Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 43

The Second Thunderbolt

The quarrel between Phineas Finn and Mr Bonteen had now become the talk of the town, and had taken many various phases. The political phase, though it was perhaps the best understood, was not the most engrossing. There was the personal phase — which had reference to the direct altercation that had taken place between the two gentlemen, and to the correspondence between them which had followed, as to which phase it may be said that though there were many rumours abroad, very little was known. It was reported in some circles that the two aspirants for office had been within an ace of striking each other; in some, again, that a blow had passed — and in others; further removed probably from the House of Commons and the Universe Club, that the Irishman had struck the Englishman, and that the Englishman had given the Irishman a thrashing. This was a phase that was very disagreeable to Phineas Finn. And there was a third — which may perhaps be called the general social phase, and which unfortunately dealt with the name of Lady Laura Kennedy. They all, of course, worked into each other, and were enlivened and made interesting with the names of a great many big persons. Mr Gresham, the Prime Minister, was supposed to be very much concerned in this matter. He, it was said, had found himself compelled to exclude Phineas Finn from the Government, because of the unfortunate alliance between him and the wife of one of his late colleagues, and had also thought it expedient to dismiss Mr Bonteen from his Cabinet — for it had amounted almost to dismissal — because Mr Bonteen had made indiscreet official allusion to that alliance. In consequence of this working in of the first and third phase, Mr Gresham encountered hard usage from some friends and from many enemies. Then, of course, the scene at Macpherson’s Hotel was commented on very generally. An idea prevailed that Mr Kennedy, driven to madness by his wife’s infidelity, which had become known to him through the quarrel between Phineas and Mr Bonteen — had endeavoured to murder his wife’s lover, who had with the utmost effrontery invaded the injured husband’s presence with a view of deterring him by threats from a publication of his wrongs. This murder had been nearly accomplished in the centre of the metropolis — by daylight, as if that made it worse — on a Sunday, which added infinitely to the delightful horror of the catastrophe; and yet no public notice had been taken of it! The would-be murderer had been a Cabinet Minister, and the lover who was so nearly murdered had been an Under-Secretary of State, and was even now a member of Parliament. And then it was positively known that the lady’s father, who had always been held in the highest respect as a nobleman, favoured his daughter’s lover, and not his daughter’s husband. All which things together filled the public with dismay, and caused a delightful excitement, giving quite a feature of its own to the season.

No doubt general opinion was adverse to poor Phineas Finn, but he was not without his party in the matter. To oblige a friend by inflicting an injury on his enemy is often more easy than to confer a benefit on the friend himself. We have already seen how the young Duchess failed in her attempt to obtain an appointment for Phineas, and also how she succeeded in destroying the high hopes of Mr Bonteen. Having done so much, of course she clung heartily to the side which she had adopted — and, equally of course, Madame Goesler did the same. Between these two ladies there was a slight difference of opinion as to the nature of the alliance between Lady Laura and their hero. The Duchess was of opinion that young men are upon the whole averse to innocent alliances, and that, as Lady Laura and her husband certainly had long been separated, there was probably — something in it. “Lord bless you, my dear,” the Duchess said, “they were known to be lovers when they were at Loughlinter together before she married Mr Kennedy. It has been the most romantic affair! She made her father give him a seat for his borough.”

“He saved Mr Kennedy’s life,” said Madame Goesler.

“That was one of the most singular things that ever happened. Laurence Fitzgibbon says that it was all planned — that the garotters were hired, but unfortunately two policemen turned up at the moment, so the men were taken. I believe there is no doubt they were pardoned by Sir Henry Coldfoot, who was at the Home Office, and was Lord Brentford’s great friend. I don’t quite believe it all — it would be too delicious; but a great many do.” Madame Goesler, however, was strong in her opinion that the report in reference to Lady Laura was scandalous. She did not believe a word of it, and was almost angry with the Duchess for her credulity.

It is probable that very many ladies shared the opinion of the Duchess; but not the less on that account did they take part with Phineas Finn. They could not understand why he should be shut out of office because a lady had been in love with him, and by no means seemed to approve the stern virtue of the Prime Minister. It was an interference with things which did not belong to him. And many asserted that Mr Gresham was much given to such interference. Lady Cantrip, though her husband was Mr Gresham’s most intimate friend, was altogether of this party, as was also the Duchess of St Bungay, who understood nothing at all about it, but who had once fancied herself to be rudely treated by Mrs Bonteen. The young Duchess was a woman very strong in getting up a party; and the old Duchess, with many other matrons of high rank, was made to believe that it was incumbent on her to be a Phineas Finnite. One result of this was, that though Phineas was excluded from the Liberal Government, all Liberal drawing-rooms were open to him, and that he was a lion.

Additional zest was given to all this by the very indiscreet conduct of Mr Bonteen. He did accept the inferior office of President of the Board of Trade, an office inferior at least to that for which he had been designated, and agreed to fill it without a seat in the Cabinet. But having done so he could not bring himself to bear his disappointment quietly. He could not work and wait and make himself agreeable to those around him, holding his vexation within his own bosom. He was dark and sullen to his chief, and almost insolent to the Duke of Omnium. Our old friend Plantagenet Palliser was a man who hardly knew insolence when he met it. There was such an absence about him of all self-consciousness, he was so little given to think of his own personal demeanour and outward trappings — that he never brought himself to question the manners of others to him. Contradiction he would take for simple argument. Strong difference of opinion even on the part of subordinates recommended itself to him. He could put up with apparent rudeness without seeing it, and always gave men credit for good intentions. And with it all he had an assurance in his own position — a knowledge of the strength derived from his intellect, his industry, his rank, and his wealth — which made him altogether fearless of others. When the little dog snarls, the big dog does not connect the snarl with himself, simply fancying that the little dog must be uncomfortable. Mr Bonteen snarled a good deal, and the new Lord Privy Seal thought that the new president of the Board of Trade was not comfortable within himself. But at last the little dog took the big dog by the ear, and then the big dog put out his paw and knocked the little dog over. Mr Bonteen was told that he had — forgotten himself; and there arose new rumours. It was soon reported that the Lord Privy Seal had refused to work out decimal coinage under the management, in the House of Commons, of the President of the Board of Trade.

