Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 21

“ Do be punctual ”

On the very morning after his failure in the House of Commons, when Phineas was reading in the Telegraph — he took the Telegraph not from choice but for economy — the words of that debate which he had heard and in which he should have taken a part, a most unwelcome visit was paid to him. It was near eleven, and the breakfast things were still on the table. He was at this time on a Committee of the House with reference to the use of potted peas in the army and navy, at which he had sat once — at a preliminary meeting — and in reference to which he had already resolved that as he had failed so frightfully in debate, he would certainly do his duty to the utmost in the more easy but infinitely more tedious work of the Committee Room. The Committee met at twelve, and he intended to walk down to the Reform Club, and then to the House. He had just completed his reading of the debate and of the leaders in the Telegraph on the subject. He had told himself how little the writer of the article knew about Mr Turnbull, how little about Mr Monk, and how little about the people — such being his own ideas as to the qualifications of the writer of that leading article — and was about to start. But Mrs Bunce arrested him by telling him that there was a man below who wanted to see him.

“What sort of a man, Mrs Bunce?”

“He ain’t a gentleman, sir.”

“Did he give his name?”

“He did not, sir; but I know it’s about money. I know the ways of them so well. I’ve seen this one’s face before somewhere.”

“You had better show him up,” said Phineas. He knew well the business on which the man was come. The man wanted money for that bill which Laurence Fitzgibbon had sent afloat, and which Phineas had endorsed. Phineas had never as yet fallen so deeply into troubles of money as to make it necessary that he need refuse himself to any callers on that score, and he did not choose to do so now. Nevertheless he most heartily wished that he had left his lodgings for the club before the man had come. This was not the first he had heard of the bill being overdue and unpaid. The bill had been brought to him noted a month since, and then he had simply told the youth who brought it that he would see Mr Fitzgibbon and have the matter settled. He had spoken to his friend Laurence, and Laurence had simply assured him that all should be made right in two days — or, at furthest, by the end of a week. Since that time he had observed that his friend had been somewhat shy of speaking to him when no others were with them. Phineas would not have alluded to the bill had he and Laurence been alone together; but he had been quick enough to guess from his friend’s manner that the matter was not settled. Now, no doubt, serious trouble was about to commence.

The visitor was a little man with grey hair and a white cravat, some sixty years of age, dressed in black, with a very decent hat — which, on entering the room, he at once put down on the nearest chair — with reference to whom, any judge on the subject would have concurred at first sight in the decision pronounced by Mrs Bunce, though none but a judge very well used to sift the causes of his own conclusions could have given the reasons for that early decision. “He ain’t a gentleman,” Mrs Bunce had said. And the man certainly was not a gentleman. The old man in the white cravat was very neatly dressed, and carried himself without any of that humility which betrays one class of uncertified aspirants to gentility, or of that assumed arrogance which is at once fatal to another class. But, nevertheless, Mrs Bunce had seen at a glance that he was not a gentleman — had seen, moreover, that such a man could have come only upon one mission. She was right there too. This visitor had come about money.

“About this bill, Mr Finn,” said the visitor, proceeding to take out of his breast coat-pocket a rather large leathern case, as he advanced up towards the fire. “My name is Clarkson, Mr Finn. If I may venture so far, I’ll take a chair.”

“Certainly, Mr Clarkson,” said Phineas, getting up and pointing to a seat.

“Thankye, Mr Finn, thankye. We shall be more comfortable doing business sitting, shan’t we?” Whereupon the horrid little man drew himself close in to the fire, and spreading out his leathern case upon his knees, began to turn over one suspicious bit of paper after another, as though he were uncertain in what part of his portfolio lay this identical bit which he was seeking. He seemed to be quite at home, and to feel that there was no ground whatever for hurry in such comfortable quarters. Phineas hated him at once — with a hatred altogether unconnected with the difficulty which his friend Fitzgibbon had brought upon him.

“Here it is,” said Mr Clarkson at last. Oh, dear me, dear me! the third of November, and here we are in March! I didn’t think it was so bad as this — I didn’t indeed. This is very bad — very bad! And for Parliament gents, too, who should be more punctual than anybody, because of the privilege. Shouldn’t they now, Mr Finn?”

“All men should be punctual, I suppose,” said Phineas.

“Of course they should; of course they should. I always say to my gents, “Be punctual, and I’ll do anything for you.” But, perhaps, Mr Finn, you can hand me a cheque for this amount, and then you and I will begin square.”

“Indeed I cannot, Mr Clarkson.”

“Not hand me a cheque for it!”

“Upon my word, no.”

“That’s very bad; — very bad indeed. Then I suppose I must take the half, and renew for the remainder, though I don’t like it — I don’t indeed.”

“I can pay no part of that bill, Mr Clarkson.”

“Pay no part of it!” and Mr Clarkson, in order that he might the better express his surprise, arrested his hand in the very act of poking his host’s fire.

“If you’ll allow me, I’ll manage the fire,” said Phineas, putting out his hand for the poker.

