Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 2

About a week after his arrival at Reisenburg, as Vivian was at breakfast, the door opened, and Mr. Sievers entered.

“I did not think that our next meeting would be in this city,” said Mr. Sievers, smiling.

“His Highness, of course, informed me of your arrival,” said Vivian, as he greeted him cordially.

“You, I understand, are the diplomatist whom I am to thank for finding myself again at Reisenburg. Let me, at the same time, express my gratitude for your kind offices to me, and congratulate you on the brilliancy of your talents for negotiation. Little did I think, when I was giving you, the other day, an account of Mr. Beckendorff, that the information would have been of such service to you.

“I am afraid you have nothing to thank me for; though, certainly, had the office of arranging the terms between the parties devolved on me, my first thoughts would have been for a gentleman for whom I have so much regard and respect as Mr. Sievers.”

“Sir! I feel honoured: you already speak like a finished courtier. Pray, what is to be your office?”

“I fear Mr. Beckendorff will not resign in my favour; and my ambition is so exalted that I cannot condescend to take anything under the Premiership.”

“You are not to be tempted by a Grand Marshalship!” said Mr. Sievers. “You hardly expected, when you were at Turriparva, to witness such a rapid termination of the patriotism of our good friend. I think you said you have seen him since your arrival: the interview must have been piquant!”

“Not at all. I immediately congratulated him on the judicious arrangements which had been concluded; and, to relieve his awkwardness, took some credit to myself for having partially assisted in bringing about the result. The subject was not again mentioned, and I dare say never will be.”

“It is a curious business,” said Sievers. “The Prince is a man who, rather than have given me up to the Grand Duke; me, with whom he was not connected, and who, of my own accord, sought his hospitality; sooner, I repeat, than have delivered me up, he would have had his castle razed to the ground and fifty swords through his heart; and yet, without the slightest compunction, has this same man deserted, with the greatest coolness, the party of which, ten days ago, he was the zealous leader. How can you account for this, except it be, as I have long suspected, that in politics there positively is no feeling of honour? Every one is conscious that not only himself, but his colleagues and his rivals, are working for their own private purpose; and that however a party may apparently be assisting in bringing about a result of common benefit, that nevertheless, and in fact, each is conscious that he is the tool of another. With such an understanding, treason is an expected affair; and the only point to consider is, who shall be so unfortunate as to be the deserted, instead of the deserter. It is only fair to his Highness to state that Beckendorff gave him incontestable evidence that he had had a private interview with every one of the mediatised Princes. They were the dupes of the wily Minister. In these negotiations he became acquainted with their plans and characters, and could estimate the probability of their success. The golden bribe, which was in turn dandled before the eyes of all, had been always reserved for the most powerful, our friend. His secession and the consequent desertion of his relatives destroy the party for ever; while, at the same time, that party have not even the consolation of a good conscience to uphold them in their adversity; but feel that in case of their clamour, or of any attempt to stir up the people by their hollow patriotism, it is in the power of the Minister to expose and crush them for ever.”

“All this,” said Vivian, “makes me the more rejoice that our friend has got out of their clutches; he will make an excellent Grand Marshal; and you must not forget, my dear sir, that he did not forget you. To tell you the truth, although I did not flatter myself that I should benefit during my stay at Reisenburg by his influence, I am not the least surprised at the termination of our visit to Mr. Beckendorff. I have seen too many of these affairs not to have been quite aware, the whole time, that it would require very little trouble, and very few sacrifices on the part of Mr. Beckendorff, to quash the whole cabal. By-the-bye, our visit to him was highly amusing; he is a singular man.”

