The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 1

Ferdinand Lopez.

It is a certainty of service to a man to know who were his grandfathers and who were his grandmothers if he entertain an ambition to move in the upper circles of society, and also of service to be able to speak of them as of persons who were themselves somebodies in their time. No doubt we all entertain great respect for those who by their own energies have raised themselves in the world; and when we hear that the son of a washerwoman has become Lord Chancellor or Archbishop of Canterbury we do, theoretically and abstractedly, feel a higher reverence for such self-made magnate than for one who has been as it were born into forensic or ecclesiastical purple. But not the less must the offspring of the washerwoman have had very much trouble on the subject of his birth, unless he has been, when young as well as when old, a very great man indeed. After the goal has been absolutely reached, and the honour and the titles and the wealth actually won, a man may talk with some humour, even with some affection, of the maternal tub; — but while the struggle is going on, with the conviction strong upon the struggler that he cannot be altogether successful unless he be esteemed a gentleman, not to be ashamed, not to conceal the old family circumstances, not at any rate to be silent, is difficult. And the difficulty is certainly not less if fortunate circumstances rather than hard work and intrinsic merit have raised above his natural place an aspirant to high social position. Can it be expected that such a one when dining with a duchess shall speak of his father’s small shop, or bring into the light of day his grandfather’s cobbler’s awl? And yet it is so difficult to be altogether silent! It may not be necessary for any of us to be always talking of our own parentage. We may be generally reticent as to our uncles and aunts, and may drop even our brothers and sisters in our ordinary conversation. But if a man never mentions his belongings among those with whom he lives, he becomes mysterious, and almost open to suspicion. It begins to be known that nobody knows anything of such a man, and even friends become afraid. It is certainly convenient to be able to allude, if it be but once in a year, to some blood relation.

Ferdinand Lopez, who in other respects had much in his circumstances on which to congratulate himself, suffered trouble in his mind respecting his ancestors such as I have endeavoured to describe. He did not know very much himself, but what little he did know he kept altogether to himself. He had no father or mother, no uncle, aunt, brother or sister, no cousin even whom he could mention in a cursory way to his dearest friend. He suffered no doubt; — but with Spartan consistency he so hid his trouble from the world that no one knew that he suffered. Those with whom he lived, and who speculated often and wondered much as to who he was never dreamed that the silent man’s reticence was a burden to himself. At no special conjuncture of his life, at no period which could be marked with the finger of the observer, did he glaringly abstain from any statement which at the moment might be natural. He never hesitated, blushed, or palpably laboured at concealment; but the fact remained that though a great many men and not a few women knew Ferdinand Lopez very well, none of them knew whence he had come, or what was his family.

He was a man, however, naturally reticent, who never alluded to his own affairs unless in pursuit of some object the way to which was clear before his eyes. Silence therefore on a matter which is common in the mouths of most men was less difficult to him than to another, and the result less embarrassing. Dear old Jones, who tells his friends at the club of every pound that he loses or wins at the races, who boasts of Mary’s favours and mourns over Lucy’s coldness almost in public, who issues bulletins on the state of his purse, his stomach, his stable, and his debts, could not with any amount of care keep from us the fact that his father was an attorney’s clerk, and made his first money by discounting small bills. Everybody knows it, and Jones, who like popularity, grieves at the unfortunate publicity. But Jones is relieved from a burden which would have broken his poor shoulders, and which even Ferdinand Lopez, who is a strong man, often finds it hard to bear without wincing.

It was admitted on all sides that Ferdinand Lopez was a ‘gentleman’. Johnson says that any other derivation of this difficult word than that which causes it to signify ‘a man of ancestry’ is whimsical. There are many who, in defining the term for their own use, still adhere to Johnson’s dictum; — but they adhere to it with certain unexpressed allowances for possible exceptions. The chances are very much in favour of the well-born man, but exceptions may exist. It was not generally believed that Ferdinand Lopez was well born; — but he was a gentleman. And this most precious rank was acceded to him although he was employed — or at least had been employed — on business which does not of itself give such a warrant of position as is supposed to be afforded by the bar and the church, by the military services and by physic. He had been on the Stock Exchange, and still in some manner, not clearly understood by his friends, did business in the City.

At the time with which we are now concerned Ferdinand Lopez was thirty-three years old, and as he had begun life early he had been long before the world. It was known of him that he had been at a good English private school, and it was reported, on the solitary evidence of one of who had been there as his schoolfellow, that a rumour was current in the school that his school bills were paid by an old gentleman who was not related to him. Thence, at the age of seventeen, he had been sent to a German university, and at the age of twenty-one had appeared in London, in a stockbroker’s office, where he was soon known as an accomplished linguist, and as a very clever fellow — precocious, not given to many pleasures, apt for work, but considered hardly trustworthy by employers, not as being dishonest, but as having a taste for being a master rather than a servant. Indeed his period of servitude was very short. It was not in his nature to be active on behalf of others. He was soon active for himself, and at one time it was supposed that he was making a fortune. Then it was known that he had left his regular business, and it was supposed that he had lost all that he had ever made or had ever possessed. But nobody, not even his own bankers, or his own lawyer — not even the old woman who looked after his linen — ever really knew the state of his affairs.

