The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 73

Only the Duke of Omnium.

The night of the debate arrived, but before the debate was commenced, Sir Timothy Beeswax got up to make a personal explanation. He thought it right to state to the House how it came to pass that he found himself bound to leave the Ministry at so important a crisis in its existence. Then an observation was made by an honourable member of the Government — presumably in a whisper, but still loud enough to catch the sharp ears of Sir Timothy, who now sat just below the gangway. It was said afterwards that the gentleman who made the observation — an Irish gentleman named Fitzgibbon, conspicuous rather for his loyalty to his party than his steadiness — had purposely taken the place in which he then sat, that Sir Timothy might hear his whisper. The whisper suggested that falling houses were often left by certain animals. It was certainly a very loud whisper — but, if gentlemen are to be allowed to whisper at all, it is almost impossible to restrain the volume of the voice. To restrain Mr Fitzgibbon had always been found difficult. Sir Timothy, who did not lack pluck, turned at once upon his assailant, and declared that words had been used with reference to himself which the honourable member did not dare to get upon his legs and repeat. Larry Fitzgibbon, as the gentleman was called, looked him full in the face, but did not move his hat from his head or stir a limb. It was a pleasant little episode in the evening’s work, and afforded satisfaction to the House generally. The details of the measure, as soon as they were made known to him, appeared to him, he said, to be fraught with the gravest and most pernicious consequences. He was sure that members of her Majesty’s Government, who were hurrying on this measure with what he thought was an indecent haste — ministers are always either indecent in haste or treacherous in their delay — had not considered what they were doing, or, if they had considered, were blind as to the results. He then attempted to discuss the details of the measure, but was called to order. A personal explanation could not be allowed to give an opportunity of anticipating the debate. He contrived, however, before he sat down, to say some very heavy things against his late chief, and especially to congratulate the Duke on the services of the honourable gentleman, the member for Mayo — meaning thereby Mr Laurence Fitzgibbon.

It would have perhaps been well for everybody if the measure could have been withdrawn and the Ministry could have resigned without the debate — as everybody was convinced what would be the end of it. Let the second reading go as it might, the bill could not be carried. There are measures which require the hopeful heartiness of a new Ministry, and the thoroughgoing energy of a young Parliament — and this was one of them. The House was as fully agreed that this change was necessary, as it ever agreed on any subject — but still the thing could not be done. Even Mr Monk, who was the most earnest of men, felt the general slackness of all around him. The commotion and excitement which would be caused by a change of Ministry might restore its proper tone to the House, but at its present condition it was unfit for its work. Nevertheless Mr Monk made his speech, and put all his arguments into lucid order. He knew it was for nothing, but nevertheless it must be done. For hour after hour he went on — for it was necessary to give every detail of his contemplated proposition. He went through it as sedulously as though he had expected to succeed, and sat down about nine o’clock in the evening. Then Sir Orlando moved the adjournment of the House till the morrow, giving as his reason for doing so, the expedience of considering the details he had heard. To this no opposition was made, and the House was adjourned.

On the following day the clubs were all alive with rumours as to the coming debate. It was known that a strong party had been formed under the auspices of Sir Orlando, and that with him Sir Timothy and other politicians were in close council. It was of course necessary that they should impart to many the secrets of their conclave, so that it was known early in the afternoon that it was the intention of the Opposition not to discuss the bill, but to move that it be read again that day six months. The Ministry had hardly expected this, as the bill was undoubtedly popular both in the House and the country; and if the Opposition should be beaten in such a course, that defeat would tend greatly to strengthen the hands of the Government. But if the foe should succeed in carrying a positive veto on the second reading, it would under all the circumstances be tantamount to a want of confidence. ‘I’m afraid they know almost more than we do as to the feeling of members,’ said Mr Roby to Mr Rattler.

‘There isn’t a man in the House whose feeling in the matter I don’t know,’ said Rattler, ‘but I’m not quite so sure of their principles. On our own side, in our old party, there are a score of men who detest the Duke, though they would fain be true to the Government. They have voted with him through thick and thin, and he has not spoken a word to them since he became Prime Minister. What are you to do with such a man? How are you to act with him?’

‘Lupton wrote to him the other day about something,’ answered the other, ‘I forget what, and he got a note back from Warburton as cold as ice — an absolute slap in the face. Fancy treating a man like Lupton in that way — one of the most popular men in the House, related to half the peerage, and a man who thinks so much of himself! I shouldn’t wonder if he were to vote against us; — I shouldn’t indeed.’

