THE political event that caused the greatest sensation when I was a girl was the murder of Mr. Burke and Lord Frederick Cavendish on the 6th of May, 1882. We were in London at the time and the news came through on a Sunday. Alfred Lyttelton told me that Lady Frederick Cavendish’s butler had broken it to her by rushing into the room and saying:
“They have knifed his Lordship!”
The news spread from West to East and groups of people stood talking in the middle of the streets without their hats. Everyone felt that this terrible outrage was bound to have consequences far beyond the punishment of the criminals.
The murders in the Phoenix Park tended to confirm Gladstone in his growing belief that the Irish were people whom we did not understand and that they had better be encouraged to govern themselves. He helped to convert his colleagues to a like conviction, but Chamberlain and he disagreed.
Just as I ask myself what would have been the outcome of the Paris conference if the British had made President Wilson and his League a genuine first plank in their programme instead of a last postscript, so I wonder what would have happened if Joe had stuck to Gladstone at that time Gladstone had all the playing cards—just as President Wilson had—and was not likely to under-declare his hand, but he was a much older man and I cannot but think that, had they remained together, Chamberlain would not have been thrown into the arms of the Tories and the reversion of the premiership must have gone to him. It is curious to think that the Prime Ministers of the great Conservative party have so often been hired bravos, or “The Man from Blankley’s.” I wonder if it would not pay them better to run a man of their own.
When Mr. Gladstone went in for Home Rule, society was rent from top to bottom and even the most devoted friends quarrelled over it. Our family was as much divided as others were.
One day, when Lord Spencer was staying at Glen, I was sent out of the room at dinner for saying that Gladstone had made a Balaclava blunder with his stupid Home Rule; we had all got so heated over it that I was glad enough to obey my papa. A few minutes later he came out full of penitence to see if he had hurt my feelings; he found me sitting on the billiard table smoking one of his best cigars. I gave him*a good hug and told him I would join him when I had finished smoking; he said he was only too glad that I appreciated the cigars and returned to the dining-room in high spirits.
Events have proved that I was quite wrong about Home Rule. If any one had foreseen what the consequence was going to be of withholding from Ireland the self-government which they have demanded for generations, can it be doubted that Gladstone, had he been properly backed, would have settled the controversy for ever? As it is, our follies in Ireland have cursed the political life of this country for years. We have allowed this running sore to go on too long unhealed; it should have been referred to the League of Nations at the Paris Conference. Someone has said: "L’Irlande est une mar ladie incurable mais jamais mortelle;" and, if it can survive the present regime, no one will doubt the truth of the saying.
In May, June and July of 1914, within three months of the war, every donkey in London was cutting or trying to cut us for wishing to settle this very same Irish question. My presence at a ball with Elizabeth—who was seventeen—was considered not only provocative to others but a danger to myself. All the brains of all the landlords in Ireland, backed by half the brains of half the landlords in England, had ranged themselves behind Sir Edward Carson his army and his Covenant. Earnest Irish patriots had turned their fields into camps and houses into hospitals; the females had been making bandages for months, when von Kuhlmann, secretary of the German Embassy, here, went over to the Emerald Isle to pay his first visit. On his return he told me with conviction that, from all he had heard and seen out there during a long tour, nothing but a miracle could avert civil war in Ireland, to which I replied:
“Shocking as that would be, it will not break England.”
On the 30th of July, 1914, I went to the Speaker’s Gallery with a heavy heart to hear my husband make his terrible announcement. The gallery was packed with excited ladies who had been trying to rival each other in rudeness to me for months, all of them profoundly ignorant of the events which were taking place abroad and which were threatening the whole of Europe.
