The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 3

Mr Abel Wharton Q.c.

Lopez was not a man to let grass grow under his feet when he had anything to do. When he was tired of walking backwards and forwards over the same bit of pavement, subject all the while to a cold east wind, he went home and thought of the same matter while he lay in bed. Even were he to get the girl’s assurances of love, without her father’s consent he might find himself farther from his object than ever. Mr Wharton was a man of old fashions, who would think himself ill-used and his daughter ill-used, and who would think also that a general offence would have been committed against good social manners, if his daughter were to be asked for her hand without his previous consent. Should he absolutely refuse — why then the battle, though it would be a desperate battle, might perhaps be fought with other strategy; but, giving to the matter his best consideration, Lopez thought it expedient to go at once to the father. In doing this he would have no silly tremors. Whatever he might feel in speaking to the girl, he had sufficient self-confidence to be able to ask the father, if not with assurance, at any rate without trepidation. It was, he thought, probable that the father, at the first attack, would neither altogether accede, or altogether refuse. The disposition of the man was averse to the probability of an absolute reply at the first moment. The lover imagined that it might be possible for him to take advantage of the period of doubt which would be created.

Mr Wharton was and had for a great many years been a barrister practising in the Equity Courts — or rather in one Equity Court, for throughout a life’s work, now extending to nearly fifty years, he had hardly ever gone out of the single Vice-Chancellor’s Court which was much better known by Mr Wharton’s name than by that of the less eminent judge who now sat there. His had been a very peculiar, a very toilsome, but yet probably a very satisfactory life. He had begun his practice early, and had worked in a stuff gown till he was nearly sixty. At that time, he had amassed a large fortune, mainly from his profession, but partly also by the careful use of his own small patrimony and by his wife’s money. Men knew that he was rich, but no one knew the extent of his wealth. When he submitted to take a silk gown, he declared among his friends that he did so as a step preparatory to his retirement. The altered method of work would not suit him at his age, nor — as he said — would it be profitable. He would take his silk, as a honour for his declining years, so that he might become a bencher at his Inn. But he had now been working for the last twelve or fourteen years with his silk gown, — almost as hard as in younger days, and with pecuniary results almost as serviceable; and though from month to month he declared his intention of taking no fresh briefs, and though he did now occasionally refuse work, still he was there with his mind as clear as ever, and with his body apparently as little affected by fatigue.

Mr Wharton had not married till he was forty, and his wife had now been two years dead. He had had six children — of whom but two were now left to make a household for his old age. He had been nearly fifty years when his youngest daughter was born, and was therefore now an old father of a young child. But he was one of those men who, as in youth they are never very young, so in age are they never very old. He could still ride his cob in the park jauntily; and did so carefully every morning in his life, after an early cup of tea and before his breakfast. And he could walk home from his chambers every day, and on Sundays could to the round of the parks on foot. Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he dined at that old law club, the Eldon, and played whist after dinner till twelve o’clock. This was the great dissipation and, I think, the chief charm of his life. In the middle of August he and his daughter usually went for a month to Wharton Hall in Hertfordshire, the seat of his cousin Sir Alured Wharton; — and this was the one duty of his life which was a burden to him. But he had been made to believe that it was essential to his health, and to his wife’s, and then to his girl’s, health, that he should every summer leave town for a time — and where else was there to go? Sir Alured was a relation and a gentleman. Emily liked Wharton Hall. It was the proper thing. He hated Wharton Hall, but then he did not know any place out of London that he would not hate worse. He had once been induced to go up the Rhine; but had never repeated the experiment of foreign travel. Emily sometimes went abroad with her cousins during which periods it was supposed that the old lawyer spent a good deal of his time at the Eldon. He was a spare, thin, strongly made man, with spare light brown hair, hardly yet grizzled, with small grey whiskers, clear eyes, bushy eyebrows, with a long ugly nose, on which young barristers had been heard to declare that you might hang a small kettle, and with considerable vehemence of talk when he was opposed in argument. For, with all his well-known coolness of temper, Mr Wharton could become very hot in an argument, when the nature of the case in hand required heat. On one subject all who knew him were agreed. He was a thorough lawyer. Many doubted his eloquence, and some declared that he had known well the extent of his own powers in abstaining from seeking the higher honours of his profession; but no one doubted his law. He had once written a book — on the mortgage of stocks in trade; but that had been in early life, and he had never since dabbled in literature.

