Allan's money. He had so relieved the anxieties of many persons on the Speaker's right that they rushed away to the refreshment room to celebrate their joy. Rash men! These were but wreaths of obsequy to be prettily off with the old love, not orange blossoms for a Darby and Joan renewal of inveterate marriage bonds. The draughts of those premature toasts were indeed but funeral wine and stirrup cups, not silver-wedding goblets. For in the meantime the member for the Hudson's Bay Company was drawing to the point at last, the vote of confidence! He would gladly vote confidence, he said, amid loud cheers from the right—drowned in a moment by a reverberating thunder of jubilation from the other hand as he went on in the next breath to add;—"If I could conscientiously do so." The murder was out. He could not. Her Majesty's Government must, like Cæsar's wife, be above suspicion if they were to keep unbroken the ties that had bound them so long to Donald A. Smith.
The story used to be told, and found its way into print, that after this deliverance Sir John met Smith in the lobby, and could scarcely be held back by main force from slapping his face, breaking out the while into burning flowers of the kind of eloquence which, when he felt the need of it, no one had more at command than he. It is not a true story. The occasion was quite beyond that. What Sir John did say must have seemed incomprehensibly tame and totally irrelevant. "You shall be paid that money," said he, meaning the £600 we know of. What did he mean? That "short accounts make long friends" and that Smith had punished his delay? Or did he mean, what Tupper later had the tongue of brass to assert, that the member for the Hudson's Bay Company had despaired of his ever paying and hoped for better things from the new friends he had just made? It is impossible to tell with certainty. But two things are certain enough. Sir John never did repay that money, and he knew the game was up. That same day he sent in his resignation and Alexander Mackenzie reigned in his stead.
It is little wonder that for a long time after they received from his hands that astonishing proof of the bitter distance there may be between the cup and the lip the name of Donald A. Smith was anathema to the Conservative party. With intolerable unction he had made them taste the pains of Tantalus and spilt their cup at the last moment. That was all they wanted to know about him for many a long day. In spite of that, however, and the extreme unpleasantness it brought him, he had not only, as was very soon proved by Mackenzie's overwhelming majority at the following election, which sent Smith back in the capacity of an "independent," expressed the immediate feeling of the country, he had also exactly anticipated what one may say has already proved to be the final judgment of posterity upon this matter, a somewhat reluctant recognition of decency as the paramount interest of Canada at that moment. It may well be held that Mackenzie and his followers put back the hands of the clock. But few would now dispute that Macdonald in his eagerness to make quick time had tampered with the pendulum. The member for the Hudson's Bay Company was in that crisis the voice of the national conscience. Nobody knew better than he that the coming in of the Liberals would mean a set-back to the north-west. And yet the man whose local prestige and personal advantage generally stood to lose most by the retardation was the man who resigned himself to make haste slowly and to set on high the supreme claims of common honesty. He did the right thing where the right thing was not very easy to see and very hard to carry into action. It took a wrench to do it. We may well believe him that the deed had many a sleepless night for prelude. And after it was done and done quite in the best way,—few people have ever succeeded in winning more venomous hate or more ingenious obloquy for discharging a plain duty in the most kindly possible way, for telling the sad truth in reluctant love. It is of course impossible to sound the motives of any human being. Perversity and the artifice of an invincible prejudice may attribute even the best of deeds and the costliest sacrifice to some more or less subtle form of self-seeking. But surely no rancour on the healthy side of pure obsession could go out of its way to discover some far-fetched meanness of motive in Donald Smith's conduct on that occasion or rob him of the credit due to the memory of a man who at least once in his life did his duty under great difficulties.
His old friends however took a long time to arrive at this point of view. By the 10th of May, 1878, they had certainly not reached it. On that date the chickens came home to roost with a vengeance. The wrath he had stored up for himself by his virtue on the November morning five years before broke upon his devoted head in a compound interest of fury. It was an astonishing scene, the most disgraceful, according to George Brown, which had ever been known in the Canadian House of Commons. Indeed the whole history of parliamentary institutions might be challenged to produce another such fierce display of bear-baiting. Smith was the apparently unwieldy but unexpectedly effective bear; Macdonald and Tupper the most nimble and rabid of the dogs; and on the whole it was the biters who were bit.
