Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 31

“Belmont is the only house I know that is properly lighted,” said Mr. Phoebus, and he looked with complacent criticism round the brilliant saloons. “I would not visit any one who had gas in his house; but even in palaces I find lamps — it is too dreadful. When they came here first, there was an immense chandelier suspended in each of these rooms, pulling down the ceilings, dwarfing the apartments, leaving the guests all in darkness, and throwing all the light on the roof. The chandelier is the great abomination of furniture; it makes a noble apartment look small. And then they say you cannot light rooms without chandeliers! Look at these — need any thing be more brilliant? And all the light in the right place — on those who are in the chamber. All light should come from the side of a room, and if you choose to have candelabra like these you can always secure sufficient.”

Theodora was seated on a sofa, in conversation with a lady of distinguished mien and with the countenance of a Roman empress. There were various groups in the room, standing or seated. Colonel Campian was attending a lady to the piano where a celebrity presided, a gentleman with cropped head and a long black beard. The lady was of extraordinary beauty — one of those faces one encounters in Asia Minor, rich, glowing, with dark fringed eyes of tremulous lustre; a figure scarcely less striking, of voluptuous symmetry. Her toilet was exquisite — perhaps a little too splendid for the occasion, but abstractedly of fine taste — and she held, as she sang, a vast bouquet entirely of white stove-flowers. The voice was as sweet as the stephanopolis, and the execution faultless. It seemed the perfection of chamber-singing — no shrieks and no screams, none of those agonizing experiments which result from the fatal competition of rival prima-donnas.

She was singing when Lothair was ushered in. Theodora rose and greeted him with friendliness. Her glance was that of gratification at his arrival, but the performance prevented any conversation save a few kind remarks interchanged in a hashed tone. Colonel Campian came up: he seemed quite delighted at renewing his acquaintance with Lothair, and began to talk rather too loudly, which made some of the gentlemen near the piano turn round with glances of wondering reproach. This embarrassed his newly-arrived guest, who in his distress caught the bow of a lady who recognized him, and whom he instantly remembered as Mrs. Putney Giles. There was a vacant chair by her side, and he was glad to occupy it.

“Who is that lady?” inquired Lothair of his companion, when the singing ceased.

“That is Madame Phoebus,” said Mrs. Giles.

“Madame Phoebus!” exclaimed Lothair, with an unconscious feeling of some relief. “She is a very beautiful woman. Who was she?”

“She is a Cantacuzene, a daughter of the famous Greek merchant. The Cantcuzenes, you know, are great people, descendants of the Greek emperors. Her uncle is prince of Samos. Mr. Cantacuzene was very much opposed to the match, but I think quite wrong. Mr. Phoebus is a most distinguished man, and the alliance is of the happiest. Never was such mutual devotion.”

“I am not surprised,” said Lothair, wonderfully relieved.

“Her sister Euphrosyne is in the room,” continued Mrs. Giles, “the most extraordinary resemblance to her. There is just the difference between the matron and the maiden; that is all. They are nearly of the same age, and before the marriage might have been mistaken for each other. The most charming thing in the world is to hear the two sisters sing together. I hope they may to-night. I know the family very well. It was Mrs. Cantacuzene who introduced me to Theodora. You know it is quite en r gle to call her Theodora. All the men call her Theodora; ‘the divine Theodora’ is, I believe, the right thing.”

“And do you call her Theodora?” asked Lothair, rather dryly.

“Why, no,” said Mrs. Giles, a little confused. “We are not intimate, at least not very, Ms. Campian has been at my house, and I have been here two et three times; not so often as I could wish, for Mr. Giles, you see, does not like servants and horses to be used on Sundays — and no more do I— and on weekdays he is too much engaged or too tired to come out this distance; so you see —”

The singing had ceased, and Theodora approached them. Addressing Lothair, she said: “The Princess of Tivoli wishes that you should be presented to her.”

