By the time that Mr Mildmay’s great bill was going into committee Phineas was able to move about London in comfort — with his arm, however, still in a sling. There had been nothing more about him and his wound in the People’s Banner, and he was beginning to hope that that nuisance would also be allowed to die away. He had seen Lady Laura — having dined in Grosvenor Place, where he had been petted to his heart’s content. His dinner had been cut up for him, and his wound had been treated with the tenderest sympathy. And, singular to say, no questions were asked. He had been to Kent and had come by an accident. No more than that was told, and his dear sympathising friends were content to receive so much information, and to ask for no more. But he had not as yet seen Violet Effingham, and he was beginning to think that this romance about Violet might as well be brought to a close. He had not, however, as yet been able to go into crowded rooms, and unless he went out to large parties he could not be sure that he would meet Miss Effingham.
At last he resolved that he would tell Lady Laura the whole truth — not the truth about the duel, but the truth about Violet Effingham, and ask for her assistance. When making this resolution, I think that he must have forgotten much that he had learned of his friend’s character; and by making it, I think that he showed also that he had not learned as much as his opportunities might have taught him. He knew Lady Laura’s obstinacy of purpose, he knew her devotion to her brother, and he knew also how desirous she had been that her brother should win Violet Effingham for himself. This knowledge should, I think, have sufficed to show him how improbable it was that Lady Laura should assist him in his enterprise. But beyond all this was the fact — a fact as to the consequences of which Phineas himself was entirely blind, beautifully ignorant — that Lady Laura had once condescended to love himself. Nay — she had gone farther than this, and had ventured to tell him, even after her marriage, that the remembrance of some feeling that had once dwelt in her heart in regard to him was still a danger to her. She had warned him from Loughlinter, and then had received him in London — and now he selected her as his confidante in this love affair! Had he not been beautifully ignorant and most modestly blind, he would surely have placed his confidence elsewhere.
It was not that Lady Laura Kennedy ever confessed to herself the existence of a vicious passion. She had, indeed, learned to tell herself that she could not love her husband; and once, in the excitement of such silent announcements to herself, she had asked herself whether her heart was quite a blank, and had answered herself by desiring Phineas Finn to absent himself from Loughlinter. During all the subsequent winter she had scourged herself inwardly for her own imprudence, her quite unnecessary folly in so doing. What! could not she, Laura Standish, who from her earliest years of girlish womanhood had resolved that she would use the world as men use it, and not as women do — could not she have felt the slight shock of a passing tenderness for a handsome youth without allowing the feeling to be a rock before her big enough and sharp enough for the destruction of her entire barque? Could not she command, if not her heart, at any rate her mind, so that she might safely assure herself that, whether this man or any man was here or there, her course would be unaltered? What though Phineas Finn had been in the same house with her throughout all the winter, could not she have so lived with him on terms of friendship, that every deed and word and look of her friendship might have been open to her husband — or open to all the world? She could have done so. She told herself that that was not — need not have been her great calamity. Whether she could endure the dull, monotonous control of her slow but imperious lord — or whether she must not rather tell him that it was not to be endured — that was her trouble. So she told herself, and again admitted Phineas to her intimacy in London. But, nevertheless, Phineas, had he not been beautifully ignorant and most blind to his own achievements, would not have expected from Lady Laura Kennedy assistance with Miss Violet Effingham.
Phineas knew when to find Lady Laura alone, and he came upon her one day at the favourable hour. The two first clauses of the bill had been passed after twenty fights and endless divisions. Two points had been settled, as to which, however, Mr Gresham had been driven to give way so far and to yield so much, that men declared that such a bill as the Government could consent to call its own could never be passed by that Parliament in that session. Immediately on his entrance into her room Lady Laura began about the third clause. Would the House let Mr Gresham have his way about the —? Phineas stopped her at once. “My dear friend,” he said, I have come to you in a private trouble, and I want you to drop politics for half an hour. I have come to you for help.”
“A private trouble, Mr Finn! Is it serious?”
“It is very serious — but it is no trouble of the kind of which you are thinking. But it is serious enough to take up every thought.”
“Can I help you?”
“Indeed you can. Whether you will or no is a different thing.”
“I would help you in anything in my power, Mr Finn. Do you not know it?”
“You have been very kind to me!”
“And so would Mr Kennedy.”
“Mr Kennedy cannot help me here.”
“What is it, Mr Finn?”
“I suppose I may as well tell you at once — in plain language, I do not know how to put my story into words that shall fit it. I love Violet Effingham. Will you help me to win her to be my wife?”
