The Infernal Marriage, by Benjamin Disraeli

Part iv.

Containing the First View of Elysium

THE toilsome desert was at length passed, and the royal cavalcade ascended the last chasm of mountains that divided Elysium, or the Regions of Bliss, from the Realm of Twilight. As she quitted those dim and dreary plains, the spirit of Proserpine grew lighter, and she indulged in silent but agreeable anticipations of the scene which she was now approaching. On reaching, however, the summit of the mountainous chain, and proceeding a short distance over the rugged table-land into which it now declined, her Majesty was rather alarmed at perceiving that her progress was impeded by a shower of flame that extended, on either side, as far as the eye could reach. Her alarm, however, was of short continuance; for, on the production of his talisman by Tiresias, the shower of flame instantly changed into silvery drops of rose-water and other delicious perfumes. Amid joyous peals of laughter, and some slight playful screams on the part of the ladies, the cavalcade ventured through the ordeal. Now the effect of this magical bath was quite marvellous. A burthen seemed suddenly to have been removed from the spirits of the whole party; their very existence seemed renewed; the blood danced about their veins in the liveliest manner imaginable; and a wild but pleasing titillation ran like lightning through their nerves, their countenances sparkled with excitement; and they all talked at the same time. Proserpine was so occupied with her own sensations, that she did not immediately remark the extraordinary change that had occurred in the appearance of the country immediately on passing this magical barrier. She perceived that their course now led over the most elastic and carefully-shaven turf; groups of beautiful shrubs occasionally appeared, and she discovered with delight that their flowers constantly opened, and sent forth from their bells diminutive birds of radiant plumage. Above them, too, the clouds vanished, and her head was canopied by a sky, unlike, indeed, all things and tints of earth, but which reminded her, in some degree, of the splendour of Olympus.

Proserpine, restless with delight, quitted her litter, and followed by Manto, ran forward to catch the first view of Elysium.

‘I am quite out of breath,’ said her Majesty, ‘and really must sit down on this bank of violets. Was ever anything in the world so delightful? Why, Olympus is nothing to it! And after Tartarus, too, and that poor unhappy Saturn, and his Titans and his twilight, it really is too much for me. How I do long for the view! and yet, somehow or other, my heart beats so I cannot walk.’

‘Will your Majesty reascend your litter?’ suggested Manto.

‘Oh, no! that is worse than anything. They are a mile behind; they are so slow. Why, Manto! what is this?’

A beautiful white dove hovered in the air over the head of Proserpine and her attendant, and then dropping an olive branch into the lap of the Queen, flapped its wings and whirled away. But what an olive branch! the stem was of agate; each leaf was an emerald; and on the largest, in letters of brilliants, was this inscription:

The Elysians to Their Beautiful Queen

‘Oh, is it not superb?’ exclaimed Proserpine. ‘What charming people, and what excellent subjects! What loyalty and what taste!’

So saying, the enraptured Proserpine rose from the bank of violets, and had scarcely run forwards fifty yards when she suddenly stopped, and started with an exclamation of wonder. The table-land had ceased. She stood upon a precipice of white marble, in many parts clothed with thick bowers of myrtle; before her extended the wide-spreading plains of Elysium. They were bounded upon all sides by gentle elevations entirely covered with flowers, and occasionally shooting forward into the champaign country; behind these appeared a range of mountains clothed with bright green forests, and still loftier heights behind them, exhibiting, indeed, only bare and sharply-pointed peaks glittering with prismatic light. The undulating plain was studded in all directions with pavilions and pleasure-houses, and groves and gardens glowing with the choicest and most charming fruit; and a broad blue river wound through it, covered with brilliant boats, the waters flashing with phosphoric light as they were cut by the swift and gliding keels. And in the centre of the plain rose a city, a mighty group of all that was beautiful in form and costly in materials, bridges and palaces and triumphal gates of cedar and of marble, columns and minarets of gold, and cupolas and domes of ivory; and ever and anon appeared delicious gardens, raised on the terraces of the houses; and groups of palm trees with their tall, thin stems, and quivering and languid crests, rose amid the splendid masonry. A sweet soft breeze touched the cheek of the entranced Proserpine, and a single star of silver light glittered in the rosy sky.

‘’Tis my favourite hour,’ exclaimed Proserpine..Thus have I gazed upon Hesperus in the meads of Enna! What a scene! How fortunate that we should have arrived at sunset!’