The Princess of Tivoli was a Roman dame of one of the most illustrious houses, but who now lived at Paris. She had in her time taken an active part in Italian politics, and had sacrificed to the cause to which she was devoted the larger part of a large fortune. What had been spared, however, permitted her to live in the French capital with elegance, if not with splendor; and her saloon was the gathering roof, in Paris, of almost every one who was celebrated for genius or accomplishments. Though reputed to be haughty and capricious, she entertained for Theodora an even passionate friendship, and now visited England only to see her.

“Madame Campian has been telling me of all the kind things you did for her at Oxford,” said the princess. “Some day you must show me Oxford, but it must be next year. I very much admire the free university life. Tell me now, at Oxford you still have the Protestant religion?”

Lothair ventured to bow assent.

“Ah! that is well,” continued the princess. “I advise you to keep it. If we had only had the Protestant religion in Italy, things would have been very different. You are fortunate in this country in having the Protestant religion and a real nobility. Tell me now, in your constitution, if the father sits in the Upper Chamber, the son sits in the Lower House — that I know; but is there any majorat at attached to his seat?”

“Not at present.”

“You sit in the Lower House, of course?”

“I am not old enough to sit in either House,” said Lothair, “but when I am of age, which I shall be when I have the honor of showing Oxford to your highness, I must sit in the Upper House, for I have not the blessing of a living father.”

“Ah! that is a great thing in your country,” exclaimed the princess, “a man being his own master at so early an age.”

“I thought it was a ‘heritage of woe,’” said Lothair.

“No, no,” said the princess; “the only tolerable thing in life is action, and action is feeble without youth. What if you do not obtain your immediate object? — you always think you will, and the detail of the adventure is full of rapture. And thus it is the blunders of youth are preferable to the triumphs of manhood, or the successes of old age.”

“Well, it will be a consolation for me to remember this when I am in a scrape,” said Lothair.

“Oh! you have many, many scrapes awaiting you,” said the princess. “You may look forward to at least ten years of blunders — that is, illusions — that is, happiness. Fortunate young man!”

Theodora had, without appearing to intend it, relinquished her seat to Lothair, who continued his conversation with the princess, whom he liked, but who, he was sorry to hear, was about to leave England, and immediately — that very night. “Yes,” she said, “it is my last act of devotion. You know, in my country we have saints and shrines. All Italians, they say, are fond, are superstitious; my pilgrimage is to Theodora. I must come and worship her once a year.”

A gentleman bowed lowly to the princess, who returned his salute with pleased alacrity. “Do you know who that is?” said the princess to Lothair. “That is Baron Gozelius, one of our great reputations. He must have just arrived. II will present you to him; it is always agreeable to know a great man,” she added —“at least Goethe says so!”

The philosopher, at her invitation, took a chair opposite the sofa. Though a profound man, he had all the vivacity and passion which are generally supposed to be peculiar to the superficial. He had remarkable conversational power, which he never spared. Lothair was captivated by his eloquence, his striking observations, his warmth, and the flashing of his southern eye.

“Baron Gozelius agrees with your celebrated pastor, Dr. Cumming,” said Theodora, with a tinge of demure sarcasm, “and believes that the end of the world is at hand.”

“And for the same reasons?” inquired Lothair.

“Not exactly,” said Theodora, “but in this instance science and revelation have arrived at the same result, and that is what all desire.”

“All that I said was,” said Gozelius, “that the action of the sun had become so irregular that I thought the chances were in favor of the destruction of our planet. At least, if I were a public office, I would not insure it.”

“Yet the risk would not be very great under those circumstances,” said Theodora.

“The destruction of this worlds foretold,” said Lothair; “the stars are to fall from the sky; but while I credit, I cannot bring my mind to comprehend, such a catastrophe.”

“I have seen a world created and a world destroyed,” said Gozelius. “The last was flickering ten years, and it went out as I was watching it.”

“And the first?” inquired Lothair, anxiously.

“Disturbed space for half a century — a great pregnancy. William Herschel told me it would come when I was a boy, and I cruised for it through two-thirds of my life. It came at last, and it repaid me.”

