Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 11

The truant Wife

Phineas on his return to London wrote a line to Lady Chiltern in accordance with a promise which had been exacted from him. She was anxious to learn something as to the real condition of her husband’s brother-in-law, and, when she heard that Phineas was going to Loughlinter, had begged that he would tell her the truth. “He has become eccentric, gloomy, and very strange,” said Phineas. “I do not believe that he is really mad, but his condition is such that I think no friend should recommend Lady Laura to return to him. He seems to have devoted himself to a gloomy religion — and to the saving of money. I had but one interview with him, and that was essentially disagreeable.” Having remained two days in London, and having participated, as far as those two days would allow him, in the general horror occasioned by the wickedness and success of Mr Daubeny, he started for Dresden.

He found Lord Brentford living in a spacious house, with a huge garden round it, close upon the northern confines of the town. Dresden, taken altogether, is a clean cheerful city, and strikes the stranger on his first entrance as a place in which men are gregarious, busy, full of merriment, and pre-eminently social. Such is the happy appearance of but few towns either in the old or the new world, and is hardly more common in Germany than elsewhere. Leipsig is decidedly busy, but does not look to be social. Vienna is sufficiently gregarious, but its streets are melancholy. Munich is social, but lacks the hum of business. Frankfurt is both practical and picturesque, but it is dirty, and apparently averse to mirth. Dresden has much to recommend it, and had Lord Brentford with his daughter come abroad in quest of comfortable easy social life, his choice would have been well made. But, as it was, any of the towns above named would have suited him as well as Dresden, for he saw no society, and cared nothing for the outward things of the world around him. He found Dresden to be very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer, and he liked neither heat nor cold; but he had made up his mind that all places, and indeed all things, are nearly equally disagreeable, and therefore he remained at Dresden, grumbling almost daily as to the climate and manners of the people.

Phineas, when he arrived at the hall door, almost doubted whether he had not been as wrong in visiting Lord Brentford as he had in going to Loughlinter. His friendship with the old Earl had been very fitful, and there had been quarrels quite as pronounced as the friendship. He had often been happy in the Earl’s house, but the happiness had not sprung from any love for the man himself. How would it be with him if he found the Earl hardly more civil to him than the Earl’s son-in-law had been? In former days the Earl had been a man quite capable of making himself disagreeable, and probably had not yet lost the power of doing so. Of all our capabilities this is the one which clings longest to us. He was thinking of all this when he found himself at the door of the Earl’s house. He had travelled all night, and was very cold. At Leipsig there had been a nominal twenty minutes for refreshment, which the circumstances of the station had reduced to five. This had occurred very early in the morning, and had sufficed only to give him a bowl of coffee. It was now nearly ten, and breakfast had become a serious consideration with him. He almost doubted whether it would not have been better for him to have gone to an hotel in the first instance.

He soon found himself in the hall amidst a cluster of servants, among whom he recognised the face of a man from Saulsby. He had, however, little time allowed him for looking about. He was hardly in the house before Lady Laura Kennedy was in his arms. She had run forward, and before he could look into her face, she had put up her cheek to his lips and had taken both his hands. “Oh, my friend,” she said; “oh, my friend! How good you are to come to me! How good you are to come!” And then she led him into a large room, in which a table had been prepared for breakfast, close to an English-looking open fire. “How cold you must be, and how hungry! Shall I have breakfast for you at once, or will you dress first? You are to be quite at home, you know; exactly as though we were brother and sister. You are not to stand on any ceremonies.” And again she took him by the hand. He had hardly looked her yet in the face, and he could not do so now because he knew that she was crying. “Then I will show you to your room,” she said, when he had decided for a tub of water before breakfast. “Yes, I will — my own self. And I’d fetch the water for you, only I know it is there already. How long will you be? Half an hour? Very well. And you would like tea best, wouldn’t you?”

“Certainly, I should like tea best.”

“I will make it for you. Papa never comes down till near two, and we shall have all the morning for talking. Oh, Phineas, it is such a pleasure to hear your voice again. You have been at Loughlinter?”

“Yes, I have been there.”

“How very good of you; but I won’t ask a question now. You must put up with a stove here, as we have not open fires in the bed-rooms. I hope you will be comfortable. Don’t be more than half an hour, as I shall be impatient.”

Though he was thus instigated to haste he stood a few minutes with his back to the warm stove that he might be enabled to think of it all. It was two years since he had seen this woman, and when they had parted there had been more between them of the remembrances of old friendship than of present affection. During the last few weeks of their intimacy she had made a point of telling him that she intended to separate herself from her husband; but she had done so as though it were a duty, and an arranged part of her own defence of her own conduct. And in the latter incidents of her London life — that life with which he had been conversant — she had generally been opposed to him, or, at any rate, had chosen to be divided from him. She had said severe things to him — telling him that he was cold, heartless, and uninterested, never trying even to please him with that sort of praise which had once been so common with her in her intercourse with him, and which all men love to hear from the mouths of women. She had then been cold to him, though she would make wretched allusions to the time when he, at any rate, had not been cold to her. She had reproached him, and had at the same time turned away from him. She had repudiated him, first as a lover, then as a friend; and he had hitherto never been able to gauge the depth of the affection for him which had underlaid all her conduct. As he stood there thinking of it all, he began to understand it.