“He has had, nevertheless,” said Sievers, “a difficult part to play. Had it not been for you, the Prince would have perhaps imagined that he was only trifling with him again, and terminated the interview abruptly and in disgust. Having brought the Grand Duke to terms, and having arranged the interview, Beckendorff of course imagined that all was finished. The very day that you arrived at his house he had received despatches from his Royal Highness, recalling his promise, and revoking Beckendorff’s authority to use his unlimited discretion in this business. The difficulty then was to avoid discussion with the Prince, with whom he was not prepared to negotiate; and, at the same time, without letting his Highness out of his sight, to induce the Grand Duke to resume his old view of the case. The first night that you were there Beckendorff rode up to Reisenburg, saw the Grand Duke, was refused, through the intrigues of Madame Carolina, the requested authority, and resigned his power. When he was a mile on his return, he was summoned back to the palace; and his Royal Highness asked, as a favour from his tutor, four-and-twenty hours’ consideration. This Beckendorff granted, on the condition that, in case the Grand Duke assented to the terms proposed, his Royal Highness should himself be the bearer of the proposition; and that there should be no more written promises to recall, and no more written authorities to revoke. The terms were hard, but Beckendorff was inflexible. On the second night of your visit a messenger arrived with a despatch, advising Beckendorff of the intended arrival of his Royal Highness on the next morning. The ludicrous intrusion of your amusing servant prevented you from being present at the great interview, in which I understand Beckendorff for the moment laid aside all his caprices. Our friend acted with great firmness and energy. He would not be satisfied even with the personal pledge and written promise of the Grand Duke, but demanded that he should receive the seals of office within a week; so that, had the Court not been sincere, his situation with his former party would not have been injured. It is astonishing how very acute even a dull man is when his own interests are at stake. Had his Highness been the agent of another person, he would probably have committed many blunders, have made disadvantageous terms, or perhaps have been thoroughly duped. Self-interest is the finest eye-water.”

“And what says Madame Carolina to all this?”

“Oh! according to custom, she has changed already, and thinks the whole business admirably arranged. His Highness is her grand favourite, and my little pupil Max her pet. I think, however, on the whole, the boy is fondest of the Grand Duke, whom, if you remember, he was always informing you in confidence that he intended to assassinate. And as for your obedient servant,” said Sievers, bowing, “here am I once more the Aristarchus of her coterie. Her friends, by-the-bye, view the accession of the Prince with no pleased eyes; and, anticipating that his juncture with the Minister is only a prelude to their final dispersion, they are compensating for the approaching termination of their career by unusual violence and fresh fervour, stinging like mosquitoes before a storm, conscious of their impending destruction from the clearance of the atmosphere. As for myself, I have nothing more to do with them. Liberty and philosophy are fine words; but until I find men are prepared to cultivate them both in a wiser spirit I shall remain quiet. I have no idea of being banished and imprisoned because a parcel of knaves are making a vile use of the truths which I disseminate. In my opinion, philosophers have said enough; now let men act. But all this time I have forgotten to ask you how you like Reisenburg.”

“I can hardly say; with the exception of yesterday, when I rode Max round the ramparts, I have not been once out of the hotel. But to-day I feel so well that, if you are disposed for a lounge, I should like it above all things.”

“I am quite at your service; but I must not forget that I am the bearer of a missive to you from his Excellency the Grand Marshal. You are invited to join the court dinner to-day, and be presented — ”

“Really, my dear sir, an invalid — ”

“Well! if you do not like it, you must make your excuses to him; but it really is the pleasantest way of commencing your acquaintance at Court, and only allowed to distingués; among which, as you are the friend of the new Grand Marshal, you are of course considered. No one is petted so much as a political, apostate, except, perhaps, a religious one; so at present we are all in high feather. You had better dine at the palace to-day. Everything quite easy; and, by an agreeable relaxation of state, neither swords, bags, nor trains are necessary. Have you seen the palace? I suppose not. We will look at it, and then call on the Prince.”

The gentlemen accordingly left the hotel; and proceeding down the principal street of the New Town, they came into a large square, or Place d’Armes. A couple of regiments of infantry were exercising in it.

