The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 27

The Duke’s Misery.

We must go back for a while to Gatherum Castle and see the guests whom the Duchess had collected there for her Christmas festivities. The hospitality of the Duke’s house had been maintained almost throughout the autumn. Just at the end of October they went to Matching, for what the Duchess called a quiet month — which, however, at the Duke’s urgent request, became six weeks. But even here the house was full all the time, though from deficiency of bedrooms the guests were very much less numerous. But at Matching the Duchess had been uneasy and almost cross. Mrs Finn had gone with her husband to Ireland, and she had taught herself to fancy that she could not live without Mrs Finn. And her husband had insisted upon having round him politicians of his own sort, men who really preferred work to archery, or even to hunting, and who discussed the evils of direct taxation absolutely in the drawing-room. The Duchess was assured that the country could not be governed by the support of such men as these, and was very glad to get back to Gatherum — whither also came Phineas Finn with his wife, and St Bungay people, and Barrington Erle, and Mr Monk, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with Lord and Lady Cantrip, and Lord and Lady Drummond — Lord Drummond being the only representative of the other or coalesced party. And Major Pountney was there, having been urgent with the Duchess — and having fully explained to his friend Captain Gunner that he had acceded to the wishes of his hostess only on the assurance of her Grace that the house would not be again troubled with the presence of Ferdinand Lopez. Such assurances were common between the two friends, but were innocent, as, of course, neither believed the other. And Lady Rosina was again there — with many others. The melancholy poverty of Lady Rosina had captivated the Duke. ‘She shall come and live here, if you like,’ the Duchess had said in answer to a request from her husband on his new friend’s behalf — ‘I’ve no doubt she will be willing.’ The place was not crowded as it had been before, but still about thirty guests sat down to dinner daily, and Locock, Millepois, and Mrs Pritchard were all kept hard at work. Nor was our Duchess idle. She was always making up the party — meaning the coalition — doing something to strengthen the buttresses, writing letters to little people, who, little as they were, might become big by amalgamation. ‘One always has to be binding one’s faggot,’ she said to Mrs Finn, having read her Aesop, not altogether in vain. ‘Where should we have been without you?’ she had whispered to Sir Orlando Drought when that gentleman was leaving Gatherum at the termination of his second visit. She had particularly disliked Sir Orlando, and was aware that her husband had been peculiarly shy of Sir Orlando since the day on which they had walked together in the park — and consequently, the Duchess had whispered to him. ‘Don’t bind your faggot too conspicuously,’ Mrs Finn had said to her. Then the Duchess had fallen to a seat almost exhausted by labour, mingled with regrets, and by the doubts which from time to time pervaded even her audacious spirit. ‘I’m not a god,’ she said, ‘or a Pitt, or an Italian with a long name beginning with M., that I should be able to do these things without ever making a mistake. And yet they must be done. And as for him — he does not help me in the least. He wanders about among the clouds of the multiplication table, and thinks that a majority will drop into his mouth because he does not shut it. Can you tie the faggot any better?’ ‘I think I would leave it untied,’ said Mrs Finn. ‘You would not do anything of the kind. You’d be just as fussy as I am.’ And thus the game was carried on at Gatherum Castle from week to week.

‘But you won’t leave him?’ This was said to Phineas Finn by his wife a day or two before Christmas, and the question was introduced to ask whether Phineas Finn thought of giving up his place.

‘Not if I can help it.’

‘You like the work.’

‘That has but little to do with the question, unfortunately. I certainly like having something to do. I like earning money.’

‘I don’t know why you like that especially,’ said the wife laughing.

‘I do at any rate — and, in a certain sense, I like authority. But in serving with the Duke I find a lack of that sympathy which one should have with one’s chief. He would never say a word to me unless I spoke to him. And when I do speak, though he is studiously civil — much too courteous — I know that he is bored. He has nothing to say to me about the country. When he has anything to communicate, he prefers to write a minute for Warburton, who then writes to Morton — and so it reaches me.’

‘Doesn’t it do as well?’

