The whole Liberal party was taken very much by surprise at the course which the election ran. Or perhaps it might be more proper to say that the parliamentary leaders of the party were surprised. It had not been recognised by them as necessary that the great question of Church and State should be generally discussed on this occasion. It was a matter of course that it should be discussed at some places, and by some men. Eager Dissenters would, of course, take advantage of the opportunity to press their views, and no doubt the entire abolition of the Irish Church as a State establishment had taught Liberals to think and Conservatives to fear that the question would force itself forward at no very distant date. But it had not been expected to do so now. The general incompetence of a Ministry who could not command a majority on any measure was intended to be the strong point of the Liberal party, not only at the election, but at the meeting of Parliament. The Church question, which was necessarily felt by all statesmen to be of such magnitude as to dwarf every other, was not wanted as yet. It might remain in the background as the future standing-point for some great political struggle, in which it would be again necessary that every Liberal should fight, as though for life, with his teeth and nails. Men who ten years since regarded almost with abhorrence, and certainly with distrust, the idea of disruption between Church and State in England, were no doubt learning to perceive that such disruption must come, and were reconciling themselves to it after that slow, silent, in argumentative fashion in which convictions force themselves among us. And from reconciliation to the idea some were advancing to enthusiasm on its behalf. “It is only a question of time,” was now said by many who hardly remembered how devoted they had been to the Established Church of England a dozen years ago. But the fruit was not yet ripe, and the leaders of the Liberal party by no means desired that it should be plucked. They were, therefore, surprised, and but little pleased, when they found that the question was more discussed than any other on the hustings of enthusiastically political boroughs.
Barrington Erle was angry when he received the letter of Phineas Finn. He was at that moment staying with the Duke of St Bungay, who was regarded by many as the only possible leader of the Liberal party, should Mr Gresham for any reason fail them. Indeed the old Whigs, of whom Barrington Erle considered himself to be one, would have much preferred the Duke to Mr Gresham, had it been possible to set Mr Gresham aside. But Mr Gresham was too strong to be set aside; and Erle and the Duke, with all their brethren, were minded to be thoroughly loyal to their leader. He was their leader, and not to be loyal was, in their minds, treachery. But occasionally they feared that the man would carry them whither they did not desire to go. In the meantime heavy things were spoken of our poor friend, Finn.
“After all, that man is an ass,” said Erle.
“If so, I believe you are altogether responsible for him,” said the Duke.
“Well, yes, in a measure; but not altogether. That, however, is a long story. He has many good gifts. He is clever, good-tempered, and one of the pleasantest fellows that ever lived. The women all like him.”
“So the Duchess tells me.”
“But he is not what I call loyal. He cannot keep himself from running after strange gods. What need had he to take up the Church question at Tankerville? The truth is, Duke, the thing is going to pieces. We get men into the House now who are clever, and all that sort of thing, and who force their way up, but who can’t be made to understand that everybody should not want to be Prime Minister.” The Duke, who was now a Nestor among politicians, though very green in his age, smiled as he heard remarks which had been familiar to him for the last forty years. He, too, liked his party, and was fond of loyal men; but he had learned at last that all loyalty must be built on a basis of self-advantage. Patriotism may exist without it, but that which Erle called loyalty in politics was simply devotion to the side which a man conceives to be his side, and which he cannot leave without danger to himself.
