ery early the next morning, very early that is for London life, Melmotte was told by a servant that Mr. Croll had called and wanted to see him. Then it immediately became a question with him whether he wanted to see Croll. "Is it anything special?" he asked. The man thought that it was something special, as Croll had declared his purpose of waiting when told that Mr. Melmotte was not as yet dressed. This happened at about nine o'clock in the morning. Melmotte longed to know every detail of Croll's manner,—to know even the servant's opinion of the clerk's manner,—but he did not dare to ask a question. Melmotte thought that it might be well to be gracious. "Ask him if he has breakfasted, and if not give him something in the study." But Mr. Croll had breakfasted and declined any further refreshment.
Nevertheless Melmotte had not as yet made up his mind that he would meet his clerk. His clerk was his clerk. It might perhaps be well that he should first go into the City and send word to Croll, bidding him wait for his return. Over and over again, against his will, the question of flying would present itself to him; but, though he discussed it within his own bosom in every form, he knew that he could not fly. And if he stood his ground,—as most assuredly he would do,—then must he not be afraid to meet any man, let the man come with what thunderbolts in his hand he might. Of course sooner or later some man must come with a thunderbolt,—and why not Croll as well as another? He stood against a press in his chamber, with a razor in his hand, and steadied himself. How easily might he put an end to it all! Then he rang his bell and desired that Croll might be shown up into his room.
The three or four minutes which intervened seemed to him to be very long. He had absolutely forgotten in his anxiety that the lather was still upon his face. But he could not smother his anxiety. He was fighting with it at every turn, but he could not conquer it. When the knock came at his door, he grasped at his own breast as though to support himself. With a hoarse voice he told the man to come in, and Croll himself appeared, opening the door gently and very slowly. Melmotte had left the bag which contained the papers in possession of Mr. Brehgert, and he now saw, at a glance, that Croll had got the bag in his hand,—and could see also by the shape of the bag that the bag contained the papers. The man therefore had in his own hands, in his own keeping, the very documents to which his own name had been forged! There was no longer a hope, no longer a chance that Croll should be ignorant of what had been done. "Well, Croll," he said with an attempt at a smile, "what brings you here so early?" He was pale as death, and let him struggle as he would, could not restrain himself from trembling.
"Herr Brehgert vas vid me last night," said Croll.
“He thought I had better bring these back to you” Lionel Grimston Fawkes. Wood-engraving. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
"And he thought I had better bring these back to you. That's all." Croll spoke in a very low voice, with his eyes fixed on his master's face, but with nothing of a threat in his attitude or manner.
"Eh!" repeated Melmotte. Even though he might have saved himself from all coming evils by a bold demeanour at that moment, he could not assume it. But it all flashed upon him at a moment. Brehgert had seen Croll after he, Melmotte, had left the City, had then discovered the forgery, and had taken this way of sending back all the forged documents. He had known Brehgert to be of all men who ever lived the most good-natured, but he could hardly believe in pure good-nature such as this. It seemed that the thunderbolt was not yet to fall.
"Mr. Brehgert came to me," continued Croll, "because one signature was wanting. It was very late, so I took them home with me. I said I'd bring them to you in the morning."
They both knew that he had forged the documents, Brehgert and Croll; but how would that concern him, Melmotte, if these two friends had resolved together that they would not expose him? He had desired to get the documents back into his own hands, and here they were! Melmotte's immediate trouble arose from the difficulty of speaking in a proper manner to his own servant who had just detected him in forgery. He couldn't speak. There were no words appropriate to such an occasion. "It vas a strong order, Mr. Melmotte," said Croll. Melmotte tried to smile but only grinned. "I vill not be back in the Lane, Mr. Melmotte."
"Not back at the office, Croll?"
"I tink not;—no. De leetle money coming to me, you will send it. Adieu." And so Mr. Croll took his final leave of his old master after an intercourse which had lasted twenty years. We may imagine that Herr Croll found his spirits to be oppressed and his capacity for business to be obliterated by his patron's misfortunes rather than by his patron's guilt. But he had not behaved unkindly. He had merely remarked that the forgery of his own name half-a-dozen times over was a "strong order."