‘It may do with me. There are reasons which bind me to him, which will not bind other men. Men don’t talk to me about it, because they know I am bound to him through you. But I am aware of the feeling which exists. You can’t be really loyal to a king if you never see him — if he be always locked up in some almost divine recess.’

‘A king may make himself too common, Phineas.’

‘No doubt. A king has to know where to draw the line. But the Duke draws no intentional line at all. He is not by nature gregarious or communicative, and is therefore hardly fitted to be the head of a ministry.’

‘It will break her heart if anything goes wrong.’

‘She ought to remember that Ministries seldom live very long,’ said Phineas. ‘But she’ll recover even if she does break her heart. She is too full of vitality to be much repressed by calamity. Have you heard what is to be done about Silverbridge?’

‘The Duchess wants to get it for this man, Ferdinand Lopez.’

‘But it has not been promised yet.’

‘The seat is not vacant,’ said Mrs Finn, ‘and I don’t know when it will be vacant. I think there is a hitch about it — and I think the Duchess is going to be made very angry.’

Throughout the autumn the Duke had been an unhappy man. While the absolute work of the Session had lasted he had found something to console him; but now, though he was surrounded by private secretaries, and though dispatch boxes went and came twice a day, though there were dozens of letters as to which he had to give some instruction — yet, there was in truth nothing for him to do. It seemed to him that all the real work of Government had been filched from him by his colleagues, and that he was stuck up in pretended authority — a kind of wooden Prime Minister, from whom no real ministration was demanded. His first real fear had been that he was himself unfit; — but now he was uneasy, fearing that others thought him to be unfit. There was Mr Monk with his budget, and Lord Drummond with his three or four dozen half-rebellious colonies, and Sir Orlando Drought with the House to lead and a ship to build, and Phineas Finn with his scheme of municipal Home Rule for Ireland, and Lord Ramsden with a codified Statute Book — all full of work, all with something special to be done. But for him — he had to arrange who should attend the Queen, what ribbons should be given away, and what middle-aged young man should move the address. He sighed as he thought of those happy days in which he used to fear that his mind and body would both give way under the pressure of decimal coinage.

But Phineas Finn had read the Duke’s character right in saying that he was neither gregarious nor communicative, and therefore but little fitted to rule Englishmen. He had thought that it was so himself, and now from day to day he was becoming more assured of his own deficiency. He could not throw himself into cordial relations with the Sir Orlando Droughts, or even the Mr Monks. But, though he had never wished to be put into his present high office, now that he was there he dreaded the sense of failure which would follow his descent from it. It is this feeling rather than genuine ambition, rather than the love of power or patronage or pay, which induces men to cling to place. The absence of real work, and the quantity of mock work, both alike made the life wearisome to him; but he could not endure the idea that it should be written in history that he had allowed himself to be made a faineant Prime Minister, and than had failed even in that. History would forget what he had done as a working Minister in recording the feebleness of the Ministry which would bear his name.

The one man with whom he could talk freely, and from whom he could take advice, was now with him, here at his Castle. He was shy at first even with the Duke of St Bungay, but that shyness he could generally overcome, after a few words. But though he was always sure of his old friend’s sympathy and of his friend’s wisdom, yet he doubted his old friend’s capacity to understand himself. The young Duke felt the old Duke to be thicker-skinned than himself and therefore unable to appreciate the thorns which so sorely worried his own flesh. ‘They talk to me about a policy,’ said the host. They were closeted at this time in the Prime Minister’s own sanctum, and there yet remained an hour before they need dress for dinner.

‘Who talks about a policy?’

‘Sir Orlando Drought especially.’ For the Duke of Omnium had never forgotten the arrogance of that advice given in the park.

‘Sir Orlando is of course entitled to speak, though I do not know that he is likely to say anything very well worth of hearing. What is his special policy?’

‘If he had any, of course, I would hear him. It is not that he wants any special thing to be done, but he thinks that I should get up some special thing in order that Parliament may be satisfied.’

