Dr Finn, of Killaloe, in county Clare, was as well known in those parts — the confines, that is, of the counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway — as was the bishop himself who lived in the same town, and was as much respected. Many said that the doctor was the richer man of the two, and the practice of his profession was extended over almost as wide a district. Indeed the bishop whom he was privileged to attend, although a Roman Catholic, always spoke of their dioceses being conterminate. It will therefore be understood that Dr Finn — Malachi Finn was his full name — had obtained a wide reputation as a country practitioner in the west of Ireland. And he was a man sufficiently well to do, though that boast made by his friends, that he was as warm a man as the bishop, had but little truth to support it. Bishops in Ireland, if they live at home, even in these days, are very warm men; and Dr Finn had not a penny in the world for which he had not worked hard. He had, moreover, a costly family, five daughters and one son, and, at the time of which we are speaking, no provision in the way of marriage or profession had been made for any of them. Of the one son, Phineas, the hero of the following pages, the mother and five sisters were very proud. The doctor was accustomed to say that his goose was as good as any other man’s goose, as far as he could see as yet; but that he should like some very strong evidence before he allowed himself to express an opinion that the young bird partook, in any degree, of the qualities of a swan. From which it may be gathered that Dr Finn was a man of commonsense.
Phineas had come to be a swan in the estimation of his mother and sisters by reason of certain early successes at college. His father, whose religion was not of that bitter kind in which we in England are apt to suppose that all the Irish Roman Catholics indulge, had sent his son to Trinity; and there were some in the neighbourhood of Killaloe — patients, probably, of Dr Duggin, of Castle Connell, a learned physician who had spent a fruitless life in endeavouring to make head against Dr Finn — who declared that old Finn would not be sorry if his son were to turn Protestant and go in for a fellowship. Mrs Finn was a Protestant, and the five Miss Finns were Protestants, and the doctor himself was very much given to dining out among his Protestant friends on a Friday. Our Phineas, however, did not turn Protestant up in Dublin, whatever his father’s secret wishes on that subject may have been. He did join a debating society, to success in which his religion was no bar; and he there achieved a sort of distinction which was both easy and pleasant, and which, making its way down to Killaloe, assisted in engendering those ideas as to swanhood of which maternal and sisterly minds are so sweetly susceptible. “I know half a dozen old windbags at the present moment,” said the doctor, “who were great fellows at debating clubs when they were boys.” “Phineas is not a boy any longer,” said Mrs Finn. “And windbags don’t get college scholarships,” said Matilda Finn, the second daughter. “But papa always snubs Phinny,” said Barbara, the youngest. “I’ll snub you, if you don’t take care,” said the doctor, taking Barbara tenderly by the ear — for his youngest daughter was the doctor’s pet.
The doctor certainly did not snub his son, for he allowed him to go over to London when he was twenty-two years of age, in order that he might read with an English barrister. It was the doctor’s wish that his son might be called to the Irish Bar, and the young man’s desire that he might go to the English Bar. The doctor so far gave way, under the influence of Phineas himself, and of all the young women of the family, as to pay the usual fee to a very competent and learned gentleman in the Middle Temple, and to allow his son one hundred and fifty pounds per annum for three years. Dr Finn, however, was still firm in his intention that his son should settle in Dublin, and take the Munster Circuit — believing that Phineas might come to want home influences and home connections, in spite of the swanhood which was attributed to him.
Phineas sat his terms for three years, and was duly called to the Bar; but no evidence came home as to the acquirement of any considerable amount of law lore, or even as to much law study, on the part of the young aspirant. The learned pundit at whose feet he had been sitting was not especially loud in praise of his pupil’s industry, though he did say a pleasant word or two as to his pupil’s intelligence. Phineas himself did not boast much of his own hard work when at home during the long vacation. No rumours of expected successes — of expected professional successes — reached the ears of any of the Finn family at Killaloe. But, nevertheless, there came tidings which maintained those high ideas in the maternal bosom of which mention has been made, and which were of sufficient strength to induce the doctor, in opposition to his own judgment, to consent to the continued residence of his son in London. Phineas belonged to an excellent club — the Reform Club — and went into very good society. He was hand in glove with the Hon. Laurence Fitzgibbon, the youngest son of Lord Claddagh. He was intimate with Barrington Erle, who had been private secretary — one of the private secretaries — to the great Whig Prime Minister who was lately in but was now out. He had dined three or four times with that great Whig nobleman, the Earl of Brentford. And he had been assured that if he stuck to the English Bar he would certainly do well. Though he might fail to succeed in court or in chambers, he would doubtless have given to him someone of those numerous appointments for which none but clever young barristers are supposed to be fitting candidates. The old doctor yielded for another year, although at the end of the second year he was called upon to pay a sum of three hundred pounds, which was then due by Phineas to creditors in London. When the doctor’s male friends in and about Killaloe heard that he had done so, they said that he was doting. Not one of the Miss Finns was as yet married; and, after all that had been said about the doctor’s wealth, it was supposed that there would not be above five hundred pounds a year among them all, were he to give up his profession. But the doctor, when he paid that three hundred pounds for his son, buckled to his work again, though he had for twelve months talked of giving up the midwifery. He buckled to again, to the great disgust of Dr Duggin, who at this time said very ill-natured things about young Phineas.