When Henry rose and told the house in the following grave speech that the Government of Ireland Amending Bill was postponed, there was a kind of hum of angry protest in the gallery as if from animals deprived of their food:
“I do not propose to make the Motion which stands in my name. By the indulgence of the House I should like to give the reason. We meet to-day under conditions of gravity which are almost unparalleled in the experience of every one of us. The issues of peace and war are hanging in the balance, and with them the risk of a catastrophe of which it is impossible to measure either the dimensions or the effects. In these circumstances it is of vital importance in the interests of the whole world that this country, which had no interests of its own directly at stake, should present a united front, and be able to speak and act with the authority of an undivided nation. If we were to proceed to-day with the first Order on the Paper, we should inevitably, unless the Debate was conducted in an artificial tone, be involved in acute controversy in regard to domestic differences whose importance to ourselves no one in any quarter of the House is disposed to disparage or to belittle. I need not say more than that such a use of our time at such a moment might have been injurious, and lastingly injurious, in its effects on the international situation. I have had the advantage of consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, who, I know, shares to the full the view which I have expressed. We therefore propose to put off for the present the consideration of the Second Reading of the Amending Bill—of course without prejudice to its future—in the hope that by a postponement of the discussion the patriotism of all parties will contribute what lies in our power, if not to avert, at least to circumscribe the calamities which threaten the world.”
When he sat down, the gallery was breathless with excitement. I was longing to escape. Neither Henry nor I had even tried to sleep the night before; our hearts and heads were throbbing with anguish and apprehension. I felt quite unequal to listening to any of the silly things that were likely to be said to me, but curiosity had got the better part of dignity, and the ladies who had been insulting me for months be gang pressing round, and, half-frightened half-bewildered, begged me to tell them what had happened. I looked at them in silence. I felt inclined to say, “What excuse have you for speaking to me now? Why should I minister to your ignorance?” But I contented myself by telling them that at any moment we might be plunged into a European war.
To digress here, I never realized how powerfully my friends and I were socially in the ’80’s till the political ostracisms over Home Rule began in 1914.
Mr. Balfour once told me that before I and my particular group of friends, generally known as the Souls, appeared in London, prominent politicians never met each other. He added :
“No history of our time will be complete unless the influence of the Souls upon society is dispassionately and accurately recorded.”
The same question of Home Rule that threw London back in 1914 to the old parochialisms was at its height in 1886 and 1887; but in our house in Grosvenor Square and, later, in those of my intimate friends—everyone met; Randolph Churchill, Gladstone, Asquith, Morley, Chamberlain, Balfour, Rosebery, Salisbury, Hartington, Harcourt, and I might have added jockeys, actors, the Prince of Wales, and every ambassador in Europe; we never cut anybody—not even our friends—or thought it amusing or distinguished to make people feel uncomfortable; and our decision not to sacrifice private friendship to public politics was envied in every capital in Europe; it made London the centre of the most interesting society in the world and gave men of different tempers and opposite beliefs an opportunity of discussing them without heat and without reporters. There is no individual or group powerful enough among us now to attempt a salon of this kind.
The daring of that change in London society cannot be over-estimated. The unconscious and accidental grouping of brilliant, sincere and loyal friends like ourselves gave rise to considerable jealousy; and this was why we were called the Souls.
It was at 40 Grosvenor Square that Gladstone met Randolph Churchill. The latter had made himself famous by attacking and abusing the Grand Old Man with such violence that everyone thought it impossible that they could ever meet each other again. I was not awed by this, but asked them both to a lunch, which they accepted. I need hardly say that, when they met, they talked with ease and courtesy. It was as impossible for Gladstone to be gauche or rude as it was for anyone to be ill at ease with Randolph Churchill. The news of their lunching with me spread all over London. The West End buzzed round me and I was plied with questions by the Duchess of Manchester and others as to whether Randolph was going to join the Liberal party. I refused to gratify their curiosity, but managed to leave a general impression that at any moment our ranks, having lost Joe Chamberlain, were going to be reinforced by Randolph Churchill.
