Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Book IV

Chapter 1

The important hour drew nigh. Christmas was to be passed by the Carabas family, the Beaconsfields, the Scropes, and the Clevelands at Lord Courtown’s villa at Richmond; at which place, on account of its vicinity to the metropolis, the Viscount had determined to make out the holidays, notwithstanding the Thames entered his kitchen windows, and the Donna del Lago was acted in the theatre with real water, Cynthia Courtown performing Elena, paddling in a punt.

“Let us order our horses, Cleveland, round to the Piccadilly gate, and walk through the Guards. I must stretch my legs. That bore, Horace Buttonhole, captured me in Pall Mall East, and has kept me in the same position for upwards of half an hour. I shall make a note to blackball him at the Athenaeum. How is Mrs. Cleveland?”

“Extremely well. She goes down to Buckhurst Lodge with Lady Carabas. Is not that Lord Lowersdale?”

“His very self. He is going to call on Vivida Vis, I have no doubt. Lowersdale is a man of very considerable talent; much more than the world gives him credit for.”

“And he doubtless finds a very able counsellor in Monsieur le Sécrétaire?”

“Can you name a better one?”

“You rather patronise Vivida, I think, Grey?”

“Patronise him! he is my political pet!”

“And yet Kerrison tells me you reviewed the Suffolk papers in the Edinburgh.”

“So I did; what of that? I defended them in Blackwood.”

“This, then, is the usual method of you literary gentlemen. Thank God! I never could write a line.”

“York House rises proudly; if York House be its name.”

“This confounded Catholic Question is likely to give us a great deal of trouble, Grey. It is perfect madness for us to advocate the cause of the ‘six millions of hereditary bondsmen;’ and yet, with not only the Marchese, but even Courtown and Beaconsfield committed, it is, to say the least, a very delicate business.”

“Very delicate, certainly; but there are some precedents, I suspect, Cleveland, for the influence of a party being opposed to measures which the heads of that party had pledged themselves to adopt.”

“Does old Gifford still live at Pimlico, Grey?”

“Still.”

“He is a splendid fellow, after all.”

“Certainly, a mind of great powers, but bigoted.”

“Oh, yes! I know exactly what you are going to say. It is the fashion, I am aware, to abuse the old gentleman. He is the Earl of Eldon of literature; not the less loved because a little vilified. But, when I just remember what Gifford has done; when I call to mind the perfect and triumphant success of everything he has undertaken; the Anti–Jacobin, the Baviad and Maeviad, the Quarterly; all palpable hits, on the very jugular; I hesitate before I speak of William Gifford in any other terms, or in any other spirit, than those of admiration and of gratitude.

“And to think. Grey, that the Tory Administration and the Tory party of Great Britain should never, by one single act, or in a single instance, have indicated that they were in the least aware that the exertions of such a man differed in the slightest degree from those of Hunt and Hone! Of all the delusions which flourish in this mad world, the delusion of that man is the most frantic who voluntarily, and of his own accord, supports the interest of a party. I mention this to you because it is the rock on which all young politicians strike. Fortunately, you enter life under different circumstances from those which usually attend most political debutants. You have your connections formed and your views ascertained. But if, by any chance, you find yourself independent and unconnected, never, for a moment, suppose that you can accomplish your objects by coming forward, unsolicited, to fight the battle of a party. They will cheer your successful exertions, and then smile at your youthful zeal; or, crossing themselves for the unexpected succour, be too cowardly to reward their unexpected champion. No, Grey; make them fear you, and they will kiss your feet. There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour.

“As to Gifford, I am surprised at their conduct towards him, although I know better than most men of what wood a minister is made, and how much reliance may be placed upon the gratitude of a party: but Canning; from Canning I certainly did expect different conduct.”

“Oh, Canning! I love the man: but as you say, Cleveland, ministers have short memories, and Canning’s; that was Antilles that just passed us; apropos to whom, I quite rejoice that the Marquess has determined to take such a decided course on the West India Question.”

“Oh, yes! curse your East India sugar.”

“To be sure; slavery and sweetmeats forever!”

