The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Phineas at Bay: A Tasting Menu Redux

Between the announcement that I will be speaking at the Trollope Society's annual dinner and letter to the editor of the NYT Book Review,We've had a lot of interest in Phineas at Bay the past two weeks.

Needless to say, I'm delighted. And the spike in sales was very welcome. But, I'd like to encourage the curious who have not yet taken the plunge.

So, to whet the appetite, here is the opening:



Mr. Quintus Slide, newly returned from nearly two decades in Australia, where he had been fortunate enough to earn a considerable sum of money, surveyed his newly re-acquired kingdom. Many would have thought that the making of a fortune was enough to justify a man’s career, and would lead one to forget old grudges. Not Quintus Slide. He had been, until the mid-1870s, the editor of The People’s Banner, and when he had lost his job at the broadsheet for going past the line of scandal permitted even the second tier of journalism, it had rankled. So he had written a few scurrilities about a Duchess? As if that mattered, even if she was married to the Prime Minister! The Banner’s proprietor at the time had been weak-willed enough to give Slide the push, making him unemployable, thanks to his editorial zeal in doing the competition down.

With nowhere to go, he fled to the Antipodes, and had profited handsomely; his school of journalism seemed to take root and flourish quite naturally in Australia. And now, he had sold up, bought the Banner outright, and was proprietor and editor both. An unpleasant smile creased his face, and, walking into his old digs in the editor’s office, he called for his secretary.

“Miss Allen!”

“Mr. Slide?” Miss Allen was a petite, handsome woman, whose severe, almost predatory, face was framed by auburn hair and the spiked tips of the winged collars on her blouses. Her rare smiles showed that she could, under different auspices, have been taken for beautiful. As it was, she remained both handsome and a little chilling. Smoothing her tailored skirts to guard against the untidiness she so hated, she seated herself in the chair opposite him on the other side of her desk.

“The file, Miss Allen. Tell me what you have found out about them.”

“Very good, Mr. Slide. You have asked me to research several individuals, and their current status or involvement from a political or social point of view. These individuals were all, I believe known, to you in your previous tenure as editor.”

“Yes, yes; what have you found?”

“Shall we begin at the social summit? His Grace Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium. Liberal Member of the House of Commons for Silverbridge, until his uncle the prior Duke died, Prime Minister of the Coalition Government from 187--”

“I know all that, Miss Allen. Since the Coalition?”

“The Duke and his Duchess, Lady Glencora M’Cluskie as was, took an extended tour of the Continent when the Coalition fell. During that tour, the Duchess took sick, and died.”

“Indeed, Mr. Slide? My researches reflect that the Duchess was quite popular.”

“Not with me she b----y wasn’t. What next?”

“The Duke has effectively retired from politics since then—he held office in the early ‘80s, in Mr. Monk’s last Government, as President of the Board of Trade--”

“Rather beneath a Duke, eh, Miss Allen?”

“True, Mr. Slide. My informants tell me that the Duke hungered to be Chancellor of the Exchequer or even Prime Minister again, but the former position is barred to a member of the Lords, and as to the latter, the Duke is respected, but not popular.”

“No second go for Planty Pall, then. Good!”

“His children are all married: Lord Silverbridge to the daughter of the American Ambassador shortly after the fall of the Omnium Government, Lady Mary to Francis Tregear, Conservative M.P. for Polpenno--”

“Popinjay, more like! And how the Duke must hate having a Tory son-in-law! Go on, Miss Allen, go on.”

“And Lord Gerald Palliser to Lady Agnes Kirkness.”

“Never ’eard of ’er.”

“From Scotland, Mr. Slide.”

“Well, that explains that. What about”—and here Mr. Slide’s voice took on an especially eager, rather unpleasant tone, “Mr. Phineas Finn?”

“Mr. Finn held office under Mr. Monk—he was Secretary for Ireland, and First Lord of the Admiralty, as under Omnium. He might have risen further, but Mr. Monk’s retirement due to ill health led to a new Government, and Mr. Finn was not given office. Mr. Gresham did not approve of his independence.”

