It was natural that at such a time, when success greater than had been expected had attended the efforts of the Liberals, when some dozen unexpected votes had been acquired, the leading politicians of that party should have found themselves compelled to look about them and see how these good things might be utilised. In February they certainly had not expected to be called to power in the course of the existing session. Perhaps they did not expect it yet. There was still a Conservative majority — though but a small majority. But the strength of the minority consisted, not in the fact that the majority against them was small, but that it was decreasing. How quickly does the snowball grow into hugeness as it is rolled on; — but when the change comes in the weather how quickly does it melt, and before it is gone become a thing ugly, weak and formless! Where is the individual who does not assert to himself that he would be more loyal to a falling than to a rising friend? Such is perhaps the nature of each one of us. But when any large number of men act together, the falling friend is apt to be deserted. There was a general feeling among politicians that Lord Drummond’s ministry — or Sir Timothy’s — was failing, and the Liberals, though they could not yet count the votes by which they might hope to be supported in power, nevertheless felt that they ought to be looking to their arms.
There had been a coalition. They who are well read in the political literature of their country will remember all about that. It had perhaps succeeded in doing that for which it had been intended. The Queen’s government had been carried on for two or three years. The Duke of Omnium had been the head of that Ministry; but, during those years had suffered so much as to have become utterly ashamed of the coalition — so much as to have said often to himself that under no circumstances would he again join any Ministry. At this time there was no idea of another coalition. That is a state of things which cannot come about frequently — which can only be reproduced by men who have never hitherto felt the mean insipidity of such a condition. But they who had served on the Liberal side in that coalition must again put their shoulders to the wheel. Of course it was in every man’s mouth that the Duke must be induced to forget his miseries and once more to take upon himself the duties of an active servant of the State.
But they who were most anxious on the subject, such men as Lord Cantrip, Mr Monk, our old friend Phineas Finn, and a few others, were almost afraid to approach him. At the moment when the coalition was broken up he had been very bitter in spirit, apparently almost arrogant, holding himself aloof from his late colleagues — and since that, troubles had come to him, which had aggravated the soreness of his heart. His wife had died, and he had suffered much through his children. What Lord Silverbridge had done at Oxford was a matter of general conversation, and also what he had not done.
That the heir of the family should have become a renegade in politics was supposed to have greatly affected the father. Now Lord Gerald had been expelled from Cambridge, and Silverbridge was on the turf in conjunction with Major Tifto! Something, too, had oozed out into general ears about Lady Mary — something which should have been kept secret as the grave. It had therefore come to pass that it was difficult even to address the Duke.
There was but one man, and but one, who could do this with ease to himself; — and that man was at last put into motion at the instance of the leaders of the party. The old Duke of St Bungay wrote the following letter to the Duke of Omnium. The letter purported to be an excuse for the writer’s own defalcations. But the chief object of the writer was to induce the younger Duke once more to submit to harness.
‘Longroyston, 3 June, 187-‘DEAR DUKE OF OMNIUM,
‘How quickly the things come round! I had thought that I should never again have been called upon even to think of the formation of another Liberal Ministry; and now, though it was but yesterday that were all telling ourselves that we were thoroughly manumitted from our labours by the altered opinions of the country, sundry of our old friends have again been putting their heads together.
‘Did they not do so they would neglect a manifest duty. Nothing is more essential to the political well-being of the country than that the leaders on both sides in politics should be prepared for their duties. But for myself, I am bound at last to put in the old plea with a determination that it shall be respected. “Solve senescentem.” It is now, if I calculate rightly, exactly fifty years since I first entered public life in obedience to the advice of Lord Grey. I had then already sat five years in the House of Commons. I had assisted humbly in the emancipation of the Roman Catholics, and have learned by the legislative troubles of just half a century that those whom we then invited to sit with us in Parliament have been in all things our worst enemies. But what then? had we benefited only those who love us, would not the sinners also — or even the Tories — have done as much as that?
‘But such memories are of no avail now. I write to say that after so much of active political life, I will at last retire. My friends when they see me inspecting a pigsty or picking a peach are apt to remind me that I can still stand on my legs, and with more of compliment than of kindness will argue therefore that I ought still to undertake active duties in Parliament. I can select my own hours for pigs and peaches, and should I, through the dotage of age, make mistakes as to the breeding of one or the flavour of the other, the harm done will not go far. In politics I have done my work. What you and others in the arena do will interest me more than all other things in this world, I think and hope, to my dying day. But I will not trouble the workers with the querulousness of old age.
‘So much for myself. And let me, as I go, say a parting word to him with whom in politics I have been for many years more in accord than with any other leading man. As nothing but age or infirmity would to my own mind have justified me in retiring, so do I think that you, who can plead neither age nor infirmity, will find yourself at last to want self-justification, if you permit yourself to be driven from the task either by pride or indifference.
