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The Last Visit to Saulsby
Phineas, as he journeyed down to Saulsby, knew that he had in truth made up his mind. He was going thither nominally that he might listen to the advice of almost his oldest political friend before he resolved on a matter of vital importance to himself; but in truth he was making the visit because he felt that he could not excuse himself from it without unkindness and ingratitude. She had implored him to come, and he was bound to go, and there were tidings to be told which he must tell. It was not only that he might give her his reasons for not becoming an Under-Secretary of State that he went to Saulsby. He felt himself bound to inform her that he intended to ask Marie Goesler to be his wife. He might omit to do so till he had asked the question,--and then say nothing of what he had done should his petition be refused; but it seemed to him that there would be cowardice in this. He was bound to treat Lady Laura as his friend in a special degree, as something more than his sister,--and he was bound above all things to make her understand in some plainest manner that she could be nothing more to him than such a friend. In his dealings with her he had endeavoured always to be honest,--gentle as well as honest; but now it was specially his duty to be honest to her. When he was young he had loved her, and had told her so,--and she had refused him. As a friend he had been true to her ever since, but that offer could never be repeated. And the other offer,--to the woman whom she was now accustomed to abuse,--must be made. Should Lady Laura choose to quarrel with him it must be so; but the quarrel should not be of his seeking.
He was quite sure that he would refuse Mr. Gresham's offer, although by doing so he would himself throw away the very thing which he had devoted his life to acquire. In a foolish, soft moment,--as he now confessed to himself,--he had endeavoured to obtain for his own position the sympathy of the Minister. He had spoken of the calumnies which had hurt him, and of his sufferings when he found himself excluded from place in consequence of the evil stories which had been told of him. Mr. Gresham had, in fact, declined to listen to him;--had said Yes or No was all that he required, and had gone on to explain that he would be unable to understand the reasons proposed to be given even were he to hear them. Phineas had felt himself to be repulsed, and would at once have shown his anger, had not the Prime Minister silenced him for the moment by a civilly-worded repetition of the offer made.
But the offer should certainly be declined. As he told himself that it must be so, he endeavoured to analyse the causes of this decision, but was hardly successful. He had thought that he could explain the reasons to the Minister, but found himself incapable of explaining them to himself. In regard to means of subsistence he was no better off now than when he began the world. He was, indeed, without incumbrance, but was also without any means of procuring an income. For the last twelve months he had been living on his little capital, and two years more of such life would bring him to the end of all that he had. There was, no doubt, one view of his prospects which was bright enough. If Marie Goesler accepted him, he need not, at any rate, look about for the means of earning a living. But he assured himself with perfect confidence that no hope in that direction would have any influence upon the answer he would give to Mr. Gresham. Had not Marie Goesler herself been most urgent with him in begging him to accept the offer; and was he not therefore justified in concluding that she at least had thought it necessary that he should earn his bread? Would her heart be softened towards him,--would any further softening be necessary,--by his obstinate refusal to comply with her advice? The two things had no reference to each other,--and should be regarded by him as perfectly distinct. He would refuse Mr. Gresham's offer,--not because he hoped that he might live in idleness on the wealth of the woman he loved,--but because the chicaneries and intrigues of office had become distasteful to him. "I don't know which are the falser," he said to himself, "the mock courtesies or the mock indignations of statesmen."
He found the Earl's carriage waiting for him at the station, and thought of many former days, as he was carried through the little town for which he had sat in Parliament, up to the house which he had once visited in the hope of wooing Violet Effingham. The women whom he had loved had all, at any rate, become his friends, and his thorough friendships were almost all with women. He and Lord Chiltern regarded each other with warm affection; but there was hardly ground for real sympathy between them. It was the same with Mr. Low and Barrington Erle. Were he to die there would be no gap in their lives;--were they to die there would be none in his. But with Violet Effingham,--as he still loved to call her to himself,--he thought it would be different. When the carriage stopped at the hall door he was thinking of her rather than of Lady Laura Kennedy.
He was shown at once to his bedroom,--the very room in which he had written the letter to Lord Chiltern which had brought about the duel at Blankenberg. He was told that he would find Lady Laura in the drawing-room waiting for dinner for him. The Earl had already dined.
"I am so glad you are come," said Lady Laura, welcoming him. "Papa is not very well and dined early, but I have waited for you, of course. Of course I have. You did not suppose I would let you sit down alone? I would not see you before you dressed because I knew that you must be tired and hungry, and that the sooner you got down the better. Has it not been hot?"
"And so dusty! I only left Matching yesterday, and seem to have been on the railway ever since."
"Government officials have to take frequent journeys, Mr. Finn. How long will it be before you have to go down to Scotland twice in one week, and back as often to form a Ministry? Your next journey must be into the dining-room;--in making which will you give me your arm?"
She was, he thought, lighter in heart and pleasanter in manner than she had been since her return from Dresden. When she had made her little joke about his future ministerial duties the servant had been in the room, and he had not, therefore, stopped her by a serious answer. And now she was solicitous about his dinner,--anxious that he should enjoy the good things set before him, as is the manner of loving women, pressing him to take wine, and playing the good hostess in all things. He smiled, and ate, and drank, and was gracious under her petting; but he had a weight on his bosom, knowing, as he did, that he must say that before long which would turn all her playfulness either to anger or to grief. "And who had you at Matching?" she asked.
