The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 63

The Duchess and Her Friend.

But the Duke, though he was by far too magnanimous to be angry with Phineas Finn because Phineas would not fall into his views respecting the proposed action, was not the less tormented and goaded by what the newspaper said. The assertion that he had hounded Ferdinand Lopez to death, that by his defence of himself he had brought the man’s blood on his head, was made and repeated till those round him did not dare to mention the name of Lopez in his hearing. Even his wife was restrained and became fearful, and in her heart of hearts began almost to wish for that retirement to which he occasionally alluded as a distant Elysium which he should never be allowed to reach. He was beginning to have the worn look of an old man. His scanty hair was turning grey, and his long thin cheeks longer and thinner. Of what he did when sitting alone in his chamber, either at home or at the Treasury Chamber, she knew less and less from day to day, and she began to think that much of the sorrow arose from the fact that among them they would allow him to do nothing. There was no special subject now which stirred him to eagerness and brought upon herself explanations which were tedious and unintelligible to her, but evidently delightful to him. There were no quints or semi-tenths now, no aspirations for decimal perfection, no delightfully fatiguing hours spent in the manipulation of the multiplication table. And she could not but observe that the old Duke now spoke to her much less frequently of her husband’s political position than had been his habit. He still came frequently to the house, but did not often see her. And when he did see her he seemed to avoid all allusion either to the political successes or the political reverses of the Coalition. And even her other special allies seemed to labour under unusual restraint with her. Barrington Erle seldom told her any news. Mr Rattler never had a word for her. Warburton, who had ever been discreet, became almost petrified by discretion. And even Phineas Finn had grown to be solemn, silent and uncommunicative. ‘Have you heard who is the new Prime Minister?’ she said to Mrs Finn one day.

‘Has there been a change?’

‘I suppose so. Everything has become so quiet that I cannot imagine that Plantagenet is still in office. Do you know what anybody is doing?’

‘The world is going on very smoothly, I take it.’

‘I hate smoothness. It always means treachery and danger. I feel sure that there will be a great blow up before long. I smell it in the air. Don’t you tremble for your husband?’

‘Why should I? He likes being in office because it gives him something to do; but he would never be an idle man. As long as he has a seat in Parliament, I shall be contented.’

‘To have been Prime Minister is something after all, and they can’t rob him of that,’ said the Duchess recurring again to her own husband. ‘I half fancy sometimes that the charm of the thing is growing up on him.’

‘Upon the Duke?’

‘Yes. He is always talking of the delight he will have in giving it up. He is always Cincinnatus, going back to his peaches and his ploughs. But I fear he is beginning to feel that the salt would be gone out of his life if he ceased to be the first man in the kingdom. He has never said so, but there is a nervousness about him when I suggest to him the name of this or that man as his successor which alarms me. And I think he is becoming a tyrant with his own men. He spoke the other day of Lord Drummond almost as though he meant to have him whipped. It isn’t what one expected from him — is it?’

‘The weight of the load on his mind makes him irritable.’

‘Either that, or having no load. If he had really much to do he wouldn’t surely have time to think so much of that poor wretch who destroyed himself. Such sensitiveness is simply a disease. One can never punish any fault in the world if the sinner can revenge himself upon us by rushing into eternity. Sometimes I see him shiver and shudder, and then I know he is thinking of Lopez.’

‘I can understand all that, Lady Glen.’

‘It isn’t as it should be, though you can understand it. I’ll bet you a guinea that Sir Timothy Beeswax has to go out before the beginning of the next Session.’

‘I’ve no objection. But why Sir Timothy?’

‘He mentioned Lopez’s name the other day before Plantagenet. I heard him. Plantagenet pulled that long face of his, looking as though he meant to impose silence on the whole world for the next six weeks. But Sir Timothy is brass itself, a sounding cymbal of brass that nothing can silence. He went on to declare with that loud voice of his that the death of Lopez was a good riddance to bad rubbish. Plantagenet turned away and left the room and shut himself up. He didn’t declare to himself that he would dismiss Sir Timothy, because that’s not the way of his mind. But you’ll see that Sir Timothy will have to go.’

‘That, at any rate, will be a good riddance of bad rubbish’ said Mrs Finn, who did not love Sir Timothy Beeswax.

Soon after that the Duchess made up her mind that she would interrogate the Duke of St Bungay as to the present state of affairs. It was then the end of June, and nearly one of those long and tedious months had gone by of which the Duke spoke so feelingly when he asked Phineas Finn to come down to Matching. Hope had been expressed in more than one quarter that this would be a short Session. Such hopes are more common in June than in July, and, though rarely verified, serve to keep up the drooping spirits of languid senators. ‘I suppose we shall be early out of town, Duke,’ she said one day.

