The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 78

The New Ministry.

When the ex-Prime Minister was left by himself after the departure of his old friend his first feeling had been one of regret that he had been weak enough to doubt at all. He had long since made up his mind that after all that had passed he could not return to office as a subordinate. That feeling as to the impropriety of Caesar descending to serve under others which he had been foolish enough to express, had been strong with him from the very commencement of his Ministry. When first asked to take the place which he had filled the reason strong against it had been the conviction that it would probably exclude him from political work during the latter half of his life. The man who has written Q.C. after his name, must abandon his practice behind the bar. As he then was, although he had already driven by the unhappy circumstance of his peerage from the House of Commons which he loved so well, there was still open to him many fields of political work. But if he should once consent to stand on the top rung of the ladder, he could not, he thought, take a lower place without degradation. Till he should have been placed quite at the top no shifting his place from this higher to that lower office would injure him in his own estimation. The exigencies of the service and not defeat would produce such changes as that. But he could not go down from being Prime Minister and serve under some other chief without acknowledging himself to have been unfit for the place he had filled. Of all that he had quite assured himself. And yet he allowed the old Duke to talk him into a doubt!

As he sat considering the question he acknowledged that there might have been room for doubt, though in the present emergency there certainly was none. He could imagine circumstances in which the experience of an individual in some special branch of his country’s service might be of paramount importance to the country as to make it incumbent on a man to sacrifice all personal feeling. But it was not so with him. There was nothing now which he could do, which another might not do as well. That blessed task of introducing decimals into all commercial relations of British life, which had once kept him aloft in the air, floating as upon eagle’s wings, had been denied him. If ever done it must be done from the House of Commons, and the people of the country had become deaf to the charms of the great reform. Othello’s occupation was, in truth, altogether gone, and there was no reason by which he could justify to himself the step down in the world which the old Duke had proposed to him.

Early on the following morning he left Carlton Terrace on foot and walked to Mr Monk’s house, which was close to St James’s Street. Here at eleven o’clock he found his late Chancellor of the Exchequer in that state of tedious agitation in which a man is kept who does not yet know whether he is or is not to be one of the actors in the play just about to be performed. The Duke had never before been in Mr Monk’s very humble abode, and now caused some surprise. Mr Monk knew that he might probably be sent for, but had not expected any of the ex-Prime Ministers of the day would come to him. People had said that not improbably he himself might be the man — but he himself had indulged in no such dream. Office had had no great charms for him; — and if there was one man of the late Government who could lay it down without personal regret, it was Mr Monk. ‘I wish you to come with me to the Duke’s house in St James’s Square,’ said the late Prime Minister. ‘I think we shall find him at home.’

‘Certainly I will come at this moment.’ There was not a word spoken till the two men were in the street together. ‘Of course I am a little anxious,’ said Mr Monk. ‘Have you anything to tell me before we get there?’

‘You of course must return to office, Mr Monk.’

‘With your Grace — I certainly will do so.’

‘And without, if there be the need. They who are wanted should be forthcoming. But perhaps you will let me postpone what I have to say till we see the Duke. What a charming morning; — is it not? How sweet it would be down in the country.’ March had gone out like a lamb, and even in London in the early April days were sweet — to be followed, no doubt, by the usual nipping inclemency of May. ‘I never can get over the feeling,’ said the Duke, ‘that Parliament should sit for the winter months, instead of in summer. If we met on the first of October, how glorious it would be to get away for the early spring!’

‘Nothing less strong than grouse could break up Parliament,’ said Mr Monk; ‘and then what would the pheasants and foxes say?’

‘It is giving almost too much for our amusements. I used to think that I should like to move for a return to the number of hunting and shooting gentlemen in both Houses. I believe it would be a small minority.’

‘But their sons shoot, and their daughters hunt, and all their hangers-on would be against it.’

‘Custom is against us, Mr Monk; that is it. Here we are. I hope my friend will not be out, looking up young Lords of the Treasury.’ The Duke of St Bungay was not in search of cadets for the Government, but he was at this very moment closeted with Mr Gresham, and Mr Gresham’s especial friend Lord Cantrip. He had been at this work so long and so constantly that his very servants had their ministerial-crisis manners and felt and enjoyed the importance of the occasion. The two newcomers were soon allowed to enter the august conclave, and the five great senators greeted each other cordially. ‘I hope we have not come inopportunely,’ said the Duke of Omnium. Mr Gresham assured him almost with hilarity that nothing could be less inopportune; — and then the Duke was sure that Mr Gresham was to be the new Prime Minister, whoever might join him or whoever might refuse to do so. ‘I told my friend here,’ continued our Duke, laying his hand upon the old man’s arm, ‘that I would give him his answer to a proposition he made with me within twenty-four hours. But I find that I can do so without that delay.’

‘I trust your Grace’s answer may be favourable to us,’ said Mr Gresham — who indeed did not doubt much that it would be so, seeing that Mr Monk had accompanied him.

‘I do not think it would be unfavourable, though I cannot do as my friend has proposed.’

‘Any practicable arrangement —’ began Mr Gresham, with a frown, however, on his brow.