At the end of the three years Phineas was called to the Bar, and immediately received a letter from his father asking minutely as to his professional intentions. His father recommended him to settle in Dublin, and promised the one hundred and fifty pounds for three more years, on condition that this advice was followed. He did not absolutely say that the allowance would be stopped if the advice were not followed, but that was plainly to be implied. That letter came at the moment of a dissolution of Parliament. Lord de Terrier, the Conservative Prime Minister, who had now been in office for the almost unprecedentedly long period of fifteen months, had found that he could not face continued majorities against him in the House of Commons, and had dissolved the House. Rumour declared that he would have much preferred to resign, and betake himself once again to the easy glories of opposition; but his party had naturally been obdurate with him, and he had resolved to appeal to the country. When Phineas received his father’s letter, it had just been suggested to him at the Reform Club that he should stand for the Irish borough of Loughshane.
This proposition had taken Phineas Finn so much by surprise that when first made to him by Barrington Erle it took his breath away. What! he stand for Parliament, twenty-four years old, with no vestige of property belonging to him, without a penny in his purse, as completely dependent on his father as he was when he first went to school at eleven years of age! And for Loughshane, a little borough in the county Galway, for which a brother of that fine old Irish peer, the Earl of Tulla, had been sitting for the last twenty years — a fine, high-minded representative of the thorough-going Orange Protestant feeling of Ireland! And the Earl of Tulla, to whom almost all Loughshane belonged — or at any rate the land about Loughshane — was one of his father’s staunchest friends! Loughshane is in county Galway, but the Earl of Tulla usually lived at his seat in county Clare, not more than ten miles from Killaloe, and always confided his gouty feet, and the weak nerves of the old countess, and the stomachs of all his domestics, to the care of Dr Finn. How was it possible that Phineas should stand for Loughshane? From whence was the money to come for such a contest? It was a beautiful dream, a grand idea, lifting Phineas almost off the earth by its glory. When the proposition was first made to him in the smoking-room at the Reform Club by his friend Erle, he was aware that he blushed like a girl, and that he was unable at the moment to express himself plainly — so great was his astonishment and so great his gratification. But before ten minutes had passed by, while Barrington Erle was still sitting over his shoulder on the club sofa, and before the blushes had altogether vanished, he had seen the improbability of the scheme, and had explained to his friend that the thing could not be done. But to his increased astonishment, his friend made nothing of the difficulties. Loughshane, according to Barrington Erle, was so small a place, that the expense would be very little. There were altogether no more than 307 registered electors. The inhabitants were so far removed from the world, and were so ignorant of the world’s good things, that they knew nothing about bribery. The Hon. George Morris, who had sat for the last twenty years, was very unpopular. He had not been near the borough since the last election, he had hardly done more than show himself in Parliament, and had neither given a shilling in the town nor got a place under Government for a single son of Loughshane. “And he has quarrelled with his brother,” said Barrington Erle. “The devil he has! said Phineas. “I thought they always swore by each other.” “It’s at each other they swear now,” said Barrington; “George has asked the Earl for more money, and the Earl has cut up rusty”. Then the negotiator went on to explain that the expenses of the election would be defrayed out of a certain fund collected for such purposes, that Loughshane had been chosen as a cheap place, and that Phineas Finn had been chosen as a safe and promising young man. As for qualification, if any question were raised, that should be made all right. An Irish candidate was wanted, and a Roman Catholic. So much the Loughshaners would require on their own account when instigated to dismiss from their service that thorough-going Protestant, the Hon. George Morris. Then “the party,” — by which Barrington Erle probably meant the great man in whose service he himself had become a politician — required that the candidate should be a safe man, one who would support “the party,” — not a cantankerous, red-hot semi-Fenian, running about to meetings at the Rotunda, and suchlike, with views of his own about tenant-right and the Irish Church. “But I have views of my own,” said Phineas, blushing again. “Of course you have, my dear boy,” said Barrington, clapping him on the back. “I shouldn’t come to you unless you had views. But your views and ours are the same, and you’re just the lad for Galway. You mightn’t have such an opening again in your life, and of course you’ll stand for Loughshane.” Then the conversation was over, the private secretary went away to arrange some other little matter of the kind, and Phineas Finn was left alone to consider the proposition that had been made to him.