He was certainly a man of whom men were generally afraid. At the whist-table no one would venture to scold him. In the court no one ever contradicted him. In his own house, though he was very quiet, the servants dreaded to offend him, and were attentive to his slightest behests. When he condescended to ride with any acquaintance in the park, it was always acknowledged that old Wharton was to regulate the pace. His name was Abel, and all his life he had been known as able Abe — a silent, far-seeing, close-fisted, just old man, who, was not, however, by any means deficient in sympathy either with the sufferings or with the joys of humanity.

It was Easter time, and the courts were not sitting, but Mr Wharton was in his chamber as a matter of course at ten o’clock. He knew no real homely comforts elsewhere — unless at the whist-table at the Eldon. He ate and drank and slept in his own house in Manchester Square, but he could hardly be said to live there. It was not there that his mind was awake, and the powers of the man were exercised. When he came up from the dining-room to join his daughter after dinner, he would get her to sing him a song, and would then seat himself with a book. But he never read in his own house, invariably falling into a sweet and placid slumber, from which he was never disturbed till his daughter kissed him as she went to bed. Then he would walk about the room and look at his watch, and shuffle uneasily through half an hour, till his conscience allowed him to take himself to his chamber. He was a man of no pursuits in his own house. But from ten in the morning til five, or often six, in the evening, his mind was active in some work. It was not now all law, as it used to be. In the drawer of the old piece of furniture which stood just at the right hand of his own arm-chair there were various books hidden away, which he was sometimes ashamed to have seen by his clients — poetry and novels, and even fairy tales. For there was nothing Mr Wharton could not read in his chambers, though there was nothing that he could read in his own house. He had a large pleasant room in which to sit, looking out from the ground floor of Stone Buildings on to the gardens belonging to the Inn, — and here, in the centre of the metropolis, but in perfect quiet as far as the outside world was concerned, he had lived and still lived his life.

At about noon on the day following that on which Lopez had made his sudden swoop on Mr Parker and had then dined with Everett Wharton, he called at Stone Buildings, and was shown into the lawyer’s room. His quick eye at once discovered the book which Mr Wharton half hid away, and saw upon it Mr Mudie’s suspicious ticket. Barristers certainly never get their law books from Mudie, and Lopez at once knew that his hoped-for father-inlaw had been reading a novel. He had not suspected such weakness, but argued well from it for the business he had in hand. There must be a soft spot to be found about the heart of an old lawyer who spent his mornings in such occupation. ‘How do you do, sir?’ said Mr Wharton rising from his seat. ‘I hope you are well, sir.’ Though he had been reading a novel his tone and manner were very cold. Lopez had never been in Stone Buildings before, and was not quite sure that he might not have committed some offence in coming there. ‘Take a seat, Mr Lopez. Is there anything I can do for you in my way?’

There was a great deal that could be done ‘in his way’ as father, — but how was it to be introduced and the case made clear? Lopez did not know whether the old man had as yet ever suspected such a feeling as that which he now intended to declare. He had been intimate at the house at Manchester Square, and had certainly ingratiated himself very closely with a certain Mrs Roby, who had been Mr Wharton’s sister and constant companion, who lived in Berkeley Street, close round the corner from Manchester Square, and spent very much of her time with Emily Wharton. They were together daily, as though Mrs Roby had assumed the part of a second mother, and Lopez was well aware that Mrs Roby knew of his love. If there was a real confidence between Mrs Roby and the old man, the old lawyer knew about it also; — but as to that Lopez felt that he was in the dark.

