The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 19

Vulgarity.

The Duke and Duchess with their children and personal servants reached Gatherum Castle the day before the first crowd of visitors was expected. It was on a lovely autumn afternoon, and the Duke, who had endeavoured to make himself pleasant during the journey, had suggested that as soon as the heat would allow them they would saunter around the grounds and see what was being done. They could dine late, at half-past eight or nine, so that they might be walking from seven to eight. But the Duchess when she reached the Castle declined to fall in with this arrangement. The journey had been hot and dusty, and she was a little cross. They reached the place about five, and then she declared that she would have a cup of tea and lie down; she was too tired to walk; and the sun, she said, was still scorchingly hot. He then asked that the children might go with him, but the two little girls were very weary and travel-worn, and the two boys, the elder of whom was home from Eton and the younger from some minor Eton, were already about the place after their own pleasures. So the Duke started for his walk alone.

The Duchess certainly did not wish to have to inspect the works in conjunction with her husband. She knew how much there was that she ought still to do herself, how many things that she herself ought to see. But she could neither do anything nor see anything to any purpose under his wing. As to lying down, that she knew to be quite out of the question. She had already found out that the life which she had adopted was one of incessant work. But she was neither weak nor idle. She was quite prepared to work — if only she might work after her own fashion and with companions chosen by herself. Had not her husband been so perverse, she would have travelled down with Mrs Finn, whose coming was now postponed for two days, and Locock would have been with her. The Duke had given directions, which made it necessary that Locock’s coming should be postponed for a day, and this was another grievance. She was put out a good deal, and began to speculate whether her husband was doing this on purpose to torment her. Nevertheless, as soon as she knew that he was out of the way, she went to her work. She could not go out among the tents and lawns and conservatories, as she would probably meet him. But she gave orders as to bedchambers, saw to the adornments of the reception-rooms, had an eye to the banners and martial trophies suspended in the vast hall, and the busts and statues which adorned the corners, looked in on the plate which was being prepared for the great dining-room, and superintended the moving about of chairs, sofas, and tables generally. ‘You may take it as certain, Mrs Pritchard,’ she said to the housekeeper, ‘that their will never be less than forty for the next two months.’

‘Forty to sleep, my lady?’ To Pritchard the Duchess had for many years been Lady Glencora, and she perhaps understood that her mistress liked the old appellation.

‘Yes, forty to sleep, and forty to eat, and forty to drink. But that’s nothing. Forty to push through twenty-four hours every day! Do you think you’ve got everything you want?’

‘It depends, my lady, how long each of ’em stays.’

‘One night! No — say two nights on an average.’

‘That makes shifting the beds very often; doesn’t it, my lady?’

‘Send up Puddick’s for sheets tomorrow. Why wasn’t that thought of before?’

‘It was, my lady — and I think we shall do. We’ve got the steam-washery put up.’

‘Towels!’ suggested the Duchess.

‘Oh, yes, my lady. Puddick’s did send a great many things; — a whole waggon load there was come from the station. But the tablecloths ain’t none of ’em long enough for the big table.’ The Duchess’s face fell. ‘Of course there must be two. On them very long tables, my lady, there always is two.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me, so that I could have had them made? It’s impossible — impossible that one brain should think of it all. Are you sure you’ve enough hands in the kitchen?’

‘Well, my lady; — we couldn’t do with more; and they ain’t an atom of use — only just in the way — if you don’t know something about ’em. I suppose Mr Millepois will be down soon.’ This name, which Mrs Pritchard called Milleypoise, indicated a French cook who was at yet unknown at the Castle.

‘He’ll be here tonight.’

‘I wish he could have been here a day or two sooner, my lady, so as just to see about him.’

‘And how should we have got our dinner in town? He won’t make any difficulties. The confectioner did come?’

‘Yes, my lady; and to tell the truth out at once, he was that drunk last night that —; oh, dear, we didn’t know what to do with him.’

‘I don’t mind that before the affair begins. I don’t suppose he’ll get tipsy while he has to work for all these people. You’ve plenty of eggs?’

