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CHAPTER 51 CODDLING THE PRIME MINISTER.
Parliament was to meet on the 12th of February, and it was of course necessary that there should be a Cabinet Council before that time. The Prime Minister, about the end of the third week in January, was prepared to name a day for this, and did so, most unwillingly. But he was then ill, and talked both to his friend the old Duke, and his private Secretary of having the meeting held without him. 'Impossible,' said the old Duke.
'If I could not go it would have to be possible.'
'We could all come here if it were necessary.'
'Bring fourteen or fifteen ministers out to town because a poor creature such as I am is ill!' But in truth the Duke of St Bungay hardly believed in this illness. The Prime Minister was unhappy rather than ill.
By this time everyone in the House, - and almost everybody in the country who read the newspapers, - had heard of Mr Lopez and his election expenses, - except the Duchess. No one had yet dared to tell her. She saw the newspapers daily, but probably did not read them very attentively. Nevertheless she knew that something was wrong. Mr Warburton hovered about the Prime Minister more tenderly than usual; the Duke of St Bungay was more concerned; the world around her was more mysterious, and her husband more wretched. 'What is it that's going on?' she said one day to Phineas Finn.
'Everything, - in the same dull way as usual.'
'If you don't tell me, I'll never speak to you again. I know there is something wrong.'
'The Duke, I'm afraid, is not quite well.'
'What makes him ill? I know well when he's ill, and when he's well. He's troubled by something.'
'I think he is, Duchess. But as he has not spoken to me I am loath to make guesses. If there be anything I can only guess at it.'
Then she questioned Mrs Finn, and got an answer, which, if not satisfactory, was at any rate explanatory. 'I think he is uneasy about that Silverbridge affair.'
'What Silverbridge affair?'
'You know that he paid the expenses which that man Lopez says that he incurred.'
'Yes; - I know that.'
'And you know that that other man Slide has found it out, and published it all in the "People's Banner".'
'Yes, indeed. And a whole army of accusations has been brought against him. I have never liked to tell you, and yet I do not think that you should be left in the dark.'
'Everybody deceives me,' said the Duchess angrily.
'Nay; - there has been no deceit.'
'Everybody keeps things from me. I think you will kill me among you. It was my doing. Why do they attack him? I will write to the papers. I encouraged the man after Plantagenet had determined that he should not be assisted, - and, because I had done so, he paid the man his beggarly money. What is there to hurt him in that? Let me bear it. My back is broad enough.'
'The Duke is very sensitive.'
'I hate people to be sensitive. It makes them cowards. A man when he is afraid of being blamed, dares not at last even show himself, and has to be wrapped in lamb's wool.'
'Of course men are differently organized.'
'Yes; - but the worst of it is, that when they suffer from this weakness, which you call sensitiveness, they think that they are made of finer material than other people. Men shouldn't be made of Sevres china, but of good stone earthenware. However, I don't want to abuse him, poor fellow.'
'I don't think you ought.'
'I know what that means. You do not want to abuse me. So they've been bullying him about the money he paid to that man Lopez. How did anybody know anything about it?'
'Lopez must have told of it,' said Mrs Finn.
'The worst, my dear, of trying to know a great many people is, that you are sure to get hold of some that are very bad. Now that man is very bad. Yet they say he has married a nice wife.'
'That's often the case, Duchess.'
'And the contrary; - isn't it, my dear? But I shall have it out with Plantagenet. I have to write letters to all the newspapers myself, I'll put it right.' She certainly coddled her husband less than the others, and, indeed in her hearts of hearts disapproved altogether of the coddling system. But she was wont at this particular time to be somewhat tender to him because she was aware that she herself had been imprudent. Since he had discovered her interference at Silverbridge, and had made her understand its pernicious results, she had been, - not, perhaps, shamefaced, for that word describes a condition to which hardly any series of misfortunes could have reduced the Duchess of Omnium, - but inclined to quiescence by feelings of penitence. She was less disposed than heretofore to attack him with what the world of yesterday calls 'chaff', or with what the world of today calls 'cheek'. She would not admit to herself that she was cowed; - but the greatness of the game and the high interest attached to her husband's position did in some degree dismay her. Nevertheless she executed her purpose of 'having it out with Plantagenet,' 'I have just heard,' she said, having knocked at the door of his own room, and having found him alone, - 'I have just hear, for the first time, that there is a row about the money you paid to Mr Lopez.'
'Who told you?'
'Nobody told me, - in the usual sense of the word. I presumed that something was the matter, and then I got it from Marie. Why had you not told me?'
