Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 4

Lady Laura Standish

Phineas, in describing Lady Laura Standish to Mary Flood Jones at Killaloe, had not painted her in very glowing colours. Nevertheless he admired Lady Laura very much, and she was worthy of admiration. It was probably the greatest pride of our hero’s life that Lady Laura Standish was his friend, and that she had instigated him to undertake the risk of parliamentary life. Lady Laura was intimate also with Barrington Erle, who was, in some distant degree, her cousin; and Phineas was not without a suspicion that his selection for Loughshane, from out of all the young liberal candidates, may have been in some degree owing to Lady Laura’s influence with Barrington Erle. He was not unwilling that it should be so; for though, as he had repeatedly told himself, he was by no means in love with Lady Laura — who was, as he imagined, somewhat older than himself — nevertheless, he would feel gratified at accepting anything from her hands, and he felt a keen desire for some increase to those ties of friendship which bound them together. No — he was not in love with Lady Laura Standish. He had not the remotest idea of asking her to be his wife. So he told himself, both before he went over for his election, and after his return. When he had found himself in a corner with poor little Mary Flood Jones, he had kissed her as a matter of course; but he did not think that he could, in any circumstances, be tempted to kiss Lady Laura. He supposed that he was in love with his darling little Mary — after a fashion. Of course, it could never come to anything, because of the circumstances of his life, which were so imperious to him. He was not in love with Lady Laura, and yet he hoped that his intimacy with her might come to much. He had more than once asked himself how he would feel when somebody else came to be really in love with Lady Laura — for she was by no means a woman to lack lovers — when someone else should be in love with her, and be received by her as a lover; but this question he had never been able to answer. There were many questions about himself which he usually answered by telling himself that it was his fate to walk over volcanoes. “Of course, I shall be blown into atoms some fine day,” he would say; “but after all, that is better than being slowly boiled down into pulp.”

The House had met on a Friday, again on the Saturday morning, and the debate on the Address had been adjourned till the Monday. On the Sunday, Phineas determined that he would see Lady Laura. She professed to be always at home on Sunday, and from three to four in the afternoon her drawing-room would probably be half full of people. There would, at any rate, be comers and goers, who would prevent anything like real conversation between himself and her. But for a few minutes before that he might probably find her alone, and he was most anxious to see whether her reception of him, as a member of Parliament, would be in any degree warmer than that of his other friends. Hitherto he had found no such warmth since he came to London, excepting that which had glowed in the bosom of Mrs Bunce.

Lady Laura Standish was the daughter of the Earl of Brentford, and was the only remaining lady of the Earl’s family. The Countess had been long dead; and Lady Emily, the younger daughter, who had been the great beauty of her day, was now the wife of a Russian nobleman whom she had persisted in preferring to any of her English suitors, and lived at St Petersburg. There was an aunt, old Lady Laura, who came up to town about the middle of May; but she was always in the country except for some six weeks in the season. There was a certain Lord Chiltern, the Earl’s son and heir, who did indeed live at the family town house in Portman Square; but Lord Chiltern was a man of whom Lady Laura’s set did not often speak, and Phineas, frequently as he had been at the house, had never seen Lord Chiltern there. He was a young nobleman of whom various accounts were given by various people; but I fear that the account most readily accepted in London attributed to him a great intimacy with the affairs at Newmarket, and a partiality for convivial pleasures. Respecting Lord Chiltern Phineas had never as yet exchanged a word with Lady Laura. With her father he was acquainted, as he had dined perhaps half a dozen times at the house. The point in Lord Brentford’s character which had more than any other struck our hero, was the unlimited confidence which he seemed to place in his daughter. Lady Laura seemed to have perfect power of doing what she pleased. She was much more mistress of herself than if she had been the wife instead of the daughter of the Earl of Brentford — and she seemed to be quite as much mistress of the house.

Phineas had declared at Killaloe that Lady Laura was six feet high, that she had red hair, that her figure was straggling, and that her hands and feet were large. She was in fact about five feet seven in height, and she carried her height well. There was something of nobility in her gait, and she seemed thus to be taller than her inches. Her hair was in truth red — of a deep thorough redness. Her brother’s hair was the same; and so had been that of her father, before it had become sandy with age. Her sister’s had been of a soft auburn hue, and hers had been said to be the prettiest head of hair in Europe at the time of her marriage. But in these days we have got to like red hair, and Lady Laura’s was not supposed to stand in the way of her being considered a beauty. Her face was very fair, though it lacked that softness which we all love in women. Her eyes, which were large and bright, and very clear, never seemed to quail, never rose and sunk or showed themselves to be afraid of their own power. Indeed, Lady Laura Standish had nothing of fear about her. Her nose was perfectly cut, but was rather large, having the slightest possible tendency to be aquiline. Her mouth also was large, but was full of expression, and her teeth were perfect. Her complexion was very bright, but in spite of its brightness she never blushed. The shades of her complexion were set and steady. Those who knew her said that her heart was so fully under command that nothing could stir her blood to any sudden motion. As to that accusation of straggling which had been made against her, it had sprung from ill-natured observation of her modes of sitting. She never straggled when she stood or walked; but she would lean forward when sitting, as a man does, and would use her arms in talking, and would put her hand over her face, and pass her fingers through her hair — after the fashion of men rather than of women — and she seemed to despise that soft quiescence of her sex in which are generally found so many charms. Her hands and feet were large — as was her whole frame. Such was Lady Laura Standish; and Phineas Finn had been untrue to himself and to his own appreciation of the lady when he had described her in disparaging terms to Mary Flood Jones. But, though he had spoken of Lady Laura in disparaging terms, he had so spoken of her as to make Miss Flood Jones quite understand that he thought a great deal about Lady Laura.

