The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXVII

Another Scene in Bruton Street

When Mr Melmotte made his promise to Mr Longestaffe and to Dolly, in the presence of Mr Bideawhile, that he would, on the next day but one, pay to them a sum of fifty thousand pounds, thereby completing, satisfactorily as far as they were concerned, the purchase of the Pickering property, he intended to be as good as his word. The reader knows that he had resolved to face the Longestaffe difficulty — that he had resolved that at any rate he would not get out of it by sacrificing the property to which he had looked forward as a safe haven when storms should come. But, day by day, every resolution that he made was forced to undergo some change. Latterly he had been intent on purchasing a noble son-in-law with this money — still trusting to the chapter of chances for his future escape from the Longestaffe and other difficulties. But Squercum had been very hard upon him; and in connexion with this accusation as to the Pickering property, there was another, which he would be forced to face also, respecting certain property in the East of London, with which the reader need not much trouble himself specially, but in reference to which it was stated that he had induced a foolish old gentleman to consent to accept railway shares in lieu of money. The old gentleman had died during the transaction, and it was asserted that the old gentleman’s letter was hardly genuine. Melmotte had certainly raised between twenty and thirty thousand pounds on the property, and had made payment for it in stock which was now worth — almost nothing at all. Melmotte thought that he might face this matter successfully if the matter came upon him single-handed; — but in regard to the Longestaffes he considered that now, at this last moment, he had better pay for Pickering.

The property from which he intended to raise the necessary funds was really his own. There could be no doubt about that. It had never been his intention to make it over to his daughter. When he had placed it in her name, he had done so simply for security — feeling that his control over his only daughter would be perfect and free from danger. No girl apparently less likely to take it into her head to defraud her father could have crept quietly about a father’s house. Nor did he now think that she would disobey him when the matter was explained to her. Heavens and earth! That he should be robbed by his own child — robbed openly, shamefully, with brazen audacity! It was impossible. But still he had felt the necessity of going about this business with some little care. It might be that she would disobey him if he simply sent for her and bade her to affix her signature here and there. He thought much about it and considered that it would be wise that his wife should be present on the occasion, and that a full explanation should be given to Marie, by which she might be made to understand that the money had in no sense become her own. So he gave instructions to his wife when he started into the city that morning; and when he returned, for the sake of making his offer to the Longestaffes, he brought with him the deeds which it would be necessary that Marie should sign, and he brought also Mr Croll, his clerk, that Mr Croll might witness the signature.

When he left the Longestaffes and Mr Bideawhile he went at once to his wife’s room. ‘Is she here?’ he asked.

‘I will send for her. I have told her.’

‘You haven’t frightened her?’

‘Why should I frighten her? It is not very easy to frighten her, Melmotte. She is changed since these young men have been so much about her.’

‘I shall frighten her if she does not do as I bid her. Bid her come now.’ This was said in French. Then Madame Melmotte left the room, and Melmotte arranged a lot of papers in order upon a table. Having done so, he called to Croll, who was standing on the landing-place, and told him to seat himself in the back drawing-room till he should be called. Melmotte then stood with his back to the fireplace in his wife’s sitting-room, with his hands in his pockets, contemplating what might be the incidents of the coming interview. He would be very gracious — affectionate if it were possible — and, above all things, explanatory. But, by heavens, if there were continued opposition to his demand — to his just demand — if this girl should dare to insist upon exercising her power to rob him, he would not then be affectionate nor gracious! There was some little delay in the coming of the two women, and he was already beginning to lose his temper when Marie followed Madame Melmotte into the room. He at once swallowed his rising anger with an effort. He would put a constraint upon himself The affection and the graciousness should be all there — as long as they might secure the purpose in hand.

‘Marie,’ he began, ‘I spoke to you the other day about some property which for certain purposes was placed in your name just as we were leaving Paris.’

‘Yes, papa.’

‘You were such a child then — I mean when we left Paris — that I could hardly explain to you the purpose of what I did.’

‘I understood it, papa.’

‘You had better listen to me, my dear. I don’t think you did quite understand it. It would have been very odd if you had, as I never explained it to you.’

