Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 6

Lord Brentford”s dinner

No — in such case as that — should he resolve upon taking the advice of his old friend Mr Low, Phineas Finn must make up his mind never to see Lady Laura Standish again! And he was in love with Lady Laura Standish — and, for aught he knew, Lady Laura Standish might be in love with him. As he walked home from Mr Low’s house in Bedford Square, he was by no means a triumphant man. There had been much more said between him and Mr Low than could be laid before the reader in the last chapter. Mr Low had urged him again and again, and had prevailed so far that Phineas, before he left the house, had promised to consider that suicidal expedient of the Chiltern Hundreds. What a by-word he would become if he were to give up Parliament, having sat there for about a week. But such immediate giving up was one of the necessities of Mr Low’s programme. According to Mr Low’s teaching, a single year passed amidst the miasma of the House of Commons would be altogether fatal to any chance of professional success. And Mr Low had at any rate succeeded in making Phineas believe that he was right in this lesson. There was his profession, as to which Mr Low assured him that success was within his reach; and there was Parliament on the other side, as to which he knew that the chances were all against him, in spite of his advantage of a seat. That he could not combine the two, beginning with Parliament, he did believe. Which should it be? That was the question which he tried to decide as he walked home from Bedford Square to Great Marlborough Street. He could not answer the question satisfactorily, and went to bed an unhappy man.

He must at any rate go to Lord Brentford’s dinner on Wednesday, and, to enable him to join in the conversation there, must attend the debates on Monday and Tuesday. The reader may perhaps be best made to understand how terrible was our hero’s state of doubt by being told that for awhile he thought of absenting himself from these debates, as being likely to weaken his purpose of withdrawing altogether from the House. It is not very often that so strong a fury rages between party and party at the commencement of the session that a division is taken upon the Address. It is customary for the leader of the opposition on such occasions to express his opinion in the most courteous language, that his right honourable friend, sitting opposite to him on the Treasury bench, has been, is, and will be wrong in everything that he thinks, says, or does in public life; but that, as anything like factious opposition is never adopted on that side of the House, the Address to the Queen, in answer to that most fatuous speech which has been put into Her Majesty’s gracious mouth, shall be allowed to pass unquestioned. Then the leader of the House thanks his adversary for his consideration, explains to all men how happy the country ought to be that the Government has not fallen into the disgracefully incapable hands of his right honourable friend opposite; and after that the Address is carried amidst universal serenity. But such was not the order of the day on the present occasion. Mr Mildmay, the veteran leader of the liberal side of the House, had moved an amendment to the Address, and had urged upon the House, in very strong language, the expediency of showing, at the very commencement of the session, that the country had returned to Parliament a strong majority determined not to put up with Conservative inactivity. “I conceive it to be my duty,” Mr Mildmay had said, “at once to assume that the country is unwilling that the right honourable gentlemen opposite should keep their seats on the bench upon which they sit, and in the performance of that duty I am called upon to divide the House upon the Address to Her Majesty.” And if Mr Mildmay used strong language, the reader may be sure that Mr Mildmay’s followers used language much stronger. And Mr Daubeny, who was the present leader of the House, and representative there of the Ministry — Lord de Terrier, the Premier, sitting in the House of Lords — was not the man to allow these amenities to pass by without adequate replies. He and his friends were very strong in sarcasm, if they failed in argument, and lacked nothing for words, though it might perhaps be proved that they were short in numbers. It was considered that the speech in which Mr Daubeny reviewed the long political life of Mr Mildmay, and showed that Mr Mildmay had been at one time a bugbear, and then a nightmare, and latterly simply a fungus, was one of the severest attacks, if not the most severe, that had been heard in that House since the Reform Bill. Mr Mildmay, the while, was sitting with his hat low down over his eyes, and many men said that he did not like it. But this speech was not made till after that dinner at Lord Brentford’s, of which a short account must be given.

