Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 68

The joint attack

The note from Lord Brentford surprised our hero not a little. He had had no communication with the Earl since the day on which he had been so savagely scolded about the duel, when the Earl had plainly told him that his conduct had been as bad as it could be. Phineas had not on that account become at all ashamed of his conduct in reference to the duel, but he had conceived that any reconciliation between him and the Earl had been out of the question. Now there had come a civilly-worded invitation, asking him to dine with the offended nobleman. The note had been written by Lady Laura, but it had purported to come from Lord Brentford himself. He sent back word to say that he should be happy to have the honour of dining with Lord Brentford.

Parliament at this time had been sitting nearly a month, and it was already March. Phineas had heard nothing of Lady Laura, and did not even know that she was in London till he saw her handwriting. He did not know that she had not gone back to her husband, and that she had remained with her father all the winter at Saulsby. He had also heard that Lord Chiltern had been at Saulsby. All the world had been talking of the separation of Mr Kennedy from his wife, one half of the world declaring that his wife, if not absolutely false to him, had neglected all her duties; and the other half asserting that Mr Kennedy’s treatment of his wife had been so bad that no woman could possibly have lived with him. There had even been a rumour that Lady Laura had gone off with a lover from the Duke of Omnium’s garden party, and some indiscreet tongue had hinted that a certain unmarried Under-Secretary of State was missing at the same time. But Lord Chiltern upon this had shown his teeth with so strong a propensity to do some real biting that no one had ventured to repeat that rumour. Its untruth was soon established by the fact that Lady Laura Kennedy was living with her father at Saulsby. Of Mr Kennedy, Phineas had as yet seen nothing since he had been up in town. That gentleman, though a member of the Cabinet, had not been in London at the opening of the session, nor had he attended the Cabinet meetings during the recess. It had been stated in the newspapers that he was ill, and stated in private that he could not bear to show himself since his wife had left him. At last, however, he came to London, and Phineas saw him in the House. Then, when the first meeting of the Cabinet was summoned after his return, it became known that he also had resigned his office. There was nothing said about his resignation in the House. He had resigned on the score of ill-health, and that very worthy peer, Lord Mount Thistle, formerly Sir Marmaduke Morecombe, came back to the Duchy of Lancaster in his place. A Prime Minister sometimes finds great relief in the possession of a serviceable stick who can be made to go in and out as occasion may require; only it generally happens that the stick will expect some reward when he is made to go out. Lord Mount Thistle immediately saw his way to a viscount’s coronet, when he was once more summoned to the august councils of the Ministers.

A few days after this had been arranged, in the interval between Lord Brentford’s invitation and Lord Brentford’s dinner, Phineas encountered Mr Kennedy so closely in one of the passages of the House that it was impossible that they should not speak to each other, unless they were to avoid each other as people do who have palpably quarrelled. Phineas saw that Mr Kennedy was hesitating, and therefore took the bull by the horns. He greeted his former friend in a friendly fashion, shaking him by the hand, and then prepared to pass on. But Mr Kennedy, though he had hesitated at first, now detained his brother member. “Finn,” he said, if you are not engaged I should like to speak to you for a moment.” Phineas was not engaged, and allowed himself to be led out arm-in-arm by the late Chancellor of the Duchy into Westminster Hall. “Of course you know what a terrible thing has happened to me,” said Mr Kennedy.

“Yes — I have heard of it,” said Phineas.

“Everybody has heard of it. That is one of the terrible cruelties of such a blow.”

“All those things are very bad of course. I was very much grieved — because you have both been intimate friends of mine.”

“Yes — yes; we were. Do you ever see her now?”

“Not since last July — at the Duke’s party, you know.”

“Ah, yes; the morning of that day was the last on which I spoke to her. It was then she left me.”

“I am going to dine with Lord Brentford tomorrow, and I dare say she will be there.”

“Yes — she is in town. I saw her yesterday in her father’s carriage. I think that she had no cause to leave me.”

“Of course I cannot say anything about that.”

“I think she had no cause to leave me.” Phineas as he heard this could not but remember all that Lady Laura had told himself, and thought that no woman had ever had a better reason for leaving her husband. “There were things I did not like, and I said so.”

“I suppose that is generally the way,” replied Phineas.

“But surely a wife should listen to a word of caution from her husband.”

“I fancy they never like it,” said Phineas.

“But are we all of us to have all that we like? I have not found it so. Or would it be good for us if we had?” Then he paused; but as Phineas had no further remark to make, he continued speaking after they had walked about a third of the length of the hall. “It is not of my own comfort I am thinking now so much as of her name and her future conduct. Of course it will in every sense be best for her that she should come back to her husband’s roof.”

“Well; yes — perhaps it would,” said Phineas.

“Has she not accepted that lot for better or for worse?” said Mr Kennedy, solemnly.

“But incompatibility of temper, you know, is always — always supposed — You understand me?”

