The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XX

Lady Pomona’s Dinner Party

Roger Carbury’s half-formed plan of keeping Henrietta at home while Lady Carbury and Sir Felix went to dine at Caversham fell to the ground. It was to be carried out only in the event of Hetta’s yielding to his prayer. But he had in fact not made a prayer, and Hetta had certainly yielded nothing. When the evening came, Lady Carbury started with her son and daughter, and Roger was left alone. In the ordinary course of his life he was used to solitude. During the greater part of the year he would eat and drink and live without companionship; so that there was to him nothing peculiarly sad in this desertion. But on the present occasion he could not prevent himself from dwelling on the loneliness of his lot in life. These cousins of his who were his guests cared nothing for him. Lady Carbury had come to his house simply that it might be useful to her; Sir Felix did not pretend to treat him with even ordinary courtesy; and Hetta herself, though she was soft to him and gracious, was soft and gracious through pity rather than love. On this day he had, in truth, asked her for nothing; but he had almost brought himself to think that she might give all that he wanted without asking. And yet, when he told her of the greatness of his love, and of its endurance, she was simply silent. When the carriage taking them to dinner went away down the road, he sat on the parapet of the bridge in front of the house listening to the sound of the horses’ feet, and telling himself that there was nothing left for him in life.

If ever one man had been good to another, he had been good to Paul Montague, and now Paul Montague was robbing him of everything he valued in the world. His thoughts were not logical, nor was his mind exact. The more he considered it, the stronger was his inward condemnation of his friend. He had never mentioned to any one the services he had rendered to Montague. In speaking of him to Hetta he had alluded only to the affection which had existed between them. But he felt that because of those services his friend Montague had owed it to him not to fall in love with the girl he loved; and he thought that if, unfortunately, this had happened unawares, Montague should have retired as soon as he learned the truth. He could not bring himself to forgive his friend, even though Hetta had assured him that his friend had never spoken to her of love. He was sore all over, and it was Paul Montague who made him sore. Had there been no such man at Carbury when Hetta came there, Hetta might now have been mistress of the house. He sat there till the servant came to tell him that his dinner was on the table. Then he crept in and ate — so that the man might not see his sorrow; and, after dinner, he sat with a book in his hand seeming to read. But he read not a word, for his mind was fixed altogether on his cousin Hetta. ‘What a poor creature a man is,’ he said to himself, ‘who is not sufficiently his own master to get over a feeling like this.’

At Caversham there was a very grand party — as grand almost as a dinner party can be in the country. There were the Earl and Countess of Loddon and Lady Jane Pewet from Loddon Park, and the bishop and his wife, and the Hepworths. These, with the Carburys and the parson’s family, and the people staying in the house, made twenty-four at the dinner table. As there were fourteen ladies and only ten men, the banquet can hardly be said to have been very well arranged. But those things cannot be done in the country with the exactness which the appliances of London make easy; and then the Longestaffes, though they were decidedly people of fashion, were not famous for their excellence in arranging such matters. If aught, however, was lacking in exactness, it was made up in grandeur. There were three powdered footmen, and in that part of the country Lady Pomona alone was served after this fashion; and there was a very heavy butler, whose appearance of itself was sufficient to give éclat to a family. The grand saloon in which nobody ever lived was thrown open, and sofas and chairs on which nobody ever sat were uncovered. It was not above once in the year that this kind of thing vas done at Caversham; but when it was done, nothing was spared which could contribute to the magnificence of the fête. Lady Pomona and her two tall daughters standing up to receive the little Countess of Loddon and Lady Jane Pewet, who was the image of her mother on a somewhat smaller scale, while Madame Melmotte and Marie stood behind as though ashamed of themselves, was a sight to see. Then the Carburys came, and then Mrs Yeld with the bishop. The grand room was soon fairly full; but nobody had a word to say. The bishop was generally a man of much conversation, and Lady Loddon, if she were well pleased with her listeners, could talk by the hour without ceasing. But on this occasion nobody could utter a word. Lord Loddon pottered about, making a feeble attempt, in which he was seconded by no one. Lord Alfred stood, stock-still, stroking his grey moustache with his hand. That much greater man, Augustus Melmotte, put his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat, and was impassible. The bishop saw at a glance the hopelessness of the occasion, and made no attempt. The master of the house shook hands with each guest as he entered, and then devoted his mind to expectation of the next corner. Lady Pomona and her two daughters were grand and handsome, but weary and dumb. In accordance with the treaty, Madame Melmotte had been entertained civilly for four entire days. It could not be expected that the ladies of Caversham should come forth unwearied after such a struggle.

When dinner was announced Felix was allowed to take in Marie Melmotte. There can be no doubt but that the Caversham ladies did execute their part of the treaty. They were led to suppose that this arrangement would be desirable to the Melmottes, and they made it. The great Augustus himself went in with Lady Carbury, much to her satisfaction. She also had been dumb in the drawing-room; but now, if ever, it would be her duty to exert herself. ‘I hope you like Suffolk,’ she said.

‘Pretty well, I thank you. Oh, yes; — very nice place for a little fresh air.’