‘I should express my feelings better if were I to say by pride and diffidence. I look to our friendship, to the authority given me by my age, and to the thorough goodness of your heart for pardon in thus accusing you. That little men should have ventured to ill-use you, has hurt your pride. That these little men should have been able to do so has created your diffidence. Put you to a piece of work that a man may do, you have less false pride as to the way in which you may do it than any man I have known; and, let the way be open to you, as little diffidence as any. But in this political mill of ours in England, a man cannot always find the way open to do things. It does not often happen that an English statesman can go in and make a great score off his own bat. But not the less is he bound to play the game and to go to the wicket when he finds that his time has come.
‘There are, I think, two things for you to consider in this matter, and two only. The first is your capacity, and the other is your duty. A man may have found by experience that he is unfitted for public life. You and I have known men in regard to whom we have thoroughly wished that such experience had been reached. But this is a matter in which a man who doubts himself is bound to take the evidence of those around him. The whole party is most anxious for your co-operation. If this be so — and I make you the assurance from most conclusive evidence — you are bound to accept the common consent of your political friends on that matter. You perhaps think that a certain period of your life you failed. They all agree with me that you did not fail. It is a matter on which you should be bound by our opinion rather than by your own.
‘As to that matter of duty, I shall have less difficulty in carrying you with me. Though this renewed task may be personally disagreeable to you, even though your tastes should lead you to some other life — which I think is not the case — still if your country wants you, you should serve your country. It is a work as to which such a one as you has no option. Of most of those who choose public life — it may be said that were they not there, there would be others as serviceable. But when a man such as you, has shown himself to be necessary, as long as health and age permit, he cannot recede without breach of manifest duty. The work to be done is so important, the numbers to be benefited are so great, that he cannot be justified in even remembering that he has a self.
‘As I have said before, I trust that my own age and your goodness will induce you to pardon this great interference. But whether pardoned or not I shall always be
‘Your most affectionate friend, ‘ST BUNGAY.’
The Duke — our Duke — on reading this letter was by no means pleased by its contents. He could ill bear to be reminded either of his pride or of his diffidence. And yet the accusations which others made against him were as nothing to those which he charged himself. He would do this till at last he was forced to defend himself against himself by asking himself whether he could be other than as God had made him. It is the last and poorest makeshift of a defence to which a man can be brought in his own court! Was it his fault that he was so thin-skinned that all things hurt him? When some coarse man said to him that which ought not to have been said, was it his fault that at every word a penknife had stabbed him? Other men had borne these buffets without shrinking, and had shown themselves thereby to be more useful, much more efficacious; but he could no more imitate them than he could procure for himself the skin of a rhinoceros, or the tusk of an elephant. And this shrinking was what man called pride — was the pride of which his old friend wrote! ‘Have I ever been haughty, unless in my own defence?’ he asked himself, remembering certain passages of humility in his life — and certain passages of haughtiness also.
And the Duke told him also that he was diffident. Of course he was diffident. Was it not one and the same thing? The very pride of which he was accused was no more than a shrinking which comes from the want of trust in oneself. He was a shy man. All his friends and all his enemies knew that; — it was thus that he still discoursed with himself; — a shy, self-conscious, timid, shrinking, thin-skinned man! Of course he was diffident. Then why urge him on to tasks for which he was by nature unfitted?
And yet there was much in his old friend’s letter which moved him. There were certain words which he kept on repeating to himself. ‘He cannot be justified in even remembering that he has a self’. It was a hard thing to say of any man, but yet a true thing of such a man as his correspondent had described. His correspondent had spoken of a man who should know himself to be capable of serving the State. If a man were capable, and was sure within his own bosom of his own capacity, it would be his duty. But what if he were not so satisfied? What if he felt that any labours of his would be vain, and all self-abnegation useless? His friend had told him that on that matter he was bound to take the opinion of others. Perhaps so. But if so, had not that opinion been given to him very plainly when he was told that he was both proud and diffident? That he was called upon to serve his country, by good service, if such were within his power, he did acknowledge freely; but not that he should allow himself to be stuck up as a ninepin only to be knocked down! There are politicians for whom such occupation seems to be proper — and who like it too. A little office, a little power, a little rank, a little pay, a little niche in the ephemeral history of the year will reward many men adequately for being knocked down.
And yet he loved power, and even when thinking of all this allowed his mind from time to time to run away into a dreamland of prosperous political labours. He thought what it would be to be an all-beneficent Prime Minister, with a loyal majority, with a well-conditioned unanimous cabinet, with a grateful people, and an appreciative Sovereign. How well might a man spend himself night and day, even to death, in the midst of such labours as these.
Half an hour after receiving the Duke’s letter he suddenly jumped up and sat himself down at his desk. He felt it to be necessary that he should at once write to his old friend; — and the more necessary that he should do so at once, because he had resolved that he would do so before he had made up his mind on the chief subject of that letter. It did not suit him to say either that he would or that he would not do as his friend had advised him. The reply was made in a very few words. ‘As to myself,’ he said, after expressing his regret that the Duke should find it necessary to retire from public life —‘as to myself, pray understand that whatever I may do I shall never cease to be grateful for your affectionate and high-spirited counsels.’
