The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 18

The Duke of Omnium Thinks of Himself.

The blaze made by the Duchess of Omnium during the three months of the season up in London had been very great, but it was little in comparison with the social incursion expected to be achieved at Gatherum Castle — little at least as far as public report went, and the general opinion of the day. No doubt the house in Carlton Gardens had been thrown open as the house of no Prime Minister, perhaps of no duke, had been opened before in this country; but it had been done by degrees, and had not been accomplished by such a blowing of trumpets as was sounded with reference to the entertainments at Gatherum. I would not have it supposed that the trumpets were blown by the direct order of the Duchess. The trumpets were blown by the customary trumpeters as it became known that great things were to be done — all newspapers and very many tongues lending their assistance, till the sounds of the instruments almost frightened the Duchess herself. ‘Isn’t it odd,’ she said to her friend Mrs Finn, ‘that one can’t have a few friends down in the country without such a fuss abut it as the people are making?’ Mrs Finn did not think it was odd, and so she said. Thousands of pounds were being spent in a very conspicuous way. Invitations to the place even for a couple of days — for twenty-four hours — had been begged for abjectly. It was understood everywhere that the Prime Minister was bidding for greatness and popularity. Of course the trumpets were blown very loudly. ‘If people don’t take care,’ said the Duchess, ‘I’ll put everybody off and have the whole place shut up. I’d do it for sixpence now.’

Perhaps of all the persons, much or little concerned, the one who heard the least of the trumpets — or rather who was the last to hear them — was the Duke himself. He could not fail to see something in the newspapers, but what he did see did not attract him so frequently or so strongly as did the others. It was a pity, he thought, that a man’s social and private life should be subject to so many remarks, but this misfortune was one of those to which wealth and rank are liable. He had long recognized that fact, and for a time endeavoured to believe that his intended sojourn at Gatherum Castle was not more public than are the autumn doings of other dukes and other prime ministers. But gradually the trumpets did reach even his ears. Blind as he was to many things himself, he always had near to him that other duke who was never blind to anything. ‘You are going to do great things at Gatherum this year,’ said the Duke.

‘Nothing particular, I hope,’ said the Prime Minister, with an inward trepidation — for gradually there had crept upon him a fear that his wife was making a mistake.

‘I thought it was going to be very particular.’

‘It’s Glencora’s doing.’

‘I don’t doubt but that her Grace is right. Don’t suppose that I am criticizing your hospitality. We are to be at Gatherum ourselves about the end of the month. It will be the first time I shall have seen the place since your uncle’s time.’

The Prime Minister at this moment was sitting in his own particular room at the Treasury Chambers, and before the entrance of his friend had been conscientiously endeavouring to define for himself not a future policy, but the past policy of the last month or two. It had not been for him a very happy occupation. He had become the Head of Government — and had not failed, for there he was, still the Head of Government, with a majority at his back, and the six months’ vacation before him. They who were entitled to speak to him confidentially as to his position, were almost vehement in declaring his success. Mr Rattler, about a week ago, had not seen any reason why the Ministry should not endure at least for the next four years. Mr Roby, from the other side, was equally confident. But, on looking back at what he had done, and indeed on looking forward into his future intentions, he could not see why he, of all men, should be Prime Minister. He had once been Chancellor of the Exchequer, filling that office through two halcyon sessions, and he had known the reason why he had held it. He had ventured to assure himself at the time that he was the best man whom his party could then have found for that office, and he had been satisfied. But he had none of that satisfaction now. There were men under him who were really at work. The Lord Chancellor had legal reforms on foot. Mr Monk was busy, heart and soul, in regard to income taxes and brewers’ licences — making our poor Prime Minister’s mouth water. Lord Drummond was active among the colonies. Phineas Finn had at any rate his ideas about Ireland. But with the Prime Minister — so at least the Duke told himself — it was all a blank. The policy confided to him and expected at his hands was that of keeping together a Coalition Ministry. That was a task that did not satisfy him. And now, gradually — very slowly indeed at first, but still with a sure step — there was creeping upon him the idea that this power of cohesion was sought for, and perhaps found not in his political capacity, but in his rank and wealth. It might in fact, be the case that it was his wife the Duchess — that Lady Glencora of whose wild impulses and general impracticability he had always been in dread — that she with her dinner parties and receptions, with her crowded saloons, her music, her picnics, and social temptations, was Prime Minister rather than he himself. It might be that this had been understood by the coalesced parties — by everybody, in fact, except himself. It had, perhaps, been found that in the state of things then existing, a ministry could be kept together, not by parliamentary capacity, but by social arrangements, such as his Duchess, and his Duchess alone, could carry out. She and she only would have the spirit and the money and the sort of cleverness required. In such a state of things he of course, as her husband, must be the nominal Prime Minister.

