Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 69

It was the darkest hour in Lothair’s life. He had become acquainted with sorrow; he had experienced calamities physical and moral. The death of Theodora had shaken him to the centre. It was that first great grief which makes a man acquainted with his deepest feelings, which detracts something from the buoyancy of the youngest life, and dims, to a certain degree, the lustre of existence. But even that bereavement was mitigated by distractions alike inevitable and ennobling. The sternest and highest of all obligations, military duty, claimed him with an unfaltering grasp, and the clarion sounded almost as he closed her eyes. Then he went forth to struggle for a cause which at least she believed to be just and sublime; and if his own convictions on that head might be less assured or precise, still there was doubtless much that was inspiring in the contest, and much dependent on the success of himself and his comrades that tended to the elevation of man.

But, now, there was not a single circumstance to sustain his involved and sinking life. A renegade — a renegade without conviction, without necessity, in absolute violation of the pledge he had given to the person he most honored and most loved, as he received her parting spirit. And why was all this? and bow was all this? What system of sorcery had encompassed his existence? For he was spell-bound — as much as any knight in fairy-tale whom malignant influences had robbed of his valor and will and virtue. No sane person could credit, even comprehend, his position. Had he the opportunity of stating it in a court of justice tomorrow, he could only enter into a narrative which would decide his lot as an insane being. The magical rites had been so gradual, so subtle, so multifarious, all in appearance independent of each other, though in reality scientifically combined, that, while the conspirators had probably effected his ruin both in body and in soul, the only charges he could make against them would be acts of exquisite charity, tenderness, self-sacrifice, personal devotion, refined piety, and religious sentiment of the most exalted character.

What was to be done? And could any thing be done? Could he escape? Where from and where to? He was certain, and had been for some time, from many circumstances, that he was watched. Could he hope that the vigilance which observed all his movements would scruple to prevent any which might be inconvenient? He felt assured that, to quit that palace alone, was not in his power. And were it, whither could he go? To whom was he to appeal? And about what was he to appeal? Should he appeal to the Holy Father? There would be an opportunity for that tomorrow. To the College of Cardinals, who had solemnized yesterday with gracious unction his spiritual triumph? To those congenial spirits, the mild Assessor of the Inquisition, or the president of the Propaganda, who was busied at that moment in circulating throughout both the Americas, all Asia, all Africa, all Australia, and parts of Europe, for the edification of distant millions, the particulars of the miraculous scene in which he was the principal actor? Should he throw himself on the protection of the ambiguous minister of the British crown, and invoke his aid against a conspiracy touching the rights, reason, and freedom of one of her majesty’s subjects? He would probably find that functionary inditing a private letter to the English Secretary of State, giving the minister a graphic account of the rare doings of yesterday, and assuring the minister, from his own personal and ocular experience, that a member of one of the highest orders of the British peerage carried in the procession a lighted taper after two angels with amaranthine flowers and golden wings.

Lothair remained in his apartments; no one approached him. It was the only day that the monsignore had not waited on him. Father Coleman was equally reserved. Strange to say, not one of those agreeable and polite gentlemen, fathers of the oratory, who talked about gems, torsos, and excavations, and who always more or less attended his levee, troubled him this morning. With that exquisite tact which pervades the hierarchical circles of Rome, every one felt that Lothair, on the eve of that event of his life which Providence had so long and so mysteriously prepared, would wish to be undisturbed.

Restless, disquieted, revolving all the incidents of his last year, trying, by terrible analysis, to ascertain how he ever could have got into such a false position, and how he could yet possibly extricate himself from it, not shrinking in many things from self-blame, and yet not recognizing on his part such a degree of deviation from the standard of right feeling, or even of commonsense, as would authorize such an overthrow as that awaiting him — high rank and boundless wealth, a station of duty and of honor, some gifts of Nature, and golden youth, and a disposition that at least aspired, in the employment of these, accidents of life and fortune, at something better than selfish gratification, all smashed — the day drew on.

Drew on the day, and every hour it seemed his spirit was more lone and dark. For the first time the thought of death occurred to him as a relief from the perplexities of existence. How much better had he died at Mentana! To this pass had arrived the cordial and brilliant Lord of Muriel, who enjoyed and adorned life, and wished others to adorn and to enjoy it; the individual whom, probably, were the majority of the English people polled, they would have fixed upon as filling the most enviable of all positions, and holding out a hope that he was not unworthy of it. Born with every advantage that could command the sympathies of his fellow-men, with a quick intelligence and a noble disposition, here he was at one-and-twenty ready to welcome death, perhaps even to devise it, as the only rescue from a doom of confusion, degradation, and remorse.

