No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend, the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died. When this sad event happened he had ceased to be Prime Minister. During the first nine months after he had left office he and the Duchess remained in England. Then they had gone abroad, taking with them their three children. The eldest, Lord Silverbridge, had been at Oxford, but had had his career there cut short by some more than ordinary youthful folly, which had induced his father to agree with the college authorities that his name had better be taken off the college books,-all which had been cause of very great sorrow to the Duke. The other boy was to go to Cambridge; but his father had thought it well to give him a twelvemonth's run on the Continent, under his own inspection. Lady Mary, the only daughter, was the youngest of the family, and she also had been with them on the Continent. They remained the full year abroad, travelling with a large accompaniment of tutors, lady's-maids, couriers, and sometimes friends. I do not know that the Duchess or the Duke had enjoyed it much; but the young people had seen something of foreign courts and much of foreign scenery, and had perhaps perfected their French. The Duke had gone to work at his travels with a full determination to create for himself occupation out of a new kind of life. He had studied Dante, and had striven to arouse himself to ecstatic joy amidst the loveliness of the Italian lakes. But through it all he had been aware that he had failed. The Duchess had made no such resolution,-had hardly, perhaps, made any attempt; but, in truth, they had both sighed to be back among the war-trumpets. They had both suffered much among the trumpets, and yet they longed to return. He told himself from day to day, that though he had been banished from the House of Commons, still, as a peer, he had a seat in Parliament, and that, though he was no longer a minister, still he might be useful as a legislator. She, in her career as a leader of fashion, had no doubt met with some trouble,-with some trouble but with no disgrace; and as she had been carried about among the lakes and mountains, among the pictures and statues, among the counts and countesses, she had often felt that there was no happiness except in that dominion which circumstances had enabled her to achieve once, and might enable her to achieve again-in the realms of London society.
Then, in the early spring of 187-, they came back to England, having persistently carried out their project, at any rate in regard to time. Lord Gerald, the younger son, was at once sent up to Trinity. For the eldest son a seat was to be found in the House of Commons, and the fact that a dissolution of Parliament was expected served to prevent any prolonged sojourn abroad. Lady Mary Palliser was at that time nineteen, and her entrance into the world was to be her mother's great care and great delight. In March they spent a few days in London, and then went down to Matching Priory. When she left town the Duchess was complaining of cold, sore throat, and debility. A week after their arrival at Matching she was dead.
Had the heavens fallen and mixed themselves with the earth, had the people of London risen in rebellion with French ideas of equality, had the Queen persistently declined to comply with the constitutional advice of her ministers, had a majority in the House of Commons lost its influence in the country,-the utter prostration of the bereft husband could not have been more complete. It was not only that his heart was torn to pieces, but that he did not know how to look out into the world. It was as though a man should be suddenly called upon to live without hands or even arms. He was helpless, and knew himself to be helpless. Hitherto he had never specially acknowledged to himself that his wife was necessary to him as a component part of his life. Though he had loved her dearly, and had in all things consulted her welfare and happiness, he had at times been inclined to think that in the exuberance of her spirits she had been a trouble rather than a support to him. But now it was as though all outside appliances were taken away from him. There was no one of whom he could ask a question.
For it may be said of this man that, though throughout his life he had had many Honourable and Right Honourable friends, and that though he had entertained guests by the score, and though he had achieved for himself the respect of all good men and the thorough admiration of some few who knew him, he had hardly made for himself a single intimate friend-except that one who had now passed away from him. To her he had been able to say what he thought, even though she would occasionally ridicule him while he was declaring his feelings. But there had been no other human soul to whom he could open himself. There were one or two whom he loved, and perhaps liked; but his loving and his liking had been exclusively political. He had so habituated himself to devote his mind and his heart to the service of his country, that he had almost risen above or sunk below humanity. But she, who had been essentially human, had been a link between him and the world.
There were his three children, the youngest of whom was now nearly nineteen, and they surely were links! At the first moment of his bereavement they were felt to be hardly more than burdens. A more loving father there was not in England, but nature had made him so undemonstrative that as yet they had hardly known his love. In all their joys and in all their troubles, in all their desires and all their disappointments, they had ever gone to their mother. She had been conversant with everything about them, from the boys' bills and the girl's gloves to the innermost turn in the heart and the disposition of each. She had known with the utmost accuracy the nature of the scrapes into which Lord Silverbridge had precipitated himself, and had known also how probable it was that Lord Gerald would do the same. The results of such scrapes she, of course, deplored; and therefore she would give good counsel, pointing out how imperative it was that such evil-doings should be avoided; but with the spirit that produced the scrapes she fully sympathised. The father disliked the spirit almost worse than the results; and was therefore often irritated and unhappy.
