The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXII

The Party

Lady Monogram retired from Mr Melmotte’s house in disgust as soon as she was able to escape; but we must return to it for a short time. When the guests were once in the drawing-room the immediate sense of failure passed away. The crowd never became so thick as had been anticipated. They who were knowing in such matters had declared that the people would not be able to get themselves out of the room till three or four o’clock in the morning, and that the carriages would not get themselves out of the Square till breakfast time. With a view to this kind of thing Mr Melmotte had been told that he must provide a private means of escape for his illustrious guests, and with a considerable sacrifice of walls and general house arrangements this had been done. No such gathering as was expected took place; but still the rooms became fairly full, and Mr Melmotte was able to console himself with the feeling that nothing certainly fatal had as yet occurred.

There can be no doubt that the greater part of the people assembled did believe that their host had committed some great fraud which might probably bring him under the arm of the law. When such rumours are spread abroad, they are always believed. There is an excitement and a pleasure in believing them. Reasonable hesitation at such a moment is dull and phlegmatic. If the accused one be near enough to ourselves to make the accusation a matter of personal pain, of course we disbelieve. But, if the distance be beyond this, we are almost ready to think that anything may be true of anybody. In this case nobody really loved Melmotte and everybody did believe. It was so probable that such a man should have done something horrible! It was only hoped that the fraud might be great and horrible enough.

Melmotte himself during that part of the evening which was passed upstairs kept himself in the close vicinity of royalty. He behaved certainly very much better than he would have done had he had no weight at his heart. He made few attempts at beginning any conversation, and answered, at any rate with brevity, when he was addressed. With scrupulous care he ticked off on his memory the names of those who had come and whom he knew, thinking that their presence indicated a verdict of acquittal from them on the evidence already before them. Seeing the members of the Government all there, he wished that he had come forward in Westminster as a Liberal. And he freely forgave those omissions of Royalty as to which he had been so angry at the India Office, seeing that not a Prince or Princess was lacking of those who were expected. He could turn his mind to all this, although he knew how great was his danger. Many things occurred to him as he stood, striving to smile as a host should smile. It might be the case that half-a-dozen detectives were already stationed in his own hall perhaps one or two, well dressed, in the very presence of royalty — ready to arrest him as soon as the guests were gone, watching him now lest he should escape. But he bore the burden — and smiled. He had always lived with the consciousness that such a burden was on him and might crush him at any time. He had known that he had to run these risks. He had told himself a thousand times that when the dangers came, dangers alone should never cow him. He had always endeavoured to go as near the wind as he could, to avoid the heavy hand of the criminal law of whatever country he inhabited. He had studied the criminal laws, so that he might be sure in his reckonings; but he had always felt that he might be carried by circumstances into deeper waters than he intended to enter. As the soldier who leads a forlorn hope, or as the diver who goes down for pearls, or as the searcher for wealth on fever-breeding coasts, knows that as his gains may be great, so are his perils, Melmotte had been aware that in his life, as it opened itself out to him, he might come to terrible destruction. He had not always thought, or even hoped, that he would be as he was now, so exalted as to be allowed to entertain the very biggest ones of the earth; but the greatness had grown upon him — and so had the danger. He could not now be as exact as he had been. He was prepared himself to bear all mere ignominy with a tranquil mind — to disregard any shouts of reprobation which might be uttered, and to console himself when the bad quarter of an hour should come with the remembrance that he had garnered up a store sufficient for future wants and placed it beyond the reach of his enemies. But as his intellect opened up to him new schemes, and as his ambition got the better of his prudence, he gradually fell from the security which he had preconceived, and became aware that he might have to bear worse than ignominy.

