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- OF THE PRIME MINISTER - 140/159 -
without being made Mrs Arthur Fletcher. While Emily was still at Longbarns the old lady almost talked over her daughter-in-law to this way of thinking,--till John Fletcher put his foot upon it altogether. 'I don't pretend to say what she may do,' he said.
'Oh, John,' said his mother, 'to hear a man like you talk like that is absurd. She'd jump at him if he looked at her with half an eye.'
'What she may do,' he continued saying, without appearing to listen to his mother, 'I cannot say. But that he will ask her to be his wife is as certain as I stand here.'
'HE THINKS THAT OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED.'
All the details of the new County Suffrage Bill were settled at Matching during the recess between Mr Monk, Phineas Finn, and a very experienced man from the Treasury, one Mr Prime, who was supposed to know more about such things than any man living, and was consequently called Constitution Charlie. He was an elderly man, over sixty years of age, who remembered the Reform Bill, and had been engaged in the doctoring of constituencies ever since. The bill, if passed, would be mainly his bill, and yet the world would never hear his name connected with it. Let us hope that he was comfortable at Matching, and that he found his consolation in the smiles of the Duchess. During this time the old Duke was away, and even the Prime Minister was absent for some days. He would fain have busied himself about the bill himself, but was hardly allowed by his colleagues to have any hand in framing it. The great points of the measure had of course been arranged in the Cabinet,--where, however, Mr Monk's views had been adopted almost without a change. It may not perhaps be too much to assume that one or two members of the Cabinet did not quite understand the full scope of every suggested clause. The effects which causes will produce, the dangers which may be expected from this or that change, the manner in which this or that proposition will come out in the washing, do not strike even Cabinet Ministers at a glance. A little study in a man's own cabinet, after perhaps reading a few leading articles, and perhaps a short conversation with an astute friend or two, will enable a statesman to be strong at a given time for, or ever, if necessary, against a measure, who has listened in silence, and has perhaps given his personal assent, to the original suggestion. I doubt whether Lord Drummond, when he sat silent in the Cabinet, had realized those fears which weighed upon him so strongly afterwards, or had then foreseen that the adoption of a nearly similar franchise for the counties and boroughs must inevitably lead to the American system of numerical representation. But when time had been given him, and he and Sir Timothy Beeswax had talked it all over, the mind of no man was ever clearer than that of Lord Drummond.
The Prime Minister, with the diligence which belonged to him, had mastered all the details of Mr Monk's bill before it was discussed in the Cabinet, and yet he found that his assistance was hardly needed in the absolute preparation. Had they allowed him he would have done it all himself. But it was assumed that he would not trouble himself with such work, and he perceived that he was not wanted. Nothing of moment was settled without reference to him. He required that everything should be explained as it went on, down to the extension of every borough boundary; but he knew that he was not doing it himself, and that Mr Monk and Constitution Charlie had the prize between them.
Nor did he dare ask Mr Monk what would be the fate of the bill. To devote all one's time and mind and industry to a measure which one knows will fall to the ground must be sad. Work under such circumstances must be very grievous. But such is often the fate of statesmen. Whether Mr Monk laboured under such a conviction the Prime Minister did not know, though he saw his friend and colleague almost daily. In truth no one dared to tell him exactly what he thought. Even the old Duke had become partially reticent, and taken himself off to his own woods at Long Royston. To Phineas Finn the Prime Minister would sometimes say a word, but would say even that timidly. On any abstract question, such as that which he had discussed when they had been walking together, he could talk freely enough. But on the matter of the day, those affairs which were of infinite importance to himself, and on which one would suppose he would take delight in speaking to a trusted colleague, he could not bring himself to be open. 'It must be a long bill, I suppose?'
'I'm afraid so, Duke. It will run, I fear, to over a hundred clauses.'
'It will take the best part of the Session to get through it?'
'If we can have the second reading early in March, we hope to send it up to you in the first week in June. That will give us ample time.'
