Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 64

Although the reception of Lothair by his old friends and by the leaders of the Roman world was in the highest degree flattering, there was something in its tone which was perplexing to him and ambiguous. Could they be ignorant of his Italian antecedents? Impossible. Miss Arundel had admitted, or rather declared, that he had experienced great trials, and, even temptations. She could only allude to what had occurred since their parting in England. But all this was now looked upon as satisfactory, because it was ordained, and tended to one end; and what was that end? His devotion to the Church of Rome, of which they admitted he was not formally a child.

It was true that his chief companion was a priest, and that he passed a great portion of his life within the walls of a church. But the priest was his familiar friend in England, who in a foreign land had nursed him with devotion in a desperate illness; and, although in the great calamities, physical and moral, that had overwhelmed him, he had found solace in the beautiful services of a religion which he respected, no one for a moment had taken advantage of this mood of his suffering and enfeebled mind to entrap him into controversy, or to betray him into admissions that he might afterward consider precipitate and immature. Indeed, nothing could be more delicate than the conduct of the Jesuit fathers throughout his communications with them. They seemed sincerely gratified that a suffering fellow creature should find even temporary consolation within their fair and consecrated structure; their voices modulated with sympathy; their glances gushed with fraternal affection; their affectionate politeness contrived, in a thousand slight instances, the selection of a mass, the arrangement of a picture, the loan of a book, to contribute to the interesting or elegant distraction of his forlorn and brooding being.

And yet Lothair began to feel uneasy, and his uneasiness increased proportionately as his health improved. He sometimes thought that he should like to make an effort and get about a little in the world, but he was very weak, and without any of the resources to which he had been accustomed throughout life. He had no servants of his own, no carriages, no man of business, no banker; and when at last he tried to bring himself to write to Mr. Putney Giles — a painful task — Monsignore Catesby offered to undertake his whole correspondence for him, and announced that his medical attendants had declared that he must under no circumstances whatever attempt at present to write a letter. Hitherto he had been without money, which was lavishly supplied for his physicians and other wants; and he would have been without clothes if the most fashionable tailor in Rome, a German, had not been in frequent attendance on him under the direction of Monsignore Catesby, who, in fact, had organized his wardrobe as he did every thing else.

Somehow or other Lothair never seemed alone. When he woke in the morning the monsignore was frequently kneeling before an oratory in his room, and if by any chance Lothair was wanting at Lady St. Jerome’s reception, Father Coleman, who was now on a visit to the family, would look in and pass the evening with him, as men who keep a gaming-table find it discreet occasionally to change the dealer. It is a huge and even stupendous pile — that Palazzo Agostini, and yet Lothair never tried to thread his way through its vestibules and galleries, or attempt a reconnaissance of its endless chambers, without some monsignore or other gliding up quite propos and relieving him from the dulness of solitary existence during the rest of his promenade.

Lothair was relieved by hearing that big former guardian, Cardinal Grandison, was daily expected at Rome; and he revolved in his mind whether he should not speak to his eminence generally on the system of his life, which he felt now required some modification. In the interval, however, no change did occur. Lothair attended every day the services of the church, and every evening the receptions of Lady St. Jerome; and between the discharge of these two duties he took a drive with a priest — sometimes with more than one, but always most agreeable men — generally in the environs of the city, or visited a convent, or a villa, some beautiful gardens, or a gallery of works of art.

It was at Lady St. Jerome’s that Lothair met his former guardian. The cardinal had only arrived in the morning. His manner to Lothair was affectionate. He retained Lothair’s hand and pressed it with his pale, thin fingers; his attenuated countenance blazed for a moment with a divine light.

“I have long wished to see you, sir,” said Lothair, “and much wish to talk with you.”

“I can hear nothing from you nor of you but what must be most pleasing to me,” said the cardinal.

“I wish I could believe that,” said Lothair.

The cardinal caressed him; put his arm round Lothair’s neck and said, “There is no time like the present. Let us walk together in this gallery,” and they withdrew naturally from the immediate scene.

“You know all that has happened, I dare say,” said Lothair with embarrassment and with a sigh, “since we parted in England, sir.”

“All,” said the cardinal. “It has been a most striking and merciful dispensation.”

“Then I need not dwell upon it,” said Lothair, “and naturally it would be most painful. What I wish particularly to speak to you about is my position under this roof. What I owe to those who dwell under it no language can describe, and no efforts on my part, and they shall be unceasing, can repay. But I think the time has come when I ought no longer to trespass on their affectionate devotion, though, when I allude to the topic, they seem to misinterpret the motives which influence me, and to be pained rather than relieved by my suggestions. I cannot bear being looked upon as ungrateful, when in fact I am devoted to them. I think, sir, you might help me in putting all this right.”

“If it be necessary,” said the cardinal; “but I apprehend you misconceive them. When I last left Rome you were very ill, but Lady St. Jerome and others have written to me almost daily about you, during my absence, so that I am familiar with all that has occurred, and quite cognizant of their feelings. Rest assured that, toward yourself, they are exactly what they ought to be and what you would desire.”

“Well, I am glad,” said Lothair, “that you are acquainted with every thing that has happened, for you can put them right if it be necessary; but I sometimes cannot help fancying that they are under some false impression both as to my conduct and my convictions.”

