Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 58

The two Dukes

It was necessary that the country should be governed, even though Mr Bonteen had been murdered — and in order that it should be duly governed it was necessary that Mr Bonteen’s late place at the Board of Trade should be filled. There was some hesitation as to the filling it, and when the arrangement was completed people were very much surprised indeed. Mr Bonteen had been appointed chiefly because it was thought that he might in that office act as a quasi House of Commons deputy to the Duke of Omnium in carrying out his great scheme of a five-farthinged penny and a ten-pennied shilling. The Duke, in spite of his wealth and rank and honour, was determined to go on with his great task. Life would be nothing to him now unless he could at least hope to arrange the five farthings. When his wife had bullied him about the Garter he had declared to her, and with perfect truth, that he had never asked for anything. He had gone on to say that he never would ask for anything; and he certainly did not think that he was betraying himself with reference to that assurance when he suggested to Mr Gresham that he would himself take the place left vacant by Mr Bonteen — of course retaining his seat in the Cabinet.

“I should hardly have ventured to suggest such an arrangement to Your Grace,” said the Prime Minister.

“Feeling that it might be so, I thought that I would venture to ask,” said the Duke. “I am sure you know that I am the last man to interfere as to place or the disposition of power.”

“Quite the last man,” said Mr Gresham.

“But it has always been held that the Board of Trade is not incompatible with the Peerage.”

“Oh dear, yes.”

“And I can feel myself nearer to this affair of mine there than I can elsewhere.”

Mr Gresham of course had no objection to urge. This great nobleman, who was now asking for Mr Bonteen’s shoes, had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, and would have remained Chancellor of the Exchequer had not the mantle of his nobility fallen upon him. At the present moment he held an office in which peers are often temporarily shelved, or put away, perhaps, out of harm’s way for the time, so that they may be brought down and used when wanted, without having received crack or detriment from that independent action into which a politician is likely to fall when his party is “in” but he is still “out’. He was Lord Privy Seal — a Lordship of State which does carry with it a status and a seat in the Cabinet, but does not necessarily entail any work. But the present Lord, who cared nothing for status, and who was much more intent on his work than he was even on his seat in the Cabinet, was possessed by what many of his brother politicians regarded as a morbid dislike to pretences. He had not been happy during his few weeks of the Privy Seal, and had almost envied Mr Bonteen the realities of the Board of Trade. “I think upon the whole it will be best to make the change,” he said to Mr Gresham. And Mr Gresham was delighted.

But there were one or two men of mark — one or two who were older than Mr Gresham probably, and less perfect in their Liberal sympathies — who thought that the Duke of Omnium was derogating from his proper position in the step which he was now taking. Chief among these was his friend the Duke of St Bungay, who alone perhaps could venture to argue the matter with him. “I almost wish that you had spoken to me first,” said the elder Duke.

“I feared that I should find you so strongly opposed to my resolution.”

“If it was a resolution.”

“I think it was,” said the younger. “It was a great misfortune to me that I should have been obliged to leave the House of Commons.”

“You should not feel it so.”

“My whole life was there,” said he who, as Plantagenet Palliser, had been so good a commoner.

“But your whole life should certainly not be there now — nor your whole heart. On you the circumstances of your birth have imposed duties quite as high, and I will say quite as useful, as any which a career in the House of Commons can put within the reach of a man.”

“Do you think so, Duke?”

“Certainly I do. I do think that the England which we know could not be the England that she is but for the maintenance of a high-minded, proud, and self-denying nobility. And though with us there is no line dividing our very broad aristocracy into two parts, a higher and a lower, or a greater and a smaller, or a richer and a poorer, nevertheless we all feel that the success of our order depends chiefly on the conduct of those whose rank is the highest and whose means are the greatest. To some few, among whom you are conspicuously one, wealth has been given so great and rank so high that much of the welfare of your country depends on the manner in which you bear yourself as the Duke of Omnium.”

“I would not wish to think so.”

“Your uncle so thought. And, though he was a man very different from you, not inured to work in his early life, with fewer attainments, probably a slower intellect, and whose general conduct was inferior to your own — I speak freely because the subject is important — he was a man who understood his position and the requirements of his order very thoroughly. A retinue almost Royal, together with an expenditure which Royalty could not rival, secured for him the respect of the nation.”

