The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 62

Phineas Finn has a Book to Read.

The sensation created by the man’s death was by no means confined to Manchester Square, but was very general in the metropolis, and, indeed, throughout the country. As the catastrophe became the subject of general conversation, may people learned that the Silverbridge affair had not, in truth, had much to do with it. The man had killed himself, as many other men have done before him, because he had run through his money and had no chance left of redeeming himself. But to the world at large, the disgrace brought upon him by the explanation given in Parliament was the apparent cause of his self-immolation, and there were not wanting those who felt and expressed a sympathy for a man who could feel so acutely the affect of his own wrong-doing. No doubt he had done wrong in asking the Duke for the money. But the request, though wrong, might almost be justified. There could be no doubt, these apologists said, that he had been ill-treated between the Duke and Duchess. No doubt Phineas Finn, who was now described by some opponents as the Duke’s creature, had been able to make out a story in the Duke’s favour. But all the world knew what was the worth and what was the truth of ministerial explanations! The Coalition was very strong; and even the question in the House, which should have been hostile, had been asked in a friendly spirit. In this way there came to be a party who spoke and wrote of Ferdinand Lopez as though he had been a martyr.

Of course Mr Quintus Slide was in the front rank of these accusers. He may be said to have led the army which made this matter a pretext for a special attack on the Ministry. Mr Slide was especially hostile to the Prime Minister, but he was not less hotly the enemy of Phineas Finn. Against Phineas Finn he had old grudges, which, however, age had never cooled. He could, therefore, write with a most powerful pen when discussing the death of the unfortunate man, the late candidate for Silverbridge, crushing his two foes in the single grasp of his journalistic fist. Phineas had certainly said some hard things against Lopez, though he had not mentioned the man’s name. He had congratulated the House that it had not been contaminated by the presence of so base a creature, and he had said that he would not pause to stigmatize the meanness of the application for money which Lopez had made. Had Lopez continued to live and to endure the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, no one would have ventured to say that these words would have inflicted too severe a punishment. But death wipes out many faults, and a self-inflicted death caused by remorse, will, in the minds of many, wash a blackamoor almost white. Thus it came to pass that some heavy weapons were hurled at Phineas Finn, but none so heavy as those hurled by Quintus Slide. Should not this Irish knight, who was so ready with his lance in the defence of the Prime Minister, asked Mr Slide, have remembered past events of his own rather peculiar life? Had not he, too, been poor, and driven in his poverty to rather questionable straits? Had he not been abject in his petition for office — and in what degree were such petitions less disgraceful than a request for money which had been hopelessly expended on an impossible object, attempted at the instance of the great Croesus who, when asked to pay it, had at once acknowledged the necessity of doing so? Could not Mr Finn remember that he himself had stood in danger of his life before a British jury, and that, though he had been, no doubt properly, acquitted of the crime imputed to him, circumstances had come out against him during the trial which, if not as criminal, were at any rate almost as disgraceful? Could he not have had some mercy on a broken political adventurer who, in his aspirations for public life, had shown none of that greed by which Mr Phineas Finn had been characterized in all the relations of life. As for the Prime Minister, ‘We,’ as Mr Quintus Slide always described himself — ‘We do not wish to add to the agony which the fate of Mr Lopez must have brought upon him. He has hounded that poor man to his death in revenge for the trifling sum of money which he was called upon to pay for him. It may be that the first blame lay not with the Prime Minister himself, but with the Prime Minister’s wife. With that we have nothing to do. The whole thing lies in a nutshell. The bare mention of the name of her Grace the Duchess in Parliament would have saved the Duke, at any rate as effectually as he had been saved by his man-of-all-work, Phineas Finn, and would have saved him without driving poor Ferdinand Lopez to insanity. But rather than do this he allowed his servant to make statements about mysterious agents, which we are justified in stigmatizing as untrue, and to throw the whole blame where but the least of the blame was due. We all know the result. It was found in those gory shreds and tatters of a poor human being with which the Tenway Railway Station was bespattered.’

