On that Wednesday evening Phineas Finn was at The Universe. He dined at the house of Madame Goesler, and went from thence to the club in better spirits than he had known for some weeks past. The Duke and Duchess had, been at Madame Goesler’s, and Lord and Lady Chiltern, who were now up in town, with Barrington Erle, and — as it had happened — old Mr Maule. The dinner had been very pleasant, and two or three words had been spoken which had tended to raise the heart of our hero. In the first place Barrington Erle had expressed a regret that Phineas was not at his old post at the Colonies, and the young Duke had re-echoed it. Phineas thought that the manner of his old friend Erle was more cordial to him than it had been lately, and even that comforted him. Then it was a delight to him to meet the Chilterns, who were always gracious to him. But perhaps his greatest pleasure came from the reception which was accorded by his hostess to Mr Maule, which was of a nature not easy to describe. It had become evident to Phineas that Mr Maule was constant in his attentions to Madame Goesler; and, though he had no purpose of his own in reference to the lady — though he was aware that former circumstances, circumstances of that previous life to which he was accustomed to look back as to another existence, made it impossible that he should have any such purpose — still he viewed Mr Maule with dislike. He had once ventured to ask her whether she really liked “that old padded dandy.” She had answered that she did like the old dandy. Old dandies, she thought, were preferable to old men who did not care how they looked — and as for the padding, that was his affair, not hers. She did not know why a man should not have a pad in his coat, as well as a woman one at the back of her head. But Phineas had known that this was her gentle raillery, and now he was delighted to find that she continued it, after a still more gentle fashion, before the man’s face. Mr Maule’s manner was certainly peculiar. He was more than ordinarily polite — and was afterwards declared by the Duchess to have made love like an old gander. But Madame Goesler, who knew exactly how to receive such attentions, turned a glance now and then upon Phineas Finn, which he could now read with absolute precision. “You see how I can dispose of a padded old dandy directly he goes an inch too far.” No words could have said that to him more plainly than did these one or two glances — and, as he had learned to dislike Mr Maule, he was gratified.
Of course they all talked about Lady Eustace and Mr Emilius. “Do you remember how intensely interested the dear old Duke used to be when we none of us knew what had become of the diamonds?” said the Duchess.
“And how you took her part,” said Madame Goesler.
“So did you — just as much as I; and why not? She was a most interesting young woman, and I sincerely hope we have not got to the end of her yet. The worst of it is that she has got into such — very bad hands. The Bonteens have taken her up altogether. Do you know her, Mr Finn?”
“No, Duchess — and am hardly likely to make her acquaintance while she remains where she is now.” The Duchess laughed and nodded her head. All the world knew by this time that she had declared herself to be the sworn enemy of the Bonteens.
And there had been some conversation on that terribly difficult question respecting the foxes in Trumpeton Wood. “The fact is, Lord Chiltern,” said the Duke, “I’m as ignorant as a child. I would do right if I knew how. What ought I to do? Shall I import some foxes?”
“I don’t suppose, Duke, that in all England there is a spot in which foxes are more prone to breed.”
“Indeed. I’m very glad of that. But something goes wrong afterwards, I fear.”
“The nurseries are not well managed, perhaps,” said the Duchess.
“Gipsy kidnappers are allowed about the place,” said Madame Goesler.
“Gipsies!” exclaimed the Duke.
“Poachers!” said Lord Chiltern. “But it isn’t that we mind. We could deal with that ourselves if the woods were properly managed. A head of game and foxes can be reared together very well, if — .”
“I don’t care a straw for a head of game, Lord Chiltern. As far as my own tastes go, I would wish that there was neither a pheasant nor a partridge nor a hare on any property that I own. I think that sheep and barn-door fowls do better for everybody in the long run, and that men who cannot live without shooting should go beyond thickly-populated regions to find it. And, indeed, for myself, I must say the same about foxes. They do not interest me, and I fancy that they will gradually be exterminated.”
“God forbid!” exclaimed Lord Chiltern.
“But I do not find myself called upon to exterminate them myself,” continued the Duke. “The number of men who amuse themselves by riding after one fox is too great for me to wish to interfere with them. And I know that my neighbours in the country conceive it to be my duty to have foxes for them. I will oblige them, Lord Chiltern, as far as I can without detriment to other duties.”
