The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXX

Mr Melmotte’s Promise

On the following Saturday there appeared in Mr Alf’s paper, the ‘Evening Pulpit,’ a very remarkable article on the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway. It was an article that attracted a great deal of attention and was therefore remarkable, but it was in nothing more remarkable than in this — that it left on the mind of its reader no impression of any decided opinion about the railway. The Editor would at any future time be able to refer to his article with equal pride whether the railway should become a great cosmopolitan fact, or whether it should collapse amidst the foul struggles of a horde of swindlers. In utrumque paratus, the article was mysterious, suggestive, amusing, well-informed — that in the ‘Evening Pulpit’ was a matter of course — and, above all things, ironical. Next to its omniscience its irony was the strongest weapon belonging to the ‘Evening Pulpit.’ There was a little praise given, no doubt in irony, to the duchesses who served Mr Melmotte. There was a little praise, given of course in irony, to Mr Melmotte’s Board of English Directors. There was a good deal of praise, but still alloyed by a dash of irony, bestowed on the idea of civilizing Mexico by joining it to California. Praise was bestowed upon England for taking up the matter, but accompanied by some ironical touches at her incapacity to believe thoroughly in any enterprise not originated by herself. Then there was something said of the universality of Mr Melmotte’s commercial genius, but whether said in a spirit prophetic of ultimate failure and disgrace, or of heavenborn success and unequalled commercial splendour, no one could tell.

It was generally said at the clubs that Mr Alf had written this article himself. Old Splinter, who was one of a body of men possessing an excellent cellar of wine and calling themselves Paides Pallados, and who had written for the heavy quarterlies any time this last forty years, professed that he saw through the article. The ‘Evening Pulpit’ had been, he explained, desirous of going as far as it could in denouncing Mr Melmotte without incurring the danger of an action for libel. Mr Splinter thought that the thing was clever but mean. These new publications generally were mean. Mr Splinter was constant in that opinion; but, putting the meanness aside, he thought that the article was well done. According to his view it was intended to expose Mr Melmotte and the railway. But the Paides Pallados generally did not agree with him. Under such an interpretation, what had been the meaning of that paragraph in which the writer had declared that the work of joining one ocean to another was worthy of the nearest approach to divinity that had been granted to men? Old Splinter chuckled and gabbled as he heard this, and declared that there was not wit enough left now even among the Paides Pallados to understand a shaft of irony. There could be no doubt, however, at the time, that the world did not go with old Splinter, and that the article served to enhance the value of shares in the great railway enterprise.

Lady Carbury was sure that the article was intended to write up the railway, and took great joy in it. She entertained in her brain a somewhat confused notion that if she could only bestir herself in the right direction and could induce her son to open his eyes to his own advantage, very great things might be achieved, so that wealth might become his handmaid and luxury the habit and the right of his life. He was the beloved and the accepted suitor of Marie Melmotte. He was a Director of this great company, sitting at the same board with the great commercial hero. He was the handsomest young man in London. And he was a baronet. Very wild Ideas occurred to her. Should she take Mr Alf into her entire confidence? If Melmotte and Alf could be brought together what might they not do? Alf could write up Melmotte, and Melmotte could shower shares upon Alf. And if Melmotte would come and be smiled upon by herself, be flattered as she thought that she could flatter him, be told that he was a god, and have that passage about the divinity of joining ocean to ocean construed to him as she could construe it, would not the great man become plastic under her hands? And if, while this was a-doing, Felix would run away with Marie, could not forgiveness be made easy? And her creative mind ranged still farther. Mr Broune might help, and even Mr Booker. To such a one as Melmotte, a man doing great things through the force of the confidence placed in him by the world at large, the freely-spoken support of the Press would be everything. Who would not buy shares in a railway as to which Mr Broune and Mr Alf would combine in saying that it was managed by ‘divinity’? Her thoughts were rather hazy, but from day to day she worked hard to make them clear to herself.

On the Sunday afternoon Mr Booker called on her and talked to her about the article. She did not say much to Mr Booker as to her own connection with Mr Melmotte, telling herself that prudence was essential in the present emergency. But she listened with all her ears. It was Mr Booker’s idea that the man was going ‘to make a spoon or spoil a horn.’ ‘You think him honest; — don’t you?’ asked Lady Carbury. Mr Booker smiled and hesitated. ‘Of course, I mean honest as men can be in such very large transactions.’