‘It has all been the old Duke’s doing,’ said Rattler, ‘and no doubt it was intended for the best; but the thing has been a failure from the beginning to the end. I knew it would be so. I don’t think there has been a single man who has understood what a Ministerial Coalition really means except you and I. From the very beginning all your men were averse to it in spirit.’

‘Look how they were treated!’ said Mr Roby. ‘Was it likely that they should be very staunch when Mr Monk became Leader of the House?’

There was a Cabinet Council that day which lasted but a few minutes, and it may be easily presumed that the Ministers decided that they would all resign at once if Sir Orlando should carry his amendment. It is not unlikely that they were agreed to do the same if he should carry it — leaving probably the Prime Minister to judge what narrow majority would constitute nearness. On this occasion the gentlemen assembled were jocose in their manner, and apparently well satisfied — as though they saw before them an end to all their troubles. The Spartan boy did not even make a grimace when the wolf bit him beneath his frock, and these were all Spartan boys. Even the Prime Minister, who had fortified himself for the occasion, and who never wept in any company but that of his wife and his old friend, was pleasant in his manner and almost affable. ‘We shan’t make the step towards the millennium just at present,’ he said to Phineas Finn as they left the room together — referring to words which Phineas had spoken on a former occasion, and which then had not been very well taken.

‘But we shall have made a step towards the step,’ said Phineas, ‘and getting to a millennium even that is something.’

‘I suppose we are all too anxious,’ said the Duke, ‘to see some green effects come from our own little doings. Good day. We shall know all about it tolerably early. Monk seems to think that it will be an attack on the Ministry and not on the bill, and that it will be best to get a vote with as little delay as possible.’

‘I’ll bet an even five-pound note,’ said Mr Lupton at the Carlton, ‘that the present Ministry is out tomorrow, and another that no one names five members of the next Cabinet.’

‘You can help to win your first bet,’ said Mr Beauchamp, a very old member, who, like many other Conservatives, had supported the Coalition.

‘I shall not do that,’ said Lupton, ‘though I think I ought. I won’t vote against the man in his misfortunes, though, upon my soul, I don’t love him very dearly. I shall vote neither way, but I hope that Sir Orlando may succeed.’

‘If he do, who is to come in?’ said the other. ‘I suppose you don’t want to serve under Sir Orlando?’

‘Nor certainly under the Duke of Omnium. We shall not want a Prime Minister as long as there are as good fish in the sea as have been caught out of it.’

There had lately been formed a new Liberal club, established on a broader basis than the Progress, and perhaps with a greater amount of aristocratic support. This had come up since the Duke had been Prime Minister. Certain busy men had never been quite contented with the existing state of things, and had thought that the Liberal party, with such assistance as the club could give it, would be strong enough to rule alone. That the great Liberal party should be impeded in its work and its triumph by such men as Sir Orlando Drought and Sir Timothy Beeswax was odious to the club. All the Pallisers had, from time immemorial, run straight as Liberals, and therefore the club had been unwilling to oppose the Duke personally, though he was the head of the Coalition. And certain members of the Government, Phineas Finn, for instance, Barrington Erle, and Mr Rattler were on the committee of the club. But the club, as a club, was not averse to a discontinuance of the present state of things. Mr Gresham might again become Prime Minister, if he would condescend so far, or Mr Monk. It might be possible that the great Liberal triumph contemplated by the club might not be achieved by the present House; — but the present House must go shortly, and then, with that assistance from a well-organized club, which had lately been so terribly wanting — the lack of which had made the Coalition necessary — no doubt the British constituencies would do their duty, and a Liberal Prime Minister, pure and simple, might reign, — almost for ever. With this great future before it, the club was very lukewarm in its support of the present bill. ‘I shall go down and vote for them of course,’ said Mr O’Mahony, ‘just for the look of the thing.’ In saying this Mr O’Mahony expressed the feeling of the club, and the feeling of the Liberal party generally. There was something due to the Duke, but not enough to make it incumbent on his friends to maintain his position as Prime Minister.

It was a great day for Sir Orlando. At half-past four the House was full — not from any desire to hear Sir Orlando’s arguments against the bill, but because it was felt that a good deal of personal interest would be attached to the debate. If one were asked in these days what gift should a Prime Minister ask first from the fairies, one would name the power of attracting personal friends. Eloquence, if it be too easy, may become almost a curse. Patriotism is suspected, and sometimes sinks to pedantry. A Jove-born intellect is hardly wanted, and clashes with the inferiorities. Industry is exacting. Honesty is unpractical. Truth is easily offended. Dignity will not bend. But the man who can be all things to all men, who has ever a kind word to speak, a pleasant joke to crack, who can forgive all sins, who is ever prepared for friend or foe, but never very bitter to the latter, who forgets not man’s names, and is always ready with little words — he is the man who will be supported at a crisis such as this that was now in the course of passing. It is for him that men will struggle, and talk, and, if needs be, fight, as though the very existence of the country depended on his political security. The present man would receive no such defence, but still the violent deposition of a Prime Minister is always a memorable occasion.

