The Infernal Marriage, by Benjamin Disraeli

Part iii.

Containing an Account of Tiresias at His Rubber

TRAVELLERS who have left their homes generally grow mournful as the evening draws on; nor is there, perhaps, any time at which the pensive influence of twilight is more predominant than on the eve that follows a separation from those we love. Imagine, then, the feelings of the Queen of Hell, as her barque entered the very region of that mystic light, and the shadowy shores of the realm of Twilight opened before her. Her thoughts reverted to Pluto; and she mused over all his fondness, all his adoration, and all his indulgence, and the infinite solicitude of his affectionate heart, until the tears trickled down her beautiful cheeks, and she marvelled she ever could have quitted the arms of her lover.

‘Your Majesty,’ observed Manto, who had been whispering to Tiresias, ‘feels, perhaps, a little wearied?’

‘By no means, my kind Manto,’ replied Proserpine, starting from her reverie. ‘But the truth is, my spirits are unequal; and though I really cannot well fix upon the cause of their present depression, I am apparently not free from the contagion of the surrounding gloom.’

‘It is the evening air,’ said Tiresias. ‘Your Majesty had perhaps better reenter the pavilion of the yacht. As for myself, I never venture about after sunset. One grows romantic. Night was evidently made for indoor nature. I propose a rubber.’

To this popular suggestion Proserpine was pleased to accede, and herself and Tiresias, Manto and the captain of the yacht, were soon engaged at the proposed amusement.

Tiresias loved a rubber. It was true he was blind, but then, being a prophet, that did not signify. Tiresias, I say, loved a rubber, and was a first-rate player, though, perhaps, given a little too much to finesse. Indeed, he so much enjoyed taking in his fellow-creatures, that he sometimes could not resist deceiving his own partner. Whist is a game which requires no ordinary combination of qualities; at the same time, memory and invention, a daring fancy, and a cool head. To a mind like that of Tiresias, a pack of cards was full of human nature. A rubber was a microcosm; and he ruffed his adversary’s king, or brought in a long suit of his own with as much dexterity and as much enjoyment as, in the real business of existence, he dethroned a monarch, or introduced a dynasty.

‘Will your Majesty be pleased to draw your card?’ requested the sage. ‘If I might venture to offer your Majesty a hint, I would dare to recommend your Majesty not to play before your turn. My friends are fond of ascribing my success in my various missions to the possession of peculiar qualities. No such thing: I owe everything to the simple habit of always waiting till it is my turn to speak. And believe me, that he who plays before his turn at whist, commits as great a blunder as he who speaks before his turn during a negotiation.’

‘The trick, and two by honours,’ said Proserpine. ‘Pray, my dear Tiresias, you who are such a fine player, how came you to trump my best card?’

‘Because I wanted the lead. And those who want to lead, please your Majesty, must never hesitate about sacrificing their friends.’

‘I believe you speak truly. I was right in playing that thirteenth card?’

‘Quite so. Above all things, I love a thirteenth card. I send it forth, like a mock project in a revolution, to try the strength of parties.’

‘You should not have forced me, Lady Manto,’ said the Captain of the yacht, in a grumbling tone, to his partner. ‘By weakening me, you prevented me bringing in my spades. We might have made the game.’

‘You should not have been forced,’ said Tiresias. ‘If she made a mistake, who was unacquainted with your plans, what a terrible blunder you committed to share her error without her ignorance!’

‘What, then, was I to lose a trick?’

‘Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity,’ replied Tiresias, ‘the most important thing in life is to know when to forego an advantage.’

‘I have cut you an honour, sir,’ said Manto.

‘Which reminds me,’ replied Tiresias, ‘that, in the last hand, your Majesty unfortunately forgot to lead through your adversary’s ace. I have often observed that nothing ever perplexes an adversary so much as an appeal to his honour.’

‘I will not forget to follow your advice,’ said the Captain of the yacht, playing accordingly.

