The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXXV

Breakfast in Berkeley Square

Lord Nidderdale was greatly disgusted with his own part of the performance when he left the House of Commons, and was, we may say, disgusted with his own position generally, when he considered all its circumstances. That had been at the commencement of the evening, and Melmotte had not then been tipsy; but he had behaved with unsurpassable arrogance and vulgarity, and had made the young lord drink the cup of his own disgrace to the very dregs. Everybody now knew it as a positive fact that the charges made against the man were to become matter of investigation before the chief magistrate for the City, everybody knew that he had committed forgery upon forgery, everybody knew that he could not pay for the property which he had pretended to buy, and that actually he was a ruined man; — and yet he had seized Nidderdale by the hand, and called the young lord ‘his dear boy’ before the whole House.

And then he had made himself conspicuous as this man’s advocate. If he had not himself spoken openly of his coming marriage with the girl, he had allowed other men to speak to him about it. He had quarrelled with one man for saying that Melmotte was a rogue, and had confidentially told his most intimate friends that in spite of a little vulgarity of manner, Melmotte at bottom was a very good fellow. How was he now to back out of his intimacy with the Melmottes generally? He was engaged to marry the girl, and there was nothing of which he could accuse her. He acknowledged to himself that she deserved well at his hands. Though at this moment he hated the father most bitterly, as those odious words, and the tone in which they had been pronounced, rang in his ears, nevertheless he had some kindly feeling for the girl. Of course he could not marry her now. That was manifestly out of the question. She herself, as well as all others, had known that she was to be married for her money, and now that bubble had been burst. But he felt that he owed it to her, as to a comrade who had on the whole been loyal to him, to have some personal explanation with herself. He arranged in his own mind the sort of speech that he would make to her. ‘Of course you know it can’t be. It was all arranged because you were to have a lot of money, and now it turns out that you haven’t got any. And I haven’t got any, and we should have nothing to live upon. It’s out of the question. But, upon my word, I’m very sorry, for I like you very much, and I really think we should have got on uncommon well together.’ That was the kind of speech that he suggested to himself, but he did not know how to find for himself the opportunity of making it. He thought that he must put it all into a letter. But then that would be tantamount to a written confession that he had made her an offer of marriage, and he feared that Melmotte — or Madame Melmotte on his behalf, if the great man himself were absent, in prison — might make an ungenerous use of such an admission.

Between seven and eight he went into the Beargarden, and there he saw Dolly Longestaffe and others. Everybody was talking about Melmotte, the prevailing belief being that he was at this moment in custody. Dolly was full of his own griefs; but consoled amidst them by a sense of his own importance. ‘I wonder whether it’s true,’ he was saying to Lord Grasslough. ‘He has an appointment to meet me and my governor at twelve o’clock to-morrow, and to pay us what he owes us. He swore yesterday that he would have the money to-morrow. But he can’t keep his appointment, you know, if he’s in prison.’

‘You won’t see the money, Dolly, you may swear to that,’ said Grasslough.

‘I don’t suppose I shall. By George, what an ass my governor has been. He had no more right than you have to give up the property. Here’s Nidderdale. He could tell us where he is; but I’m afraid to speak to him since he cut up so rough the other night.’

In a moment the conversation was stopped; but when Lord Grasslough asked Nidderdale in a whisper whether he knew anything about Melmotte, the latter answered out loud, ‘Yes I left him in the House half an hour ago.’

‘People are saying that he has been arrested.’

‘I heard that also; but he certainly had not been arrested when I left the House.’ Then he went up and put his hand on Dolly Longestaffe’s shoulder, and spoke to him. ‘I suppose you were about right the other night and I was about wrong; but you could understand what it was that I meant. I’m afraid this is a bad look out for both of us.’

‘Yes; — I understand. It’s deuced bad for me,’ said Dolly. ‘I think you’re very well out of it. But I’m glad there’s not to be a quarrel. Suppose we have a rubber of whist.’

Later on in the night news was brought to the club that Melmotte had tried to make a speech in the House, that he had been very drunk, and that he had tumbled over, upsetting Beauchamp Beauclerk in his fall. ‘By George, I should like to have seen that!’ said Dolly.