Perhaps never in his life had he studied his own character and his own conduct more accurately, or made sterner resolves, than he did as he stood there smiling, bowing, and acting without impropriety the part of host to an Emperor. No; — he could not run away. He soon made himself sure of that. He had risen too high to be a successful fugitive, even should he succeed in getting off before hands were laid upon him. He must bide his ground, if only that he might not at once confess his own guilt by flight; and he would do so with courage. Looking back at the hour or two that had just passed he was aware that he had allowed himself not only to be frightened in the dinner-room — but also to seem to be frightened. The thing had come upon him unawares and he had been untrue to himself. He acknowledged that. He should not have asked those questions of Mr Todd and Mr Beauclerk, and should have been more good-humoured than usual with Lord Alfred in discussing those empty seats. But for spilt milk there is no remedy. The blow had come upon him too suddenly, and he had faltered. But he would not falter again. Nothing should cow him — no touch from a policeman, no warrant from a magistrate, no defalcation of friends, no scorn in the City, no solitude in the West End. He would go down among the electors to-morrow and would stand his ground, as though all with him were right. Men should know at any rate that he had a heart within his bosom. And he confessed also to himself that he had sinned in that matter of arrogance. He could see it now — as so many of us do see the faults which we have committed, which we strive, but in vain, to discontinue, and which we never confess except to our own bosoms. The task which he had imposed on himself, and to which circumstances had added weight, had been very hard to bear. He should have been good-humoured to these great ones whose society he had gained. He should have bound these people to him by a feeling of kindness as well as by his money. He could see it all now. And he could see too that there was no help for spilt milk. I think he took some pride in his own confidence as to his own courage, as he stood there turning it all over in his mind. Very much might be suspected. Something might be found out. But the task of unravelling it all would not be easy. It is the small vermin and the little birds that are trapped at once. But wolves and vultures can fight hard before they are caught. With the means which would still be at his command, let the worst come to the worst, he could make a strong fight. When a man’s frauds have been enormous there is a certain safety in their very diversity and proportions. Might it not be that the fact that these great ones of the earth had been his guests should speak in his favour? A man who had in very truth had the real brother of the Sun dining at his table could hardly be sent into the dock and then sent out of it like a common felon.

Madame Melmotte during the evening stood at the top of her own stairs with a chair behind her on which she could rest herself for a moment when any pause took place in the arrivals. She had of course dined at the table — or rather sat there; — but had been so placed that no duty had devolved upon her. She had heard no word of the rumours, and would probably be the last person in that house to hear them. It never occurred to her to see whether the places down the table were full or empty. She sat with her large eyes fixed on the Majesty of China and must have wondered at her own destiny at finding herself with an Emperor and Princes to look at. From the dining-room she had gone when she was told to go, up to the drawing-room, and had there performed her task, longing only for the comfort of her bedroom. She, I think, had but small sympathy with her husband in all his work, and but little understanding of the position in which she had been placed. Money she liked, and comfort, and perhaps diamonds and fine dresses, but she can hardly have taken pleasure in duchesses or have enjoyed the company of the Emperor. From the beginning of the Melmotte era it had been an understood thing that no one spoke to Madame Melmotte.

Marie Melmotte had declined a seat at the dinner-table. This at first had been cause of quarrel between her and her father, as he desired to have seen her next to young Lord Nidderdale as being acknowledged to be betrothed to him. But since the journey to Liverpool he had said nothing on the subject. He still pressed the engagement, but thought now that less publicity might be expedient. She was, however, in the drawing-room standing at first by Madame Melmotte, and afterwards retreating among the crowd. To some ladies she was a person of interest as the young woman who had lately run away under such strange circumstances; but no one spoke to her till she saw a girl whom she herself knew, and whom she addressed, plucking up all her courage for the occasion. This was Hetta Carbury who had been brought hither by her mother.

The tickets for Lady Carbury and Hetta had of course been sent before the elopement; — and also, as a matter of course, no reference had been made to them by the Melmotte family after the elopement. Lady Carbury herself was anxious that that affair should not be considered as having given cause for any personal quarrel between herself and Mr Melmotte, and in her difficulty had consulted Mr Broune. Mr Broune was the staff on which she leant at present in all her difficulties. Mr Broune was going to the dinner. All this of course took place while Melmotte’s name was as yet unsullied as snow. Mr Broune saw no reason why Lady Carbury should not take advantage of her tickets. These invitations were simply tickets to see the Emperor surrounded by the Princes. The young lady’s elopement is ‘no affair of yours,’ Mr Broune had said. ‘I should go, if it were only for the sake of showing that you did not consider yourself to be implicated in the matter.’ Lady Carbury did as she was advised, and took her daughter with her. ‘Nonsense,’ said the mother, when Hetta objected; ‘Mr Broune sees it quite in the right light. This is a grand demonstration in honour of the Emperor, rather than a private party; — and we have done nothing to offend the Melmottes. You know you wish to see the Emperor.’ A few minutes before they started from Welbeck Street a note came from Mr Broune, written in pencil and sent from Melmotte’s house by a Commissioner. ‘Don’t mind what you hear; but come. I am here and as far as I can see it is all right. The E. is beautiful, and P.‘s are as thick as blackberries.’ Lady Carbury, who had not been in the way of hearing the reports, understood nothing of this; but of course she went. And Hetta went with her.

