The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXV

In Bruton Street

Mr Squercum all this time was in a perfect fever of hard work and anxiety. It may be said of him that he had been quite sharp enough to perceive the whole truth. He did really know it all — if he could prove that which he knew. He had extended his inquiries in the city till he had convinced himself that, whatever wealth Melmotte might have had twelve months ago, there was not enough of it left at present to cover the liabilities. Squercum was quite sure that Melmotte was not a falling, but a fallen star — perhaps not giving sufficient credence to the recuperative powers of modern commerce. Squercum told a certain stockbroker in the City, who was his specially confidential friend, that Melmotte was a ‘gone coon.’ The stockbroker made also some few inquiries, and on that evening agreed with Squercum that Melmotte was a ‘gone coon.’ If such were the case it would positively be the making of Squercum if it could be so managed that he should appear as the destroying angel of this offensive dragon. So Squercum raged among the Bideawhiles, who were unable altogether to shut their doors against him. They could not dare to bid defiance to Squercum — feeling that they had themselves blundered, and feeling also that they must be careful not to seem to screen a fault by a falsehood. ‘I suppose you give it up about the letter having been signed by my client,’ said Squercum to the elder of the two younger Bideawhiles.

‘I give up nothing and I assert nothing,’ said the superior attorney. ‘Whether the letter be genuine or not we had no reason to believe it to be otherwise. The young gentleman’s signature is never very plain, and this one is about as like any other as that other would be like the last.’

‘Would you let me look at it again, Mr Bideawhile?’ Then the letter which had been very often inspected during the last ten days was handed to Mr Squercum. ‘It’s a stiff resemblance; — such as he never could have written had he tried it ever so.’

‘Perhaps not, Mr Squercum. We are not generally on the look out for forgeries in letters from our clients or our clients’ sons.’

‘Just so, Mr Bideawhile. But then Mr Longestaffe had already told you that his son would not sign the letter.’

‘How is one to know when and how and why a young man like that will change his purpose?’

‘Just so, Mr Bideawhile. But you see, after such a declaration as that on the part of my client’s father, the letter — which is in itself a little irregular perhaps —’

‘I don’t know that it’s irregular at all.’

‘Well; — it didn’t reach you in a very confirmatory manner. We’ll just say that. What Mr Longestaffe can have been at to wish to give up his title-deeds without getting anything for them —’

‘Excuse me, Mr Squercum, but that’s between Mr Longestaffe and us.’

‘Just so; — but as Mr Longestaffe and you have jeopardised my client’s property it is natural that I should make a few remarks. I think you’d have made a few remarks yourself, Mr Bideawhile, if the case had been reversed. I shall bring the matter before the Lord Mayor, you know.’ To this Mr Bideawhile said not a word. ‘And I think I understand you now that you do not intend to insist on the signature as being genuine.’

‘I say nothing about it, Mr Squercum. I think you’ll find it very hard to prove that it’s not genuine.’

‘My client’s oath, Mr Bideawhile.’

‘I’m afraid your client is not always very clear as to what he does.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by that, Mr Bideawhile. I fancy that if I were to speak in that way of your client you would be very angry with me. Besides, what does it all amount to? Will the old gentleman say that he gave the letter into his son’s hands, so that, even if such a freak should have come into my client’s head, he could have signed it and sent it off? If I understand, Mr Longestaffe says that he locked the letter up in a drawer in the very room which Melmotte occupied, and that he afterwards found the drawer open. It won’t, I suppose, be alleged that my client knew so little what he was about that he broke open the drawer in order that he might get at the letter. Look at it whichever way you will, he did not sign it, Mr Bideawhile.’

‘I have never said he did. All I say is that we had fair ground for supposing that it was his letter. I really don’t know that I can say anything more.’

‘Only that we are to a certain degree in the same boat together in this matter.’

‘I won’t admit even that, Mr Squercum.’

‘The difference being that your client by his fault has jeopardised his own interests and those of my client, while my client has not been in fault at all. I shall bring the matter forward before the Lord Mayor to-morrow, and as at present advised shall ask for an investigation with reference to a charge of fraud. I presume you will be served with a subpoena to bring the letter into court.’

