Sybil/Book 4/Chapter 7

When Gerard and Morley quitted the Albany after their visit to Egremont, they separated, and Stephen, whom we will accompany, proceeded in the direction of the Temple, in the vicinity of which he himself lodged, and where he was about to visit a brother journalist, who occupied chambers in that famous inn of court. As he passed under Temple Bar his eye caught a portly gentleman stepping out of a public cab with a bundle of papers in his hand, and immediately disappearing through that well-known archway which Morley was on the point of reaching. The gentleman indeed was still in sight, descending the way, when Morley entered, who observed him drop a letter. Morley hailed him, but in vain; and fearing the stranger might disappear in one of the many inextricable courts, and so lose his letter, he ran forward, picked up the paper, and then pushed on to the person who dropped it, calling out so frequently that the stranger at length began to suspect that he himself might be the object of the salute, and stopped and looked round. Morley almost mechanically glanced at the outside of the letter, the seal of which was broken, and which was however addressed to a name that immediately fixed his interest. The direction was to "Baptist Hatton, Esq., Inner Temple."

"This letter is I believe addressed to you, Sir," said Morley, looking very intently upon the person to whom he spoke—a portly man and a comely; florid, gentleman-like, but with as little of the expression which Morley in imagination had associated with that Hatton over whom he once pondered, as can easily be imagined.

"Sir, I am extremely obliged to you," said the strange gentleman; "the letter belongs to me, though it is not addressed to me. I must have this moment dropped it. My name, Sir, is Firebrace—Sir Vavasour Firebrace, and this letter is addressed to a—a—not exactly my lawyer, but a gentleman—a professional gentleman—whom I am in the habit of frequently seeing; daily, I may say. He is employed in a great question in which I am deeply interested. Sir, I am vastly obliged to you, and I trust that you are satisfied."

"Oh I perfectly, Sir Vavasour;" and Morley bowed; and going in different directions, they separated.

"Do you happen to know a lawyer by name Hatton in this Inn?" inquired Morley of his friend the journalist, when, having transacted their business, the occasion served.

"No lawyer of that name; but the famous Hatton lives here," was the reply.

"The famous Hatton! And what is he famous for? You forget I am a provincial."

"He has made more peers of the realm than our gracious Sovereign," said the journalist. "And since the reform of parliament the only chance of a tory becoming a peer is the favour of Baptist Hatton; though who he is no one knows, and what he is no one can describe."

"You speak in conundrums," said Morley; "I wish I could guess them. Try to adapt yourself to my somewhat simple capacity."

"In a word, then," said his friend, "if you must have a definition, Hatton may rank under the genus 'antiquary,' though his species is more difficult to describe. He is a heraldic antiquary; a discoverer, inventor, framer, arranger of pedigrees; profound in the mysteries of genealogies; an authority I believe unrivalled in everything that concerns the constitution and elements of the House of Lords; consulted by lawyers, though not professing the law; and startling and alarming the noblest families in the country by claiming the ancient baronies which they have often assumed without authority, for obscure pretenders, many of whom he has succeeded in seating in the parliament of his country."

"And what part of the country did he come from: do you happen to know?" inquired Morley, evidently much interested, though he attempted to conceal his emotion.

"He may be a veritable subject of the kingdom of Cockaigne, for aught I know," replied his friend. "He has been buried in this inn I believe for years; for very many before I settled here; and for a long time I apprehend was sufficiently obscure, though doing they say a great deal in a small way; but the Mallory case made his fortune about ten years ago. That was a barony by writ of summons which had been claimed a century before, and failed. Hatton seated his man, and the precedent enabled three or four more gentlemen under his auspices to follow that example. They were Roman Catholics, which probably brought him the Mallory case, for Hatton is of the old church; better than that, they were all gentlemen of great estate, and there is no doubt their champion was well rewarded for his successful service. They say he is very rich. At present all the business of the country connected with descents flows into his chambers. Not a pedigree in dispute, not a peerage in abeyance, which is not submitted to his consideration. I don't know him personally; but you can now form some idea of his character: and if you want to claim a peerage," the journalist added laughingly, "he is your man."

A strong impression was on the mind of Morley that this was his man: he resolved to inquire of Gerard, whom he should see in the evening, as to the fact of their Hatton being a Catholic, and if so, to call on the antiquary on the morrow.