'Yes;--yes. I suppose so.' But he did not dare to ask Phineas Finn whether he thought that the House of Commons would assent to the second reading. It was known at this time that the Prime Minister was painfully anxious to the fate of the Ministry. It seemed to be but the other day that everybody connected with the Government was living in fear lest he should resign. His threats in that direction had always been made to his old friend the Duke of St Bungay; but a great man cannot whisper his thoughts without having them carried in the air. In all the clubs it had been declared that that was the rock by which the Coalition would probably be wrecked. The newspapers had repeated the story, and the "People's Banner" had assured the world that if it were so the Duke of Omnium would thus do for his country the only good service which it was possible that he should render it. That was the time when Sir Orlando was mutinous and when Lopez had destroyed himself. But now no such threat came from the Duke, and the "People's Banner" was already accusing him of clinging to power with pertinacious and unconstitutional tenacity. Had not Sir Orlando deserted him? Was it not well known that Lord Drummond and Sir Timothy Beeswax were only restrained from doing so by a mistaken loyalty?
Everybody came up to town, Mr Monk having his bill in his pocket, and the Queen's speech was read, promising the County Suffrage Bill. The address was voted with a very few words from either side. The battle was not to be fought then. Indeed, the state of things was so abnormal that there could hardly be said to be any sides in the House. A stranger in the gallery, not knowing the condition of affairs, would have thought that no minister had for many years commanded so large a majority, as the crowd of members was always on the Government side of the House; but the opposition which Mr Monk expected would, he knew, come from those who sat around him, behind him, and even at his very elbow. About a week after Parliament met the bill was read for the first time, and the second reading was appointed for an early day in March.
The Duke had suggested to Mr Monk the expedience of some further delay, giving his reason the necessity of getting through certain routine work, should the rejection of the bill create the confusion of a resignation. No one who knew the Duke could ever suspect him of giving a false reason. But it seemed that in this the Prime Minister was allowing himself to be harassed by fears of the future. Mr Monk thought that any delay would be injurious and open to suspicion after what had been said and done, and was urgent in his arguments. The Duke gave way, but he did so almost sullenly, signifying his acquiescence with haughty silence. 'I am sorry,' said Mr Monk, 'to differ from your Grace, but my opinion in the matter is so strong that I do not dare to abstain from expressing it.' The Duke bowed again and smiled. He had intended that the smile should be acquiescent, but it had been as cold as steel. He knew that he was misbehaving, but was not sufficiently master of his own manner to be gracious. He told himself on the spot,--though he was quite wrong in so telling himself,--that he had now made an enemy also of Mr Monk, and through Mr Monk of Phineas Finn. And now he felt that he had no friend left in whom he could trust,--for the old Duke had become cold and indifferent. The old Duke, he thought, was tired of his work and anxious to rest. It was the old Duke who had brought him into this hornet's nest; had fixed upon his back the unwilling load; had compelled him to assume the place which now to lose would be a disgrace,--and the old Duke was now deserting him! He was sore all over, angry with everyone, ungracious even with his private Secretary and his wife,--and especially miserable because he was thoroughly aware of his own faults. And yet, through it all, there was present to him a desire to fight on to the very last. Let his colleagues do what they might, and say what they might, he would remain Prime Minister of England as long as he was supported by a majority in the House of Commons.
'I do not know any greater ship than this,' Phineas said to him pleasantly one day, speaking of their new measure, 'towards that millennium of which we were talking at Matching, if we can only accomplish it.'
'Those moral speculations, Mr Finn,' he said, 'will hardly beat the wear and tear of real life.' The words of the answer, combined with the manner in which they were spoken, were stern and almost uncivil. Phineas, at any rate, had done nothing to offend him. The Duke paused, trying to find some expression by which he might correct the injury he had done, but, not finding any, passed on without further speech. Phineas shrugged his shoulders and went his way, telling himself that he had received one further injunction not to put his trust in princes.
'We shall be beaten certainly,' said Mr Monk to Phineas not long afterwards.
'What makes you so sure?'
'I smell it in the air. I see it in men's faces.'
'And yet it's a moderate bill. They'll have to pass something stronger before long if they throw it out now.'
'It's not the bill that they'll reject, but us. We have served our turn, and we ought to go.'
'The House is tired of the Duke?'
'The Duke is so good a man that I hardly like to admit even that, --but I fear it is so. He is fretful and he makes enemies.'
'I sometimes think that he is ill.'
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