House of Cards [CHAPTER 48]



Forty-Eight


Westminster is a zoo. There you will find great beasts on display, penned in behind bars, their strength drained, their spirits slowly crushed, objects of derision for those of small minds and profound disinterest for those of great thoughts.

  I prefer the jungle.


Tuesday, November 30

The morning newspapers fell onto the doormats of a million homes like a death knell for Samuel’s candidacy. One by one, editor by editor, they lined up behind Urquhart, not just the titles that Landless had his fingers on but most of the others, too. Sometimes even editors like to play safe, swim with the tide, and it was flowing inexorably in Urquhart’s direction.

  Only two newspapers among the quality press swam on their own, the Guardian because it was bloody minded and insisted on backing Samuel, and the Independent because it had too many minds and so refused to endorse any one.

  The mood was reflected in the two camps, Urquhart’s supporters finding it difficult to hide their air of confidence, Samuel’s already working on excuses.

  Even before the appointed hour of 10:00 a.m. a large group of MPs had gathered outside the oak doors of Committee Room 14, each hoping to be the first to cast a vote and qualify for a footnote in history. The thickening snow that was beginning to blanket Westminster gave the proceedings a surrealistic calm. It would be Christmas soon, the lights had already been switched on in Oxford Street. Peace on earth. In a few hours the battle would be over, with public handshakes and congratulations all round when the result was announced, even as in private the victors planned their recriminations and the losers plotted revenge.

* * *

Mattie hadn’t managed any sleep. She felt overwhelmed, there were too many ideas wrestling with each other inside her head. Why was she treating Johnnie so badly? Why was she falling for a man like Urquhart she could never have? Why couldn’t she see the pattern in what was going on around her? Too many dead ends. They made her feel a failure.

  She had spent the morning trudging heedlessly through the snow searching for inspiration but ending up soaked, her feet frozen with her hair left in damp strings. It was early afternoon before she turned up at Westminster. The snow had stopped falling and the skies were clearing to blue crystal, leaving the capital looking like a scene from a Victorian Christmas card. The Houses of Parliament appeared particularly resplendent, like some wondrous gingerbread cake covered in white icing. The Union flag on Victoria Tower stretched proudly as Concorde flew overhead on its flight path to Heathrow. In the churchyard of St. Margaret’s, nestling under the wing of the great medieval Abbey, carol singers filled the air with song and rattled collecting tins at tourists. None of this she noticed.

  Celebrations were already under way in various parts of the House of Commons. As she made her way beneath the shadow of Big Ben, one of her colleagues from the press gallery rushed over to share the latest news. “About eighty percent of them have already voted. Urquhart’s home and dry. It looks like a landslide.” He cast a curious eye at her. “Christ, Mattie, you look awful,” he said, before scurrying on.

  Mattie felt a flutter of excitement. With Francis in Downing Street she had a chance of rebuilding her life. Yet even as she thought of such things a cold hand of doubt closed around her. She didn’t deserve it. Foolishly, early that morning, she had walked toward his house in Cambridge Street, drawn to him, desperate for his wisdom, only to see him on his distant doorstep kissing his wife Mortima for the benefit of cameras. Mattie had put her head down and hurried quickly away, ashamed of herself.

  Yet her doubts, and her needs, had grown. Some wickedness, some outrage was taking place but the world seemed stubbornly blind to it. Surely Francis would understand, know what to do. She knew she would never be with him on her own again, not once he was in Downing Street surrounded by body guards and diary secretaries. If she were to get to him, it had to be now. Her only chance.

  Urquhart wasn’t in his room, nor in any of the bars or restaurants of the Palace of Westminster. She asked in vain around the corridors but no one seemed able to help. She was about to conclude that he had left the premises, for lunch or interviews, when one of the friendly Palace bobbies told her he’d seen Urquhart not ten minutes earlier headed in the direction of the roof garden. She had no idea that such a place existed, or even where it was.

“That’s right, miss,” he laughed, “there aren’t many who do know about our roof garden. Only the staff, really, not the politicians. We like to keep quiet about it in case they all rush up there and spoil it for us. But Mr. Urquhart, he’s different, seems to know every corner of this place.”

“Where is it? Will you tell me?”

“It’s directly above the Chamber itself. A roof terrace where we’ve put some tables and chairs so that in summer the staff can catch a little sun, take sandwiches and a flask of coffee. It’ll be empty this time of year, though. Except for Mr. Urquhart, that is. I guess he wants to do a bit of pondering on his own. Chosen the right place for it, he has. Now don’t you go disturbing him or after tomorrow I’ll have to arrest you!”

