Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 61

When Lothair in some degree regained consciousness, he found himself in bed. The chamber was lofty and dim, and had once been splendid. Thoughtfulness had invested it with an air of comfort rare under Italian roofs. The fagots sparkled on the hearth, the light from the windows was veiled with hangings, and the draughts from the tall doors guarded against by screens. And by his bedside there were beautiful flowers, and a crucifix, and a silver bell.

Where was he? He looked up at the velvet canopy above, and then at the pictures that covered the walls, but there was no familiar aspect. He remembered nothing since he was shot down in the field of Mentana, and even that incoherently.

And there had been another battle before that, followed by a catastrophe still more dreadful. When had all this happened, and where? He tried to move his bandaged form, but he had no strength, and his mind seemed weaker than his frame. But he was soon sensible that he was not alone. A veiled figure gently lifted him, and another one refreshed his pillows. He spoke, or tried to speak, but one of them pressed her finger to her shrouded lips, and he willingly relapsed into the silence which he had hardly strength enough to break.

And sometimes these veiled and gliding ministers brought him sustenance and sometimes remedies, and he complied with all their suggestions, but with absolute listlessness; and sometimes a coarser hand interposed, and sometimes he caught a countenance that was not concealed, but was ever strange. He had a vague impression that they examined and dressed his wounds, and arranged his bandages; but whether he really had wounds, and whether he were or were not bandaged, he hardly knew, and did not care to know. He was not capable of thought, and memory was an effort under which he always broke down. Day after day he remained silent and almost motionless alike in mind and body. He had a vague feeling that, after some great sorrows, and some great trials, he was in stillness and in safety; and he had an indefinite mysterious sentiment of gratitude to some unknown power, that had cherished him in his dark calamities, and poured balm and oil into his wounds.

It was in this mood of apathy that, one evening, there broke upon his ear low but beautiful voices performing the evening service of the Church. His eye glistened, his heart was touched by the vesper spell. He listened with rapt attention to the sweet and sacred strains, and when they died away he felt depressed. Would they ever sound again?

Sooner than he could have hoped, for, when he woke in the morning from his slumbers, which, strange to say, were always disturbed, for the mind and the memory seemed to work at night though in fearful and exhausting chaos, the same divine melodies that had soothed him in the eve, now sounded in the glad and grateful worship of matin praise.

“I have heard the voice of angels,” he murmured to his veiled attendant.

The vesper and the matin hours became at once the epochs of his day. He was ever thinking of them, and soon was thinking of the feelings which their beautiful services celebrate and express. His mind seemed no longer altogether a blank, and the religious sentiment was the first that returned to his exhausted heart.

“There will be a requiem today,” whispered one of his veiled attendants.

A requiem! a service for the dead; a prayer for their peace and rest! And who was dead? The bright, the matchless one, the spell and fascination of his life! Was it possible? Could she be dead, who seemed vitality in its consummate form? Was there ever such a being as Theodora? And if there were no Theodora on earth, why should one think of any thing but heaven?

The sounds came floating down the chamber till they seemed to cluster round his brain; sometimes solemn, sometimes thrilling, sometimes the divine pathos melting the human heart with celestial sympathy and heavenly solace. The tears fell fast from his agitated vision, and he sank back exhausted, almost insensible, on his pillow.

“The Church has a heart for all our joys and all our sorrows, and for all our hopes, and all our fears,” whispered a veiled attendant, as she bathed his temples with fragrant waters.

Though the condition of Lothair had at first seemed desperate, his youthful and vigorous frame had enabled him to rally, and, with time and the infinite solicitude which he received, his case was not without hope. But, though his physical cure was somewhat advanced, the prostration of his mind seemed susceptible of no relief. The services of the Church accorded with his depressed condition; they were the only events of his life, and he cherished them. His attendants now permitted and even encouraged him to speak; but he seemed entirely incurious and indifferent. Sometimes they read to him, and he listened, but he never made remarks. The works which they selected had a religious or ecclesiastical bias, even while they were imaginative; and it seemed difficult not to be interested by the ingenious fancy by which it was worked out, that every thing that was true and sacred in heaven had its symbol and significance in the qualities and accidents of earth.

After a month passed in this manner, the surgeons having announced that Lothair might now prepare to rise from his bed, a veiled attendant said to him one day, “There is a gentleman here who is a friend of yours, and who would like to see you. And perhaps you would like to see him also for other reasons, for you must have much to say to God after all that you have suffered. And he is a most holy man.”