Had it not been for the overwhelming interest of the doings in Parliament at the commencement of the session, Phineas might have perhaps abstained from attending, in spite of the charm of novelty. For, in truth, Mr Low’s words had moved him much. But if it was to be his fate to be a member of Parliament only for ten days, surely it would be well that he should take advantage of the time to hear such a debate as this. It would be a thing to talk of to his children in twenty years’ time, or to his grandchildren in fifty — and it would be essentially necessary that he should be able to talk of it to Lady Laura Standish. He did, therefore, sit in the House till one on the Monday night, and till two on the Tuesday night, and heard the debate adjourned till the Thursday. On the Thursday Mr Daubeny was to make his great speech, and then the division would come.

When Phineas entered Lady Laura’s drawing-room on the Wednesday before dinner, he found the other guests all assembled. Why men should have been earlier in keeping their dinner engagements on that day than on any other he did not understand; but it was the fact, probably, that the great anxiety of the time made those who were at all concerned in the matter very keen to hear and to be heard. During these days everybody was in a hurry — everybody was eager; and there was a common feeling that not a minute was to be lost. There were three ladies in the room — Lady Laura, Miss Fitzgibbon, and Mrs Bonteen. The latter was the wife of a gentleman who had been a junior Lord of the Admiralty in the late Government, and who lived in the expectation of filling, perhaps, some higher office in the Government which, as he hoped, was soon to be called into existence. There were five gentlemen besides Phineas Finn himself — Mr Bonteen, Mr Kennedy, Mr Fitzgibbon, Barrington Erle, who had been caught in spite of all that Lady Laura had said as to the difficulty of such an operation, and Lord Brentford. Phineas was quick to observe that every male guest was in Parliament, and to tell himself that he would not have been there unless he also had had a seat.

“We are all here now,” said the Earl, ringing the bell.

“I hope I’ve not kept you waiting,” said Phineas.

“Not at all,” said Lady Laura. I do not know why we are in such a hurry. And how many do you say it will be, Mr Finn?”

“Seventeen, I suppose,” said Phineas.

“More likely twenty-two,” said Mr Bonteen. There is Colcleugh so ill they can’t possibly bring him up, and young Rochester is at Vienna, and Gunning is sulking about something, and Moody has lost his eldest son. By George! they pressed him to come up, although Frank Moody won’t be buried till Friday.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Lord Brentford.

“You ask some of the Carlton fellows, and they’ll own it.”

“If I’d lost every relation I had in the world,” said Fitzgibbon, “I’d vote on such a question as this. Staying away won’t bring poor Frank Moody back to life.”

“But there’s a decency in these matters, is there not, Mr Fitzgibbon?” said Lady Laura.

“I thought they had thrown all that kind of thing overboard long ago,” said Miss Fitzgibbon. “It would be better that they should have no veil, than squabble about the thickness of it.”

Then dinner was announced. The Earl walked off with Miss Fitzgibbon, Barrington Erle took Mrs Bonteen, and Mr Fitzgibbon took Lady Laura.

“I’ll bet four pounds to two it’s over nineteen,” said Mr Bonteen, as he passed through the drawing-room door. The remark seemed to have been addressed to Mr Kennedy, and Phineas therefore made no reply.

“I daresay it will,” said Kennedy, but I never bet.”

“But you vote — sometimes, I hope,” said Bonteen.

“Sometimes,” said Mr Kennedy.

“I think he is the most odious man that ever I set my eyes on,” said Phineas to himself as he followed Mr Kennedy into the dining-room. He had observed that Mr Kennedy had been standing very near to Lady Laura in the drawing-room, and that Lady Laura had said a few words to him. He was more determined than ever that he would hate Mr Kennedy, and would probably have been moody and unhappy throughout the whole dinner had not Lady Laura called him to a chair at her left hand. It was very generous of her; and the more so, as Mr Kennedy had, in a half-hesitating manner, prepared to seat himself in that very place. As it was, Phineas and Mr Kennedy were neighbours, but Phineas had the place of honour.

