Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 20

The Debate on the Ballot

Phineas took his seat in the House with a consciousness of much inward trepidation of heart on that night of the ballot debate. After leaving Lord Chiltern he went down to his club and dined alone. Three or four men came and spoke to him; but he could not talk to them at his ease, nor did he quite know what they were saying to him. He was going to do something which he longed to achieve, but the very idea of which, now that it was so near to him, was a terror to him. To be in the House and not to speak would, to his thinking, be a disgraceful failure. Indeed, he could not continue to keep his seat unless he spoke. He had been put there that he might speak. He would speak. Of course he would speak. Had he not already been conspicuous almost as a boy orator? And yet, at this moment he did not know whether he was eating mutton or beef, or who was standing opposite to him and talking to him, so much was he in dread of the ordeal which he had prepared for himself. As he went down to the House after dinner, he almost made up his mind that it would be a good thing to leave London by one of the night mail trains. He felt himself to be stiff and stilted as he walked, and that his clothes were uneasy to him. When he turned into Westminster Hall he regretted more keenly than ever he had done that he had seceded from the keeping of Mr Low. He could, he thought, have spoken very well in court, and would there have learned that self-confidence which now failed him so terribly. It was, however, too late to think of that. He could only go in and take his seat.

He went in and took his seat, and the chamber seemed to him to be mysteriously large, as though benches were crowded over benches, and galleries over galleries. He had been long enough in the House to have lost the original awe inspired by the Speaker and the clerks of the House, by the row of Ministers, and by the unequalled importance of the place. On ordinary occasions he could saunter in and out, and whisper at his ease to a neighbour. But on this occasion he went direct to the bench on which he ordinarily sat, and began at once to rehearse to himself his speech. He had in truth been doing this all day, in spite of the effort that he had made to rid himself of all memory of the occasion. He had been collecting the heads of his speech while Mr Low had been talking to him, and refreshing his quotations in the presence of Lord Chiltern and the dumb-bells. He had taxed his memory and his intellect with various tasks, which, as he feared, would not adjust themselves one with another. He had learned the headings of his speech — so that one heading might follow the other, and nothing be forgotten. And he had learned verbatim the words which he intended to utter under each heading — with a hope that if any one compact part should be destroyed or injured in its compactness by treachery of memory, or by the course of the debate, each other compact part might be there in its entirety, ready for use — or at least so many of the compact parts as treachery of memory and the accidents of the debate might leave to him; so that his speech might be like a vessel, watertight in its various compartments, that would float by the buoyancy of its stern and bow, even though the hold should be waterlogged. But this use of his composed words, even though he should be able to carry it through, would not complete his work — for it would be his duty to answer in some sort those who had gone before him, and in order to do this he must be able to insert, without any prearrangement of words or ideas, little intercalatory parts between those compact masses of argument with which he had been occupying himself for many laborious hours. As he looked round upon the House and perceived that everything was dim before him, that all his original awe of the House had returned, and with it a present quaking fear that made him feel the pulsations of his own heart, he became painfully aware that the task he had prepared for himself was too great. He should, on this the occasion of his rising to his maiden legs, have either prepared for himself a short general speech, which could indeed have done little for his credit in the House, but which might have served to carry off the novelty of the thing, and have introduced him to the sound of his own voice within those walls — or he should have trusted to what his wit and spirit would produce for him on the spur of the moment, and not have burdened himself with a huge exercise of memory. During the presentation of a few petitions he tried to repeat to himself the first of his compact parts — a compact part on which, as it might certainly be brought into use let the debate have gone as it might, he had expended great care. He had flattered himself that there was something of real strength in his words as he repeated them to himself in the comfortable seclusion of his own room, and he had made them so ready to his tongue that he thought it to be impossible that he should forget even an intonation. Now he found that he could not remember the first phrases without unloosing and looking at a small roll of paper which he held furtively in his hand. What was the good of looking at it? He would forget it again in the next moment. He had intended to satisfy the most eager of his friends, and to astound his opponents. As it was, no one would be satisfied — and none astounded but they who had trusted in him.

The debate began, and if the leisure afforded by a long and tedious speech could have served him, he might have had leisure enough. He tried at first to follow all that this advocate for the ballot might say, hoping thence to acquire the impetus of strong interest; but he soon wearied of the work, and began to long that the speech might be ended, although the period of his own martyrdom would thereby be brought nearer to him. At half past seven so many members had deserted their seats, that Phineas began to think that he might be saved all further pains by a “count out.” He reckoned the members present and found that they were below the mystic forty — first by two, then by four, by five, by seven, and at one time by eleven. It was not for him to ask the Speaker to count the House, but he wondered that no-one else should do so. And yet, as the idea of this termination to the night’s work came upon him, and as he thought of his lost labour, he almost took courage again — almost dreaded rather than wished for the interference of some malicious member. But there was no malicious member then present, or else it was known that Lords of the Treasury and Lords of the Admiralty would flock in during the Speaker’s ponderous counting — and thus the slow length of the ballot-lover’s verbosity was permitted to evolve itself without interruption. At eight o’clock he had completed his catalogue of illustrations, and immediately Mr Monk rose from the Treasury bench to explain the grounds on which the Government must decline to support the motion before the House.