But Mr Clarkson was fond of poking fires, and would not surrender the poker. “Pay no part of it!” he said again, holding the poker away from Phineas in his left hand. “Don’t say that, Mr Finn. Pray don’t say that. Don’t drive me to be severe. I don’t like to be severe with my gents. I’ll do anything, Mr Finn, if you’ll only be punctual.”

“The fact is, Mr Clarkson, I have never had one penny of consideration for that bill, and — ”

“Oh, Mr Finn! oh, Mr Finn!” and then Mr Clarkson had his will of the fire.

“I never had one penny of consideration for that bill,” continued Phineas. “Of course, I don’t deny my responsibility.”

“No, Mr Finn; you can’t deny that. Here it is — Phineas Finn — and everybody knows you, because you’re a Parliament gent.”

“I don’t deny it. But I had no reason to suppose that I should be called upon for the money when I accommodated my friend, Mr Fitzgibbon, and I have not got it. That is the long and the short of it. I must see him and take care that arrangements are made.”

“Arrangements!”

“Yes, arrangements for settling the bill.”

“He hasn’t got the money, Mr Finn. You know that as well as I do.”

“I know nothing about it, Mr Clarkson.”

“Oh yes, Mr Finn; you know; you know.”

“I tell you I know nothing about it,” said Phineas, waxing angry.

“As to Mr Fitzgibbon, he’s the pleasantest gent that ever lived. Isn’t he now? I’ve know’d him these ten years. I don’t suppose that for ten years I’ve been without his name in my pocket. But, bless you, Mr Finn, there’s an end to everything. I shouldn’t have looked at this bit of paper if it hadn’t been for your signature. Of course not. You’re just beginning, and it’s natural you should want a little help. You’ll find me always ready, if you’ll only be punctual.”

“I tell you again, sir, that I never had a shilling out of that for myself, and do not want any such help.” Here Mr Clarkson smiled sweetly. “I gave my name to my friend simply to oblige him.”

“I like you Irish gents because you do hang together so close,” said Mr Clarkson.

“Simply to oblige him,” continued Phineas. As I said before, I know that I am responsible; but, as I said before also, I have not the means of taking up that bill. I will see Mr Fitzgibbon, and let you know what we propose to do.” Then Phineas got up from his seat and took his hat. It was full time that he should go down to his Committee. But Mr Clarkson did not get up from his seat. “I’m afraid I must ask you to leave me now, Mr Clarkson, as I have business down at the House.”

“Business at the House never presses, Mr Finn,” said Mr Clarkson. “That’s the best of Parliament. I’ve known Parliament gents this thirty years and more. Would you believe it — I’ve had a Prime Minister’s name in that portfolio; that I have; and a Lord Chancellor’s; that I have — and an Archbishop’s too. I know what Parliament is, Mr Finn. Come, come; don’t put me off with Parliament.”

There he sat before the fire with his pouch open before him, and Phineas had no power of moving him. Could Phineas have paid him the money which was manifestly due to him on the bill, the man would of course have gone; but failing in that, Phineas could not turn him out. There was a black cloud on the young member’s brow, and great anger at his heart — against Fitzgibbon rather than against the man who was sitting there before him. “Sir,” he said, it is really imperative that I should go. I am pledged to an appointment at the House at twelve, and it wants now only a quarter. I regret that your interview with me should be so unsatisfactory, but I can only promise you that I will see Mr Fitzgibbon.”

“And when shall I call again, Mr Finn?”

“Perhaps I had better write to you,” said Phineas.

“Oh dear, no,” said Mr Clarkson. I should much prefer to look in. Looking in is always best. We can get to understand one another in that way. Let me see. I daresay you’re not particular. Suppose I say Sunday morning.”

“Really, I could not see you on Sunday morning, Mr Clarkson.”

“Parliament gents ain’t generally particular — ‘specially not among the Catholics,” pleaded Mr Clarkson.

“I am always engaged on Sundays,” said Phineas.

“Suppose we say Monday — or Tuesday. Tuesday morning at eleven. And do be punctual, Mr Finn. At Tuesday morning I’ll come, and then no doubt I shall find you ready.” Whereupon Mr Clarkson slowly put up his bills within his portfolio, and then, before Phineas knew where he was, had warmly shaken that poor dismayed member of Parliament by the hand. “Only do be punctual, Mr Finn,” he said, as he made his way down the stairs.

