Endymion, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 52

Simon, Earl of Montfort, with whom Endymion was so unexpectedly going to dine, may be said to have been a minor in his cradle. Under ordinary circumstances, his inheritance would have been one of the most considerable in England. His castle in the north was one of the glories of the land, and becomingly crowned his vast domain. Under the old parliamentary system, he had the greatest number of nomination boroughs possessed by any Whig noble. The character and conduct of an individual so qualified were naturally much speculated on and finely scanned. Nothing very decided transpired about them in his boyhood, but certainly nothing adverse. He was good-looking and athletic, and was said to be generous and good-natured, and when he went to Harrow, he became popular. In his eighteenth year, while he was in correspondence with his guardians about going to Christ Church, he suddenly left his country without giving any one notice of his intentions, and entered into, and fulfilled, a vast scheme of adventurous travel. He visited countries then rarely reached, and some of which were almost unknown. His flag had floated in the Indian Ocean, and he had penetrated the dazzling mysteries of Brazilian forests. When he was of age, he returned, and communicated with his guardians, as if nothing remarkable had happened in his life. Lord Montfort had inherited a celebrated stud, which the family had maintained for more than a century, and the sporting world remarked with satisfaction that their present representative appeared to take much interest in it. He had an establishment at Newmarket, and his horses were entered for all the great races of the kingdom. He appeared also at Melton, and conducted the campaign in a style becoming such a hero. His hunters and his cooks were both first-rate. Although he affected to take little interest in politics, the events of the time forced him to consider them and to act. Lord Grey wanted to carry his Reform Bill, and the sacrifice of Lord Montfort’s numerous boroughs was a necessary ingredient in the spell. He was appealed to as the head of one of the greatest Whig houses, and he was offered a dukedom. He relinquished his boroughs without hesitation, but he preferred to remain with one of the oldest earldoms of England for his chief title. All honours, however, clustered about him, though he never sought them, and in the same year he tumbled into the Lord Lieutenancy of his country, unexpectedly vacant, and became the youngest Knight of the Garter.

Society was looking forward with the keenest interest to the impending season, when Lord Montfort would formally enter its spell-bound ranks, and multiform were the speculations on his destiny. He attended an early levee, in order that he might be presented — a needful ceremony which had not yet taken place — and then again quitted his country, and for years. He was heard of in every capital except his own. Wonderful exploits at St. Petersburg, and Paris, and Madrid, deeds of mark at Vienna, and eccentric adventures at Rome; but poor Melton, alas! expecting him to return every season, at last embalmed him, and his cooks, and his hunters, and his daring saddle, as a tradition — jealous a little of Newmarket, whither, though absent, he was frequently transmitting foreign blood, and where his horses still ran, and were often victorious.

At last it would appear that the restless Lord Montfort had found his place, and that place was Paris. There he dwelt for years in Sybaritic seclusion. He built himself a palace, which he called a villa, and which was the most fanciful of structures, and full of every beautiful object which rare taste and boundless wealth could procure, from undoubted Raffaelles to jewelled toys. It was said that Lord Montfort saw no one; he certainly did not court or receive his own countrymen, and this perhaps gave rise to, or at least caused to be exaggerated, the tales that were rife of his profusion, and even his profligacy. But it was not true that he was entirely isolated. He lived much with the old families of France in their haughty faubourg, and was highly considered by them. It was truly a circle for which he was adapted. Lord Montfort was the only living Englishman who gave one an idea of the nobleman of the eighteenth century. He was totally devoid of the sense of responsibility, and he looked what he resembled. His manner, though simple and natural, was finished and refined, and, free from forbidding reserve, was yet characterised by an air of serious grace.

