The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXXVI

The Meeting in Bruton Street

When the news of her husband’s death was in some very rough way conveyed to Madame Melmotte, it crushed her for the time altogether. Marie first heard that she no longer had a living parent as she stood by the poor woman’s bedside, and she was enabled, as much perhaps by the necessity incumbent upon her of attending to the wretched woman as by her own superior strength of character, to save herself from that prostration and collapse of power which a great and sudden blow is apt to produce. She stared at the woman who first conveyed to her tidings of the tragedy, and then for a moment seated herself at the bedside. But the violent sobbings and hysterical screams of Madame Melmotte soon brought her again to her feet, and from that moment she was not only active but efficacious. No; — she would not go down to the room; she could do no good by going thither. But they must send for a doctor. They should send for a doctor immediately. She was then told that a doctor and an inspector of police were already in the rooms below. The necessity of throwing whatever responsibility there might be on to other shoulders had been at once apparent to the servants, and they had sent out right and left, so that the house might be filled with persons fit to give directions in such an emergency. The officers from the police station were already there when the woman who now filled Didon’s place in the house communicated to Madame Melmotte the fact that she was a widow.

It was afterwards said by some of those who had seen her at the time, that Marie Melmotte had shown a hard heart on the occasion. But the condemnation was wrong. Her feeling for her father was certainly not that which we are accustomed to see among our daughters and sisters. He had never been to her the petted divinity of the household, whose slightest wish had been law, whose little comforts had become matters of serious care, whose frowns were horrid clouds, whose smiles were glorious sunshine, whose kisses were daily looked for, and if missed would be missed with mourning. How should it have been so with her? In all the intercourses of her family, since the first rough usage which she remembered, there had never been anything sweet or gracious. Though she had recognized a certain duty, as due from herself to her father, she had found herself bound to measure it, so that more should not be exacted from her than duty required. She had long known that her father would fain make her a slave for his own purposes, and that if she put no limits to her own obedience he certainly would put none. She had drawn no comparison between him and other fathers, or between herself and other daughters, because she had never become conversant with the ways of other families. After a fashion she had loved him, because nature creates love in a daughter’s heart; but she had never respected him, and had spent the best energies of her character on a resolve that she would never fear him. ‘He may cut me into pieces, but he shall not make me do for his advantage that which I do not think he has a right to exact from me.’ That had been the state of her mind towards her father; and now that he had taken himself away with terrible suddenness, leaving her to face the difficulties of the world with no protector and no assistance, the feeling which dominated her was no doubt one of awe rather than of broken-hearted sorrow. Those who depart must have earned such sorrow before it can be really felt. They who are left may be overwhelmed by the death — even of their most cruel tormentors. Madame Melmotte was altogether overwhelmed; but it could not probably be said of her with truth that she was crushed by pure grief. There was fear of all things, fear of solitude, fear of sudden change, fear of terrible revelations, fear of some necessary movement she knew not whither, fear that she might be discovered to be a poor wretched impostor who never could have been justified in standing in the same presence with emperors and princes, with duchesses and cabinet ministers. This and the fact that the dead body of the man who had so lately been her tyrant was lying near her, so that she might hardly dare to leave her room lest she should encounter him dead, and thus more dreadful even than when alive, utterly conquered her. Feelings of the same kind, the same fears, and the same awe were powerful also with Marie; — but they did not conquer her. She was strong and conquered them; and she did not care to affect a weakness to which she was in truth superior. In such a household the death of such a father after such a fashion will hardly produce that tender sorrow which comes from real love.

She soon knew it all. Her father had destroyed himself, and had doubtless done so because his troubles in regard to money had been greater than he could bear. When he had told her that she was to sign those deeds because ruin was impending, he must indeed have told her the truth. He had so often lied to her that she had had no means of knowing whether he was lying then or telling her a true story. But she had offered to sign the deeds since that, and he had told her that it would be of no avail — and at that time had not been angry with her as he would have been had her refusal been the cause of his ruin. She took some comfort in thinking of that.

But what was she to do? What was to be done generally by that over-cumbered household? She and her pseudo-mother had been instructed to pack up their jewellery, and they had both obeyed the order. But she herself at this moment cared but little for any property. How ought she to behave herself? Where should she go? On whose arm could she lean for some support at this terrible time? As for love, and engagements, and marriage — that was all over. In her difficulty she never for a moment thought of Sir Felix Carbury. Though she had been silly enough to love the man because he was pleasant to look at, she had never been so far gone in silliness as to suppose that he was a staff upon which any one might lean. Had that marriage taken place, she would have been the staff. But it might be possible that Lord Nidderdale would help her. He was good-natured and manly, and would be efficacious — if only he would come to her. He was near, and she thought that at any rate she would try. So she had written her note and sent it by the butler — thinking as she did so of the words she would use to make the young man understand that all the nonsense they had talked as to marrying each other was, of course, to mean nothing now.