“You leave it to me,” said the Duchess to her neighbour, Lord Chiltern. “I’ll speak to Mr Fothergill myself, and have it put right.” It unfortunately happened, however, that Lord Chiltern got a letter the very next morning from old Doggett telling him that a litter of young cubs had been destroyed that week in Trumpeton Wood.
Barrington Erle and Phineas went off to The Universe together, and as they went the old terms of intimacy seemed to be re-established between them. “Nobody can be so sorry as I am,” said Barrington, “at the manner in which things have gone. When I wrote to you, of course, I thought it certain that, if we came in, you would come with us.”
“Do not let that fret you.”
“But it does fret me — very much. There are so many slips that of course no one can answer for anything.”
“Of course not. I know who has been my friend.”
“The joke of it is, that he himself is at present so utterly friendless. The Duke will hardly speak to him. I know that as a fact. And Gresham has begun to find something is wrong. We all hoped that he would refuse to come in without a seat in the Cabinet — but that was too good to be true. They say he talks of resigning. I shall believe it when I see it. He’d better not play any tricks, for if he did resign, it would be accepted at once.” Phineas, when he heard this, could not help thinking how glorious it would be if Mr Bonteen were to resign, and if the place so vacated, or some vacancy so occasioned, were to be filled by him!
They reached the club together, and as they went up the stairs, they heard the hum of many voices in the room. “All the world and his wife are here tonight,” said Phineas. They overtook a couple of men at the door, so that there was something of the bustle of a crowd as they entered. There was a difficulty in finding places in which to put their coats and hats — for the accommodation of The Universe is not great. There was a knot of men talking not far from them, and among the voices Phineas could clearly hear that of Mr Bonteen. Ratler’s he had heard before, and also Fitzgibbon’s, though he had not distinguished any words from them. But those spoken by Mr Bonteen he did distinguish very plainly. “Mr Phineas Finn, or some such fellow as that, would be after her at once,” said Mr Bonteen. Then Phineas walked immediately among the knot of men and showed himself. As soon as he heard his name mentioned, he doubted for a moment what he would do. Mr Bonteen when speaking had not known of his presence, and it might be his duty not to seem to have listened. But the speech had been made aloud, in the open room — so that those who chose might listen — and Phineas could not but have heard it. In that moment he resolved that he was bound to take notice of what he had heard. “What is it, Mr Bonteen, that Phineas Finn will do?” he asked.
Mr Bonteen had been — dining. He was not a man by any means habitually intemperate, and now anyone saying that he was tipsy would have maligned him. But he was flushed with much wine, and he was a man whose arrogance in that condition was apt to become extreme. “In vino veritas!’ The sober devil can hide his cloven hoof; but when the devil drinks he loses his cunning and grows honest. Mr Bonteen looked Phineas full in the face a second or two before he answered, and then said — quite aloud — “You have crept upon us unawares, sir.”
“What do you mean by that, sir?” said Phineas. “I have come in as any other man comes.”
“Listeners at any rate never hear any good of themselves.”
Then there were present among those assembled clear indications of disapproval of Bonteen’s conduct. In these days — when no palpable and immediate punishment is at hand for personal insolence from man to man — personal insolence to one man in a company seems almost to constitute an insult to everyone present. When men could fight readily, an arrogant word or two between two known to be hostile to each other was only an invitation to a duel, and the angry man was doing that for which it was known that he could be made to pay. There was, or it was often thought that there was, a real spirit in the angry man’s conduct, and they who were his friends before became perhaps more his friends when he had thus shown that he had an enemy. But a different feeling prevails at present — a feeling so different, that we may almost say that a man in general society cannot speak even roughly to any but his intimate comrades without giving offence to all around him. Men have learned to hate the nuisance of a row, and to feel that their comfort is endangered if a man prone to rows gets among them. Of all candidates at a club a known quarreller is more sure of blackballs now than even in the times when such a one provoked duels. Of all bores he is the worst; and there is always an unexpressed feeling that such a one exacts more from his company than his share of attention. This is so strong, that too often the man quarrelled with, though he be as innocent as was Phineas on the present occasion, is made subject to the general aversion which is felt for men who misbehave themselves.
