Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 29

A Cabinet meeting

And now will the Muses assist me while I sing an altogether new song? On the Tuesday the Cabinet met at the First Lord’s official residence in Downing Street, and I will attempt to describe what, according to the bewildered brain of a poor fictionist, was said or might have been said, what was done or might have been done, on so august an occasion.

The poor fictionist very frequently finds himself to have been wrong in his description of things in general, and is told so, roughly by the critics, and tenderly by the friends of his bosom. He is moved to tell of things of which he omits to learn the nature before he tells of them — as should be done by a strictly honest fictionist. He catches salmon in October; or shoots his partridges in March. His dahlias bloom in June, and his birds sing in the autumn. He opens the opera-houses before Easter, and makes Parliament sit on a Wednesday evening. And then those terrible meshes of the Law! How is a fictionist, in these excited days, to create the needed biting interest without legal difficulties; and how again is he to steer his little bark clear of so many rocks — when the rocks and the shoals have been purposely arranged to make the taking of a pilot on board a necessity? As to those law meshes, a benevolent pilot will, indeed, now and again give a poor fictionist a helping hand — not used, however, generally, with much discretion. But from whom is any assistance to come in the august matter of a Cabinet assembly? There can be no such assistance. No man can tell aught but they who will tell nothing. But then, again, there is this safety, that let the story be ever so mistold — let the fiction be ever so far removed from the truth, no critic short of a Cabinet Minister himself can convict the narrator of error.

It was a large dingy room, covered with a Turkey carpet, and containing a dark polished mahogany dinner-table, on very heavy carved legs, which an old messenger was preparing at two o’clock in the day for the use of her Majesty’s Ministers. The table would have been large enough for fourteen guests, and along the side further from the fire, there were placed some six heavy chairs, good comfortable chairs, stuffed at the back as well as the seat — but on the side nearer to the fire the chairs were placed irregularly; and there were four armchairs — two on one side and two on the other. There were four windows to the room, which looked on to St James’s Park, and the curtains of the windows were dark and heavy — as became the gravity of the purposes to which that chamber was appropriated. In old days it had been the dining-room of one Prime Minister after another. To Pitt it had been the abode of his own familiar prandial Penates, and Lord Liverpool had been dull there among his dull friends for long year after year. The Ministers of the present day find it more convenient to live in private homes, and, indeed, not unfrequently carry their Cabinets with them. But, under Mr Mildmay’s rule, the meetings were generally held in the old room at the official residence. Thrice did the aged messenger move each armchair, now a little this way and now a little that, and then look at them as though something of the tendency of the coming meeting might depend on the comfort of its leading members. If Mr Mildmay should find himself to be quite comfortable, so that he could hear what was said without a struggle to his ear, and see his colleagues’ faces clearly, and feel the fire without burning his shins, it might be possible that he would not insist upon resigning. If this were so, how important was the work now confided to the hands of that aged messenger! When his anxious eyes had glanced round the room some half a dozen times, when he had touched each curtain, laid his hand upon every chair, and dusted certain papers which lay upon a side-table — and which had been lying there for two years, and at which no one ever looked or would look — he gently crept away and ensconced himself in an easy chair not far from the door of the chamber. For it might be necessary to stop the attempt of a rash intruder on those secret counsels.

Very shortly there was heard the ring of various voices in the passages — the voices of men speaking pleasantly, the voices of men with whom it seemed, from their tone, that things were doing well in the world. And then a cluster of four or five gentlemen entered the room. At first sight they seemed to be as ordinary gentlemen as you shall meet anywhere about Pall Mall on an afternoon. There was nothing about their outward appearance of the august wiggery of statecraft, nothing of the ponderous dignity of ministerial position. That little man in the square-cut coat — we may almost call it a shooting-coat — swinging an umbrella and wearing no gloves, is no less a person than the Lord Chancellor — Lord Weazeling — who made a hundred thousand pounds as Attorney-General, and is supposed to be the best lawyer of his age. He is fifty, but he looks to be hardly over forty, and one might take him to be, from his appearance — perhaps a clerk in the War Office, well-to-do, and popular among his brother-clerks. Immediately with him is Sir Harry Coldfoot, also a lawyer by profession, though he has never practised. He has been in the House for nearly thirty years, and is now at the Home Office. He is a stout, healthy, grey-haired gentleman, who certainly does not wear the cares of office on his face. Perhaps, however, no minister gets more bullied than he by the press, and men say that he will be very willing to give up to some political enemy the control of the police, and the onerous duty of judging in all criminal appeals. Behind these come our friend Mr Monk, young Lord Cantrip from the colonies next door, than whom no smarter young peer now does honour to our hereditary legislature, and Sir Marmaduke Morecombe, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Why Sir Marmaduke has always been placed in Mr Mildmay’s Cabinets nobody ever knew. As Chancellor of the Duchy he has nothing to do — and were there anything, he would not do it. He rarely speaks in the House, and then does not speak well. He is a handsome man, or would be but for an assumption of grandeur in the carriage of his eyes, giving to his face a character of pomposity which he himself well deserves. He was in the Guards when young, and has been in Parliament since he ceased to be young. It must be supposed that Mr Mildmay has found something in him, for he has been included in three successive liberal Cabinets. He has probably the virtue of being true to Mr Mildmay, and of being duly submissive to one whom he recognises as his superior.

