The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 72

‘He Thinks that Our Days are Numbered.’

All the details of the new County Suffrage Bill were settled at Matching during the recess between Mr Monk, Phineas Finn, and a very experienced man from the Treasury, one Mr Prime, who was supposed to know more about such things than any man living, and was consequently called Constitution Charlie. He was an elderly man, over sixty years of age, who remembered the Reform Bill, and had been engaged in the doctoring of constituencies ever since. The bill, if passed, would be mainly his bill, and yet the world would never hear his name connected with it. Let us hope that he was comfortable at Matching, and that he found his consolation in the smiles of the Duchess. During this time the old Duke was away, and even the Prime Minister was absent for some days. He would fain have busied himself about the bill himself, but was hardly allowed by his colleagues to have any hand in framing it. The great points of the measure had of course been arranged in the Cabinet — where, however, Mr Monk’s views had been adopted almost without a change. It may not perhaps be too much to assume that one or two members of the Cabinet did not quite understand the full scope of every suggested clause. The effects which causes will produce, the dangers which may be expected from this or that change, the manner in which this or that proposition will come out in the washing, do not strike even Cabinet Ministers at a glance. A little study in a man’s own cabinet, after perhaps reading a few leading articles, and perhaps a short conversation with an astute friend or two, will enable a statesman to be strong at a given time for, or ever, if necessary, against a measure, who has listened in silence, and has perhaps given his personal assent, to the original suggestion. I doubt whether Lord Drummond, when he sat silent in the Cabinet, had realized those fears which weighed upon him so strongly afterwards, or had then foreseen that the adoption of a nearly similar franchise for the counties and boroughs must inevitably lead to the American system of numerical representation. But when time had been given him, and he and Sir Timothy Beeswax had talked it all over, the mind of no man was ever clearer than that of Lord Drummond.

The Prime Minister, with the diligence which belonged to him, had mastered all the details of Mr Monk’s bill before it was discussed in the Cabinet, and yet he found that his assistance was hardly needed in the absolute preparation. Had they allowed him he would have done it all himself. But it was assumed that he would not trouble himself with such work, and he perceived that he was not wanted. Nothing of moment was settled without reference to him. He required that everything should be explained as it went on, down to the extension of every borough boundary; but he knew that he was not doing it himself, and that Mr Monk and Constitution Charlie had the prize between them.

Nor did he dare ask Mr Monk what would be the fate of the bill. To devote all one’s time and mind and industry to a measure which one knows will fall to the ground must be sad. Work under such circumstances must be very grievous. But such is often the fate of statesmen. Whether Mr Monk laboured under such a conviction the Prime Minister did not know, though he saw his friend and colleague almost daily. In truth no one dared to tell him exactly what he thought. Even the old Duke had become partially reticent, and taken himself off to his own woods at Long Royston. To Phineas Finn the Prime Minister would sometimes say a word, but would say even that timidly. On any abstract question, such as that which he had discussed when they had been walking together, he could talk freely enough. But on the matter of the day, those affairs which were of infinite importance to himself, and on which one would suppose he would take delight in speaking to a trusted colleague, he could not bring himself to be open. ‘It must be a long bill, I suppose?’

‘I’m afraid so, Duke. It will run, I fear, to over a hundred clauses.’

‘It will take the best part of the Session to get through it?’

‘If we can have the second reading early in March, we hope to send it up to you in the first week in June. That will give us ample time.’

‘Yes; — yes. I suppose so.’ But he did not dare to ask Phineas Finn whether he thought that the House of Commons would assent to the second reading. It was known at this time that the Prime Minister was painfully anxious to the fate of the Ministry. It seemed to be but the other day that everybody connected with the Government was living in fear lest he should resign. His threats in that direction had always been made to his old friend the Duke of St Bungay; but a great man cannot whisper his thoughts without having them carried in the air. In all the clubs it had been declared that that was the rock by which the Coalition would probably be wrecked. The newspapers had repeated the story, and the “People’s Banner” had assured the world that if it were so the Duke of Omnium would thus do for his country the only good service which it was possible that he should render it. That was the time when Sir Orlando was mutinous and when Lopez had destroyed himself. But now no such threat came from the Duke, and the “People’s Banner” was already accusing him of clinging to power with pertinacious and unconstitutional tenacity. Had not Sir Orlando deserted him? Was it not well known that Lord Drummond and Sir Timothy Beeswax were only restrained from doing so by a mistaken loyalty?

