Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 73

Phineas Finn returns to his Duties

The election at Tankerville took place during the last week in July; and as Parliament was doomed to sit that year as late as the 10th of August, there was ample time for Phineas to present himself and take the oaths before the Session was finished. He had calculated that this could hardly be so when the matter of re-election was first proposed to him, and had hoped that his reappearance might be deferred till the following year. But there he was, once more member for Tankerville, while yet there was nearly a fortnight’s work to be done, pressed by his friends, and told by one or two of those whom he most trusted, that he would neglect his duty and show himself to be a coward, if he abstained from taking his place. “Coward is a hard word,” he said to Mr Low, who had used it.

“So men think when this or that other man is accused of running away in battle or the like. Nobody will charge you with cowardice of that kind. But there is moral cowardice as well as physical.”

“As when a man lies. I am telling no lie.”

“But you are afraid to meet the eyes of your fellow-creatures.”

“Yes, I am. You may call me a coward if you like. What matters the name, if the charge be true? I have been so treated that I am afraid to meet the eyes of my fellow-creatures. I am like a man who has had his knees broken, or his arms cut off. Of course I cannot be the same afterwards as I was before.” Mr Low said a great deal more to him on the subject, and all that Mr Low said was true; but he was somewhat rough, and did not succeed. Barrington Erle and Lord Cantrip also tried their eloquence upon him; but it was Mr Monk who at last drew from him a promise that he would go down to the House and be sworn in early on a certain Tuesday afternoon. “I am quite sure of this,” Mr Monk had said, “that the sooner you do it the less will be the annoyance. Indeed there will be no trouble in the doing of it. The trouble is all in the anticipation, and is therefore only increased and prolonged by delay.” “Of course it is your duty to go at once,” Mr Monk had said again, when his friend argued that he had never undertaken to sit before the expiration of Parliament. “You did consent to be put in nomination, and you owe your immediate services just as does any other member.”

“If a man’s grandmother dies he is held to be exempted.”

“But your grandmother has not died, and your sorrow is not of the kind that requires or is supposed to require retirement.” He gave way at last, and on the Tuesday afternoon Mr Monk called for him at Mrs Bunce’s house, and went down with him to Westminster. They reached their destination somewhat too soon, and walked the length of Westminster Hall two or three times while Phineas tried to justify himself. “I don’t think”, said he, “that Low quite understands my position when he calls me a coward.”

“I am sure, Phineas, he did not mean to do that.”

“Do not suppose that I am angry with him. I owe him a great deal too much for that. He is one of the few friends I have who are entitled to say to me just what they please. But I think he mistakes the matter. When a man becomes crooked from age it is no good telling him to be straight. He’d be straight if he could. A man can’t eat his dinner with a diseased liver as he could when he was well.”

“But he may follow advice as to getting his liver in order again.”

“And so am I following advice. But Low seems to think the disease shouldn’t be there. The disease is there, and I can’t banish it by simply saying that it is not there. If they had hung me outright it would be almost as reasonable to come and tell me afterwards to shake myself and be again alive. I don’t think that Low realises what it is to stand in the dock for a week together, with the eyes of all men fixed on you, and a conviction at your heart that everyone there believes you to have been guilty of an abominable crime of which you know yourself to have been innocent. For weeks I lived under the belief that I was to be made away by the hangman, and to leave behind me a name that would make everyone who has known me shudder.”

“God in His mercy has delivered you from that.”

