The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 6

An Old Friend Goes to Windsor.

‘And what are they going to make you now?’

This question was asked of her husband by a lady with whom perhaps the readers of this volume may have already formed some acquaintance. Chronicles of her early life have been written, at any rate copiously. The lady was the Duchess of Omnium, and her husband was of course the Duke. In order that the nature of the question asked by the Duchess may be explained, it must be stated that just at this time the political affairs of the nation had got themselves tied up into one of those truly desperate knots from which even the wisdom and experience of septuagenarian statesmen can see no unravelment. The heads of parties were at a standstill. In the House of Commons, there was, so to say, no majority on either side. The minds of members were so astray that, according to the best calculation that could be made, there would be a majority of about ten against any possible Cabinet. There would certainly be a majority against either of those well-tried, but, at this moment, little trusted Prime Ministers, Mr Gresham and Mr Daubney. There were certain men, nominally belonging to this or to the other party, who would certainly within a week of the nomination of a Cabinet in the House, oppose the Cabinet which they ought to support. Mr Daubney had been in power — nay, was in power, though he had twice resigned. Mr Gresham had been twice sent for to Windsor, and had on one occasion undertaken and on another had refused to undertake to form a Ministry. Mr Daubney had tried two or three combinations, and had been at his wits’ end. He was no doubt still in power — could appoint bishops, and make peers, and give away ribbons. But he couldn’t pass a law, and certainly continued to hold his present uncomfortable position by no will of his own. But a Prime Minister cannot escape till he has succeeded in finding a successor; and though the successor be found and consents to make an attempt, the old unfortunate cannot be allowed to go free when the attempt is shown to be a failure. He has not absolutely given up the keys of his boxes, and no one will take them from him. Even a sovereign can abdicate; but the Prime Minister of a constitutional government is in bonds. The reader may therefore understand that the Duchess was asking her husband what place among the political rulers of the country had been offered to him by the last aspirant to the leadership of the Government.

But the reader should understand more than this, and may perhaps do so, if he has ever seen those former chronicles to which allusion has been made. The Duke, before he became a duke, had held very high office, having been the Chancellor of the Exchequer. When he was transferred, perforce, to the House of Lords, he had — as it is not uncommon in such cases — accepted a lower political station. This had displeased the Duchess, who was ambitious both on her own behalf and that of her lord — and who thought that a Duke of Omnium should be nothing in the Government if not at any rate near the top. But after that, with the simple and single object of doing some special piece of work for the nation — something which he fancied that nobody else would do if he didn’t do it — his Grace, of his own motion, at his own solicitation, had encountered further official degradation, very much to the disgust of the Duchess. And it was not the way with her Grace to hide such sorrows in the depth of her bosom. When affronted she would speak out, whether to her husband, or to another — using irony rather than argument to support her cause and to vindicate her ways. The shafts of ridicule hurled by her against her husband in regard to his voluntary abasement had been many and sharp. They stung him, but never for a moment influenced him. It was her nature to say such things — and he knew that they came rather from her uncontrolled spirit than from any malice. She was his wife too, and he had an idea that of little injuries of that sort there should be no end of bearing on the part of a husband. Sometimes he would endeavour to explain to her the motives which actuated him; but he had come to fear that they were and must be unintelligible to her. But he credited her with less than her real intelligence. She did understand the nature of his work and his reasons for doing it; and, after her own fashion, did what she conceived to be her own work in endeavouring to create within his bosom a desire for higher things. ‘Surely,’ she said to herself, ‘if a man of his rank is to be a minister, he should be a great minister; — at any rate as great as his circumstances will make him. A man never can save his country by degrading himself.’ In this he would probably have agreed; but his idea of degradation and hers hardly tallied.