‘The most practicable arrangement, I am sure, will be for you to form your Government, without hampering yourself with a beaten predecessor.’

‘Not beaten,’ said Lord Cantrip.

‘Certainly not,’ said the other Duke.

‘It is because of your success that I ask your services,’ said Mr Gresham.

‘I have none to give — none that I cannot better bestow out of office than in. I must ask you, gentlemen, to believe that I am quite fixed. Coming here with my friend Mr Monk, I did not state my purpose to him; but I begged him to accompany me, fearing lest in my absence he should feel it incumbent on himself to sail in the same boat as his late colleague.’

‘I should prefer to do so,’ said Mr Monk.

‘Of course it is not for me to say what may be Mr Gresham’s ideas, but as my friend here suggested to me that, were I to return to office, Mr Monk would do so also, I cannot be wrong in surmising that his services are desired.’ Mr Gresham bowed assent. ‘I shall therefore take the liberty of telling Mr Monk that I think he is bound to give his aid in the present emergency. Were I as happily placed as he is in being the possessor of a seat in the House of Commons, I too should hope that I might do something.’

The four gentlemen, with eager pressure, begged the Duke to reconsider his decision. He could take this office and do nothing in it — there being, as we know, offices the holders are not called upon for work — or he could take that place which required him to labour like a galley slave. Would he be Privy Seal? Would he undertake the India Board? But the Duke of Omnium was at last resolute. Of this administration he would not at any rate be a member. Whether Caesar might or might not at some future time condescend to command a legion he could not do so when the purple had been but that moment stripped from his shoulders. He soon afterwards left the house with a repeated request to Mr Monk that he should not follow his late chief’s example.

‘I regret it greatly,’ said Mr Gresham when he was gone.

‘There is no man,’ said Lord Cantrip, ‘whom all who know him more thoroughly respect.’

‘He has been worried,’ said the old Duke, ‘and must take time to recover himself. He has but one fault — he is a little too conscientious, a little too scrupulous.’ Mr Monk, of course, did join them, making one or two stipulations as he did so. He required that his friend Phineas Finn should be included in the Government. Mr Gresham yielded, though poor Phineas was not among the most favoured friends of that statesman. And so the Government was formed, and the crisis was again over, and the lists which the newspapers had been publishing for the last three days were republished in an amended and nearly correct condition. The triumph of the “People’s Banner”, as to the omission of the Duke, was of course complete. The editor had no hesitation in declaring that he, by his own sagacity and persistency, had made certain the exclusion of that very unfit and very pressing candidate for office.

The list was filled up after the usual fashion. For a while the dilettanti politicians of the clubs, and the strong-minded women who take an interest in such things, and the writers in newspapers, had almost doubted whether in the emergency which had been supposed to be so peculiar, any Government could be formed. There had been — so they had said — peculiarities so peculiar that it might be that the much-dreaded deadlock had come at last. A Coalition had been possible, and, though antagonistic to British feelings generally, had carried on the Government. But what might succeed the Coalition, nobody had known. The Radicals and Liberals together would be too strong for Mr Daubney and Sir Orlando. Mr Gresham had no longer a party of his own at his back, and a second Coalition would be generally spurned. In this way there had been much political excitement, and a fair amount of consequent enjoyment. But after a few days the old men had rattled into their old places — or, generally, old men into new places. And it was understood that Mr Gresham would again be supported by a majority.

As we grow old it is a matter of interest to watch how the natural gaps are filled in the two ranks of parliamentary workmen by whom the Government is carried on, either in the one interest or the other. Of course there must be gaps. Some men become too old — though that is rarely the case. A Peel may perish, or even a Palmerston must die. Some men, though, long supported by interest, family connection, or the loyalty of colleagues, are weighed down at last by their own incapacity and sink into peerages. Now and again a man cannot bear the bondage of office, and flies into rebellion and independence which would have been more respectable had it not been the result of discontent. Then the gaps must be filled. Whether on this side or on that, the candidates are first looked for among the sons of Earls and Dukes — and not unnaturally, as the sons of Earls and Dukes may be educated for such work almost from their infancy. A few rise by the slow process of acknowledged fitness — men who probably at first have not thought of offices, but are chosen because they are wanted, and those whose careers are grudged them, not by their opponents or rivals, but by the Browns and Joneses of the world who cannot bear to see a Smith or a Walker become something so different to themselves. These men have a great weight to carry, and cannot always shake off the burden of their origin and live among begotten statesman as though they too had been born to the manner. But perhaps the most wonderful ministerial phenomenon — though now almost too common to be called a phenomenon — is he who rises high in power and place by having made himself thoroughly detested and also — alas for parliamentary cowardice! — thoroughly feared. Given sufficient audacity, a thick skin, and power to bear for a few years the evil looks and cold shoulders of his comrades, and that is the man most sure to make his way to some high seat. But the skin must be thicker than that of any animal known, and the audacity must be complete. To the man who will once shrink at the idea of being looked at askance for treachery, or hated for his ill condition, the career is impossible. But let him be obdurate, and the bid will come. ‘Not because I want him, do I ask for him,’ says some groaning chief of party — to himself, and also sufficiently aloud for others’ ears — ‘but because he stings me and goads me, and will drive me to madness as a foe.’ Then the pachydermous one enters into the other’s heaven, probably with the resolution already formed of ousting that unhappy angel. And so it was in the present instance. When Mr Gresham’s completed list was published to the world, the world was astonished to find that Sir Timothy Beeswax was to be Mr Gresham’s Attorney-General. Sir Gregory Grogram became Lord Chancellor, and the Liberal chief was content to borrow his senior law adviser from the Conservative side of the late Coalition. It could not be that Mr Gresham was very fond of Sir Timothy; — but Sir Timothy in the late debates had shown himself to be a man of whom a minister might well be afraid.

