The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 41

The Value of a Thick Skin.

Sir Orlando Drought must have felt bitterly the quiescence with which he sank into obscurity on the second bench on the opposite side of the House. One great occasion he had on which it was his privilege to explain to four or five hundred gentlemen the insuperable reasons which caused him to break away from those right honourable friends to act with whom had been his comfort and his duty, his great joy and his unalloyed satisfaction. Then he occupied the best part of an hour in abusing those friends and all their measures. This no doubt had been a pleasure, as practice had made the manipulation of words easy to him — and he was able to reveal in that absence of responsibility which must be as a fresh perfumed bath to a minister just freed from the trammels of office. But the pleasure was surely followed by much suffering when Mr Monk — Mr Monk was to assume his place as Leader of the House — only took five minutes to answer him, saying that he and his colleagues regretted much the loss of the Right Honourable Baronet’s services, but that it would hardly be necessary for him to defend the Ministry on all those points on which it had been attacked, as, were he to do so, he would have to repeat the arguments by which every measure brought forward by the present Ministry had been supported. Then Mr Monk sat down, and the business of the House went on just as if Sir Orlando had not moved his seat at all.

‘What makes everybody and everything so dead?’ said Sir Orlando to his old friend Mr Boffin as they walked home together from the House that night. They had in former days been staunch friends, sitting night after night close together, united in opposition, and sometimes a few halcyon months in the happier bonds of office. But when Sir Orlando had joined the Coalition, and when the sterner spirit of Mr Boffin had preferred principles to place — to use the language in which he was wont to speak to himself and to his wife and family of his own abnegation — there had come a coolness between them. Mr Boffin, who was not a rich man, nor by any means indifferent to the comforts of office, had felt keenly the injury done to him when he was left hopelessly in the cold by the desertion of his old friends. It had come to pass that there had been no salt left in the opposition. Mr Boffin in all his parliamentary experience had known nothing like it. Mr Boffin had been sure that British honour was going to the dogs and that British greatness was at an end. But the secession of Sir Orlando gave a little fillip to his life. At any rate he could walk home with his old friend and talk of the horrors of the present day.

‘Well, Drought, if you ask me, you know, I can only speak as I feel. Everything must be dead when men holding different opinions on every subject under the sun come together in order that they may carry on a government as they would a trade business. The work may be done, but it must be done without spirit.’

‘But it may be all important that the work should be done,’ said the Baronet, apologizing for his past misconduct.

‘No doubt — and I am very far from judging those who make the attempt. It has been made more than once before, and has, I think, always failed. I don’t believe in it myself, and I think that the death-like torpor of which you speak is one of its worst consequences.’ After that Mr Boffin admitted Sir Orlando back into his heart of hearts.

Then the end of the Session came, very quietly and very early. By the end of July there was nothing left to be done, and the world of London was allowed to go down into the country almost a fortnight before its usual time.

With many men, both in and out of Parliament, it became a question whether all this was for good or evil. The Boffinites had of course much to say for themselves. Everything was torpid. There was no interest in the newspapers — except when Mr Slide took the tomahawk into his hands. A member of Parliament this Session had not been by half so much bigger than another man as in times of hot political warfare. One of the most moving sources of our national excitement seemed to have vanished from life. We all know what happens to stagnant waters. So said the Boffinites, and so also now said Sir Orlando. But the Government was carried on and the country was prosperous. A few useful measures had been passed by unambitious men, and the Duke of St Bungay declared that he had never known a Session of Parliament more thoroughly satisfactory to the ministers.

But the old Duke in so saying had spoken as it were his public opinion — giving, truly enough, to a few of his colleagues, such as Lord Drummond, Sir Gregory Grogram and others, the results of his general experience, but in his own bosom and with a private friend he was compelled to confess that there was a cloud in the heavens. The Prime Minister had become so moody, so irritable, and so unhappy, that the old Duke was forced to doubt whether things could go on much longer as they were. He was wont to talk of these things to his friend Lord Cantrip, who was not a member of the Government, but who had been a colleague of both the Dukes, and whom the old Duke regarded with peculiar confidence. ‘I cannot explain it to you,’ he said to Lord Cantrip. ‘There is nothing that ought to give him a moment’s uneasiness. Since he took office there hasn’t once been a majority against him in either House on any question that the Government has made on its own. I don’t remember such a state of things — so easy for the Prime Minister — since the days of Lord Liverpool. He had one thorn in his side, our friend who was at the Admiralty, and that thorn like other thorns has worked itself out. Yet at this moment it is impossible to get him to consent to the nomination of a successor to Sir Orlando.’ This was said a week before the Session had closed.

‘I suppose it is his health,’ said Lord Cantrip.

‘He’s well enough as far as I can see; — though he will be ill unless he can relieve himself from the strain of his nerves.’

‘Do you mean by resigning?’

