Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 72

Phoebus, in his steam-yacht Pan, of considerable admeasurement, and fitted up with every luxury and convenience that science and experience could suggest, was on his way to an island which he occasionally inhabited, near the Asian coast of the gean Sea, and which he rented from the chief of his wife’s house, the Prince of Samos. Mr. Phoebus, by his genius and fame, commanded a large income, and he spent it freely and fully. There was nothing of which he more disapproved than accumulation. It was a practice which led to sordid habits, and was fatal to the beautiful. On the whole, he thought it more odious even than debt, more permanently degrading. Mr. Phoebus liked pomp and graceful ceremony, and he was of opinion that great artists should lead a princely life, so that, in their manners and method of existence, they might furnish models to mankind in general, and elevate the tone and taste of nations.

Sometimes, when he observed a friend noticing with admiration, perhaps with astonishment, the splendor or finish of his equipments, he would say: “The world think I had a large fortune with Madame Phoebus. I had nothing. I understand that a fortune, and no inconsiderable one, would have been given had I chosen to ask for it. But I did not choose to ask for it. I made Madame Phoebus my wife because she was the finest specimen of the Aryan race that I was acquainted with, and I would have no considerations mixed up with the high motive that influenced me. My father-in-law Cantacuzene, whether from a feeling of gratitude or remorse, is always making us magnificent presents. I like to receive magnificent presents, but also to make them; and I presented him with a picture which is the gem of his gallery, and which, if he ever part with it, will in another generation be contended for by kings and peoples.

“On her last birthday we breakfasted with my father-in-law Cantacuzene, and Madame Phoebus found in her napkin a check for five thousand pounds. I expended it immediately in jewels for her personal use; for I wished my father-in-law to understand that there are other princely families in the world besides the Cantacuzenes.”

A friend once ventured inquiringly to suggest whether his way of life might not be conducive to envy, and so disturb that serenity of sentiment necessary to the complete life of an artist. But Mr. Phoebus would not for a moment admit the soundness of the objection. “No,” he said, “envy is a purely intellectual process. Splendor never excites it; a man of splendor is looked upon always with favor — his appearance exhilarates the heart of man. He is always popular. People wish to dine with him, to borrow his money, but they do not envy him. If you want to know what envy is, you should live among artists. You should hear me lecture at the Academy. I have sometimes suddenly turned round and caught countenances like that of the man who was waiting at the corner of the street for Benvenuto Cellini, in order to assassinate the great Florentine.”

It was impossible for Lothair in his present condition to have fallen upon a more suitable companion than Mr. Phoebus. It is not merely change of scene and air that we sometimes want, but a revolution in the atmosphere of thought and feeling in which we live and breathe. Besides his great intelligence and fancy, and his peculiar views on art and man and affairs in general, which always interested their hearer, and sometimes convinced, there was a general vivacity in Mr. Phoebus and a vigorous sense of life, which were inspiriting to his companions. When there was any thing to be done, great or small, Mr. Phoebus liked to do it; and this, as he averred, from a sense of duty, since, if any thing is to be done, it should be done in the best manner, and no one could do it so well as Mr. Phoebus. He always acted as if he had been created to be the oracle and model of the human race, but the oracle was never pompous or solemn, and the model was always beaming with good-nature and high spirits.

Mr. Phoebus liked Lothair. He liked youth, and good-looking youth; and youth that was intelligent and engaging and well-mannered. He also liked old men. But, between fifty and seventy, he saw little to approve of in the dark sex. They had lost their good looks if they ever had any, their wits were on the wane, and they were invariably selfish. When they attained second childhood, the charm often returned. Age was frequently beautiful, wisdom appeared like an aftermath, and the heart which seemed dry and deadened suddenly put forth shoots of sympathy.

Mr. Phoebus postponed his voyage in order that Lothair might make his preparations to become his guest in his island. “I cannot take you to a banker,” said Mr. Phoebus, “for I have none; but I wish you would share my purse. Nothing will ever induce me to use what they call paper money. It is the worst thing that what they call civilization has produced; neither hue nor shape, and yet a substitute for the richest color, and, where the arts flourish, the finest forms.”

The telegraph which brought an order to the bankers at Malta to give an unlimited credit to Lothair, rendered it unnecessary for our friend to share what Mr. Phoebus called his purse, and yet he was glad to have the opportunity of seeing it, as Mr. Phoebus one morning opened a chest in his cabin and produced several velvet bags, one full of pearls, another of rubies, others of Venetian sequins, Napoleons, and golden piastres. “I like to look at them,” said Mr. Phoebus, “and find life more intense when they are about my person. But bank-notes, so cold and thin — they give me an ague.”

Madame Phoebus and her sister Euphrosyne welcomed Lothair in maritime costumes which were absolutely bewitching; wondrous jackets with loops of pearls, girdles defended by dirks with handles of turquoises, and tilted hats that; while they screened their long eyelashes from the sun, crowned the longer braids of their never-ending hair. Mr. Phoebus gave banquets every day on board his yacht, attended by the chief personages of the island, and the most agreeable officers of the garrison. They dined upon deck, and it delighted him, with a surface of sang-froid, to produce a repast which both in its material and its treatment was equal to the refined festivals of Paris. Sometimes they had a dance; sometimes in his barge, rowed by a crew in Venetian dresses, his guests glided on the tranquil waters, under a starry sky, and listened to the exquisite melodies of their hostess and her sister.

At length the day of departure arrived. It was bright, with a breeze favorable to the sail and opportune for the occasion. For all the officers of the garrison, and all beautiful Valetta itself, seemed present in their yachts and barges to pay their last tribute of admiration to the enchanting sisters and the all-accomplished owner of the Pan. Placed on the galley of his yacht, Mr. Phoebus surveyed the brilliant and animated scene with delight. “This is the way to conduct life,” he said. “If, fortunately for them, I could have passed another month among these people, I could have developed a feeling equal to the old regattas of the Venetians.”

The gean isle occupied by Mr. Phoebus was of no inconsiderable dimensions. A chain of mountains of white marble intersected it, covered with forests of oak, though in parts precipitous and bare. The lowlands, while they produced some good crops of grain, and even cotton and silk, were chiefly clothed with fruit-trees — orange and lemon, and the fig, the olive, and the vine. Sometimes the land was uncultivated, and was principally covered with myrtles, of large size, and oleanders, and arbutus, and thorny brooms. Here game abounded, while from the mountain-forests the wolf sometimes descended, and spoiled and scared the islanders.

On the sea-shore, yet not too near the wave, and on a sylvan declivity, was along, pavilion-looking building, painted in white and arabesque. It was backed by the forest, which had a park-like character from its partial clearance, and which, after a convenient slip of even land, ascended the steeper country and took the form of wooded hills, backed in due time by still sylvan yet loftier elevations, and sometimes a glittering peak.

“Welcome, my friend!” said Mr. Phoebus to Lothair. “Welcome to an Aryan clime, an Aryan landscape, and an Aryan race! It will do you good after your Semitic hallucinations.”

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