‘By which you have lost the game,’ quietly remarked Tiresias. ‘There are exceptions to all rules, but it seldom answers to follow the advice of an opponent.’

‘Confusion!’ exclaimed the Captain of the yacht.

‘Four by honours, and the trick, I declare,’ said Proserpine. ‘I was so glad to see you turn up the queen, Tiresias.’

‘I also, madam. Without doubt there are few cards better than her royal consort, or, still more, the imperial ace. Nevertheless, I must confess, I am perfectly satisfied whenever I remember that I have the Queen on my side.’

Proserpine bowed.

‘I have a good mind to do it, Tiresias,’ said Queen Proserpine, as that worthy sage paid his compliments to her at her toilet, at an hour which should have been noon.

‘It would be a great compliment,’ said Tiresias.

‘And it is not much out of our way?’

‘By no means,’ replied the seer. ‘’Tis an agreeable half-way house. He lives in good style.’

‘And whence can a dethroned monarch gain a revenue?’.inquired the Queen.

‘Your Majesty, I see, is not at all learned in politics. A sovereign never knows what an easy income is till he has abdicated. He generally commences squabbling with his subjects about the supplies; he is then expelled, and voted, as compensation, an amount about double the sum which was the cause of the original quarrel.’

‘What do you think, Manto?’ said Proserpine, as that lady entered the cabin; ‘we propose paying a visit to Saturn. He has fixed his residence, you know, in these regions of twilight.’

‘I love a junket,’ replied Manto, ‘above all things. And, indeed, I was half frightened out of my wits at the bare idea of toiling over this desert. All is prepared, please your Majesty, for our landing. Your Majesty’s litter is quite ready.’

‘’Tis well,’ said Proserpine; and leaning on the arm of Manto, the Queen came upon deck, and surveyed the surrounding country, a vast grey flat, with a cloudless sky of the same tint: in the distance some lowering shadows, which seemed like clouds but were in fact mountains.

‘Some half-dozen hours,’ said Tiresias, ‘will bring us to the palace of Saturn. We shall arrive for dinner; the right hour. Let me recommend your Majesty to order the curtains of your litter to be drawn, and, if possible, to resume your dreams.’

‘They were not pleasant,’ said Proserpine, ‘I dreamt of my mother and the Parcæ. Manto, methinks I’ll read. Hast thou some book?’

‘Here is a poem, Madam, but I fear it may induce those very slumbers you dread.’

‘How call you it?’

‘“The Pleasures of Oblivion.” The poet apparently is fond of his subject.’

‘And is, I have no doubt, equal to it. Hast any prose?’

‘An historical novel or so.’

‘Oh! if you mean those things as full of costume as a fancy ball, and almost as devoid of sense, I’ll have none of them. Close the curtains; even visions of the Furies are preferable to these insipidities.’

The halt of the litter roused the Queen from her slumbers. ‘We have arrived,’ said Manto, as she assisted in withdrawing the curtains.

The train had halted before a vast propylon of rose-coloured granite. The gate was nearly two hundred feet in height, and the sides of the propylon, which rose like huge moles, were sculptured with colossal figures of a threatening aspect. Passing through the propylon, the Queen of Hell and her attendants entered an avenue in length about three-quarters of a mile, formed of colossal figures of the same character and substance, alternately raising in their arms javelins or battle-axes, as if about to strike. At the end of this heroic avenue appeared the palace of Saturn. Ascending a hundred steps of black marble, you stood before a portico supported by twenty columns of the same material and shading a single portal of bronze. Apparently the palace formed an immense quadrangle; a vast tower rising from each corner, and springing from the centre a huge and hooded dome. A crowd of attendants, in grey and sad-coloured raiment, issued from the portal of the palace at the approach of Proserpine, who remarked with strange surprise their singular countenances and demeanour; for rare in this silent assemblage was any visage resembling aught she had seen, human or divine. Some bore the heads of bats; of owls and beetles others; some fluttered moth-like wings, while the shoulders of other bipeds were surmounted, in spite of their human organisation, with the heads of rats and weasels, of marten-cats and of foxes. But they were all remarkably civil; and Proserpine, who was now used to wonders, did not shriek at all, and scarcely shuddered.