“But, aside with joking, Grey, I really think, that if any man of average ability dare rise in the House, and rescue many of the great questions of the day from what Dugald Stuart or Disraeli would call the spirit of Political Religionism, with which they are studiously mixed up, he would not fail to make a great impression upon the House, and a still greater one upon the country.”

“I quite agree with you; and certainly I should recommend commencing with the West India Question. Singular state of affairs when even Canning can only insinuate his opinion when the very existence of some of our most valuable colonies is at stake, and when even his insinuations are only indulged with an audience on the condition that he favours the House with an introductory discourse of twenty minutes on ‘the divine Author of our faith,’ and an éloge of equal length on the Génie du Christianisme, in a style worthy of Chateaubriand.”

“Miserable work, indeed! I have got a pamphlet on the West India Question sent me this morning. Do you know any raving lawyer, any mad Master in Chancery, or something of the kind, who meddles in these affairs?”

“Oh! Stephen! a puddle in a storm! He is for a crusade for the regeneration of the Antilles; the most forcible of feebles, the most energetic of drivellers; Velluti acting Pietro l’Eremita.”

“Do you know, by any chance, whether Southey’s Vindiciae is out yet? I wanted to look it over during the holidays.”

“Not out, though it has been advertised some time; but what do you expect?”

“Nay, it is an interesting controversy, as controversies go. Not exactly Milton and Salmasius; but fair enough.”

“I do not know. It has long degenerated into a mere personal bickering between the Laureate and Butler. Southey is, of course, revelling in the idea of writing an English work with a Latin title! and that, perhaps, is the only circumstance for which the controversy is prolonged.”

“But Southey, after all, is a man of splendid talents.”

“Doubtless; the most philosophical of bigots, and the most poetical of prose writers.”

“Apropos to the Catholic Question, there goes Colonial Bother’em trying to look like Prince Metternich; a decided failure.”

“What can keep him in town?”

“Writing letters, I suppose, Heaven preserve me from receiving any of them!”

“Is it true, then, that his letters are of the awful length that is whispered?”

“True! Oh! they are something beyond all conception! Perfect epistolary Boa Constrictors. I speak with feeling, for I have myself suffered under their voluminous windings.”

“Have you seen his quarto volume: ‘The Cure for the Catholic Question?’”

“Yes.”

“If you have it, lend it to me. What kind of thing is it?”

“Oh! what should it be! ingenious and imbecile. He advises the Catholics, in the old nursery language, to behave like good boys; to open their mouths and shut their eyes, and see what God will send them.”

“Well, that is the usual advice. Is there nothing more characteristic of the writer?”

“What think you of a proposition of making Jockey of Norfolk Patriarch of England, and of an ascertained credo for our Catholic fellow-subjects? Ingenious, is not it?”

“Have you seen Puff’s new volume of Ariosto?”

“I have. What could possibly have induced Mr. Partenopex Puff to have undertaken such a duty? Mr. Puff is a man destitute of poetical powers, possessing no vigour of language, and gifted with no happiness of expression. His translation is hard, dry, and husky, as the outside of a cocoanut. I am amused to see the excellent tact with which the public has determined not to read his volumes, in spite of the incessant exertions of a certain set to ensure their popularity; but the time has gone by when the smug coterie could create a reputation.”

“Do you think the time ever existed, Cleveland?”

“What could have seduced Puff into being so ambitious? I suppose his admirable knowledge of Italian; as if a man were entitled to strike a die for the new sovereign merely because he was aware how much alloy might legally debase its carats of pure gold.”

“I never can pardon Puff for that little book on Cats. The idea was admirable; but, instead of one of the most delightful volumes that ever appeared, to take up a dull, tame compilation from Bingley’s Animal Biography!”

“Yes! and the impertinence of dedicating such a work to the Officers of His Majesty’s Household troops! Considering the quarter from whence it proceeded, I certainly did not expect much, but still I thought that there was to be some little esprit. The poor Guards! how nervous they must have been at the announcement! What could have been the point of that dedication?”

