The tidings of what had taken place first reached Lady Laura Kennedy from her brother on his return to Portman Square after the scene in the police court. The object of his visit to Finn’s lodgings has been explained, but the nature of Lady Laura’s vehemence in urging upon her brother the performance of a very disagreeable task has not been sufficiently described. No brother would willingly go on such a mission from a married sister to a man who had been publicly named as that sister’s lover — and no brother could be less likely to do so than Lord Chiltern. But Lady Laura had been very stout in her arguments, and very strong-willed in her purpose. The income arising from this money — which had been absolutely her own — would again be exclusively her own should the claim to it on behalf of her husband’s estate be abandoned. Surely she might do what she liked with her own. If her brother would not assist her in making this arrangement, it must be done by other means. She was quite willing that it should appear to come to Mr Finn from her father and not from herself. Did her brother think any ill of her? Did he believe in the calumnies of the newspapers? Did he or his wife for a moment conceive that she had a lover? When he looked at her, worn out, withered, an old woman before her time, was it possible that he should so believe? She herself asked him these questions. Lord Chiltern of course declared that he had no suspicion of the kind, “No — indeed,” said Lady Laura. “I defy anyone to suspect me who knows me. And if so, why am not I as much entitled to help a friend as you might be? You need not even mention my name.” He endeavoured to make her understand that her name would be mentioned, and others would believe and would say evil things. “They cannot say worse than they have said,” she continued. “And yet what harm have they done to me — or you?” Then he demanded why she desired to go so far out of her way with the view of spending her money upon one who was in no way connected with her. “Because I like him better than anyone else,” she answered, boldly. “There is very little left for which I care at all — but I do care for his prosperity. He was once in love with me and told me so — but I had chosen to give my hand to Mr Kennedy. He is not in love with me now — nor I with him; but I choose to regard him as my friend.” He assured her over and over again that Phineas Finn would certainly refuse to touch her money — but this she declined to believe. At any rate the trial might be made. He would not refuse money left to him by will, and why should he not now enjoy that which was intended for him? Then she explained how certain it was that he must speedily vanish out of the world altogether, unless some assurance of an income were made to him. So Lord Chiltern went on his mission, hardly meaning to make the offer, and confident that it would be refused if made. We know the nature of the new trouble in which he found Phineas Finn enveloped. It was such that Lord Chiltern did not open his mouth about money, and now, having witnessed the scene at the police-office, he had come back to tell his tale to his sister. She was sitting with his wife when he entered the room.
“Have you heard anything?” he asked at once.
“Heard what?” said his wife.
“Then you have not heard it. A man has been murdered.”
“What man?” said Lady Laura, jumping suddenly from her seat. “Not Robert!” Lord Chiltern shook his head. “You do not mean that Mr Finn has been — killed!” Again he shook his head; and then she sat down as though the asking of the two questions had exhausted her.
“Speak, Oswald,” said his wife. “Why do you not tell us? Is it one whom we knew?”
“I think that Laura used to know him. Mr Bonteen was murdered last night in the streets.”
“Mr Bonteen! The man who was Mr Finn’s enemy,” said Lady Chiltern.
“Mr Bonteen!” said Lady Laura, as though the murder of twenty Mr Bonteens were nothing to her.
“Yes — the man whom you talk of as Finn’s enemy. It would be better if there were no such talk.”
“And who killed him?” said Lady Laura, again getting up and coming close to her brother.
“Who was it, Oswald?” asked his wife; and she also was now too deeply interested to keep her seat.
“They have arrested two men, said Lord Chiltern — that Jew who married Lady Eustace, and — “ But there he paused. He had determined beforehand that he would tell his sister the double arrest that the doubt this implied might lessen the weight of the blow; but now he found it almost impossible to mention the name.
“Who is the other, Oswald?” said his wife.
“Not Phineas,” screamed Lady Laura.
“Yes, indeed; they have arrested him, and I have just come from the court.” He had no time to go on, for his sister was crouching prostrate on the floor before him. She had not fainted. Women do not faint under such shocks. But in her agony she had crouched down rather than fallen, as though it were vain to attempt to stand upright with so crushing a weight of sorrow on her back. She uttered one loud shriek, and then covering her face with her hands burst out into a wail of sobs. Lady Chiltern and her brother both tried to raise her, but she would not be lifted. “Why will you not hear me through, Laura?” said he.
“You do not think he did it?” said his wife.
“I’m sure he did not,” replied Lord Chiltern.