“He has — and I am thankful. But my back is not strong enough to bear the weight without bending under it. Did you see Ratler going in? There is a man I dread. He is intimate enough with me to congratulate me, but not friend enough to abstain, and he will be sure to say something about his murdered colleague. Very well — I’ll follow you. Go up rather quick, and I’ll come close after you.” Whereupon Mr Monk entered between the two lamp-posts in the hall, and, hurrying along the passages, soon found himself at the door of the House. Phineas, with an effort at composure, and a smile that was almost ghastly at the door-keeper, who greeted him with some muttered word of recognition, held on his way close behind his friend, and walked up the House hardly conscious that the benches on each side were empty. There were not a dozen members present, and the Speaker had not as yet taken the chair. Mr Monk stood by him while he took the oath, and in two minutes he was on a back seat below the gangway, with his friend by him, while the members, in slowly increasing numbers, took their seats. Then there were prayers, and as yet not a single man had spoken to him. As soon as the doors were again open gentlemen streamed in, and some few whom Phineas knew well came and sat near him. One or two shook hands with him, but no one said a word to him of the trial. No one at least did so in this early stage of the day’s proceedings; and after half an hour he almost ceased to be afraid.

Then came up an irregular debate on the great Church question of the day, as to which there had been no cessation of the badgering with which Mr Gresham had been attacked since he came into office. He had thrown out Mr Daubeny by opposing that gentleman’s stupendous measure for disestablishing the Church of England altogether, although — as was almost daily asserted by Mr Daubeny and his friends — he was himself in favour of such total disestablishment. Over and over again Mr Gresham had acknowledged that he was in favour of disestablishment, protesting that he had opposed Mr Daubeny’s Bill without any reference to its merits — solely on the ground that such a measure should not be accepted from such a quarter. He had been stout enough, and, as his enemies had said, insolent enough, in making these assurances. But still he was accused of keeping his own hand dark, and of omitting to say what bill he would himself propose to bring in respecting the Church in the next Session. It was essentially necessary — so said Mr Daubeny and his friends — that the country should know and discuss the proposed measure during the vacation. There was, of course, a good deal of retaliation. Mr Daubeny had not given the country, or even his own party, much time to discuss his Church Bill. Mr Gresham assured Mr Daubeny that he would not feel himself equal to producing a measure that should change the religious position of every individual in the country, and annihilate the traditions and systems of centuries, altogether complete out of his own unaided brain; and he went on to say that were he to do so, he did not think that he should find himself supported in such an effort by the friends with whom he usually worked. On this occasion he declared that the magnitude of the subject and the immense importance of the interests concerned forbade him to anticipate the passing of any measure of general Church reform in the next Session. He was undoubtedly in favour of Church reform, but was by no means sure that the question was one which required immediate settlement. Of this he was sure — that nothing in the way of legislative indiscretion could be so injurious to the country, as any attempt at a hasty and ill-considered measure on this most momentous of all questions.

The debate was irregular, as it originated with a question asked by one of Mr Daubeny’s supporters — but it was allowed to proceed for a while. In answer to Mr Gresham, Mr Daubeny himself spoke, accusing Mr Gresham of almost every known Parliamentary vice in having talked of a measure coming, like Minerva, from his, Mr Daubeny’s, own brain. The plain and simple words by which such an accusation might naturally be refuted would be unparliamentary; but it would not be unparliamentary to say that it was reckless, unfounded, absurd, monstrous, and incredible. Then there were various very spirited references to Church matters, which concern us chiefly because Mr Daubeny congratulated the House upon seeing a Roman Catholic gentleman with whom they were all well acquainted, and whose presence in the House was desired by each side alike, again take his seat for an English borough. And he hoped that he might at the same time take the liberty of congratulating that gentleman on the courage and manly dignity with which he had endured the unexampled hardships of the cruel position in which he had been placed by an untoward combination of circumstances. It was thought that Mr Daubeny did the thing very well, and that he was right in doing it — but during the doing of it poor Phineas winced in agony. Of course every member was looking at him, and every stranger in the galleries. He did not know at the moment whether it behoved him to rise and make some gesture to the House, or to say a word, or to keep his seat and make no sign. There was a general hum of approval, and the Prime Minister turned round and bowed graciously to the newly-sworn member. As he said afterwards, it was just this which he had feared. But there must surely have been something of consolation in the general respect with which he was treated. At the moment he behaved with natural instinctive dignity, though himself doubting the propriety of his own conduct. He said not a word, and made no sign, but sat with his eyes fixed upon the member from whom the compliment had come. Mr Daubeny went on with his tirade, and was called violently to order. The Speaker declared that the whole debate had been irregular, but had been allowed by him in deference to what seemed to be the general will of the House. Then the two leaders of the two parties composed themselves, throwing off their indignation while they covered themselves well up with their hats — and, in accordance with the order of the day, an honourable member rose to propose a pet measure of his own for preventing the adulteration of beer by the publicans. He had made a calculation that the annual average mortality of England would be reduced one and a half per cent, or in other words that every English subject born would live seven months longer if the action of the Legislature could provide that the publicans should sell the beer as it came from the brewers. Immediately there was such a rush of members to the door that not a word said by the philanthropic would-be purifier of the national beverage could be heard. The quarrels of rival Ministers were dear to the House, and as long as they could be continued the benches were crowded by gentlemen enthralled by the interest of the occasion. But to sink from that to private legislation about beer was to fall into a bathos which gentlemen could not endure; and so the House was emptied, and at about half-past seven there was a count-out. That gentleman whose statistics had been procured with so much care, and who had been at work for the last twelve months on his effort to prolong the lives of his fellow-countrymen, was almost broken-hearted. But he knew the world too well to complain. He would try again next year, if by dint of energetic perseverance he could procure a day.