There was a stir. Euphrosyne was going to sing with her sister. They swept by Lothair in their progress to the instrument, like the passage of sultanas to some kiosk on the Bosporus. It seemed to him that he had never beheld any thing so resplendent. The air was perfumed by their movement and the rustling of their wondrous robes. “They must be of the Aryan race,” thought Lothair, “though not of the Phidian type.” They sang a Greek air, and their sweet and touching voices blended with exquisite harmony. Every one was silent in the room, because every one was entranced. Then they gave their friends some patriotic lay which required chorus, the sisters, in turn, singing a stanza. Mr. Phoebus arranged the chorus in a moment, and there clustered round the piano al number of gentlemen almost as good-looking and as picturesque as himself. Then, while Madame Phoebus was singing, Euphrosyne suddenly, and with quickness, moved away and approached Theodora, and whispered something to her, but Theodora slightly shook her head, and seemed to decline.

Euphrosyne regained the piano, whispered something to Colonel Campian, who was one of the chorus, and then commenced her own part. Colonel Campian crossed the room and spoke to Theodora, who instantly, without the slightest demur, joined her friends. Lothair felt agitated, as he could not doubt Theodora was going to sing. And so it was; when Euphrosyne had finished, and the chorus she had inspired had died away, there rose a deep contralto sound, which, though without effort, seemed to Lothair the most thrilling tone he had ever listened to. Deeper and richer, and richer and deeper, it seemed to become, as it wound with exquisite facility through a symphony of delicious sound, until it ended in a passionate burst, which made Lothair’s heart beat so tumultuously that for a moment he thought he should be overpowered.

“I never heard any thing so fine in my life,” said Lothair to the French philosopher.

“Ah! if you had heard that woman sing the Marseillaise, as I did once, to three thousand people, then you would know what was fine. Not one of us who would not have died on the spot for her!”

The concert was over. The Princess of Tivoli had risen to say farewell. She stood apart with Theodora, holding both her hands, and speaking with earnestness. Then she pressed her lips to Theodora’s forehead, and said, “Adieu, my best beloved; the spring will return.”

The princess had disappeared, and Madame Phoebus came up to say good-night to her hostess.

“It is such a delicious night,” said Theodora, “that I have ordered our strawberries-and-cream on the terrace. You must not go.”

And so she invited them all to the terrace. There was not a breath of air, the garden was flooded with moonlight, in which the fountain glittered, and the atmosphere was as sweet as it was warm.

“I think the moon will melt the ice to-night,” said Theodora, as she led Madame Phoebus to a table covered with that innocent refreshment in many forms, and pyramids of strawberries, and gentle drinks which the fancy of America could alone devise.

“I wonder we did not pass the whole evening on the terrace,” said Lothair.

“One must sing in a room,” said Euphrosyne, “or the nightingales would eclipse us.”

Lothair looked quickly at the speaker, and caught the glance of a peculiar countenance — mockery blended with Ionian splendor.

“I think strawberries-and-cream the most popular of all food,” said Madame Phoebus, as some touched her beautiful lips.

“Yes; and one is not ashamed of eating it,” said Theodora.

Soon there was that stir which precedes the breaking up of an assembly. Mrs. Giles and some others had to return to town. Madame Phoebus and Euphrosyne were near neighbors at Roehampton, but their carriage had been for some time waiting. Mr. Phoebus did not accompany them. He chose to walk home on such a night, and descended into the garden with his remaining friends.

“They are going to smoke,” said Theodora. “Is it your habit?”

“Not yet.”

“I do not dislike it in the air and at a distance; but I banish them the terrace. I think smoking must be a great consolation to a soldier;” and, as she spoke, she moved, and, without formally inviting him, he found himself walking by her side.

Rather abruptly he said, “You wore last night at the opera the same ornament as on the first time I had the pleasure meeting you.”

She looked at him with a smile, and a little surprised. “My solitary trinket; I fear you will never see any other.”

“But you do not despise trinkets?” said Lothair.

“Oh no; they are very well. Once I was decked with jewels and ropes of pearls, like Titian’s Queen of Cyprus. I sometimes regret my pearls. There is a reserve about pearls which I like — something soft and dim. But they are all gone, and I ought not to regret them, for they went in a good cause. I kept the star, because it was given to me by a hero; and once we flattered ourselves it was a symbol.”