He was certainly a handsome man — his beauty being of a sort which men are apt to deny and women to admit lavishly. He was nearly six feet tall, very dark and very thin, with regular well-cut features, indicating little to the physiognomist unless it be the great gift of self-possession. His hair was cut short, and he wore no beard beyond an absolutely black moustache. His teeth were perfect, in form and in whiteness — a characteristic which though it may be a valued item in a general catalogue of personal attraction, does not generally recommend a man to the unconscious judgment of his acquaintance. But about the mouth and chin of this man there was a something of a softness, perhaps in the play of his lips, perhaps in the dimple, which in some degree lessened the feeling of hardness which was produced by the square brow and bold, unflinching, combative eyes. They who knew him and like him were reconciled by the lower face. The greater number who knew him and did not like him, felt and resented — even though in nine cases out of ten they might, express no resentment even to themselves — the pugnacity of his steady glance.

For he was essentially one of those men who are always, in the inner workings of their minds, defending themselves and attacking others. He could not give a penny to a woman at a crossing without a look which argued at full length her injustice in making her demand, and his freedom from all liability let him walk the crossing as often as he might. He could not seat himself in a railway carriage without a lesson to his opposite neighbour that in all the mutual affairs of travelling, arrangement of feet, disposition of bags, and opening of windows, it would be that neighbour’s duty to submit and his to exact. It was, however, for the spirit rather than for the thing itself that he combatted. The woman with the broom got her penny. The opposite gentleman when once by a glance he had expressed submission was allowed his own way with the legs and with the window. I would not say that Ferdinand Lopez was prone to do ill-natured things; but he was imperious, and he had learned to carry his empire in his eye.

The reader must submit to be told one or two further and still smaller details respecting the man, and then the man shall be allowed to make his own way. No one of those around him knew how much care he took to dress himself well, or how careful he was that no one should know it. His very tailor regarded him as being simply extravagant in the number of his coats and trousers, and his friends looked upon him as one of those fortunate beings to whose nature belongs a facility of being well dressed, or almost an impossibility of being ill dressed. We all know the man — a little man generally, who moves seldom and softly — who looks always as though he had just been sent home in a bandbox. Ferdinand Lopez was not a little man, and moved freely enough; but never, at any moment — going into the city or coming out of it, on horseback or on foot, at home over his book or after the mazes of the dance — was he dressed otherwise than with perfect care. Money and time did it, but folk thought that it grew with him, as did his hair and his nails. And he always rode a horse which charmed good judges of what a park nag should be; — not a prancing, restless, giggling, sideway-going, useless garran, but an animal well made, well bitted, with perfect paces, on whom a rider if it pleased him could be as quiet as a statue in a monument. It often did please Ferdinand Lopez to be quiet on horseback; and yet he did not look like a statue, for it was acknowledged through all London that he was a good horseman. He lived luxuriously too — though whether at his ease or not nobody knew — for he kept a brougham of his own, and during the hunting season, he had two horses down at Leighton. There had once been a belief abroad that he was ruined, but they who interest themselves in such matters had found out — or at any rate believed that they had found out — that he paid his tailor regularly: and now there prevailed an opinion that Ferdinand Lopez was a monied man.

It was known to some few that he occupied rooms in a flat at Westminster — but to very few exactly where the rooms were situate. Among all his friends no one was known to have entered them. In a moderate way he was given to hospitality — that is to infrequent but when the occasion came, to graceful hospitality. Some club, however, or tavern perhaps, in the summer, some river bank would be chosen as the scene of these festivities. To a few — if, as suggested, amidst summer flowers on the water’s edge to men and women mixed — he would be a courtly and efficient host; for he had the rare gift of doing such things well.

Hunting was over, and the east wind was still blowing, and a great portion of the London world was out of town taking its Easter holiday, when on an unpleasant morning, Ferdinand Lopez travelled into the city by the Metropolitan railway from Westminster Bridge. It was his custom to go thither when he did go — not daily like a man of business, but as chance might require, like a capitalist or a man of pleasure — in his own brougham. But on this occasion he walked down the river side, and then walked from the Mansion House into a dingy little court called Little Tankard Yard, near the Bank of England, and going through a narrow dark long passage got into a little office at the back of a building, in which there sat at a desk a greasy gentleman with a new hat on one side of his head, who might perhaps be about forty years old. The place was very dark, and the man was turning over the leaves of a ledger. A stranger to city ways might probably have said that he was idle, but he was no doubt filling his mind with that erudition which would enable him to earn his bread. On the other side of the desk there was a little boy copying letters. These were Mr Sextus Parker — commonly called Sexty Parker — his clerk. Mr Parker was a gentleman very well known and at the present moment favourably esteemed on the Stock Exchange. ‘What, Lopez!’ said he. ‘Uncommon glad to see you. What can I do for you?’