Mr Monk and Phineas Finn, behaving no better than the others, slipped out in the crowd. It had indeed been arranged that they should leave the House early, so that they might dine together at Mr Monk’s house. Though Phineas had been released from his prison now for nearly a month, he had not as yet once dined out of his own rooms. He had not been inside a club, and hardly ventured during the day into the streets about Pall Mall and Piccadilly. He had been frequently to Portman Square, but had not even seen Madame Goesler. Now he was to dine out for the first time; but there was to be no guest but himself.

“It wasn’t so bad after all,” said Mr Monk, when they were seated together.

“At any rate it has been done.”

“Yes — and there will be no doing of it over again. I don’t like Mr Daubeny, as you know; but he is happy at that kind of thing.”

“I hate men who are what you call happy, but who are never in earnest,” said Phineas.

“He was earnest enough, I thought.”

“I don’t mean about myself, Mr Monk. I suppose he thought that it was suitable to the occasion that he should say something, and he said it neatly. But I hate men who can make capital out of occasions, who can be neat and appropriate at the spur of the moment having, however, probably had the benefit of some forethought — but whose words never savour of truth. If I had happened to have been hung at this time — as was so probable — Mr Daubeny would have devoted one of his half hours to the composition of a dozen tragic words which also would have been neat and appropriate. I can hear him say them now, warning young members around him to abstain from embittered words against each other, and I feel sure that the funereal grace of such an occasion would have become him even better than the generosity of his congratulations.”

“It is rather grim matter for joking, Phineas.”

“Grim enough; but the grimness and the jokes are always running through my mind together. I used to spend hours in thinking what my dear friends would say about it when they found that I had been hung in mistake — how Sir Gregory Grogram would like it, and whether men would think about it as they went home from the Universe at night. I had various questions to ask and answer for myself — whether they would pull up my poor body, for instance, from what unhallowed ground is used for gallows corpses, and give it decent burial, placing ““M.P. for Tankerville’” after my name on some more or less explicit tablet.”

“Mr Daubeny’s speech was, perhaps, preferable on the whole.”

“Perhaps it was — though I used to feel assured that the explicit tablet would be as clear to my eyes in purgatory as Mr Daubeny’s words have been to my ears this afternoon. I never for a moment doubted that the truth would be known before long — but did doubt so very much whether it would be known in time. I’ll go home now, Mr Monk, and endeavour to get the matter off my mind. I will resolve, at any rate, that nothing shall make me talk about it any more.”

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