Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 29

There is something very pleasant in a summer suburban ride in the valley of the Thames. London transforms itself into bustling Knightsbridge, and airy Brompton, brightly and gracefully, lingers cheerfully in the long, miscellaneous, well-watered King’s-road, and only says farewell when you come to an abounding river and a picturesque bridge. The boats were bright upon the waters when Lothair crossed it, and his dark chestnut barb, proud of its resplendent form, curveted with joy when it reached a green common, studded occasionally with a group of pines and well bedecked with gorse. After this he pursued the public road for a couple of miles until he observed on his left hand a gate on which was written “private road,” and here he stopped. The gate was locked, but, when Lothair assured the keeper that he was about to visit Belmont, he was permitted to enter.

He entered a green and winding lane, fringed with tall elms, and dim with fragrant shade, and, after proceeding about half a mile, came to a long, low-built lodge, with a thatched and shelving roof, and surrounded by a rustic colonnade covered with honeysuckle. Passing through the gate at hand, he found himself in a road winding through gently-undulating banks of exquisite turf, studded with rare shrubs, and, occasionally, rarer trees. Suddenly the confined scene expanded; wide lawns spread out before him, shadowed with the dark forms of many huge cedars, and blazing with flower-beds of every hue. The house was also apparent, a stately mansion of hewn stone, with wings and a portico of Corinthian columns, and backed by deep woods.

This was Belmont, built by a favorite minister of state, to whom a grateful and gracious sovereign had granted a slice of a royal park whereon to raise a palace and a garden, and find occasionally Tusculan repose.

The lady of the mansion was at home, and, though Lothair was quite prepared for this, his heart beat. The inner hall was of noble proportion, and there were ranged in it many Roman busts, and some ancient slabs and altars of marble. These had been collected some century ago by the minister; but what immediately struck the eye of Lothair were two statues by an American artist, and both of fame, the Sybil and the Cleopatra. He had heard of these, but had never seen them, and could not refrain from lingering a moment to gaze upon their mystical and fascinating beauty.

He proceeded through two spacious and lofty chambers, of which it was evident the furniture was new. It was luxurious and rich, and full of taste; but there was no attempt to recall the past in the details; no cabinets and clocks of French kings, or tables of French queens, no chairs of Venetian senators, no candelabra, that had illumined Doges of Genoa, no ancient porcelain of rare schools, and ivory carvings and choice enamels. The walls were hung with master-pieces of modern art, chiefly of the French school, Ingres and Delaroche and Scheffer.

The last saloon led into a room of smaller dimensions, opening on the garden, and which Lothair at first thought must be a fernery, it seemed so full of choice and expanding specimens of that beautiful and multiform plant; but, when his eye had become a little accustomed to the scene and to the order of the groups, he perceived they were only the refreshing and profuse ornaments of a regularly furnished and inhabited apartment. In its centre was a table covered with writing-materials and books and some music. There was a chair before the table, so placed as if some one had only recently quitted it; a book was open, but turned upon its face, with an ivory cutter by its side. It would seem that the dweller in the chamber might not be far distant. The servant invited Lothair to be seated, and, saying that Mrs. Campian must be in the garden, proceeded to inform his mistress of the arrival of a guest.

The room opened on a terrace adorned with statues and orange-trees, and descending gently into a garden in the Italian style, in the centre of which was a marble fountain of many figures. The grounds were not extensive, but they were only separated from the royal park by a wire fence, so that the scene seemed alike rich and illimitable. On the boundary was a summer-house in the shape of a classic temple, one of those pavilions of pleasure which nobles loved to raise in the last century.

As Lothair beheld the scene with gratification, the servant reappeared on the step of the terrace and invited him to descend. Guiding him through the garden, the servant retired as Lothair recognized Mrs. Campian approaching them.

She gave her hand to Lothair and welcomed him cordially but with serenity. They mutually exchanged hopes that their return to town had been agreeable. Lothair could not refrain from expressing how pleased he was with Belmont.

“I am glad you approve of our hired home,” said Theodora; “I think we were fortunate in finding one that suits our tastes and habits. We love pictures and statues and trees and flowers, and yet we love our friends, and our friends are people who live in cities.”

“I think I saw two statues today of which I have often heard,” said Lothair.