But if discontent was felt at the eagerness with which this subject was taken up at certain boroughs, and was adopted by men whose votes and general support would be essentially necessary to the would-be coming Liberal Government, absolute dismay was occasioned by a speech that was made at a certain county election. Mr Daubeny had for many years been member for East Barsetshire, and was as sure of his seat as the Queen of her throne. No one would think of contesting Mr Daubeny’s right to sit for East Barsetshire, and no doubt he might have been returned without showing himself to the electors. But he did show himself to the electors; and, as a matter of course, made a speech on the occasion. It so happened that the day fixed for the election in this division of the county was quite at the close of this period of political excitement. When Mr Daubeny addressed his friends in East Barsetshire the returns throughout the kingdom were nearly complete. No attention had been paid to this fact during the elections, but it was afterwards asserted that the arrangement had been made with a political purpose, and with a purpose which was politically dishonest. Mr Daubeny, so said the angry Liberals, had not chosen to address his constituents till his speech at the hustings could have no effect on other counties. Otherwise — so said the Liberals — the whole Conservative party would have been called upon to disavow at the hustings the conclusion to which Mr Daubeny hinted in East Barsetshire that he had arrived. The East Barsetshire men themselves — so said the Liberals — had been too crass to catch the meaning hidden under his ambiguous words; but those words, when read by the light of astute criticism, were found to contain an opinion that Church and State should be dissevered, “By G—! he’s going to take the bread out of our mouths again,” said Mr Ratler.
The speech was certainly very ambiguous, and I am not sure that the East Barsetshire folk were so crass as they were accused of being, in not understanding it at once. The dreadful hint was wrapped up in many words, and formed but a small part of a very long oration. The bucolic mind of East Barsetshire took warm delight in the eloquence of the eminent personage who represented them, but was wont to extract more actual enjoyment from the music of his periods than from the strength of his arguments. When he would explain to them that he had discovered a new, or rather hitherto unknown, Conservative element in the character of his countrymen, which he could best utilise by changing everything in the Constitution, he manipulated his words with such grace, was so profound, so broad, and so exalted, was so brilliant in mingling a deep philosophy with the ordinary politics of the day, that the bucolic mind could only admire. It was a great honour to the electors of that agricultural county that they should be made the first recipients of these pearls, which were not wasted by being thrown before them. They were picked up by the gentlemen of the Press, and became the pearls, not of East Barsetshire, but of all England. On this occasion it was found that one pearl was very big, very rare, and worthy of great attention; but it was a black pearl, and was regarded by many as an abominable prodigy. “The period of our history is one in which it becomes essential for us to renew those inquiries which have prevailed since man first woke to his destiny, as to the amount of connection which exists and which must exist between spiritual and simply human forms of government — between our daily religion and our daily politics, between the Crown and the Mitre.” The East Barsetshire clergymen and the East Barsetshire farmers like to hear something of the mitre in political speeches at the hustings. The word sounds pleasantly in their ears, as appertaining to good old gracious times and good old gracious things. As honey falls fast from the mouth of the practised speaker, the less practised hearer is apt to catch more of the words than of the sense. The speech of Mr Daubeny was taken all in good part by his assembled friends. But when it was read by the quidnuncs on the following day it was found to contain so deep a meaning that it produced from Mr Ratler’s mouth those words of fear which have been already quoted.
Could it really be the case that the man intended to perform so audacious a trick of legerdemain as this for the preservation of his power, and that if he intended it he should have the power to carry it through? The renewal of inquiry as to the connection which exists between the Crown and the Mitre, when the bran was bolted, could only mean the disestablishment of the Church. Mr Ratler and his friends were not long in bolting the bran. Regarding the matter simply in its own light, without bringing to bear upon it the experience of the last half-century, Mr Ratler would have thought his party strong enough to defy Mr Daubeny utterly in such an attempt. The ordinary politician, looking at Mr Daubeny’s position as leader of the Conservative party, as a statesman depending on the support of the Church, as a Minister appointed to his present place for the express object of defending all that was left of old, and dear, and venerable in the Constitution, would have declared that Mr Daubeny was committing political suicide, as to which future history would record a verdict of probably not temporary insanity. And when the speech was a week old this was said in many a respectable household through the country. Many a squire, many a parson, many a farmer was grieved for Mr Daubeny when the words had been explained to him, who did not for a moment think that the words could be portentous as to the great Conservative party. But Mr Ratler remembered Catholic emancipation, had himself been in the House when the Corn Laws were repealed, and had been nearly broken-hearted when household suffrage had become the law of the land while a Conservative Cabinet and a Conservative Government were in possession of dominion in Israel.