‘You wanted to keep it from going away if you got into trouble.’

This was so true that Melmotte did not know how at the moment to contradict the assertion. And yet he had not intended to talk of the possibility of trouble. ‘I wanted to lay aside a large sum of money which should not be liable to the ordinary fluctuations of commercial enterprise.’

‘So that nobody could get at it.’

‘You are a little too quick, my dear.’

‘Marie, why can’t you let your papa speak?’ said Madame Melmotte.

‘But of course, my dear,’ continued Melmotte, ‘I had no idea of putting the money beyond my own reach. Such a transaction is very common; and in such cases a man naturally uses the name of some one who is very near and dear to him, and in whom he is sure that he can put full confidence. And it is customary to choose a young person, as there will then be less danger of the accident of death. It was for these reasons, which I am sure that you will understand, that I chose you. Of course the property remained exclusively my own.’

‘But it is really mine,’ said Marie.

‘No, miss; it was never yours,’ said Melmotte, almost bursting out into anger, but restraining himself. ‘How could it become yours, Marie? Did I ever make you a gift of it?’

‘But I know that it did become mine — legally.’

‘By a quibble of law — yes; but not so as to give you any right to it. I always draw the income.’

‘But I could stop that, papa — and if I were married, of course it would be stopped.’

Then, quick as a flash of lightning, another idea occurred to Melmotte, who feared that he already began to see that this child of his might be stiff-necked. ‘As we are thinking of your marriage,’ he said, ‘it is necessary that a change should be made. Settlements must be drawn for the satisfaction of Lord Nidderdale and his father. The old Marquis is rather hard upon me, but the marriage is so splendid that I have consented. You must now sign these papers in four or five places. Mr Croll is here, in the next room, to witness your signature, and I will call him.’

‘Wait a moment, papa.’

‘Why should we wait?’

‘I don’t think I will sign them.’

‘Why not sign them? You can’t really suppose that the property is your own. You could not even get it if you did think so.’

‘I don’t know how that may be; but I had rather not sign them. If I am to be married, I ought not to sign anything except what he tells me.’

‘He has no authority over you yet. I have authority over you. Marie, do not give more trouble. I am very much pressed for time. Let me call in Mr Croll.’

‘No, papa,’ she said.

Then came across his brow that look which had probably first induced Marie to declare that she would endure to be ‘cut to pieces,’ rather than to yield in this or that direction. The lower jaw squared itself and the teeth became set, and the nostrils of his nose became extended — and Marie began to prepare herself to be ‘cut to pieces.’ But he reminded himself that there was another game which he had proposed to play before he resorted to anger and violence. He would tell her how much depended on her compliance. Therefore he relaxed the frown — as well as he knew how, and softened his face towards her, and turned again to his work. ‘I am sure, Marie, that you will not refuse to do this when I explain to you its importance to me. I must have that property for use in the city to-morrow, or — I shall be ruined.’ The statement was very short, but the manner in which he made it was not without effect.

‘Oh!’ shrieked his wife.

‘It is true. These harpies have so beset me about the election that they have lowered the price of every stock in which I am concerned, and have brought the Mexican Railway so low that they cannot be sold at all. I don’t like bringing my troubles home from the city; but on this occasion I cannot help it. The sum locked up here is very large, and I am compelled to use it. In point of fact it is necessary to save us from destruction.’ This he said, very slowly, and with the utmost solemnity.

‘But you told me just now you wanted it because I was going to be married,’ rejoined Marie.

A liar has many points to his favour — but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally. Melmotte was thrown back for a moment, and almost felt that the time for violence had come. He longed to be at her that he might shake the wickedness, and the folly, and the ingratitude out of her. But he once more condescended to argue and to explain. ‘I think you misunderstood me, Marie. I meant you to understand that settlements must be made, and that of course I must get my own property back into my own hands before anything of that kind can be done. I tell you once more, my dear, that if you do not do as I bid you, so that I may use that property the first thing to-morrow, we are all ruined. Everything will be gone.’

‘This can’t be gone,’ said Marie, nodding her head at the papers.

