Though it was rumoured all over London that the Duke of Omnium was dying, His Grace had been dressed and taken out of his bed-chamber into a sitting-room, when Madame Goesler was brought into his presence by Lady Glencora Palliser. He was reclining in a great arm-chair, with his legs propped up on cushions, and a respectable old lady in a black silk gown and a very smart cap was attending to his wants. The respectable old lady took her departure when the younger ladies entered the room, whispering a word of instruction to Lady Glencora as she went. “His Grace should have his broth at half-past four, my lady, and a glass and a half of champagne. His Grace won’t drink his wine out of a tumbler, so perhaps your ladyship won’t mind giving it him at twice.”
“Marie has come,” said Lady Glencora.
“I knew she would come,” said the old man, turning his head round slowly on the back of his chair. “I knew she would be good to me to the last.” And he laid his withered hand on the arm of his chair, so that the woman whose presence gratified him might take it within hers and comfort him.
“Of course I have come,” said Madame Goesler, standing close by him and putting her left arm very lightly on his shoulder. It was all that she could do for him, but it was in order that she might do this that she had been summoned from London to his side. He was wan and worn and pale — a man evidently dying, the oil of whose lamp was all burned out; but still as he turned his eyes up to the woman’s face there was a remnant of that look of graceful fainéant nobility which had always distinguished him. He had never done any good, but he had always carried himself like a duke, and like a duke he carried himself to the end.
“He is decidedly better than he was this morning,” said Lady Glencora.
“It is pretty nearly all over, my dear. Sit down, Marie. Did they give you anything after your journey?”
“I could not wait, Duke.”
“I’ll get her some tea,” said Lady Glencora. “Yes, I will. I’ll do it myself. I know he wants to say a word to you alone.” This she added in a whisper.
But sick people hear everything, and the Duke did hear the whisper. “Yes, my dear — she is quite right. I am glad to have you for a minute alone. Do you love me, Marie?”
It was a foolish question to be asked by a dying old man of a young woman who was in no way connected with him, and whom he had never seen till some three or four years since. But it was asked with feverish anxiety, and it required an answer. “You know I love you, Duke. Why else should I be here?”
“It is a pity you did not take the coronet when I offered it you.”
“Nay, Duke, it was no pity. Had I done so, you could not have had us both.”
“I should have wanted only you.”
“And I should have stood aloof — in despair to think that I was separating you from those with whom your Grace is bound up so closely. We have ever been dear friends since that.”
“Yes — we have been dear friends. But — “ Then he closed his eyes, and put his long thin fingers across his face, and lay back awhile in silence, still holding her by the other hand. “Kiss me, Marie,” he said at last; and she stooped over him and kissed his forehead. “I would do it now if I thought it would serve you.” She only shook her head and pressed his hand closely, “I would; I would. Such things have been done, my dear.”
“Such a thing shall never be done by me, Duke.”
They remained seated side by side, the one holding the other by the hand, but without uttering another word, till Lady Glencora returned bringing a cup of tea and a morsel of toast in her own hand. Madame Goesler, as she took it, could not help thinking how it might have been with her had she accepted the coronet which had been offered. In that case she might have been a duchess herself, but assuredly she would not have been waited upon by a future duchess. As it was, there was no one in that family who had not cause to be grateful to her. When the Duke had sipped a spoonful of his broth, and swallowed his allowance of wine, they both left him, and the respectable old lady with the smart cap was summoned back to her position. “I suppose he whispered something very gracious to you,” Lady Glencora said when they were alone.
“And you were gracious to him — I hope.”
“I meant to be.”
“I’m sure you did. Poor old man! If you had done what he asked you I wonder whether his affection would have lasted as it has done.”
“Certainly not, Lady Glen. He would have known that I had injured him.”
“I declare I think you are the wisest woman I ever met, Madame Max. I am sure you are the most discreet. If I had always been as wise as you are!”
“You always have been wise.”
“Well — never mind. Some people fall on their feet like cats; but you are one of those who never fall at all. Others tumble about in the most unfortunate way, without any great fault of their own. Think of that poor Lady Laura.”
“I suppose it’s true about Mr Kennedy. You’ve heard of it of course in London.” But as it happened Madame Goesler had not heard the story. “I got it from Barrington Erle, who always writes to me if anything happens. Mr Kennedy has fired a pistol at the head of Phineas Finn.”
“At Phineas Finn!”
“Yes, indeed. Mr Finn went to him at some hotel in London. No one knows what it was about; but Mr Kennedy went off in a fit of jealousy, and fired a pistol at him.”
“He did not hit him?”
“It seems not. Mr Finn is one of those Irish gentlemen who always seem to be under some special protection. The ball went through his whiskers and didn’t hurt him.”
“And what has become of Mr Kennedy?”
“Nothing, it seems. Nobody sent for the police, and he has been allowed to go back to Scotland — as though a man were permitted by special Act of Parliament to try to murder his wife’s lover. It would be a bad law, because it would cause such a deal of bloodshed.”
