“Don’t want to bother you,” remarked the toddling baby, catching the hem of the other’s overcoat; “but if you could spare a minute!”
“Now, let me see,” said the Deep Thinker, looking down sideways at the small child and giving the pull-up of the cuffs preparatory to the making of an arch with two hands. “Let me see, now. Where are we?”
“In Notting Dale.”
“I mean, how far have we advanced? At what stage have we arrived?”
“Haven’t arrived at all,” answered the baby shortly. “I’m just starting, and it seems to me I’m starting in rather unfortunate circumstances. I’m not going to say anything against my father and mother; but, really, unless some one else steps in and—”
“Not so fast!” interrupted the Deep Thinker, taking off pince-nez and shaking it reprovingly at the child. “Let us consider this case of yours fully, in all its various aspects. We must hasten slowly. I’m fully prepared to help you in every possible manner, and you can safely leave the case in my hands.”
“Fire away, then!” said the infant.
The Deep Thinker, turning up the collar of his overcoat, found a sheltered space near the Sirdar Road schools, and opened the discussion, picking phrases so carefully that sometimes when the right word came first he rejected it, substituting one which represented second thoughts. The question to be decided—this he offered truculently as his humble opinion—was that nothing could be done for the Notting Dale baby until a large, momentous, important point received satisfactory settlement.
“Now, the Act of 1870, you will remember—”
The child protested that it knew nothing of events happening so long ago; the Deep Thinker lifted a warning forefinger as insistent demand for silence. Warming to the arguments, he began to wave arms, to adopt emphatic forms of gesture; the boy stood clear, watching, and endeavouring to follow the involved and tortuous reasoning. “Shall we,” said the Deep Thinker, “or shall we not reimpose tests?” The youngster gave the sigh of one struggling to understand and unable to see light. “Ought we or ought we not to oppose with all the force and strength we possess undenominational religion; and, if so, why?” The other muttered, “Because it’s ajar!” and, turning, found a little pack of grubby cards in his pocket.
“We proceed now to consider the point of full popular control, and here is a subject on which I shall take the liberty of speaking at some length. It is a difficult point, and I beg you to give me your complete and absolute attention.”
“That I jolly well sha’n’t!” replied the other definitely.
It appeared an audience was not indispensable so long as the Deep Thinker could be permitted to talk without interruption; he found so much pleasure in the task that he gave a high giggle of satisfaction when, having set up a limp argument made of straw with the preface “But then my opponents will say—,” he knocked it down and jumped exultantly upon it with “I rather think that answers the other side!” As time went on, he became slightly hoarse, and the other standing near (whose manners really seemed to be getting worse and worse) warned him that his throat would presently resemble a nutmeg-grater; the Deep Thinker took a voice lozenge, gaining from this enough refreshment to enable him to proceed. Public speakers can be divided into two sets—one not knowing where to begin, and the other not knowing where to leave off; it was evident to which party the Deep Thinker belonged, for whenever it seemed he was approaching finality and nothing remained but to take definite action, he always managed to discover a new and another branch on which he could perch himself and twitter.
“For each individual, after due consideration of the convictions of others, the final authority as to the right or wrong of any opinion or action should be his own conscientious and well-reasoned judgment.”
Policemen came up and interfered between the lad and the girl who was suffering from his blows; the Deep Thinker, his attention distracted by the incident, begged the constables not to arrest the youth until the arguments that were being delivered should come to an end; and the two members of the F Division, touching helmets, went off reluctantly, taking good note of the features of the combative parties. The young man now made no pretence of listening. As quiet folk went by he made a snatch at their watches or at their purses, or at both, and when success attended his efforts he was absent for a time, returning with a slight hiccough and a flushed countenance.
He had developed during the discussion from a round-eyed, attractive infant to a bulgy, sullen youth with a shifting expression that never escaped aggressiveness. As the Deep Thinker announced that only a few brief words remained to be said, the youth temporarily gave up the task of incommoding his fellows, and offered a look of hopefulness.
“I am warned,” said the Deep Thinker, blinking around, “that time does not stand still, and I propose therefore to put my remaining arguments into the briefest possible space. I flatter myself I am a man of action, rather than a man of words. The time has come to be up and doing. We must gird on our sword for the fray. The trumpet call is sounding, and it is the hour for coming to close quarters. First of all, however, I should like to run over the various heads of the arguments I have used, and freshen them, if I may say so—freshen them in your memory.”
What the Deep Thinker meant by this proved to be that he should give himself an encore and accept it, for he went through the whole of his exhaustive address again, adding to it considerably here and there, and whenever he became involved in a thick undergrowth of words, laboriously retraced his footsteps and recommenced the journey. The lad, become a man, short and defiant, with a stubbly beard, made a very satisfactory haul from two well-dressed people, returning later with a revolver, that gave him a great amount of interest; the Deep Thinker broke off to urge him to be careful.
“The crux of the whole question,” said the Deep Thinker, resuming, “put shortly is simply this. The moral life involves neither acceptance nor rejection of belief in any deity, personal or impersonal, or in a life after death!”
Possibly the bearded man did not fully comprehend the intention of this remark; probable, too, that, having been talked to for a considerable length of time, his sense of appreciation had become dulled. At any rate, a City gentleman, hurrying home, found himself at his last destination sooner than he expected. The police wanted the Deep Thinker to come along to the station; his evidence as witness would be required, but the Deep Thinker assured them earnestly that, absorbed by a particular topic, he had seen nothing of the affair.
“Thus we see,” went on the Deep Thinker, when they had disappeared, “that, whilst on the one side it may be fairly argued that—”
He had not finished when there occurred a shock that genuinely pained and annoyed him. The rate-collector presented a demand for payment of the Deep Thinker’s share of the cost of keeping the Sirdar Road criminal in prison for the remainder of what was termed his natural life.
“Almost enough,” cried the Deep Thinker aggrievedly, “to make a man threaten to give up completely his interest in public questions!”