When therefore she asked him what they were going to make him, it was as though some sarcastic housekeeper in a great establishment should ask the butler — some butler too prone to yield in such matters — whether the master had appointed him lately to the cleaning of shoes or the carrying of coals. Since these knots had become so very tight, and since the journeys to Windsor had become so very frequent, her Grace had asked many such questions, and had received but very indifferent replies. The Duke had sometimes declared that the matter was not ripe enough to allow him to make any answer. ‘Of course,’ said the Duchess, ‘you should keep the secret. The editors of the evening papers haven’t known it for above an hour.’ At another time he told her that he had undertaken to give Mr Gresham his assistance in any way that might be asked.

‘Joint undersecretary with Lord Fawn, I should say,’ answered the Duchess. Then he told her that he believed an attempt would be made at a mixed ministry, but that he did not in the least know to whom the work of doing so would be confided. ‘You will be about the last man who will be told,’ replied the Duchess. Now, at this moment, he had, as she knew, come direct from the house of Mr Gresham, and she asked her question in her usual spirit.

‘And what are they going to make you now?’

But he did not answer the question in his usual manner. He would customarily smile gently at her badinage, and perhaps say a word intended to show that he was not in the least moved by her raillery. But in this instance he was very grave, and stood before her a moment making no answer at all, looking at her in a sad and almost solemn manner. ‘They have told you that they can do without you,’ she said, breaking out almost into a passion. ‘I knew it would be. Men are always valued by others as they value themselves.’

‘I wish it were so,’ he replied. ‘I should sleep easier to-night.’

‘What is it, Plantagenet?’ she exclaimed, jumping up from her chair.

‘I never cared for your ridicule hitherto, Cora, but now I feel that I want your sympathy.’

‘If you are going to do anything — to do really anything, you shall have it. Oh, how you shall have it!’

‘I have received her Majesty’s orders to go down to Windsor at once. I must start within half an hour.’

‘You are going to be Prime Minister!’ she exclaimed. As she spoke she threw her arms up, and then rushed into his embrace. Never since their first union had she been so demonstrative either of love or admiration. ‘Oh, Plantagenet,’ she said, ‘if I can do anything I will slave for you.’ As he put his arm round her waist he already felt the pleasantness of her altered way to him. She had never worshipped him yet, and therefore her worship when it did come had all the delight to him which it ordinarily has to the newly married hero.

‘Stop a moment, Cora. I do not know how it may be yet. But this I know, that if without cowardice I could avoid this task, I would certainly avoid it.’

‘Oh no! And there would be cowardice; of course there would,’ said the Duchess, not much caring what might be the bonds which bound him to the task so long as he should certainly feel himself to be bound.

‘He has told me that he thinks it my duty to make the attempt.’

‘Who is he?’

‘Mr Gresham. I do not know that I should have felt myself bound by him, but the Duke said also.’ This duke was our duke’s old friend, the Duke of St Bungay.

‘Was he there? And who else?’

‘No one else. It is no case for exultation, Cora, for the chances are that I shall fail. The Duke has promised to help me, on condition that one or two he has named are included, and that one or two whom he has also named are not. In each case, I should myself have done exactly as he proposes.’

‘And Mr Gresham?’

‘He will retire. That is a matter of course. He will intend to support me, but all that is veiled in the obscurity which is always, I think, darker as to the future of politics than any other future. Clouds arise, one knows not why or whence, and create darkness when one expected light. But as yet, you must understand, nothing is settled. I cannot even say what answer I may make to her Majesty, till I know what commands her Majesty may lay upon me.’

‘You must keep a hold of it now, Plantagenet,’ said the Duchess, clenching her own fist.

‘I will not even close a finger on it with any personal ambition,’ said the Duke. ‘If I could be relieved from the burden of this moment, it would be an ease to my heart. I remember once,’ he said — and as he spoke he again put his arm around her waist, ‘when I was debarred from taking office, by a domestic circumstance.’

‘I remember that too,’ she said, speaking very gently and looking up at him.

‘It was a grief to me at the time, though it turned out so well, — because the office then suggested to me was one which I thought I could fill with credit to the country. I believed in myself then, as far as that work went. But for this attempt I have no belief in myself. I doubt whether I have any gift for governing men.’

‘It will come.’