“It is my intention that she should come back to me. I do not wish to make any legal demand — at any rate, not as yet. Will you consent to be the bearer of a message from me both to herself and to the Earl?”

Now it seemed to Phineas that of all the messengers whom Mr Kennedy could have chosen he was the most unsuited to be a Mercury in this cause — not perceiving that he had been so selected with some craft, in order that Lady Laura might understand that the accusation against her was, at any rate, withdrawn, which had named Phineas as her lover. He paused again before he answered. “Of course,” he said, “I should be most willing to be of service, if it were possible. But I do not see how I can speak to the Earl about it. Though I am going to dine with him I don’t know why he has asked me — for he and I are on very bad terms. He heard that stupid story about the duel, and has not spoken to me since.”

“I heard that, too,” said Mr Kennedy, frowning blackly as he remembered his wife’s duplicity.

“Everybody heard of it. But it has made such a difference between him and me, that I don’t think I can meddle. Send for Lord Chiltern, and speak to him.”

“Speak to Chiltern! Never! He would probably strike me on the head with his club.”

“Call on the Earl yourself.”

“I did, and he would not see me.”

“Write to him.”

“I did, and he sent back my letter unopened.”

“Write to her.”

“I did — and she answered me, saying only thus; “Indeed, indeed, it cannot be so.” But it must be so. The laws of God require it, and the laws of man permit it. I want someone to point out that to them more softly than I could do if I were simply to write to that effect. To the Earl, of course, I cannot write again.” The conference ended by a promise from Phineas that he would, if possible, say a word to Lady Laura.

When he was shown into Lord Brentford’s drawing-room he found not only Lady Laura there, but her brother. Lord Brentford was not in the room. Barrington Erle was there, and so also were Lord and Lady Cantrip.

“Is not your father going to be here?” he said to Lady Laura, after their first greeting.

“We live in that hope,” said she, and do not at all know why he should be late. What has become of him, Oswald?”

“He came in with me half an hour ago, and I suppose he does not dress as quickly as I do,” said Lord Chiltern; upon which Phineas immediately understood that the father and the son were reconciled, and he rushed to the conclusion that Violet and her lover would also soon be reconciled, if such were not already the case. He felt some remnant of a soreness that it should be so, as a man feels where his headache has been when the real ache itself has left him. Then the host came in and made his apologies. “Chiltern kept me standing about”, he said, “till the east wind had chilled me through and through. The only charm I recognise in youth is that it is impervious to the east wind.” Phineas felt quite sure now that Violet and her lover were reconciled, and he has a distinct feeling of the place where the ache had been. Dear Violet! But, after all, Violet lacked that sweet, clinging, feminine softness which made Mary Flood Jones so pre-eminently the most charming of her sex. The Earl, when he had repeated his general apology, especially to Lady Cantrip, who was the only lady present except his daughter, came up to our hero and shook him kindly by the hand. He took him up to one of the windows and then addressed him in a voice of mock solemnity.

“Stick to the colonies, young man,” he said, and never meddle with foreign affairs — especially not at Blankenberg.”

“Never again, my Lord — never again.”

“And leave all questions of fire-arms to be arranged between the Horse Guards and the War Office. I have heard a good deal about it since I saw you, and I retract a part of what I said. But a duel is a foolish thing — a very foolish thing. Come — here is dinner.” And the Earl walked off with Lady Cantrip, and Lord Cantrip walked off with Lady Laura. Barrington Erle followed, and Phineas had an opportunity of saying a word to his friend, Lord Children, as they went down together.

“It’s all right between you and your father?”

“Yes — after a fashion. There is no knowing how long it will last. He wants me to do three things, and I won’t do any one of them.”

“What are the three?”

“To go into Parliament, to be an owner of sheep and oxen, and to hunt in his own country. I should never attend the first, I should ruin myself with the second, and I should never get a run in the third.” But there was not a word said about his marriage.

There were only seven who sat down to dinner, and the six were all people with whom Phineas was or had been on most intimate terms. Lord Cantrip was his official chief, and, since that connection had existed between him, Lady Cantrip had been very gracious to him. She quite understood the comfort which it was to her husband to have under him, as his representative in the House of Commons, a man whom he could thoroughly trust and like, and therefore she had used her woman’s arts to bind Phineas to her lord in more than mere official bondage. She had tried her skill also upon Laurence Fitzgibbon — but altogether in vain. He had eaten her dinners and accepted her courtesies, and had given for them no return whatever. But Phineas had possessed a more grateful mind, and had done all that had been required of him — had done all that had been required of him till there had come that terrible absurdity in Ireland. “I knew very well what sort of things would happen when they brought such a man as Mr Monk into the Cabinet,” Lady Cantrip had said to her husband.