Mr Bonteen was disposed to think that the trick was beyond the conjuring power even of Mr Daubeny. “After all, you know, there is the party,” he said to Mr Ratler. Mr Ratler’s face was as good as a play, and if seen by that party would have struck that party with dismay and shame. The meaning of Mr Ratler’s face was plain enough. He thought so little of that party, on the score either of intelligence, honesty, or fidelity, as to imagine that it would consent to be led whithersoever Mr Daubeny might choose to lead it, “If they care about anything, it’s about the Church,” said Mr Bonteen.
“There’s something they like a great deal better than the Church,” said Mr Ratler. “Indeed, there’s only one thing they care about at all now. They’ve given up all the old things. It’s very likely that if Daubeny were to ask them to vote for pulling down the Throne and establishing a Republic they’d all follow him into the lobby like sheep. They’ve been so knocked about by one treachery after another that they don’t care now for anything beyond their places.”
“It’s only a few of them get anything, after all.”
“Yes, they do. It isn’t just so much a year they want, though those who have that won’t like to part with it. But they like getting the counties, and the Garters, and the promotion in the army. They like their brothers to be made bishops, and their sisters like the Wardrobe and the Bedchamber. There isn’t one of them that doesn’t hang on somewhere — or at least not many. Do you remember Peel’s bill for the Corn Laws?”
“There were fifty went against him then,” said Bonteen.
“And what are fifty? A man doesn’t like to be one of fifty. It’s too many for glory, and not enough for strength. There has come up among them a general feeling that it’s just as well to let things slide — as the Yankees say. They’re down-hearted about it enough within their own houses, no doubt. But what can they do, if they hold back? Some stout old cavalier here and there may shut himself up in his own castle, and tell himself that the world around him may go to wrack and ruin, but that he will not help the evil work. Some are shutting themselves up. Look at old Quin, when they carried their Reform Bill. But men, as a rule, don’t like to be shut up. How they reconcile it to their conscience — that’s what I can’t understand.” Such was the wisdom, and such were the fears of Mr Ratler. Mr Bonteen, however, could not bring himself to believe that the Arch-enemy would on this occasion be successful. “It mayn’t be too hot for him”, said Mr Bonteen, when he reviewed the whole matter, “but I think it’ll be too heavy.”
They who had mounted higher than Mr Ratler and Mr Bonteen on the political ladder, but who had mounted on the same side, were no less astonished than their inferiors; and, perhaps, were equally disgusted, though they did not allow themselves to express their disgust as plainly. Mr Gresham was staying in the country with his friend, Lord Cantrip, when the tidings reached them of Mr Daubeny’s speech to the electors of East Barsetshire. Mr Gresham and Lord Cantrip had long sat in the same Cabinet, and were fast friends, understanding each other’s views, and thoroughly trusting each other’s loyalty. “He means it,” said Lord Cantrip.
“He means to see if it be possible,” said the other. “It is thrown out as a feeler to his own party.”
“I’ll do him the justice of saying that he’s not afraid of his party. If he means it, he means it altogether, and will not retract it, even though the party should refuse as a body to support him. I give him no other credit, but I give him that.”
Mr Gresham paused for a few moments before he answered. “I do not know”, said he, “whether we are justified in thinking that one man will always be the same. Daubeny has once been very audacious, and he succeeded. But he had two things to help him — a leader, who, though thoroughly trusted, was very idle, and an ill-defined question. When he had won his leader he had won his party. He has no such tower of strength now. And in the doing of this thing, if he means to do it, he must encounter the assured conviction of everyman on his own side, both in the upper and lower House. When he told them that he would tap a Conservative element by reducing the suffrage they did not know whether to believe him or not. There might be something in it. It might be that they would thus resume a class of suffrage existing in former days, but which had fallen into abeyance, because not properly protected. They could teach themselves to believe that it might be so, and those among them who found it necessary to free their souls did so teach themselves. I don’t see how they are to free their souls when they are invited to put down the State establishment of the Church.”
