At about nine the Duke returned, and was eating his very simple dinner in the breakfast-room — a beefsteak and a potato, with a glass of sherry and Apollinaris water. No man more easily satisfied as to what he eat and drank lived in London in those days. As regarded the eating and drinking he dined alone, but his wife sat with him and waited on him, having sent the servant out of the room. ‘I have told her Majesty I would do the best I could,’ said the Duke.
‘Then you are Prime Minister.’
‘Not at all. Mr Daubney is Prime Minister. I have undertaken to form a ministry, if I find it practicable, with the assistance of such friends as I possess, I never felt before that I had to lean so entirely on others as I do now.’
‘Lean on yourself only. Be enough for yourself.’
‘Those are empty words, Cora; — words that are quite empty. In one sense a man should always be enough for himself. He should have enough of principle and enough of conscience to restrain him from doing what he knows to be wrong. But can a shipbuilder build his ship single-handed, or the watchmaker make his watch without assistance? On former occasions such as this, I could say, with little or no help from without, whether I would or would not undertake the work that was proposed to me, because I had only a bit of the ship to build, or a wheel of the watch to make. My own efficacy for my present task would depend entirely on the co-operation of others, and unfortunately upon that of some others with whom I have no sympathy, nor they with me.’
‘Leave them out,’ said the Duchess boldly.
‘But they are men who will not be left out, and whose services the country has a right to expect.’
‘Then bring them in, and think no more about it. It is no good crying for pain that cannot be cured.’
‘Co-operation is difficult without community of feeling. I find myself to be too stubborn-hearted for the place. It was nothing to me to sit in the same Cabinet with a man I disliked when I had not put him there myself. But now —. As I have travelled up I have almost felt that I could not do it! I did not know before how much I might dislike a man.’
‘Who is the one man?’
‘Nay; — whoever he be, I will have to be a friend now, and therefore I will not name him, even to you. But it is not one only. If it were one, absolutely marked and recognised, I might avoid him. But my friends, real friends, are so few! Who is there besides the Duke on whom I can lean with both confidence and love?’
‘Hardly so, Cora. But Lord Cantrip goes out with Mr Gresham. They will always cling together.’
‘You used to like Mr Mildmay.’
‘Mr Mildmay — yes! If there could be a Mr Mildmay in the Cabinet this trouble would not come upon my shoulders.’
‘Then I’m very glad that there can’t be Mr Mildmay. Why shouldn’t there be as good fish in the sea as ever were caught out of it?’
‘When you’ve got a good fish you like to make as much of it as you can.’
‘I suppose Mr Monk will join you.’
‘I think we shall ask him. But I am not prepared to discuss men’s names as yet.’
‘You must discuss them with the Duke immediately.’
‘Probably; — but I had better discuss them with him before I fix my own mind by naming them even to you.’
‘You’ll bring in Mr Finn, Plantagenet?’
‘Yes — Phineas Finn — the man who was tried.’
‘My dear Cora, we haven’t come down to that yet. We need not at any rate trouble ourselves about the small fishes till we are sure that we can get the big fishes to join us.’
‘I don’t know why he should be a small fish. No man has done better than he has; and if you want a man to stick to you —’
‘I don’t want a man to stick to me. I want a man to stick to his country.’
‘You were talking about sympathy.’
‘Well, yes; — I was. But do not name anyone else just at present. The Duke will be here soon, and I would be alone till he comes.’
‘There is one thing more I want to say, Plantagenet.’
‘What is it?’
‘One favour I want to ask.’
‘Pray do not ask anything for any man at present.’
‘It is not anything for any man.’
‘Nor for any woman.’
‘It is for a woman — but one whom I think you would wish to oblige.’
‘Who is it?’ Then she curtsied, smiling at him drolly, and put her hand upon her breast. ‘Something for you! What on earth can you want that I can do for you?’
‘Will you do it — if it be reasonable?’
‘If I think it reasonable, I certainly will do it.’
Then her manner changed altogether, and she became serious and almost solemn. ‘If, as I suppose, all the great places about her Majesty be changed, I should like to be Mistress of the Robes.’
‘You!’ said he, almost startled out of his usual quiet demeanour.