In the meantime we must not forget one who is already making that visit. Sir Vavasour Firebrace is seated in a spacious library that looks upon the Thames and the gardens of the Temple. Though piles of parchments and papers cover the numerous tables, and in many parts intrude upon the Turkey carpet, an air of order, of comfort, and of taste, pervades the chamber. The hangings of crimson damask silk blend with the antique furniture of oak; the upper panes of the windows are tinted by the brilliant pencil of feudal Germany, while the choice volumes that line the shelves are clothed in bindings which become their rare contents. The master of this apartment was a man of ordinary height, inclined to corpulency, and in the wane of middle life, though his unwrinkled cheek, his undimmed blue eye, and his brown hair, very apparent, though he wore a cap of black velvet, did not betray his age, or the midnight studies by which he had in a great degree acquired that learning for which he was celebrated. The general expression of his countenance was pleasing, though dashed with a trait of the sinister. He was seated in an easy chair, before a kidney table at which he was writing. Near at hand was a long tall oaken desk, on which were several folio volumes open, and some manuscripts which denoted that he had recently been engaged with them. At present Mr Hatton, with his pen still in his hand and himself in a chamber-robe of the same material as his cap, leant back in his chair, while he listened to his client, Sir Vavasour. Several most beautiful black and tan spaniels of the breed of King Charles the Second were reposing near him on velvet cushions, with a haughty luxuriousness which would have become the beauties of the merry monarch; and a white Persian cat with blue eyes and a very long tail, with a visage not altogether unlike that of its master, was resting with great gravity on the writing-table, and assisting at the conference.

Sir Vavasour had evidently been delivering himself of a long narrative, to which Mr Hatton had listened with that imperturbable patience which characterised him, and which was unquestionably one of the elements of his success. He never gave up anything, and he never interrupted anybody. And now in a silvery voice he replied to his visitor:

"What you tell me, Sir Vavasour, is what I foresaw, but which, as my influence could not affect it, I dismissed from my thoughts. You came to me for a specific object. I accomplished it. I undertook to ascertain the rights and revive the claims of the baronets of England. That was what you required me: I fulfilled your wish. Those rights are ascertained; those claims are revived. A great majority of the Order have given in their adhesion to the organized movement. The nation is acquainted with your demands, accustomed to them, and the monarch once favourably received them. I can do no more; I do not pretend to make baronets, still less can I confer on those already made the right to wear stars and coronets, the dark green dress of Equites aurati, or white hats with white plumes of feathers. These distinctions, even if their previous usage were established, must flow from the gracious permission of the Crown, and no one could expect in an age hostile to personal distinctions, that any ministry would recommend the sovereign to a step which with vulgar minds would be odious, and by malignant ones might be rendered ridiculous."

"Ridiculous!" said Sir Vavasour.

"All the world," said Mr Hatton, "do not take upon these questions the same enlightened view as ourselves, Sir Vavasour. I never could for a moment believe that the Sovereign would consent to invest such a numerous body of men with such privileges."

"But you never expressed this opinion," said Sir Vavasour.

"You never asked for my opinion," said Mr Hatton; "and if I had given it, you and your friends would not have been influenced by it. The point was one on which you might with reason hold yourselves as competent judges as I am. All you asked of me was to make out your case, and I made it out. I will venture to say a better case never left these chambers; I do not believe there is a person in the kingdom who could answer it except myself. They have refused the Order their honours, Sir Vavasour, but it is some consolation that they have never answered their case."

"I think it only aggravates the oppression," said Sir Vavasour, shaking his head; "but cannot you advise any new step, Mr Hatton? After so many years of suspense, after so much anxiety and such a vast expenditure, it really is too bad that I and Lady Firebrace should be announced at court in the same style as our fishmonger, if he happens to be a sheriff."

"I can make a Peer," said Mr Hatton, leaning back in his chair and playing with his seals, "but I do not pretend to make Baronets. I can place a coronet with four balls on a man's brow; but a coronet with two balls is an exercise of the prerogative with which I do not presume to interfere."

"I mention it in the utmost confidence," said Sir Vavasour in a whisper; "but Lady Firebrace has a sort of promise that in the event of a change of government, we shall be in the first batch of peers."

Mr Hatton shook his head with a slight smile of contemptuous incredulity.

"Sir Robert," he said, "will make no peers; take my word for that. The whigs and I have so deluged the House of Lords, that you may rely upon it as a secret of state, that if the tories come in, there will be no peers made. I know the Queen is sensitively alive to the cheapening of all honours of late years. If the whigs go out to-morrow, mark me, they will disappoint all their friends. Their underlings have promised so many, that treachery is inevitable, and if they deceive some they may as well deceive all. Perhaps they may distribute a coronet or two among themselves: and I shall this year make three: and those are the only additions to the peerage which will occur for many years. You may rely on that. For the tories will make none, and I have some thoughts of retiring from business."

It is difficult to express the astonishment, the perplexity, the agitation, that pervaded the countenance of Sir Vavasour while his companion thus coolly delivered himself. High hopes extinguished and excited at the same moment; cherished promises vanishing, mysterious expectations rising up; revelations of astounding state secrets; chief ministers voluntarily renouncing their highest means of influence, and an obscure private individual distributing those distinctions which sovereigns were obliged to hoard, and to obtain which the first men in the country were ready to injure their estates and to sacrifice their honour! At length Sir Vavasour said, "You amaze me Mr Hatton. I could mention to you twenty members of Boodle's, at least, who believe they will be made peers the moment the tories come in."

