The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LV

Clerical Charities

Melmotte’s success, and Melmotte’s wealth, and Melmotte’s antecedents were much discussed down in Suffolk at this time. He had been seen there in the flesh, and there is no believing like that which comes from sight. He had been staying at Caversham, and many in those parts knew that Miss Longestaffe was now living in his house in London. The purchase of the Pickering estate had also been noticed in all the Suffolk and Norfolk newspapers. Rumours, therefore, of his past frauds, rumour also as to the instability of his presumed fortune, were as current as those which declared him to be by far the richest man in England. Miss Melmotte’s little attempt had also been communicated in the papers; and Sir Felix, though he was not recognized as being ‘real Suffolk’ himself, was so far connected with Suffolk by name as to add something to this feeling of reality respecting the Melmottes generally. Suffolk is very old-fashioned. Suffolk, taken as a whole, did not like the Melmotte fashion. Suffolk, which is, I fear, persistently and irrecoverably Conservative, did not believe in Melmotte as a Conservative Member of Parliament. Suffolk on this occasion was rather ashamed of the Longestaffes, and took occasion to remember that it was barely the other day, as Suffolk counts days, since the original Longestaffe was in trade. This selling of Pickering, and especially the selling of it to Melmotte, was a mean thing. Suffolk, as a whole, thoroughly believed that Melmotte had picked the very bones of every shareholder in that Franco-Austrian Assurance Company.

Mr Hepworth was over with Roger one morning, and they were talking about him — or talking rather of the attempted elopement. ‘I know nothing about it,’ said Roger, ‘and I do not intend to ask. Of course I did know when they were down here that he hoped to marry her, and I did believe that she was willing to marry him. But whether the father had consented or not I never inquired.’

‘It seems he did not consent.’

‘Nothing could have been more unfortunate for either of them than such a marriage. Melmotte will probably be in the “Gazette” before long, and my cousin not only has not a shilling, but could not keep one if he had it.’

‘You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.’

‘A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor; — a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end — too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?’

‘At just a table here and there,’ suggested his friend.

‘No; — it is not that. You can keep your house free from him, and so can I mine. But we set no example to the nation at large. They who do set the example go to his feasts, and of course he is seen at theirs in return. And yet these leaders of the fashion know — at any rate they believe — that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world — and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.’

Roger dined with the Bishop of Elmham that evening, and the same hero was discussed under a different heading. ‘He has given £200,’ said the Bishop, ‘to the Curates’ Aid Society. I don’t know that a man could spend his money much better than that.’

‘Clap-trap!’ said Roger, who in his present mood was very bitter.

‘The money is not clap-trap, my friend. I presume that the money is really paid.’

‘I don’t feel at all sure of that.’

‘Our collectors for clerical charities are usually stern men — very ready to make known defalcations on the part of promising subscribers. I think they would take care to get the money during the election.’

‘And you think that money got in that way redounds to his credit?’

‘Such a gift shows him to be a useful member of society — and I am always for encouraging useful men.’

‘Even though their own objects may be vile and pernicious?’

‘There you beg ever so many questions, Mr Carbury. Mr Melmotte wishes to get into Parliament, and if there would vote on the side which you at any rate approve. I do not know that his object in that respect is pernicious. And as a seat in Parliament has been a matter of ambition to the best of our countrymen for centuries, I do not know why we should say that it is vile in this man.’ Roger frowned and shook his head. ‘Of course Mr Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing.’

‘It’s going to the dogs, I think; — about as fast as it can go.’

‘We build churches much faster than we used to do.’

‘Do we say our prayers in them when we have built them?’ asked the Squire.

‘It is very hard to see into the minds of men,’ said the Bishop; ‘but we can see the results of their minds’ work. I think that men on the whole do live better lives than they did a hundred years ago. There is a wider spirit of justice abroad, more of mercy from one to another, a more lively charity, and if less of religious enthusiasm, less also of superstition. Men will hardly go to heaven, Mr Carbury, by following forms only because their fathers followed the same forms before them.’

‘I suppose men will go to heaven, my Lord, by doing as they would be done by.’

‘There can be no safer lesson. But we must hope that some may be saved even if they have not practised at all times that grand self-denial. Who comes up to that teaching? Do you not wish for, nay, almost demand, instant pardon for any trespass that you may commit — of temper, or manner, for instance? and are you always ready to forgive in that way yourself? Do you not writhe with indignation at being wrongly judged by others who condemn you without knowing your actions or the causes of them; and do you never judge others after that fashion?’

‘I do not put myself forward as an example.’

‘I apologise for the personal form of my appeal. A clergyman is apt to forget that he is not in the pulpit. Of course I speak of men in general. Taking society as a whole, the big and the little, the rich and the poor, I think that it grows better from year to year, and not worse. I think, too, that they who grumble at the times, as Horace did, and declare that each age is worse than its forerunner, look only at the small things beneath their eyes, and ignore the course of the world at large.’

