Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 4

After an immense number of propositions, and an equal number of repetitions, Dr. Hoadley’s bustling drama was fixed upon. Vivian was to act Ranger, Augustus Etherege was to personate Clarinda, because he was a fair boy and always blushing; and the rest of the characters found able representatives. Every half-holiday was devoted to rehearsals, and nothing could exceed the amusement and thorough fun which all the preparations elicited. All went well; Vivian wrote a pathetic prologue and a witty epilogue. Etherege got on capitally in the mask scene, and Poynings was quite perfect in Jack Maggot. There was, of course, some difficulty in keeping all things in order, but then Vivian Grey was such an excellent manager! and then, with infinite tact, the said manager conciliated the Classics, for he allowed St. Leger Smith to select a Greek motto, from the Andromache, for the front of the theatre; and Johnson secundus and Barlow primus were complimented by being allowed to act the chairmen.

But alas! in the midst of all this sunshine, the seeds of discord and dissension were fast flourishing. Mr. Dallas himself was always so absorbed in some freshly-imported German commentator that it was a fixed principle with him never to trouble himself with anything that concerned his pupils “out of school hours.” The consequence was, that certain powers were necessarily delegated to a certain set of beings called USHERS.

The usherian rule had, however, always been comparatively light at Burnsley Vicarage, for the good Dallas, never for a moment entrusting the duties of tuition to a third person, engaged these deputies merely as a sort of police, to regulate the bodies, rather than the minds, of his youthful subjects. One of the first principles of the new theory introduced into the establishment of Burnsley Vicarage by Mr. Vivian Grey was, that the ushers were to be considered by the boys as a species of upper servants; were to be treated with civility, certainly, as all servants are by gentlemen; but that no further attention was to be paid them, and that any fellow voluntarily conversing with an usher was to be cut dead by the whole school. This pleasant arrangement was no secret to those whom it most immediately concerned, and, of course, rendered Vivian rather a favourite with them. These men had not the tact to conciliate the boy, and were, notwithstanding, too much afraid of his influence in the school to attack him openly; so they waited with that patience which insulted beings can alone endure.

One of these creatures must not be forgotten; his name was Mallett; he was a perfect specimen of the genuine usher. The monster wore a black coat and waistcoat; the residue of his costume was of that mysterious colour known by the name of pepper-and-salt. He was a pallid wretch with a pug nose, white teeth, and marked with the small-pox: long, greasy, black hair, and small black, beady eyes. This daemon watched the progress of the theatrical company with eyes gloating with vengeance. No attempt had been made to keep the fact of the rehearsal a secret from the police; no objection, on their part, had as yet been made; the twelve weeks diminished to six; Ranger had secretly ordered a dress from town, and was to get a steel-handled sword from Fentum’s for Jack Maggot; and everything was proceeding with delightful success, when one morning, as Mr. Dallas was apparently about to take his departure, with a volume of Becker’s Thucydides under his arm, the respected Dominie stopped, and thus harangued: “I am informed that a great deal is going on in this family with which it is intended that I shall be kept unacquainted. It is not my intention to name anybody or anything at present; but I must say that of late the temper of this family has sadly changed. Whether there be any seditious stranger among you or not, I shall not at present even endeavour to discover; but I will warn my old friends of their new ones:” and so saying, the Dominie withdrew.

All eyes were immediately fixed on Vivian, and the faces of the Classics were triumphant with smiles; those of the manager’s particular friends, the Romantics, we may call them, were clouded; but who shall describe the countenance of Mallett? In a moment the school broke up with an agitated and tumultuous uproar. “No stranger!” shouted St. Leger Smith; “no stranger!” vociferated a prepared gang. Vivian’s friends were silent, for they hesitated to accept for their leader the insulting title. Those who were neither Vivian’s friends nor in the secret, weak creatures who side always with the strongest, immediately swelled the insulting chorus of Mr. St. Leger Smith. That worthy, emboldened by his success and the smiles of Mallett, contained himself no longer: “Down with the manager!” he cried. His satellites chorussed. But now Vivian rushed forward. “Mr. Smith, I thank you for being so definite; take that!” and he struck Smith with such force that the Cleon staggered and fell; but Smith instantly recovered, and a ring was instantly formed. To a common observer, the combatants were unequally matched; for Smith was a burly, big-limbed animal, alike superior to Grey in years and strength. But Vivian, though delicate in frame and more youthful, was full his match in spirit, and, thanks to being a Cockney! ten times his match in science. He had not built a white great coat or drunk blue ruin at Ben Burn’s for nothing!

Oh! how beautifully he fought! how admirably straight he hit! and his stops quick as lightning! and his followings up confounding his adversary with their painful celerity! Smith alike puzzled and punished, yet proud in his strength, hit round, and wild, and false, and foamed like a furious elephant. For ten successive rounds the result was dubious; but in the eleventh the strength of Smith began to fail him, and the men were more fairly matched. “Go it, Ranger! go it, Ranger!” halloed the Greyites; “No stranger! no stranger!” eagerly bawled the more numerous party. “Smith’s floored, by Jove!” exclaimed Poynings, who was Grey’s second. “At it again! at it again!” exclaimed all. And now, when Smith must certainly have given in, suddenly stepped forward Mr. Mallett, accompanied by — Dallas!

“How, Mr. Grey! No answer, sir; I understand that you have always an answer ready. I do not quote Scripture lightly, Mr. Grey; but ‘Take heed that you offend not, even with your tongue.’ Now, sir, to your room.”

When Vivian Grey again joined his companions, he found himself almost universally shunned. Etherege and Poynings were the only individuals who met him with their former frankness.

“A horrible row, Grey,” said the latter. “After you went, the Doctor harangued the whole school, and swears you have seduced and ruined us all; everything was happiness until you came, &c. Mallett is of course at the bottom of the whole business: but what can we do? Dallas says you have the tongue of a serpent, and that he will not trust himself to hear your defence. Infamous shame! I swear! And now every fellow has got a story against you: some say you are a dandy, others want to know whether the next piece performed at your theatre will be ‘The Stranger;’ as for myself and Etherege, we shall leave in a few weeks, and it does not signify to us; but what the devil you’re to do next half, by Jove, I can’t say. If I were you, I would not return.”

“Not return, eh! but that will I, though; and we shall see who, in future, can complain of the sweetness of my voice! Ungrateful fools!”

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