‘If you wanted to create a majority that might be true. Just listen to him and have done with it.’

‘I cannot go on in that way. I cannot submit to what amounts to complaint from the gentlemen who are acting with me. Nor would they submit long to my silence. I am beginning to feel that I have been wrong.’

‘I don’t think you have been wrong at all.’

‘A man is wrong if he attempts to carry a weight too great for his strength.’

‘A certain nervous sensitiveness, from which you should free yourself as from a disease, is your only source of weakness. Think about your business as a shoemaker thinks of his. Do your best, and then let your customers judge for themselves. Caveat emptor. A man should never endeavour to price himself, but should accept the price which others put on him — only being careful that he should learn what that price is. Your policy should be to keep your government together by a strong majority. After all, the making of new laws is too often but an unfortunate necessity laid on us by the impatience of the people. A lengthened period of quiet and therefore good government with a minimum of new laws would be the greatest benefit the country could receive. When I recommended you to comply with the Queen’s behest I did so because I thought you might inaugurate such a period more certainly than any other one man.’ This old Duke was quite content with the state of things such as he described. He had been a Cabinet Minister for more than half his life. He liked being a Cabinet Minister. He thought it well for the country generally that his party should be in power — and if not his party in its entirety, then as much of his party as might be possible. He did not expect to be written of as Pitt or a Somers, but he thought that memoirs would speak of him as a useful nobleman — and he was contented. He was not only not ambitious himself, but the effervescence and general turbulence of ambition in other men was distasteful to him, and the power of submitting to defeat without either shame or sorrow had become perfect with him by long practice. He would have made his brother Duke such as he was himself — had not his brother Duke been so lamentably thin-skinned.

‘I suppose we must try it for another Session?’ said the Duke of Omnium with a lachrymose voice.

‘Of course we must — and for others after that, I both hope and trust,’ said the Duke of St Bungay, getting up. ‘If I don’t go upstairs I shall be late, and then her Grace will look at me with unforgiving eyes.’

On the following day after lunch the Prime Minister took a walk with Lady Rosina De Courcy. He had fallen into a habit of walking with Lady Rosina almost every day of his life, till the people in the Castle began to believe that Lady Rosina was the mistress of some deep policy of her own. For there were many there who did in truth think that statecraft could never be absent from a minister’s mind, day or night. But in truth Lady Rosina chiefly made herself agreeable to the Prime Minister by never making the most distant allusion to public affairs. It might be doubted whether she even knew that the man who paid her so much honour was the Head of the British Government as well as the Duke of Omnium. She was a tall, thin, shrivelled-up old woman — not very old, fifty perhaps, but looking at least ten years more — very melancholy, and sometimes very cross. She had been notably religious, but that was gradually wearing off as she advanced in years. The rigid strictness of Sabbatarian practice requires the full energy of middle life. She had been left entirely alone in the world, with a very small income, and not many friends who were in any way interested in her existence. But she knew herself to be Lady Rosina De Courcy, and felt that the possession of that name ought to be more to her than money or friends, or even than brothers and sisters. ‘The weather is not frightening you,’ said the Duke. Snow had fallen, and the paths, even where they had been swept, were wet and sloppy.

‘Weather never frightens me, your Grace. I always have thick boots — I am very particular about that; — and cork soles.’

‘Cork soles are admirable.’

‘I think I owe my life to cork soles,’ said Lady Rosina enthusiastically. ‘There is a man named Sprout in Silverbridge who makes them. Did you Grace ever try him for boots?’

‘I don’t think I ever did,’ said the Prime Minister.

‘Then you had better. He’s very good and very cheap too. Those London tradesmen never think they can charge you enough. I find I can wear Sprout’s boots the whole winter through and then have them resoled. I don’t suppose you ever think of such things?’

‘I like to keep my feet dry.’

‘I have got to calculate what they cost.’ They then passed Major Pountney, who was coming and going between the stables and the house, and who took off his hat and who saluted the host and his companion with perhaps more flowing courtesy than was necessary. ‘I never found out what that gentleman’s name is yet,’ said Lady Rosina.

