Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 5

Mr and Mrs Low

That terrible apparition of the red Lord Chiltern had disturbed Phineas in the moment of his happiness as he sat listening to the kind flatteries of Lady Laura; and though Lord Chiltern had vanished as quickly as he had appeared, there had come no return of his joy. Lady Laura had said some word about her brother, and Phineas had replied that he had never chanced to see Lord Chiltern. Then there had been an awkward silence, and almost immediately other persons had come in. After greeting one or two old acquaintances, among whom an elder sister of Laurence Fitzgibbon was one, he took his leave and escaped out into the square. “Miss Fitzgibbon is going to dine with us on Wednesday,” said Lady Laura. “She says she won’t answer for her brother, but she will bring him if she can.”

“And you’re a member of Parliament now too, they tell me,” said Miss Fitzgibbon, holding up her hands. “I think everybody will be in Parliament before long. I wish I knew some man who wasn’t, that I might think of changing my condition.”

But Phineas cared very little what Miss Fitzgibbon said to him. Everybody knew Aspasia Fitzgibbon, and all who knew her were accustomed to put up with the violence of her jokes and the bitterness of her remarks. She was an old maid, over forty, very plain, who, having reconciled herself to the fact that she was an old maid, chose to take advantage of such poor privileges as the position gave her. Within the last few years a considerable fortune had fallen into her hands, some twenty-five thousand pounds, which had come to her unexpectedly — a wonderful windfall. And now she was the only one of her family who had money at command. She lived in a small house by herself, in one of the smallest streets of Mayfair, and walked about sturdily by herself, and spoke her mind about everything. She was greatly devoted to her brother Laurence — so devoted that there was nothing she would not do for him, short of lending him money.

But Phineas when he found himself out in the square thought nothing of Aspasia Fitzgibbon. He had gone to Lady Laura Standish for sympathy, and she had given it to him in full measure. She understood him and his aspirations if no one else did so on the face of the earth. She rejoiced in his triumph, and was not too hard to tell him that she looked forward to his success. And in what delightful language she had done so! “Faint heart never won fair lady.” It was thus, or almost thus, that she had encouraged him. He knew well that she had in truth meant nothing more than her words had seemed to signify. He did not for a moment attribute to her aught else. But might not he get another lesson from them? He had often told himself that he was not in love with Laura Standish — but why should he not now tell himself that he was in love with her? Of course there would be difficulty. But was it not the business of his life to overcome difficulties? Had he not already overcome one difficulty almost as great; and why should he be afraid of this other? Faint heart never won fair lady! And this fair lady — for at this moment he was ready to swear that she was very fair — was already half won. She could not have taken him by the hand so warmly, and looked into his face so keenly, had she not felt for him something stronger than common friendship.

He had turned down Baker Street from the square, and was now walking towards the Regent’s Park. He would go and see the beasts in the Zoological Gardens; and make up his mind as to his future mode of life in that delightful Sunday solitude. There was very much as to which it was necessary that he should make up his mind. If he resolved that he would ask Lady Laura Standish to be his wife, when should he ask her, and in what manner might he propose to her that they should live? It would hardly suit him to postpone his courtship indefinitely, knowing, as he did know, that he would be one among many suitors. He could not expect her to wait for him if he did not declare himself. And yet he could hardly ask her to come and share with him the allowance made to him by his father! Whether she had much fortune of her own, or little, or none at all, he did not in the least know. He did know that the Earl had been distressed by his son’s extravagance, and that there had been some money difficulties arising from this source.

But his great desire would be to support his own wife by his own labour. At present he was hardly in a fair way to do that, unless he could get paid for his parliamentary work. Those fortunate gentlemen who form “The Government” are so paid. Yes — there was the Treasury Bench open to him, and he must resolve that he would seat himself there. He would make Lady Laura understand this, and then he would ask his question. It was true that at present his political opponents had possession of the Treasury Bench — but all governments are mortal, and Conservative governments in this country are especially prone to die. It was true that he could not hold even a Treasury lordship with a poor thousand a year for his salary without having to face the electors of Loughshane again before he entered upon the enjoyment of his place — but if he could only do something to give a grace to his name, to show that he was a rising man, the electors of Loughshane, who had once been so easy with him, would surely not be cruel to him when he showed himself a second time among them. Lord Tulla was his friend, and he had those points of law in his favour which possession bestows. And then he remembered that Lady Laura was related to almost everybody who was anybody among the high Whigs. She was, he knew, second cousin to Mr Mildmay, who for years had been the leader of the Whigs, and was third cousin to Barrington Erle. The late President of the Council, the Duke of St Bungay, and Lord Brentford had married sisters, and the St Bungay people, and the Mildmay people, and the Brentford people had all some sort of connection with the Palliser people, of whom the heir and coming chief, Plantagenet Palliser, would certainly be Chancellor of the Exchequer in the next Government. Simply as an introduction into official life nothing could be more conducive to chances of success than a matrimonial alliance with Lady Laura. Not that he would have thought of such a thing on that account! No — he thought of it because he loved her; honestly because he loved her. He swore to that half a dozen times, for his own satisfaction. But, loving her as he did, and resolving that in spite of all difficulties she should become his wife, there could be no reason why he should not — on her account as well as on his own — take advantage of any circumstances that there might be in his favour.