The Queen of Hell was ushered through a superb hall, and down a splendid gallery, to a suite of apartments where a body of damsels of a most distinguished appearance awaited her. Their heads resembled those of the most eagerly-sought, highly-prized, and oftenest-stolen lap-dogs. Upon the shoulders of one was the visage of the smallest and most thorough-bred little Blenheim in the world. Upon her front was a white star, her nose was nearly flat, and her ears were tied under her chin, with the most jaunty air imaginable. She was an evident flirt; and a solemn prude of a spaniel, with a black and tan countenance, who seemed a sort of duenna, evidently watched her with no little distrust. The admirers of blonde beauties would, however, have fallen in love with a poodle, with the finest head of hair imaginable, and most voluptuous shoulders. This brilliant band began barking in the most insinuating tone on the appearance of the Queen; and Manto, who was almost as dexterous a linguist as Tiresias himself, informed her Majesty that these were the ladies of her bed-chamber; upon which Proserpine, who, it will be remembered had no passion for dogs, ordered them immediately out of her room.

‘What a droll place!’ exclaimed the Queen. ‘Do you know, we are later than I imagined? A hasty toilet today; I long to see Saturn. It is droll, I am hungry. My purple velvet, I think; it may be considered a compliment. No diamonds, only jet; a pearl or two, perhaps. Didst ever see the King?

They say he is gentlemanlike, though a bigot. No! no rouge today; this paleness is quite apropos. Were I as radiant as usual, I should be taken for Aurora.’

So leaning on Manto, and preceded by the ladies of her bed-chamber, whom, notwithstanding their repulse, she found in due attendance in the antechamber, Proserpine again continued her progress down the gallery, until they stopped at a door, which opening, she was ushered into the grand circular saloon, crowned by the dome, whose exterior the Queen had already observed. The interior of this apartment was entirely of black and grey marble, with the exception of the dome itself, which was of ebony, richly carved and supported by more than a hundred columns. There depended from the centre of the arch a single chandelier of frosted silver, which was itself as big as an ordinary chamber, but of the most elegant form, and delicate and fantastic workmanship. As the Queen entered the saloon, a personage of venerable appearance, dressed in a suit of black velvet, and leaning on an ivory cane, advanced to salute her. There was no mistaking this personage; his manners were at once so courteous and so dignified. He was clearly their host; and Proserpine, who was quite charmed with his grey locks and his black velvet cap, his truly paternal air, and the beneficence of his unstudied smile, could scarcely refrain from bending her knee, and pressing her lips to his extended hand.

‘I am proud that your Majesty has remembered me in my retirement,’ said Saturn, as he led Proserpine to a seat.

Their mutual compliments were soon disturbed by the announcement of dinner, and Saturn offering his arm to the Queen with an air of politeness which belonged to the old school, but which the ladies admire in old men, handed Proserpine to the banqueting-room. They were followed by some of the principal personages of her Majesty’s suite, and a couple of young Titans, who enjoyed the posts of aides-decamp to the exKing, and whose duties consisted of carving at dinner.

It was a most agreeable dinner, and Proserpine was delighted with Saturn, who, of course, sat by her side, and paid her every possible attention. Saturn, whose manners, as has been observed, were of the old school, loved a good story, and told several. His anecdotes, especially of society previous to the Trojan war, were highly interesting. There ran through all his behaviour, too, a tone of high breeding and of consideration for others which was really charming; and Proserpine, who had expected to find in her host a gloomy bigot, was quite surprised at the truly liberal spirit with which he seemed to consider affairs in general. Indeed this unexpected tone made so great an impression upon her, that finding a good opportunity after dinner, when they were sipping their coffee apart from the rest of the company, she could not refrain from entering into some conversation with the exKing upon the subject, and the conversation ran thus:

‘Do you know,’ said Proserpine, ‘that much as I have been pleased and surprised during my visit to the realms of twilight, nothing has pleased, and I am sure nothing has surprised me more, than to observe the remarkably liberal spirit in which your Majesty views the affairs of the day.’