Everybody came up to town, Mr Monk having his bill in his pocket, and the Queen’s speech was read, promising the County Suffrage Bill. The address was voted with a very few words from either side. The battle was not to be fought then. Indeed, the state of things was so abnormal that there could hardly be said to be any sides in the House. A stranger in the gallery, not knowing the condition of affairs, would have thought that no minister had for many years commanded so large a majority, as the crowd of members was always on the Government side of the House; but the opposition which Mr Monk expected would, he knew, come from those who sat around him, behind him, and even at his very elbow. About a week after Parliament met the bill was read for the first time, and the second reading was appointed for an early day in March.

The Duke had suggested to Mr Monk the expedience of some further delay, giving his reason the necessity of getting through certain routine work, should the rejection of the bill create the confusion of a resignation. No one who knew the Duke could ever suspect him of giving a false reason. But it seemed that in this the Prime Minister was allowing himself to be harassed by fears of the future. Mr Monk thought that any delay would be injurious and open to suspicion after what had been said and done, and was urgent in his arguments. The Duke gave way, but he did so almost sullenly, signifying his acquiescence with haughty silence. ‘I am sorry,’ said Mr Monk, ‘to differ from your Grace, but my opinion in the matter is so strong that I do not dare to abstain from expressing it.’ The Duke bowed again and smiled. He had intended that the smile should be acquiescent, but it had been as cold as steel. He knew that he was misbehaving, but was not sufficiently master of his own manner to be gracious. He told himself on the spot — though he was quite wrong in so telling himself — that he had now made an enemy also of Mr Monk, and through Mr Monk of Phineas Finn. And now he felt that he had no friend left in whom he could trust — for the old Duke had become cold and indifferent. The old Duke, he thought, was tired of his work and anxious to rest. It was the old Duke who had brought him into this hornet’s nest; had fixed upon his back the unwilling load; had compelled him to assume the place which now to lose would be a disgrace — and the old Duke was now deserting him! He was sore all over, angry with everyone, ungracious even with his private Secretary and his wife — and especially miserable because he was thoroughly aware of his own faults. And yet, through it all, there was present to him a desire to fight on to the very last. Let his colleagues do what they might, and say what they might, he would remain Prime Minister of England as long as he was supported by a majority in the House of Commons.

‘I do not know any greater ship than this,’ Phineas said to him pleasantly one day, speaking of their new measure, ‘towards that millennium of which we were talking at Matching, if we can only accomplish it.’

‘Those moral speculations, Mr Finn,’ he said, ‘will hardly beat the wear and tear of real life.’ The words of the answer, combined with the manner in which they were spoken, were stern and almost uncivil. Phineas, at any rate, had done nothing to offend him. The Duke paused, trying to find some expression by which he might correct the injury he had done, but, not finding any, passed on without further speech. Phineas shrugged his shoulders and went his way, telling himself that he had received one further injunction not to put his trust in princes.

‘We shall be beaten certainly,’ said Mr Monk to Phineas not long afterwards.

‘What makes you so sure?’

‘I smell it in the air. I see it in men’s faces.’

‘And yet it’s a moderate bill. They’ll have to pass something stronger before long if they throw it out now.’

‘It’s not the bill that they’ll reject, but us. We have served our turn, and we ought to go.’

‘The House is tired of the Duke?’

‘The Duke is so good a man that I hardly like to admit even that, — but I fear it is so. He is fretful and he makes enemies.’

‘I sometimes think that he is ill.’

‘He is ill at ease and sick at heart. He cannot hide his chagrin, and then is double wretched because he has betrayed it. I do not know that I ever respected, and, at the same time, pitied a man more thoroughly.’