“A specimen of our standing army,” said Sievers. “In the war time, this little State brought thirty thousand highly-disciplined and well-appointed troops into the field. This efficient contingent was, at the same time, the origin of our national prosperity and our national debt. For we have a national debt, sir! I assure you we are proud of it, and consider it the most decided sign of being a great people. Our force in times of peace is, of course, much reduced. We have, however, still eight thousand men, who are perfectly unnecessary. The most curious thing is, that, to keep up the patronage of the Court and please the nobility, though we have cut down our army two-thirds, we have never reduced the number of our generals; and so, at this moment, among our eight thousand men, we count about forty general officers, being one to every two hundred privates. We have, however, which perhaps you would not suspect, one military genius among our multitude of heroes. The Count von Sohnspeer is worthy of being one of Napoleon’s marshals. Who he is no one exactly knows; some say an illegitimate son of Beckendorff. Certain it is that he owes his nobility to his sword; and as certain it is that he is to be counted among the very few who share the Minister’s confidence. Von Sohnspeer has certainly performed a thousand brilliant exploits; yet, in my opinion, the not least splendid day of his life was that of the battle of Leipsic. He was on the side of the French, and fought against the Allies with desperate fury. When he saw that all was over, and the Allies triumphant, calling out ‘Germany for ever!’ he dashed against his former friends, and captured from the flying Gauls a hundred pieces of cannon. He hastened to the tent of the Emperors with his blood-red sword in his hand, and at the same time congratulated them on the triumph of their cause, and presented them with his hard-earned trophies. The manoeuvre was perfectly successful; and the troops of Reisenburg, complimented as true Germans, were pitied for their former unhappy fate in being forced to fight against their fatherland, and were immediately enrolled in the allied army; as such, they received a due share of all the plunder. He is a grand genius, young Master von Sohnspeer?”

“Decidedly! Worthy of being a companion of the fighting bastards of the middle ages. This is a fine square.”

“Very grand indeed! Precedents for some of the architectural combinations could hardly be found at Athens or Rome; nevertheless the general effect is magnificent. Do you admire this plan of making every elevation of an order consonant with the purpose of the building? See, for instance, on the opposite side of the square is the palace. The Corinthian order, which is evident in all its details, suits well the character of the structure. It accords with royal pomp and elegance, with fêtes and banquets, and interior magnificence. On the other hand, what a happy contrast is afforded to this gorgeous structure by the severe simplicity of this Tuscan Palace of Justice. The School of Arts, in the farthest corner of the square, is properly entered through an Ionic portico. Let us go into the palace. Here not only does our monarch reside, but (an arrangement which I much admire) here are deposited, in a gallery worthy of the treasures it contains, our superb collection of pictures. They are the private property of his Royal Highness; but, as is usually the case under despotic Princes, the people, equally his property, are flattered by the collection being styled the ‘Public Gallery.’”

The hour of the court dinner at Reisenburg was two o’clock, about which time, in England, a man first remembers the fatal necessity of shaving; though, by-the-bye, this allusion is not a very happy one, for in this country shaving is a ceremony at present somewhat obsolete. At two o’clock, however, our hero, accompanying the Grand Marshal and Mr. Sievers, reached the palace. In the saloon were assembled various guests, chiefly attached to the Court. Immediately after the arrival of our party, the Grand Duke and Madame Carolina, followed by their chamberlains and ladies in waiting, entered. The little Prince Maximilian strutted in between his Royal Highness and his fair Consort, having hold of a hand of each. The urchin was much changed in appearance since Vivian first saw him; he was dressed in the complete uniform of a captain of the Royal Guards, having been presented with a commission on the day of his arrival at Court. A brilliant star glittered on his scarlet coat, and paled the splendour of his golden epaulettes. The duties, however, of the princely captain were at present confined to the pleasing exertion of carrying the bon-bon box of Madame Carolina, the contents of which were chiefly reserved for his own gratification. In the Grand Duke Vivian was not surprised to recognise the horseman whom he had met in the private road on the morning of his departure from Mr. Beckendorff’s; his conversation with Sievers had prepared him for this. Madame Carolina was in appearance Parisian of the highest order: that is to say, an exquisite figure and an indescribable tournure, an invisible foot, a countenance full of esprit and intelligence, without a single regular feature, and large and very bright black eyes. Madame’s hair was of the same colour, and arranged in the most effective manner. Her cashmere would have graced the Feast of Roses, and so engrossed your attention that it was long before you observed the rest of her costume, in which, however, traces of a creative genius were immediately visible; in short, Madame Carolina was not fashionable, but fashion herself. In a subsequent chapter, at a ball which we have in preparation, we will make up for this brief notice of her costume by publishing her court dress. For the sake of our fair readers, however, we will not pass over the ornament in her hair. The comb which supported her elaborate curls was invisible, except at each end, whence it threw out a large Psyche’s wing of golden web, the eyes of which were formed of rubies encircled with turquoises.