‘Perhaps that is the best way of putting it,’ said Mr Booker.

‘If a thing can be made great and beneficent, a boon to humanity, simply by creating a belief in it, does not a man become a benefactor to his race by creating that belief?’

‘At the expense of veracity?’ suggested Mr Booker.

‘At the expense of anything?’ rejoined Lady Carbury with energy. ‘One cannot measure such men by the ordinary rule.’

‘You would do evil to produce good?’ asked Mr Booker.

‘I do not call it doing evil. You have to destroy a thousand living creatures every time you drink a glass of water, but you do not think of that when you are athirst. You cannot send a ship to sea without endangering lives. You do send ships to sea though men perish yearly. You tell me this man may perhaps ruin hundreds, but then again he may create a new world in which millions will be rich and happy.’

‘You are an excellent casuist, Lady Carbury.’

‘I am an enthusiastic lover of beneficent audacity,’ said Lady Carbury, picking her words slowly, and showing herself to be quite satisfied with herself as she picked them. ‘Did I hold your place, Mr Booker, in the literature of my country —’

‘I hold no place, Lady Carbury.’

‘Yes; — and a very distinguished place. Were I circumstanced as you are I should have no hesitation in lending the whole weight of my periodical, let it be what it might, to the assistance of so great a man and so great an object as this.’

‘I should be dismissed to-morrow,’ said Mr Booker, getting up and laughing as he took his departure. Lady Carbury felt that, as regarded Mr Booker, she had only thrown out a chance word that could not do any harm. She had not expected to effect much through Mr Booker’s instrumentality. On the Tuesday evening — her regular Tuesday as she called it — all her three editors came to her drawing-room; but there came also a greater man than either of them. She had taken the bull by the horns, and without saying anything to anybody had written to Mr Melmotte himself, asking him to honour her poor house with his presence. She had written a very pretty note to him, reminding him of their meeting at Caversham, telling him that on a former occasion Madame Melmotte and his daughter had been so kind as to come to her, and giving him to understand that of all the potentates now on earth he was the one to whom she could bow the knee with the purest satisfaction. He wrote back — or Miles Grendall did for him — a very plain note, accepting the honour of Lady Carbury’s invitation.

The great man came, and Lady Carbury took him under her immediate wing with a grace that was all her own. She said a word about their dear friends at Caversham, expressed her sorrow that her son’s engagements did not admit of his being there, and then with the utmost audacity rushed off to the article in the ‘Pulpit.’ Her friend, Mr Alf, the editor, had thoroughly appreciated the greatness of Mr Melmotte’s character, and the magnificence of Mr Melmotte’s undertakings. Mr Melmotte bowed and muttered something that was inaudible. ‘Now I must introduce you to Mr Alf,’ said the lady. The introduction was effected, and Mr Alf explained that it was hardly necessary, as he had already been entertained as one of Mr Melmotte’s guests.

‘There were a great many there I never saw, and probably never shall see,’ said Mr Melmotte.

‘I was one of the unfortunates,’ said Mr Alf.

‘I’m sorry you were unfortunate. If you had come into the whist room you would have found me.’

‘Ah — if I had but known!’ said Mr Alf. The editor, as was proper, carried about with him samples of the irony which his paper used so effectively, but it was altogether thrown away upon Melmotte.

Lady Carbury, finding that no immediate good results could be expected from this last introduction, tried another. ‘Mr Melmotte,’ she said, whispering to him, ‘I do so want to make you known to Mr Broune. Mr Broune I know you have never met before. A morning paper is a much heavier burden to an editor than one published in the afternoon. Mr Broune, as of course you know, manages the “Breakfast Table.” There is hardly a more influential man in London than Mr Broune. And they declare, you know,’ she said, lowering the tone of her whisper as she communicated the fact, ‘that his commercial articles are gospel — absolutely gospel.’ Then the two men were named to each other, and Lady Carbury retreated; — but not out of hearing.

‘Getting very hot,’ said Mr Melmotte.

‘Very hot indeed,’ said Mr Broune.