“He’ll find a way for them.”
“It’s possible. I’m the last man in the world to contest the possibility, or even the expediency, of changes in political opinion. But I do not know whether it follows that because he was brave and successful once he must necessarily be brave and successful again. A man rides at some outrageous fence, and by the wonderful activity and obedient zeal of his horse is carried over it in safety. It does not follow that his horse will carry him over a house, or that he should be fool enough to ask the beast to do so.”
“He intends to ride at the house,” said Lord Cantrip; “and he means it because others have talked of it. You saw the line which my rash young friend Finn took at Tankerville.”
“And all for nothing.”
“I am not so sure of that. They say he is like the rest. If Daubeny does carry the party with him, I suppose the days of the Church are numbered.”
“And what if they be?” Mr Gresham almost sighed as he said this, although he intended to express a certain amount of satisfaction. “What if they be? You know, and I know, that the thing has to be done. Whatever may be our own individual feelings, or even our present judgment on the subject — as to which neither of us can perhaps say that his mind is not so made up that it may not soon be altered — we know that the present union cannot remain. It is unfitted for that condition of humanity to which we are coming, and if so, the change must be for good. Why should not he do it as well as another? Or rather would not he do it better than another, if he can do it with less of animosity than we should rouse against us? If the blow would come softer from his hands than from ours, with less of a feeling of injury to those who dearly love the Church, should we not be glad that he should undertake the task?”
“Then you will not oppose him?”
“Ah — there is much to be considered before we can say that. Though he may not be bound by his friends, we may be bound by ours. And then, though I can hint to you at a certain condition of mind, and can sympathise with you, feeling that such may become the condition of your mind, I cannot say that I should act upon it as an established conviction, or that I can expect that you will do so. If such be the political programme submitted to us when the House meets, then we must be prepared.”
Lord Cantrip also paused a moment before he answered, but he had his answer ready. “I can frankly say that I should follow your leading, but that I should give my voice for opposition.”
“Your voice is always persuasive,” said Mr Gresham.
But the consternation felt among Mr Daubeny’s friends was infinitely greater than that which fell among his enemies, when those wonderful words were read, discussed, criticised, and explained. It seemed to every clergyman in England that nothing short of disestablishment could be intended by them. And this was the man to whom they had all looked for protection! This was the bulwark of the Church, to whom they had trusted! This was the hero who had been so sound and so firm respecting the Irish Establishment, when evil counsels had been allowed to prevail in regard to that ill-used but still sacred vineyard! All friends of the Church had then whispered among themselves fearfully, and had, with sad looks and grievous forebodings, acknowledged that the thin edge of the wedge had been driven into the very rock of the Establishment. The enemies of the Church were known to be powerful, numerous, and of course unscrupulous. But surely this Brutus would not raise a dagger against this Caesar! And yet, if not, what was the meaning of those words? And then men and women began to tell each other — the men and women who are the very salt of the earth in this England of ours — that their Brutus, in spite of his great qualities, had ever been mysterious, unintelligible, dangerous, and given to feats of conjuring. They had only been too submissive to their Brutus. Wonderful feats of conjuring they had endured, understanding nothing of the manner in which they were performed — nothing of their probable results; but this feat of conjuring they would not endure. And so there were many meetings held about the country, though the time for combined action was very short.
