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CHAPTER 64 THE NEW K.G.
Early in June had died the Marquess of Mount Fidgett. In all England there was no older family than that of the Fichy Fidgetts, whose baronial castle of Fichy Fellows is still kept up, the glory of archaeologists and the charm of tourists. Some people declare it to be the most perfect castle residence in the country. It is admitted to have been completed in the time of Edward VI, and is thought to have commenced in the days of Edward I. It has always belonged to the Fichy Fidgett family, who with a persistence that is becoming rarer every day, has clung to every acre that it ever owned, and has added acre to acre in every age. The consequence has been that the existing Marquis of Mount Fidgett has always been possessed of great territorial influence, and has been flattered, cajoled, and revered by one Prime Minister after another. Now the late Marquis had been, as was the custom with the Fichy Fidgetts, a man of pleasure. If the truth be spoken openly, it should be admitted that he had been a man of sin. The duty of keeping together the family property he had performed with a perfect zeal. It had always been acknowledged on behalf of the existing Marquis, that in whatever manner he might spend his money, however base might be the gullies into which his wealth descended, he never spent more that he had to spend. Perhaps there was but little praise in this, as he could hardly have got beyond his enormous income unless he had thrown it away on race-courses and roulette tables. But it had long been remarked of the Mount Fidgett marquises that they were too wise to gamble. The family had not been an honour to the country, but had nevertheless been honoured by the country. The man who had just died had perhaps been as selfish and sensual a brute as had ever disgraced humanity; - but nevertheless he had been a Knight of the Garter. He had been possessed of considerable parliamentary interest, and the Prime Minister of the day had not dared not to make him a Knight of the Garter. All the Marquises of Mount Fidgett had for many years past been Knights of the Garter. On the last occasion a good deal had been said about it. A feeling had even then begun to prevail that the highest personal offer in the gift of the Crown should not be bestowed upon a man whose whole life was a disgrace, and who did indeed seem to deserve every punishment which a human or divine wrath could inflict. He had a large family, but they were illegitimate. Wives generally he liked, but of his own wife he very soon broke the heart. Of all the companies with which he consorted he was the admitted king, but his subjects could do no man any honour. The Castle of Fichy Fellows was visited by the world at large, but no man or woman with a character to lose went into any house really inhabited by the Marquis. And yet he had become a Knight of the Garter, and was therefore, presumably, one of those noble Englishmen to whom the majesty of the day was willing to confide the honour, and glory, and safety of the Crown. There were many who disliked this. That a base reprobate should become a Marquis and a peer of Parliament was in accordance with the constitution of the country. Marquises and peers are not as a rule reprobates, and the misfortune was one which could not be avoided. He might have ill-used his own wife and other wives' husbands without special remark had he not been made a Knight of the Garter. The Minister of the day, however, had known the value of the man's support, and being thickskinned, had lived through the reproaches uttered without much damage to himself. Now the wicked Marquis was dead, and it was the privilege and the duty of the Duke of Omnium to select another knight.
There was a good deal said about it at the time. There was a rumour, - no doubt a false rumour, - that the Crown insisted in this instance on dictating a choice to the Duke of Omnium. But even were it so, the Duke could not have been very much aggrieved, as the choice dictated was supposed to be that himself. The late Duke had been a Knight, and when he had died, it was thought that his successor would succeed to the ribbon. The new Duke had been at the time in the Cabinet, and had remained there, but had accepted an office inferior in rank to that which he had formerly filled. The whole history of these things has been written, and may be read by the curious. The Duchess, newly a duchess then and very keen in reference to her husband's rank, had instigated him to demand the ribbon as his right. This he had not only declined to do, but had gone out of the way to say that he thought it should be bestowed elsewhere. It had been bestowed elsewhere, and there had been a very general feeling that he had been passed over because his easy temperament in such matters had been seen and utilized. Now, whether the Crown interfered or not, - a matter on which no one short of a writer of newspaper articles dares to make suggestion till time shall have made mellow the doings of sovereigns and their ministers, - the suggestion was made. The Duke of St Bungay ventured to say to his friend that no other selection was possible.
