Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 28

The First Thunderbolt

It was not till after Mr Slide had left him that Phineas wrote the following letter to Lady Laura:

“ House of Commons, 1st March, 18 — “ MY DEAR FRIEND,

“I have a long story to tell, which I fear I shall find difficult in the telling; but it is so necessary that you should know the facts that I must go through with it as best I may. It will give you very great pain; but the result as regards your own position will not I think be injurious to you.

“Yesterday, Sunday, a man came to me who edits a newspaper, and whom I once knew. You will remember when I used to tell you in Portman Square of the amenities and angers of Mr Slide — the man who wanted to sit for Loughton. He is the editor. He brought me a long letter from Mr Kennedy himself, intended for publication, and which was already printed, giving an elaborate and, I may say, a most cruelly untrue account of your quarrel. I read the letter, but of course cannot remember the words. Nor if I could remember them should I repeat them. They contained all the old charges with which you are familiar, and which your unfortunate husband now desired to publish in consummation of his threats. Why Mr Slide should have brought me the paper before publishing it I can hardly understand. But he did so — and told me that Mr Kennedy was in town. We have managed among us to obtain a legal warrant for preventing the publication of the letter, and I think I may say that it will not see the light.

“When Mr Slide left me I called on Mr Kennedy, whom I found in a miserable little hotel, in Judd Street, kept by Scotch people named Macpherson. They had come from the neighbourhood of Loughlinter, and knew Mr Kennedy well. This was yesterday afternoon, Sunday, and I found some difficulty in making my way into his presence. My object was to induce him to withdraw the letter — for at that time I doubted whether the law could interfere quickly enough to prevent the publication.

“I found your husband in a very sad condition. What he said or what I said I forget; but he was as usual intensely anxious that you should return to him. I need not hesitate now to say that he is certainly mad. After a while, when I expressed my assured opinion that you would not go back to Loughlinter, he suddenly turned round, grasped a revolver, and fired at my head. How I got out of the room I don’t quite remember. Had he repeated the shot, which he might have done over and over again, he must have hit me. As it was I escaped, and blundered down the stairs to Mrs Macpherson’s room.

“They whom I have consulted in the matter, namely, Barrington Erle and my particular friend, Mr Low — to whom I went for legal assistance in stopping the publication — seem to think that I should have at once sent for the police, and given Mr Kennedy in charge. But I did not do so, and hitherto the police have, I believe, no knowledge of what occurred. A paragraph appeared in one of the morning papers today, giving almost an accurate account of the matter, but mentioning neither the place nor any of the names. No doubt it will be repeated in all the papers, and the names will soon be known. But the result will be simply a general conviction as to the insanity of poor Mr Kennedy — as to which they who know him have had for a long time but little doubt.

“The Macphersons seem to have been very anxious to screen their guest. At any other hotel no doubt the landlord would have sent for the police — but in this case the attempt was kept quite secret. They did send for George Kennedy, a cousin of your husband’s, whom I think you know, and whom I saw this morning. He assures me that Robert Kennedy is quite aware of the wickedness of the attempt he made, and that he is plunged in deep remorse. He is to be taken down to Loughlinter tomorrow, and is — so says his cousin — as tractable as a child. What George Kennedy means to do, I cannot say; but for myself, as I did not send for the police at the moment, as I am told I ought to have done, I shall now do nothing. I don’t know that a man is subject to punishment because he does not make complaint. I suppose I have a right to regard it all as an accident if I please.

“But for you this must be very important. That Mr Kennedy is insane there cannot now, I think, be a doubt; and therefore the question of your returning to him — as far as there has been any question — is absolutely settled. None of your friends would be justified in allowing you to return. He is undoubtedly mad, and has done an act which is not murderous only on that conclusion. This settles the question so perfectly that you could, no doubt, reside in England now without danger. Mr Kennedy himself would feel that he could take no steps to enforce your return after what he did yesterday. Indeed, if you could bring yourself to face the publicity, you could, I imagine, obtain a legal separation which would give you again the control of your own fortune. I feel myself bound to mention this; but I give you no advice. You will no doubt explain all the circumstances to your father.