“Your life has not been as was his, and you have won a higher respect.”

“I think not. The greater part of my life was spent in the House of Commons, and my fortune was never much more than the tenth of his. But I wish to make no such comparison.”

“I must make it, if I am to judge which I would follow.”

“Pray understand me, my friend,” said the old man, energetically. “I am not advising you to abandon public life in order that you may live in repose as a great nobleman. It would not be in your nature to do so, nor could the country afford to lose your services. But you need not therefore take your place in the arena of politics as though you were still Plantagenet Palliser, with no other duties than those of a politician — as you might so well have done had your uncle’s titles and wealth descended to a son.”

“I wish they had,” said the regretful Duke.

“It cannot be so. Your brother perhaps wishes that he were a Duke, but it has been arranged otherwise. It is vain to repine. Your wife is unhappy because your uncle’s Garter was not at once given to you.”

“Glencora is like other women — of course.”

“I share her feelings. Had Mr Gresham consulted me, I should not have scrupled to tell him that it would have been for the welfare of his party that the Duke of Omnium should be graced with any and every honour in his power to bestow. Lord Cantrip is my friend, almost as warmly as are you; but the country would not have missed the ribbon from the breast of Lord Cantrip. Had you been more the Duke, and less the slave of your country, it would have been sent to you. Do I make you angry by speaking so?”

“Not in the least. I have but one ambition.”

“And that is —?”

“To be the serviceable slave of my country.”

“A master is more serviceable than a slave,” said the old man.

“No; no; I deny it. I can admit much from you, but I cannot admit that. The politician who becomes the master of his country sinks from the statesman to the tyrant.”

“We misunderstand each other, my friend. Pitt, and Peel, and Palmerston, were not tyrants, though each assumed and held for himself to the last the mastery of which I speak. Smaller men who have been slaves, have been as patriotic as they, but less useful. I regret that you should follow Mr Bonteen in his office.”

“Because he was Mr Bonteen.”

“All the circumstances of the transfer of office occasioned by your uncle’s death seem to me to make it undesirable. I would not have you make yourself too common. This very murder adds to the feeling. Because Mr Bonteen has been lost to us, the Minister has recourse to you.”

“It was my own suggestion.”

“But who knows that it was so? You, and I, and Mr Gresham — and perhaps one or two others.”

“It is too late now, Duke; and, to tell the truth of myself, not even you can make me other than I am. My uncle’s life to me was always a problem which I could not understand. Were I to attempt to walk in his ways I should fail utterly, and become absurd. I do not feel the disgrace of following Mr Bonteen.”

“I trust you may at least be less unfortunate.”

“Well — yes. I need not expect to be murdered in the streets because I am going to the Board of Trade. I shall have made no enemy by my political success.”

“You think that — Mr Finn — did do that deed?” asked the elder Duke.

“I hardly know what I think. My wife is sure that he is innocent.”

“The Duchess is enthusiastic always.”

“Many others think the same. Lord and Lady Chiltern are sure of that.”

“They were always his best friends.”

“I am told that many of the lawyers are sure that it will be impossible to convict him. If he be acquitted I shall strive to think him innocent. He will come back to the House, of course.”

“I should think he would apply for the Hundreds,” said the Duke of St Bungay.

“I do not see why he should. I would not in his place. If he be innocent, why should he admit himself unfit for a seat in Parliament? I tell you what he might do — resign, and then throw himself again upon his constituency.” The other Duke shook his head, thereby declaring his opinion that Phineas Finn was in truth the man who had murdered Mr Bonteen.

When it was publicly known that the Duke of Omnium had stepped into Mr Bonteen’s shoes, the general opinion certainly coincided with that given by the Duke of St Bungay. It was not only that the late Chancellor of the Exchequer should not have consented to fill so low an office, or that the Duke of Omnium should have better known his own place, or that he should not have succeeded a man so insignificant as Mr Bonteen. These things, no doubt, were said — but more was said also. It was thought that he should not have gone to an office which had been rendered vacant by the murder of a man who had been placed there merely to assist himself. If the present arrangement was good, why should it not have been made independently of Mr Bonteen? Questions were asked about it in both Houses, and the transfer no doubt did have the effect of lowering the man in the estimation of the political world. He himself felt that he did not stand so high with his colleagues as when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer; not even so high as when he held the Privy Seal. In the printed lists of those who attended the Cabinets his name generally was placed last, and an opponent on one occasion thought, or pretended to think, that he was no more than Postmaster-General. He determined to bear all this without wincing — but he did wince. He would not own to himself that he had been wrong, but he was sore — as a man is sore who doubts about his own conduct; and he was not the less so because he strove to bear his wife’s sarcasms without showing that they pained him.

