The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 66

The End of the Session.

The Duke of St Bungay had been very much disappointed. He had contradicted with a repetition of noes the assertion of the Duchess that he had been the Warwick who had placed the Prime Minister’s crown on the head of the Duke of Omnium, but no doubt he felt in his heart that he had done so much towards it that his advice respecting the vacant Garter, when given so much weight, should have been followed. He was an old man, and had known the secrets of Cabinet Councils when his younger friend was a little boy. He had given advice to Lord John, and had been one of the first to congratulate Sir Robert Peel when that statesman became a free-trader. He had sat in conclave with THE Duke, and had listened to the bold Liberalism of old Earl Grey, both in the Lower and the Upper House. He had been always great in council, never giving his advice unasked, nor throwing his pearls before swine, and cautious at all times to avoid excesses on this side or that. He had never allowed himself a hobby horse of his own to ride, had never been ambitious, had never sought to be the ostensible leader of men. But he did now think that when, with all his experience, he spoke very much in earnest, some attention should be paid to what he said. When he had described a certain line of conduct as Quixotic he had been very much in earnest. He did not usually indulge in strong language, and Quixotic, when applied to the conduct of the Prime Minister, was, to his ideas, very strong. The thing described as Quixotic had now been done, and the Duke of St Bungay was a disappointed man.

For an hour or two he thought that he must gently secede from all private counsels with the Prime Minister. To resign, or to put impediments in the way of his own chief, did not belong to his character. That line of strategy had come into fashion since he had learnt his political rudiments, and was very odious to him. But in all party compacts there must be inner parties, peculiar bonds, and confidence stricter, stronger and also sweeter than those which bind together the twenty or thirty gentlemen who form a Government. From those closer ties which had hitherto bound him to the Duke of Omnium he thought, for a while, that he must divorce himself. Surely on such a subject as the nomination of a Knight of the Garter his advice might have been taken — if only because it had come from him! And so he kept himself apart for a day or two, and even in the House of Lords ceased to whisper kindly, cheerful words into the ears of his next neighbour.

But various remembrances crowded in upon him by degrees, compelling him to moderate and at last to abandon his purpose. Among these the first was the memory of the kiss he had given to the Duchess. The woman had told him that she loved him, that he was one of the very few whom she did love — and the word had gone straight into his old heart. She had bade him not to desert her; and he had not only given her his promise, but he had converted that promise into a sacred pledge by a kiss. He had known well why she had exacted the promise. The turmoil in her husband’s mind, the agony which he sometimes endured when people spoke ill of him, the aversion which he had at first genuinely felt to an office for which he hardly thought himself fit, and now the gradual love of power created by the exercise of power, had all been seen by her, and had created that solicitude which had induced her to ask for the promise. The old Duke had known them both well, but had hardly as yet given the Duchess credit for so true devotion to her husband. It now seemed to him that, though she had failed to love the man, she had given her entire heart to the Prime Minister. He sympathized with her altogether, and, at any rate, could not go back from his promise.

And then he remembered, too, that if this man did anything amiss in the high office which he had been made to fill, who had induced him to fill it was responsible. What right had he, the Duke of St Bungay, to be angry because his friend was not all-wise at all points? Let the Droughts and the Drummonds and the Beeswaxes quarrel among themselves or with their colleagues. He belonged to a different school, in the teachings of which there was less perhaps of excitement and more of long-suffering; — but surely, also, more of nobility. He was, at any rate, too old to change, and he would therefore be true to his friend through evil and through good. Having thought all this out he again whispered some cheery word to the Prime Minister, as they sat listening to the denunciations of Lord Fawn, a Liberal lord, much used to business, but who had not been received into the Coalition. The first whisper and the second whisper the Prime Minister received very coldly. He had fully appreciated the discontinuance of whispers, and was aware of the cause. He had made a selection on his own unassisted judgment in opposition to his old friend’s advice, and this was the result. Let it be so! All his friends were turning away from him and he would have to stand alone. If so, he would stand alone till the pendulum of the House of Commons had told him that it was time for him to retire. But gradually the determined good-humour of the old man prevailed. ‘He has a wonderful gift of saying nothing with second-rate dignity,’ whispered the repentant friend, speaking of Lord Fawn.