With the exception of the memorable year when he sacrificed his nomination boroughs to the cause for which Hampden died on the field and Sidney on the scaffold — that is to say, the Whig government of England — Lord Montfort had been absent for his country for ten years, and one day, in his statued garden at the Belvedere, he asked himself what he had gained by it. There was no subject, divine or human, in which he took the slightest interest. He entertained for human nature generally, and without any exception, the most cynical appreciation. He had a sincere and profound conviction, that no man or woman ever acted except from selfish and interested motives. Society was intolerable to him; that of his own sex and station wearisome beyond expression; their conversation consisted only of two subjects, horses and women, and he had long exhausted both. As for female society, if they were ladies, it was expected that, in some form or other, he should make love to them, and he had no sentiment. If he took refuge in the demi-monde, he encountered vulgarity, and that, to Lord Montfort, was insufferable. He had tried them in every capital, and vulgarity was the badge of all their tribe. He had attempted to read; a woman had told him to read French novels, but he found them only a clumsy representation of the life which, for years, he had practically been leading. An accident made him acquainted with Rabelais and Montaigne; and he had relished them, for he had a fine sense of humour. He might have pursued these studies, and perhaps have found in them a slight and occasional distraction, but a clever man he met at a guingette at Passy, whither he had gone to try to dissipate his weariness in disguise, had convinced him, that if there were a worthy human pursuit, an assumption which was doubtful, it was that of science, as it impressed upon man his utter insignificance.

No one could say Lord Montfort was a bad-hearted man, for he had no heart. He was good-natured, provided it brought him no inconvenience; and as for temper, his was never disturbed, but this not from sweetness of disposition, rather from a contemptuous fine taste, which assured him, that a gentleman should never be deprived of tranquillity in a world where nothing was of the slightest consequence.

The result of these reflections was, that he was utterly wearied with Belvedere and Paris, and as his mind was now rather upon science, he fancied he should like to return to a country where it flourished, and where he indulged in plans of erecting colossal telescopes, and of promoting inquiry into the origin of things. He thought that with science and with fishing, the only sport to which he still really clung, for he liked the lulling influence of running streams, and a pastime he could pursue in loneliness, existence might perhaps be endured.

Society was really surprised when they heard of the return of Lord Montfort to England. He came back in the autumn, so that there should be no season to encounter, and his flag was soon flying at his castle. There had been continuous attacks for years on the government for having made an absentee lord lieutenant of his country, and conferring the high distinction of the garter on so profligate a character. All this made his return more interesting and exciting.

A worthy nobleman of high rank and of the same county, who for the last five years everybody, shaking everybody’s head, had been saying ought to have been lord lieutenant, had a great county function in his immediate neighbourhood in the late autumn, and had invited a large party to assist him in its celebration. It seemed right also to invite the lord lieutenant, but no one expected that he would make his appearance. On the contrary, the invitation was accepted, and the sensation was great. What would he be like, and what would he do, and was he so very wicked as the county newspaper said? He came, this wicked man, with his graceful presence and his diamond star, and everybody’s heart palpitated with a due mixture of terror and admiration. The only exception to these feelings was the daughter of the house, the Lady Berengaria. She was then in her second season, but still unparagoned, for she was a fastidious, not to say disdainful lady. The highest had been at her feet, and sued in vain. She was a stirring spirit, with great ambition and a daring will; never content except in society, and influencing it — for which she was qualified by her grace and lively fancy, her ready though capricious sympathy, and her passion for admiration.

The function was successful, and the county full of enthusiasm for their lord lieutenant, whose manner quite cleared his character. The party did not break up, in fact the function was only an excuse for the party. There was sport of all kinds, and in the evenings a carnival — for Lady Berengaria required everybody about her to be gay and diverting — games and dances, and infinite frolic. Lord Montfort, who, to the surprise of every one, did not depart, spoke to her a little, and perhaps would not have spoken at all, had they not met in the hunting-field. Lady Berengaria was a first-rate horsewoman, and really in the saddle looked irresistible.

The night before the party, which had lasted a week, broke up, Lord Montfort came and sat by Lady Berengaria. He spoke about the run of the morning, and she replied in the same vein. “I have got a horse, Lady Berengaria, which I should like you to ride. Would you do so?”

“Certainly, and what sort of horse is it?”

“You shall see tomorrow. It is not far off. I like to have some horses always near,” and then he walked away.

It was a dark chestnut of matchless beauty. Lady Berengaria, who was of an emphatic nature, was loud in her admiration of its beauty and its hunting qualities.

“I agree with you,” said Lord Montfort, “that it will spoil you for any other horse, and therefore I shall ask permission to leave it here for your use.”

