Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 35

Political Venom

On the Monday Mr Turnbull opened the ball by declaring his reasons for going into the same lobby with Mr Daubeny. This he did at great length. To him all the mighty pomp and all the little squabbles of office were, he said, as nothing. He would never allow himself to regard the person of the Prime Minister. The measure before the House ever had been and ever should be all in all to him. If the public weal were more regarded in that House, and the quarrels of men less considered, he thought that the service of the country would be better done. He was answered by Mr Monk, who was sitting near him, and who intended to support Mr Gresham. Mr Monk was rather happy in pulling his old friend, Mr Turnbull, to pieces, expressing his opinion that a difference in men meant a difference in measures. The characters of men whose principles were known were guarantees for the measures they would advocate. To him — Mr Monk — it was matter of very great moment who was Prime Minister of England. He was always selfish enough to wish for a Minister with whom he himself could agree on the main questions of the day. As he certainly could not say that he had political confidence in the present Ministry, he should certainly vote against them on this occasion.

In the course of the evening Phineas found a letter addressed to himself from Mr Bonteen. It was as follows:

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

“I never accused you of dishonesty. You must have misheard or misunderstood me if you thought so. I did say that you had scuttled the ship — and as you most undoubtedly did scuttle it — you and Mr Monk between you — I cannot retract my words.

“I do not want to go to anyone for testimony as to your merits on the occasion. I accused you of having done nothing dishonourable or disgraceful. I think I said that there was danger in the practice of scuttling. I think so still, though I know that many fancy that those who scuttle do a fine thing. I don’t deny that it’s fine, and therefore you can have no cause of complaint against me.

“Yours truly, J . BONTEEN .”

He had brought a copy of his own letter in his pocket to the House, and he showed the correspondence to Mr Monk. “I would not have noticed it, had I been you,” said he.

“You can have no idea of the offensive nature of the remark when it was made.”

“It’s as offensive to me as to you, but I should not think of moving in such a matter. When a man annoys you, keep out of his way. It is generally the best thing you can do.”

“If a man were to call you a liar?”

“But men don’t call each other liars. Bonteen understands the world much too well to commit himself by using any word which common opinion would force him to retract. He says we scuttled the ship. Well — we did. Of all the political acts of my life it is the one of which I am most proud. The manner in which you helped me has entitled you to my affectionate esteem. But we did scuttle the ship. Before you can quarrel with Bonteen you must be able to show that a metaphorical scuttling of a ship must necessarily be a disgraceful act. You see how he at once retreats behind the fact that it need not be so.”

“You wouldn’t answer his letter.”

“I think not. You can do yourself no good by a correspondence in which you cannot get a hold of him. And if you did get a hold of him you would injure yourself much more than him. Just drop it.” This added much to our friend’s misery, and made him feel that the weight of it was almost more than he could bear. His enemy had got the better of him at every turn. He had now rushed into a correspondence as to which he would have to own by his silence that he had been confuted. And yet he was sure that Mr Bonteen had at the club insulted him most unjustifiably, and that if the actual truth were known, no man, certainly not Mr Monk, would hesitate to say that reparation was due to him. And yet what could he do? He thought that he would consult Lord Cantrip, and endeavour to get from his late Chief some advice more palatable than that which had been tendered to him by Mr Monk.

In the meantime animosities in the House were waxing very furious; and, as it happened, the debate took a turn that was peculiarly injurious to Phineas Finn in his present state of mind. The rumour as to the future promotion of Mr Bonteen, which had been conveyed by Laurence Fitzgibbon to Phineas at the Universe, had, as was natural, spread far and wide, and had reached the ears of those who still sat on the Ministerial benches. Now it is quite understood among politicians in this country that no man should presume that he will have imposed upon him the task of forming a Ministry until he has been called upon by the Crown to undertake that great duty. Let the Gresham or the Daubeny of the day be ever so sure that the reins of the State chariot must come into his hands, he should not visibly prepare himself for the seat on the box till he has actually been summoned to place himself there. At this moment it was alleged that Mr Gresham had departed from the reticence and modesty usual in such a position as his, by taking steps towards the formation of a Cabinet, while it was as yet quite possible that he might never be called upon to form any Cabinet. Late on this Monday night, when the House was quite full, one of Mr Daubeny’s leading lieutenants, a Secretary of State, Sir Orlando Drought by name — a gentleman who if he had any heart in the matter must have hated this Church Bill from the very bottom of his heart, and who on that account was the more bitter against opponents who had not ceased to throw in his teeth his own political tergiversation — fell foul of Mr Gresham as to this rumoured appointment to the Chancellorship of the Exchequer. The reader will easily imagine the things that were said. Sir Orlando had heard, and had been much surprised at hearing, that a certain honourable member of that House, who had long been known to them as a tenant of the Ministerial bench, had already been appointed to a high office. He, Sir Orlando, had not been aware that the office had been vacant, or that if vacant it would have been at the disposal of the right honourable gentleman; but he believed that there was no doubt that the place in question, with a seat in the Cabinet, had been tendered to, and accepted by, the honourable member to whom he alluded. Such was the rabid haste with which the right honourable gentleman opposite, and his colleagues, were attempting, he would not say to climb, but to rush into office, by opposing a great measure of Reform, the wisdom of which, as was notorious to all the world, they themselves did not dare to deny. Much more of the same kind was said, during which Mr Gresham pulled about his hat, shuffled his feet, showed his annoyance to all the House, and at last jumped upon his legs.

“If,” said Sir Orlando Drought — “if the right honourable gentleman wishes to deny the accuracy of any statements that I have made, I will give way to him for the moment, that he may do so.”

