The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 28

The Duchess’s Mind is Troubled.

It is hardly possible that one man should turn another out of his house without any people knowing it, and when the one person is a Prime Minister and the other such as Major Pountney, the affair is likely to be talked about very widely. The Duke of course never opened his mouth on the subject, except in answer to questions from the Duchess; but all the servants knew it. ‘Pritchard tells me you have sent that wretched man out of the house with a flea in his ear,’ said the Duchess.

‘I sent him out of the house, certainly.’

‘He was hardly worth your anger.’

‘He is not at all worth my anger; — but I could not sit down to dinner with a man who insulted me.’

‘What did he say, Plantagenet? I know it was something about Silverbridge.’ To this question the Duke gave no answer, but in respect to Silverbridge he was stern as adamant. Two days after the departure of the Major it was known in Silverbridge generally that in the event of there being an election the Duke’s agent would not as usual suggest a nominee. There was a paragraph on the subject in the County paper, and another in the London “Evening Pulpit”. The Duke of Omnium — that he might show his respect to the law, not only as to the letter of the law, but as to the spirit also — had made it known to his tenantry in and round Silverbridge generally that he would in no way influence their choice of candidate in the event of an election. But these newspapers did not say a word about Major Pountney.

The clubs of course knew all about it, and no man at any club ever knew more than Captain Gunner. Soon after Christmas he met his friend the Major on the steps of the new military club, The Active Service, which was declared by many men in the army to have left all the other military clubs ‘absolutely nowhere’. ‘Halloa, Punt!’ he said, ‘you seem to have made a mess of it at last down at the Duchess’s.’

‘I wonder what you know about it.’

‘You had to come away pretty quick, I take it.’

‘Of course I came away pretty quick.’ So much as that the Major was aware must be known. There were details which he could deny safely, as it would be impossible that they should be supported by evidence, but there were matters which must be admitted. ‘I’ll bet a fiver that beyond that you know nothing about it.’

‘The Duke ordered you off, I take it.’

‘After a fashion he did. There are circumstances in which a man cannot help himself.’ This was diplomatical because it left the Captain to suppose that the Duke was the man who could not help himself.

‘Of course I was not there,’ said Gunner, ‘and I can’t absolutely know, but I suppose you had been interfering with the Duchess about Silverbridge. Glencora will bear a great deal — but since she has taken up politics, by George, you had better not touch her there.’ At last it came to be believed that the Major had been turned out by the order of the Duchess because he had ventured to put himself forward as an opponent to Ferdinand Lopez, and the Major felt himself really grateful to his friend the Captain for this arrangement of the story. And there came at last to be mixed up with the story some half-understood innuendo that the Major’s jealousy against Lopez had been of a double nature — in reference both to the Duchess and the borough — so that he escaped from much of that disgrace which naturally attracts itself to a man who has been kicked out of another man’s house. There was a mystery; — and when there is a mystery a man should never be condemned. Where there is a woman in the case a man cannot be expected to tell the truth. As for calling out or in any punishing the Prime Minister, that of course was out of the question. And so it went on till at last the Major was almost proud of what he had done, and talked about it willingly with mysterious hints, in which practice made him perfect.

But with the Duchess the affair was very serious, so much so that she was driven to call in for advice — not only from her constant friend, Mrs Finn, but afterwards from Barrington Erle, from Phineas Finn, and lastly even from the Duke of St Bungay, to whom she was hardly willing to subject herself, the Duke being the special friend of her husband. But the matter became so important to her that she was unable to trifle with it. At Gatherum the expulsion of Major Pountney soon became a forgotten affair. When the Duchess learned the truth she quite approved of the expulsion, only hinting to Barrington Erle that the act of kicking out should have been more absolutely practical. And the loss of Silverbridge, though it hurt her sorely, could be endured. She must write to her friend Ferdinand Lopez, when the time should come, excusing herself as best she might, and must lose the exquisite delight of making a Member of Parliament out of her own hand. The newspapers, however, had taken that matter up in the proper spirit, and political capital might to some extent be made of it. The loss of Silverbridge, though it bruised, broke no bones. But the Duke again expressed himself with unusual sternness respecting her ducal hospitalities, and had reiterated the declaration of his intention to live out the remainder of his period of office in republican simplicity. ‘We have tried it and it has failed, and let there be an end of it,’ he said to her. Simple and direct disobedience to such an order was as little in her way as simple or direct obedience. She knew her husband well, and knew how he could be managed and how he could not be managed. When he declared that there should be ‘an end of it’ — meaning an end of the very system by which she hoped to perpetuate his power — she did not dare argue with him. And yet he was so wrong! The trial had been no failure. The thing had been done and well done, and had succeeded. Was failure to be presumed because one impertinent puppy had found his way into the house? And then to abandon the system at once, whether it had failed or whether it had succeeded, would be to call the attention of all the world to an acknowledged failure — to a failure so disreputable that its acknowledgement must lead to the loss of everything! It was known now — so argued the Duchess to herself — that she had devoted herself to the work of cementing and consolidating the Coalition by the graceful hospitality which the wealth of herself and her husband enabled her to dispense. She had made herself a Prime Ministress by the manner in which she opened her saloons, her banqueting halls, and her gardens. It had never been done before, and now it had been well done. There had been no failure. And yet everything was to be broken down because his nerves had received a shock!

