The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 56

What the Duchess Thought of Her Husband.

When the session began it was understood in the political world that a very strong opposition was to be organized against the Government under the guidance of Sir Orlando Drought, and that the great sin to be imputed to the Cabinet was an utter indifference to the safety and honour of Great Britain, as manifested by their neglect of the navy. All the world knew that Sir Orlando had deserted the Coalition because he was not allowed to build new ships, and of course Sir Orlando would make the most of his grievance. With him was joined Mr Boffin, the patriotic Conservative who had never listened to the voice of the seducer, and the staunch remainder of the Tory party. And with them the more violent of the Radicals were prepared to act, not desirous, indeed, that new ships should be built, or that a Conservative Government should be established — or, indeed, that anything should be done — but animated by intense disgust that so mild a politician as the Duke of Omnium should be Prime Minister. The fight began at once, Sir Orlando objecting violently to certain passages in the Queen’s Speech. It was all very well to say that the country was at present at peace with all the world; but how was peace to be maintained without a fleet? Then Sir Orlando paid a great many compliments to the Duke, and ended his speech by declaring him to be the most absolutely faineant minister that had disgraced the country since the Duke of Newcastle. Mr Monk defended the Coalition, and assured the House that the navy was not only the most powerful navy existing, but that it was the most powerful that ever had existed in the possession of this or any other country, and was probably in absolute efficiency superior to the combined navies of all the world. The House was not shocked by statements absolutely at variance with each other, coming from two gentlemen who had lately been members of the same Government, and who must be supposed to know what they are talking about, but seemed to think that upon the whole Sir Orlando had done his duty. For though there was complete confidence in the navy as a navy, and though a very small minority would have voted for any considerably increased expense, still it was well that there should be an opposition. And how can there be an opposition without a subject for grumbling — some matter on which a minister can be attacked? No one really thought that the Prussians and French combined would invade our shores and devastate our fields, and plunder London, and carry our daughters away into captivity. The state of the funds showed very plainly that there was no such fear. But a good cry was a very good thing — and it is always well to rub up the officials of the Admiralty by a little wholesome abuse. Sir Orlando was thought to have done his business well. Of course he did not risk a division upon the address. Had he done so he would have been ‘nowhere’. But, as it was, he was proud of his achievement.

The ministers generally would have been indifferent to the very hard words that were said of them, knowing what they were worth, and feeling aware that a ministry which had everything too easy was very sore on the subject. The old Duke’s work at this time consisted almost all together in nursing the younger Duke. It did sometimes occur to his elder Grace that it might be well to let his brother retire, and that a Prime Minister, malgre lui, could not be a successful Prime Minister, or a useful one. But if the Duke of Omnium went the Coalition must go too, and the Coalition had been the offspring of the old statesman. The country was thriving under the Coalition, and there was no real reason why it should not last for the next ten years. He continued, therefore, his system of coddling, and was ready at any moment, or at every moment, to pour, if not comfort, at any rate consolation into the ears of his unhappy friend. In the present emergency, it was the falsehood and general baseness of Sir Orlando which nearly broke the heart of the Prime Minister. ‘How is one to live,’ he said, ‘if one has to do with men of that kind?’

‘But you haven’t to do with him any longer,’ said the Duke of St Bungay.

‘When I see a man who is supposed to have earned the name of statesman, and been high in the councils of his sovereign, induced by personal jealousy to do as he is doing, it makes me feel that an honest man should not place himself where he may have to deal with such persons.’

‘According to that the honest men are to desert their country in order that the dishonest men may have everything their own way.’ Our Duke could not answer this, and therefore for the moment he yielded. But he was unhappy, saturnine, and generally silent except when closeted with his ancient mentor. And he knew that he was saturnine and silent, and that it behoved him as a leader of men to be genial and communicative — listening to counsel even if he did not follow it, and at any rate appearing to have confidence in his colleagues.