‘Just come inside — will you?’ said Lopez. Now within Mr Parker’s very small office there was a smaller office, in which there were a safe, a small rickety Pembroke table, two chairs, and an old washing-stand with a tumbled towel. Lopez led the way into this sanctum as though he knew the place well, and Sexty Parker followed him.

‘Beastly day, isn’t it?’ said Sexty.

‘Yes — a nasty east wind.’

‘Cutting one in two, with a hot sun at the same time. One ought to hybernate at this time of the year.’

‘Then why don’t you hybernate?’ said Lopez.

‘Business is too good. That’s about it. A man has to stick to it when it does come. Everybody can’t do like you; — give up regular work, and make a better thing of an hour now and an hour then, just as it pleases you. I shouldn’t dare go in for that kind of thing.

‘I don’t suppose you or any one else know what I go in for,’ said Lopez, with a look that indicated offence.

‘Nor don’t care,’ said Sexty; —‘only hope it’s something good, for your sake.’ Sexty Parker had known Mr Lopez well, now for some years, and being an overbearing man himself — somewhat even of a bully if the truth be spoken — and by no means apt to give way unless hard pressed, had often tried his ‘hand’ on his friend, as he himself would have said. But I doubt whether he could remember any instance in which he could congratulate himself on success. He was trying his hand again now, but did it with a faltering voice, having caught a glance of his friend’s eye.

‘I dare say not,’ said Lopez. Then he continued without changing his voice or the nature of his eye. ‘I’ll tell you what I want you to do now. I want your name to this bill for three months.’

Sexty Parker opened his mouth and his eyes, and took the bit of paper that was tendered to him. It was a promissory note for 750 pounds, which, if signed by him, would at the end of the specified period make him liable for that sum were it not otherwise paid. His friend Mr Lopez was indeed applying to him for the assistance of his name in raising a loan to the amount of the sum named. This was a kind of favour which a man should ask almost on his knees — and which, if so asked, Mr Sextus Parker would certainly refuse. And here was Ferdinand Lopez asking it, who, Sextus Parker had latterly regarded as an opulent man — and asking it not at all on his knees, but, as one might say, at the muzzle of a pistol. ‘Accommodation bill!’ said Sexty. ‘Why, you ain’t hard up, are you?’

‘I’m not going just at present to tell you much about my affairs, and yet I expect you to do what I ask you. I don’t suppose you doubt my ability to raise 750 pounds.’

‘Oh, dear, no,’ said Sexty, who had been looked at and who had not borne the inspection well.

‘And I don’t suppose you would refuse me even if I were hard up, as you call it.’ There had been affairs before between the two men in which Lopez had probably been the stronger, and the memory of them, added to the inspection which was still going on, was heavy upon poor Sexty.

‘Oh, dear, no; — I wasn’t thinking of refusing, I suppose a fellow may be a little surprised at such a thing.’

‘I don’t know why you should be surprised, as such things are very common. I happen to have taken a share in a loan a little beyond my immediate means, and therefore want a few hundreds. There is no one I can ask with a better grace than you. If you ain’t — afraid about it, just sign it.’

‘Oh, I ain’t afraid,’ said Sexty, taking his pen and writing his name across the bill. But even before the signature was finished, when his eye was taken away from the face of his companion and fixed upon the disagreeable piece of paper beneath his hand, he repented of what he was doing. He almost arrested his signature half-way. He did hesitate, but had not pluck enough to stop his hand. ‘It does seem to be an odd transaction all the same,’ he said as he leaned back in his chair.

‘It’s the commonest thing in the world,’ said Lopez picking up the bill in a leisurely way, folding it and putting it into his pocket-book. ‘Have our names never been together on a bit of paper before?’

‘When we both had something to make by it.’

‘You’ve nothing to make and nothing to lose by this. Good day and many thanks — though I don’t think so much of the affair as you seem to do.’ Then Ferdinand Lopez took his departure, and Sexty Parker was left alone in bewilderment.

‘By George — that’s queer,’ he said to himself. ‘Who’d have thought of Lopez being hard up for a few hundred pounds? But it must be all right. He wouldn’t have come in that fashion, if it hadn’t been all right. I oughtn’t to have done it though! A man ought never to do that kind of thing — never — never!’ And Mr Sextus Parker was much discontented with himself, so that when he got home that evening to the wife of his bosom and his little family at Ponders End, he by no means made himself agreeable to them. For that sum of 750 pounds sat upon his bosom as he ate his supper, and lay upon his chest as he slept — like a nightmare.

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