“I have no wish to see any one. Are you sure he is not a stranger?” asked Lothair.

“He is in the next room,” said the attendant. “He has been here throughout your illness, conducting our services; often by your bedside when you were asleep, and always praying for you.”

The veiled attendant drew back and waved her hand, and some one glided forward, and said in a low, soft voice, “You have not forgotten me?”

And Lothair beheld Monsignore Catesby.

“It is a long time since we met,” said Lothair, looking at him with some scrutiny, and then all interest died away, and he turned away his vague and wandering eyes.

“But you know me?”

“I know not where I am, and I but faintly comprehend what has happened,” murmured Lothair.

“You are among friends,” said the monsignore, in tones of sympathy. “What has happened,” he added, with an air of mystery, not unmixed with a certain expression of ecstasy in his glance, “must be reserved for other times, when you are stronger, and can grapple with such high themes.”

“How long have I been here?” inquired Lothair, dreamily.

“It is a month since the Annunciation.”

“What Annunciation?”

“Hush!” said the monsignore, and he raised his finger to his lip. “We must not talk of these things — at least at present. No doubt, the game blessed person that saved you from the jaws of death is at this moment guarding over your recovery and guiding it; but we do not deserve, nor does the Church expect, perpetual miracles. We must avail ourselves, under Divine sanction, of the beneficent tendencies of Nature; and in your case her operations must not be disturbed at this moment by any excitement, except, indeed, the glow of gratitude for celestial aid, and the inward joy which must permeate the being of any one who feels that he is among the most favored of men.”

From this time Monsignore Catesby scarcely ever quitted Lothair. He hailed Lothair in the morn, and parted from him at night with a blessing; and in the interval Catesby devoted his whole life, and the inexhaustible resources of his fine and skilled intelligence, to alleviate or amuse the existence of his companion. Sometimes he conversed with Lothair, adroitly taking the chief burden of the talk; and yet, whether it were bright narrative or lively dissertation, never seeming to lecture or hold forth, but relieving the monologue, when expedient, by an interesting inquiry, which he was always ready in due time to answer himself, or softening the instruction by the playfulness of his mind and manner. Sometimes he read to Lothair, and attuned the mind of his charge to the true spiritual note by melting passages from Kempis or Chrysostom. Then he would bring a portfolio of wondrous drawings by the mediaeval masters, of saints and seraphs, and accustom the eye and thought of Lothair to the forms and fancies of the court of heaven.

One day, Lothair, having risen from his bed for the first time, and lying on a sofa in an adjoining chamber to that in which he had been so long confined, the monsignore seated himself by the side of Lothair, and, opening a portfolio, took out a drawing and held it before Lothair, observing his countenance with a glance of peculiar scrutiny.

“Well!” said Catesby, after some little pause, as if awaiting a remark from his companion.

“’Tis beautiful!” said Lothair. “Is it by Raffaelle?”

“No; by Fra Bartolomeo. But the countenance, do you remember ever having met such a one?”

Lothair shook his head. Catesby took out another drawing, the same subject, the Blessed Virgin. “By Giulio,” said the monsignore, and he watched the face of Lothair, but it was listless.

Then he showed Lothair another, and another, and another. At last he held before him one which was really by Raffaelle, and by which Lothair was evidently much moved. His eye lit up, a blush suffused his pale cheek, he took the drawing himself, and held it before his gaze with a trembling hand.

“Yes I remember this,” he murmured, for it was one of those faces of Greek beauty which the great painter not infrequently caught up at Rome. The monsignore looked gently round and waved his hand, and immediately arose the hymn to the Virgin in subdued strains of exquisite melody.

On the next morning, when Lothair woke, he found on the table, by his side, the drawing of the Virgin in a sliding frame.

About this time the monsignore began to accustom Lothair to leave his apartment, and, as he was not yet permitted to walk, Catesby introduced what he called an English chair, in which Lothair was enabled to survey a little the place which had been to him a refuge and a home. It seemed a building of vast size, raised round an inner court with arcades and windows, and, in the higher story where he resided, an apparently endless number of chambers and galleries. One morning, in their perambulations, the monsignore unlocked the door of a covered way which had no light but from a lamp which guided their passage. The opposite door at the end of this covered way opened into a church, but one of a character different from any which Lothair had yet entered.