During this time Mr Slide was not inactive, and in his heart of hearts the Prime Minister was more afraid of Mr Slide’s attacks than of those made upon him by Sir Orlando Drought. Now that Parliament was sitting, and the minds of men were stirred to political feeling by the renewed energy of the House, a great deal was being said in many quarters about the Silverbridge election. The papers had taken the matter up generally, some accusing the Prime Minister and some defending. But the defence was almost as unpalatable to him as the accusation. It was admitted on all sides that the Duke, both as a peer and as a Prime Minister, should have abstained from any interference whatever in the election. And it was also admitted on all sides that he had not so abstained; — if there was any truth at all in the allegation that he had paid the money for Mr Lopez. But it was pleaded on his behalf that the Duke of Omnium had always interfered in Silverbridge, and that no Reform Bill had ever had any effect in reducing their influence in that borough. Frequent allusion was made to the cautious Dod, who, year after year, had reported that the Duke of Omnium exercised considerable influence in the borough. And then the friendly newspapers went on to explain that the Duke had in this instance stayed his hand, and that the money, if paid at all, had been paid because the candidate who was to have been his nominee had been thrown over, when the Duke at the last moment made up his mind that he would abandon the privilege which had hitherto been always exercised by the head of his family, and which had been exercised more than once or twice in his own favour. But Mr Slide, day after day, repeated his question, ‘We want to know whether the Prime Minister did or did not pay the election expenses of Mr Lopez at the last Silverbridge election; and if so, why he paid them. We shall continue to ask this question till it has been answered, and when asking it we again say that the actual correspondence on the subject between the Duke and Mr Lopez is in our hands.’ And then, after a while, allusions were made to the Duchess — for Mr Slide had learned all the facts of the case from Lopez himself. When Mr Slide found how hard it was ‘to draw his badger’, as he expressed himself concerning his own operations, he at last openly alluded to the Duchess, running the risk of any punishment that might fall upon him by action for libel or by severe reprehension from his colleagues of the Press. ‘We have as yet,’ he said, ‘received no answers to the questions which we have felt ourselves called upon to ask in reference to the conduct of the Prime Minister at the Silverbridge election. We are of the opinion that all interference by peers with the constituencies of the country should be put down by the strong hand of the law as thoroughly and unmercifully as we are putting down ordinary bribery. But when the offending peer is also the Prime Minister of this great country, it becomes doubly the duty of those who watch over the public safety,’— Mr Slide always speaks of himself as watching over the public safety — ‘to animadvert upon his crime till it has been assoiled, or at any rate repented. From what we now hear we have reason to believe that the crime is acknowledged. Had the payment on behalf of Mr Lopez not been made — as it certainly was made, or the letters in our hand would be impudent forgeries — the charge would long since have been denied. Silence in such a matter amounts to a confession. But we understand that the Duke intends to escape under the plea that he has a second self, powerful as he is to exercise the baneful influence which his territorial wealth unfortunately gives him, but for the actions of which second self he, as a Peer of Parliament and as Prime Minister, is not responsible. In other words we are informed that the privilege belonging to the Palliser family at Silverbridge was exercised, not by the Duke himself, but by the Duchess; — and that the Duke paid the money when he found out that the Duchess had promised more than she could perform. We should hardly have thought that even a man so notoriously weak as the Duke of Omnium would have endeavoured to ride out the responsibility by throwing the blame upon his wife; but he will certainly find that the attempt, if made, will fail.’

‘Against the Duchess herself we wish to say not a word. She is known as exercising a wide if not discriminate hospitality. We believe her to be a kind-hearted, bustling, ambitious lady, to whom any little faults may be easily forgiven on account of her good-nature and generosity. But we cannot accept her indiscretion as an excuse for a most unconstitutional act performed by the Prime Minister of this country.’

Latterly the Duchess had taken her own copy of the “People’s Banner”. Since she had found those around her were endeavouring to keep from her what was being said of her husband in regard to the borough, she had been determined to see it all. She therefore read the article from which two or three paragraphs have just been given — and having read it she handed it to her friend Mrs Finn. ‘I wonder that you trouble yourself with such trash,’ her friend said to her.

‘That is all very well, my dear, for you, but we poor wretches who are the slaves of the people have to regard what is said of us in the “People’s Banner”.

‘It would be much better for you to neglect it.’