‘Yes; — that’s just it, Mr Melmotte. When the summer comes one does long so to see the flowers.’

‘We have better flowers in our balconies than any I see down here,’ said Mr Melmotte.

‘No doubt; — because you can command the floral tribute of the world at large. What is there that money will not do? It can turn a London street into a bower of roses, and give you grottoes in Grosvenor Square.’

‘It’s a very nice place, is London.’

‘If you have got plenty of money, Mr Melmotte.’

‘And if you have not, it’s the best place I know to get it. Do you live in London, ma’am?’ He had quite forgotten Lady Carbury even if he had seen her at his house, and with the dulness of hearing common to men, had not picked up her name when told to take her out to dinner. ‘Oh, yes, I live in London. I have had the honour of being entertained by you there.’ This she said with her sweetest smile.

‘Oh, indeed. So many do come, that I don’t always just remember.’

‘How should you — with all the world flocking round you? I am Lady Carbury, the mother of Sir Felix Carbury, whom I think you will remember.’

‘Yes; I know Sir Felix. He’s sitting there, next to my daughter.’

‘Happy fellow!’

‘I don’t know much about that. Young men don’t get their happiness in that way now. They’ve got other things to think of.’

‘He thinks so much of his business.’

‘Oh! I didn’t know,’ said Mr Melmotte.

‘He sits at the same Board with you, I think, Mr Melmotte.’

‘Oh; — that’s his business!’ said Mr Melmotte, with a grim smile.

Lady Carbury was very clever as to many things, and was not ill-informed on matters in general that were going on around her; but she did not know much about the city, and was profoundly ignorant as to the duties of those Directors of whom, from time to time, she saw the names in a catalogue. ‘I trust that he is diligent there,’ she said; ‘and that he is aware of the great privilege which he enjoys in having the advantage of your counsel and guidance.’

‘He don’t trouble me much, ma’am, and I don’t trouble him much.’ After this Lady Carbury said no more as to her son’s position in the city. She endeavoured to open various other subjects of conversation; but she found Mr Melmotte to be heavy on her hands. After a while she had to abandon him in despair, and give herself up to raptures in favour of Protestantism at the bidding of the Caversham parson, who sat on the other side of her, and who had been worked to enthusiasm by some mention of Father Barham’s name.

Opposite to her, or nearly so, sat Sir Felix and his love. ‘I have told mamma,’ Marie had whispered, as she walked in to dinner with him. She was now full of the idea so common to girls who are engaged — and as natural as it is common — that she might tell everything to her lover.

‘Did she say anything?’ he asked. Then Marie had to take her place and arrange her dress before she could reply to him. ‘As to her, I suppose it does not matter what she says, does it?’

‘She said a great deal. She thinks that papa will think you are not rich enough. Hush! Talk about something else, or people will hear.’ So much she had been able to say during the bustle.

Felix was not at all anxious to talk about his love, and changed the subject very willingly. ‘Have you been riding?’ he asked.

‘No; I don’t think there are horses here — not for visitors, that is. How did you get home? Did you have any adventures?’

‘None at all,’ said Felix, remembering Ruby Ruggles. ‘I just rode home quietly. I go to town to-morrow.’

‘And we go on Wednesday. Mind you come and see us before long.’ This she said bringing her voice down to a whisper.

‘Of course I shall. I suppose I’d better go to your father in the city. Does he go every day?’

‘Oh yes, every day. He’s back always about seven. Sometimes he’s good-natured enough when he comes back, but sometimes he’s very cross. He’s best just after dinner. But it’s so hard to get to him then. Lord Alfred is almost always there; and then other people come, and they play cards. I think the city will be best.’

‘You’ll stick to it?’ he asked.

‘Oh, yes; — indeed I will. Now that I’ve once said it nothing will ever turn me. I think papa knows that.’ Felix looked at her as she said this, and thought that he saw more in her countenance than he had ever read there before. Perhaps she would consent to run away with him; and, if so, being the only child, she would certainly — almost certainly, — be forgiven. But if he were to run away with her and marry her, and then find that she were not forgiven, and that Melmotte allowed her to starve without a shilling of fortune, where would he be then? Looking at the matter in all its bearings, considering among other things the trouble and the expense of such a measure, he thought that he could not afford to run away with her.

After dinner he hardly spoke to her; indeed, the room itself — the same big room in which they had been assembled before the feast — seemed to be ill-adapted for conversation. Again nobody talked to anybody, and the minutes went very heavily till at last the carriages were there to take them all home. ‘They arranged that you should sit next to her,’ said Lady Carbury to her son, as they were in the carriage.

‘Oh, I suppose that came naturally; — one young man and one young woman, you know.’

‘Those things are always arranged, and they would not have done it unless they had thought that it would please Mr Melmotte. Oh, Felix! if you can bring it about.’

‘I shall if I can, mother; you needn’t make a fuss about it.’

‘No, I won’t. You cannot wonder that I should be anxious. You behaved beautifully to her at dinner; I was so happy to see you together. Good night, Felix, and God bless you!’ she said again, as they were parting for the night. ‘I shall be the happiest and the proudest mother in England if this comes about.’

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43