Within two minutes afterwards the Duke followed, with Plantagenet Palliser. The Duke, as all the world knows, was the Duke of St Bungay, the very front and head of the aristocratic old Whigs of the country — a man who has been thrice spoken of as Prime Minister, and who really might have filled the office had he not known himself to be unfit for it. The Duke has been consulted as to the making of Cabinets for the last five-and-thirty years, and is even now not an old man in appearance — a fussy, popular, clever, conscientious man, whose digestion has been too good to make politics a burden to him, but who has thought seriously about his country, and is one who will be sure to leave memoirs behind him. He was born in the semi-purple of ministerial influences, and men say of him that he is honester than his uncle, who was Canning’s friend, but not so great a man as his grandfather, with whom Fox once quarrelled, and whom Burke loved. Plantagenet Palliser, himself the heir to a dukedom, was the young Chancellor of the Exchequer, of whom some statesmen thought much as the rising star of the age. If industry, rectitude of purpose, and a certain clearness of intellect may prevail, Planty Pall, as he is familiarly called, may become a great Minister.

Then came Viscount Thrift by himself — the First Lord of the Admiralty, with the whole weight of a new iron-clad fleet upon his shoulders. He has undertaken the Herculean task of cleansing the dockyards — and with it the lesser work of keeping afloat a navy that may be esteemed by his countrymen to be the best in the world. And he thinks that he will do both, if only Mr Mildmay will not resign — an industrious, honest, self-denying nobleman, who works without ceasing from morn to night, and who hopes to rise in time to high things — to the translating of Homer, perhaps, and the wearing of the Garter.

Close behind him there was a ruck of Ministers, with the much-honoured grey-haired old Premier in the midst of them. There was Mr Gresham, the Foreign Minister, said to be the greatest orator in Europe, on whose shoulders it was thought that the mantle of Mr Mildmay would fall — to be worn, however, quite otherwise than Mr Mildmay had worn it. For Mr Gresham is a man with no feelings for the past, void of historical association, hardly with memories — living altogether for the future which he is anxious to fashion anew out of the vigour of his own brain. Whereas, with Mr Mildmay, even his love of reform is an inherited passion for an old-world Liberalism. And there was with them Mr Legge Wilson, the brother of a peer, Secretary at War, a great scholar and a polished gentleman, very proud of his position as a Cabinet Minister, but conscious that he has hardly earned it by political work. And Lord Plinlimmon is with them, the Comptroller of India — of all working lords the most jaunty, the most pleasant, and the most popular, very good at taking chairs at dinners, and making becoming speeches at the shortest notice, a man apparently very free and open in his ways of life — but cautious enough in truth as to every step, knowing well how hard it is to climb and how easy to fall. Mr Mildmay entered the room leaning on Lord Plinlimmon’s arm, and when he made his way up among the armchairs upon the rug before the fire, the others clustered around him with cheering looks and kindly questions. Then came the Privy Seal, our old friend Lord Brentford, last — and I would say least, but that the words of no councillor could go for less in such an assemblage than will those of Sir Marmaduke Morecombe, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Mr Mildmay was soon seated in one of the armchairs, while Lord Plinlimmon leaned against the table close at his elbow. Mr Gresham stood upright at the corner of the chimney-piece furthest from Mr Mildmay, and Mr Palliser at that nearest to him. The Duke took the armchair close at Mr Mildmay’s left hand. Lord Plinlimmon was, as I have said, leaning against the table, but the Lord Chancellor, who was next to him, sat upon it. Viscount Thrift and Mr Monk occupied chairs on the further side of the table, near to Mr Mildmay’s end, and Mr Legge Wilson placed himself at the head of the table, thus joining them as it were into a body. The Home Secretary stood before the Lord Chancellor screening him from the fire, and the Chancellor of the Duchy, after waiting for a few minutes as though in doubt, took one of the vacant armchairs. The young lord from the Colonies stood a little behind the shoulders of his great friend from the Foreign Office; and the Privy Seal, after moving about for a while uneasily, took a chair behind the Chancellor of the Duchy. One armchair was thus left vacant, but there was no other comer.

“It is not so bad as I thought it would be,” said the Duke, speaking aloud, but nevertheless addressing himself specially to his chief.

“It was bad enough,” said Mr Mildmay, laughing.

“Bad enough indeed,” said Sir Marmaduke Morecombe, without any laughter.

“And such a good bill lost,” said Lord Plinlimmon. The worst of these failures is, that the same identical bill can never be brought in again.”

“So that if the lost bill was best, the bill that will not be lost can only be second best,” said the Lord Chancellor.

“I certainly did think that after the debate before Easter we should not have come to shipwreck about the ballot,” said Mr Mildmay.