‘He snubbed me awfully yesterday,’ said Phineas.

‘He cannot help himself. He snubs me at every word that he speaks; yet I believe that is most anxious to be civil to me. His ministry has been of great service to the country. For myself, I shall never regret having joined it. But I think that to him it has been a continual sorrow.’

The system on which the Duchess had commenced her career as wife of the Prime Minister had now been completely abandoned. In the first place, she had herself become so weary of it that she had been unable to continue the exertion. She had, too, become in some degree ashamed of her failures. The names of Major Pountney and Mr Lopez were not now pleasant to her ears, nor did she look back with satisfaction on the courtesies she had lavished on Sir Orlando or the smiles she had given to Sir Timothy Beeswax. ‘I’ve known a good many vulgar people in my time,’ she said one day to Mrs Finn, ‘but none ever so vulgar as our ministerial supporters. You don’t remember Mr Bott, my dear. He was before your time; — one of the arithmetical men, a great friend of Plantagenet’s. He was very bad, but there have come up worse since him. Sometimes, I think, I like a little vulgarity for a change; but, upon my honour, when we get rid of all this it will be a pleasure to go back to ladies and gentlemen.’ This the Duchess said in extreme bitterness.

‘It seems to me that you have pretty well got rid of “all this” already.’

‘But I haven’t got anybody else in their place. I have almost made up my mind not to ask anyone into the house for the next twelve months. I used to think that nothing would ever knock me up, but now I feel that I’m almost done for. I hardly dare open my mouth to Plantagenet. The Duke of St Bungay has cut me. Mr Monk looks as ominous as an owl; and your husband hasn’t a word to say left. Barrington Erle hides his face and passes by when he sees me. Mr Rattler did try to comfort me the other day by saying that everything was at sixes and sevens, and I really took it almost as a compliment to be spoken to. Don’t you think Plantagenet is ill?’

‘He is careworn.’

‘A man may be worn by care till there comes to be nothing left of him. But he never speaks of giving up now. The old Bishop of St Austell talks of resigning, and he has already made up his mind who is to have the see. He used to consult the Duke about all these things, but I don’t think he ever consults anyone now. He never forgave the Duke about Lord Earlybird. Certainly, if a man wants to quarrel with all his friends, and to double the hatred of all his enemies, he had better become Prime Minister.’

‘Are you really sorry that such was his fate, Lady Glen?’

‘Ah — I sometimes ask myself that question, but I never get an answer. I should have thought him a poltroon if he had declined. It is to be the greatest man in the greatest country in the world. Do ever so little and the men who write history must write about you. And no man ever tried to be nobler than he till — till —’

‘Make no exception. If he be careworn and ill and weary, his manners cannot be the same as they were, but his purity is the same as ever.’

‘I don’t know that it would remain so. I believe in him, Marie, more than in any man — but I believe in none thoroughly. There is a devil creeps in upon them when their hands are strengthened. I do not know what I would have wished. Whenever I do wish, I always wish wrong. Ah, me; when I think of all those people I had down at Gatherum — of the trouble I took, and of the glorious anticipations in which I revelled, I do feel ashamed of myself. Do you remember when I was determined that that wretch should be member for Silverbridge?’

‘You haven’t seen her since, Duchess?’

‘No; but I mean to see her. I couldn’t make her first husband member, and therefore the man who is member is to be her second husband. But I’m almost sick of schemes. Oh dear, I wish I knew something that was really pleasant to do. I have never really enjoyed anything since I was in love, and I only liked that because it was wicked.’

