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CHAPTER 50 MR SLIDE'S REVENGE.
'Do you mean to say, my lady, that the Duke paid his electioneering bill down at Silverbridge?'
'I do mean to say so, Mr Slide,' Lady Eustace nodded her head, and Mr Quintus Slide opened his mouth.
'Goodness gracious!' said Mrs Leslie, who was sitting with them. They were in Lady Eustace's drawing-room, and the patriotic editor of the "People's Banner" was obtaining from a new ally information which might be useful to the country.
'But 'ow do you know, Lady Eustace? You'll pardon the persistency of my inquiries, but when you come to public information accuracy is everything. I never trust myself to mere report, I always travel up to the very fountain 'ead of truth.'
'I know it,' said Lizzy Eustace oracularly.
'Um - m! The Editor as he ejaculated the sound looked at her ladyship with admiring eyes, - with eyes that were intended to flatter. But Lizzie had been looked at so often in so many ways, and was so well accustomed to admiration, that this had no effect on her at all. 'He didn't tell you himself, did 'e now?'
'Can you tell me the truth as to trusting him with my money?'
'Yes, I can.'
'Shall I be safe if I take the papers which he calls bills of sale?'
'One good turn deserves another, my lady.'
'I don't want to make a secret of it, Mr Slide. Pountney found it out. You know the Major?'
'Yes, I know Major Pountney. He was at Gatherum 'imself, and got a little bit of a cold shoulder, - didn't he?'
'I dare say he did. What has that to do with it? You may be sure that Lopez applied to the Duke for his expenses at Silverbridge, and that the Duke sent him the money.'
'There's no doubt about it, Mr Slide,' said Mrs Leslie. 'We got it all from Major Pountney. There was some bet between him and Pountney, and he had to show Pountney the cheque.'
'Pountney saw the money,' said Lady Eustace.
Mr Slide stroked his had over his mouth and chin as he sat thinking of the tremendous national importance of this communication. The man who had paid the money was the Prime Minister of England, - and was, moreover, Mr Slide's enemy! 'When the right 'and of fellowship had been rejected, I never forgive!' Mr Slide has been heard to say. Even Lady Eustace, who was not particular as to the appearance of people, remarked afterwards to her friend that Mr Slide looked like the devil as he was stroking his face. 'It's very remarkable,' said Mr Slide; 'very remarkable.'
'You won't tell the Major that we told you,' said her Ladyship.
'Oh dear not. I only wanted to 'ear how it was. And as to embarking your money, my lady, with Ferdinand Lopez, - I wouldn't do it.'
'Not if I get the bills of sale? It's for rum, and they say rum will go up to any price.'
'Don't Lady Eustace. I can't say any more, - but don't. I never mention names. But don't.'
Then Mr Slide went out in search of Major Pountney, and having found the major at his club extracted from him all that he knew about the Silverbridge payment. Pountney had really seen the Duke's cheque for 500 pounds. 'There was some bet, - eh, Major?' asked Mr Slide.
'No, there wasn't. I know who had been telling you. That's Lizzie Eustace, and just like her mischief. They way of it was this, - Lopez, who was very angry, had boasted that he would bring the Duke down on his marrow-bones. I was laughing at him as we sat at dinner on day afterwards, and he took out the cheque and showed it me. There was the Duke's own signature for 500 pounds, - "Omnium", as plain as letters could make it.' Armed with this full information, Mr Slide felt that he had done all that the punctilious devotion to accuracy could demand of him, and immediately shut himself up in his cage at the "People's Banner" office and went to work.
This occurred about the first week of January. The Duke was then at Matching with his wife and a very small party. The singular arrangement which had been effected by the Duchess in the early autumn had passed off without any wonderful effects. It had been done by her in pique, and the result had been apparently so absurd that it had at first frightened her. But in the end it answered very well. The Duke took great pleasure in Lady Rosina's company, and enjoyed the apparent solitude which enabled him to work all day without interruption. His wife protested that it was just what she liked, though it must be feared that she soon became weary of it. To Lady Rosina it was of course Paradise on earth. In September, Phineas Finn and his wife came to them, and in October there were other relaxations and other business. The Prime Minister and his wife visited their Sovereign, and he made some very useful speeches through the country on his old favourite subject of decimal coinage. At Christmas, for a fortnight, they went to Gatherum Castle and entertained the neighbourhood, - the nobility and squirearchy dining there on one day, and the tenants and other farmers on another. All this went very smoothly, and the Duke did not become outrageously unhappy because the "People's Banner" made sundry severe remarks on the absence of Cabinet Councils through the autumn.