The manner of it was thus. Smith had made very fruitful use indeed of these five years. In particular he had gone in for railways to some purpose. In February, 1878, though he had very wisely refrained from proclaiming upon the housetops that he had any hand whatever in the deal, he and his friends, chief among whom was his cousin George Stephen, had taken over the bonds of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Road from their Dutch holders, the idea of this coup having in all probability first dawned upon him some three or four years before, and certainly later than the fifth of November, 1873. Now of course the whole north-west, and above all Manitoba, was clamorous in demanding the full benefit of that railway. They saw in it no less than their salvation. But since Donald A. Smith had as usual taken the precaution to make his own interests coincide with his country's, Sir John did a thing which was quite unheard of for him, giving thereby an almost incredible proof of the truculence of his feelings— he did not hesitate to put a spoke in his enemy's wheel although that happened to be manifestly an integral part in the structure of the public omnibus. The only way to reach the north-west without enduring torments was Smith's railway. In order to facilitate the indispensable communications with Winnipeg, Mackenzie's government had taken the entirely innocuous step of bringing in a bill to give that railway running powers over the "Pembina branch," which they had just made arrangements to get built at last, from Selkirk to St. Vincent, their terminal on the border, where Smith's American line, the one tolerable route from Toronto, joined hands with them. Sir John opposed the measure ostensibly on the quite absurd ground that it was objectionable to have the trade of the Dominion carried by aliens—the difficulty was to get it carried at all!—and on that ground the loyal Senate, which there had not yet been time to purge of his partisans, obediently threw it out. But his real mind in the matter had scowled out in his allegation that the true purpose of the bill was to reward for servile support of the government a certain member of the House, who had admitted his share in the interested monopoly. Smith, the mark, as all knew, of this poisoned arrow, had not been present to rebut it on the spot. But on the very last day of the session, about three o'clock in the afternoon, when Black Rod might be expected at any moment to appear at the door on his my to summon Her Majesty's faithful Commons to the Senate House for the prorogation of Parliament by His Excellency, the member for the Hudson's Bay Company rose to a question of privilege, holding in his hand an Ottawa newspaper which contained a report of the attack upon him.
He had never, he said, after reading his extract, admitted connection with the Corporation referred to; (as a matter of fact it was not his way to wear either his heart or his investments upon his sleeve, and he had foreseen that just such an attack might possibly arise,) but even if he had that would not have given the leader of the Opposition the right to speak of him in such an injurious manner. It was, however, quite true that he had a stake in the "monopoly." He had laboured, in other words, to obtain for the district he represented the better access to the outside world which was an urgent necessity for its welfare and which the honourable gentleman and his friends seemed determined to block by every obstacle within their reach. He certainly hoped not to lose by his exertions, but whatever gains might accrue to him personally would be won in the process of furthering the general advantage. He would appeal to Sir John's own considerable experience of him. Had his detractors ever found him using his public position to push his private interests? He would defy them to say that he had ever once to their knowledge accepted a penny for service to the state, or asked them for a single favour for himself, for a relation or a friend, or for any corporation like the Hudson's Bay Company in which he chanced to be concerned.