Phineas was aware that Mr Monk intended to speak, and was aware also that his speech would be very short. “My idea is”, he had said to Phineas, “that every man possessed of the franchise should dare to have and to express a political opinion of his own; that otherwise the franchise is not worth having; and that men will learn that when all so dare, no evil can come from such daring. As the ballot would make any courage of that kind unnecessary, I dislike the ballot. I shall confine myself to that, and leave the illustration to younger debaters.” Phineas also had been informed that Mr Turnbull would reply to Mr Monk, with the purpose of crushing Mr Monk into dust, and Phineas had prepared his speech with something of an intention of subsequently crushing Mr Turnbull. He knew, however, that he could not command his opportunity. There was the chapter of accidents to which he must accommodate himself; but such had been his programme for the evening.

Mr Monk made his speech — and though he was short, he was very fiery and energetic. Quick as lightning words of wrath and scorn flew from him, in which he painted the cowardice, the meanness, the falsehood of the ballot. “The ballot box”, he said, was the grave of all true political opinion.” Though he spoke hardly for ten minutes, he seemed to say more than enough, ten times enough, to slaughter the argument of the former speaker. At every hot word is it fell Phineas was driven to regret that a paragraph of his own was taken away from him, and that his choicest morsels of standing ground were being cut from under his feet. When Mr Monk sat down, Phineas felt that Mr Monk had said all that he, Phineas Finn, had intended to say.

Then Mr Turnbull rose slowly from the bench below the gangway. With a speaker so frequent and so famous as Mr Turnbull no hurry is necessary. He is sure to have his opportunity. The Speaker’s eye is ever travelling to the accustomed spots. Mr Turnbull rose slowly and began his oration very mildly. “There was nothing”, he said, “that he admired so much as the poetic imagery and the high-flown sentiment of his right honourable friend the member for West Bromwich,” — Mr Monk sat for West Bromwich — “unless it were the stubborn facts and unanswered arguments of his honourable friend who had brought forward this motion.” Then Mr Turnbull proceeded after his fashion to crush Mr Monk. He was very prosaic, very clear both in voice and language, very harsh, and very unscrupulous. He and Mr Monk had been joined together in politics for over twenty years — but one would have thought, from Mr Turnbull’s words, that they had been the bitterest of enemies. Mr Monk was taunted with his office, taunted with his desertion of the liberal party, taunted with his ambition — and taunted with his lack of ambition. “I once thought,” said Mr Turnbull — nay, not long ago I thought, that he and I would have fought this battle for the people, shoulder to shoulder, and knee to knee — but he has preferred that the knee next to his own shall wear a garter, and that the shoulder which supports him shall be decked with a blue ribbon — as shoulders, I presume, are decked in those closet conferences which are called Cabinets.”

Just after this, while Mr Turnbull was still going on with a variety of illustrations drawn from the United States, Barrington Erle stepped across the benches up to the place where Phineas was sitting, and whispered a few words into his ear. “Bonteen is prepared to answer Turnbull, and wishes to do it. I told him that I thought you should have the opportunity, if you wish it.” Phineas was not ready with a reply to Erle at the spur of the moment. “Somebody told me,” continued Erle, “that you had said that you would like to speak tonight.”

“So I did,” said Phineas.

“Shall I tell Bonteen that you will do it?”

The chamber seemed to swim round before our hero’s eyes. Mr Turnbull was still going on with his clear, loud, unpleasant voice, but there was no knowing how long he might go on. Upon Phineas, if he should now consent, might devolve the duty, within ten minutes, within three minutes, of rising there before a full House to defend his great friend, Mr Monk, from a gross personal attack. Was it fit that such a novice as he should undertake such a work as that? Were he to do so, all that speech which he had prepared, with its various self-floating parts, must go for nothing. The task was exactly that which, of all tasks, he would best like to have accomplished, and to have accomplished well. But if he should fail! And he felt that he would fail. For such work a man should have all his senses about him — his full courage, perfect confidence, something almost approaching to contempt for listening opponents, and nothing of fear in regard to listening friends. He should be as a cock in his own farmyard, master of all the circumstances around him. But Phineas Finn had not even as yet heard the sound of his own voice in that room. At this moment, so confused was he, that he did not know where sat Mr Mildmay, and where Mr Daubeny. All was confused, and there arose as it were a sound of waters in his ears, and a feeling as of a great hell around him. “I had rather wait,” he said at last. Bonteen had better reply.” Barrington Erle looked into his face, and then stepping back across the benches, told Mr Bonteen that the opportunity was his.