‘A very honest man,’ said the Prime Minister in return.

‘A sort of bastard honesty — by precept out of stupidity. There is no real conviction in it, begotten by thought.’ This little bit of criticism, harsh as it was, had the effect, and the Prime Minister became less miserable than he had been.

But Lord Drummond forgave nothing. He still held his office, but more than once he was seen in private conference with both Sir Orlando and Mr Boffin. He did not attempt to conceal his anger. Lord Earlybird! An old woman! One whom no other man in England would have thought of making a Knight of the Garter! It was not, he said, personal disappointment in himself. There were half-a-dozen peers whom he would have willingly have seen so graced without the slightest chagrin. But this must have been done simply to show the Duke’s power, and to let the world understand that he owed nothing and would pay nothing to his supporters. It was almost a disgrace, said Lord Drummond, to belong to a Government the Head of which could so commit himself! The Session was nearly at an end, and Lord Drummond thought that no step could be conveniently taken now. But it was quite clear to him that this state of things could not be continued. It was observed that Lord Drummond and the Prime Minister never spoke to each other in the House, and that the Secretary of State for Colonies — that being the office which he held — never rose in his place after Lord Earlybird’s nomination, unless to say a word or two as to his own peculiar duties. It was very soon known to all the world that there was war to the knife between Lord Drummond and the Prime Minister.

And, strange to say, there seemed to be some feeling of general discontent on this very trifling subject. When Aristides had been much too just the oyster-shells became numerous. It was said that the Duke had been guilty of pretentious love of virtue in taking Lord Earlybird out of his own path of life and forcing him to write K.G. after his name. There came out an article, of course in the “People’s Banner”, headed, “Our Prime Minister’s Good Works”, in which poor Lord Earlybird was ridiculed in a very unbecoming manner, and in which it was asserted that the thing was done as a counterpoise to the iniquity displayed in ‘hounding Ferdinand Lopez to his death’. Whenever Ferdinand Lopez was mentioned he had always been hounded. And then the article went on to declare that either the Prime Minister had quarrelled with all his colleagues, or else that all his colleagues had quarrelled with the Prime Minister. Mr Slide did not care which it might be, but, whichever it might be, the poor country had to suffer when such a state of things was permitted. It was notorious that neither the Duke of St Bungay nor Lord Drummond would now even speak to their own chief, so thoroughly were they disgusted with his conduct. Indeed it seemed that the only ally the Prime Minister had in his own Cabinet was the Irish adventurer, Mr Phineas Finn. Lord Earlybird never read a word of all this, and was altogether undisturbed as he sat in his chair in Exeter Hall — or just at this time of the year more frequently in the provinces. But the Duke of Omnium read it all. After what had passed he did not dare show it to his brother Duke. He did not dare to tell his friend that it was said in the newspapers that they did not speak to each other. But every word from Mr Slide’s pen settled on his own memory, and added to his torments. It came to be a fixed idea in the Duke’s mind that Mr Slide was a gadfly sent to the earth for the express purpose of worrying him.

