Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 75

The Prince Agathonides seemed quite to monopolize the attention of Madame Phoebus and her sister. This was not very unreasonable, considering that he was their visitor, the future chief of their house, and had brought them so many embroidered pocket-handkerchiefs, choice scents, and fancy dogs. But Lothair thought it quite disgusting, nor could he conceive what they saw in him, what they were talking about or laughing about, for, so far as he had been able to form any opinion on the subject, the prince was a shallow-pated coxcomb without a single quality to charm any woman of sense and spirit. Lothair began to consider how he could pursue his travels, where he should go to, and, when that was settled, how he should get there.

Just at this moment of perplexity, as is often the case, something occurred which no one could foresee, but which, like every event, removed some difficulties and introduced others.

There arrived at the island a dispatch forwarded to Mr. Phoebus by the Russian ambassador at Constantinople, who had received it from his colleague at London. This dispatch contained a proposition to Mr. Phoebus to repair to the court of St. Petersburg, and accept appointments of high distinction and emolument. Without in any way restricting the independent pursuit of his profession, he was offered a large salary, the post of court painter, and the presidency of the Academy of Fine Arts. Of such moment did the Russian Government deem the official presence of this illustrious artist in their country, that it was intimated, if the arrangement could be effected, its conclusion might be celebrated by conferring on Mr. Phoebus a patent of nobility and a decoration of a high class. The dispatch contained a private letter from an exalted member of the imperial family, who had had the high and gratifying distinction of making Mr. Phoebus’s acquaintance in London, personally pressing the acceptance by him of the general proposition, assuring him of cordial welcome and support, and informing Mr. Phoebus that what was particularly desired at this moment was a series of paintings illustrative of some of the most memorable scenes in the Holy Land and especially the arrival of the pilgrims of the Greek rite at Jerusalem. As for this purpose he would probably like to visit Palestine, the whole of the autumn or even a longer period was placed at his disposal; so that, enriched with all necessary drawings and studies, he might achieve his more elaborate performances in Russia at his leisure and with every advantage.

Considering that the great objects in life with Mr. Phoebus were to live in an Aryan country, amid an Aryan race, and produce works which should revive for the benefit of human nature Aryan creeds, a proposition to pass some of the prime years of his life among the Mongolian race, and at the same time devote his pencil to the celebration Semitic subjects, was startling.

“I shall say nothing to Madame Phoebus until the prince has gone,” he remarked to Lothair; “he will go the day after tomorrow. I do not know what they may offer to make me — probably only a baron, perhaps a count. But you know in Russia a man may become a prince, and I certainly should like those Cantacuzenes to feel that after all their daughter is a princess with no thanks to them. The climate is detestable, but one owes much to one’s profession. Art would be honored at a great, perhaps the greatest, court. There would not be a fellow at his easel in the streets about Fitzroy Square who would not be prouder. I wonder what the decoration will be? ‘Of a high class’— vague. It might be Alexander Newsky. You know you have a right, whatever your decoration, to have it expressed, of course at your own expense, in brilliants. I confess I have my weaknesses. I should like to get over to the Academy dinner — one can do any thing in these days of railroads — and dine with the R. A’s in my ribbon and the star of the Alexander Newsky in brilliants. I think every academician would feel elevated. What I detest are their Semitic subjects — nothing but drapery. They cover even their heads in those scorching climes. Can any one make any thing of a caravan of pilgrims? To be sure, they say no one can draw a camel. If I went to Jerusalem, a camel would at last be drawn. There is something in that. We must think over these things, and when the prince has gone talk it over with Madame Phoebus. I wish you all to come to a wise decision, without the slightest reference to my individual tastes or, it may be, prejudices.”

The result of all this was that Mr. Phoebus, without absolutely committing himself, favorably entertained the general proposition of the Russian court; while, with respect to their particular object in art, he agreed to visit Palestine and execute at least one work for his imperial friend and patron. He counted on reaching Jerusalem before the Easter pilgrims returned to their homes.

“If they would make me a prince at once, and give me the Alexander Newsky in brilliants, it might be worth thinking of,” he said to Lothair.

The ladies, though they loved their isle, were quite delighted with the thought of going to Jerusalem. Madame Phoebus knew a Russian grand-duchess who had boasted to her that she had been both to Jerusalem and Torquay, and Madame Phoebus had felt quite ashamed that she had been to neither.

“I suppose you will feel quite at home there,” said Euphrosyne to Lothair.

“No; I never was there.”

“No; but you know all about those places and people — holy places and holy persons. The Blessed Virgin did not, I believe, appear to you. It was to a young lady, was it not? We were asking each other last night who the young lady could be.”

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