“The Sibyl and Cleopatra! Yes Colonel Campian is rather proud of possessing them. He collects only modern art, for which I believe there is a great future, though some of our friends think it is yet in its cradle.”

“I am very sorry to say,” said Lothair, “that I know very little about art, or indeed any thing else, but I admire what is beautiful. I know something about architecture, at least church architecture.”

“Well, religion has produced some of our finest buildings,” said Theodora; “there is no question of that; and as long as they are adapted to what takes place in them they are admirable. The fault I find in modern churches in this country is, that there is little relation between the ceremonies and the structure. Nobody seems now conscious that every true architectural form has a purpose. But I think the climax of confused ideas is capped when dissenting chapels are built like cathedrals.”

“Ah! to build a cathedral!” exclaimed Lothair, “that is a great enterprise. I wish I might show you some day some drawings I have of a projected cathedral.”

“A projected cathedral!” said Theodora. “Well, I must confess to you I never could comprehend the idea of a Protestant cathedral.”

“But I am not quite sure,” said Lothair, blushing and agitated, “that it will be a Protestant cathedral. I have not made up my mind about that.”

Theodora glanced at him, unobserved, with her wonderful gray eyes; a sort of supernatural light seemed to shoot from beneath their long dark lashes and read his inmost nature. They were all this time returning, as she had suggested, to the house. Rather suddenly she said, “By-the-by, as you are so fond of art, I ought to have asked you whether you would like to see a work by the sculptor of Cleopatra, which arrived when we were at Oxford. We have placed it on a pedestal in the temple. It is the Genius of Freedom. I may say I was assisting at its inauguration when your name was announced to me.”

Lothair caught at this proposal, and they turned and approached the temple. Some workmen were leaving the building as they entered, and one or two lingered.

Upon a pedestal of porphyry rose the statue of a female in marble. Though veiled with drapery which might have become the Goddess of Modesty, admirable art permitted the contour of the perfect form to be traced. The feet were without sandals, and the undulating breadth of one shoulder, where the drapery was festooned, remained uncovered. One expected with such a shape some divine visage. That was not wanting; but humanity was asserted in the transcendent brow, which beamed with sublime thought and profound enthusiasm.

Some would have sighed that such beings could only be pictured in a poet’s or an artist’s dream, but Lothair felt that what he beheld with rapture was no ideal creation, and that he was in the presence of the inspiring original.

“It is too like!” he murmured.

“It is the most successful recurrence to the true principles of art in modern sculpture,” said a gentleman on his right hand.

This person was a young man, though more than ten years older than Lothair. His appearance was striking. Above the middle height, his form, athletic though lithe and symmetrical, was crowned by a countenance aquiline but delicate, and from many circumstances of a remarkable radiancy. The lustre of his complexion, the fire of his eye, and his chestnut hair in profuse curls, contributed much to this dazzling effect. A thick but small mustache did not conceal his curved lip or the scornful pride of his distended nostril, and his beard, close but not long, did not veil the singular beauty of his mouth. It was an arrogant face, daring and vivacious, yet weighted with an expression of deep and haughty thought.

The costume of this gentleman was rich and picturesque. Such extravagance of form and color is sometimes encountered in the adventurous toilet of a country house, but rarely experienced in what might still be looked upon as a morning visit in the metropolis.

“You know Mr. Phoebus?” asked a low, clear voice, and turning round Lothair was presented to a person so famous that even Lothair had heard of him.

Mr. Phoebus was the most successful, not to say the most eminent, painter of the age. He was the descendant of a noble family of Gascony that had emigrated to England from France in the reign of Louis XIV. Unquestionably they had mixed their blood frequently during the interval and the vicissitudes of their various life; but, in Gaston Phoebus, Nature, as is sometimes her wont, had chosen to reproduce exactly the original type. He was the Gascon noble of the sixteenth century, with all his brilliancy, bravery, and boastfulness, equally vain, arrogant, and eccentric, accomplished in all the daring or the graceful pursuits of man, yet nursed in the philosophy of our times.

“It is presumption in my talking about such things,” said Lothair; “but might I venture to ask what you may consider the true principles of art?”

