Charles Dickens, Bleak House: Ch. 39

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Attorney and Client

The name of Mr. Vholes, preceded by the legend Ground-Floor, is inscribed upon a door-post in Symond's Inn, Chancery Lane—a little, pale, wall-eyed, woebegone inn like a large dust-binn of two compartments and a sifter.  It looks as if Symond were a sparing man in his way and constructed his inn of old building materials which took kindly to the dry rot and to dirt and all things decaying and dismal, and perpetuated Symond's memory with congenial shabbiness.  Quartered in this dingy hatchment commemorative of Symond are the legal bearings of Mr. Vholes.

Mr. Vholes's office, in disposition retiring and in situation retired, is squeezed up in a corner and blinks at a dead wall.  Three feet of knotty-floored dark passage bring the client to Mr. Vholes's jet-black door, in an angle profoundly dark on the brightest midsummer morning and encumbered by a black bulk-head of cellarage staircase against which belated civilians generally strike their brows.  Mr. Vholes's chambers are on so small a scale that one clerk can open the door without getting off his stool, while the other who elbows him at the same desk has equal facilities for poking the fire.  A smell as of unwholesome sheep blending with the smell of must and dust is referable to the nightly (and often daily) consumption of mutton fat in candles and to the fretting of parchment forms and skins in greasy drawers.  The atmosphere is otherwise stale and close.  The place was last painted or whitewashed beyond the memory of man, and the two chimneys smoke, and there is a loose outer surface of soot everywhere, and the dull cracked windows in their heavy frames have but one piece of character in them, which is a determination to be always dirty and always shut unless coerced.  This accounts for the phenomenon of the weaker of the two usually having a bundle of firewood thrust between its jaws in hot weather.

Mr. Vholes is a very respectable man.  He has not a large business, but he is a very respectable man.  He is allowed by the greater attorneys who have made good fortunes or are making them to be a most respectable man.  He never misses a chance in his practice, which is a mark of respectability.  He never takes any pleasure, which is another mark of respectability.  He is reserved and serious, which is another mark of respectability.  His digestion is impaired, which is highly respectable.  And he is making hay of the grass which is flesh, for his three daughters.  And his father is dependent on him in the Vale of Taunton.

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.  There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.  Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it.  Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

But not perceiving this quite plainly—only seeing it by halves in a confused way—the laity sometimes suffer in peace and pocket, with a bad grace, and DO grumble very much.  Then this respectability of Mr. Vholes is brought into powerful play against them.  "Repeal this statute, my good sir?" says Mr. Kenge to a smarting client.  "Repeal it, my dear sir?  Never, with my consent.  Alter this law, sir, and what will be the effect of your rash proceeding on a class of practitioners very worthily represented, allow me to say to you, by the opposite attorney in the case, Mr. Vholes?  Sir, that class of practitioners would be swept from the face of the earth.  Now you cannot afford—I will say, the social system cannot afford—to lose an order of men like Mr. Vholes.  Diligent, persevering, steady, acute in business.  My dear sir, I understand your present feelings against the existing state of things, which I grant to be a little hard in your case; but I can never raise my voice for the demolition of a class of men like Mr. Vholes."  The respectability of Mr. Vholes has even been cited with crushing effect before Parliamentary committees, as in the following blue minutes of a distinguished attorney's evidence.  "Question (number five hundred and seventeen thousand eight hundred and sixty-nine): If I understand you, these forms of practice indisputably occasion delay?  Answer: Yes, some delay.  Question: And great expense?  Answer: Most assuredly they cannot be gone through for nothing.  Question: And unspeakable vexation?  Answer: I am not prepared to say that.  They have never given ME any vexation; quite the contrary.  Question: But you think that their abolition would damage a class of practitioners?  Answer: I have no doubt of it.  Question: Can you instance any type of that class?  Answer: Yes.  I would unhesitatingly mention Mr. Vholes.  He would be ruined.  Question: Mr. Vholes is considered, in the profession, a respectable man?  Answer:"— which proved fatal to the inquiry for ten years—"Mr. Vholes is considered, in the profession, a MOST respectable man."