Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 8

It was a great day for Apollonia; not only to have Lothair at her right hand at dinner, but the prospect of receiving a cardinal in the evening. But she was equal to it; though so engrossed, indeed, in the immediate gratification of her hopes and wishes, that she could scarcely dwell sufficiently on the coming scene of triumph and social excitement.

The repast was sumptuous; Lothair thought the dinner would never end, there were so many dishes, and apparently all of the highest pretension. But if his simple tastes had permitted him to take an interest in these details, which, they did not, he would have been assisted by a gorgeous menu of gold and white typography, that was by the side of each guest. The table seemed literally to groan under vases and gigantic flagons, and, in its midst, rose a mountain of silver, on which apparently all the cardinal virtues, several of the pagan deities, and Britannia herself, illustrated with many lights a glowing inscription, which described the fervent feelings of a grateful client.

There were many guests — the Dowager of Farringford, a lady of quality, Apollonia’s great lady, who exercised under this roof much social tyranny; in short, was rather fine; but who, on this occasion, was somewhat cowed by the undreamt-of presence of Lothair. She had not yet met him, and probably never would have met him, had she not had the good fortune of dining at his lawyer’s. However, Lady Farringford was placed a long way from Lothair, having been taken down to dinner by Mr. Giles; and so, by the end of the first course, Lady Farringford had nearly resumed her customary despotic vein, and was beginning to indulge in several kind observations, cheapening to her host and hostess, and indirectly exalting herself; upon which Mr. Giles took an early easy opportunity of apprising Lady Farringford, that she had nearly met Cardinal Grandison at dinner, and that his eminence would certainly pay his respects to Mrs. Putney Giles in the evening. As Lady Farringford was at present a high ritualist and had even been talked of as “going to Rome,” this intelligence was stunning, and it was observed that her ladyship was unusually subdued during the whole of the second course.

On the right of Lothair sat the wife of a vice-chancellor, a quiet and pleasing lady, to whom Lothair, with natural good breeding, paid snatches of happy attention, when he could for a moment with propriety withdraw himself from the blaze of Apollonia’s coruscating conversation. Then there was a rather fierce-looking Red Ribbon, medalled, as well as bestarred, and the Red Ribbon’s wife, with a blushing daughter, in spite of, her parentage not yet accustomed to stand fire. A partner and his unusually numerous family had the pleasure also of seeing Lothair for the first time, and there were no less than four M.P.s, one of whom was even in office.

Apollonia was stating to Lothair, with perspicuity, the reasons which quite induced her to believe that the Gulf–Stream had changed its course, and the political and social consequences that might accrue.

“The religious sentiment of the Southern races must be wonderfully affected by a more rigorous climate,” said Apollonia. “I cannot doubt,” she continued, “that a series of severe winters at Rome might put an end to Romanism.”

“But is there any fear that a reciprocal influence might be exercised on the Northern nations?” inquired Lothair. “Would there be any apprehension of our Protestantism becoming proportionately relaxed?”

“Of course not,” said Apollonia. “Truth cannot be affected by climate. Truth is truth, alike in Palestine and Scandinavia.”

“I wonder what the cardinal would think of this,” said Lothair, “who, you tell me, is coming to you this evening?”

“Yes, I am most interested to see him, though he is the most puissant of our foes. Of course he would take refuge in sophistry; and science, you know, they deny.”

“Cardinal Grandison is giving some lectures on science,” said the vice-chancellor’s lady, quietly.

“It is remorse,” said Apollonia. “Their clever men can never forget that unfortunate affair of Galileo, and think they can divert the indignation of the ninteenth century by mock zeal about red sandstone or the origin of species.”

“And are you afraid of the Gulf–Stream?” inquired Lothair of his calmer neighbor.

“I think we want more evidence of a change. The vice-chancellor and myself went down to a place we have near town, on Saturday, where there is a very nice piece of water; indeed, some people call it a lake; but it was quite frozen, and my boys wanted to skate, but that I would not permit.”

“You believe in the Gulf–Stream to that extent,” said Lothair —“no skating.”

The cardinal came, early; the ladies had not long left the dining-room. They were agitated when his name was announced; even Apollonia’s heart beat; but then that might be accounted for by the inopportune recollection of an occasional correspondence with Caprera.

Nothing could exceed the simple suavity with which the cardinal appeared, approached, and greeted them. He thanked Apollonia for her permission to pay his respects to her, which he had long wished to do; and then they were all presented, and he said exactly the right thing to every one. He must have heard of them all before, or read their characters in their countenances. In a few minutes they were all listening to his eminence with enchanted ease, as, sitting on the sofa by his hostess, he described to them the ambassadors who had just arrived from Japan, and with whom he had relations of interesting affairs. The Japanese government had exhibited enlightened kindness to some of his poor people who had barely escaped martyrdom. Much might be expected from the Mikado, evidently a man of singular penetration and elevated views; and his eminence looked as if the mission of Yokohama would speedily end in an episcopal see; but he knew where he was and studiously avoided all controversial matter.

