The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXXIII

Melmotte Again at the House

On that Thursday afternoon it was known everywhere that there was to be a general ruin of all the Melmotte affairs. As soon as Cohenlupe had gone, no man doubted. The City men who had not gone to the dinner prided themselves on their foresight, as did also the politicians who had declined to meet the Emperor of China at the table of the suspected Financier. They who had got up the dinner and had been instrumental in taking the Emperor to the house in Grosvenor Square, and they also who had brought him forward at Westminster and had fought his battle for him, were aware that they would have to defend themselves against heavy attacks. No one now had a word to say in his favour, or a doubt as to his guilt. The Grendalls had retired altogether out of town, and were no longer even heard of. Lord Alfred had not been seen since the day of the dinner. The Duchess of Albury, too, went into the country some weeks earlier than usual, quelled, as the world said, by the general Melmotte failure. But this departure had not as yet taken place at the time at which we have now arrived.

When the Speaker took his seat in the House, soon after four o’clock, there were a great many members present, and a general feeling prevailed that the world was more than ordinarily alive because of Melmotte and his failures. It had been confidently asserted throughout the morning that he would be put upon his trial for forgery in reference to the purchase of the Pickering property from Mr Longestaffe, and it was known that he had not as yet shown himself anywhere on this day. People had gone to look at the house in Grosvenor Square — not knowing that he was still living in Mr Longestaffe’s house in Bruton Street, and had come away with the impression that the desolation of ruin and crime was already plainly to be seen upon it. ‘I wonder where he is,’ said Mr Lupton to Mr Beauchamp Beauclerk in one of the lobbies of the House.

‘They say he hasn’t been in the City all day. I suppose he’s in Longestaffe’s house. That poor fellow has got it heavy all round. The man has got his place in the country and his house in town. There’s Nidderdale. I wonder what he thinks about it all.’

‘This is awful; — ain’t it?’ said Nidderdale.

‘It might have been worse, I should say, as far as you are concerned,’ replied Mr Lupton.

‘Well, yes. But I’ll tell you what, Lupton. I don’t quite understand it all yet. Our lawyer said three days ago that the money was certainly there.’

‘And Cohenlupe was certainly here three days ago,’ said Lupton — ‘but he isn’t here now. It seems to me that it has just happened in time for you.’ Lord Nidderdale shook his head and tried to look very grave.

‘There’s Brown,’ said Sir Orlando Drought, hurrying up to the commercial gentleman whose mistakes about finance Mr Melmotte on a previous occasion had been anxious to correct. ‘He’ll be able to tell us where he is. It was rumoured, you know, an hour ago, that he was off to the continent after Cohenlupe.’ But Mr Brown shook his head. Mr Brown didn’t know anything. But Mr Brown was very strongly of opinion that the police would know all that there was to be known about Mr Melmotte before this time on the following day. Mr Brown had been very bitter against Melmotte since that memorable attack made upon him in the House.

Even ministers as they sat to be badgered by the ordinary question-mongers of the day were more intent upon Melmotte than upon their own defence. ‘Do you know anything about it?’ asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

‘I understand that no order has been given for his arrest. There is a general opinion that he has committed forgery; but I doubt whether they’ve got their evidence together.’

‘He’s a ruined man, I suppose,’ said the Chancellor. ‘I doubt whether he ever was a rich man. But I’ll tell you what; — he has been about the grandest rogue we’ve seen yet. He must have spent over a hundred thousand pounds during the last twelve months on his personal expenses. I wonder how the Emperor will like it when he learns the truth.’ Another minister sitting close to the Secretary of State was of opinion that the Emperor of China would not care half so much about it as our own First Lord of the Treasury.

At this moment there came a silence over the House which was almost audible. They who know the sensation which arises from the continued hum of many suppressed voices will know also how plain to the ear is the feeling caused by the discontinuance of the sound. Everybody looked up, but everybody looked up in perfect silence. An Under-Secretary of State had just got upon his legs to answer a most indignant question as to an alteration of the colour of the facings of a certain regiment, his prepared answer to which, however, was so happy as to allow him to anticipate quite a little triumph. It is not often that such a Godsend comes in the way of an under-secretary; and he was intent upon his performance. But even he was startled into momentary oblivion of his well-arranged point. Augustus Melmotte, the member for Westminster, was walking up the centre of the House.

