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- OF THE PRIME MINISTER - 100/159 -
'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 to- day 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
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