Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 22

‘Purity of Morals, Finn’

Mr Quintus Slide was now, as formerly, the editor of the People’s Banner, but a change had come over the spirit of his dream. His newspaper was still the People’s Banner, and Mr Slide still professed to protect the existing rights of the people, and to demand new rights for the people. But he did so as a Conservative. He had watched the progress of things, and had perceived that duty called upon him to be the organ of Mr Daubeny. This duty he performed with great zeal, and with an assumption of consistency and infallibility which was charming. No doubt the somewhat difficult task of veering round without inconsistency, and without flaw to his infallibility, was eased by Mr Daubeny’s newly-declared views on Church matters. The People’s Banner could still be a genuine People’s Banner in reference to ecclesiastical policy. And as that was now the subject mainly discussed by the newspapers, the change made was almost entirely confined to the lauding of Mr Daubeny instead of Mr Turnbull. Some other slight touches were no doubt necessary. Mr Daubeny was the head of the Conservative party in the kingdom, and though Mr Slide himself might be of all men in the kingdom the most democratic, or even the most destructive, still it was essential that Mr Daubeny’s organ should support the Conservative party all round. It became Mr Slide’s duty to speak of men as heaven-born patriots whom he had designated a month or two since as bloated aristocrats and leeches fattened on the blood of the people. Of course remarks were made by his brethren of the press — remarks which were intended to be very unpleasant. One evening newspaper took the trouble to divide a column of its own into double columns, printing on one side of the inserted line remarks made by the People’s Banner in September respecting the Duke of — and the Marquis of — and Sir — — which were certainly very harsh; and on the other side remarks equally laudatory as to the characters of the same titled politicians. But a journalist, with the tact and experience of Mr Quintus Slide, knew his business too well to allow himself to be harassed by any such small stratagem as that. He did not pause to defend himself, but boldly attacked the meanness, the duplicity, the immorality, the grammar, the paper, the type, and the wife of the editor of the evening newspaper. In the storm of wind in which he rowed it was unnecessary for him to defend his own conduct. “And then”, said he at the close of a very virulent and successful article, “the hirelings of — dare to accuse me of inconsistency!” The readers of the People’s Banner all thought that their editor had beaten his adversary out of the field.

Mr Quintus Slide was certainly well adapted for his work. He could edit his paper with a clear appreciation of the kind of matter which would best conduce to its success, and he could write telling leading articles himself. He was indefatigable, unscrupulous, and devoted to his paper. Perhaps his great value was shown most clearly in his distinct appreciation of the low line of public virtue with which his readers would be satisfied. A highly-wrought moral strain would he knew well create either disgust or ridicule. “If there is any beastliness I ‘ate it is ‘igh-faluting,” he has been heard to say to his underlings. The sentiment was the same as that conveyed in the ” Point de zéle “ of Talleyrand “Let’s ‘ave no d — d nonsense,” he said on another occasion, when striking out from a leading article a passage in praise of the patriotism of a certain public man. “Mr Gresham is as good as another man, no doubt; what we want to know is whether he’s along with us.” Mr Gresham was not along with Mr Slide at present, and Mr Slide found it very easy to speak ill of Mr Gresham.

Mr Slide one Sunday morning called at the house of Mr Bunce in Great Marlborough Street, and asked for Phineas Finn. Mr Slide and Mr Bunce had an old acquaintance with each other, and the editor was not ashamed to exchange a few friendly words with the law-scrivener before he was shown up to the member of Parliament. Mr Bunce was an outspoken, eager, and honest politician — with very little accurate knowledge of the political conditions by which he was surrounded, but with a strong belief in the merits of his own class. He was a sober, hardworking man, and he hated all men who were not sober and hardworking. He was quite clear in his mind that all nobility should be put down, and that all property in land should be taken away from men who were enabled by such property to live in idleness. What should be done with the land when so taken away was a question which he had not yet learnt to answer. At the present moment he was accustomed to say very hard words of Mr Slide behind his back, because of the change which had been effected in the People’s Banner, and he certainly was not the man to shrink from asserting in a person’s presence aught that he said in his absence. “Well, Mr Conservative Slide,” he said, stepping into the little back parlour, in which the editor was left while Mrs Bunce went up to learn whether the member of Parliament would receive his visitor.

