Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 71

The terrace of the Villa Catalano, with its orange and palm trees, looked upon a sea of lapiz lazuli, and rose from a shelving shore of aloes and arbutus. The waters reflected the color of the sky, and all the foliage wag bedewed with the same violet light of morn which bathed the softness of the distant mountains, and the undulating beauty of the ever-varying coast.

Lothair was walking on the terrace, his favorite walk, for it was the duly occasion on which he ever found himself alone. Not that he had any reason to complain of his companions. More complete ones could scarcely be selected. Travel, which, they say, tries all tempers, had only proved the engaging equanimity of Catesby, and had never disturbed the amiable repose of his brother priest: and then they were so entertaining and so instructive, as well as handy and experienced in all common things. The monsignore had so much taste and feeling, and various knowledge; and as for the reverend father, all the antiquaries they daily encountered were mere children in his hands, who, without effort, could explain and illustrate every scene and object, and spoke as if he had never given a thought to any other theme than Sicily and Syracuse, the expedition of Nicias, and the adventures of Agathocles. And yet, during all their travels, Lothair felt that he never was alone. This was remarkable at the great cities, such as Messina and Palermo, but it was a prevalent habit in less-frequented places. There was a petty town near them, which he had never visited alone, although he had made more than one attempt with that view; and it was only on the terrace in the early morn, a spot whence he could be observed from the villa, and which did not easily communicate with the precipitous and surrounding scenery, that Lothair would indulge that habit of introspection which he had pursued through many a long ride, and which to him was a never-failing source of interest and even excitement.

He wanted to ascertain the causes of what he deemed the failure of his life, and of the dangers and discomfiture that were still impending over him. Were these causes to be found in any peculiarity of his disposition, or in the general inexperience and incompetence of youth? The latter, he was now quite willing to believe, would lead their possessors into any amount of disaster, but his ingenuous nature hesitated before it accepted them as the self-complacent solution of his present deplorable position.

Of a nature profound and inquisitive, though with a great fund of reverence which had been developed by an ecclesiastical education, Lothair now felt that he had started in life with an extravagant appreciation of the influence of the religious principle on the conduct of human affairs. With him, when heaven was so nigh, earth could not be remembered; and yet experience showed that, so long as one was on the earth, the incidents of this planet considerably controlled one’s existence, both in behavior and in thought. All the world could not retire to Mount Athos. It was clear, therefore, that there was a juster conception of the relations between religion and life than that which he had at first adopted.

Practically, Theodora had led, or was leading, him to this result; but Theodora, though religious, did not bow before those altars to which he for a moment had never been faithless. Theodora believed in her immortality, and did not believe in death according to the ecclesiastical interpretation. But her departure from the scene, and the circumstances under which it had taken place, had unexpectedly and violently restored the course of his life to its old bent. Shattered and shorn, he was willing to believe that he was again entering the kingdom of heaven, but found he was only under the gilded dome of a Jesuit’s church, and woke to reality, from a scene of magical deceptions, with a sad conviction that even cardinals and fathers of the Church were inevitably influenced in this life by its interest and his passions.

But the incident of his life that most occupied — it might be said engrossed — his meditation was the midnight apparition in the Coliseum. Making every allowance that a candid nature and an ingenious mind could suggest for explicatory circumstances; the tension of his nervous system, which was then doubtless strained to its last point; the memory of her death-scene, which always harrowed and haunted him; and that dark collision between his promise and his life which then, after so many efforts, appeared by some supernatural ordination to be about inevitably to occur in that very Rome whose gigantic shades surrounded him; he still could not resist the conviction that he had seen the form of Theodora and had listened to her voice. Often the whole day, when they were travelling, and his companions watched him on his saddle in silent thought, his mind in reality was fixed on this single incident and he was cross-examining his memory as some adroit and ruthless advocate deals with the witness in the box, and tries to demonstrate his infidelity or his weakness.

But whether it were indeed the apparition of his adored friend or a distempered dream, Lothair not less recognized the warning as divine, and the only conviction he had arrived at throughout his Sicilian travels was a determination that, however tragical the cost, his promise to Theodora should never be broken.

