The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXIX

Melmotte in Parliament

Melmotte did not return home in time to hear the good news that day — good news as he would regard it, even though, when told to him, it should be accompanied by all the extraneous additions with which Marie had communicated her purpose to Madame Melmotte. It was nothing to him what the girl thought of the marriage — if the marriage could now be brought about. He, too, had cause for vexation, if not for anger. If Marie had consented a fortnight since he might have so hurried affairs that Lord Nidderdale might by this time have been secured. Now there might be — must be, doubt, through the folly of his girl and the villainy of Sir Felix Carbury. Were he once the father-in-law of the eldest son of a marquis, he thought he might almost be safe. Even though something might be all but proved against him — which might come to certain proof in less august circumstances — matters would hardly be pressed against a Member for Westminster whose daughter was married to the heir of the Marquis of Auld Reekie! So many persons would then be concerned! Of course his vexation with Marie had been great. Of course his wrath against Sir Felix was unbounded. The seat for Westminster was his. He was to be seen to occupy it before all the world on this very day. But he had not as yet heard that his daughter had yielded in reference to Lord Nidderdale.

There was considerable uneasiness felt in some circles as to the manner in which Melmotte should take his seat. When he was put forward as the Conservative candidate for the borough a good deal of fuss had been made with him by certain leading politicians. It had been the manifest intention of the party that his return, if he were returned, should be hailed as a great Conservative triumph, and be made much of through the length and the breadth of the land. He was returned — but the trumpets had not as yet been sounded loudly. On a sudden, within the space of forty-eight hours, the party had become ashamed of their man. And, now, who was to introduce him to the House? But with this feeling of shame on one side, there was already springing up an idea among another class that Melmotte might become as it were a Conservative tribune of the people — that he might be the realization of that hitherto hazy mixture of Radicalism and old-fogyism, of which we have lately heard from a political master, whose eloquence has been employed in teaching us that progress can only be expected from those whose declared purpose is to stand still. The new farthing newspaper, ‘The Mob,’ was already putting Melmotte forward as a political hero, preaching with reference to his commercial transactions the grand doctrine that magnitude in affairs is a valid defence for certain irregularities. A Napoleon, though he may exterminate tribes in carrying out his projects, cannot be judged by the same law as a young lieutenant who may be punished for cruelty to a few negroes. ‘The Mob’ thought that a good deal should be overlooked in a Melmotte, and that the philanthropy of his great designs should be allowed to cover a multitude of sins. I do not know that the theory was ever so plainly put forward as it was done by the ingenious and courageous writer in ‘The Mob’; but in practice it has commanded the assent of many intelligent minds.

Mr Melmotte, therefore, though he was not where he had been before that wretched Squercum had set afloat the rumours as to the purchase of Pickering, was able to hold his head much higher than on the unfortunate night of the great banquet. He had replied to the letter from Messrs. Slow and Bideawhile, by a note written in the ordinary way in the office, and only signed by himself. In this he merely said that he would lose no time in settling matters as to the purchase of Pickering. Slow and Bideawhile were of course anxious that things should be settled. They wanted no prosecution for forgery. To make themselves clear in the matter, and their client — and if possible to take some wind out of the sails of the odious Squercum; — this would suit them best. They were prone to hope that for his own sake Melmotte would raise the money. If it were raised there would be no reason why that note purporting to have been signed by Dolly Longestaffe should ever leave their office. They still protested their belief that it did bear Dolly’s signature. They had various excuses for themselves. It would have been useless for them to summon Dolly to their office, as they knew from long experience that Dolly would not come. The very letter written by themselves — as a suggestion — and given to Dolly’s father, had come back to them with Dolly’s ordinary signature, sent to them — as they believed — with other papers by Dolly’s father. What justification could be clearer? But still the money had not been paid. That was the fault of Longestaffe senior. But if the money could be paid, that would set everything right. Squercum evidently thought that the money would not be paid, and was ceaseless in his intercourse with Bideawhile’s people. He charged Slow and Bideawhile with having delivered up the title-deeds on the authority of a mere note, and that a note with a forged signature. He demanded that the note should be impounded. On the receipt by Mr Bideawhile of Melmotte’s rather curt reply Mr Squercum was informed that Mr Melmotte had promised to pay the money at once, but that a day or two must be allowed. Mr Squercum replied that on his client’s behalf he should open the matter before the Lord Mayor.