Immediately on leaving the old Duke’s house, the late Premier went home to his wife, and finding that she was out, waited for her return. Now that he had put his own decision beyond his power he was anxious to let her know how it was to be with them. ‘I think it is settled at last,’ he said.

‘Are you coming back?’

‘Certainly not that. I believe I may say that Mr Gresham is Prime Minister.’

‘Then he oughtn’t to be,’ said the Duchess crossly.

‘I am sorry that I must differ from you, my dear, because I think he is the fittest man in England for the place.’

‘And you?’

‘I am a private gentleman who will now be able to devote more of his time to his wife and children than has hitherto been possible with him.’

‘How very nice! Do you mean to say that you like it?’

‘I am sure that I ought to like it. At the present moment I am thinking more of what you would like.’

‘If you ask me, Plantagenet, you know I shall tell the truth.’

‘Then tell the truth.’

‘After drinking brandy so long I hardly think that 12s claret will agree with my stomach. You ask for the truth, and there it is — very plainly.’

‘Plain enough!’

‘You asked, you know.’

‘And I am glad to have been told, even though that which you tell me is not pleasant hearing. When a man has been drinking too much brandy, it may be well that he should be put on a course of 12s claret.’

‘He won’t like it; and then — it’s kill or cure.’

‘I don’t think you’ve gone so far, Cora, that we need fear that the remedy will be fatal.’

‘I am thinking of you rather than myself. I can make myself generally disagreeable, and get excitement in that way. But what will you do? It’s all very well to talk of me and the children, but you can’t bring in a bill for reforming us. You can’t make us go by decimals. You can’t increase our consumption by lowering our taxation. I wish you had gone back to some Board.’ This she said looking up into his face with an anxiety which was half real and half burlesque.

‘I had made up my mind to go back on to no Board — for the present. I was thinking that we could spend some months in Italy, Cora.’

‘What; for the summer — so as to be in Rome in July! After that we could utilize winter by visiting Norway.’

‘We might take Norway first.’

‘And be eaten up by mosquitoes! I’ve got to be too old to like travelling.’

‘What do you like, dear?’

‘Nothing; — except being the Prime Minister’s wife; and upon my word there were times when I didn’t like that very much. I don’t know anything that I am fit for. I wonder whether Mr Gresham would have me as a housekeeper? Only we should have to lend him Gatherum, or there would be no room for the display of my abilities. Is Mr Monk in?’

‘He keeps his office.’

‘And Mr Finn?’

‘I believe so; but in what place I don’t know.’

‘And who else?’

‘Our old friend the Duke and Lord Cantrip, and Mr Wilson — and Sir Gregory will be Lord Chancellor.’

‘Just the old stupid Liberal team. Put their names in a bag and shake them, and you can always get a ministry. Well, Plantagenet; — I’ll go anywhere you like to take me. I’ll have something for the malaria at Rome, and something for the mosquitoes in Norway, and will make the best of it. But I don’t see why you should run away in the middle of the Session. I would stay and pitch into them, all round, like a true ex-minister and independent member of Parliament.’ Then as he was leaving her she fired a last shot. ‘I hope you made Sir Orlando and Sir Timothy peers before you gave up.’

It was not until two days after this that she read in one of the daily papers that Sir Timothy Beeswax was to be Attorney-General, and then her patience almost deserted her. To tell the truth, her husband had not dared to mention the appointment when he first saw her after hearing it. Her explosion fell on the head of Phineas Finn, whom she found at home with his wife, deploring the necessity which had fallen upon him of filling the faineant office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. ‘Mr Finn,’ she said, ‘I congratulate you on your colleagues.’

‘Your Grace is very good. I was at any rate introduced to many of them under the Duke’s auspices.’

‘And ought, I think, to have seen enough of them to be ashamed of them. Such a regiment to march through Coventry with!’

‘I do not doubt that we shall be good enough men for any enemies we may meet.’

‘It cannot be that you should conquer all the world with such a hero among you as Sir Timothy Beeswax. The idea of Sir Timothy coming back again! What do you feel about it?’

‘Very indifferent, Duchess. He won’t interfere much with me, as I have an Attorney-General of my own. You see I’m especially safe.’

‘I do believe men would do anything,’ said the Duchess, turning to Mrs Finn. ‘Of course I mean in the way of politics! But I did not think it possible that the Duke of St Bungay should again be in the same Government with Sir Timothy Beeswax.’

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