Endymion, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 8

What unexpectedly took place in the southern part of England, and especially in the maritime counties, during the autumn of 1830, seemed rather to confirm the intimations of Baron Sergius. The people in the rural districts had become disaffected. Their discontent was generally attributed to the abuses of the Poor Law, and to the lowness of their wages. But the abuses of the Poor Law, though intolerable, were generally in favour of the labourer, and though wages in some parts were unquestionably low, it was observed that the tumultuous assemblies, ending frequently in riot, were held in districts where this cause did not prevail. The most fearful feature of the approaching anarchy was the frequent acts of incendiaries. The blazing homesteads baffled the feeble police and the helpless magistrates; and the government had reason to believe that foreign agents were actively promoting these mysterious crimes.

Amid partial discontent and general dejection came the crash of the Wellington ministry, and it required all the inspiration of Zenobia to sustain William Ferrars under the trial. But she was undaunted and sanguine as a morning in spring. Nothing could persuade her that the Whigs could ever form a government, and she was quite sure that the clerks in the public offices alone could turn them out. When the Whig government was formed, and its terrible programme announced, she laughed it to scorn, and derided with inexhaustible merriment the idea of the House of Commons passing a Reform Bill. She held a great assembly the night that General Gascoyne defeated the first measure, and passed an evening of ecstasy in giving and receiving congratulations. The morrow brought a graver brow, but still an indomitable spirit, and through all these tempestuous times Zenobia never quailed, though mobs burnt the castles of dukes and the palaces of bishops.

Serious as was the state of affairs to William Ferrars, his condition was not so desperate as that of some of his friends. His seat at least was safe in the new parliament that was to pass a Reform Bill. As for the Tories generally, they were swept off the board. Scarcely a constituency, in which was a popular element, was faithful to them. The counties in those days were the great expounders of popular principles, and whenever England was excited, which was rare, she spoke through her freeholders. In this instance almost every Tory knight of the shire lost his seat except Lord Chandos, the member for Buckinghamshire, who owed his success entirely to his personal popularity. “Never mind,” said Zenobia, “what does it signify? The Lords will throw it out.”

And bravely and unceasingly she worked for this end. To assist this purpose it was necessary that a lengthened and powerful resistance to the measure should be made in the Commons; that the public mind should be impressed with its dangerous principles, and its promoters cheapened by the exposure of their corrupt arrangements and their inaccurate details. It must be confessed that these objects were resolutely kept in view, and that the Tory opposition evinced energy and abilities not unworthy of a great parliamentary occasion. Ferrars particularly distinguished himself. He rose immensely in the estimation of the House, and soon the public began to talk of him. His statistics about the condemned boroughs were astounding and unanswerable: he was the only man who seemed to know anything of the elements of the new ones. He was as eloquent too as exact — sometimes as fervent as Burke, and always as accurate as Cocker.

“I never thought it was in William Ferrars,” said a member, musingly, to a companion as they walked home one night; “I always thought him a good man of business, and all that sort of thing — but, somehow or other, I did not think this was in him.”

“Well, he has a good deal at stake, and that brings it out of a fellow,” said his friend.

It was, however, pouring water upon sand. Any substantial resistance to the measure was from the first out of the question. Lord Chandos accomplished the only important feat, and that was the enfranchisement of the farmers. This perpetual struggle, however, occasioned a vast deal of excitement, and the actors in it often indulged in the wild credulity of impossible expectations. The saloon of Zenobia was ever thronged, and she was never more confident than when the bill passed the Commons. She knew that the King would never give his assent to the bill. His Majesty had had quite enough of going down in hackney coaches to carry revolutions. After all, he was the son of good King George, and the court would save the country, as it had often done before. “But it will not come to that,” she added. “The Lords will do their duty.”

“But Lord Waverley tells me,” said Ferrars, “that there are forty of them who were against the bill last year who will vote for the second reading.”

“Never mind Lord Waverley and such addlebrains,” said Zenobia, with a smile of triumphant mystery. “So long as we have the court, the Duke, and Lord Lyndhurst on our side, we can afford to laugh at such conceited poltroons. His mother was my dearest friend, and I know he used to have fits. Look bright,” she continued; “things never were better. Before a week has passed these people will be nowhere.”