It was past eleven when he reached the house, and he was shown upstairs into one of the sitting-rooms on the first-floor. As he passed the door of the study, which was at the moment partly open, he saw the dress of a policeman within, and knew that the body of the dead man was still lying there. But he went by rapidly without a glance within, remembering the look of the man as he had last seen his burly figure, and that grasp of his hand, and those odious words. And now the man was dead — having destroyed his own life. Surely the man must have known when he uttered those words what it was that he intended to do! When he had made that last appeal about Marie, conscious as he was that every one was deserting him, he must even then have looked his fate in the face and have told himself that it was better that he should die! His misfortunes, whatever might be their nature, must have been heavy on him then with all their weight; and he himself and all the world had known that he was ruined. And yet he had pretended to be anxious about the girl’s marriage, and had spoken of it as though he still believed that it would be accomplished!

Nidderdale had hardly put his hat down on the table before Marie was with him. He walked up to her, took her by both hands, and looked into her face. There was no trace of a tear, but her whole countenance seemed to him to be altered. She was the first to speak.

‘I thought you would come when I sent for you.’

‘Of course I came.’

‘I knew you would be a friend, and I knew no one else who would. You won’t be afraid, Lord Nidderdale, that I shall ever think any more of all those things which he was planning?’ She paused a moment, but he was not ready enough to have a word to say in answer to this. ‘You know what has happened?’

‘Your servant told us.’

‘What are we to do? Oh, Lord Nidderdale, it is so dreadful! Poor papa! Poor papa! When I think of all that he must have suffered I wish that I could be dead too.’

‘Has your mother been told?’

‘Oh yes. She knows. No one tried to conceal anything for a moment. It was better that it should be so; — better at last. But we have no friends who would be considerate enough to try to save us from sorrow. But I think it was better. Mamma is very bad. She is always nervous and timid. Of course this has nearly killed her. What ought we to do? It is Mr Longestaffe’s house, and we were to have left it to-morrow.’

‘He will not mind that now.’

‘Where must we go? We can’t go back to that big place in Grosvenor Square. Who will manage for us? Who will see the doctor and the policemen?’

‘I will do that.’

‘But there will be things that I cannot ask you to do. Why should I ask you to do anything?’

‘Because we are friends.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘no. You cannot really regard me as a friend. I have been an impostor. I know that. I had no business to know a person like you at all. Oh, if the next six months could be over! Poor papa — poor papa!’ And then for the first time she burst into tears.

‘I wish I knew what might comfort you,’ he said.

‘How can there be any comfort? There never can be comfort again! As for comfort, when were we ever comfortable? It has been one trouble after another — one fear after another! And now we are friendless and homeless. I suppose they will take everything that we have.’

‘Your papa had a lawyer, I suppose?’

‘I think he had ever so many — but I do not know who they were. His own clerk, who had lived with him for over twenty years, left him yesterday. I suppose they will know something in Abchurch Lane; but now that Herr Croll has gone I am not acquainted even with the name of one of them. Mr Miles Grendall used to be with him.’

‘I do not think that he could be of much service.’

‘Nor Lord Alfred? Lord Alfred was always with him till very lately.’ Nidderdale shook his head. ‘I suppose not. They only came because papa had a big house.’ The young lord could not but feel that he was included in the same rebuke. ‘Oh, what a life it has been! And now — now it’s over.’ As she said this it seemed that for the moment her strength failed her, for she fell backwards on the corner of the sofa. He tried to raise her, but she shook him away, burying her face in her hands. He was standing close to her, still holding her arm, when he heard a knock at the front door, which was immediately opened, as the servants were hanging about in the hall. ‘Who are they?’ said Marie, whose sharp ears caught the sound of various steps. Lord Nidderdale went out on to the head of the stairs, and immediately heard the voice of Dolly Longestaffe.

Dolly Longestaffe had on that morning put himself early into the care of Mr Squercum, and it had happened that he with his lawyer had met his father with Mr Bideawhile at the corner of the square. They were all coming according to appointment to receive the money which Mr Melmotte had promised to pay them at this very hour. Of course they had none of them as yet heard of the way in which the Financier had made his last grand payment, and as they walked together to the door had been intent only in reference to their own money. Squercum, who had heard a good deal on the previous day, was very certain that the money would not be forthcoming, whereas Bideawhile was sanguine of success. ‘Don’t we wish we may get it?’ Dolly had said, and by saying so had very much offended his father, who had resented the want of reverence implied in the use of that word ‘we’. They had all been admitted together, and Dolly had at once loudly claimed an old acquaintance with some of the articles around him. ‘I knew I’d got a coat just like that,’ said Dolly, ‘and I never could make out what my fellow had done with it.’ This was the speech which Nidderdale had heard, standing on the top of the stairs.

The two lawyers had at once seen, from the face of the man who had opened the door and from the presence of three or four servants in the hall, that things were not going on in their usual course. Before Dolly had completed his buffoonery the butler had whispered to Mr Bideawhile that Mr Melmotte —‘was no more.’

‘Dead!’ exclaimed Mr Bideawhile. Squercum put his hands into his trousers pockets and opened his mouth wide. ‘Dead!’ muttered Mr Longestaffe senior. ‘Dead!’ said Dolly. ‘Who’s dead?’ The butler shook his head. Then Squercum whispered a word into the butler’s ear, and the butler thereupon nodded his head. ‘It’s about what I expected,’ said Squercum. Then the butler whispered the word to Mr Longestaffe, and whispered it also to Mr Bideawhile, and they all knew that the millionaire had swallowed poison during the night.