The poor woman, half-lying, half-seated, on the floor, still hiding her face with her hands, still bursting with half suppressed sobs, heard and understood both the question and the answer. But the fact was not altered to her — nor the condition of the man she loved. She had not yet begun to think whether it were possible that he should have been guilty of such a crime. She had heard none of the circumstances, and knew nothing of the manner of the man’s death. It might be that Phineas had killed the man, bringing himself within the reach of the law, and that yet he should have done nothing to merit her reproaches — hardly even her reprobation! Hitherto she felt only the sorrow, the annihilation of the blow — but not the shame with which it would overwhelm the man for whom she so much coveted the good opinion of the world.
“You hear what he says, Laura.”
“They are determined to destroy him,” she sobbed out, through her tears.
“They are not determined to destroy him at all,” said Lord Chiltern. “It will have to go by evidence. You had better sit up and let me tell you all. I will tell you nothing till you are seated again. You disgrace yourself by sprawling there.”
“Do not be hard to her, Oswald.”
“I am disgraced,” said Lady Laura, slowly rising and placing herself again on the sofa. “If there is anything more to tell, you can tell it. I do not care what happens to me now, or who knows it. They cannot make my life worse than it is.”
Then he told all the story — of the quarrel, and the position of the streets, of the coat, and the bludgeon, and the three blows, each on the head, by which the man had been killed. And he told them also how the Jew was said never to have been out of his bed, and how the Jew’s coat was not the coat Lord Fawn had seen, and how no stain of blood had been found about the raiment of either of the men. “It was the Jew who did it, Oswald, surely,” said Lady Chiltern.
“It was not Phineas Finn who did it,” he replied.
“And they will let him go again?”
“They will let him go when they find out the truth, I suppose. But those fellows blunder so, I would never trust them. He will get some sharp lawyer to look into it; and then perhaps everything will come out. I shall go and see him tomorrow. But there is nothing further to be done.”
“And I must see him,” said Lady Laura slowly.
Lady Chiltern looked at her husband, and his face became redder than usual with an angry flush. When his sister had pressed him to take her message about the money, he had assured her that he suspected her of no evil. Nor had he ever thought evil of her. Since her marriage with Mr Kennedy, he had seen but little of her or of her ways of life. When she had separated herself from her husband he had approved of the separation, and had even offered to assist her should she be in difficulty. While she had been living a sad lonely life at Dresden, he had simply pitied her, declaring to himself and his wife that her lot in life had been very hard. When these calumnies about her and Phineas Finn had reached his ears — or his eyes — as such calumnies always will reach the ears and eyes of those whom they are most capable of hurting, he had simply felt a desire to crush some Quintus Slide, or the like, into powder for the offence. He had received Phineas in his own house with all his old friendship. He had even this morning been with the accused man as almost his closest friend. But, nevertheless, there was creeping into his heart a sense of the shame with which he would be afflicted, should the world really be taught to believe that the man had been his sister’s lover. Lady Laura’s distress on the present occasion was such as a wife might show, or a girl weeping for her lover, or a mother for her son, or a sister for a brother; but was extravagant and exaggerated in regard to such friendship as might be presumed to exist between the wife of Mr Robert Kennedy and the member for Tankerville. He could see that his wife felt this as he did, and he thought it necessary to say something at once, that might force his sister to moderate at any rate her language, if not her feelings. Two expressions of face were natural to him; one eloquent of good humour, in which the reader of countenances would find some promise of coming frolic — and the other, replete with anger, sometimes to the extent almost of savagery. All those who were dependent on him were wont to watch his face with care and sometimes with fear. When he was angry it would almost seem that he was about to use personal violence on the object of his wrath. At the present moment he was rather grieved than enraged; but there came over his face that look of wrath with which all who knew him were so well acquainted. “You cannot see him,” he said.
“Why not I, as well as you?”
“If you do not understand, I cannot tell you. But you must not see him — and you shall not.”
“Who will hinder me?”
“If you put me to it, I will see that you are hindered. What is the man to you that you should run the risk of evil tongues, for the sake of visiting him in gaol? You cannot save his life — though it may be that you might endanger it.”
“Oswald,” she said very slowly, “I do not know that I am in anyway under your charge, or bound to submit to your orders.”
“You are my sister.”
“And I have loved you as a sister. How should it be possible that my seeing him should endanger his life?”
“It will make people think that the things are true which have been said.”
“And will they hang him because I love him? I do love him. Violet knows how well I have always loved him.” Lord Chiltern turned his angry face upon his wife. Lady Chiltern put her arm round her sister-in-law’s waist, and whispered some words into her ear. “What is that to me?” continued the half-frantic woman. “I do love him. I have always loved him. I shall love him to the end. He is all my life to me.”
“Shame should prevent your telling it,” said Lord Chiltern.