  She had smiled, he had succumbed, and now she was following his directions, using the stairs past the Strangers’ Gallery and up again until she had passed the paneled dressing room reserved for the Palace doorkeepers. Then she saw a fire door that had been left ajar. As she stepped through it she emerged onto the roof, bathed in sunlight, and let out a gasp of awe. The view was magnificent. Directly in front of her, towering into the cloudless sky and made brilliant in the sunshine and snow, was the honey-drenched tower of Big Ben. Every detail of the beautifully crafted stone stood out with stunning clarity and she could see the tremor of the great clock hands as the ancient mechanism pursued its remorseless course. To her left she found the vastness of the tiled roof of Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace, survivor of fire, war, bomb, riot, and revolution; to her right the irrepressible Thames ebbed and eddied in its own timeless fashion.

  There were fresh footsteps in the snow. He was standing by the balustrade at the far end of the terrace, looking out beyond the rooftops of Whitehall to the white stone walls of the Home Office. Behind it lay Buckingham Palace where, later that evening, he would be driven in triumph.

  She trod in his footsteps, for comfort. He turned suddenly, startled, when he heard the creaking of her step.

“Mattie!” he exclaimed. “This is a surprise.”

  She advanced toward him, reaching out, but something in his eyes told her this was neither the time nor the place. Her arms fell to her side.

“I had to see you, Francis.”

“But of course. What is it you want, Mattie?”

“I’m not entirely sure. To say good-bye, perhaps. I don’t think we’re going to get much chance to see each other anymore, not like…”

“Our time the other night? I think you may be right, Mattie. But we will always share that memory. And you will always have my friendship.”

“I also wanted to warn you.”

“About what?”

“Something evil is going on.”

“Where?”

“All around us—around you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There have been so many leaks.”

“Politics is a soggy business.”

“Patrick Woolton was blackmailed.”

“Really?” He looked at her in sudden alarm, as though he had been slapped.

“The Collingridges were set up over the Renox shares.”

  He was silent now.

“And I think someone killed Roger O’Neill.” She looked at the incredulity bubbling up in his eyes. “You think I’m mad?”

“No, not at all. You looked distressed, not mad. But that’s a very serious allegation, Mattie. Do you have any sort of proof?”

“A little. Not enough. Not yet.”

“So who is behind it all?”

“I don’t know. For a while I thought it might be Teddy Williams, it might still be, but I can’t do this on my own, Francis. I don’t even have a newspaper to write for any more. I was hoping you might help.”

“And how would you like me to help, Mattie?”

“I believe one man was behind it all. He used Roger O’Neill, then got rid of him. If we can find one link in the chain, just one, perhaps the shares, then it will lead to the others, and everything will come out, it always does, and we can—”

  She was babbling as it all tumbled forth. He stepped toward her and held her arms, squeezing them gently, forcing her to stop.

“You look tired, Mattie. You’re very upset.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“Far from it. You may have stepped upon the greatest story you will ever write. Westminster is a dark and sometimes dirty corner where men trade their principles for a few years in power. It’s a very old game. But it’s also a dangerous game. You must be very careful, Mattie. If you’re right and someone has been responsible for Roger O’Neill’s death, that places you in the line of fire, too.”

“What should I do, Francis?”

“Will you allow me to take charge of this for you, for a little while? With luck by tomorrow I shall be in a position to ask all sorts of questions, put a few ferrets down the rabbit holes. Let’s see what comes up.”

“Would you?”

“For you I’d do just about anything, Mattie, surely you must know that.”

  Her head fell forward onto his chest in gratitude and release. “You are a very special man, Francis. Better than all the rest.”

You might say that, Mattie.”

“There are many people who are saying that.”

“But you know I couldn’t possibly comment.”

  He smiled, their faces only inches apart.

“You must trust me completely on this, Mattie. Will you? Not a word to anyone else.”

“Of course.”

“And one weekend, very soon, during the Christmas break, perhaps you can come to my country house. I’ll make some excuse about needing to clear some papers from it. My wife will be listening to Wagner in some corner of the continent. You and I can be alone again. Sort this out.”

“Are you sure?”

“The New Forest can be beautiful at that time of the year.”

“You live in the New Forest?”

“Near Lyndhurst.”

“Just off the M27?”

“That’s right.”

“But that’s where Roger O’Neill died.”

“Is it?”

“Probably no more than half a dozen miles.”

  He was looking at her strangely now. She stepped away from him, feeling weak, dizzy, leaned against the balustrade for support. And the pieces of the jigsaw moved about in her mind and suddenly fitted precisely together.

“Your name wasn’t on the list,” she whispered.

“What list?”

“Of Cabinet members. Because the Chief Whip isn’t a full member of the Cabinet. But because you’re responsible for discipline in the party they’d be bound to consult you about canceling the hospital program. And the TA cuts. So that you can—what is it you say?— put a bit of stick about.”

