Phineas, on his return to London, before he had taken his seat in the House, received the following letter from Lady Laura Kennedy
“Dresden, 8th February, 1870 “ DEAR FRIEND—
“I thought that perhaps you would have written to me from Harrington. Violet has told me of the meeting between you and Madame Goesler, and says that the old friendship seems to have been perfectly re-established. She used to think once that there might be more than friendship, but I never quite believed that. She tells me that Chiltern is quarrelling with the Pallisers. You ought not to let him quarrel with people. I know that he would listen to you. He always did.
“I write now especially because I have just received so dreadful a letter from Mr Kennedy! I would send it you were it not that there are in it a few words which on his behalf I shrink from showing even to you. It is full of threats. He begins by quotations from the Scriptures, and from the Prayer Book, to show that a wife has no right to leave her husband — and then he goes on to the law. One knows all that of course. And then he asks whether he ever ill-used me? Was he ever false to me? Do I think, that were I to choose to submit the matter to the iniquitous practices of the present Divorce Court, I could prove anything against him by which even that low earthly judge would be justified in taking from him his marital authority? And if not — have I no conscience? Can I reconcile it to myself to make his life utterly desolate and wretched simply because duties which I took upon myself at my marriage have become distasteful to me?
“These questions would be very hard to answer, were there not other questions that I could ask. Of course I was wrong to marry him. I know that now, and I repent my sin in sack-cloth and ashes. But I did not leave him after I married him till he had brought against me horrid accusations — accusations which a woman could not bear, which, if he believed them himself, must have made it impossible for him to live with me. Could any wife live with a husband who declared to her face that he believed that she had a lover? And in this very letter he says that which almost repeats the accusation. He has asked me how I can have dared to receive you, and desires me never either to see you or to wish to see you again. And yet he sent for you to Loughlinter before you came, in order that you might act as a friend between us. How could I possibly return to a man whose power of judgment has so absolutely left him?
“I have a conscience in the matter, a conscience that is very far from being at ease. I have done wrong, and have shipwrecked every hope in this world. No woman was ever more severely punished. My life is a burden to me, and I may truly say that I look for no peace this side the grave. I am conscious, too, of continued sin — a sin unlike other sins — not to be avoided, of daily occurrence, a sin which weighs me to the ground. But I should not sin the less were I to return to him. Of course he can plead his marriage. The thing is done. But it can’t be right that a woman should pretend to love a man whom she loathes. I couldn’t live with him. If it were simply to go and die, so that his pride would be gratified by my return, I would do it; but I should not die. There would come some horrid scene, and I should be no more a wife to him than I am while living here.
“He now threatens me with publicity. He declares that unless I return to him he will put into some of the papers a statement of the whole case. Of course this would be very bad. To be obscure and untalked of is all the comfort that now remains to me. And he might say things that would be prejudicial to others — especially to you. Could this in anyway be prevented? I suppose the papers would publish anything; and you know how greedily people will read slander about those whose names are in anyway remarkable. In my heart I believe he is insane; but it is very hard that one’s privacy should be at the mercy of a madman. He says that he can get an order from the Court of Queen’s Bench which will oblige the judges in Saxony to send me back to England in the custody of the police, but that I do not believe. I had the opinion of Sir Gregory Grogram before I came away, and he told me that it was not so. I do not fear his power over my person, while I remain here, but that the matter should be dragged forward before the public.
“I have not answered him yet, nor have I shown his letter to Papa. I hardly liked to tell you when you were here, but I almost fear to talk to Papa about it. He never urges me to go back, but I know that he wishes that I should do so. He has ideas about money, which seem singular to me, knowing, as I do, how very generous he has been himself. When I married, my fortune, as you knew, had been just used in paying Chiltern’s debts. Mr Kennedy had declared himself to be quite indifferent about it, though the sum was large. The whole thing was explained to him, and he was satisfied. Before a year was over he complained to Papa, and then Papa and Chiltern together raised the money — oe40,000 — and it was paid to Mr Kennedy. He has written more than once to Papa’s lawyer to say that, though the money is altogether useless to him, he will not return a penny of it, because by doing so he would seem to abandon his rights. Nobody has asked him to return it. Nobody has asked him to defray a penny on my account since I left him. But Papa continues to say that the money should not be lost to the family. I cannot, however, return to such a husband for the sake of oe40,000. Papa is very angry about the money, because he says that if it had been paid in the usual way at my marriage, settlements would have been required that it should come back to the family after Mr Kennedy’s death in the event of my having no child. But, as it is now, the money would go to his estate after my death. I don’t understand why it should be so, but Papa is always harping upon it, and declaring that Mr Kennedy’s pretended generosity has robbed us all. Papa thinks that were I to return this could be arranged; but I could not go back to him for such a reason. What does it matter? Chiltern and Violet will have enough; and of what use would it be to such a one as I am to have a sum of money to leave behind me? I should leave it to your children, Phineas, and not to Chiltern’s.