Sir Orlando made his speech, and, as had been anticipated, it had very little to do with the bill, and was almost exclusively an attack upon his late chief. He thought, he said, that this was an occasion on which they had better come to a direct issue with as little delay as possible. If he rightly read the feeling of the House, no bill of this magnitude coming from the present Ministry would be likely to be passed in an efficient condition. The Duke had frittered away his support in that House, and as a Minister had lost that confidence which a majority of the House had once been willing to place in him. We need not follow Sir Orlando through his speech. He alluded to his own services, and declared that he was obliged to withdraw them because the Duke would not trust him with the management of his own office. He had reason to believe that other gentlemen who had attached themselves to the Duke’s Ministry had found themselves equally crippled by this passion for autocratic rule. Hereupon a loud chorus of disapprobation came from the Treasury bench, which was fully answered by opposing noises from the other side of the House. Sir Orlando declared that he need only point to the fact that the Ministry had been already shivered by the secession of various gentlemen. ‘Only two,’ said a voice. Sir Orlando was turning round to contradict the voice when he was greeted by another. ‘And those the weakest,’ said another voice, which was indubitably that of Larry Fitzgibbon. ‘I will not speak of myself,’ said Sir Orlando pompously, ‘but I am authorized to tell the House that the noble lord who is now the Secretary of State for the Colonies only holds his office till this crisis is passed.’

After that there was some sparring of a very bitter kind between Sir Timothy and Phineas Finn, till at last it seemed that the debate was to degenerate into a war of man against man. Phineas and Erle, and Laurance Fitzgibbon allowed themselves to be lashed into anger, and, as far as words went, had the best of it. But of what use could it be? Every man there had come into the House prepared to vote for or against the Duke of Omnium — or resolved, like Mr Lupton, not to vote at all, and it was hardly on the cards that a single vote should be turned this way or that by any violence of speaking. ‘Let it pass,’ said Mr Monk in a whisper to Phineas. ‘The fire is not worth the fuel.’

‘I know the Duke’s faults,’ said Phineas, ‘but these men know nothing of his virtues, and when I hear them abuse him, I cannot stand it.’

Early in the night — before twelve o’clock — the House divided, and even at that moment of the division no one quite knew how it would go. There would be many who would of course vote against the amendment as being simply desirous of recording their opinion in favour of the bill generally. And there were some who thought that Sir Orlando and his followers had been too forward, and too confident of their own standing in the House, in trying so violent a mode of opposition. It would have been better, these men thought, to have insured success by a gradual and persistent opposition to the bill itself. But they hardly knew how thoroughly men may be alienated by silence and a cold demeanour. Sir Orlando on the division was beaten, but was beaten only by nine. ‘He can’t go on with this bill,’ said Rattler in one of the lobbies of the House. ‘I defy him. The House wouldn’t stand it, you know.’ ‘No minister,’ said Roby, ‘could carry a measure like that with a majority of nine on a vote of confidence!’ The House was of course adjourned, and Mr Monk went at once to Carlton Terrace.

‘I wish it had only been three or four,’ said the Duke, laughing.

‘Why so?’

‘Because there would have been less doubt.’

‘Is there any at present?’

‘Less possibility for doubt, I should say. You would not wish me to make the attempt with such a majority?’

‘I could not do it, Duke.’

‘I quite agree with you. But there will be those who will say that the attempt might be made — who will accuse me of being faint-hearted because we do not make it.’

‘They will be men who understand nothing of the temper of the House.’

‘Very likely. But still, I wish the majority had only been two or three. There is little more to be said, I suppose.’

‘Very little, your Grace.’

‘We had better meet tomorrow at two, and if possible, I will see her Majesty in the afternoon. Good night, Mr Monk.’

‘Good night, Duke.’

‘My reign is ended. You are a good deal and older man than I, and yet probably yours has yet to begin.’ Mr Monk smiled and shook his head as he left the room, not trusting himself to discuss so large a subject at so late an hour of the night.

Without waiting a moment after his colleague’s departure, the Prime Minister — for he was still Prime Minister — went into his wife’s room, knowing that she was waiting up till she should hear the result of the division, and there he found Mrs Finn with her. ‘Is it over?’ asked the Duchess.

