Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 4

It was late in the evening when a britzska stopped at the post-house at Coblentz. The passage-boat from Bingen had just arrived; and a portly judge from the Danube, a tall, gaunt Prussian officer, a sketching English artist, two University students, and some cloth-merchants, returning from Frankfort fair, were busily occupied at a long table in the centre of the room, at an ample banquet, in which sour-crout, cherry-soup, and savoury sausages were not wanting. So keen were the appetites of these worthies, that the entrance of the new comers, who seated themselves at a small table in the corner of the room, was scarcely noticed; and for half-an-hour nothing was heard but the sound of crashing jaws and of rattling knives and forks. How singular is the sight of a dozen hungry individuals intent upon their prey! What a noisy silence! A human voice was at length heard. It proceeded from the fat judge; a man at once convivial, dignified, and economical: he had not spoken for two minutes before his character was evident to every person in the room, although he flattered himself that his secret purpose was concealed from all. Tired with the thin Moselle gratuitously allowed to the table, the judge wished to comfort himself with a glass of more generous liquor; aware of the price of a bottle of good Rudesheimer, he was desirous of forming a copartnership with one or two gentlemen in the venture; still more aware of his exalted situation, he felt it did not become him to appear in the eyes of any one as an unsuccessful suppliant.

“This Moselle is very thin,” observed the judge, shaking his head.

“Very fair table-wine, I think” said the artist, refilling his tumbler, and then proceeding with his sketch, which was a rough likeness, in black chalk, of the worthy magistrate himself.

“Very good wine, I think,” swore the Prussian, taking the bottle. With the officer there was certainly no chance.

The cloth-merchants mixed even this thin Moselle with water, and therefore they could hardly be looked to as boon companions; and the students were alone left. A German student is no flincher at the bottle, although he generally drinks beer. These gentry, however, were no great favourites with the magistrate, who was a loyal man, of regular habits, and no encourager of brawls, duels, and other still more disgraceful outrages; to all which abominations, besides drinking beer and chewing tobacco, the German student is remarkably addicted; but in the present case what was to be done? He offered the nearest a pinch of snuff, as a mode of commencing his acquaintance and cultivating his complacency. The student dug his thumb into the box, and, with the additional aid of the forefinger sweeping out half its contents, growled out something like thanks, and then drew up in his seat, as if he had too warmly encouraged the impertinent intrusion of a Philistine to whom he had never been introduced.

The cloth-merchant, ceasing from sipping his meek liquor, and taking out of his pocket a letter, from which he tore off the back, carefully commenced collecting with his forefinger the particles of dispersed snuff in a small pyramid, which, when formed, was dexterously slided into the paper, then folded up and put into his pocket; the prudent merchant contenting himself for the moment with the refreshment which was afforded to his senses by the truant particles which had remained in his nail.

“Waiter, a bottle of Rudesheimer!” bellowed the judge; “and if any gentleman or gentlemen would like to join me, they may,” he added, in a more subdued tone. No one answered, and the bottle was put down. The judge slowly poured out the bright yellow fluid into a tall bell glass, adorned with a beautiful and encircling wreath of vine leaves; he held the glass a moment before the lamp, for his eye to dwell with still greater advantage on the transparent radiancy of the contents; and then deliberately pouring them down his throat, and allowing them to dwell a moment on his palate, he uttered an emphatic “bah!” and sucking in his breath, leaned back in his chair. The student immediately poured out a glass from the same bottle, and drank it off. The judge gave him a look, and then blessed himself that, though his boon companion was a brute, still he would lessen the expense of the bottle, which nearly amounted to a day’s pay; and so he again filled his glass, but this was merely to secure his fair portion. He saw the student was a rapid drinker; and, although he did not like to hurry his own enjoyment, he thought it most prudent to keep his glass well stored by his side.

“I hope your Lordships have had a pleasant voyage,” exclaimed a man, entering the room rapidly as he spoke; and, deliberately walking up to the table, he pushed between two of the cloth-merchants, who quietly made way; and then placing a small square box before him, immediately opened it, and sweeping aside the dishes and glasses which surrounded him, began to fill their places with cups, balls, rings, and other mysterious-looking matters, which generally accompany a conjuror.

“I hope your Lordships have had a pleasant voyage. I have been thinking of you all the day. (Here the cups were arranged.) Next to myself, I am interested for my friends. (Here the rice was sprinkled.) I came from Fairy-land this morning. (Here the trick was executed.) Will any gentleman lend me a handkerchief? Now, sir, tie any knot you choose: tighter, tighter, tight as you can, tight as you can: now pull! Why, sir, where’s your knot?” Here most of the company good-naturedly laughed at a trick which had amused them before a hundred times. But the dignified judge had no taste for such trivial amusements; and, besides, he thought that all this noise spoilt the pleasure of his wine, and prevented him from catching the flavour of his Rudesheimer. Moreover, the Judge was not in a very good humour. The student appeared to have little idea of the rules and regulations of a fair partnership: for not only did he not regulate his draughts by the moderate example of his bottle companion, but actually filled the glass of his University friend, and even offered the precious green flask to his neighbour, the cloth-merchant. That humble individual modestly refused the proffer. The unexpected circumstance of having his health drank by a stranger seemed alone to have produced a great impression upon him; and adding a little more water to his already diluted potation, he bowed reverently to the student, who, in return, did not notice him. All these little circumstances prevented the judge from laughing at the performances of our friend Essper George; for we need hardly mention that the conjuror was no other. His ill-humour did not escape the lord of the cups and balls, who, as was his custom, immediately began to torment him.

