The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 77

The Duchess in Manchester Square.

The Duke said not a word to his wife as to this new proposition, and when she asked him what tidings their old friend had brought as to the state of affairs, he almost told a fib in his anxiety to escape from her persecution. ‘He is in some doubt what he means to do himself,’ said the Duke. The Duchess asked many questions, but got no satisfactory reply to any of them. Nor did Mrs Finn learn anything from her husband, whom, however, she did not interrogate very closely. She would be contented to know when the proper time might come for ladies to be informed. The Duke, however, was determined to take his twenty-four hours all alone — or at any rate not to be driven to his decision by feminine interference.

In the meantime the Duchess went to Manchester Square intent on performing certain good offices on behalf of the poor widow. It may be doubted whether she had clearly made up her mind what it was that she could do, though she was clear that some debt was due by her to Mrs Lopez. And she knew too in what direction assistance might be serviceable, if only in this case it could be given. She had heard that the present member for Silverbridge had been the lady’s lover before Mr Lopez had come upon the scene, and with those feminine wiles of which she was a perfect mistress she had extracted from him a confession that his mind was unaltered. She liked Arthur Fletcher — as indeed she had for a time liked Ferdinand Lopez — and felt that her conscience would be easier if she could assist in this good work. She built castles in the air as to the presence of the bride and bridegroom at Matching, thinking how she might thus repair the evil she had done. But her heart misgave her a little as she drew near to the house, and remembered how very slight was her acquaintance and how extremely delicate the mission on which she had come. But she was not the woman to turn back when she had once put her foot to any work; and she was driven up to the door in Manchester Square without any expressed hesitation on her own part. ‘Yes; — his mistress was at home,’ said the butler, still shrinking at the sound of the name which he heard. The Duchess was then shown upstairs, and was left alone for some minutes in the drawing-room. It was a large handsome apartment hung round with valuable pictures, and having signs of considerable wealth. Since she had first invited Lopez to stand for Silverbridge she had heard much about him, and had wondered how he had gained possession of such a girl as Emily Wharton. And now, as she looked about her, her wonder was increased. She knew enough of such people as the Whartons and the Fletchers to be aware that as a class they are more impregnable, more closely guarded by their feelings and prejudices against strangers than any other. None keep their daughters to themselves with greater care, or are less willing to see their rules of life changed or abolished. And yet this man, half foreigner, half Jew — and as it now appeared, whole pauper, had stepped in and carried off a prize of which such a one as Arthur Fletcher was contending! The Duchess had never seen Emily but once — so as to observe her well — and had then thought her to be a very handsome woman. It had been at the garden party at Richmond, and Lopez had then insisted that his wife should be well dressed. It would perhaps have been impossible in the whole of that assembly to find a more beautiful woman than Mrs Lopez then was — or one who carried herself with a finer air. Now when she entered the room in her deep mourning it would have been difficult to recognize her. Her face was much thinner, her eyes apparently larger, and her colour faded. And there had come a settled seriousness on her face which seemed to rob her of her youth. Arthur Fletcher had declared that as he saw her now she was more beautiful than ever. But Arthur Fletcher, in looking at her, saw more then her mere features. To his eyes there was a tenderness added by her sorrow which had its own attraction for him. And he was so well versed in every line of her countenance, that he could see there the old loveliness behind the sorrow; the loveliness which would come forth again, as bright as ever, if the sorrow could be removed. But the Duchess, though she remembered the woman’s beauty as she might that of any other lady, now saw nothing but a thing of woe wrapped in customary widow’s weeds. ‘I hope,’ she said, ‘I am not intruding in coming to you; but I have been anxious to renew our acquaintance for reasons which I am sure you will understand.’

Emily at the moment hardly knew how to address her august visitor. Though her father had lived all his life in what is called good society, he had not consorted much with dukes and duchesses. She herself had indeed on one occasion been for an hour or two the guest of this grand lady, but on that occasion she had hardly been called upon to talk to her. Now she doubted how to name the Duchess, and with some show of hesitation decided at last upon not naming her at all. ‘It is very good of you to come,’ she said in a faltering voice.