After Christmas they returned to Matching, and had some of their old friends with them. There was the Duke of St Bungay and the Duchess, and Phineas Finn and his wife, and Lord and Lady Cantrip, Barrington Erle, and one or two others. But at this period there came a great trouble. One morning as the Duke sat in his own room after breakfast he read an article in the "People's Banner", of which the following sentences are a part. "We wish to know by whom were paid the expenses incurred by Mr Ferdinand Lopez during the late contest at Silverbridge. It may be that they were paid by that gentleman himself, - in which case we shall have nothing further to say, not caring at the present moment to inquire whether those expenses were or were not excessive. It may be that they were paid by subscription among his political friends, - and if so, again we shall be satisfied. Or it is possible that funds were supplied by a new political club of which we have lately heard much, and with the action of such body we of course have nothing to do. If an assurance can be given to us by Mr Lopez or his friends that such was the case we shall be satisfied.
"But a report has reached us, and we may say more than a report, which makes it our duty to ask this question. Were those expenses paid out of the private pocket of the present Prime Minister? If so, we maintain that we have discovered a blot in that nobleman's character which it is our duty to the public to expose. We will go farther and say that if it be so, - if these expenses were paid out of the private pocket of the Duke of Omnium, it is not fit that that nobleman should any longer hold the high office which he now fills.
"We know that a peer should not interfere in elections for the House of Commons. We certainly know that a Minister of the Crown should not attempt to purchase parliamentary support. We happen to know also the almost more than public manner, - are we not justified in saying the ostentation? - with which at the last election the Duke repudiated all that influence with the borough which his predecessors, and we believe he himself, had so long exercised. He came forward telling us that he, at least, meant to have clean hands, - that he would not do as his forefathers had done, - that he would not even do as he himself had done in former years. What are we to think of the Duke of Omnium as a Minister of this country, if, after such assurances, he has out of is own pocket paid the electioneering expenses of a candidate at Silverbridge?" There was much more in the article, but the passages quoted will suffice to give the reader a sufficient idea of the accusation made, and which the Duke read in the retirement of his own chamber.
He read it twice before he allowed himself to think of the matter. The statement made was at any rate true to the letter. He had paid the man's electioneering expenses. That he had done so from the purest motives he knew and the reader knows, - but he could even explain those motives without exposing his wife. Since the cheque was sent he had never spoken of the occurrence to any human being, - but he had thought of it very often. At the time his private Secretary, with much hesitation, almost with trepidation, had counselled him not to send the money. The Duke was a man with whom it was very easy to work, whose courtesy to all dependent on him was almost exaggerated, who never found fault, and was anxious as far as possible to do everything for himself. The comfort of those around him was always a matter of interest to him. Everything he held, he held as it were in trust for the enjoyment of others. But he was a man whom it was difficult to advise. He did not like advice. He was so thinskinned that any counsel offered him took the form of criticism. When cautioned what shoes he should wear, - as had been done by Lady Rosina, or what wine or what horses he should buy, as was done by his butler and coachman, he was thankful, taking no pride to himself for knowledge as to shoes, wine, or horses. But as to his own conduct, private or public, as to any question of politics, as to his opinions and resolutions, he was jealous of interference. Mr Warburton therefore had almost trembled when asking the Duke whether he was quite sure about sending the money to Lopez. 'Quite sure,' the Duke had answered, having at that time made up his mind. Mr Warburton had not dared to express a further doubt, and the money had been sent. But from the moment of sending it doubts had repeated themselves in the Prime Minister's mind.