The Duchess of Manchester, who became Duchess of Devonshire, was the last great political lady in London society as I have known it. The secret of her power lay not only in her position—many people are rich and grand, gay and clever, and live in big houses—but in her elasticity, her careful criticisms, her sense of justice and of fair play. She not only kept her own but other people’s secrets; and she added to considerable effrontery and intrepid courage a real kindness of heart. People were frightened of her; she had natural prestige. I have heard her reprove and mildly ridicule all her guests in turn, both at Compton Place and at Chatsworth. I asked her once what she thought of a famous Park Lane lady whose arrogance and vulgarity had annoyed us all, to which she answered:
“I dislike her too much to be a good judge of her.”
One evening when she was dining with us, we were talking tete-a-tete, while the men were still in the dining-room. She said:
“Margot, you and I are very much alike.”
It was impossible to imagine, two more different beings than myself and the Duchess—morally, physically or intellectually—so I asked her why she thought so, to which she answered:
“We have both married angels; when Hartington dies he will go straight to Heaven”—pointing her first finger high above her head—“and when Mr. Asquith dies he will go straight there too; not so Lord Salisbury,” pointing her finger with a diving movement to the floor.
You met everyone at her house, but she told me that till 1886-87, etc., political opponents did not meet and society was much duller.
One day in 1901, we were staying at Chatsworth. There was a huge house party, among others Arthur Balfour and Chamberlain. Before going down to dinner Henry came into my bedroom and told me he had had a telegram to say that Queen Victoria was very ill and he feared the worst; he added that it was a profound secret and that I was to tell no one. After dinner I was asked by the Duchess’s granddaughters, Lady Aldra and Lady Mary Acheson to join them planchette, so I put my hand on the board. My mind a blank, I was listening the Duchess. After the girls and I had scratched about on the board for a little time, one of took the paper and out loud:
“The Queen is dying.”
“What Queen that be?”
I looked closely at the paper and read distinctly out of a lot of hieroglyphics:
“The Queen is dying.
If the three of us had combined to try and write this and poked about all night, we could not have done it.
“I have had many interesting personal experiences of untraceable communication and telepathy, and I think that people who set themselves against all this side of life are excessively stupid; but I do not myself connect these experiences with religion any more than I would with Marconi.
At one time, under the influence of Mr. Percy Wyndham (the father of my sister-in-law, Lady Glenconnor), Frederick Myers and Edmund Gurney (the last-named was a dear friend with whom I corresponded for some time before he committed suicide), Laura and I went through a period of “spooks.” We attended every kind of seance and had the greatest fun. There was no more delightful companion than Mr. Percy Wyndham, he adored us, and though himself a firm believer in the spirit world, did not resent others disagreeing with him.
Then, as now, everything was conducted in the dark. The famous medium of that day was a Jewess, Madame Blavatsky by name. We were asked to meet her at tea—a merely private affair, to hear her views upon God—in the dining-room of a house in Brook Street where she was being entertained. On our arrival I had a good look at her heavy, white face—deeply pitted as a solitaire-board with small-pox—and wondered if she had come from Moscow or Margate. She was tightly surrounded by strenuous and palpitating ladies. Seeing no vacant chair near, I sat down on a low, stuffed seat in the window. After making a substantial tea, she was seen to give a sobbing and convulsive shudder. This caused the greatest excitement. The company closed up round her; when pressed to say why her bust had heaved and her eyelids flickered, she replied:
“A murderer has passed in the street below our windows.”
The awe-struck ladies questioned her reverently but ardently as to how she knew, whether she would recognize the guilty one if she saw him—had she visualized him?—and whether, after recognizing him, she would not feel it on her conscience if she did not give him up to the law. One lady proposed that we should all go round to the nearest police-station and added that a case of this kind, if proved, would do more to dispel doubts on spirits than all the successful raps, taps, turns and tables. Being the only person in the window at the time, I strained my eyes up and down Brook Street, but not a man or woman could be seen. Madam Blavatsky turned out to be an audacious swindler.