“Will you choose a card?” asked the magician of the judge, with a most humble look.

“No, sir!”

Essper George looked very penitent, as if he felt he had taken a great liberty by his application; and so, to compensate for his incorrect behaviour, he asked the magistrate whether he would have the goodness to lend him his watch. The judge was irate, and determined to give the intruder a set down.

“I am not one of those who can be amused by tricks that his grandfather knew.”

“Grandfather!” shrieked Essper; “what a wonderful grandfather yours must have been! All my tricks are fresh from Fairyland this morning. Grandfather, indeed! Pray, is this your grandfather?” and here the conjuror, leaning over the table, with a rapid catch drew out from the fat paunch of the judge a long grinning wooden figure, with great staring eyes, and the parrot nose of a pulcinello. The laugh which followed this sleight-of-hand was loud, long, and universal. The judge lost his temper; and Essper George took the opportunity of the confusion to drink off the glass of Rudesheimer which stood, as we have mentioned, ready charged, at the magistrate’s elbow.

The waiter now went round to collect the money of the various guests who had partaken of the boat-supper; and, of course, charged the judge extra for his ordered bottle, bowing at the same time very low, as was proper to so good a customer. These little attentions at inns encourage expenditure. The judge tried at the same time the bottle, which he found empty, and applied to his two boon companions for their quota; but the students affected a sort of brutal surprise at any one having the impudence to imagine that they were going to pay their proportion; and flinging down the money for their own supper on the table, they retired. The magistrate, calling loudly for the landlord, followed them out of the room.

Essper George stood moralising at the table, and emptying every glass whose contents were not utterly drained, with the exception of the tumblers of the cloth-merchants, of whose liquor he did not approve.

“Poor man! to get only one glass out of his own bottle! Ay! call for M. Maas; threaten as you will. Your grandfather will not help you here. Blood out of a wall and money out of a student come the same day. Ah! is your Excellency here?” said Essper, turning round to our two travellers with affected surprise, although he had observed them the whole time. “Is your Excellency here? I have been looking for you through Frankfort this whole morning. There! it will do for your glass. It is of chamois leather, and I made it myself, from a beast I caught last summer in the valley of the Rhone.” So saying, he threw over Vivian’s neck a neat chain, or cord, of curiously-worked leather.

“Who the devil is this, Grey?” asked the Baron.

“A funny knave, whom I once saved from a thrashing, or something of the kind, which I do him the justice to say he well deserved.”

“Who the devil is this?” said Essper George. “Why, that is exactly the same question I myself asked when I saw a tall, pompous, proud fellow, dressed like a peacock on a May morning, standing at the door just now. He looked as if he would pass himself off for an ambassador at least; but I told him that if he got his wages paid he was luckier than most servants. Was I right, your Excellency?”

“Poor Ernstorff!” said the Baron, laughing. “Yes; he certainly gets paid. Here, you are a clever varlet; fill your glass.”

“No; no wine. Don’t you hear the brawling, and nearly the bloodshed, which are going on upstairs about a sour bottle of Rudesheimer? and here I see two gentles who have ordered the best wine merely to show that they are masters and not servants of the green peacock, and lo! cannot get through a glass. Lord! lord! what is man? If my fat friend and his grandfather would but come down stairs again, here is liquor enough to make wine and water of the Danube; for he comes from thence by his accent. No, I’ll have none of your wine; keep it to throw on the sandy floor, that the dust may not hurt your delicate shoes, nor dirt the hand of the gentleman in green and gold when he cleans them for you in the morning.”

Here the Baron laughed again, and, as he bore his impertinence, Essper George immediately became polite.

“Does your Highness go to Ems?”

“We hardly know, my friend.”

“Oh! go there, gentlemen. I have tried them all; Aix-la-Chapelle, Spa, Wiesbaden, Carlsbad, Pyrmont, every one of them; but what are these to Ems? There we all live in the same house and eat from the same table. When there I feel that you are all under my protection; I consider you all as my children. Besides, the country, how delightful! the mountains, the valleys, the river, the woods, and then the company so select! No sharpers, no adventurers, no blacklegs: at Ems you can be taken in by no one except your intimate friend. To Ems, by all means. I would advise you, however, to send the gentleman in the cocked hat on before you to engage rooms; for I can assure you that you will have a hard chance. The baths are very full.”

“And how do you get there, Essper?” asked Vivian.

“Those are subjects on which I never speak,” answered the conjuror, with a solemn air.

“But have you all your stock-in-trade with you, my good fellow? Where is the Mystery?”

“Sold, sir; sold! I never keep to anything long. Variety is the mother of Enjoyment. At Ems I shall not be a conjuror: but I never part with my box. It takes no more room than one of those medicine chests, which I dare say you have got with you in your carriage, to prop up your couple of shattered constitutions.”

“By Jove! you are a merry, impudent fellow,” said the Baron; “and if you like to get up behind my britzska, you may.”

“No; I carry my own box and my own body, and I shall be at Ems to-morrow in time enough to receive your Lordships.”

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