The party broke up, but, strange to say, Lord Montfort did not depart. It was a large family. Lady Berengaria had several sisters; her eldest brother was master of the hounds, and her younger brothers were asserting their rights as cadets, and killing their father’s pheasants. There was also a number of cousins, who were about the same age, and were always laughing, though it was never quite clear what it was about. An affectation of gaiety may be sometimes detected in youth.

As Lord Montfort always had the duty of ushering the lady of the house to dinner, he never had the opportunity of conversing with Lady Berengaria, even had he wished it; but it was not all clear that he did wish it, and it seemed that he talked as much to her sisters and the laughing cousins as to herself, but still he did not go away, which was most strange, and commenced to be embarrassing.

At last one evening, both her parents slumbering, one over the newspaper and the other over her work, and the rest of the party in a distant room playing at some new game amid occasional peals of laughter, Lord Montfort, who had been sitting for some time by Lady Berengaria’s side, and only asking now and then a question, though often a searching one, in order to secure her talking to him, rather abruptly said, “I wonder if anything would ever induce you to marry me?”

This was the most startling social event of the generation. Society immediately set a-wondering how it would turn out, and proved very clearly that it must turn out badly. Men who knew Montfort well at Paris looked knowing, and said they would give it six months.

But the lady was as remarkable a woman as the bridegroom was in his sex. Lady Berengaria was determined to be the Queen of Society, and had confidence in her unlimited influence over man. It is, however, rather difficult to work on the feelings of a man who has no heart. This she soon found out, and to her dismay, but she kept it a profound secret. By endless ingenuity on her part, affairs went on very well much longer than the world expected, and long enough to fulfil the object of Lady Berengaria’s life. Lord Montfort launched his wife well, and seemed even content to be occasionally her companion until she had mounted the social throne. He was proud of her as he would be of one of his beautiful horses; but when all the world had acknowledged the influence of Berengaria, he fell into one of his old moods, and broke to her that he could bear it no longer, and that he must retire from society. Lady Montfort looked distressed, but, resolved under no circumstances to be separated from her husband, whom she greatly admired, and to whom, had he wished it, she could have become even passionately attached, signified her readiness to share his solitude. But she then found out that this was not what he wanted. It was not only retirement from society, but retirement from Lady Montfort, that was indispensable. In short, at no time of his perverse career had Lord Montfort been more wilful.

During the last years of his residence in Paris, when he was shut up in his delicious Belvedere, he had complained much of the state of his health, and one of his principal pursuits was consulting the faculty on this interesting subject. The faculty were unanimous in their opinion that the disorder from which their patient was suffering was Ennui. This persistent opinion irritated him, and was one of the elements of his decision to leave the country. The unexpected distraction that followed his return to his native land had made him neglect or forget his sad indisposition, but it appears that it had now returned, and in an aggravated form. Unhappily the English physicians took much the same view of the case as their French brethren. They could find nothing organically wrong in the constitution or condition of Lord Montfort, and recommended occupation and society. At present he shrank with some disgust at the prospect of returning to France, and he had taken it into his head that the climate of Montfort did not agree with him. He was convinced that he must live in the south of England. One of the most beautiful and considerable estates in that favoured part of our country was virtually in the market, and Lord Montfort, at the cost of half a million, became the proprietor of Princedown. And here he announced that he should dwell and die.