“But how it is possible?”

“Trust me.”

“I always do — and yet”——

“You never were nearer being a cabinet minister,” she said, with a radiant glance.

And Zenobia was right. Though the government, with the aid of the waverers, carried the second reading of the bill, a week afterwards, on May 7, Lord Lyndhurst rallied the waverers again to his standard and carried his famous resolution, that the enfranchising clauses should precede the disenfranchisement in the great measure. Lord Grey and his colleagues resigned, and the King sent for Lord Lyndhurst. The bold chief baron advised His Majesty to consult the Duke of Wellington, and was himself the bearer of the King’s message to Apsley House. The Duke found the King “in great distress,” and he therefore did not hesitate in promising to endeavour to form a ministry.

“Who was right?” said Zenobia to Mr. Ferrars. “He is so busy he could not write to you, but he told me to tell you to call at Apsley House at twelve tomorrow. You will be in the cabinet.”

“I have got it at last!” said Ferrars to himself. “It is worth living for and at any peril. All the cares of life sink into insignificance under such circumstances. The difficulties are great, but their very greatness will furnish the means of their solution. The Crown cannot be dragged in the mud, and the Duke was born for conquest.”

A day passed, and another day, and Ferrars was not again summoned. The affair seemed to hang fire. Zenobia was still brave, but Ferrars, who knew her thoroughly, could detect her lurking anxiety. Then she told him in confidence that Sir Robert made difficulties, “but there is nothing in it,” she added. “The Duke has provided for everything, and he means Sir Robert to be Premier. He could not refuse that; it would be almost an act of treason.” Two days after she sent for Mr. Ferrars, early in the morning, and received him in her boudoir. Her countenance was excited, but serious. “Don’t be alarmed,” she said; “nothing will prevent a government being formed, but Sir Robert has thrown us over; I never had confidence in him. It is most provoking, as Mr. Baring had joined us, and it was such a good name for the City. But the failure of one man is the opportunity of another. We want a leader in the House of Commons. He must be a man who can speak; of experience, who knows the House, its forms, and all that. There is only one man indicated. You cannot doubt about him. I told you honours would be tumbling on your head. You are the man; you are to have one of the highest offices in the cabinet, and lead the House of Commons.”

“Peel declines,” said Ferrars, speaking slowly and shaking his head. “That is very serious.”

“For himself,” said Zenobia, “not for you. It makes your fortune.”

“The difficulties seem too great to contend with.”

“What difficulties are there? You have got the court, and you have got the House of Lords. Mr. Pitt was not nearly so well off, for he had never been in office, and had at the same time to fight Lord North and that wicked Mr. Fox, the orator of the day, while you have only got Lord Althorp, who can’t order his own dinner.”

“I am in amazement,” said Ferrars, and he seemed plunged in thought.

“But you do not hesitate?”

“No,” he said, looking up dreamily, for he had been lost in abstraction; and speaking in a measured and hollow voice, “I do not hesitate.” Then resuming a brisk tone he said, “This is not an age for hesitation; if asked, I will do the deed.”

At this moment there was a tap at the door, and the groom of the chambers brought in a note for Mr. Ferrars, which had been forwarded from his own residence, and which requested his presence at Apsley House. Having read it, he gave it to Zenobia, who exclaimed with delight, “Do not lose a moment. I am so glad to have got rid of Sir Robert with his doubts and his difficulties. We want new blood.”

That was a wonderful walk for William Ferrars, from St. James’ Square to Apsley House. As he moved along, he was testing his courage and capacity for the sharp trials that awaited him. He felt himself not unequal to conjectures in which he had never previously indulged even in imagination. His had been an ambitious, rather than a soaring spirit. He had never contemplated the possession of power except under the aegis of some commanding chief. Now it was for him to control senates and guide councils. He screwed himself up to the sticking-point. Desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspirer as genius.

The great man was alone — calm, easy, and courteous. He had sent for Mr. Ferrars, because having had one interview with him, in which his cooperation had been requested in the conduct of affairs, the Duke thought it was due to him to give him the earliest intimation of the change of circumstances. The vote of the house of Commons on the motion of Lord Ebrington had placed an insurmountable barrier to the formation of a government, and his Grace had accordingly relinquished the commission with which he had been entrusted by the King.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19