It was necessary also that some communication should be made to Phineas, so that he might not come across Madame Goesler unawares. Lady Chiltern was more alive to that necessity than she had been to the other, and felt that the gentleman, if not warned of what was to take place, would be much more likely than the lady to be awkward at the trying moment, Madame Goesler would in any circumstances be sure to recover her self-possession very quickly, even were she to lose it for a moment; but so much could hardly be said for the social powers of Phineas Finn. Lady Chiltern therefore contrived to see him alone for a moment on his arrival. “Who do you think is here?”
“Lady Laura has not come!”
“Indeed, no; I wish she had. An old friend, but not so old as Laura!”
“I cannot guess — not Lord Fawn?”
“Lord Fawn! What would Lord Fawn do here? Don’t you know that Lord Fawn goes nowhere since his last matrimonial trouble? It’s a friend of yours, not of mine.”
“Madame Goesler?” whispered Phineas.
“How well you knew when I said it was a friend of yours. Madame Goesler is here — not altered in the least.”
“Does it annoy you?”
“Oh, no. Why should it annoy me?”
“You never quarrelled with her?”
“There is no reason why you should not meet her?”
“None at all — only I was surprised. Did she know that I was coming?”
“I told her yesterday. I hope that I have not done wrong or made things unpleasant. I knew that you used to be friends.”
“And as friends we parted, Lady Chiltern.” He had nothing more to say in the matter; nor had she. He could not tell the story of what had taken place between himself and the lady, and she could not keep herself from surmising that something had taken place, which, had she known it, would have prevented her from bringing the two together at Harrington.
Madame Goesler, when she was dressing, acknowledged to herself that she had a task before her which would require all her tact and all her courage. She certainly would not have accepted Lady Chiltern’s invitation had she known that she would encounter Phineas Finn at the house. She had twenty-four hours to think of it, and at one time had almost made up her mind that some sudden business should recall her to London. Of course, her motive would be suspected. Of course Lady Chiltern would connect her departure with the man’s arrival. But even that, bad as it would be, might be preferable to the meeting! What a fool had she been — so she accused herself — in not foreseeing that such an accident might happen, knowing as she did that Phineas Finn had reappeared in the political world, and that he and the Chiltern people had ever been fast friends! As she had thought about it, lying awake at night, she had told herself that she must certainly be recalled back to London by business. She would telegraph up to town, raising a question about any trifle, and on receipt of the answer she could be off with something of an excuse. The shame of running away from the man seemed to be a worse evil than the shame of meeting him. She had in truth done nothing to disgrace herself. In her desire to save a man whom she had loved from the ruin which she thought had threatened him, she had — offered him her hand. She had made the offer, and he had refused it! That was all. No; she would not be driven to confess to herself that she had ever fled from the face of man or woman. This man would be again in London, and she could not always fly. It would be only necessary that she should maintain her own composure, and the misery of the meeting would pass away after the first few minutes. One consolation was assured to her. She thoroughly believed in the man — feeling certain that he had not betrayed her, and would not betray her. But now, as the time for the meeting drew near, as she stood for a moment before the glass — pretending to look at herself in order that her maid might not remark her uneasiness, she found that her courage, great as it was, hardly sufficed her. She almost plotted some scheme of a headache, by which she might be enabled not to show herself till after dinner. “I am so blind that I can hardly see out of my eyes,” she said to the maid, actually beginning the scheme. The woman assumed a look of painful solicitude, and declared that “Madame did not look quite her best.” “I suppose I shall shake it off,” said Madame Goesler; and then she descended the stairs.