'Why should I tell you?'
'But why not? If anything troubled me, I should tell you. That is, if it troubled me much.'
'You take it for granted that this does trouble me much.' He was smiling as he said this, but the smile passed very quickly from his face. 'I will not, however, deceive you. It does trouble me.'
'I knew very well that something was wrong.'
'I have not complained.'
'One can see as much as that without words. What is it that you fear? What can the man do to you? What matter is it to you if such a one as that pours out his malice on you? Let it run off like the rain from the housetops. You are too big even to be stung by such a reptile as that.' He looked into her face, admiring the energy with which she spoke to him. 'As for answering him,'she continued to say, 'that may or may not be proper. If it should be done, there are people to do it. But I am speaking of your own inner self. You have a shield against your equals, and a sword to attack them with if necessary. Have you no armour of proof against such a creature as that? Have you nothing inside you to make you feel that he is too contemptible to be regarded?'
'Cora, there a different natures which have each their own excellencies, and their own defects. I will not admit that I am a coward, believing as I do that I could dare to face necessary danger. But I cannot endure to have my character impugned,-even by Mr Lopez.'
'What matter, - if you are in the right? Why blench if your conscience accuses you of no fault? I would not blench if it did. What, - is a man to be put in the front of everything, and then to be judged as though he could give all his time to the picking of his steps?'
'Just so! And he must pick them more warily than another.'
'I do not believe it. You see all this with jaundiced eyes. I read somewhere the other day that the great ships have always little worms attached to them, but that the great ships swim on and know nothing of the worms.'
'The worms conquer at last.'
'They shouldn't conquer me! After all, what is it that they say about the money? That you ought not to have had it?'
'I begin to think I was wrong to pay it.'
'You certainly were not wrong. I had led the man on. I had been mistaken. I had thought he was a gentleman. Having led him on at first, before you had spoken to me, I did not like to go back from my word. I did go to the man at Silverbridge who sells the pots, and no doubt the man, when thus encouraged, told it all to Lopez. When Lopez went to the town he did suppose that he would have what the people call the Castle interest.'
'And I had done so much to prevent it.'
'What's the use of going back on that now, unless you want me to put my neck down to be trodden on? I am confessing my own sins as fast as I can.'
'God knows I would not have trodden on you.'
'I am willing, - if it be necessary. Then came the question;-as I had done this evil, how was it to be rectified? Any man with a particle of spirit would have taken his rubs and said nothing about it. But as this man asked for the money, it was right that he should have it. If it is all made public he won't get very well out of it.'
'What does that matter to me?'
'Nor shall I; - only luckily I do not mind it.'
'But I mind it for you.'
'You must throw me to the whale. Let somebody say in so many words that the Duchess did so and so. It was very wicked no doubt; but they can't kill me, - nor yet dismiss me. And I won't resign. In point of fact I shan't be a penny the worse for it.'
'But I should resign.'
'If all the Ministers of England were to give up as soon as their wives do foolish things, that question about Queen's Government would become very difficult.'
'They may do foolish things, dear; and yet - '
'And yet what?'
'And yet not interfere in politics.'
'That's all you know about it, Plantagenet. Doesn't everybody know that Mrs Daubney got Dr MacFuzlem made a bishop, and that Mrs Gresham got her husband to make that hazy speech about women's rights, so that nobody should know which way he meant to go? There are others just as bad as me, only I don't think they got blown up so much. You do now as I ask you.'
'I couldn't do it, Cora. Though the stain were but a little spot, and the thing to be avoided political destruction, I could not ride out of the punishment by fixing that stain upon my wife. I will not have your name mentioned. A man's wife should be talked about by no one.'
'That's highfaluting, Plantagenet.'
'Glencora, in these matters you must allow me to judge for myself, and I will judge. I will never say that I didn't do it; - but that it was my wife who did.'
'Adam said so, - because he chose to tell the truth.'
'And Adam has been despised ever since, - not because he ate the apple, but because he imputed the eating of it to a woman. I will not do it. We have had enough of this now.' Then she turned to go away; - but he called her back. 'Kiss me, dear,' he said. Then she stooped over him and kissed him. 'Do not think I am angry with you because the thing vexes me. I am dreaming always of some day when we may go away together with the children, and rest in some pretty spot, and live as other people live.'
'It would be very stupid,' she muttered to herself as she left the room.
