Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 57

The top brick of the chimney

Madame Max Goesler was a lady who knew that in fighting the battles which fell to her lot, in arranging the social difficulties which she found in her way, in doing the work of the world which came to her share, very much more care was necessary — and care too about things apparently trifling — than was demanded by the affairs of people in general. And this was not the case so much on account of any special disadvantage under which she laboured, as because she was ambitious of doing the very uttermost with those advantages which she possessed. Her own birth had not been high, and that of her husband, we may perhaps say, had been very low. He had been old when she had married him, and she had had little power of making any progress till he had left her a widow. Then she found herself possessed of money, certainly; of wit — as she believed; and of a something in her personal appearance which, as she plainly told herself, she might perhaps palm off upon the world as beauty. She was a woman who did not flatter herself, who did not strongly believe in herself, who could even bring herself to wonder that men and women in high position should condescend to notice such a one as her. With all her ambition, there was a something of genuine humility about her; and with all the hardness she had learned there was a touch of womanly softness which would sometimes obtrude itself upon her heart. When she found a woman really kind to her, she would be very kind in return. And though she prized wealth, and knew that her money was her only rock of strength, she could be lavish with it, as though it were dirt.

But she was highly ambitious, and she played her game with great skill and great caution. Her doors were not open to all callers — were shut even to some who find but few doors closed against them — were shut occasionally to those whom she most specially wished to see within them. She knew how to allure by denying, and to make the gift rich by delaying it. We are told by the Latin proverb that he who gives quickly gives twice; but I say that she who gives quickly seldom gives more than half. When in the early spring the Duke of Omnium first knocked at Madame Max Goesler’s door, he was informed that she was not at home. The Duke felt very cross as he handed his card out from his dark green brougham — on the panel of which there was no blazon to tell the owner’s rank. He was very cross. She had told him that she was always at home between four and six on a Thursday. He had condescended to remember the information, and had acted upon it — and now she was not at home! She was not at home, though he had come on a Thursday at the very hour she had named to him. Any duke would have been cross, but the Duke of Omnium was particularly cross. No — he certainly would give himself no further trouble by going to the cottage in Park Lane. And yet Madame Max Goesler had been in her own drawing-room, while the Duke was handing out his card from the brougham below.

On the next morning there came to him a note from the cottage — such a pretty note! — so penitent, so full of remorse — and, which was better still, so laden with disappointment, that he forgave her.

“ MY DEAR DUKE,

“I hardly know how to apologise to you, after having told you that I am always at home on Thursdays; and I was at home yesterday when you called. But I was unwell, and I had told the servant to deny me, not thinking how much I might be losing. Indeed, indeed, I would not have given way to a silly headache, had I thought that your Grace would have been here. I suppose that now I must not even hope for the photograph.

“Yours penitently,

“ MARIE M. G .”

The note paper was very pretty note paper, hardly scented, and yet conveying a sense of something sweet, and the monogram was small and new, and fantastic without being grotesque, and the writing was of that sort which the Duke, having much experience, had learned to like — and there was something in the signature which pleased him. So he wrote a reply —

DEAR MADAME MAX GOESLER,

“I will call again next Thursday, or, if prevented, will let you know.

“Yours faithfully,

“O”

When the green brougham drew up at the door of the cottage on the next Thursday, Madame Goesler was at home, and had no headache.

She was not at all penitent now. She had probably studied the subject, and had resolved that penitence was more alluring in a letter than when acted in person. She received her guest with perfect ease, and apologised for the injury done to him in the preceding week, with much self-complacency. “I was so sorry when I got your card,” she said; “and yet I am so glad now that you were refused.”

“If you were ill,” said the Duke, it was better.

“I was horribly ill, to tell the truth — as pale as a death’s head, and without a word to say for myself. I was fit to see no one.”

“Then of course you were right.”

“But it flashed upon me immediately that I had named a day, and that you had been kind enough to remember it. But I did not think you came to London till the March winds were over.”

“The March winds blow everywhere in this wretched island, Madame Goesler, and there is no escaping them. Youth may prevail against them; but on me they are so potent that I think they will succeed in driving me out of my country. I doubt whether an old man should ever live in England if he can help it.”

The Duke certainly was an old man, if a man turned of seventy be old — and he was a man too who did not bear his years with hearty strength. He moved slowly, and turned his limbs, when he did turn them, as though the joints were stiff in their sockets. But there was nevertheless about him a dignity of demeanour, a majesty of person, and an upright carriage which did not leave an idea of old age as the first impress on the minds of those who encountered the Duke of Omnium. He was tall and moved without a stoop; and though he moved slowly, he had learned to seem so to do because it was the proper kind of movement for one so high up in the world as himself. And perhaps his tailor did something for him. He had not been long under Madame Max Goesler’s eyes before she perceived that his tailor had done a good deal for him. When he alluded to his own age and to her youth, she said some pleasant little word as to the difference between oak-trees and currant-bushes; and by that time she was seated comfortably on her sofa, and the Duke was on a chair before her — just as might have been any man who was not a Duke.