The Duchess was wrong in saying that the Duke of St Bungay had cut them. The old man still remembered the kiss and still remembered the pledge. But he had found it very difficult to maintain his old relations with his friend. It was his opinion that the Coalition had done all that was wanted from it, and that now had come the time when they might retire gracefully. It is, no doubt, hard for a Prime Minister to find an excuse for going. But if the Duke of Omnium would have been content to acknowledge that he was not the man to alter the County Suffrage, an excuse might have been found that would have been injurious to no one. Mr Monk and Mr Gresham might have joined, and the present Prime Minister might have resigned, explaining that he had done all that he had been appointed to accomplish. He had, however, yielded at once to Mr Monk, and now it was to be feared that the House of Commons would not accept the bill from his hands. In such a state of things — especially after that disagreement about Lord Earlybird — it was difficult for the old Duke to tender his advice. He was at every Cabinet Council; he always came when his presence was required; he was invariably good-humoured; — but it seemed to him that his work was done. He could hardly volunteer to tell his chief and his colleague that he would certainly be beaten in the House of Commons, and that therefore there was little more now to be done than to arrange the circumstances of their retirement. Nevertheless, as the period of the second reading of the bill came on, he resolved that he would discuss the matter with his friend. He owed it to himself to do so, and he owed it to the man whom he had certainly placed in his present position. On himself politics had imposed a burden very much lighter than that which they had inflicted on his more energetic and much less practical colleague. Through his long life he had either been in office, or in such a position that men were sure that he would soon return to it. He had taken it, when it had come, willingly, and had always left without a regret. As a man cuts in and out at a whist table, and enjoys the game and the rest from the game, so had the Duke of St Bungay been well pleased in either position. He was patriotic; but his patriotism did not disturb his digestion. He had been ambitious, — but moderately ambitious, and his ambition had been gratified. It never occurred to him to be unhappy because he or his party were beaten on a measure. When President of the Council, he would do his duty and enjoy London life. When in opposition, he could linger in Italy till May and devote his leisure to his trees and his bullocks. He was always esteemed, always self-satisfied, and always Duke of St Bungay. But with our Duke it was very different. Patriotism with him was a fever, and the public service an exacting mistress. As long as this had been all he had still been happy. Not trusting in himself, he had never aspired to great power. But now, now at last, ambition had laid hold of him — and the feeling, not perhaps uncommon with such men, that personal dishonour attached to personal failure. What would his future life be if he had so carried himself in his great office as to have shown himself to be unfit to resume it? Hitherto any office had sufficed him in which he might be useful; — but now he must either be Prime Minister, or a silent, obscure, and humbled man!

DEAR DUKE,
I will be with you tomorrow morning at 11am, if you can
give me half-an-hour.
Yours affectionately,
ST. B.

The Prime Minister received this note one afternoon, a day or two before that appointed for the second reading, and meeting his friend within an hour in the House of Lords, confirmed the appointment. ‘Shall I not rather come to you?’ he said. But the old Duke, who lived in St James’s Square, declared that Carlton Terrace would be on his way to Downing Street, and so the matter was settled. Exactly at eleven the two Ministers met. ‘I don’t like troubling you,’ said the old man, ‘when I know that you have so much to think of.’

‘On the contrary, I have but little to think of — and my thoughts must be very much engaged, indeed, when they shall be too full to admit of seeing you.’

‘Of course we are all anxious about this bill.’ The Prime Minister smiled. Anxious! Yes, indeed. His anxiety was of such a nature that it kept him awake all night, and never for a moment left his mind free by day. ‘And of course we must be prepared as to what shall be done either in the event of success or failure.’

‘You might as well read that,’ said the other. ‘It only reached me this morning, or I should have told you of it.’ The letter was a communication from the Solicitor-General containing his resignation. He had now studied the County Suffrage Bill closely, and regretted to say that he could not give it conscientious support. It was a matter of sincerest sorrow to him that his relations so pleasant should be broken, but he must resign his place, unless, indeed, the clauses as to redistribution could be withdrawn. Of course he did not say this as expecting any such concession would be made to his opinion, but merely as indicating the matter on which his objection was so strong as to over-rule all other considerations. All this he explained at great length.

‘The pleasantness of the relations must have all been on one side,’ said the veteran. ‘He ought to have gone a long time since.’

‘And Lord Drummond has already as good as said that unless we will abandon the same clauses, he must oppose the bill in the Lords.’

‘And resign, of course.’

‘He meant that, I presume. Lord Ramsden has not spoken to me.’