Now he sat with the newspaper in his hand thinking of it. Of course it was open to him to take no notice of the matter, - to go on as though he had never seen the article, and to let the thing die if it would die. But he knew Mr Quintus Slide and his paper well enough to be sure that it would not die. The charge would be repeated in the "People's Banner" till it was copied into other papers, and then the further question would be asked, - why had the Prime Minister allowed such an accusation to remain unanswered? But if he did notice it, what notice should he take of it? It was true. And surely he disobeyed no law. He had bribed no one. He had spent his money with no corrupt purpose. His sense of honour had taught him to think the man had received injury through his wife's imprudence, and that he therefore was responsible as far as the pecuniary loss was concerned. He was not ashamed that it should be discussed in public.
Why had he allowed himself to be put into a position in which he was subject to such grievous annoyance? Since he had held his office he had not had a happy day, nor, - or so he told himself,-had he received from it any slightest gratification, nor could he buoy himself up with the idea that he was doing good service for his country. After a while he walked into the next room and showed the paper to Mr Warburton. 'Perhaps you were right,' he said, 'when you told me not to send the money.'
'It will matter nothing,' said the private Secretary when he had read it, - thinking, however, that it might matter much, but wishing to spare the Duke.
'I was obliged to repay the man as the Duchess had, - had encouraged him. The Duchess had not quite, - quite understood my wishes.' Mr Warburton knew the whole history, having discussed it all with the Duchess more than once.
'I think your Grace should take no notice of the article.'
No notice was taken of it, but three days afterwards there appeared a short paragraph in large type, - beginning with a question. "Does the Duke of Omnium intend to answer the question asked by us last Friday? Is it true that paid the expenses of Mr Lopez when that gentleman stood for Silverbridge? The Duke may be assured that the question will be repeated till it is answered." This the Duke also saw and took to his private Secretary.
'I would do nothing at any rate till it be noticed in some other paper,' said the private Secretary. 'The "People's Banner" is known to be scandalous.'
'Of course, it is scandalous. And, moreover, I know the motives and the malice of the wretched man who is the editor. But the paper is read, and the foul charge if repeated will become known, and the allegation made is true. I did pay the man's election expenses, - and moreover to tell the truth openly as I do not scruple to do to you, I am not prepared to state publicly the reason why I did so. And nothing but that reason could justify me.'
'Then I think your Grace should state it.'
'I cannot do so.'
'The Duke of St Bungay is here. Would it not be well to tell the whole affair to him?'
'I will think of it. I do not know why I should have troubled you.'
'Oh, my lord!'
'Except that there is always some comfort in speaking even of one's trouble. I will think about it. In the meantime you need perhaps not mention it again.'
'Who? I? Oh, certainly not.'
'I did not mean to others, - but to myself. I will turn it in my mind and speak of it when I have decided anything.' And he did think about it, thinking of it so much that he could hardly get the matter out of mind day or night. To his wife he did not allude to it at all. Why trouble her with it? She had caused the evil, and he had cautioned her as to the future. She could not help him out of the difficulty she had created. He continued to turn the matter over in his thoughts till he so magnified it, and built it up into such proportions, that he again began to think that he must resign. It was, he thought, true that a man should not remain in office as Prime Minister who in such a matter could not clear his own conduct.
Then there was a third attack in the "People's Banner", and after that the matter was noticed in the "Evening Pulpit". This notice the Duke of St Bungay saw and mentioned it to Mr Warburton. 'Has the Duke spoken to you of some allegations made in the press as to the expenses of the late election at Silverbridge?' The old Duke was at this time, and had been for some months, in a state of nervous anxiety about his friend. He had almost admitted to himself that he had been wrong in recommending a politician so weakly organized to take the office of Prime Minister. He had expected the man to be more manly, - had perhaps expected him to be less conscientiously scrupulous. But now, as the thing had been done, it must be maintained. Who else was there to take the office? Mr Gresham would not. To keep Mr Daubney out was the very essence of the Duke of St Bungay's life, - the turning-point of his political creed, the one grand duty the idea of which was always present to him. And he had, moreover, a most true and affectionate regard for the man whom he now supported, appreciating the sweetness of his character, - believing still in the Minister's patriotism, intelligence, devotion, and honesty; though he was forced to own to himself that the strength of a man's heart was wanting.
'Yes,' said Warburton, 'he did mention it.'