The condition of Phineas Finn was almost as bad, but he had a much less protracted period of anticipation than that with which the lady was tormented. He was sent up to dress for dinner with the knowledge that in half an hour he would find himself in the same room with Madame Goesler. There could be no question of his running away, no possibility even of his escaping by a headache. But it may be doubted whether his dismay was not even more than hers. She knew that she could teach herself to use no other than fitting words; but he was almost sure that he would break down if he attempted to speak to her. She would be safe from blushing, but he would assuredly become as red as a turkey-cock’s comb up to the roots of his hair. Her blood would be under control, but his would be coursing hither and thither through his veins, so as to make him utterly unable to rule himself. Nevertheless, he also plucked up his courage and descended, reaching the drawing-room before Madame Goesler had entered it. Chiltern was going on about Trumpeton Wood to Lord Baldock, and was renewing his fury against all the Pallisers, while Adelaide stood by and laughed. Gerard Maule was lounging on a chair, wondering that any man could expend such energy on such a subject. Lady Chiltern was explaining the merits of the case to Lady Baldock — who knew nothing about hunting; and the other guests were listening with eager attention: A certain Mr Spooner, who rode hard and did nothing else, and who acted as an unacknowledged assistant-master under Lord Chiltern — there is such a man in every hunt — acted as chorus, and indicated, chiefly with dumb show, the strong points of the case.
“Finn, how are you?” said Lord Chiltern, stretching out his left hand. “Glad to have you back again, and congratulate you about the seat. It was put down in red herrings, and we found nearly a dozen of them afterwards — enough to kill half the pack.”
“Picked up nine,” said Mr Spooner.
“Children might have picked them up quite as well — and eaten them,” said Lady Chiltern.
“They didn’t care about that,” continued the Master. “And now they’ve wires and traps over the whole place. Palliser’s a friend of yours — isn’t he, Finn?”
“Of course I knew him — when I was in office.”
“I don’t know what he may be in office, but he’s an uncommon bad sort of fellow to have in a county.”
“Shameful!” said Mr Spooner, lifting up both his hands.
“This is my first cousin, you know,” whispered Adelaide, to Lady Baldock.
“If he were my own brother, or my grandmother, I should say the same,” continued the angry lord. “We must have a meeting about it, and let the world know it — that’s all.” At this moment the door was again opened, and Madame Goesler entered the room.
When one wants to be natural, of necessity one comes the reverse of natural. A clever actor — or more frequently a clever actress — will assume the appearance; but the very fact of the assumption renders the reality impossible. Lady Chiltern was generally very clever in the arrangement of all little social difficulties, and, had she thought less about it, might probably have managed the present affair in an easy and graceful manner. But the thing had weighed upon her mind, and she had decided that it would be expedient that she should say something when those two old friends first met each other again in her drawing-room. “Madame Max,” she said, “you remember Mr Finn.” Lord Chiltern for a moment stopped the torrent of his abuse. Lord Baldock made a little effort to look uninterested, but quite in vain. Mr Spooner stood on one side. Lady Baldock stared with all her eyes — with some feeling of instinct that there would be something to see; and Gerard Maule, rising from the sofa, joined the circle. It seemed as though Lady Chiltern’s words had caused the formation of a ring in the midst of which Phineas and Madame Goesler were to renew their acquaintance.
“Very well indeed,” said Madame Max, putting out her hand and looking full into our hero’s face with her sweetest smile. “And I hope Mr Finn will not have forgotten me.” She did it admirably — so well that surely she need not have thought of running away.
But poor Phineas was not happy. “I shall never forget you,” said he; and then that unavoidable blush suffused his face, and the blood began to career through his veins.
“I am so glad you are in Parliament again,” said Madame Max.
“Yes — I’ve got in again, after a struggle. Are you still living in Park Lane?”
“Oh, yes — and shall be most happy to see you.” Then she seated herself — as did also Lady Chiltern by her side. “I see the poor Duke’s iniquities are still under discussion. I hope Lord Chiltern recognises the great happiness of having a grievance. It would be a pity that so great a blessing should be thrown away upon him.” For the moment Madame Max had got through her difficulty, and, indeed, had done so altogether till the moment should come in which she should find herself alone with Phineas. But he slunk back from the gathering before the fire, and stood solitary and silent till dinner was announced. It became his fate to take an old woman into dinner who was not very clearsighted. “Did you know that lady before?” she asked.
“Oh, yes; I knew her two or three years ago in London.”
“Do you think she is pretty?”
“All the men say so, but I never can see it. They have been saying ever so long that the old Duke of Omnium means to marry her on his deathbed, but I don’t suppose there can be anything in it.”
“Why should he put it off for so very inopportune an occasion?” asked Phineas.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14