And the difficulties about the girl were almost worse to bear than those about the boys. She had done nothing wrong. She had given no signs of extravagance or other juvenile misconduct. But she was beautiful and young. How was he to bring her out into the world? How was he to decide whom she should or whom she should not marry? How was he to guide her through the shoals and rocks which lay in the path of such a girl before she can achieve matrimony?
It was the fate of the family that, with a world of acquaintance, they had not many friends. From all close connection with relatives on the side of the Duchess they had been dissevered by old feelings at first, and afterwards by want of any similitude in the habits of life. She had, when young, been repressed by male and female guardians with an iron hand. Such repression had been needed, and had been perhaps salutary, but it had not left behind it much affection. And then her nearest relatives were not sympathetic with the Duke. He could obtain no assistance in the care of his girl from that source. Nor could he even do it from his own cousins' wives, who were his nearest connections on the side of the Pallisers. They were women to whom he had ever been kind, but to whom he had never opened his heart. When, in the midst of the stunning sorrow of the first week, he tried to think of all this, it seemed to him that there was nobody.
There had been one lady, a very dear ally, staying in the house with them when the Duchess died. This was Mrs. Finn, the wife of Phineas Finn, who had been one of the Duke's colleagues when in office. How it had come to pass that Mrs. Finn and the Duchess had become singularly bound together has been told elsewhere. But there had been close bonds,-so close that when the Duchess on their return from the Continent had passed through London on her way to Matching, ill at the time and very comfortless, it had been almost a thing of course, that Mrs. Finn should go with her. And as she had sunk, and then despaired, and then died, it was this woman who had always been at her side, who had ministered to her, and had listened to the fears and the wishes and hopes she had expressed respecting the children.
At Matching, amidst the ruins of the old Priory, there is a parish burying-ground, and there, in accordance with her own wish, almost within sight of her own bedroom-window, she was buried. On the day of the funeral a dozen relatives came, Pallisers and M'Closkies, who on such an occasion were bound to show themselves, as members of the family. With them and his two sons the Duke walked across to the graveyard, and then walked back; but even to those who stayed the night at the house he hardly spoke. By noon on the following day they had all left him, and the only stranger in the house was Mrs. Finn.
On the afternoon of the day after the funeral the Duke and his guest met, almost for the first time since the sad event. There had been just a pressure of the hand, just a glance of compassion, just some murmur of deep sorrow,-but there had been no real speech between them. Now he had sent for her, and she went down to him in the room in which he commonly sat at work. He was seated at his table when she entered, but there was no book open before him, and no pen ready to his hand. He was dressed of course in black. That, indeed, was usual with him, but now the tailor by his funereal art had added some deeper dye of blackness to his appearance. When he rose and turned to her she thought that he had at once become an old man. His hair was grey in parts, and he had never accustomed himself to use that skill in managing his outside person by which many men are able to preserve for themselves a look, if not of youth, at any rate of freshness. He was thin, of an adust complexion, and had acquired a habit of stooping which, when he was not excited, gave him an appearance of age. All that was common to him; but now it was so much exaggerated that he who was not yet fifty might have been taken to be over sixty.
He put out his hand to greet her as she came up to him. "Silverbridge," he said, "tells me that you go back to London to-morrow."
"I thought it would be best, Duke. My presence here can be of no comfort to you."
"I will not say that anything can be of comfort. But of course it is right that you should go. I can have no excuse for asking you to remain. While there was yet a hope for her-" Then he stopped, unable to say a word further in that direction, and yet there was no sign of a tear and no sound of a sob.
"Of course I would stay, Duke, if I could be of any service."
"Mr. Finn will expect you to return to him."
"Perhaps it would be better that I should say that I would stay were it not that I know that I can be of no real service."
"What do you mean by that, Mrs. Finn?"
"Lady Mary should have with her at such a time some other friend."
"There was none other whom her mother loved as she loved you-none, none." This he said almost with energy.