‘Marie — do you wish to see me disgraced and ruined? I have done a great deal for you.’

‘You turned away the only person I ever cared for,’ said Marie.

‘Marie, how can you be so wicked? Do as your papa bids you,’ said Madame Melmotte.

‘No!’ said Melmotte. ‘She does not care who is ruined, because we saved her from that reprobate.’

‘She will sign them now,’ said Madame Melmotte.

‘No; — I will not sign them,’ said Marie. ‘If I am to be married to Lord Nidderdale as you all say, I am sure I ought to sign nothing without telling him. And if the property was once made to be mine, I don’t think I ought to give it up again because papa says that he is going to be ruined. I think that’s a reason for not giving it up again.’

‘It isn’t yours to give. It’s mine,’ said Melmotte gnashing his teeth.

‘Then you can do what you like with it without my signing,’ said Marie.

He paused a moment, and then laying his hand gently upon her shoulder, he asked her yet once again. His voice was changed, and was very hoarse. But he still tried to be gentle with her. ‘Marie,’ he said, ‘will you do this to save your father from destruction?’

But she did not believe a word that he said to her. How could she believe him? He had taught her to regard him as her natural enemy, making her aware that it was his purpose to use her as a chattel for his own advantage, and never allowing her for a moment to suppose that aught that he did was to be done for her happiness. And now, almost in a breath, he had told her that this money was wanted that it might be settled on her and the man to whom she was to be married, and then that it might be used to save him from instant ruin. She believed neither one story nor the other. That she should have done as she was desired in this matter can hardly be disputed. The father had used her name because he thought that he could trust her. She was his daughter and should not have betrayed his trust. But she had steeled herself to obstinacy against him in all things. Even yet, after all that had passed, although she had consented to marry Lord Nidderdale, though she had been forced by what she had learned to despise Sir Felix Carbury, there was present to her an idea that she might escape with the man she really loved. But any such hope could depend only on the possession of the money which she now claimed as her own. Melmotte had endeavoured to throw a certain supplicatory pathos into the question he had asked her; but, though he was in some degree successful with his voice, his eyes and his mouth and his forehead still threatened her. He was always threatening her. All her thoughts respecting him reverted to that inward assertion that he might ‘cut her to pieces’ if he liked. He repeated his question in the pathetic strain. ‘Will you do this now — to save us all from ruin?’ But his eyes still threatened her.

‘No;’ she said, looking up into his face as though watching for the personal attack which would be made upon her; ‘no, I won’t.’

‘Marie!’ exclaimed Madame Melmotte.

She glanced round for a moment at her pseudo-mother with contempt. ‘No;’ she said. ‘I don’t think I ought — and I won’t.’

‘You won’t!’ shouted Melmotte. She merely shook her head. ‘Do you mean that you, my own child, will attempt to rob your father just at the moment you can destroy him by your wickedness?’ She shook her head but said no other word.

‘Nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet.’

‘Let not Medea with unnatural rage
Slaughter her mangled infants on the stage.’

Nor will I attempt to harrow my readers by a close description of the scene which followed. Poor Marie. That cutting her up into pieces was commenced after a most savage fashion. Marie crouching down hardly uttered a sound. But Madame Melmotte frightened beyond endurance screamed at the top of her voice — ‘Ah, Melmotte, tu la tueras!’ And then she tried to drag him from his prey. ‘Will you sign them now?’ said Melmotte, panting. At that moment Croll, frightened by the screams, burst into the room. It was perhaps not the first time that he had interfered to save Melmotte from the effects of his own wrath.

‘Oh, Mr Melmotte, vat is de matter?’ asked the clerk. Melmotte was out of breath and could hardly tell his story. Marie gradually recovered herself; and crouched, cowering, in the corner of a sofa, by no means vanquished in spirit, but with a feeling that the very life had been crushed out of her body. Madame Melmotte was standing weeping copiously, with her handkerchief up to her eyes. ‘Will you sign the papers?’ Melmotte demanded. Marie, lying as she was, all in a heap, merely shook her head. ‘Pig!’ said Melmotte — ‘wicked, ungrateful pig.’