‘You give me a title, beautiful Proserpine, to which I have no claim,’ replied Saturn. ‘You forget that I am now only Count Hesperus; I am no longer a king, and believe me, I am very glad of it.’

‘What a pity, my dear sir, that you would not condescend to conform to the spirit of the age. For myself, I am quite a reformer.’

‘So I have understood, beautiful Proserpine, which I confess has a little surprised me; for to tell you the truth, I do not consider that reform is exactly our trade.’

‘Affairs cannot go on as they used,’ observed Proserpine, oracularly; ‘we must bow to the spirit of the age.’

‘And what is that?’ inquired Saturn.

‘I do not exactly know,’ replied Proserpine, ‘but one hears of it everywhere.’

‘I also heard of it a great deal,’ replied Saturn, ‘and was also recommended to conform to it. Before doing so, however, I thought it as well to ascertain its nature, and something also of its strength.’

‘It is terribly strong,’ observed Proserpine.

‘But you think it will be stronger?’ inquired the exKing.

‘Certainly; every day it is more powerful.’

‘Then if, on consideration, we were to deem resistance to it advisable, it is surely better to commence the contest at once than to postpone the struggle.’

‘It is useless to talk of resisting; one must conform.’

‘I certainly should consider resistance useless,’ replied Saturn, ‘for I tried it and failed; but at least one has a chance of success; and yet, having resisted this spirit and failed, I should not consider myself in a worse plight than you would voluntarily place yourself in by conforming to it.’

‘You speak riddles,’ said Proserpine.

‘To be plain, then,’ replied Saturn, ‘I think you may as well at once give up your throne, as conform to this spirit.’

‘And why so?’ inquired Proserpine very ingenuously.’

‘Because,’ replied Saturn, shrugging up his shoulders, ‘I look upon the spirit of the age as a spirit hostile to Kings and gods.’

The next morning Saturn himself attended his beautiful guest over his residence, which Proserpine greatly admired.

‘’Tis the work of the Titans,’ replied the exKing. ‘There never was a party so fond of building palaces.’

‘To speak the truth,’ said Proserpine, ‘I am a little disappointed that I have not had an opportunity, during my visit, of becoming acquainted with some of the chiefs of that celebrated party; for, although a Liberal, I am a female one, and I like to know every sort of person who is distinguished.’

‘The fact is,’ replied her host, ‘that the party has never recovered from the thunderbolt of that scheming knave Jupiter, and do not bear their defeat so philosophically as years, perhaps, permit me to do. If we have been vanquished by the spirit of the age,’ continued Saturn, ‘you must confess that, in our case, the conqueror did not assume a material form very remarkable for its dignity. Had Creation resolved itself into its original elements, had Chaos come again, or even old Coelus, the indignity might have been endured; but to be baffled by an Olympian juste milieu, and to find, after all the clamour, that nothing has been changed save the places, is, you will own, somewhat mortifying.’

‘But how do you reconcile,’ inquired the ingenuous Proserpine, ‘the success of Jupiter with the character which you ascribed last night to the spirit of the age?’

‘Why, in truth,’ said Saturn, ‘had I not entirely freed myself from all party feeling, I might adduce the success of my perfidious and worthless relative as very good demonstration that the spirit of the age is nothing better than an ignis fatuus. Nevertheless, we must discriminate. Even the success of Jupiter, although he now conducts himself in direct opposition to the emancipating principles he at first professed, is no less good evidence of their force; for by his professions he rose. And, for my part, I consider it a great homage to public opinion to find every scoundrel now-a-days professing himself a Liberal.’

