The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 80

The Last Meeting at Matching.

The ex-Prime Minister did not carry out his purpose of leaving London in the middle of the season and travelling either to Italy or Norway. He was away from London at Whitsuntide longer perhaps than he might have been if still in office, and during this period regarded himself as a man from whose hands all work had been taken — as one who had been found unfit to carry any longer a burden serviceably; but before June was over he and the Duchess were back in London, and gradually he allowed himself to open his mouth on this or that subject in the House of Lords — not pitching into everybody all round, as his wife had recommended — but expressing an opinion now and again, generally in support of his friends, with the dignity which should belong to a retired Prime Minister. The Duchess too recovered much of her good temper — as far at least as the outward show went. One or two who knew her, especially Mrs Finn, were aware that her hatred and her ideas of revenge were not laid aside; but she went on from day to day anathematizing her special enemies, and abstained from reproaching her husband for his pusillanimity. Then came the question as to the autumn. ‘Let’s have everybody down at Gatherum, just as we had before,’ said the Duchess.

The proposition almost took away the Duke’s breath. ‘Why do you want a crowd, like that?’

‘Just to show them that we are not beaten because we are turned out.’

‘But inasmuch as we were turned out, we were beaten. And what has a gathering of people at my house to do with a political manoeuvre? Do you especially want to go to Gatherum?’

‘I hate the place. You know I do.’

‘Then why should you propose to go there?’ He hardly yet knew his wife well enough to understand that the suggestion had been a joke. ‘If you don’t wish to go abroad —’

‘I hate going abroad.’

‘Then we’ll remain at Matching. You don’t hate Matching.’

‘Ah dear! There are memories there too. But you like it.’

‘My books are there.’

‘Blue-books,’ said the Duchess.

‘And there is plenty of room if you wish to have friends.’

‘I suppose we must have somebody. You can’t live without your mentor.’

‘You can ask whom you please,’ he said almost fretfully.

‘Lady Rosina, of course,’ suggested the Duchess. Then he turned to the papers before him, and wouldn’t say another word. The matter ended in a party much as usual being collected at Matching about the middle of October — Telemachus having spent the early part of the autumn with Mentor at Long Royston. There might perhaps be a dozen guests in the house and among them were Phineas Finn and his wife. And Mr Grey was there, having come back from his eastern mission — whose unfortunate abandonment of his seat at Silverbridge had cause so many troubles — and Mrs Grey, who in days now long passed had been almost as necessary to Lady Glencora, as was now her later friend Mrs Finn — and the Cantrips, and for a short time the St Bungays. But Lady Rosina De Courcy on this occasion was not present. There were few there whom my patient readers have not seen at Matching before; but among those few was Arthur Fletcher.

‘So it is to be,’ said the Duchess to the member for Silverbridge one morning. She had by this time become intimate with ‘her member’, as she would sometimes call him in a joke, and had concerned herself much as to his matrimonial prospects.

‘Yes, Duchess, it is to be — unless some unforeseen circumstance should arise.’

‘What circumstance?’

‘Ladies and gentlemen do sometimes change their minds; — but in this case I do not think it likely.’

‘And why ain’t you being married now, Mr Fletcher?’

‘We have agreed to postpone it till next year; — so that we may be quite sure of our own minds.’

‘I know you are laughing at me; but nevertheless I am very glad that it is settled. Pray tell her from me that I shall again call soon as ever she is Mrs Fletcher, though I don’t think she repaid either of the last two visits I made her.’

‘You must make excuses for her, Duchess.’

‘Of course. I know. After all she is a most fortunate woman. And as for you — I regard you as a hero among lovers.’

‘I’m getting used to it,’ she said one day to Mrs Finn.

‘Of course you’ll get used to it. We get used to anything that chance sends us in a marvellously short time.’

‘What I mean is that I can go to bed and sleep, and get up and eat my meals without missing the sound of trumpets so much as I did at first. I remember hearing of people who lived in a mill, and couldn’t sleep when the mill stopped. It was like that with me when our mill stopped at first. I had got myself so used to the excitement of it, that I could hardly live without it.’

‘You might have all the excitement still, if you pleased. You need not be dead to politics because your husband is not Prime Minister.’

‘No; never again — unless he should come back. If anyone had told me ten years ago that I should have taken an interest in this or that man being in Government, I should have laughed him to scorn. It did not seem possible to me then that I should care what became of men like Sir Timothy Beeswax and Mr Roby. But I did get to be anxious about it when Plantagenet was shifted from one office to another.’

‘Of course you did. Do you think I am not anxious about Phineas?’

‘But when he became Prime Minister, I gave myself up to it altogether. I shall never forget what I felt when he came to me and told me that perhaps it might be so; — but told me also that he would escape from it if it were possible. I was the Lady Macbeth of the occasion all over; — whereas he was so scrupulous, so burdened with conscience! As for me, I would have taken it by any means. Then it was the old Duke played the part of the three witches to a nicety. Well, there hasn’t been any absolute murder, and I haven’t quite gone mad.’