He had succeeded by this time in learning so much of the forms of the House as to know what to do with his hat — when to wear it, and when to take it off — and how to sit down. As he entered by the door facing the Speaker, he wore his hat on the side of his head, as was his custom. Much of the arrogance of his appearance had come from this habit, which had been adopted probably from a conviction that it added something to his powers of self-assertion. At this moment he was more determined than ever that no one should trace in his outer gait or in any feature of his face any sign of that ruin which, as he well knew, all men were anticipating. Therefore, perhaps, his hat was a little more cocked than usual, and the lapels of his coat were thrown back a little wider, displaying the large jewelled studs which he wore in his shirt; and the arrogance conveyed by his mouth and chin was specially conspicuous. He had come down in his brougham, and as he had walked up Westminster Hall and entered the House by the private door of the members, and then made his way in across the great lobby and between the doorkeepers — no one had spoken a word to him. He had of course seen many whom he had known. He had indeed known nearly all whom he had seen; — but he had been aware, from the beginning of this enterprise of the day, that men would shun him, and that he must bear their cold looks and colder silence without seeming to notice them. He had schooled himself to the task, and he was now performing it. It was not only that he would have to move among men without being noticed, but that he must endure to pass the whole evening in the same plight. But he was resolved, and he was now doing it. He bowed to the Speaker with more than usual courtesy, raising his hat with more than usual care, and seated himself, as usual, on the third opposition-bench, but with more than his usual fling. He was a big man, who always endeavoured to make an effect by deportment, and was therefore customarily conspicuous in his movements. He was desirous now of being as he was always, neither more nor less demonstrative; — but, as a matter of course, he exceeded; and it seemed to those who looked at him that there was a special impudence in the manner in which he walked up the House and took his seat. The Under-Secretary of State, who was on his legs, was struck almost dumb, and his morsel of wit about the facings was lost to Parliament for ever.

That unfortunate young man, Lord Nidderdale, occupied the seat next to that on which Melmotte had placed himself. It had so happened three or four times since Melmotte had been in the House, as the young lord, fully intending to marry the Financier’s daughter, had resolved that he would not be ashamed of his father-in-law. He understood that countenance of the sort which he as a young aristocrat could give to the man of millions who had risen no one knew whence, was part of the bargain in reference to the marriage, and he was gifted with a mingled honesty and courage which together made him willing and able to carry out his idea. He had given Melmotte little lessons as to ordinary forms of the House, and had done what in him lay to earn the money which was to be forthcoming. But it had become manifest both to him and to his father during the last two days — very painfully manifest to his father — that the thing must be abandoned. And if so — then why should he be any longer gracious to Melmotte? And, moreover, though he had been ready to be courteous to a very vulgar and a very disagreeable man, he was not anxious to extend his civilities to one who, as he was now assured, had been certainly guilty of forgery. But to get up at once and leave his seat because Melmotte had placed himself by his side, did not suit the turn of his mind. He looked round to his neighbour on the right with a half-comic look of misery, and then prepared himself to bear his punishment, whatever it might be.

‘Have you been up with Marie to-day?’ said Melmotte.

‘No; — I’ve not,’ replied the lord.

‘Why don’t you go? She’s always asking about you now. I hope we shall be in our own house again next week, and then we shall be able to make you comfortable.’

Could it be possible that the man did not know that all the world was united in accusing him of forgery? ‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ said Nidderdale. ‘I think you had better see my governor again, Mr Melmotte.’

‘There’s nothing wrong, I hope.’

‘Well; — I don’t know. You’d better see him. I’m going now. I only just came down to enter an appearance.’ He had to cross Melmotte on his way out, and as he did so Melmotte grasped him by the hand. ‘Good night, my boy,’ said Melmotte quite aloud — in a voice much louder than that which members generally allow themselves for conversation. Nidderdale was confused and unhappy; but there was probably not a man in the House who did not understand the whole thing. He rushed down through the gangway and out through the doors with a hurried step, and as he escaped into the lobby he met Lionel Lupton, who, since his little conversation with Mr Beauclerk, had heard further news.

‘You know what has happened, Nidderdale?’

‘About Melmotte, you mean?’

‘Yes, about Melmotte,’ continued Lupton. ‘He has been arrested in his own house within the last half-hour on a charge of forgery.’

‘I wish he had,’ said Nidderdale, ‘with all my heart. If you go in you’ll find him sitting there as large as life. He has been talking to me as though everything were all right.’

‘Compton was here not a moment ago, and said that he had been taken under a warrant from the Lord Mayor.’

‘The Lord Mayor is a member and had better come and fetch his prisoner himself. At any rate he’s there. I shouldn’t wonder if he wasn’t on his legs before long.’

Melmotte kept his seat steadily till seven, at which hour the House adjourned till nine. He was one of the last to leave, and then with a slow step — with almost majestic steps — he descended to the dining-room and ordered his dinner. There were many men there, and some little difficulty about a seat. No one was very willing to make room for him. But at last he secured a place, almost jostling some unfortunate who was there before him. It was impossible to expel him — almost as impossible to sit next him. Even the waiters were unwilling to serve him; — but with patience and endurance he did at last get his dinner. He was there in his right, as a member of the House of Commons, and there was no ground on which such service as he required could be refused to him. It was not long before he had the table all to himself. But of this he took no apparent notice. He spoke loudly to the waiters and drank his bottle of champagne with much apparent enjoyment. Since his friendly intercourse with Nidderdale no one had spoken to him, nor had he spoken to any man. They who watched him declared among themselves that he was happy in his own audacity; — but in truth he was probably at that moment the most utterly wretched man in London. He would have better studied his personal comfort had he gone to his bed, and spent his evening in groans and wailings. But even he, with all the world now gone from him, with nothing before him but the extremest misery which the indignation of offended laws could inflict, was able to spend the last moments of his freedom in making a reputation at any rate for audacity. It was thus that Augustus Melmotte wrapped his toga around him before his death!