‘Just as authors are told not to read the criticisms; — but I never would believe any author who told me that he didn’t read what was said about him. I wonder when the man found out that I was good-natured. He wouldn’t find me good-natured if I could get hold of him.’

‘You are not going to allow it to torment you?’

‘For my own sake, not a moment. I fancy that if I might be permitted to have my own way, I could answer him very easily. Indeed with these dregs of the newspapers, these gutter-slanderers, if one would be open and say all the truth aloud what would one have to fear? After all, what is it that I did? I disobeyed my husband because I thought that he was too scrupulous. Let me say as much, out loud to the public — saying also that I am sorry for it, as I am — and who would be against me? Who would have a word to say after that? I should be the most popular woman in England for a month — and, as regards Plantagenet, Mr Slide and his articles would all sink into silence. But even though he were to continue this from day to day for a twelvemonth it would not hurt me — but then I know how it scorches him. This mention of my name will make it more intolerable to him than ever. I doubt that you know him even yet.’

‘I thought that I did.’

‘Though in manner he is as dry as a stick, though all his pursuits are opposite to the very idea of romance, though he passes his days and nights thinking how he may take a halfpenny in the pound off the taxes of the people without robbing the revenue, there is a dash of chivalry about him worthy of the old poets. To him a woman, particularly his own woman, is a thing so fine and so precious that the winds of heaven should hardly be allowed to blow upon her. He cannot bear to think that people should even talk of his wife. And yet, heaven knows, poor fellow, I have given people occasion enough to talk of me. And he has a much higher chivalry than that of the old poets. They, or their heroes, watched their women because they did not want to have trouble about them — shut them up in castles, kept them in ignorance, and held them as far as they could out of harm’s way.’

‘I hardly think they succeeded,’ said Mrs Finn.

‘But in pure selfishness they tried all they could. But he is too proud to watch. If you and I were hatching treason against him in the dark, and chance brought him there, he would stop his ears with his fingers. He is all trust, even when he knows that he is being deceived. He is honour complete from head to foot. Ah, it was before you knew me when I tried him the hardest. I never could quite tell you the story, and I won’t try it now; but he behaved like a god. I could never tell him what I felt — but I felt it.’

‘You ought to love him.’

‘I do; — but what’s the use of it? He is a god, but I am not a goddess; — and then, though he is a god, he is a dry, silent, uncongenial and uncomfortable god. It would have suited me much better to have married a sinner. But then the sinner that I would have married was so irredeemable a scapegrace.’

‘I do not believe in a woman marrying a bad man in the hope of making him good.’

‘Especially not when the woman is naturally inclined to evil herself. It will half kill him when he reads all this about me. He has read it already, and it has already half killed him. For myself I do not mind it in the least, but for his sake I mind it much. It will rob him of his only possible answer to the accusation. The very thing which this wretch in the newspaper says he will say, and that he will be disgraced by saying it, is the very thing that he ought to say. And there would be no disgrace in it — beyond what I might well bear for my little fault, and which I could bear so easily.’

‘Shall you speak to him about it?’

‘No; I dare not. In this matter it has gone beyond speaking. I suppose he does talk it over with the old Duke; but he will say nothing to me about it — unless he were to tell me that he had resigned, and that we were to start off and live at Matching for the next ten years. I was so proud when they made him Prime Minister, but I think that I am beginning to regret it now.’ Then there was a pause, and the Duchess went on, with her newspapers; but she soon resumed her discourse. Her heart was full, and out of a full heart the mouth speaks. ‘They should have made me Prime Minister, and have let him be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I begin to see the ways of Government now. I could have done all the dirty work. I could have given away garters and ribbons, and made my bargains while giving them. I could select sleek, easy bishops who wouldn’t be troublesome. I could give pensions or withhold them, and make the stupid men into peers. I could have the big noblemen at my feet, praying to be Lieutenants of Counties. I could dole out secretaryships and lordships, and never a one without getting something in return. I could brazen out a job and let the “People’s Banner” and the Slides make their worst of it. And I think I could make myself popular with my party, and do the high-flowing patriotic talk for the benefit of the Provinces. A man at a regular office has to work. That’s what Plantagenet is fit for. He wants always to be doing something that shall be really useful, and a man has to toil at that and really to know things. But a Prime Minister should never go beyond generalities about commerce, agriculture, peace, and general philanthropy. Of course he should have the gift of the gab, and that Plantagenet hasn’t got. He never wants to say anything unless he has got something to say. I could do a Mansion House dinner to a marvel!’