‘Why not? Is not my rank high enough?’
‘You burden yourself with the intricacies and subserviences, with the tedium and pomposities of the Court life! Cora, you do not know what you are talking about, or what you are proposing for yourself.’
‘If I am willing to try to undertake a duty, why should I be debarred from it any more than you?’
‘Because I have put myself into a groove, and ground myself into a mould, and clipped and pared and pinched myself all round — very ineffectually, as I fear — to fit myself for this thing. You have lived as free as air. You have disdained — and though I may have grumbled I have still been proud to see you disdain — to wrap yourself in the swaddling bandages of Court life. You have ridiculed all those who have been near her Majesty as Court ladies.’
‘The individuals, Plantagenet, perhaps, but not the office. I am getting older now, and I do not see why I should not begin a new life.’ She had been somewhat quelled by the unexpected energy, and was at the moment hardly able to answer him with her usual spirit.
‘Do not think of it, my dear. You asked whether your rank was high enough. It must be so, as there is, as it happens, none higher. But your position, should it come to pass that your husband is the head of Government, will be too high. I may say that in no condition should I wish to my wife to be subject to other restraint than that which is common to all married women. I should not choose that she should have any duties unconnected with our joint family and home. But as First Minister of the Crown I would altogether object to her holding an office believed to be at my disposal.’ She looked at him with her large eyes wide open, and then left him without a word. She had no other way of showing her displeasure, for she knew that when he spoke as he had spoken now all argument was unavailing.
The Duke remained an hour alone before he was joined by the other Duke, during which he did not for a moment apply his mind to the subject which might be thought to be most prominent in his thoughts — the filling up, namely, of a list of his new government. All that he could do in that direction without further assistance had been already done very easily. There were four or five certain names — names that is of certain political friends, and three or four almost equally certain of men who had been political enemies, but who would not clearly be asked to join the ministry. Sir Gregory Grogram, the late Attorney-General, would of course be asked to resume his place, but Sir Timothy Beeswax, who was up to this moment Solicitor-General for the Conservatives, would also be invited to retain that which he held. Many details were known, not only to the two dukes who were about to patch up the ministry between them, but to the political world at large — and where facts upon which the newspapers were able to display their wonderful foresight and general omniscience, with their usual confidence. And as to the points which were in doubt — whether or not, for instance, that consistent old Tory, Sir Orlando Drought, should be asked to put up with the Post-office or should be allowed to remain at the Colonies — the younger Duke did not care to trouble himself till the elder should have come to his assistance. But his own position and his questionable capacity for filling it — that occupied all his mind. If nominally first he would be really first. Of so much it seemed to him that his honour required him to assure himself. To be a faneant ruler was in direct antagonism both to his conscience and to his predilections. To call himself by a great name before the world, and then to be something infinitely less than that name, would be to him a degradation. But though he felt fixed as to that, he was by no means assured as to that other point, which to most men firm in their resolves as he was, and backed up as he had been by the confidence of others, would be cause of small hesitation. He did doubt his ability to fill that place which it would now be his duty to occupy. He more than doubted. He told himself again and again that there was wanting to him a certain noble capacity for commanding support and homage from other men. With things and facts he could deal, but human beings had not opened themselves to him. But now it was too late! And yet — as he said to his wife — to fail would break his heart! No ambition had prompted him. He was sure of himself there. One only consideration had forced him into this great danger, and that had been the assurance of others that it was his manifest duty to encounter it. And how there was clearly no escape — no escape compatible with that clean-handed truth from which it was not possible for him to swerve. He might create difficulties in order that through them a way might still be opened to him of restoring to the Queen the commission which had been entrusted to him. He might insist on this or that impossible concession. But the memory of escape such as that would break his heart as surely as the failure.
When the Duke was announced, he rose to greet his old friend almost with fervour. ‘It is a shame,’ he said, ‘to bring you out so late. I ought to have gone to you.’