He went from the dining-room to the smoking-room, and there, taking from his pocket a huge case which he always carried, proceeded to light a cigar about eight inches long. Mr Brown, from the City, was in the room, and Melmotte, with a smile and a bow, offered Mr Brown one of the same. Mr Brown was a short, fat, round little man, over sixty, who was always endeavouring to give to a somewhat commonplace set of features an air of importance by the contraction of his lips and the knitting of his brows. It was as good as a play to see Mr Brown jumping back from any contact with the wicked one, and putting on a double frown as he looked at the impudent sinner. ‘You needn’t think so much, you know, of what I said the other night. I didn’t mean any offence.’ So spoke Melmotte, and then laughed with a loud, hoarse laugh, looking round upon the assembled crowd as though he were enjoying his triumph.

He sat after that and smoked in silence. Once again he burst out into a laugh, as though peculiarly amused with his own thoughts; — as though he were declaring to himself with much inward humour that all these men around him were fools for believing the stories which they had heard; but he made no further attempt to speak to any one. Soon after nine he went back again into the House, and again took his old place. At this time he had swallowed three glasses of brandy and water, as well as the champagne, and was brave enough almost for anything. There was some debate going on in reference to the game laws — a subject on which Melmotte was as ignorant as one of his housemaids — but, as some speaker sat down, he jumped up to his legs. Another gentleman had also risen, and when the House called to that other gentleman Melmotte gave way. The other gentleman had not much to say, and in a few minutes Melmotte was again on his legs. Who shall dare to describe the thoughts which would cross the august mind of a Speaker of the House of Commons at such a moment? Of Melmotte’s villainy he had no official knowledge. And even could he have had such knowledge it was not for him to act upon it. The man was a member of the House, and as much entitled to speak as another. But it seemed on that occasion that the Speaker was anxious to save the House from disgrace; — for twice and thrice he refused to have his ‘eye caught’ by the member for Westminster. As long as any other member would rise he would not have his eye caught. But Melmotte was persistent, and determined not to be put down. At last no one else would speak, and the House was about to negative the motion without a division — when Melmotte was again on his legs, still persisting. The Speaker scowled at him and leaned back in his chair. Melmotte standing erect, turning his head round from one side of the House to another, as though determined that all should see his audacity, propping himself with his knees against the seat before him, remained for half a minute perfectly silent. He was drunk — but better able than most drunken men to steady himself, and showing in his face none of those outward signs of intoxication by which drunkenness is generally made apparent. But he had forgotten in his audacity that words are needed for the making of a speech, and now he had not a word at his command. He stumbled forward, recovered himself, then looked once more round the House with a glance of anger, and after that toppled headlong over the shoulders of Mr Beauchamp Beauclerk, who was sitting in front of him.

He might have wrapped his toga around him better perhaps had he remained at home, but if to have himself talked about was his only object, he could hardly have taken a surer course. The scene, as it occurred, was one very likely to be remembered when the performer should have been carried away into enforced obscurity. There was much commotion in the House. Mr Beauclerk, a man of natural good nature, though at the moment put to considerable personal inconvenience, hastened, when he recovered his own equilibrium, to assist the drunken man. But Melmotte had by no means lost the power of helping himself. He quickly recovered his legs, and then reseating himself, put his hat on, and endeavoured to look as though nothing special had occurred. The House resumed its business, taking no further notice of Melmotte, and having no special rule of its own as to the treatment to be adopted with drunken members. But the member for Westminster caused no further inconvenience. He remained in his seat for perhaps ten minutes, and then, not with a very steady step, but still with capacity sufficient for his own guidance, he made his way down to the doors. His exit was watched in silence, and the moment was an anxious one for the Speaker, the clerks, and all who were near him. Had he fallen some one — or rather some two or three — must have picked him up and carried him out. But he did not fall either there or in the lobbies, or on his way down to Palace Yard. Many were looking at him, but none touched him. When he had got through the gates, leaning against the wall he hallooed for his brougham, and the servant who was waiting for him soon took him home to Bruton Street. That was the last which the British Parliament saw of its new member for Westminster.

Melmotte as soon as he reached home got into his own sitting-room without difficulty, and called for more brandy and water. Between eleven and twelve he was left there by his servant with a bottle of brandy, three or four bottles of soda-water, and his cigar-case. Neither of the ladies of the family came to him, nor did he speak of them. Nor was he so drunk then as to give rise to any suspicion in the mind of the servant. He was habitually left there at night, and the servant as usual went to his bed. But at nine o’clock on the following morning the maid-servant found him dead upon the floor. Drunk as he had been — more drunk as he probably became during the night — still he was able to deliver himself from the indignities and penalties to which the law might have subjected him by a dose of prussic acid.

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