Of course such an article had considerable effect. It was apparent at once that there was ample room for an action of libel against the newspaper on the part of Phineas Finn if not on that of the Duke. But it was equally apparent that Mr Quintus Slide must have been very well aware of this when he wrote the article. Such an action, even if successful, may bring with it to the man punished more of good than evil. Any pecuniary penalty might be more than recouped by the largeness of advertisement which such an action would produce. Mr Slide no doubt calculated that he would carry with him a great body of public feeling by the mere fact that he had attacked a Prime Minister and a Duke. If he could only get all the publicans in London to take his paper because of his patriotic and bold conduct, the fortune of the paper would be made. There is no better trade than that of martyrdom, if the would-be martyr knows how far he may judiciously go, and in what direction. All this Mr Quintus Slide was supposed to have considered very well.

And Mr Phineas Finn knew that his enemy had also considered the nature of the matters which he would have been able to drag into court if there should be a trial. Allusions, very strong allusions, had been made to former periods of Mr Finn’s life. And though there was but little, if anything, in the past circumstances of which he was ashamed — but little, if anything, which he thought would subject him personally to the odium of good men, could they be made accurately known in all their details — it would, he was well aware, be impossible that such accuracy should be achieved. And the story if told inaccurately would not suit him. And then, there was a reason against any public proceeding much stronger even than this. Whether the telling of the story would or would not suit him, it certainly would not suit others. As has been before remarked, there are former chronicles respecting Phineas Finn, and in them may be found adequate cause for this conviction on his part. To no outsider was this history known better than to Mr Quintus Slide, and therefore Mr Quintus Slide could dare almost to defy the law.

But not the less on this account were there many who told Phineas that he ought to bring the action. Among these none were more eager than his old friend Lord Chiltern, the Master of the Brake hounds, a man who really loved Phineas, who also loved the abstract idea of justice, and who could not endure the thought that a miscreant should go unpunished. Hunting was over for the season in the Brake country, and Lord Chiltern rushed up to London, having this object among others of a very pressing nature on his mind. His saddler had to be seen — and threatened — on a certain matter touching the horses’ backs. A draught of hounds were being sent down to a friend in Scotland. And there was a Committee of Masters to sit on the moot question concerning a neutral covert in the XXX country, of which Committed he was one. But the desire to punish Slide was almost as strong in his indignant mind as those other matters referring more especially to the profession of his life. ‘Phineas,’ he said, ‘you are bound to do it. If you will allow a fellow like that to say such things of you, by heaven, any man may say anything of anybody.’

Now Phineas could hardly explain to Lord Chiltern his objection to the proposed action. A lady was closely concerned, and that lady was Lord Chiltern’s sister. ‘I certainly shall not,’ said Phineas.

‘And why?’

‘Just because he wishes me to do it. I should be falling into the little pit he has dug for me.’

‘He couldn’t hurt you. What have you to be afraid of? Ruat coelum.’

‘There are certain angels, Chiltern, living up in that heaven which you wish me to pull about our ears, as to whom, if all their heart and all their wishes and all their doings could be known, nothing but praise could be spoken; but who would still be dragged with soiled wings through the dirt if this man were empowered to bring witness after witness into court. My wife would be named. For aught I know your wife.’

‘By G-, he’d find himself wrong there.’

‘Leave a chimney-sweep alone when you see him, Chiltern. Should he run against you, then remember that it is one of the necessary penalties of clean linen that it is apt to be soiled.’

‘I’m d-d if I’d let him off.’

‘Yes you would, old fellow. When you come to see clearly what you would gain and what you would lose, you would not meddle with him.’

His wife was at first inclined to think an action should be taken, but she was more easily convinced than Lord Chiltern. ‘I had not thought,’ she said, ‘of poor Lady Laura. But is it not horrible that a man should be able to go on like that, and that there should be no punishment?’ in answer to this he only shrugged his shoulders.