So far the speaker was able to unburden himself in comparative peace. Cries of "traitor," "coward," "liar" and the more burning and specific "Yankee Railway," "Dutch Bondholders," had preluded and accompanied the exordium. Sir John had interjected one or two shrewish questions. But the steady flow was not much broken; the meaning had pierced the heads of friends and foes. But when he had done with the immediate grievance that had called him to his feet there still remained some other Conservative calumnies which he thought it as well to deal with while he was at the wash-tub. So after finishing Sir John's buck-linen he turned upon Tupper who had also, though not so recently, given the rein to imagination at his expense in certain luxuriances of platform aspersion. From that moment peace fled. Inferno broke loose. It was hard to hold fast by the thread of any continuous or intelligible discourse. The speech became an altercation, an angry dialogue of the choppiest fragments, mostly with Tupper, though for a while (till a bad smash silenced his batteries) flashes of ejaculatory poison gas continued to be emitted by Sir John, all this to a rippling accompaniment of cries of order, gusts of applause, and hisses, cat-calls, and cock-crowings, a drop of oil here and there from Mr. Speaker, howls of execration, hand-clapping, stamping of feet and brief crackling discharges of more or less articulate Billingsgate.
By this time the debate had been switched off from the events of to-day or yesterday to that most controversial of all possible topics, Smith's unforgettable and unforgivable defection of five years before. Under what circumstances had that taken place? What were the impelling motives? Smith had one account clear and definite at every point. In spite of the noise of the captains and the shouting he made a shift to present it. His assailants had another. The Canadian annalist has to decide between them and it is mainly by the lightning gleams of that terrific tempest in our parliamentary teapot that he must labour to read the truth.
Tupper's was the hand that had sown the wind. During the last recess, that vigorous orator had been the principal attraction at one of those famous Watteau idyls of his party, the Orangeville Picnic. He had there analysed with the pellucid simplicity which stamps the choicest fights of inventive genius the workings of Smith's mind on the eve of his secession to the Grits. There had been no mystery about it, according to this well-informed psychologist. In those days Smith, whose addiction to the main chance at all stages of his career was known to everybody, had a certain sum of money (the everlasting £600, Riel's viaticum) to collect from a somewhat microscopically inquiring government. After several attempts he had resigned himself to the conclusion that he could not be sure of getting the money out of Sir John Macdonald. Therefore, after waiting till the last moment when he could see fairly plainly that the old ship was not very likely to weather the storm, the uncanny uncle had helped to fulfil the forecast of his own prophetic soul by scuttling her and ratting to the enemy. He had reckoned, not without his host, that the new allies, won for him by such a timely hoist into the high places from a dexterous "independent," would not look so closely as the old chief into snippets from the treasury and other favours. The shrewd expectation had been abundantly realized.
On the face of it this pretty story was of the very flimsiest texture. It could pass only at a picnic. Hardly had Smith, flourishing in his hand his second newspaper, begun its confutation, when Tupper rose in a fury to a point of order. The Orangeville picnic was altogether too old a story. Much too late in the day for a man who had never opened his mouth on the subject during the three months of the present session—it was in fact a cowardly action—to rehash such stale grudges now that Black Rod was at the door, to take shelter behind that functionary's robes from the answer that would otherwise be given,—"And from the punishment he would get," added Sir John. Smith, however, was not to be put off his scent. Promptly throwing back the imputation of cowardice upon its valorous source, he went on to read the newspaper report of the offensive lucubration and then proceeded to give his own recollections of what had really happened in the course of the events upon the narrative of which the sportive raconteur of Orangeville had lavished all the wealth of his airy fancy. These differed considerably, as it soon appeared, not only from Tupper's but from Sir John's. It was at this stage of the astonishing discussion that the House, as if the wand of Circe had been waved over it, frankly dropped its human mask and changed to a sheer Bedlam of rioting passions. Smith could scarcely finish a sentence in one breath. The naturally level stream of his speech was turned to a dizzy rapid, swirled drunkenly this way and that by jagged rocks at every inch of its advance. And yet, in spite of the momentary whirlpools and back-waters and side-rushes forced upon him, he kept a course in the main so straight and true that a bird's-eye view from some fair height above could have detected no divagations but only an unusual fulness, velocity and power. Macdonald's, Tupper's, and—most meanly spiteful of all,— Rochester's interruptions did not prevent him from saying his say. Like the Inchcape bell, high on its unquenchable rock among the deafening waves all round, he pealed out his own plain story loud and clear. That interview which he had had in the Speaker's room with Sir John's emissaries, ("the honourable member for Charlevoix, an honourable gentleman from the other House, Mr. Campbell, and Mr. Nathan, a personal friend of mine"), his own steadfast refusal on grounds of conscience to accept the whitewashing vote of confidence, his suggestion of the manlier, more honest and more excellent way of frank and open confession without squinting at other people's undemonstrated partnership in iniquity—he got it all told in the teeth of his hornet-like tormentors. Nay they actually helped him out. To their own confusion their stings turned to corkscrews of reminiscence, and brought things out of him into the light of day which otherwise would never have reached the surface, things which a moment ago, had someone mentioned them, he would have thought had quite dropped from his mind. His memory of every detail in those "far off" if not conspicuously "divine" events seemed to be only clarified and stimulated by the shocks and violent pelting of his assailants. It was manifestly much more complete, exact and trustworthy than Sir John's. It retained in the sharpest relief certain incidents which that statesman, the records of whose mental tablets were by no means indelible, had found it convenient to forget and had indeed quite honestly forgotten.