‘Nor need you be afraid though all the woods of Gatherum should come to Matching.’

‘God forbid! I will never see anything of Gatherum again. What annoys me most is, and always was, that he wouldn’t understand what I felt about it; — how proud I was that he should be Prime Minister, how anxious that he should be great and noble in his office; — how I worked for him, and not at all for any pleasure of my own.’

‘I think he did feel it.’

‘No; — not as I did. At last he liked the power — or rather feared the disgrace of losing it. But he had no idea of the personal grandeur of the place. He never understood that to be Prime Minister in England is as much as to be an Emperor in France, and much more than being President of America. Oh, how I did labour for him — and how did he scold me for it in those quiet little stinging words of his! I was vulgar!’

‘Is that a quiet word?’

‘Yes; — as he used it; — and indiscreet, and ignorant, and stupid. I bore it all, though sometimes I was dying with vexation. Now it’s all over, and here we are as humdrum as anyone else. And the Beeswaxes, and the Robys, and the Droughts, and the Pountneys, and the Lopezes, have all passed over the scene. Do you remember that Pountney affair, and how he turned the poor man out of the house?’

‘It served him right.’

‘It would have served them all right to be turned out; — only they were there for a purpose. I did like it in a way, and it makes me sad to think that the feeling can never come back again. Even if they should have him back again, it would be a very lame affair to me then. I can never again rouse myself to the effort of preparing food and lodging for half the Parliament and their wives. I shall never again think that I can help to rule England by coaxing unpleasant men. It is done and gone, and can never come back again.’

Not long after this the Duke took Mr Monk, who had come down to Matching for a few days, out to the very spot on which he had sat when he indulged himself in lecturing Phineas Finn on Conservatism and Liberalism generally, and then asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer what he thought of the present state of public affairs. He himself had supported Mr Gresham’s government, and did not belong to it because he could not at present reconcile himself to filling any office. Mr Monk did not scruple to say that in his opinion the present legitimate division of parties was preferable to the Coalition which had existed for three years. ‘In such an arrangement,’ said Mr Monk, ‘there must always be a certain amount of distrust, and such a feeling is fatal to any great work.’

‘I think I distrusted no one till separation came — and when it did come it was not caused by me.’

‘I am not blaming anyone now,’ said the other; ‘but men who have been brought up with opinions altogether different, even with different instincts as to politics, who from their mother’s milk have been nourished on codes of thought altogether opposed to each other, cannot work together with confidence even though they may desire the same thing. The very ideas which are sweet as honey to the one are bitter as gall to the other.’

‘You think, then, that we made a great mistake?’

‘I will not say that,’ said Mr Monk. ‘There was a difficulty at the time, and that difficulty was overcome. The Government was carried on, and was on the whole respected. History will give you credit for patriotism, patience, and courage. No man could have done it better than you did; — probably no other man of the day so well.’

‘But it was not a great part to play?’ The Duke in his nervousness, as he said this, could not avoid the use of that questioning tone which requires an answer.

‘Great enough to satisfy the heart of a man who has fortified himself against the evil of ambition. After all, what is it that the Prime Minister of such a country as this should chiefly regard? Is it not the prosperity of the country? Is it not often that we want great measures, or new arrangements that shall be vital to the country. Politicians now look for grievances, not because grievances are heavy, but trusting that the honour of abolishing them may be great. It is the old story of the needy knife-grinder who, if left to himself, would have no grievance of which to complain.’

‘But there are grievances,’ said the Duke. ‘Look at monetary denominations. Look at our weights and measures.’

‘Well; yes. I will not say that everything has as yet been reduced to divine order. But when we took office three years ago we certainly did not intend to settle those difficulties.’

‘No, indeed,’ said the Duke, sadly.

‘But we did do all that we were meant to do. For my own part, there is only one thing that I regret, and one only which you should regret also till you have resolved to remedy it.’

‘What thing is that?’

‘Your retirement from official life. If the country is to lose your services for the long course of years during which you will probably sit in Parliament, then I shall think that the country has lost more than it gained by the Coalition.’

The Duke sat for a while silent, looking at the view, and, before answering Mr Monk — while arranging his answer — once or twice in a half-absent way, called his companion’s attention to the scene before him. But during this time he was going through an act of painful repentance. He was condemning himself for a word or two that had been ill-spoken by himself, and which, since the moment of its utterance, he had never ceased to remember with shame. He told himself now, after his own secret fashion, that he must do penance for these words by the humiliation of a direct contradiction of them. He must declare that Caesar would at some future time be prepared to serve under Pompey. Then he made his answer. ‘Mr Monk,’ he said, ‘I should be false if I were to deny that it pleases me to hear you say so. I have thought much of all that for the last two or three months. You may probably have seen that I am not a man endowed with that fortitude which enables many to bear vexations with an easy spirit. I am given to fretting, and I am inclined to think that a popular minister in a free country should be so constituted as to be free from that infirmity. I shall certainly never desire to be at the head of Government again. For a few years I would prefer to remain out of office. But I will endeavour to look forward to a time when I may again perhaps be of some humble use.’

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