‘I think so. I don’t see what there is to keep us. It often happens that ministers are a great deal better in the country than in London, and I fancy it will be so this year.’

‘You never think of the poor girls who haven’t got their husbands yet.’

‘They should make better use of their time. Besides, they can get their husbands in the country.’

‘It’s quite true that they never get to the end of their labours. They are not like you members of Parliament who can shut up your portfolios and go and shoot grouse. They have to keep at their work spring and summer, autumn and winter — year after year! How they must hate the men they persecute!’

‘I don’t think we can put off going for their sake.’

‘Men are always selfish, I know. What do you think of Plantagenet lately?’ The question was put very abruptly, without a moment’s notice, and there was no avoiding it.

‘Think of him!’

‘Yes; — what do you think of his condition; — of his happiness, his health, his capacity of endurance? Will he be able to go on much longer? Now, my dear Duke, don’t stare at me like that. You know, and I know, that you haven’t spoken a word to me for the last two months. And you know, I know, how many things there are of which we are both thinking in common. You haven’t quarrelled with Plantagenet?’

‘Quarrelled with him! Good heavens no.’

‘Of course I know you still call him your noble colleague, and your noble friend, and make one of the same team with him and all that. But it used to be so much more than that.’

‘It is still much more than that; — much more.’

‘It was you who made him Prime Minister.’

‘No, no, no; — and again no. He made himself Prime Minister by obtaining the confidence of the House of Commons. There is no other possible way in which a man can become Prime Minister in this country.’

‘If I were not very serious at this moment, Duke, I should make an allusion to the — Marines.’ No other human being could have said this to the Duke of St Bungay, except the young woman whom he had petted all his life as Lady Glencora. ‘But I am very serious,’ she continued, ‘and I may say I am not very happy. Of course the big wigs of a party have to settle among themselves who shall be their leader, and when this party was formed they settled, at your advice, that Plantagenet should be the man.’

‘My dear Lady Glencora, I cannot allow that to pass without contradiction.’

‘Do not suppose that I am finding fault, or even that I am ungrateful. No one rejoiced as I rejoiced. No one still feels so much pride in it as I feel. I would have given ten years of my life to keep him so. It is like it was to be king, when men struggled among themselves who should be king. Whatever he may be, I am ambitious. I love to think that other men should look at him as being above them, and that something of this should come down upon me as his wife. I do not know whether it was not the happiest moment of my life when he told me that the Queen had sent for him.’

‘It was not so with him.’

‘No, Duke — no! He and I are very different. He only wants to be useful. At any rate, that was all he did want.’

‘He is still the same.’

‘A man cannot always be carrying a huge load up a hill without having his back bent.’

‘I don’t know that the load need be so heavy, Duchess.’

‘Ah, but what is the load? It is not going to the Treasury Chambers at eleven or twelve in the morning and sitting four or five times a week in the House of Lords till seven or eight o’clock. He was never ill when he would remain in the House of Commons till two in the morning, and not have a decent dinner above twice in the week. The load I speak of isn’t work.’

‘What is it then?’ said the Duke, who in truth understood it all nearly as well as the Duchess herself.

‘It is hard to explain, but it is very heavy.’

‘Responsibility, my dear, will always be very heavy.’

‘But it is hardly that; — certainly not that alone. It is the feeling that so many people blame him for so many things, and the doubt in his own mind whether he may not deserve it. And then he becomes fretful, and conscious that such fretfulness is beneath him, and injurious to his honour. He condemns men in his mind, and condemns himself for condescending to condemn them. He spends one quarter of an hour thinking that as he is Prime Minister he will be Prime Minister down to his fingers’ ends, and the next in resolving that he never ought to have been Prime Minister at all.’ Here something like a frown passed across the old man’s brow, which was, however, no indication of anger. ‘Dear Duke,’ she said, ‘you must not be angry with me. Who is there to whom I can speak but you?’

‘Angry, my dear! No, indeed!’

‘Because you looked as though you would scold me.’ At this he smiled. ‘And of course all this tells upon his health.’

‘Do you think he is ill?’

‘He never says so. There is no special illness. But he is thin and wan and careworn. He does not eat and he does not sleep. Of course I watch him.’

‘Does his doctor see him?’

‘Never. When I asked him once to say a word to Sir James Thorax, — for he was getting hoarse, you know — he only shook his head and turned on his heels. When he was in the other House, and speaking every night, he would see Thorax constantly, and do just what he was told. He used to like opening his mouth and having Sir James look down it. But now he won’t let anyone touch him.’

‘What would you have me do, Lady Glen?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Do you think that he is so far out of his health that he ought to give it up?’

‘I don’t say that. I don’t dare say that. I don’t dare to recommend anything. No consideration of health would tell with him at all. If he were to die tomorrow as the penalty of doing something useful to-night, he wouldn’t think twice about it. If you wanted to make him stay where he is, the way to do it to tell him that his health was failing him. I don’t know that he does want to give it up now.’