Smith's story, if, in the interests of clearness at the expense of its vividly dramatic quality, we may venture to disentangle it to some extent from the clamorous wild west show which tried to drown it, ran thus. He was away in the distant wilds when an urgent message, summoning him at once to Ottawa, reached him from Sir John Macdonald, in the form, not of a telegram as Sir John now said, but of a letter. He had at once set out post-haste for Winnipeg, and from there had telegraphed, not that he would support him, as Sir John by a sanguine inference entirely without warrant from the written words seemed to have rashly concluded, and as Tupper in the face of better knowledge of the precise fact now dared Smith to deny, but simply, as mere courtesy demanded, that he would be on the spot in good time, namely on the 23rd of October. He had kept his tryst. Sir John had first sounded him by means of the conversation with Senator Campbell and others in the Speaker's room. Finally, on the very eve of Smith's famous intervention, during the afternoon of November the fourth, Sir John had sent for him and met him tête à tête in room No. 5 or 6, Smith was not sure which. The Premier, who was in a state of great excitement, not altogether explicable by the anxieties natural in that feverish hour, had laid personal siege to him, earnestly endeavouring to extract the definite promise of his vote. He had no less definitely failed to extract it. By no importunities of argument or appeal could Smith be moved to pledge himself. He had not told Sir John what he was going to do. It may quite well be that even by that time he had not known exactly what he would do. But it was perfectly plain what he would not do. As he had already made plain as a pike-staff some days before, he could not "conscientiously" vote for the amendment of Macdonald of Pictou, and he would not. At last Sir John had ceased to press him. By a sudden change of tone such as the condition he then was in had rendered perfectly natural the old Reynard began to cry "sour grapes." With a flash of the eye and a wave of the hand he had defiantly indicated that it was after all of little consequence whether the House would support him that night or not; he would appeal to the country and Ontario would support him to a man! Now this declaration, as Smith took care to point out, was not exactly laudatory of Ontario. It implied an estimate of the political morality of the virtuous Province par excellence which brought it down to the level lately assigned to Smith's faithful clientèle of Selkirk by a taunt of Sir John's own, who had spoken of that constituency as a "rotten borough," "complete old Sarum." If the words had really been uttered it was a fatal utterance. So Sir John, who could do so quite ingenuously as the fact had left no trace whatever upon his brain, broke in at once with a categorical denial. There was not a vestige of truth he cried, in that statement or Smith's. He had never used those words. Unfortunately for him Smith had not forgotten either what Sir John had said or the reason why he had forgotten that he said it. In a sense it might be true that he had not framed those syllables himself, because he had not been quite himself when he framed them. But they had certainly issued out of his mouth. "The spirit within him" had said them.—That tricksy and oblivious spirit had been too much with the prime minister in those anxious nights and days. His name in him had been legion, one may regretfully infer—. For, as the grim retentiveness of the recording angel now on his feet before the House, refreshed and stimulated by being called in question, forthwith recalled, it was no other than Tupper himself, the trusty lieutenant of the slippery-minded chief, who had on that same night as well as on the next morning been incensed to declare that the Right Honourable Gentleman was not then capable of knowing what he said or did or of being brought to discern the difference between right and wrong.