‘Ah, Ma’am-moiselle,’ said Croll, ‘you should oblige your fader.’

‘Wretched, wicked girl’ said Melmotte, collecting the papers together. Then he left the room, and followed by Croll descended to the study, whence the Longestaffes and Mr Bideawhile had long since taken their departure.

Madame Melmotte came and stood over the girl, but for some minutes spoke never a word. Marie lay on the sofa, all in a heap, with her hair dishevelled and her dress disordered, breathing hard, but uttering no sobs and shedding no tears. The stepmother — if she might so be called — did not think of attempting to persuade where her husband had failed. She feared Melmotte so thoroughly, and was so timid in regard to her own person, that she could not understand the girl’s courage. Melmotte was to her an awful being, powerful as Satan — whom she never openly disobeyed, though she daily deceived him, and was constantly detected in her deceptions. Marie seemed to her to have all her father’s stubborn, wicked courage, and very much of his power. At the present moment she did not dare to tell the girl that she had been wrong. But she had believed her husband when he had said that destruction was coming, and had partly believed him when he declared that the destruction might be averted by Marie’s obedience. Her life had been passed in almost daily fear of destruction. To Marie the last two years of splendour had been so long that they had produced a feeling of security. But to the elder woman the two years had not sufficed to eradicate the remembrance of former reverses, and never for a moment had she felt herself to be secure. At last she asked the girl what she would like to have done for her. ‘I wish he had killed me,’ Marie said, slowly dragging herself up from the sofa, and retreating without another word to her own room.

In the meantime another scene was being acted in the room below. Melmotte after he reached the room — hardly made a reference to his daughter merely saying that nothing would overcome her wicked obstinacy. He made no allusion to his own violence, nor had Croll the courage to expostulate with him now that the immediate danger was over. The Great Financier again arranged the papers, just as they had been laid out before — as though he thought that the girl might be brought down to sign them there. And then he went on to explain to Croll what he had wanted to have done — how necessary it was that the thing should be done, and how terribly cruel it was to him that in such a crisis of his life he should be hampered, impeded — he did not venture to his clerk to say ruined — by the ill-conditioned obstinacy of a girl! He explained very fully how absolutely the property was his own, how totally the girl was without any right to withhold it from him! How monstrous in its injustice was the present position of things! In all this Croll fully agreed. Then Melmotte went on to declare that he would not feel the slightest scruple in writing Marie’s signature to the papers himself. He was the girl’s father and was justified in acting for her. The property was his own property, and he was justified in doing with it as he pleased. Of course he would have no scruple in writing his daughter’s name. Then he looked up at the clerk. The clerk again assented — after a fashion, not by any means with the comfortable certainty with which he had signified his accordance with his employer’s first propositions. But he did not, at any rate, hint any disapprobation of the step which Melmotte proposed to take. Then Melmotte went a step farther, and explained that the only difficulty in reference to such a transaction would be that the signature of his daughter would be required to be corroborated by that of a witness before he could use it. Then he again looked up at Croll; — but on this occasion Croll did not move a muscle of his face. There certainly was no assent. Melmotte continued to look at him; but then came upon the old clerk’s countenance a stern look which amounted to very strong dissent. And yet Croll had been conversant with some irregular doings in his time, and Melmotte knew well the extent of Croll’s experience. Then Melmotte made a little remark to himself. ‘He knows that the game is pretty well over.’ ‘You had better return to the city now,’ he said aloud. ‘I shall follow you in half an hour. It is quite possible that I may bring my daughter with me. If I can make her understand this thing I shall do so. In that case I shall want you to be ready.’ Croll again smiled, and again assented, and went his way.

But Melmotte made no further attempt upon his daughter. As soon as Croll was gone he searched among various papers in his desk and drawers, and having found two signatures, those of his daughter and of this German clerk, set to work tracing them with some thin tissue paper. He commenced his present operation by bolting his door and pulling down the blinds. He practised the two signatures for the best part of an hour. Then he forged them on the various documents; — and, having completed the operation, refolded them, placed them in a locked bag of which he had always kept the key in his purse, and then, with the bag in his hand, was taken in his brougham into the city.

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