“I remember a most interminable proser, who was blessed with a very sensible-sounding voice, and who, on the strength of that, and his correct and constant emphases, was considered by the world, for a great time, as a sage. At length it was discovered that he was quite the reverse. Mr. Puff’s wit is very like this man’s wisdom. You take up one of his little books, and you fancy, from its titlepage, that it is going to be very witty; as you proceed, you begin to suspect that the man is only a wag, and then, surprised at not ‘seeing the point,’ you have a shrewd suspicion that he is a great hand at dry humour. It is not till you have closed the volume that you wonder who it is that has had the hardihood to intrude such imbecility upon an indulgent world.”

“Come, come! Mr. Puff is a worthy gentleman. Let him cease to dusk the radiancy of Ariosto’s sunny stanzas, and I shall be the first man who will do justice to his merits. He certainly tattles prettily about tenses and terminations, and is not an inelegant grammarian.”

“Our literature, I think, is at a low ebb.”

“There is nothing like a fall of stocks to affect what it is the fashion to style the Literature of the present day, a fungus production which has flourished from the artificial state of our society, the mere creature of our imaginary wealth. Everybody being very rich, has afforded to be very literary, books being considered a luxury almost as elegant and necessary as ottomans, bonbons, and pier-glasses. Consols at 100 were the origin of all book societies. The Stockbrokers’ ladies took off the quarto travels and the hot-pressed poetry. They were the patronesses of your patent ink and your wire-wove paper. That is all past. Twenty per cent difference in the value of our public securities from this time last year, that little incident has done more for the restoration of the old English feeling, than all the exertions of Church and State united. There is nothing like a fall in Consols to bring the blood of our good people of England into cool order. It is your grand state medicine, your veritable Doctor Sangrado!

“A fall in stocks! and halt to ‘the spread of knowledge!’ and ‘the progress of liberal principles’ is like that of a man too late for post-horses. A fall in stocks! and where are your London Universities, and your Mechanics’ Institutes, and your new Docks? Where your philosophy, your philanthropy, and your competition? National prejudices revive as national prosperity decreases. If the Consols were at 60 we should be again bellowing, God save the King! eating roast beef, and damning the French.”

“And you imagine literature is equally affected, Grey?”

“Clearly. We were literary because we were rich. Amid the myriad of volumes which issued monthly from the press, what one was not written for the mere hour? It is all very well to buy mechanical poetry and historical novels when our purses have a plethora; but now, my dear fellow, depend upon it, the game is up. We have no scholars now, no literary recluses, no men who ever appear to think. ‘Scribble, scribble, scribble’ as the Duke of Cumberland said to Gibbon, should be the motto of the mighty ‘nineteenth century.’”

“Southey, I think, Grey, is an exception.”

“By no means. Southey is a political writer, a writer for a particular purpose. All his works, from those in three volumes quarto to those in one duodecimo, are alike political pamphlets.”

“We certainly want a master-spirit to set us right, Grey. We want Byron.”

“There was the man! And that such a man should be lost to us at the very moment that he had begun to discover why it had pleased the Omnipotent to have endowed him with such powers!”

“If one thing were more characteristic of Byron’s mind than another, it was his strong, shrewd, common sense; his pure, unalloyed sagacity.”

“You knew him, I think, Cleveland?”

“Well, I was slightly acquainted with him when in England; slightly, however, for I was then very young. But many years afterwards I met him in Italy. It was at Pisa, just before he left that place for Genoa. I was then very much struck at the alteration in his appearance.”

“Indeed.”

“Yes; his face was swollen, and he was getting fat. His hair was grey, and his countenance had lost that spiritual expression which it once eminently possessed. His teeth were decaying; and he said that if ever he came to England it would be to consult Wayte about them. I certainly was very much struck at his alteration for the worse. Besides, he was dressed in the most extraordinary manner.”

“Slovenly?”

“Oh, no, no, no! in the most dandified style that you can conceive; but not that of an English dandy either. He had on a magnificent foreign foraging cap, which he wore in the room, but his grey curls were quite perceptible; and a frogged surtout; and he had a large gold chain round his neck, and pushed into his waistcoat pocket. I imagined, of course, that a glass was attached to it; but I afterwards found that it bore nothing but a quantity of trinkets. He had also another gold chain tight round his neck, like a collar.”

“How odd! And did you converse much with him?”