“None of your chaff, Bunce.”

“We have enough of your chaff, anyhow; don’t we, Mr Slide? I still sees the Banner, Mr Slide — most days; just for the joke of it.”

“As long as you take it, Bunce, I don’t care what the reason is.”

“I suppose a heditor’s about the same as a Cabinet Minister. You’ve got to keep your place — that’s about it, Mr Slide.”

“We’ve got to tell the people who’s true to ’em. Do you believe that Gresham ‘d ever have brought in a Bill for doing away with the Church? Never — not if he’d been Prime Minister till doomsday. What you want is progress.”

“That’s about it, Mr Slide.”

“And where are you to get it? Did you ever hear that a rose by any other name ‘d smell as sweet? If you can get progress from the Conservatives, and you want progress, why not go to the Conservatives for it? Who repealed the corn laws? Who gave us ‘ousehold suffrage?”

“I think I’ve been told all that before, Mr Slide; them things weren’t given by no manner of means, as I look at it. We just went in and took ’em. It was hall a haccident whether it was Cobden or Peel, Gladstone or Disraeli, as was the servants we employed to do our work. But Liberal is Liberal, and Conservative is Conservative. What are you, Mr Slide, today?”

“If you’d talk of things, Bunce, which you understand, you would not talk quite so much nonsense.”

At this moment Mrs Bunce entered the room, perhaps preventing a quarrel, and offered to usher Mr Slide up to the young member’s room. Phineas had not at first been willing to receive the gentleman, remembering that when they had last met the intercourse had not been pleasant — but he knew that enmities are foolish things, and that it did not become him to perpetuate a quarrel with such a man as Mr Quintus Slide. “I remember him very well, Mrs Bunce.”

“I know you didn’t like him, sir.”

“Not particularly.”

“No more don’t I. No more don’t Bunce. He’s one of them as ‘d say a’most anything for a plate of soup and a glass of wine. That’s what Bunce says.”

“It won’t hurt me to see him.”

“No, sir; it won’t hurt you. It would be a pity indeed if the likes of him could hurt the likes of you.” And so Mr Quintus Slide was shown up into the room.

The first greeting was very affectionate, at any rate on the part of the editor. He grasped the young member’s hand, congratulated him on his seat, and began his work as though he had never been all but kicked out of that very same room by its present occupant. “Now you want to know what I’m come about; don’t you?”

“No doubt I shall hear in good time, Mr Slide.”

“It’s an important matter — and so you’ll say when you do hear. And it’s one in which I don’t know whether you’ll be able to see your way quite clear.”

“I’ll do my best, if it concerns me.”

“It does.” So saying Mr Slide, who had seated himself in an arm-chair by the fireside opposite to Phineas, crossed his legs, folded his arms on his breast, put his head a little on one side, and sat for a few moments in silence, with his eyes fixed on his companion’s face. “It does concern you, or I shouldn’t be here. Do you know Mr Kennedy — the Right Honourable Robert Kennedy, of Loughlinter, in Scotland?”

“I do know Mr Kennedy.”

“And do you know Lady Laura Kennedy, his wife?”

“Certainly I do.”

“So I supposed. And do you know the Earl of Brentford, who is, I take it, father to the lady in question?”

“Of course I do. You know that I do.” For there had been a time in which Phineas had been subjected to the severest censure which the People’s Banner could inflict upon him, because of his adherence to Lord Brentford, and the vials of wrath had been poured out by the hands of Mr Quintus Slide himself.

