On the Wednesday in Easter week Lord Brentford and Lady Laura Kennedy reached Portman Square from Dresden, and Phineas, who had remained in town, was summoned thither by a note written at Dover. “We arrived here today, and shall be in town tomorrow afternoon, between four and five. Papa wants to see you especially. Can you manage to be with us in the Square at about eight? I know it will be inconvenient, but you will put up with inconvenience. I don’t like to keep Papa up late; and if he is tired he won’t speak to you as he would if you came early. — L. K.” Phineas was engaged to dine with Lord Cantrip; but he wrote to excuse himself — telling the simple truth. He had been asked to see Lord Brentford on business, and must obey the summons.
He was shown into a sitting-room on the ground floor, which he had always known as the Earl’s own room, and there he found Lord Brentford alone. The last time he had been there he had come to plead with the Earl on behalf of Lord Chiltern, and the Earl had then been a stern self-willed man, vigorous from a sense of power, and very able to maintain and to express his own feelings. Now he was a broken-down old man — whose mind had been, as it were, unbooted and put into moral slippers for the remainder of its term of existence upon earth. He half shuffled up out of his chair as Phineas came up to him, and spoke as though every calamity in the world were oppressing him. “Such a passage! Oh, very bad, indeed! I thought it would have been the death of me. Laura thought it better to come on.” The fact, however, had been that the Earl had so many objections to staying at Calais, that his daughter had felt herself obliged to yield to him.
“You must be glad at any rate to have got home,” said Phineas.
“Home! I don’t know what you call home. I don’t suppose I shall ever feel any place to be home again.”
“You’ll go to Saulsby — will you not?”
“How can I tell? If Chiltern would have kept the house up, of course I should have gone there. But he never would do anything like anybody else. Violet wants me to go to that place they’ve got there, but I shan’t do that.”
“It’s a comfortable house.”
“I hate horses and dogs, and I won’t go.”
There was nothing more to be said on that point. “I hope Lady Laura is well.”
“No, she’s not. How should she be well? She’s anything but well. She’ll be in directly, but she thought I ought to see you first. I suppose this wretched man is really mad.”
“I am told so.”
“He never was anything else since I knew him. What are we to do now? Forster says it won’t look well to ask for a separation only because he’s insane. He tried to shoot you?”
“And very nearly succeeded.”
“Forster says that if we do anything, all that must come out.”
“There need not be the slightest hesitation as far as I am concerned, Lord Brentford.”
“You know he keeps all her money.”
“At present I suppose he couldn’t give it up.”
“Why not? Why shouldn’t he give it up? God bless my soul! Forty thousand pounds and all for nothing. When he married he declared that he didn’t care about it! Money was nothing to him! So she lent it to Chiltern.”
“But they hadn’t been together a year before he asked for it. Now there it is — and if she were to die tomorrow it would be lost to the family. Something must be done, you know. I can’t let her money go in that way.”
“You’ll do what Mr Forster suggests, no doubt.”
“But he won’t suggest anything. They never do. He doesn’t care what becomes of the money. It never ought to have been given up as it was.”
“It was settled, I suppose.”
“Yes — if there were children. And it will come back to her if he dies first. But mad people never do die. That’s a well-known fact. They’ve nothing to trouble them, and they live for ever. It’ll all go to some cousin of his that nobody ever saw.”
“Not as long as Lady Laura lives.”
“But she does not get a penny of the income — not a penny. There never was anything so cruel. He has published all manner of accusations against her.”
“Nobody believes a word of that, my lord.”
“And then when she is dragged forward by the necessity of vindicating her character, he goes mad and keeps all her money! There never was anything so cruel since the world began.”
This continued for half an hour, and then Lady Laura came in. Nothing had come, or could have come, from the consultation with the Earl. Had it gone on for another hour, he would simply have continued to grumble, and have persevered in insisting upon the hardships he endured. Lady Laura was in black, and looked sad, and old, and careworn; but she did not seem to be ill. Phineas could not but think at the moment how entirely her youth had passed away from her. She came and sat close by him, and began at once to speak of the late debate. “Of course they’ll go out,” she said.
“I presume they will.”
“And our party will come in.”
“Oh, yes — Mr Gresham, and the two dukes, and Lord Cantrip — with Legge Wilson, Sir Harry Coldfoot, and the rest of them.”
Phineas smiled, and tried to smile pleasantly, as he answered, “I don’t know that they’ll put themselves out by doing very much for me.”
“They’ll do something.”
“I fancy not. Indeed, Lady Laura, to tell the truth at once, I know that they don’t mean to offer me anything.”
“After making you give up your place in Ireland?”
“They didn’t make me give it up. I should never dream of using such an argument to anyone. Of course I had to judge for myself. There is nothing to be said about it — only it is so.” As he told her this he strove to look light-hearted, and so to speak that she should not see the depth of his disappointment — but he failed altogether. She knew him too well not to read his whole heart in the matter.
“Who has said it?” she asked.
“Nobody says things of that kind, and yet one knows.”
“And why is it?”
“How can I say? There are various reasons — and, perhaps, very good reasons. What I did before makes men think that they can’t depend on me. At any rate it is so.”
“Shall you not speak to Mr Gresham?”
“What do you say, Papa?”
“How can I understand it, my dear? There used to be a kind of honour in these things, but that’s all old-fashioned now. Ministers used to think of their political friends; but in these days they only regard their political enemies. If you can make a Minister afraid of you, then it becomes worth his while to buy you up. Most of the young men rise now by making themselves thoroughly disagreeable. Abuse a Minister every night for half a session, and you may be sure to be in office the other half — if you care about it.”
“May I speak to Barrington Erle?” asked Lady Laura.
“I had rather you did not. Of course I must take it as it comes.”