He had thrown himself on a sofa, and had buried his face in his hands to assist the abstraction which he demanded. There was not an incident of his life that escaped the painful inquisition of his memory. He passed his childhood once more in that stern Scotch home, that, after all, had been so kind, and, as it would seem, so wise. The last words of counsel and of warning from his uncle, expressed at Muriel, came back to him. And yet there seemed a destiny throughout these transactions which was; irresistible! The last words of Theodora, her look, even more solemn than her tone, might have been breathed over a tripod, for they were a prophecy, not a warning.

How long he had been absorbed in this passionate reverie he knew not but when he looked up again it was night, and the moon had touched his window. He rose and walked up and down the room, and then went into the corridor. All was silent; not an attendant was visible; the sky was clear and starry, and the moonlight fell on the tall, still cypresses in the vast quadrangle.

Lothair leaned over the balustrade and gazed upon the moonlit fountains. The change of scene, silent and yet not voiceless, and the softening spell of the tranquillizing hour, were a relief to him. And after a time he wandered about the corridors, and after a time he descended into the court. The tall Swiss, in his grand uniform, was closing the gates which had just released a visitor. Lothair motioned that he too wished to go forth, and the Swiss obeyed him. The threshold was passed, and Lothair found himself for the first time alone in Rome.

Utterly reckless, he cared not where he went or what might happen. The streets were quite deserted, and he wandered about with a strange curiosity, gratified as he sometimes encountered famous objects he had read of, and yet the true character of which no reading ever realizes.

The moonlight becomes the proud palaces of Rome, their corniced and balconied fronts rich with deep shadows in the blaze. Sometimes he encountered an imperial column; sometimes he came to an arcadian square flooded with light and resonant with the fall of statued fountains. Emerging from a long, straggling street of convents and gardens, he found himself in an open space full of antique ruins, and among them the form of a colossal amphitheatre that he at once recognized.

It rose with its three tiers of arches and the huge wall that crowns them, black and complete in the air; and not until Lothair had entered it could he perceive the portion of the outer wall that was in ruins, and now bathed with the silver light. Lothair was alone. In that huge creation, once echoing with the shouts, and even the agonies, of thousands, Lothair was alone.

He sat him down on a block of stone in that sublime and desolate arena, and asked himself the secret spell of this Rome that had already so agitated his young life, and probably was about critically to affect it. Theodora lived for Rome and died for Rome. And the cardinal, born and bred an English gentleman, with many hopes and honors, had renounced his religion, and, it might be said, his country, for Rome. And for Rome, tomorrow, Catesby would die without a pang, and sacrifice himself for Rome, as his race for three hundred years had given, for the same cause, honor and broad estates and unhesitating lives. And these very people were influenced by different motives, and thought they were devoting themselves to opposite ends. But still it was Rome — republican or Caesarian, papal or pagan, it still was Rome.

Was it a breeze in a breezeless night that was sighing amid these ruins? A pine-tree moved its head on a broken arch, and there was a stir among the plants that hung on the ancient walls. It was a breeze in a breezeless night that was sighing amid the ruins.

There was a tall crag of ancient building contiguous to the block on which Lothair was seated, and which on his arrival he had noted, although, long lost in reverie, he had not recently turned his glance in that direction. He was roused from that reverie by the indefinite sense of some change having occurred which often disturbs and terminates one’s brooding thoughts. And looking round, he felt, he saw, he was no longer alone. The moonbeams fell upon a figure that was observing him from the crag of ruin that was near, and, as the light clustered and gathered round the form, it became every moment more definite and distinct.

Lothair would have sprung forward, but he could only extend his arms: he would have spoken, but his tongue was paralyzed.

“Lothair,” said a deep, sweet voice that never could be forgotten.

“I am here,” he at last replied.

“Remember!” and she threw upon him that glance, at once serene and solemn, that had been her last, and was impressed indelibly upon his heart of hearts.

Now, he could spring forward and throw himself at her feet, but alas! as he reached her, the figure melted into the moonlight, and she was gone — that divine Theodora, who, let us hope, returned at last to those Elysian fields she so well deserved.

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