But in this way two or three days had passed without any renewal of the accusation before the public, and Melmotte had in a certain degree recovered his position. The Beauclerks and the Luptons disliked and feared him as much as ever, but they did not quite dare to be so loud and confident in condemnation as they had been. It was pretty well known that Mr Longestaffe had not received his money — and that was a condition of things tending greatly to shake the credit of a man living after Melmotte’s fashion. But there was no crime in that. No forgery was implied by the publication of any statement to that effect. The Longestaffes, father and son, might probably have been very foolish. Whoever expected anything but folly from either? And Slow and Bideawhile might have been very remiss in their duty. It was astonishing, some people said, what things attorneys would do in these days! But they who had expected to see Melmotte behind the bars of a prison before this, and had regulated their conduct accordingly, now imagined that they had been deceived.

Had the Westminster triumph been altogether a triumph it would have become the pleasant duty of some popular Conservative to express to Melmotte the pleasure he would have in introducing his new political ally to the House. In such case Melmotte himself would have been walked up the chamber with a pleasurable ovation and the thing would have been done without trouble to him. But now this was not the position of affairs. Though the matter was debated at the Carlton, no such popular Conservative offered his services. ‘I don’t think we ought to throw him over,’ Mr Beauclerk said. Sir Orlando Drought, quite a leading Conservative, suggested that as Lord Nidderdale was very intimate with Mr Melmotte he might do it. But Nidderdale was not the man for such a performance. He was a very good fellow and everybody liked him. He belonged to the House because his father had territorial influence in a Scotch county; — but he never did anything there, and his selection for such a duty would be a declaration to the world that nobody else would do it. ‘It wouldn’t hurt you, Lupton,’ said Mr Beauclerk. ‘Not at all,’ said Lupton; ‘but I also, like Nidderdale am a young man and of no use — and a great deal too bashful.’ Melmotte, who knew but little about it, went down to the House at four o’clock, somewhat cowed by want of companionship, but carrying out his resolution that he would be stopped by no phantom fears — that he would lose nothing by want of personal pluck. He knew that he was a Member, and concluded that if he presented himself he would be able to make his way in and assume his right. But here again fortune befriended him. The very leader of the party, the very founder of that new doctrine of which it was thought that Melmotte might become an apostle and an expounder — who, as the reader may remember, had undertaken to be present at the banquet when his colleagues were dismayed and untrue to him, and who kept his promise and sat there almost in solitude — he happened to be entering the House, as his late host was claiming from the doorkeeper the fruition of his privilege. ‘You had better let me accompany you,’ said the Conservative leader, with something of chivalry in his heart. And so Mr Melmotte was introduced to the House by the head of his party! When this was seen many men supposed that the rumours had been proved to be altogether false. Was not this a guarantee sufficient to guarantee any man’s respectability?

Lord Nidderdale saw his father in the lobby of the House of Lords that afternoon and told him what had occurred. The old man had been in a state of great doubt since the day of the dinner party. He was aware of the ruin that would be incurred by a marriage with Melmotte’s daughter, if the things which had been said of Melmotte should be proved to be true. But he knew also that if his son should now recede, there must be an end of the match altogether; — and he did not believe the rumours. He was fully determined that the money should be paid down before the marriage was celebrated; but if his son were to secede now, of course no money would be forthcoming. He was prepared to recommend his son to go on with the affair still a little longer. ‘Old Cure tells me he doesn’t believe a word of it,’ said the father. Cure was the family lawyer of the Marquises of Auld Reekie.

‘There’s some hitch about Dolly Longestaffe’s money, sir,’ said the son.

‘What’s that to us if he has our money ready? I suppose it isn’t always easy even for a man like that to get a couple of hundred thousand together. I know I’ve never found it easy to get a thousand. If he has borrowed a trifle from Longestaffe to make up the girl’s money, I shan’t complain. You stand to your guns. There’s no harm done till the parson has said the word.’

‘You couldn’t let me have a couple of hundred; — could you, sir?’ suggested the son.