“Very well. It does not signify what I know or what I don’t. Those preliminary questions I have been obliged to ask as my justification for coming to you on the present occasion. Mr Kennedy has I believe been greatly wronged.”

“I am not prepared to talk about Mr Kennedy’s affairs,” said Phineas gravely.

“But unfortunately he is prepared to talk about them. That’s the rub. He has been ill-used, and he has come to the People’s Banner for redress. Will you have the kindness to cast your eye down that slip?” Whereupon the editor handed to Phineas a long scrap of printed paper, amounting to about a column and a half of the People’s Banner, containing a letter to the editor dated from Loughlinter, and signed Robert Kennedy at full length.

“You don’t mean to say that you’re going to publish this,” said Phineas before he had read it.

“Why not?”

“The man is a madman.”

“There’s nothing in the world easier than calling a man mad. It’s what we do to dogs when we want to hang them. I believe Mr Kennedy has the management of his own property. He is not too mad for that. But just cast your eye down and read it.”

Phineas did cast his eye down, and read the whole letter — nor as he read it could he bring himself to believe that the writer of it would be judged to be mad from its contents. Mr Kennedy had told the whole story of his wrongs, and had told it well — with piteous truthfulness, as far as he himself knew and understood the truth. The letter was almost simple in its wailing record of his own desolation. With a marvellous absence of reticence he had given the names of all persons concerned. He spoke of his wife as having been, and being, under the influence of Mr Phineas Finn — spoke of his own former friendship for that gentleman, who had once saved his life when he fell among thieves, and then accused Phineas of treachery in betraying that friendship. He spoke with bitter agony of the injury done him by the Earl, his wife’s father, in affording a home to his wife, when her proper home was at Loughlinter. And then declared himself willing to take the sinning woman back to his bosom. “That she had sinned is certain,” he said; “I do not believe she has sinned as some sin; but, whatever be her sin, it is for a man to forgive as he hopes for forgiveness.” He expatiated on the absolute and almost divine right which it was intended that a husband should exercise over his wife, and quoted both the Old and New Testament in proof of his assertions. And then he went on to say that he appealed to public sympathy, through the public press, because, owing to some gross insufficiency in the laws of extradition, he could not call upon the magistracy of a foreign country to restore to him his erring wife. But he thought that public opinion, if loudly expressed, would have an effect both upon her and upon her father, which his private words could not produce. “I wonder very greatly that you should put such a letter as that into type,” said Phineas when he had read it all.

“Why shouldn’t we put it into type?”

“You don’t mean to say that you’ll publish it.”

“Why shouldn’t we publish it?”

“It’s a private quarrel between a man and his wife. What on earth have the public got to do with that?”

“Private quarrels between gentlemen and ladies have been public affairs for a long time past. You must know that very well.”

“When they come into court they are.”

“In court and out of court! The morale of our aristocracy — what you call the Upper Ten — would be at a low ebb indeed if the public press didn’t act as their guardians. Do you think that if the Duke of — beats his wife black and blue, nothing is to be said about it unless the Duchess brings her husband into court? Did you ever know of a separation among the Upper Ten, that wasn’t handled by the press one way or the other? It’s my belief that there isn’t a peer among ’em all as would live with his wife constant, if it was not for the press — only some of the very old ones, who couldn’t help themselves.”

“And you call yourself a Conservative?”

