uring the last six weeks Lady Carbury had lived a life of very mixed depression and elevation. Her great work had come out,—the "Criminal Queens,"—and had been very widely reviewed. In this matter it had been by no means all pleasure, in as much as many very hard words had been said of her. In spite of the dear friendship between herself and Mr. Alf, one of Mr. Alf's most sharp-nailed subordinates had been set upon her book, and had pulled it to pieces with almost rabid malignity. One would have thought that so slight a thing could hardly have been worthy of such protracted attention. Error after error was laid bare with merciless prolixity. No doubt the writer of the article must have had all history at his finger-ends, as in pointing out the various mistakes made he always spoke of the historical facts which had been misquoted, misdated, or misrepresented, as being familiar in all their bearings to every schoolboy of twelve years old. The writer of the criticism never suggested the idea that he himself, having been fully provided with books of reference, and having learned the art of finding in them what he wanted at a moment's notice, had, as he went on with his work, checked off the blunders without any more permanent knowledge of his own than a housekeeper has of coals when she counts so many sacks into the coal-cellar. He spoke of the parentage of one wicked ancient lady, and the dates of the frailties of another, with an assurance intended to show that an exact knowledge of all these details abided with him always. He must have been a man of vast and varied erudition, and his name was Jones. The world knew him not, but his erudition was always there at the command of Mr. Alf,—and his cruelty. The greatness of Mr. Alf consisted in this, that he always had a Mr. Jones or two ready to do his work for him. It was a great business, this of Mr. Alf's, for he had his Jones also for philology, for science, for poetry, for politics, as well as for history, and one special Jones, extraordinarily accurate and very well posted up in his references, entirely devoted to the Elizabethan drama.
There is the review intended to sell a book,—which comes out immediately after the appearance of the book, or sometimes before it; the review which gives reputation, but does not affect the sale, and which comes a little later; the review which snuffs a book out quietly; the review which is to raise or lower the author a single peg, or two pegs, as the case may be; the review which is suddenly to make an author, and the review which is to crush him. An exuberant Jones has been known before now to declare aloud that he would crush a man, and a self-confident Jones has been known to declare that he has accomplished the deed. Of all reviews, the crushing review is the most popular, as being the most readable. When the rumour goes abroad that some notable man has been actually crushed,—been positively driven over by an entire Juggernaut's car of criticism till his literary body be a mere amorphous mass,—then a real success has been achieved, and the Alf of the day has done a great thing; but even the crushing of a poor Lady Carbury, if it be absolute, is effective. Such a review will not make all the world call for the "Evening Pulpit," but it will cause those who do take the paper to be satisfied with their bargain. Whenever the circulation of such a paper begins to slacken, the proprietors should, as a matter of course, admonish their Alf to add a little power to the crushing department.
Lady Carbury had been crushed by the "Evening Pulpit." We may fancy that it was easy work, and that Mr. Alf's historical Mr. Jones was not forced to fatigue himself by the handling of many books of reference. The errors did lie a little near the surface; and the whole scheme of the work, with its pandering to bad tastes by pretended revelations of frequently fabulous crime, was reprobated in Mr. Jones's very best manner. But the poor authoress, though utterly crushed, and reduced to little more than literary pulp for an hour or two, was not destroyed. On the following morning she went to her publishers, and was closeted for half an hour with the senior partner, Mr. Leadham. "I've got it all in black and white," she said, full of the wrong which had been done her, "and can prove him to be wrong. It was in 1522 that the man first came to Paris, and he couldn't have been her lover before that. I got it all out of the 'Biographie Universelle.' I'll write to Mr. Alf myself,—a letter to be published, you know."
"Pray don't do anything of the kind, Lady Carbury."
"I can prove that I'm right."
"And they can prove that you're wrong."
"I've got all the facts,—and the figures."
Mr. Leadham did not care a straw for facts or figures,—had no opinion of his own whether the lady or the reviewer were right; but he knew very well that the "Evening Pulpit" would surely get the better of any mere author in such a contention. "Never fight the newspapers, Lady Carbury. Who ever yet got any satisfaction by that kind of thing? It's their business, and you are not used to it."
"And Mr. Alf is my particular friend! It does seem so hard," said Lady Carbury, wiping hot tears from her cheeks.