‘The autumn months will do everything for him; — only let him be quiet.’

‘You are coming to Matching, Duke?’

‘I suppose so; — if you ask me — for a week or two.’

‘You must come. I am quite nervous if you desert us. I think he becomes estranged every day from all the others. I know you won’t do a mischief by repeating what I say.’

‘I hope not.’

‘He seems to me to turn his nose up at everybody. He used to like Mr Monk; but he envies Mr Monk, because Mr Monk is Chancellor of the Exchequer. I asked him whether we shouldn’t have Lord Drummond at Matching and he told me angrily that I might ask the whole Government if I liked.’

‘Drummond contradicted him the other day.’

‘I knew there was something. He has got to be like a bear with a sore head, Duke. You should have seen his face the other day, when Mr Rattler made some suggestion to him about the proper way of dividing farms.’

‘I don’t think he ever liked Rattler.’

‘What of that? Don’t I have to smile upon men whom I hate like poison; — and women too, which is worse? Do you think that I love old Lady Ramsden, or Mrs MacPherson? He used to be so fond of Lord Cantrip.’

‘I think he likes Lord Cantrip,’ said the Duke.

‘He asked his lordship to do something and Lord Cantrip declined.’

‘I know all about that,’ said the Duke.

‘And now he looks gloomy at Lord Cantrip. His friends won’t stand that kind of thing, you know, for ever.’

‘He is always courteous to Finn,’ said the Duke.

‘Yes; — just now he is on good terms with Mr Finn. He would never be harsh to Mr Finn, because he knows that Mrs Finn is the one really intimate female friend whom I have in the world. After all, Duke, besides Plantagenet and the children, there are only two persons in the world whom I really love. There are only you and she. She will never desert me — and you must not desert me either.’ Then he put his hand behind her waist, and stooped over and kissed her brow, and swore to her that he would never desert her.

But what was he to do? He knew, without being told by the Duchess, that his colleague and chief was becoming, from day to day, more difficult to manage. He had been right enough in laying it down as a general rule that Prime Ministers are selected for that position by the general confidence of the House of Commons; — but he was aware at the same time that it had hardly been so in the present instance. There had come to be a deadlock in affairs, during which neither of the two old and recognised leaders of parties could command a sufficient following for the carrying on of a government. With unusual patience these two gentlemen had now for the greater part of three Sessions sat by, offering but little opposition to the Coalition, but of course biding their time. They, too, called themselves — perhaps thought themselves — Cincinnatuses. But their ploughs and peaches did not suffice to them, and they longed again to be in every mouth, and to have, if to their deeds, then even their omissions blazoned in every paragraph. The palate accustomed to Cayenne pepper can hardly be gratified by simple salt. When that deadlock had come, politicians who were really anxious for the country had been forced to look about for a Premier — and in the search the old Duke had been the foremost. The Duchess had hardly said more than the truth when she declared that her husband’s promotion had been effected by their old friend. But it is sometimes easier to make than unmake. Perhaps the time had now in truth come, in which it would be better for the country that the usual state of things should again exist. Perhaps — nay, the Duke now thought that he saw that it was so — Mr Gresham might again have a Liberal majority at his back if the Duke of Omnium could find some graceful mode of retiring. But who was to tell all this to the Duke of Omnium? There was only one man in all England to whom such a task was possible, and that was the old Duke himself — who during the last two years had been constantly with his friend not to retire! How often since he had taken office had the conscientious and timid Minister begged of his friend permission to abandon his high office! But that permission had always been refused, and now, for the last three months, the request had not been repeated. The Duchess was probably right in saying that her husband ‘didn’t want to give it up now.’

But he, the Duke of St Bungay, had brought his friend into the trouble, and it was certainly his duty to extricate him from it. The admonition might come in the rude shape of repeated minorities in the House of Commons. Hitherto the number of votes at the command of the Ministry had not been very much impaired. A few always fell off as time goes on. Aristides becomes too just, and the mind of man is greedy of novelty. Sir Orlando also, had taken with him a few, and it may be that two or three had told themselves that there could not be all that smoke raised by the “People’s Banner”, without some fire below it. But there was a good working majority — very much at Mr Monk’s command — and Mr Monk was moved by none of that feeling of rebellion which had urged Sir Orlando on to his destruction. It was difficult to find a cause for resignation. And yet the Duke of St Bungay, who had watched the House of Commons closely for nearly half a century, was aware that the Coalition which he had created had done its work, and was almost convinced that it would not be permitted to remain very much longer in power. He had seen some symptoms of impatience in Mr Daubney, and Mr Gresham had snorted once and twice, as though eager for battle.

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