Hetta was standing alone in a corner, near to her mother, who was talking to Mr Booker, with her eyes fixed on the awful tranquillity of the Emperor’s countenance, when Marie Melmotte timidly crept up to her and asked her how she was. Hetta, probably, was not very cordial to the poor girl, being afraid of her, partly as the daughter of the great Melmotte and partly as the girl with whom her brother had failed to run away; but Marie was not rebuked by this. ‘I hope you won’t be angry with me for speaking to you.’ Hetta smiled more graciously. She could not be angry with the girl for speaking to her, feeling that she was there as the guest of the girl’s mother. ‘I suppose you know about your brother,’ said Marie, whispering with her eyes turned to the ground.

‘I have heard about it,’ said Hetta. ‘He never told me himself.’

‘Oh, I do so wish that I knew the truth. I know nothing. Of course, Miss Carbury, I love him. I do love him so dearly! I hope you don’t think I would have done it if I hadn’t loved him better than anybody in the world. Don’t you think that if a girl loves a man — really loves him — that ought to go before everything?’

This was a question that Hetta was hardly prepared to answer. She felt quite certain that under no circumstances would she run away with a man. ‘I don’t quite know. It is so hard to say,’ she replied.

‘I do. What’s the good of anything if you’re to be broken-hearted? I don’t care what they say of me, or what they do to me, if he would only be true to me. Why doesn’t he — let me know — something about it?’ This also was a question difficult to be answered. Since that horrid morning on which Sir Felix had stumbled home drunk — which was now four days since — he had not left the house in Welbeck Street till this evening. He had gone out a few minutes before Lady Carbury had started, but up to that time he had almost kept his bed. He would not get up till dinner-time, would come down after some half-dressed fashion, and then get back to his bedroom, where he would smoke and drink brandy-and-water and complain of headache. The theory was that he was ill; — but he was in fact utterly cowed and did not dare to show himself at his usual haunts. He was aware that he had quarrelled at the club, aware that all the world knew of his intended journey to Liverpool, aware that he had tumbled about the streets intoxicated. He had not dared to show himself, and the feeling had grown upon him from day to day. Now, fairly worn out by his confinement, he had crept out intending, if possible, to find consolation with Ruby Ruggles. ‘Do tell me. Where is he?’ pleaded Marie.

‘He has not been very well lately.’

‘Is he ill? Oh, Miss Carbury, do tell me. You can understand what it is to love him as I do — can’t you?’

‘He has been ill. I think he is better now.’

‘Why does he not come to me, or send to me; or let me know something? It is cruel, is it not? Tell me — you must know — does he really care for me?’

Hetta was exceedingly perplexed. The real feeling betrayed by the girl recommended her. Hetta could not but sympathize with the affection manifested for her own brother, though she could hardly understand the want of reticence displayed by Marie in thus speaking of her love to one who was almost a stranger. ‘Felix hardly ever talks about himself to me,’ she said.

‘If he doesn’t care for me, there shall be an end of it,’ Marie said very gravely. ‘If I only knew! If I thought that he loved me, I’d go through — oh — all the world for him. Nothing that papa could say should stop me. That’s my feeling about it. I have never talked to any one but you about it. Isn’t that strange? I haven’t a person to talk to. That’s my feeling, and I’m not a bit ashamed of it. There’s no disgrace in being in love. But it’s very bad to get married without being in love. That’s what I think.’

‘It is bad,’ said Hetta, thinking of Roger Carbury.

‘But if Felix doesn’t care for me!’ continued Marie, sinking her voice to a low whisper, but still making her words quite audible to her companion. Now Hetta was strongly of opinion that her brother did not in the least ‘care for’ Marie Melmotte, and that it would be very much for the best that Marie Melmotte should know the truth. But she had not that sort of strength which would have enabled her to tell it. ‘Tell me just what you think,’ said Marie. Hetta was still silent. ‘Ah — I see. Then I must give him up? Eh?’

‘What can I say, Miss Melmotte? Felix never tells me. He is my brother — and of course I love you for loving him.’ This was almost more than Hetta meant; but she felt herself constrained to say some gracious word.