Melmotte opened the bag, and examined the documents one by one. It had been necessary that Marie should sign her name some half-dozen times, and Marie's father had made all the necessary forgeries. It had been of course necessary that each name should be witnessed;—but here the forger had scamped his work. Croll's name he had written five times; but one forged signature he had left unattested! Again he had himself been at fault. Again he had aided his own ruin by his own carelessness. One seems inclined to think sometimes that any fool might do an honest business. But fraud requires a man to be alive and wide awake at every turn!
Melmotte had desired to have the documents back in his own hands, and now he had them. Did it matter much that Brehgert and Croll both knew the crime which he had committed? Had they meant to take legal steps against him they would not have returned the forgeries to his own hands. Brehgert, he thought, would never tell the tale,—unless there should arise some most improbable emergency in which he might make money by telling it; but he was by no means so sure of Croll. Croll had signified his intention of leaving Melmotte's service, and would therefore probably enter some rival service, and thus become an enemy to his late master. There could be no reason why Croll should keep the secret. Even if he got no direct profit by telling it, he would curry favour by making it known. Of course Croll would tell it.
But what harm could the telling of such a secret do him? The girl was his own daughter! The money had been his own money! The man had been his own servant! There had been no fraud; no robbery; no purpose of peculation. Melmotte, as he thought of this, became almost proud of what he had done, thinking that if the evidence were suppressed the knowledge of the facts could do him no harm. But the evidence must be suppressed, and with the view of suppressing it he took the little bag and all the papers down with him to the study. Then he ate his breakfast,—and suppressed the evidence by the aid of his gas lamp.
When this was accomplished he hesitated as to the manner in which he would pass his day. He had now given up all idea of raising the money for Longestaffe. He had even considered the language in which he would explain to the assembled gentlemen on the morrow the fact that a little difficulty still presented itself, and that as he could not exactly name a day, he must leave the matter in their hands. For he had resolved that he would not evade the meeting. Cohenlupe had gone since he had made his promise, and he would throw all the blame on Cohenlupe. Everybody knows that when panics arise the breaking of one merchant causes the downfall of another. Cohenlupe should bear the burden. But as that must be so, he could do no good by going into the City. His pecuniary downfall had now become too much a matter of certainty to be staved off by his presence; and his personal security could hardly be assisted by it. There would be nothing for him to do. Cohenlupe had gone. Miles Grendall had gone. Croll had gone. He could hardly go to Cuthbert's Court and face Mr. Brehgert! He would stay at home till it was time for him to go down to the House, and then he would face the world there. He would dine down at the House, and stand about in the smoking-room with his hat on, and be visible in the lobbies, and take his seat among his brother legislators,—and, if it were possible, rise on his legs and make a speech to them. He was about to have a crushing fall,—but the world should say that he had fallen like a man.
About eleven his daughter came to him as he sat in the study. It can hardly be said that he had ever been kind to Marie, but perhaps she was the only person who in the whole course of his career had received indulgence at his hands. He had often beaten her; but he had also often made her presents and smiled on her, and in the periods of his opulence, had allowed her pocket-money almost without limit. Now she had not only disobeyed him, but by most perverse obstinacy on her part had driven him to acts of forgery which had already been detected. He had cause to be angry now with Marie if he had ever had cause for anger. But he had almost forgotten the transaction. He had at any rate forgotten the violence of his own feelings at the time of its occurrence. He was no longer anxious that the release should be made, and therefore no longer angry with her for her refusal.
"Papa," she said, coming very gently into the room, "I think that perhaps I was wrong yesterday."
"Of course you were wrong;—but it doesn't matter now."
"If you wish it I'll sign those papers. I don't suppose Lord Nidderdale means to come any more;—and I'm sure I don't care whether he does or not."
"What makes you think that, Marie?"
"I was out last night at Lady Julia Goldsheiner's, and he was there. I'm sure he doesn't mean to come here any more."
"Was he uncivil to you?"
"O dear no. He's never uncivil. But I'm sure of it. Never mind how. I never told him that I cared for him and I never did care for him. Papa, is there something going to happen?"
"What do you mean?"
"Some misfortune! Oh, papa, why didn't you let me marry that other man?"