‘I told you that I would when I wrote, you know. That is many months ago, but I have not forgotten it. You have been in the country since that, I think?’

‘Yes. In Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire is our county.’

‘I know all about it,’ said the Duchess, smiling. She generally did contrive to learn ‘all about’ people whom she chose to take by the hand. ‘We have a Hertfordshire gentleman sitting for — I must not say our borough of Silverbridge.’ She was anxious to make some allusion to Arthur Fletcher, but it was difficult to travel on that Silverbridge ground, as Lopez had been her chosen candidate when she still wished to claim the borough as an appanage of the Palliser family. Emily, however, kept her countenance and did not show by any sign that her thoughts were running in that direction. ‘And though we don’t presume to regard Mr Fletcher,’ continued the Duchess, ‘as in any way connected with our local interests, he has always supported the Duke, and I hope has become a friend of ours. I think he is a neighbour of yours in that county.’

‘Oh yes. My cousin is married to his brother.’

‘I knew there was something of that kind. He told me that there was some close alliance.’ The Duchess as she looked at the woman to whom she wanted to be kind did not as yet dare to express a wish that there might be at some no very distant time a closer alliance. She had come there intending to do so; and had still some hope that she might do it before the interview was over. But at any rate she would not do it yet. ‘Have I not heard,’ she said, ‘something of another marriage?’

‘My brother is going to marry his cousin, Sir Alured Wharton’s daughter.’

‘Ah; — I though it had been one of the Fletchers. It was our member who told me, and spoke as if they were all his very dear friends.’

‘They are our very dear friends — very.’ Poor Emily still didn’t know whether to call her Duchess, my Lady, or Grace — and yet she felt the need of calling her by some special name.

‘Exactly. I supposed it was so. They tell me Mr Fletcher will become quite a favourite of the House. At this present moment nobody knows on which side anybody is going to sit tomorrow. It may be that Mr Fletcher will become the dire enemy of all the Duke’s friends.’

‘I hope not.’

‘Of course I’m speaking of political enemies. Political enemies are often the best friends in the world; and I can assure you from my own experience that political friends are often the bitterest enemies. I never hated any people so much as some of our supporters.’ The Duchess made a grimace, and Emily could not refrain from smiling. ‘Yes, indeed. There’s an old saying that misfortune makes strange bedfellows, but political friendship makes stranger alliances than misfortune. Perhaps you have never heard of Sir Timothy Beeswax.’

‘Never.’

‘Well; — don’t. But, as I was saying, there is no knowing who may support whom now. If I were asked who would be Prime Minister tomorrow, I should take half-dozen names and shake them in a bag.’

‘Is it not settled then?’

‘Settled! No, indeed. Nothing is settled.’ At that moment indeed everything was settled, though the Duchess did not know it. ‘And so we none of us can tell how Mr Fletcher may stand with us when things are arranged. I suppose he calls himself a Conservative?’

‘Oh, yes!’

‘All the Whartons are, I suppose, Conservatives — and all the Fletchers.’

‘Very nearly. Papa calls himself a Tory.’

‘A very much better name to my thinking. We are all Whigs, of course. A Palliser who is not a Whig would be held to have disgraced himself for ever. Are not politics odd? A few years ago I only barely knew what the word meant, and that not correctly. I have been so eager about it, that there hardly seems to be anything else worth living for. I suppose it’s wrong, but a state of pugnacity seems to me the greatest bliss which we can reach here on earth.’

‘I shouldn’t like to be always fighting.’

‘That’s because you haven’t known Sir Timothy Beeswax and two or three other gentlemen whom I could name. The day will come, I dare say, when you will care for politics.’