As he wandered among the unsavoury beasts, elbowed on every side by the Sunday visitors to the garden, he made up his mind that he would first let Lady Laura understand what were his intentions with regard to his future career, and then he would ask her to join her lot to his. At every turn the chances would of course be very much against him — ten to one against him, perhaps, on every point; but it was his lot in life to have to face such odds. Twelve months since it had been much more than ten to one against his getting into Parliament; and yet he was there. He expected to be blown into fragments — to sheep-skinning in Australia, or packing preserved meats on the plains of Paraguay; but when the blowing into atoms should come, he was resolved that courage to bear the ruin should not be wanting. Then he quoted a line or two of a Latin poet, and felt himself to be comfortable.

“So, here you are again, Mr Finn,” said a voice in his ear.

“Yes, Miss Fitzgibbon; here I am again.”

“I fancied you members of Parliament had something else to do besides looking at wild beasts. I thought you always spent Sunday in arranging how you might most effectually badger each other on Monday.”

“We got through all that early this morning, Miss Fitzgibbon, while you were saying your prayers.”

“Here is Mr Kennedy too — you know him I daresay. He also is a member; but then he can afford to be idle.” But it so happened that Phineas did not know Mr Kennedy, and consequently there was some slight form of introduction.

“I believe I am to meet you at dinner on Wednesday,” — said Phineas — “at Lord Brentford’s.”

“And me too,” said Miss Fitzgibbon.

“Which will be the greatest possible addition to our pleasure,” said Phineas.

Mr Kennedy, who seemed to be afflicted with some difficulty in speaking, and whose bow to our hero had hardly done more than produce the slightest possible motion to the top of his hat, hereupon muttered something which was taken to mean an assent to the proposition as to Wednesday’s dinner. Then he stood perfectly still, with his two hands fixed on the top of his umbrella, and gazed at the great monkeys’ cage. But it was clear that he was not looking at any special monkey, for his eyes never wandered.

“Did you ever see such a contrast in your life?” said Miss Fitzgibbon to Phineas — hardly in a whisper.

“Between what?” said Phineas.

“Between Mr Kennedy and a monkey. The monkey has so much to say for himself, and is so delightfully wicked! I don’t suppose that Mr Kennedy ever did anything wrong in his life.”

Mr Kennedy was a man who had very little temptation to do anything wrong. He was possessed of over a million and a half of money, which he was mistaken enough to suppose he had made himself; whereas it may be doubted whether he had ever earned a penny. His father and his uncle had created a business in Glasgow, and that business now belonged to him. But his father and his uncle, who had toiled through their long lives, had left behind them servants who understood the work, and the business now went on prospering almost by its own momentum. The Mr Kennedy of the present day, the sole owner of the business, though he did occasionally go to Glasgow, certainly did nothing towards maintaining it. He had a magnificent place in Perthshire, called Loughlinter, and he sat for a Scotch group of boroughs, and he had a house in London, and a stud of horses in Leicestershire, which he rarely visited, and was unmarried. He never spoke much to any one, although he was constantly in society. He rarely did anything, although he had the means of doing everything. He had very seldom been on his legs in the House of Commons, though he had sat there for ten years. He was seen about everywhere, sometimes with one acquaintance and sometimes with another — but it may be doubted whether he had any friend. It may be doubted whether he had ever talked enough to any man to make that man his friend. Laurence Fitzgibbon tried him for one season, and after a month or two asked for a loan of a few hundred pounds. “I never lend money to any one under any circumstances,” said Mr Kennedy, and it was the longest speech which had ever fallen from his mouth in the hearing of Laurence Fitzgibbon. But though he would not lend money, he gave a great deal — and he would give it for almost every object. “Mr Robert Kennedy, M.P., Loughlinter, £105,” appeared on almost every charitable list that was advertised. No one ever spoke to him as to this expenditure, nor did he ever speak to any one. Circulars came to him and the cheques were returned. The duty was a very easy one to him, and he performed it willingly. Had any amount of inquiry been necessary, it is possible that the labour would have been too much for him. Such was Mr Robert Kennedy, as to whom Phineas had heard that he had during the last winter entertained Lord Brentford and Lady Laura, with very many other people of note, at his place in Perthshire.