“I was not long at Pisa, but we never parted, and there was only one subject of conversation, England, England, England. I never met a man in whom the maladie du pays was so strong. Byron was certainly at this time restless and discontented. He was tired of his dragoon captains and pensioned poetasters, and he dared not come back to England with what he considered a tarnished reputation. His only thought was of some desperate exertion to clear himself: it was for this he went to Greece. When I was with him he was in correspondence with some friends in England about the purchase of a large tract of land in Colombia. He affected a great admiration of Bolivar.”

“Who, by-the-bye, is a great man.”

“Assuredly.”

“Your acquaintance with Byron must have been one of the gratifying incidents of your life, Cleveland?”

“Certainly; I may say with Friar Martin, in Goetz of Berlichingen, ‘The sight of him touched my heart. It is a pleasure to have seen a great man.’”

“Hobhouse was a faithful friend to him?”

“His conduct has been beautiful; and Byron had a thorough affection for him, in spite of a few squibs and a few drunken speeches, which damned good-natured friends have always been careful to repeat.”

“The loss of Byron can never be retrieved. He was indeed a real man; and when I say this, I award him the most splendid character which human nature need aspire to. At least, I, for my part, have no ambition to be considered either a divinity or an angel; and truly, when I look round upon the creatures alike effeminate in mind and body of which the world is, in general, composed, I fear that even my ambition is too exalted. Byron’s mind was like his own ocean, sublime in its yesty madness, beautiful in its glittering summer brightness, mighty in the lone magnificence of its waste of waters, gazed upon from the magic of its own nature, yet capable of representing, but as in a glass darkly, the natures of all others.”

“Hyde Park is greatly changed since I was a dandy, Vivian. Pray, do the Misses Otranto still live in that house?”

“Yes; blooming as ever.”

“It is the fashion to abuse Horace Walpole, but I really think him the most delightful writer that ever existed. I wonder who is to be the Horace Walpole of the present century? some one, perhaps, we least suspect.”

“Vivida Vis, think you?”

“More than probable. I will tell you who ought to be writing Memoirs; Lord Dropmore. Does my Lord Manfred keep his mansion there, next to the Misses Otranto?”

“I believe so, and lives there.”

“I knew him in Germany; a singular man, and not understood. Perhaps he does not understand himself. I see our horses.”

“I will join you in an instant, Cleveland. I just want to speak one word to Osborne, whom I see coming down here. Well, Osborne, I must come and knock you up one of these mornings. I have got a commission for you from Lady Julia Knighton, to which you must pay particular attention.”

“Well, Mr. Grey, how does Lady Julia like the bay mare?”

“Very much, indeed; but she wants to know what you have done about the chestnut.”

“Oh! put it off, sir, in the prettiest style, on young Mr. Feoffment, who has just married, and taken a house in Gower Street. He wanted a bit of blood; hopes he likes it!”

“Hopes he does, Jack. There is a particular favour which you can do for me, Osborne, and which I am sure you will. Ernest Clay; you know Ernest Clay; a most excellent fellow is Ernest Clay, you know, and a great friend of yours, Osborne; I wish you would just step down to Connaught Place, and look at those bays he bought of Harry Mounteney. He is in a little trouble, and we must do what we can for him; you know he is an excellent fellow, and a great friend of yours. Thank you, I knew you would. Good morning; remember Lady Julia. So you really fitted young Feoffment with the chestnut; well, that was admirable! Good morning.”

“I do not know whether you care for these things at all, Cleveland, but Premium, a famous millionaire, has gone this morning, for I know not how much! Half the new world will be ruined; and in this old one a most excellent fellow, my friend Ernest Clay. He was engaged to Premium’s daughter, his last resource, and now, of course, it is all up with him.”

“I was at College with his brother, Augustus Clay. He is a nephew of Lord Mounteney’s, is he not?”

“The very same. Poor fellow! I do not know what we must do for him. I think I shall advise him to change his name to Clayville; and if the world ask him the reason of the euphonious augmentation, why, he can swear it was to distinguish himself from his brothers. Too many roués of the same name will never do. And now spurs to our steeds! for we are going at least three miles out of our way, and I must collect my senses and arrange my curls before dinner, for I have to flirt with at least three fair ones.”

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