Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 33

The two Gladiators

The great debate was commenced with all the solemnities which are customary on such occasions, and which make men think for the day that no moment of greater excitement has ever blessed or cursed the country. Upon the present occasion London was full of clergymen. The specially clerical clubs — the Oxford and Cambridge, the Old University, and the Athenaeum — were black with them. The bishops and deans, as usual, were pleasant in their manner and happy-looking, in spite of adverse circumstances. When one sees a bishop in the hours of the distress of the Church, one always thinks of the just and firm man who will stand fearless while the ruins of the world are falling about his ears. But the parsons from the country were a sorry sight to see. They were in earnest with all their hearts, and did believe — not that the crack of doom was coming, which they could have borne with equanimity if convinced that their influence would last to the end — but that the Evil One was to be made welcome upon the earth by Act of Parliament. It is out of nature that any man should think it good that his own order should be repressed, curtailed, and deprived of its power. If we go among cab-drivers or letter-carriers, among butlers or gamekeepers, among tailors or butchers, among farmers or graziers, among doctors or attorneys, we shall find in each set of men a conviction that the welfare of the community depends upon the firmness with which they — especially they — hold their own. This is so manifestly true with the Bar that no barrister in practice scruples to avow that barristers in practice are the salt of the earth. The personal confidence of a judge in his own position is beautiful, being salutary to the country, though not unfrequently damaging to the character of the man. But if this be so with men who are conscious of no higher influence than that exercised over the bodies and minds of their fellow creatures, how much stronger must be the feeling when the influence affects the soul! To the outsider, or layman, who simply uses a cab, or receives a letter, or goes to law, or has to be tried, these pretensions are ridiculous or annoying, according to the ascendancy of the pretender at the moment. But as the clerical pretensions are more exacting than all others, being put forward with an assertion that no answer is possible without breach of duty and sin, so are they more galling. The fight has been going on since the idea of a mitre first entered the heart of a priest — since dominion in this world has found itself capable of sustentation by the exercise of fear as to the world to come. We do believe — the majority among us does so — that if we live and die in sin we shall after some fashion come to great punishment, and we believe also that by having pastors among us who shall be men of God, we may best aid ourselves and our children in avoiding this bitter end. But then the pastors and men of God can only be human — cannot be altogether men of God; and so they have oppressed us, and burned us, and tortured us, and hence come to love palaces, and fine linen, and purple, and, alas, sometimes, mere luxury and idleness. The torturing and the burning, as also to speak truth the luxury and the idleness, have, among us, been already conquered, but the idea of ascendancy remains. What is a thoughtful man to do who acknowledges the danger of his soul, but cannot swallow his parson whole simply because he has been sent to him from some source in which he has no special confidence, perhaps by some distant lord, perhaps by a Lord Chancellor whose political friend has had a son with a tutor? What is he to do when, in spite of some fine linen and purple left among us, the provision for the man of God in his parish or district is so poor that no man of God fitted to teach him will come and take it? In no spirit of animosity to religion he begins to tell himself that Church and State together was a monkish combination, fit perhaps for monkish days, but no longer having fitness, and not much longer capable of existence in this country. But to the parson himself — to the honest, hardworking, conscientious priest who does in his heart of hearts believe that no diminution in the general influence of his order can be made without ruin to the souls of men — this opinion, when it becomes dominant, is as though the world were in truth breaking to pieces over his head. The world has been broken to pieces in the same way often — but extreme Chaos does not come. The cabman and the letter-carrier always expect that Chaos will very nearly come when they are disturbed. The barristers are sure of Chaos when the sanctity of Benchers is in question. What utter Chaos would be promised to us could anyone with impunity contemn the majesty of the House of Commons! But of all these Chaoses there can be no Chaos equal to that which in the mind of a zealous Oxford-bred constitutional country parson must attend that annihilation of his special condition which will be produced by the disestablishment of the Church. Of all good fellows he is the best good fellow. He is genial, hospitable, well-educated, and always has either a pretty wife or pretty daughters. But he has so extreme a belief in himself that he cannot endure to be told that absolute Chaos will not come at once if he be disturbed. And now disturbances — ay, and utter dislocation and ruin were to come from the hands of a friend! Was it wonderful that parsons should be seen about Westminster in flocks with “ Et Tu, Brute “ written on their faces as plainly as the law on the brows of a Pharisee?

