Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 39

Cagliostro

It had been settled that Parliament should meet on the Thursday in Easter week, and it was known to the world at large that Cabinet Councils were held on the Friday previous, on the Monday, and on the Tuesday; but nobody knew what took place at those meetings. Cabinet Councils are, of course, very secret. What kind of oath the members take not to divulge any tittle of the proceedings at these awful conferences, the general public does not know; but it is presumed that oaths are taken very solemn, and it is known that they are very binding. Nevertheless, it is not an uncommon thing to hear openly at the clubs an account of what has been settled; and, as we all know, not a council is held as to which the editor of the People’s Banner does not inform its readers next day exactly what took place. But as to these three Cabinet Councils there was an increased mystery abroad. Statements, indeed, were made, very definite and circumstantial, but then they were various — and directly opposed one to another. According to the People’s Banner, Mr Daubeny had resolved, with that enduring courage which was his peculiar characteristic, that he would not be overcome by faction, but would continue to exercise all the functions of Prime Minister until he had had an opportunity of learning whether his great measure had been opposed by the sense of the country, or only by the tactics of an angry and greedy party. Other journals declared that the Ministry as a whole had decided on resigning. But the clubs were in a state of agonising doubt. At the great stronghold of conservative policy in Pall Mall men were silent, embarrassed, and unhappy. The party was at heart divorced from its leaders — and a party without leaders is powerless. To these gentlemen there could be no triumph, whether Mr Daubeny went out or remained in office. They had been betrayed — but as a body were unable even to accuse the traitor. As regarded most of them they had accepted the treachery and bowed their heads beneath it, by means of their votes. And as to the few who had been staunch — they also were cowed by a feeling that they had been instrumental in destroying their own power by endeavouring to protect a doomed institution. Many a thriving county member in those days expressed a wish among his friends that he had never meddled with the affairs of public life, and hinted at the Chiltern Hundreds. On the other side, there was undoubtedly something of a rabid desire for immediate triumph, which almost deserved that epithet of greedy which was then commonly used by Conservatives in speaking of their opponents. With the Liberal leaders — such men as Mr Gresham and the two Dukes — the anxiety displayed was, no doubt, on behalf of the country. It is right, according to our constitution, that the Government should be entrusted to the hands of those whom the constituencies of the country have most trusted. And, on behalf of the country, it behoves the men in whom the country has placed its trust to do battle in season and out of season — to carry on war internecine — till the demands of the country are obeyed. A sound political instinct had induced Mr Gresham on this occasion to attack his opponent simply on the ground of his being the leader only of a minority in the House of Commons. But from among Mr Gresham’s friends there had arisen a noise which sounded very like a clamour for place, and this noise of course became aggravated in the ears of those who were to be displaced. Now, during Easter week, the clamour became very loud. Could it be possible that the archfiend of a Minister would dare to remain in office till the end of a hurried Session, and then again dissolve Parliament? Men talked of rows in London — even of revolution, and there were meetings in open places both by day and night. Petitions were to be prepared, and the country was to be made to express itself.