The beautiful terrace of the Villa Catalano overlooked a small bay to which it descended by winding walks. The water was deep, and in any other country the bay might have been turned to good account; but bays abounded on this coast, and the people, with many harbors, had no freights to occupy them. This morn, this violet morn, when the balm of the soft breeze refreshed Lothair, and the splendor of the rising sun began to throw a flashing line upon the azure waters, a few fishermen in one of the country boats happened to come in, about to dry a net upon a sunny bank. The boat was what is called a speronaro; an open boat worked with oars, but with a lateen sail at the same time when the breeze served.

Lothair admired the trim of the vessel, and got talking with the men as they ate their bread and olives, and a small fish or two.

“And your lateen sail —?” continued Lothair.

“Is the best thing in the world, except in a white squall,” replied the sailor, “and then every thing is queer in these seas with an open boat, though I am not afraid of Santa Agnese, and that is her name. But I took two English officers who came over here for sport and whose leave of absence was out — I took them over in her to Malta, and did it in ten hours. I believe it had never been done in an open boat before, but it was neck or nothing with them.”

“And you saved them?”

“With the lateen up the whole way.”

“They owed you much, and I hope they paid you well.”

“I asked them ten ducats,” said the man, “and they paid me ten ducats.”

Lothair had his hand in his pocket all this time, feeling, but imperceptibly, for his purse, and, when he had found it, feeling how it was lined. He generally carried about him as much as Fortunatus.

“What are you going to do with yourselves this morning?” said Lothair.

“Well, not much; we thought of throwing the net, but we have had one dip, and no great luck.”

“Are you inclined to give me a sail?”

“Certainly, signor.”

“Have you a mind to go to Malta?”

“That is business, signor.”

“Look here,” said Lothair, “here are ten ducats in this purse, and a little more. I will give them to you if you will take me to Malta at once; but, if you will start in a hundred seconds, before the sun touches that rock, and the waves just beyond it are already bright, you shall have ten more ducats when you reach the isle.”

“Step in, signor.”

From the nature of the course, which was not in the direction of the open sea, for they had to double Cape Passaro, the speronaro was out of the sight of the villa in a few minutes. They rowed only till they had doubled the cape, and then set the lateen sail, the breeze being light, but steady and favorable. They were soon in open sea, no land in sight. “And, if a white squall does rise,” thought Lothair, “it will only settle many difficulties.”

But no white squall came; every thing was favorable to their progress; the wind the current, the courage, and spirit of the men, who liked the adventure, and liked Lothair. Night came on, but they were as tender to him as women, fed him with their least coarse food, and covered him with a cloak made of stuff spun by their mothers and their sisters.

Lothair was slumbering when the patron of the boat roused him, and he saw at hand many lights, and, in a few minutes, was in still water. They were in one of the harbors of Malta, but not permitted to land at midnight, and, when the morn arrived, the obstacles to the release of Lothair were not easily removed. A speronaro, an open boat from Sicily, of course with no papers to prove their point of departure — here were materials for doubt and difficulty, of which the petty officers of the port knew how to avail themselves. They might come from Barbary, from an infected port; plague might be aboard, a question of quarantine. Lothair observed that they were nearly alongside of a fine steam-yacht, English, for it bore the cross of St. George; and, while on the quay, he and the patron of the speronaro arguing with the officers of the port, a gentleman from the yacht put ashore in a boat, of which the bright equipment immediately attracted attention. The gentleman landed almost close to the point where the controversy was carrying on. The excited manner and voice of the Sicilian mariner could not escape notice. The gentleman stopped and looked at the group, and then suddenly exclaimed: “Good Heavens! my lord, can it be you?”

“Ah, Mr. Phoebus, you will help me!” said Lothair; and then he went up to him and told him every thing. All difficulties, of course, vanished before the presence of Mr. Phoebus, whom the officers of the port evidently looked upon as a being beyond criticism and control.

“And now,” said Mr. Phoebus, “about your people and your baggage?”

“I have neither servants nor clothes,” said Lothair, “and, if it had not been for these good people, I should not have had food.”

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