“I wish to hear no good of myself from you,” said Phineas, following him to his seat. “Who is it that you said — I should be after?” The room was full, and everyone there, even they who had come in with Phineas, knew that Lady Eustace was the woman. Everybody at present was talking about Lady Eustace.
“Never mind,” said Barrington Erle, taking him by the arm. “What’s the use of a row?”
“No use at all — but if you heard your name mentioned in such a manner you would find it impossible to pass it over. There is Mr Monk — ask him.”
Mr Monk was sitting very quietly in a corner of the room with another gentleman of his own age by him — one devoted to literary pursuits and a constant attendant at the Universe. As he said afterwards, he had never known any unpleasantness of that sort in the club before. There were many men of note in the room. There was a foreign minister, a member of the Cabinet, two ex-members of the Cabinet, a great poet, an exceedingly able editor, two earls, two members of the Royal Academy, the president of a learned society, a celebrated professor — and it was expected that Royalty might come in at any minute, speak a few benign words, and blow a few clouds of smoke. It was abominable that the harmony of such a meeting should be interrupted by the vinous insolence of Mr Bonteen, and the useless wrath of Phineas Finn. “Really, Mr Finn, if I were you I would let it drop,” said the gentleman devoted to literary pursuits.
Phineas did not much affect the literary gentleman, but in such a matter would prefer the advice of Mr Monk to that of any man living. He again appealed to his friend. “You heard what was said?”
“I heard Mr Bonteen remark that you or somebody like you would in certain circumstances be after a certain lady. I thought it to be an ill judged speech, and as your particular friend I heard it with great regret.”
“What a row about nothing!” said Mr Bonteen, rising from his seat. “We were speaking of a very pretty woman, and I was saying that some young fellow generally supposed to be fond of pretty women would soon be after her. If that offends your morals you must have become very strict of late.”
There was something in the explanation which, though very bad and vulgar, it was almost impossible not to accept. Such at least was the feeling of those who stood around Phineas Finn. He himself knew that Mr Bonteen had intended to assert that he would be after the woman’s money and not her beauty; but he had taste enough to perceive that he could not descend to any such detail as that. “There are reasons, Mr Bonteen,” he said, “why I think you should abstain from mentioning my name in public. Your playful references should be made to your friends, and not to those who, to say the least of it, are not your friends.”
When the matter was discussed afterwards it was thought that Phineas Finn should have abstained from making the last speech. It was certainly evidence of great anger on his part. And he was very angry. He knew that he had been insulted — and insulted by the man whom of all men he would feel most disposed to punish for any offence. He could not allow Mr Bonteen to have the last word, especially as a certain amount of success had seemed to attend them. Fate at the moment was so far propitious to Phineas that outward circumstances saved him from any immediate reply, and thus left him in some degree triumphant. Expected Royalty arrived, and cast its salutary oil upon the troubled waters. The Prince, with some well-known popular attendant, entered the room, and for a moment every gentleman rose from his chair. It was but for a moment, and then the Prince became as any other gentleman, talking to his friends. One or two there present, who had perhaps peculiarly royal instincts, had crept up towards him so as to make him the centre of a little knot, but, otherwise, conversation went on much as it had done before the unfortunate arrival of Phineas. That quarrel, however, had been very distinctly trodden under foot by the Prince, for Mr Bonteen had found himself quite incapacitated from throwing back any missile in reply to the last that had been hurled at him.
Phineas took a vacant seat next to Mr Monk — who was deficient perhaps in royal instincts — and asked him in a whisper his opinion of what had taken place. “Do not think any more of it,” said Mr Monk.
“That is so much more easily said than done. How am I not to think of it?”
“Of course I mean that you are to act as though you had forgotten it.”
“Did you ever know a more gratuitous insult? Of course he was talking of that Lady Eustace.”
“I had not been listening to him before, but no doubt he was. I need not tell you now what I think of Mr Bonteen. He is not more gracious in my eyes than he is in yours. Tonight I fancy he has been drinking, which has not improved him. You may be sure of this, Phineas — that the less of resentful anger you show in such a wretched affair as took place just now, the more will be the blame attached to him and the less to you.”