It had been raised during the latter of the sixteenth century by Vignola, when, under the influence of the great Pagan revival, the Christian church began to assume the character of an Olympian temple. A central painted cupola of large but exquisite proportions, supported by pilasters with gilded capitals, and angels of white marble springing from golden brackets; walls incrusted with rare materials of every tint, and altars supported by serpentine columns of agate and alabaster; a blaze of pictures, and statues, and precious stones, and precious metals, denoted one of the chief temples of the sacred brotherhood of Jesus, raised when the great order had recognized that the views of primitive and mediaeval Christianity, founded on the humility of man, were not in accordance with the age of confidence in human energy, in which they were destined to rise, and which they were determined to direct.

Guided by Catesby, and leaning on a staff, Lothair gained a gorgeous side chapel in which mass was celebrating; the air was rich with incense, and all heaven seemed to open in the ministrations of a seraphic choir. Crushed by his great calamities, both physical and moral, Lothair sometimes felt that he could now be content if the rest of his life could flow away amid this celestial fragrance and these gushing sounds of heavenly melody. And absorbed in these feelings it was not immediately observed by him that on the altar, behind the dazzling blaze of tapers, was a picture of the Virgin, and identically the same countenance as that he had recognized with emotion in the drawing of Raffaelle.

It revived perplexing memories which agitated him, thoughts on which it seemed his brain had not now strength enough to dwell, and yet with which it now seemed inevitable for him to grapple. The congregation was not very numerous, and, when it broke up, several of them lingered behind and whispered to the monsignore, and then, after a little time, Catesby approached Lothair and said: “There are some here who would wish to kiss your hand, or even touch the hem of your garments. It is troublesome, but natural, considering all that has occurred and that this is the first time, perhaps, that they have met any one who has been so favored.”

“Favored!” said Lothair; “Am I favored? It seems to me I am the most forlorn of men — if even I am that.”

“Hush!” said the monsignore, “we must not talk of these things at present;” and he motioned to some, who approached and contemplated Lothair with blended curiosity and reverence.

These visits of Lothair to the beautiful church of the Jesuits became of daily occurrence, and often happened several times on the same day; indeed they formed the only incident which seemed to break his listlessness. He became interested in the change and variety of the services, in the persons and characters of the officiating priests. The soft manners of these fathers, their intelligence in the performance of their offices, their obliging carriage, and the unaffected concern with which all he said or did seemed to inspire the won upon him unconsciously. The church had become his world; and his sympathies, if he still had sympathies, seemed confined to those within its walls.

In the mean time his physical advancement though slow was gradual and had hitherto never been arrested. He could even walk a little alone, though artificially supported, and ramble about the halls and galleries full of a prodigious quantity of pictures, from the days of Raffael Sanzio to those of Raffael Mengs.

“The doctors think now we might try a little drive,” said the monsignore one morning. “The rains have ceased and refreshed every thing. To-day is like the burst of spring;” and, when Lothair seemed to shudder at the idea of facing any thing like the external world, the monsignore suggested immediately that they should go out in a close carriage, which they finally entered in the huge quadrangle of the building. Lothair was so nervous that he pulled down even the blind of his window; and the monsignore, who always humored him, half pulled down his own.

Their progress seemed through a silent land, and they could hardly be traversing streets. Then the ascent became a little precipitous, and then the carriage stopped, and the monsignore said: “Here is a solitary spot. We shall meet no one. The view is charming, and the air is soft.” And he placed his hand gently on the arm of Lothair, and, as it were, drew him out of the carriage.

The sun was bright, and the sky was bland. There was something in the breath of Nature that was delightful. The scent of violets was worth all the incense in the world; all the splendid marbles and priestly vestments seemed hard and cold when compared with the glorious colors of the cactus and the wild forms of the golden and gigantic aloes. The Favonian breeze played on the brow of this beautiful hill, and the exquisite palm-trees, while they bowed their rustling heads, answered in responsive chorus to the antiphon of Nature.

The dreary look that had been so long imprinted on the face of Lothair melted away.

“’Tis well that we came, is it not?” said Catesby; “and now we will seat ourselves.” Below and before them, on an undulating site, a city of palaces and churches spread out its august form, enclosing within its ample walls sometimes a wilderness of classic ruins — column, and arch, and theatre — sometimes the umbrageous spread of princely gardens. A winding and turbid river divided the city in unequal parts, in one of which there rose a vast and glorious temple, crowned with a dome of almost superhuman size and skill, on which the favorite sign of heaven flashed with triumphant truth.

The expression of relief which, for a moment, had reposed on the face of Lothair, left it when he said, in an agitated voice, “I at length behold Rome!”

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