This state of affairs was a bitter trial to the proudest woman in England, but Lady Montfort was also one of the most able. She resisted nothing, sympathised with all his projects, and watched her opportunity when she could extract from his unconscious good-nature some reasonable modification of them. And she ultimately succeeded in establishing a modus vivendi. He was to live and die at Princedown; that was settled; but if he ever came to town, to consult his physicians, for example, he was always to inhabit Montfort House, and if she occasionally required a whiff of southern air, she was to have her rooms always ready for her at Princedown. She would not interfere with him in the least; he need not even see her, if he were too unwell. Then as to the general principle of his life, it was quite clear that he was not interested in anything, and never would be interested in anything; but there was no reason that he should not be amused. This distinction between interest and amusement rather pleased, and seemed to satisfy Lord Montfort — but then it was difficult to amuse him. The only thing that ever amused him, he said, were his wife’s letters, and as he was the most selfish as well as the most polite of men, he requested her to write to him every day. Great personages, who are selfish and whimsical, are generally surrounded by parasites and buffoons, but this would not suit Lord Montfort; he sincerely detested flattery, and he wearied in eight-and-forty hours of the most successful mountebank in society. What he seemed inclined to was the society of men of science, of travellers in rare parts, and of clever artists; in short, of all persons who had what he called “idiosyncrasy.” Civil engineering was then beginning to attract general attention, and Lord Montfort liked the society of civil engineers; but what he liked most were self-formed men, and to learn the secret of their success, and how they made their fortune. After the first fit of Princedown was over, Lord Montfort found that it was impossible, even with all its fascination, to secure a constant, or sufficient, presence of civil engineers in such distant parts, and so he got into the habit of coming up to Montfort House, that he might find companions and be amused. Lady Montfort took great pains that he should not be disappointed, and catered for him with all the skill of an accomplished chef. Then, when the occasion served, she went down to Princedown herself with welcome guests — and so it turned out, that circumstances, which treated by an ordinary mind must have led to a social scandal, were so adroitly manipulated, that the world little apprehended the real and somewhat mortifying state of affairs. With the utmost license of ill-nature, they could not suppose that Lord and Lady Montfort, living under the same roof, might scarcely see each other for weeks, and that his communications with her, and indeed generally, were always made in writing.

Lady Monfort never could agree with her husband in the cardinal assumption of his philosophy. One of his reasons for never doing anything was, that there was nothing for him to attain. He had got everything. Here they at once separated in their conclusions. Lady Montfort maintained they had got nothing. “What,” she would say, “are rank and wealth to us? We were born to them. We want something that we were not born to. You reason like a parvenu. Of course, if you had created your rank and your riches, you might rest on your oars, and find excitement in the recollection of what you had achieved. A man of your position ought to govern the country, and it always was so in the old days. Your family were prime ministers; why not you, with as much talent, and much more knowledge?”

“You would make a very good prime minister, Berengaria.”

“Ah! you always jest, I am serious.”

“And so am I. If I ever am to work, I would sooner be a civil engineer than a prime minister.”

Nothing but the indomitable spirit of Lady Montfort could fight successfully against such obstacles to her schemes of power as were presented by the peculiar disposition of her lord. Her receptions every Saturday night during the season were the most important of social gatherings, but she held them alone. It was by consummate skill that she had prevailed upon her lord occasionally appearing at the preceding banquets, and when they were over, he flitted for an instant and disappeared. At first, he altogether refused, but then Lady Montfort would introduce Royalty, always kind, to condescend to express a wish to dine at Montfort House, and that was a gracious intimation it was impossible not to act upon, and then, as Lady Montfort would say, “I trust much to the periodical visits of that dear Queen of Mesopotamia. He must entertain her, for his father was her lover.”

In this wonderful mystification, by which Lord Montfort was made to appear as living in a society which he scarcely ever entered, his wife was a little assisted by his visits to Newmarket, which he even frequently attended. He never made a bet or a new acquaintance, but he seemed to like meeting men with whom he had been at school. There is certainly a magic in the memory of school-boy friendships; it softens the heart, and even affects the nervous system of those who have no hearts. Lord Montfort at Newmarket would ask half a dozen men who had been at school with him, and were now members of the Jockey Club, to be his guests, and the next day all over the heath, and after the heath, all over Mayfair and Belgravia, you heard only one speech, “I dined yesterday,” or “the other day,” as the case might be, “with Montfort; out and out the best dinner I ever had, and such an agreeable fellow; the wittiest, the most amusing, certainly the most charming fellow that ever lived; out and out! It is a pity he does not show a little more.” And society thought the same; they thought it a pity, and a great one, that this fascinating being of whom they rarely caught a glimpse, and who to them took the form of a wasted and unsympathising phantom, should not show a little more and delight them. But the most curious thing was, that however rapturous were his guests, the feelings of their host after they had left him, were by no means reciprocal. On the contrary, he would remark to himself, “Have I heard a single thing worth remembering? Not one.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19