The Duke Receives a Letter,--and Writes One.
The Duke, when he received Mrs Finn's note, demanding an interview, thought much upon the matter before he replied. She had made her demand as though the Duke had been no more than any other gentleman, almost as though she had a right to call upon him to wait upon her. He understood and admitted the courage of this;--but nevertheless he would not go to her. He had trusted her with that which of all things was the most sacred to him, and she had deceived him! He wrote her as follows:
'The Duke of Omnium presents his compliments to Mrs Finn. As the Duke thinks that no good could result either to Mrs Finn or to himself from an interview, he is obliged to say that he would rather not do as Mrs Finn has requested.
'But for the strength of this conviction the Duke would have waited upon Mrs Finn most willingly.'
Mrs Finn when she received this was not surprised. She had felt sure that such would be the nature of the Duke's answer; but she was also sure that is such an answer did come, she would not let the matter rest. The accusation was so bitter to her that she would spare nothing in defending herself,--nothing in labour and nothing in time. She would make him know that she was in earnest. As she could not succeed in getting into his presence she must do so by letter,--and she wrote her letter, taking two days to think of her words.
'May 18, 18-
'My Dear Duke of Omnium,
'As you will not come to me, I must trouble your Grace to read what I fear will be a long letter. For it is absolutely necessary that I should explain my conduct to you. That you have condemned me I am sure you will not deny;--nor that you have punished me as far as the power of punishment was in your hands. If I can succeed in making you see that you have judged me wrongly, I think you will admit you error and beg my pardon. You are not one who from your nature can be brought easily to do this; but you are the one who will certainly do it if you can be made to feel that by not doing so you would be unjust. I am myself so clear as to my own rectitude of purpose and conduct, and I am so well aware of your perspicuity, that I venture to believe that if you will read this letter I shall convince you.
'Before I go any further I will confess that the matter is one,--I was going to say almost of life and death to me. Circumstances, not of my own seeking, have for some years past thrown me so closely into intercourse with your family that now to be cast off, and to be put on one side as a disgraced person,--and that so quickly after the death of her who loved me so dearly, and who was dear to me,--is such an affront as I cannot bear and hold up my head afterwards. I have come to be known as her whom your uncle trusted and loved, as her whom your wife trusted and loved,--obscure as I was before;--and as her whom, may I not say, you yourself trusted? As there was much of honour and very much of pleasure in this, so also was their something of misfortune. Friendships are safest when the friends are of the same standing. I have always felt there was a danger, and now the thing I have feared has come home to me.
'Now I will plead my case. I fancy, that when you first heard that I had been cognizant of your daughter's engagement, you imagined that I was aware of it before I went to Matching. Had I been so, I should have been guilty of that treachery of which you accuse me. I did know nothing of it till Lady Mary told me on the day before I left Matching. That she should tell me was natural enough. Her mother had known of it, and for the moment,--if I am not assuming too much in saying so,--I was filling her mother's place. But, in reference to you, I could not exercise the discretion which a mother might have used, and I told her at once, most decidedly, that you must be made acquainted with the fact.
'Then Lady Mary expressed to me her wish,--not that this matter should be kept any longer from you, for that it should be told to you by Mr Tregear. It was not for me to raise any question as to Mr Tregear's fitness or unfitness,--as to which indeed I could know nothing. All I could do was to say that if Mr Tregear would make communications at once, I should feel that I had done my duty. The upshot was that Mr Tregear came to me immediately on my return to London, and agreeing with me that it was imperative for you to be informed, went to you and did inform you. In all of that, if I have told the story truly, where has been my offence? I suppose you will believe me, but your daughter can give evidence as to every word that I have written.
'I think that you have got into your mind that I have befriended Mr Tregear' suit, and that, having received this impression, you hold it with the tenacity which is usual to you. There never was a greater mistake. I went to Matching as the friend of my dear friend;---but I stayed there at your request, as your friend. Had I been, when you asked me to do so, a participator in that secret I could not have honestly remained in the position you assigned to me. Had I done so, I should have deserved your ill opinion. As it is I have not deserved it, and your condemnation of me has been altogether unjust. Should I not now receive from you a full withdrawal of all charges against me, I shall be driven to think that after all the insight which circumstances have given me into your character, I have nevertheless been mistaken in the reading of it.
'Dear Duke of Omnium,
'I find on looking over my letter that I must add one word further. It might seem that I am asking for a return of your friendship. Such is not my purpose. Neither can you forget that you have accused me,--nor can I. What I expect is that you should tell me that you in your conduct to me have been wrong and that I in mine to you have been right. I must be enabled to feel that the separation between us has come from injury done to me, and not by me.'
