Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 18

Mr Turnbull

It was a Wednesday evening and there was no House — and at seven o’clock Phineas was at Mr Monk’s hall door. He was the first of the guests, and he found Mr Monk alone in the dining-room. “I am doing butler,” said Mr Monk, who had a brace of decanters in his hands, which he proceeded to put down in the neighbourhood of the fire. “But I have finished, and now we will go upstairs to receive the two great men properly.”

“I beg your pardon for coming too early,” said Finn.

“Not a minute too early. Seven is seven, and it is I who am too late. But, Lord bless you, you don’t think I’m ashamed of being found in the act of decanting my own wine! I remember Lord Palmerston saying before some committee about salaries, five or six years ago now, I daresay, that it wouldn’t do for an English Minister to have his hall door opened by a maidservant. Now, I’m an English Minister, and I’ve got nobody but a maidservant to open my hall door, and I’m obliged to look after my own wine. I wonder whether it’s improper? I shouldn’t like to be the means of injuring the British Constitution.”

“Perhaps if you resign soon, and if nobody follows your example, grave evil results may be avoided.”

“I sincerely hope so, for I do love the British Constitution; and I love also the respect in which members of the English Cabinet are held. Now Turnbull, who will be here in a moment, hates it all; but he is a rich man, and has more powdered footmen hanging about his house than ever Lord Palmerston had himself.”

“He is still in business.”

“Oh yes — and makes his thirty thousand a year. Here he is. How are you, Turnbull? We were talking about my maidservant. I hope she opened the door for you properly.”

“Certainly — as far as I perceived,” said Mr Turnbull, who was better at a speech than a joke. “A very respectable young woman I should say.”

“There is not one more so in all London,” said Mr Monk; “but Finn seems to think that I ought to have a man in livery.”

“It is a matter of perfect indifference to me,” said Mr Turnbull. “I am one of those who never think of such things.”

“Nor I either,” said Mr Monk. Then the laird of Loughlinter was announced, and they all went down to dinner.

Mr Turnbull was a good-looking robust man about sixty, with long grey hair and a red complexion, with hard eyes, a well-cut nose, and full lips. He was nearly six feet high, stood quite upright, and always wore a black swallow-tail coat, black trousers, and a black silk waistcoat. In the House, at least, he was always so dressed, and at dinner tables. What difference there might be in his costume when at home at Staleybridge few of those who saw him in London had the means of knowing. There was nothing in his face to indicate special talent. No one looking at him would take him to be a fool; but there was none of the fire of genius in his eye, nor was there in the lines of his mouth any of that play of thought or fancy which is generally to be found in the faces of men and women who have made themselves great. Mr Turnbull had certainly made himself great, and could hardly have done so without force of intellect. He was one of the most popular, if not the most popular politician in the country. Poor men believed in him, thinking that he was their most honest public friend; and men who were not poor believed in his power, thinking that his counsels must surely prevail. He had obtained the ear of the House and the favour of the reporters, and opened his voice at no public dinner, on no public platform, without a conviction that the words spoken by him would be read by thousands. The first necessity for good speaking is a large audience; and of this advantage Mr Turnbull had made himself sure. And yet it could hardly be said that he was a great orator. He was gifted with a powerful voice, with strong, and I may, perhaps, call them broad convictions, with perfect self-reliance, with almost unlimited powers of endurance, with hot ambition, with no keen scruples, and with a moral skin of great thickness. Nothing said against him pained him, no attacks wounded him, no raillery touched him in the least. There was not a sore spot about him, and probably his first thoughts on waking every morning told him that he, at least, was totus teres atque rotundus. He was, of course, a thorough Radical — and so was Mr Monk. But Mr Monk’s first waking thoughts were probably exactly the reverse of those of his friend. Mr Monk was a much hotter man in debate than Mr Turnbull — but Mr Monk was ever doubting of himself, and never doubted of himself so much as when he had been most violent, and also most effective, in debate. When Mr Monk jeered at himself for being a Cabinet Minister and keeping no attendant grander than a parlour-maid, there was a substratum of self-doubt under the joke.