‘No, I couldn’t,’ replied the father with a very determined aspect.

‘I’m awfully hard up.’

‘So am I.’ Then the old man toddled into his own chamber, and after sitting there ten minutes went away home.

Lord Nidderdale also got quickly through his legislative duties and went to the Beargarden. There he found Grasslough and Miles Grendall dining together, and seated himself at the next table. They were full of news. ‘You’ve heard it, I suppose,’ said Miles in an awful whisper.

‘Heard what?’

‘I believe he doesn’t know!’ said Lord Grasslough. ‘By Jove, Nidderdale, you’re in a mess like some others.’

‘What’s up now?’

‘Only fancy that they shouldn’t have known down at the House! Vossner has bolted!’

‘Bolted!’ exclaimed Nidderdale, dropping the spoon with which he was just going to eat his soup.

‘Bolted,’ repeated Grasslough. Lord Nidderdale looked round the room and became aware of the awful expression of dismay which hung upon the features of all the dining members. ‘Bolted, by George! He has sold all our acceptances to a fellow in Great Marlbro’ that’s called “Flatfleece”.’

‘I know him,’ said Nidderdale shaking his head.

‘I should think so,’ said Miles ruefully.

‘A bottle of champagne!’ said Nidderdale, appealing to the waiter in almost a humble voice, feeling that he wanted sustenance in this new trouble that had befallen him. The waiter, beaten almost to the ground by an awful sense of the condition of the club, whispered to him the terrible announcement that there was not a bottle of champagne in the house. ‘Good G— — ’ exclaimed the unfortunate nobleman. Miles Grendall shook his head. Grasslough shook his head.

‘It’s true,’ said another young lord from the table on the other side. Then the waiter, still speaking with suppressed and melancholy voice, suggested that there was some port left. It was now the middle of July.

‘Brandy?’ suggested Nidderdale. There had been a few bottles of brandy, but they had been already consumed. ‘Send out and get some brandy,’ said Nidderdale with rapid impetuosity. But the club was so reduced in circumstances that he was obliged to take silver out of his pocket before he could get even such humble comfort as he now demanded.

Then Lord Grasslough told the whole story as far as it was known. Herr Vossner had not been seen since nine o’clock on the preceding evening. The head waiter had known for some weeks that heavy bills were due. It was supposed that three or four thousand pounds were owing to tradesmen, who now professed that the credit had been given, not to Herr Vossner but to the club. And the numerous acceptances for large sums which the accommodating purveyor held from many of the members had all been sold to Mr Flatfleece. Mr Flatfleece had spent a considerable portion of the day at the club, and it was now suggested that he and Herr Vossner were in partnership. At this moment Dolly Longestaffe came in. Dolly had been at the club before and had heard the story — but had gone at once to another club for his dinner when he found that there was not even a bottle of wine to be had. ‘Here’s a go,’ said Dolly. ‘One thing atop of another! There’ll be nothing left for anybody soon. Is that brandy you’re drinking, Nidderdale? There was none here when I left.’

‘Had to send round the corner for it, to the public.’

‘We shall be sending round the corner for a good many things now. Does anybody know anything of that fellow Melmotte?’

‘He’s down in the House, as big as life,’ said Nidderdale. ‘He’s all right I think.’

‘I wish he’d pay me my money then. That fellow Flatfleece was here, and he showed me notes of mine for about £1,500! I write such a beastly hand that I never know whether I’ve written it or not. But, by George, a fellow can’t eat and drink £1,500 in less than six months!’

‘There’s no knowing what you can do, Dolly,’ said Lord Grasslough.

‘He’s paid some of your card money, perhaps,’ said Nidderdale.

‘I don’t think he ever did. Carbury had a lot of my I.O.U.‘s while that was going on, but I got the money for that from old Melmotte. How is a fellow to know? If any fellow writes D. Longestaffe, am I obliged to pay it? Everybody is writing my name! How is any fellow to stand that kind of thing? Do you think Melmotte’s all right?’ Nidderdale said that he did think so. ‘I wish he wouldn’t go and write my name then. That’s a sort of thing that a man should be left to do for himself. I suppose Vossner is a swindler; but, by Jove, I know a worse than Vossner.’ With that he turned on his heels and went into the smoking-room. And, after he was gone, there was silence at the table, for it was known that Lord Nidderdale was to marry Melmotte’s daughter.