The Speaker had been harassed for orders. The powers and prowess of every individual member had been put to the test. The galleries were crowded. Ladies’ places had been ballotted for with desperate enthusiasm, in spite of the sarcasm against the House which Madame Goesler had expressed. Two royal princes and a royal duke were accommodated within the House in an irregular manner. Peers swarmed in the passages, and were too happy to find standing room. Bishops jostled against lay barons with no other preference than that afforded to them by their broader shoulders. Men, and especially clergymen, came to the galleries loaded with sandwiches and flasks, prepared to hear all there was to be heard should the debate last from 4 P . M . to the same hour on the following morning. At two in the afternoon the entrances to the House were barred, and men of all ranks — deans, prebends, peers’ sons, and baronets — stood there patiently waiting till some powerful nobleman should let them through. The very ventilating chambers under the House were filled with courteous listeners, who had all pledged themselves that under no possible provocation would they even cough during the debate.

A few minutes after four, in a House from which hardly more than a dozen members were absent, Mr Daubeny took his seat with that air of affected indifference to things around him which is peculiar to him. He entered slowly, amidst cheers from his side of the House, which no doubt were loud in proportion to the dismay of the cheerers as to the matter in hand. Gentlemen lacking substantial sympathy with their leader found it to be comfortable to deceive themselves, and raise their hearts at the same time by the easy enthusiasm of noise. Mr Daubeny having sat down and covered his head just raised his hat from his brows, and then tried to look as though he were no more than any other gentleman present. But the peculiar consciousness of the man displayed itself even in his constrained absence of motion. You could see that he felt himself to be the beheld of all beholders, and that he enjoyed the position — with some slight inward trepidation lest the effort to be made should not equal the greatness of the occasion. Immediately after him Mr Gresham bustled up the centre of the House amidst a roar of good-humoured welcome. We have had many Ministers who have been personally dearer to their individual adherents in the House than the present leader of the Opposition and late Premier, but none, perhaps, who has been more generally respected by his party for earnestness and sincerity. On the present occasion there was a fierceness, almost a ferocity, in his very countenance, to the fire of which friends and enemies were equally anxious to add fuel — the friends in order that so might these recreant Tories be more thoroughly annihilated, and the enemies, that their enemy’s indiscretion might act back upon himself to his confusion. For, indeed, it never could be denied that as a Prime Minister Mr Gresham could be very indiscreet.

A certain small amount of ordinary business was done, to the disgust of expectant strangers, which was as trivial as possible in its nature — so arranged, apparently, that the importance of what was to follow might be enhanced by the force of contrast. And, to make the dismay of the novice stranger more thorough, questions were asked and answers were given in so low a voice, and Mr Speaker uttered a word or two in so quick and shambling a fashion, that he, the novice stranger, began to fear that no word of the debate would reach him up there in his crowded back seat. All this, however, occupied but a few minutes, and at twenty minutes past four Mr Daubeny was on his legs. Then the novice stranger found that, though he could not see Mr Daubeny without the aid of an opera glass, he could hear every word that fell from his lips.