“I suppose you will not speak during the debate?” said Lady Laura.

“Who? I? Certainly not. In the first place, I could not get a hearing, and, in the next place, I should not think of commencing on such an occasion. I do not know that I shall ever speak at all.”

“Indeed you will. You are just the sort of man who will succeed with the House. What I doubt is, whether you will do as well in office.”

“I wish I might have the chance.”

“Of course you can have the chance if you try for it. Beginning so early, and being on the right side — and, if you will allow me to say so, among the right set — there can be no doubt that you may take office if you will. But I am not sure that you will be tractable. You cannot begin, you know, by being Prime Minister.”

“I have seen enough to realise that already,” said Phineas.

“If you will only keep that little fact steadily before your eyes, there is nothing you may not reach in official life. But Pitt was Prime Minister at four-and-twenty, and that precedent has ruined half our young politicians.”

“It has not affected me, Lady Laura.”

“As far as I can see, there is no great difficulty in government. A man must learn to have words at command when he is on his legs in the House of Commons, in the same way as he would if he were talking to his own servants. He must keep his temper; and he must be very patient. As far as I have seen Cabinet Ministers, they are not more clever than other people.”

“I think there are generally one or two men of ability in the Cabinet.”

“Yes, of fair ability. Mr Mildmay is a good specimen. There is not, and never was, anything brilliant in him. He is not eloquent, nor, as far as I am aware, did he ever create anything. But he has always been a steady, honest, persevering man, and circumstances have made politics come easy to him.”

“Think of the momentous questions which he has been called upon to decide,” said Phineas.

“Every question so handled by him has been decided rightly according to his own party, and wrongly according to the Party opposite. A political leader is so sure of support and so sure of attack, that it is hardly necessary for him to be even anxious to be right. For the country’s sake, he should have officials under him who know the routine of business.”

“You think very badly then of politics as a profession.”

“No; I think of them very highly. It must be better to deal with the repeal of laws than the defending of criminals. But all this is papa’s wisdom, not mine. Papa has never been in the Cabinet yet, and therefore of course he is a little caustic.”

“I think he was quite right,” said Barrington Erle stoutly. He spoke so stoutly that everybody at the table listened to him.

“I don’t exactly see the necessity for such internecine war just at present,” said Lord Brentford.

“I must say I do,” said the other. Lord de Terrier took office knowing that he was in a minority. We had a fair majority of nearly thirty when he came in.”

“Then how very soft you must have been to go out,” said Miss Fitzgibbon.

“Not in the least soft,” continued Barrington Erle. We could not command our men, and were bound to go out. For aught we knew, some score of them might have chosen to support Lord de Terrier, and then we should have owned ourselves beaten for the time.”

“You were beaten — hollow,” said Miss Fitzgibbon.

“Then why did Lord de Terrier dissolve?”

“A Prime Minister is quite right to dissolve in such a position,” said Lord Brentford. “He must do so for the Queen’s sake. It is his only chance.”

“Just so. It is, as you say, his only chance, and it is his right. His very possession of power will give him near a score of votes, and if he thinks that he has a chance, let him try it. We maintain that he had no chance, and that he must have known that he had none — that if he could not get on with the late House, he certainly could not get on with a new House. We let him have his own way as far as we could in February. We had failed last summer, and if he could get along he was welcome. But he could not get along.”

“I must say I think he was right to dissolve,” said Lady Laura.

“And we are right to force the consequences upon him as quickly as we can. He practically lost nine seats by his dissolution. Look at Loughshane.”

“Yes; look at Loughshane,” said Miss Fitzgibbon. The country at any rate has gained something there.”

“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, Mr Finn,” said the Earl.

“What on earth is to become of poor George?” said Mr Fitzgibbon. “I wonder whether anyone knows where he is. George wasn’t a bad sort of fellow.”