After a little time the photograph was brought forth from his Grace’s pocket. That bringing out and giving of photographs, with the demand for counter photographs, is the most absurd practice of the day. “I don’t think I look very nice, do I?” Oh yes — very nice; but a little too old; and certainly you haven’t got those spots all over your forehead.” These are the remarks which on such occasions are the most common. It may be said that to give a photograph or to take a photograph without the utterance of some words which would be felt by a bystander to be absurd, is almost an impossibility. At this moment there was no bystander, and therefore the Duke and the lady had no need for caution. Words were spoken that were very absurd. Madame Goesler protested that the Duke’s photograph was more to her than the photographs of all the world beside; and the Duke declared that he would carry the lady’s picture next to his heart — I am afraid he said for ever and ever. Then he took her hand and pressed it, and was conscious that for a man over seventy years of age he did that kind of thing very well.

“You will come and dine with me, Duke?” she said, when he began to talk of going.

“I never dine out.”

“That is just the reason you should dine with me. You shall meet nobody you do not wish to meet.”

“I would so much rather see you in this way — I would indeed. I do dine out occasionally, but it is at big formal parties, which I cannot escape without giving offence.”

“And you cannot escape my little not formal party — without giving offence.” She looked into his face as she spoke, and he knew that she meant it. And he looked into hers, and thought that her eyes were brighter than any he was in the habit of seeing in these latter days. “Name your own day, Duke. Will a Sunday suit you?”

“If I must come — ”

“You must come.” As she spoke her eyes sparkled more and more, and her colour went and came, and she shook her curls till they emitted through the air the same soft feeling of a perfume that her note had produced. Then her foot peeped out from beneath the black and yellow drapery of her dress, and the Duke saw that it was perfect. And she put out her finger and touched his arm as she spoke. Her hand was very fair, and her fingers were bright with rich gems. To men such as the Duke, a hand, to be quite fair, should be bright with rich gems. “You must come,” she said — not imploring him now but commanding him.

“Then I will come,” he answered, and a certain Sunday was fixed.

The arranging of the guests was a little difficulty, till Madame Goesler begged the Duke to bring with him Lady Glencora Palliser, his nephew’s wife. This at last he agreed to do. As the wife of his nephew and heir, Lady Glencora was to the Duke all that a woman could be. She was everything that was proper as to her own conduct, and not obtrusive as to his. She did not bore him, and yet she was attentive. Although in her husband’s house she was a fierce politician, in his house she was simply an attractive woman. “Ah; she is very clever,” the Duke once said, “she adapts herself. If she were to go from any one place to any other, she would be at home in both.” And the movement of his Grace’s hand as he spoke seemed to indicate the widest possible sphere for travelling and the widest possible scope for adaptation. The dinner was arranged, and went off very pleasantly. Madame Goesler’s eyes were not quite so bright as they were during that morning visit, nor did she touch her guest’s arm in a manner so alluring. She was very quiet, allowing her guests to do most of the talking. But the dinner and the flowers and the wine were excellent, and the whole thing was so quiet that the Duke liked it. “And now you must come and dine with me,” the Duke said as he took his leave. “A command to that effect will be one which I certainly shall not disobey,” whispered Madame Goesler.

“I am afraid he is going to get fond of that woman.” These words were spoken early on the following morning by Lady Glencora to her husband, Mr Palliser.

“He is always getting fond of some woman, and he will to the end,” said Mr Palliser.

“But this Madame Max Goesler is very clever.”

“So they tell me. I have generally thought that my uncle likes talking to a fool the best.”

“Every man likes a clever woman the best,” said Lady Glencora, “if the clever woman only knows how to use her cleverness.”

“I’m sure I hope he’ll be amused,” said Mr Palliser innocently. “A little amusement is all that he cares for now.”

“Suppose you were told some day that he was going — to be married?” said Lady Glencora.

“My uncle married!”

“Why not he as well as another?”

“And to Madame Goesler?”

“If he be ever married it will be to some such woman.”

“There is not a man in all England who thinks more of his own position than my uncle,” said Mr Palliser somewhat proudly — almost with a touch of anger.