Now the fat was in the fire with a vengeance. Tupper sprang to his feet; but even he could not counter in the most effective way by administering the lie direct. The monstrous fact was too overwhelmingly present in his mind. The very utmost he could bring himself to do at such short notice was to protest with rage and fury against this 'disloyal' use of long-past private conversations, then waxing bolder as he warmed to his desperate work and saw by a word from the Speaker that that was not enough—was mortally not enough—to add, obviously by afterthought, the vaguest general assertion that the 'disloyalty' was also falsification, and finally to drop the subject like a fiery coal and cast about for something,—anything! —less hot and less heavy. What should it be? He had it!—Smith's proud claim made at the very start (and quite unchallenged then!) that he had never asked a favour. By Heaven he had! It was a long time ago, but he had. Tupper fished it up at last under sore stress of need. If Smith's memory had been shaken up to its bitterest dregs, so had his. He went back even farther—not to '73 but to '69—he too, by a flash of inspired reprisals, to the sanctities of the most confidential kind of intercourse. Two could play at that fascinating game! It all came back to him as if it had been yesterday.
The scene thus raked up by the necessities of combat in the present lethal arena contrasted strangely with it. It was a private section of a railway-carriage westward bound, still on the less woolly side of Chicago. Two men were sitting there in closest consultation—two messengers of peace, at perfect peace with one another like a pair of doves with olive-twig in bill, yet very much resembling the very gladiators who after nine eventful years are now glaring at each other across the floor of the House. Messrs. Smith and Tupper were on their way to stem the flood of the half-breed insurrection. Smith whispered in the ear of his travelling companion the hint that on Tupper's return, which was to be quite soon, it might be worth while to point out to the Chief the. advantages in respect of his difficult and dangerous mission which might accrue from conferring upon the emissary the rank of Privy Councillor. The suggestion had in due course been offered, and received in rather contemptuously eloquent silence at headquarters. So nothing had come of that discreet request. But it had been made. What was to be thought of the veracity of the man who after holding out his hand like that for an alms could now come forward and boast before the House in the very first words he had spoken that day, that he had never stooped to ask a favour? Would not such a loose-tongued braggart be capable of saying anything at all?
That was the best poor Tupper, driven to his wits' end, as Smith truly said, could do to make a diversion. It was miserably little. He had not saved the situation for his leader who, since the mortal stroke straight at his weakest point, had sat crumpled up in a trance, red spots on his cheeks, his throat too dry to shout another objurgation till the very end. Nothing short of a straight lie from his right-hand man would have availed to restore animation. The bold henchman could not on the spur of the moment "sin boldly" enough for that. Smith in all his experience of him had by his own showing begged hut once, and that once was nine years ago! Besides he had not begged at all. With an eye,—and who dared to say that it was not a single eye?—to the better discharge of an extremely delicate and dangerous bit of public work, he had asked the authorities, who had charged him with the hard problem of unwinding the ugly snarl their own negligence had largely tangled, to arm and equip him for his task with a bit of ribbon, which he had the best reasons in the world for believing might help him both as a weapon and a protection. Which of the two actions had shown a petty personal spirit in a serious affair of state, the petition or the refusal? Tupper had meant to throw a stone, or a good wet ball of sticky mud at least. It turned out to be but a rather malodorous handful of dry old dust that blew back in his own face. Smith had but time, as he rode on quite unconcerned, to flick it off in passing with a word to indicate the extreme mustiness of the powdery garbage, but not to use his whip as he might have on the thrower. For just then, like a god from the machine, the long-expected messenger from the serene heights of the Upper House came down to end the hurly-burly and rescue from further "punishment," not, as they had said, the assailant, who was now just beginning to enjoy himself