Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 34

The Universe

Before the House met again, the quidnuncs about the clubs, on both sides of the question, had determined that Mr Gresham’s speech, whether good or not as an effort of oratory, would serve its intended purpose. He would be backed by a majority of votes, and it might have been very doubtful whether such would have been the case had he attempted to throw out the Bill on its merits. Mr Ratler, by the time that prayers had been read, had become almost certain of success. There were very few Liberals in the House who were not anxious to declare by their votes that they had no confidence in Mr Daubeny. Mr Turnbull, the great Radical, and, perhaps, some two dozen with him, would support the second reading, declaring that they could not reconcile it with their consciences to record a vote in favour of a union of Church and State. On all such occasions as the present Mr Turnbull was sure to make himself disagreeable to those who sat near to him in the House. He was a man who thought that so much was demanded of him in order that his independence might be doubted by none. It was nothing to him he was wont to say who called himself Prime Minister, or Secretary here or President there. But then there would be quite as much of this independence on the Conservative as on the Liberal side of the House. Surely there would be more than two dozen gentlemen who would be true enough to the cherished principles of their whole lives to vote against such a Bill as this! It was the fact that there were so very few so true which added such a length to the faces of the country parsons. Six months ago not a country gentleman in England would have listened to such a proposition without loud protests as to its revolutionary wickedness. And now, under the sole pressure of one man’s authority, the subject had become so common that men were assured that the thing would be done even though of all things that could be done it were the worst. “It is no good any longer having any opinion upon anything,” one parson said to another, as they sat together at their club with their newspapers in their hands. “Nothing frightens anyone — no infidelity, no wickedness, no revolution. All reverence is at an end, and the Holy of Holies is no more even to the worshipper than the threshold of the Temple.” Though it became known that the Bill would be lost, what comfort was there in that, when the battle was to be won, not by the chosen Israelites to whom the Church with all its appurtenances ought to be dear, but by a crew of Philistines who would certainly follow the lead of their opponents in destroying the holy structure?

On the Friday the debate was continued with much life on the Ministerial side of the House. It was very easy for them to cry Faction! Faction! and hardly necessary for them to do more. A few parrot words had been learned as to the expediency of fitting the great and increasing Church of England to the growing necessity of the age. That the CHURCH OF ENGLAND would still be the CHURCH OF ENGLAND was repeated till weary listeners were sick of the unmeaning words. But the zeal of the combatants was displayed on that other question. Faction was now the avowed weapon of the leaders of the so-called Liberal side of the House, and it was very easy to denounce the new doctrine. Every word that Mr Gresham had spoken was picked in pieces, and the enormity of his theory was exhibited. He had boldly declared to them that they were to regard men and not measures, and they were to show by their votes whether they were prepared to accept such teaching. The speeches were, of course, made by alternate orators, but the firing from the Conservative benches was on this evening much the louder.

It would have seemed that with such an issue between them they might almost have consented to divide after the completion of the two great speeches. The course on which they were to run had been explained to them, and it was not probable that any member’s intention as to his running would now be altered by anything that he might hear. Mr Turnbull’s two dozen defaulters were all known, and the two dozen and four true Conservatives were known also. But, nevertheless, a great many members were anxious to speak. It would be the great debate of the Session, and the subject to be handled — that, namely, of the general merits and demerits of the two political parties — was wide and very easy. On that night it was past one o’clock when Mr Turnbull adjourned the House.

“I’m afraid we must put you off till Tuesday,” Mr Ratler said on the Sunday afternoon to Phineas Finn.

“I have no objection at all, so long as I get a fair place on that day.”

“There shan’t be a doubt about that. Gresham particularly wants you to speak, because you are pledged to a measure of disestablishment. You can insist on his own views — that even should such a measure be essentially necessary — ”

“Which I think it is,” said Phineas.

“Still it should not be accepted from the old Church-and-State party.”

There was something pleasant in this to Phineas Finn — something that made him feel for the moment that he had perhaps mistaken the bearing of his friend towards him. “We are sure of a majority, I suppose,” he said.

“Absolutely sure,” said Ratler. “I begin to think it will amount to half a hundred — perhaps more.”

“What will Daubeny do?”

“Go out. He can’t do anything else. His pluck is certainly wonderful, but even with his pluck he can’t dissolve again. His Church Bill has given him a six months’ run, and six months is something.”

“Is it true that Grogram is to be Chancellor?” Phineas asked the question, not from any particular solicitude as to the prospects of Sir Gregory Grogram, but because he was anxious to hear whether Mr Ratler would speak to him with anything of the cordiality of fellowship respecting the new Government. But Mr Ratler became at once discreet and close, and said that he did not think that anything as yet was known as to the Woolsack. Then Phineas retreated again within his shell, with a certainty that nothing would be done for him.