"It won't do us the least harm, Lady Carbury."
"It'll stop the sale?"
"Not much. A book of that sort couldn't hope to go on very long, you know. The 'Breakfast Table' gave it an excellent lift, and came just at the right time. I rather like the notice in the 'Pulpit,' myself."
"Like it!" said Lady Carbury, still suffering in every fibre of her self-love from the soreness produced by those Juggernaut's car-wheels.
"Anything is better than indifference, Lady Carbury. A great many people remember simply that the book has been noticed, but carry away nothing as to the purport of the review. It's a very good advertisement."
"But to be told that I have got to learn the ABC of history,—after working as I have worked!"
"That's a mere form of speech, Lady Carbury."
"You think the book has done pretty well?"
"Pretty well;—just about what we hoped, you know."
"There'll be something coming to me, Mr. Leadham?"
Mr. Leadham sent for a ledger, and turned over a few pages and ran up a few figures, and then scratched his head. There would be something, but Lady Carbury was not to imagine that it could be very much. It did not often happen that a great deal could be made by a first book. Nevertheless, Lady Carbury, when she left the publisher's shop, did carry a cheque with her. She was smartly dressed and looked very well, and had smiled on Mr. Leadham. Mr. Leadham, too, was no more than man, and had written—a small cheque.
Mr. Alf certainly had behaved badly to her; but both Mr. Broune of the "Breakfast Table," and Mr. Booker of the "Literary Chronicle," had been true to her interests. Lady Carbury had, as she promised, "done" Mr. Booker's "New Tale of a Tub" in the "Breakfast Table." That is, she had been allowed, as a reward for looking into Mr. Broune's eyes, and laying her soft hand on Mr. Broune's sleeve, and suggesting to Mr. Broune that no one understood her so well as he did, to bedaub Mr. Booker's very thoughtful book in a very thoughtless fashion,—and to be paid for her work. What had been said about his work in the "Breakfast Table" had been very distasteful to poor Mr. Booker. It grieved his inner contemplative intelligence that such rubbish should be thrown upon him; but in his outside experience of life he knew that even the rubbish was valuable, and that he must pay for it in the manner to which he had unfortunately become accustomed. So Mr. Booker himself wrote the article on the "Criminal Queens" in the "Literary Chronicle," knowing that what he wrote would also be rubbish. "Remarkable vivacity." "Power of delineating character." "Excellent choice of subject." "Considerable intimacy with the historical details of various periods." "The literary world would be sure to hear of Lady Carbury again." The composition of the review, together with the reading of the book, consumed altogether perhaps an hour of Mr. Booker's time. He made no attempt to cut the pages, but here and there read those that were open. He had done this kind of thing so often, that he knew well what he was about. He could have reviewed such a book when he was three parts asleep. When the work was done he threw down his pen and uttered a deep sigh. He felt it to be hard upon him that he should be compelled, by the exigencies of his position, to descend so low in literature; but it did not occur to him to reflect that in fact he was not compelled, and that he was quite at liberty to break stones, or to starve honestly, if no other honest mode of carrying on his career was open to him. "If I didn't, somebody else would," he said to himself.
But the review in the "Morning Breakfast Table" was the making of Lady Carbury's book, as far as it ever was made. Mr. Broune saw the lady after the receipt of the letter given in the first chapter of this Tale, and was induced to make valuable promises which had been fully performed. Two whole columns had been devoted to the work, and the world had been assured that no more delightful mixture of amusement and instruction had ever been concocted than Lady Carbury's "Criminal Queens." It was the very book that had been wanted for years. It was a work of infinite research and brilliant imagination combined. There had been no hesitation in the laying on of the paint. At that last meeting Lady Carbury had been very soft, very handsome, and very winning; Mr. Broune had given the order with good will, and it had been obeyed in the same feeling.