and going strong in full swing of reminiscence, but Tupper himself and his moulting captain. It was surely like the sight of land from a wreck for them to behold the Sergeant-at-Arms come forward to announce the arrival of His Excellency's bringer of good tidings. Mr. Speaker, too, for once really felt the great pleasure he expressed in informing the House that it had now become his duty to be done with his presidency and to receive in fitting silence the envoy of the Throne. There was time only, as the latter marched to the table, for Smith to sketch with rapid sweeps the tail piece of his illuminating inner history—a final interview the day after the fray where two strong Conservatives, unnamed, offered to throw Sir John over if Smith would go into division against Mackenzie's vote of censure,—for four more interjectional urbanities on Tupper's part, "coward! coward!" thrice repeated and by way of parting shot; "Mean treacherous coward!"—observe however not "liar!"—and then, to wind up weightily, a single expiring flare and detonation from Sir John. He had come out of his swoon and got breath at last to add the one indispensable word which Tupper, who knew better, had not the force to prevail over himself to supply. Those far away events they were all confusedly talking about were still blurred as with a mist in the chambers in the chieftain's mind. His ignorance was bliss, for the moment at least. "That fellow Smith," he cried, "is the biggest liar I ever met in my life." Sir John was not denied the satisfaction of having the last comprehensive word, which would about have been decisive if it had only been true.
Then Black Rod said his say and waved his wand and the whole flock, with their shepherd Mr. Speaker, at their head, passed out in two converging streams to "where beyond these voices" peace brooded over the rich upholstery of the gilded Chamber, and thence to the green summer fields and still waters of the vacation. "As the crowd from both sides met in the passage," says a by-stander,1 "angry Tories (they did naturally if not well to be angry!) with arms uplifted as if to strike pushed and hustled towards the object of their wrath. " Smith, however, grey top-hat and all, escaped without bodily injury. It was "the most exciting scene in my life," he always said. He had borne himself well in it. Nothing reveals a man's quality so surely as his behaviour when his back is at the wall. Smith's was good. Fighting was not his métier, but he showed himself well worthy of the fists even of these practised pugilists. He gave much better than he got, never lost his head or, what is the same thing, struck one really foul blow, and came out of the liveliest mêlée ever seen upon that stage, not indeed untousled, but quite unsmirched and whole in wind and limb. The irresistible impression left by the perusal of Hansard is that—the facts were precisely as he recorded them; the record, considering the difficulties, was so complete and clear that it remains a priceless contribution to our knowledge of the somewhat seamy side of Canadian political history. On the whole his very antagonists, after they had cooled down, and perhaps just because they had blown their long accumulated fury, admitted that the member for the Hudson's Bay Company rode the storm and made harbour with all sail spread and colours flying, Pro pelle cutem! The bear had kept his hide and the dogs had lost large patches of their skin. Besides, that was really a cross-roads, or ganglion, in the man's career. Therefore among other reasons, it has been worth our while dwelling upon it with some particularity. The past and the future met there for him in a singularly significant way; all the main lines and marked incidents of the past, the Riel rebellion, his temporary break with the old friends, that were yet to kiss and be friends once more in a momentous and lasting reintegration of alliance, all were linked by unsuspected vital threads, that branched and thickened and stretched away into the distance, to a future then the most unlikely possible. What astrologer under the unexampled dominance of Ursa Major on that day of acrid strife could have cast for those three blood-thirstily wrestling cannibals who were the principals in it a horoscope to prefigure their fruitful and energetic, though still modestly dissembled, coöperation in the uphill work of the Canadian Pacific achievement, and the resulting dignities of the High Commissionership in London, not to be withheld from the man who had been the despised and rejected candidate for a mere seat on the Privy Council.
1Preston: "Life of Lord Strathcona," p. 112.