And as a matter of course the Prime Minister in his own mind blamed himself for what he had done. It is the chief torment of a person constituted as he was that strong as may be the determination to do a thing, fixed as may be the conviction that the thing ought to be done, no sooner has it been perfected than the objections of others, which before had been inefficacious become suddenly endowed with truth and force. He did not like being told by Mr Slide that he ought not to have set his cabinet against him, but when he had in fact done so, then he believed what Mr Slide told him. As soon almost as the irrecoverable letter had been winged on its way to Lord Earlybird, he saw the absurdity of sending it. Who was he that he should venture to set aside all the traditions of office? A Pitt or a Peel or a Palmerston might have done so, because they had been abnormally strong. They had been Prime Ministers by the work of their own hands, holding their powers against the whole world. But he — he told himself daily he was only there by sufferance, because at the moment no one else could be found to take it. In such a condition should he have not have been bound by the traditions of office, bound by the advice of one so experienced and so true as the Duke of St Bungay? And for whom had he broken through these traditions and thrown away this advice? For a man who had no power whatever to help him or any other Minister of the Crown; — for one whose every pursuit in life was at variance with the acquisition of such honours as that now thrust upon him! He could see his own obstinacy, and could even hate the pretentious love of virtue which he himself had displayed.

‘Have you seen Lord Earlybird with his ribbon?’ his wife said to him.

‘I do not know Lord Earlybird by sight,’ he replied angrily.

‘Nor anyone else either. But he would have come down and shown it himself to you, if he had a spark of gratitude in his composition. As far as I can learn you have sacrificed the Ministry for his sake.’

‘I did my duty as best I knew how to do it,’ said the Duke, almost with ferocity, ‘and it little becomes you to taunt me with my deficiency.’

‘Plantagenet!’

‘I am driven,’ he said, ‘almost beyond myself, and it kills me when you take part against me.’

‘Take part against you! Surely there was very little in what I said.’ And yet, as she spoke, she repented bitterly that she had at the moment allowed herself to relapse into the sort of badinage which had been usual with her before she had understood the extent of his sufferings. ‘If I trouble you by what I say, I will certainly hold my tongue.’

‘Don’t repeat to me what that man says in the newspaper.’

‘You shouldn’t regard the man, Plantagenet. You shouldn’t allow the paper to come into your hands.’

‘Am I to be afraid of seeing what men say of me? Never! But you need not repeat it, at any rate if it be false.’ She had not seen the article in question or she certainly would not have repeated the accusation it contained. ‘I have quarrelled with no colleague. If such a one as Lord Drummond chooses to think himself injured, am I to stoop to him? Nothing strikes me so much in all this as the ill-nature of the world at large. When they used to bait a bear tied to a stake, everyone around would cheer the dogs and help torment the helpless animal. It is much the same now, only they have a man instead of a bear for their pleasure.’

‘I will never help the dogs again,’ she said, coming up to him and clinging him within the embrace of his arm.

He knew that he had been Quixotic, and he would sit in his chair repeating the word to himself aloud, till he himself began to fear that he would do it in company. But the thing had been done and could not be undone. He had had the bestowal of one Garter, and he had given it to Lord Earlybird! It was — he told himself, but not correctly — the only thing he had done on his own undivided responsibility since he had been Prime Minister.

The last days of July had passed, and it had been at last decided that the Session should close on the 11th August. Now the 11th of August was thought to be a great deal too near the 12th to allow of such an arrangement being considered satisfactory. A great many members were angry at the arrangement. It had been said all through June and into July that it was to be an early Session, and yet things had been so mismanaged that when the end came everything could not be finished without keeping members of Parliament in town on the 11th August! In the memory of the present legislators there had never been anything so awkward. The fault, if there was a fault, was attributable to Mr Monk. In all probability the delay was unavoidable. A minister cannot control long-winded gentlemen, and when gentlemen are very long-winded there must be delay. No doubt a strong minister can exercise some control, and it is certain that long-winded gentlemen find an unusual scope for their breath when the reigning dynasty is weak. In that way Mr Monk and the Duke may have been responsible, but they were blamed as though they, for their own special amusement, detained gentlemen in town. Indeed the gentlemen were not detained. They grumbled and growled and then fled — but their grumblings and growlings were heard even after their departure.

‘Well; — what do you think of it all?’ the Duke said one day to Mr Monk at the Treasury, affecting an air of cheery good-humour.

‘I think,’ said Mr Monk, ‘that the country is very prosperous. I don’t know that I ever remember trade to have been more evenly satisfactory.’

