Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 27

An Editor’s Wrath

On that Sunday evening in London Mr Low was successful in finding the Vice-Chancellor, and the great judge smiled and nodded, listened to the story, and acknowledged that the circumstances were very peculiar. He thought that an injunction to restrain the publication might be given at once upon Mr Finn’s affidavit; and that the peculiar circumstances justified the peculiarity of Mr Low’s application. Whether he would have said as much had the facts concerned the families of Mr Joseph Smith and his son-in-law Mr John Jones, instead of the Earl of Brentford and the Right Honourable Robert Kennedy, some readers will perhaps doubt, and may doubt also whether an application coming from some newly-fledged barrister would have been received as graciously as that made by Mr Low, Q.C. and M.P. — who would probably himself soon sit on some lofty legal bench. On the following morning Phineas and Mr Low — and no doubt also Mr Vice-Chancellor Pickering — obtained early copies of the People’s Banner, and were delighted to find that Mr Kennedy’s letter did not appear in it. Mr Low had made his calculation rightly. The editor, considering that he would gain more by having the young member of Parliament and the Standish family, as it were, in his hands than by the publication of a certain libellous letter, had resolved to put the document back for at least twenty-four hours, even though the young member neither came nor wrote as he had promised. The letter did not appear, and before ten o’clock Phineas Finn had made his affidavit in a dingy little room behind the Vice-Chancellor’s Court. The injunction was at once issued, and was of such potency that should any editor dare to publish any paper therein prohibited, that editor and that editor’s newspaper would assuredly be crumpled up in a manner very disagreeable, if not altogether destructive. Editors of newspapers are self-willed, arrogant, and stiff-necked, a race of men who believe much in themselves and little in anything else, with no feelings of reverence or respect for matters which are august enough to other men — but an injunction from a Court of Chancery is a power which even an editor respects. At about noon Vice-Chancellor Pickering’s injunction was served at the office of the People’s Banner in Quartpot Alley, Fleet Street. It was done in duplicate — or perhaps in triplicate — so that there should be no evasion; and all manner of crumpling was threatened in the event of any touch of disobedience. All this happened on Monday, March the first, while the poor dying Duke was waiting impatiently for the arrival of his friend at Matching. Phineas was busy all the morning till it was time that he should go down to the House. For as soon as he could leave Mr Low’s chambers in Lincoln’s Inn he had gone to Judd Street, to inquire as to the condition of the man who had tried to murder him. He there saw Mr Kennedy’s cousin, and received an assurance from that gentleman that Robert Kennedy should be taken down at once to Loughlinter. Up to that moment not a word had been said to the police as to what had been done. No more notice had been taken of the attempt to murder than might have been necessary had Mr Kennedy thrown a clothes-brush at his visitor’s head. There was the little hole in the post of the door with the bullet in it, just six feet above the ground; and there was the pistol, with five chambers still loaded, which Macpherson had cunningly secured on his return from church, and given over to the cousin that same evening. There was certainly no want of evidence, but nobody was disposed to use it.

At noon the injunction was served in Quartpot Alley, and was put into Mr Slide’s hands on his arrival at the office at three o’clock. That gentleman’s duties required his attendance from three till five in the afternoon, and then again from nine in the evening till any hour in the morning at which he might be able to complete the People’s Banner for that day’s use. He had been angry with Phineas when the Sunday night passed without a visit or letter at the office, as a promise had been made that there should be either a visit or a letter; but he had felt sure, as he walked into the city from his suburban residence at Camden Town, that he would now find some communication on the great subject. The matter was one of most serious importance. Such a letter as that which was in his possession would no doubt create much surprise, and receive no ordinary attention. A People’s Banner could hardly ask for a better bit of good fortune than the privilege of first publishing such a letter. It would no doubt be copied into every London paper, and into hundreds of provincial papers, and every journal so copying it would be bound to declare that it was taken from the columns of the People’s Banner . It was, indeed, addressed “To the Editor of the People’s Banner “ in the printed slip which Mr Slide had shown to Phineas Finn, though Kennedy himself had not prefixed to it any such direction. And the letter, in the hands of Quintus Slide, would not simply have been a letter. It might have been groundwork for, perhaps, some half-dozen leading articles, all of a most attractive kind. Mr Slide’s high moral tone upon such an occasion would have been qualified to do good to every British matron, and to add virtues to the Bench of Bishops. All this he had postponed with some inadequately defined idea that he could do better with the property in his hands by putting himself into personal communication with the persons concerned. If he could manage to reconcile such a husband to such a wife — or even to be conspicuous in an attempt to do so; and if he could make the old Earl and the young Member of Parliament feel that he had spared them by abstaining from the publication, the results might be very beneficial. His conception of the matter had been somewhat hazy, and he had certainly made a mistake. But, as he walked from his home to Quartpot Alley, he little dreamed of the treachery with which he had been treated. “Has Phineas Finn been here?” he asked as he took his accustomed seat within a small closet, that might be best described as a glass cage. Around him lay the debris of many past newspapers, and the germs of many future publications. To all the world except himself it would have been a chaos, but to him, with his experience, it was admirable order. No; Mr Finn had not been there. And then, as he was searching among the letters for one from the Member for Tankerville, the injunction was thrust into his hands. To say that he was aghast is but a poor form of speech for the expression of his emotion.