These questions went on so rapidly that in addition to the asking of them the Duchess was able to go through all the rooms before she dressed for dinner, and in every room she saw something to speak of, noting either perfection or imperfection. In the meantime the Duke had gone out alone. It was still hot, but he had made up his mind that he would enjoy his first holiday out of town by walking about his own grounds, and he would not allow the heat to interrupt him. He went out through the vast hall, and the huge front door, which was so huge and so grand that it was very seldom used. But it was now open by chance, owing to some incident of this festival time, and he passed through it and stood upon the grand terrace, with the well-known and much-lauded portico overhead. Up to the terrace, though it was very high, there ran a road, constructed upon arches, so grand that guests could drive almost up to the house. The Duke, who was never grand himself, as he stood there looking at the far-stretching view before him, could not remember that he had ever but once before placed himself on that spot. Of what use had been the portico, the marbles, and the huge pile of stone — of what use the enormous hall just behind him, cutting the house in two, declaring aloud by its own aspect and the proportions that it had been built altogether for show and in no degree for use or comfort? And now as he stood there he could already see that men were at work about the place, that ground had been moved here, and grass laid down there, and a new gravel road constructed in another place. Was it not possible that his friends should be entertained without all these changes to the gardens? Then he perceived the tents, and descending from the terrace and turning left towards the end of the house he came upon a new conservatory. The exotics with which it was to be filled were at this moment being brought in on great barrows. He stood for a moment and looked, but said not a word to the men. They gazed at him but evidently did not know him. How should they know him — him, who was seldom there, and who when there never showed himself about the place? Then he went farther afield from the house and came across more and more men. A great ha-ha fence had been made, enclosing on three sides and open at one end to the gardens, containing, as he thought, about an acre. ‘What are you doing this for?’ he said to one of the labourers. The man stared at him, and at first seemed hardly inclined to make him an answer. ‘It be for the quality to shoot their bows and harrows,’ he said at last, as he continued the easy task of patting with his spade the completed work. He evidently regarded this stranger as an intruder who was not entitled to ask questions, even if he was permitted to wander about the grounds.

From one place he went on to another, and found changes, and new erections, and some device for throwing away money everywhere. It angered him to think that there was so little of simplicity left in the world that a man could not entertain his friends without such a fuss as this. His mind applied itself frequently to the consideration of the money, not that he grudged the loss of it, but the spending of it in such a cause. And then perhaps there occurred to him an idea that all this should not have been done without a word of consent from himself. Had she come to him with some scheme for changing everything about the place, making him think that the alterations were a matter of taste or of mere personal pleasure, he would probably given his consent at once, thinking nothing of the money. But all this was utter display. Then he walked up and saw the flag waving over the Castle, indicating that he, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, was present there on his own soil. That was right. That was as it should be, because the flag was waving in compliance with an acknowledged ordinance. Of all that properly belonged to his rank and station he could be very proud, and would allow no diminution of that outward respect to which they were entitled. Were they to be trenched on by his fault in his person, the rights of others to their enjoyment would be endangered, and the benefits accruing to his country from established marks of reverence would be imperilled. But here was an assumed and preposterous grandeur that was as much within the reach of some rich swindler or some prosperous haberdasher as of himself — having, too, a look of raw newness about it which was very distasteful to him. And then, too, he knew that nothing of this would have been done unless he had become Prime Minister. Why, on earth, should a man’s grounds be knocked about because he becomes Prime Minister? He walked on arguing this within his own bosom, till he had worked himself almost up to anger. It was clear that he must henceforth take things more into his own hands, or would be made to be absurd before the world. Indifference he knew he could bear. Harsh criticism he thought he could endure. But to ridicule he was aware that he was pervious. Suppose the papers were to say of him that he built a new conservatory and made an archery ground for the sake of maintaining the Coalition!

When he got back to the house he found his wife alone in the small room in which they intended to dine. After all her labours she was now reclining for the few minutes her husband’s absence might allow her, knowing that after dinner there were a score of letters for her to write. ‘I don’t think,’ said she, ‘I was ever so tired in my life.’

‘It isn’t such a very long journey after all.’

‘But it’s a very big house, and I’ve been, I think, into every room since I have been here, and I’ve moved most of the furniture in the drawing-rooms with my own hand, and I’ve counted the pounds of butter, and inspected the sheets and the tablecloths.’

‘Was it necessary, Glencora?’

‘If I had gone to bed instead, the world, I suppose, would have gone on, and Sir Orlando Drought would still have led the House of Commons; — but things should be looked after, I suppose.’

‘There are many people to do it. You are like Martha, troubling yourself with many things.’

‘I always felt that Martha was very ill-used. If there were no Martha there would never be anything fit to eat. But it’s odd how sure a wife is to be scolded. If I did nothing at all, that wouldn’t please a busy, hard-working man like you.’

‘I don’t know that I have scolded — not as yet.’

‘Are you going to begin?’

‘Not to scold, my dear. Looking back, can you remember that I ever scolded you?’

‘I can remember a great many times when you ought.’

‘But to tell you the truth, I don’t like all that you have done here. I cannot see that it was necessary.’

‘People make changes in their gardens without necessity sometimes.’

‘But these changes are made because of your guests. Had they been made to gratify your own taste, I would have said nothing — although even in that case I think you might have told me what you proposed to do.’

‘What; — when you are so burdened with work that you do not know how to turn?’