“I think I have now told you everything that I need tell you. The thing only happened yesterday, and I have been all the morning busy, getting the injunction, and seeing Mr George Kennedy. Just before I began this letter that horrible editor was with me again, threatening me with all the penalties which an editor can inflict. To tell the truth, I do feel confused among them all, and still fancy that I hear the click of the pistol. That newspaper paragraph says that the ball went through my whiskers, which was certainly not the case — but a foot or two off is quite near enough for a pistol ball.

“The Duke of Omnium is dying, and I have heard today that Madame Goesler, our old friend, has been sent for to Matching. She and I renewed our acquaintance the other day at Harrington.

“God bless you.

“Your most sincere friend, “ PHINEAS FINN

“Do not let my news oppress you. The firing of the pistol is a thing done and over without evil results. The state of Mr Kennedy’s mind is what we have long suspected; and, melancholy though it be, should contain for you at any rate this consolation — that the accusations made against you would not have been made had his mind been unclouded.”

Twice while Finn was writing this letter was he rung into the House for a division, and once it was suggested to him to say a few words of angry opposition to the Government on some not important subject under discussion. Since the beginning of the Session hardly a night had passed without some verbal sparring, and very frequently the limits of parliamentary decorum had been almost surpassed. Never within the memory of living politicians had political rancour been so sharp, and the feeling of injury so keen, both on the one side and on the other. The taunts thrown at the Conservatives, in reference to the Church, had been almost unendurable — and the more so because the strong expressions of feeling from their own party throughout the country were against them. Their own convictions also were against them. And there had for a while been almost a determination through the party to deny their leader and disclaim the bill. But a feeling of duty to the party had prevailed, and this had not been done. It had not been done; but the not doing of it was a sore burden on the half-broken shoulders of many a man who sat gloomily on the benches behind Mr Daubeny. Men goaded as they were, by their opponents, by their natural friends, and by their own consciences, could not bear it in silence, and very bitter things were said in return. Mr Gresham was accused of a degrading lust for power. No other feeling could prompt him to oppose with a factious acrimony never before exhibited in that House — so said some wretched Conservative with broken back and broken heart — a measure which he himself would only be too willing to carry were he allowed the privilege of passing over to the other side of the House for the purpose. In these encounters, Phineas Finn had already exhibited his prowess, and, in spite of his declarations at Tankerville, had become prominent as an opponent to Mr Daubeny’s bill. He had, of course, himself been taunted, and held up in the House to the execration of his own constituents; but he had enjoyed his fight, and had remembered how his friend Mr Monk had once told him that the pleasure lay all on the side of opposition. But on this evening he declined to speak. “I suppose you have hardly recovered from Kennedy’s pistol,” said Mr Ratler, who had, of course, heard the whole story. “That, and the whole affair together have upset me,” said Phineas. “Fitzgibbon will do it for you; he’s in the House.” And so it happened that on that occasion the Honourable Laurence Fitzgibbon made a very effective speech against the Government.

On the next morning from the columns of the People’s Banner was hurled the first of those thunderbolts with which it was the purpose of Mr Slide absolutely to destroy the political and social life of Phineas Finn. He would not miss his aim as Mr Kennedy had done. He would strike such blows that no constituency should ever venture to return Mr Finn again to Parliament; and he thought that he could also so strike his blows that no mighty nobleman, no distinguished commoner, no lady of rank should again care to entertain the miscreant and feed him with the dainties of fashion. The first thunderbolt was as follows:

“We abstained yesterday from alluding to a circumstance which occurred at a small hotel in Judd Street on Sunday afternoon, and which, as we observe, was mentioned by one of our contemporaries. The names, however, were not given, although the persons implicated were indicated. We can see no reason why the names should be concealed. Indeed, as both the gentlemen concerned have been guilty of very great criminality, we think that we are bound to tell the whole story — and this the more especially as certain circumstances have in a very peculiar manner placed us in possession of the facts.

