The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter IV

Madame Melmotte’s Ball

The next night but one after that of the gambling transaction at the Beargarden, a great ball was given in Grosvenor Square. It was a ball on a scale so magnificent that it had been talked about ever since Parliament met, now about a fortnight since. Some people had expressed an opinion that such a ball as this was intended to be could not be given successfully in February. Others declared that the money which was to be spent — an amount which would make this affair quite new in the annals of ball-giving — would give the thing such a character that it would certainly be successful. And much more than money had been expended. Almost incredible efforts had been made to obtain the cooperation of great people, and these efforts had at last been grandly successful. The Duchess of Stevenage had come up from Castle Albury herself to be present at it and to bring her daughters, though it has never been her Grace’s wont to be in London at this inclement season. No doubt the persuasion used with the Duchess had been very strong. Her brother, Lord Alfred Grendall, was known to be in great difficulties, which — so people said — had been considerably modified by opportune pecuniary assistance. And then it was certain that one of the young Grendalls, Lord Alfred’s second son, had been appointed to some mercantile position, for which he received a salary which his most intimate friends thought that he was hardly qualified to earn. It was certainly a fact that he went to Abchurch Lane, in the City, four or five days a week, and that he did not occupy his time in so unaccustomed a manner for nothing. Where the Duchess of Stevenage went all the world would go. And it became known at the last moment, that is to say only the day before the party, that a prince of the blood royal was to be there. How this had been achieved nobody quite understood; but there were rumours that a certain lady’s jewels had been rescued from the pawnbroker’s. Everything was done on the same scale. The Prime Minister had indeed declined to allow his name to appear on the list; but one Cabinet Minister and two or three under-secretaries had agreed to come because it was felt that the giver of the ball might before long be the master of considerable parliamentary interest. It was believed that he had an eye to politics, and it is always wise to have great wealth on one’s own side. There had at one time been much solicitude about the ball. Many anxious thoughts had been given. When great attempts fail, the failure is disastrous, and may be ruinous. But this ball had now been put beyond the chance of failure.

The giver of the ball was Augustus Melmotte, Esq., the father of the girl whom Sir Felix Carbury desired to marry, and the husband of the lady who was said to have been a Bohemian Jewess. It was thus that the gentleman chose to have himself designated, though within the last two years he had arrived in London from Paris, and had at first been known as M. Melmotte. But he had declared of himself that he had been born in England, and that he was an Englishman. He admitted that his wife was a foreigner — an admission that was necessary as she spoke very little English. Melmotte himself spoke his ‘native’ language fluently, but with an accent which betrayed at least a long expatriation. Miss Melmotte — who a very short time since had been known as Mademoiselle Marie — spoke English well, but as a foreigner. In regard to her it was acknowledged that she had been born out of England — some said in New York; but Madame Melmotte, who must have known, had declared that the great event had taken place in Paris.

It was at any rate an established fact that Mr Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealings in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise — but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that City too hot to hold him; that he had endeavoured to establish himself in Vienna, but had been warned away by the police; and that he had at length found that British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry. He was now established privately in Grosvenor Square and officially in Abchurch Lane; and it was known to all the world that a Royal Prince, a Cabinet Minister, and the very cream of duchesses were going to his wife’s ball. All this had been done within twelve months.

There was but one child in the family, one heiress for all this wealth. Melmotte himself was a large man, with bushy whiskers and rough thick hair, with heavy eyebrows, and a wonderful look of power about his mouth and chin. This was so strong as to redeem his face from vulgarity; but the countenance and appearance of the man were on the whole unpleasant, and, I may say, untrustworthy. He looked as though he were purse-proud and a bully. She was fat and fair — unlike in colour to our traditional Jewesses; but she had the Jewish nose and the Jewish contraction of the eyes. There was certainly very little in Madame Melmotte to recommend her, unless it was a readiness to spend money on any object that might be suggested to her by her new acquaintances. It sometimes seemed that she had a commission from her husband to give away presents to any who would accept them. The world had received the man as Augustus Melmotte, Esq. The world so addressed him on the very numerous letters which reached him, and so inscribed him among the directors of three dozen companies to which he belonged. But his wife was still Madame Melmotte. The daughter had been allowed to take her rank with an English title. She was now Miss Melmotte on all occasions.