To return to Chatsworth, Our host the Duke cf Devonshire was a man whose like we shall never see again; he stood by himself and could have come from no country in the world but ours. He had the figure and appearance of a strong artisan, with the brevity and courtesy of a king and the jolly sense of fun of a Falstaff. He gave a great wheezy guffaw at all the right things and was possessed of endless wisdom; he was perfectly disengaged from himself, without touchiness or pettiness of any kind. Bryan, the great American speaker, who came over here and heard all our big men speak—Rosebery, Chamberlain, Asquith, etc.—when asked what he thought, said that a Chamberlain was not unknown to them in America, and that they could produce a Rosebery or an Asquith, but that a Hartington no man could find; his speaking was the finest example of pile-driving the world had ever seen.
The Duke and his wife were the social-political figures of my youth.
After a fire which we had at 20, Cavendish Square—where I have lived since I married—the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire came to see me. The Duke said, looking at the picture which Scott, the habit-maker, gave me for a wedding present.
“I am sorry your Longhi was burnt, but I would far rather have this racehorse.”
And the Duchess said:
“I am sorry that your night-nursery has all disappeared. I hope my little baby friend Elizabeth has suffered from no shock.”
When she got back to Devonshire House, she sent my baby Elizabeth two very tall, red wax candles, writing a note:
“When you brought your little girl here, she wanted these big candles in my boudoir and I gave them to her. They must have perished in the flames, so I send her some more.”
I was walking alone on the high road at Chatsworth one afternoon in winter, while the Duchess was playing bridge, when I saw the family barouche, a vast vehicle on C-springs, stuck in the middle of a ploughed field, the horses plunging about in unsuccessful efforts to drag the wheels out of the mud. The coachman was accompanied by a page of diminutive stature, called in those days a “tiger.” Knowing the coachman well and observing his dilemma, I said:
“Hullo, you’re in a nice fix! What induced you to go into that field?”
He explained that they had met a hearse in the narrow part of the road; and, as her Grace’s orders were that no carriage was to pass a funeral if it could be avoided he had turned into the field, where the mud was so deep and heavy that they were stuck. It took me some time to get assistance; but after I had unfastened the bearing-reins and collected some yokels, the coachman, carriage and I returned safely to the house.
Death was the only thing of which I ever saw the Duchess afraid. When I referred to the carriage incident and chafed her, she said:
“My dear child, do you mean to tell me you would not mind dying? What do you feel about it?”
I answered her in all sincerity:
“More than anything in the world, but not because I am afraid.”
She asked me what I cared for most after hunting and I said politics. I told her that I had always said when I was a girl that I would marry a Prime Minister, and we had many discussions together about politics and people.
I will go back to my early connection with politicians.
We were not popular in Peebleshire. My papa and his vital family disturbed the country conventions; and all Liberals were looked upon as aliens by the Scottish aristocracy of those days. At election times the mill-hands of both sexes were locked up for fear of rows; in spite of this the locks were broken and the rows were perpetual. When my father turned out the sitting Tory, Sir Graham Montgomery, in 1880, there were high jinks in Peebles. I pinned the Liberal colors with the deftness of a burglar on to the coat-tails of several of the unsuspecting Tory landlords who had come from great distances to vote. This delighted the electors, most of whom were feather-stitching up and down the High Street, more familiar with drink than jokes.
The first politician of note that came to Glen was Sir Charles Dilke. Just as, later on, among my friends—the set that were called the Souls—we discussed which would go furthest, George Curzon, George Wyndham or Harry Gust, so in those days people were asking the same question of each other about Chamberlain and Dilke. To my mind it wanted no witch to predict that Chamberlain would not only beat Dilke but other men; and Gladstone made a profound mistake in leaving him out of his government in 1885.
Chamberlain never deceived himself, which is more than can be said of some of the other famous politicians of that day. He also possessed a rare measure of control; self-mastery was his idiosyncrasy and was particularly. noticeable in his speaking. He encouraged in himself such scrupulous economy of gesture, movement, color and eloquence that, after hearing him many times, I came to the definite conclusion that Chamberlain’s opponents were snowed under by his accumulated moderation. Whatever Dilke’s native impulses were, no one could say that he controlled them. Added to a defective sense of humor, he lacked a key to his mind, which makes every one ultimately dull; he was fundamentally commonplace.
