The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LVIII

Mr Squercum is Employed

While these things were being done in Bruton Street and Grosvenor Square horrid rumours were prevailing in the City and spreading from the City westwards to the House of Commons, which was sitting this Monday afternoon with a prospect of an adjournment at seven o’clock in consequence of the banquet to be given to the Emperor. It is difficult to explain the exact nature of this rumour, as it was not thoroughly understood by those who propagated it. But it is certainly the case that the word forgery was whispered by more than one pair of lips.

Many of Melmotte’s staunchest supporters thought that he was very wrong not to show himself that day in the City. What good could he do pottering about among the chairs and benches in the banqueting room? There were people to manage that kind of thing. In such an affair it was his business to do simply as he was told, and to pay the bill. It was not as though he were giving a little dinner to a friend, and had to see himself that the wine was brought up in good order. His work was in the City; and at such a time as this and in such a crisis as this, he should have been in the City. Men will whisper forgery behind a man’s back who would not dare even to think it before his face.

Of this particular rumour our young friend Dolly Longestaffe was the parent. With unhesitating resolution, nothing awed by his father, Dolly had gone to his attorney, Mr Squercum, immediately after that Friday on which Mr Longestaffe first took his seat at the Railway Board. Dolly was possessed of fine qualities, but it must be owned that veneration was not one of them. ‘I don’t know why Mr Melmotte is to be different from anybody else,’ he had said to his father. ‘When I buy a thing and don’t pay for it, it is because I haven’t got the tin, and I suppose it’s about the same with him. It’s all right, no doubt, but I don’t see why he should have got hold of the place till the money was paid down.’

‘Of course it’s all right,’ said the father. ‘You think you understand everything, when you really understand nothing at all.’

‘Of course I’m slow,’ said Dolly. ‘I don’t comprehend these things. But then Squercum does. When a fellow is stupid himself, he ought to have a sharp fellow to look after his business.’

‘You’ll ruin me and yourself too, if you go to such a man as that. Why can’t you trust Mr Bideawhile? Slow and Bideawhile have been the family lawyers for a century.’ Dolly made some remark as to the old family advisers which was by no means pleasing to the father’s ears, and went his way. The father knew his boy, and knew that his boy would go to Squercum. All he could himself do was to press Mr Melmotte for the money with what importunity he could assume. He wrote a timid letter to Mr Melmotte, which had no result; and then, on the next Friday, again went into the City and there encountered perturbation of spirit and sheer loss of time — as the reader has already learned.

Squercum was a thorn in the side of all the Bideawhiles. Mr Slow had been gathered to his fathers, but of the Bideawhiles there were three in the business, a father and two sons, to whom Squercum was a pest and a musquito, a running sore and a skeleton in the cupboard. It was not only in reference to Mr Longestaffe’s affairs that they knew Squercum. The Bideawhiles piqued themselves on the decorous and orderly transaction of their business. It had grown to be a rule in the house that anything done quickly must be done badly. They never were in a hurry for money, and they expected their clients never to be in a hurry for work. Squercum was the very opposite to this. He had established himself, without predecessors and without a partner, and we may add without capital, at a little office in Fetter Lane, and had there made a character for getting things done after a marvellous and new fashion. And it was said of him that he was fairly honest, though it must be owned that among the Bideawhiles of the profession this was not the character which he bore. He did sharp things no doubt, and had no hesitation in supporting the interests of sons against those of their fathers. In more than one case he had computed for a young heir the exact value of his share in a property as compared to that of his father, and had come into hostile contact with many family Bideawhiles. He had been closely watched. There were some who, no doubt, would have liked to crush a man who was at once so clever, and so pestilential. But he had not as yet been crushed, and had become quite in vogue with elder sons. Some three years since his name had been mentioned to Dolly by a friend who had for years been at war with his father, and Squercum had been quite a comfort to Dolly.