There was no anger in his bosom as he thought of this. It would be hardly just to say that there was jealousy. His nature was essentially free from jealousy. But there was shame — and self-accusation at having accepted so great an office with so little fixed purpose as to great work. It might be his duty to subordinate even his pride to the service of his country, and to consent to be a faineant minister, a gilded Treasure log, because by remaining in that position he would enable the Government to be carried on. But how base the position, how mean, how repugnant to that grand idea of public work which had hitherto been the motive power of all his life! How would he continue to live if this thing were to go on from year to year — he pretending to govern while others governed — taking the highest place at all tables, receiving mock reverence, and known to all men as faineant First Lord of the Treasury? Now, as he had been thinking of all this, the most trusted of his friends had come to him, and had at once alluded to the very circumstances which had been pressing so heavily on his mind. ‘I was delighted,’ continued the elder Duke, ‘when I heard that you had determined to go to Gatherum this year.’

‘If a man has a big house I suppose he ought to live in it, sometimes.’

‘Certainly. It was for such purposes as this now intended that your uncle built it. He never became a public man, and therefore, though he went there, every year I believe, he never really used it.’

‘He hated it — in his heart. And so do I. And so does Glencora. I don’t see why any man should have his private life interrupted by being made to keep a huge caravansary open for persons he doesn’t care a straw about.’

‘You would not like to live alone.’

‘Alone — with my wife and children — I would certainly, during a portion of the year at least.’

‘I doubt whether such a life, even for a month, even for a week, is compatible with your duties. You would hardly find it possible. Could you do without your private secretaries? Would you know enough of what is going on, if you did not discuss matters with others? A man cannot be both private and public at the same time.’

‘And therefore one has to be chopped up, like a reed out of the river, as the poet said, and yet not give sweet music afterwards.’ The Duke of St Bungay said nothing in answer to this, as he did not understand the chopping of the reed. ‘I’m afraid I’ve been wrong about this collection of people down at Gatherum,’ continued the younger Duke. ‘Glencora is impulsive, and has overdone the thing. Just look at that.’ And he handed a letter to his friend. The old Duke put on his spectacles and read the letter through — which ran as follows.

Private

MY LORD DUKE,
I do not doubt but that your Grace is aware of my
position in regard to the public press of the country,
and I beg to assure your Grace that my present
proposition is made, not on account of the great honour
and pleasure which would be conferred upon myself should
your Grace accede to it, but because I feel assured that
I might so be best enabled to discharge an important duty
for the benefit of the public generally.
Your Grace is about to receive the whole fashionable
world of England and many distinguished foreign
ambassadors at your ancestral halls, not solely for
social delight — for a man in your Grace’s high position
is not able to think only of a pleasant life — in order
that the prestige of your combined Ministry may be so
best maintained. That your Grace is thereby doing a duty
to your country no man who understands the country can
doubt. But it must be the case that the country at large
should interest itself in your festivities, and should
demand to have accounts of the gala doings of your ducal
palace. Your Grace will probably agree with me that
these records could be better given by one empowered by
yourself to give them, by one who had less present, and
who would write in your Grace’s interest, than by some
interloper who would receive his tale only at second
hand.
It is my purport now to inform your Grace that should I
be honoured by an invitation to your Grace’s party at
Gatherum, I should obey such a call with the greatest
alacrity, and would devote my pen and the public organ
which is at my disposal to your Grace’s service with the
readiest good-will.
I have the honour to be,
My Lord Duke,
Your Grace’s obedient
and very humble servant
QUINTUS SLIDE

The old Duke, when he had read the letter, laughed heartily. ‘Isn’t that a terribly bad sign of the times?’ said the younger.

‘Well; — hardly that, I think. The man is both a fool and a blackguard; but I don’t think we are therefore to suppose that there are many fools and blackguards like him. I wonder what he really has wanted.’

‘He has wanted me to ask him to Gatherum.’

‘He can hardly have expected that. I don’t think he can have been such a fool. He may have thought that there was a possible off chance, and that he would not lose even that for want of asking. Of course you won’t have noticed it.’

‘I have asked Warburton to write to him, saying that he cannot be received at my house. I have all letters answered unless they seem to have come from insane persons. Would it not shock you if your private arrangements were invaded in that way?’

‘He can’t invade you.’