“Ha! No more did he in the old days. What about now? He used to be thick with Barrington Erle.”

“They remain on amicable terms, Mr. Slide, but Mr. Finn’s independence does not appear to please the Prime Minister any more than it did his predecessor.”

“I should have known. Erle always valued loyalty above all else.”

“He still does. One of my informants tells me that he was overheard at the theater saying that Richard III couldn’t have been as bad as he is painted, since his motto was Loyaulte me lie.”


“‘Loyalty binds me.’ You were particularly interested, Mr. Slide, as to whether there were any connection between Mr. Finn and any ladies.”

“Yes, well?”

“No hint of any impropriety. Mr. Finn appears in public quite often with his wife, the former Marie Goesler, who was in former days commonly styled Madame Max Goesler. She was very close with the late Duchess of Omnium. Mr. and Mrs. Finn appear to be well-suited. His niece, an orphan, lives with them. He spends most of his time in the House, in chambers, or at the law courts.”

“Eh, Finn, practicing at the bar? But his wife’s as rich as Croesus!”

“Yes, Mr. Slide, and very actively engaged in her business. She has prospered these past five years, especially, although I have not been able to trace all her interests. A formidable woman.”

“Takes one to know one, Miss Allen.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment of the compliment, Miss Allen resumed her report.
“Mr. Finn appears to have taken over his pupil-master’s practice.”

“Probably got the bug after he was acquitted.”

“You mean of the murder charges, Mr. Slide? Yes, no evidence has ever been found to establish who murdered the Duke’s proposed successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Mr. Wilfred Bonteen. Mr. Finn’s innocence having been established, suspicion rested for a time on a clergyman, the Reverend Joseph Emilius, but nothing could be proved against him.”

“Nothing, d’you say? He was convicted of bigamy, at any rate.”

“Yes, leading to the dissolution of his marriage to Lady Elizabeth Eustace.”

“A rum customer herself, Miss Allen—almost certainly stole diamonds from the family she married into, and then had ’em stolen from her—what I calls poetic justice.”

“Yes, Mr. Slide. The bigamy conviction was vacated when the sole witness recanted her testimony, and Mr. Emilius disappeared shortly thereafter.”

“Nothing between Finn and Lady Laura Kennedy? He interfered in her marriage, I know that, though not how, or how much. Her husband went mad, you know, as a result. Aye, and then died, poor d---l.”

“Lady Laura lives a quiet life, Mr. Slide. She was, it is said, her cousin Barrington Erle’s principal tutor in politics, and it’s also said that he owes his premiership to her, but that he sees her seldom these days.”

“A falling out, Miss Allen?”

“I do not think so, Mr. Slide. She sees the Prime Minister periodically. He seems simply to feel no longer in need of her tutelage.”

“And Finn?

“Normally sees her at family gatherings of the Brentford family. The current Earl of Brentford, the former Lord Chiltern, is a good friend of Mr. Finn’s, and the two families spend a fair amount of time together. Indeed, Mr. Finn is godfather to the current Lord Chiltern.”

“A Papist godfather to the heir presumptive of an earldom! What’s the world coming to, Miss Allen? I ask you, what’s the world coming to?”

“The godson has possibilities, Mr. Slide. He is often in the company of ladies of a bohemian tendency, and proclaims himself a socialist. He declines to use his title, in fact.”

“Oh, yes?”

“And he is, lately, often to be seen in the company of Lady Eustace.”

“Really?” Mr. Slide stretched out the word to twice its normal length, chewing it over as though it were a particularly succulent bit of toffee, and added, “And her old enough to be his mother, and a bit of a naughty one, if I remember aright. Yes, that could be quite useful, Miss Allen.”

“I am glad to hear it, Mr. Slide.”

“Keep yer feelers out there, Miss Allen. The People’s Banner is back in business, and Quintus Slide has a few scores to settle, if he can.”

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