“You love Violet Effingham!” said Lady Laura. And as she spoke the look of her countenance towards him was so changed that he became at once aware that from her no assistance might be expected. His eyes were not opened in any degree to the second reason above given for Lady Laura’s opposition to his wishes, but he instantly perceived that she would still cling to that destination of Violet’s hand which had for years past been the favourite scheme of her life. “Have you not always known, Mr Finn, what have been our hopes for Violet?”
Phineas, though he had perceived his mistake, felt that he must go on with his cause. Lady Laura must know his wishes sooner or later, and it was as well that she should learn them in this way as in any other. “Yes — but I have known also, from your brother’s own lips — and indeed from yours also, Lady Laura — that Chiltern has been three times refused by Miss Effingham.”
“What does that matter? Do men never ask more than three times?”
“And must I be debarred for ever while he prosecutes a hopeless suit?”
“Yes — you of all men.”
“Why so, Lady Laura?”
“Because in this matter you have been his chosen friend — and mine. We have told you everything, trusting to you. We have believed in your honour. We have thought that with you, at any rate, we were safe.” These words were very bitter to Phineas, and yet when he had written his letter at Loughton, he had intended to be so perfectly honest, chivalrously honest! Now Lady Laura spoke to him and looked at him as though he had been most basely false — most untrue to that noble friendship which had been lavished upon him by all her family. He felt that he would become the prey of her most injurious thoughts unless he could fully explain his ideas, and he felt, also, that the circumstances did not admit of his explaining them. He could not take up the argument on Violet’s side, and show how unfair it would be to her that she should be debarred from the homage due to her by any man who really loved her, because Lord Chiltern chose to think that he still had a claim — or at any rate a chance. And Phineas knew well of himself — or thought that he knew well — that he would not have interfered had there been any chance for Lord Chiltern. Lord Chiltern had himself told him more than once that there was no such chance. How was he to explain all this to Lady Laura? “Mr Finn,” said Lady Laura, I can hardly believe this of you, even when you tell it me yourself.”
“Listen to me, Lady Laura, for a moment.”
“Certainly, I will listen. But that you should come to me for assistance! I cannot understand it. Men sometimes become harder than stones.”
“I do not think that I am hard.” Poor blind fool! He was still thinking only of Violet, and of the accusation made against him that he was untrue to his friendship for Lord Chiltern. Of that other accusation which could not be expressed in open words he understood nothing — nothing at all as yet.
“Hard and false — capable of receiving no impression beyond the outside husk of the heart.”
“Oh, Lady Laura, do not say that. If you could only know how true I am in my affection for you all.”
“And how do you show it? — by coming in between Oswald and the only means that are open to us of reconciling him to his father — means that have been explained to you exactly as though you had been one of ourselves. Oswald has treated you as a brother in the matter, telling you everything, and this is the way you would repay him for his confidence!”
“Can I help it, that I have learnt to love this girl?”
“Yes, sir — you can help it. What if she had been Oswald’s wife — would you have loved her then? Do you speak of loving a woman as if it were an affair of fate, over which you have no control? I doubt whether your passions are so strong as that. You had better put aside your love for Miss Effingham. I feel assured that it will never hurt you.” Then some remembrance of what had passed between him and Lady Laura Standish near the falls of the Linter, when he first visited Scotland, came across his mind. “Believe me,” she said with a smile, “this little wound in your heart will soon be cured.”
He stood silent before her, looking away from her, thinking over it all. He certainly had believed himself to be violently in love with Lady Laura, and yet when he had just now entered her drawing-room, he had almost forgotten that there had been such a passage in his life. And he had believed that she had forgotten it — even though she had counselled him not to come to Loughlinter within the last nine months! He had been a boy then, and had not known himself — but now he was a man, and was proud of the intensity of his love. There came upon him some passing throb of pain from his shoulder, reminding him of the duel, and he was proud also of that. He had been willing to risk everything — life, prospects, and position — sooner than abandon the slight hope which was his of possessing Violet Effingham. And now he was told that this wound in his heart would soon be cured, and was told so by a woman to whom he had once sung a song of another passion. It is very hard to answer a woman in such circumstances, because her womanhood gives her so strong a ground of vantage! Lady Laura might venture to throw in his teeth the fickleness of his heart, but he could not in reply tell her that to change a love was better than to marry without love — that to be capable of such a change showed no such inferiority of nature as did the capacity for such a marriage. She could hit him with her argument; but he could only remember his, and think how violent might be the blow he could inflict — if it were not that she were a woman, and therefore guarded. “You will not help me then?” he said, when they had both been silent for a while.
“Help you? How should I help you?”
“I wanted no other help than this — that I might have had an opportunity of meeting Violet here, and of getting from her some answer.”