Therefore, though the crushing had been very real, there had also been some elation; and as a net result, Lady Carbury was disposed to think that her literary career might yet be a success. Mr. Leadham's cheque had been for a small amount, but it might probably lead the way to something better. People at any rate were talking about her, and her Tuesday evenings at home were generally full. But her literary life, and her literary successes, her flirtations with Mr. Broune, her business with Mr. Booker, and her crushing by Mr. Alf's Mr. Jones, were after all but adjuncts to that real inner life of hers of which the absorbing interest was her son. And with regard to him too she was partly depressed, and partly elated, allowing her hopes however to dominate her fears. There was very much to frighten her. Even the moderate reform in the young man's expenses which had been effected under dire necessity had been of late abandoned. Though he never told her anything, she became aware that during the last month of the hunting season he had hunted nearly every day. She knew, too, that he had a horse up in town. She never saw him but once in the day, when she visited him in his bed about noon, and was aware that he was always at his club throughout the night. She knew that he was gambling, and she hated gambling as being of all pastimes the most dangerous. But she knew that he had ready money for his immediate purposes, and that two or three tradesmen who were gifted with a peculiar power of annoying their debtors, had ceased to trouble her in Welbeck Street. For the present, therefore, she consoled herself by reflecting that his gambling was successful. But her elation sprung from a higher source than this. From all that she could hear, she thought it likely that Felix would carry off the great prize; and then,—should he do that,—what a blessed son would he have been to her! How constantly in her triumph would she be able to forget all his vices, his debts, his gambling, his late hours, and his cruel treatment of herself! As she thought of it the bliss seemed to be too great for the possibility of realisation. She was taught to understand that £10,000 a year, to begin with, would be the least of it; and that the ultimate wealth might probably be such as to make Sir Felix Carbury the richest commoner in England. In her very heart of hearts she worshipped wealth, but desired it for him rather than for herself. Then her mind ran away to baronies and earldoms, and she was lost in the coming glories of the boy whose faults had already nearly engulfed her in his own ruin.
And she had another ground for elation, which comforted her much, though elation from such a cause was altogether absurd. She had discovered that her son had become a Director of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway Company. She must have known,—she certainly did know,—that Felix, such as he was, could not lend assistance by his work to any company or commercial enterprise in the world. She was aware that there was some reason for such a choice hidden from the world, and which comprised and conveyed a falsehood. A ruined baronet of five-and-twenty, every hour of whose life since he had been left to go alone had been loaded with vice and folly,—whose egregious misconduct warranted his friends in regarding him as one incapable of knowing what principle is,—of what service could he be, that he should be made a Director? But Lady Carbury, though she knew that he could be of no service, was not at all shocked. She was now able to speak up a little for her boy, and did not forget to send the news by post to Roger Carbury. And her son sat at the same Board with Mr. Melmotte! What an indication was this of coming triumphs!
Fisker had started, as the reader will perhaps remember, on the morning of Saturday, 19th April, leaving Sir Felix at the Club at about seven in the morning. All that day his mother was unable to see him. She found him asleep in his room at noon and again at two; and when she sought him again he had flown. But on the Sunday she caught him. "I hope," she said, "you'll stay at home on Tuesday evening." Hitherto she had never succeeded in inducing him to grace her evening parties by his presence.
"All your people are coming! You know, mother, it is such an awful bore."
"Madame Melmotte and her daughter will be here."
"One looks such a fool carrying on that kind of thing in one's own house. Everybody sees that it has been contrived. And it is such a pokey, stuffy little place!"
Then Lady Carbury spoke out her mind. "Felix, I think you must be a fool. I have given over ever expecting that you would do anything to please me. I sacrifice everything for you and I do not even hope for a return. But when I am doing everything to advance your own interests, when I am working night and day to rescue you from ruin, I think you might at any rate help a little,—not for me of course, but for yourself."
"I don't know what you mean by working day and night. I don't want you to work day and night."
"There is hardly a young man in London that is not thinking of this girl, and you have chances that none of them have. I am told they are going out of town at Whitsuntide, and that she's to meet Lord Nidderdale down in the country."
"She can't endure Nidderdale. She says so herself."
"She will do as she is told,—unless she can be made to be downright in love with some one like yourself. Why not ask her at once on Tuesday?"
"If I'm to do it at all I must do it after my own fashion. I'm not going to be driven."
"Of course if you will not take the trouble to be here to see her when she comes to your own house, you cannot expect her to think that you really love her."
"Love her! what a bother there is about loving! Well;—I'll look in. What time do the animals come to feed?"