Mr Turnbull was certainly a great Radical, and as such enjoyed a great reputation. I do not think that high office in the State had ever been offered to him; but things had been said which justified him, or seemed to himself to justify him, in declaring that in no possible circumstances would he serve the Crown. “I serve the people,” he had said, “and much as I respect the servants of the Crown, I think that my own office is the higher.” He had been greatly called to task for this speech; and Mr Mildmay, the present Premier, had asked him whether he did not recognise the so-called servants of the Crown as the most hard-worked and truest servants of the people. The House and the press had supported Mr Mildmay, but to all that Mr Turnbull was quite indifferent; and when an assertion made by him before three or four thousand persons at Manchester, to the effect that he — he specially — was the friend and servant of the people, was received with acclamation, he felt quite satisfied that he had gained his point. Progressive reform in the franchise, of which manhood suffrage should be the acknowledged and not far distant end, equal electoral districts, ballot, tenant right for England as well as Ireland, reduction of the standing army till there should be no standing army to reduce, utter disregard of all political movements in Europe, an almost idolatrous admiration for all political movements in America, free trade in everything except malt, and an absolute extinction of a State Church — these were among the principal articles in Mr Turnbull’s political catalogue. And I think that when once he had learned the art of arranging his words as he stood upon his legs, and had so mastered his voice as to have obtained the ear of the House, the work of his life was not difficult. Having nothing to construct, he could always deal with generalities. Being free from responsibility, he was not called upon either to study details or to master even great facts. It was his business to inveigh against existing evils, and perhaps there is no easier business when once the privilege of an audience has been attained. It was his work to cut down forest-trees, and he had nothing to do with the subsequent cultivation of the land. Mr Monk had once told Phineas Finn how great were the charms of that inaccuracy which was permitted to the opposition. Mr Turnbull no doubt enjoyed these charms to the full, though he would sooner have put a padlock on his mouth for a month than have owned as much. Upon the whole, Mr Turnbull was no doubt right in resolving that he would not take office, though some reticence on that subject might have been more becoming to him.

The conversation at dinner, though it was altogether on political subjects, had in it nothing of special interest as long as the girl was there to change the plates; but when she was gone, and the door was closed, it gradually opened out, and there came on to be a pleasant sparring match between the two great Radicals — the Radical who had joined himself to the governing powers, and the Radical who stood aloof. Mr Kennedy barely said a word now and then, and Phineas was almost as silent as Mr Kennedy. He had come there to hear some such discussion, and was quite willing to listen while guns of such great calibre were being fired off for his amusement.

“I think Mr Mildmay is making a great step forward,” said Mr Turnbull.

“I think he is,” said Mr Monk.

“I did not believe that he would ever live to go so far. It will hardly suffice even for this year; but still coming from him, it is a great deal. It only shows how far a man may be made to go, if only the proper force be applied. After all, it matters very little who are the Ministers.”

“That is what I have always declared,” said Mr Monk.

“Very little indeed. We don’t mind whether it be Lord de Terrier, or Mr Mildmay, or Mr Gresham, or you yourself, if you choose to get yourself made First Lord of the Treasury.”

“I have no such ambition, Turnbull.”

“I should have thought you had. If I went in for that kind of thing myself, I should like to go to the top of the ladder. I should feel that if I could do any good at all by becoming a Minister, I could only do it by becoming first Minister.”

“You wouldn’t doubt your own fitness for such a position?”

“I doubt my fitness for the position of any Minister,” said Mr Turnbull.

“You mean that on other grounds,” said Mr Kennedy.

“I mean it on every ground,” said Mr Turnbull, rising on his legs and standing with his back to the fire. “Of course I am not fit to have diplomatic intercourse with men who would come to me simply with the desire of deceiving me. Of course I am unfit to deal with members of Parliament who would flock around me because they wanted places. Of course I am unfit to answer every man’s question so as to give no information to any one.”