He had been “done’ — “sold,” — absolutely robbed by that wretchedly-false Irishman whom he had trusted with all the confidence of a candid nature and an open heart! He had been most treacherously misused! Treachery was no adequate word for the injury inflicted on him. The more potent is a man, the less accustomed to endure injustice, and the more his power to inflict it — the greater is the sting and the greater the astonishment when he himself is made to suffer. Newspaper editors sport daily with the names of men of whom they do not hesitate to publish almost the severest words that can be uttered — but let an editor be himself attacked, even without his name, and he thinks that the thunderbolts of heaven should fall upon the offender. Let his manners, his truth, his judgment, his honesty, or even his consistency be questioned, and thunderbolts are forthcoming, though they may not be from heaven. There should certainly be a thunderbolt or two now, but Mr Slide did not at first quite see how they were to be forged.

He read the injunction again and again. As far as the document went he knew its force, and recognised the necessity of obedience. He might, perhaps, be able to use the information contained in the letter from Mr Kennedy, so as to harass Phineas and Lady Laura and the Earl, but he was at once aware that it must not be published. An editor is bound to avoid the meshes of the law, which are always infinitely more costly to companies, or things, or institutions, than they are to individuals. Of fighting with Chancery he had no notion; but it should go hard with him if he did not have a fight with Phineas Finn. And then there arose another cause for deep sorrow. A paragraph was shown to him in a morning paper of that day which must, he thought, refer to Mr Kennedy and Phineas Finn. “A rumour has reached us that a member of Parliament, calling yesterday afternoon upon a right honourable gentleman, a member of a late Government, at his hotel, was shot at by the latter in his sitting room. Whether the rumour be true or not we have no means of saying, and therefore abstain from publishing names. We are informed that the gentleman who used the pistol was out of his mind. The bullet did not take effect.” How cruel it was that such information should have reached the hands of a rival, and not fallen in the way of the People’s Banner! And what a pity that the bullet should have been wasted! The paragraph must certainly refer to Phineas Finn and Kennedy. Finn, a Member of Parliament, had been sent by Slide himself to call upon Kennedy, a member of the late Government, at Kennedy’s hotel. And the paragraph must be true. He himself had warned Finn that there would be danger in the visit. He had even prophesied murder — and murder had been attempted! The whole transaction had been, as it were, the very goods and chattels of the People’s Banner, and the paper had been shamefully robbed of its property. Mr Slide hardly doubted that Phineas Finn had himself sent the paragraph to an adverse paper, with the express view of adding to the injury inflicted upon the Banner . That day Mr Slide hardly did his work effectively within his glass cage, so much was his mind affected, and at five o’clock, when he left his office, instead of going at once home to Mrs Slide at Camden Town, he took an omnibus, and went down to Westminster. He would at once confront the traitor who had deceived him.

It must be acknowledged on behalf of this editor that he did in truth believe that he had been hindered from doing good. The whole practice of his life had taught him to be confident that the editor of a newspaper must be the best possible judge — indeed the only possible good judge — whether any statement or story should or should not be published. Not altogether without a conscience, and intensely conscious of such conscience as did constrain him, Mr Quintus Slide imagined that no law of libel, no injunction from any Vice-Chancellor, no outward power or pressure whatever was needed to keep his energies within their proper limits. He and his newspaper formed together a simply beneficent institution, any interference with which must of necessity be an injury to the public. Everything done at the office of the People’s Banner was done in the interest of the People — and, even though individuals might occasionally be made to suffer by the severity with which their names were handled in its columns, the general result was good. What are the sufferings of the few to the advantage of the many? If there be fault in high places, it is proper that it be exposed. If there be fraud, adulteries, gambling, and lasciviousness — or even quarrels and indiscretions among those whose names are known, let every detail be laid open to the light, so that the people may have a warning. That such details will make a paper “pay” Mr Slide knew also; but it is not only in Mr Slide’s path of life that the bias of a man’s mind may lead him to find that virtue and profit are compatible. An unprofitable newspaper cannot long continue its existence, and, while existing, cannot be widely beneficial. It is the circulation, the profitable circulation — of forty, fifty, sixty, or a hundred thousand copies through all the arteries and veins of the public body which is beneficent. And how can such circulation be effected unless the taste of the public be consulted? Mr Quintus Slide, as he walked up Westminster Hall, in search of that wicked member of Parliament, did not at all doubt the goodness of his cause. He could not contest the Vice-Chancellor’s injunction, but he was firm in his opinion that the Vice-Chancellor’s injunction had inflicted an evil on the public at large, and he was unhappy within himself in that the power and majesty and goodness of the press should still be hampered by ignorance, prejudice, and favour for the great. He was quite sure that no injunction would have been granted in favour of Mr Joseph Smith and Mr John Jones.