‘The clauses will not stick in his throat. Nor ought they. If the lawyers have their own way about the law they should be contented.’

‘The question is, whether in these circumstances we should postpone the second reading?’ asked the Prime Minister.

‘Certainly not,’ said the other Duke. ‘As to the Solicitor-General you will have no difficulty. Sir Timothy was only placed there as a concession to his party. Drummond will no doubt continue to hold his office till we see what is done in the Lower House. If the second reading be lost there — why, then his lordship can go with the rest of us.’

‘Rattler says we shall have a majority. He and Roby are quite agreed about it. Between them they must know,’ said the Prime Minister, unintentionally pleading for himself.

‘They ought to know, if any men do; — but the crisis is exceptional. I suppose you think that if the second reading is lost we should resign?’

‘Oh; — certainly.’

‘Or, after that, if the bill is much mutilated in Committee? I don’t know that I shall personally break my own heart about the bill. The existing difference in the suffrages is rather in accordance with my prejudices. But the country desires the measure, and I suppose we cannot consent to any material alteration as these men suggest.’ As he spoke he laid his hand on Sir Timothy’s letter.

‘Mr Monk would not hear of it,’ said the Prime Minister.

‘Of course not. And you and I in this measure must stick to Mr Monk. My great, indeed my only strong desire in the matter, is to act in unison with you.’

‘You are always good and true, Duke.’

‘For my own part, I shall not in the least regret to find in all this an opportunity for resigning. We have done our work, and if, as I believe, a majority of the House would again support either Gresham or Monk as the head of the entire Liberal party, I think that that arrangement would be for the welfare of the country.’

‘Why should it make any difference to you? Why should you not return to the Council?’

‘I should not do so; — certainly not at once, probably never. But you — who are in the very prime of your life —’

The Prime Minister did not smile now. He knit his brows and a dark shadow came across his face. ‘I don’t think I could do that,’ he said. ‘Caesar would hardly have led a legion under Pompey.’

‘It has been done, greatly to the service of the country, and without the slightest loss of honour or character in him who did it.’

‘We need hardly talk of that, Duke. You think then that we shall fail; — fail, I mean in the House of Commons. I do not know that failure in our House should be regarded as fatal.’

‘In three cases we should fail. The loss of any material clause in Committee would be as bad as the loss of the bill.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘And then, in spite of Messrs Rattler and Roby — who have been wrong before and may be wrong now — we may lose the second reading.’

‘And the third chance against us?’

‘You would not probably try to carry on the bill with a very small majority.’

‘Not with three or four.’

‘Nor, I think, with six or seven. It would be useless. My own belief is that we shall never carry the bill into Committee.’

‘I have always known you to be right, Duke.’

‘I think that the general opinion has set in that direction, and general opinion is generally right. Having come to that conclusion I thought it best to tell you, in order that we might have our house in order.’ The Duke of Omnium, with all his haughtiness and all his reserve, was the simplest man in the world and the least apt to pretend to be that which he was not, sighed deeply when he heard this. ‘For my own part,’ continued the elder, ‘I feel no regret that it should be so.’

‘It is the first large measure that we have tried to carry.’

‘We did not come in to carry large measures, my friend. Look back and see how many large measures Pitt carried; — but he took the country safely through its most dangerous crisis.’

‘What have we done?’

‘Carried on the Queen’s Government prosperously for three years. Is that nothing for a minister to do? I have never been a friend of great measures, knowing that when they come fast, one after another, more is broken in the rattle than is repaired by the reform. We have done what Parliament and the country expected us to do, and to my poor judgement we have done it well.’

‘I do not feel such self-satisfaction, Duke. Well; — we must see it out, and if it is as you anticipate, I shall be ready. Of course I have prepared myself for it. And if, of late, my mind has been less turned to retirement than it used to be, it has been because I have become wedded to this measure, and have wished it that it should be carried under our auspices.’ Then the old Duke took his leave, and the Prime Minister was left alone to consider the announcement that had been made to him.