Nothing more audacious than the speaking of those few words to the bucolic electors of East Barsetshire had ever been done in the political history of England. Cromwell was bold when he closed the Long Parliament. Shaftesbury was bold when he formed the plot for which Lord Russell and others suffered. Walpole was bold when, in his lust for power, he discarded one political friend after another. And Peel was bold when he resolved to repeal the Corn Laws. But in none of these instances was the audacity displayed more wonderful than when Mr Daubeny took upon himself to make known throughout the country his intention of abolishing the Church of England. For to such a declaration did those few words amount. He was now the recognised parliamentary leader of that party to which the Church of England was essentially dear. He had achieved his place by skill, rather than principle — by the conviction on men’s minds that he was necessary rather than that he was fit. But still, there he was; and, though he had alarmed many — had, probably, alarmed all those who followed him by his eccentric and dangerous mode of carrying on the battle; though no Conservative regarded him as safe; yet on this question of the Church it had been believed that he was sound. What might be the special ideas of his own mind regarding ecclesiastical policy in general, it had not been thought necessary to consider. His utterances had been confusing, mysterious, and perhaps purposely unintelligible; but that was matter of little moment so long as he was prepared to defend the establishment of the Church of England as an institution adapted for English purposes. On that point it was believed that he was sound. To that mast it was supposed he had nailed his own colours and those of his party. In defending that fortress it was thought that he would be ready to fall, should the defence of it require a fall. It was because he was so far safe that he was there, And yet he spoke these words without consulting a single friend, or suggesting the propriety of his new scheme to a single supporter. And he knew what he was doing. This was the way in which he had thought it best to make known to his own followers, not only that he was about to abandon the old Institution, but that they must do so too!
As regarded East Barsetshire itself he was returned, and fêted, and sent home with his ears stuffed with eulogy, before the bucolic mind had discovered his purpose. On so much he had probably calculated. But he had calculated also that after an interval of three or four days his secret would be known to all friends and enemies. On the day after his speech came the report of it in the newspapers; on the next day the leading articles, in which the world was told what it was that the Prime Minister had really said. Then, on the following day, the startled parsons, and the startled squires and farmers, and, above all, the startled peers and members of the Lower House, whose duty it was to vote as he should lead them, were all agog. Could it be that the newspapers were right in this meaning which they had attached to these words? On the day week after the election in East Barsetshire, a Cabinet Council was called in London, at which it would, of course, be Mr Daubeny’s duty to explain to his colleagues what it was that he did purpose to do.
In the meantime he saw a colleague or two.
“Let us look it straight in the face,” he said to a noble colleague; “we must look it in the face before long.”
“But we need not hurry it forward.”
“There is a storm coming. We knew that before, and we heard the sound of it from every husting in the country. How shall we rule the storm so that it may pass over the land without devastating it? If we bring in a bill — ”
“A bill for disestablishing the Church!” said the horror-stricken lord.
“If we bring in a bill, the purport of which shall be to moderate the ascendancy of the Church in accordance with the existing religious feelings of the population, we shall save much that otherwise must fall. If there must be a bill, would you rather that it should be modelled by us who love the Church, or by those who hate it?”
That lord was very wrath, and told the right honourable gentleman to his face that his duty to his party should have constrained him to silence on that subject till he had consulted his colleagues. In answer to this Mr Daubeny said with much dignity that, should such be the opinion of his colleagues in general, he would at once abandon the high place which he held in their councils. But he trusted that it might be otherwise. He had felt himself bound to communicate his ideas to his constituents, and had known that in doing so some minds must be shocked. He trusted that he might be able to allay this feeling of dismay. As regarded this noble lord, he did succeed in lessening the dismay before the meeting was over, though he did not altogether allay it.
Another gentleman who was in the habit of sitting at Mr Daubeny’s elbow daily in the House of Commons was much gentler with him, both as to words and manner. “It’s a bold throw, but I’m afraid it won’t come up sixes,” said the right honourable gentleman.
“Let it come up fives, then. It’s the only chance we have; and if you think, as I do, that it is essentially necessary for the welfare of the country that we should remain where we are, we must run the risk.”
With another colleague, whose mind was really set on that which the Church is presumed to represent, he used another argument. “I am convinced at any rate of this,” said Mr Daubeny; “that by sacrificing something of that ascendancy which the Establishment is supposed to give us, we can bring the Church, which we love, nearer to the wants of the people.” And so it came about that before the Cabinet met, every member of it knew what it was that was expected of him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01