‘It may be that I must try; — and it may be that I must break my heart because I fail. But I shall make the attempt if I am directed to do so in any manner that shall seem feasible. I must be off now. The Duke is to be here this evening. They had better have dinner ready for me whenever I may be able to eat it.’ Then he took his departure before she could say another word.

When the Duchess was alone she took to thinking of the whole thing in a manner which they who best knew her would have thought to be very unusual with her. She already possessed all that rank and wealth could give her, and together with those good things a peculiar position of her own, of which she was proud, and which she had made her own not by her wealth and rank, but by a certain fearless energy and power of raillery which never deserted her. Many feared her, and she was afraid of none, and many also loved her — whom she also loved, for her nature was affectionate. She was happy with her children, happy with her friends, in the enjoyment of perfect health, and capable of taking an exaggerated interest in anything that might come uppermost for the moment. One would have been inclined to say that politics were altogether unnecessary to her, and that as Duchess of Omnium, lately known as Lady Glencora Palliser, she had a wider and pleasanter influence than could belong to any woman as wife of a Prime Minister. And she was essentially one of those women who are not contented to be known simply as the wives of their husbands. She had a celebrity of her own, quite independent of his position, and which could not be enhanced by any glory or any power added to him. Nevertheless, when he left her to go down to the Queen with the prospect of being called upon to act as chief of the incoming ministry, her heart throbbed with excitement. It had come at last, and he would be, to her thinking, the leading man in the greatest kingdom in the world.

But she felt in regard to him somewhat as did Lady Macbeth towards her lord.

What thou would’st highly,
That would’st thou holily.

She knew him to be full of scruples, unable to bend when aught was to be got by bending, unwilling to domineer when men might be brought to subjection only by domination. The first duty never could be taught to him. To win support by smiles when his heart was bitter within him would never be within the power of her husband. He could never be brought to buy an enemy by political gifts — would never be prone to silence his keenest opponent by making him his right hand supporter. But the other lesson was easier and might she thought be learned. Power is so pleasant that men quickly learn to be greedy in the enjoyment of it, and to flatter themselves that patriotism requires them to be imperious. She would be constant with him day and night to make him understand that his duty to his country required him to be in very truth its chief ruler. And then with some knowledge of things as they are, — and also with much ignorance — she reflected that he had at his command a means of obtaining popularity and securing power, which had not belonged to his immediate predecessors, and had perhaps never to the same extent been at the command of any minister of England. His wealth as Duke of Omnium had been great; but hers, as available for immediate purposes, had been greater than even his. After some fashion, of which she was profoundly ignorant, her own property was separated from his and reserved to herself and her children. Since her marriage she had never said a word to him about her money — unless it were to ask that something out of the common course might be spent on some, generally absurd, object. But now had come the time for squandering money. She was not only rich, but she had a popularity that was exclusively her own. The new Prime Minister and the new Prime Minister’s wife should entertain after a fashion that had never yet been known even among the nobility of England. Both in town and country those great mansions should be kept open which were now rarely much used because she found them dull, cold, and comfortless. In London there should not be a member of Parliament whom she would not herself know and influence by her flattery and grace — or if there were men whom she could not influence, they should live as men tabooed and unfortunate. Money mattered nothing. Their income was enormous, and for a series of years — for half a dozen years if the game could be kept up so long — they could spend treble what they called their income without real injury to their children. Visions passed through her brain of wondrous things which might be done — if only her husband would be true to his own greatness.

The Duke had left her at about two. She did not stir out of the house that day, but in the course of the afternoon she wrote a line to a friend who lived not very far from her. The Duchess dwelt in Carlton Terrace, and her friend in Park Lane. The note was as follows:

DEAR M,
Come to me at once. I am too
excited to go to you. Yours G

This was addressed to one Mrs Finn, a lady as to whom chronicles have been written, and who has been known to the readers of such chronicles as a friend dearly loved by the Duchess. As quickly as she could put on her carriage garments and get herself to Carlton Terrace, Mrs Finn was there. ‘Well, my dear, how do you think it’s all settled at last?’ said the Duchess. It will probably be felt that the new Prime Minister’s wife was indiscreet, and hardly worthy of the confidence placed in her by her husband. But surely we all have some one friend to whom we tell everything, and with the Duchess Mrs Finn was that one friend.