“But he is not Lady Laura’s lover,” said Madame Goesler, gravely.
“That would make the law difficult, because who is to say whether a man is or is not a woman’s lover?”
“I don’t think there was ever anything of that kind.”
“They were always together, but I daresay it was Platonic. I believe these kind of things generally are Platonic. And as for Lady Laura — heavens and earth! — I suppose it must have been Platonic. What did the Duke say to you?”
“He bade me kiss him.”
“Poor dear old man. He never ceases to speak of you when you are away, and I do believe he could not have gone in peace without seeing you. I doubt whether in all his life he ever loved anyone as he loves you. We dine at half-past seven, dear: and you had better just go into his room for a moment as you come down. There isn’t a soul here except Sir Omicron Pie, and Plantagenet, and two of the other nephews — whom, by the bye, he has refused to see. Old Lady Hartletop wanted to come.”
“And you wouldn’t have her?”
“I couldn’t have refused. I shouldn’t have dared. But the Duke would not hear of it. He made me write to say that he was too weak to see any but his nearest relatives. Then he made me send for you, my dear — and now he won’t see the relatives. What shall we do if Lady Hartletop turns up? I’m living in fear of it. You’ll have to be shut up out of sight somewhere if that should happen.”
During the next two or three days the Duke was neither much better nor much worse. Bulletins appeared in the newspapers, though no one at Matching knew from whence they came. Sir Omicron Pie, who, having retired from general practice, was enabled to devote his time to the “dear Duke,” protested that he had no hand in sending them out. He declared to Lady Glencora every morning that it was only a question of time. “The vital spark is on the spring,” said Sir Omicron, waving a gesture heavenward with his hand. For three days Mr Palliser was at Matching, and he duly visited his uncle twice a day. But not a syllable was ever said between them beyond the ordinary words of compliments. Mr Palliser spent his time with his private secretary, working out endless sums and toiling for unapproachable results in reference to decimal coinage. To him his uncle’s death would be a great blow, as in his eyes to be Chancellor of the Exchequer was much more than to be Duke of Omnium. For herself Lady Glencora was nearly equally indifferent, though she did in her heart of hearts wish that her son should go to Eton with the title of Lord Silverbridge.
On the third morning the Duke suddenly asked a question of Madame Goesler. The two were again sitting near to each other, and the Duke was again holding her hand; but Lady Glencora was also in the room. “Have you not been staying with Lord Chiltern?”
“He is a friend of yours.”
“I used to know his wife before they were married.”
“Why does he go on writing me letters about a wood?” This he asked in a wailing voice, as though he were almost weeping. “I know nothing of Lord Chiltern. Why does he write to me about the wood? I wish he wouldn’t write to me.”
“He does not know that you are ill, Duke. By the bye, I promised to speak to Lady Glencora about it. He says that foxes are poisoned at Trumpeton Wood.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” said the Duke. “No one would poison foxes in my wood. I wish you’d see about it, Glencora. Plantagenet will never attend to anything. But he shouldn’t write to me. He ought to know better than to write letters to me. I will not have people writing letters to me. Why don’t they write to Fothergill?” and then the Duke began in truth to whimper.
“I’ll put it all right,” said Lady Glencora.
“I wish you would. I don’t like them to say there are no foxes; and Plantagenet never will attend to anything.” The wife had long since ceased to take the husband’s part when accusations such as this were brought against him. Nothing could make Mr Palliser think it worth his while to give up any shred of his time to such a matter as the preservation of foxes. On the fourth day the catastrophe happened which Lady Glencora had feared. A fly with a pair of horses from the Matching Road station was driven up to the door of the Priory, and Lady Hartletop was announced. “I knew it,” said Lady Glencora, slapping her hand down on the table in the room in which she was sitting with Madame Goesler. Unfortunately the old lady was shown into the room before Madame Goesler could escape, and they passed each other on the threshold. The Dowager Marchioness of Hartletop was a very stout old lady, now perhaps nearer to seventy than sixty-five years of age, who for many years had been the intimate friend of the Duke of Omnium. In latter days, during which she had seen but little of the Duke himself, she had heard of Madame Max Goesler, but she had never met that lady. Nevertheless, she knew the rival friend at a glance. Some instinct told her that that woman with the black brow and the dark curls was Madame Goesler. In these days the Marchioness was given to waddling rather than to walking, but she waddled past the foreign female — as she had often called Madame Max — with a dignified though duck-like step. Lady Hartletop was a bold woman; and it must be supposed that she had some heart within her or she would hardly have made such a journey with such a purpose. “Dear Lady Hartletop,” said Lady Glencora, “I am so sorry that you should have had this trouble.”
“I must see him,” said Lady Hartletop. Lady Glencora put both her hands together piteously, as though deprecating her visitor’s wrath. “I must insist on seeing him.”
“Sir Omicron has refused permission to anyone to visit him.”