"There was no one lately, Duke, with whom circumstances caused her mother to be so closely intimate. But even that perhaps was unfortunate."
"I never thought so."
"That is a great compliment. But as to Lady Mary, will it not be as well that she should have with her, as soon as possible, someone,-perhaps someone of her own kindred if it be possible, or, if not that, at least one of her own kind?"
"Who is there? Whom do you mean?"
"I mean no one. It is hard, Duke, to say what I do mean, but perhaps I had better try. There will be,-probably there have been,-some among your friends who have regretted the great intimacy which chance produced between me and my lost friend. While she was with us no such feeling would have sufficed to drive me from her. She had chosen for herself, and if others disapproved her choice that was nothing to me. But as regards Lady Mary, it will be better, I think, that from the beginning she should be taught to look for friendship and guidance to those-to those who are more naturally connected with her."
"I was not thinking of any guidance," said the Duke.
"Of course not. But with one so young, where there is intimacy there will be guidance. There should be somebody with her. It was almost the last thought that occupied her mother's mind. I could not tell her, Duke, but I can tell you, that I cannot with advantage to your girl be that somebody."
"Cora wished it."
"Her wishes, probably, were sudden and hardly fixed."
"Who should it be, then?" asked the father, after a pause.
"Who am I, Duke, that I should answer such a question?"
After that there was another pause, and then the conference was ended by a request from the Duke that Mrs. Finn would stay at Matching for yet two days longer. At dinner they all met,-the father, the three children, and Mrs. Finn. How far the young people among themselves had been able to throw off something of the gloom of death need not here be asked; but in the presence of their father they were sad and sombre, almost as he was. On the next day, early in the morning, the younger lad returned to his college, and Lord Silverbridge went up to London, where he was supposed to have his home.
"Perhaps you would not mind reading these letters," the Duke said to Mrs. Finn, when she again went to him, in compliance with a message from him asking for her presence. Then she sat down and read two letters, one from Lady Cantrip, and the other from a Mrs. Jeffrey Palliser, each of which contained an invitation for his daughter, and expressed a hope that Lady Mary would not be unwilling to spend some time with the writer. Lady Cantrip's letter was long, and went minutely into circumstances. If Lady Mary would come to her, she would abstain from having other company in the house till her young friend's spirits should have somewhat recovered themselves. Nothing could be more kind, or proposed in a sweeter fashion. There had, however, been present to the Duke's mind as he read it a feeling that a proposition to a bereaved husband to relieve him of the society of an only daughter, was not one which would usually be made to a father. In such a position a child's company would probably be his best solace. But he knew,-at this moment he painfully remembered,-that he was not as are other men. He acknowledged the truth of this, but he was not the less grieved and irritated by the reminder. The letter from Mrs. Jeffrey Palliser was to the same effect, but was much shorter. If it would suit Mary to come to them for a month or six weeks at their place in Gloucestershire, they would both be delighted.
"I should not choose her to go there," said the Duke, as Mrs. Finn refolded the latter letter. "My cousin's wife is a very good woman, but Mary would not be happy with her."
"Lady Cantrip is an excellent friend for her."
"Excellent. I know no one whom I esteem more than Lady Cantrip."
"Would you wish her to go there, Duke?"
There came a wistful piteous look over the father's face. Why should he be treated as no other father would be treated? Why should it be supposed that he would desire to send his girl away from him? But yet he felt that it would be better that she should go. It was his present purpose to remain at Matching through a portion of the summer. What could he do to make a girl happy? What comfort would there be in his companionship?
"I suppose she ought to go somewhere," he said.
"I had not thought of it," said Mrs. Finn.
"I understood you to say," replied the Duke, almost angrily, "that she ought to go to someone who would take care of her."
"I was thinking of some friend coming to her."
"Who would come? Who is there that I could possibly ask? You will not stay."
"I certainly would stay, if it were for her good. I was thinking, Duke, that perhaps you might ask the Greys to come to you."
"They would not come," he said, after a pause.
"When she was told that it was for her sake, she would come, I think."
Then there was another pause. "I could not ask them," he said; "for his sake I could not have it put to her in that way. Perhaps Mary had better go to Lady Cantrip. Perhaps I had better be alone here for a time. I do not think that I am fit to have any human being here with me in my sorrow."