When, however, Thursday afternoon came, Mr Daubeny “threw up the sponge’. Up to the last moment the course which he intended to pursue was not known to the country at large. He entered the House very slowly — almost with a languid air, as though indifferent to its performances, and took his seat at about half-past four. Every man there felt that there was insolence in his demeanour — and yet there was nothing on which it was possible to fasten in the way of expressed complaint. There was a faint attempt at a cheer — for good soldiers acknowledge the importance of supporting even an unpopular general. But Mr Daubeny’s soldiers on this occasion were not very good. When he had been seated about five minutes he rose, still very languidly, and began his statement. He and his colleagues, he said, in their attempt to legislate for the good of their country, had been beaten in regard to a very great measure by a large majority, and in compliance with what he acknowledged to be the expressed opinion of the House, he had considered it to be his duty — as his colleagues had considered it to be theirs — to place their joint resignations in the hands of Her Majesty. This statement was received with considerable surprise, as it was not generally known that Mr Daubeny had as yet even seen the Queen. But the feeling most predominant in the House was one almost of dismay at the man’s quiescence. He and his colleagues had resigned, and he had recommended Her Majesty to send for Mr Gresham. He spoke in so low a voice as to be hardly audible to the House at large, and then paused — ceasing to speak, as though his work were done. He even made some gesture, as though stepping back to his seat — deceived by which Mr Gresham, at the other side of the table, rose to his legs. “Perhaps,” said Mr Daubeny — “Perhaps the right honourable gentleman would pardon him, and the House would pardon him, if still, for a moment, he interposed between the House and the right honourable gentleman. He could well understand the impatience of the right honourable gentleman — who no doubt was anxious to reassume that authority among them, the temporary loss of which he had not perhaps borne with all the equanimity which might have been expected from him. He would promise the House and the right honourable gentleman that he would not detain them long.” Mr Gresham threw himself back into his seat, evidently not without annoyance, and his enemy stood for a moment looking at him. Unless they were angels these two men must at that moment have hated each other — and it is supposed that they were no more than human. It was afterwards said that the little ruse of pretending to resume his seat had been deliberately planned by Mr Daubeny with the view of seducing Mr Gresham into an act of seeming impatience, and that these words about his opponent’s failing equanimity had been carefully prepared.

Mr Daubeny stood for a minute silent, and then began to pour forth that which was really his speech on the occasion. Those flaccid half-pronounced syllables in which he had declared that he had resigned — had been studiously careless, purposely flaccid. It was his duty to let the House know the fact, and he did his duty. But now he had a word to say in which he himself could take some little interest. Mr Daubeny could be fiery or flaccid as it suited himself — and now it suited him to be fiery. He had a prophecy to make, and prophets have ever been energetic men. Mr Daubeny conceived it to be his duty to inform the House, and through the House the country, that now, at last, had the day of ruin come upon the British Empire, because it had bowed itself to the dominion of an unscrupulous and greedy faction. It cannot be said that the language which he used was unmeasured, because no word that he uttered would have warranted the Speaker in calling him to order; but, within the very wide bounds of parliamentary etiquette, there was no limit to the reproach and reprobation which he heaped on the House of Commons for its late vote. And his audacity equalled his insolence. In announcing his resignation, he had condescended to speak of himself and his colleagues; but now he dropped his colleagues as though they were unworthy of his notice, and spoke only of his own doings — of his own efforts to save the country, which was indeed willing to be saved, but unable to select fitting instruments of salvation. “He had been twitted”, he said, “with inconsistency to his principles by men who were simply unable to understand the meaning of the word Conservatism. These gentlemen seemed to think that any man who did not set himself up as an apostle of constant change must therefore be bound always to stand still and see his country perish from stagnation. It might be that there were gentlemen in that House whose timid natures could not face the dangers of any movement; but for himself he would say that no word had ever fallen from his lips which justified either his friends or his adversaries in classing him among the number. If a man be anxious to keep his fire alight, does he refuse to touch the sacred coals as in the course of nature they are consumed? Or does he move them with the salutary poker and add fresh fuel from the basket? They all knew that enemy to the comfort of the domestic hearth, who could not keep his hands for a moment from the fire-irons. Perhaps he might be justified if he said that they had been very much troubled of late in that House by gentlemen who could not keep their fingers from poker and tongs. But there had now fallen upon them a trouble of a nature much more serious in its effects than any that had come or could come from would-be reformers. A spirit of personal ambition, a wretched thirst for office, a hankering after the power and privileges of ruling, had not only actuated men — as, alas, had been the case since first the need for men to govern others had arisen in the world — but had been openly avowed and put forward as an adequate and sufficient reason for opposing a measure in disapprobation of which no single argument had been used! The right honourable gentleman’s proposition to the House had been simply this — ““I shall oppose this measure, be it good or bad, because I desire, myself, to be Prime Minister, and I call upon those whom I lead in politics to assist me in doing so, in order that they may share the good things on which we may thus be enabled to lay our hands!’’{”