In the meantime a scene of a different kind was going on in the House of Commons. Melmotte had been seated on one of the back Conservative benches, and there he remained for a considerable time unnoticed and forgotten. The little emotion that had attended his entrance had passed away, and Melmotte was now no more than any one else. At first he had taken his hat off, but, as soon as he observed that the majority of members were covered, he put it on again. Then he sat motionless for an hour, looking round him and wondering. He had never hitherto been even in the gallery of the House. The place was very much smaller than he had thought, and much less tremendous. The Speaker did not strike him with the awe which he had expected, and it seemed to him that they who spoke were talking much like other people in other places. For the first hour he hardly caught the meaning of a sentence that was said, nor did he try to do so. One man got up very quickly after another, some of them barely rising on their legs to say the few words that they uttered. It seemed to him to be a very commonplace affair — not half so awful as those festive occasions on which he had occasionally been called upon to propose a toast or to return thanks. Then suddenly the manner of the thing was changed, and one gentleman made a long speech. Melmotte by this time, weary of observing, had begun to listen, and words which were familiar to him reached his ears. The gentleman was proposing some little addition to a commercial treaty and was expounding in very strong language the ruinous injustice to which England was exposed by being tempted to use gloves made in a country in which no income tax was levied. Melmotte listened to his eloquence caring nothing about gloves, and very little about England’s ruin. But in the course of the debate which followed, a question arose about the value of money, of exchange, and of the conversion of shillings into francs and dollars. About this Melmotte really did know something and he pricked up his ears. It seemed to him that a gentleman whom he knew very well in the city — and who had maliciously stayed away from his dinner — one Mr Brown, who sat just before him on the same side of the House, and who was plodding wearily and slowly along with some pet fiscal theory of his own, understood nothing at all of what he was saying. Here was an opportunity for himself! Here was at his hand the means of revenging himself for the injury done him, and of showing to the world at the same time that he was not afraid of his city enemies! It required some courage certainly — this attempt that suggested itself to him of getting upon his legs a couple of hours after his first introduction to parliamentary life. But he was full of the lesson which he was now ever teaching himself. Nothing should cow him. Whatever was to be done by brazen-faced audacity he would do. It seemed to be very easy, and he saw no reason why he should not put that old fool right. He knew nothing of the forms of the House; — was more ignorant of them than an ordinary schoolboy; — but on that very account felt less trepidation than might another parliamentary novice. Mr Brown was tedious and prolix; and Melmotte, though he thought much of his project and had almost told himself that he would do the thing, was still doubting, when, suddenly, Mr Brown sat down. There did not seem to be any particular end to the speech, nor had Melmotte followed any general thread of argument. But a statement had been made and repeated, containing, as Melmotte thought, a fundamental error in finance; and he longed to set the matter right. At any rate he desired to show the House that Mr Brown did not know what he was talking about — because Mr Brown had not come to his dinner. When Mr Brown was seated, nobody at once rose. The subject was not popular, and they who understood the business of the House were well aware that the occasion had simply been one on which two or three commercial gentlemen, having crazes of their own, should be allowed to ventilate them. The subject would have dropped; — but on a sudden the new member was on his legs.

Now it was probably not in the remembrance of any gentleman there that a member had got up to make a speech within two or three hours of his first entry into the House. And this gentleman was one whose recent election had been of a very peculiar kind. It had been considered by many of his supporters that his name should be withdrawn just before the ballot; by others that he would be deterred by shame from showing himself even if he were elected; and again by another party that his appearance in Parliament would be prevented by his disappearance within the walls of Newgate. But here he was, not only in his seat, but on his legs! The favourable grace, the air of courteous attention, which is always shown to a new member when he first speaks, was extended also to Melmotte. There was an excitement in the thing which made gentlemen willing to listen, and a consequent hum, almost of approbation.