He did read the letter more than once, and read it with tingling ears, and hot cheeks, and a knitted brow. As the letter went on, and as the woman's sense of wrong grew hot from her own telling of her own story, her words became stronger and still stronger, till at last they were almost insolent in their strength. Were it not that they came from one who did think herself to have been wronged, then certainly they would be insolent. A sense of injury, a burning conviction of wrong sustained, will justify language which otherwise would be unbearable. The Duke felt that, though his ears were tingling and his brow knitted, he could have forgiven the language, if only he could have admitted the argument. He understood every word of it. When she spoke of tenacity she intended to charge him with obstinacy. Though she had dwelt but lightly on her own services she had made her thoughts on the matter clear enough. 'I, Mrs Finn, who am nobody, have done much to succour and assist you, the Duke of Omnium; and this is the return which I have received!' And then she told him to his face that unless he did something which it would be impossible that he should do, she would revoke her opinion of his honesty! He tried to persuade himself that her opinion about his honesty was nothing to him;--but he failed. Her opinion was very much to him. Though in his anger he had determined to throw her off from him, he knew her to be one whose good opinion was worth having.
Not a word of overt accusation had been made against his wife. Every allusion to her was full of love. But yet how heavy a charge was really made! That such a secret should be kept from him, the father, was acknowledged to be a heinous fault;--but the wife had known the secret and had kept it from him the father! And then how wretched a thing it was for him that anyone should dare to write to him about the wife that had been taken away from him! In spite of all her faults her name was so holy to him that it had never once passed his lips since her death, except in low whispers to himself,--low whispers made in the perfect, double-guarded seclusion of his own chamber. 'Cora, Cora,' he had murmured, so that the sense of the sound and not the sound itself had come to him from his own lips. And now this woman wrote to him about her freely, as though there were nothing sacred, no religion in the memory of her.
'It was not for me to raise any question as to Mr Tregear's fitness'. Was it not palpable to all the world that he was unfit? Unfit! How could a man be more unfit? He was asking for the hand of one who was second only to royalty--who possessed of everything, who was beautiful, well-born, rich, who was the daughter of the Duke of Omnium, and he had absolutely nothing of his own to offer.
But it was necessary that he should at last come to the consideration of the actual point as to which she had written to him so forcibly. He tried to set himself to the task of perfect honestly. He certainly had condemned her. He had condemned her and had no doubt punished her to the extent of his power. And if he could be brought to see that he had done this unjustly, then certainly he must beg pardon. And when he considered it all, he had to own that her intimacy with his uncle and his wife had not been so much of her seeking as of theirs. It grieved him now that it should have been so, but so it was. And after all this,--after the affectionate surrender of herself to his wife's caprices which the woman had made,--he had turned upon her and driven her away with ignominy. That all was true. As he thought of it he became hot, and was conscious of a quivering feeling round his heart. These were bonds indeed; but they were bonds of such a nature as to be capable of being rescinded and cut away altogether by absolute bad conduct. If he could make it good to himself that in a matter of such magnitude as the charge of his daughter she had been untrue to him and had leagued herself against him, with an unworthy lover, then, then,--all bonds would be rescinded! Then would his wrath be altogether justified! Then would it have been impossible that he should have done aught else than cast her out! As he thought of this he felt sure that she had betrayed him! How great would be the ignominy to him should he be driven to own to himself that she had not betrayed him! 'There should not have been a moment,' he said to himself over and over again,--'not a moment!' Yes; she certainly had betrayed him.
There might still be safety for him in that confident assertion of 'not a moment'; but had there been anything of that conspiracy of which he had certainly at first judged her to be guilty? She had told her story, and had then appealed to Lady Mary for evidence. After five minutes of perfect stillness,--but five minutes of misery, five minutes during which great beads of perspiration broke out from him and stood upon his brow, he had to confess to himself that he did not want any evidence. He did believe her story. When he allowed himself to think she had been in league with Tregear he had wronged her. He wiped away the beads from his brow, and again repeated to himself those words which were now his only comfort, 'There should not have been a moment;--not a moment!'