My father, being an ardent Radical with a passion for everyone that Gladstone patronized, had made elaborate preparations for Dilke’s visit; he was given a warm welcome on his arrival and we all sat down to tea. After hearing him talk uninterruptedly for hours and watching his stuffy face and slow, protruding eyes, I said to Laura:
“He may be a very clever man, but he has not a ray of humor and hardly any sensibility. If he were a horse I would not buy him.”
She entirely agreed with me. On the second night of his visit, our distinguished guest met Laura in the passage on her way to bed. He said to her:
“If you kiss me I will give you a signed photograph of myself.”
To which she answered :
“It is awfully good of you, Sir Charles, but I would rather not: for what on earth should I do with the photograph?”
Verses from Gladstone
MR. GLADSTONE was the dominating politician of the day and excited more adoration and hatred than anyone. He was a very big figure, independent of the press and indifferent to public opinion, once he had convinced himself that what he meant to do was right. After my first visit to Hawarden, he sent me the following poem, which he had written the night before I left:
“When Parliament ceases and comes the recess,
And we seek in the country rest after distress,
As a rule upon visitors place an embargo
But make an exception in favor of Margot.
“For she brings such a treasure of movement and life,
Fun, spirit and stir, to folk weary with strife,
Though young and though fair, who can hold such a cargo
Of all the good qualities going as Margot?
“Uphill and down dale, ’tis a capital name
To blossom in friendship, to sparkle in fame
There’s but one objection can light upon Margot,
Its likeness in rhyming, not meaning, to argot.
Never mind, never mind, we will give it the slip,
’Tis not argot the language, but Argo the ship;.
And, by sea or by land, I will swear you may far go,
Before you can hit on a double for Margot
“December 17th, 1889. “W.E.G.”
I received this at Glen by the second post on the day of my arrival. I instantly wrote to our dear old friend, Godfry Webb, who was always under suspicion of playing jokes upon us, to say that he had overdone it this time, as Gladstone had a far better hand-writing than this. When I found out I was wrong, I wrote the following:
“Very dear and honored Mr. Gladstone,
“At first I thought your poem must have been a joke, written by some one who knew of my feelings for you and my visit to Hawarden; but, when I saw the signature and the post mark, I was convinced it could be but from you. It has had the intoxicating effect of turning my head with pleasure; if I began I should never cease thanking you. Getting four rhymes to my name emphasizes your uncommon genius, I think, and Argo the ship is quite a new idea and a charming one. I love the third verse—that Margot is a capital name to blossom in friendship and sparkle in fame. You must allow me to say that you are ever such a dear. It is impossible to believe that you will be eighty to-morrow, but I like to think of it for it gives most people an opportunity of seeing how life should be lived without being spent.
“There is no blessing, beauty or achievement which I do not wish you.
“In truth and sincerity.
I HAVE heard people say that the Gladstone family never allowed him to read a newspaper with anything hostile to himself in it; all this is the greatest rubbish; no one interfered with his reading. The same silly things were said about the great men of that day as of this and will continue to be said; and the same credulous geese will believe them. I never observed that Gladstone was more easily flattered than other men. He was more flattered and by more people, because he was a bigger man and lived a longer life; but he was remarkably free from vanity of the common kind. He would always laugh at a good thing, if you chose the right moment in which to tell it to him. He and I were talking of Carlyle; I told him that a friend of Carlyle’s, a very old man whom I had met at Balliol, had told me that one of his favorite stories was of an Irishman who, when asked where he was driving his pig to, said:
“But,” said his interlocutor, “your head is turned to Mullingar.”
To which the man replied:
“Whist! He’ll hear ye!”
This delighted Mr. Gladstone. I also told him one of Jowett’s favorite stories of how George IV. went down to Portsmouth for some big function and met a famous admiral of the day; he clapped him on the back and said, in a loud voice:
“Well, my dear Admiral! I hear you are the greatest blackguard in Portsmouth.”