‘You are candid;’ said Proserpine. ‘I should like very much to see the Titans.’

‘My friends are at least consistent,’ observed Saturn; ‘though certainly at present I can say little more for them. Between the despair of one section of the party, and the over-sanguine expectations of the other, they are at present quite inactive, or move only to ensure fresh rebuffs.’

‘You see little of them, then?’

‘They keep to themselves: they generally frequent a lonely vale in the neighbourhood.’

‘I should so like to see them!’ exclaimed Proserpine.

‘Say nothing to Tiresias,’ said old Saturn, who was half in love with his fair friend, ‘and we will steal upon them unperceived.’ So saying, the god struck the earth with his cane, and there instantly sprang forth a convenient car, built of curiously carved cedar, and borne by four enormous tawny-coloured owls. Seating himself by the side of the delighted Proserpine, Saturn commanded the owls to bear them to the Valley of Lamentations.

’Twas an easy fly: the chariot soon descended upon the crest of a hill: and Saturn and Proserpine, leaving the car, commenced, by a winding path, the slight ascent of a superior elevation. Having arrived there, they looked down upon a valley, apparently land-locked by black and barren mountains of the most strange, although picturesque forms. In the centre of the valley was a black pool or tarn, bordered with dark purple flags of an immense size, twining and twisting among which might be observed the glancing and gliding folds of several white serpents; while crocodiles and alligators, and other horrible forms, poked their foul snouts with evident delight in a vast mass of black slime, which had, at various times, exuded from the lake. A single tree only was to be observed in this desolate place, an enormous and blasted cedar, with scarcely a patch of verdure, but extending its black and barren branches nearly across the valley. Seated on a loosened crag, but leaning against the trunk of the cedar, with his arms folded, his mighty eyes fixed on the ground, and his legs crossed with that air of complete repose which indicates that their owner is in no hurry again to move them, was

‘A form, some granite god we deemed,

Or king of palmy Nile, colossal shapes

Such as Syene’s rosy quarries yield

To Memphian art; Horus, Osiris called,

Or Amenoph, who, on the Theban plain,

With magic melody the sun salutes;

Or he, far mightier, to whose conquering car

Monarchs were yoked, Rameses: by the Greeks

Sesostris styled. And yet no sculptor’s art

Moulded this shape, for form it seemed of flesh,

Yet motionless; its dim unlustrous orbs

Gazing in stilly vacancy, its cheek

Grey as its hairs, which, thin as they might seem,

No breath disturbed; a solemn countenance,

Not sorrowful, though full of woe sublime,

As if despair were now a distant dream

Too dim for memory.’

‘’Tis their great leader,’ said Saturn, as he pointed out the Titan to Proserpine, ‘the giant Enceladus. He got us into all our scrapes, but I must do him the justice to add, that he is the only one who can ever get us out of them. They say he has no heart; but I think his hook nose is rather fine.’

‘Superb!’ said Proserpine. ‘And who is that radiant and golden-haired youth who is seated at his feet?’

‘’Tis no less a personage than Hyperion himself,’ replied Saturn, ‘the favourite counsellor of Enceladus. He is a fine orator, and makes up by his round sentences and choice phrases for the rhetorical deficiencies of his chief, who, to speak the truth, is somewhat curt and husky. They have enough now to do to manage their comrades and keep a semblance of discipline in their routed ranks. Mark that ferocious Briareus there scowling in a corner! Didst ever see such a moustache! He glances, methinks, with an evil eye on the mighty Enceladus; and, let me tell you, Briareus has a great following among them; so they say of him you know, that he hath fifty heads and a hundred arms. See! how they gather around him.’

‘Who speaks now to Briareus?’ ‘The young and valiant Mimas. Be assured he is counselling war. We shall have a debate now.’