“Roby used to think that he was a very bad fellow,” said Mr Bonteen. “Roby used to swear that it was hopeless trying to catch him.” It may be as well to explain that Mr Roby was a Conservative gentleman of great fame who had for years acted as Whip under Mr Daubeny, and who now filled the high office of Patronage Secretary to the Treasury. “I believe in my heart,” continued Mr Bonteen, “that Roby is rejoiced that poor George Morris should be out in the cold.”

“If seats were halveable, he should share mine, for the sake of auld lang syne,” said Laurence Fitzgibbon.

“But not tomorrow night,” said Barrington Erle; the division tomorrow will be a thing not to be joked with. Upon my word I think they’re right about old Moody. All private considerations should give way. And as for Gunning, I’d have him up or I’d know the reason why.”

“And shall we have no defaulters, Barrington?” asked Lady Laura.

“I’m not going to boast, but I don’t know of one for whom we need blush. Sir Everard Powell is so bad with gout that he can’t even bear anyone to look at him, but Ratler says that he’ll bring him up.” Mr Ratler was in those days the Whip on the liberal side of the House.

“Unfortunate wretch!” said Miss Fitzgibbon.

“The worst of it is that he screams in his paroxysms,” said Mr Bonteen.

“And you mean to say that you’ll take him into the lobby,” said Lady Laura.

“Undoubtedly,” said Barrington Erle. Why not? He has no business with a seat if he can’t vote. But Sir Everard is a good man, and he’ll be there if laudanum and bath-chair make it possible.”

The same kind of conversation went on during the whole of dinner, and became, if anything, more animated when the three ladies had left the room. Mr Kennedy made but one remark, and then he observed that as far as he could see a majority of nineteen would be as serviceable as a majority of twenty. This he said in a very mild voice, and in a tone that was intended to be expressive of doubt; but in spite of his humility Barrington Erle flew at him almost savagely — as though a liberal member of the House of Commons was disgraced by so mean a spirit; and Phineas found himself despising the man for his want of zeal.

“If we are to beat them, let us beat them well,” said Phineas.

“Let there be no doubt about it,” said Barrington Erle.

“I should like to see every man with a seat polled,” said Bonteen.

“Poor Sir Everard!” said Lord Brentford. It will kill him, no doubt, but I suppose the seat is safe.”

“Oh, yes; Llanwrwsth is quite safe,” said Barrington, in his eagerness omitting to catch Lord Brentford’s grim joke.

Phineas went up into the drawing-room for a few minutes after dinner, and was eagerly desirous of saying a few more words — he knew not what words — to Lady Laura. Mr Kennedy and Mr Bonteen had left the dining-room first, and Phineas again found Mr Kennedy standing close to Lady Laura’s shoulder. Could it be possible that there was anything in it? Mr Kennedy was an unmarried man, with an immense fortune, a magnificent place, a seat in Parliament, and was not perhaps above forty years of age. There could be no reason why he should not ask Lady Laura to be his wife — except, indeed, that he did not seem to have sufficient words at command to ask anybody for anything. But could it be that such a woman as Lady Laura could accept such a man as Mr Kennedy because of his wealth, and because of his fine place — a man who had not a word to throw to a dog, who did not seem to be possessed of an idea, who hardly looked like a gentleman — so Phineas told himself. But in truth Mr Kennedy, though he was a plain, unattractive man, with nothing in his personal appearance to call for remark, was not unlike a gentleman in his usual demeanour. Phineas himself, it may be here said, was six feet high, and very handsome, with bright blue eyes, and brown wavy hair, and light silken beard. Mrs Low had told her husband more than once that he was much too handsome to do any good. Mr Low, however, had replied that young Finn had never shown himself to be conscious of his own personal advantages. “He’ll learn it soon enough,” said Mrs Low. “Some woman will tell him, and then he’ll be spoilt.” I do not think that Phineas depended much as yet on his own good looks, but he felt that Mr Kennedy ought to be despised by such a one as Lady Laura Standish, because his looks were not good. And she must despise him! It could not be that a woman so full of life should be willing to put up with a man who absolutely seemed to have no life within him. And yet why was he there, and why was he allowed to hang about just over her shoulders? Phineas Finn began to feel himself to be an injured man.

