The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 57

The Explanation.

Mr Monk had been altogether unable to decipher the Duke’s purpose in the question he had asked. About an hour afterwards they walked down to the Houses together. Mr Monk having been kept at his office. ‘I hope I wasn’t a little short with you just now,’ said the Duke.

‘I did not find it out,’ said Mr Monk, smiling.

‘You read what was in the papers, and you may imagine that it is of a nature to irritate a man. I knew that no one could answer my question so correctly as you, and therefore I was rather a little eager to keep directly to the question. It occurred to me afterwards that I had been — perhaps uncourteous.’

‘Not at all, Duke.’

‘If I was, your goodness will excuse an irritated man. If a question were asked about it in the House of Commons who would be the best man to answer it? Would you do it?’

Mr Monk considered a while. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that Mr Finn would do it with better grace. Of course I will do it if you wish it. But he has tact in such matters, and it is known that his wife is much regarded by her Grace.’

‘I will not have the Duchess’s name mentioned,’ said the Duke, turning short upon his companion.

‘I did not allude to that, but I thought that the intimacy which existed might make it pleasant to you to employ Mr Finn as the exponent of your wishes.’

‘I have the greatest confidence in Mr Finn, certainly, and am on most friendly personal terms with him. It shall be so, if I decide on answering any questions in your House on a matter so purely personal to myself.’

‘I would suggest that you should have the question asked in a friendly way. Get some independent member, such as Mr Beverley or Sir James Deering, to ask it. The matter would then be brought forward in no carping spirit, and you would be enabled, through Mr Finn, to set the matter at rest. You have probably spoken to the Duke about it.’

‘I have mentioned it to him.’

‘Is not that what would recommend?’

The old Duke had recommended that the entire truth should be told, and that the Duchess’s operations should be made public. Here was our poor Prime Minister’s great difficulty. He and his Mentor were at variance. His Mentor was advising that the real naked truth should be told, whereas Telemachus was intent on keeping the name of the actual culprit in the background. ‘I will think it all over,’ said the Prime Minister as the two parted company at Palace Yard.

That evening he spoke to Lord Cantrip on the subject. Though the matter was odious to him, he could not keep his mind from it for a moment. Had Lord Cantrip seen the article in the “People’s Banner”? Lord Cantrip, like Mr Monk, declared that the paper in question did not constitute part of his usual morning’s recreation. ‘I won’t ask you to read it,’ said the Duke; —‘but it contains a very bitter attack upon me — the bitterest that has yet been made. I suppose I ought to notice the matter?’

‘If I were you,’ said the Lord Cantrip, ‘I should put myself into the hands of the Duke of St Bungay, and do exactly what he advises. There is no man in England knows so well as he does what should be done in such a case as this.’ The Prime Minister frowned and said nothing. ‘My dear Duke,’ continued Lord Cantrip, ‘I can give you no other advice. Who is there that has your personal interest and your honour at heart so entirely as his Grace; — and what man can be a more sagacious or more experienced adviser?’

‘I was thinking that you might ask a question about it in our House.’

‘I?’

‘You would do it for me in the manner that — that would be free from all offence.’

‘If I did it all, I should certainly strive to do that. But it has never occurred to me that you would make such a suggestion. Would you give me a few minutes to think about it?’ ‘I couldn’t do it,’ Lord Cantrip said afterwards. ‘By taking such a step, even at your request, I should certainly express an opinion that the matter was one which Parliament was entitled to expect that you should make an explanation. But my own opinion is that Parliament has no business to meddle in the matter. I do not think that every action of a minister’s life should be made matter of inquiry because a newspaper may choose to make allusion to it. At any rate, if any word is said about it, it should, I think, be said in the other house.’

‘The Duke of St Bungay thinks that something should be said.’

‘I could not, myself, consent even to appear to desire information on a matter so entirely personal to yourself.’ The Duke bowed, and smiled with a cold, glittering, uncomfortable smile which would sometimes cross his face when he was not pleased, and no more was then said on the subject.

