Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 58

Rara avis in terris

“Come and see the country and judge for yourself,” said Phineas.

“I should like nothing better,” said Mr Monk.

“It has often seemed to me that men in Parliament know less about Ireland than they do of the interior of Africa,” said Phineas.

“It is seldom that we know anything accurately on any subject that we have not made matter of careful study,” said Mr Monk, “and very often do not do so even then. We are very apt to think that we men and women understand one another; but most probably you know nothing even of the modes of thought of the man who lives next door to you.”

“I suppose not.”

“There are general laws current in the world as to morality. “Thou shalt not steal,” for instance. That has necessarily been current as a law through all nations. But the first man you meet in the street will have ideas about theft so different from yours, that, if you knew them as you know your own, you would say that this law and yours were not even founded on the same principle. It is compatible with this man’s honesty to cheat you in a matter of horseflesh, with that man’s in a traffic of railway shares, with that other man’s as to a woman’s fortune; with a fourth’s anything may be done for a seat in Parliament, while the fifth man, who stands high among us, and who implores his God every Sunday to write that law on his heart, spends every hour of his daily toil in a system of fraud, and is regarded as a pattern of the national commerce!”

Mr Monk and Phineas were dining together at Mr Monk’s house, and the elder politician of the two in this little speech had recurred to certain matters which had already been discussed between them. Mr Monk was becoming somewhat sick of his place in the Cabinet, though he had not as yet whispered a word of his sickness to any living ears; and he had begun to pine for the lost freedom of a seat below the gangway. He had been discussing political honesty with Phineas, and hence had come the sermon of which I have ventured to reproduce the concluding denunciations.

Phineas was fond of such discussions and fond of holding them with Mr Monk — in this matter fluttering like a moth round a candle. He would not perceive that as he had made up his mind to be a servant of the public in Parliament, he must abandon all idea of independent action; and unless he did so he could he neither successful as regarded himself, or useful to the public whom he served. Could a man be honest in Parliament, and yet abandon all idea of independence? When he put such questions to Mr Monk he did not get a direct answer. And indeed the question was never put directly. But the teaching which he received was ever of a nature to make him uneasy. It was always to this effect: “You have taken up the trade now, and seem to be fit for success in it. You had better give up thinking about its special honesty.” And yet Mr Monk would on an occasion preach to him such a sermon as that which he had just uttered! Perhaps there is no question more difficult to a man’s mind than that of the expediency or inexpediency of scruples in political life. Whether would a candidate for office be more liable to rejection from a leader because he was known to be scrupulous, or because he was known to be the reverse?

“But putting aside the fourth commandment and all the theories, you will come to Ireland?” said Phineas.

“I shall be delighted.”

“I don’t live in a castle, you know.”

“I thought everybody did live in a castle in Ireland,” said Mr Monk. “They seemed to do when I was there twenty years ago. But for myself, I prefer a cottage.”

This trip to Ireland had been proposed in consequence of certain ideas respecting tenant-right which Mr Monk was beginning to adopt, and as to which the minds of politicians were becoming moved. It had been all very well to put down Fenianism, and Ribandmen, and Repeal — and everything that had been put down in Ireland in the way of rebellion for the last seventy-five years. England and Ireland had been apparently joined together by laws of nature so fixed, that even politicians liberal as was Mr Monk — liberal as was Mr Turnbull — could not trust themselves to think that disunion could be for the good of the Irish. They had taught themselves that it certainly could not be good for the English. But if it was incumbent on England to force upon Ireland the maintenance of the Union for her own sake, and for England’s sake, because England could not afford independence established so close against her own ribs — it was at any rate necessary to England’s character that the bride thus bound in a compulsory wedlock should be endowed with all the best privileges that a wife can enjoy. Let her at least not be a kept mistress. Let it be bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, if we are to live together in the married state. Between husband and wife a warm word now and then matters but little, if there be a thoroughly good understanding at bottom. But let there be that good understanding at bottom. What about this Protestant Church; and what about this tenant-right? Mr Monk had been asking himself these questions for some time past. In regard to the Church, he had long made up his mind that the Establishment in Ireland was a crying sin. A man had married a woman whom he knew to be of a religion different from his own, and then insisted that his wife should say that she believed those things which he knew very well that she did not believe. But, as Mr Monk well knew, the subject of the Protestant Endowments in Ireland was so difficult that it would require almost more than human wisdom to adjust it. It was one of those matters which almost seemed to require the interposition of some higher power — the coming of some apparently chance event — to clear away the evil; as a fire comes, and pestilential alleys are removed; as a famine comes, and men are driven from want and ignorance and dirt to seek new homes and new thoughts across the broad waters; as a war comes, and slavery is banished from the face of the earth. But in regard to tenant-right, to some arrangement by which a tenant in Ireland might be at least encouraged to lay out what little capital he might have in labour or money without being at once called upon to pay rent for that outlay which was his own, as well as for the land which was not his own — Mr Monk thought that it was possible that if a man would look hard enough he might perhaps be able to see his way as to that. He had spoken to two of his colleagues on the subject, the two men in the Cabinet whom he believed to be the most thoroughly honest in their ideas as public servants, the Duke and Mr Gresham. There was so much to be done — and then so little was known upon the subject! “I will endeavour to study it,” said Mr Monk. “If you can see your way, do;” said Mr Gresham — “but of course we cannot bind ourselves.” “I should be glad to see it named in the Queen’s speech at the beginning of the next session,” said Mr Monk. “That is a long way off as yet,” said Mr Gresham, laughing. “Who will be in then, and who will be out?” So the matter was disposed of at the time, but Mr Monk did not abandon his idea. He rather felt himself the more bound to cling to it because he received so little encouragement. What was a seat in the Cabinet to him that he should on that account omit a duty? He had not taken up politics as a trade. He had sat far behind the Treasury bench or below the gangway for many a year, without owing any man a shilling — and could afford to do so again.

