Margaret reached out, her hand clasping his. 'It doesn't matter, Jamie.' There was emotion in her voice. 'Oh, I think it's a shame that Prime Ministers should be poor, when you've given-all you have and done so much unselfishly. Perhaps, someday, someone will change it. But for us it doesn't matter.' He had a sense of gratitude and love. How far, he wondered, could generous faith extend? He said, 'There's something else I should have told you years ago.' He held out the old convention programme – its written side uppermost – which Bonar
Deitz had brought him. ^ Margaret read the writing carefully. 'Wherever this came from,' she said, 'I think you should burn it now.' He asked curiously, 'You don't mind?' 'Yes,' she answered, 'I do mind in one way. You could have trusted me, at least.'
'I suppose I was ashamed.'
'Well,' Margaret said, 'I can understand that.'
As he hesitated, she went on, 'If it makes you feel any better, though, I don't believe this changed anything, except for Harvey Warrender. I always felt you were meant to be what you were; to do the things you did.' She handed the paper back, then added softly, 'Everyone does bad as well as good. Burn it, Jamie; you wiped it out long since.'
Crossing to the fireplace, he lit a match and watched the paper flare. He held it by a corner until flames approached his hand. Dropping it, he saw the rest consumed, then ground it into ashes with his heel.
Margaret was fumbling in her handbag. Producing a torn square of newsprint, she told him, 'I saw this in this morning's newspaper. I saved it for you.'
He took it and read: 'For those born under Sagittarius, today is a day of achievement. The tide is turning…' Without finishing, he crumpled the paper into a ball. 'We make our own fortunes,' he said. 'I made mine the day
I married you.'
At three minutes to four, in the Government lobby, Arthur Lexington was waiting.
The External Affairs Minister said, 'You've cut it fine.' James Howden nodded. 'There were things to be done.' 'I've bad news.' Lexington spoke quickly. 'Immediately after your speech, Nesbitson and the other five are planning to cross the floor of the House.' It was the ultimate blow. A cabinet split, with six resignations, was grave enough. For the same ex-ministers to cross the floor – the utter repudiation of Government and party – had 'connotations of disaster. Once, perhaps, in a generation, a single MP might cross the floor in a moment of high drama. But for a quarter of the Cabinet…
Howden thought grimly: it would focus attention – as nothing else – upon opposition to the Act of Union and to himself.
'They've made an offer,' Lexington said. 'If you'll postpone the announcement, they'll withhold action until we've met again.'
For an instant, Howden hesitated. It would be close, but he could still reach Washington in time. Milly had the open line…
Then he remembered the President's words: There is no time. By reckoning, reason, logic, we've used it all… If we do have time it will be by God's good grace… I'm praying for the gift of the year… The very best for the children; their 'children yet to come…
He said decisively, 'There will be no postponement.'
'That's what I thought,' Lexington said quietly. He added, 'I suppose we should go in.'
The House of Commons was packed – not a vacant seat on the floor of the House, and every gallery full. Public, Press, diplomats, distinguished visitors were crammed in every inch of room. There was a stir as the Prime Minister, with Arthur Lexington behind, came in. The back-bench MP on the Government side, who had been speaking earlier, was winding up, his eye upon the clock, his orders from the party whips, explicit.
For the second time since earlier in the afternoon, James Bowden bowed to the Speaker of the House and took his seat. He was conscious of the multitude of eyes upon him. Soon, as press wires hummed and teletypes spewed out their urgent news, it would be the eyes of North America, even of the world.
Above him, in the diplomatic gallery, he could see the Soviet Ambassador, stiffly unsmiling; the US Ambassador, Phillip Angrove; the British High Commissioner; the ambassadors of France, West Germany, Italy, India, Japan, Israel… a dozen others. Reports would go, by telegraph and courier, to every major capital tonight.
There was a rustle in the Speaker's gallery as Margaret took the front row seat reserved for her. She looked down and, as their eyes met, smiled. Across the centre aisle, Bonar Deitz was attentive, waiting. Hunched behind Deitz was the crippled Arnold Geaney, his bright eyes gleaming. On the Government side, to Howden's right, Adrian Nesbitson stared stiffly ahead, a touch of colour in his cheeks, his shoulders squared.
Respectfully, a page boy placed a note upon the Prime Minister's desk. From Milly Freedeman, it read: "The Joint Session of Congress is assembled, and the President has entered the Capitol. He was delayed by cheering crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue, but will begin his speech on time.'
Delayed by cheering crowds. James Howden felt a surge of envy. The President's strength was firm and growing, his own ebbing away.
And yet… No cause was ever lost until the final hour. If he were going down, he would make a fight until the end. Six cabinet ministers were not the nation, and he would take his case to the people, as he had before. Perhaps, after all, he could survive and win. A sense of force and confidence spread over him. Ten seconds to four. The House of Commons stilled. There were commonplaces here at times: dullness and mediocrity and petty bickerings. But the House could rise, when needed, to a sense of great occasion. It had done so now. This was a moment which history would remember, whatever years for history were left.
In a way, Howden thought, we are a mirror of life itself: our weakness and our smallnesses; and yet, always beyond them, the heights which human beings can attain. Freedom was a height, in whatever form and by whichever measure. If, to sustain the greater part, a little must be lost, it was a sacrifice worth making.
As best he could, he would find words to point the way.
In the Peace Tower above, the quarters chimed. Now, majestically, the great Bourdon Bell announced the hour. The Speaker intoned: 'The Prime Minister.' Deliberately, not knowing what the future held, he rose to address the House.