‘Yes; — there has been a division. Mr Monk has just been with me.’

‘Well!’

‘We have beaten them, of course, as we always do,’ said the Duke, attempting to be pleasant. ‘You didn’t suppose there was anything to fear? Your husband has always bid you keep up your courage; — has he not, Mrs Finn?’

‘My husband has lost his senses, I think,’ she said. ‘He has taken to such storming and raving about his political enemies that I hardly dare to open my mouth.’

‘Tell what has been done, Plantagenet,’ ejaculated the Duchess.

‘Don’t you be so unreasonable as Mrs Finn, Cora. The House has voted against Sir Orlando’s amendment by a majority of nine.’

‘Only nine!’

‘And I shall cease to be Prime Minister tomorrow.’

‘You don’t mean to say that it’s settled?’

‘Quite settled. The play has been played, and the curtain has fallen, and the lights are being put out, and the poor weary actors may go home to bed.’

‘But on such an amendment surely any majority would have done.’

‘No, my dear. I will not name a number, but nine certainly would not do.’

‘And it is all over?’

‘My Ministry is over, if you mean that.’

‘Then everything is over for me. I shall settle down in the country and build cottages, and mix draughts. You, Marie, will still be going up the tree. If Mr Finn manages well he may come to be Prime Minister some day.

‘He has hardly such ambition, Lady Glen,’

‘The ambition will come fast enough; — will it not, Plantagenet? Let him once begin to dream of it as possible, and the desire will soon be strong enough. How should you feel if it were so?’

‘It is quite impossible,’ said Mrs Finn, gravely.

‘I don’t see why anything is impossible. Sir Orlando will be Prime Minister now, and Sir Timothy Beeswax Lord Chancellor. After that anybody may hope to be anything. Well; — I suppose we may go to bed. Is your carriage here, my dear?’

‘I hope so.’

‘Ring the bell, Plantagenet, for somebody to see her down. Come to lunch tomorrow because I shall have so many groans to utter. What beast, what brutes, what ungrateful wretches men are! — worse than women when they get together in numbers enough to be bold. Why have they deserted you? What have we not done for them. Think of all the new bedroom furniture we sent to Gatherum merely to keep the party together. There were thousands of yards of linen, and it has all been of no use. Don’t you feel like Wolsey, Plantagenet?’

‘Not in the least, my dear. No one will take anything away from me that I own.’

‘For me, I’m almost as much divorced as Catherine, and have had my head cut off as completely as Anne Bullen and the rest of them. Go away, Marie, because I am going to have a cry by myself.’

The Duke himself on that night put Mrs Finn into her carriage; and as he walked with her downstairs he asked her whether she believed the Duchess was in earnest in her sorrow. ‘She so mixes up her mirth and woe together,’ said the Duke, ‘that I myself sometimes can hardly understand her.’

‘I think she does regret it, Duke.’

‘She told me the other day that she would be contented.’

‘A few weeks will make her so. As for your Grace, I hope I may congratulate you.’

‘Oh yes; — I think so. We none of us like to be beaten when we have taken a thing in hand. There is always a little disappointment at first. But, upon the whole, it is better as it is. I hope it will not make your husband unhappy.’

‘Not for his own sake. He will go again into the middle of the scramble and fight on one side or the other. For my own part I think opposition is the pleasantest. Good-night, Duke. I am so sorry that I should have troubled you.’

Then he went alone to his own room, and sat there without moving for a couple of hours. Surely it was a great thing to have been Prime Minister of England for three years — a prize of which nothing could now rob him. He ought not to be unhappy; and yet he knew himself to be wretched and disappointed. It had never occurred to him to be proud of being a duke, or to think of his wealth otherwise than a chance incident of his life, advantageous indeed, but by no means a source of honour. And he had been aware that he had owned his first seat in Parliament to his birth, and probably also his first introduction to official life. An heir to a dukedom, if he will only work, may almost with certainty find himself received into one or other regiment in Downing Street. It had not in his early days been with him as it had with his friends Mr Monk and Phineas Finn, who had worked their way from the very ranks. But even a duke cannot become Prime Minister by favour. Surely he had done something of which he might be proud. And so he tried to console himself.

But to have done something was nothing to him — nothing to his personal happiness — unless there was also something left for him to do. How should it be with him now — now for the future? Would men ever listen to him again, or allow him again to work in their behoof, as he used to do in his happy days in the House of Commons? He feared that it was all over for him, and that for the rest of his days he must simply be the Duke of Omnium.

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