Mr Daubeny began by regretting the hardness of his position, in that he must, with what thoroughness he might be able to achieve, apply himself to two great subjects, whereas the right honourable gentleman opposite had already declared, with all the formality which could be made to attach itself to a combined meeting of peers and commoners, that he would confine himself strictly to one. The subject selected by the right honourable gentleman opposite on the present occasion was not the question of Church Reform. The right honourable gentleman had pledged himself with an almost sacred enthusiasm to ignore that subject altogether. No doubt it was the question before the House, and he, himself — the present speaker — must unfortunately discuss it at some length. The right honourable gentleman opposite would not, on this great occasion, trouble himself with anything of so little moment. And it might be presumed that the political followers of the right honourable gentleman would be equally reticent, as they were understood to have accepted his tactics without a dissentient voice. He, Mr Daubeny, was the last man in England to deny the importance of the question which the right honourable gentleman would select for discussions in preference to that of the condition of the Church. That question was a very simple one, and might be put to the House in a very few words. Coming from the mouth of the right honourable gentleman, the proposition would probably be made in this form: “That this House does think that I ought to be Prime Minister now, and as long as I may possess a seat in this House.” It was impossible to deny the importance of that question; but perhaps he, Mr Daubeny, might be justified in demurring to the preference given to it over every other matter, let that matter be of what importance it might be to the material welfare of the country.

He made his point well; but he made it too often. And an attack of that kind, personal and savage in its nature, loses its effect when it is evident that the words have been prepared. A good deal may be done in dispute by calling a man an ass or a knave — but the resolve to use the words should have been made only at the moment, and they should come hot from the heart. There was much neatness and some acuteness in Mr Daubeny’s satire, but there was no heat, and it was prolix. It had, however, the effect of irritating Mr Gresham — as was evident from the manner in which he moved his hat and shuffled his feet.

A man destined to sit conspicuously on our Treasury Bench, or on the seat opposite to it, should ask the gods for a thick skin as a first gift. The need of this in our national assembly is greater than elsewhere, because the differences between the men opposed to each other are smaller. When two foes meet together in the same Chamber, one of whom advocates the personal government of an individual ruler, and the other that form of State, which has come to be called a Red Republic, they deal, no doubt, weighty blows of oratory at each other, but blows which never hurt at the moment. They may cut each other’s throats if they can find an opportunity; but they do not bite each other like dogs over a bone. But when opponents are almost in accord, as is always the case with our parliamentary gladiators, they are ever striving to give maddening little wounds through the joints of the harness. What is there with us to create the divergence necessary for debate but the pride of personal skill in the encounter? Who desires among us to put down the Queen, or to repudiate the National Debt, or to destroy religious worship, or even to disturb the ranks of society? When some small measure of reform has thoroughly recommended itself to the country — so thoroughly that all men know that the country will have it — then the question arises whether its details shall be arranged by the political party which calls itself Liberal — or by that which is termed Conservative. The men are so near to each other in all their convictions and theories of life that nothing is left to them but personal competition for the doing of the thing that is to be done. It is the same in religion. The apostle of Christianity and the infidel can meet without a chance of a quarrel; but it is never safe to bring together two men who differ about a saint or a surplice.

Mr Daubeny, having thus attacked and wounded his enemy, rushed boldly into the question of Church Reform, taking no little pride to himself and to his party that so great a blessing should be bestowed upon the country from so unexpected a source. “See what we Conservatives can do. In fact we will conserve nothing when we find that you do not desire to have it conserved any longer. “” Quod minime reris Graia+ac pandetur ab urbe .’’{” It was exactly the reverse of the complaint which Mr Gresham was about to make. On the subject of the Church itself he was rather misty but very profound. He went into the question of very early Churches indeed, and spoke of the misappropriation of endowments in the time of Eli. The establishment of the Levites had been no doubt complete; but changes had been effected as circumstances required. He was presumed to have alluded to the order of Melchisedek, but he abstained from any mention of the name. He roamed very wide, and gave many of his hearers an idea that his erudition had carried him into regions in which it was impossible to follow him. The gist of his argument was to show that audacity in Reform was the very backbone of Conservatism. By a clearly pronounced disunion of Church and State the theocracy of Thomas à Becket would be restored, and the people of England would soon again become the faithful flocks of faithful shepherds. By taking away the endowments from the parishes, and giving them back in some complicated way to the country, the parishes would be better able than ever to support their clergymen. Bishops would be bishops indeed, when they were no longer the creatures of a Minister’s breath. As to the deans, not seeing a clear way to satisfy aspirants for future vacancies in the deaneries, he became more than usually vague, but seemed to imply that the Bill which was now with the leave of the House to be read a second time, contained no clause forbidding the appointment of deans, though the special stipend of the office must be matter of consideration with the new Church Synod.