‘But Roman freedom and Roman manners were going to the dogs when Horace wrote.’

‘But Christ was about to be born, and men were already being made fit by wider intelligence for Christ’s teaching. And as for freedom, has not freedom grown, almost every year, from that to this?’

‘In Rome they were worshipping just such men as this Melmotte. Do you remember the man who sat upon the seats of the knights and scoured the Via Sacra with his toga, though he had been scourged from pillar to post for his villainies? I always think of that man when I hear Melmotte’s name mentioned. Hoc, hoc tribuno militum! Is this the man to be Conservative member for Westminster?’

‘Do you know of the scourges, as a fact?’

‘I think I know that they are deserved.’

‘That is hardly doing to others as you would be done by. If the man is what you say, he will surely be found out at last, and the day of his punishment will come. Your friend in the ode probably had a bad time of it, in spite of his farms and his horses. The world perhaps is managed more justly than you think, Mr Carbury.’

‘My Lord, I believe you’re a Radical at heart,’ said Roger, as he took his leave.

‘Very likely — very likely. Only don’t say so to the Prime Minister, or I shall never get any of the better things which may be going.’

The Bishop was not hopelessly in love with a young lady, and was therefore less inclined to take a melancholy view of things in general than Roger Carbury. To Roger everything seemed to be out of joint. He had that morning received a letter from Lady Carbury, reminding him of the promise of a loan, should a time come to her of great need. It had come very quickly. Roger Carbury did not in the least begrudge the hundred pounds which he had already sent to his cousin; but he did begrudge any furtherance afforded to the iniquitous schemes of Sir Felix. He felt all but sure that the foolish mother had given her son money for his abortive attempt, and that therefore this appeal had been made to him. He alluded to no such fear in his letter. He simply enclosed the cheque, and expressed a hope that the amount might suffice for the present emergency. But he was disheartened and disgusted by all the circumstances of the Carbury family. There was Paul Montague, bringing a woman such as Mrs Hurtle down to Lowestoft, declaring his purpose of continuing his visits to her, and, as Roger thought, utterly unable to free himself from his toils — and yet, on this man’s account, Hetta was cold and hard to him. He was conscious of the honesty of his own love, sure that he could make her happy — confident, not in himself, but in the fashion and ways of his own life. What would be Hetta’s lot if her heart was really given to Paul Montague?

When he got home, he found Father Barham sitting in his library. An accident had lately happened at Father Barham’s own establishment. The wind had blown the roof off his cottage; and Roger Carbury, though his affection for the priest was waning, had offered him shelter while the damage was being repaired. Shelter at Carbury Manor was very much more comfortable than the priest’s own establishment, even with the roof on, and Father Barham was in clover. Father Barham was reading his own favourite newspaper, ‘The Surplice,’ when Roger entered the room. ‘Have you seen this, Mr Carbury?’ he said.

‘What’s this? I am not likely to have seen anything that belongs peculiarly to “The Surplice.”’

‘That’s the prejudice of what you are pleased to call the Anglican Church. Mr Melmotte is a convert to our faith. He is a great man, and will perhaps be one of the greatest known on the face of the globe.’

‘Melmotte a convert to Romanism! I’ll make you a present of him, and thank you to take him; but I don’t believe that we’ve any such good riddance.’

Then Father Barham read a paragraph out of ‘The Surplice.’ ‘Mr Augustus Melmotte, the great financier and capitalist, has presented a hundred guineas towards the erection of an altar for the new church of St Fabricius, in Tothill Fields. The donation was accompanied by a letter from Mr Melmotte’s secretary, which leaves but little doubt that the new member for Westminster will be a member, and no inconsiderable member, of the Catholic party in the House, during the next session.’

‘That’s another dodge, is it?’ said Carbury.

‘What do you mean by a dodge, Mr Carbury? Because money is given for a pious object of which you do not happen to approve, must it be a dodge?’

‘But, my dear Father Barham, the day before the same great man gave £200 to the Protestant Curates’ Aid Society. I have just left the Bishop exulting in this great act of charity.’

‘I don’t believe a word of it; — or it may be a parting gift to the Church to which he belonged in his darkness.’

‘And you would be really proud of Mr Melmotte as a convert?’

‘I would be proud of the lowest human being that has a soul,’ said the priest; ‘but of course we are glad to welcome the wealthy and the great.’

‘The great! Oh dear!’

‘A man is great who has made for himself such a position as that of Mr Melmotte. And when such a one leaves your Church and joins our own, it is a great sign to us that the Truth is prevailing.’ Roger Carbury, without another word, took his candle and went to bed.

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