As soon as Melmotte was on his legs, and, looking round, found that everybody was silent with the intent of listening to him, a good deal of his courage oozed out of his fingers’ ends. The House, which, to his thinking, had by no means been august while Mr Brown had been toddling through his speech, now became awful. He caught the eyes of great men fixed upon him — of men who had not seemed to him to be at all great as he had watched them a few minutes before, yawning beneath their hats. Mr Brown, poor as his speech had been, had, no doubt, prepared it — and had perhaps made three or four such speeches every year for the last fifteen years. Melmotte had not dreamed of putting two words together. He had thought, as far as he had thought at all, that he could rattle off what he had to say just as he might do it when seated in his chair at the Mexican Railway Board. But there was the Speaker, and those three clerks in their wigs, and the mace — and worse than all, the eyes of that long row of statesmen opposite to him! His position was felt by him to be dreadful. He had forgotten even the very point on which he had intended to crush Mr Brown.

But the courage of the man was too high to allow him to be altogether quelled at once. The hum was prolonged; and though he was red in the face, perspiring, and utterly confused, he was determined to make a dash at the matter with the first words which would occur to him. ‘Mr Brown is all wrong,’ he said. He had not even taken off his hat as he rose. Mr Brown turned slowly round and looked up at him. Some one, whom he could not exactly hear, touching him behind, suggested that he should take off his hat. There was a cry of order, which of course he did not understand. ‘Yes, you are,’ said Melmotte, nodding his head, and frowning angrily at poor Mr Brown.

‘The honourable member,’ said the Speaker, with the most good-natured voice which he could assume, ‘is not perhaps as yet aware that he should not call another member by his name. He should speak of the gentleman to whom he alluded as the honourable member for Whitechapel. And in speaking he should address, not another honourable member, but the chair.’

‘You should take your hat off,’ said the good-natured gentleman behind.

In such a position how should any man understand so many and such complicated instructions at once, and at the same time remember the gist of the argument to be produced? He did take off his hat, and was of course made hotter and more confused by doing so. ‘What he said was all wrong,’ continued Melmotte; ‘and I should have thought a man out of the City, like Mr Brown, ought to have known better.’ Then there were repeated calls of order, and a violent ebullition of laughter from both sides of the House. The man stood for a while glaring around him, summoning his own pluck for a renewal of his attack on Mr Brown, determined that he would be appalled and put down neither by the ridicule of those around him, nor by his want of familiarity with the place; but still utterly unable to find words with which to carry on the combat. ‘I ought to know something about it,’ said Melmotte sitting down and hiding his indignation and his shame under his hat.

‘We are sure that the honourable member for Westminster does understand the subject,’ said the leader of the House, ‘and we shall be very glad to hear his remarks. The House I am sure will pardon ignorance of its rules in so young a member.’

But Mr Melmotte would not rise again. He had made a great effort, and had at any rate exhibited his courage. Though they might all say that he had not displayed much eloquence, they would be driven to admit that he had not been ashamed to show himself. He kept his seat till the regular stampede was made for dinner, and then walked out with as stately a demeanour as he could assume.

‘Well, that was plucky!’ said Cohenlupe, taking his friend’s arm in the lobby.

‘I don’t see any pluck in it. That old fool Brown didn’t know what he was talking about, and I wanted to tell them so. They wouldn’t let me do it, and there’s an end of it. It seems to me to be a stupid sort of a place.’

‘Has Longestaffe’s money been paid?’ said Cohenlupe opening his black eyes while he looked up into his friend’s face.

‘Don’t you trouble your head about Longestaffe, or his money either,’ said Melmotte, getting into his brougham; ‘do you leave Mr Longestaffe and his money to me. I hope you are not such a fool as to be scared by what the other fools say. When men play such a game as you and I are concerned in, they ought to know better than to be afraid of every word that is spoken.’

‘Oh, dear; yes,’ said Cohenlupe apologetically. ‘You don’t suppose that I am afraid of anything.’ But at that moment Mr Cohenlupe was meditating his own escape from the dangerous shores of England, and was trying to remember what happy country still was left in which an order from the British police would have no power to interfere with the comfort of a retired gentleman such as himself.

That evening Madame Melmotte told her husband that Marie was now willing to marry Lord Nidderdale; — but she did not say anything as to the crossing-sweeper or the black footman, nor did she allude to Marie’s threat of the sort of life she would lead her husband.

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