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- OF THE PRIME MINISTER - 6/159 -
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?'
'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-in-law,--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-in-law. 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.
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