‘Pountney. I think, I believe they call him Major Pountney.’

‘Oh, Pountney! There are Pountneys in Leicestershire. Perhaps he is one of them.’

‘I don’t know where he comes from,’ said the Duke — ‘nor, to tell the truth where he goes to.’ Lady Rosina looked up at him with an interested air. ‘He seems to be one of those idle men who get into people’s houses heaven knows why, and never do anything.’

‘I suppose you asked him?’ said Lady Rosina.

‘The Duchess did, I dare say.’

‘How odd it must be if she were to suppose that you had asked him.’

‘The Duchess, no doubt, knows all about it.’ Then there was a little pause. ‘She is obliged to have all sorts of people,’ said the Duke apologetically.

‘I suppose so; — when you have so many coming and going. I am sorry to say that my time is up tomorrow, so that I shall make way for somebody else.’

‘I hope you won’t think of going, Lady Rosina — unless you are engaged elsewhere. We are delighted to have you.’

‘The Duchess has been very kind, but —’

‘The Duchess, I fear, is almost to much engaged to see as much of her guests individually as she ought to do. To me your being here is a great pleasure.’

‘You are too good to me — much too good. But I shall have stayed out my time, and I think, Duke, I will go tomorrow. I am very methodical, you know, and always act by rule. I have walked my two miles now, and I will go in. If you do want boots with cork soles mind you go to Sprout’s. Dear me, there is that Major Pountney again. That is four times he has been up and down that path since we have been walking here.’

Lady Rosina went in, and the Duke turned back, thinking of his friend and perhaps thinking of the cork soles of which she had to be so careful and which was so important to her comfort. It could not be that he fancied Lady Rosina to be clever, nor can we imagine that her conversation satisfied any of those wants to which he and all of us are subject. But nevertheless he liked Lady Rosina, and was never bored by her. She was natural, and she wanted nothing from him. When she talked about cork soles she meant cork soles. And then she did not tread on any of his numerous corns. As he walked on he determined that he would induce his wife to persuade Lady Rosina to stay a little longer at the Castle. In meditating upon this he made another turn in the grounds, and again came upon Major Pountney as that gentleman was returning from the stables. ‘A very cold afternoon,’ he said, feeling it to be ungracious to pass one of his own guests in his own grounds without a word of salutation.

‘Very cold indeed, your Grace — very cold.’ The Duke had intended to pass on, but the Major managed to stop him by standing in the pathway. The Major did not in the least know his man. He had heard the Duke was shy, and therefore thought that he was timid. He had not hitherto been spoken to by the Duke — a condition of things which he attributed to the Duke’s shyness and timidity. But, with much thought on the subject, he had resolved that he would have a few words with his host, and had therefore passed backwards and forwards between the house and the stables rather frequently. ‘Very cold indeed, but yet we’ve had beautiful weather. I don’t know when I have enjoyed myself so much altogether as I have at Gatherum Castle.’ The Duke bowed, and made a little but a vain effort to get on. ‘A splendid pile!’ said the Major, stretching his hand gracefully towards the building.

‘It’s a big house,’ said the Duke.

‘A noble mansion; — perhaps the noblest mansion in the three kingdoms,’ said Major Pountney. ‘I have seen a great many of the best country residences in England, but nothing that at all equals Gatherum.’ Then the Duke made a little effort at progression, but was still stopped by the daring Major. ‘By-the-by, your Grace, if your Grace has a few minutes to spare — just a half a minute — I wish you would allow me to say something.’ The Duke assumed a look of disturbance, but he bowed and walked on, allowing the Major to walk by his side. ‘I have the greatest possible desire, my Lord Duke, to enter public life.’

‘I thought you were already in the army,’ said the Duke.

‘So I am — was on Sir Bartholomew Bone’s staff in Canada for two years, and have seen as much of what I call home service as any man going. One of my chief objects is to take up the army.’

‘I seems that you have taken it up.’