Attempts were made to have the question asked in a far different spirit by some hostile member of the House of Commons. Sir Orlando Drought was sounded, and he for a while did give ear to the suggestion. But, as he came to have the matter full before him, he could not do it. The Duke had spurned his advice as a minister, and had refused to sanction a measure which he, as the head of a branch of the Government, had proposed. The Duke had so offended him that he conceived himself bound to regard the Duke as his enemy. But he knew — and he could not escape from the knowledge — that England did not contain a more honourable man than the Duke. He was delighted that the Duke should be vexed and thwarted, and called ill names in the matter. To be gratified at this discomfiture of his enemy was in the nature of parliamentary opposition. Any blow that might weaken his opponent was a blow in his favour. But his was a blow which he could not strike with his own hands. There were things in parliamentary tactics which even Sir Orlando could not do. Arthur Fletcher was also asked to undertake the task. He was the successful candidate, the man who opposed Lopez, and who was declared by the “People’s Banner” to have emancipated that borough by his noble conduct from the tyranny of the House of Palliser. And it was thought that he might like an opportunity of making himself known in the House. But he was simply indignant when the suggestion was made to him. ‘What is it to me,’ he said, ‘who paid the blackguard’s expenses?’

This went on for some weeks after Parliament had met, and for some days even after the article in which direct allusion was made to the Duchess. The Prime Minister could not be got to consent that no notice should be taken of the matter, let the papers or the public say what they would, nor could he be induced to let the matter be handled in a manner proposed by the elder Duke. And during this time he was in such a fever that those about him felt that something must be done. Mr Monk suggested that if everybody held his tongue — meaning all the Duke’s friends — the thing would wear itself out. But it was apparent to those who were nearest to the minister, to Mr Warburton, for instance, and the Duke of St Bungay, that the man himself would be worn out first. The happy professor of a thick skin can hardly understand how one not so blessed may be hurt by the thong of a little whip! At last the matter was arranged. At the instigation of Mr Monk, Sir James Deering, who was really the father of the House, an independent member, but one who generally voted with the Coalition, consented to ask the question in the House of Commons. And Phineas Finn was instructed by the Duke as to the answer that was to be given. The Duke of Omnium in giving these instructions made a mystery of the matter which he by no means himself intended. But he was so sore that he could not be simple in what he said. ‘Mr Finn,’ he said, ‘you must promise me this; — that the name of the Duchess shall not be mentioned.’

‘Certainly not by me, if you will tell me that I am not to mention it.’

‘No one else can do so. The matter will take the form of a simple question, and though the conduct of the minister may no doubt be made the subject of debate — and it is not improbable that any conduct may do so in this instance — it is, I think, impossible that any member should make an allusion to my wife. The privilege or power of returning a member for the borough has undoubtedly been exercised by our family since as well as previous to both the Reform Bills. At the last election I thought it right to abandon that privilege, and notified to those about my intention. But that which a man has the power of doing he cannot always do without interference of those around him. There was a misconception, and among my — my adherents — there were some who injudiciously advised Mr Lopez to stand on my interest. But he did not get my interest, and was beaten; — and therefore when he asked me for the money which he had spent, I paid it to him. That is all. I think the House can hardly avoid to see that my effort was made to discontinue an unconstitutional proceeding.’

Sir James Deering asked the question. ‘He trusted,’ he said, ‘that the House would not think that the question of which he had given notice and which he was about to ask was instigated by any personal desire on his part to inquire into the conduct of the Prime Minister. He was one who believed that the Duke of Omnium was as little likely as any man in England to offend by unconstitutional practice on his own part. But a great deal had been talked and written lately about the late election at Silverbridge, and there were those who thought — and he was one of them — that something should be said to stop the mouths of cavillers. With this object he would ask the Right Honourable Gentleman who led the House, and who was perhaps first in standing among the Duke’s colleagues in that House, whether the noble Duke was prepared to have any statement on the subject made.’

The house was full to the very corners of the galleries. Of course it was known to everybody that the question was to be asked and to be answered. There were some who thought the matter was so serious that the Prime Minister could not get over it. Others had heard the details in the clubs that Lady Glen, as the Duchess was still called, was to be made the scapegoat. Men of all classes were open-mouthed in the denunciation and meanness of Lopez — though no one but Mr Wharton knew half his villainy, as he alone knew that the expenses had been paid twice over. In one corner of the reporter’s gallery sat Mr Slide, pencil in hand, prepared to revert to his old work on so momentous an occasion. It was a great day for him. He by his own unassisted energy had brought the Prime Minister to book, and had created all this turmoil. It might be his happy lot to be the means of turning the Prime Minister out of office. It was he who had watched over the nation! The Duchess had been most anxious to be present — but had not ventured to come without asking her husband’s leave, which he had most peremptorily refused to give. ‘I cannot understand, Glencora, how you can suggest such a thing,’ he had said.