Marie Melmotte had been accurately described by Felix Carbury to his mother. She was not beautiful, she was not clever, and she was not a saint. But then neither was she plain, nor stupid, nor, especially, a sinner. She was a little thing, hardly over twenty years of age, very unlike her father or mother, having no trace of the Jewess in her countenance, who seemed to be overwhelmed by the sense of her own position. With such people as the Melmottes things go fast, and it was very well known that Miss Melmotte had already had one lover who had been nearly accepted. The affair, however, had gone off. In this ‘going off’ no one imputed to the young lady blame or even misfortune. It was not supposed that she had either jilted or been jilted. As in royal espousals interests of State regulate their expedience with an acknowledged absence, with even a proclaimed impossibility, of personal predilections, so in this case was money allowed to have the same weight. Such a marriage would or would not be sanctioned in accordance with great pecuniary arrangements. The young Lord Nidderdale, the eldest son of the Marquis of Auld Reekie, had offered to take the girl and make her Marchioness in the process of time for half a million down. Melmotte had not objected to the sum — so it was said — but had proposed to tie it up. Nidderdale had desired to have it free in his own grasp, and would not move on any other terms. Melmotte had been anxious to secure the Marquis — very anxious to secure the Marchioness; for at that time terms had not been made with the Duchess; but at last he had lost his temper, and had asked his lordship’s lawyer whether it was likely that he would entrust such a sum of money to such a man. ‘You are willing to trust your only child to him,’ said the lawyer. Melmotte scowled at the man for a few seconds from under his bushy eyebrows; then told him that his answer had nothing in it, and marched out of the room. So that affair was over. I doubt whether Lord Nidderdale had ever said a word of love to Marie Melmotte — or whether the poor girl had expected it. Her destiny had no doubt been explained to her.

Others had tried and had broken down somewhat in the same fashion. Each had treated the girl as an encumbrance he was to undertake — at a very great price. But as affairs prospered with the Melmottes, as princes and duchesses were obtained by other means — costly no doubt, but not so ruinously costly — the immediate disposition of Marie became less necessary, and Melmotte reduced his offers. The girl herself, too, began to have an opinion. It was said that she had absolutely rejected Lord Grasslough, whose father indeed was in a state of bankruptcy, who had no income of his own, who was ugly, vicious, ill-tempered, and without any power of recommending himself to a girl. She had had experience since Lord Nidderdale, with a half laugh, had told her that he might just as well take her for his wife, and was now tempted from time to time to contemplate her own happiness and her own condition. People around were beginning to say that if Sir Felix Carbury managed his affairs well he might be the happy man.

There was a considerable doubt whether Marie was the daughter of that Jewish-looking woman. Enquiries had been made, but not successfully, as to the date of the Melmotte marriage. There was an idea abroad that Melmotte had got his first money with his wife, and had gotten it not very long ago. Then other people said that Marie was not his daughter at all. Altogether the mystery was rather pleasant as the money was certain. Of the certainty of the money in daily use there could be no doubt. There was the house. There was the furniture. There were the carriages, the horses, the servants with the livery coats and powdered heads, and the servants with the black coats and unpowdered heads. There were the gems, and the presents, and all the nice things that money can buy. There were two dinner parties every day, one at two o’clock called lunch, and the other at eight. The tradesmen had learned enough to be quite free of doubt, and in the City Mr Melmotte’s name was worth any money — though his character was perhaps worth but little.