The task of speaking to an old father is not unpleasant when the lover knows that he has been smiled upon, and, in fact, approved for the last six months. He is going to be patted on the back, and made much of, and received in the family. He is to be told that his Mary or his Augusta has been the best daughter in the world, and will therefore certainly be the best wife, and he himself will probably on that special occasion be spoken of with unqualified praise — and all will be pleasant. But the subject is one very difficult to broach when no previous light has been thrown on it. Ferdinand Lopez, however, was not the man to stand shivering on the brink when a plunge was necessary — and therefore he made his plunge. ‘Mr Wharton, I have taken the liberty to call upon you, because I want to speak to you about your daughter.’

‘About my daughter!’ The old man’s surprise was quite genuine. Of course when he had given himself a moment to think, he knew what must be the nature of his visitor’s communication. But up to that moment he had never mixed his daughter and Ferdinand Lopez in his thoughts together. And now, the idea having come upon him, he looked at the aspirant with severe and unpleasant eyes. It was manifest to the aspirant that the first flash of the thing was painful to the father.

‘Yes, sir. I know how great is my presumption. But, yet having ventured, I will hardly say to entertain any hope, but to have come to such a state that I can only by happy by hoping, I have thought it best to come to you at once.’

‘Does she know anything of this?’

‘Of my visit to you? Nothing.’

‘Of your intentions; — of your suit generally? Am I to understand that this has any sanction from her?’

‘None at all.’

‘Have you told her anything of it?’

‘Not a word. I come to ask you for your permission to address her.’

‘You mean that she has no knowledge whatever of your, your preference for her.’

‘I cannot say that. It is hardly possible that I should have learned to love her as I do without some consciousness on her part that it is so.’

‘What I mean is, without any beating about the bush — have you been making love to her?’

‘Who is to say what making love consists, Mr Wharton?’

‘D it, sir, a gentleman knows. A gentleman knows whether he has been playing on a girl’s feelings, and a gentleman, when he is asked as I have asked you, will at any rate tell the truth. I don’t want any definitions. Have you been making love to her?’

‘I think, Mr Wharton, that I have behaved like a gentleman; and that you will acknowledge at least so much when you come to know exactly what I have done and what I have not done. I have endeavoured to commend myself to your daughter, but I have never spoken a word of love to her.’

‘Does Everett know of all this?’

‘Yes.’

‘And has he encouraged it?’

‘He knows of it because he is my intimate friend. Whoever the lady might have been, I should have told him. He is attached to me, and would not I think, on his own account, object to call me his brother. I spoke to him yesterday on the matter very plainly, and he told me that I ought certainly to see you first. I quite agreed with him, and therefore I am here. There has certainly been nothing in his conduct to make you angry, and I do not think that there has been anything in mine.’

There was a dignity of demeanour and a quiet assured courage which had its effect upon the old lawyer. He felt that he could not storm and talk in ambiguous language of what a ‘gentleman’ would or would not do. He might disapprove of this man altogether as a son-inlaw — and at the present moment he thought he did — but still the man was entitled to a civil answer. How were lovers to approach the ladies of their love in any manner more respectful than this? ‘Mr Lopez,’ he said, ‘you must forgive me if I say that you are comparatively a stranger to us.’

‘That is an accident which would easily be cured if your will in that direction were as good as mine.’

‘But, perhaps, it isn’t. One has to be explicit in these matters. A daughter’s happiness is a very serious consideration; — and some people, among whom I confess that I am one, consider that like people should marry like. I should wish to see my daughter marry — not only in my own sphere, neither higher nor lower — but with someone of my own class.’

‘I hardly know, Mr Wharton, whether that is intended to exclude me.’