‘If so you may be sure that we shall produce it.’ Then Mr Squercum took his leave and went straight away to Mr Bumby, a barrister well known in the City. The game was too powerful to be hunted down by Mr Squercum’s unassisted hands. He had already seen Mr Bumby on the matter more than once. Mr Bumby was inclined to doubt whether it might not be better to get the money, or some guarantee for the money. Mr Bumby thought that if a bill at three months could be had for Dolly’s share of the property it might be expedient to take it. Mr Squercum suggested that the property itself might be recovered, no genuine sale having been made. Mr Bumby shook his head. ‘Title-deeds give possession, Mr Squercum. You don’t suppose that the company which has lent money to Melmotte on the title-deeds would have to lose it. Take the bill; and if it is dishonoured run your chance of what you’ll get out of the property. There must be assets.’

‘Every rap will have been made over,’ said Mr Squercum.

This took place on the Monday, the day on which Melmotte had offered his full confidence to his proposed son-in-law. On the following Wednesday three gentlemen met together in the study in the house in Bruton Street from which it was supposed that the letter had been abstracted. There were Mr Longestaffe, the father, Dolly Longestaffe, and Mr Bideawhile. The house was still in Melmotte’s possession, and Melmotte and Mr Longestaffe were no longer on friendly terms. Direct application for permission to have this meeting in this place had been formally made to Mr Melmotte, and he had complied. The meeting took place at eleven o’clock — a terribly early hour. Dolly had at first hesitated as to placing himself as he thought between the fire of two enemies, and Mr Squercum had told him that as the matter would probably soon be made public, he could not judiciously refuse to meet his father and the old family lawyer. Therefore Dolly had attended, at great personal inconvenience to himself. ‘By George, it’s hardly worth having if one is to take all this trouble about it,’ Dolly had said to Lord Grasslough, with whom he had fraternised since the quarrel with Nidderdale. Dolly entered the room last, and at that time neither Mr Longestaffe nor Mr Bideawhile had touched the drawer, or even the table, in which the letter had been deposited.

‘Now, Mr Longestaffe,’ said Mr Bideawhile, ‘perhaps you will show us where you think you put the letter.’

‘I don’t think at all,’ said he. ‘Since the matter has been discussed the whole thing has come back upon my memory.’

‘I never signed it,’ said Dolly, standing with his hands in his pockets and interrupting his father.

‘Nobody says you did, sir,’ rejoined the father with an angry voice. ‘If you will condescend to listen we may perhaps arrive at the truth.’

‘But somebody has said that I did. I’ve been told that Mr Bideawhile says so.’

‘No, Mr Longestaffe; no. We have never said so. We have only said that we had no reason for supposing the letter to be other than genuine. We have never gone beyond that.’

‘Nothing on earth would have made me sign it,’ said Dolly. ‘Why should I have given my property up before I got my money? I never heard such a thing in my life.’

The father looked up at the lawyer and shook his head, testifying as to the hopelessness of his son’s obstinacy. ‘Now, Mr Longestaffe,’ continued the lawyer, ‘let us see where you put the letter.’

Then the father very slowly, and with much dignity of deportment, opened the drawer — the second drawer from the top, and took from it a bundle of papers very carefully folded and docketed, ‘There,’ said he, ‘the letter was not placed in the envelope but on the top of it, and the two were the two first documents in the bundle.’ He went on to say that as far as he knew no other paper had been taken away. He was quite certain that he had left the drawer locked. He was very particular in regard to that particular drawer, and he remembered that about this time Mr Melmotte had been in the room with him when he had opened it, and — as he was certain — had locked it again. At that special time there had been, he said, considerable intimacy between him and Melmotte. It was then that Mr Melmotte had offered him a seat at the Board of the Mexican railway.

‘Of course he picked the lock, and stole the letter,’ said Dolly. ‘It’s as plain as a pikestaff. It’s clear enough to hang any man.’

‘I am afraid that it falls short of evidence, however strong and just may be the suspicion induced,’ said the lawyer. ‘Your father for a time was not quite certain about the letter.’

‘He thought that I had signed it,’ said Dolly.

‘I am quite certain now,’ rejoined the father angrily. ‘A man has to collect his memory before he can be sure of anything.’

‘I am thinking you know how it would go to a jury.’

‘What I want to know is how are we to get the money,’ said Dolly. ‘I should like to see him hung of — course; but I’d sooner have the money. Squercum says —’

‘Adolphus, we don’t want to know here what Mr Squercum says.’