“Has the question then never been asked already?” said Lady Laura. To this Phineas made no immediate reply. There was no reason why he should show his whole hand to an adversary.
“Why do you not go to Lady Baldock’s house?” continued Lady Laura. “You are admitted there. You know Lady Baldock. Go and ask her to stand your friend with her niece. See what she will say to you. As far as I understand these matters, that is the fair, honourable, open way in which gentlemen are wont to make their overtures.”
“I would make mine to none but to herself,” said Phineas.
“Then why have you made it to me, sir?” demanded Lady Laura.
“I have come to you as I would to my sister.”
“Your sister? Psha! I am not your sister, Mr Finn. Nor, were I so, should I fail to remember that I have a dearer brother to whom my faith is pledged. Look here. Within the last three weeks Oswald has sacrificed everything to his father, because he was determined that Mr Kennedy should have the money which he thought was due to my husband. He has enabled my father to do what he will with Saulsby. Papa will never hurt him — I know that. Hard as papa is with him, he will never hurt Oswald’s future position. Papa is too proud to do that. Violet has heard what Oswald has done; and now that he has nothing of his own to offer her for the future but his bare title, now that he has given papa power to do what he will with the property, I believe that she would accept him instantly. That is her disposition.”
Phineas again paused a moment before he replied. “Let him try,” he said.
“He is away — in Brussels.”
“Send to him, and bid him return. I will be patient, Lady Laura. Let him come and try, and I will bide my time. I confess that I have no right to interfere with him if there be a chance for him. If there is no chance, my right is as good as that of any other.”
There was something in this which made Lady Laura feel that she could not maintain her hostility against this man on behalf of her brother — and yet she could not force herself to be other than hostile to him. Her heart was sore, and it was he that had made it sore. She had lectured herself, schooling herself with mental sackcloth and ashes, rebuking herself with heaviest censures from day to day, because she had found herself to be in danger of regarding this man with a perilous love; and she had been constant in this work of penance till she had been able to assure herself that the sackcloth and ashes had done their work, and that the danger was past. “I like him still and love him well,” she had said to herself with something almost of triumph, “but I have ceased to think of him as one who might have been my lover.” And yet she was now sick and sore, almost beside herself with the agony of the wound, because this man whom she had been able to throw aside from her heart had also been able so to throw her aside. And she felt herself constrained to rebuke him with what bitterest words she might use. She had felt it easy to do this at first, on her brother’s score. She had accused him of treachery to his friendship — both as to Oswald and as to herself. On that she could say cutting words without subjecting herself to suspicion even from herself. But now this power was taken away from her, and still she wished to wound him. She desired to taunt him with his old fickleness, and yet to subject herself to no imputation. “Your right!” she said. What gives you any right in the matter?”
“Simply the right of a fair field, and no favour.”
“And yet you come to me for favour — to me, because I am her friend. You cannot win her yourself, and think I may help you! I do not believe in your love for her. There! If there were no other reason, and I could help you, I would not, because I think your heart is a sham heart. She is pretty, and has money — ”
“She is pretty, and has money, and is the fashion. I do not wonder that you should wish to have her. But, Mr Finn, I believe that Oswald really loves her — and that you do not. His nature is deeper than yours.”
He understood it all now as he listened to the tone of her voice, and looked into the lines of her face. There was written there plainly enough that spretae injuria formae of which she herself was conscious, but only conscious. Even his eyes, blind as he had been, were opened — and he knew that he had been a fool.
“I am sorry that I came to you,” he said.
“It would have been better that you should not have done so,” she replied.
“And yet perhaps it is well that there should be no misunderstanding between us.”
“Of course I must tell my brother.”
He paused but for a moment, and then he answered her with a sharp voice, “He has been told.”
“And who told him?”
“I did. I wrote to him the moment that I knew my own mind. I owed it to him to do so. But my letter missed him, and he only learned it the other day.”
“Have you seen him since?”
“Yes — I have seen him.”
“And what did he say? How did he take it? Did he bear it from you quietly?”
“No, indeed — and Phineas smiled as he spoke.
“Tell me, Mr Finn; what happened? What is to be done?”
“Nothing is to be done. Everything has been done. I may as well tell you all. I am sure that for the sake of me, as well as of your brother, you will keep our secret. He required that I should either give up my suit, or that I should — fight him. As I could not comply with the one request, I found myself bound to comply with the other.”
“And there has been a duel?”
“Yes — there has been a duel. We went over to Belgium, and it was soon settled. He wounded me here in the arm.”
“Suppose you had killed him, Mr Finn?”