‘Well — to tell you the truth I know nothing about you. I don’t know who your father was — whether he was an Englishman, whether he was a Christian, whether he was a Protestant — not even whether he was a gentleman. These are questions which I should not dream of asking under any other circumstances; — would be matters with which I should have no possible concern, if you were simply an acquaintance. But when you talk to a man about his daughter —?’

‘I acknowledge freely your right of inquiry.’

‘And I know nothing of your means; — nothing whatever. I understand that you live as a man of fortune, but I presume that you earn your bread. I know nothing of the way in which you earn it, nothing of the certainty or amount of your means.’

‘Those things are of course matters for inquiry; but may I presume that you have no objection which satisfactory answers to such questions may not remove?’

‘I shall never willingly give my daughter to anyone who is not the son of an English gentleman. It may be a prejudice, but that is my feeling.’

‘My father was certainly not an English gentleman. He was a Portuguese.’ In admitting this, and subjecting himself at once to one clearly-stated ground of objection — the objection being one which, though admitted, carried with it neither fault nor disgrace — Lopez felt that he had got a certain advantage. He could not get over the fact that he was the son of a Portuguese parent, but by admitting that openly he thought he might avoid present discussion on matters which might, perhaps, be more disagreeable, but to which he need not allude if the accident of birth were to be taken by the father as settling the question.

‘My mother was an English lady,’ he added, ‘but my father certainly was not an Englishman. I never had the common happiness of knowing either of them. I was an orphan before I understood what it was to have a parent.’

This was said with a pathos, which for the moment stopped the expression of any further harsh criticism from the lawyer. Mr Wharton could not instantly repeat his objection to a parentage which was matter for such melancholy reflections; but he felt at the same time that as he had luckily landed himself on a positive and undeniable ground of objection to a match which was distasteful to him, it would be unwise for him to go to other matters in which he might be less successful. By doing so, he would seem to abandon the ground which he had already made good. He thought it probable that the man might have an adequate income, and yet he did not wish to welcome him as a son-inlaw. He thought it possible that the Portuguese father might be a Portuguese nobleman, and therefore one whom he might be driven to admit to have been some sort of gentleman; — but yet this man who was now in his presence and whom he continued to scan with the closest observation, was not what he called a gentleman. The foreign blood was proved, and that would suffice. As he looked at Lopez, he thought that he detected Jewish signs, but he was afraid to make any allusions to religion, lest Lopez should declare his ancestors had been noted as Christians since St James first preached in the Peninsula.

‘I was educated altogether in England,’ continued Lopez, ‘till I was sent to a German university in the idea that the languages of the Continent are not generally well learned in this country; — I can never be sufficiently thankful to my guardian for doing so.’

‘I dare say; — I dare say. French and German are very useful. I have a prejudice of my own in favour of Greek and Latin.’

‘But I rather fancy I picked up more Greek and Latin at Bonn than I should have got here, had I stuck to nothing else.’

‘I dare say; — I dare say. You may be an Admirable Crichton for what I know.’

‘I have not intended to make any boast, sir, but simply to vindicate those who had the care of my education. If you have no objection except that founded on my birth, which is an accident —’

‘When one man is a peer and another a ploughman, that is an accident. One doesn’t find fault with the ploughman, but one doesn’t ask him to dinner.’

‘But my accident,’ said Lopez smiling, ‘is one which you would hardly discover unless you were told. Had I called myself Talbot you would not know but that I was as good an Englishman as yourself.’

‘A man of course may be taken in by falsehoods,’ said the lawyer.

‘If your have no other objection than that raised, I hope you will allow me to visit in Manchester Square.’

‘There may be ten thousand other objections, Mr Lopez, but I really think that the one is enough. Of course I know nothing of my daughter’s feelings. I should imagine that the matter is as strange to her as it is to me. But I cannot give you anything like encouragement. If I am ever to have a son-inlaw, I should wish to have an English son-inlaw. I do not even know what your profession is.’

‘I am engaged in foreign loans.’

‘Very precarious I should think. A sort of gambling, isn’t it?’