To become a member of the British Parliament! In all those hot contests at the two debating clubs to which he had belonged, this had been the ambition which had moved him. For, after all, to what purpose of their own had those empty debates ever tended? He and three or four others who had called themselves Liberals had been pitted against four or five who had called themselves Conservatives, and night after night they had discussed some ponderous subject without any idea that one would ever persuade another, or that their talking would ever conduce to any action or to any result. But each of these combatants had felt — without daring to announce a hope on the subject among themselves — that the present arena was only a trial-ground for some possible greater amphitheatre, for some future debating club in which debates would lead to action, and in which eloquence would have power, even though persuasion might be out of the question.
Phineas certainly had never dared to speak, even to himself, of such a hope. The labours of the Bar had to be encountered before the dawn of such a hope could come to him. And he had gradually learned to feel that his prospects at the Bar were not as yet very promising. As regarded professional work he had been idle, and how then could he have a hope?
And now this thing, which he regarded as being of all things in the world the most honourable, had come to him all at once, and was possibly within his reach! If he could believe Barrington Erle, he had only to lift up his hand, and he might be in Parliament within two months. And who was to be believed on such a subject if not Barrington Erle? This was Erle’s special business, and such a man would not have come to him on such a subject had he not been in earnest, and had he not himself believed in success. There was an opening ready, an opening to this great glory — if only it might be possible for him to fill it!
What would his father say? His father would of course oppose the plan. And if he opposed his father, his father would of course stop his income. And such an income as it was! Could it be that a man should sit in Parliament and live upon a hundred and fifty pounds a year? Since that payment of his debts he had become again embarrassed — to a slight amount. He owed a tailor a trifle, and a bootmaker a trifle — and something to the man who sold gloves and shirts; and yet he had done his best to keep out of debt with more than Irish pertinacity, living very closely, breakfasting upon tea and a roll, and dining frequently for a shilling at a luncheon-house up a court near Lincoln’s Inn. Where should he dine if the Loughshaners elected him to Parliament? And then he painted to himself a not untrue picture of the probable miseries of a man who begins life too high up on the ladder — who succeeds in mounting before he has learned how to hold on when he is aloft. For our Phineas Finn was a young man not without sense — not entirely a windbag. If he did this thing the probability was that he might become utterly a castaway, and go entirely to the dogs before he was thirty. He had heard of penniless men who had got into Parliament, and to whom had come such a fate. He was able to name to himself a man or two whose barks, carrying more sail than they could bear, had gone to pieces among early breakers in this way. But then, would it not be better to go to pieces early than never to carry any sail at all? And there was, at any rate, the chance of success. He was already a barrister, and there were so many things open to a barrister with a seat in Parliament! And as he knew of men who had been utterly ruined by such early mounting, so also did he know of others whose fortunes had been made by happy audacity when they were young. He almost thought that he could die happy if he had once taken his seat in Parliament — if he had received one letter with those grand initials written after his name on the address. Young men in battle are called upon to lead forlorn hopes. Three fall, perhaps, to one who gets through; but the one who gets through will have the Victoria Cross to carry for the rest of his life. This was his forlorn hope; and as he had been invited to undertake the work, he would not turn from the danger. On the following morning he again saw Barrington Erle by appointment, and then wrote the following letter to his father:
“ Reform Club, Feb., 186 —
“ MY DEAR FATHER,
“I am afraid that the purport of this letter will startle you, but I hope that when you have finished it you will think that I am right in my decision as to what I am going to do. You are no doubt aware that the dissolution of Parliament will take place at once, and that we shall be in all the turmoil of a general election by the middle of March. I have been invited to stand for Loughshane, and have consented. The proposition has been made to me by my friend Barrington Erle, Mr Mildmay’s private secretary, and has been made on behalf of the Political Committee of the Reform Club. I need hardly say that I should not have thought of such a thing with a less thorough promise of support than this gives me, nor should I think of it now had I not been assured that none of the expense of the election would fall upon me. Of course I could not have asked you to pay for it.