It was thus and only thus that he was enabled to assure himself that there need be no acknowledgment of wrong done on his part. Having settled this in his own mind he forced himself to attend a meeting at which his assistance had been asked to a complex question on Law Reform. The Duke endeavoured to give himself up entirely to the matter; but through it all there was the picture before him of Mrs Finn waiting for an answer to her letter. If he should confirm himself in his opinion that he had been right, then would any answer be necessary? He might just acknowledge the letter, after the fashion which has come up in official life, than which silence is an insult much more bearable. But he did not wish to insult, nor to punish her further. He would willingly have withdrawn the punishment under which she was groaning could he have done so with self-abasement. Or he might write as she had done,--advocating his own cause with all his strength, using that last one strong argument,--there should not have been a 'moment'. But there would be something repulsive to his personal dignity in the continued correspondence which this would produce. 'The Duke of Omnium regrets to say, in answer to Mrs Finn's letter, that he thinks no good can be attained by a prolonged correspondence.' Such, or of such kind, he thought must be his answer. But would this be a fair return for the solicitude shown to her by his uncle, for the love which had made her so patient a friend to his wife, for the nobility of her own conduct in many things? Then his mind reverted to certain jewels,--supposed to be of enormous value,--which were still in his possession though they were the property of this woman. They had been left to her by his uncle, and she had obstinately refused to take them. Now they were lying packed in the cellars of certain bankers,--but still they were in his custody. What should he do now in this matter? Hitherto, perhaps once in every six months, he had notified to her that he was keeping them as her curator, and she had always repeated that it was a charge from which she could not relieve him. It had become almost a joke between them. But how could he joke with a woman with whom he had quarrelled after this internecine fashion?
What if he were to consult Lady Cantrip? He could not do so without a pang that would have been very bitter to him,--but any agony would be better than arising from a fear that he had been unjust to one who had deserved so well of him. No doubt Lady Cantrip would see it in the same light as he had done. And then he would be able to support himself by the assurance that that which had judged to be right was approved of by one whom the world would acknowledge to be a good judge on such a matter.
When he got home he found his son's letter telling him of the election at Silverbridge. There was something in it which softened his heart to that young man,--or perhaps it was that in the midst of his many discomforts he wished to find something which at least was not painful to him. That his son and heir should insist in entering political life in opposition to him was of course a source of pain; but, putting that aside, the thing had been done pleasantly enough, and the young member's letter had been written with some good feeling. So he answered the letter as pleasantly as he knew how.
'My Dear Silverbridge,
'I am glad you are in Parliament and am glad also that you should have been returned by the old borough; though I would that you could have reconciled yourself to the politics of your family. But there is nothing disgraceful in such a change, and I am able to congratulate you as a father should a son and to wish you long life and success as a legislator.
'There are one or two things I would ask you to remember;--and firstly this, that as you have voluntarily undertaken certain duties you are bound as an honest man to perform them as scrupulously as though you were paid for doing them. There was no obligation in you to seek the post;--but having sought it and acquired it you cannot neglect the work attached to it without being untrue to the covenant you have made. It is necessary that a young member of Parliament should bear this in mind, and especially a member who has not worked his way up to notoriety outside the House, because to him there will be great facility for idleness and neglect.
'And then I would have you always remember the purpose for which there is a parliament elected in this happy and free country. It is not that some men may shine there, that some may acquire power, or that all may plume themselves on being the elect of the nation. It often appears to me that some members of Parliament so regard their success in life,--as the fellows of our colleges do too often, thinking that their fellowships were awarded for their comfort and not for the furtherance of any object such as education or religion. I have known gentlemen who have felt that in becoming members of Parliament they had achieved an object for themselves instead of thinking that they had put themselves in the way of achieving something for others. A member of Parliament should feel himself to be the servant of his country,--and like every other servant, he should serve. If this be distasteful to a man he need not go into Parliament. If the harness gall him he need not wear it. But if he takes the trappings, then he should draw the coach. You are there as the guardian of your fellow-countrymen,--that they may be safe, they may be prosperous, that they may be well governed and lightly burdened,--above all that they may be free. If you cannot feel this to be your duty, you should not be there at all.
'And I would have you remember also that the work of a member of Parliament can seldom be of that brilliant nature which is of itself charming; and that the young member should think of such brilliancy as being possible to him only at a distance. It should be your first care to sit and listen so that the forms and methods of the House may as it were soak into you gradually. And then you must bear in mind that speaking in the House is but a very small part of a member's work, perhaps that part he may lay aside altogether with the least stain on his conscience. A good member of Parliament will be good upstairs in the Committee Rooms, good downstairs to make and to keep a House, good to vote, for his party if it may be nothing better, but for the measures also which he believes to be for the good of the country.
'Gradually, if you will give your thoughts to it, and above all your time, the theory of legislation will sink into your mind, and you will find that there will come upon you the ineffable delight of having served your country to the best of your ability.
'It is the only pleasure in life which has been enjoyed without alloy by your affectionate father,
The Duke in writing this letter was able for a few moments to forget Mrs Finn, and to enjoy the work which he had on hand.
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