‘I am never so burdened that I cannot turn to you. But, as you know, that is not what I complain of. If it were done for yourself, though it were the wildest vagary, I would learn to like it, but it distresses me to think what might have been good enough for our friends before should be thought insufficient because of the office I hold. There is a — a — a — I was almost going to say vulgarity about it which distresses me.’

‘Vulgarity!’ she exclaimed, jumping up from the sofa.

‘I retract the word. I would not for the world say anything that should annoy you; — but pray, pray do not go on with it.’ Then again he left her.

Vulgarity! There was no other word in the language so hard to bear as that. He had, indeed, been careful to say that he did not accuse her of vulgarity; — but nevertheless the accusation had been made. Could you call your friend a liar more plainly than by saying to him that you would not say that he lied? They dined together, the two boys, also, dining with them, but very little was said at dinner. The horrid word was clinging to the lady’s ears, and the remembrance of having uttered the word was heavy on the man’s conscience. He had told himself very plainly that the thing was vulgar, but he had not meant to use the word. But it had been uttered; and, let what apology there may be made, a word uttered cannot be retracted. As he looked across the table at his wife, he saw that the word had been taken in deep dudgeon.

She escaped, to the writing of her letters she said, almost before the meal was done. ‘Vulgarity!’ She uttered the word aloud to herself as she sat herself down in the little room upstairs which she had assigned to herself for her own use. But though she was very angry with him, she did not, even in her own mind, contradict him. Perhaps it was vulgar. But why shouldn’t she be vulgar, if she could most surely get what she wanted by vulgarity? Of course she was prepared to do things — was daily doing things — which would have been odious to her had not her husband been a public man. She submitted, without unwillingness, to constant contact with disagreeable people. She lavished her smiles — so she now said to herself — on butchers and tinkers. What she said, what she read, what she wrote, what she did, whither she went, to whom she was kind and to whom unkind — was it not all said and done and arranged with reference to his and her own popularity? When a man wants to be Prime Minister he has to submit to vulgarity, and must give up his ambition if the task be too disagreeable to him. The Duchess thought that that had been understood, at any rate ever since the days of Coriolanus. ‘The old Duke kept out of it,’ she said to herself, ‘and chose to live in the other way. He had his choice. He wants it to be done. And when I do it for him because he can’t do it for himself, he calls it by an ugly name!’ Then it occurred to her that the world tells lies every day — telling on the whole much more lies than truth — but that the world has wisely agreed that the world shall not be accused of lying. One doesn’t venture to express open disbelief even of one’s wife; and with the world at large a word spoken, whether lie or not, is presumed to be true, of course — because spoken. Jones has said it, and therefore Smith — who has known the lie to be a lie — has asserted his assured belief, lying again. But in this way the world is able to live pleasantly. How was she to live pleasantly if her husband accused her of vulgarity? Of course it was all vulgar, but why should he tell her so? She did not do it from any pleasure that she got from it.

The letters remained long unwritten, and then there came a moment in which she resolved that they should not be written. The work was very hard, and what good would come of it? Why should she make her hands dirty, so that even her husband accused her of vulgarity? Would it not be better to give it all up, and be a great woman, une grande dame, of another kind — difficult of access, sparing of her favour, aristocratic to the back-bone — a very Duchess of duchesses. The role would be one very easy to play. It required rank, money, and a little manner — and these she possessed. The old Duke had done it with ease, without the slightest trouble to himself, and had been treated almost like a god because he had secluded himself. She could make the change even yet — and as her husband told her that she was vulgar, she thought she would make it.

But at last, before she had abandoned her desk and paper, there had come another thought. Nothing to her was so distasteful as failure. She had known that there would be difficulties, and had assured herself that she would be firm and brave in overcoming them. Was not this accusation of vulgarity simply one of the difficulties which she had to overcome? Was her courage already gone from her? Was she so weak that a single word should knock her over — and a word evidently repented of as soon as it was uttered? Vulgar! Well — let her be vulgar as long as she gained her object. There had been no penalty of everlasting punishment against vulgarity. And then a higher idea touched her, not without effect — an idea which she could not analyse, but which was hardly on that account the less effective. She did believe thoroughly in her husband, to the extent of thinking him the fittest man in all the country to be its Prime Minister. His fame was dear to her. Her nature was loyal; and though she might perhaps, in her younger days have been able to lean upon him with a more loving heart had he been other than he was, brighter, more gay, given to pleasures, and fond of trifles, still, she could recognize merits with which her sympathy was imperfect. It was good that he should be England’s Prime Minister, and therefore she would do all she could to keep him in that place. The vulgarity was a necessity essential. He might not acknowledge this — might even, if the choice were left to him, refuse to be Prime Minister on such terms. But she need not, therefore, give way. Having in this way thought it all out, she took up her pen and completed the batch of letters before she allowed herself to go to bed.

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