'Recommend her Majesty to give it to myself?' said the Prime Minister.
'You will find it to be her Majesty's wish. It has been very common. Sir Robert Walpole had it.'
'I am not Sir Robert Walpole.' The Duke named other examples of Prime Ministers who had been gartered by themselves. But our Prime Minister declared it to be out of the question. No honour of that description should be conferred upon him as long as he held his present position. The old Duke was much in earnest, and there was a great deal said on the subject, - but at last it became clear, not only to him, but to the members of the Cabinet generally, and then to the outside world, that the Prime Minister would not consent to accept the vacant honour.
For nearly a month after this the question subsided. A Minister is not bound to bestow a Garter the day after it becomes vacant. There are other Knights to guard the throne, and one may be spared for a short interval. But during the interval many eyes were turned towards the stall in St George's Chapel. A good thing should be given away like a clap of thunder if envy, hatred, and malice are to be avoided. A broad blue ribbon across the chest is of all decorations the most becoming, or, at any rate, the most desired. And there was, I fear, an impression on the minds of some men that the Duke in such matters was weak and might be persuaded. Then there came to him an application in the form of a letter from the new Marquis of Mount Fidgett, - a man whom he had never seen, and of whom he had never heard. The new Marquis had hitherto resided in Italy, and men only knew of him that he was odious to his uncle. But he had inherited all the Fichy Fidgett estates, and was now possessed of immense wealth and great honour. He ventured, he said, to represent to the Prime Minister that for generations past the Marquises of Mount Fidgett had been honoured by the Garter. His political status in the country was exactly that enjoyed by his late uncle, but he intended that his political career should be very different. He was quite prepared to support the Coalition. 'What is he that he should expect to be made a Knight of the Garter?' said our Duke to the old Duke.
'He is the Marquis of Mount Fidgett, and next to yourself, perhaps, the richest peer in Great Britain.'
'Have riches anything to do with it?'
'Something certainly. You would not want to name a pauper peer.'
'Yes; - if he was a man whose career had been highly honourable to the country. Such a man, of course, could not be a pauper, but I do not think his want of wealth should stand in the way of his being honoured by the Garter.'
'Wealth and rank and territorial influence have been generally thought to have something to do with it.'
'And character nothing!'
'My dear Duke, I have not said so.'
'Something very much like it, my friend, if you advocate the claim of the Marquis of Mount Fidgett. Did you approve of the selection of the late Marquis?'
'I was in the Cabinet at the time, and will therefore say nothing against it. But I have never heard anything against this man's character.'
'Nor in favour of it. To my thinking he has as much claim, and no more, as that man who just opened the door. He was never seen in the Lower House.'
'Surely that cannot signify.'
'You think, then, that he should have it?'
'You know what I think,' said the elder statesman thoughtfully. 'In my opinion there is no doubt that you would at least consult the honour of the country by allowing her Majesty to bestow this act of grace upon a subject who has deserved so well from her Majesty as yourself.'
'It is quite impossible.'
'It seems to me,' said the Duke, not appearing to notice the refusal of his friend, 'that in this peculiar position you should allow yourself to be persuaded to lay aside your own feeling. No man of high character is desirous of securing to himself decorations which he may bestow upon others.'
'But here the decoration bestowed upon the chief whom we all follow, would confer a wider honour upon many than it could do if given to anyone else.'
'The same may be said of any Prime Minister.'
'Not so. A commoner, without high permanent rank or large fortune, is not lowered in the world's esteem by not being of the Order. You will permit me to say - that a Duke of Omnium has not reached the position which he ought to enjoy unless he is a Knight of the Garter.' It must be borne in mind that the old Duke, who used this argument, had himself worn the ribbon for the last thirty years. 'But if - '
'Well; - well.'
'But if you are, - I must call it obstinate.'
