Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 37

A rough encounter

Phineas, when he woke, had two matters to occupy his mind — his success of the previous night, and his coming interview with Lord Chiltern. He stayed at home the whole morning, knowing that nothing could be done before the hour Lord Chiltern had named for his visit. He read every word of the debate, studiously postponing the perusal of his own speech till he should come to it in due order. And then he wrote to his father, commencing his letter as though his writing had no reference to the affairs of the previous night. But he soon found himself compelled to break into some mention of it. “I send you a Times”, he said, “in order that you may see that I have had my finger in the pie. I have hitherto abstained from putting myself forward in the House, partly through a base fear for which I despise myself, and partly through a feeling of prudence that a man of my age should not be in a hurry to gather laurels. This is literally true. There has been the fear, and there has been the prudence. My wonder is, that I have not incurred more contempt from others because I have been a coward. People have been so kind to me that I must suppose them to have judged me more leniently than I have judged myself.” Then, as he was putting up the paper, he looked again at his own speech, and of course read every word of it once more. As he did so it occurred to him that the reporters had been more than courteous to him. The man who had followed him had been, he thought, at any rate as long-winded as himself; but to this orator less than half a column had been granted. To him had been granted ten lines in big type, and after that a whole column and a half. Let Lord Chiltern come and do his worst!

When it wanted but twenty minutes to one, and he was beginning to think in what way he had better answer the half-mad lord, should the lord in his wrath be very mad, there came to him a note by the hand of some messenger. He knew at once that it was from Lady Laura, and opened it in hot haste. It was as follows:

DEAR MR FINN,

We are all talking about your speech. My father was in the gallery and heard it — and said that he had to thank me for sending you to Loughton. That made me very happy. Mr Kennedy declares that you were eloquent, but too short. That coming from him is praise indeed, I have seen Barrington, who takes pride to himself that you are his political child. Violet says that it is the only speech she ever read. I was there, and was delighted. I was sure that it was in you to do it.

Yours,

L.K.

“I suppose we shall see you after the House is up, but I write this as I shall barely have an opportunity of speaking to you then. I shall be in Portman Square, not at home, from six till seven.”

The moment in which Phineas refolded this note and put it into his breast coat-pocket was, I think, the happiest of his life. Then, before he had withdrawn his hand from his breast, he remembered that what was now about to take place between him and Lord Chiltern would probably be the means of separating him altogether from Lady Laura and her family. Nay, might it not render it necessary that he should abandon the seat in Parliament which had been conferred upon him by the personal kindness of Lord Brentford? Let that be as it might. One thing was clear to him. He would not abandon Violet Effingham till he should be desired to do so in the plainest language by Violet Effingham herself. Looking at his watch he saw that it was one o’clock, and at that moment Lord Chiltern was announced.

Phineas went forward immediately with his hand out to meet his visitor. “Chiltern,” he said, I am very glad to see you.” But Lord Chiltern did not take his hand. Passing on to the table, with his hat still on his head, and with a dark scowl upon his brow, the young lord stood for a few moments perfectly silent. Then he chucked a letter across the table to the spot at which Phineas was standing. Phineas, taking up the letter, perceived that it was that which he, in his great attempt to be honest, had written from the inn at Loughton. “It is my own letter to you,” he said.

“Yes; it is your letter to me. I received it oddly enough together with your own note at Moroni’s — on Monday morning. It has been round the world, I suppose, and reached me only then. You must withdraw it.”

“Withdraw it?”

“Yes, sir, withdraw it. As far as I can learn, without asking any question which would have committed myself for the young lady, you have not acted upon it. You have not yet done what you there threaten to do. In that you have been very wise, and there can be no difficulty in your withdrawing the letter.”

“I certainly shall not withdraw it, Lord Chiltern.”

“Do you remember — what — I once — told you — about myself and Miss Effingham?” This question he asked very slowly, pausing between the words, and looking full into the face of his rival, towards whom he had gradually come nearer. And his countenance, as he did so, was by no means pleasant. The redness of his complexion had become more ruddy than usual; he still wore his hat as though with studied insolence; his right hand was clenched; and there was that look of angry purpose in his eye which no man likes to see in the eye of an antagonist. Phineas was afraid of no violence, personal to himself; but he was afraid of — of what I may, perhaps, best call “a row”. To be tumbling over the chairs and tables with his late friend and present enemy in Mrs Bunce’s room would be most unpleasant to him. If there were to be blows he, too, must strike — and he was very averse to strike Lady Laura’s brother, Lord Brentford’s son, Violet Effingham’s friend. If need be, however, he would strike.

“I suppose I remember what you mean,” said Phineas. I think you declared that you would quarrel with any man who might presume to address Miss Effingham. Is it that to which you allude?”