‘I am very glad I was not there,’ said Nidderdale. It was three o’clock before they left the card table, at which time Melmotte was lying dead upon the floor in Mr Longestaffe’s house.

On the following morning, at ten o’clock, Lord Nidderdale sat at breakfast with his father in the old lord’s house in Berkeley Square. From thence the house which Melmotte had hired was not above a few hundred yards distant. At this time the young lord was living with his father, and the two had now met by appointment in order that something might be settled between them as to the proposed marriage. The Marquis was not a very pleasant companion when the affairs in which he was interested did not go exactly as he would have them. He could be very cross and say most disagreeable words — so that the ladies of the family, and others connected with him, for the most part, found it impossible to live with him. But his eldest son had endured him; — partly perhaps because, being the eldest, he had been treated with a nearer approach to courtesy, but chiefly by means of his own extreme good humour. What did a few hard words matter? If his father was ungracious to him, of course he knew what all that meant. As long as his father would make fair allowance for his own peccadilloes — he also would make allowances for his father’s roughness. All this was based on his grand theory of live and let live. He expected his father to be a little cross on this occasion, and he acknowledged to himself that there was cause for it.

He was a little late himself, and he found his father already buttering his toast. ‘I don’t believe you’d get out of bed a moment sooner than you liked if you could save the whole property by it.’

‘You show me how I can make a guinea by it, sir, and see if I don’t earn the money.’ Then he sat down and poured himself out a cup of tea, and looked at the kidneys and looked at the fish.

‘I suppose you were drinking last night,’ said the old lord.

‘Not particular.’ The old man turned round and gnashed his teeth at him. ‘The fact is, sir, I don’t drink. Everybody knows that.’

‘I know when you’re in the country you can’t live without champagne. Well; — what have you got to say about all this?’

‘What have you got to say?’

‘You’ve made a pretty kettle of fish of it.’

‘I’ve been guided by you in everything. Come, now; you ought to own that. I suppose the whole thing is over?’

‘I don’t see why it should be over. I’m told she has got her own money.’ Then Nidderdale described to his father Melmotte’s behaviour in the House on the preceding evening. ‘What the devil does that matter?’ said the old man. ‘You’re not going to marry the man himself.’

‘I shouldn’t wonder if he’s in gaol now.’

‘And what does that matter? She’s not in gaol. And if the money is hers, she can’t lose it because he goes to prison. Beggars mustn’t be choosers. How do you mean to live if you don’t marry this girl?’

‘I shall scrape on, I suppose. I must look for somebody else.’ The Marquis showed very plainly by his demeanour that he did not give his son much credit either for diligence or for ingenuity in making such a search. ‘At any rate, sir, I can’t marry the daughter of a man who is to be put upon his trial for forgery.’

‘I can’t see what that has to do with you.’

‘I couldn’t do it, sir. I’d do anything else to oblige you, but I couldn’t do that. And, moreover, I don’t believe in the money.’

‘Then you may just go to the devil,’ said the old Marquis turning himself round in his chair, and lighting a cigar as he took up the newspaper. Nidderdale went on with his breakfast with perfect equanimity, and when he had finished lighted his cigar. ‘They tell me,’ said the old man, ‘that one of those Goldsheiner girls will have a lot of money.’

‘A Jewess,’ suggested Nidderdale.

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Oh no; — not in the least if the money’s really there. Have you heard any sum named, sir?’

The old man only grunted. ‘There are two sisters and two brothers. I don’t suppose the girls would have a hundred thousand each.’

‘They say the widow of that brewer who died the other day has about twenty thousand a year.’

‘It’s only for her life, sir.’

‘She could insure her life. D—— me, sir, we must do something. If you turn up your nose at one woman after another how do you mean to live?’

‘I don’t think that a woman of forty with only a life interest would be a good speculation. Of course I’ll think of it if you press it.’ The old man growled again. ‘You see, sir, I’ve been so much in earnest about this girl that I haven’t thought of inquiring about any one else. There always is some one up with a lot of money. It’s a pity there shouldn’t be a regular statement published with the amount of money, and what is expected in return. It’d save a deal of trouble.’