“I feel no shame. There is no disgrace in love. I did disgrace myself when I gave the hand for which he asked to another man, because — because — “ But she was too noble to tell her brother even then that at the moment of her life to which she was alluding she had married the rich man, rejecting the poor man’s hand, because she had given up all her fortune to the payment of her brother’s debts. And he, though he had well known what he had owed to her, and had never been easy till he had paid the debt, remembered nothing of all this now. No lending and paying back of money could alter the nature either of his feelings or his duty in such an emergency as this. “And, mind you,” she continued, turning to her sister-in-law, “there is no place for the shame of which he is thinking,” and she pointed her finger out at her brother. “I love him — as a mother might love her child, I fancy; but he has no love for me; none — none. When I am with him, I am only a trouble to him. He comes to me, because he is good; but he would sooner be with you. He did love me once — but then I could not afford to be so loved.’.
“You can do no good by seeing him,” said her brother.
“But I will see him. You need not scowl at me as though you wished to strike me. I have gone through that which makes me different from other women, and I care not what they say of me. Violet understands it all — but you understand nothing.”
“Be calm, Laura,” said her sister-in-law, “and Oswald will do all that can be done.”
“But they will hang him.”
“Nonsense!” said her brother. “He has not been as yet committed for his trial. Heaven knows how much has to be done. It is as likely as not that in three days’ time he will be out at large, and all the world will be running after him just because he has been in Newgate.”
“But who will look after him?”
“He has plenty of friends. I will see that he is not left without everything that he wants.”
“But he will want money.”
“He has plenty of money for that. Do you take it quietly, and not make a fool of yourself. If the worst comes to the worst — ”
“Listen to me, if you can listen. Should the worst come to the worst, which I believe to be altogether impossible — mind, I think it next to impossible, for I have never for a moment believed him to be guilty — we will — visit him — together. Goodbye now. I am going to see that friend of his, Mr Low.” So saying Lord Chiltern went, leaving the two women together.
“Why should he be so savage with me?” said Lady Laura.
“He does not mean to be savage.”
“Does he speak to you like that? What right has he to tell me of shame? Has my life been so bad, and his so good? Do you think it shameful that I should love this man?” She sat looking into her friend’s face, but her friend for a while hesitated to answer. “You shall tell me, Violet. We have known each other so well that I can bear to be told by you. Do not you love him?”
“I love him! — certainly not.”
“But you did.”
“Not as you mean. Who can define love, and say what it is? There are so many kinds of love. We say that we love the Queen.”
“And we are to love all our neighbours. But as men and women talk of love, I never at any moment of my life loved any man but my husband. Mr Finn was a great favourite with me — always.”
“Indeed he was.”
“As any other man might be — or any woman. He is so still, and with all my heart I hope that this may be untrue.”
“It is false as the Devil. It must be false. Can you think of the man — his sweetness, the gentle nature of him, his open, free speech, and courage, and believe that he would go behind his enemy and knock his brains out in the dark? I can conceive it of myself, that I should do it, much easier than of him.”
“Oswald says it is false.”
“But he says it as partly believing that it is true. If it be true I will hang myself. There will be nothing left among men or women fit to live for. You think it shameful that I should love him.”
“I have not said so.”
“But you do.”
“I think there is cause for shame in your confessing it.”
“I do confess it.”
“You ask me, and press me, and because we have loved one another so well I must answer you. If a woman, a married woman — be oppressed by such a feeling, she should lay it down at the bottom of her heart, out of sight, never mentioning it, even to herself.”
“You talk of the heart as though we could control it.”
“The heart will follow the thoughts, and they may be controlled. I am not passionate, perhaps, as you are, and I think I can control my heart. But my fortune has been kind to me, and I have never been tempted. Laura, do not think I am preaching to you.”
“Oh no — but your husband; think of him, and think of mine! You have babies.”
“May God make me thankful. I have every good thing on earth that God can give.”
“And what have I? To see that man prosper in life, who they tell me is a murderer; that man who is now in a felon’s gaol — whom they will hang for ought we know — to see him go forward and justify my thoughts of him! that yesterday was all I had. Today I have nothing — except the shame with which you and Oswald say that I have covered myself.”
“Laura, I have never said so.”
“I saw it in your eye when he accused me. And I know that it is shameful. I do know that I am covered with shame. But I can bear my own disgrace better than his danger.” After a long pause — a silence of probably some fifteen minutes — she spoke again. “If Robert should die — what would happen then?”
“It would be — a release, I suppose,” said Lady Chiltern in a voice so low, that it was almost a whisper.
“A release indeed — and I would become that man’s wife the next day, at the foot of the gallows — if he would have me. But he would not have me.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14