Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 47

Mr Mildmay”s bill

It will be necessary that we should go back in our story for a very short period in order that the reader may be told that Phineas Finn was duly re-elected at Loughton after his appointment at the Treasury Board. There was some little trouble at Loughton, and something more of expense than he had before encountered. Mr Quintus Slide absolutely came down, and was proposed by Mr Vellum for the borough. Mr Vellum being a gentleman learned in the law, and hostile to the interests of the noble owner of Saulsby, was able to raise a little trouble against our hero. Mr Slide was proposed by Mr Vellum, and seconded by Mr Vellum’s clerk — though, as it afterwards appeared, Mr Vellum’s clerk was not in truth an elector — and went to the poll like a man. He received three votes, and at twelve o’clock withdrew. This in itself could hardly have afforded compensation for the expense which Mr Slide or his backers must have encountered — but he had an opportunity of making a speech, every word of which was reported in the People’s Banner; and if the speech was made in the language given in the report, Mr Slide was really possessed of some oratorical power. Most of those who read the speech in the columns of the People’s Banner were probably not aware how favourable an opportunity of retouching his sentences in type had been given to Mr Slide by the fact of his connection with the newspaper. The speech had been very severe upon our hero; and though the speaker had been so hooted and pelted at Loughton as to have been altogether inaudible — so maltreated that in point of fact he had not been able to speak above a tenth part of his speech at all — nevertheless the speech did give Phineas a certain amount of pain. Why Phineas should have read it who can tell? But who is there that abstains from reading that which is printed in abuse of himself?

In the speech as it was printed Mr Slide declared that he had no thought of being returned for the borough. He knew too well how the borough was managed, what slaves the electors were — how they groaned under a tyranny from which hitherto they had been unable to release themselves. Of course the Earl’s nominee, his lackey, as the honourable gentleman might be called, would be returned. The Earl could order them to return whichever of his lackueys he pleased. — There is something peculiarly pleasing to the democratic ear in the word lackuey! Anyone serving a big man, whatever the service may be, is the big man’s lackuey in the People’s Banner. — The speech throughout was very bitter. Mr Phineas Finn, who had previously served in Parliament as the lackuey of an Irish earl, and had been turned off by him, had now fallen into the service of the English earl, and was the lackuey chosen for the present occasion. But he, Quintus Slide, who boasted himself to be a man of the people — he could tell them that the days of their thraldom were coming to an end, and that their enfranchisement was near at hand. That friend of the people, Mr Turnbull, had a clause in his breeches pocket which he would either force down the unwilling throat of Mr Mildmay, or else drive the imbecile Premier from office by carrying it in his teeth. Loughton, as Loughton, must be destroyed, but it should be born again in a better birth as a part of a real electoral district, sending a real member, chosen by a real constituency, to a real Parliament. In those days — and they would come soon — Mr Quintus Slide rather thought that Mr Phineas Finn would be found “nowhere,” and he rather thought also that when he showed himself again, as he certainly should do, in the midst of that democratic electoral district as the popular candidate for the honour of representing it in Parliament, that democratic electoral district would accord to him a reception very different from that which he was now receiving from the Earl’s lackueys in the parliamentary village of Loughton. A prettier bit of fiction than these sentences as composing a part of any speech delivered, or proposed to be delivered, at Loughton, Phineas thought he had never seen. And when he read at the close of the speech that though the Earl’s hired bullies did their worst, the remarks of Mr Slide were received by the people with reiterated cheering, he threw himself back in his chair at the Treasury and roared. The poor fellow had been three minutes on his legs, had received three rotten eggs, and one dead dog, and had retired. But not the half of the speech as printed in the People’s Banner has been quoted. The sins of Phineas, who in spite of his inability to open his mouth in public had been made a Treasury hack by the aristocratic influence — “by aristocratic influence not confined to the male sex,” — were described at great length, and in such language that Phineas for a while was fool enough to think that it would be his duty to belabour Mr Slide with a horsewhip. This notion, however, did not endure long with him, and when Mr Monk told him that things of that kind came as a matter of course, he was comforted.

But he found it much more difficult to obtain comfort when he weighed the arguments brought forward against the abominations of such a borough as that for which he sat, and reflected that if Mr Turnbull brought forward his clause, he, Phineas Finn, would be bound to vote against the clause, knowing the clause to be right, because he was a servant of the Government. The arguments, even though they appeared in the People’s Banner, were true arguments; and he had on one occasion admitted their truth to his friend Lady Laura — in the presence of that great Cabinet Minister, her husband. “What business has such a man as that down there? Is there a single creature who wants him?” Lady Laura had said. “I don’t suppose anybody does want Mr Quintus Slide,” Phineas had replied; “but I am disposed to think the electors should choose the man they do want, and that at present they have no choice left to them.” “They are quite satisfied,” said Lady Laura, angrily. “Then, Lady Laura, continued Phineas, “that alone should be sufficient to prove that their privilege of returning a member to Parliament is too much for them. We can’t defend it.” “It is defended by tradition, said Mr Kennedy. “And by its great utility,” said Lady Laura, bowing to the young member who was present, and forgetting that very useless old gentleman, her cousin, who had sat for the borough for many years. “In this country it doesn’t do to go too fast,” said Mr Kennedy. “And then the mixture of vulgarity, falsehood, and pretence!” said Lady Laura, shuddering as her mind recurred to the fact that Mr Quintus Slide had contaminated Loughton by his presence. “I am told that they hardly let him leave the place alive.”