He did to up to town for the Cabinet meeting. Whatever may have been done at that august assembly there was certainly no resignation, or the world would have heard it. It is probable, too, that nothing was said about these newspaper articles. Things if left to themselves will generally die at last. The old Duke and Phineas Finn and Barrington Erle were all of the opinion that the best plan for the present was to do nothing. 'Has anything been settled?' The Duchess asked Phineas when he came back.
'Oh yes; - the Queen's Speech. But there isn't very much in it.'
'But about the payment of this money?'
'I haven't heard a word about it,' said Phineas.
'You're just as bad as all the rest, Mr Finn, with your pretended secrecy. A girl with her sweetheart isn't half so fussy as a young Cabinet Minister.'
'The Cabinet Ministers get used to it sooner, I think,' said Phineas Finn.
Parliament had already met before Mr Slide had quite determined in what way he would carry on the war. He could indeed go on writing pernicious articles about the Prime Minister ad infinitum, - from year's end to year's end. It was an occupation in which he took delight, and for which he imagined himself to be peculiarly well suited. But readers will become tired even of abuse if it be not varied. And the very continuance of such attacks would seem to imply that they were not much heeded. Other papers had indeed taken the matter up, - but they had taken it up only to drop it. The subject had not been their own. The little discovery had been due not to their acumen, and did not therefore bear with them the highest interest. It had almost seemed as though nothing would come of it, - for Mr Slide in his wildest ambition could have hardly imagined the vexation and hesitation, the nervousness and serious discussion which his words had occasioned among the great people at Matching. But certainly the thing must not be allowed to pass away as a matter of no moment. Mr Slide had almost worked his mind up to real horror as he thought of it. What! A prime minister, a peer, a great duke, - put a man forward as a candidate for a borough, and, when the man was beaten, pay his expenses! Was this to be done, - to be done, and found out and nothing come of it in these days of purity, when a private member of Parliament, some mere nobody loses his seat because he has given away a few bushels of coals or a score or two of rabbits! Mr Slide's energetic love of public virtue was scandalized as he thought of the probability of such a catastrophe. To his thinking public virtue consisted in carping at men high placed, in abusing ministers and judges and bishops, - and especially in finding out something for which they might be abused. His own public virtue was in this matter very great, for it was he who had ferreted out the secret. For his intelligence and energy in that matter the country owed him much. But the country would pay him nothing, would give him none of the credit he desired, would rob him of this special opportunity of declaring a dozen times that the "People's Banner" was the surest guardian of the people's liberty, - unless he could succeed in forcing the matter further into public notice. 'How terrible is the apathy of the people at large,' said Mr Slide to himself, 'when they cannot be awakened by such a revelation as this!'
Mr Slide knew very well what ought to be the next step. Proper notice should be given and a question should be asked in Parliament. Some gentleman should declare that he had noticed such and such statements in the public press, and that he thought it right to ask whether such and such payments had been made by the Prime Minister. In his meditations Mr Slide went to so far as to arrange the very words which the indignant gentleman should utter, among which words was a graceful allusion to a certain public-spirited newspaper. He did even go so far as to arrange a compliment to the editor, - but in doing so he knew that he was thinking only of that which ought to be, and not of that which would be. The time had not come as yet in which the editor of a newspaper in this country received a tithe of the honour due to him. But the question in any form, with or without a compliment to the "People's Banner", would be the thing that was now desirable.
Who was to ask the question? If public spirit were really strong in the country there would be not difficulty on that point. The crime committed had been so horrible that all the great politicians of the country ought to compete for the honour of asking it. What greater service can be trusted to the hands of a great man than that of exposing the sins of the rulers of the nation? So thought Mr Slide. But he knew that he was in advance of the people, and that the matter would not be seen in the proper light by those who ought to see it. There might be a difficulty in getting any peer to ask the question on the House in which the Prime Minister himself sat, and even in the other House there was now but little of that acrid, indignant opposition upon which, in Mr Slide's opinion, the safety of the nation altogether depends.
When the statement was first made in the "People's Banner", Lopez had come to Mr Slide at once and had demanded his authority for making it. Lopez had found the statement to be most injurious to himself. He had been paid his election expenses twice over, making a clear profit of 500 pounds by the transaction, and, thought the matter had at once time troubled his conscience, he had already taught himself to regard it as one of those bygones to which a wise man seldom refers. But now Mr Wharton would know that he had been cheated, should the statement reach him. 'Who gave you authority to publish all this?' asked Lopez, who at this time had become intimate with Mr Slide.
'Is it true, Lopez?' asked the editor.