“It is that,” said Lord Chiltern.

“I remember what you said very well. If nothing else was to deter me from asking Miss Effingham to be my wife, you will hardly think that that ought to have any weight. The threat had no weight.”

“It was not spoken as a threat, sir, and that you know as well as I do. It was said from a friend to a friend — as I thought then. But it is not the less true. I wonder what you can think of faith and truth and honesty of purpose when you took advantage of my absence — you, whom I had told a thousand times that I loved her better than my own soul! You stand before the world as a rising man, and I stand before the world as a man — damned. You have been chosen by my father to sit for our family borough, while I am an outcast from his house. You have Cabinet Ministers for your friends, while I have hardly a decent associate left to me in the world. But I can say of myself that I have never done anything unworthy of a gentleman, while this thing that you are doing is unworthy of the lowest man.”

“I have done nothing unworthy,” said Phineas. I wrote to you instantly when I had resolved — though it was painful to me to have to tell such a secret to anyone.”

“You wrote! Yes; when I was miles distant; weeks, months away. But I did not come here to ballyrag like an old woman. I got your letter only on Monday, and know nothing of what has occurred. Is Miss Effingham to be — your wife?” Lord Chiltern had now come quite close to Phineas, and Phineas felt that that clenched fist might be in his face in half a moment. Miss Effingham of course was not engaged to him, but it seemed to him that if he were now so to declare, such declaration would appear to have been drawn from him by fear. “I ask you,” said Lord Chiltern, “in what position you now stand towards Miss Effingham. If you are not a coward you will tell me.”

“Whether I tell you or not, you know that I am not a coward,” said Phineas.

“I shall have to try,” said Lord Chiltern. But if you please I will ask you for an answer to my question.”

Phineas paused for a moment, thinking what honesty of purpose and a high spirit would, when combined together, demand of him, and together with these requirements he felt that he was bound to join some feeling of duty towards Miss Effingham. Lord Chiltern was standing there, fiery red, with his hand still clenched, and his hat still on, waiting for his answer. “Let me have your question again”, said Phineas, “and I will answer it if I find that I can do so without loss of self-respect.”

“I ask you in what position you stand towards Miss Effingham. Mind, I do not doubt at all, but I choose to have a reply from yourself.”

“You will remember, of course, that I can only answer to the best of my belief.”

“Answer to the best of your belief.”

“I think she regards me as an intimate friend.”

“Had you said as an indifferent acquaintance, you would, I think, have been nearer the mark. But we will let that be. I presume I may understand that you have given up any idea of changing that position?”

“You may understand nothing of the kind, Lord Chiltern.”

“Why — what hope have you?”

“That is another thing. I shall not speak of that — at any rate not to you.”

“Then, sir — “ and now Lord Chiltern advanced another step and raised his hand as though he were about to put it with some form of violence on the person of his rival.

“Stop, Chiltern,” said Phineas, stepping back, so that there was some article of furniture between him and his adversary. “I do not choose that there should be a riot here.”

“What do you call a riot, sir? I believe that after all you are a poltroon. What I require of you is that you shall meet me. Will you do that?”

“You mean — to fight?”

“Yes — to fight; to fight; to fight. For what other purpose do you suppose that I can wish to meet you?” Phineas felt at the moment that the fighting of a duel would be destructive to all his political hopes. Few Englishmen fight duels in these days. They who do so are always reckoned to be fools. And a duel between him and Lord Brentford’s son must, as he thought, separate him from Violet, from Lady Laura, from Lord Brentford, and from his borough. But yet how could he refuse? “What have you to think of, sir, when such an offer as that is made to you?” said the fiery-red lord.

“I have to think whether I have courage enough to refuse to make myself an ass.”

“You say that you do not wish to have a riot. That is your way to escape what you call — a riot.”

“You want to bully me, Chiltern.”

“No, sir — I simply want this, that you should leave me where you found me, and not interfere with that which you have long known I claim as my own.”

“But it is not your own.”

“Then you can only fight me.”

“You had better send some friend to me, and I will name someone, whom he shall meet.”

“Of course I will do that if I have your promise to meet me. We can be in Belgium in an hour or two, and back again in a few more hours — that is, any one of us who may chance to be alive.”

“I will select a friend, and will tell him everything, and will then do as he bids me.”

“Yes — some old steady-going buffer. Mr Kennedy, perhaps.”

“It will certainly not be Mr Kennedy. I shall probably ask Laurence Fitzgibbon to manage for me in such an affair.”

“Perhaps you will see him at once, then, so that Colepepper may arrange with him this afternoon. And let me assure you, Mr Finn, that there will be a meeting between us after some fashion, let the ideas of your friend Mr Fitzgibbon be what they may.” Then Lord Chiltern purposed to go, but turned again as he was going. “And remember this,” he said, “my complaint is that you have been false to me — damnably false; not that you have fallen in love with this young lady or with that.” Then the fiery-red lord opened the door for himself and took his departure.