"There will be no feeding. Felix, you are so heartless and so cruel that I sometimes think I will make up my mind to let you go your own way and never to speak to you again. My friends will be here about ten;—I should say from ten till twelve. I think you should be here to receive her, not later than ten."
"If I can get my dinner out of my throat by that time, I will come."
When the Tuesday came, the over-driven young man did contrive to get his dinner eaten, and his glass of brandy sipped, and his cigar smoked, and perhaps his game of billiards played, so as to present himself in his mother's drawing-room not long after half-past ten. Madame Melmotte and her daughter were already there,—and many others, of whom the majority were devoted to literature. Among them Mr. Alf was in the room, and was at this very moment discussing Lady Carbury's book with Mr. Booker. He had been quite graciously received, as though he had not authorised the crushing. Lady Carbury had given him her hand with that energy of affection with which she was wont to welcome her literary friends, and had simply thrown one glance of appeal into his eyes as she looked into his face,—as though asking him how he had found it in his heart to be so cruel to one so tender, so unprotected, so innocent as herself. "I cannot stand this kind of thing," said Mr. Alf, to Mr. Booker. "There's a regular system of touting got abroad, and I mean to trample it down."
"If you're strong enough," said Mr. Booker.
"Well, I think I am. I'm strong enough, at any rate, to show that I'm not afraid to lead the way. I've the greatest possible regard for our friend here;—but her book is a bad book, a thoroughly rotten book, an unblushing compilation from half-a-dozen works of established reputation, in pilfering from which she has almost always managed to misapprehend her facts, and to muddle her dates. Then she writes to me and asks me to do the best I can for her. I have done the best I could."
Mr. Alf knew very well what Mr. Booker had done, and Mr. Booker was aware of the extent of Mr. Alf's knowledge. "What you say is all very right," said Mr. Booker; "only you want a different kind of world to live in."
"Just so;—and therefore we must make it different. I wonder how our friend Broune felt when he saw that his critic had declared that the 'Criminal Queens' was the greatest historical work of modern days."
"I didn't see the notice. There isn't much in the book, certainly, as far as I have looked at it. I should have said that violent censure or violent praise would be equally thrown away upon it. One doesn't want to break a butterfly on the wheel;—especially a friendly butterfly."
"As to the friendship, it should be kept separate. That's my idea," said Mr. Alf, moving away.
"I'll never forget what you've done for me,—never!" said Lady Carbury, holding Mr. Broune's hand for a moment, as she whispered to him.
"Nothing more than my duty," said he, smiling.
"I hope you'll learn to know that a woman can really be grateful," she replied. Then she let go his hand and moved away to some other guest. There was a dash of true sincerity in what she had said. Of enduring gratitude it may be doubtful whether she was capable: but at this moment she did feel that Mr. Broune had done much for her, and that she would willingly make him some return of friendship. Of any feeling of another sort, of any turn at the moment towards flirtation, of any idea of encouragement to a gentleman who had once acted as though he were her lover, she was absolutely innocent. She had forgotten that little absurd episode in their joint lives. She was at any rate too much in earnest at the present moment to think about it. But it was otherwise with Mr. Broune. He could not quite make up his mind whether the lady was or was not in love with him,—or whether, if she were, it was incumbent on him to indulge her;—and if so, in what manner. Then as he looked after her, he told himself that she was certainly very beautiful, that her figure was distinguished, that her income was certain, and her rank considerable. Nevertheless, Mr. Broune knew of himself that he was not a marrying man. He had made up his mind that marriage would not suit his business, and he smiled to himself as he reflected how impossible it was that such a one as Lady Carbury should turn him from his resolution.
"I am so glad that you have come to-night, Mr. Alf," Lady Carbury said to the high-minded editor of the "Evening Pulpit."
"Am I not always glad to come, Lady Carbury?"
"You are very good. But I feared,—"
"Feared what, Lady Carbury?"
"That you might perhaps have felt that I should be unwilling to welcome you after,—well, after the compliments of last Thursday."
"I never allow the two things to join themselves together. You see, Lady Carbury, I don't write all these things myself."
"No indeed. What a bitter creature you would be if you did."