‘Not at all. It is always the rule in these cases that the man who has most to do should fix himself as well as he can where others may be able to find him.’ The Duke of St Bungay was an old man between seventy and eighty, with hair nearly white, and who on entering the room had to unfold himself out of various coats and comforters. But he was in full possession not only of his intellects but of his bodily power, showing, as many politicians do show, that the cares of the nation may sit upon a man’s shoulders for many years without breaking or even bending them. For the Duke had belonged to ministries nearly for the last half century. As the chronicles have also dealt with him, no further records of his past like shall now be given.
He had said something about the Queen, expressing gracious wishes for the comfort of her Majesty in all these matters, something of the inconvenience of these political journeys to and fro, something also of the delicacy and difficulty of the operations on hand which were enhanced by the necessity of bringing together as cordial allies who had hitherto acted with bitter animosity one to another, before the younger Duke said a word. ‘We may as well,’ said the elder, ‘make out some small provisional list, and you can ask those you name to be with you early tomorrow. But perhaps you have already made a list.’
‘No indeed. I have not even had a pencil in my hand.’
‘We may as well begin then,’ said the elder facing the table when he saw that his less-experienced companion made no attempt at beginning.
‘There is something horrible to me in the idea of writing down men’s names for such a work as this, just as boys at school used to draw out the elevens for a cricket match.’ The old stager turned round and stared at the younger politician. ‘The thing itself is so momentous that one ought to have aid from heaven.’
Plantagenet Palliser was the last man from whom the Duke of St Bungay would have expected romance at any time, and, least of all, at such a time as this. ‘Aid from heaven you may have,’ he said, ‘by saying your prayers; and I don’t doubt you ask for this and all other things generally. But an angel won’t come to tell you who ought to be Chancellor of the Exchequer.’
‘No angel will, and therefore I wish I could wash my hands of it.’ His old friend stared at him. ‘It is like sacrilege to me, attempting this without feeling one’s own fitness for the work. It unmans me — this necessity of doing that which I know I cannot do with fitting judgement.’
‘You mind has been a little too hard at work today.’
‘It hasn’t been at work at all. I’ve had nothing to do, and have been unable really to think of work. But I feel that chance circumstances have put me into a position for which I am unfit, and which yet I have been unable to avoid. How much better would it be that you should do this alone — you yourself.’
‘Utterly out of the question. I do know and think that I always have known my own powers. Neither has my aptitude in debate nor my capacity for work justified me in looking to the premiership. But that, forgive me, is now not worthy of consideration. It is because you do work and can work, and because you have fitted yourself for that continued course of lucid explanation which we now call debate, that men on both sides have called upon you as the best man to come forward in this difficulty. Excuse me, my friend, again, if I say that I expect to find your manliness equal to your capacity.’
‘If I could only escape from it!’
‘Psha; — nonsense!’ said the Duke, getting up. ‘There is such a thing as conscience with so fine an edge that it will allow a man to do nothing. You’ve got to serve your country. On such assistance as I can give you you know that you may depend with absolute assurance. Now let us get to work. I suppose you would wish that I should take the chair at the Council.’
‘Certainly; — of course,’ said the Duke of Omnium, turning to the table. The once practical suggestion had fixed him, and from that moment he gave himself to the work in hand with all his energies. It was not very difficult, nor did it take them a very long time. If the future Prime Minister had not his names at his fingers’ ends, the future President of the Council had them. Eight men were soon named whom it was thought well that the Duke of Omnium should consult early in the morning as to their willingness to fill certain places.
‘Each one of them may have some other one or some two whom he may insist on bringing with him,’ said the elder Duke; ‘and though of course you cannot yield to the pressure in every such case, it will be wise to allow yourself scope for some amount of concession. You’ll find they’ll shake down after the usual amount of resistance and compliance. No; — don’t leave your house tomorrow to see anybody unless it be Mr Daubney or Her Majesty. I’ll come to you at two, and if her Grace will give me luncheon, I’ll lunch with her. Good night, and don’t think too much of the bigness of the thing. I remember dear old Lord Brock telling me how much more difficult it was to find a good coachman than a good Secretary of State.’
The Duke of Omnium, as he sat thinking of things for the next hour in his chair, succeeded in proving to himself that Lord Brock never ought to have been Prime Minister of England after having ventured to make so poor a joke on so solemn a subject.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01