“Could you not answer them so as to give information?” said Mr Kennedy.

But Mr Turnbull was so intent on his speech that it may be doubted whether he heard this interruption. He took no notice of it as he went on. “Of course I am unfit to maintain the proprieties of a seeming confidence between a Crown all-powerless and a people all-powerful. No man recognises his own unfitness for such work more clearly than I do, Mr Monk. But if I took in hand such work at all, I should like to be the leader, and not the led. Tell us fairly, now, what are your convictions worth in Mr Mildmay’s Cabinet?”

“That is a question which a man may hardly answer himself,” said Mr Monk.

“It is a question which a man should at least answer for himself before he consents to sit there,” said Mr Turnbull, in a tone of voice which was almost angry.

“And what reason have you for supposing that I have omitted that duty?” said Mr Monk.

“Simply this — that I cannot reconcile your known opinions with the practices of your colleagues.”

“I will not tell you what my convictions may be worth in Mr Mildmay’s Cabinet. I will not take upon myself to say that they are worth the chair on which I sit when I am there. But I will tell you what my aspirations were when I consented to fill that chair, and you shall judge of their worth. I thought that they might possibly leaven the batch of bread which we have to bake — giving to the whole batch more of the flavour of reform than it would have possessed had I absented myself. I thought that when I was asked to join Mr Mildmay and Mr Gresham, the very fact of that request indicated liberal progress, and that if I refused the request I should be declining to assist in good work.”

“You could have supported them, if anything were proposed worthy of support,” said Mr Turnbull.

“Yes; but I could not have been so effective in taking care that some measure be proposed worthy of support as I may possibly be now. I thought a good deal about it, and I believe that my decision was right.”

“I am sure you were right,” said Mr Kennedy.

“There can be no juster object of ambition than a seat in the Cabinet,” said Phineas.

“Sir, I must dispute that,” said Mr Turnbull, turning round upon our hero. “I regard the position of our high Ministers as most respectable.”

“Thank you for so much,” said Mr Monk. But the orator went on again, regardless of the interruption:

“The position of gentlemen in inferior offices — of gentlemen who attend rather to the nods and winks of their superiors in Downing Street than to the interest of their constituents — I do not regard as being highly respectable.”

“A man cannot begin at the top,” said Phineas.

“Our friend Mr Monk has begun at what you are pleased to call the top,” said Mr Turnbull. “But I will not profess to think that even he has raised himself by going into office. To be an independent representative of a really popular commercial constituency is, in my estimation, the highest object of an Englishman’s ambition.”

“But why commercial, Mr Turnbull?” said Mr Kennedy.

“Because the commercial constituencies really do elect their own members in accordance with their own judgments, whereas the counties and the small towns are coerced either by individuals or by a combination of aristocratic influences.”

“And yet,” said Mr Kennedy, there are not half a dozen Conservatives returned by all the counties in Scotland.”

“Scotland is very much to be honoured,” said Mr Turnbull.

Mr Kennedy was the first to take his departure, and Mr Turnbull followed him very quickly. Phineas got up to go at the same time, but stayed at his host’s request, and sat for a while smoking a cigar.

“Turnbull is a wonderful man,” said Mr Monk.

“Does he not domineer too much?”

“His fault is not arrogance, so much as ignorance that there is, or should be, a difference between public and private life. In the House of Commons a man in Mr Turnbull’s position must speak with dictatorial assurance. He is always addressing, not the House only, but the country at large, and the country will not believe in him unless he believe in himself. But he forgets that he is not always addressing the country at large. I wonder what sort of a time Mrs Turnbull and the little Turnbulls have of it?”

Phineas, as he went home, made up his mind that Mrs Turnbull and the little Turnbulls must probably have a bad time of it.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43