‘It is the business by which many of the greatest mercantile houses in the city have been made.’

‘I dare say; — I dare say; — and by which they come to ruin. I have the greatest respect in the world for mercantile enterprise, and I have had as much to do as most men with mercantile questions. But I ain’t sure that I wish to marry my daughter in the City. Of course it’s all prejudice. I won’t deny that on general subjects I can give as much latitude as any man; but when one’s own heart is attacked —’

‘Surely such a position as mine, Mr Wharton, is no attack!’

‘In my sense it is. When a man proposes to assault and invade the very kernel of another man’s heart, to share with him, and indeed to take from him, the very dearest of his possessions, to become part and parcel with him either for infinite good or infinite evil, then a man has a right to guard even his prejudices as precious bulwarks.’ Mr Wharton as he said this was walking about the room with his hands in his trouser pockets. ‘I have always been for absolute toleration in matters of religion, — have always advocated the admission of Roman Catholics and Jews into Parliament, and even to the Bench. In ordinary life I never question a man’s religion. It is nothing to do with me whether he believes in Mahomet, or has no belief at all. But when a man comes to ask for my daughter —’

‘I have always belonged to the Church of England,’ said Ferdinand Lopez.

‘Lopez is at any rate a bad name to go to a Protestant church with, and I don’t want my daughter to bear it if I am very frank with you, as in such a matter men ought to understand each other. Personally I have liked you well enough, and have been glad to see you at my house. Everett and you have seemed to be friends, and I have had no objection to make. But marrying into a family is a very serious thing indeed.’

‘No man feels that more strongly than I do, Mr Wharton.’

‘There had better be an end of it.’

‘Even though I should be happy enough to obtain her favour?’

‘I can’t think that she cares about you. I don’t think it for a moment. You say that you haven’t spoken to her, and I am sure she’s not a girl to throw herself at a man’s head. I don’t approve it, and it had better fall to the ground. It must fall to the ground.’

‘I wish you would give me a reason.’

‘Because you are not English.’

‘But I am English. My father was a foreigner.’

‘It doesn’t suit my ideas. I suppose I may have my own ideas about my own family, Mr Lopez? I feel perfectly certain that my child will do nothing to displease me, and this would displease me. If we were to talk for an hour, I could say nothing further.’

‘I hope that I may be able to present things to you in an aspect so altered,’ said Lopez as he prepared to take his leave, ‘as to make you change your mind.’

‘Possibly; — possibly,’ said Wharton; ‘but I do not think it is possible. Good morning to you, sir. If I have said anything that has seemed to be unkind, put it down to my anxiety as a father and to not to my conduct as a man.’ Then the door was closed behind his visitor, and Mr Wharton was left walking up and down his room alone. He was by no means satisfied with himself. He felt that he had been rude and at the same time not decisive. He had not explained to the man as he would wish to have done, that it was monstrous and out of the question that a daughter of the Whartons, one of the oldest families in England, should be given to a friendless Portuguese, a probable Jew — about whom nobody knew nothing. Then he remembered that sooner or later his girl would have at least 60,000 pounds, a fact of which no human being but himself was aware. Would it not be well that somebody should be made aware of it, so that his girl might have the chance of suitors preferable to the swarthy son of Judah? He began to be afraid, as he thought of it, that he was not managing his matters well. How would it be with him if he should find that the girl was really in love with this swarthy son of Judah? He had never inquired about his girl’s heart, though there was one to whom he hoped that his girl’s heart might some day be given. He almost made up his mind to go home at once, so anxious was he. But the prospect of having to spend an entire afternoon in Manchester Square was too much for him, as he remained in his chamber till the usual hour.

Lopez, as he returned from Lincoln’s Inn, westward to his club, was, on the whole, contented with the interview. He had expected opposition. He had not thought the cherry would fall easily into his mouth. But the conversation generally had not taken those turns which he thought would be most detrimental to him.

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