“Not in the slightest,” said the cardinal, “trust me, my dear friend, for that. They know everything and appreciate everything; and, great as, no doubt, have been your sufferings, feel that every thing has been ordained for the best; that the hand of the Almighty has been visible throughout all these strange events; that His Church was never more clearly built upon a rock than at this moment; that this great manifestation will revive, and even restore, the faith of Christendom; and that you yourself must be looked upon as one of the most favored of men.”

“Everybody says that,” said Lothair, rather peevishly.

“And everybody feels it,” said the cardinal.

“Well, to revert to lesser points,” said Lothair, “I do not say I want to return to England, for I dread returning to England, and do not know whether I shall ever go back there; and at any rate I doubt not my health at present is unequal to the effort; but I should like some change in my mode of life. I will not say it is too much controlled, for nothing seems ever done without first consulting me; but, somehow or other, we are always in the same groove. I wish to see more of the world; I wish to see Rome, and the people of Rome. I wish to see and do many things which, if I mention, it would seem to hurt the feelings of others, and my own are misconceived, but, if mentioned by you, all would probably be different.”

“I understand you, my dear young friend, my child, I will still say,” said the cardinal. “Nothing can be more reasonable than what you suggest. No doubt our friends may be a little too anxious about you, but they are the best people in the world. You appear to me to be quite well enough now to make more exertion than hitherto they have thought you capable of. They see you every day, and cannot judge so well of you as I who have been absent. I will charge myself to effect all your wishes. And we will begin by my taking you out tomorrow and your driving with me about the city. I will show you Rome and the Roman people.”

Accordingly, on the morrow, Cardinal Grandison and his late pupil visited together Rome and the Romans. And first of all Lothair was presented to the cardinal-prefect of the Propaganda, who presides over the ecclesiastical affairs of every country in which the Roman Church has a mission, and that includes every land between the Arctic and the Southern Pole. This glimpse of the organized correspondence with both the Americas, all Asia, all Africa, all Australia, and many European countries, carried on by a countless staff of clerks in one of the most capacious buildings in the world, was calculated to impress the visitor with a due idea of the extensive authority of the Roman Pontiff. This institution, greater, according to the cardinal, than any which existed in ancient Rome, was to propagate the faith, the purity of which the next establishment they visited was to maintain. According to Cardinal Grandison, there never was a body the character of which had been so wilfully and so malignantly misrepresented as that of the Roman Inquisition. Its true object is reformation not punishment and therefore pardon was sure to follow the admission of error. True it was there were revolting stories afloat, for which there was undoubtedly some foundation, though their exaggeration and malice were evident, of the ruthless conduct of the Inquisition; but these details were entirely confined to Spain, and were the consequences not of the principles of the Holy Office, but of the Spanish race, poisoned by Moorish and Jewish blood, or by long contact with those inhuman infidels. Had it not been for the Inquisition organizing and directing the mitigating influences of the Church, Spain would have been a land of wild beasts; and even in quite modern times it was the Holy Office at Rome which always stepped forward to protect the persecuted, and, by the power of appeal from Madrid to Rome, saved the lives of those who were unjustly or extravagantly accused.

“The real business, however, of the Holy Office now,” continued the cardinal, “is in reality only doctrinal; and there is something truly sublime — essentially divine, I would say — in this idea of an old man, like the Holy Father, himself the object of ceaseless persecution by all the children of Satan, never for a moment relaxing his heaven-inspired efforts to maintain the purity of the faith once delivered to the saints, and at the same time to propagate it throughout the whole world, so that there should be no land on which the sun shines that should not afford means of salvation to suffering man. Yes, the Propaganda and the Inquisition alone are sufficient to vindicate the sacred claims of Rome. Compared with them, mere secular and human institutions, however exalted, sink into insignificance.”

These excursions with the cardinal were not only repeated, but became almost of daily occurrence. The cardinal took Lothair with him in his visits of business, and introduced him to the eminent characters of the city. Some of these priests were illustrious scholars or votaries of science, whose names were quoted with respect and as authority in the circles of cosmopolitan philosophy. Then there were other institutions at Rome, which the cardinal snatched occasions to visit, and which, if not so awfully venerable as the Propaganda and the Inquisition, nevertheless testified to the advanced civilization of Rome and the Romans, and the enlightened administration of the Holy Father. According to Cardinal Grandison, all the great modern improvements in the administration of hospitals and prisons originated in the eternal city; scientific ventilation, popular lavatories, the cellular or silent system, the reformatory. And yet these were nothing compared with the achievements of the Pontifical Government in education. In short, complete popular education only existed at Rome. Its schools were more numerous even than its fountains. Gratuitous instruction originated with the ecclesiastics; and from the night-school to the university here might be found the perfect type.

“I really believe,” said the cardinal, “that a more virtuous, a more religious, a more happy and contented people than the Romans never existed. They could all be kept in order with the police of one of your counties. True it is, the Holy Father is obliged to garrison the city with twelve thousand men of arms, but not against the Romans, not against his own subjects. It is the secret societies of atheism who have established their lodges in this city, entirely consisting of foreigners, that render these lamentable precautions necessary. They will not rest until they have extirpated the religious principle from the soul of man, and until they have reduced him to the condition of wild beasts. But they will fail, as they failed the other day, as Sennacherib failed. These men may conquer zouaves and cuirassiers, but they cannot fight against Saint Michael and all the angels. They may do mischief, they may aggravate and prolong the misery of man, but they are doomed to entire and eternal failure.”

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