Mr Bonteen, in his troubled spirit, certainly did misbehave himself. Among his closer friends he declared very loudly that he didn’t mean to stand it. He had not chosen to throw Mr Gresham over at once, or to make difficulties at the moment — but he would not continue to hold his present position or to support the Government without a seat in the Cabinet. Palliser had become quite useless — so Mr Bonteen said — since his accession to the dukedom, and was quite unfit to deal with decimal coinage. It was a burden to kill any man, and he was not going to kill himself — at any rate without the reward for which he had been working all his life, and to which he was fully entitled, namely, a seat in the Cabinet. Now there were Bonteenites in those days as well as Phineas Finnites. The latter tribe was for the most part feminine; but, the former consisted of some half-dozen members of Parliament, who thought they saw their way in encouraging the forlorn hope of the unhappy financier.

A leader of a party is nothing without an organ, and an organ came forward to support Mr Bonteen — not very creditable to him as a Liberal, being a Conservative organ — but not the less gratifying to his spirit, inasmuch as the organ not only supported him, but exerted its very loudest pipes in abusing the man whom of all men he hated the most. The People’s Banner was the organ, and Mr Quintus Slide was, of course, the organist. The following was one of the tunes he played, and was supposed by himself to be a second thunderbolt, and probably a conclusively crushing missile. This thunderbolt fell on Monday, the 3rd of May:

“Early in last March we found it to be our duty to bring under public notice the conduct of the member for Tankerville in reference to a transaction which took place at a small hotel in Judd Street, and as to which we then ventured to call for the interference of the police. An attempt to murder the member for Tankerville had been made by a gentleman once well known in the political world, who — as it is supposed — had been driven to madness by wrongs inflicted on him in his dearest and nearest family relations. That the unfortunate gentleman is now insane we believe we may state as a fact. It had become our special duty to refer to this most discreditable transaction, from the fact that a paper, still in our hands, had been confided to us for publication by the wretched husband before his senses had become impaired — which, however, we were debarred from giving to the public by an injunction served upon us in sudden haste by the Vice-Chancellor. We are far from imputing evil motives, or even indiscretion, to that functionary; but we are of opinion that the moral feeling of the country would have been served by the publication, and we are sure that undue steps were taken by the member for Tankerville to procure that injunction.

“No inquiries whatever were made by the police in reference to that attempt at murder, and we do expect that some member will ask a question on the subject in the House. Would such culpable quiescence have been allowed had not the unfortunate lady whose name we are unwilling to mention been the daughter of one of the colleagues of our present Prime Minister, the gentleman who fired the pistol another of them, and the presumed lover, who was fired at, also another? We think that we need hardly answer that question.

“One piece of advice which we ventured to give Mr Gresham in our former article he has been wise enough to follow. We took upon ourselves to tell him that if, after what has occurred, he ventured to place the member for Tankerville again in office, the country would not stand it — and he has abstained. The jaunty footsteps of Mr Phineas Finn are not heard ascending the stairs of any office at about two in the afternoon, as used to be the case in one of those blessed Downing Street abodes about three years since. That scandal is, we think, over — and for ever. The good-looking Irish member of Parliament who had been put in possession of a handsome salary by feminine influences, will not, we think, after what we have already said, again become a burden on the public purse. But we cannot say that we are as yet satisfied in this matter, or that we believe that the public has got to the bottom of it — as it has a right to do in reference to all matters affecting the public service. We have never yet learned why it is that Mr Bonteen, after having been nominated Chancellor of the Exchequer — for the appointment to that office was declared in the House of Commons by the head of his party — was afterwards excluded from the Cabinet, and placed in an office made peculiarly subordinate by the fact of that exclusion. We have never yet been told why this was done — but we believe that we are justified in saying that it was managed through the influence of the member for Tankerville; and we are quite sure that the public service of the country has thereby been subjected to grievous injury.

“It is hardly our duty to praise any of that very awkward team of horses which Mr Gresham drives with an audacity which may atone for his incapacity if no fearful accident should be the consequence; but if there be one among them whom we could must for steady work up hill, it is Mr Bonteen. We were astounded at Mr Gresham’s indiscretion in announcing the appointment of his new Chancellor of the Exchequer some weeks before he had succeeded in driving Mr Daubeny from office — but we were not the less glad to find that the finances of the country were to be entrusted to the hands of the most competent gentleman whom Mr Gresham has induced to follow his fortunes. But Mr Phineas Finn, with his female forces, has again interfered, and Mr Bonteen has been relegated to the Board of Trade, without a seat in the Cabinet. We should not be at all surprised if, as the result of this disgraceful manoeuvring, Mr Bonteen found himself at the head of the Liberal party before the Session be over. If so, evil would have worked to good. But, be that as it may, we cannot but feel that it is a disgrace to the Government, a disgrace to parliament, and a disgrace to the country that such results should come from the private scandals of two or three people among us by no means of the best class.”

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