Whatever Mr Kennedy and Lady Laura might think about Loughton and the general question of small boroughs, it was found by the Government, to their great cost, that Mr Turnbull’s clause was a reality. After two months of hard work, all questions of franchise had been settled, rating and renting, new and newfangled, fancy franchises and those which no one fancied, franchises for boroughs and franchises for counties, franchises single, dual, three-cornered, and four-sided — by various clauses to which the Committee of the whole House had agreed after some score of divisions — the matter of the franchise had been settled. No doubt there was the House of Lords, and there might yet be shipwreck. But it was generally believed that the Lords would hardly look at the bill — that they would not even venture on an amendment. The Lords would only be too happy to let the matter be settled by the Commons themselves. But then, after the franchise, came redistribution. How sick of the subject were all members of the Government, no-one could tell who did not see their weary faces. The whole House was sick, having been whipped into various lobbies, night after night, during the heat of the summer, for weeks past. Redistribution! Why should there be any redistribution? They had got, or would get, a beautiful franchise. Could they not see what that would do for them? Why redistribute anything? But, alas, it was too late to go back to so blessed an idea as that! Redistribution they must have. But there should be as little redistribution as possible. Men were sick of it all, and would not be exigeant. Something should be done for overgrown counties — something for new towns which had prospered in brick and mortar. It would be easy to crush up a peccant borough or two — a borough that had been discovered in its sin. And a few boroughs now blessed with two members might consent to be blessed only with one. Fifteen small clauses might settle the redistribution — in spite of Mr Turnbull — if only Mr Daubeny would be good-natured.

Neither the weather, which was very hot, nor the tedium of the session, which had been very great, nor the anxiety of Ministers, which was very pressing, had any effect in impairing the energy of Mr Turnbull. He was as instant, as oratorical, as hostile, as indignant about redistribution as he had been about the franchise. He had been sure then, and he was sure now, that Ministers desired to burke the question, to deceive the people, to produce a bill that should be no bill. He brought out his clause — and made Loughton his instance. “Would the honourable gentleman who sat lowest on the Treasury bench — who at this moment was in sweet confidential intercourse with the right honourable gentleman now President of the Board of Trade, who had once been a friend of the people — would the young Lord of the Treasury get up in his place and tell them that no peer of Parliament had at present a voice in sending a member to their House of Commons — that no peer would have a voice if this bill, as proposed by the Government, were passed in its present useless, ineffectual, conservative, and most dishonest form?”

Phineas, who replied to this, and who told Mr Turnbull that he himself could not answer for any peers — but that he thought it probable that most peers would, by their opinions, somewhat influence the opinions of some electors — was thought to have got out of his difficulty very well. But there was the clause of Mr Turnbull to be dealt with — a clause directly disfranchising seven single-winged boroughs, of which Loughton was of course one — a clause to which the Government must either submit or object. Submission would be certain defeat in one way, and objection would be as certain defeat in another — if the gentlemen on the other side were not disposed to assist the ministers. It was said that the Cabinet was divided. Mr Gresham and Mr Monk were for letting the seven boroughs go. Mr Mildmay could not bring himself to obey Mr Turnbull, and Mr Palliser supported him. When Mr Mildmay was told that Mr Daubeny would certainly go into the same lobby with Mr Turnbull respecting the seven boroughs, he was reported to have said that in that case Mr Daubeny must be prepared with a Government. Mr Daubeny made a beautiful speech about the seven boroughs — the seven sins, and seven stars, and seven churches, and seven lamps. He would make no party question of this. Gentlemen who usually acted with him would vote as their own sense of right or wrong directed them — from which expression of a special sanction it was considered that these gentlemen were not accustomed to exercise the privilege now accorded to them. But in regarding the question as one of right and wrong, and in looking at what he believed to be both the wish of the country and its interests, he, Mr Daubeny — he, himself, being simply a humble member of that House — must support the clause of the honourable gentleman. Almost all those to whom had been surrendered the privilege of using their own judgment for that occasion only, used it discreetly — as their chief had used it himself — and Mr Turnbull carried his clause by a majority of fifteen. It was then 3 a.m., and Mr Gresham, rising after the division, said that his right honourable friend the First Lord of the Treasury was too tired to return to the House, and had requested him to state that the Government would declare their purpose at 6 p.m. on the following evening.