It was now twelve, and Phineas rushed off to a cab. He was in such a fervour of rage and misery that he could hardly think of his position, or what he had better do, till he got into the Committee Room; and when there he could think of nothing else. He intended to go deeply into the question of potted peas, holding an equal balance between the assailed Government offices on the one hand, and the advocates of the potted peas on the other. The potters of the peas, who wanted to sell their article to the Crown, declared that an extensive — perhaps we may say, an unlimited — use of the article would save the whole army and navy from the scourges of scurvy, dyspepsia, and rheumatism, would be the best safeguard against typhus and other fevers, and would be an invaluable aid in all other maladies to which soldiers and sailors are peculiarly subject. The peas in question were grown on a large scale in Holstein, and their growth had been fostered with the special object of doing good to the British army and navy. The peas were so cheap that there would be a great saving in money — and it really had seemed to many that the officials of the Horse Guards and the Admiralty had been actuated by some fiendish desire to deprive their men of salutary fresh vegetables, simply because they were of foreign growth. But the officials of the War Office and the Admiralty declared that the potted peas in question were hardly fit for swine. The motion for the Committee had been made by a gentleman of the opposition, and Phineas had been put upon it as an independent member. He had resolved to give it all his mind, and, as far as he was concerned, to reach a just decision, in which there should be no favour shown to the Government side. New brooms are proverbial for thorough work, and in this Committee work Phineas was as yet a new broom. But, unfortunately, on this day his mind was so harassed that he could hardly understand what was going on. It did not, perhaps, much signify, as the witnesses examined were altogether agricultural. They only proved the production of peas in Holstein — a fact as to which Phineas had no doubt. The proof was naturally slow, as the evidence was given in German, and had to be translated into English. And the work of the day was much impeded by a certain member who unfortunately spoke German, who seemed to be fond of speaking German before his brethren of the Committee, and who was curious as to agriculture in Holstein generally. The chairman did not understand German, and there was a difficulty in checking this gentleman, and in making him understand that his questions were not relevant to the issue.

Phineas could not keep his mind during the whole afternoon from the subject of his misfortune. What should he do if this horrid man came to him once or twice a week? He certainly did owe the man the money. He must admit that to himself. The man no doubt was a dishonest knave who had discounted the bill probably at fifty per cent; but, nevertheless, Phineas had made himself legally responsible for the amount. The privilege of the House prohibited him from arrest. He thought of that very often, but the thought only made him the more unhappy. Would it not be said, and might it not be said truly, that he had incurred this responsibility — a responsibility which he was altogether unequal to answer — because he was so protected? He did feel that a certain consciousness of his privilege had been present to him when he had put his name across the paper, and there had been dishonesty in that very consciousness. And of what service would his privilege be to him, if this man could harass every hour of his life? The man was to be with him again in a day or two, and when the appointment had been proposed, he, Phineas, had not dared to negative it. And how was he to escape? As for paying the bill, that with him was altogether impossible. The man had told him — and he had believed the man — that payment by Fitzgibbon was out of the question. And yet Fitzgibbon was the son of a peer, whereas he was only the son of a country doctor! Of course Fitzgibbon must make some effort — some great effort — and have the thing settled. Alas, alas! He knew enough of the world already to feel that the hope was vain.

He went down from the Committee room into the House, and he dined at the House, and remained there until eight or nine at night; but Fitzgibbon did not come. He then went to the Reform Club, but he was not there. Both at the club and in the House many men spoke to him about the debate of the previous night, expressing surprise that he had not spoken — making him more and more wretched. He saw Mr Monk, but Mr Monk was walking arm in arm with his colleague, Mr Palliser, and Phineas could do no more than just speak to them. He thought that Mr Monk’s nod of recognition was very cold. That might be fancy, but it certainly was a fact that Mr Monk only nodded to him. He would tell Mr Monk the truth, and then, if Mr Monk chose to quarrel with him, he at any rate would take no step to renew their friendship.

From the Reform Club he went to the Shakspeare, a smaller club to which Fitzgibbon belonged — and of which Phineas much wished to become a member — and to which he knew that his friend resorted when he wished to enjoy himself thoroughly, and to be at ease in his inn. Men at the Shakspeare could do as they pleased. There were no politics there, no fashion, no stiffness, and no rules — so men said; but that was hardly true. Everybody called everybody by his Christian name, and members smoked all over the house. They who did not belong to the Shakspeare thought it an Elysium upon earth; and they who did, believed it to be among Pandemoniums the most pleasant. Phineas called at the Shakspeare, and was told by the porter that Mr Fitzgibbon was upstairs. He was shown into the strangers’ room, and in five minutes his friend came down to him.

“I want you to come down to the Reform with me,” said Phineas.

“By jingo, my dear fellow, I’m in the middle of a rubber of whist.”

“There has been a man with me about that bill.”

“What — Clarkson?”

“Yes, Clarkson,” said Phineas.

“Don’t mind him,” said Fitzgibbon.

“That’s nonsense. How am I to help minding him? I must mind him. He is coming to me again on Tuesday morning.”

“Don’t see him.”

“How can I help seeing him?”

“Make them say you’re not at home.”

“He has made an appointment. He has told me that he’ll never leave me alone. He’ll be the death of me if this is not settled.”

“It shall be settled, my dear fellow. I’ll see about it. I’ll see about it and write you a line. You must excuse me now, because those fellows are waiting. I’ll have it all arranged.”

Again as Phineas went home he thoroughly wished that he had not seceded from Mr Low.

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