“I deny utterly, not only the accuracy, but every detail of the statement made by the right honourable gentleman opposite,” said Mr Gresham, still standing and holding his hat in his hand as he completed his denial.

“Does the right honourable gentleman mean to assure me that he has not selected his future Chancellor of the Exchequer?”

“The right honourable gentleman is too acute not to be aware that we on this side of the House may have made such selection, and that yet every detail of the statement which he has been rash enough to make to the House may be — unfounded. The word, sir, is weak; but I would fain avoid the use of any words which, justifiable though they might be, would offend the feelings of the House. I will explain to the House exactly what has been done.”

Then there was a great hubbub — cries of “Order”, “Gresham”, “Spoke”, Hear, hear, and the like — during which Sir Orlando Drought and Mr Gresham both stood on their legs. So powerful was Mr Gresham’s voice that, through it all, every word that he said was audible to the reporters. His opponent hardly attempted to speak, but stood relying upon his right. Mr Gresham said he understood that it was the desire of the House that he should explain the circumstances in reference to the charge that had been made against him, and it would certainly be for the convenience of the House that this should be done at the moment. The Speaker of course ruled that Sir Orlando was in possession of the floor, but suggested that it might be convenient that he should yield to the right honourable gentleman on the other side for a few minutes. Mr Gresham, as a matter of course, succeeded. Rights and rules, which are bonds of iron to a little man, are packthread to a giant. No one in all that assembly knew the House better than did Mr Gresham, was better able to take it by storm, or more obdurate in perseverance. He did make his speech, though clearly he had no right to do so. The House, he said, was aware, that by the most unfortunate demise of the late Duke of Omnium, a gentleman had been removed from this House to another place, whose absence from their counsels would long be felt as a very grievous loss. Then he pronounced a eulogy on Plantagenet Palliser, so graceful and well arranged, that even the bitterness of the existing opposition was unable to demur to it. The House was well aware of the nature of the labours which now for some years past had occupied the mind of the noble Duke; and the paramount importance which the country attached to their conclusion. The noble Duke no doubt was not absolutely debarred from a continuance of his work by the change which had fallen upon him; but it was essential that some gentleman, belonging to the same party with the noble Duke, versed in office; and having a seat in that House, should endeavour to devote himself to the great measure which had occupied so much of the attention of the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. No doubt it must be fitting that the gentleman so selected should be at the Exchequer, in the event of their party coming into office. The honourable gentleman to whom allusion had been made had acted throughout with the present noble Duke in arranging the details of the measure in question; and the probability of his being able to fill the shoes left vacant by the accession to the peerage of the noble Duke had, indeed, been discussed — but the discussion had been made in reference to the measure, and only incidentally in regard to the office. He, Mr Gresham, held that he had done nothing that was indiscreet — nothing that his duty did not demand. If right honourable gentlemen opposite were of a different opinion, he thought that that difference came from the fact that they were less intimately acquainted than he unfortunately had been with the burdens and responsibilities of legislation.

There was very little in the dispute which seemed to be worthy of the place in which it occurred, or of the vigour with which it was conducted; but it served to show the temper of the parties, and to express the bitterness of the political feelings of the day. It was said at the time, that never within the memory of living politicians had so violent an animosity displayed itself in the House as had been witnessed on this night. While Mr Gresham was giving his explanation, Mr Daubeny had arisen, and with a mock solemnity that was peculiar to him on occasions such as these, had appealed to the Speaker whether the right honourable gentleman opposite should not be called upon to resume his seat. Mr Gresham had put him down with a wave of his hand. An affected stateliness cannot support itself but for a moment; and Mr Daubeny had been forced to sit down when the Speaker did not at once support his appeal. But he did not forget that wave of the hand, nor did he forgive it. He was a man who in public life rarely forgot, and never forgave. They used to say of him that “at home” he was kindly and forbearing, simple and unostentatious. It may be so. Who does not remember that horrible Turk, Jacob Asdrubal, the Old Bailey barrister, the terror of witnesses, the bane of judges — who was gall and wormwood to all opponents. It was said of him that “at home” his docile amiability was the marvel of his friends, and delight of his wife and daughters. “At home”, perhaps, Mr Daubeny might have been waved at, and have forgiven it; but men who saw the scene in the House of Commons knew that he would never forgive Mr Gresham. As for Mr Gresham himself, he triumphed at the moment, and exulted in his triumph.

Phineas Finn heard it all, and was disgusted to find that his enemy thus became the hero of the hour. It was, indeed, the opinion generally of the Liberal party that Mr Gresham had not said much to flatter his new Chancellor of the Exchequer. In praise of Plantagenet Palliser he had been very loud, and he had no doubt said that which implied the capability of Mr Bonteen, who, as it happened, was sitting next to him at the time; but he had implied also that the mantle which was to be transferred from Mr Palliser to Mr Bonteen would be carried by its new wearer with grace very inferior to that which had marked all the steps of his predecessor. Ratler, and Erle, and Fitzgibbon, and others had laughed in their sleeves at the expression, understood by them, of Mr Gresham’s doubt as to the qualifications of his new assistant, and Sir Orlando Drought, in continuing his speech, remarked that the warmth of the right honourable gentleman had been so completely expended in abusing his enemies that he had had none left for the defence of his friend. But to Phineas it seemed that this Bonteen, who had so grievously injured him, and whom he so thoroughly despised, was carrying off all the glories of the fight. A certain amount of consolation was, however, afforded to him. Between one and two o’clock he was told by Mr Ratler that he might enjoy the privilege of adjourning the debate — by which would accrue to him the right of commencing on the morrow — and this he did at a few minutes before three.

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