But it was different with Phineas Finn, as Mr Monk himself understood — and, understanding this, he felt himself bound to caution his young friend. But it may be a question whether his cautions did not do more harm than good. “I shall be delighted,” he said, “to go over with you in August, but I do not think that if I were you, I would take up this matter.”

“And why not? You don’t want to fight the battle single-handed?”

“No; I desire no such glory, and would wish to have no better lieutenant than you. But you have a subject of which you are really fond, which you are beginning to understand, and in regard to which you can make yourself useful.”

“You mean this Canada business?”

“Yes — and that will grow to other matters as regards the colonies. There is nothing so important to a public man as that he should have his own subject — the thing which he understands, and in respect of which he can make himself really useful.”

“Then there comes a change.”

“Yes — and the man who has half learned how to have a ship built without waste is sent into opposition, and is then brought back to look after regiments, or perhaps has to take up that beautiful subject, a study of the career of India. But, nevertheless, if you have a subject, stick to it at any rate as long as it will stick to you.”

“But,” said Phineas, if a man takes up his own subject, independent of the Government, no man can drive him from it.”

“And how often does he do anything? Look at the annual motions which come forward in the hands of private men, Maynooth and the ballot for instance. It is becoming more and more apparent every day that all legislation must be carried by the Government, and must be carried in obedience to the expressed wish of the people. The truest democracy that ever had a chance of living is that which we are now establishing in Great Britain.”

“Then leave tenant-right to the people and the Cabinet. Why should you take it up?”

Mr Monk paused a moment or two before he replied. “If I choose to run amok, there is no reason why you should follow me. I am old and you are young. I want nothing from politics as a profession, and you do. Moreover, you have a congenial subject where you are, and need not disturb yourself. For myself, I tell you, in confidence, that I cannot speak so comfortably of my own position.”

“We will go and see, at any rate,” said Phineas.

“Yes,” said Mr Monk, we will go and see. And thus, in the month of May, it was settled between them that, as soon as the session should be over, and the incidental work of his office should allow Phineas to pack up and be off, they two should start together for Ireland. Phineas felt rather proud as he wrote to his father and asked permission to bring home with him a Cabinet Minister as a visitor. At this time the reputation of Phineas at Killaloe, as well in the minds of the Killaloeians generally as in those of the inhabitants of the paternal house, stood very high indeed. How could a father think that a son had done badly when before he was thirty years of age he was earning £2,000 a year? And how could a father not think well of a son who had absolutely paid back certain moneys into the paternal coffers? The moneys so repaid had not been much; but the repayment of any such money at Killaloe had been regarded as little short of miraculous. The news of Mr Monk’s coming flew about the town, about the county, about the diocese, and all people began to say all good things about the old doctor’s only son. Mrs Finn had long since been quite sure that a real black swan had been sent forth out of her nest. And the sisters Finn, for some time past, had felt in all social gatherings they stood quite on a different footing than formerly because of their brother. They were asked about in the county, and two of them had been staying only last Easter with the Molonys — the Molonys of Poldoodie! How should a father and a mother and sisters not be grateful to such a son, to such a brother, to such a veritable black swan out of the nest! And as for dear little Mary Flood Jones, her eyes became suffused with tears as in her solitude she thought how much out of her reach this swan was flying. And yet she took joy in his swanhood, and swore that she would love him still — that she would love him always. Might he bring home with him to Killaloe, Mr Monk, the Cabinet Minister! Of course he might. When Mrs Finn first heard of this august arrival, she felt as though she would like to expend herself in entertaining, though but an hour, the whole cabinet.

