Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 36

Seventy two

On the next morning Phineas, with his speech before him, was obliged for a while to forget, or at least to postpone, Mr Bonteen and his injuries. He could not now go to Lord Cantrip, as the hours were too precious to him and, as he felt, too short. Though he had been thinking what he would say ever since the debate had become imminent, and knew accurately the line which he would take, he had not as yet prepared a word of his speech. But he had resolved that he would not prepare a word otherwise than he might do by arranging certain phrases in his memory. There should be nothing written; he had tried that before in old days, and had broken down with the effort. He would load himself with no burden of words in itself so heavy that the carrying of it would incapacitate him for any other effort.

After a late breakfast he walked out far away, into the Regent’s Park, and there, wandering among the uninteresting paths, he devised triumphs of oratory for himself. Let him resolve as he would to forget Mr Bonteen, and that charge of having been untrue to his companions, he could not restrain himself from efforts to fit the matter after some fashion into his speech. Dim ideas of a definition of political honesty crossed his brain, bringing with him, however, a conviction that his thought must be much more clearly worked out than it could be on that day before he might venture to give it birth in the House of Commons. He knew that he had been honest two years ago in separating himself from his colleagues. He knew that he would be honest now in voting with them, apparently in opposition to the pledges he had given at Tankerville. But he knew also that it would behove him to abstain from speaking of himself unless he could do so in close reference to some point specially in dispute between the two parties, When he returned to eat a mutton chop at Great Marlborough Street at three o’clock he was painfully conscious that all his morning had been wasted. He had allowed his mind to run revel, instead of tying it down to the formation of sentences and construction of arguments.

He entered the House with the Speaker at four o’clock, and took his seat without uttering a word to any man. He seemed to be more than ever disjoined from his party. Hitherto, since he had been seated by the Judge’s order, the former companions of his Parliamentary life — the old men whom he had used to know — had to a certain degree admitted him among them. Many of them sat on the front Opposition bench, whereas he, as a matter of course, had seated himself behind. But he had very frequently found himself next to some man who had held office and was living in the hope of holding it again, and had felt himself to be in some sort recognised as an aspirant. Now it seemed to him that it was otherwise. He did not doubt but that Bonteen had shown the correspondence to his friends, and that the Ratlers and Erles had conceded that he, Phineas, was put out of court by it. He sat doggedly still, at the end of a bench behind Mr Gresham, and close to the gangway. When Mr Gresham entered the House he was received with much cheering; but Phineas did not join in the cheer. He was studious to avoid any personal recognition or the future giver-away of places, though they two were close together; and he then fancied that Mr Gresham had specially and most ungraciously abstained from any recognition of him. Mr Monk, who sat near him, spoke a kind word to him. “I shan’t be very long,” said Phineas; “not above twenty minutes, I should think.” He was able to assume an air of indifference, and yet at the moment he heartily wished himself back in Dublin. It was not now that he feared the task immediately before him, but that he was overcome by the feeling of general failure which had come upon him. Of what use was it to him or to anyone else that he should be there in that assembly, with the privilege of making a speech that would influence no human being, unless his being there could be made a step to something beyond? While the usual preliminary work was being done, he looked round the House, and saw Lord Cantrip in the Peers’ gallery. Alas! of what avail was that? He had always been able to bind to him individuals with whom he had been brought into close contact; but more than that was wanted in this most precarious of professions, in which now, for a second time, he was attempting to earn his bread.

At half past four he was on his legs in the midst of a crowded House. The chance — perhaps the hope — of some such encounter as that of the former day, brought members into their seats, and filled the gallery with strangers. We may say, perhaps, that the highest duty imposed upon us as a nation is the management of India; and we may also say that in a great national assembly personal squabbling among its members is the least dignified work in which it can employ itself. But the prospect of an explanation — or otherwise of a fight — between two leading politicians will fill the House; and any allusion to our Eastern Empire will certainly empty it. An aptitude for such encounters is almost a necessary qualification for a popular leader in Parliament, as is a capacity for speaking for three hours to the reporters, and to the reporters only — a necessary qualification for an Under-Secretary of State for India.