“It is no secret that for the last two years Lady Laura Kennedy has been separated from her husband, the Honourable Robert Kennedy, who, in the last administration, under Mr Mildmay, held the office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; and we believe as little a secret that Mr Kennedy has been very persistent in endeavouring to recall his wife to her home. With equal persistence she has refused to obey, and we have in our hands the clearest possible evidence that Mr Kennedy has attributed her obstinate refusal to influence exercised over her by Mr Phineas Finn, who three years since was her father’s nominee for the then existing borough of Loughton, and who lately succeeded in ousting poor Mr Browborough from his seat for Tankerville by his impetuous promises to support that very measure of Church Reform which he is now opposing with that venom which makes him valuable to his party. Whether Mr Phineas Finn will ever sit in another Parliament we cannot, of course, say, but we think we can at least assure him that he will never again sit for Tankerville.

“On last Sunday afternoon Mr Finn, knowing well the feeling with which he is regarded by Mr Kennedy, outraged all decency by calling upon that gentleman, whose address he obtained from our office. What took place between them no one knows, and, probably, no one ever will know. But the interview was ended by Mr Kennedy firing a pistol at Mr Finn’s head. That he should have done so without the grossest provocation no one will believe. That Mr Finn had gone to the husband to interfere with him respecting his wife is an undoubted fact — a fact which, if necessary, we are in a position to prove. That such interference must have been most heartrending everyone will admit. This intruder, who had thrust himself upon the unfortunate husband on the Sabbath afternoon, was the very man whom the husband accuses of having robbed him of the company and comfort of his wife. But we cannot, on that account, absolve Mr Kennedy of the criminality of his act. It should be for a jury to decide what view should be taken of that act, and to say how far the outrageous provocation offered should be allowed to palliate the offence. But hitherto the matter has not reached the police. Mr Finn was not struck, and managed to escape from the room. It was his manifest duty as one of the community, and more especially so as a member of Parliament, to have reported all the circumstances at once to the police. This was not done by him, nor by the persons who keep the hotel. That Mr Finn should have reasons of his own for keeping the whole affair secret, and for screening the attempt at murder, is clear enough. What inducements have been used with the people of the house we cannot, of course, say. But we understand that Mr Kennedy has been allowed to leave London without molestation.

“Such is the true story of what occurred on Sunday afternoon in Judd Street, and, knowing what we do, we think ourselves justified in calling upon Major Mackintosh to take the case into his own hands.” Now Major Mackintosh was at this time the head of the London constabulary. “It is quite out of the question that such a transaction should take place in the heart of London at three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and be allowed to pass without notice. We intend to keep as little of what we know from the public as possible, and do not hesitate to acknowledge that we are debarred by an injunction of the Vice-Chancellor from publishing a certain document which would throw the clearest light upon the whole circumstance. As soon as possible after the shot was fired Mr Finn went to work, and, as we think, by misrepresentations, obtained the injunction early on yesterday morning. We feel sure that it would not have been granted had the transaction in Judd Street been at the time known to the Vice-Chancellor in all its enormity. Our hands are, of course, tied. The document in question is still with us, but it is sacred. When called upon to show it by any proper authority we shall be ready; but, knowing what we do know, we should not be justified in allowing the matter to sleep. In the meantime we call upon those whose duty it is to preserve the public peace to take the steps necessary for bringing the delinquents to justice.