“That, Lady Laura, would have been a misfortune so terrible that I was bound to prevent it.” Then he paused again, regretting what he had said. “You have surprised me, Lady Laura, into an answer that I should not have made. I may be sure — may I not — that my words will not go beyond yourself?”
“Yes — you may be sure of that.” This she said plaintively, with a tone of voice and demeanour of body altogether different from that which she lately bore. Neither of them knew what was taking place between them; but she was, in truth, gradually submitting herself again to this man’s influence. Though she rebuked him at every turn for what he said, for what he had done, for what he proposed to do, still she could not teach herself to despise him, or even to cease to love him for any part of it. She knew it all now — except that word or two which had passed between Violet and Phineas in the rides of Saulsby Park. But she suspected something even of that, feeling sure that the only matter on which Phineas would say nothing would be that of his own success — if success there had been.
“And so you and Oswald have quarrelled, and there has been a duel. That is why you were away?”
“That is why I was away.”
“How wrong of you — how very wrong — Had he been — killed, how could you have looked us in the face again?”
“I could not have looked you in the face again.”
“But that is over now. And were you friends afterwards?”
“No — we did not part as friends. Having gone there to fight with him — most unwillingly — I could not afterwards promise him that I would give up Miss Effingham. You say she will accept him now. Let him come and try.” She had nothing further to say — no other argument to use. There was the soreness at her heat still present to her, making her wretched, instigating her to hurt him if she knew how to do so, in spite of her regard for him. But she felt that she was weak and powerless. She had shot her arrows at him — all but one — and if she used that, its poisoned point would wound herself far more surely than it would touch him. “The duel was very silly,” he said. “You will not speak of it.
“No; certainly not.”
“I am glad at least that I have told you everything.”
“I do not know why you should be glad. I cannot help you.”
“And you will say nothing to Violet?”
“Everything that I can say in Oswald’s favour. I will say nothing of the duel; but beyond that you have no right to demand my secrecy with her. Yes; you had better go, Mr Finn, for I am hardly well. And remember this — If you can forget this little episode about Miss Effingham, so will I forget it also; and so will Oswald. I can promise for him.” Then she smiled and gave him her hand, and he went.
She rose from her chair as he left the room, and waited till she heard the sound of the great door closing behind him before she again sat down. Then, when he was gone — when she was sure that he was no longer there with her in the same house — she laid her head down upon the arm of the sofa, and burst into a flood of tears. She was no longer angry with Phineas. There was no further longing in her heart for revenge. She did not now desire to injure him, though she had done so as long as he was with her. Nay — she resolved instantly, almost instinctively, that Lord Brentford must know nothing of all this, lest the political prospects of the young member for Loughton should be injured. To have rebuked him, to rebuke him again and again, would be only fair — would at least be womanly; but she would protect him from all material injury as far as her power of protection might avail. And why was she weeping now so bitterly? Of course she asked herself, as she rubbed away the tears with her hands — Why should she weep? She was not weak enough to tell herself that she was weeping for any injury that had been done to Oswald. She got up suddenly from the sofa, and pushed away her hair from her face, and pushed away the tears from her cheeks, and then clenched her fists as she held them out at full length from her body, and stood, looking up with her eyes fixed upon the wall. “Ass!” she exclaimed. Fool! Idiot! That I should not be able to crush it into nothing and have done with it! Why should he not have her? After all, he is better than Oswald. Oh — is that you?” The door of the room had been opened while she was standing thus, and her husband had entered.
“Yes — it is I. Is anything wrong?”
“Very much is wrong.”
“What is it, Laura?”
“You cannot help me.”
“If you are in trouble you should tell me what it is, and leave it to me to try to help you.”
“Nonsense!” she said, shaking her head.
“Laura, that is uncourteous — not to say undutiful also.”
“I suppose it was — both. I beg your pardon, but I could not help it.”
“Laura, you should help such words to me.”
“There are moments, Robert, when even a married woman must be herself rather than her husband’s wife. It is so, though you cannot understand it.”
“I certainly do not understand it.”
“You cannot make a woman subject to you as a dog is so. You may have all the outside and as much of the inside as you can master. With a dog you may be sure of both.”
“I suppose this means that you have secrets in which I am not to share.”
“I have troubles about my father and my brother which you cannot share. My brother is a ruined man.”
“Who ruined him?”
“I will not talk about it any more. I will not speak to you of him or of papa. I only want you to understand that there is a subject which must be secret to myself, and on which I may be allowed to shed tears — if I am so weak. I will not trouble you on a matter in which I have not your sympathy.” Then she left him, standing in the middle of the room, depressed by what had occurred — but not thinking of it as of a trouble which would do more than make him uncomfortable for that day.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55