‘If you can’t talk more seriously than that you’d better go away,’ said the old Marquis.

At that moment a footman came into the room and told Lord Nidderdale that a man particularly wished to see him in the hall. He was not always anxious to see those who called on him, and he asked the servant whether he knew who the man was. ‘I believe, my lord, he’s one of the domestics from Mr Melmotte’s in Bruton Street,’ said the footman, who was no doubt fully acquainted with all the circumstances of Lord Nidderdale’s engagement. The son, who was still smoking, looked at his father as though in doubt. ‘You’d better go and see,’ said the Marquis. But Nidderdale before he went asked a question as to what he had better do if Melmotte had sent for him. ‘Go and see Melmotte. Why should you be afraid to see him? Tell him you are ready to marry the girl if you can see the money down, but that you won’t stir a step till it has been actually paid over.’

‘He knows that already,’ said Nidderdale as he left the room.

In the hall he found a man whom he recognized as Melmotte’s butler, a ponderous, elderly, heavy man who now had a letter in his hand. But the lord could tell by the man’s face and manner that he himself had some story to tell. ‘Is there anything the matter?’

‘Yes, my lord — yes. Oh, dear — oh, dear! I think you’ll be sorry to hear it. There was none who came there he seemed to take to so much as your lordship.’

‘They’ve taken him to prison!’ exclaimed Nidderdale. But the man shook his head. ‘What is it then? He can’t be dead.’ Then the man nodded his head, and, putting his hand up to his face, burst into tears. ‘Mr Melmotte dead! He was in the House of Commons last night. I saw him myself. How did he die?’ But the fat, ponderous man was so affected by the tragedy he had witnessed, that he could not as yet give any account of the scene of his master’s death, but simply handed the note which he had in his hand to Lord Nidderdale. It was from Marie, and had been written within half an hour of the time at which news had been brought to her of what had occurred. The note was as follows:

DEAR LORD NIDDERDALE,

The man will tell you what has happened. I feel as though I was mad. I do not know who to send to. Will you come to me, only for a few minutes?

MARIE.

He read it standing up in the hall, and then again asked the man as to the manner of his master’s death. And now the Marquis, gathering from a word or two that he heard and from his son’s delay that something special had occurred, hobbled out into the hall. ‘Mr Melmotte is — dead,’ said his son. The old man dropped his stick, and fell back against the wall. ‘This man says that he is dead, and here is a letter from Marie asking me to go there. How was it that he — died?’

‘It was — poison,’ said the butler solemnly. ‘There has been a doctor already, and there isn’t no doubt of that. He took it all by himself last night. He came home, perhaps a little fresh, and he had in brandy and soda and cigars; — and sat himself down all to himself. Then in the morning, when the young woman went in — there he was — poisoned! I see him lay on the ground, and I helped to lift him up, and there was that smell of prussic acid that I knew what he had been and done just the same as when the doctor came and told us.’

Before the man could be allowed to go back, there was a consultation between the father and son as to a compliance with the request which Marie had made in her first misery. The Marquis thought that his son had better not go to Bruton Street. ‘What’s the use? What good can you do? She’ll only be falling into your arms, and that’s what you’ve got to avoid — at any rate, till you know how things are.’

But Nidderdale’s better feelings would not allow him to submit to this advice. He had been engaged to marry the girl, and she in her abject misery had turned to him as the friend she knew best. At any rate for the time the heartlessness of his usual life deserted him, and he felt willing to devote himself to the girl not for what he could get — but because she had so nearly been so near to him. ‘I couldn’t refuse her,’ he said over and over again. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Oh, no; — I shall certainly go.’

‘You’ll get into a mess if you do.’

‘Then I must get into a mess. I shall certainly go. I will go at once. It is very disagreeable, but I cannot possibly refuse. It would be abominable.’ Then going back to the hall, he sent a message by the butler to Marie, saying that he would be with her in less than half an hour.

‘Don’t you go and make a fool of yourself,’ his father said to him when he was alone. ‘This is just one of those times when a man may ruin himself by being softhearted.’ Nidderdale simply shook his head as he took his hat and gloves to go across to Bruton Street.

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