“He bids me neither see you nor write to you — but how can I obey a man whom I believe to be mad? And when I will not obey him in the greater matter by returning to him it would be absurd were I to attempt to obey him in smaller details. I don’t suppose I shall see you very often. His letter has, at any rate, made me feel that it would be impossible for me to return to England, and it is not likely that you will soon come here again. I will not even ask you to do so, though your presence gave a brightness to my life for a few days which nothing else could have produced. But when the lamp for a while burns with special brightness there always comes afterwards a corresponding dullness. I had to pay for your visit, and for the comfort of my confession to you at Königstein. I was determined that you should know it all; but, having told you, I do not want to see you again. As for writing, he shall not deprive me of the consolation — nor I trust will you.
“Do you think that I should answer his letter, or will it be better that I should show it to Papa? I am very averse to doing this, as I have explained to you; but I would do so if I thought that Mr Kennedy really intended to act upon his threats. I will not conceal from you that it would go nigh to kill me if my name were dragged through the papers. Can anything be done to prevent it? If he were known to be mad of course the papers would not publish his statements; but I suppose that if he were to send a letter from Loughlinter with his name to it they would print it. It would be very, very cruel.
“God bless you. I need not say how faithfully I am “Your friend, “L. K.”
This letter was addressed to Phineas at his club, and there he received it on the evening before the meeting of Parliament. He sat up for nearly an hour thinking of it after he read it. He must answer it at once. That was a matter of course. But he could give her no advice that would be of any service to her. He was, indeed, of all men the least fitted to give her counsel in her present emergency. It seemed to him that as she was safe from any attack on her person, she need only remain at Dresden, answering his letter by what softest negatives she could use. It was clear to him that in his present condition she could take no steps whatever in regard to the money. That must be left to his conscience, to time, and to chance. As to the threat of publicity, the probability, he thought, was that it would lead to nothing. He doubted whether any respectable newspaper would insert such a statement as that suggested. Were it published, the evil must be borne. No diligence on her part, or on the part of her lawyers, could prevent it.
But what had she meant when she wrote of continual sin, sin not to be avoided, of sin repeated daily which nevertheless weighed her to the ground? Was it expected of him that he should answer that portion of her letter? It amounted to a passionate renewal of that declaration of affection for himself which she had made at Königstein, and which had pervaded her whole life since some period antecedent to her wretched marriage. Phineas, as he thought of it, tried to analyse the nature of such a love. He also, in those old days, had loved her, and had at once resolved that he must tell her so, though his hopes of success had been poor indeed. He had taken the first opportunity, and had declared his purpose. She, with the imperturbable serenity of a matured kind-hearted woman, had patted him on the back, as it were, as she told him of her existing engagement with Mr Kennedy. Could it be that at that moment she could have loved him as she now said she did, and that she should have been so, cold, so calm, and so kind; while, at that very moment, this coldness, calmness, and kindness was but a thin crust over so strong a passion? How different had been his own love! He had been neither calm nor kind. He had felt himself for a day or two to be so terribly knocked about that the world was nothing to him. For a month or two he had regarded himself as a man peculiarly circumstanced — marked for misfortune and for a solitary life. Then he had retricked his beams, and before twelve months were passed had almost forgotten his love. He knew now, or thought that he knew — that the continued indulgence of a hopeless passion was a folly opposed to the very instincts of man and woman — a weakness showing want of fibre and of muscle in the character. But here was a woman who could calmly conceal her passion in its early days and marry a man whom she did not love in spite of it, who could make her heart, her feelings, and all her feminine delicacy subordinate to material considerations, and nevertheless could not rid herself of her passion in the course of years, although she felt its existence to be an intolerable burden on her conscience. On which side lay strength of character and on which side weakness? Was he strong or was she?