It was known to the servants that Mr Longestaffe was the owner of the house, and he was therefore, as having authority there, shown into the room where the body of Melmotte was lying on a sofa. The two lawyers and Dolly of course followed, as did also Lord Nidderdale, who had now joined them from the lobby above. There was a policeman in the room who seemed to be simply watching the body, and who rose from his seat when the gentlemen entered. Two or three of the servants followed them, so that there was almost a crowd round the dead man’s bier. There was no further tale to be told. That Melmotte had been in the House on the previous night, and had there disgraced himself by intoxication, they had known already. That he had been found dead that morning had been already announced. They could only stand round and gaze on the square, sullen, livid features of the big-framed man, and each lament that he had ever heard the name of Melmotte.

‘Are you in the house here?’ said Dolly to Lord Nidderdale in a whisper.

‘She sent for me. We live quite close, you know. She wanted somebody to tell her something. I must go up to her again now.’

‘Had you seen him before?’

‘No indeed. I only came down when I heard your voices. I fear it will be rather bad for you; — won’t it?’

‘He was regularly smashed, I suppose?’ asked Dolly.

‘I know nothing myself. He talked to me about his affairs once, but he was such a liar that not a word that he said was worth anything. I believed him then. How it will go, I can’t say.’

‘That other thing is all over of course,’ suggested Dolly. Nidderdale intimated by a gesture of his head that the other thing was all over, and then returned to Marie. There was nothing further that the four gentlemen could do, and they soon departed from the house; — not, however, till Mr Bideawhile had given certain short injunctions to the butler concerning the property contained in Mr Longestaffe’s town residence.

‘They had come to see him,’ said Lord Nidderdale in a whisper. ‘There was some appointment. He had told them to be all here at this hour.’

‘They didn’t know, then?’ asked Marie.

‘Nothing; — till the man told them.’

‘And did you go in?’

‘Yes; we all went into the room.’ Marie shuddered, and again hid her face. ‘I think the best thing I can do,’ said Nidderdale, ‘is to go to Abchurch Lane, and find out from Smith who is the lawyer whom he chiefly trusted. I know Smith had to do with his own affairs, because he has told me so at the Board; and if necessary I will find out Croll. No doubt I can trace him. Then we had better employ the lawyer to arrange everything for you.’

‘And where had we better go to?’

‘Where would Madame Melmotte wish to go?’

‘Anywhere, so that we could hide ourselves. Perhaps Frankfort would be the best. But shouldn’t we stay till something has been done here? And couldn’t we have lodgings, so as to get away from Mr Longestaffe’s house?’ Nidderdale promised that he himself would look for lodgings, as soon as he had seen the lawyer. ‘And now, my lord, I suppose that I never shall see you again,’ said Marie.

‘I don’t know why you should say that.’

‘Because it will be best. Why should you? All this will be trouble enough to you when people begin to say what we are. But I don’t think it has been my fault.’

‘Nothing has ever been your fault.’

‘Good-bye, my lord. I shall always think of you as one of the kindest people I ever knew. I thought it best to send to you for different reasons, but I do not want you to come back.’

‘Good-bye, Marie. I shall always remember you.’ And so they parted.

After that he did go into the City, and succeeded in finding both Mr Smith and Herr Croll. When he reached Abchurch Lane, the news of Melmotte’s death had already been spread abroad; and more was known or said to be known, of his circumstances than Nidderdale had as yet heard. The crushing blow to him, so said Herr Croll, had been the desertion of Cohenlupe — that and the sudden fall in the value of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway shares, consequent on the rumours spread about the City respecting the Pickering property. It was asserted in Abchurch Lane that had he not at that moment touched the Pickering property, or entertained the Emperor, or stood for Westminster, he must, by the end of the autumn, have been able to do any or all of those things without danger, simply as the result of the money which would then have been realized by the railway. But he had allowed himself to become hampered by the want of comparatively small sums of ready money, and in seeking relief had rushed from one danger to another, till at last the waters around him had become too deep even for him, and had overwhelmed him. As to his immediate death, Herr Croll expressed not the slightest astonishment. It was just the thing, Herr Croll said, that he had been sure that Melmotte would do, should his difficulties ever become too great for him. ‘And dere vas a leetle ting he lay himself open by de oder day,’ said Croll, ‘dat vas nasty — very nasty.’ Nidderdale shook his head, but asked no questions. Croll had alluded to the use of his own name, but did not on this occasion make any further revelation. Then Croll made a further statement to Lord Nidderdale, which I think he must have done in pure good-nature. ‘Mylor,’ he said, whispering very gravely, ‘de money of de yong lady is all her own.’ Then he nodded his head three times. ‘Nobody can toch it, not if he vas in debt millions.’ Again he nodded his head.

‘I am very glad to hear it for her sake,’ said Lord Nidderdale as he took his leave.

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