“The effect upon Mr Finn, we should say, must be his immediate withdrawal from public life. For the last year or two he has held some subordinate but permanent place in Ireland, which he has given up on the rumour that the party to which he has attached himself is likely to return to office. That he is a seeker after office is notorious. That any possible Government should now employ him, even as a tide-waiter, is quite out of the question; and it is equally out of the question that he should be again returned to Parliament, were he to resign his seat on accepting office. As it is, we believe, notorious that this gentlemen cannot maintain the position which he holds without being paid for his services, it is reasonable to suppose that his friends will recommend him to retire, and seek his living in some obscure, and, let us hope, honest profession.” Mr Slide, when his thunderbolt was prepared, read it over with delight, but still with some fear as to probable results. It was expedient that he should avoid a prosecution for libel, and essential that he should not offend the majesty of the Vice-Chancellor’s injunction. Was he sure that he was safe in each direction? As to the libel, he could not tell himself that he was certainly safe. He was saying very hard things both of Lady Laura and of Phineas Finn, and sailing very near the wind. But neither of those persons would probably be willing to prosecute; and, should he be prosecuted, he would then, at any rate, be able to give in Mr Kennedy’s letter as evidence in his own defence. He really did believe that what he was doing was all done in the cause of morality. It was the business of such a paper as that which he conducted to run some risk in defending morals, and exposing distinguished culprits on behalf of the public. And then, without some such risk, how could Phineas Finn be adequately punished for the atrocious treachery of which he had been guilty? As to the Chancellor’s order, Mr Slide thought that he had managed that matter very completely. No doubt he had acted in direct opposition to the spirit of the injunction, but legal orders are read by the letter, and not by the spirit. It was open to him to publish anything he pleased respecting Mr Kennedy and his wife, subject, of course, to the general laws of the land in regard to libel. The Vice-Chancellor’s special order to him referred simply to a particular document, and from that document he had not quoted a word, though he had contrived to repeat all the bitter things which it contained, with much added venom of his own. He felt secure of being safe from any active anger on the part of the Vice-Chancellor.

The article was printed and published. The reader will perceive that it was full of lies. It began with a lie in that statement that “we abstained yesterday from alluding to circumstances” which had been unknown to the writer when his yesterday’s paper was published. The indignant reference to poor Finn’s want of delicacy in forcing himself upon Mr Kennedy on the Sabbath afternoon, was, of course, a tissue of lies. The visit had been made almost at the instigation of the editor himself. The paper from beginning to end was full of falsehood and malice, and had been written with the express intention of creating prejudice against the man who had offended the writer. But Mr Slide did not know that he was lying, and did not know that he was malicious. The weapon which he used was one to which his hand was accustomed, and he had been led by practice to believe that the use of such weapons by one in his position was not only fair, but also beneficial to the public. Had anybody suggested to him that he was stabbing his enemy in the dark, he would have averred that he was doing nothing of the kind, because the anonymous accusation of sinners in high rank was, on behalf of the public, the special duty of writers and editors attached to the public press. Mr Slide’s blood was running high with virtuous indignation against our hero as he inserted those last cruel words as to the choice of an obscure but honest profession.

Phineas Finn read the article before he sat down to breakfast on the following morning, and the dagger went right into his bosom. Every word told upon him. With a jaunty laugh within his own sleeve he had assured himself that he was safe against any wound which could be inflicted on him from the columns of the People’s Banner . He had been sure that he would be attacked, and thought that he was armed to bear it. But the thin blade penetrated every joint of his harness, and every particle of the poison curdled in his blood. He was hurt about Lady Laura; he was hurt about his borough of Tankerville; he was hurt by the charges against him of having outraged delicacy; he was hurt by being handed over to the tender mercies of Major Mackintosh; he was hurt by the craft with which the Vice-Chancellor’s injunction had been evaded; but he was especially hurt by the allusions to his own poverty. It was necessary that he should earn his bread, and no doubt he was a seeker after place. But he did not wish to obtain wages without working for them; and he did not see why the work and wages of a public office should be less honourable than those of any other profession. To him, with his ideas, there was no profession so honourable, as certainly there were none which demanded greater sacrifices or were more precarious. And he did believe that such an article as that would have the effect of shutting against him the gates of that dangerous Paradise which he desired to enter. He had no great claim upon his Party; and, in giving away the good things of office, the giver is only too prone to recognise any objections against an individual which may seem to relieve him from the necessity of bestowing aught in that direction. Phineas felt that he would almost be ashamed to show his face at the clubs or in the House. He must do so as a matter of course, but he knew that he could not do so without confessing by his visage that he had been deeply wounded by the attack in the People’s Banner .