‘Ah, Madam!’ observed Manto, ‘in Elysium the sky is ever thus. For the Elysians, the sun seems always to have just set!’

‘Fortunate people!’ replied Proserpine. ‘In them, immortality and enjoyment seem indeed blended together. A strange feeling, half of languor, half of voluptuousness, steals over my senses! It seems that I at length behold the region of my girlish dreams. Such once I fancied Olympus. Ah! why does not my Pluto live in Elysium?’

The Elysians consisted of a few thousand beatified mortals, the only occupation of whose existence was enjoyment; the rest of the population comprised some millions of Gnomes and Sylphs, who did nothing but work, and ensured by their labour the felicity of the superior class. Every Elysian, male or female, possessed a magnificent palace in the city, and an elegant pavilion on the plain; these, with a due proportion of chariots, horses, and slaves, constituted a proper establishment. The Sylphs and the Gnomes were either scattered about the country, which they cultivated, or lived in the city, where they kept shops, and where they emulated each other in displaying the most ingenious articles of luxury and convenience for the enjoyment and accommodation of the Elysians. The townspeople, indeed, rather affected to look down upon the more simple-minded agriculturists; but if these occasionally felt a little mortification in consequence, they might have been consoled, had they been aware that their brethren and sisters who were in the service of the Elysians avenged their insults, for these latter were the finest Gnomes and Sylphs imaginable, and scarcely deigned to notice any one who was in trade. Whether there were any coin or other circulating medium current in Elysium is a point respecting which I must confess I have not sufficient information to decide; but if so, it certainly would appear that all money transactions were confined to the Gnomes and the Sylphs, for the Elysians certainly never paid for anything. Perhaps this exemption might have been among their peculiar privileges, and was a substitute for what we call credit, a convenience of which the ancients appear to have had a limited conception. The invention, by Jupiter, of an aristocratic immortality, as a reward for a well-spent life on earth, appears to have been an ingenious idea. It really is a reward, very stimulative of good conduct before we shuffle off the mortal coil, and remarkably contrasts with the democracy of the damned. The Elysians, with a splendid climate, a teeming soil, and a nation made on purpose to wait upon them, of course enjoyed themselves very much. The arts flourished, the theatres paid, and they had a much finer opera than at Ephesus or at Halicarnassus. Their cookery was so refined, that one of the least sentimental ceremonies in the world was not only deprived of all its grossness, but was actually converted into an elegant amusement, and so famous that their artists were even required at Olympus. If their dinners were admirable, which is rare, their assemblies were amusing, which is still more uncommon. All the arts of society were carried to perfection in Elysium; a dull thing was never said, and an awkward thing never done. The Elysians, indeed, being highly refined and gifted, for they comprised in their order the very cream of terrestrial society, were naturally a liberal-minded race of nobles, and capable of appreciating every kind of excellence. If a Gnome or a Sylph, therefore, in any way distinguished themselves; if they sang very well, or acted very well, or if they were at all eminent for any of the other arts of amusement, ay! indeed if the poor devils could do nothing better than write a poem or a novel, they were sure to be noticed by the Elysians, who always bowed to them as they passed by, and sometimes indeed even admitted them into their circles.

Scarcely had the train of Proserpine rejoined her on the brink of the precipice, than they heard the flourish of trumpets near at hand, soon followed by a complete harmony of many instruments. A chorus of sweet voices was next distinguished, growing each instant more loud and clear; and in a few minutes, issuing from a neighbouring grove, came forth a band of heroes and beautiful women, dressed in dazzling raiment, to greet the Queen. A troop of chariots of light and airy workmanship followed, and a crowd of Gnomes and Sylphs singing and playing on various instruments, and dancing with gestures of grace and delicacy. Congratulating the Queen on her arrival in Elysium, and requesting the honour of being permitted to attend her to her palace, they ushered Proserpine and her companions to the chariots, and soon, winding down a gradual declivity, they entered the plain.