‘Ah, yes. That’s very well for the country, and ought, I suppose, to satisfy me.’

‘It satisfies me,’ said Mr Monk.

‘And me, in a way. But if you were walking about in a very tight pair of boots, in agony with your feet, would you be able just then to relish the news that agricultural wages in that parish had gone up sixpence a week?’

‘I’d take my boots off, and then try,’ said Mr Monk.

‘That’s just what I’m thinking of doing. If I had my boots off all that prosperity would be so pleasant to me! But, you see, you can’t take your boots off in company. And it may be that you have a walk before you, and that no boots will be worse for your feet than tight ones.’

‘We’ll have our boots off soon, Duke,’ said Mr Monk, speaking of the recess.

‘And when shall we be quit of them altogether? Joking apart, they have to be worn if the country requires it.’

‘Certainly, Duke.’

‘And it may be that you and I think upon the whole they may be worn with advantage. What does the country say to that?’

‘The country never says the reverse. We have not had a majority against us this Session on any Government question.’

‘But we have had narrowing majorities. What will the House do as to the Lords’ amendments on the Bankruptcy Bill? There was a bill that had gone down from the House of Commons, but had not originated with the Government. It had, however, been fostered by ministers of the House of Lords, and had been sent back with certain amendments for which the Lord Chancellor had made himself responsible. It was therefore now almost a Government measure. The manipulation of this measure had been one of the causes of the prolonged sitting of the Houses.’

‘Grogram says they will take the amendments.’

‘And if they don’t?’

‘Why then,’ said Mr Monk, ‘the Lords must take our rejection.’

‘And we shall have been beaten,’ said the Duke.

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘And simply because the House desires to beat us. I am told Sir Timothy Beeswax intends to speak and vote against the amendments.’

‘What — Sir Timothy on one side, and Sir Gregory on the other?’

‘So Lord Ramsden tells me,’ said the Duke. ‘If it be so, what are we to do?’

‘Certainly not go out in August,’ said Mr Monk.

When the time came for the consideration of the Lords’ amendments in the House of Commons — and it did not come till the 8th of August — the matter was exactly as the Duke had said. Sir Gregory Grogram, with a deal of earnestness, supported the Lords’ amendments — as he was in honour bound to do. The amendment had come from his chief, the Lord Chancellor, and had indeed been discussed with Sir Gregory before it had been proposed. He was very much in earnest; — but it was evident from Sir Gregory’s earnestness that he expected a violent opposition. Immediately after him rose Sir Timothy. Now Sir Timothy was a pretentious man, who assumed to be not only an advocate but a lawyer. And he assumed also to be a political magnate. He went into the matter at great length. He began by saying that it was not a party question. The bill, which he had had the honour of supporting before it went from their own House, had been a private bill. As such it had received a general support from the Government. It had been materially altered in the other House under the auspices of his noble friend on the woolsack, but from those alterations he was obliged to dissent. Then he said some very heavy things against the Lord Chancellor, and increased in acerbity as he described what he called the altered mind of his honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General. He then made some very uncomplimentary allusions to the Prime Minister, whom he accused of being more than ordinarily reserved with his subordinates. The speech was manifestly arranged and delivered with the express view of damaging the Coalition, of which at the time he himself made a part. Men observed that things were very much altered when such a course as that was taken in the House of Commons. But that course was taken on this occasion by Sir Timothy Beeswax, and was so far taken with success that the Lords’ amendments were rejected and the Government was beaten in a thin House, by a large majority — composed partly of its own men. ‘What am I to do?’ asked the Prime Minister of the old Duke.

The old Duke’s answer was exactly the same as that given by Mr Monk. ‘We cannot resign in August.’ And then he went on. ‘We must wait and see how things go at the beginning of next Session. The chief question is whether Sir Timothy should not be asked to resign.’

Then the Session was at an end, and they who had been staunch to last got out of town as quick as the trains could carry them.

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