‘Not necessarily. The fault is that he takes things too seriously. If he could be got to believe that he might eat, and sleep, and go to bed, and amuse himself like other men, he might be a very good Prime Minister. He is over troubled by his conscience. I have seen a good many Prime Ministers, Cantrip, and I’ve taught myself to think that they are not very different from other men. One wants in a Prime Minister a good many things, but not very great things. He should be clever but need not be a genius; he should be conscientious but by no means strait-laced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin. These are the gifts we want, but we can’t always get them, and have to do without them. For my own part, I find that though Smith be a very good Minister, the best perhaps to be had at the time, when he breaks down Jones does nearly as well.’

‘There will be a Jones, then, if your Smith does break down?’

‘No doubt England wouldn’t come to an end because the Duke of Omnium shut himself up at Matching. But I love the man, and, with some few exceptions, am contented with the party. We can’t do better, and it cuts me to the heart when I see him suffering, knowing how much I did myself to make him undertake the work.’

‘Is he going to Gatherum Castle?’

‘No; — to Matching. There is some discomfort about that.’

‘I suppose,’ said Lord Cantrip — speaking almost in a whisper, although they were closeted together — ‘I suppose the Duchess is a little troublesome.’

‘She’s the dearest woman in the world,’ said the Duke of St Bungay. ‘I love her almost as I do my own daughter. And she is most zealous to serve him.’

‘I fancy she overdoes it.’

‘No doubt.’

‘And that he suffers from perceiving it,’ said Lord Cantrip.

‘But a man hasn’t a right to suppose that he shall have no annoyances. The best horse in the world has some faults. He pulls, or he shies, or is slow at his fences, or doesn’t like heavy ground. He has not right to expect that his wife shall know everything and do everything without a mistake. And then he has such faults of his own! His skin is so thin. Do you remember dear old Brock? By heavens — there was a covering, a hide impervious to fire or steel! He wouldn’t have gone into tantrums because his wife asked too may people to the house. Nevertheless, I won’t give up all hope.’

‘A man’s skin may be thickened, I suppose.’

‘No doubt; — as a blacksmith’s arm.’

But the Duke of St Bungay, though he declared that he wouldn’t give up hope, was very uneasy on the matter. ‘Why don’t you let me go?’ the other Duke had said to him.

‘What; — because such a man as Sir Orlando Drought throws up his office?’

But in truth the Duke of Omnium had not been instigated to ask the question by the resignation of Sir Orlando. At that very moment the “People’s Banner” had been put out of sight at the bottom of a heap of other newspapers behind the Prime Minister’s chair, and his present misery had been produced by Mr Quintus Slide. To have a festering wound and to be able to show the wound to no surgeon, is wretchedness indeed! ‘It’s not Sir Orlando, but a sense of general failure,’ said the Prime Minister. Then his old friend had made use of that argument of the ever-recurring majorities to prove that there had been no failure. ‘There seems to have come a lethargy upon the country,’ said the poor victim. Then the Duke of St Bungay knew that his friend had read that pernicious article in the “People’s Banner”, for the Duke had also read it and remembered that phrase of a ‘lethargy on the country’, and understood at once how the poison had rankled.

It was a week before he would consent to ask any man to fill the vacancy made by Sir Orlando. He would not allow suggestions to be made to him and yet would name no one himself. The old Duke, indeed, did make a suggestion, and anything coming from him was of course borne with patience. Barrington Erle, he thought, would do for the Admiralty. But the Prime Minister shook his head. ‘In the first place he would refuse, and that would be a great blow to me.’

‘I could sound him,’ said the old Duke. But the Prime Minister again shook his head and turned the subject. With all his timidity he was becoming autocratic and peevishly imperious. Then he went to Lord Cantrip, and when Lord Cantrip, with all the kindness which he could throw into his words, stated the reasons which induced him at present to decline office, he was again in despair. At last he asked Phineas Finn to move to the Admiralty, and, when our old friend somewhat reluctantly obeyed, of course he had the same difficulty in filling the office Finn had held. Other changes and other complications became necessary, and Mr Quintus Slide, who hated Phineas Finn even worse than the poor Duke, found ample scope for his patriotic indignation.

This all took place in the closing week of the Session, filling our poor Prime Minister with trouble and dismay, just when other people were complaining that there was nothing to think of and nothing to do. Men do not really like leaving London before the grouse calls them — the grouse or rather the fashion of the grouse. And some ladies were very angry at being separated so soon from their swains in the city. The tradesmen too were displeased — so that there were voices to re-echo the abuse of the “People’s Banner”. The Duchess had done her best to prolong the Session by another week, telling her husband of the evil consequences above suggested, but he had thrown wide his arms and asked her with affected dismay whether he was to keep Parliament sitting in order that more ribbons might be sold! ‘There is nothing to be done,’ said the Duke almost angrily.

‘Then you should make something to be done,’ said the Duchess, mimicking him.

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