"He is a penniless adventurer."
"But he would have had this money that I call my money, and then there would have been enough for us all. Papa, he would marry me still if you would let him."
"Have you seen him since you went to Liverpool?"
"Or heard from him?"
"Not a line."
"Then what makes you think he would marry you?"
"He would if I got hold of him and told him. And he is a baronet. And there would be plenty of money for us all. And we could go and live in Germany."
"We could do that just as well without your marrying."
"But I suppose, papa, I am to be considered as somebody. I don't want after all to run away from London, just as if everybody had turned up their noses at me. I like him, and I don't like anybody else."
"He wouldn't take the trouble to go to Liverpool with you."
"He got tipsy. I know all about that. I don't mean to say that he's anything particularly grand. I don't know that anybody is very grand. He's as good as anybody else."
"It can't be done, Marie."
"Why can't it be done?"
"There are a dozen reasons. Why should my money be given up to him? And it is too late. There are other things to be thought of now than marriage."
"You don't want me to sign the papers?"
"No;—I haven't got the papers. But I want you to remember that the money is mine and not yours. It may be that much may depend on you, and that I shall have to trust to you for nearly everything. Do not let me find myself deceived by my daughter."
"I won't,—if you'll let me see Sir Felix Carbury once more."
Then the father's pride again reasserted itself and he became angry. "I tell you, you little fool, that it is out of the question. Why cannot you believe me? Has your mother spoken to you about your jewels? Get them packed up, so that you can carry them away in your hand if we have to leave this suddenly. You are an idiot to think of that young man. As you say, I don't know that any of them are very good, but among them all he is about the worst. Go away and do as I bid you."
That afternoon the page in Welbeck Street came up to Lady Carbury and told her that there was a young lady down-stairs who wanted to see Sir Felix. At this time the dominion of Sir Felix in his mother's house had been much curtailed. His latch-key had been surreptitiously taken away from him, and all messages brought for him reached his hands through those of his mother. The plasters were not removed from his face, so that he was still subject to that loss of self-assertion with which we are told that hitherto dominant cocks become afflicted when they have been daubed with mud. Lady Carbury asked sundry questions about the lady, suspecting that Ruby Ruggles, of whom she had heard, had come to seek her lover. The page could give no special description, merely saying that the young lady wore a black veil. Lady Carbury directed that the young lady should be shown into her own presence,—and Marie Melmotte was ushered into the room. "I dare say you don't remember me, Lady Carbury," Marie said. "I am Marie Melmotte."
At first Lady Carbury had not recognised her visitor;—but she did so before she replied. "Yes, Miss Melmotte, I remember you."
"Yes;—I am Mr. Melmotte's daughter. How is your son? I hope he is better. They told me he had been horribly used by a dreadful man in the street."
"Sit down, Miss Melmotte. He is getting better." Now Lady Carbury had heard within the last two days from Mr. Broune that "it was all over" with Melmotte. Broune had declared his very strong belief, his thorough conviction, that Melmotte had committed various forgeries, that his speculations had gone so much against him as to leave him a ruined man, and, in short, that the great Melmotte bubble was on the very point of bursting. "Everybody says that he'll be in gaol before a week is over." That was the information which had reached Lady Carbury about the Melmottes only on the previous evening.
"I want to see him," said Marie. Lady Carbury, hardly knowing what answer to make, was silent for a while. "I suppose he told you everything;—didn't he? You know that we were to have been married? I loved him very much, and so I do still. I am not ashamed of coming and telling you."
"I thought it was all off," said Lady Carbury.
"I never said so. Does he say so? Your daughter came to me and was very good to me. I do so love her. She said that it was all over; but perhaps she was wrong. It shan't be all over if he will be true."
Lady Carbury was taken greatly by surprise. It seemed to her at the moment that this young lady, knowing that her own father was ruined, was looking out for another home, and was doing so with a considerable amount of audacity. She gave Marie little credit either for affection or for generosity; but yet she was unwilling to answer her roughly. "I am afraid," she said, "that it would not be suitable."