The large house on the south side of Grosvenor Square was all ablaze by ten o’clock. The broad verandah had been turned into a conservatory, had been covered with boards contrived to look like trellis-work, was heated with hot air and filled with exotics at some fabulous price. A covered way had been made from the door, down across the pathway, to the road, and the police had, I fear, been bribed to frighten foot passengers into a belief that they were bound to go round. The house had been so arranged that it was impossible to know where you were, when once in it. The hall was a paradise. The staircase was fairyland. The lobbies were grottoes rich with ferns. Walls had been knocked away and arches had been constructed. The leads behind had been supported and walled in, and covered and carpeted. The ball had possession of the ground floor and first floor, and the house seemed to be endless. ‘It’s to cost sixty thousand pounds,’ said the Marchioness of Auld Reekie to her old friend the Countess of Mid-Lothian. The Marchioness had come in spite of her son’s misfortune when she heard that the Duchess of Stevenage was to be there. ‘And worse spent money never was wasted,’ said the Countess. ‘By all accounts it was as badly come by,’ said the Marchioness. Then the two old noblewomen, one after the other, made graciously flattering speeches to the much-worn Bohemian Jewess, who was standing in fairyland to receive her guests, almost fainting under the greatness of the occasion.

The three saloons on the first or drawing-room floor had been prepared for dancing, and here Marie was stationed. The Duchess had however undertaken to see that somebody should set the dancing going, and she had commissioned her nephew Miles Grendall, the young gentleman who now frequented the City, to give directions to the band and to make himself generally useful. Indeed, there had sprung up a considerable intimacy between the Grendall family — that is Lord Alfred’s branch of the Grendalls — and the Melmottes; which was as it should be, as each could give much and each receive much. It was known that Lord Alfred had not a shilling; but his brother was a duke and his sister was a duchess, and for the last thirty years there had been one continual anxiety for poor dear Alfred, who had tumbled into an unfortunate marriage without a shilling, had spent his own moderate patrimony, had three sons and three daughters, and had lived now for a very long time entirely on the unwilling contributions of his noble relatives. Melmotte could support the whole family in affluence without feeling the burden; — and why should he not? There had once been an idea that Miles should attempt to win the heiress, but it had soon been found expedient to abandon it. Miles had no title, no position of his own, and was hardly big enough for the place. It was in all respects better that the waters of the fountain should be allowed to irrigate mildly the whole Grendall family; — and so Miles went into the city.

The ball was opened by a quadrille in which Lord Buntingford, the eldest son of the Duchess, stood up with Marie. Various arrangements had been made, and this among them. We may say that it had been a part of the bargain. Lord Buntingford had objected mildly, being a young man devoted to business, fond of his own order, rather shy, and not given to dancing. But he had allowed his mother to prevail. ‘Of course they are vulgar,’ the Duchess had said — ‘so much so as to be no longer distasteful because of the absurdity of the thing. I dare say he hasn’t been very honest. When men make so much money, I don’t know how they can have been honest. Of course it’s done for a purpose. It’s all very well saying that it isn’t right, but what are we to do about Alfred’s children? Miles is to have £500 a-year. And then he is always about the house. And between you and me they have got up those bills of Alfred’s, and have said they can lie in their safe till it suits your uncle to pay them.’

‘They will lie there a long time,’ said Lord Buntingford.

‘Of course they expect something in return; do dance with the girl once.’ Lord Buntingford disapproved mildly, and did as his mother asked him.

The affair went off very well. There were three or four card-tables in one of the lower rooms, and at one of them sat Lord Alfred Grendall and Mr Melmotte, with two or three other players, cutting in and out at the end of each rubber. Playing whist was Lord Alfred’s only accomplishment, and almost the only occupation of his life. He began it daily at his club at three o’clock, and continued playing till two in the morning with an interval of a couple of hours for his dinner. This he did during ten months of the year, and during the other two he frequented some watering-place at which whist prevailed. He did not gamble, never playing for more than the club stakes and bets. He gave to the matter his whole mind, and must have excelled those who were generally opposed to him. But so obdurate was fortune to Lord Alfred that he could not make money even of whist. Melmotte was very anxious to get into Lord Alfred’s club — The Peripatetics. It was pleasant to see the grace with which he lost his money, and the sweet intimacy with which he called his lordship Alfred. Lord Alfred had a remnant of feeling left, and would have liked to kick him. Though Melmotte was by far the bigger man, and was also the younger, Lord Alfred would not have lacked the pluck to kick him. Lord Alfred, in spite of his habitual idleness and vapid uselessness, had still left about him a dash of vigour, and sometimes thought that he would kick Melmotte and have done with it. But there were his poor boys, and those bills in Melmotte’s safe. And then Melmotte lost his points so regularly, and paid his bets with such absolute good humour! ‘Come and have a glass of champagne, Alfred,’ Melmotte said, as the two cut out together. Lord Alfred liked champagne, and followed his host; but as he went he almost made up his mind that on some future day he would kick the man.