Mr Turnbull continued speaking quite long enough to give poor Phineas time for repentance; but repentance was of no use. He had decided against himself, and his decision could not be reversed. He would have left the House, only it seemed to him that had he done so every one would look at him. He drew his hat down over his eyes, and remained in his place, hating Mr Bonteen, hating Barrington Erle, hating Mr Turnbull — but hating no one so much as he hated himself. He had disgraced himself for ever, and could never recover the occasion which he had lost.

Mr Bonteen’s speech was in no way remarkable. Mr Monk, he said, had done the State good service by adding his wisdom and patriotism to the Cabinet. The sort of argument which Mr Bonteen used to prove that a man who has gained credit as a legislator should in process of time become a member of the executive, is trite and common, and was not used by Mr Bonteen with any special force. Mr Bonteen was glib of tongue, and possessed that familiarity with the place which poor Phineas had lacked so sorely. There was one moment, however, which was terrible to Phineas. As soon as Mr Bonteen had shown the purpose for which he was on his legs, Mr Monk looked round at Phineas, as though in reproach. He had expected that this work should fall into the hands of one who would perform it with more warmth of heart than could be expected from Mr Bonteen. When Mr Bonteen ceased, two or three other short speeches were made and members fired off their little guns. Phineas having lost so great an opportunity, would not now consent to accept one that should be comparatively valueless. Then there came a division. The motion was lost by a large majority — by any number you might choose to name, as Phineas had said to Lord Brentford; but in that there was no triumph to the poor wretch who had failed through fear, and who was now a coward in his own esteem.

He left the House alone, carefully avoiding all speech with any one. As he came out he had seen Laurence Fitzgibbon in the lobby, but he had gone on without pausing a moment, so that he might avoid his friend. And when he was out in Palace Yard, where was he to go next? He looked at his watch, and found that it was just ten. He did not dare to go to his club, and it was impossible for him to go home and to bed. He was very miserable, and nothing would comfort him but sympathy. Was there any one who would listen to his abuse of himself, and would then answer him with kindly apologies for his own weakness? Mrs Bunce would do it if she knew how, but sympathy from Mrs Bunce would hardly avail. There was but one person in the world to whom he could tell his own humiliation with any hope of comfort, and that person was Lady Laura Kennedy. Sympathy from any man would have been distasteful to him. He had thought for a moment of flinging himself at Mr Monk’s feet and telling all his weakness — but he could not have endured pity even from Mr Monk. It was not to be endured from any man.

He thought that Lady Laura Kennedy would be at home, and probably alone. He knew, at any rate, that he might be allowed to knock at her door, even at that hour. He had left Mr Kennedy in the House, and there he would probably remain for the next hour. There was no man more constant than Mr Kennedy in seeing the work of the day — or of the night — to its end. So Phineas walked up Victoria Street, and from thence into Grosvenor Place, and knocked at Lady Laura’s door. “Yes; Lady Laura was at home; and alone.” He was shown up into the drawing-room, and there he found Lady Laura waiting for her husband.

“So the great debate is over,” she said, with as much of irony as she knew how to throw into the epithet.

“Yes; it is over.”

“And what have they done — those leviathans of the people?”

Then Phineas told her what was the majority.

“Is there anything the matter with you, Mr Finn?” she said, looking at him suddenly. “Are you not well?”

“Yes; I am very well.”

“Will you not sit down? There is something wrong, I know. What is it?”

“I have simply been the greatest idiot, the greatest coward, the most awkward ass that ever lived!”

“What do you mean?”

“I do not know why I should come to tell you of it at this hour at night, but I have come that I might tell you. Probably because there is no one else in the whole world who would not laugh at me.”

“At any rate, I shall not laugh at you,” said Lady Laura.

“But you will despise me.”

“That I am sure I shall not do.”

“You cannot help it. I despise myself. For years I have placed before myself the ambition of speaking in the House of Commons — for years I have been thinking whether there would ever come to me an opportunity of making myself heard in that assembly, which I consider to be the first in the world. Today the opportunity has been offered to me — and, though the motion was nothing, the opportunity was great. The subject was one on which I was thoroughly prepared. The manner in which I was summoned was most flattering to me. I was especially called on to perform a task which was most congenial to my feelings — and I declined because I was afraid.”

“You had thought too much about it, my friend,” said Lady Laura.