"Not a man of them," said Hatton peremptorily. "Tell me one of their names, and I will tell you whether they will be made peers."

"Well then there is Mr Tubbe Sweete, a county member, and his son in parliament too—I know he has a promise."

"I repeat to you, Sir Vavasour, the tories will not make a single peer; the candidates must come to me; and I ask you what can I do for a Tubbe Sweete, the son of a Jamaica cooper? Are there any old families among your twenty members of Brookes'?"

"Why I can hardly say," said Sir Vavasour; "there is Sir Charles Featherly, an old baronet."

"The founder a lord mayor in James the First's reign. That is not the sort of old family that I mean," said Mr Hatton.

"Well there is Colonel Cockawhoop," said Sir Vavasour. "The Cockawhoops are a very good family I have always heard."

"Contractors of Queen Anne: partners with Marlborough and Solomon Medina; a very good family indeed: but I do not make peers out of good families, Sir Vavasour; old families are the blocks out of which I cut my Mercurys."

"But what do you call an old family?" said Sir Vavasour.

"Yours," said Mr Hatton, and he threw a full glance on the countenance on which the light rested.

"We were in the first batch of baronets," said Sir Vavasour.

"Forget the baronets for a while," said Hatton. "Tell me, what was your family before James the First?"

"They always lived on their lands," said Sir Vavasour. "I have a room full of papers that would perhaps tell us something about them. Would you like to see them?"

"By all means: bring them all here. Not that I want them to inform me of your rights: I am fully acquainted with them. You would like to be a peer, sir. Well, you are really Lord Vavasour, but there is a difficulty in establishing your undoubted right from the single writ of summons difficulty. I will not trouble you with technicalities, Sir Vavasour: sufficient that the difficulty is great though perhaps not unmanageable. But we have no need of management. Your claim on the barony of Lovel is very good: I could recommend your pursuing it. did not another more inviting still present itself. In a word, if you wish to be Lord Bardolf, I will undertake to make you so, before, in all probability, Sir Robert Peel obtains office; and that I should think would gratify Lady Firebrace."

"Indeed it would," said Sir Vavasour, "for if it had not been for this sort of a promise of a peerage made—I speak in great confidence Mr Hatton—made by Mr Taper, my tenants would have voted for the whigs the other day at the —-shire election, and the conservative candidate would have been beaten. Lord Masque had almost arranged it, but Lady Firebrace would have a written promise from a high quarter, and so it fell to the ground."

"Well we are independent of all these petty arrangements now," said Mr Hatton.

"It is very wonderful," said Sir Vavasour, rising from his chair and speaking as it were to himself. "And what do you think our expenses will be in this claim?" he inquired.

"Bagatelle!" said Mr Hatton. "Why a dozen years ago I have known men lay out nearly half a million in land and not get two per cent for their money, in order to obtain a borough influence which might ultimately obtain them a spick and span coronet; and now you are going to put one on your head, which will give you precedence over every peer on the roll, except three (and I made those), and it will not cost you a paltry twenty or thirty thousand pounds. Why I know men who would give that for the precedence alone.—Here!" and he rose and took up some papers from a table: "Here is a case; a man you know, I dare say; an earl, and of a decent date as earls go: George the First. The first baron was a Dutch valet of William the Third. Well I am to terminate an abeyance in his favour through his mother, and give him one of the baronies of the Herberts. He buys off the other claimant who is already ennobled with a larger sum than you will expend on your ancient coronet. Nor is that all. The other claimant is of French descent and name; came over at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Well, besides the hush money, my client is to defray all the expense of attempting to transform the descendant of the silkweaver of Lyons into the heir of a Norman conqueror. So you see, Sir Vavasour, I am not unreasonable. Pah! I would sooner gain five thousand pounds by restoring you to your rights, than fifty thousand in establishing any of these pretenders in their base assumptions. I must work in my craft, Sir Vavasour, but I love the old English blood, and have it in my veins."

"I am satisfied, Mr Hatton." said Sir Vavasour: "let no time be lost. All I regret is, that you did not mention all this to me before; and then we might have saved a great deal of trouble and expence."

"You never consulted me," said Mr Hatton. "You gave me your instructions, and I obeyed them. I was sorry to see you in that mind, for to speak frankly, and I am sure now you will not be offended, my lord, for such is your real dignity, there is no title in the world for which I have such a contempt as that of a baronet."

Sir Vavasour winced, but the future was full of glory and the present of excitement; and he wished Mr Hatton good morning, with a promise that he would himself bring the papers on the morrow.

Mr Hatton was buried for a few moments in a reverie, during which he played with the tail of the Persian cat.