The details of this part of his speech were felt to be dull by the strangers. As long as he would abuse Mr Gresham, men could listen with pleasure; and could keep their attention fixed while he referred to the general Conservatism of the party which he had the honour of leading. There was a raciness in the promise of so much Church destruction from the chosen leader of the Church party, which was assisted by a conviction in the minds of most men that it was impossible for unfortunate Conservatives to refuse to follow this leader, let him lead where he might. There was a gratification in feeling that the country party was bound to follow, even should he take them into the very bowels of a mountain, as the pied piper did the children of Hamelin — and this made listening pleasant. But when Mr Daubeny stated the effect of his different clauses, explaining what was to be taken and what left — with a fervent assurance that what was to be left would, under the altered circumstances, go much further than the whole had gone before — then the audience became weary, and began to think that it was time that some other gentleman should be upon his legs. But at the end of the Minister’s speech there was another touch of invective which went far to redeem him. He returned to that personal question to which his adversary had undertaken to confine himself, and expressed a holy horror at the political doctrine which was implied. He, during a prolonged Parliamentary experience, had encountered much factious opposition. He would even acknowledge that he had seen it exercised on both sides of the House, though he had always striven to keep himself free from its baneful influence. But never till now had he known a statesman proclaim his intention of depending upon faction, and upon faction alone, for the result which he desired to achieve. Let the right honourable gentleman raise a contest on either the principles or the details of the measure, and he would be quite content to abide the decision of the House; but he should regard such a raid as that threatened against him and his friends by the right honourable gentleman as unconstitutional, revolutionary, and tyrannical. He felt sure that an opposition so based, and so maintained, even if it be enabled by the heated feelings of the moment to obtain an unfortunate success in the House, would not be encouraged by the sympathy and support of the country at large. By these last words he was understood to signify that should he be beaten on the second reading, not in reference to the merits of the Bill, but simply on the issue as proposed by Mr Gresham, he would again dissolve the House before he would resign. Now it was very well understood that there were Liberal members in the House who would prefer even the success of Mr Daubeny to a speedy reappearance before their constituents.

Mr Daubeny spoke till nearly eight, and it was surmised at the time that he had craftily arranged his oratory so as to embarrass his opponent. The House had met at four, and was to sit continuously till it was adjourned for the night. When this is the case, gentlemen who speak about eight o’clock are too frequently obliged to address themselves to empty benches. On the present occasion it was Mr Gresham’s intention to follow his opponent at once, instead of waiting, as is usual with a leader of his party, to the close of the debate. It was understood that Mr Gresham would follow Mr Daubeny, with the object of making a distinct charge against Ministers, so that the vote on this second reading of the Church Bill might in truth be a vote of want of confidence. But to commence his speech at eight o’clock when the House was hungry and uneasy, would be a trial. Had Mr Daubeny closed an hour sooner there would, with a little stretching of the favoured hours, have been time enough. Members would not have objected to postpone their dinner till half-past eight, or perhaps nine, when their favourite orator was on his legs. But with Mr Gresham beginning a great speech at eight, dinner would altogether become doubtful, and the disaster might be serious. It was not probable that Mr Daubeny had even among his friends proclaimed any such strategy; but it was thought by the political speculators of the day that such an idea had been present to his mind.

But Mr Gresham was not to be turned from his purpose. He waited for a few moments, and then rose and addressed the Speaker. A few members left the House — gentlemen, doubtless, whose constitutions, weakened by previous service, could not endure prolonged fasting. Some who had nearly reached the door returned to their seats, mindful of Messrs Roby and Ratler. But for the bulk of those assembled the interest of the moment was greater even than the love of dinner. Some of the peers departed, and it was observed that a bishop or two left the House; but among the strangers in the gallery, hardly a foot of space was gained. He who gave up his seat then, gave it up for the night.