“Too much or too little, what does it matter?” replied Phineas, in despair. “There is the fact. I could not do it. Do you remember the story of Conachar in the “Fair Maid of Perth;” — how his heart refused to give him blood enough to fight? He had been suckled with the milk of a timid creature, and, though he could die, there was none of the strength of manhood in him. It is about the same thing with me, I take it.”

“I do not think you are at all like Conachar,” said Lady Laura.

“I am equally disgraced, and I must perish after the same fashion. I shall apply for the Chiltern Hundreds in a day or two.”

“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Lady Laura, getting up from her chair and coming towards him. “You shall not leave this room till you have promised me that you will do nothing of the kind. I do not know as yet what has occurred tonight; but I do know that that modesty which has kept you silent is more often a grace than a disgrace.”

This was the kind of sympathy which he wanted. She drew her chair nearer to him, and then he explained to her as accurately as he could what had taken place in the House on this evening — how he had prepared his speech, how he had felt that his preparation was vain, how he perceived from the course of the debate that if he spoke at all his speech must be very different from what he had first intended; how he had declined to take upon himself a task which seemed to require so close a knowledge of the ways of the House and of the temper of the men, as the defence of such a man as Mr Monk. In accusing himself he, unconsciously, excused himself, and his excuse, in Lady Laura’s ears, was more valid than his accusation.

“And you would give it all up for that?” she said.

“Yes; I think I ought.”

“I have very little doubt but that you were right in allowing Mr Bonteen to undertake such a task. I should simply explain to Mr Monk that you felt too keen an interest in his welfare to stand up as an untried member in his defence. It is not, I think, the work for a man who is not at home in the House. I am sure Mr Monk will feel this, and I am quite certain that Mr Kennedy will think that you have been right.”

“I do not care what Mr Kennedy may think.”

“Why do you say that, Mr Finn? That is not courteous.”

“Simply because I care so much what Mr Kennedy’s wife may think. Your opinion is all in all to me — only that I know you are too kind to me.”

“He would not be too kind to you. He is never too kind to any one. He is justice itself.”

Phineas, as he heard the tones of her voice, could not but feel that there was in Lady Laura’s words something of an accusation against her husband.

“I hate justice,” said Phineas. I know that justice would condemn me. But love and friendship know nothing of justice. The value of love is that it overlooks faults, and forgives even crimes.”

“I, at any rate,” said Lady Laura, will forgive the crime of your silence in the House. My strong belief in your success will not be in the least affected by what you tell me of your failure tonight. You must await another opportunity; and, if possible, you should be less anxious as to your own performance. There is Violet.” As Lady Laura spoke the last words, there was a sound of a carriage stopping in the street, and the front door was immediately opened. “She is staying here, but has been dining with her uncle, Admiral Effingham.” Then Violet Effingham entered the room, rolled up in pretty white furs, and silk cloaks, and lace shawls. “Here is Mr Finn, come to tell us of the debate about the ballot.”

“I don’t care two-pence about the ballot,” said Violet, as she put out her hand to Phineas. “Are we going to have a new iron fleet built? That’s the question.”

“Sir Simeon has come out strong tonight,” said Lady Laura.

“There is no political question of any importance except the question of the iron fleet,” said Violet. “I am quite sure of that, and so, if Mr Finn can tell me nothing about the iron fleet, I’ll go to bed.”

“Mr Kennedy will tell you everything when he comes home,” said Phineas.

“Oh, Mr Kennedy! Mr Kennedy never tells one anything. I doubt whether Mr Kennedy thinks that any woman knows the meaning of the British Constitution.”

“Do you know what it means, Violet?” asked Lady Laura.

“To be sure I do. It is liberty to growl about the iron fleet, or the ballot, or the taxes, or the peers, or the bishops — or anything else, except the House of Commons. That’s the British Constitution. Goodnight, Mr Finn.”

“What a beautiful creature she is!” said Phineas.

“Yes, indeed,” said Lady Laura.

“And full of wit and grace and pleasantness. I do not wonder at your brother’s choice.”

It will be remembered that this was said on the day before Lord Chiltern had made his offer for the third time.

“Poor Oswald! he does not know as yet that she is in town.”

After that Phineas went, not wishing to await the return of Mr Kennedy. He had felt that Violet Effingham had come into the room just in time to remedy a great difficulty. He did not wish to speak of his love to a married woman — to the wife of the man who called him friend — to a woman who he felt sure would have rebuked him. But he could hardly have restrained himself had not Miss Effingham been there.

But as he went home he thought more of Miss Effingham than he did of Lady Laura; and I think that the voice of Miss Effingham had done almost as much towards comforting him as had the kindness of the other.

At any rate, he had been comforted.

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