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- OF THE PRIME MINISTER - 80/159 -


For my own part, I find that though Smith be a very good Minister, the best perhaps to be had at the time, when he breaks down Jones does nearly as well.'

'There will be a Jones, then, if your Smith does break down?'

'No doubt England wouldn't come to an end because the Duke of Omnium shut himself up at Matching. But I love the man, and, with some few exceptions, am contented with the party. We can't do better, and it cuts me to the heart when I see him suffering, knowing how much I did myself to make him undertake the work.'

'Is he going to Gatherum Castle?'

'No;--to Matching. There is some discomfort about that.'

'I suppose,' said Lord Cantrip,--speaking almost in a whisper, although they were closeted together,--'I suppose the Duchess is a little troublesome.'

'She's the dearest woman in the world,' said the Duke of St Bungay. 'I love her almost as I do my own daughter. And she is most zealous to serve him.'

'I fancy she overdoes it.'

'No doubt.'

'And that he suffers from perceiving it,' said Lord Cantrip.

'But a man hasn't a right to suppose that he shall have no annoyances. The best horse in the world has some faults. He pulls, or he shies, or is slow at his fences, or doesn't like heavy ground. He has not right to expect that his wife shall know everything and do everything without a mistake. And then he has such faults of his own! His skin is so thin. Do you remember dear old Brock? By heavens,--there was a covering, a hide impervious to fire or steel! He wouldn't have gone into tantrums because his wife asked too may people to the house. Nevertheless, I won't give up all hope.'

'A man's skin may be thickened, I suppose.'

'No doubt;--as a blacksmith's arm.'

But the Duke of St Bungay, though he declared that he wouldn't give up hope, was very uneasy on the matter. 'Why don't you let me go?' the other Duke had said to him.

'What;--because such a man as Sir Orlando Drought throws up his office?'

But in truth the Duke of Omnium had not been instigated to ask the question by the resignation of Sir Orlando. At that very moment the "People's Banner" had been put out of sight at the bottom of a heap of other newspapers behind the Prime Minister's chair, and his present misery had been produced by Mr Quintus Slide. To have a festering wound and to be able to show the wound to no surgeon, is wretchedness indeed! 'It's not Sir Orlando, but a sense of general failure,' said the Prime Minister. Then his old friend had made use of that argument of the ever- recurring majorities to prove that there had been no failure. 'There seems to have come a lethargy upon the country,' said the poor victim. Then the Duke of St Bungay knew that his friend had read that pernicious article in the "People's Banner", for the Duke had also read it and remembered that phrase of a 'lethargy on the country', and understood at once how the poison had rankled.

It was a week before he would consent to ask any man to fill the vacancy made by Sir Orlando. He would not allow suggestions to be made to him and yet would name no one himself. The old Duke, indeed, did make a suggestion, and anything coming from him was of course borne with patience. Barrington Erle, he thought, would do for the Admiralty. But the Prime Minister shook his head. 'In the first place he would refuse, and that would be a great blow to me.'

'I could sound him,' said the old Duke. But the Prime Minister again shook his head and turned the subject. With all his timidity he was becoming autocratic and peevishly imperious. Then he went to Lord Cantrip, and when Lord Cantrip, with all the kindness which he could throw into his words, stated the reasons which induced him at present to decline office, he was again in despair. At last he asked Phineas Finn to move to the Admiralty, and, when our old friend somewhat reluctantly obeyed, of course he had the same difficulty in filling the office Finn had held. Other changes and other complications became necessary, and Mr Quintus Slide, who hated Phineas Finn even worse than the poor Duke, found ample scope for his patriotic indignation.

This all took place in the closing week of the Session, filling our poor Prime Minister with trouble and dismay, just when other people were complaining that there was nothing to think of and nothing to do. Men do not really like leaving London before the grouse calls them,--the grouse or rather the fashion of the grouse. And some ladies were very angry at being separated so soon from their swains in the city. The tradesmen too were displeased,--so that there were voices to re-echo the abuse of the "People's Banner". The Duchess had done her best to prolong the Session by another week, telling her husband of the evil consequences above suggested, but he had thrown wide his arms and asked her with affected dismay whether he was to keep Parliament sitting in order that more ribbons might be sold! 'There is nothing to be done,' said the Duke almost angrily.