Emily was about to answer, hardly knowing what to say, when the door was opened and Mrs Roby came into the room. The lady was not announced and Emily had heard no knock at the door. She was forced to go through some ceremony of introduction. ‘This is my aunt, Mrs Roby,’ she said, ‘Aunt Harriet, the Duchess of Omnium.’ Mrs Roby was beside herself — not all with joy. That feeling would come afterwards when she would boast to her friends of her new acquaintance. At present there was the embarrassment of not quite knowing how to behave herself. The Duchess bowed from her seat, and smiled sweetly — as she had learned to smile since her husband had become Prime Minister. Mrs Roby curtsied, and then remembered that in these days only housemaids ought to curtsey.

‘Anything to our Mr Roby?’ said the Duchess, continuing her smile — ‘ours as was till yesterday at least.’ This she said in an absurd wail of mock sorrow.

‘My brother-inlaw, your Grace,’ said Mrs Roby delighted.

‘Oh indeed. And what does Mr Roby think about it, I wonder? But I dare say you have found, Mrs Roby, that when a crisis comes — a real crisis — the ladies are told nothing. I have.’

‘I don’t think, your Grace, that Mr Roby ever divulges political secrets.’

‘Doesn’t he indeed! What a dull man your brother-inlaw must be to live with — that is as politician! Good-bye, Mrs Lopez. You must come and see me and let me come to you again. I hope, you know — I hope the time may come when things may once more be bright with you.’ These last words she murmured almost in a whisper, as she held the hand of the woman she wished to befriend. Then she bowed to Mrs Roby, and left the room.

‘What was it she said to you?’ asked Mrs Roby.

‘Nothing in particular, Aunt Harriet.’

‘She seems to be very friendly. What made her come?’

‘She wrote to me some time ago to say she would call.’

‘But why?’

‘I cannot tell you. I don’t know. Don’t ask me aunt, about things that are passed. You cannot do it without wounding me.’

‘I don’t want to wound you, Emily, but I really think it is nonsense. She is a very nice woman; — though I don’t think she ought to have said that Mr Roby is dull. Did Mr Wharton know that she was coming?’

‘He knew that she said she would come,’ replied Emily very sternly, so that Mrs Roby found herself compelled to pass on to some other subject. Mrs Roby had heard the wish expressed that something ‘once more might be bright’, and when she got home told her husband that she was sure that Emily Lopez was going to marry Arthur Fletcher. ‘And why the d — shouldn’t she?’ said Dick. ‘And that poor man destroying himself not more than twelve months ago! I couldn’t do it,’ said Mrs Roby. ‘I don’t mean to give you the chance,’ said Dick.

The Duchess when she went away suffered under a sense of failure. She had intended to bring about some sort of crisis of female tenderness in which she might have rushed into future hopes and joyous anticipations, and with the freedom which will come from ebullitions of feeling, have told the widow that the peculiar circumstances of her position would not only justify her in marrying this other man but absolutely called upon her to do it. Unfortunately she had failed in her attempt to bring the interview to a condition in which this would have been possible, and while she was still making the attempt that odious aunt had come in. ‘I have been on my mission,’ she said to Mrs Finn afterwards.

‘Have you done any good?’

‘I don’t think I’ve done any harm. Women, you know, are so very different. There are some who would delight to have an opportunity of opening their hearts to a Duchess, and who might almost be talked into anything in an ecstasy.’

‘Hardly women of the best sort, Lady Glen.’

‘Not of the best sort. But then one doesn’t come across the very best, very often. But that kind of thing does have an effect, and as I only wanted to do good, I wish she had been one of the sort for the occasion.’

‘Was she — offended?’

‘Oh dear, no. You don’t suppose I attacked her with a husband at the first. Indeed, I didn’t attack her at all. She didn’t give me an opportunity. Such a Niobe you never saw.’

‘Was she weeping?’

‘Not actual tears, but her gown, and her cap, and her strings were weeping. Her voice wept, and her hair, and her nose, and her mouth. Don’t you know that look of subdued mourning? And yet they say that that man is dying for love. How beautiful it is to see that there is such a thing as constancy left in the world.’

When she got home she found that her husband had just returned from the old Duke’s house, where he had met Mr Monk, Mr Gresham, and Lord Cantrip. ‘It’s all settled at last,’ he said cheerfully.

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