‘I mean in Parliament, your Grace. I am very fairly off as regards private means, and would stand all the racket of the expense of a contest myself — if there were one. But the difficulty is to get a seat, and, of course, if it can be privately managed, it is very comfortable.’ The Duke looked at him again — this time without bowing. But the Major, who was not observant, rushed on to his destruction. ‘We all know that Silverbridge will soon be vacant. Let me assure your Grace that if it might be consistent with your Grace’s plans in other respects to turn your kind countenance towards me, you would find that you have a supporter than whom none would be more staunch, and perhaps I may say one who in the House would not be the least useful!’ That portion of the Major’s speech which referred to the Duke’s kind countenance had been learned by heart, and was thrown trippingly off the tongue with a kind of twang. The Major perceived that he had not been at once interrupted when he began to open the budget of political aspirations, and had allowed himself to indulge in pleasing auguries. ‘Nothing ask and nothing have,’ had been adopted as the motto of his life, and more than once he had expressed to Captain Gunner his conviction that — ‘By George, if you’ve only cheek enough, there is nothing you cannot get.’ On this emergency the Major certainly was not deficient in cheek. ‘If I might be allowed to consider myself as your Grace’s candidate, I should indeed be a happy man,’ said the Major.

‘I think, sir,’ said the Duke, ‘that your proposition is the most unbecoming and the most impertinent that ever was addressed to me.’ The Major’s mouth fell, and he stared with all his eyes as he looked up into the Duke’s face. ‘Good afternoon,’ said the Duke, turning quickly round and walking away. The Major stood for while transfixed to the place, and cold as was the weather, was bathed in perspiration. A keen sense of having ‘put his foot in it’ almost crushed him for a time. Then he assured himself that, after all, the Duke ‘could not eat him’, and with that consolatory reflection he crept back to the house and up to his room.

To put the man down had of course been an easy task to the Duke, but he was not satisfied with that. To the Major it seemed that the Duke had passed on with easy indifference — but, in truth, he was very far from being easy. The man’s insolent request had wounded him at many points. It was grievous to him that he should have as a guest in his own house a man whom he had been forced to insult. It was grievous to him that he himself should not have been held in personal respect high enough to protect him from such an insult. It was grievous to him that he should be openly addressed — addressed by an absolute stranger — as a boroughmongering lord, who would not scruple to give away a seat in Parliament as seats were given away in former days. And it was specially grievous to him that all these misfortunes should have come upon him as part of the results of his wife’s manner of exercising his hospitality. If this was to be the Prime Minister he certainly would not be Prime Minister much longer! Had any aspirant to political life dared so to address Lord Brock, or Lord de Terrier, or Mr Mildmay, the old Premiers whom he remembered? He thought not. They had managed differently. They had been able to defend themselves from such attacks by personal dignity. And would it have been possible that any man should have dared so to speak to his uncle, the late Duke? He thought not. As he shut himself up in his own room he grieved inwardly with a deep grief. After a while he walked off to his wife’s room, still perturbed in spirit. The perturbation had indeed increased from minute to minute. He would rather give up politics altogether and shut himself up in absolute seclusion than find himself subject to the insolence of any Pountney that might address him. With his wife he found Mrs Finn. Now for this lady personally he entertained what for him was a warm regard. In various matters of much importance he and she had been brought together, and she had, to his thinking, invariably behaved well. And an intimacy had been established which had enabled him to be at ease with her — so that her presence was often a comfort to him. But at the present moment he had not wished to find anyone with his wife, and felt that she was in his way. ‘Perhaps I am disturbing you,’ he said in a tone of voice that was solemn and almost funereal.

‘Not at all,’ said the Duchess, who was in high spirits. ‘I want to get your promise about Silverbridge. Don’t mind her. Of course she knows everything.’ To be told that anybody knew everything was another shock to him. ‘I have just got a letter from Mr Lopez.’ Could it be right that his wife should be corresponding on such a subject with a person so little known as this Mr Lopez? ‘May I tell him that he shall have your interest when the seat is vacant?’