"Why should it not be suitable? They can't take my money away. There is enough for all of us even if papa wanted to live with us;—but it is mine. It is ever so much;—I don't know how much, but a great deal. We should be quite rich enough. I ain't a bit ashamed to come and tell you, because we were engaged. I know he isn't rich, and I should have thought it would be suitable."
It then occurred to Lady Carbury that if this were true the marriage after all might be suitable. But how was she to find out whether it was true? "I understand that your papa is opposed to it," she said.
"Yes, he is;—but papa can't prevent me, and papa can't make me give up the money. It's ever so many thousands a year, I know. If I can dare to do it, why can't he?"
Lady Carbury was so beside herself with doubts, that she found it impossible to form any decision. It would be necessary that she should see Mr. Broune. What to do with her son, how to bestow him, in what way to get rid of him so that in ridding herself of him she might not aid in destroying him,—this was the great trouble of her life, the burden that was breaking her back. Now this girl was not only willing but persistently anxious to take her black sheep and to endow him,—as she declared,—with ever so many thousands a year. If the thousands were there,—or even an income of a single thousand a year,—then what a blessing would such a marriage be! Sir Felix had already fallen so low that his mother on his behalf would not be justified in declining a connection with the Melmottes because the Melmottes had fallen. To get any niche in the world for him in which he might live with comparative safety would now be to her a heaven-sent comfort. "My son is up-stairs," she said. "I will go up and speak to him."
"Tell him I am here and that I have said that I will forgive him everything, and that I love him still, and that if he will be true to me, I will be true to him."
"I couldn't go down to her," said Sir Felix, "with my face all in this way."
"I don't think she would mind that."
"I couldn't do it. Besides, I don't believe about her money. I never did believe it. That was the real reason why I didn't go to Liverpool."
"I think I would see her if I were you, Felix. We could find out to a certainty about her fortune. It is evident at any rate that she is very fond of you."
"What's the use of that, if he is ruined?" He would not go down to see the girl,—because he could not endure to expose his face, and was ashamed of the wounds which he had received in the street. As regarded the money he half-believed and half-disbelieved Marie's story. But the fruition of the money, if it were within his reach, would be far off and to be attained with much trouble; whereas the nuisance of a scene with Marie would be immediate. How could he kiss his future bride, with his nose bound up with a bandage?
"What shall I say to her?" asked his mother.
"She oughtn't to have come. I should tell her just that. You might send the maid to her to tell her that you couldn't see her again."
But Lady Carbury could not treat the girl after that fashion. She returned to the drawing-room, descending the stairs very slowly, and thinking what answer she would make. "Miss Melmotte," she said, "my son feels that everything has been so changed since he and you last met, that nothing can be gained by a renewal of your acquaintance."
"That is his message;—is it?" Lady Carbury remained silent. "Then he is indeed all that they have told me; and I am ashamed that I should have loved him. I am ashamed;—not of coming here, although you will think that I have run after him. I don't see why a girl should not run after a man if they have been engaged together. But I'm ashamed of thinking so much of so mean a person. Good-bye, Lady Carbury."
"Good-bye, Miss Melmotte. I don't think you should be angry with me."
"No;—no. I am not angry with you. You can forget me now as soon as you please, and I will try to forget him."
Then with a rapid step she walked back to Bruton Street, going round by Grosvenor Square and in front of her old house on the way. What should she now do with herself? What sort of life should she endeavour to prepare for herself? The life that she had led for the last year had been thoroughly wretched. The poverty and hardship which she remembered in her early days had been more endurable. The servitude to which she had been subjected before she had learned by intercourse with the world to assert herself, had been preferable. In these days of her grandeur, in which she had danced with princes, and seen an emperor in her father's house, and been affianced to lords, she had encountered degradation which had been abominable to her. She had really loved;—but had found out that her golden idol was made of the basest clay. She had then declared to herself that bad as the clay was she would still love it;—but even the clay had turned away from her and had refused her love!
She was well aware that some catastrophe was about to happen to her father. Catastrophes had happened before, and she had been conscious of their coming. But now the blow would be a very heavy blow. They would again be driven to pack up and move and seek some other city,—probably in some very distant part. But go where she might, she would now be her own mistress. That was the one resolution she succeeded in forming before she re-entered the house in Bruton Street.
Last modified 24 September 2014