He had said that he had prepared himself, but, in so saying, he had hardly known himself. Hitherto, though he had been troubled by many doubts, he had still hoped. The report made to him by Mr Rattler, backed as it had been by Mr Roby’s assurances, had almost sufficed to give him confidence. But Mr Rattler and Mr Roby combined were as nothing to the Duke of St Bungay. The Prime Minister knew now — that his days were numbered. The resignation of that lingering old bishop was not completed, and the person whom he believed would not have the see. He had meditated the making of a peer or two, having hitherto been cautious in that respect, but he would do nothing of the kind if called upon by the House of Commons to resign with an uncompleted measure. But his thoughts soon ran away from the present to the future. What was now to become of himself? How should he live his future life; — he who as yet had not passed his forty-seventh year? He regretted much having made that apparently pretentious speech about Caesar, though he knew his old friend well enough to be sure that it would never be used against him. Who was he that he should class himself among the big ones of the world? A man may indeed measure small things by great, but the measurer should be careful to declare his own littleness when he illustrates his position by that of the topping ones of the earth. But the thing said had been true. Let the Pompey be who he might, he, the little Caesar of the day, could never now command another legion.

He had once told Phineas Finn that he regretted that he had abstained from the ordinary amusements of English gentlemen. But he had abstained from their ordinary occupations — except so far as politics is one of them. He cared nothing for oxen or for furrows. In regard to his own land he hardly knew whether the farms were large or small. He had been a scholar, and after a certain fitful fashion he had maintained his scholarship, but the literature to which he had been really attached had been that of blue books and newspapers. What was he to do with himself when called upon to resign? And he understood — or thought that he understood — his position too well to expect that after a while, with the usual interval, he might return to power. He had been Prime Minister, not as the leading politician on either side, not as the king of the party, but — so he told himself — as a stop-gap. There could be nothing for him now till the insipidity of life should gradually fade away into the grave.

After a while he got up and went off to his wife’s apartment, the room in which she used to prepare her triumphs and where now she contemplated her disappointments. ‘I have had the Duke with me,’ he said.

‘What; — at last?’

‘I do not know that he could have done any good by coming sooner.’

‘And what does his Grace say?’

‘He thinks our days are numbered.’

‘Psha! — is that all? I could have told him that ever so long ago. It was hardly necessary that he should disturb himself at last to come and tell us such well-ventilated news. There isn’t a porter at one of the clubs who doesn’t know it.’

‘Then there will be the less surprise — and to those who are concerned perhaps the less mortification.’

‘Did he tell you who was to succeed you?’ asked the Duchess.

‘Not precisely.’

‘He ought to have done that, as I am sure he knows. Everybody knows except you, Plantagenet.’

‘If you know, you can tell me.’

‘Of course I can. It is Mr Monk.’

‘With all my heart, Glencora. Mr Monk is a very good man.’

‘I wonder whether he’ll do anything for us. Think how destitute we shall be! What if I were to ask him for a place! Would he not give it us?’

‘Will it make you unhappy, Cora?’

‘What; — your going?’

‘Yes; — the change altogether.’

She looked him in the face for a moment before she answered, with a peculiar smile in her eyes to which he was well used — a smile half ludicrous, half pathetic — having in it also a dash of sarcasm. ‘I can dare to tell the truth,’ she said, ‘which you can’t. I can be honest and straightforward. Yes, it will make me unhappy. And you?’

‘Do you think that I cannot be honest too — at any rate to you? It does fret me. I do not like to think that I shall be without work.’

‘Yes; — Othello’s occupation will be gone — for a while, for a while.’ Then she came up to him and put both her hands on his breast. ‘But yet, Othello, I shall not be unhappy.’

‘Where will be your contentment?’

‘In you. It was making you ill. Rough people whom the tenderness of your nature could not well endure, trod upon you, and worried you with their teeth and wounded you everywhere. I could have turned at them again with my teeth, and given them worry for worry; — but you could not. Now you will be saved from them, and so I shall not be discontented.’ All this she said looking up into his face, still with that smile which was half pathetic and half ludicrous.

‘Then I shall be contented too,’ he said as he kissed her.

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