‘Do you? Oh! I wish you did. I should so like to be loved by you. Nobody loves me, I think. That man there wants to marry me. Do you know him? He is Lord Nidderdale. He is very nice; but he does not love me any more than he loves you. That’s the way with men. It isn’t the way with me. I would go with Felix and slave for him if he were poor. Is it all to be over then? You will give him a message from me?’ Hetta, doubting as to the propriety of the promise, promised that she would. ‘Just tell him I want to know; that’s all. I want to know. You’ll understand. I want to know the real truth. I suppose I do know it now. Then I shall not care what happens to me. It will be all the same. I suppose I shall marry that young man, though it will be very bad. I shall just be as if I hadn’t any self of my own at all. But he ought to send me word after all that has passed. Do not you think he ought to send me word?’

‘Yes, indeed.’

‘You tell him, then,’ said Marie, nodding her head as she crept away.

Nidderdale had been observing her while she had been talking to Miss Carbury. He had heard the rumour, and of course felt that it behoved him to be on his guard more specially than any one else. But he had not believed what he had heard. That men should be thoroughly immoral, that they should gamble, get drunk, run into debt, and make love to other men’s wives, was to him a matter of everyday life. Nothing of that kind shocked him at all. But he was not as yet quite old enough to believe in swindling. It had been impossible to convince him that Miles Grendall had cheated at cards, and the idea that Mr Melmotte had forged was as improbable and shocking to him as that an officer should run away in battle. Common soldiers, he thought, might do that sort of thing. He had almost fallen in love with Marie when he saw her last, and was inclined to feel the more kindly to her now because of the hard things that were being said about her father. And yet he knew that he must be careful. If ‘he came a cropper’ in this matter, it would be such an awful cropper! ‘How do you like the party?’ he said to Marie.

‘I don’t like it at all, my lord. How do you like it?’

‘Very much, indeed. I think the Emperor is the greatest fun I ever saw. Prince Frederic,’— one of the German princes who was staying at the time among his English cousins — ‘Prince Frederic says that he’s stuffed with hay, and that he’s made up fresh every morning at a shop in the Haymarket.’

‘I’ve seen him talk.’

‘He opens his mouth, of course. There is machinery as well as hay. I think he’s the grandest old buffer out, and I’m awfully glad that I’ve dined with him. I couldn’t make out whether he really put anything to eat into his jolly old mouth.’

‘Of course he did.’

‘Have you been thinking about what we were talking about the other day?’

‘No, my lord — I haven’t thought about it since. Why should I?’

‘Well; — it’s a sort of thing that people do think about, you know.’

‘You don’t think about it.’

‘Don’t I? I’ve been thinking about nothing else the last three months.’

‘You’ve been thinking whether you’d get married or not.’

‘That’s what I mean,’ said Lord Nidderdale.

‘It isn’t what I mean, then.’

‘I’ll be shot if I can understand you.’

‘Perhaps not. And you never will understand me. Oh, goodness they’re all going, and we must get out of the way. Is that Prince Frederic, who told you about the hay? He is handsome; isn’t he? And who is that in the violet dress with all the pearls?’

‘That’s the Princess Dwarza.’

‘Dear me; — isn’t it odd, having a lot of people in one’s own house, and not being able to speak a word to them? I don’t think it’s at all nice. Good night, my lord. I’m glad you like the Emperor.’

And then the people went, and when they had all gone Melmotte put his wife and daughter into his own carriage, telling them that he would follow them on foot to Bruton Street when he had given some last directions to the people who were putting out the lights, and extinguishing generally the embers of the entertainment. He had looked round for Lord Alfred, taking care to avoid the appearance of searching; but Lord Alfred had gone. Lord Alfred was one of those who knew when to leave a falling house. Melmotte at the moment thought of all that he had done for Lord Alfred, and it was something of the real venom of ingratitude that stung him at the moment rather than this additional sign of coming evil. He was more than ordinarily gracious as he put his wife into the carriage, and remarked that, considering all things, the party had gone off very well. ‘I only wish it could have been done a little cheaper,’ he said laughing. Then he went back into the house, and up into the drawing-rooms which were now utterly deserted. Some of the lights had been put out, but the men were busy in the rooms below, and he threw himself into the chair in which the Emperor had sat. It was wonderful that he should come to such a fate as this; — that he, the boy out of the gutter, should entertain at his own house, in London, a Chinese Emperor and English and German Royalty — and that he should do so almost with a rope round his neck. Even if this were to be the end of it all, men would at any rate remember him. The grand dinner which he had given before he was put into prison would live in history. And it would be remembered, too, that he had been the Conservative candidate for the great borough of Westminster — perhaps, even, the elected member. He, too, in his manner, assured himself that a great part of him would escape Oblivion. ‘Non omnis moriar,’ in some language of his own, was chanted by him within his own breast, as he sat there looking out on his own magnificent suite of rooms from the armchair which had been consecrated by the use of an Emperor.