If a bird’s-eye view of the capital had enchanted Proserpine, the agreeable impression was not diminished, as is generally the case, by her entrance into the city. Never were so much splendour and neatness before combined. Passing through a magnificent arch, Proserpine entered a street of vast and beautiful proportions, lined on each side with palaces of various architecture, painted admirably in fresco, and richly gilt. The road was formed of pounded marbles of various colours, laid down in fanciful patterns, and forming an unrivalled mosaic; it was bounded on each side by a broad causeway of jasper, of a remarkably bright green, clouded with milk-white streaks. This street led to a sumptuous square, forming alone the palace destined for Proserpine. Its several fronts were supported and adorned by ten thousand columns, imitating the palm and the lotus; nor is it possible to conceive anything more light and graceful than the general effect of this stupendous building. Each front was crowned with an immense dome of alabaster, so transparent, that when the palace was illuminated the rosy heaven grew pale, and an effect similar to moonlight was diffused over the canopy of Elysium. And in the centre of the square a Leviathan, carved in white coral, and apparently flouncing in a huge basin of rock crystal, spouted forth from his gills a fountain twelve hundred feet in height; from one gill ascended a stream of delicious wine, which might be tempered, if necessary, by the iced water that issued from the other.

At the approach of the Queen, the gigantic gates of the palace, framed of carved cedar, flew open with a thrilling burst of music, and Proserpine found herself in a hall wherein several hundred persons, who formed her household, knelt in stillness before her. Wearied with her long journey, and all the excitement of the day, Proserpine signified to one of the Elysians in attendance her desire for refreshment and repose. Immediately the household rose, and gracefully bowing retired in silence, while four ladies of the bed-chamber, very different from the dogfaced damsels of the realm of Twilight, advanced with a gracious smile, and each pressing a white hand to her heart, invited her Majesty to accompany them. Twelve beautiful pages in fanciful costume, and each bearing a torch of cinnamon, preceded them, and Proserpine ascended a staircase of turquoise and silver. As she passed along, she caught glimpses of costly galleries, and suites of gorgeous chambers, but she was almost too fatigued to distinguish anything. A confused vision of long lines of white columns, roofs of carved cedar, or ceilings glowing with forms of exquisite beauty, walls covered with lifelike tapestry, or reflecting in their mighty mirrors her own hurrying figure, and her picturesque attendants, alone remained. She rejoiced when she at length arrived in a small chamber, in which preparations evidently denoted that it was intended she should rest. It was a pretty little saloon, brilliantly illuminated, and hung with tapestry depicting a party of nymphs and shepherds feasting in an Arcadian scene. In the middle of the chamber a banquet was prepared, and as Proserpine seated herself, and partook of some of the delicacies which a page immediately presented to her, there arose, from invisible musicians, a joyous and festive strain, which accompanied her throughout her repast. When her Majesty had sufficiently refreshed herself, and as the banquet was removing, the music assumed a softer and more subduing, occasionally even a solemn tone; the tapestry, slowly shifting, at length represented the same characters sunk in repose; the attendants all this time gradually extinguishing the lights, and stealing on tiptoe from the chamber. So that, at last, the music, each moment growing fainter, entirely ceased; the figures on the tapestry were scarcely perceptible by the dim lustre of a single remaining lamp; and the slumbering Proserpine fell back upon her couch.

But the Queen of Hell was not destined to undisturbed repose. A dream descended on her brain, and the dream was terrible and strange. She beheld herself a child, playing, as was her wont, in the gardens of Enna, twining garlands of roses, and chasing butterflies. Suddenly, from a bosky thicket of myrtle, slowly issued forth an immense serpent, dark as night, but with eyes of the most brilliant tint, and approached the daughter of Ceres. The innocent child, ignorant of evil, beheld the monster without alarm. Not only did she neither fly nor shriek, but she even welcomed and caressed the frightful stranger, patted its voluminous back, and admired its sparkling vision. The serpent, fascinated instead of fascinating, licked her feet with his arrowy tongue, and glided about for her diversion in a thousand shapes. Emboldened by its gentleness, the little Proserpine at length even mounted on its back, and rode in triumph among her bowers. Every day the dark serpent issued from the thicket, and every day he found a welcome playmate. Now it come to pass that one day the serpent, growing more bold, induced the young Proserpine to extend her ride beyond the limits of Enna. Night came on, and as it was too late to return, the serpent carried her to a large cave, where it made for her a couch of leaves, and while she slept the affectionate monster kept guard for her protection at the mouth of the cavern. For some reason or other which was not apparent, for in dreams there are always some effects without causes, Proserpine never returned to Enna, but remained and resided with cheerfulness in this cavern. Each morning the serpent went forth alone to seek food for its charge, and regularly returned with a bough in its mouth laden with delicious fruits. One day, during the absence of her guardian, a desire seized Proserpine to quit the cavern, and accordingly she went forth. The fresh air and fragrance of the earth were delightful to her, and she roamed about, unconscious of time, and thoughtless of her return. And as she sauntered along, singing to herself, a beautiful white dove, even the same dove that had welcomed her in the morning on the heights of Elysium, flew before her with its wings glancing in the sunshine. It seemed that the bird wished to attract the attention of the child, so long and so closely did it hover about her; now resting on a branch, as if inviting capture, and then skimming away only to return more swiftly; and occasionally, when for a moment unnoticed, even slightly flapping the rambler with its plume. At length the child was taken with a fancy to catch the bird. But no sooner had she evinced this desire, than the bird, once apparently so anxious to be noticed, seemed resolved to lead her a weary chase; and hours flew away ere Proserpine, panting and exhausted, had captured the beautiful rover and pressed it to her bosom.