“It was brewing for us all along,” said Mr Gresham, who then with a gesture of his hand and a pressure of his lips withheld words which he was nearly uttering, and which would not, probably, have been complimentary to Mr Turnbull. As it was, he turned half round and said something to Lord Cantrip which was not audible to any one else in the room. It was worthy of note, however, that Mr Turnbull’s name was not once mentioned aloud at that meeting.

“I am afraid it was brewing all along,” said Sir Marmaduke Morecombe gravely.

“Well, gentlemen, we must take it as we get it,” said Mr Mildmay, still smiling. “And now we must consider what we shall do at once.” Then he paused as though expecting that counsel would come to him first from one colleague and then from another. But no such counsel came, and probably Mr Mildmay did not in the least expect that it would come.

“We cannot stay where we are, of course,” said the Duke. The Duke was privileged to say as much as that. But though every man in the room knew that it must be so, no one but the Duke would have said it, before Mr Mildmay had spoken plainly himself.

“No,” said Mr Mildmay; I suppose that we can hardly stay where we are. Probably none of us wish it, gentlemen.” Then he looked round upon his colleagues, and there came a sort of an assent, though there were no spoken words. The sound from Sir Marmaduke Morecombe was louder than that from the others — but yet from him it was no more than an attesting grunt. “We have two things to consider,” continued Mr Mildmay — and though he spoke in a very low voice, every word was heard by all present — “two things chiefly, that is; the work of the country and the Queen’s comfort. I propose to see Her Majesty this afternoon at five — that is, in something less than two hours’ time, and I hope to be able to tell the House by seven what has taken place between Her Majesty and me. My friend, His Grace, will do as much in the House of Lords. If you agree with me, gentlemen, I will explain to the Queen that it is not for the welfare of the country that we should retain our places, and I will place your resignations and my own in Her Majesty’s hands.”

“You will advise Her Majesty to send for Lord de Terrier,” said Mr Gresham.

“Certainly — there will be no other course open to me.”

“Or to her,” said Mr Gresham. To this remark from the rising Minister of the day, no word of reply was made; but of those present in the room three or four of the most experienced servants of the Crown felt that Mr Gresham had been imprudent. The Duke, who had ever been afraid of Mr Gresham, told Mr Palliser afterwards that such an observation should not have been made; and Sir Harry Coldfoot pondered upon it uneasily, and Sir Marmaduke Morecombe asked Mr Mildmay what he thought about it. “Times change so much, and with the times the feelings of men,” said Mr Mildmay. But I doubt whether Sir Marmaduke quite understood him.

There was silence in the room for a moment or two after Mr Gresham had spoken, and then Mr Mildmay again addressed his friends. “Of course it may be possible that my Lord de Terrier may foresee difficulties, or may find difficulties which will oblige him, either at once, or after an attempt has been made, to decline the task which her Majesty will probably commit to him. All of us, no doubt, know that the arrangement of a government is not the most easy task in the world; and that it is not made the more easy by an absence of a majority in the House of Commons.”

“He would dissolve, I presume,” said the Duke.

“I should say so,” continued Mr Mildmay. But it may not improbably come to pass that her Majesty will feel herself obliged to send again for some one or two of us, that we may tender to her Majesty the advice which we owe to her — for me, for instance, or for my friend the Duke. In such a matter she would be much guided probably by what Lord de Terrier might have suggested to her. Should this be so, and should I be consulted, my present feeling is that we should resume our offices so that the necessary business of the session should be completed, and that we should then dissolve Parliament, and thus ascertain the opinion of the country. In such case, however, we should of course meet again.”

“I quite think that the course proposed by Mr Mildmay will be the best,” said the Duke, who had no doubt already discussed the matter with his friend the Prime Minister in private. No one else said a word either of argument or disagreement, and the Cabinet Council was broken up. The old messenger, who had been asleep in his chair, stood up and bowed as the Ministers walked by him, and then went in and rearranged the chairs.

“He has as much idea of giving up as you or I have,” said Lord Cantrip to his friend Mr Gresham, as they walked arm-in-arm together from the Treasury Chambers across St James’s Park towards the clubs.

“I am not sure that he is not right,” said Mr Gresham.

“Do you mean for himself or for the country?” asked Lord Cantrip.

“For his future fame. They who have abdicated and have clung to their abdication have always lost by it. Cincinnatus was brought back again, and Charles V is felt to have been foolish. The peaches of retired ministers of which we hear so often have generally been cultivated in a constrained seclusion — or at least the world so believes.” They were talking probably of Mr Mildmay, as to whom some of his colleagues had thought it probable, knowing that he would now resign, that he would have to-day declared his intention of laying aside for ever the cares of office.

Mr Monk walked home alone, and as he went there was something of a feeling of disappointment at heart, which made him ask himself whether Mr Turnbull might not have been right in rebuking him for joining the Government. But this, I think, was in no way due to Mr Mildmay’s resignation but rather to a conviction on Mr Monk’s part that that he had contributed but little to his country’s welfare by sitting in Mr Mildmay’s Cabinet.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43