Then there arose a great row in the House, and there seemed to be a doubt whether the still existing Minister of the day would be allowed to continue his statement. Mr Gresham rose to his feet, but sat down again instantly, without having spoken a word that was audible. Two or three voices were heard calling upon the Speaker for protection. It was, however, asserted afterwards that nothing had been said which demanded the Speaker’s interference. But all moderate voices were soon lost in the enraged clamour of members on each side. The insolence showered upon those who generally supported Mr Daubeny had equalled that with which he had exasperated those opposed to him; and as the words had fallen from his lips, there had been no purpose of cheering him from the conservative benches. But noise creates noise, and shouting is a ready and easy mode of contest. For a while it seemed as though the right side of the Speaker’s chair was only beaten by the majority of lungs on the left side — and in the midst of it all Mr Daubeny still stood, firm on his feet, till gentlemen had shouted themselves silent — and then he resumed his speech.

The remainder of what he said was profound, prophetic, and unintelligible. The gist of it, so far as it could be understood when the bran was bolted from it, consisted in an assurance that the country had now reached that period of its life in which rapid decay was inevitable, and that, as the mortal disease had already shown itself in its worst form, national decrepitude was imminent, and natural death could not long be postponed. They who attempted to read the prophecy with accuracy were of opinion that the prophet had intimated that had the nation, even in this its crisis, consented to take him, the prophet, as its sole physician and to obey his prescription with childlike docility, health might not only have been reestablished, but a new juvenescence absolutely created. The nature of the medicine that should have been taken was even supposed to have been indicated in some very vague terms. Had he been allowed to operate he would have cut the tar roots of the national cancer, have introduced fresh blood into the national veins, and resuscitated the national digestion, and he seemed to think that the nation, as a nation, was willing enough to undergo the operation, and be treated as he should choose to treat it — but that the incubus of Mr Gresham, backed by an unworthy House of Commons, had prevented, and was preventing, the nation from having its own way. Wherefore the nation must be destroyed. Mr Daubeny as soon as he had completed his speech took up his hat and stalked out of the House.

It was supposed at the time that the retiring Prime Minister had intended, when he rose to his legs, not only to denounce his opponents, but also to separate himself from his own unworthy associates. Men said that he had become disgusted with politics, disappointed, and altogether demoralized by defeat, and great curiosity existed as to the steps which might be taken at the time by the party of which he had hitherto been the leader. On that evening, at any rate, nothing was done. When Mr Daubeny was gone, Mr Gresham rose and said that in the present temper of the House he thought it best to postpone any statement from himself. He had received Her Majesty’s commands only as he had entered that House, and in obedience to those commands, he should wait upon Her Majesty early tomorrow. He hoped to be able to inform the House at the afternoon sitting, what was the nature of the commands with which Her Majesty might honour him.

“What do you think of that?” Phineas asked Mr Monk as they left the House together.

“I think that our Chatham of today is but a very poor copy of him who misbehaved a century ago.”

“Does not the whole thing distress you?”

“Not particularly. I have always felt that there has been a mistake about Mr Daubeny. By many he has been accounted as a statesman, whereas to me he has always been a political Cagliostro. Now a conjuror is I think a very pleasant fellow to have among us, if we know that he is a conjuror — but a conjuror who is believed to do his tricks without sleight of hand is a dangerous man. It is essential that such a one should be found out and known to be a conjuror — and I hope that such knowledge may have been communicated to some men this afternoon.”

“He was very great,” said Ratler to Bonteen. “Did you not think so?”

“Yes, I did — very powerful indeed. But the party is broken up to atoms.”

“Atoms soon come together again in politics,” said Ratler. “They can’t do without him. They haven’t got anybody else. I wonder what he did when he got home.”

“Had some gruel and went to bed,” said Bonteen. “They say these scenes in the House never disturb him at home.” From which conversations it may be inferred that Mr Monk and Messrs Ratler and Bonteen did not agree in their ideas respecting political conjurors.

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