“This is very silly of you, Mattie.”

“And every Government department has a junior whip attached to it to make sure there’s proper coordination. Fingers on the pulse, ears to the ground, all that sort of thing. Your men, Francis, who report back to you. And because you are the Chief Whip you know all about their little foibles, who is off his head with cocaine, who is sleeping with who, where to put the tape recorder…”

  His face had gone pale, the glow in his cheeks drained, like an alabaster mask, except for the eyes.

“Opportunity. And motive,” she whispered, aghast. “From nowhere to Prime Minister in just a couple of months. How on earth did I miss it?” She shook her head in self-mockery. “I missed it because I think I love you, Francis.”

“Which doesn’t make you particularly objective. As you said, Mattie, you don’t have a single shred of proof.”

“But I will get it, Francis.”

“Is there any joy in the pursuit of such truth, Mattie?”

  A solitary snowflake fell from the sky. As he watched it he remembered something an old embittered colleague had told him when he had first entered the House, that a life in politics was as pointless as nailing your ambition to a snowflake. A thing of beauty. Then it was gone.

“How did you kill Roger?” she asked.

  A fire had taken hold of her, a flame of understanding that glowed fierce. He knew there was no point in prevarication.

“I didn’t kill him. He killed himself. I did no more than hand him the pistol. A little rat poison mixed with his cocaine. He was an addict, driven to self-destruction. Such a weak man.”

“No one deserves to die, Francis.”

“You told me yourself the other night, I remember your words clearly. I remember everything about the other night, Mattie. You said you wanted to understand power. The compromises it requires, the deceits it entails.”

“But not this.”

“If you understand power, you will know that sometimes sacrifice is necessary. If you understand me, you will know that I have the potential to make an exceptional leader, one who could be great.” There was a rising passion in his voice. “And if you understand love, Mattie, you of all people will give me that chance. Otherwise…”

“What, Francis?”

  He stood very still, his lips grown thin, the cheeks gaunt. “Did you know my father killed himself?” he asked, his voice so soft it all but carried away in the winter air.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Is that what you want of me?”

“No!”

“Expect of me?”

“Never!”

“Then why do you pursue me?” He was gripping her arms tightly, his face contorted. “There are choices we have to make in life, Mattie, desperately difficult choices, ones we may hate ourselves for but which become inevitable. You and I, Mattie, we must choose. Both of us.” 

“Francis, I love you, really I do, but—”

  And with that tiny, sharp-edged conjunction, he broke. The chaos within him suddenly froze, his eyes stared at her, melting in sorrow like the flake of snow that had fallen from the crystal Westminster sky. He let forth a desperate sob of despair, an animal in unbearable pain. Then he lifted her and threw her over the balustrade.

  She cried as she fell, more in surprise than alarm. The cries stopped as she hit the cobbles below and lay still.

* * *

She was a strange girl. I think she was infatuated with me. That sometimes happens, sadly, to people in public positions. She turned up on my doorstep once, late at night, completely out of the blue.

  Disturbed? Well, you might say that but it’s not for me to comment, although I do know she had recently left her job at the Chronicle and had been unable to find new employment. I can’t tell you whether she resigned or was fired. She lived on her own, apparently. A sad case.

  When she approached me on the roof she seemed distressed and rather disheveled. A number of people including a newspaper colleague and one of our policemen in the Palace can attest to that. She asked me for a job. I told her that wouldn’t be possible, but she persisted, pestered, grew hysterical. I tried to calm her but she only grew worse. We were standing by the balustrade and she threatened to throw herself off. I moved to grab her but she seemed to slip on the ice, the conditions were quite treacherous, and before I knew it or could stop her she had disappeared. Was it deliberate on her part? I hope not. Such a tragic waste of a young life.

  It’s not the best way to start a premiership, of course it’s not. I wondered for a while if I should step aside rather than carry this burden forward. Instead I intend to take a close interest in the issue of mental illness among the young. We must do more. I will never forget the sadness of that moment on the rooftop. It may sound strange but I believe that young lady’s suffering will give me strength, something to live up to. You understand that, don’t you?

        I start my time in Downing Street with a renewed determination to bring our people together, to put an end to the constant drip of cynicism that has eroded so much of our national life and to devote myself to our country’s cause. I shall make sure that Miss Storin’s death will not have been in vain.

  And now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do.




About the Author

Michael Dobbs is also Lord Dobbs of Wylye, a member of the British House of Lords. He is Britain’s leading political novelist and has been a senior adviser to Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and David Cameron. His bestselling books include House of Cards, which currently airs on Netflix, as well as To Play the KingThe Final CutChurchill’s TriumphChurchill’s HourNever Surrender, and Winston’s War




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