“I very much prefer the monkey,” said Phineas to Miss Fitzgibbon.

“I thought you would,” said she. Like to like, you know. You have both of you the same aptitude for climbing. But the monkeys never fall, they tell me.”

Phineas, knowing that he could gain nothing by sparring with Miss Fitzgibbon, raised his hat and took his leave. Going out of a narrow gate he found himself again brought into contact with Mr Kennedy. “What a crowd there is here,” he said, finding himself bound to say something. Mr Kennedy, who was behind him, answered him not a word. Then Phineas made up his mind that Mr Kennedy was insolent with the insolence of riches, and that he would hate Mr Kennedy.

He was engaged to dine on this Sunday with Mr Low, the barrister, with whom he had been reading for the last three years. Mr Low had taken a strong liking to Phineas, as had also Mrs Low, and the tutor had more than once told his pupil that success in his profession was certainly open to him if he would only stick to his work. Mr Low was himself an ambitious man, looking forward to entering Parliament at some future time, when the exigencies of his life of labour might enable him to do so; but he was prudent, given to close calculation, and resolved to make the ground sure beneath his feet in every step that he took forward. When he first heard that Finn intended to stand for Loughshane he was stricken with dismay, and strongly dissuaded him. “The electors may probably reject him. That’s his only chance now,” Mr Low had said to his wife, when he found that Phineas was, as he thought, foolhardy. But the electors of Loughshane had not rejected Mr Low’s pupil, and Mr Low was now called upon to advise what Phineas should do in his present circumstances. There is nothing to prevent the work of a Chancery barrister being done by a member of Parliament. Indeed, the most successful barristers are members of Parliament. But Phineas Finn was beginning at the wrong end, and Mr Low knew that no good would come of it.

“Only think of your being in Parliament, Mr Finn,” said Mrs Low.

“It is wonderful, isn’t it?” said Phineas.

“It took us so much by surprise!” said Mrs Low. As a rule one never hears of a barrister going into Parliament till after he’s forty.”

“And I’m only twenty-five. I do feel that I’ve disgraced myself. I do, indeed, Mrs Low.”

“No — you’ve not disgraced yourself, Mr Finn. The only question is, whether it’s prudent. I hope it will all turn out for the best, most heartily.” Mrs Low was a very matter-of-fact lady, four or five years older than her husband, who had had a little money of her own, and was possessed of every virtue under the sun. Nevertheless she did not quite like the idea of her husband’s pupil having got into Parliament. If her husband and Phineas Finn were dining anywhere together, Phineas, who had come to them quite a boy, would walk out of the room before her husband. This could hardly be right! Nevertheless she helped Phineas to the nicest bit of fish she could find, and had he been ill, would dive nursed him with the greatest care.

After dinner, when Mrs Low had gone upstairs, there came the great discussion between the tutor and the pupil, for the sake of which this little dinner had been given. When Phineas had last been with Mr Low — on the occasion of his showing himself at his tutor’s chambers after his return from Ireland — he had not made up his mind so thoroughly on certain points as he had done since he had seen Lady Laura. The discussion could hardly be of any avail now — but it could not be avoided.

“Well, Phineas, and what do you mean to do?” said Mr Low. Everybody who knew our hero, or nearly everybody, called him by his Christian name. There are men who seem to be so treated by general consent in all societies. Even Mrs Low, who was very prosaic, and unlikely to be familiar in her mode of address, had fallen into the way of doing it before the election. But she had dropped it, when the Phineas whom she used to know became a member of Parliament.

“That’s the question — isn’t it?” said Phineas.

“Of course you’ll stick to your work?”

“What — to the Bar?”

“Yes — to the Bar.”

“I am not thinking of giving it up permanently.”

“Giving it up,” said Mr Low, raising his hands in surprise. “If you give it up, how do you intend to live? Men are not paid for being members of Parliament.”

“Not exactly. But, as I said before, I am not thinking of giving it up — permanently.”

“You mustn’t give it up at all — not for a day; that is, if you ever mean to do any good.”

“There I think that perhaps you may be wrong, Low!”

“How can I be wrong? Did a period of idleness ever help a man in any profession? And is it not acknowledged by all who know anything about it, that continuous labour is more necessary in our profession than in any other?”

“I do not mean to be idle.”

“What is it you do mean, Phineas?”

“Why simply this. Here I am in Parliament. We must take that as a fact.”