“That is all very well, Plantagenet, and true enough in a kind of way. But a child will sacrifice all that it has for the top brick of the chimney, and old men sometimes become children. You would not like to be told some morning that there was a little Lord Silverbridge in the world.” Now the eldest son of the Duke of Omnium, when the Duke of Omnium had a son, was called the Earl of Silverbridge; and Mr Palliser, when this question was asked him, became very pale. Mr Palliser knew well how thoroughly the cunning of the serpent was joined to the purity of the dove in the person of his wife, and he was sure that there was cause for fear when she hinted at danger.

“Perhaps you had better keep your eye upon him,” he said to his wife.

“And upon her,” said Lady Glencora.

When Madame Goesler dined at the Duke’s house in St James’s Square there was a large party, and Lady Glencora knew that there was no need for apprehension then. Indeed Madame Goesler was no more than any other guest, and the Duke hardly spoke to her. There was a Duchess there — the Duchess of St Bungay, and old Lady Hartletop, who was a dowager marchioness — an old lady who pestered the Duke very sorely — and Madame Max Goesler received her reward, and knew that she was receiving it, in being asked to meet these people. Would not all these names, including her own, be blazoned to the world in the columns of the next day’s “Morning Post’? There was no absolute danger here, as Lady Glencora knew; and Lady Glencora, who was tolerant and begrudged nothing to Madame Max except the one thing, was quite willing to meet the lady at such a grand affair as this. But the Duke, even should he become ever so childish a child in his old age, still would have that plain green brougham at his command, and could go anywhere in that at any hour in the day. And then Madame Goesler was so manifestly a clever woman. A Duchess of Omnium might be said to fill — in the estimation, at any rate, of English people — the highest position in the world short of royalty. And the reader will remember that Lady Glencora intended to be a Duchess of Omnium herself — unless some very unexpected event should intrude itself. She intended also that her little boy, her fair-haired, curly-pated, bold-faced little boy, should be Earl of Silverbridge when the sand of the old man should have run itself out. Heavens, what a blow would it be, should some little wizen-cheeked half-monkey baby, with black brows, and yellow skin, be brought forward and shown to her some day as the heir! What a blow to herself — and what a blow to all England! “We can’t prevent it if he chooses to do it,” said her husband, who had his budget to bring forward that very night, and who in truth cared more for his budget than he did for his heirship at that moment. “But we must prevent it,” said Lady Glencora. “If I stick to him by the tail of his coat, I’ll prevent it.” At the time when she thus spoke, the dark green brougham had been twice again brought up at the door in Park Lane.

And the brougham was standing there a third time. It was May now, the latter end of May, and the park opposite was beautiful with green things, and the air was soft and balmy, as it will be sometimes even in May, and the flowers in the balcony were full of perfume, and the charm of London — what London can be to the rich — was at its height. The Duke was sitting in Madame Goesler’s drawing-room, at some distance from her, for she had retreated. The Duke had a habit of taking her hand, which she never would permit for above a few seconds. At such times she would show no anger, but would retreat.

“Marie,” said the Duke, you will go abroad when the summer is over.” As an old man he had taken the privilege of calling her Marie, and she had not forbidden it.

“Yes, probably; to Vienna. I have property in Vienna, you know, which must be looked after.”

“Do not mind Vienna this year. Come to Italy.”

“What; in summer, Duke?”

“The lakes are charming in August. I have a villa on Como which is empty now, and I think I shall go there. If you do not know the Italian lakes, I shall be so happy to show them to you.”

“I know them well, my lord. When I was young I was on the Maggiore almost alone. Some day I will tell you a history of what I was in those days.”

“You shall tell it me there.”

“No, my lord, I fear not. I have no villa there.”

“Will you not accept the loan of mine? It shall be all your own while you use it.”

“My own — to deny the right of entrance to its owner?”

“If it so pleases you.”

“It would not please me. It would so far from please me that I will never put myself in a position that might make it possible for me to require to do so. No, Duke; it behoves me to live in houses of my own. Women of whom more is known can afford to be your guests.”

“Marie, I would have no other guest than you.”

“It cannot be so, Duke.”

“And why not?”

“Why not? Am I to be put to the blush by being made to answer such a question as that? Because the world would say that the Duke of Omnium had a new mistress, and that Madame Goesler was the woman. Do you think that I would be any man’s mistress — even yours? Or do you believe that for the sake of the softness of a summer evening on an Italian lake, I would give cause to the tongues of the women here to say that I was such a thing? You would have me lose all that I have gained by steady years of sober work for the sake of a week or two of dalliance such as that! No, Duke; not for your dukedom!”

How his Grace might have got through his difficulty had they been left alone, cannot be told. For at this moment the door was opened, and Lady Glencora Palliser was announced.

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