“But to such a proposition, so made, I have felt that it would be cowardly to give a refusal. I cannot but regard such a selection as a great honour. I own that I am fond of politics, and have taken great delight in their study” — (“Stupid young fool! his father said to himself as he read this) — “and it has been my dream for years past to have a seat in Parliament at some future time.” (“Dream! yes; I wonder whether he has ever dreamed what he is to live upon.”) “The chance has now come to me much earlier than I have looked for it, but I do not think that it should on that account be thrown away. Looking to my profession, I find that many things are open to a barrister with a seat in Parliament, and that the House need not interfere much with a man’s practice.” (“Not if he has got to the top of his tree,” said the doctor.)
“My chief doubt arose from the fact of your old friendship with Lord Tulla, whose brother has filled the seat for I don’t know how many years. But it seems that George Morris must go; or, at least, that he must be opposed by a Liberal candidate. If I do not stand, someone else will, and I should think that Lord Tulla will be too much of a man to make any personal quarrel on such a subject. If he is to lose the borough, why should not I have it as well as another?
“I can fancy, my dear father, all that you will say as to my imprudence, and I quite confess that I have not a word to answer. I have told myself more than once, since last night, that I shall probably ruin myself.” (“I wonder whether he has ever told himself that he will probably ruin me also,” said the doctor.) “But I am prepared to ruin myself in such a cause. I have no one dependent on me; and, as long as I do nothing to disgrace my name, I may dispose of myself as I please. If you decide on stopping my allowance, I shall have no feeling of anger against you. (“How very considerate!” said the doctor.) “And in that case I shall endeavour to support myself by my pen. I have already done a little for the magazines.
“Give my best love to my mother and sisters. If you will receive me during the time of the election, I shall see them soon. Perhaps it will be best for me to say that I have positively decided on making the attempt; that is to say, if the Club Committee is as good as its promise. I have weighed the matter all round, and I regard the prize as being so great, that I am prepared to run any risk to obtain it. Indeed, to me, with my views about politics, the running of such a risk is no more than a duty. I cannot keep my hand from the work now that the work has come in the way of my hand. I shall be most anxious to get a line from you in answer to this.
“Your most affectionate son,
“ PHINEAS FINN ”
I question whether Dr Finn, when he read this letter, did not feel more of pride than of anger — whether he was not rather gratified than displeased, in spite of all that his commonsense told him on the subject. His wife and daughters, when they heard the news, were clearly on the side of the young man. Mrs Finn immediately expressed an opinion that Parliament would be the making of her son, and that everybody would be sure to employ so distinguished a barrister. The girls declared that Phineas ought, at any rate, to have his chance, and almost asserted that it would be brutal in their father to stand in their brother’s way. It was in vain that the doctor tried to explain that going into Parliament could not help a young barrister, whatever it might do for one thoroughly established in his profession; that Phineas, if successful at Loughshane, would at once abandon all idea of earning any income — that the proposition, coming from so poor a man, was a monstrosity — that such an opposition to the Morris family, coming from a son of his, would be gross ingratitude to Lord Tulla. Mrs Finn and the girls talked him down, and the doctor himself was almost carried away by something like vanity in regard to his son’s future position.
Nevertheless he wrote a letter strongly advising Phineas to abandon the project. But he himself was aware that the letter which he wrote was not one from which any success could be expected. He advised his son, but did not command him. He made no threats as to stopping his income. He did not tell Phineas, in so many words, that he was proposing to make an ass of himself. He argued very prudently against the plan, and Phineas, when he received his father’s letter, of course felt that it was tantamount to a paternal permission to proceed with the matter. On the next day he got a letter from his mother full of affection, full of pride — not exactly telling him to stand for Loughshane by all means, for Mrs Finn was not the woman to run openly counter to her husband in any advice given by her to their son — but giving him every encouragement which motherly affection and motherly pride could bestow. “Of course you will come to us,” she said, “if you do make up your mind to be member for Loughshane. We shall all of us be so delighted to have you!” Phineas, who had fallen into a sea of doubt after writing to his father, and who had demanded a week from Barrington Erle to consider the matter, was elated to positive certainty by the joint effect of the two letters from home. He understood it all. His mother and sisters were altogether in favour of his audacity, and even his father was not disposed to quarrel with him on the subject.
“I shall take you at your word,” he said to Barrington Erle at the club that evening.
“What word?” said Erle, who had too many irons in the fire to be thinking always of Loughshane and Phineas Finn, — or who at any rate did not choose to let his anxiety on the subject be seen.
“All right, old fellow; we shall be sure to carry you through. The Irish writs will be out on the third of March, and the sooner you’re there the better.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01