‘Certainly not,’ said the Duke, with a scowl that was terrible even to his wife. ‘I wish to speak to you, but I wish to speak to you alone.’

‘I beg a thousand pardons,’ said Mrs Finn, preparing to go.

‘Don’t stir, Marie,’ said the Duchess, ‘he is going to be cross.’

‘If Mrs Finn will allow me, with every feeling of the most perfect respect and sincerest regard, to ask her to leave me with you for a few minutes, I shall be obliged. And if, with her usual hearty kindness, she will pardon my abruptness —’ Then he could not go on, his emotions being too great; but he put out his hand, and taking hers raised it to his lips and kissed it. The moment had become too solemn for any further hesitation as to the lady’s going. The Duchess for a moment was struck dumb, and Mrs Finn, of course, left the room.

‘Who is Major Pountney?’

‘Who is Major Pountney! How on earth should I know? He is — Major Pountney. He is about everywhere.’

‘Do not let him be asked into any house of mine again. But that is a trifle.’

‘Anything about Major Pountney must, I should think, be a trifle. Have tidings come that the heavens are going to fall? Nothing short of that could make you so solemn.’

‘In the first place, Glencora, let me ask you not to speak to me again about the seat for Silverbridge. I am not at present prepared to argue the matter with you, but I have resolved that, I will know nothing about the election. As soon as the seat is vacant, if it should be vacated, I shall take care that my determination be known in Silverbridge.’

‘Why should you abandon your privileges in that way? It is sheer weakness.’

‘The interference of any peer is unconstitutional.’

‘There is Braxon,’ said the Duchess energetically, ‘where the Marquis of Crumber returns the member regularly, in spirt of all their Reform bills, and Bamford and Cobblesborough; — and look at Lord Lumley with a whole county in his pocket, not to speak of two boroughs! What nonsense, Plantagenet! Anything is constitutional, or anything is unconstitutional, just as you choose to look at it.’ It was clear that the Duchess had really studied the subject carefully.

‘Very well, my dear, let it be nonsense. I only beg to assure you that it is my intention, and I request you to act accordingly. And there is another thing I have to say to you. I shall be sorry to interfere in any way with the pleasure which you may derive from society, but as long as I am burdened with the office which has been imposed upon me, I will not again entertain any guests in my own house.’

‘Plantagenet!’

‘You cannot turn the people out who are here now; but I beg that they may be allowed to go when the time comes, and that their place may not be filled by further invitations.’

‘But further invitations have gone out ever so long ago, and have been accepted. You must be ill, dear.’

‘Ill at ease — yes. At any rate let none others be sent out.’ Then he remembered a kindly purpose, which he had formed early in the day, and fell back on that. ‘I should, however, be glad if you would ask Lady Rosina De Courcy to remain here.’ The Duchess stared at him, really thinking now that something was amiss with him. ‘The whole thing is a failure and I will have no more of it. It is degrading me.’ Then without allowing her a moment in which to answer him, he marched back to his own room.

But even here his spirit was not as yet at rest. That Major must not go unpunished. Though he hated all fuss and noise he must do something. So he wrote as follows to the Major:

The Duke of Omnium trusts that Major Pountney will not
find it inconvenient to leave Gatherum Castle shortly.
Should Major Pountney wish to remain at the Castle over
the night, the Duke of Omnium hopes that he will not
object to be served with his dinner and with his
breakfast in his own room. A carriage with horses will
be ready for Major Pountney’s use, to take him to
Silverbridge, as soon as Major Pountney may express to
the servants his wish to that effect.

Gatherum Castle — December, 18 —

This note the Duke sent by the hands of his own servant, having said enough to the man as to the carriage and the possible dinner in the Major’s bedroom, to make the man understand almost exactly what had occurred. A note from the Major was brought to the Duke while he was dressing. The Duke having glanced at the note threw it into the fire; and the Major that evening ate his dinner at the Palliser’s Arms Inn at Silverbridge.

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