Sybil, or The Two Nations

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Chapter 14

Two and even three days had rolled over since Mr Tadpole had reported Sir Robert on his way to the palace, and marvellously little had transpired. It was of course known that a cabinet was in formation, and the daily papers reported to the public the diurnal visits of certain noble lords and right honourable gentlemen to the new first minister. But the world of high politics had suddenly become so cautious that nothing leaked out. Even gossip was at fault. Lord Marney had not received the Buckhounds, though he never quitted his house for ride or lounge without leaving precise instructions with Captain Grouse as to the identical time he should return home, so that his acceptance should not be delayed. Ireland was not yet governed by the Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine, and the Earl de Mowbray was still ungartered. These three distinguished noblemen were all of them anxious—a little fidgetty; but at the same time it was not even whispered that Lord Rambrooke or any other lord had received the post which Lord Marney had appropriated to himself; nor had Lord Killcroppy had a suspicious interview with the prime minister, which kept the Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine quiet though not easy; while not a shadow of coming events had glanced over the vacant stall of Lord Ribbonville in St George's Chapel, and this made Lord de Mowbray tranquil, though scarcely content. In the meantime, daily and hourly they all pumped Mr Tadpole, who did not find it difficult to keep up his reputation for discretion; for knowing nothing, and beginning himself to be perplexed at the protracted silence, he took refuge in oracular mystery, and delivered himself of certain Delphic sentences which adroitly satisfied those who consulted him while they never committed himself.

At length one morning there was an odd whisper in the circle of first initiation. The blood mantled on the cheek of Lady St Julians; Lady Deloraine turned pale. Lady Firebrace wrote confidential notes with the same pen to Mr Tadpole and Lord Masque. Lord Marney called early in the morning on the Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine, and already found Lord de Mowbray there. The clubs were crowded even at noon. Everywhere a mysterious bustle and an awful stir.

What could be the matter? What has happened?

"It is true," said Mr Egerton to Mr Berners at Brookes'.

"Is it true?" asked Mr Jermyn of Lord Valentine at the Canton.

"I heard it last night at Crockford's," said Mr Ormsby; "one always hears things there four-and-twenty hours before other places."

The world was employed the whole of the morning in asking and answering this important question "Is it true?" Towards dinner time, it was settled universally in the affirmative, and then the world went out to dine and to ascertain why it was true and how it was true.

And now what really had happened? What had happened was what is commonly called a "hitch." There was undoubtedly a hitch somewhere and somehow; a hitch in the construction of the new cabinet. Who could have thought it? The whig ministers it seems had resigned, but somehow or other had not entirely and completely gone out. What a constitutional dilemma? The Houses must evidently meet, address the throne, and impeach its obstinate counsellors. Clearly the right course, and party feeling ran so high, that it was not impossible that something might be done. At any rate, it was a capital opportunity for the House of Lords to pluck up a little courage and take what is called, in high political jargon, the initiative. Lord Marney at the suggestion of Mr Tadpole was quite ready to do this; and so was the Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine, and almost the Earl de Mowbray.

But then when all seemed ripe and ready, and there appeared a probability of the "Independence of the House of Lords" being again the favourite toast of conservative dinners, the oddest rumour in the world got about, which threw such a ridicule on these great constitutional movements in petto, that even with the Buckhounds in the distance and Tadpole at his elbow, Lord Marney hesitated. It seemed, though of course no one could for a moment credit it, that these wrong-headed, rebellious ministers who would not go out, wore—petticoats!

And the great Jamaica debate that had been cooked so long, and the anxiously expected, yet almost despaired of, defection of the independent radical section, and the full-dressed visit to the palace that had gladdened the heart of Tadpole—were they all to end in this? Was Conservatism, that mighty mystery of the nineteenth century—was it after all to be brained by a fan!

Since the farce of the "Invincibles" nothing had ever been so ludicrously successful.