‘I don’t know why what Mr Squercum says shouldn’t be as good as what Mr Bideawhile says. Of course Squercum doesn’t sound very aristocratic.’

‘Quite as much so as Bideawhile, no doubt,’ said the lawyer laughing.

‘No; Squercum isn’t aristocratic, and Fetter Lane is a good deal lower than Lincoln’s Inn. Nevertheless Squercum may know what he’s about. It was Squercum who was first down upon Melmotte in this matter, and if it wasn’t for Squercum we shouldn’t know as much about it as we do at present.’ Squercum’s name was odious to the elder Longestaffe. He believed, probably without much reason, that all his family troubles came to him from Squercum, thinking that if his son would have left his affairs in the hands of the old Slows and the old Bideawhiles, money would never have been scarce with him, and that he would not have made this terrible blunder about the Pickering property. And the sound of Squercum, as his son knew, was horrid to his ears. He hummed and hawed, and fumed and fretted about the room, shaking his head and frowning. His son looked at him as though quite astonished at his displeasure. ‘There’s nothing more to be done here, sir, I suppose,’ said Dolly putting on his hat.

‘Nothing more,’ said Mr Bideawhile. ‘It may be that I shall have to instruct counsel, and I thought it well that I should see in the presence of both of you exactly how the thing stood. You speak so positively, Mr Longestaffe, that there can be no doubt?’

‘There is no doubt.’

‘And now perhaps you had better lock the drawer in our presence. Stop a moment — I might as well see whether there is any sign of violence having been used.’ So saying Mr Bideawhile knelt down in front of the table and began to examine the lock. This he did very carefully and satisfied himself that there was ‘no sign of violence.’ ‘Whoever has done it, did it very well,’ said Bideawhile.

‘Of course Melmotte did it,’ said Dolly Longestaffe standing immediately over Bideawhile’s shoulder.

At that moment there was a knock at the door — a very distinct, and, we may say, a formal knock. There are those who knock and immediately enter without waiting for the sanction asked. Had he who knocked done so on this occasion Mr Bideawhile would have been found still on his knees, with his nose down to the level of the keyhole. But the intruder did not intrude rapidly, and the lawyer jumped on to his feet, almost upsetting Dolly with the effort. There was a pause, during which Mr Bideawhile moved away from the table — as he might have done had he been picking a lock; — and then Mr Longestaffe bade the stranger come in with a sepulchral voice. The door was opened, and Mr Melmotte appeared.

Now Mr Melmotte’s presence certainly had not been expected. It was known that it was his habit to be in the City at this hour. It was known also that he was well aware that this meeting was to be held in this room at this special hour — and he might well have surmised with what view. There was now declared hostility between both the Longestaffes and Mr Melmotte, and it certainly was supposed by all the gentlemen concerned that he would not have put himself out of the way to meet them on this occasion. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘perhaps you think that I am intruding at the present moment.’ No one said that he did not think so. The elder Longestaffe simply bowed very coldly. Mr Bideawhile stood upright and thrust his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets. Dolly, who at first forgot to take his hat off, whistled a bar, and then turned a pirouette on his heel. That was his mode of expressing his thorough surprise at the appearance of his debtor. ‘I fear that you do think I am intruding,’ said Melmotte, ‘but I trust that what I have to say will be held to excuse me. I see, sir,’ he said, turning to Mr Longestaffe, and glancing at the still open drawer, ‘that you have been examining your desk. I hope that you will be more careful in locking it than you were when you left it before.’

‘The drawer was locked when I left it,’ said Mr Longestaffe. ‘I make no deductions and draw no conclusions, but the drawer was locked.’

‘Then I should say it must have been locked when you returned to it.’

‘No, sir, I found it open. I make no deductions and draw no conclusions — but I left it locked and I found it open.’

‘I should make a deduction and draw a conclusion,’ said Dolly; ‘and that would be that somebody else had opened it.’

‘This can answer no purpose at all,’ said Bideawhile.