But the greatest pressure came upon him from another source. He did not in truth suffer much himself from what was said in the “People’s Banner”. He had become used to the “People’s Banner”, and had found out that in no relation of life was he less pleasantly situated because of the maledictions heaped upon him in the columns of that newspaper. His position in public life did not seem to be weakened by them. His personal friends did not fall off because of them. Those who loved him did not love him less. It had not been so with him always, but now, at last, he was hardened against Mr Quintus Slide. But the poor Duke was by no means equally strong. This attack upon him, this denunciation of his cruelty, this assurance that he had caused the death of Ferdinand Lopez, was very grievous to him. It was not that he really felt himself to be guilty of the man’s blood, but that anyone should say he was guilty. It was of no use to point out to him that other newspapers had sufficiently vindicated his conduct in that respect, that it was already publicly known that Lopez had received payment for those election expenses from Mr Wharton before the application had been made to him, and that therefore the man’s dishonesty was patent to all the world. It was equally futile to explain to him that the man’s last act had been in no degree caused by what had been said in Parliament, but had been the result of continued failures in life and the final absolute ruin. He fretted and fumed and was very wretched — and at last expressed his opinion that legal steps should be taken to punish the “People’s Banner”. Now it had already been acknowledged, on the dictum of no less a man than Sir Gregory Grogram, the Attorney-General, that the action for libel, if taken at all, must be taken, not on the part of the Prime Minister, but on that of Phineas Finn. Sir Timothy Beeswax had indeed doubted, but it had come to be understood by all the members of the Coalition that Sir Timothy Beeswax always did doubt whatever was said by Sir Gregory Grogram. ‘The Duke thinks that something should be done,’ said Mr Warburton, the Duke’s private Secretary, to Phineas Finn.

‘Not by me, I hope,’ said Phineas Finn.

‘Nobody else can do it. That is to say it must be done in your name. Of course it would be a Government matter, as far as the expense goes, and all that.’

‘I am sorry the Duke should think so.’

‘I don’t see that it could hurt you.’

‘I am sorry the Duke should think so,’ repeated Phineas — ‘because nothing can be done in my name. I have made up my mind about it. I think the Duke is wrong in wishing it, and I believe that were any action taken, we should only be playing into the hands of that wretched fellow, Quintus Slide. I have long been conversant with Mr Quintus Slide, and have quite made up my mind that I will never play upon his pipe. And you may tell the Duke that there are other reasons. The man referred to my past life, and in seeking to justify those remarks he would be enabled to drag before the public circumstances and stories, and perhaps persons, in a manner that I personally should disregard, but which, for the sake of others, I am bound to prevent it. You will explain all this to the Duke?’

‘I am afraid you will find the Duke very urgent.’

‘I must express my great sorrow that I cannot oblige the Duke. I trust I need hardly say that the Duke has no colleague more devoted to his interest than I am. Were he to wish me to change my office, or to abandon it, or to undertake any political duty within the compass of my small powers, he would find me ready to obey his behest. But in this matter others are concerned, and I cannot make my judgement subordinate to his.’ The private Secretary looked very serious, and simply said that he would do his best to explain these objections to his Grace.

That the Duke would take his refusal in bad part Phineas felt nearly certain. He had been a little surprised at the coldness of the Minister’s manner to him after the statement he had made in the House, and had mentioned the matter to his wife. ‘You hardly know him,’ she had said, ‘as well as I do.’

‘Certainly not. You ought to know him very intimately, and I have had but little personal friendship with him. But it was a moment in which the man might, for the moment, been cordial.’

‘It was not a moment for his cordiality. The Duchess says that if you want to get a really genial smile from him you must talk to him about cork soles. I know exactly what she means. He loves to be simple, but he does not know how to show people that he likes it. Lady Rosina found him out by accident.’

‘Don’t suppose that I am in the least aggrieved,’ he had said. And now he spoke again to his wife in the same spirit. ‘Warburton clearly thinks he will be offended, and Warburton, I suppose, knows his mind.’