It was, indeed, a most beautiful bird, and its possession repaid her for all her exertions. But lo! as she stood, in a wild sylvan scene caressing it, smoothing its soft plumage, and pressing its head to her cheek, she beheld in the distance approaching her the serpent, and she beheld her old friend with alarm. Apparently her misgiving was not without cause. She observed in an instant that the appearance and demeanour of the serpent were greatly changed. It approached her swift as an arrow, its body rolling in the most agitated contortions, its jaws were distended as if to devour her, its eyes flashed fire, its tongue was a forked flame, and its hiss was like a stormy wind. Proserpine shrieked, and the Queen of Hell awoke from her dream.

The next morning the Elysian world called to pay their respects to Proserpine. Her Majesty, indeed, held a drawing-room, which was fully and brilliantly attended. Her beauty and her graciousness were universally pronounced enchanting. From this moment the career of Proserpine was a series of magnificent entertainments. The principal Elysians vied with each other in the splendour and variety of the amusements, which they offered to the notice of their Queen. Operas, plays, balls, and banquets followed in dazzling succession. Proserpine, who was almost inexperienced in society, was quite fascinated. She regretted the years she had wasted in her Sicilian solitude; she marvelled that she ever could have looked forward with delight to a dull annual visit to Olympus; she almost regretted that, for the sake of an establishment, she could have been induced to cast her lot in the regal gloom of Tartarus. Elysium exactly suited her. The beauty of the climate and the country, the total absence of care, the constant presence of amusement, the luxury, gaiety, and refined enjoyment perfectly accorded with her amiable disposition, her lively fancy and her joyous temper. She drank deep and eagerly of the cup of pleasure. She entered into all the gay pursuits of her subjects; she even invented new combinations of diversion. Under her inspiring rule every one confessed that Elysium became every day more Elysian. The manners of her companions greatly pleased her. She loved those faces always wreathed with smiles, yet never bursting into laughter. She was charmed at the amiable tone in which they addressed each other. Never apparently were people at the same time so agreeable, so obliging, and so polished. For in all they said and did might be detected that peculiar air of high-breeding which pervades the whole conduct of existence with a certain indefinable spirit of calmness, so that your nerves are never shaken by too intense an emotion, which eventually produces a painful reaction. Whatever they did, the Elysians were careful never to be vehement; a grand passion, indeed, was unknown in these happy regions; love assumed the milder form of flirtation; and as for enmity, you were never abused except behind your back, or it exuded itself in an epigram, or, at the worst, a caricature scribbled upon a fan.

There is one characteristic of the Elysians which, in justice to them, I ought not to have omitted. They were eminently a moral people. If a lady committed herself, she was lost for ever, and packed off immediately to the realm of Twilight. Indeed, they were so particular, that the moment one of the softer sex gave the slightest symptoms of preference to a fortunate admirer, the Elysian world immediately began to look unutterable things, shrug its moral shoulders, and elevate its charitable eyebrows. But if the preference, by any unlucky chance, assumed the nobler aspect of devotion, and the unhappy fair one gave any indication of really possessing a heart, rest assured she was already half way on the road to perdition. Then commenced one of the most curious processes imaginable, peculiar I apprehend to Elysium, but which I record that the society of less fortunate lands may avail itself of the advantage, and adopt the regulation in its moral police. Immediately that it was clearly ascertained that two persons of different sexes took an irrational interest in each other’s society, all the world instantly went about, actuated by a purely charitable sentiment, telling the most extraordinary falsehoods concerning them that they could devise. Thus it was the fashion to call at one house and announce that you had detected the unhappy pair in a private box at the theatre, and immediately to pay your respects at another mansion and declare that you had observed them on the very same day, and at the very same hour, in a boat on the river. At the next visit, the gentleman had been discovered driving her in his cab; and in the course of the morning the scene of indiscretion was the Park, where they had been watched walking by moonlight, muffled up in sables and cashmeres.