Late in the evening Marie Melmotte was waltzing with Felix Carbury, and Henrietta Carbury was then standing by talking to one Mr Paul Montague. Lady Carbury was also there. She was not well inclined either to balls or to such people as the Melmottes; nor was Henrietta. But Felix had suggested that, bearing in mind his prospects as to the heiress, they had better accept the invitation which he would cause to have sent to them. They did so; and then Paul Montague also got a card, not altogether to Lady Carbury’s satisfaction. Lady Carbury was very gracious to Madame Melmotte for two minutes, and then slid into a chair expecting nothing but misery for the evening. She, however, was a woman who could do her duty and endure without complaint.

‘It is the first great ball I ever was at in London,’ said Hetta Carbury to Paul Montague.

‘And how do you like it?’

‘Not at all. How should I like it? I know nobody here. I don’t understand how it is that at these parties people do know each other, or whether they all go dancing about without knowing.’

‘Just that; I suppose when they are used to it they get introduced backwards and forwards, and then they can know each other as fast as they like. If you would wish to dance why don’t you dance with me?’

‘I have danced with you — twice already.’

‘Is there any law against dancing three times?’

‘But I don’t especially want to dance,’ said Henrietta. ‘I think I’ll go and console poor mamma, who has got nobody to speak to her.’ Just at this moment, however, Lady Carbury was not in that wretched condition, as an unexpected friend had come to her relief.

Sir Felix and Marie Melmotte had been spinning round and round throughout a long waltz, thoroughly enjoying the excitement of the music and the movement. To give Felix Carbury what little praise might be his due, it is necessary to say that he did not lack physical activity. He would dance, and ride, and shoot eagerly, with an animation that made him happy for the moment. It was an affair not of thought or calculation, but of physical organisation. And Marie Melmotte had been thoroughly happy. She loved dancing with all her heart if she could only dance in a manner pleasant to herself.

She had been warned especially as to some men — that she should not dance with them. She had been almost thrown into Lord Nidderdale’s arms, and had been prepared to take him at her father’s bidding. But she had never had the slightest pleasure in his society, and had only not been wretched because she had not as yet recognised that she had an identity of her own in the disposition of which she herself should have a voice. She certainly had never cared to dance with Lord Nidderdale. Lord Grasslough she had absolutely hated, though at first she had hardly dared to say so. One or two others had been obnoxious to her in different ways, but they had passed on, or were passing on, out of her way. There was no one at the present moment whom she had been commanded by her father to accept should an offer be made. But she did like dancing with Sir Felix Carbury. It was not only that the man was handsome but that he had a power of changing the expression of his countenance, a play of face, which belied altogether his real disposition. He could seem to be hearty and true till the moment came in which he had really to expose his heart — or to try to expose it. Then he failed, knowing nothing about it. But in the approaches to intimacy with a girl he could be very successful. He had already nearly got beyond this with Marie Melmotte; but Marie was by no means quick in discovering his deficiencies. To her he had seemed like a god. If she might be allowed to be wooed by Sir Felix Carbury, and to give herself to him, she thought that she would be contented.

‘How well you dance,’ said Sir Felix, as soon as he had breath for speaking.

‘Do I?’ She spoke with a slightly foreign accent, which gave a little prettiness to her speech. ‘I was never told so. But nobody ever told me anything about myself.’

‘I should like to tell you everything about yourself, from the beginning to the end.’