He went boldly up to one of the policemen who sit guarding the door of the lobby of our House of Commons, and asked for Mr Finn. The Cerberus on the left was not sure whether Mr Finn was in the House, but would send in a card if Mr Slide would stand on one side. For the next quarter of an hour Mr Slide heard no more of his message, and then applied again to the Cerberus. The Cerberus shook his head, and again desired the applicant to stand on one side. He had done all that in him lay. The other watchful Cerberus standing on the right, observing that the intruder was not accommodated with any member, intimated to him the propriety of standing back in one of the corners. Our editor turned round upon the man as though he would bite him — but he did stand back, meditating an article on the gross want of attention to the public shown in the lobby of the House of Commons. Is it possible that any editor should endure any inconvenience without meditating an article? But the judicious editor thinks twice of such things. Our editor was still in his wrath when he saw his prey come forth from the House with a card — no doubt his own card. He leaped forward in spite of the policeman, in spite of any Cerberus, and seized Phineas by the arm. “I want just to have a few words,” he said. He made an effort to repress his wrath, knowing that the whole world would be against him should he exhibit any violence of indignation on that spot; but Phineas could see it all in the fire of his eye.

“Certainly,” said Phineas, retiring to the side of the lobby, with a conviction that the distance between him and the House was already sufficient.

“Can’t you come down into Westminster Hall?”

“I should only have to come up again. You can say what you’ve got to say here.”

“I’ve got a great deal to say. I never was so badly treated in my life — never.” He could not quite repress his voice, and he saw that a policeman looked at him. Phineas saw it also.

“Because we have hindered you from publishing an untrue and very slanderous letter about a lady!”

“You promised me that you’d come to me yesterday.”

“I think not. I think I said that you should hear from me — and you did.”

“You call that truth — and honesty!”

“Certainly I do. Of course it was my first duty to stop the publication of the letter.”

“You haven’t done that yet.”

“I’ve done my best to stop it. If you have nothing more to say I’ll wish you good evening.”

“I’ve a deal more to say. You were shot at, weren’t you?”

“I have no desire to make any communication to you on anything that has occurred, Mr Slide. If I stayed with you all the afternoon I could tell you nothing more. Good evening.”

“I’ll crush you,” said Quintus Slide, in a stage whisper; “I will, as sure as my name is Slide.”

Phineas looked at him and retired into the House, whither Quintus Slide could not follow him, and the editor of the People’s Banner was left alone in his anger.

“How a cock can crow on his own dunghill!” That was Mr Slide’s first feeling, as with a painful sense of diminished consequence he retraced his steps through the outer lobbies and down into Westminster Hall. He had been browbeaten by Phineas Finn, simply because Phineas had been able to retreat within those happy doors. He knew that to the eyes of all the policemen and strangers assembled Phineas Finn had been a hero, a Parliamentary hero, and he had been some poor outsider — to be ejected at once should he make himself disagreeable to the Members. Nevertheless, had he not all the columns of the People’s Banner in his pocket? Was he not great in the Fourth Estate — much greater than Phineas Finn in his estate? Could he not thunder every night so that an audience to be counted by hundreds of thousands should hear his thunder — whereas this poor Member of Parliament must struggle night after night for an opportunity of speaking; and could then only speak to benches half deserted; or to a few Members half asleep — unless the Press should choose to convert his words into thunderbolts. Who could doubt for a moment with which lay the greater power? And yet this wretched Irishman, who had wriggled himself into Parliament on a petition, getting the better of a good, downright English John Bull by a quibble, had treated him with scorn — the wretched Irishman being for the moment like a cock on his own dunghill. Quintus Slide was not slow to tell himself that he also had an elevation of his own, from which he could make himself audible. In former days he had forgiven Phineas Finn more than once. If he ever forgave Phineas Finn again might his right hand forget its cunning, and never again draw blood or tear a scalp.

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