'Does it trouble him?'
'Perhaps you had better speak to him about it.' Both the old Duke and the private Secretary were as fearful and nervous about the Prime Minister as a mother is for a weakly child. They could hardly tell their opinions to each other, but they understood one another, and between them they coddled the Prime Minister. They were specially nervous as to what might be done by the Prime Minister's wife, nervous as to what was done by everyone who came in contact with him. It had been once suggested by the private Secretary that Lady Rosina should be sent for, as she had a soothing effect upon the Prime Minister's spirit.
'Has it irritated him?' asked the Duke.
'Well; - yes, it has, - a little, you know. I think your Grace had better speak to him; - and not perhaps mention my name.' The Duke of St Bungay nodded his head, and said he would speak to the great man and would not mention anyone's name.
And he did speak. 'Has anyone said anything to you about it?' asked the Prime Minister.
'I saw it in the "Evening Pulpit" myself. I have not heard it mentioned anywhere.'
'I did pay the man's expenses.'
'Yes, - when the election was over, and, as far as I can remember, some time after it was over. He wrote to me saying that he had incurred such and such expenses, and asking me to repay him. I sent him a cheque for the amount.
'I was bound in honour to do it.'
There was a short pause before this second question was answered. 'The man had been induced to stand by representations made to him from my house. He had been, I fear, promised certain support which certainly was not given him when the time came.'
'You had not promised it?'
'No; - not I.'
'Was it the Duchess?'
'Upon the whole, my friend, I think I would rather not discuss it further, even with you. It is right that you should know that I did pay the money, - and also why I paid it. It may also be necessary that we should consider whether there may be any further probable result from my doing so. But the money has been paid, by me myself, - and was paid for the reason I have stated.'
'A question might be asked in the House.'
'If so, it must be answered as I have answered you. I certainly shall not shirk any responsibility that may be attached to me.'
'You would not like Warburton to write a line to the newspaper?'
'What; - to the "People's Banner"!'
'It began there, did it? No, not to the "People's Banner", but to the "Evening Pulpit". He could say, you know, that the money was paid by you, and the payment had been made because your agents had misapprehended your instructions.'
'It would not be true,' said the Prime Minister, slowly.
'As far as I can understand that was what occurred,' said the other Duke.
'My instructions were not misapprehended. They were disobeyed. I think that perhaps we had better say no more about it.'
'Do not think I wish to press you,' said the old man tenderly, 'but I fear that something ought to be done; - I mean for your own comfort.'
'My comfort!' said the Prime Minister. 'That has vanished long ago; - and my peace of mind, and my happiness.'
'There has been nothing done which cannot be explained with perfect truth. There has been no impropriety.'
'I do not know.'
'The money was paid simply from an over-nice sense of honour.'
'It cannot be explained. I cannot explain it even to you; and how then can I do it to all the gaping fools of the country who are ready to trample upon a man simply because he is some way conspicuous among them?'
After that the old Duke again spoke to Mr Warburton, but Mr Warburton was very loyal to his chief. 'Could one do anything by speaking to the Duchess?' said the old Duke.
'I think not.'
'I suppose it was her Grace who did it all?'
'I cannot say. My own impression is that he had better wait till the Houses meet, and then, if any question is asked, let it be answered. He himself would do it in the House of Lords, or Mr Finn or Barrington Erle, in our House. It would be surely enough to explain that his Grace had been made to believe that the man had received encouragement at Silverbridge from his own agents, which he himself had not intended should be given, and that therefore he had thought it right to pay the money. After such an explanation what more could anyone say?'
'You might do it yourself.'
'I never speak.'
'But in such a case as that you might do so; and then there would be no necessity for him to talk to another person on the matter.'
So the affair was left for the present, though the allusions to it in the "People's Banner" were still continued. Nor did any other of the Prime Minister's colleagues dare to speak to him on the subject. Barrington Erle and Phineas Finn talked of it among themselves, but they did not mention it even to the Duchess. She would have gone to her husband at once, and they were too careful of him to risk such a proceeding. It certainly was the case that among them they coddled the Prime Minister.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 51 CODDLING THE PRIME MINISTER.