Whereupon the Admiral drew himself up, saluted and said:
“I hope, sire, you have not come down to take away my reputation.”
I find in an old diary an account of a drive I had with Mr. Gladstone after my sister Laura died. This is what I wrote:
“On Saturday, 29th May, 1886, Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone came to pay us a visit at 40, Grosvenor Square. Papa had been arranging the drawing-room preparatory to their arrival and was in high spirits: I was afraid he might resent my wish to take Mr. Gladstone up to my room after lunch and talk to him alone. However, Aunty Pussy—as we called Mrs. Gladstone—with a great deal of winking, led papa away, and said to mamma:
“ ‘William and Margot are going to have a little talk!’
“I had not met or seen Mr. Gladstone since Laura’s death.
“When he had climbed up to my boudoir he walked to the window and admired the trees in the square, deploring their uselessness and asking whether the streetlamp—which crossed the square path in the line of our eyes—was a child.
“I asked him if he would approve of the square railings being taken away and the grass and trees made into a place with seats, such as you see in all foreign towns—not merely for the convenience of sitting down, but for the happiness of invalids and idlers who court the shade or the sun. This met with his approval, but he said with some truth that the only people who could do this—or prevent it—were ‘the resident aristocracy’.
“He asked if Laura had often spoken of death; I said yes, and that she had written about it in a way that was neither morbid nor terrible. I showed him some prayers she had scribbled into a book, against worldliness and high spirits. He listened with reverence and interest; I don’t think I ever saw his face wear the expression that Millais painted in our picture as distinctly as when, closing the book, he said to me:
“ ‘It requires very little faith to believe that so rare a creature as your sister Laura is blessed and with God.’
“Aunt Pussy came into the room and the conversation turned to L. Oliphant’s objection to visiting the graves of those we love. They disagreed with this and he said:
“I think, on the contrary, one should encourage one’s self to find consolation in the few tangible memories that one can claim; it should not lessen faith in their spirits; and there is surely a silent lesson to be learnt from the tomb-stone.’ ”
“Papa and mamma came in and we all went down to tea. After tea I drove him back to Downing Street in my phaeton, round the park and down Knightsbridge. I told him I found it difficult to judge of people’s brains if they were very slow.
“Mr. Gladstone—“I wish then that you had had the privilege of knowing Mr. Cobden; he was at once the slowest and quite one of the cleverest men I ever met. Personally I find it far easier to judge of brains than character; perhaps it is that, in my line of life, motives are very hard to fathom and constant association with intelligence and cultivation leads to a fair toleration and criticism of all sorts and conditions of men.’
“He talked of Bright and Chamberlain and Lord Dalhousie, he said, was one of the best and most conscientious men he had ever known. He told me that he had been personally asked for every great office in the state, including even the Archbishopric of Canterbury, while he was Prime Minister, and this not by maniacs but by highly respectable men, sometimes his friends. He said that Goschen’s critical power was sound and subtle, but that he spoilt his speeches by a touch of bitterness. Mr. Parnell, he said, was a man of genius born to great things; he had power, decision and reserve; he saw things as they were and had confidence in himself. (Ten days after this drive Mr. Gladstone made his last great speech on Irish Home Rule.)
“I made him smile by telling him how Lord Kimberly told me that, one day in Dublin, when he was Viceroy, he received a letter which began :
“ ‘To-morrow we intend to kill you, but we would like you to know there is nothing personal in it!”
“He talked all the way down Piccadilly about the Irish character, its wit, charm, grace and intelligence. I nearly landed my phaeton into an omnibus in my anxiety to point out the ingratitude and want of purpose of the Irish; but he said that in the noblest of races the spirit of self-defence had bred mean vices and that generation after generation in Ireland were born with their blood discolored by hatred of the English government.
“ ‘Tories have no hope, no faith, he continued, and the best of them have class-interest; the spirit of antiquity lies in their hearts, but the last has been forgotten and only class interest remains. Disraeli was a great Tory. It grieves me to see people believing in Randolph Churchill as his successor, for he has none of the genius, patience or insight, all of which Disraeli had in no small degree.’