He was a mean-looking little man, not yet above forty, who always wore a stiff light-coloured cotton cravat, an old dress coat, a coloured dingy waistcoat, and light trousers of some hue different from his waistcoat. He generally had on dirty shoes and gaiters. He was light-haired, with light whiskers, with putty-formed features, a squat nose, a large mouth, and very bright blue eyes. He looked as unlike the normal Bideawhile of the profession as a man could be; and it must be owned, though an attorney, would hardly have been taken for a gentleman from his personal appearance. He was very quick, and active in his motions, absolutely doing his law work himself, and trusting to his three or four juvenile clerks for little more than scrivener’s labour. He seldom or never came to his office on a Saturday, and many among his enemies said that he was a Jew. What evil will not a rival say to stop the flow of grist to the mill of the hated one? But this report Squercum rather liked, and assisted. They who knew the inner life of the little man declared that he kept a horse and hunted down in Essex on Saturday, doing a bit of gardening in the summer months; — and they said also that he made up for this by working hard all Sunday. Such was Mr Squercum — a sign, in his way, that the old things are being changed.

Squercum sat at a desk, covered with papers in chaotic confusion, on a chair which moved on a pivot. His desk was against the wall, and when clients came to him, he turned himself sharp round, sticking out his dirty shoes, throwing himself back till his body was an inclined plane, with his hands thrust into his pockets. In this attitude he would listen to his client’s story, and would himself speak as little as possible. It was by his instructions that Dolly had insisted on getting his share of the purchase money for Pickering into his own hands, so that the incumbrance on his own property might be paid off. He now listened as Dolly told him of the delay in the payment. ‘Melmotte’s at Pickering?’ asked the attorney. Then Dolly informed him how the tradesmen of the great financier had already half knocked down the house. Squercum still listened, and promised to look to it. He did ask what authority Dolly had given for the surrender of the title-deeds. Dolly declared that he had given authority for the sale, but none for the surrender. His father, some time since, had put before him, for his signature, a letter, prepared in Mr Bideawhile’s office, which Dolly said that he had refused even to read, and certainly had not signed. Squercum again said that he’d look to it, and bowed Dolly out of his room. ‘They’ve got him to sign something when he was tight,’ said Squercum to himself, knowing something of the habits of his client. ‘I wonder whether his father did it, or old Bideawhile, or Melmotte himself?’ Mr Squercum was inclined to think that Bideawhile would not have done it, that Melmotte could have had no opportunity, and that the father must have been the practitioner. ‘It’s not the trick of a pompous old fool either,’ said Mr Squercum, in his soliloquy. He went to work, however, making himself detestably odious among the very respectable clerks in Mr Bideawhile’s office — men who considered themselves to be altogether superior to Squercum himself in professional standing.

And now there came this rumour which was so far particular in its details that it inferred the forgery, of which it accused Mr Melmotte, to his mode of acquiring the Pickering property. The nature of the forgery was of course described in various ways — as was also the signature said to have been forged. But there were many who believed, or almost believed, that something wrong had been done — that some great fraud had been committed; and in connection with this it was ascertained — by some as a matter of certainty — that the Pickering estate had been already mortgaged by Melmotte to its full value at an assurance office. In such a transaction there would be nothing dishonest; but as this place had been bought for the great man’s own family use, and not as a speculation, even this report of the mortgage tended to injure his credit. And then, as the day went on, other tidings were told as to other properties. Houses in the East-end of London were said to have been bought and sold, without payment of the purchase money as to the buying, and with receipt of the purchase money as to the selling.

It was certainly true that Squercum himself had seen the letter in Mr Bideawhile’s office which conveyed to the father’s lawyer the son’s sanction for the surrender of the title-deeds, and that that letter, prepared in Mr Bideawhile’s office, purported to have Dolly’s signature. Squercum said but little, remembering that his client was not always clear in the morning as to anything he had done on the preceding evening. But the signature, though it was scrawled as Dolly always scrawled it, was not like the scrawl of a drunken man.