And yet to whom could this question of place be of such vital importance as it was to him? He had come back to his old haunts from Ireland, abandoning altogether the pleasant safety of an assured income, buoyed by the hope of office. He had, after a fashion, made his calculations. In the present disposition of the country it was, he thought, certain that the Liberal party must, for the next twenty years, have longer periods of power than their opponents; and he had thought also that were he in the House, some place would eventually be given to him. He had been in office before, and had been especially successful. He knew that it had been said of him that of the young debutants of latter years he had been the best. He had left his party by opposing them; but he had done so without creating any ill-will among the leaders of his party — in a manner that had been regarded as highly honourable to him, and on departing had received expressions of deep regret from Mr Gresham himself. When Barrington Erle had wanted him to return to his old work, his own chief doubt had been about the seat. But he had been bold and had adventured all, and had succeeded. There had been some little trouble about those pledges given at Tankerville, but he would be able to turn them even to the use of his party. It was quite true that nothing had been promised him; but Erle, when he had written, bidding him to come over from Ireland, must have intended him to understand that he would be again enrolled in the favoured regiment, should he be able to show himself as the possessor of a seat in the House. And yet — yet he felt convinced that when the day should come it would be to him a day of disappointment, and that when the list should appear his name would not be on it. Madame Goesler had suggested to him that Mr Bonteen might be his enemy, and he had replied by stating that he himself hated Mr Bonteen. He now remembered that Mr Bonteen had hardly spoken to him since his return to London, though there had not in fact been any quarrel between them. In this condition of mind he longed to speak openly to Barrington Erle, but he was restrained by a feeling of pride, and a still existing idea that no candidate for office, let his claim be what it might, should ask for a place. On that Sunday evening he saw Bonteen at the club. Men were going in and out with that feverish excitement which always prevails on the eve of a great parliamentary change. A large majority against the Government was considered to be certain; but there was an idea abroad that Mr Daubeny had some scheme in his head by which to confute the immediate purport of his enemies. There was nothing to which the audacity of the man was not equal. Some said that he would dissolve the House — which had hardly as yet been six months sitting. Others were of opinion that he would simply resolve not to vacate his place — thus defying the majority of the House and all the ministerial traditions of the country. Words had fallen from him which made some men certain that such was his intention. That it should succeed ultimately was impossible. The whole country would rise against him. Supplies would be refused. In every detail of Government he would be impeded. But then — such was the temper of the man — it was thought that all these horrors would not deter him. There would be a blaze and a confusion, in which timid men would doubt whether the constitution would be burned to tinder or only illuminated; but that blaze and that confusion would be dear to Mr Daubeny if he could stand as the centre figure — the great pyrotechnist who did it all, red from head to foot with the glare of the squibs with which his own hands were filling all the spaces. The anticipation that some such display might take place made men busy and eager; so that on that Sunday evening they roamed about from one place of meeting to another, instead of sitting at home with their wives and daughters. There was at this time existing a small club — so called though unlike other clubs — which had entitled itself the Universe. The name was supposed to be a joke, as it was limited to ninety-nine members. It was domiciled in one simple and somewhat mean apartment. It was kept open only one hour before and one hour after midnight, and that only on two nights of the week, and that only when Parliament was sitting. Its attractions were not numerous, consisting chiefly of tobacco and tea. The conversation was generally listless and often desultory; and occasionally there would arise the great and terrible evil of a punster whom everyone hated but no one had life enough to put down. But the thing had been a success, and men liked to be members of the Universe. Mr Bonteen was a member, and so was Phineas Finn. On this Sunday evening the club was open, and Phineas, as he entered the room, perceived that his enemy was seated alone on a corner of a sofa. Mr Bonteen was not a man who loved to be alone in public places, and was apt rather to make one of congregations, affecting popularity, and always at work increasing his influence. But on this occasion his own greatness had probably isolated him. If it were true that he was to be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer — to ascend from demi-godhead to the perfect divinity of the Cabinet — and to do so by a leap which would make him high even among first-class gods, it might be well for himself to look to himself and choose new congregations. Or, at least, it would be becoming that he should be chosen now instead of being a chooser. He was one who could weigh to the last ounce the importance of his position, and make most accurate calculations as to the effect of his intimacies. On that very morning Mr Gresham had suggested to him that in the event of a Liberal Government being formed, he should hold the high office in question. This, perhaps, had not been done in the most flattering manner, as Mr Gresham had deeply bewailed the loss of Mr Palliser, and had almost demanded a pledge from Mr Bonteen that he would walk exactly in Mr Palliser’s footsteps — but the offer had been made, and could not be retracted; and Mr Bonteen already felt the warmth of the halo of perfect divinity.