But though the party was very small, and though the guests were all his intimate friends, Phineas suspected nothing special till an attack was made upon him as soon as the servants had left the room. This was done in the presence of the two ladies, and, no doubt, had been preconcerted. There was Lord Cantrip there, who had already said much to him, and Barrington Erle who had said more even than Lord Cantrip. Lord Brentford, himself a member of the Cabinet, opened the attack by asking whether it was actually true that Mr Monk meant to go on with his motion. Barrington Erle asserted that Mr Monk positively would do so. “And Gresham will oppose it?” asked the Earl. Of course he will,” said Barrington. “Of course he will, said Lord Cantrip. “I know what I should think of him if he did not,” said Lady Cantrip. “He is the last man in the world to be forced into a thing,” said Lady Laura. Then Phineas knew pretty well what was coming on him.

Lord Brentford began again by asking how many supporters Mr Monk would have in the House. “That depends upon the amount of courage which the Conservatives may have,” said Barrington Erle. “If they dare to vote for a thoroughly democratic measure, simply for the sake of turning us out, it is quite on the cards that they may succeed.” “But of our own people? asked Lord Cantrip. “You had better inquire that of Phineas Finn,” said Barrington. And then the attack was made.

Our hero had a bad half hour of it, though many words were said which must have gratified him much. They all wanted to keep him — so Lord Cantrip declared, “except one or two whom I could name, and who are particularly anxious to wear his shoes,” said Barrington, thinking that certain reminiscences of Phineas with regard to Mr Bonteen and others might operate as strongly as any other consideration to make him love his place. Lord Brentford declared that he could not understand it — that he should find himself lost in amazement if such a man as his young friend allowed himself to be led into the outer wilderness by such an ignis-fatuus of light as this. Lord Cantrip laid down the unwritten traditional law of Government officials very plainly. A man in office — in an office which really imposed upon him as much work as he could possibly do with credit to himself or his cause — was dispensed from the necessity of a conscience with reference to other matters. It was for Sir Walter Morrison to have a conscience about Irish Tenant-Right, as no doubt he had — just as Phineas Finn had a conscience about Canada, and Jamaica, and the Cape. Barrington Erle was very strong about parties in general, and painted the comforts of official position in glowing colours. But I think that the two ladies were more efficacious than even their male relatives in the arguments which they used. “We have been so happy to have you among us,” said Lady Cantrip, looking at him with beseeching, almost loving eyes. “Mr Finn knows,” said Lady Laura, “that since he first came into Parliament I have always believed in his success, and I have been very proud to see it.” “We shall weep over him, as over a fallen angel, if he leaves us,” said Lady Cantrip. “I won’t say that I will weep,” said Lady Laura, “but I do not know anything of the kind that would so truly make me unhappy.”

What was he to say in answer to applications so flattering and so pressing? He would have said nothing, had that been possible, but he felt himself obliged to reply. He replied very weakly — of course, not justifying himself, but declaring that as he had gone so far he must go further. He must vote for the measure now. Both his chief and Barrington Erle proved or attempt to prove, that he was wrong in this. Of course he would not speak on the measure, and his vote for his party would probably be allowed to pass without notice. One or two newspapers might perhaps attack him; but what public man cared for such attacks as those? His whole party would hang by him, and in that he would find ample consolation. Phineas could only say that he would think of it — and this he said in so irresolute a tone of voice that all the men then present believed that he was gained. The two ladies, however, were of a different opinion. “In spite of anything that anybody may say, he will do what he thinks right when the time comes,” said Laura to her father afterwards. But then Lady Laura had been in love with him — was perhaps almost in love with him still. “I’m afraid he is a mule,” said Lady Cantrip to her husband. “He’s a good mule up a hill with a load on his back,” said his lordship. “But with a mule there always comes a time when you can’t manage him,” said Lady Cantrip. But Lady Cantrip had never been in love with Phineas.

Phineas found a moment, before he left Lord Brentford’s house, to say a word to Lady Laura as to the commission that had been given to him. “It can never be,” said Lady Laura, shuddering — “never, never, never!”

“You are not angry with me for speaking?”

“Oh, no — not if he told you.”

“He made me promise that I would.”

“Tell him it cannot be. Tell him that if he has any instruction to send me as to what he considers to be my duty, I will endeavour to comply, if that duty can be done apart. I will recognize him so far, because of my vow. But not even for the sake of my vow, will I endeavour to live with him. His presence would kill me!”

When Phineas repeated this, or as much of this as he judged to be necessary, to Mr Kennedy a day or two afterwards, that gentleman replied that in such case he would have no alternative but to seek redress at law. “I have done nothing to my wife,” said he, “of which I need be ashamed. It will be sad, no doubt, to have all our affairs bandied about in court, and made the subject of comment in newspapers, but a man must go through that, or worse than that, in the vindication of his rights, and for the performance of his duty to his Maker.” That very day Mr Kennedy went to his lawyer, and desired that steps might be taken for the restitution to him of his conjugal rights.

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