No policemen had come to trouble him yet. No hint that he would be ‘wanted’ had been made to him. There was no tangible sign that things were not to go on as they went before. Things would be exactly as they were before, but for the absence of those guests from the dinner-table, and for the words which Miles Grendall had spoken. Had he not allowed himself to be terrified by shadows? Of course he had known that there must be such shadows. His life had been made dark by similar clouds before now, and he had lived through the storms which had followed them. He was thoroughly ashamed of the weakness which had overcome him at the dinner-table, and of that palsy of fear which he had allowed himself to exhibit. There should be no more shrinking such as that. When people talked of him they should say that he was at least a man.

As this was passing through his mind a head was pushed in through one of the doors, and immediately withdrawn. It was his Secretary. ‘Is that you, Miles?’ he said. ‘Come in. I’m just going home, and came up here to see how the empty rooms would look after they were all gone. What became of your father?’

‘I suppose he went away.’

‘I suppose he did,’ said Melmotte, unable to hinder himself from throwing a certain tone of scorn into his voice — as though proclaiming the fate of his own house and the consequent running away of the rat. ‘It went off very well, I think.’

‘Very well,’ said Miles, still standing at the door. There had been a few words of consultation between him and his father — only a very few words. ‘You’d better see it out to-night, as you’ve had a regular salary, and all that. I shall hook it. I sha’n’t go near him to-morrow till I find out how things are going. By G— — I’ve had about enough of him.’ But hardly enough of his money or it may be presumed that Lord Alfred would have ‘hooked it’ sooner.

‘Why don’t you come in, and not stand there?’ said Melmotte. ‘There’s no Emperor here now for you to be afraid of.’

‘I’m afraid of nobody,’ said Miles, walking into the middle of the room.

‘Nor am I. What’s one man that another man should be afraid of him? We’ve got to die, and there’ll be an end of it, I suppose.’

‘That’s about it,’ said Miles, hardly following the working of his master’s mind.

‘I shouldn’t care how soon. When a man has worked as I have done, he gets about tired at my age. I suppose I’d better be down at the committee-room about ten to-morrow?’

‘That’s the best, I should say.’

‘You’ll be there by that time?’ Miles Grendall assented slowly, and with imperfect assent. ‘And tell your father he might as well be there as early as convenient.’

‘All right,’ said Miles as he took his departure.

‘Curs!’ said Melmotte almost aloud. ‘They neither of them will be there. If any evil can be done to me by treachery and desertion, they will do it.’ Then it occurred to him to think whether the Grendall article had been worth all the money that he had paid for it. ‘Curs!’ he said again. He walked down into the hall, and through the banqueting-room, and stood at the place where he himself had sat. What a scene it had been, and how frightfully low his heart had sunk within him! It had been the defection of the Lord Mayor that had hit him hardest. ‘What cowards they are!’ The men went on with their work, not noticing him, and probably not knowing him. The dinner had been done by contract, and the contractor’s foreman was there. The care of the house and the alterations had been confided to another contractor, and his foreman was waiting to see the place locked up. A confidential clerk, who had been with Melmotte for years, and who knew his ways, was there also to guard the property. ‘Good night, Croll,’ he said to the man in German. Croll touched his hat and bade him good night. Melmotte listened anxiously to the tone of the man’s voice, trying to catch from it some indication of the mind within. Did Croll know of these rumours, and if so, what did he think of them? Croll had known him in some perilous circumstances before, and had helped him through them. He paused a moment as though he would ask a question, but resolved at last that silence would be safest. ‘You’ll see everything safe, eh, Croll?’ Croll said that he would see everything safe, and Melmotte passed out into the Square.

He had not far to go, round through Berkeley Square into Bruton Street, but he stood for a few moments looking up at the bright stars. If he could be there, in one of those unknown distant worlds, with all his present intellect and none of his present burdens, he would, he thought, do better than he had done here on earth. If he could even now put himself down nameless, fameless, and without possessions in some distant corner of the world, he could, he thought, do better. But he was Augustus Melmotte, and he must bear his burdens, whatever they were, to the end. He could reach no place so distant but that he would be known and traced.

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