The Royal party made a progress round the circle. Madame Carolina first presented her delicate and faintly-rouged cheek to the hump-backed Crown Prince, who scarcely raised his eyes from the ground as he performed the accustomed courtesy. One or two Royal relatives, who were on a visit at the palace, were honoured by the same compliment. The Grand Duke bowed graciously and gracefully to every individual; and his lady accompanied the bow by a speech, which was at the same time personal and piquant. The first great duty of a monarch is to know how to bow skilfully! nothing is more difficult, and nothing more important. A Royal bow may often quell a rebellion, and sometimes crush a conspiracy. It should at the same time be both general and individual; equally addressed to the company assembled, and to every single person in the assembly. Our own sovereign bows to perfection. His bow is eloquent, and will always render an oration on his part unnecessary; which is a great point, for harangues are not regal. Nothing is more undignified than to make a speech. It is from the first an acknowledgment that you are under the necessity of explaining, or conciliating, or convincing, or confuting; in short, that you are not omnipotent, but opposed.

The bow of the Grand Duke of Reisenburg was a first-rate bow, and always produced a great sensation with the people, particularly if it were followed up by a proclamation for a public fête or fireworks; then his Royal Highness’ popularity was at its height. But Madame Carolina, after having by a few magic sentences persuaded the whole room that she took a peculiar interest in the happiness of every individual present, has reached Vivian, who stood next to his friend the Grand Marshal. He was presented by that great officer, and received most graciously. For a moment the room thought that his Royal Highness was about to speak; but he only smiled. Madame Carolina, however, said a great deal; and stood not less than sixty seconds complimenting the English nation, and particularly the specimen of that celebrated people who now had the honour of being presented to her. No one spoke more in a given time than Madame Carolina; and as, while the eloquent words fell from her deep red lips, her bright eyes were invariably fixed on those of the person she addressed, what she did say, as invariably, was very effective. Vivian had only time to give a nod of recognition to his friend Max, for the company, arm-in-arm, now formed into a procession to the dining saloon. Vivian was parted from the Grand Marshal, who, as the highest officer of state present, followed immediately after the Grand Duke. Our hero’s companion was Mr. Sievers. Although it was not a state dinner, the party, from being swelled by the suites of the royal visitors, was numerous; and as the Court occupied the centre of the table, Vivian was too distant to listen to the conversation of Madame, who, however, he well perceived, from the animation of her countenance, was delighted and delighting. The Grand Duke spoke little, but listened, like a lover of three days, to the accents of his accomplished consort. The arrangement of a German dinner promotes conversation. The numerous dishes are at once placed upon the table; and when the curious eye has well examined their contents, the whole dinner, untouched, disappears. Although this circumstance is rather alarming to a novice, his terror soon gives place to self-congratulation when he finds the banquet re-appear, each dish completely carved and cut up.

