Phineas had certainly no desire to make love by an ambassador — at second hand. He had given no commission to Lady Laura, and was, as the reader is aware, quite ignorant of what was being done and said on his behalf. He had asked no more from Lady Laura than an opportunity of speaking for himself, and that he had asked almost with a conviction that by so asking he would turn his friend into an enemy. He had read but little of the workings of Lady Laura’s heart towards himself, and had no idea of the assistance she was anxious to give him. She had never told him that she was willing to sacrifice her brother on his behalf, and, of course, had not told him that she was willing also to sacrifice herself. Nor, when she wrote to him one June morning and told him that Violet would be found in Portman Square, alone, that afternoon — naming an hour, and explaining that Miss Effingham would be there to meet herself and her father, but that at such an hour she would be certainly alone — did he even then know how much she was prepared to do for him. The short note was signed “L.,” and then there came a long postscript. “Ask for me,” she said in a postscript. “I shall be there later, and I have told them to bid you wait. I can give you no hope of success, but if you choose to try — you can do so. If you do not come, I shall know that you have changed your mind. I shall not think the worse of you, and your secret will be safe with me. I do that which you have asked me to do — simply because you have asked it. Burn this at once — because I ask it.” Phineas destroyed the note, tearing it into atoms, the moment that he had read it and re-read it. Of course he would go to Portman Square at the hour named. Of course he would take his chance. He was not buoyed up by much of hope — but even though there were no hope, he would take his chance.
When Lord Brentford had first told Phineas of his promotion, he had also asked the new Lord of the Treasury to make a certain communication on his behalf to his son. This Phineas had found himself obliged to promise to do — and he had done it. The letter had been difficult enough to write — but he had written it. After having made the promise, he had found himself bound to keep it.
“Dear Lord Chiltern,” he had commenced, I will not think that there was anything in our late encounter to prevent my so addressing you. I now write at the instance of your father, who has heard nothing of our little affair.” Then he explained at length Lord Brentford’s wishes as he understood them. “Pray come home,” he said, finishing his letter. “Touching V. E., I feel that I am bound to tell you that I still mean to try my fortune, but that I have no ground for hoping that my fortune will be good. Since the day on the sands, I have never met her but in society. I know you will be glad to hear that my wound was nothing; and I think you will be glad to hear that I have got my foot on to the ladder of promotion. — Yours always,
“ PHINEAS FINN ”
Now he had to try his fortune — that fortune of which he had told Lord Chiltern that he had no reason for hoping that it would be good. He went direct from his office at the Treasury to Portman Square, resolving that he would take no trouble as to his dress, simply washing his hands and brushing his hair as though he were going down to the House, and he knocked at the Earl’s door exactly at the hour named by Lady Laura.
“Miss Effingham,” he said, I am so glad to find you alone.”
“Yes,” she said, laughing. I am alone — a poor unprotected female. But I fear nothing. I have strong reason for believing that Lord Brentford is somewhere about. And Pomfret the butler, who has known me since I was a baby, is a host in himself.”
“With such allies you can have nothing to fear,” he replied, attempting to carry on her little jest.
“Nor even without them, Mr Finn. We unprotected females in these days are so self-reliant that our natural protectors fall off from us, finding themselves to be no longer wanted. Now with you — what can I fear?”
“Nothing — as I hope.”
“There used to be a time, and that not so long ago either, when young gentlemen and ladies were thought to be very dangerous to each other if they were left alone. But propriety is less rampant now, and upon the whole virtue and morals, with discretion and all that kind of thing, have been the gainers. Don’t you think so?”
“I am sure of it.”
“All the same, but I don’t like to be caught in a trap, Mr Finn.”
“In a trap?”
“Yes — in a trap. Is there no trap here? If you will say so, I will acknowledge myself to be a dolt, and will beg your pardon.”
“I hardly know what you call a trap.”
“You were told that I was here?”
He paused a moment before he replied. “Yes, I was told.”
“I call that a trap.”
“Am I to blame?”
“I don’t say that you set it — but you use it.”
“Miss Effingham, of course I have used it. You must know — I think you must know that I have that to say to you which has made me long for such an opportunity as this.”
“And therefore you have called in the assistance of your friend.”
“It is true.”
“In such matters you should never talk to anyone, Mr Finn. If you cannot fight your own battle, no one can fight it for you.”
“Miss Effingham, do you remember our ride at Saulsby?”
“Very well — as if it were yesterday.”
“And do you remember that I asked you a question which you have never answered?”
“I did answer it — as well as I knew how, so that I might tell you a truth without hurting you.”
“It was necessary — is necessary that I should be hurt sorely, or made perfectly happy, Violet Effingham, I have come to you to ask you to be my wife — to tell you that I love you, and to ask for your love in return. Whatever may be my fate, the question must be asked, and an answer must be given. I have not hoped that you should tell me that you loved me — ”
“For what then have you hoped?”
“For not much, indeed — but if for anything, then for some chance that you might tell me so hereafter.”
“If I loved you, I would tell you so now — instantly. I give you my word of that.”
“Can you never love me?”
“What is a woman to answer to such a question? No — I believe never. I do not think I shall ever wish you to be my husband. You ask me to be plain, and I must be plain.”
“Is it because —?” He paused, hardly knowing what the question was which he proposed to himself to ask.
“It is for no because — for no cause except that simple one which should make any girl refuse any man whom she did not love. Mr Finn, I could say pleasant things to you on any other subject than this — because I like you.”
“I know that I have nothing to justify my suit.”
“You have everything to justify it — at least I am bound to presume that you have. If you love me — you are justified.”
“You know that I love you.”
“I am sorry that it should ever have been so — very sorry. I can only hope that I have not been in fault.”
“Will you try to love me?”
“No — why should I try? If any trying were necessary, I would try rather not to love you. Why should I try to do that which would displease everybody belonging to me? For yourself, I admit your right to address me — and tell you frankly that such a marriage would not please those whom I am bound to try to please.”
He paused a moment before he spoke further. “I shall wait,” he said, “and come again.”
“What am I to say to that? Do not tease me, so that I be driven to treat you with lack of courtesy. Lady Laura is so much attached to you, and Mr Kennedy, and Lord Brentford — and indeed I may say, I myself also, that I trust there may be nothing to mar our good fellowship. Come Mr Finn — say that you will take an answer, and I will give you my hand.”
“Give it me,” said he. She gave him her hand, and he put it up to his lips and pressed it. “I will wait and come again,” he said. “I will assuredly come again.” Then he turned from her and went out of the house. At the corner of the square he saw Lady Laura’s carriage, but did not stop to speak to her. And she also saw him.
“So you have had a visitor here,” said Lady Laura to Violet.
“Yes — I have been caught in the trap.”
“Poor mouse! And has the cat made a meal of you?”
“I fancy he has, after his fashion. There be cats that eat their mice without playing — and cats that play with their mice, and then eat them; and cats again which only play with their mice, and don’t care to eat them. Mr Finn is a cat of the latter kind, and has had his afternoon’s diversion.”
“You wrong him there.”
“I think not, Laura. I do not mean to say that he would not have liked me to accept him. But, if I can see inside his bosom, such a little job as that he has now done will be looked back upon as one of the past pleasures of his life — not as a pain.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01