The letter was said to have been sent to Mr Bideawhile’s office with other letters and papers, direct from old Mr Longestaffe. Such was the statement made at first to Mr Squercum by the Bideawhile party, who at that moment had no doubt of the genuineness of the letter or of the accuracy of their statement. Then Squercum saw his client again, and returned to the charge at Bideawhile’s office, with the positive assurance that the signature was a forgery. Dolly, when questioned by Squercum, quite admitted his propensity to be ‘tight’. He had no reticence, no feeling of disgrace on such matters. But he had signed no letter when he was tight. ‘Never did such a thing in my life, and nothing could make me,’ said Dolly. ‘I’m never tight except at the club, and the letter couldn’t have been there. I’ll be drawn and quartered if I ever signed it. That’s flat.’ Dolly was intent on going to his father at once, on going to Melmotte at once, on going to Bideawhile’s at once, and making there ‘no end of a row,’— but Squercum stopped him. ‘We’ll just ferret this thing out quietly,’ said Squercum, who perhaps thought that there would be high honour in discovering the peccadillos of so great a man as Mr Melmotte. Mr Longestaffe, the father, had heard nothing of the matter till the Saturday after his last interview with Melmotte in the City. He had then called at Bideawhile’s office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and had been shown the letter. He declared at once that he had never sent the letter to Mr Bideawhile. He had begged his son to sign the letter and his son had refused. He did not at that moment distinctly remember what he had done with the letter unsigned. He believed he had left it with the other papers; but it was possible that his son might have taken it away. He acknowledged that at the time he had been both angry and unhappy. He didn’t think that he could have sent the letter back unsigned — but he was not sure. He had more than once been in his own study in Bruton Street since Mr Melmotte had occupied the house — by that gentleman’s leave — having left various papers there under his own lock and key. Indeed it had been matter of agreement that he should have access to his own study when he let the house. He thought it probable that he would have kept back the unsigned letter, and have kept it under lock and key, when he sent away the other papers. Then reference was made to Mr Longestaffe’s own letter to the lawyer, and it was found that he had not even alluded to that which his son had been asked to sign; but that he had said, in his own usually pompous style, that Mr Longestaffe, junior, was still prone to create unsubstantial difficulties. Mr Bideawhile was obliged to confess that there had been a want of caution among his own people. This allusion to the creation of difficulties by Dolly, accompanied, as it was supposed to have been, by Dolly’s letter doing away with all difficulties, should have attracted notice. Dolly’s letter must have come in a separate envelope; but such envelope could not be found, and the circumstance was not remembered by the clerk. The clerk who had prepared the letter for Dolly’s signature represented himself as having been quite satisfied when the letter came again beneath his notice with Dolly’s well-known signature.

Such were the facts as far as they were known at Messrs. Slow and Bideawhile’s office — from whom no slightest rumour emanated; and as they had been in part collected by Squercum, who was probably less prudent. The Bideawhiles were still perfectly sure that Dolly had signed the letter, believing the young man to be quite incapable of knowing on any day what he had done on the day before.

Squercum was quite sure that his client had not signed it. And it must be owned on Dolly’s behalf that his manner on this occasion was qualified to convince. ‘Yes,’ he said to Squercum; ‘it’s easy saying that I’m lack-a-daisical. But I know when I’m lack-a-daisical and when I’m not. Awake or asleep, drunk or sober, I never signed that letter.’ And Mr Squercum believed him.

It would be hard to say how the rumour first got into the City on this Monday morning. Though the elder Longestaffe had first heard of the matter only on the previous Saturday, Mr Squercum had been at work for above a week. Mr Squercum’s little matter alone might hardly have attracted the attention which certainly was given on this day to Mr Melmotte’s private affairs; — but other facts coming to light assisted Squercum’s views. A great many shares of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway had been thrown upon the market, all of which had passed through the hands of Mr Cohenlupe; — and Mr Cohenlupe in the City had been all to Mr Melmotte as Lord Alfred had been at the West End. Then there was the mortgage of this Pickering property, for which the money certainly had not been paid; and there was the traffic with half a street of houses near the Commercial Road, by which a large sum of money had come into Mr Melmotte’s hands. It might, no doubt, all be right. There were many who thought that it would all be right. There were not a few who expressed the most thorough contempt for these rumours. But it was felt to be a pity that Mr Melmotte was not in the City.