‘Is the Duke to be Prime Minister?’

‘How on earth should you have guessed that?’

‘What else could make you so excited? Besides, it is by no means strange. I understand that they have gone on trying the two old stages till it is useless to try them any longer; and if there is to be a fresh man, no one would be more likely than the Duke.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Certainly. Why not?’

‘He has frittered away his political position by such meaningless concessions. And then he had never done anything to put himself forward — at any rate since he left the House of Commons. Perhaps I haven’t read things right — but I was surprised, very much surprised.’

‘And gratified?’

‘Oh yes. I can tell you everything, because you will neither misunderstand me nor tell tales of me. Yes — I shall like him to be Prime Minister, though I know that I shall have a bad time of it myself.’

‘Why a bad time?’

‘He is so hard to manage. Of course, I don’t mean about politics. Of course it must be a mixed kind of thing at first, and I don’t care a straw whether it run to Radicalism or Toryism. The country goes on its own way; either for better or for worse, which ever of them are in. I don’t think it makes any difference what sort of laws are passed. But among ourselves, in our set, it makes a deal of difference who gets the garters, and the counties, who are made barons and then earls, and whose name stands at the head of everything.’

‘That is your way of looking at politics?’

‘I own it to you; — and I must teach it to him.’

‘You never will do that, Lady Glen.’

‘Never is a long word. I mean to try. For look back and tell me of any Prime Minister who has become sick of his power. They become sick of the want of power when it’s falling away from them — and then they affect to disdain and put aside the thing they can no longer enjoy. Love of power is a kind of feeling which comes to man as he grows older.’

‘Politics with the Duke have been simple patriotism,’ said Mrs Finn.

‘The patriotism may remain, my dear, but not the simplicity. I don’t want him to sell his country to Germany, or to turn it into an American republic in order that he may be president. But when he gets the reins into his hands, I want him to keep them there. If he’s so much honester than other people, of course he’s the best man for the place. We must make him believe that the very existence of the country depends on his firmness.’

‘To tell you the truth, Lady Glen, I don’t think you’ll ever make the Duke believe anything. What he believes, he believes either from very old habit, or from the working of his own mind.’

‘You’re always singing his praises, Marie.’

‘I don’t know that there is any special praise in what I say; but as far as I can see, it is the man’s character.’

‘Mr Finn will come in, of course,’ said the Duchess.

‘Mr Finn will be like the Duke in one thing. He’ll take his own way as to being in or out, quite independent of his wife.’

‘You’d like him to be in office?’

‘No, indeed! Why should I? He would be more often at the House, and keep later hours, and be always away all the morning into the bargain. But I shall like him to do as he likes himself.’

‘Fancy thinking of all that, I’d sit up all night every night of my life — I’d listen to every debate in the House myself — to have Plantagenet Prime Minister. I like to be busy. Well now, if it does come off —’

‘It isn’t settled, then?’

‘How can one hope that a single journey will settle it, when those other men have been going backwards and forwards between Windsor and London, like buckets in a well, for the last three weeks? But if it is settled, I mean to have a cabinet of my own, and I mean that you shall do the foreign affairs.’

‘You’d better let me be at the exchequer. I’m very good at accounts.’

‘I’ll do that myself. The accounts that I intend to set a-going would frighten anyone less audacious. And I mean to be my own home secretary, and to keep my own conscience — and to be my own master of the ceremonies certainly. I think a small cabinet gets on best. Do you know — I should like to put the Queen down.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘No treason; nothing of that kind. But I should like to make Buckingham Palace second-rate; and I’m not quite sure but I can. I dare say you don’t quite understand me.’

‘I don’t think that I do, Lady Glen.’

‘You will some of these days. Come in tomorrow before lunch. I suppose I shall know all about it then, and shall have found that my basket of crockery has been kicked over and everything smashed.’

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