‘It was but a chance remark,’ said Melmotte. ‘I did not come here out of the City at very great personal inconvenience to myself to squabble about the lock of the drawer. As I was informed that you three gentlemen would be here together, I thought the opportunity a suitable one for meeting you and making you an offer about this unfortunate business.’ He paused a moment; but neither of the three spoke. It did occur to Dolly to ask them to wait while he should fetch Squercum; but on second thoughts he reflected that a great deal of trouble would have to be taken, and probably for no good. ‘Mr Bideawhile, I believe,’ suggested Melmotte; and the lawyer bowed his head. ‘If I remember rightly I wrote to you offering to pay the money due to your clients —’

‘Squercum is my lawyer,’ said Dolly.

‘That will make no difference.’

‘It makes a deal of difference,’ said Dolly.

‘I wrote,’ continued Melmotte, ‘offering my bills at three and six months’ date.’

‘They couldn’t be accepted, Mr Melmotte.’

‘I would have allowed interest. I never have had my bills refused before.’

‘You must be aware, Mr Melmotte,’ said the lawyer, ‘that the sale of a property is not like an ordinary mercantile transaction in which bills are customarily given and taken. The understanding was that money should be paid in the usual way. And when we learned, as we did learn, that the property had been at once mortgaged by you, of course we became — well, I think I may be justified in saying more than suspicious. It was a most — most — unusual proceeding. You say you have another offer to make, Mr Melmotte.’

‘Of course I have been short of money. I have had enemies whose business it has been for some time past to run down my credit, and, with my credit, has fallen the value of stocks in which it has been known that I have been largely interested. I tell you the truth openly. When I purchased Pickering I had no idea that the payment of such a sum of money could inconvenience me in the least. When the time came at which I should pay it, stocks were so depreciated that it was impossible to sell. Very hostile proceedings are threatened against me now. Accusations are made, false as hell,’— Mr Melmotte as he spoke raised his voice and looked round the room ‘but which at the present crisis may do me most cruel damage. I have come to say that, if you will undertake to stop proceedings which have been commenced in the City, I will have fifty thousand pounds — which is the amount due to these two gentlemen — ready for payment on Friday at noon.’

‘I have taken no proceedings as yet,’ said Bideawhile.

‘It’s Squercum,’ says Dolly.

‘Well, sir,’ continued Melmotte addressing Dolly, ‘let me assure you that if these proceedings are stayed the money will be forthcoming; — but if not, I cannot produce the money. I little thought two months ago that I should ever have to make such a statement in reference to such a sum as fifty thousand pounds. But so it is. To raise that money by Friday, I shall have to cripple my resources frightfully. It will be done at a terrible cost. But what Mr Bideawhile says is true. I have no right to suppose that the purchase of this property should be looked upon as an ordinary commercial transaction. The money should have been paid — and, if you will now take my word, the money shall be paid. But this cannot be done if I am made to appear before the Lord Mayor to-morrow. The accusations brought against me are damnably false. I do not know with whom they have originated. Whoever did originate them, they are damnably false. But unfortunately, false as they are, in the present crisis, they may be ruinous to me. Now gentlemen, perhaps you will give me an answer.’

Both the father and the lawyer looked at Dolly. Dolly was in truth the accuser through the mouthpiece of his attorney Squercum. It was at Dolly’s instance that these proceedings were being taken. ‘I, on behalf of my client,’ said Mr Bideawhile, ‘will consent to wait till Friday at noon.’

‘I presume, Adolphus, that you will say as much,’ said the elder Longestaffe.

Dolly Longestaffe was certainly not an impressionable person, but Melmotte’s eloquence had moved even him. It was not that he was sorry for the man, but that at the present moment he believed him. Though he had been absolutely sure that Melmotte had forged his name or caused it to be forged — and did not now go so far into the matter as to abandon that conviction — he had been talked into crediting the reasons given for Melmotte’s temporary distress, and also into a belief that the money would be paid on Friday. Something of the effect which Melmotte’s false confessions had had upon Lord Nidderdale, they now also had on Dolly Longestaffe. ‘I’ll ask Squercum, you know,’ he said.

‘Of course Mr Squercum will act as you instruct him,’ said Bideawhile.

‘I’ll ask Squercum. I’ll go to him at once. I can’t do any more than that. And upon my word, Mr Melmotte, you’ve given me a great deal of trouble.’

Melmotte with a smile apologized. Then it was settled that they three should meet in that very room on Friday at noon, and that the payment should then be made — Dolly stipulating that as his father would be attended by Bideawhile, so would he be attended by Squercum. To this Mr Longestaffe senior yielded with a very bad grace.

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