Phineas, as soon as he was alone, walked down to the House, at which there was an early sitting. As he went there was one great question which he had to settle with himself — Was there any justice in the charge made against him that he had been false to his friend? When he had thought over the matter at Saulsby, after rushing down there that he might throw himself at Violet’s feet, he had assured himself that such a letter as that which he resolved to write to Lord Chiltern, would be even chivalrous in its absolute honesty. He would tell his purpose to Lord Chiltern the moment that his purpose was formed — and would afterwards speak of Lord Chiltern behind his back as one dear friend should speak of another. Had Miss Effingham shown the slightest intention of accepting Lord Chiltern’s offer, he would have acknowledged to himself that the circumstances of his position made it impossible that he should, with honour, become his friend’s rival. But was he to be debarred for ever from getting that which he wanted because Lord Chiltern wanted it also — knowing, as he did so well, that Lord Chiltern could not get the thing which he wanted? All this had been quite sufficient for him at Saulsby. But now the charge against him that he had been false to his friend rang in his ears and made him unhappy. It certainly was true that Lord Chiltern had not given up his hopes, and that he had spoken probably more openly to Phineas respecting them than he had done to any other human being. If it was true that he had been false, then he must comply with any requisition which Lord Chiltern might make — short of voluntarily giving up the lady. He must fight if he were asked to do so, even though fighting were his ruin.

When again in the House yesterday’s scene came back upon him, and more than one man came to him congratulating him. Mr Monk took his hand and spoke a word to him. The old Premier nodded to him. Mr Gresham greeted him; and Plantagenet Palliser openly told him that he had made a good speech. How sweet would all this have been had there not been ever at this heart the remembrance of this terrible difficulty — the consciousness that he was about to be forced into an absurdity which would put an end to all this sweetness! Why was the world in England so severe against duelling? After all, as he regarded the matter now, a duel might be the best way, nay, the only way out of a difficulty. If he might only be allowed to go out with Lord Chiltern the whole thing might be arranged. If he were not shot he might carry on his suit with Miss Effingham unfettered by any impediment on that side. And if he were shot, what matter was that to any one but himself? Why should the world be so thin-skinned — so foolishly chary of human life?

Laurence Fitzgibbon did not come to the House, and Phineas looked for him at both the clubs which he frequented — leaving a note at each as he did not find him. He also left a note for him at his lodgings in Duke Street. “I must see you this evening. I shall dine at the Reform Club — pray come there.” After that, Phineas went up to Portman Square, in accordance with the instructions received from Lady Laura.

There he saw Violet Effingham, meeting her for the first time since he had parted from her on the great steps at Saulsby. Of course he spoke to her, and of course she was gracious to him. But her graciousness was only a smile and his speech was only a word. There were many in the room, but not enough to make privacy possible — as it becomes possible at a crowded evening meeting. Lord Brentford was there, and the Bonteens, and Barrington Erle, and Lady Glencora Palliser, and Lord Cantrip with his young wife. It was manifestly a meeting of Liberals, semi-social and semi-political — so arranged that ladies might feel that some interest in politics was allowed to them, and perhaps some influence also. Afterwards Mr Palliser himself came in. Phineas, however, was most struck by finding that Laurence Fitzgibbon was there, and that Mr kennedy was not. In regard to Mr Kennedy, he was quite sure that had such a meeting taken place before Lady Laura’s marriage, Mr Kennedy would have been present. “I must speak to you as we go away,” said Phineas, whispering a word into Fitzgibbon’s ear. “I have been leaving notes for you all about the town.” “Not a duel, I hope,” said Fitzgibbon.

How pleasant it was — that meeting; or would have been had there not been that nightmare on his breast! They all talked as though there were perfect accord between them and perfect confidence. There were there great men — Cabinet Ministers, and beautiful women — the wives and daughters of some of England’s highest nobles. And Phineas Finn, throwing back, now and again, a thought to Killaloe, found himself among them as one of themselves. How could any Mr Low say that he was wrong?

On a sofa near to him, so that he could almost touch her foot with his, was sitting Violet Effingham, and as he leaned over from his chair discussing some point in Mr Mildmay’s bill with that most inveterate politician, Lady Glencora, Violet looked into his face and smiled. Oh heavens! If Lord Chiltern and he might only toss up as to which of them should go to Patagonia and remain there for the next ten years, and which should have Violet Effingham for a wife in London!

“Come along, Phineas, if you mean to come,” said Laurence Fitzgibbon. Phineas was of course bound to go, though Lady Glencora was still talking Radicalism, and Violet Effingham was still smiling ineffably.

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