Phineas, though he had made his little speech in answer to Mr Turnbull with good humoured flippancy, had recorded his vote in favour of the seven boroughs with a sore heart. Much as he disliked Mr Turnbull, he knew that Mr Turnbull was right in this. He had spoken to Mr Monk on the subject, as it were asking Mr Monk’s permission to throw up his office, and vote against Mr Mildmay. But Mr Monk was angry with him, telling him that his conscience was of that restless, uneasy sort which is neither useful nor manly. “We all know,” said Mr Monk, “and none better than Mr Mildmay, that we cannot justify such a borough as Loughton by the theory of our parliamentary representation — any more than we can justify the fact that Huntingdonshire should return as many members as the East Riding. There must be compromises, and you should trust to others who have studied the matter more thoroughly than you, to say how far the compromise should go at the present moment.”

“It is the influence of the peer, not the paucity of the electors,” said Phineas.

“And has no peer any influence in a county? Would you disfranchise Westmoreland? Believe me, Finn, if you want to be useful, you must submit yourself in such matters to those with whom you act.”

Phineas had no answer to make, but he was not happy in his mind. And he was the less happy, perhaps, because he was very sure that Mr Mildmay would be beaten. Mr Low in these days harassed him sorely. Mr Low was very keen against such boroughs as Loughton, declaring that Mr Daubeny was quite right to join his standard to that of Mr Turnbull on such an issue. Mr Low was the reformer now, and Phineas found himself obliged to fight a losing battle on behalf of an acknowledged abuse. He never went near Bunce; but, unfortunately for him, Bunce caught him once in the street and showed him no mercy. “Slide was a little ‘eavy on you in the Banner the other day — eh, Mr Finn? — too ‘eavy, as I told him.”

“Mr Slide can be just as heavy as he pleases, Bunce.”

“That’s in course. The press is free, thank God — as yet. But it wasn’t any good rattling away at the Earl’s little borough when it’s sure to go. Of course it’ll go, Mr Finn.”

“I think it will.”

“The whole seven on ’em. The ’ouse couldn’t but do it. They tell me it’s all Mr Mildmay’s own work, sticking out for keeping on ’em. He’s very old, and so we’ll forgive him. But he must go, Mr Finn.”

“We shall know all about that soon, Bunce.”

“If you don’t get another seat, Mr Finn, I suppose we shall see you back at the Inn. I hope we may. It’s better than being member for Loughton, Mr Finn — you may be sure of that.” And then Mr Bunce passed on.

Mr Turnbull carried his clause, and Loughton was doomed. Loughton and the other six deadly sins were anathematised, exorcised, and finally got rid of out of the world by the voices of the gentlemen who had been proclaiming the beauty of such pleasant vices all their lives, and who in their hearts hated all changes that tended towards popular representation. But not the less was Mr Mildmay beaten; and, in accordance with the promise made by his first lieutenant immediately after the vote was taken, the Prime Minister came forward on the next evening and made his statement. He had already put his resignation into the hands of Her Majesty, and Her Majesty had graciously accepted it. He was very old, and felt that the time had come in which it behoved him to retire into that leisure which he thought he had, perhaps, earned. He had hoped to carry this bill as the last act of his political life; but he was too old, too stiff, as he said, in his prejudices, to bend further than he had bent already, and he must leave the completion of the matter in other hands. Her Majesty had sent for Mr Gresham, and Mr Gresham had already seen Her Majesty. Mr Gresham and his other colleagues, though they dissented from the clause which had been carried by the united efforts of gentlemen opposite to him, and of gentlemen below him on his own side of the House, were younger men than he, and would, for the country’s sake — and for the sake of Her Majesty — endeavour to carry the bill through. There would then, of course, be a dissolution, and the future Government would, no doubt, depend on the choice of the country, From all which it was understood that Mr Gresham was to go on with the bill to a conclusion, whatever might be the divisions carried against him, and that a new Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs must be chosen. Phineas understood, also, that he had lost his seat at Loughton. For the borough of Loughton there would never again be an election. “If I had been Mr Mildmay, I would have thrown the bill up altogether,” Lord Brentford said afterwards; “but of course it was not for me to interfere.”

The session was protracted for two months after that — beyond the time at which grouse should have been shot — and by the 23rd of August became the law of the land. “I shall never get over it,” said Mr Ratler to Mr Finn, seated one terribly hot evening on a bench behind the Cabinet Ministers — “never. I don’t suppose such a session for work was ever known before. Think what it is to have to keep men together in August, with the thermometer at 81 degrees, and the river stinking like — like the very mischief.” Mr Ratler, however, did not die.

On the last day of the session Laurence Fitzgibbon resigned. Rumours reached the ears of Phineas as to the cause of this, but no certain cause was told him. It was said that Lord Cantrip had insisted upon it, Laurence having by mischance been called upon for some official statement during an unfortunate period of absence. There was, however, a mystery about it — but the mystery was not half so wonderful as the triumph to Phineas, when Mr Gresham offered him the place.

“But I shall have no seat,” said Phineas.

“We shall none of us have seats tomorrow,” said Mr Gresham.

“But I shall be at a loss to find a place to stand for.”

“The election will not come on till November, and you must look about you. Both Mr Monk and Lord Brentford seem to think you will be in the House.”

And so the bill was carried, and the session was ended.

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