"Just the usual set."
"Minus the poor old Duke?"
"Yes; minus the old Duke certainly. The greatest change is in the name. Lady Glencora was so specially Lady Glencora that she ought to have been Lady Glencora to the end. Everybody calls her Duchess, but it does not sound half so nice."
"And is he altered?"
"Not in the least. You can trace the lines of lingering regret upon his countenance when people be-Grace him; but that is all. There was always about him a simple dignity which made it impossible that any one should slap him on the back; and that of course remains. He is the same Planty Pall; but I doubt whether any man ever ventured to call him Planty Pall to his face since he left Eton."
"The house was full, I suppose?"
"There were a great many there; among others Sir Gregory Grogram, who apologised to me for having tried to--put an end to my career."
"And Sir Harry Coldfoot, who seemed to take some credit to himself for having allowed the jury to acquit me. And Chiltern and his wife were there for a day or two."
"What could take Oswald there?"
"An embassy of State about the foxes. The Duke's property runs into his country. She is one of the best women that ever lived."
"And one of the best wives."
"She ought to be, for she is one of the happiest. What can she wish for that she has not got? Was your great friend there?"
He knew well what great friend she meant. "Madame Max Goesler was there."
"I suppose so. I can never quite forgive Lady Glencora for her intimacy with that woman."
"Do not abuse her, Lady Laura."
"I do not intend,--not to you at any rate. But I can better understand that she should receive the admiration of a gentleman than the affectionate friendship of a lady. That the old Duke should have been infatuated was intelligible."
"She was very good to the old Duke."
"But it was a kind of goodness which was hardly likely to recommend itself to his nephew's wife. Never mind; we won't talk about her now. Barrington was there?"
"For a day or two."
"He seems to be wasting his life."
"Subordinates in office generally do, I think."
"Do not say that, Phineas."
"Some few push through, and one can almost always foretell who the few will be. There are men who are destined always to occupy second-rate places, and who seem also to know their fate. I never heard Erle speak even of an ambition to sit in the Cabinet."
"He likes to be useful."
"All that part of the business which distresses me is pleasant to him. He is fond of arrangements, and delights in little party successes. Either to effect or to avoid a count-out is a job of work to his taste, and he loves to get the better of the Opposition by keeping it in the dark. A successful plot is as dear to him as to a writer of plays. And yet he is never bitter as is Ratler, or unscrupulous as was poor Mr. Bonteen, or full of wrath as is Lord Fawn. Nor is he idle like Fitzgibbon. Erle always earns his salary."
"When I said he was wasting his life, I meant that he did not marry. But perhaps a man in his position had better remain unmarried." Phineas tried to laugh, but hardly succeeded well. "That, however, is a delicate subject, and we will not touch it now. If you won't drink any wine we might as well go into the other room."
Nothing had as yet been said on either of the subjects which had brought him to Saulsby, but there had been words which made the introduction of them peculiarly unpleasant. His tidings, however, must be told. "I shall not see Lord Brentford to-night?" he asked, when they were together in the drawing-room.
"If you wish it you can go up to him. He will not come down."
"Oh, no. It is only because I must return to-morrow."
"I must do so. I have pledged myself to see Mr. Monk,--and others also."
"It is a short visit to make to us on my first return home! I hardly expected you at Loughlinter, but I thought that you might have remained a few nights under my father's roof." He could only reassert his assurance that he was bound to be back in London, and explain as best he might that he had come to Saulsby for a single night, only because he would not refuse her request to him. "I will not trouble you, Phineas, by complaints," she said.
"I would give you no cause for complaint if I could avoid it."
"And now tell me what has passed between you and Mr. Gresham," she said as soon as the servant had given them coffee. They were sitting by a window which opened down to the ground, and led on to the terrace and to the lawns below. The night was soft, and the air was heavy with the scent of many flowers. It was now past nine, and the sun had set; but there was a bright harvest moon, and the light, though pale, was clear as that of day. "Will you come and take a turn round the garden? We shall be better there than sitting here. I will get my hat; can I find yours for you?" So they both strolled out, down the terrace steps, and went forth, beyond the gardens, into the park, as though they had both intended from the first that it should be so. "I know you have not accepted Mr. Gresham's offer, or you would have told me so."
"I have not accepted."
"Nor have you refused?"
"No; it is still open. I must send my answer by telegram to-morrow--Yes or No,--Mr. Gresham's time is too precious to admit of more."
"Phineas, for Heaven's sake do not allow little feelings to injure you at such a time as this. It is of your own career, not of Mr. Gresham's manners, that you should think."
"I have nothing to object to in Mr. Gresham. Yes or No will be quite sufficient."
"It must be Yes."
"It cannot be Yes, Lady Laura. That which I desired so ardently six months ago has now become so distasteful to me that I cannot accept it. There is an amount of hustling on the Treasury Bench which makes a seat there almost ignominious."
"Do they hustle more than they did three years ago?"