“ARYAN principles,” said Mr. Phoebus; “not merely the study of Nature, but of beautiful Nature; the art of design in a country inhabited by a first-rate race, and where the laws, the manners, the customs, are calculated to maintain the health and beauty of a first-rate race. In a greater or less degree, these conditions obtained from the age of Pericles to the age of Hadrian in pure Aryan communities, but Semitism began then to prevail, and ultimately triumphed. Semitism has destroyed art; it taught man to despise his own body, and the essence of art is to honor the human frame.”

“I am afraid I ought not to talk about such things,” said Lothair; “but, if by Semitism you mean religion, surely the Italian painters inspired by Semitism did something.”

“Great things,” said Mr. Phoebus —“some of the greatest. Semitism gave them subjects, but the Renaissance gave them Aryan art, and it gave that art to a purely Aryan race. But Semitism rallied in the shape of the Reformation, and swept all away. When Leo the Tenth was pope, popery was pagan; popery is now Christian, and art is extinct.”

“I cannot enter into such controversies,” said Lothair. “Every day I feel more and more I am extremely ignorant.”

“Do not regret it,” said Mr. Phoebus. “What you call ignorance is your strength. By ignorance you mean a want of knowledge of books. Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing. Printing has destroyed education. Art is a great thing, and Science is a great thing; but all that art and science can reveal can be taught by man and by his attributes — his voice, his hand, his eye. The essence of education is the education of the body. Beauty and health are the chief sources of happiness. Men should live in the air; their exercises should be regular, varied, scientific. To render his body strong and supple is the first duty of man. He should develop and completely master the whole muscular system. What I admire in the order to which you belong is that they do live in the air; that they excel in athletic sports; that they can only speak one language; and that they never read. This is not a complete education, but it is the highest education since the Greek.”

“What you say I feel encouraging,” said Lothair, repressing a smile, “for I myself live very much in the air, and am fond of all sports; but I confess I am often ashamed of being so poor a linguist, and was seriously thinking that I ought to read.”

“No doubt every man should combine an intellectual with a physical training,” replied Mr. Phoebus; “but the popular conception of the means is radically wrong. Youth should attend lectures on art and science by the most illustrious professors, and should converse together afterward on what they have heard. They should learn to talk; it is a rare accomplishment, and extremely healthy. They should have music always at their meals. The theatre, entirely remodelled and reformed, and, under a minister of state, should be an important element of education. I should not object to the recitation of lyric poetry. That is enough. I would not have a book in the house, or even see a newspaper.”

“These are Aryan principles?” said Lothair.

“They are,” said Mr. Phoebus; “and of such principles, I believe, a great revival is at hand. We shall both live to see another Renaissance.”

“And our artist here,” said Lothair, pointing to the statue, “you are of opinion that he is asserting these principles?”

“Yes; because he has produced the Aryan form by studying the Aryan form. Phidias never had a finer model, and he has not been unequal to it.”

“I fancied,” said Lothair, in a lower and inquiring tone, though Mrs. Campian had some time before glided out of the pavilion, and was giving directions to the workmen —“I fancied I had heard that Mrs. Campian was a Roman.”

“The Romans were Greeks,” said Mr. Phoebus, “and in this instance the Phidian type came out. It has not been thrown away. I believe Theodora has inspired as many painters and sculptors as any Aryan goddess. I look upon her as such, for I know nothing more divine.”

“I fear the Phidian type is very rare,” said Lothair.

“In nature and in art there must always be surpassing instances,” said Mr. Phoebus. “It is a law, and a wise one; but, depend upon it, so strong and perfect a type as the original Aryan must be yet abundant among the millions, and may be developed. But for this you want great changes in your laws. It is the first duty of a state to attend to the frame and health of the subject. The Spartans understood this. They permitted no marriage the probable consequences of which might be a feeble progeny; they even took measures to secure a vigorous one. The Romans doomed the deformed to immediate destruction. The union of the races concerns the welfare of the commonwealth much too nearly to be intrusted to individual arrangement. The fate of a nation will ultimately depend upon the strength and health of the population. Both France and England should look to this; they have cause. As for our mighty engines of war in the hands of a puny race, it will be the old story of the lower empire and the Greek fire. Laws should be passed to secure all this, and some day they will be. But nothing can be done until the Aryan races are extricated from Semitism.”

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