Phineas had the advantage of the temper of the moment in a House thoroughly crowded, and he enjoyed it. Let a man doubt ever so much his own capacity for some public exhibition which he has undertaken; yet he will always prefer to fail — if fail he must — before a large audience. But on this occasion there was no failure. That sense of awe from the surrounding circumstances of the moment, which had once been heavy on him, and which he still well remembered, had been overcome, and had never returned to him. He felt now that he should not lack words to pour out his own individual grievances were it not that he was prevented by a sense of the indiscretion of doing so. As it was, he did succeed in alluding to his own condition in a manner that brought upon him no reproach. He began by saying that he should not have added to the difficulty of the debate — which was one simply of length — were it not that he had been accused in advance of voting against a measure as to which he had pledged himself at the hustings to do all that he could to further it. No man was more anxious than he, an Irish Roman Catholic, to abolish that which he thought to be the anomaly of a State Church, and he did not in the least doubt that he should now be doing the best in his power with that object in voting against the second reading of the present bill. That such a measure should be carried by the gentlemen opposite, in their own teeth, at the bidding of the right honourable gentleman who led them, he thought to be impossible. Upon this he was hooted at from the other side with many gestures of indignant denial, and was, of course, equally cheered by those around him. Such interruptions are new breath to the nostrils of all orators, and Phineas enjoyed the noise. He repeated his assertion that it would be an evil thing for the country that the measure should be carried by men who in their hearts condemned it, and was vehemently called to order for this assertion about the hearts of gentlemen. But a speaker who can certainly be made amenable to authority for vilipending in debate the heart of any specified opponent, may with safety attribute all manner of ill to the agglomerated hearts of a party. To have told any individual Conservative — Sir Orlando Drought for instance — that he was abandoning all the convictions of his life, because he was a creature at the command of Mr Daubeny, would have been an insult that would have moved even the Speaker from his serenity; but you can hardly be personal to a whole bench of Conservatives — to bench above bench of Conservatives. The charge had been made and repeated over and over again, till all the Orlando Droughts were ready to cut some man’s throat — whether their own, or Mr Daubeny’s, or Mr Gresham’s, they hardly knew. It might probably have been Mr Daubeny’s for choice, had any real cutting of a throat been possible. It was now made again by Phineas Finn — with the ostensible object of defending himself — and he for the moment became the target for Conservative wrath. Someone asked him in fury by what right he took upon himself to judge of the motives of gentlemen on that side of the House of whom personally he knew nothing. Phineas replied that he did not at all doubt the motives of the honourable gentleman who asked the question, which he was sure were noble and patriotic. But unfortunately the whole country was convinced that the Conservative party as a body was supporting this measure, unwillingly, and at the bidding of one man — and, for himself, he was bound to say that he agreed with the country. And so the row was renewed and prolonged, and the gentlemen assembled, members and strangers together, passed a pleasant evening.

Before he sat down, Phineas made one allusion to that former scuttling of the ship — an accusation as to which had been made against him so injuriously by Mr Bonteen. He himself, he said, had been called impractical, and perhaps he might allude to a vote which he had given in that House when last he had the honour of sitting there, and on giving which he resigned the office which he had then held. He had the gratification of knowing that he had been so far practical as to have then foreseen the necessity of a measure which had since been passed. And he did not doubt that he would hereafter be found to have been equally practical in the view that he had expressed on the hustings at Tankerville, for he was convinced that before long the anomaly of which he had spoken would cease to exist under the influence of a Government that would really believe in the work it was doing.

There was no doubt as to the success of his speech. The vehemence with which his insolence was abused by one after another of those who spoke later from the other side was ample evidence of its success. But nothing occurred then or at the conclusion of the debate to make him think that he had won his way back to Elysium. During the whole evening he exchanged not a syllable with Mr Gresham — who indeed was not much given to converse with those around him in the House. Erle said a few good-natured words to him, and Mr Monk praised him highly. But in reading the general barometer of the party as regarded himself, he did not find that the mercury went up. He was wretchedly anxious, and angry with himself for his own anxiety. He scorned to say a word that should sound like an entreaty; and yet he had placed his whole heart on a thing which seemed to be slipping from him for the want of asking. In a day or two it would be known whether the present Ministry would or would not go out. That they must be out of office before a month was over seemed to him the opinion of everybody. His fate — and what a fate it was! — would then be absolutely in the hands of Mr Gresham. Yet he could not speak a word of his hopes and fears even to Mr Gresham. He had given up everything in the world with the view of getting into office; and now that the opportunity had come — an opportunity which if allowed to slip could hardly return again in time to be of service to him — the prize was to elude his grasp!

But yet he did not say a word to anyone on the subject that was so near his heart, although in the course of the night he spoke to Lord Cantrip in the gallery of the House. He told his friend that a correspondence had taken place between himself and Mr Bonteen, in which he thought that he had been ill-used, and as to which he was quite anxious to ask His Lordship’s advice. “I heard that you and he had been tilting at each other,” said Lord Cantrip, smiling.

“Have you seen the letters?”

“No — but I was told of them by Lord Fawn, who has seen them.”

“I knew he would show them to every newsmonger about the clubs,” said Phineas angrily.

“You can’t quarrel with Bonteen for showing them to Fawn, if you intend to show them to me.”

“He may publish them at Charing Cross if he likes.”

“Exactly. I am sure that there will have been nothing in them prejudicial to you. What I mean is that if you think it necessary, with a view to your own character, to show them to me or to another friend, you cannot complain that he should do the same.”

An appointment was made at Lord Cantrip’s house for the next morning, and Phineas could but acknowledge to himself that the man’s manner to himself had been kind and constant. Nevertheless, the whole affair was going against him. Lord Cantrip had not said a word prejudicial to that wretch Bonteen; much less had he hinted at any future arrangements which would be comfortable to poor Phineas. They two, Lord Cantrip and Phineas, had at one period been on most intimate terms together — had worked in the same office, and had thoroughly trusted each other. The elder of the two — for Lord Cantrip was about ten years senior to Phineas — had frequently expressed the most lively interest in the prospects of the other; and Phineas had felt that in any emergency he could tell his friend all his hopes and fears. But now he did not say a word of his position, nor did Lord Cantrip allude to it. They were to meet on the morrow in order that Lord Cantrip might read the correspondence — but Phineas was sure that no word would be said about the Government.

At five o’clock in the morning the division took place, and the Government was beaten by a majority of 72. This was much higher than any man had expected. When the parties were marshalled in the opposite lobbies it was found that in the last moment the number of those Conservatives who dared to rebel against their Conservative leaders was swelled by the course which the debate had taken. There were certain men who could not endure to be twitted with having deserted the principles of their lives, when it was clear that nothing was to be gained by the party by such desertion.

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