“Why should any blame be attached to me?”
“I don’t say that any will unless you allow yourself to become loud and resentful. The thing is not worth your anger.”
“I am angry.”
“Then go to bed at once, and sleep it off. Come with me, and we’ll walk home together.”
“It isn’t the proper thing, I fancy, to leave the room while the Prince is here.”
“Then I must do the improper thing,” said Mr Monk. “I haven’t a key, and I musn’t keep my servant up any longer. A quiet man like me can creep out without notice. Good night, Phineas, and take my advice about this. If you can’t forget it, act and speak and look as though you had forgotten it.” Then Mr Monk, without much creeping, left the room.
The club was very full, and there was a clatter of voices, and the clatter round the Prince was the noisiest and merriest. Mr Bonteen was there, of course, and Phineas as he sat alone could hear him as he edged his words in upon the royal ears. Every now and again there was a royal joke, and then Mr Bonteen’s laughter was conspicuous. As far as Phineas could distinguish the sounds no special amount of the royal attention was devoted to Mr Bonteen. That very able editor, and one of the Academicians, and the poet, seemed to be the most honoured, and when the Prince went — which he did when his cigar was finished — Phineas observed with inward satisfaction that the royal hand, which was given to the poet, to the editor, and to the painter, was not extended to the President of the Board of Trade. And then, having taken delight in this, he accused himself of meanness in having even observed a matter so trivial. Soon after this a ruck of men left the club, and then Phineas rose to go. As he went down the stairs Barrington Erle followed him with Laurence Fitzgibbon, and the three stood for a moment at the door in the street talking to each other. Finn’s way lay eastward from the club, whereas both Erle and Fitzgibbon would go westwards towards their homes. “How well the Prince behaves at these sort of places!” said Erle.
“Princes ought to behave well,” said Phineas.
“Somebody else didn’t behave very well — eh, Finn, my boy?” said Laurence.
“Somebody else, as you call him,” replied Phineas, “is very unlike a Prince, and never does behave well. Tonight, however, he surpassed himself.”
“Don’t bother your mind about it, old fellow,” said Barrington.
“I tell you what it is, Erle,” said Phineas. “I don’t think that I’m a vindictive man by nature, but with that man I mean to make it even some of these days. You know as well as I do what it is he has done to me, and you know also whether I have deserved it. Wretched reptile that he is! He has pretty nearly been able to ruin me — and all from some petty feeling of jealousy.”
“Finn, me boy, don’t talk like that,” said Laurence.
“You shouldn’t show your hand,” said Barrington.
“I know what you mean, and it’s all very well. After your different fashions you two have been true to me, and I don’t care how much you see of my hand. That man’s insolence angers me to such an extent that I cannot refrain from speaking out. He hasn’t spirit enough to go out with me, or I would shoot him.”
“Blankenberg, eh!” said Laurence, alluding to the now notorious duel which had once been fought in that place between Phineas and Lord Chiltern.
“I would,” continued the angry man. “There are times in which one is driven to regret that there has come an end to duelling, and there is left to one no immediate means of resenting an injury.”
As they were speaking Mr Bonteen came out from the front door alone, and seeing the three men standing, passed on towards the left, eastwards. “Good night, Erle,” he said. “Good night, Fitzgibbon.” The two men answered him, and Phineas stood back in the gloom. It was about one o’clock and the night was very dark. “By George, I do dislike that man,” said Phineas. Then, with a laugh, he took a life-preserver out of his pocket, and made an action with it as though he were striking some enemy over the head. In those days there had been much garotting in the streets, and writers in the Press had advised those who walked about at night to go armed with sticks. Phineas Finn had himself been once engaged with garotters — as has been told in a former chronicle — and had since armed himself, thinking more probably of the thing which he had happened to see than men do who had only heard of it. As soon as he had spoken, he followed Mr Bonteen down the street, at the distance of perhaps a couple of hundred yards.
“They won’t have a row — will they?” said Erle.
“Oh, dear, no; Finn won’t think of speaking to him; and you may be sure that Bonteen won’t say a word to Finn. Between you and me, Barrington, I wish Master Phineas would give him a thorough good hiding.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01