There are some men who seem to have been born to be Cabinet Ministers — dukes mostly, or earls, or the younger sons of such — who have been trained to it from their very cradles, and of whom we may imagine that they are subject to no special awe when they first enter into that august assembly, and feel but little personal elevation. But to the political aspirant not born in the purple of public life, this entrance upon the counsels of the higher deities must be accompanied by a feeling of supreme triumph, dashed by considerable misgivings. Perhaps Mr Bonteen was revelling in his triumph — perhaps he was anticipating his misgivings. Phineas, though disinclined to make any inquiries of a friend which might seem to refer to his own condition, felt no such reluctance in regard to one who certainly could not suspect him of asking a favour. He was presumed to be on terms of intimacy with the man, and he took his seat beside him, asking some question as to the debate. Now Mr Bonteen had more than once expressed an opinion among his friends that Phineas Finn would throw his party over, and vote with the Government. The Ratlers and Erles and Fitzgibbons all knew that Phineas was safe, but Mr Bonteen was still in doubt. It suited him to affect something more than doubt on the present occasion. “I wonder that you should ask me,” said Mr Bonteen.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I presume that you, as usual, will vote against us.”

“I never voted against my party but once,” said Phineas, “and then I did it with the approbation of every man in it for whose good opinion I cared a straw.” There was insult in his tone as he said this, and something near akin to insult in his words.

“You must do it again now, or break every promise that you made at Tankerville.”

“Do you know what promise I made at Tankerville? I shall break no promise.”

“You must allow me to say, Mr Finn, that the kind of independence which is practised by you and Mr Monk, grand as it may be on the part of men who avowedly abstain from office, is a little dangerous when it is now and again adopted by men who have taken place. I like to be sure that the men who are in the same boat with me won’t take it into their heads that their duty requires them to scuttle the ship.” Having so spoken, Mr Bonteen, with nearly all the grace of a full-fledged Cabinet Minister, rose from his seat on the corner of the sofa and joined a small congregation.

Phineas felt that his ears were tingling and that his face was red. He looked round to ascertain from the countenances of others whether they had heard what had been said. Nobody had been close to them, and he thought that the conversation had been unnoticed. He knew now that he had been imprudent in addressing himself to Mr Bonteen, though the question that he had first asked had been quite commonplace. As it was, the man, he thought, had been determined to affront him, and had made a charge against him which he could not allow to pass unnoticed. And then there was all the additional bitterness in it which arose from the conviction that Bonteen had spoken the opinion of other men as well as his own, and that he had plainly indicated that the gates of the official paradise were to be closed against the presumed offender, Phineas had before believed that it was to be so, but that belief had now become assurance. He got up in his misery to leave the room, but as he did so he met Laurence Fitzgibbon. “You have heard the news about Bonteen?” said Laurence.

“What news?”

“He’s to be pitchforked up to the Exchequer. They say it’s quite settled. The higher a monkey climbs — you know the proverb.” So saying Laurence Fitzgibbon passed into the room, and Phineas Finn took his departure in solitude.

And so the man with whom he had managed to quarrel utterly was to be one in the Cabinet, a man whose voice would probably be potential in the selection of minor members of the Government. It seemed to him to be almost incredible that such a one as Mr Bonteen should be chosen for such an office. He had despised almost as soon as he had known Mr Bonteen, and had rarely heard the future manager of the finance of the country spoken of with either respect or regard. He had regarded Mr Bonteen as a useful, dull, unscrupulous politician, well accustomed to Parliament, acquainted with the bye-paths and back doors of official life — and therefore certain of employment when the Liberals were in power; but there was no one in the party he had thought less likely to be selected for high place. And yet this man was to be made Chancellor of the Exchequer, while he, Phineas Finn, very probably at this man’s instance, was to be left out in the cold.

He knew himself to be superior to the man he hated, to have higher ideas of political life, and to be capable of greater political sacrifices. He himself had sat shoulder to shoulder with many men on the Treasury Bench whose political principles he had not greatly valued; but of none of them had he thought so little as he had done of Mr Bonteen. And yet this Mr Bonteen was to be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer! He walked home to his lodgings in Marlborough Street wretched because of his own failure — doubly wretched because of the other man’s success.

He laid awake half the night thinking of the words that had been spoken to him, and after breakfast on the following morning he wrote the following note to his enemy:

“House of Commons, 5th April, 18 — “ DEAR MR BONTEEN,

“It is matter of extreme regret to me that last night at the Universe I should have asked you some chance question about the coming division. Had I guessed to what it might have led, I should not have addressed you. But as it is I can hardly abstain from noticing what appeared to me to be a personal charge made against myself with a great want of the courtesy which is supposed to prevail among men who have acted together. Had we never done so my original question to you might perhaps have been deemed an impertinence.

“As it was, you accused me of having been dishonest to my party, and of having ““scuttled the ship.’” On the occasion to which you alluded I acted with much consideration, greatly to the detriment of my own prospects — and as I believed with the approbation of all who knew anything of the subject. If you will make inquiry of Mr Gresham, or Lord Cantrip who was then my chief, I think that either will tell you that my conduct on that occasion was not such as to lay me open to reproach. If you will do this, I think that you cannot fail afterwards to express regret for what you said to me last night.

“Yours sincerely, “ PHINEAS FINN . “Thos. Bonteen, Esq., M.P.”

He did not like the letter when he had written it, but he did not know how to improve it, and he sent it.

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