“But, my dear Mr Finn, people do make efforts in such cases. I don’t doubt but that at this moment there are a dozen men moving heaven and earth to secure something. No one has more friends than you have.”
Had not her father been present he would have told her what his friends were doing for him, and how unhappy such interferences made him; but he could not explain all this before the Earl. “I would so much rather hear about yourself,” he said, again smiling.
“There is but little to say about us. I suppose Papa has told you?”
But the Earl had told him nothing, and indeed, there was nothing to tell. The lawyer had advised that Mr Kennedy’s friends should be informed that Lady Laura now intended to live in England, and that they should be invited to make to her some statement as to Mr Kennedy’s condition. If necessary he, on her behalf, would justify her departure from her husband’s roof by a reference to the outrageous conduct of which Mr Kennedy had since been guilty. In regard to Lady Laura’s fortune, Mr Forster said that she could no doubt apply for alimony, and that if the application were pressed at law she would probably obtain it — but he could not recommend such a step at the present moment. As to the accusation which had been made against her character, and which had become public through the malice of the editor of the People’s Banner, Mr Forster thought that the best refutation would be found in her return to England. At any rate he would advise no further step at the present moment. Should any further libel appear in the columns of the newspaper, then the question might be again considered. Mr Forster had already been in Portman Square, and this had been the result of the conference.
“There is not much comfort in it all — is there?” said Lady Laura.
“There is no comfort in anything,” said the Earl.
When Phineas took his leave Lady Laura followed him out into the hall, and they went together into the large, gloomy dining-room — gloomy and silent now, but which in former days he had known to be brilliant with many lights, and cheerful with eager voices. “I must have one word with you,” she said, standing close to him against the table, and putting her hand upon his arm. “Amidst all my sorrow, I have been so thankful that he did not — kill you.”
“I almost wish he had.”
“Oh, Phineas! — how can you say words so wicked! Would you have had him a murderer?”
“A madman is responsible for nothing.”
“Where should I have been? What should I have done? But of course you do not mean it. You have everything in life before you. Say some word to me more comfortable than that. You cannot think how I have looked forward to meeting you again. It has robbed the last month of half its sadness.” He put his arm round her waist and pressed her to his side, but he said nothing. “It was so good of you to go to him as you did. How was he looking?”
“Twenty years older than when you saw him last.”
“But how in health?”
“He was thin and haggard.”
“Was he pale?”
“No; flushed and red. He had not shaved himself for days; nor, as I believe, had he been out of his room since he came up to London. I fancy that he will not live long.”
“Poor fellow — unhappy man! I was very wrong to marry him, Phineas.”
“I have never said so — nor, indeed, thought so.”
“But I have thought so; and I say it also — to you. I owe him any reparation that I can make him; but I could not have lived with him. I had no idea, before, that the nature of two human beings could be so unlike. I so often remember what you told me of him — here, in this house, when I first brought you together. Alas, how sad it has been!”
“But can this be true that you tell me of yourself?”
“It is quite true. I could not say so before your father, but it is Mr Bonteen’s doing. There is no remedy. I am sure of that. I am only afraid that people are interfering for me in a manner that will be as disagreeable to me as it will be useless.”
“What friends?” she asked.
He was still standing with his arm round her waist, and he did not like to mention the name of Madame Goesler.
“The Duchess of Omnium — whom you remember as Lady Glencora Palliser.”
“Is she a friend of yours?”
“No — not particularly. But she is an indiscreet woman, and hates Bonteen, and has taken it into her stupid head to interest herself in my concerns. It is no doing of mine, and yet I cannot help it.”
“She will succeed.”
“I don’t want assistance from such a quarter; and I feel sure that she will not succeed.”
“What will you do, Phineas?”
“What shall I do? Carry on the battle as long as I can without getting into debt, and then — vanish.”
“You vanished once before — did you not — with a wife?”
“And now I shall vanish alone. My poor little wife! It seems all like a dream. She was so good, so pure, so pretty, so loving!”
“Loving! A man’s love is so easily transferred — as easily as a woman’s hand — is it not, Phineas? Say the word, for it is what you are thinking.”
“I was thinking of no such thing.”
“You must think it — You need not be afraid to reproach me. I could bear it from you. What could I not bear from you? Oh, Phineas — if I had only known myself then, as I do now!”
“It is too late for regrets,” he said. There was something in the words which grated on her feelings, and induced her at length to withdraw herself from his arm. Too late for regrets! She had never told herself that it was not too late. She was the wife of another man, and therefore, surely it was too late. But still the word coming from his mouth was painful to her. It seemed to signify that for him at least the game was all over.
“Yes, indeed,” she said — “if our regrets and remorse were at our own disposal! You might as well say that it is too late for unhappiness, too late for weariness, too late for all the misery that comes from a life’s disappointment.”
“I should have said that indulgence in regrets is vain.”
“That is a scrap of philosophy which I have heard so often before! But we will not quarrel, will we, on the first day of my return?”
“I hope not.”
“And I may speak to Barrington?”
“No; certainly not.”
“But I shall. How can I help it? He will be here tomorrow, and will be full of the coming changes. How should I not mention your name? He knows — not all that has passed, but too much not to be aware of my anxiety. Of course your name will come up?”
“What I request — what I demand is, that you ask no favour for me. Your father will miss you — will he not? I had better go now.”
“Good night, Phineas.”
“Good night, dear friend.”
“Dearest, dearest friend,” she said. Then he left her, and without assistance, let himself out into the square. In her intercourse with him there was a passion the expression of which caused him sorrow and almost dismay. He did not say so even to himself, but he felt that a time might come in which she would resent the coldness of demeanour which it would be imperative upon him to adopt in his intercourse with her. He knew how imprudent he had been to stand there with his arm round her waist.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01