‘I don’t see why he should. I have been reading it longer, and I still find it very difficult. Lady Glen has been at work for the last fifteen years, and sometimes owns that there are passages she has not mastered yet. I fancy Mr Warburton is afraid of him, and is a little given to fancy that everybody should bow down to him. Now if there is anything certain about the Duke it is this, — that he doesn’t want anyone to bow down to him. He hates all bowing down.

‘I don’t think he loves those who oppose him.’

‘It is not the opposition he hates, but the cause in the man’s mind which may produce it. When Sir Orlando opposed him, and he thought that Sir Orlando’s opposition was founded on jealousy, then he despised Sir Orlando. But had he believed in Sir Orlando’s belief in the new ships, he would have been capable of pressing Sir Orlando to his bosom, although he might have been forced to oppose Sir Orlando’s ships in the Cabinet.’

‘He is a Sir Bayard to you,’ said Phineas, laughing.

‘Rather a Don Quixote, whom I take to have been the better man of the two. I’ll tell you what he is, Phineas, and how he is better than all the real knights of whom I have read in story. He is a man altogether without guile, and entirely devoted to his country. Do not quarrel with him, if you can help it.’

Phineas had not the slightest desire to quarrel with his chief, but he did think it to be not improbable that his chief would quarrel with him. It was notorious to him as a member of the Cabinet — as a colleague living with other colleagues by whom the Prime Minister was coddled, and especially as the husband of his wife, who lived almost continually with the Prime Minister’s wife — that the Duke was cut to the quick by the accusation that he had hounded Ferdinand Lopez to his death. The Prime Minister had defended himself in the House against the first change by means of Phineas Finn, and now required Phineas to defend him from the second charge in another way. This he was obliged to refuse to do. And then the Minister’s private Secretary looked very grave, and left him with the impression that the Duke would be much annoyed, if not offended. And already there had grown up an idea that the Duke would have on the list of his colleagues none who were personally disagreeable to himself. Though he was by no means a strong Minister in regard to political measures, or the proper dominion of his party, still men were afraid of him. It was not that he would call upon them to resign, but that, if aggrieved, he would resign himself. Sir Orlando Drought had rebelled and had tried a fall with the Prime Minister — and had greatly failed. Phineas determined that if frowned upon he would resign, but that he certainly would bring no action for libel against the “People’s Banner”.

A week passed after he had seen Warburton before he by chance found himself alone with the Prime Minister. This occurred at the house in Carlton Gardens, at which he was a frequent visitor, — and could hardly have ceased to be so without being noticed, as his wife spent half her time there. It was evident to him then that the occasion was sought for by the Duke. ‘Mr Finn,’ said the Duke, ‘I wanted to have a word with you.’

‘Certainly,’ said Phineas, arresting his steps.

‘Warburton spoke to you about that — that newspaper.’

‘Yes, Duke. He seemed to think that there should be an action for libel.’

‘I thought so too. It was very bad, you know.’

‘Yes; — it was bad. I have known the “People’s Banner” for some time, and it is always bad.’

‘No doubt; — no doubt. It is bad, very bad. Is it not sad that there should be such dishonesty, and that nothing can be done to stop it? Warburton says that you won’t hear of an action in your name?’

‘There are reasons, Duke.’

‘No doubt; — no doubt. Well; — there’s an end of it. I own I think the man should be punished. I am not often vindictive, but I think that he should be punished. However, I suppose it cannot be.’

‘I don’t see the way.’

‘So be it. So be it. It must be entirely for you to judge. Are you not longing to get into the country, Mr Finn?’

‘Hardly yet,’ said Phineas, surprised. ‘It’s only June, and we have two months more of it. What is the use of longing yet?’

‘Two months more!’ said the Duke. ‘Two months certainly. But even two months will come to an end. We go down to Matching quietly — very quietly — when the time does come. You must promise me that you’ll come with us. Eh? I make a point of it Mr Finn.’

Phineas did promise, and thought that he had succeeded in mastering one of the difficult passages in that book.

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