And he tried to examine his own feelings in regard to her. The thing was so long ago that she was to him as some aunt, or sister, so much the elder as to be almost venerable. He acknowledged to himself a feeling which made it incumbent upon him to spend himself in her service, could he serve her by any work of his. He was — or would be, devoted to her. He owed her a never-dying gratitude. But were she free to marry again tomorrow, he knew that he could not marry her. She herself had said the same thing. She had said that she would be his sister. She had specially required of him that he should make known to her his wife, should he ever marry again. She had declared that she was incapable of further jealousy — and yet she now told him of daily sin of which her conscience could not assoil itself.
“Phineas,” said a voice close to his ears, “are you repenting your sins?”
“Oh, certainly — what sins?”
It was Barrington Erle. “You know that we are going to do nothing tomorrow,” continued he.
“So I am told.”
“We shall let the Address pass almost without a word. Gresham will simply express his determination to oppose the Church Bill to the knife. He means to be very plain-spoken about it. Whatever may be the merits of the Bill, it must be regarded as an unconstitutional effort to retail power in the hands of the minority, coming from such hands as those of Mr Daubeny. I take it he will go at length into the question of majorities, and show how inexpedient it is on behalf of the nation that any Ministry should remain in power who cannot command a majority in the House on ordinary questions. I don’t know whether he will do that tomorrow or at the second reading of the Bill.”
“I quite agree with him.”
“Of course you do. Everybody agrees with him. No gentleman can have a doubt on the subject. Personally, I hate the idea of Church Reform. Dear old Mildmay, who taught me all I know, hates it too. But Mr Gresham is the head of our party now, and much as I may differ from him on many things, I am bound to follow him. If he proposes Church Reform in my time, or anything else, I shall support him.”
“I know those are your ideas.”
“Of course they are. There are no other ideas on which things can be made to work. Were it not that men get drilled into it by the force of circumstances any government in this country would be impossible. Were it not so, what should we come to? The Queen would find herself justified in keeping in any set of Ministers who could get her favour, and ambitious men would prevail without any support from the country. The Queen must submit to dictation from some quarter.”
“She must submit to advice, certainly,”
“Don’t cavil at a word when you know it to be true,” said Barrington, energetically. “The constitution of the country requires that she should submit to dictation. Can it come safely from any other quarter than that of a majority of the House of Commons?”
“I think not.”
“We are all agreed about that. Not a single man in either House would dare to deny it. And if it be so, what man in his senses can think of running counter to the party which he believes to be right in its general views? A man so burthened with scruples as to be unable to act in this way should keep himself aloof from public life. Such a one cannot serve the country in Parliament, though he may possibly do so with pen and ink in his closet.”
“I wonder then that you should have asked me to come forward again after what I did about the Irish land question,” said Phineas.
“A first fault may be forgiven when the sinner has in other respects been useful. The long and the short of it is that you must vote with us against Daubeny’s bill. Browborough sees it plainly enough. He supported his chief in the teeth of all his protestations at Tankerville.”
“I am not Browborough.”
“Nor half so good a man if you desert us,” said Barrington Erle, with anger.
“I say nothing about that. He has his ideas of duty, and I have mine. But I will go so far as this. I have not yet made up my mind. I shall ask advice; but you must not quarrel with me if I say that I must seek it from someone who is less distinctly a partisan than you are.”
“Yes — from Mr Monk. I do think it will be bad for the country that this measure should come from the hands of Mr Daubeny.”
“Then why the d — should you support it, and oppose your own party at the same time? After that you can’t do it. Well, Ratler, my guide and philosopher, how is it going to be?”
Mr Ratler had joined them, but was still standing before the seat they occupied, not condescending to sit down in amicable intercourse with a man as to whom he did not yet know whether to regard him as a friend or foe. “We shall be very quiet for the next month or six weeks,” said Ratler.
“And then?” asked Phineas.
“Well, then it will depend on what may be the number of a few insane men who never ought to have seats in the House.”
“Such as Mr Monk and Mr Turnbull?” Now it was well known that both those gentlemen, who were recognised as leading men, were strong Radicals, and it was supposed that they both would support any bill, come whence it might, which would separate Church and State.
“Such as Mr Monk,” said Ratler. “I will grant that Turnbull may be an exception. It is his business to go in for everything in the way of agitation, and he at any rate is consistent. But when a man has once been in office — why then — ”
“When he has taken the shilling?” said Phineas.
“Just so. I confess I do not like a deserter.”
“Phineas will be all right,” said Barrington Erle.
“I hope so,” said Mr Ratler, as he passed on.
“Ratler and I run very much in the same groove,” said Barrington, “but I fancy there is some little difference in the motive power.”