Phineas, during the spring, had, of course, met Mr Kennedy frequently in and about the House, and had become aware that Lady Laura’s husband, from time to time, made little overtures of civility to him — taking him now and again by the buttonhole, walking home with him as far as their joint paths allowed, and asking him once or twice to come and dine in Grosvenor Place. These little advances towards a repetition of the old friendship Phineas would have avoided altogether, had it been possible. The invitation to Mr Kennedy’s house he did refuse, feeling himself positively bound to do so by Lady Laura’s command, let the consequences be what they might. When he did refuse, Mr Kennedy would assume a look of displeasure and leave him, and Phineas would hope that the work was done. Then there would come another encounter, and the invitation would be repeated. At last, about the middle of May, there came another note. “Dear Finn, will you dine with us on Wednesday, the 28th? I give you a long notice, because you seem to have so many appointments. Yours always, Robert Kennedy.” He had no alternative. He must refuse, even though double the notice had been given. He could only think that Mr Kennedy was a very obtuse man and one who would not take a hint, and hope that he might succeed at last. So he wrote an answer, not intended to be conciliatory. “My dear Kennedy, I am sorry to say that I am engaged on the 28th. Yours always, Phineas Finn.” At this period he did his best to keep out of Mr Kennedy’s way, and would be very cunning in his manoeuvres that they should not be alone together. It was difficult, as they sat on the same bench in the House, and consequently saw each other almost every day of their lives. Nevertheless, he thought that with a little cunning he might prevail, especially as he was not unwilling to give so much of offence as might assist his own object. But when Mr Kennedy called upon him at his office the day after he had written the above note, he had no means of escape.

“I am sorry you cannot come to us on the 28th,” Mr Kennedy said, as soon as he was seated.

Phineas was taken so much by surprise that all his cunning failed him. “Well, yes,” said he; I was very sorry — very sorry indeed.”

“It seems to me, Finn, that you have had some reason for avoiding me of late. I do not know that I have done anything to offend you.”

“Nothing on earth,” said Phineas.

“I am wrong, then, in supposing that anything beyond mere chance has prevented you from coming to my house?” Phineas felt that he was in a terrible difficulty, and he felt also that he was being rather ill-used in being thus cross-examined as to his reasons for not going to a gentleman’s dinner. He thought that a man ought to be allowed to choose where he would go and where he would not go, and that questions such as these were very uncommon. Mr Kennedy was sitting opposite to him, looking more grave and more sour than usual — and now his own countenance also became a little solemn. It was impossible that he should use Lady Laura’s name, and yet he must, in some way, let his persecuting friend know that no further invitation would be of any use — that there was something beyond mere chance in his not going to Grosvenor Place. But how was he to do this? The difficulty was so great that he could not see his way out of it. So he sat silent with a solemn face. Mr Kennedy then asked him another question, which made the difficulty ten times greater. “Has my wife asked you not to come to our house?”

It was necessary now that he should make a rush and get out of his trouble in some way. “To tell you the truth, Kennedy, I don’t think she wants to see me there.”

“That does not answer my question. Has she asked you not to come?”

“She said that which left on my mind an impression that she would sooner that I did not come.”

“What did she say?”

“How can I answer such a question as that, Kennedy? Is it fair to ask it?”

“Quite fair — I think.”

“I think it quite unfair, and I must decline to answer it. I cannot imagine what you expect to gain by cross-questioning me in this way. Of course no man likes to go to a house if he does not believe that everybody there will make him welcome.”

“You and Lady Laura used to be great friends.”

“I hope we are not enemies now. But things will occur that cause friendships to grow cool.”

“Have you quarrelled with her father?”

“With Lord Brentford? — no.”

“Or with her brother — since the duel I mean?”

“Upon my word and honour I cannot stand this, and I will not. I have not as yet quarrelled with anybody; but I must quarrel with you, if you go on in this way. It is quite unusual that a man should be put through his facings after such a fashion, and I must beg that there may be an end of it.”

“Then I must ask Lady Laura.”

“You can say what you like to your own wife of course. I cannot hinder you.”

Upon that Mr Kennedy formally shook hands with him, in token that there was no positive breach between them — as two nations may still maintain their alliance, though they have made up their minds to hate each other, and thwart each other at every turn — and took his leave. Phineas, as he sat at his window, looking out into the park, and thinking of what had passed, could not but reflect that, disagreeable as Mr Kennedy had been to him, he would probably make himself much more disagreeable to his wife. And, for himself, he thought that he had got out of the scrape very well by the exhibition of a little mock anger.

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