'Whatever was done was done in private, - between me and the Duke.'
'Dukes, my dear fellow, can't be private, and certainly not when they are Prime Ministers.'
'But you've no right to publish these things about me.'
'Is it true? If it's true, I have got every right to publish it. If it's not true, I've got the right to ask the question. If you will 'ave to do with Prime Ministers you can't 'ide yourself under a bushel. Tell me this; - is it true? You might as well go 'and in 'and with me in the matter. You can't hurt yourself. And if you oppose me, - why I shall oppose you.'
'You can't say anything of me.'
'Well; - I don't know about that. I can generally 'it pretty 'ard if I feel inclined. But I don't want to 'it you. As regards you I can tell the story one way, - or the other, just as you please.' Lopez, seeing it in a manner not inimical to himself. The present project of his life was to leave his troubles in England, - Sexty Parker being the worst of them,-and get away to Guatemala. In arranging this the good word of Mr Slide might not benefit him, but his ill word might injure him. And then let him do what he would, the matter must be made public. Should Mr Wharton hear of it, - as of course he would,-it must be brazened out. He could not keep it from Mr Wharton's ears by quarrelling with Quintus Slide.
'It was true,' said Lopez.
'I knew it before just as well as though I had seen it. I ain't often very wrong in these things. You asked him for the money,-and threatened him.'
'I don't know about threatening him.'
''E wouldn't have sent it else.'
'I told him that I had been deceived by his people in the borough, and that I had been put to expense through the misrepresentations of the Duchess. I don't think I did ask for the money. But he sent a cheque, and of course I took it.'
Of course; - of course. You couldn't give me a copy of the letter?'
'Never kept a copy.' He had a copy in his breast coat-pocket at that moment and Slide did not for a moment believe the statement made. But in such discussions one man hardly expects truth from another. Mr Slide certainly never expected truth from any man. 'He sent the cheque almost without a word,' said Lopez.
'He did write a note, I suppose?'
'Just a few words.'
'Could you let me 'ave that note?'
'I destroyed it at once.' This also was in his breast pocket at the time.
'Did 'e write it 'imself?'
'I think it was his private Secretary, Mr Warburton.'
'You must be sure, you know. Which was it?'
'It was Mr Warburton.'
'Was it civil?'
'Yes, it was. If it had been uncivil I should have sent it back. I'm not the man to take impudence even from a duke.'
'If you'll give me those two letters, Lopez, I'll stick to you through thick and thin. By heavens I will! Think what the "People's Banner" is. You may come to want that kind of thing some of these days.' Lopez remained silent, looking into the other man's eager face. 'I shouldn't publish them, you know; but it would be so much to me to have the evidence in my hands. You might do worse, you know, than make a friend of me.'
'You won't publish them?'
'Certainly not. I shall only refer to them.'
Then Lopez pulled a bundle of papers out of his pocket. 'There they are,' he said.
'Well,' said Slide, when he had read them, 'it is one of the rummiest transactions I ever 'eard of. Why did 'e send the money? That's what I want to know. As far as the claim goes, you 'adn't a leg to stand on.'
'You 'adn't a leg to stand on any way. But that doesn't much matter. He sent the money, and the sending of the money was corrupt. Who shall I get to ask the question. I suppose young Arthur Fletcher wouldn't do it.'
'They're birds of a feather,' said Lopez.
'Birds of a feather do fall out sometimes. Or Sir Orlando Drought? I wonder whether Sir Orlando Drought would do it. If any man 'ated another, Sir Orlando Drought must 'ate the Duke of Omnium.'
'I don't think he would let himself down to that kind of thing.'
'Let 'imself down! I don't see any letting down in it. But those men who have been in cabinets do stick to one another even when they are enemies. They think themselves so mighty that they oughtn't to be 'andled like other men. But I'll let them know that I'll 'andle them. A Cabinet Minister or a cowboy is the same to Quintus Slide when he has got his pen in 'is hand.'
On the next morning there came out another article in the "People's Banner", in which the writer declared that he had in his own possession the damnatory correspondence between the Prime Minister and the late candidate at Silverbridge. 'The Prime Minister may deny the fact,' said the article. 'We do not think it probable, but it is possible. We wish to be fair and aboveboard in everything. And therefore we at once inform the noble Duke that the entire correspondence is in our hands.' In saying this Mr Quintus Slide thought that he had quite kept the promise which he made when said that he would only refer to the letters.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 52 'I CAN SLEEP HERE TO-NIGHT, I SUPPOSE?'