"To tell the truth, I never write any of them. Of course we endeavour to get people whose judgments we can trust, and if, as in this case, it should unfortunately happen that the judgment of our critic should be hostile to the literary pretensions of a personal friend of my own, I can only lament the accident, and trust that my friend may have spirit enough to divide me as an individual from that Mr. Alf who has the misfortune to edit a newspaper."
"It is because you have so trusted me that I am obliged to you," said Lady Carbury with her sweetest smile. She did not believe a word that Mr. Alf had said to her. She thought, and thought rightly, that Mr. Alf's Mr. Jones had taken direct orders from his editor, as to his treatment of the "Criminal Queens." But she remembered that she intended to write another book, and that she might perhaps conquer even Mr. Alf by spirit and courage under her present infliction.
It was Lady Carbury's duty on the occasion to say pretty things to everybody. And she did her duty. But in the midst of it all she was ever thinking of her son and Marie Melmotte, and she did at last venture to separate the girl from her mother. Marie herself was not unwilling to be talked to by Sir Felix. He had never bullied her, had never seemed to scorn her; and then he was so beautiful! She, poor girl, bewildered among various suitors, utterly confused by the life to which she was introduced, troubled by fitful attacks of admonition from her father, who would again, fitfully, leave her unnoticed for a week at a time; with no trust in her pseudo-mother—for poor Marie had in truth been born before her father had been a married man, and had never known what was her own mother's fate,—with no enjoyment in her present life, had come solely to this conclusion, that it would be well for her to be taken away somewhere by somebody. Many a varied phase of life had already come in her way. She could just remember the dirty street in the German portion of New York in which she had been born and had lived for the first four years of her life, and could remember too the poor, hardly-treated woman who had been her mother. She could remember being at sea, and her sickness,—but could not quite remember whether that woman had been with her. Then she had run about the streets of Hamburgh, and had sometimes been very hungry, sometimes in rags,—and she had a dim memory of some trouble into which her father had fallen, and that he was away from her for a time. She had up to the present splendid moment her own convictions about that absence, but she had never mentioned them to a human being. Then her father had married her present mother in Francfort. That she could remember distinctly, as also the rooms in which she was then taken to live, and the fact that she was told that from henceforth she was to be a Jewess. But there had soon come another change. They went from Francfort to Paris, and there they were all Christians. From that time they had lived in various apartments in the French capital, but had always lived well. Sometimes there had been a carriage, sometimes there had been none. And then there came a time in which she was grown woman enough to understand that her father was being much talked about. Her father to her had always been alternately capricious and indifferent rather than cross or cruel, but just at this period he was cruel both to her and to his wife. And Madame Melmotte would weep at times and declare that they were all ruined. Then, at a moment, they burst out into sudden splendour at Paris. There was an hotel, with carriages and horses almost unnumbered;—and then there came to their rooms a crowd of dark, swarthy, greasy men, who were entertained sumptuously; but there were few women. At this time Marie was hardly nineteen, and young enough in manner and appearance to be taken for seventeen. Suddenly again she was told that she was to be taken to London, and the migration had been effected with magnificence. She was first taken to Brighton, where the half of an hotel had been hired, and had then been brought to Grosvenor Square, and at once thrown into the matrimonial market. No part of her life had been more disagreeable to her, more frightful, than the first months in which she had been trafficked for by the Nidderdales and Grassloughs. She had been too frightened, too much of a coward to object to anything proposed to her, but still had been conscious of a desire to have some hand in her own future destiny. Luckily for her, the first attempts at trafficking with the Nidderdales and Grassloughs had come to nothing; and at length she was picking up a little courage, and was beginning to feel that it might be possible to prevent a disposition of herself which did not suit her own tastes. She was also beginning to think that there might be a disposition of herself which would suit her own tastes.
Felix Carbury was standing leaning against a wall, and she was seated on a chair close to him. "I love you better than anyone in the world," he said, speaking plainly enough for her to hear, perhaps indifferent as to the hearing of others.
"Oh, Sir Felix, pray do not talk like that."
"You knew that before. Now I want you to say whether you will be my wife."
"How can I answer that myself? Papa settles everything."
"May I go to papa?"
"You may if you like," she replied in a very low whisper. It was thus that the greatest heiress of the day, the greatest heiress of any day if people spoke truly, gave herself away to a man without a penny.
Last modified 22 September 2014