‘Let it die out,’ Mrs Finn had said. ‘The people will come here and will go away, and then, when you are up in London, you will soon fall into your old ways.’ But this did not suit the new ambition of the Duchess. She had so fed her mind with daring hopes that she could not bear that it ‘should die out’. She had arranged a course of things in her own mind by which she should come to be known as the great Prime Minister’s wife, and she had, perhaps unconsciously, applied the epithet more to herself than to her husband. She, too, wished to be written of in memoirs, and to make a niche for herself in history. And now she was told that she was to let it ‘die out’.

‘I suppose he is a little bilious,’ Barrington Erle had said. ‘Don’t you think he’ll forget about it when he gets up to London?’ The Duchess was sure that her husband would not forget anything. He never did forget anything. ‘I want him to be told,’ said the Duchess, ‘that everybody thinks he is doing very well. I don’t mean about politics exactly, but as to keeping the party together. Don’t you think that we have succeeded?’ Barrington Erle thought upon the whole they had succeeded; but suggested at the same time that there were seeds of weakness. ‘Sir Orlando and Sir Timothy Beeswax are not sound, you know,’ said Barrington Erle. ‘He can’t make them sounder by shutting himself up like a hermit,’ said the Duchess. Barrington Erle, who had peculiar privileges of his own, promised that if he could by any means make an occasion, he would let the Duke know that their side of the Coalition was more than contented with the way in which he did his work.

‘You don’t think we’ve made a mess of it?’ said the Duchess to Phineas, asking him a question. ‘I don’t think that the Duke has made a mess of it — or you,’ said Phineas, who had come to love the Duchess because his wife loved her. ‘But it won’t go on for ever, Duchess.’ ‘You know what I have done,’ said the Duchess, who took it for granted that Mr Finn knew all that his wife knew. ‘Has it answered?’ Phineas was silent for a moment. ‘Of course you will tell me the truth. You won’t be so bad as to flatter me now that I am much in earnest.’ ‘I almost think,’ said Phineas, ‘that the time has gone by for what one may call drawing-room influences. They used to be very great. Old Lord Brock used them extensively, though by no means as your Grace has done. But the spirit of the world has changed since then.’ ‘The spirit of the world never changes,’ said the Duchess in her soreness.

But her strongest dependence was on the old Duke. The party of the Castle was almost broken up when she consulted him. She had been so far true to her husband as not to ask another guest to the house since his command; — but they who had been asked before came and went as had been arranged. Then, when the place was nearly empty, and when Locock and Millepois and Pritchard were wondering among themselves at this general collapse, she asked her husband’s leave to invite their old friend again for a day or two. ‘I do so want to see him, and I think he’ll come,’ said the Duchess. The Duke gave his permission with a ready smile — not because the proposed visitor was his own confidential friend, but because it suited his spirit to grant such a request as to anyone after the order that he had given. Had she named Major Pountney, I think he would have smiled and acceded.

The Duke came, and to him she poured out her whole soul. ‘It has been for him and for his honour that I have done it; — that men and women might know how really gracious he is, and how good. Of course, there has been money spent, but he can afford it without hurting the children. It has been so necessary that with a Coalition people should know each other! There was some absurd little row here. A man who was a mere nobody, one of the travelling butterfly men that fill up spaces and talk to girls, got hold of him and was impertinent. He is so thin-skinned that he could not shake the creature into the dust as you would have done. It annoyed him — that, and I think, seeing so many strange faces — so that he came to me and declared that as long as he remained in office he would not have another person in the house, either here or in London. He meant it literally, and he meant me to understand it literally. I had to get special leave before I could ask so dear an old friend as your Grace.’

‘I don’t think he would object to me,’ said the Duke, laughing.

‘Of course not. He was only too glad to think you would come. But he took the request as being quite the proper thing. It will kill me if this is to be carried out. After all that I have done, I could show myself nowhere. And it will be so injurious to him! Could you not tell him, Duke? No one else in the world can tell him but you. Nothing unfair has been attempted. No job has been done. I have endeavoured to make his house pleasant to people, in order that they might look upon him with grace and favour. Is that wrong? Is that unbecoming in a wife?’

The old Duke patted her on the head as though she were a little girl, and was more comforting to her than her other counsellors. He would say nothing to her husband now; — but they must both be up in London at the meeting of Parliament, and then he would tell his friend that, in his opinion, no sudden change should be made. ‘This husband of yours is a very peculiar man,’ he said smiling. ‘His honesty is not like the honesty of other men. It is more downright; — more absolutely honest; less capable of bearing even the shadow which the stain from another’s dishonesty might throw upon it. Give him credit for all that, and remember that you cannot find everything combined in the same person. He is very practical in some things, but the question is whether he is not too scrupulous to be practical in all things.’ At the close of the interview the Duchess kissed him and promised to be guided by him. The occurrences of the last few weeks had softened the Duchess much.

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