Lady Deloraine consoled herself for the "Bedchamber Plot" by declaring that Lady St Julians was indirectly the cause of it, and that had it not been for the anticipation of her official entrance into the royal apartments the conspiracy would not have been more real than the Meal-tub plot or any other of the many imaginary machinations that still haunt the page of history, and occasionally flit about the prejudiced memory of nations. Lady St Julians on the contrary wrung her hands over the unhappy fate of her enthralled sovereign, deprived of her faithful presence and obliged to put up with the society of personages of whom she knew nothing and who called themselves the friends of her youth. The ministers who had missed, especially those who had received their appointments, looked as all men do when they are jilted—embarrassed and affecting an awkward ease; as if they knew something which, if they told, would free them from the supreme ridicule of their situation, but which, as men of delicacy and honour, they refrained from revealing. All those who had been in fluttering hopes, however faint, of receiving preferment, took courage now that the occasion had passed, and loudly complained of their cruel and undeniable deprivation. The constitution was wounded in their persons. Some fifty gentlemen who had not been appointed under secretaries of state, moaned over the martyrdom of young ambition.

"Peel ought to have taken office," said Lord Marney. "What are the women to us?"

"Peel ought to have taken office," said the Duke of Fitz-Aquitaine. "He should have remembered how much he owed to Ireland."

"Peel ought to have taken office," said Lord de Mowbray. "The garter will become now a mere party badge."

Perhaps it may be allowed to the impartial pen that traces these memoirs of our times to agree, though for a different reason, with these distinguished followers of Sir Robert Peel. One may be permitted to think that, under all circumstances, he should have taken office in 1839. His withdrawal seems to have been a mistake. In the great heat of parliamentary faction which had prevailed since 1831, the royal prerogative, which, unfortunately for the rights and liberties and social welfare of the people, had since 1688 been more or less oppressed, had waned fainter and fainter. A youthful princess on the throne, whose appearance touched the imagination, and to whom her people were generally inclined to ascribe something of that decision of character which becomes those born to command, offered a favourable opportunity to restore the exercise of that regal authority, the usurpation of whose functions has entailed on the people of England so much suffering and so much degradation. It was unfortunate that one who, if any, should have occupied the proud and national position of the leader of the tory party, the chief of the people and the champion of the throne, should have commenced his career as minister under Victoria by an unseemly contrariety to the personal wishes of the Queen. The reaction of public opinion, disgusted with years of parliamentary tumult and the incoherence of party legislation, the balanced state in the kingdom of political parties themselves, the personal character of the sovereign—these were all causes which intimated that a movement in favour of prerogative was at hand. The leader of the tory party should have vindicated his natural position, and availed himself of the gracious occasion: he missed it; and as the occasion was inevitable, the whigs enjoyed its occurrence. And thus England witnessed for the first time the portentous anomaly of the oligarchical or Venetian party, which had in the old days destroyed the free monarchy of England, retaining power merely by the favour of the Court.

But we forget, Sir Robert Peel is not the leader of the Tory party: the party that resisted the ruinous mystification that metamorphosed direct taxation by the Crown into indirect taxation by the Commons; that denounced the system that mortgaged industry to protect property; the party that ruled Ireland by a scheme which reconciled both churches, and by a series of parliaments which counted among them lords and commons of both religions; that has maintained at all times the territorial constitution of England as the only basis and security for local government, and which nevertheless once laid on the table of the House of Commons a commercial tariff negociated at Utrecht, which is the most rational that was ever devised by statesmen; a party that has prevented the Church from being the salaried agent of the state, and has supported through many struggles the parochial polity of the country which secures to every labourer a home.

In a parliamentary sense, that great party has ceased to exist; but I will believe it still lives in the thought and sentiment and consecrated memory of the English nation. It has its origin in great principles and in noble instincts; it sympathises with the lowly, it looks up to the Most High; it can count its heroes and its martyrs; they have met in its behalf plunder, proscription, and death. Nor when it finally yielded to the iron progress of oligarchical supremacy, was its catastrophe inglorious. Its genius was vindicated in golden sentences and with fervent arguments of impassioned logic by St John; and breathed in the intrepid eloquence and patriot soul of William Wyndham. Even now it is not dead, but sleepeth; and in an age of political materialism, of confused purposes and perplexed intelligence, that aspires only to wealth because it has faith in no other accomplishment, as men rifle cargoes on the verge of shipwreck, Toryism will yet rise from the tomb over which Bolingbroke shed his last tear, to bring back strength to the Crown, liberty to the Subject, and to announce that power has only one duty—to secure the social welfare of the PEOPLE.

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