'I am obstinate in that respect.'
'Then,' said the Duke of St Bungay, 'I should recommend her Majesty to give it to the Marquis.'
'Never,' said the Prime Minister, with very unaccustomed energy. 'I will never sanction the payment of such a price for services which should never be bought or sold.'
'It would give no offence.'
'That is not enough, my friend. Here is a man of whom I only know that he has bought a great many marble statues. He has done nothing for his country, and nothing for his sovereign.'
'If you are determined to look at what you call desert alone, I would name Lord Drummond.' The Prime Minister frowned and looked unhappy. It was quite true that Lord Drummond had contradicted him, and that he had felt the injury grievously. 'Lord Drummond has been very true to us.'
'Yes; - true to us! What is that?'
'He is in every respect a man of character, and well looked upon in the country. There would be some enmity and a good deal of envy - which might be avoided by either of the other courses I have proposed; but those courses you will not take. I take it for granted that you are anxious to secure the support of those who generally act with Lord Drummond.'
'I don't know that I am.' The old Duke shrugged his shoulders. 'What I mean is, that I do not think that we ought to pay an increased price for their support. His lordship is very well as the Head of an Office; but he is not nearly so great a man as my friend Lord Cantrip.'
'Cantrip would not join us. There is no evil in politics so great as that of seeming to buy the men who will not come without buying. These rewards are fairly given for political support.'
'I had not, in truth, thought of Lord Cantrip.'
'He does not expect it any more than my butler.'
'I only named him as having a claim stronger than any that Lord Drummond can put forward. I have a man in my mind to whom I think such an honour is fairly due. What do you say to Lord Earlybird?' The old Duke opened his mouth and lifted up his hands in unaffected surprise.
The Earl of Earlybird was an old man of a very peculiar character. He had never opened his mouth in the House of Lords, and had never sat in the House of Commons. The political world knew him not at all. He had a house in town, but very rarely lived there. Early Park, in the parish of B Bird, had been his residence since he first came to the title forty years ago, and had been the scene of all his labours. He was a nobleman possessed of a moderate fortune, and, as men said of him, of a moderate intellect. He had married early in life and was blessed with a large family. But he had certainly not been an idle man. For nearly half a century he had devoted himself to the improvement of the labouring classes, especially in reference to their abodes and education, and gradually without any desire on his own part, worked himself up into public notice. He was not an eloquent man, but he would take the chair at meeting after meeting, and sit with admirable patience for long hours to hear the eloquence of others. He was a man very simple in his tastes, and had brought up his family to follow his habits. He had therefore been able to do munificent things with moderate means, and in the long course of years had failed in hiding his munificence from the public. Lord Earlybird, till after middle life, had not been much considered, but gradually there had grown up a feeling that there were not very many better men in the country. He was a fat, bald-headed old man, who was always pulling his spectacles on and off, nearly blind, very awkward, and altogether indifferent to appearance. Probably he had no more idea of the Garter in his own mind than he had of a Cardinal's hat. But he had grown into fame, and had not escaped the notice of the Prime Minister.
'Do you know anything against Lord Earlybird?' asked the Prime Minister.
'Certainly nothing against him, Duke.'
'Not anything in his favour?'
'I know him very well, - I think I may say intimately. There isn't a better man breathing.'
'A honour to the peerage?' said the Prime Minister.
'An honour to humanity rather,' said the other, 'as being of all men the least selfish and most philanthropical.'
'What more can be said for a man?'
'But according to my view he is not the sort of person whom one would wish to see made a Knight of the Garter. If he had the ribbon he would never wear it.'
'The honour surely does not consist in its outward sign. I am entitled to wear some kind of coronet, but I do not walk about with it on my head. He is a man of great heart and of many virtues. Surely the country, and her Majesty on behalf of the country, should delight to honour such a man.'
'I really doubt whether you look at the matter in the right light,' said the ancient statesman, who was in truth frightened at what was being proposed. 'You must not be angry with me if I speak plainly.'