“Mr. Gladstone told me that he was giving a dinner to the Liberal party that night.
“ ‘If Hartington is in a good humor, he added, I intend to say to him;
“ ‘Don’t move a vote of want of confidence in me after dinner, or you will very likely carry it.’
“He laughed at this and told me some days after that Lord Hartington had been delighted with the idea.
“He strongly advised me to read a little book by one Miss Tollet, called ‘Country Conversations,’ which had been privately printed. He deplored the vast amount of poor literature that was circulated, ‘when an admirable little volume like this cannot be got by the most ardent admirers and the authoress is dead—’
“Mr. Jowett has since given me the book, which I find delightful. We drove through the Green Park. I pulled up on the Horse Guards’ Parade at the garden-gate of 10, Downing Street. He got out of the phaeton, unlocked the gate and, turning round, stood with his hat off and his grey hair blowing over his forehead; a dark home-spun cape was round his shoulders. He said with great grace that he had enjoyed his drive immensely that he hoped it would occur again and that I had a way of saying things and a tone in my voice that would always remind him of my sister Laura. His dear old face looked furrowed with care; the outline of it stood out sharp as a profile. I said good-bye and drove away; perhaps it was the light of the setting sun, or the wind, or perhaps something else, but my eyes were full of tears.”
The Ugliest Man in the House
MY HUSBAND in discussing with me Gladstone's sense of humor, told me the following story:
During the Committee Stage of the Home Rule in the session of 1893, I was one evening in a very thin House seated by the side of Mr. Gladstone on the Treasury Bench, of which we were the sole occupants. His eyes were half-closed and he seemed to be absorbed in following the course of a dreary discussion on the supremacy of Parliament. Suddenly he turned to me with an air of great animation and said, in his most solemn tones, ‘Have you ever considered who is the ugliest man in the party opposite?’
Mr. Asquith—“Certainly: it is without doubt X.” (naming a famous Anglo-Indian statesman).
Mr. Gladstone—“You are quite wrong. X. is no doubt an ugly fellow, but much uglier is Y.” (Naming a Queen’s Counsel of these days.)
Mr. Asquith—“Why should you give him the preference?”
Mr. Gladstone—“Apply a very simple test: Imagine them both magnified on a colossal scale. X.’s ugliness would then begin to look dignified and even impressive, while the more you enlarged Y., the meaner he would become.”
Seven Premiers I have Known
I HAVE known seven Prime Ministers, Gladstone, Salisbury, Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman, Arthur Balfour, Asquith and Lloyd George, every one of them as different from all the others as possible. I asked Arthur Balfour once if there was much difference between him and his uncle, I said:
“Lord Salisbury does not care much for literature—I don’t mean Jane Austen, Scott, Saint Beuve, and all our favorites—but he is not a scholar: he does not care for Plato, Homer, Virgil or any of the great classics. He has a wonderful sense of humor and is a beautiful writer of fine style, but he is above everything a man of science and a churchman. All this can be said equally well of you.”
To which he repiied:
“There is a difference. My uncle is a Tory—and I am a Liberal.”
I delighted in his uncle, the late Lord Salisbury—delighted both in his speaking and in his conversation. I had a kind of feeling that he could always score off me with such grace, good-humor and wit that I would never discover it. He asked me once what my husband though of his son Hugh’s speaking, to which I answered: “I will not tell you, because you don’t know anything about my husband, and would not value his opinion. You know nothing whatever either about our House of Commons, which is a great deal more interesting than your House. Only the other day you said in public that you had never even seen Parnell.”
Lord Salisbury (pointing to his stomach)—“My figure is not adapted for the narrow seats in your peers’ gallery, but you do me injustice; I was one of the first to predict both in private and in public that Mr Asquith would have a very great future; I see no one of his generation or even among the younger men at all comparable to him: will you not gratify my curiosity by telling me what he thinks of my son Hugh’s speaking?”