‘You make so much of everything,’ she had replied petulantly; but she had remained at home. The ladies’ gallery was, however, quite full. Mrs Finn was there, of course, anxious not only for her friend, but eager to hear how her husband would acquit himself in his task. The wives and daughters of all the ministers were there — excepting the wife of the Prime Minister. There never had been, in the memory of them all, a matter that was so interesting to them for it was the only matter they remembered in which a woman’s conduct might probably be called into question in the House of Commons. And the seats appropriated to peers were so crammed that above a dozen grey-headed old lords were standing in the passage which divides them from the common strangers. After all it was not, in truth, much of an affair. A very little man indeed had calumniated the conduct of a minister of the Crown, till it had been thought well that the minister should defend himself. No one really believed that the Duke had committed any great offence. At the worst it was no more than indiscretion, which was noticeable only because a Prime Minister should never be indiscreet. Had the taxation of the whole country for the next year been in dispute there would have been no such interest felt. Had the welfare of the Indian Empire occupied the House, the House would have been empty. But the hope that a certain woman’s name would have to be mentioned, crammed it from floor to ceiling.

The reader need not be told that the name was not mentioned. Our old friend Phineas, on rising to his legs, first apologized for doing so in place of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But perhaps the House would accept a statement from him, as the noble Duke at the head of the Government had asked him to make it. Then he made his statement. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘no falser accusation than this had ever been brought forward against a Minister of the Crown, for it specially charged his noble friend with resorting to the employment of unconstitutional practices to bolster up his parliamentary support, whereas it was known by everybody that there would have been no matter for accusation at all had not the Duke of his own motion abandoned a recognized privilege, because, in his opinion, the exercise of that privilege was opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. Had the noble Duke simply nominated a candidate, as candidate had been nominated at Silverbridge for centuries past, that candidate would have been returned with absolute certainty, and there would have been no word spoken on the subject. It was not, perhaps, for him, who had the honour of serving under his Grace, and who, as being part of his Grace’s Government, was for the time one with his Grace, to expiate at length on the nobility of the sacrifice here made. But they all knew there at what rate was valued a seat in that House. Thank God that privilege which his noble friend had so magnanimously resigned from purely patriotic motives, was, he believed, still in existence, and he would ask those few who were still in the happy, or perhaps, he had better say in the envied position of being able to send their friends to that House, what was their estimation of the conduct of the Duke in this matter? It might be that there were one or two such present, and who now heard him — or perhaps, one or two who owed their seats to the exercise of such a privilege. They might marvel at the magnitude of the surrender. They might even question the sagacity of the man who could abandon so much without a price. But he hardly thought that even they would regard it as unconstitutional.

‘This was what the Prime Minister had done — acting not as Prime Minister, but as an English gentleman, in the management of his own property and privileges. And now he would come to the gist of the accusation made; in making which, the thing which the Duke had really done had been altogether ignored. When the vacancy had been declared by the acceptance of the Chiltern Hundreds by a gentleman whose absence from the House they all regretted, the Duke had signified to his agents his intention of retiring altogether from the exercise of any privilege or power in the matter. But the Duke was then, as he was also now, and would, it was to be hoped, long continue to be Prime Minister of England. He need hardly remind gentlemen in that House that the Prime Minister was not in a position to devote his undivided time to the management of his own property, or even to the interests of the Borough of Silverbridge. That his Grace had been earnest in his instructions to his agents, the sequel fully proved; but that earnestness his agents had misinterpreted.’

Then there was a voice heard in the House, ‘What agents?’ and from another voice, ‘Name them.’ For there were present some who thought it to be shameful that the excitement of the occasion should be lowered by keeping back the allusion to the Duchess.