After all, the Mikado himself was not more remarkable than this prince of the Church in a Tyburnian drawing-room habited in his pink cassock and cape, and waving, as he spoke, with careless grace, his pink barrette.

The ladies thought the gentlemen rejoined them too soon, but Mr. Giles, when he was apprised of the arrival of the cardinal, thought it right to precipitate the symposium. With great tact, when the cardinal rose to greet him, Mr. Giles withdrew his eminence from those surrounding, and, after a brief interchange of whispered words, quitted him and then brought forward and presented Lothair to the cardinal, and left them.

“This is not the first time that we should have met,” said the cardinal, “but my happiness is so great at this moment that, though I deplore, I will not dwell on, the past.”

“I am, nevertheless, grateful to you, sir, for many services, and have more than once contemplated taking the liberty of personally assuring your a eminence of my gratitude.”

“I think we might sit down,” said the cardinal, looking around; and then he led Lothair into an open but interior saloon, where none were yet present, and where they seated themselves on a sofa and were soon engaged in apparently interesting converse.

In the mean time the world gradually filled the principal saloon of Apollonia, and, when it approached overflowing, occasionally some persons passed the line, and entered the room in which the cardinal and his ward were seated, and then, as if conscious of violating some sacred place, drew back. Others, on the contrary, with coarser curiosity, were induced to invade the chamber from the mere fact that the cardinal was to be seen there.

“My geographical instinct,” said the cardinal to Lothair, “assures me that I can regain the staircase through these rooms, without rejoining the busy world; so I shall bid you good-night and even presume to give you my blessing;” and his eminence glided away.

When Lothair returned to the saloon it was so crowded that he was not observed; exactly what he liked; and he stood against the wall watching all that passed, not without amusement. A lively, social parasite, who had dined there, and had thanked his stars at dinner that Fortune had, decreed he should meet Lothair, had been cruising for his prize all the time that Lothair had been conversing with the cardinal and was soon at his side.

“A strange scene this!” said the parasite.

“Is it unusual?” inquired Lothair.

“Such a medley! How can they can be got together, I marvel — priests and philosophers, legitimists, and carbonari! Wonderful woman, Mrs. Putney Giles!”

“She is very entertaining,” said Lothair, “and seems to me clever.”

“Remarkably so,” said the parasite, who had been on the point of satirizing his hostess, but, observing the quarter of the wind, with rapidity went in for praise. “An extraordinary woman. Your lordship had a long talk with the cardinal.”

“I had the honor of some conversation with Cardinal Grandison,” said Lothair, drawing up.

“I wonder what the cardinal would have said if he had met Mazzini here?”

“Mazzini! Is he here?”

“Not now; but I have seen him here,” said the parasite, “and our host such a Tory! That makes the thing so amusing;” and then the parasite went on making small personal observations on the surrounding scene, and every now and then telling little tales of great people with whom, it appeared, he was intimate — all concerted fire to gain the very great social fortress he was now besieging. The parasite was so full of himself, and so anxious to display himself to advantage, that with all his practice it was some time before he perceived he did not make all the way he could wish with Lothair; who was courteous, but somewhat monosyllabic and absent.

“Your lordship is struck by that face?” said the parasite.

Was Lothair struck by that face? And what was it?

He had exchanged glances with that face during the last ten minutes, and the mutual expression was not one of sympathy but curiosity blended, on the part of the face, with an expression, if not of disdain, of extreme reserve.

It was the face of a matron, apparently of not many summers, for her shapely figure was still slender, though her mien was stately. But it was the countenance that had commanded the attention of Lothair: pale, but perfectly Attic in outline, with the short upper lip and the round chin, and a profusion of dark-chestnut hair bound by a Grecian fillet, and on her brow a star.

“Yes I am struck by that face. Who is it?”

“If your lordship could only get a five-franc piece of the last French Republic, 1850, you would know. I dare say the money-changers could get you one. All the artists of Paris, painters, and sculptors, and medallists, were competing to produce a face worthy of representing ‘La R publique fran aise;’ nobody was satisfied, when Oudine caught a girl of not seventeen, and, with a literal reproduction of Nature, gained the prize with unanimity.”

“Ah!”

“And, though years have passed, the countenance has not changed; perhaps improved.”

“It is a countenance that will bear, perhaps even would require, maturity,” said Lothair; “but she is no longer ‘La R publique fran aise;’ what is she now?”

“She is called Theodora, though married, I believe, to an Englishman, a friend of Garibaldi. Her birth unknown; some say an Italian, some a Pole; all sorts of stories. But she speaks every language, is ultra-cosmopolitan, and has invented a new religion.”

“A new religion!”

“Would your lordship care to be introduced to her? I know her enough for that. Shall we go up to her?”

“I have made so many now acquaintances today,” said, Lothair, as it were starting from a reverie, “and indeed heard so many new things, that I think I had better say good-night;” and he graciously retired.

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