“I wish I were a hero!” said Lothair.

“You may yet prove one.”

“And if I do, may I give you a star?”

“If it be symbolical.”

“But of what?”

“Of an heroic purpose.”

“But what is an heroic purpose?” exclaimed Lothair. “Instead of being here to-night, I ought, perhaps, to have been present at a religious function of the highest and deepest import, which might have influenced my destiny, and led to something heroic. But my mind is uncertain and unsettled. I speak to you without reserve, for my heart always entirely opens to you, and I have a sort of unlimited confidence in your judgment. Besides, I have never forgotten what you said at Oxford about religion — that you could not conceive society without religion. It is what I feel myself, and most strongly; and yet there never was a period when religion was so assailed. There is no doubt the atheists are bolder, are more completely organized, both as to intellectual and even physical force, than ever was known. I have heard that from the highest authority. For my own part, I think I am prepared to die for Divine truth. I have examined myself severely, but I do not think I should falter. Indeed, can there be for man a nobler duty than to be the champion of God? But then the question of the churches interferes. If there were only one church, I could see my way. Without a church, there can be no true religion, because otherwise you have no security for the truth. I am a member of the Church of England, and when I was at Oxford I thought the Anglican view might be sustained. But, of late, I have given ray mind deeply to these matters, for, after all, they are the only matters a man should think of; and, I confess to you, the claim of Rome to orthodoxy seems to me irresistible.”

“You make no distinction, then, between religion and orthodoxy?” said Theodora.

“Certainly I make no difference.”

“And yet, what is orthodox at Dover is not orthodox at Calais or Ostend. I should be sorry to think that, because there was no orthodoxy in Belgium or France, there was no religion.”

“Yes,” said Lothair, “I think I see what you mean.”

“Then again, if we go further,” continued Theodora, “there is the whole of the East; that certainly is not orthodox, according to your views. You may not agree with all or any of their opinions, but you could scarcely maintain that, as communities, they are irreligious.”

“Well, you could not, certainly,” said Lothair.

“So you see,” said Theodora, “what is called orthodoxy has very little to do with religion; and a person may be very religious without holding the same dogmas as yourself, or, as some think, without holding any.”

“According to you, then,” said Lothair, “the Anglican view might be maintained.”

“I do not know what the Anglican view is,” said Theodora. “I do not belong to the Roman or to the Anglican Church.”

“And yet, you are very religious,” said Lothair.

“I hope so; I try to be so; and, when I fail in any duty, it is not the fault of my religion. I never deceive myself into that; I know it is my own fault.”

There was a pause; but they walked on. The soft splendor of the scene and all its accessories, the moonlight, and the fragrance, and the falling waters, wonderfully bewitched the spirit of the young Lothair.

“There is nothing I would not tell you,” he suddenly exclaimed, turning to Theodora, “and sometimes I think there is nothing you would not tell me. Tell me, then, I entreat you, what is your religion?”

“The true religion, I think,” said Theodora. “I worship in a church where I believe God dwells, and dwells for my guidance and my good — my conscience.”

“Your conscience may be divine,” said Lothair, “and I believe it is; but the consciences of other persons are not divine, and what is to guide them, and what is to prevent or to mitigate the evil they would perpetrate?”

“I have never heard from priests,” said Theodora, “any truth which my conscience had not revealed to me. They use different language from what I use, but I find, after a time, that we mean the thing. What I call time they call eternity; when they describe heaven, they give a picture of earth; and beings whom they style divine, they invest with all the attributes of humanity.”

“And yet is it not true,” said Lothair, “that —”

But, at this moment, there were the sounds of merriment and of approaching footsteps; the form of Mr. Phoebus appeared ascending the steps of the terrace, followed by others. The smokers had fulfilled their task. There were farewells, and bows, and good-nights. Lothair had to retire with the others, and, as he threw himself into his brougham, he exclaimed: “I perceive that life is not so simple an affair as I once supposed.”

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