“Ratler wants place.”
“And so do I.”
“He wants it just as most men want professional success,” said Phineas. “But if I understand your object, it is chiefly the maintenance of the old-established political power of the Whigs. You believe in families?”
“I do believe in the patriotism of certain families. I believe that the Mildmays, FitzHowards, and Pallisers have for some centuries brought up their children to regard the well-being of their country as their highest personal interest, and that such teaching has been generally efficacious. Of course, there have been failures. Every child won’t learn its lesson however well it may be taught. But the school in which good training is most practised will, as a rule, turn out the best scholars. In this way I believe in families. You have come in for some of the teaching, and I expect to see you a scholar yet.”
The House met on the following day, and the Address was moved and seconded; but there was no debate. There was not even a full House. The same ceremony had taken place so short a time previously, that the whole affair was flat and uninteresting. It was understood that nothing would in fact be done. Mr Gresham, as leader of his side of the House, confined himself to asserting that he should give his firmest opposition to the proposed measure, which was, it seemed, so popular with the gentlemen who sat on the other side, and who supported the so-called Conservative Government of the day. His reasons for doing so had been stated very lately, and must unfortunately be repeated very soon, and he would not, therefore, now trouble the House with them. He did not on this occasion explain his ideas as to majorities, and the Address was carried by seven o’clock in the evening. Mr Daubeny named a day a month hence for the first reading of his bill, and was asked the cause of the delay by some member on a back bench. “Because it cannot be ready sooner,” said Mr Daubeny. “When the honourable gentleman has achieved a position which will throw upon him the responsibility of bringing forward some great measure for the benefit of his country, he will probably find it expedient to devote some little time to details. If he do not, he will be less anxious to avoid attack than I am.” A Minister can always give a reason; and, if he be clever, he can generally when doing so punish the man who asks for it. The punishing of an influential enemy is an indiscretion; but an obscure questioner may often be crushed with good effect.
Mr Monk’s advice to Phineas was both simple and agreeable. He intended to support Mr Gresham, and of course counselled his friend to do the same.
“But you supported Mr Daubeny on the Address before Christmas,” said Phineas.
“And shall therefore be bound to explain why I oppose him now — but the task will not be difficult. The Queen’s speech to Parliament was in my judgment right, and therefore I concurred in the Address. But I certainly cannot trust Mr Daubeny with Church Reform. I do not know that many will make the same distinction, but I shall do so.”
Phineas soon found himself sitting in the House as though he had never left it. His absence had not been long enough to make the place feel strange to him. He was on his legs before a fortnight was over asking some question of some Minister, and of course insinuating as he did so that the Minister in question had been guilty of some enormity of omission or commission. It all came back upon him as though he had been born to the very manner. And as it became known to the Ratlers that he meant to vote right on the great coming question — to vote right and to speak right in spite of his doings at Tankerville — everybody was civil to him. Mr Bonteen did express an opinion to Mr Ratler that it was quite impossible that Phineas Finn should ever again accept office, as of course the Tankervillians would never replace him in his seat after manifest apostasy to his pledge; but Mr Ratler seemed to think very little of that. “They won’t remember, Lord bless you — and then he’s one of those fellows that always get in somewhere. He’s not a man I particularly like; but you’ll always see him in the House — up and down, you know. When a fellow begins early, and has got it in him, it’s hard to shake him off.” And thus even Mr Ratler was civil to our hero.
Lady Laura Kennedy’s letter had, of course, been answered — not without very great difficulty. “My dear Laura,” he had begun — for the first time in his life. She had told him to treat her as a brother would do, and he thought it best to comply with her instructions. But beyond that, till he declared himself at the end to be hers affectionately, he made no further protestation of affection. He made no allusion to that sin which weighed so heavily on her, but answered all her questions. He advised her to remain at Dresden. He assured her that no power could be used to enforce her return. He expressed his belief that Mr Kennedy would abstain from making any public statement, but suggested that if any were made the answering of it should be left to the family lawyer. In regard to the money, he thought it impossible that any step should be taken. He then told her all there was to tell of Lord and Lady Chiltern, and something also of himself. When the letter was written he found that it was cold and almost constrained. To his own ears it did not sound like the hearty letter of a generous friend. It savoured of the caution with which it had been prepared. But what could he do? Would he not sin against her and increase her difficulties if he addressed her with warm affection? Were he to say a word that ought not to be addressed to any woman he might do her an irreparable injury; and yet the tone of his own letter was odious to him.
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