'Then you should make something to be done,' said the Duchess, mimicking him.

CHAPTER 42

RETRIBUTION.

The Duchess had been at work with her husband for the last two months in the hope of renewing her autumnal festivities, but had been lamentably unsuccessful. The Duke had declared that there should be no more rural crowds, no repetition of what he called London turned loose on his own grounds. He could not forget the necessity which had been imposed upon him of turning Major Pountney out of his house, or the change that had been made in his gardens, or his wife's attempt to conquer him at Silverbridge. 'Do you mean,' she said, 'that we are to have nobody?' He replied that he thought it would be best to go to Matching. 'And live a Darby and Joan life?' said the Duchess.

'I said nothing of Darby and Joan. Whatever may be my feelings I hardly think that you are fitted for that kind of thing. Matching is not so big as Gatherum, but it is not a cottage. Of course you can ask your own friends.'

'I don't know what you mean by my own friends. I endeavour always to ask yours.'

'I don't know that Major Pountney, and Captain Gunner, and Mr Lopez were ever among the number of my friends.'

'I suppose you mean Lady Rosina?' said the Duchess. 'I shall be happy to have her at Matching, if you wish it.'

'I should like to see Lady Rosina De Courcy at Matching very much.'

'And is there to be nobody else? I'm afraid I should find it rather dull while you two were opening your hearts to each other.' Here he looked at her angrily. 'Can you think of anybody besides Lady Rosina?'

'I suppose you will wish to have Mrs Finn.'

'What an arrangement! Lady Rosina for you to flirt with, and Mrs Finn for me to grumble to.'

'That is an odious word,' said the Prime Minister.

'What;--flirting? I don't see anything bad about the word. The thing is dangerous. But you are quite at liberty if you don't go beyond Lady Rosina. I should like to know whether you would wish anybody else to come?' Of course he made no becoming answer to this question, and of course no becoming answer was expected. He knew that she was trying to provoke him because he would not let her do this year as she had done last. The house, he had no doubt, would be full to overflowing when he got there. He could not help that. But as compared with Gatherum Castle the house at Matching was small, and his domestic authority sufficed at any rate for shutting up Gatherum for the time.

I do not know whether at times her sufferings were not as acute as his own. He, at any rate, was Prime Minister, and it seemed to her that she was to be reduced to nothing. At the beginning of it all he had, with unwonted tenderness asked her for her sympathy in his undertaking, and, according to her power, she had given it to him with her whole heart. She had thought that she had seen a way by which she might assist him in his great employment, and she had worked at it like a slave. Every day she told herself that she did not, herself, love the Captain Gunners and Major Pountneys, nor the Sir Orlandos, nor, indeed the Lady Rosinas. She had not followed the bent of her own inclination when she had descended to sheets and towels, and busied herself to establish an archery-ground. She had not shot an arrow during the whole season, nor had she cared who had won and who had lost. It had not been for her own personal delight that she had kept open house for forty persons throughout four months of the year, in doing which he had never taken an ounce of labour off her shoulders by any single word or deed! It had all been done for his sake,--that his reign might be long and triumphant, that the world might say that his hospitality was noble and full, that his name might be in men's mouths, and that he might prosper as a British Minister. Such, at least, were the assertions which she made to herself, when she thought of her own grievances and her own troubles. And how she was angry with her husband. It was very well for him to ask for her sympathy, but he had none to give her in return! He could not pity her failures,--even though he had himself caused them! If he had a grain of intelligence about him he must, she thought, understand well enough how sore it must be for her to descend from her princely entertainments to solitude at Matching, and thus to own before all the world that she was beaten. Then when she asked him for advice, when she was really anxious to know how far she might go


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