I was luckily able to say that my husband considered Lord Hugh the best speaker in the House of Commons. Lord Salisbury said :
“Would he think so if he spoke on other subjects than the Church?”
I assured him that he had heard him on Free Trade and many subjects and that his opinion remained unchanged; that he thought that if he could cover more ground and really work, both he and his brother, Bob Cecil, had real futures. I asked Lord Salisbury if he had ever heard Chamberlain speak (at the time I am writing Chamberlain was Secretary of State for the Colonies).
Lord Salisbury—“It is curious you should ask me this: I heard him for the first time this afternoon.”
Margot—“Where did you hear him and what was he speaking about?”
Lord Salisbury—“I heard him at Grosvenor House. (Reflectively) Let me think: what was he speaking about? Australian washerwomen, I think... or some such thing!"
Margot—“What did you think of it?”
Lord Salisbury—"He seems a good business-like speaker.”
Margot—“I suppose at this moment Mr. Chamberlain is as much hated as Gladstone ever was?”
Lord Salisbury—“There is a difference. Mr. Gladstone was hated, but he was very much loved. Does anyone love Mr. Chamberlain?”
One day after this conversation he came to see me in Cavendish Square bringing with him a signed photograph of himself; it was in the year 1904, almost at the height of the controversy over Protection. The Tory majority was getting smaller every day; Arthur Balfour—who was Prime Minister—was like an engineer, mending the taps and the bells, but, as the house was falling over his head, the work was not effective. It was difficult to see whether any architect and engineer rolled into one could have saved the building when Joe was pulling out the props.
Knowing that Lord Salisbury was a Free.Trader, I did not like to mention the political situation; but, guessing my embarrassment, he opened the conversation by asking me if I thought that this fiscal controversy would come to anything. I was shocked by his apparent detachment:
Margot—“Do you mean to tell me you don’t think there is any danger of the country becoming Protectionist?”
Lord Salisbury—(with a sweet smile) “Not the slightest! There will always, be a certain number of foolish people who will be Protectionists but they will easily be overpowered by the wise ones. Have you ever known a man of first rate intellect in this country who was a Protectionist?”
Margot—“I never thought of it, but Lord Milner is the only one I can think of for the moment.”
He entirely agreed with me and then said:
“No, you need not be anxious. Free Trade will always win against Protection in this country; this will not be the trouble of the future.”
Margot—“Then what will be?”
Lord Salisbury—“The House of Lords is the difficulty that I foresee will arise.”
I was surprised and quite incredulous.
“Dear Lord Salisbury! ” I said, “I have heard of the House of Lords all my life. But, stupid as it has been, no one will ever have the power to alter it; why do you prophesy that it will cause trouble?”
Lord Salisbury—“You may think me vain, Mrs. Asquith, but as long as I am there nothing will happen. I understand my lords thoroughly, but when I go, mistakes will be made: the House of Lords will come into conflict with the House of Commons.”
Margot—“Is it really so ignorant! It must be your fault; you should have taught it better ways!”
Lord Salisbury (smiling)—“Perhaps. What do you think will be the next subject of controversy?”
Margot—“The Church of England—if it, is true, what you say, that Protection is impossible in this country.”
I proceeded to denounce the constant building of churches while the parsons’ pay was so small. I said that few rising men could afford to go into the Church at all and the assumed voices, both in the reading and in the preaching, got on the nerves of anyone who cared to listen. The churches were becoming emptier every day. I added:
“Christ says, ‘Thou shall call no man lord but Me,’ and then you see lords and palaces and all sorts of folly, plus narrowness, dullness and affectation.”
He listened with patience to all this, and then got up and said:
“Now I must go. I am afraid I shall not see you again.”
Something in his voice made me ask him anxiously:
“You aren’t ill, are you?”
To which he replied:
“Yes, I am ill.”
I never saw him again; and, when I heard of his death, I was vexed with myself for having seen so little of him in my life.