“I don’t doubt the fact.”

“And if it be a misfortune, we must make the best of it. Even you wouldn’t advise me to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds at once.”

“I would — tomorrow. My dear fellow, though I do not like to give you pain, if you come to me I can only tell you what I think. My advice to you is to give it up tomorrow. Men would laugh at you for a few weeks, but that is better than being ruined for life.”

“I can’t do that,” said Phineas, sadly.

“Very well — then let us go on,” said Mr Low. If you won’t give up your seat, the next best thing will be to take care that it shall interfere as little as possible with your work. I suppose you must sit upon some Committees.”

“My idea is this — that I will give up one year to learning the practices of the House.”

“And do nothing?”

“Nothing but that. Why, the thing is a study in itself. As for learning it in a year, that is out of the question. But I am convinced that if a man intends to be a useful member of Parliament, he should make a study of it.”

“And how do you mean to live in the meantime?” Mr Low, who was an energetic man, had assumed almost an angry tone of voice. Phineas for awhile sat silent — not that he felt himself to be without words for a reply, but that he was thinking in what fewest words he might best convey his ideas. “You have a very modest allowance from your father, on which you have never been able to keep yourself free from debt,” continued Mr Low.

“He has increased it.”

“And will it satisfy you to live here, in what will turn out to be parliamentary club idleness, on the savings of his industrious life? I think you will find yourself unhappy if you do that. Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don’t begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes — or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them. Then, because their legs are weak, they drift into idleness and ruin. During all this drifting they are wretched, and when they have thoroughly drifted they are still wretched. The agony of their old disappointment still clings to them. In nine cases out of ten it is someone small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first. He sees some woman and loses himself with her — or he is taken to a racecourse and unluckily wins money — or some devil in the shape of a friend lures him to tobacco and brandy. Your temptation has come in the shape of this accursed seat in Parliament.” Mr Low had never said a soft word in his life to any woman but the wife of his bosom, had never seen a racehorse, always confined himself to two glasses of port after dinner, and looked upon smoking as the darkest of all the vices.

“You have made up your mind, then, that I mean to be idle?”

“I have made up my mind that your time will be wholly unprofitable — if you do as you say you intend to do.”

“But you do not know my plan; just listen to me.” Then Mr Low did listen, and Phineas explained his plan — saying, of course, nothing of his love for Lady Laura, but giving Mr Low to understand that he intended to assist in turning out the existing Government and to mount up to some seat — a humble seat at first — on the Treasury bench, by the help of his exalted friends and by the use of his own gifts of eloquence. Mr Low heard him without a word. “Of course,” said Phineas, after the first year my time will not be fully employed, unless I succeed. And if I fail totally — for, of course, I may fail altogether — ”

“It is possible,” said Mr Low.

“If you are resolved to turn yourself against me, I must not say another word,” said Phineas, with anger.

“Turn myself against you! I would turn myself any way so that I might save you from the sort of life which you are preparing for yourself. I see nothing in it that can satisfy any manly heart. Even if you are successful, what are you to become? You will be the creature of some minister, not his colleague. You are to make your way up the ladder by pretending to agree whenever agreement is demanded from you, and by voting whether you agree or do not. And what is to be your reward? Some few precarious hundreds a year, lasting just so long as a party may remain in power and you can retain a seat in Parliament! It is at the best slavery and degradation, — even if you are lucky enough to achieve the slavery.”

“You yourself hope to go into Parliament and join a ministry some day,” said Phineas.

Mr Low was not quick to answer, but he did answer at last. “That is true, though I have never told you so. Indeed, it is hardly true to say that I hope it. I have my dreams, and sometimes dare to tell myself that they may possibly become waking facts. But if ever I sit on a Treasury bench I shall sit there by special invitation, having been summoned to take a high place because of my professional success. It is but a dream after all, and I would not have you repeat what I have said to anyone. I had no intention to talk about myself.”

“I am sure that you will succeed,” said Phineas.

“Yes — I shall succeed. I am succeeding. I live upon what I earn, like a gentleman, and can already afford to be indifferent to work that I dislike. After all, the other part of it — that of which I dream — is but an unnecessary adjunct; the gilding on the gingerbread. I am inclined to think that the cake is more wholesome without it.”

Phineas did not go upstairs into Mrs Low’s drawing-room on that evening, nor did he stay very late with Mr Low. He had heard enough of counsel to make him very unhappy — to shake from him much of the audacity which he had acquired for himself during his morning’s walk — and to make him almost doubt whether, after all, the Chiltern Hundreds would not be for him the safest escape from his difficulties. But in that case he must never venture to see Lady Laura Standish again.

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