“Not being Sunday,” said Mr. Sievers, “there is no opera to-night. We are to meet again, I believe, at the palace, in a few hours, at Madame Carolina’s soirée. In the meantime, you had better accompany his Excellency to the public gardens; that is the fashionable drive. I shall go home and smoke a pipe.”

The circle of the public gardens of Reisenburg exhibited exactly, although upon a smaller scale, the same fashions and the same frivolities, the same characters and the same affectations, as the Hyde Park of London, or the Champs Elysées of Paris, the Prater of Vienna, the Corso of Rome or Milan, or the Cascine of Florence. There was the female leader of ton, hated by her own sex and adored by the other, and ruling both; ruling both by the same principle of action, and by the influence of the same quality which creates the arbitress of fashion in all countries, by courage to break through the conventional customs of an artificial class, and by talents to ridicule all those who dare follow her innovating example; attracting universal notice by her own singularity, and at the same time conciliating the support of those from whom she dares to differ, by employing her influence in preventing others from violating their laws. The arbitress of fashion is one who is allowed to be singular, in order that she may suppress singularity; she is exempted from all laws; but, by receiving the dictatorship, she ensures the despotism. Then there was that mysterious being whose influence is perhaps even more surprising than the dominion of the female despot of manners, for she wields a power which can be analysed and comprehended; I mean the male authority in coats, cravats, and chargers; who, without fortune and without rank, and sometimes merely through the bold obtrusion of a fantastic taste, becomes the glass of fashion in which even royal dukes and the most aristocratic nobles hasten to adjust themselves, and the mould by which the ingenious youth of a whole nation is enthusiastically formed. There is a Brummell in every country.

Vivian, who, after a round or two with the Grand Marshal, had mounted Max, was presented by the young Count von Bernstorff, the son of the Grand Chamberlain, to whose care he had been specially commended by the Prince, to the lovely Countess von S—— . The examination of this high authority was rigid and her report satisfactory. When Vivian quitted the side of her britzska half a dozen dandies immediately rode up to learn the result, and, on being informed, they simultaneously cantered up to young von Bernstorff, and requested to have the honour of being introduced to his highly-interesting friend. All these exquisites wore white hats lined with crimson, in consequence of the head of the all-influential Emilius von Aslingen having, on the preceding day, been kept sacred from the profaning air by that most tasteful covering. The young lords were loud in their commendations of this latest evidence of von Aslingen’s happy genius, and rallied with unmerciful spirit the unfortunate von Bernstorff for not having yet mounted the all-perfect chapeau. Like all von Aslingen’s introductions, it was as remarkable for good taste as for striking singularity; they had no doubt it would have a great run, exactly the style of thing for a hot autumn, and it suited so admirably with the claret-coloured riding coat which Madame considered von Aslingen’s chef-d’oeuvre. Inimitable von Aslingen! As they were in these raptures, to Vivian’s delight and to their dismay, the object of their admiration appeared. Our hero was, of course, anxious to see so interesting a character; but he could scarcely believe that he, in fact, beheld the ingenious introducer of white and crimson hats, and the still happier inventor of those chef-d’oeuvres, claret-coloured riding coats, when his attention was directed to a horseman who wore a peculiarly high heavy black hat and a frogged and furred frock, buttoned up, although it was a most sultry day, to his very nose. How singular is the slavery of fashion! Notwithstanding their mortification, the unexpected costume of von Aslingen appeared only to increase the young lords’ admiration of his character and accomplishments; and instead of feeling that he was an insolent pretender, whose fame originated in his insulting their tastes, and existed only by their sufferance, all cantered away with the determination of wearing on the next day, even if it were to cost them each a calenture, furs enough to keep a man warm during a winter party at St. Petersburg, not that winter parties ever take place there; on the contrary, before the winter sets in, the Court moves on to Moscow, which, from its situation and its climate, will always, in fact, continue the real capital of Russia.

The royal carriage, drawn by six horses and backed by three men servants, who would not have disgraced the fairy equipage of Cinderella, has now left the gardens.

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