“I shall not go till I’ve seen him. Who was that lady?”
“A friend of mine,” said Lady Glencora, drawing herself up.
“She is — Madame Goesler.”
“That is her name, Lady Hartletop. She is my most intimate friend.”
“Does she see the Duke?”
Lady Glencora, when expressing her fear that the woman would come to Matching, had confessed that she was afraid of Lady Hartletop. And a feeling of dismay — almost of awe — had fallen upon her on hearing the Marchioness announced. But when she found herself thus cross-examined, she resolved that she would be bold. Nothing on earth should induce her to open the door of the Duke’s room to Lady Hartletop, nor would she scruple to tell the truth about Madame Goesler. “Yes,” she said, “Madame Goesler does see the Duke.”
“And I am to be excluded!”
“My dear Lady Hartletop, what can I do? The Duke for some time past has been accustomed to the presence of my friend, and therefore her presence now is no disturbance. Surely that can be understood.”
“I should not disturb him.”
“He would be inexpressibly excited were he to know that you were even in the house. And I could not take it upon myself to tell him.”
Then Lady Hartletop threw herself upon a sofa, and began to weep piteously. “I have known him for more than forty years,” she moaned, through her choking tears. Lady Glencora’s heart was softened, and she was kind and womanly; but she would not give way about the Duke. It would, as she knew, have been useless, as the Duke had declared that he would see no one except his eldest nephew, his nephew’s wife, and Madame Goesler.
That evening was very dreadful to all of them at Matching — except to the Duke, who was never told of Lady Hartletop’s perseverance. The poor old woman could not be sent away on that afternoon, and was therefore forced to dine with Mr Palliser. He, however, was warned by his wife to say nothing in the lady’s presence about his uncle, and he received her as he would receive any other chance guest at his wife’s table. But the presence of Madame Goesler made the chief difficulty. She herself was desirous of disappearing for that evening, but Lady Glencora would not permit it. “She has seen you, my dear, and asked about you. If you hide yourself, she’ll say all sorts of things.” An introduction was therefore necessary, and Lady Hartletop’s manner was grotesquely grand. She dropped a very low curtsey, and made a very long face, but she did not say a word. In the evening the Marchioness sat close to Lady Glencora, whispering many things about the Duke; and condescending at last to a final entreaty that she might be permitted to see him on the following morning. “There is Sir Omicron,” said Lady Glencora, turning round to the little doctor. But Lady Hartletop was too proud to appeal to Sir Omicron, who, as a matter of course, would support the orders of Lady Glencora. On the next morning Madame Goesler did not appear at the breakfast table, and at eleven Lady Hartletop was taken back to the train in Lady Glencora’s carriage. She had submitted herself to discomfort, indignity, fatigue, and disappointment; and it had all been done for love. With her broad face, and her double chin, and her heavy jowl, and the beard that was growing round her lips, she did not look like a romantic woman; but, in spite of appearances, romance and a duck-like waddle may go together. The memory of those forty years had been strong upon her, and her heart was heavy because she could not see that old man once again. Men will love to the last, but they love what is fresh and new. A woman’s love can live on the recollection of the past, and cling to what is old and ugly. “What an episode!” said Lady Glencora, when the unwelcome visitor was gone — “but it’s odd how much less dreadful things are than you think they will be. I was frightened when I heard her name; but you see we’ve got through it without much harm.”
A week passed by, and still the Duke was living. But now he was too weak to be moved from one room to another, and Madame Goesler passed two hours each day sitting by his bedside. He would lie with his hand out upon the coverlid, and she would put hers upon it; but very few words passed between them. He grumbled again about the Trumpeton Woods, and Lord Chiltern’s interference, and complained of his nephew’s indifference. As to himself and his own condition, he seemed to be, at any rate, without discomfort, and was certainly free from fear. A clergyman attended him, and gave him the sacrament. He took it — as the champagne prescribed by Sir Omicron, or the few mouthfuls of chicken broth which were administered to him by the old lady with the smart cap; but it may be doubted whether he thought much more of the one remedy than of the other. He knew that he had lived, and that the thing was done. His courage never failed him. As to the future, he neither feared much nor hoped much; but was, unconsciously, supported by a general trust in the goodness and the greatness of the God who had made him what he was. “It is nearly done now, Marie,” he said to Madame Goesler one evening. She only pressed his hand in answer. His condition was too well understood between them to allow of her speaking to him of any possible recovery. “It has been a great comfort to me that I have known you,” he said.
“A great comfort — only I wish it had been sooner. I could have talked to you about things which I never did talk of to anyone. I wonder why I should have been a duke, and another man a servant.”
“God Almighty ordained such difference.”
“I’m afraid I have not done it well — but I have tried; indeed I have tried.” Then she told him he had ever lived as a great nobleman ought to live. And, after a fashion, she herself believed what she was saying. Nevertheless, her nature was much nobler than his; and she knew that no man should dare to live idly as the Duke had lived.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14