'My friend, I do not think that it is within your power to make me angry.'
'Well then, - I will get for a moment to listen to my view on the matter. There are certain great prizes in the gift of the Crown and of the Ministers of the Crown, - the greatest of which are now traditionally at the disposal of the Prime Minister. These are always given to party friends. I may perhaps agree with you that party support should not be looked to alone. Let us acknowledge that character and services should be taken into account. But the very theory of our Government will be overset by a reversal of the rule which I have attempted to describe. You will offend all your own friends, and only incur the ridicule of your opponents. It is no doubt desirable that the high seats of the country should be filled by men of both parties. I would not wish to see every Lord Lieutenant of a county a Whig.' In his enthusiasm the old Duke went back to his old phraseology. 'But I know that my opponents when their turn comes will appoint their friends to the Lieutenancies and that the balance will be maintained. If you or I appoint their friends, they won't appoint ours. Lord Earlybird's proxy has been in the hands of the Conservative Leader of the House of Lords ever since he succeeded his father.' Then the old man paused, but his friend waited to listen whether the lecture were finished before he spoke, and the Duke of St Bungay continued. 'And, moreover, thought Lord Earlybird is a very good man, - so much so that many of us may well envy him, - he is not just the man fitted for this destination. A Knight of the Garter should be a man prone to show himself, a public man, one whose work in the country has brought him face to face with his fellows. There is an aptness, a propriety, a fitness in these things which one can understand perhaps better than explain.'
'Those fitnesses and aptnesses change, I think, from day to day. There was a time when a knight should be a fighting man.'
'That has gone by.'
'And the aptness and fitness in accordance with which the sovereign of the day was induced to grace with the Garter such a man as the late Marquis of Mount Fidgett have, I hope, gone by. You will admit that?'
'There is no such man proposed.'
'And other fitnesses and aptnesses will go by, till the time will come when the man to be selected as Lieutenant of a county will be the man whose selection will be most beneficial to the county, and Knights of the Garter will be chosen for their real virtues.'
'I think you are Quixotic. A Prime Minister is of all men bound to follow the traditions of his country, or, when he leaves them, to leave them with very gradual steps.'
'And if he break that law and throw over all that thraldom;-what then?'
'He will lose the confidence which has made him what he is.'
'It is well that I know the penalty. It is hardly heavy enough to enforce strict obedience. As for the matter in dispute, it had better stand over for a few days.' When the Prime Minister said this the old Duke knew very well that he intended to have his own way.
And so it was. A week passed by, and then the younger Duke wrote to the elder Duke saying that he had given to the matter all the consideration in his power, and that he had at last resolved to recommend her Majesty to bestow the ribbon on Lord Earlybird. He would not, however, take any step for a few days so that his friend might have an opportunity of making further remonstrance if he pleased. No further remonstrance was made, and Lord Earlybird, much to his own amazement, was nominated to the vacant Garter.
The appointment was one certainly not popular with any of the Prime Minister's friends. With some, such as Lord Drummond, it indicated a determination on the part of the Duke to declare his freedom from all those bonds which had hitherto been binding on the Heads of Government. Had the Duke selected himself, certainly no offence would have been given. Had the Marquis of Mount Fidgett been the happy man, excuses would have been made. But it was unpardonable to Lord Drummond that he should have been passed over and that the Garter should have been given to Lord Earlybird. To the poor old Duke the offence was of a different nature. He had intended to use a very strong word when he told his friend that his proposed conduct would be Quixotic. The Duke of Omnium would surely know that the Duke of St Bungay could not support a Quixotic Prime Minister. And yet the younger Duke, the Telemachus of the last two years, - after hearing that word,-had rebelled against his Mentor, and had obstinately adhered to his Quixotism! The greed of power had fallen upon the man, - so said the dear old Duke to himself, - and the man's fall was certain. Alas, alas; had he been allowed to go before the poison had entered his veins, how much less would have been his suffering!
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 65 THERE MUST BE TIME.