Mr Gresham began with a calmness of tone which seemed almost to be affected, but which arose from a struggle on his own part to repress that superabundant energy of which he was only too conscious. But the calmness soon gave place to warmth, which heated itself into violence before he had been a quarter of an hour upon his legs. He soon became even ferocious in his invective, and said things so bitter that he had himself no conception of their bitterness. There was this difference between the two men — that whereas Mr Daubeny hit always as hard as he knew how to hit, having premeditated each blow, and weighed its results beforehand, having calculated his power even to the effect of a blow repeated on a wound already given, Mr Gresham struck right and left and straightforward with a readiness engendered by practice, and in his fury might have murdered his antagonist before he was aware that he had drawn blood. He began by refusing absolutely to discuss the merits of the bill. The right honourable gentleman had prided himself on his generosity as a Greek. He would remind the right honourable gentleman that presents from Greeks had ever been considered dangerous. “It is their gifts, and only their gifts, that we fear,” he said. The political gifts of the right honourable gentleman, extracted by him from his unwilling colleagues and followers, had always been more bitter to the taste than Dead Sea apples. That such gifts should not be bestowed on the country by unwilling hands, that reform should not come from those who themselves felt the necessity of no reform, he believed to be the wish not only of that House, but of the country at large. Would any gentleman on that bench, excepting the right honourable gentleman himself — and he pointed to the crowded phalanx of the Government — get up and declare that this measure of Church Reform, this severance of Church and State, was brought forward in consonance with his own long-cherished political conviction? He accused that party of being so bound to the chariot wheels of the right honourable gentleman, as to be unable to abide by their own convictions. And as to the right honourable gentleman himself, he would appeal to his followers opposite to say whether the right honourable gentleman was possessed of any one strong political conviction.

He had been accused of being unconstitutional, revolutionary, and tyrannical. If the House would allow him he would very shortly explain his idea of constitutional government as carried on in this country. It was based and built on majorities in that House, and supported solely by that power. There could be no constitutional government in this country that was not so maintained. Any other government must be both revolutionary and tyrannical. Any other government was a usurpation; and he would make bold to tell the right honourable gentleman that a Minister in this country who should recommend Her Majesty to trust herself to advisers not supported by a majority of the House of Commons, would plainly be guilty of usurping the powers of the State. He threw from him with disdain the charge which had been brought against himself of hankering after the sweets of office. He indulged and gloried in indulging the highest ambition of an English subject. But he gloried much more in the privileges and power of that House, within the walls of which was centred all that was salutary, all that was efficacious, all that was stable in the political constitution of his country. It had been his pride to have acted during nearly all his political life with that party which had commanded a majority, but he would defy his most bitter adversary, he would defy the right honourable gentleman himself, to point to any period of his career in which he had been unwilling to succumb to a majority when he himself had belonged to the minority.

He himself would regard the vote on this occasion as a vote of want of confidence. He took the line he was now taking because he desired to bring the House to a decision on that question. He himself had not that confidence in the right honourable gentleman which would justify him in accepting a measure on so important a subject as the union or severance of Church and State from his hands. Should the majority of the House differ from him and support the second reading of the Bill, he would at once so far succumb as to give his best attention to the clauses of the bill, and endeavour with the assistance of those gentlemen who acted with him to make it suitable to the wants of the country by omissions and additions as the clauses should pass through Committee. But before doing that he would ask the House to decide with all its solemnity and all its weight whether it was willing to accept from the hands of the right honourable gentleman any measure of reform on a matter so important as this now before them. It was nearly ten when he sat down; and then the stomach of the House could stand it no longer, and an adjournment at once took place.

On the next morning it was generally considered that Mr Daubeny had been too long and Mr Gresham too passionate. There were some who declared that Mr Gresham had never been finer than when he described the privileges of the House of Commons; and others who thought that Mr Daubeny’s lucidity had been marvellous; but in this case, as in most others, the speeches of the day were generally thought to have been very inferior to the great efforts of the past.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01