“Never mind what I call myself. That has nothing to do with what we’re about now. You see that letter, Finn. There is nothing little or dirty about us. We go in for morals and purity of life, and we mean to do our duty by the public without fear or favour. Your name is mentioned there in a manner that you won’t quite like, and I think I am acting uncommon kind by you in showing it to you before we publish it.” Phineas, who still held the slip in his hand, sat silent thinking of the matter. He hated the man. He could not endure the feeling of being called Finn by him without showing his resentment. As regarded himself, he was thoroughly well inclined to kick Mr Slide and his Banner into the street. But he was bound to think first of Lady Laura. Such a publication as this, which was now threatened, was the misfortune which the poor woman dreaded more than any other. He, personally, had certainly been faultless in the matter. He had never addressed a word of love to Mr Kennedy’s wife since the moment in which she had told him that she was engaged to marry the Laird of Loughlinter. Were the letter to be published he could answer it, he thought, in such a manner as to defend himself and her without damage to either. But on her behalf he was bound to prevent this publicity if it could be prevented — and he was bound also, for her sake, to allow himself to be called Finn by this most obnoxious editor. “In the ordinary course of things, Finn, it will come out tomorrow morning,” said the obnoxious editor.

“Every word of it is untrue,” said Phineas.

“You say that, of course.”

“And I should at once declare myself willing to make such a statement on oath. It is a libel of the grossest kind, and of course there would be a prosecution. Both Lord Brentford and I would be driven to that.”

“We should be quite indifferent. Mr Kennedy would hold us harmless. We’re straightforward. My showing it to you would prove that.”

“What is it you want, Mr Slide?”

“Want! You don’t suppose we want anything. If you think that the columns of the People’s Banner are to be bought, you must have opinions respecting the press of the day which make me pity you as one grovelling in the very dust. The daily press of London is pure and immaculate. That is, the morning papers are. Want, indeed! What do you think I want?”

“I have not the remotest idea.”

“Purity of morals, Finn — punishment for the guilty — defence for the innocent — support for the weak — safety for the oppressed — and a rod of iron for the oppressors!”

“But that is a libel.”

“It’s very heavy on the old Earl, and upon you, and upon Lady Laura — isn’t it?”

“It’s a libel — as you know. You tell me that purity of morals can be supported by such a publication as this! Had you meant to go on with it, you would hardly have shown it to me.”

“You’re in the wrong box there, Finn. Now I’ll tell you what we’ll do — on behalf of what I call real purity. We’ll delay the publication if you’ll undertake that the lady shall go back to her husband.”

“The lady is not in my hands.”

“She’s under your influence. You were with her over at Dresden not much more than a month ago. She’d go sharp enough if you told her.”

“You never made a greater mistake in your life.”

“Say that you’ll try.”

“I certainly will not do so.”

“Then it goes in tomorrow,” said Mr Quintus Slide, stretching out his hand and taking back the slip.

“What on earth is your object?”

“Morals! Morals! We shall be able to say that we’ve done our best to promote domestic virtue and secure forgiveness for an erring wife. You’ve no notion, Finn, in your mind of what will soon be the hextent of the duties, privileges, and hinfluences of the daily press — the daily morning press, that is; for I look on those little evening scraps as just so much paper and ink wasted. You won’t interfere, then?”

“Yes, I will — if you’ll give me time. Where is Mr Kennedy?”

“What has that to do with it? Do you write over to Lady Laura and the old lord and tell them that if she’ll undertake to be at Loughlinter within a month this shall be suppressed. Will you do that?”

“Let me first see Mr Kennedy.”

Mr Slide thought a while over that matter. “Well,” said he at last, “you can see Kennedy if you will. He came up to town four or five days ago, and he’s staying at an hotel in Judd Street.”

“An hotel in Judd Street?”

“Yes — Macpherson’s in Judd Street. I suppose he likes to keep among the Scotch. I don’t think he ever goes out of the house, and he’s waiting in London till this thing is published.”

“I will go and see him,” said Phineas.

“I shouldn’t wonder if he murdered you — but that’s between you and him.”

“Just so.”

“And I shall hear from you?”

“Yes,” said Phineas, hesitating as he made the promise. “Yes, you shall hear from me.”

“We’ve got our duty to do, and we mean to do it. If we see that we can induce the lady to go back to her husband, we shall habstain from publishing, and virtue will be its own reward. I needn’t tell you that such a letter as that would sell a great many copies, Finn.” Then, at last, Mr Slide arose and departed.

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