‘It was over 70 in the city to-day. I call that very hot for June.’

‘Very hot indeed,’ said Mr Broune again. Then the conversation was over. Mr Broune sidled away, and Mr Melmotte was left standing in the middle of the room. Lady Carbury told herself at the moment that Rome was not built in a day. She would have been better satisfied certainly if she could have laid a few more bricks on this day. Perseverance, however, was the thing wanted.

But Mr Melmotte himself had a word to say, and before he left the house he said it. ‘It was very good of you to ask me, Lady Carbury; — very good.’ Lady Carbury intimated her opinion that the goodness was all on the other side. ‘And I came,’ continued Mr Melmotte, ‘because I had something particular to say. Otherwise I don’t go out much to evening parties. Your son has proposed to my daughter.’ Lady Carbury looked up into his face with all her eyes; — clasped both her hands together; and then, having unclasped them, put one upon his sleeve.

‘My daughter, ma’am, is engaged to another man.’

‘You would not enslave her affections, Mr Melmotte?’

‘I won’t give her a shilling if she marries any one else; that’s all. You reminded me down at Caversham that your son is a Director at our Board.’

‘I did; — I did.’

‘I have a great respect for your son, ma’am. I don’t want to hurt him in any way. If he’ll signify to my daughter that he withdraws from this offer of his, because I’m against it, I’ll see that he does uncommon well in the city. I’ll be the making of him. Good night, ma’am.’ Then Mr Melmotte took his departure without another word.

Here at any rate was an undertaking on the part of the great man that he would be the ‘making of Felix,’ if Felix would only obey him — accompanied, or rather preceded, by a most positive assurance that if Felix were to succeed in marrying his daughter he would not give his son-in-law a shilling! There was very much to be considered in this. She did not doubt that Felix might be ‘made’ by Mr Melmotte’s city influences, but then any perpetuity of such making must depend on qualifications in her son which she feared that he did not possess. The wife without the money would be terrible! That would be absolute ruin! There could be no escape then; no hope. There was an appreciation of real tragedy in her heart while she contemplated the position of Sir Felix married to such a girl as she supposed Marie Melmotte to be, without any means of support for either of them but what she could supply. It would kill her. And for those young people there would be nothing before them, but beggary and the workhouse. As she thought of this she trembled with true maternal instincts. Her beautiful boy — so glorious with his outward gifts, so fit, as she thought him, for all the graces of the grand world! Though the ambition was vilely ignoble, the mother’s love was noble and disinterested.

But the girl was an only child. The future honours of the house of Melmotte could be made to settle on no other head. No doubt the father would prefer a lord for a son-in-law; and, having that preference, would of course do as he was now doing. That he should threaten to disinherit his daughter if she married contrary to his wishes was to be expected. But would it not be equally a matter of course that he should make the best of the marriage if it were once effected? His daughter would return to him with a title, though with one of a lower degree than his ambition desired. To herself personally, Lady Carbury felt that the great financier had been very rude. He had taken advantage of her invitation that he might come to her house and threaten her. But she would forgive that. She could pass that over altogether if only anything were to be gained by passing it over.

She looked round the room, longing for a friend, whom she might consult with a true feeling of genuine womanly dependence. Her most natural friend was Roger Carbury. But even had he been there she could not have consulted him on any matter touching the Melmottes. His advice would have been very clear. He would have told her to have nothing at all to do with such adventurers. But then dear Roger was old-fashioned, and knew nothing of people as they are now. He lived in a world which, though slow, had been good in its way; but which, whether bad or good, had now passed away. Then her eye settled on Mr Broune. She was afraid of Mr Alf. She had almost begun to think that Mr Alf was too difficult of management to be of use to her. But Mr Broune was softer. Mr Booker was serviceable for an article, but would not be sympathetic as a friend.

Mr Broune had been very courteous to her lately; — so much so that on one occasion she had almost feared that the ‘susceptible old goose’ was going to be a goose again. That would be a bore; but still she might make use of the friendly condition of mind which such susceptibility would produce. When her guests began to leave her, she spoke a word aside to him. She wanted his advice. Would he stay for a few minutes after the rest of the company? He did stay, and when all the others were gone she asked her daughter to leave them. ‘Hetta,’ she said, ‘I have something of business to communicate to Mr Broune.’ And so they were left alone.