‘I don’t doubt that you could speak at all times, Lady Glen.’

‘Oh, I do so wish that I had the opportunity,’ said the Duchess.

Of course the Duke had read the article in the privacy of his own room, and of course the article had nearly maddened him with anger and grief. As the Duchess had said, the article had taken from him the very ground on which his friends had told him that he could stand. He had never consented, and never would consent, to lay the blame publicly on his wife; but he had begun to think that he must take notice of the charge made against him, and depute someone to explain for him in the House of Commons that the injury had been done at Silverbridge by the indiscretion of an agent who had not fulfilled his employer’s intentions, and that the Duke had thought it right afterwards pay the money in consequence of the indiscretion. He had not agreed to this, but had brought himself to think that he must agree to it. But now, of course, the questions would follow:— Who was the indiscreet agent? Was the Duchess the person for whose indiscretions he had had to pay 500 pounds to Mr Lopez? And in this matter did he not find himself in accord even with Mr Slide? ‘We should hardly have thought that even a man so notoriously weak as the Duke of Omnium would have endeavoured to ride out of the responsibility by throwing the blame on his wife.’ He read and reread those words till he knew them by heart. For a few moments it seemed to him to be an evil in the Constitution that the Prime Minister should not have the power of instantly crucifying so foul a slanderer; — and yet it was the very truth of the words that crushed him. He was weak — he told himself — notoriously weak, it must be, and it would be most mean in him to ride out of responsibility by throwing the blame upon his wife. But what else was he to do? There seemed to him to be but one course — to get up in the House of Lords and declared that he paid the money because he thought it right to do under the circumstances which he could not explain, and to declare that it was not his intention to say another word on the subject, or to have another word said on his behalf.

There was a Cabinet Council held that day, but no one ventured to speak to the Prime Minister as to the accusation. Though he considered himself to be weak, his colleagues were all more or less afraid of him. There was a certain silent dignity about the man which saved him from the evils, as it also debarred him from the advantages, of familiarity. He had spoken on the subject to Mr Monk and to Phineas Finn, and, as the reader knows, very often to his old mentor. He had also mentioned it to his friend Lord Cantrip, who was not in the Cabinet. Coming away from the Cabinet he took Mr Monk’s arm, and led him away to his own room in the Treasury Chambers. ‘Have you happened to see an article in the “People’s Banner” this morning?’ he asked.

‘I never see the “People’s Banner”,’ said Mr Monk.

‘There it is; — just look at that.’ Whereupon Mr Monk read the article. ‘You understand what people call constitutional practice as well as anyone I know. As I told you before, I did pay that man’s expenses. Did I do anything unconstitutional?’

‘That would depend, Duke, on the circumstances. If you were to back a man up by your wealth in an expensive contest, I think it would be unconstitutional. If you set yourself to work in that way, and cared not what you spent, you might materially influence the elections, and buy parliamentary support for yourself.’

‘But in this case the payment was made after the man had failed, and certainly had not been promised either by me or by anyone on my behalf.’

‘I think it was unfortunate,’ said Mr Monk.

‘Certainly; certainly; but I am not asking as to that,’ said the Duke impatiently. ‘The man had been injured by indiscreet persons acting on my behalf and in opposition to my wishes.’ He said not a word about the Duchess; but Mr Monk no doubt knew that her Grace had been at any rate one of the indiscreet persons. ‘He applied to me for the money, alleging that he had been injured by my agents. That being so — presuming that my story be correct — did I act unconstitutionally?’

‘I think not,’ said Mr Monk, ‘and I think that the circumstances, when explained, will bear you harmless.’

‘Thank you; thank you. I did not want to trouble you about that just at present.’

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