This curious process of diffusing information was known in Elysium under the title of ’being talked about;’ and although the stories thus disseminated were universally understood to be fictions, the Elysians ascribed great virtue to the proceeding, maintaining that many an indiscreet fair one had been providentially alarmed by thus becoming the subject of universal conversation; that thus many a reputation had been saved by this charitable slander. There were some malignant philosophers, indeed, doubtless from that silly love of paradox in all ages too prevalent, who pretended that all this Elysian morality was one great delusion, and that this scrupulous anxiety about the conduct of others arose from a principle, not of Purity, but of Corruption. The woman who is ‘talked about,’ these sages would affirm, is generally virtuous, and she is only abused because she devotes to one the charms which all wish to enjoy.

Thus Dido, who is really one of the finest creatures that ever existed, and who with a majestic beauty combines an heroic soul, has made her way with difficulty to the Elysian circle, to which her charms and rank entitle her; while Helen, who, from her very début, has been surrounded by fifty lovers, and whose intrigues have ever been notorious, is the very queen of fashion; and all this merely because she has favoured fifty instead of one, and in the midst of all her scrapes has contrived to retain the countenance of her husband.

Apropos of Dido, the Queen of Carthage was the person in all Elysium for whom Proserpine took the greatest liking. Exceedingly beautiful, with the most generous temper and the softest heart in the world, and blessed by nature with a graceful simplicity of manner, which fashion had never sullied, it really was impossible to gaze upon the extraordinary brilliancy of her radiant countenance, to watch the symmetry of her superb figure, and to listen to the artless yet lively observations uttered by a voice musical as a bell, without being fairly bewitched.

When we first enter society, we are everywhere; yet there are few, I imagine, who, after a season, do not subside into a coterie. When the glare of saloons has ceased to dazzle, and we are wearied with the heartless notice of a crowd, we require refinement and sympathy. We find them, and we sink into a clique. And after all, can the river of life flow on more agreeably than in a sweet course of pleasure with those we love? To wander in the green shade of secret woods and whisper our affection; to float on the sunny waters of some gentle stream, and listen to a serenade; to canter with a light-hearted cavalcade over breezy downs, or cool our panting chargers in the summer stillness of winding and woody lanes; to banquet with the beautiful and the witty; to send care to the devil, and indulge the whim of the moment; the priest, the warrior and the statesman may frown and struggle as they like; but this is existence, and this, this is Elysium!

So Proserpine deemed when, wearied with the monotony of the great world, she sought refuge in the society of Dido and Atalanta, Achilles, Amphion, and Patroclus or Memnon. When Æneas found that Dido had become fashionable, he made overtures for a reconciliation, but Dido treated him with calm contempt. The pious Æneas, indeed, was the aversion of Proserpine. He was the head of the Elysian saints, was president of a society to induce the Gnomes only to drink water, and was so horrified at the general conduct of the Elysians, that he questioned the decrees of Minos and Rhadamanthus, who had permitted them to enter the happy region so easily. The pious Æneas was of opinion that everybody ought to have been damned except himself. Proserpine gave him no encouragement. Achilles was the finest gentleman in Elysium. No one dressed or rode like him. He was very handsome, very witty, very unaffected, and had an excellent heart. Achilles was the leader of the Elysian youth, who were indeed devoted to him: Proserpine took care, therefore, that he should dangle in her train. Amphion had a charming voice for a supper after the opera. He was a handsome little fellow, but not to be depended upon. He broke a heart, or a dinner engagement, with the same reckless sentimentality; for he was one of those who always weep when they betray you, and whom you are sure never to see again immediately that they have vowed eternal friendship. Patroclus was a copy of Achilles without his talents and vivacity, but elegant and quiet. Of all these, Memnon was perhaps the favourite of Proserpine; nor must he be forgotten; amiable, gay, brilliant, the child of whim and impulse, in love with every woman he met for four-and-twenty hours, and always marvelling at his own delusion!

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