"I think they do, or if not it is more conspicuous to my eyes. I do not say that it need be ignominious. To such a one as was Mr. Palliser it certainly is not so. But it becomes so when a man goes there to get his bread, and has to fight his way as though for bare life. When office first comes, unasked for, almost unexpected, full of the charms which distance lends, it is pleasant enough. The new-comer begins to feel that he too is entitled to rub his shoulders among those who rule the world of Great Britain. But when it has been expected, longed for as I longed for it, asked for by my friends and refused, when all the world comes to know that you are a suitor for that which should come without any suit,--then the pleasantness vanishes."
"I thought it was to be your career."
"And I hoped so."
"What will you do, Phineas? You cannot live without any income."
"I must try," he said, laughing
"You will not share with your friend, as a friend should?"
"No, Lady Laura. That cannot be done."
"I do not see why it cannot. Then you might be independent."
"Then I should indeed be dependent."
"You are too proud to owe me anything."
He wanted to tell her that he was too proud to owe such obligation as she had suggested to any man or any woman; but he hardly knew how to do so, intending as he did to inform her before they returned to the house of his intention to ask Madame Goesler to be his wife. He could discern the difference between enjoying his wife's fortune and taking gifts of money from one who was bound to him by no tie;--but to her in her present mood he could explain no such distinction. On a sudden he rushed at the matter in his mind. It had to be done, and must be done before he brought her back to the house. He was conscious that he had in no degree ill-used her. He had in nothing deceived her. He had kept back from her nothing which the truest friendship had called upon him to reveal to her. And yet he knew that her indignation would rise hot within her at his first word. "Laura," he said, forgetting in his confusion to remember her rank, "I had better tell you at once that I have determined to ask Madame Goesler to be my wife."
"Oh, then;--of course your income is certain."
"If you choose to regard my conduct in that light I cannot help it. I do not think that I deserve such reproach."
"Why not tell it all? You are engaged to her?"
"Not so. I have not asked her yet."
"And why do you come to me with the story of your intentions,--to me of all persons in the world? I sometimes think that of all the hearts that ever dwelt within a man's bosom yours is the hardest."
"For God's sake do not say that of me."
"Do you remember when you came to me about Violet,--to me,--to me? I could bear it then because she was good and earnest, and a woman that I could love even though she robbed me. And I strove for you even against my own heart,--against my own brother. I did; I did. But how am I to bear it now? What shall I do now? She is a woman I loathe."
"Because you do not know her."
"Not know her! And are your eyes so clear at seeing that you must know her better than others? She was the Duke's mistress."
"That is untrue, Lady Laura."
"But what difference does it make to me? I shall be sure that you will have bread to eat, and horses to ride, and a seat in Parliament without being forced to earn it by your labour. We shall meet no more, of course."
"I do not think that you can mean that."
"I will never receive that woman, nor will I cross the sill of her door. Why should I?"
"Should she become my wife,--that I would have thought might have been the reason why."
"Surely, Phineas, no man ever understood a woman so ill as you do."
"Because I would fain hope that I need not quarrel with my oldest friend?"
"Yes, sir; because you think you can do this without quarrelling. How should I speak to her of you; how listen to what she would tell me? Phineas, you have killed me at last." Why could he not tell her that it was she who had done the wrong when she gave her hand to Robert Kennedy? But he could not tell her, and he was dumb. "And so it's settled!"
"No; not settled."
"Psha! I hate your mock modesty! It is settled. You have become far too cautious to risk fortune in such an adventure. Practice has taught you to be perfect. It was to tell me this that you came down here."
"It would have been more generous of you, sir, to have remained away."
"I did not mean to be ungenerous."
Then she suddenly turned upon him, throwing her arms round his neck, and burying her face upon his bosom. They were at the moment in the centre of the park, on the grass beneath the trees, and the moon was bright over their heads. He held her to his breast while she sobbed, and then relaxed his hold as she raised herself to look into his face. After a moment she took his hat from his head with one hand, and with the other swept the hair back from his brow. "Oh, Phineas," she said, "Oh, my darling! My idol that I have worshipped when I should have worshipped my God!"
After that they roamed for nearly an hour backwards and forwards beneath the trees, till at last she became calm and almost reasonable. She acknowledged that she had long expected such a marriage, looking forward to it as a great sorrow. She repeated over and over again her assertion that she could not "know" Madame Goesler as the wife of Phineas, but abstained from further evil words respecting the lady. "It is better that we should be apart," she said at last. "I feel that it is better. When we are both old, if I should live, we may meet again. I knew that it was coming, and we had better part." And yet they remained out there, wandering about the park for a long portion of the summer night. She did not reproach him again, nor did she speak much of the future; but she alluded to all the incidents of their past life, showing him that nothing which he had done, no words which he had spoken, had been forgotten by her. "Of course it has been my fault," she said, as at last she parted with him in the drawing-room. "When I was younger I did not understand how strong the heart can be. I should have known it, and I pay for my ignorance with the penalty of my whole life." Then he left her, kissing her on both cheeks and on her brow, and went to his bedroom with the understanding that he would start for London on the following morning before she was up.
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