‘Ah — but you don’t know.’

‘I would find out. I think I could make some good guesses. I’ll tell you what you would like best in all the world.’

‘What is that?’

‘Somebody that liked you best in all the world.’

‘Ah — yes; if one knew who?’

‘How can you know, Miss Melmotte, but by believing?’

‘That is not the way to know. If a girl told me that she liked me better than any other girl, I should not know it, just because she said so. I should have to find it out.’

‘And if a gentleman told you so?’

‘I shouldn’t believe him a bit, and I should not care to find out. But I should like to have some girl for a friend whom I could love, oh, ten times better than myself.’

‘So should I.’

‘Have you no particular friend?’

‘I mean a girl whom I could love — oh, ten times better than myself.’

‘Now you are laughing at me, Sir Felix,’ said Miss Melmotte.

‘I wonder whether that will come to anything?’ said Paul Montague to Miss Carbury. They had come back into the drawing-room, and had been watching the approaches to love-making which the baronet was opening.

‘You mean Felix and Miss Melmotte. I hate to think of such things, Mr Montague.’

‘It would be a magnificent chance for him.’

‘To marry a girl, the daughter of vulgar people, just because she will have a great deal of money? He can’t care for her really — because she is rich.’

‘But he wants money so dreadfully! It seems to me that there is no other condition of things under which Felix can face the world, but by being the husband of an heiress.’

‘What a dreadful thing to say!’

‘But isn’t it true? He has beggared himself.’

‘Oh, Mr Montague.’

‘And he will beggar you and your mother.’

‘I don’t care about myself.’

‘Others do though.’ As he said this he did not look at her, but spoke through his teeth, as if he were angry both with himself and her.

‘I did not think you would have spoken so harshly of Felix.’

‘I don’t speak harshly of him, Miss Carbury. I haven’t said that it was his own fault. He seems to be one of those who have been born to spend money; and as this girl will have plenty of money to spend, I think it would be a good thing if he were to marry her. If Felix had £20,000 a year, everybody would think him the finest fellow in the world.’ In saying this, however, Mr Paul Montague showed himself unfit to gauge the opinion of the world. Whether Sir Felix be rich or poor, the world, evil-hearted as it is, will never think him a fine fellow.

Lady Carbury had been seated for nearly half an hour in uncomplaining solitude under a bust, when she was delighted by the appearance of Mr Ferdinand Alf. ‘You here?’ she said.

‘Why not? Melmotte and I are brother adventurers.’

‘I should have thought you would find so little here to amuse you.’

‘I have found you; and, in addition to that, duchesses and their daughters without number. They expect Prince George!’

‘Do they?’

‘And Legge Wilson from the India Office is here already. I spoke to him in some jewelled bower as I made my way here, not five minutes since. It’s quite a success. Don’t you think it very nice, Lady Carbury?’

‘I don’t know whether you are joking or in earnest.’

‘I never joke. I say it is very nice. These people are spending thousands upon thousands to gratify you and me and others, and all they want in return is a little countenance.’

‘Do you mean to give it then?’

‘I am giving it them.’

‘Ah — but the countenance of the “Evening Pulpit.” Do you mean to give them that?’

‘Well; it is not in our line exactly to give a catalogue of names and to record ladies’ dresses. Perhaps it may be better for our host himself that he should be kept out of the newspapers.’

‘Are you going to be very severe upon poor me, Mr Alf?’ said the lady after a pause.

‘We are never severe upon anybody, Lady Carbury. Here’s the Prince. What will they do with him now they’ve caught him! Oh, they’re going to make him dance with the heiress. Poor heiress!’

‘Poor Prince!’ said Lady Carbury.

‘Not at all. She’s a nice little girl enough, and he’ll have nothing to trouble him. But how is she, poor thing, to talk to royal blood?’

