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.