Then his mind recurred to a more immediate and, for the moment, a heavier trouble. He had as yet given no answer to that letter from Mrs Finn, which the reader will perhaps remember. It might indeed be passed over without an answer; but that was impossible. She had accused him in the very strongest language of injustice, and had made him understand that if he were unjust to her, then would he be most ungrateful. He, looking at the matter with his own lights, had thought that he had been right, but had resolved to submit the question to another person. As judge in the matter he had chosen Lady Cantrip, and Lady Cantrip had given judgement against him.
He had pressed Lady Cantrip for a decided opinion, and she had told him that she, in the same position, would have done just as Mrs Finn had done. He had constituted Lady Cantrip his judge, and had resolved that her judgement should be final. He declared to himself that he did not understand it. If a man’s house be on fire, do you think of certain rules of etiquette before you bid him send for the engines? If a wild beast be loose, do you go through some ceremony before you caution the wanderers abroad? There should not have been a moment! But, nevertheless, it was now necessary that he should conform himself to the opinion of Lady Cantrip, and in doing so he must apologise for the bitter scorn with which he allowed himself to treat his wife’s most loyal and loving friend.
The few words to the Duke had not been difficult, but this letter seemed to be an Herculean task. It was made infinitely more difficult by the fact that Lady Cantrip had not seemed to think that the marriage was impossible. ‘Young people when they have set their minds upon it do so generally prevail at last!’ These had been her words, and they discomforted him greatly. She had thought the marriage to be possible. Had she not almost expressed an opinion that they ought to be allowed to marry? And if so, would it not be his duty to take his girl away from Lady Cantrip? As to the idea that young people, because they have declared themselves to be in love, were to have just what they wanted — with that he did not agree at all. Lady Cantrip had told him that young people generally prevail at last. He knew the story of one young person, whose position in her youth had been very much the same as that of his daughter now, and she had not prevailed. And in her case had not the opposition which had been made to her wishes been most fortunate? That young person had become his wife, his Glencora, his Duchess. Had she been allowed to have her own way when she was a child, what would have been her fate? Ah what! Then he had to think of it all. Might she not have been alive now, and perhaps happier than she had ever been with him? And had he remained always unmarried, devoted simply to politics, would not the troubles of the world have been lighter on him? But what had that to do with it? In these matters it was not the happiness of this or that individual which should be considered. There is a propriety in things; — and only by an adherence to that propriety on the part of individuals can the general welfare be maintained. A King in his country, or the heir or the possible heir to the throne, is debarred from what might possibly be a happy marriage by regard to the good of his subjects. To the Duke’s thinking the maintenance of the aristocracy of the country was second only in importance to the maintenance of the Crown. How should the aristocracy be maintained if its wealth were allowed to fall into the hands of an adventurer!
Such were the opinions with regard to his own order of one who was as truly Liberal in his ideas as any man in England, and who had argued out these ideas to their consequences. As by the spread of education and increase of the general well-being every proletaire was brought nearer to a Duke, so by such action would the Duke be brought nearer to a proletaire. Such drawing-nearer of the classes was the object to which all this man’s political action tended. And yet it was a dreadful thing to him that his own daughter should desire to marry a man so much beneath her own rank and fortunes as Frank Tregear.
He would not allow himself to believe that the young people could ever prevail; but nevertheless, as the idea of the thing had not alarmed Lady Cantrip as it had him, it was necessary that he should make some apology to Mrs Finn. Each moment of procrastination was a prick to his conscience. He now therefore dragged out from the secrecy of some close drawer Mrs Finn’s letter and read it through to himself once again. Yet — it was true that he had condemned her, and that he had punished her. Though he had done nothing to her, said nothing, and written but very little, still he had punished her most severely.
She had written as though the matter was almost one of life and death to her. He could understand that too. His uncle’s conduct to this woman, and his wife’s, had created the intimacy which had existed. Through their efforts she had become almost as one of the family. And now to be dismissed, like a servant who had misbehaved herself! And then her arguments in her own defence were all so good — if only that which Lady Cantrip had laid down as law was to be held as law. He was aware now that she had had no knowledge of the matter till his daughter had told her of her engagement at Matching. Then it was evident also that she had sent this Tregear to him immediately on her return to London. And at the end of the letter she had accused him of what she had been pleased to call his usual tenacity in believing ill of her! He had been obstinate — too obstinate in this respect; but he did not love her the better for having told him of it.
At last he did put his apology into words.
‘MY DEAR MRS FINN, ‘I believe I had better acknowledge to you at once that I have been wrong in my judgement as to your conduct in a certain matter. You tell me that I owe it to you to make this acknowledgement — and I make it. The subject is, as you may imagine, so painful that I will spare myself if possible, any further allusion to it. I believe I did you a wrong, and therefore I ask your pardon.
‘I should perhaps apologise also for delay in my reply. I have had much to think of in this matter, and have many others also on my mind.
‘Believe me to be, Yours faithfully, OMNIUM.’
It was very short, and as being short was infinitely less troublesome at the moment than a fuller epistle; but he was very angry with himself, knowing that it was too short, feeling that it was ungracious. He should have expressed a hope that he might soon see her again — only he had no such wish. There had been times at which he had liked her, but he knew that he did not like her now. And yet he was bound to be her friend! If he could only do some great thing for her, and thus satisfy his feeling of indebtedness towards her! But all the favours had been from her to him and his.
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