How natural had been her conduct on his arrival, and how like that of a genuine, true-hearted, honest woman! All her first thoughts had been for his little personal wants — that he should be warmed, and fed, and made outwardly comfortable. Let sorrow be ever so deep, and love ever so true, a man will be cold who travels by winter, and hungry who has travelled by night. And a woman, who is a true, genuine woman, always takes delight in ministering to the natural wants of her friend. To see a man eat and drink, and wear his slippers, and sit at ease in his chair, is delightful to the feminine heart that loves. When I heard the other day that a girl had herself visited the room prepared for a man in her mother’s house, then I knew that she loved him, though I had never before believed it. Phineas, as he stood there, was aware that this woman loved him dearly. She had embraced him, and given her face to him to kiss. She had clasped his hands, and clung to him, and had shown him plainly that in the midst of all her sorrow she could be made happy by his coming. But he was a man far too generous to take all this as meaning aught that it did not mean — too generous, and intrinsically too manly. In his character there was much of weakess, much of vacillation, perhaps some deficiency of strength and purpose; but there was no touch of vanity. Women had loved him, and had told him so; and he had been made happy, and also wretched, by their love. But he had never taken pride, personally, to himself because they had loved him. It had been the accident of his life. Now he remembered chiefly that this woman had called herself his sister, and he was grateful.

Then he thought of her personal appearance. As yet he had hardly looked at her, but he felt that she had become old and worn, angular and hard-visaged. All this had no effect upon his feelings towards her, but filled him with ineffable regret. When he had first known her she had been a woman with a noble presence — not soft and feminine as had been Violet Effingham, but handsome and lustrous, with a healthy youth. In regard to age he and she were of the same standing. That he knew well. She had passed her thirty-second birthday, but that was all. He felt himself to be still a young man, but he could not think of her as of a young woman.

When he went down she had been listening for his footsteps, and met him at the door of the room. “Now sit down,” she said, “and be comfortable — if you can, with German surroundings. They are almost always late, and never give one any time. Everybody says so. The station at Leipsig is dreadful, I know. Good coffee is very well, but what is the use of good coffee if you have no time to drink it? You must eat our omelette. If there is one thing we can do better than you it is to make an omelette. Yes — that is genuine German sausage. There is always some placed upon the table, but the Germans who come here never touch it themselves. You will have a cutlet, won’t you? I breakfasted an hour ago, and more. I would not wait because then I thought I could talk to you better, and wait upon you. I did not think that anything would ever please me so much again as your coming has done. Oh, how much we shall have to say! Do you remember when we last parted — when you were going back to Ireland?”

“I remember it well.”

“Ah me; as I look back upon it all, how strange it seems, I daresay you don’t remember the first day I met you, at Mr Mildmay’s — when I asked you to come to Portman Square because Barrington had said that you were clever?”

“I remember well going to Portman Square.”

“That was the beginning of it all. Oh dear, oh dear; when I think of it I find it so hard to see where I have been right, and where I have been wrong. If I had not been very wrong all this evil could not have come upon me.”

“Misfortune has not always been deserved.”

“I am sure it has been so with me. You can smoke here if you like.” This Phineas persistently refused to do. “You may if you please. Papa never comes in here, and I don’t mind it. You’ll settle down in a day or two, and understand the extent of your liberties. Tell me first about Violet. She is happy?”

“Quite happy, I think.”

“I knew he would be good to her. But does she like the kind of life?”

“Oh, yes.”

“She has a baby, and therefore of course she is happy. She says he is the finest fellow in the world.”

“I daresay he is. They all seem to be contented with him, but they don’t talk much about him.”

“No; they wouldn’t. Had you a child you would have talked about him, Phineas. I should have loved my baby better than all the world, but I should have been silent about him. With Violet of course her husband is the first object. It would certainly be so from her nature. And so Oswald is quite tame?”

“I don’t know that he is very tame out hunting.”

“But to her?”

“I should think always. She, you know, is very clever.”

“So clever!”

“And would be sure to steer clear of all offence,” said Phineas, enthusiastically.

“While I could never for an hour avoid it. Did they say anything about the journey to Flanders?”

“Chiltern did, frequently. He made me strip my shoulder to show him the place where he hit me.”

“How like Oswald!”

“And he told me that he would have given one of his eyes to kill me, only Colepepper wouldn’t let him go on. He half quarrelled with his second, but the man told him that I had not fired at him, and the thing must drop. “It’s better as it is, you know,” he said. And I agreed with him,”

“And how did Violet receive you?”

“Like an angel — as she is.”

“Well, yes. I’ll grant she is an angel now. I was angry with her once, you know. You men find so many angels in your travels. You have been honester than some. You have generally been off with the old angel before you were on with the new — as far at least as I knew.”

“Is that meant for rebuke, Lady Laura?”

“No, my friend; no. That is all over. I said to myself when you told me that you would come, that I would not utter one ill-natured word. And I told myself more than that!”

“What more?”

“That you had never deserved it — at least from me. But surely you were the most simple of men.”

“I daresay.”

“Men when they are true are simple. They are often false as hell, and then they are crafty as Lucifer. But the man who is true judges others by himself — almost without reflection. A woman can be true as steel and cunning at the same time. How cunning was Violet, and yet she never deceived one of her lovers, even by a look. Did she?”

“She never deceived me — if you mean that. She never cared a straw about me, and told me so to my face very plainly.”

“She did care — many straws. But I think she always loved Oswald. She refused him again and again, because she thought it wrong to run a great risk, but I knew she would never marry anyone else. How little Lady Baldock understood her. Fancy your meeting Lady Baldock at Oswald’s house!”

“Fancy Augusta Boreham turning nun!”

“How exquisitely grotesque it must have been when she made her complaint to you.”

“I pitied her with all my heart.”

“Of course you did — because you are so soft. And now, Phineas, we will put it off no longer. Tell me all that you have to tell me about him.”

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