And now, early on the Sunday, he made his way to Portman Square in order that he might learn whether there might be any sympathy for him there. Hitherto he had found none. Everything had been terribly dry and hard, and he had gathered as yet none of the fruit which he had expected that his good fortune would bear for him. It is true that he had not as yet gone among any friends, except those of his club, and men who were in the House along with him — and at the club it might be that there were some who envied him his good fortune, and others who thought nothing of it because it had been theirs for years. Now he would try a friend who, he hoped, could sympathise; and therefore he called in Portman Square at about half past two on the Sunday morning. Yes — Lady Laura was in the drawing-room. The hall porter admitted as much, but evidently seemed to think that he had been disturbed from his dinner before his time. Phineas did not care a straw for the hall porter. If Lady Laura were not kind to him, he would never trouble that hall porter again. He was especially sore at this moment because a valued friend, the barrister with whom he had been reading for the last three years, had spent the best part of an hour that Sunday morning in proving to him that he had as good as ruined himself. “When I first heard it, of course I thought you had inherited a fortune,” said Mr Low. “I have inherited nothing,” Phineas replied — “not a penny; and I never shall.” Then Mr Low had opened his eyes very wide, and shaken his head very sadly, and had whistled.

“I am so glad you have come, Mr Finn,” said Lady Laura, meeting Phineas halfway across the large room.

“Thanks,” said he, as he took her hand.

“I thought that perhaps you would manage to see me before any one else was here.”

“Well — to tell the truth, I have wished it; though I can hardly tell why.”

“I can tell you why, Mr Finn. But never mind — come and sit down. I am so very glad that you have been successful — so very glad. You know I told you that I should never think much of you if you did not at least try it.”

“And therefore I did try.”

“And have succeeded. Faint heart, you know, never did any good. I think it is a man’s duty to make his way into the House — that is, if he ever means to be anybody. Of course it is not every man who can get there by the time that he is five-and-twenty.”

“Every friend that I have in the world says that I have ruined myself.”

“No — I don’t say so,” said Lady Laura.

“And you are worth all the others put together. It is such a comfort to have someone to say a cheery word to one.”

“You shall hear nothing but cheery words here. Papa shall say cheery words to you that shall be better than mine, because they shall be weighted with the wisdom of age. I have heard him say twenty times that the earlier a man goes into the House the better. There is much to learn.”

“But your father was thinking of men of fortune.”

“Not at all — of younger brothers, and barristers, and of men who have their way to make, as you have. Let me see — can you dine here on Wednesday? There will be no party, of course, but papa will want to shake hands with you; and you legislators of the Lower House are more easily reached on Wednesdays than on any other day.”

“I shall be delighted,” said Phineas, feeling, however, that he did not expect much sympathy from Lord Brentford.

“Mr Kennedy dines here — you know Mr Kennedy, of Loughlinter; and we will ask your friend Mr Fitzgibbon. There will be nobody else. As for catching Barrington Erle, that is out of the question at such a time as this.”

“But going back to my being ruined — “ said Phineas, after a pause.

“Don’t think of anything so disagreeable.”

“You must not suppose that I am afraid of it. I was going to say that there are worse things than ruin — or, at any rate, than the chance of ruin. Supposing that I have to emigrate and skin sheep, what does it matter? I myself, being unencumbered, have myself as my own property to do what I like with. With Nelson it was Westminster Abbey or a peerage. With me it is parliamentary success or sheep-skinning.”

“There shall be no sheep-skinning, Mr Finn, I will guarantee you.”

“Then I shall be safe.”

At that moment the door of the room was opened, and a man entered with quick steps, came a few yards in, and then retreated, slamming the door after him. He was a man with thick short red hair, and an abundance of very red beard. And his face was red — and as it seemed to Phineas, his very eyes. There was something in the countenance of the man which struck him almost with dread — something approaching to ferocity.

There was a pause a moment after the door was closed, and then Lady Laura spoke. “It was my brother Chiltern. I do not think that you have ever met him.”

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