“They say that poor Lord Fawn is losing his mind,” she said to him.

“Lord Fawn! I haven’t heard anything about it.”

“He was engaged to Lady Eustace once, you remember. They say that he’ll be made to declare why he didn’t marry her if this bigamy case goes on. And then it’s so unfortunate that he should have seen the man in the grey coat; I hope he won’t have to resign.”

“I hope not, indeed.”

“Because, of course, you’d have to take his place as Under-Secretary.” This was very awkward — but the husband only smiled, and expressed a hope that if he did so he might himself be equal to his new duties. “By the bye, Plantagenet, what do you mean to do about the jewels?”

“I haven’t thought about them. Madame Goesler had better take them.”

“But she won’t.”

“I suppose they had better be sold.”

“By auction?”

“That would be the proper way.”

“I shouldn’t like that at all. Couldn’t we buy them ourselves, and let the money stand till she choose to take it? It’s an affair of trade, I suppose, and you’re at the head of all that now.” Then again she asked him some question about the Home Secretary, with reference to Phineas Finn; and when he told her that it would be highly improper for him to speak to that officer on such a subject, she pretended to suppose that the impropriety would consist in the interference of a man holding so low a position as he was. “Of course it is not the same now,” she said, “as it used to be when you were at the Exchequer.” All which he took without uttering a word of anger, or showing a sign of annoyance. “You only get two thousand a year, do you, at the Board of Trade, Plantagenet?”

“Upon my word, I forget. I think it’s two thousand five hundred.”

“How nice! It was five at the Exchequer, wasn’t it?”

“Yes; five thousand at the Exchequer.”

“When you’re a Lord of the Treasury it will only be one — will it?”

“What a goose you are, Glencora. If it suited me to be a Lord of the Treasury, what difference would the salary make?”

“Not the least — nor yet the rank, or the influence, or the prestige, or the general fitness of things. You are above all such sublunary ideas. You would clean Mr Gresham’s shoes for him, if — the service of your country required it.” These last words she added in a tone of voice very similar to that which her husband himself used on occasions.

“I would even allow you to clean them — if the service of the country required it,” said the Duke.

But, though he was magnanimous, he was not happy, and perhaps the intense anxiety which his wife displayed as to the fate of Phineas Finn added to his discomfort. The Duchess, as the Duke of St Bungay had said, was enthusiastic, and he never for a moment dreamed of teaching her to change her nature; but it would have been as well if her enthusiasm at the present moment could have been brought to display itself on some other subject. He had been brought to feel that Phineas Finn had been treated badly when the good things of Government were being given away, and that this had been caused by the jealous prejudices of the man who had been since murdered. But an expectant Under-Secretary of State, let him have been ever so cruelly left out in the cold, should not murder the man by whom he has been ill-treated. Looking at all the evidence as best he could, and listening to the opinions of others, the Duke did think that Phineas had been guilty. The murder had clearly been committed by a personal enemy, not by a robber. Two men were known to have entertained feelings of enmity against Mr Bonteen; as to one of whom he was assured that it was impossible that he should have been on the spot. As to the other it seemed equally manifest that he must have been there. If it were so, it would have been much better that his wife should not display her interest publicly in the murderer’s favour. But the Duchess, wherever she went, spoke of the trial as a persecution; and seemed to think that the prisoner should already be treated as a hero and a martyr. “Glencora,” he said to her, “I wish that you could drop the subject of this trial till it be over.”

“But I can’t”

“Surely you can avoid speaking of it.”

“No more than you can avoid your decimals. Out of the full heart the mouth speaks, and my heart is very full. What harm do I do?”

“You set people talking of you.”

“They have been doing that ever since we were married; but I do not know that they have made out much against me. We must go after our nature, Plantagenet. Your nature is decimals. I run after units.” He did not deem it wise to say anything further — knowing that to this evil also of Phineas Finn the gods would at last vouchsafe an ending.

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