‘Yes he can. He does. That is an invasion. And whether he is there or not, he can and will write about my house. And though no one else will make himself such a fool as he has done by this letter, nevertheless even that is a sign of what others are doing. You yourself were saying just now that we were going to do something — something particular, you said.’

‘It was your word, and I echoed it. I suppose you are going to have a great many people?’

‘I am afraid Glencora has overdone it. I don’t know why I should trouble you by saying so, but it makes me uneasy.’

‘I can’t see why.’

‘I fear she has got some idea into her head of astounding the world by display.’

‘I think she has got an idea of conquering the world by graciousness and hospitality.’

‘It is as bad. It is, indeed, the same thing. Why should she want to conquer what we call the world? She ought to want to entertain my friends, because they are my friends; and if from my public position I have more so-called friends than would trouble me in a happier condition of private life, why, then, she must entertain more people, as you call it, by feeding them, is to me abominable. If it goes on it will drive me mad. I shall have to give up everything, because I cannot bear the burden.’ This he said with more excitement, with stronger passion, than his friend had ever seen in him before; so much so that the old Duke was frightened. ‘I ought never to have been where I am,’ said the Prime Minister, getting up from his chair and walking about the room.

‘Allow me to assure you that in that you are decidedly mistaken,’ said his Grace of St Bungay.

‘I cannot make even you see the inside of my heart in such a matter as this,’ said his Grace of Omnium.

‘I think I do. It may be that in saying so I claim for myself greater power than I possess, but I think I do. But let your heart say what it may on the subject. I am sure of this — that when the Sovereign, by the advice of two outgoing Ministers, and with the unequivocally expressed assent of the House of Commons, calls on a man to serve her and the country, that man cannot be justified in refusing, merely by doubts about his own fitness. If your health is failing you, you may know it, and say so. Or it may be that your honour — your faith in others — should forbid you to accept the position. But of your own general fitness you must take the verdict given by such general consent. They have seen clearer than you have done what is required, and know better than you can know that which is wanted is to be secured.’

‘If I am to be here and do nothing, am I to remain?’

‘A man cannot keep together the Government of a country and do nothing. Do not trouble yourself about this crowd at Gatherum. The Duchess, easily, almost without exertion, will do that which to you, or to me either, would be impossible. Let her have her way, and take no notice of the Quintus Slides.’ The Prime Minister smiled, as though this repeated allusion to Mr Slide’s letter had brought back his good humour, and said nothing further then as to his difficulties. There were a few words to be spoken as to some future Cabinet meeting, something perhaps to be settled as to some man’s work or position, a hint to be given, and a lesson to be learned — for of these inner Cabinet Councils between these two statesmen there was frequent use; and then the Duke of St Bungay took his leave.

Our Duke, as soon as his friend had left him, rang for his private secretary, and went to work diligently, as though nothing had disturbed him. I do not know that his labours on that occasion were of a very high order. Unless there be some special effort of law-making before the country, some reform bill to be passed, some attempt at education to be made, some fetters to be forged or to be relaxed, a Prime Minister is not driven hard by the work of his portfolio — as are his colleagues. But many men were in want of many things, and contrived by many means to make their wants known to the Prime Minister. A dean would fain to be a bishop, or a judge a chief justice, or a commissioner a chairman, or a secretary a commissioner. Knights would fain be baronets, baronets barons, and barons earls. In one guise or another the wants of gentlemen were made known, and there was work to be done. A ribbon cannot be given away without breaking the hearts of, perhaps, three gentlemen and of their wives and daughters. And then he went down to the House of Lords — for the last time this Session as far as work was concerned. On the morrow legislative work would be over, and the gentlemen of Parliament would be sent to their country houses, and to their pleasant country joys.

It had been arranged that on the day after the prorogation of Parliament the Duchess of Omnium should go down to Gatherum to prepare for the coming of the people, which was to commence about three days later, taking her ministers, Mrs Finn and Locock, with her, and that her husband with his private secretaries and dispatch boxes was to go for those three days to Matching, a smaller place than Gatherum, but one to which they were much better accustomed. If, as the Duchess thought to be not unlikely, the Duke should prolong his stay for a few days at Matching, she felt confident that she would be able to bear the burden of the Castle on her own shoulders. She had thought it to be very probable that he would prolong his stay at Matching, and if the absence were not too long, this might be well explained to the assembled company. In the Duchess’s estimation a Prime Minister would lose nothing by pleading the nature of his business as an excuse for such absence — or by having such a plea made for him. Of course he must appear at last. But as to that she had no fear. His timidity, and his conscience also, would both be too potent to allow him to shirk the nuisance of Gatherum altogether. He would come, she was sure; but she did not much care how long he deferred his coming. She was, therefore, not a little surprised when he announced to her an alteration in his plans. This he did not many hours after the Duke of St Bungay had left him at the Treasury Chambers. ‘I think I shall go down with you at once to Gatherum,’ he said.