‘Yon venerable personage, who is seated by the margin of the pool, and weeping with the crocodiles ———’

‘Is old Oceanus.’

‘He is apparently much affected by his overthrow.’ ‘It is his wont to weep. He used to cry when he fought, and yet he was a powerful warrior.’ ‘Hark!’ said Proserpine.

The awful voice of Briareus broke the silence. What a terrible personage was Briareus! His wild locks hung loose about his shoulders, and blended with his unshorn beard.

‘Titans!’ shouted the voice which made many a heart tremble, and the breathless Proserpine clasp the arm of Saturn. ‘Titans! Is that spirit dead that once heaped Ossa upon Pelion? Is it forgotten, even by ourselves, that a younger born revels in our heritage? Are these forms that surround me, indeed, the shapes at whose dread sight the base Olympians fled to their fitting earth? Warriors, whose weapons were the rocks, whose firebrands were the burning woods, is the day forgotten when Jove himself turned craven, and skulked in Egypt? At least my memory is keen enough to support my courage, and whatever the dread Enceladus may counsel, my voice is still for war!’

There ensued, after this harangue of Briareus, a profound and thrilling silence, which was, however, broken in due time by the great leader of the Titans himself.

‘You mouth it well, Briareus,’ replied Enceladus calmly. ‘And if great words would reseat us in Olympus, doubtless, with your potent aid, we might succeed. It never should be forgotten, however, that had we combined at first, in the spirit now recommended, the Olympians would never have triumphed; and least of all our party should Briareus and his friends forget the reasons of our disunion.’

‘I take thy sneer, Enceladus,’ said the young and chivalric Mimas, ‘and throw it in thy teeth. This learn, then, from Briareus and his friends, that if we were lukewarm in the hour of peril, the fault lies not to our account, but with those who had previously so conducted themselves, that, when the danger arrived, it was impossible for us to distinguish between our friends and our foes. Enceladus apparently forgets that had the Olympians never been permitted to enter Heaven, it would have been unnecessary ever to have combined against their machinations.’

‘Recrimination is useless,’ said a Titan, interposing. ‘I was one of those who supported Enceladus in the admission of the Olympians above, and I regret it. But at the time, like others, I believed it to be the only mode of silencing the agitation of Jupiter.’

‘I separated from Enceladus on that question,’ said a huge Titan, lying his length on the ground and leaning one arm on a granite crag; ‘but I am willing to forget all our differences and support him with all my heart and strength in another effort to restore our glorious constitution.’

‘Titans,’ said Enceladus, ‘who is there among you who has found me a laggard in the day of battle?’

When the Olympians, as Briareus thinks it necessary to remind you, fled, I was your leader. Remember, however, then, that there were no thunderbolts. As for myself, I candidly confess to you, that, since the invention of these weapons by Jove, I do not see how war can be carried on by us any longer with effect.’

‘By the memory of old Coelus and these fast-flowing tears,’ murmured the venerable Oceanus, patting at the same time a crocodile on the back, ‘I call you all to witness that I have no interest to deceive you. Nevertheless, we should not forget that, in this affair of the thunderbolts, it is the universal opinion that there is a very considerable reaction. I have myself, only within these few days, received authentic information that several have fallen of late without any visible ill effects; and I am credibly assured that, during the late storm in Thessaly, a thunderbolt was precipitated into the centre of a vineyard, without affecting the flavour of a single grape.’

Here several of the Titans, who had gathered round Enceladus, shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders, and a long and desultory conversation ensued upon the copious and very controversial subject of Re-action. In the meantime Rhoetus, a young Titan, whispered to one of his companions, that for his part he was convinced that the only way to beat the Olympians was to turn them into ridicule; and that he would accordingly commence at once with the pasquinade on the private life of Jupiter, and some peculiarly delicate criticisms on the characters of the goddesses.

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