‘I’m afraid you didn’t make much of Mr Melmotte,’ she said smiling. He had seated himself on the end of a sofa, close to the arm-chair which she occupied. In reply, he only shook his head and laughed. ‘I saw how it was, and I was sorry for it; for he certainly is a wonderful man.’

‘I suppose he is, but he is one of those men whose powers do not lie, I should say, chiefly in conversation. Though, indeed, there is no reason why he should not say the same of me — for if he said little, I said less.’

‘It didn’t just come off,’ Lady Carbury suggested with her sweetest smile. ‘But now I want to tell you something. I think I am justified in regarding you as a real friend.’

‘Certainly,’ he said, putting out his hand for hers.

She gave it to him for a moment, and then took it back again — finding that he did not relinquish it of his own accord. ‘Stupid old goose!’ she said to herself. ‘And now to my story. You know my boy, Felix?’ The editor nodded his head. ‘He is engaged to marry that man’s daughter.’

‘Engaged to marry Miss Melmotte?’ Then Lady Carbury nodded her head. ‘Why, she is said to be the greatest heiress that the world has ever produced. I thought she was to marry Lord Nidderdale.’

‘She has engaged herself to Felix. She is desperately in love with him — as is he with her.’ She tried to tell her story truly, knowing that no advice can be worth anything that is not based on a true story; — but lying had become her nature. ‘Melmotte naturally wants her to marry the lord. He came here to tell me that if his daughter married Felix she would not have a penny.’

‘Do you mean that he volunteered that as a threat?’

‘Just so; — and he told me that he had come here simply with the object of saying so. It was more candid than civil, but we must take it as we get it.’

‘He would be sure to make some such threat.’

‘Exactly. That is just what I feel. And in these days young people are often kept from marrying simply by a father’s fantasy. But I must tell you something else. He told me that if Felix would desist, he would enable him to make a fortune in the city.’

‘That’s bosh,’ said Broune with decision.

‘Do you think it must be so; — certainly?’

‘Yes, I do. Such an undertaking, if intended by Melmotte, would give me a worse opinion of him than I have ever held.’

‘He did make it.’

‘Then he did very wrong. He must have spoken with the purpose of deceiving.’

‘You know my son is one of the Directors of that great American Railway. It was not just as though the promise were made to a young man who was altogether unconnected with him.’

‘Sir Felix’s name was put there, in a hurry, merely because he has a title, and because Melmotte thought he, as a young man, would not be likely to interfere with him. It may be that he will be able to sell a few shares at a profit; but, if I understand the matter rightly, he has no capital to go into such a business.’

‘No; — he has no capital.’

‘Dear Lady Carbury, I would place no dependence at all on such a promise as that.’

‘You think he should marry the girl then in spite of the father?’

Mr Broune hesitated before he replied to this question. But it was to this question that Lady Carbury especially wished for a reply. She wanted some one to support her under the circumstances of an elopement. She rose from her chair, and he rose at the same time.

‘Perhaps I should have begun by saying that Felix is all but prepared to take her off. She is quite ready to go. She is devoted to him. Do you think he would be wrong?’

‘That is a question very hard to answer.’

‘People do it every day. Lionel Goldsheiner ran away the other day with Lady Julia Start, and everybody visits them.’

‘Oh yes, people do run away, and it all comes right. It was the gentleman had the money then, and it is said you know that old Lady Catchboy, Lady Julia’s mother, had arranged the elopement herself as offering the safest way of securing the rich prize. The young lord didn’t like it, so the mother had it done in that fashion.’

‘There would be nothing disgraceful.’

‘I didn’t say there would; — but nevertheless it is one of those things a man hardly ventures to advise. If you ask me whether I think that Melmotte would forgive her, and make her an allowance afterwards — I think he would.’

‘I am so glad to hear you say that.’

‘And I feel quite certain that no dependence whatever should be placed on that promise of assistance.’

‘I quite agree with you. I am so much obliged to you,’ said Lady Carbury, who was now determined that Felix should run off with the girl. ‘You have been so very kind.’ Then again she gave him her hand, as though to bid him farewell for the night.

‘And now,’ he said, ‘I also have something to say to you.’

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