‘I have not distinguished,’ said Phineas, assuming an indignant tone, ‘the honourable gentlemen from whom those questions have come, and therefore I have the less compunction in telling them that it is not part of my duty on this occasion to gratify a morbid and an indecent curiosity.’ Then there was a cry of ‘Order’, and an appeal to the Speaker. Certain gentlemen wished to know whether indecent was parliamentary. The Speaker, with some hesitation, expressed his opinion that the word, as then used, was not open to objection from him. He thought that it was within the scope of a member’s rights to charge another member with indecent curiosity. ‘If,’ said Phineas, rising again to his legs, for he had sat down for a moment, ‘the gentleman who called for a name will rise in his place and repeat the demand, I will recall the word indecent and substitute another — or others. I will tell him that he is one who, regardless of the real conduct of the Prime Minister, either as a man or as a servant of the Crown, is only anxious to inflict unmanly wound in order that he may be gratified by seeing the pain he inflicts.’ Then he paused, but as no further question was asked, he continued his statement. ‘A candidate had been brought forward,’ he said, ‘by those interested in the Duke’s affairs. A man whom he would not name, but who, he trusted, would never succeed in his ambition to occupy a seat in that House, had been brought forward, and certain tradesmen in Silverbridge had been asked to support him as the Duke’s nominee. There was no doubt about it. The House perhaps could understand that the local adherents and neighbours of a man so high in rank and wealth as the Duke of Omnium would not gladly see the privileges of their lord diminished. Perhaps, too, it occurred to them that a Prime Minister could not have his eye everywhere. There would always be worthy men in boroughs who liked to exercise some second-hand authority. At any rate it was the case that this candidate was encouraged. Then the Duke had heard it, and had put his foot upon the little mutiny, and had stamped it out at once. He might perhaps here,’ he said, ‘congratulate the House on the acquisition it had received, by the failure of that candidate. So far, at any rate,’ he thought, ‘it must be admitted that the Duke had been free from blame; — but now he came to the gravamen of the charge.’ The gravamen of the charge is so well known to the reader that the simple account of it by Phineas gave of it need not be repeated. The Duke had paid the money, when asked for it, because he felt that the man had been injured by incorrect misrepresentations made to him. ‘I need hardly pause to stigmatize the meanness of that application,’ said Phineas, ‘but I may perhaps conclude by saying that whether the last act done by the Duke in this matter was or was not indiscreet, I shall probably have the House with me when I say that it savours much more strongly of nobility than indiscretion.’

When Phineas Finn sat down no one arose to say another word on the subject. It was afterwards felt that it could only have been graceful had Sir Orlando risen and expressed his opinion that the House had heard the statement just made with perfect satisfaction. But he did not do so, and after a short pause the ordinary business of the day was recommenced. Then there was a speedy descent from the galleries, and the ladies trooped out of their cage, and the grey-headed old peers went back to their own chamber, and the members themselves quickly jostled out through the doors, and Mr Monk was left to explain his proposed alteration in the dog tax to a thin House of seventy or eighty members.

The thing was then over, and people were astonished that so great a thing should be over with so little fuss. It really seemed that after Phineas Finn’s speech there was nothing more to be said on the matter. Everybody of course knew that the Duchess had been the chief of the agents to whom he had alluded, but they had known as much as that before. It was, however, felt by everybody that the matter had been brought to an end. The game, such as it was, had been played out. Perhaps the only person who heard Mr Finn’s speech throughout, and still hoped that the spark could be again fanned into a flame, was Quintus Slide. He went out and wrote another article about the Duchess. If a man was so unable to rule his affairs at home, he was certainly unfit to be Prime Minister. But even Quintus Slide, as he wrote his article, felt that he was hoping against hope. The charge might be referred to hereafter as one that had never been satisfactorily cleared up. The game is always open to the opponents of a minister. After the lapse of a few months an old accusation can be serviceably used, whether at the time it was proved or disproved. Mr Slide published his article; but he felt that for the present the Silverbridge election papers had better be put by among the properties of the “People’s Banner” and brought out, if necessary, for further use at some future time.

‘Mr Finn,’ said the Duke, ‘I feel indebted to you for the trouble you have taken.’

‘It was only a pleasant duty.’

‘I am grateful to you for the manner in which it was performed.’ This was all the Duke said, and Phineas felt it to be cold. The Duke, in truth, was grateful, but gratitude with him always failed to exhibit itself readily. From the world at large Phineas Finn received great praise for the manner in which he had performed his task.

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