Poor thing indeed! The Prince was brought into the big room where Marie was still being talked to by Felix Carbury, and was at once made to understand that she was to stand up and dance with royalty. The introduction was managed in a very business-like manner. Miles Grendall first came in and found the female victim; the Duchess followed with the male victim. Madame Melmotte, who had been on her legs till she was ready to sink, waddled behind, but was not allowed to take any part in the affair. The band were playing a galop, but that was stopped at once, to the great confusion of the dancers. In two minutes Miles Grendall had made up a set. He stood up with his aunt, the Duchess, as vis-à-vis to Marie and the Prince, till, about the middle of the quadrille, Legge Wilson was found and made to take his place. Lord Buntingford had gone away; but then there were still present two daughters of the Duchess who were rapidly caught. Sir Felix Carbury, being good-looking and having a name, was made to dance with one of them, and Lord Grasslough with the other. There were four other couples, all made up of titled people, as it was intended that this special dance should be chronicled, if not in the ‘Evening Pulpit,’ in some less serious daily journal. A paid reporter was present in the house ready to rush off with the list as soon as the dance should be a realized fact. The Prince himself did not quite understand why he was there, but they who marshalled his life for him had so marshalled it for the present moment. He himself probably knew nothing about the lady’s diamonds which had been rescued, or the considerable subscription to St. George’s Hospital which had been extracted from Mr Melmotte as a make-weight. Poor Marie felt as though the burden of the hour would be greater than she could bear, and looked as though she would have fled had flight been possible. But the trouble passed quickly, and was not really severe. The Prince said a word or two between each figure, and did not seem to expect a reply. He made a few words go a long way, and was well trained in the work of easing the burden of his own greatness for those who were for the moment inflicted with it. When the dance was over he was allowed to escape after the ceremony of a single glass of champagne drunk in the presence of the hostess. Considerable skill was shown in keeping the presence of his royal guest a secret from the host himself till the Prince was gone. Melmotte would have desired to pour out that glass of wine with his own hands, to solace his tongue by Royal Highnesses, and would probably have been troublesome and disagreeable. Miles Grendall had understood all this and had managed the affair very well. ‘Bless my soul; — his Royal Highness come and gone!’ exclaimed Melmotte. ‘You and my father were so fast at your whist that it was impossible to get you away,’ said Miles. Melmotte was not a fool, and understood it all; — understood not only that it had been thought better that he should not speak to the Prince, but also that it might be better that it should be so. He could not have everything at once. Miles Grendall was very useful to him, and he would not quarrel with Miles, at any rate as yet.

‘Have another rubber, Alfred?’ he said to Miles’s father as the carriages were taking away the guests.

Lord Alfred had taken sundry glasses of champagne, and for a moment forgot the bills in the safe, and the good things which his boys were receiving. ‘Damn that kind of nonsense,’ he said. ‘Call people by their proper names.’ Then he left the house without a further word to the master of it. That night before they went to sleep Melmotte required from his weary wife an account of the ball, and especially of Marie’s conduct. ‘Marie,’ Madame Melmotte said, ‘had behaved well, but had certainly preferred “Sir Carbury” to any other of the young men.’ Hitherto Mr Melmotte had heard very little of Sir Carbury, except that he was a baronet. Though his eyes and ears were always open, though he attended to everything, and was a man of sharp intelligence, he did not yet quite understand the bearing and sequence of English titles. He knew that he must get for his daughter either an eldest son, or one absolutely in possession himself. Sir Felix, he had learned, was only a baronet; but then he was in possession. He had discovered also that Sir Felix’s son would in course of time also become Sir Felix. He was not therefore at the present moment disposed to give any positive orders as to his daughter’s conduct to the young baronet. He did not, however, conceive that the young baronet had as yet addressed his girl in such words as Felix had in truth used when they parted. ‘You know who it is,’ he whispered, ‘likes you better than any one else in the world.’

‘Nobody does; — don’t, Sir Felix.’

‘I do,’ he said as he held her hand for a minute. He looked into her face and she thought it very sweet. He had studied the words as a lesson, and, repeating them as a lesson, he did it fairly well. He did it well enough at any rate to send the poor girl to bed with a sweet conviction that at last a man had spoken to her whom she could love.

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