But Lady Laura had the power of dispelling instantly this sense of injury. She had done it effectually in the dining-room by calling him to the seat by her side, to the express exclusion of the millionaire, and she did it again now by walking away from Mr Kennedy to the spot on which Phineas had placed himself somewhat sulkily.

“Of course you’ll be at the club on Friday morning after the division,” she said.

“No doubt.”

“When you leave it, come and tell me what are your impressions, and what you think of Mr Daubeny’s speech. There’ll be nothing done in the House before four, and you’ll be able to run up to me.”

“Certainly I will.”

“I have asked Mr Kennedy to come, and Mr Fitzgibbon. I am so anxious about it, that I want to hear what different people say. You know, perhaps, that papa is to be in the Cabinet if there’s a change.”

“Is he indeed?”

“Oh yes — and you’ll come up?”

“Of course I will. Do you expect to hear much of an opinion from Mr Kennedy?”

“Yes, I do. You don’t quite know Mr Kennedy yet. And you must remember that he will say more to me than he will to you. He’s not quick, you know, as you are, and he has no enthusiasm on any subject — but he has opinions, and sound opinions too.” Phineas felt that Lady Laura was in a slight degree scolding him for the disrespectful manner in which he had spoken of Mr Kennedy; and he felt also that he had committed himself — that he had shown himself to be sore, and that she had seen and understood his soreness.

“The truth is I do not know him,” said he, trying to correct his blunder.

“No — not as yet. But I hope that you may some day, as he is one of those men who are both useful and estimable.”

“I do not know that I can use him,” said Phineas; but if you wish it, I will endeavour to esteem him.”

“I wish you to do both — but that will all come in due time. I think it probable that in the early autumn there will be a great gathering of the real Whig Liberals at Loughlinter — of those, I mean, who have their heart in it, and are at the same time gentlemen. If it is so, I should be sorry that you should not be there. You need not mention it, but Mr Kennedy has just said a word about it to papa, and a word from him always means so much! Well — goodnight; and mind you come up on Friday. You are going to the club, now, of course, I envy you men your clubs more than I do the House — though I feel that a woman’s life is only half a life, as she cannot have a seat in Parliament.”

Then Phineas went away, and walked down to Pall Mall with Laurence Fitzgibbon. He would have preferred to take his walk alone, but he could not get rid of his affectionate countryman. He wanted to think over what had taken place during the evening; and, indeed, he did so in spite of his friend”s conversation. Lady Laura, when she first saw him after his return to London, had told him how anxious her father was to congratulate him on his seat, but the Earl had not spoken a word to him on the subject. The Earl had been courteous, as hosts customarily are, but had been in no way specially kind to him. And then Mr Kennedy! As to going to Loughlinter, he would not do such a thing — not though the success of the liberal party were to depend on it. He declared to himself that there were some things which a man could not do. But although he was not altogether satisfied with what had occurred in Portman Square, he felt as he walked down arm-in-arm with Fitzgibbon that Mr Low and Mr Low’s counsels must be scattered to the winds. He had thrown the die in consenting to stand for Loughshane, and must stand the hazard of the cast.

“Bedad, Phin, my boy, I don’t think you’re listening to me at all,” said Laurence Fitzgibbon.

“I’m listening to every word you say,” said Phineas.

“And if I have to go down to the ould country again this session, you’ll go with me?”

“If I can I will.”

“That’s my boy! And it’s I that hope you’ll have the chance. What’s the good of turning these fellows out if one isn’t to get something for one’s trouble?”

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