He went in the first instance to Mr Low, and was almost surprised that Mr Low should not have yet even have heard that such an attack had been made. He had almost felt, as he walked to Lincohn’s Inn, that everybody had looked at him, and that passers-by in the street had declared to each other that he was the unfortunate one who had been doomed by the editor of the People’s Banner to seek some obscure way of earning his bread. Mr Low took the paper, read, or probably only half read, the article, and then threw the sheet aside as worthless. “What ought I to do?”

“Nothing at all.”

“One’s first desire would be to beat him to a jelly.”

“Of all courses that would be the worst, and would most certainly conduce to his triumph.”

“Just so — I only allude to the pleasure one would have, but which one has to deny oneself. I don’t know whether he has laid himself open for libel.”

“I should think not. I have only just glanced at it, and therefore can’t give an opinion; but I should think you would not dream of such a thing. Your object is to screen Lady Laura’s name.”

“I have to think of that first.”

“It may be necessary that steps should be taken to defend her character. If an accusation be made with such publicity as to enforce belief if not denied, the denial must be made, and may probably be best made by an action for libel. But that must be done by her or her friends — but certainly not by you.”

“He has laughed at the Vice-Chancellor’s injunction.”

“I don’t think that you can interfere. If, as you believe, Mr Kennedy be insane, that fact will probably soon be proved, and will have the effect of clearing Lady Laura’s character. A wife may be excused for leaving a mad husband.”

“And you think I should do nothing?”

“I don’t see what you can do. You have encountered a chimney sweeper, and of course you get some of the soot. What you do do, and what you do not do, must depend at any rate on the wishes of Lady Laura Kennedy and her father. It is a matter in which you must make yourself subordinate to them.”

Fuming and fretting, and yet recognising the truth of Mr Low’s words, Phineas left the chambers, and went down to his club. It was a Wednesday, and the House was to sit in the morning; but before he went to the House he put himself in the way of certain of his associates in order that he might hear what would be said, and learn if possible what was thought. Nobody seemed to treat the accusations in the newspaper as very serious, though all around him congratulated him on his escape from Mr Kennedy’s pistol. “I suppose the poor man really is mad,” said Lord Cantrip, whom he met on the steps of one of the clubs.

“No doubt, I should say.”

“I can’t understand why you didn’t go to the police.”

“I had hoped the thing would not become public,” said Phineas.

“Everything becomes public — everything of that kind. It is very hard upon poor Lady Laura.”

“That is the worst of it, Lord Cantrip.”

“If I were her father I should bring her to England, and demand a separation in a regular and legal way. That is what he should do now in her behalf. She would then have an opportunity of clearing her character from imputations which, to a certain extent, will affect it, even though they come from a madman, and from the very scum of the press.”

“You have read that article?”

“Yes — I saw it but a minute ago.”

“I need not tell you that there is not the faintest ground in the world for the imputation made against Lady Laura there.”

“I am sure that there is none — and therefore it is that I tell you my opinion so plainly. I think that Lord Brentford should be advised to bring Lady Laura to England, and to put down the charges openly in Court. It might be done either by an application to the Divorce Court for a separation, or by an action against the newspaper for libel. I do not know Lord Brentford quite well enough to intrude upon him with a letter, but I have no objection whatever to having my name mentioned to him. He and I and you and poor Mr Kennedy sat together in the same Government, and I think that Lord Brentford would trust my friendship so far.” Phineas thanked him, and assured him that what he had said should be conveyed to Lord Brentford.

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