‘What is the meaning of that?’ The Duchess was not skilled in hiding her feelings, at any rate from him, and declared to him at once by her voice and eye that the proposed change was not gratifying to her.

‘It will be better. I had thought that I would get a quiet day or two at Matching. But as the thing has to be done, it may as well be done at first. A man ought to receive his own guests. I can’t say that I look forward to any great pleasure in doing so on this occasion; — but I shall do it.’ It was very easy to understand also the tone of his voice. There was in it something of offended dignity, something of future marital tensions — something also of the weakness of distress.

She did not want him to come at once to Gatherum. A great deal of money was being spent, and the absolute spending was not yet quite perfected. There might still be possibility of interference. The tents were not all pitched. The lamps were not as yet all hung in the conservatories. Waggons would still be coming in and workmen still be going out. He would think less of what had been done if he could be kept from seeing it while it was being done. And the greater crowd which would be gathered there by the end of the first week would carry off the vastness of the preparations. As to money, he had given her almost carte blanche, having at one vacillatory period of his Prime Ministership been talked by her into some agreement with her own plans. And in regard to money he would say to himself that he ought not to interfere with any whim of hers on that score, unless he thought it right to crush the whim on some other score. Half what he possessed had been hers, and even if during this year he were to spend more than his income — if he were to double or even treble the expenditure of past years — he could not consume the additions to his wealth which had accrued and heaped themselves since his marriage. He had therefore written a line to his banker, and a line to his lawyer, and he had himself seen Locock, and his wife’s hands had been loosened. ‘I didn’t think, your Grace,’ said Locock, ‘that his Grace would be so very — very — very —’ ‘Very what, Locock?’ ‘So very free, your Grace.’ The Duchess, as he thought of it, declared to herself that her husband was the truest nobleman in all England. She revered, admired, and almost loved him. She knew him to be infinitely better than herself. But she could hardly sympathize with him, and was quite sure that he did not sympathize with her. He was so good about the money! But yet it was necessary that he should be kept in the dark as the spending of a good deal of it. Now he was going to upset a portion of her plans by coming to Gatherum before he was wanted. She knew him to be obstinate; but it might be possible to turn him back to his old purpose by clever manipulation.

‘Of course it would be much nicer for me,’ she said.

‘That alone would be sufficient.’

‘Thanks, dear. But we had arranged for people to come at first whom I thought you would not specially care to meet. Sir Orlando and Mr Rattler will be there with their wives.’

‘I have become quite used to Sir Orlando and Mr Rattler.’

‘No doubt, and therefore I wanted to spare you something of their company. The Duke, whom you really do like, isn’t coming yet. I thought, too, you would have your work to finish off.’

‘I fear it is of a kind that won’t bear finishing off. However, I have made up my mind, and have already told Locock to send word to the people at Matching to say I shall not be there yet. How long will all this last at Gatherum?’

‘Who can say?’

‘I should have thought you could. People are not coming, I suppose, for an indefinite time.’

‘As one set leaves, one asks others.’

‘Haven’t you asked enough as yet? I should like to know when we may expect to get away from the place.’

‘You needn’t stay to the end, you know.’

‘But you must.’

‘Certainly.’

‘And I should wish you to go with me when we do go to Matching.’

‘Oh, Plantagenet,’ said the wife, ‘what a Darby and Joan kind of thing you like to have it!’

‘Yes I do. The Darby and Joan kind of thing is what I like.’

‘Only Darby is to be in an office all day, and in Parliament all night — and Joan is to stay at home.’

‘Would you wish me not to be in an office, and not to be in Parliament? But don’t let us misunderstand each other. You are doing the best you can to further what you think are my interests.’

‘I am,’ said the Duchess.

‘I love you the better for it, day by day.’ This so surprised her that, as she took him by the arm, her eyes were filled with tears. ‘I know that you are working for me quite as hard as I work myself, and that you are doing so with the pure ambition of seeing your husband a great man.’

‘And myself as a great man’s wife.’

‘It is the same thing. But I would not have you overdo your work. I would not have you make yourself conspicuous by anything like display. There are ill-natured people who will say things that you do not expect, and to which I should be more sensitive than I ought to be. Spare me such pain as this if you can.’ He still held her hand as he spoke, and she answered him only by nodding her head. ‘I will go down with you to Gatherum on Friday.’ Then he left her.

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