This was the day of the dinner. The Lord Mayor had even made up his mind that he would not go to the dinner. What one of his brother aldermen said to him about leaving others in the lurch might be quite true; but, as his lordship remarked, Melmotte was a commercial man, and as these were commercial transactions it behoved the Lord Mayor of London to be more careful than other men. He had always had his doubts, and he would not go. Others of the chosen few of the City who had been honoured with commands to meet the Emperor resolved upon absenting themselves unless the Lord Mayor went. The affair was very much discussed, and there were no less than six declared City defaulters. At the last moment a seventh was taken ill and sent a note to Miles Grendall excusing himself, which was thrust into the secretary’s hands just as the Emperor arrived.

But a reverse worse than this took place; — a defalcation more injurious to the Melmotte interests generally even than that which was caused either by the prudence or by the cowardice of the City Magnates. The House of Commons, at its meeting, had heard the tidings in an exaggerated form. It was whispered about that Melmotte had been detected in forging the deed of conveyance of a large property, and that he had already been visited by policemen. By some it was believed that the Great Financier would lie in the hands of the Philistines while the Emperor of China was being fed at his house. In the third edition of the ‘Evening Pulpit’ came out a mysterious paragraph which nobody could understand but they who had known all about it before. ‘A rumour is prevalent that frauds to an enormous extent have been committed by a gentleman whose name we are particularly unwilling to mention. If it be so it is indeed remarkable that they should have come to light at the present moment. We cannot trust ourselves to say more than this.’ No one wishes to dine with a swindler. No one likes even to have dined with a swindler — especially to have dined with him at a time when his swindling was known or suspected. The Emperor of China no doubt was going to dine with this man. The motions of Emperors are managed with such ponderous care that it was held to be impossible now to save the country from what would doubtless be felt to be a disgrace if it should hereafter turn out that a forger had been solicited to entertain the imperial guest of the country. Nor was the thing as yet so far certain as to justify such a charge, were it possible. But many men were unhappy in their minds. How would the story be told hereafter if Melmotte should be allowed to play out his game of host to the Emperor, and be arrested for forgery as soon as the Eastern Monarch should have left his house? How would the brother of the Sun like the remembrance of the banquet which he had been instructed to honour with his presence? How would it tell in all the foreign newspapers, in New York, in Paris, and Vienna, that this man who had been cast forth from the United States, from France, and from Austria had been selected as the great and honourable type of British Commerce? There were those in the House who thought that the absolute consummation of the disgrace might yet be avoided, and who were of opinion that the dinner should be ‘postponed.’ The leader of the Opposition had a few words on the subject with the Prime Minister. ‘It is the merest rumour,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘I have inquired, and there is nothing to justify me in thinking that the charges can be substantiated.’

‘They say that the story is believed in the City.’

‘I should not feel myself justified in acting upon such a report. The Prince might probably find it impossible not to go. Where should we be if Mr Melmotte to-morrow were able to prove the whole to be a calumny, and to show that the thing had been got up with a view of influencing the election at Westminster? The dinner must certainly go on.’

‘And you will go yourself?’

‘Most assuredly,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘And I hope that you will keep me in countenance.’ His political antagonist declared with a smile that at such a crisis he would not desert his honourable friend; — but he could not answer for his followers. There was, he admitted, a strong feeling among the leaders of the Conservative party of distrust in Melmotte. He considered it probable that among his friends who had been invited there would be some who would be unwilling to meet even the Emperor of China on the existing terms. ‘They should remember,’ said the Prime Minister, ‘that they are also to meet their own Prince, and that empty seats on such an occasion will be a dishonour to him.’

‘Just at present I can only answer for myself’ said the leader of the Opposition. — At that moment even the Prime Minister was much disturbed in his mind; but in such emergencies a Prime Minister can only choose the least of two evils. To have taken the Emperor to dine with a swindler would be very bad; but to desert him, and to stop the coming of the Emperor and all the Princes on a false rumour, would be worse.

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