Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 7

The Grand Duke of Reisenburg was an enthusiastic lover of music, and his people were consequently music mad. The whole city were fiddling day and night, or blowing trumpets, oboes, and bassoons. Sunday, however, was the most harmonious day in the week. The Opera amused the Court and the wealthiest citizens, and few private houses could not boast their family concert or small party of performers. In the tea-gardens, of which there were many in the suburbs of the city, bearing the euphonious, romantic, and fashionable titles of Tivoli, Arcadia, and Vauxhall, a strong and amateur orchestra was never wanting. Strolling through the city on a Sunday afternoon, many a pleasing picture of innocent domestic enjoyment might, he observed. In the arbour of a garden a very stout man, with a fair, broad, good-natured, solid German face, may be seen perspiring under the scientific exertion of the French horn; himself wisely disembarrassed of the needless incumbrance of his pea-green coat and showy waistcoat, which lay neatly folded by his side; while his large and sleepy blue eyes actually gleam with enthusiasm. His daughter, a soft and delicate girl, touches the light guitar: catching the notes of the music from the opened opera, which is placed before the father on a massy music-stand. Her voice joins in melody with her mother, who, like all German mothers, seems only her daughter’s self, subdued by an additional twenty years. The bow of one violin is handled with the air of a master by an elder brother; while a younger one, an university student, grows sentimental over the flute. The same instrument is also played by a tall and tender-looking young man in black, who stands behind the parents, next to the daughter, and occasionally looks off his music-book to gaze on his young mistress’s eyes. He is a clerk in a public office; and on next Michaelmas day, if he succeed, as he hopes, in gaining a small addition to his salary, he will be still more entitled to join in the Sunday family concert. Such is one of the numerous groups, the sight of which must, assuredly, give pleasure to every man who delights in seeing his fellow-creatures refreshed after their weekly labours by such calm and rational enjoyment. We would gladly linger among such scenes; and, moreover, the humours of a guinguette are not unworthy of our attention: but we must introduce the reader to a more important party.

The Court chapel and the Court dinner are over. We are in the Opera-house of Reisenburg; and, of course, rise as the Royal party enters. The house, which is of moderate size, was fitted up with splendour: we hardly know whether we should say with great taste; for, although not merely the scenery, but indeed every part of the house, was painted by eminent artists, the style of the ornaments was rather patriotic than tasteful. The house had been built immediately after the war, at a period when Reisenburg, flushed with the success of its thirty thousand men, imagined itself to be a great military nation. Trophies, standards, cannon, eagles, consequently appeared in every corner of the Opera-house; and quite superseded lyres, and timbrels, and tragic daggers, and comic masks. The royal box was constructed in the form of a tent, and held nearly fifty persons. It was exactly in the centre of the house, its floor over the back of the pit, and its roof reaching to the top of the second circle; its crimson hangings were restrained by ropes of gold, and the whole was surmounted by a large and radiant crown. The house was merely lighted by a chandelier from the centre.

The Opera for the evening was Rossini’s Otello. As soon as the Grand Duke entered the overture commenced, his Royal Highness coming forward to the front of the box and himself directing the musicians, keeping time earnestly with his right hand, in which was a long black opera-glass. This he occasionally used, but merely to look at the orchestra, not, assuredly, to detect a negligent or inefficient performer; for in the schooled orchestra of Reisenburg it would have been impossible even for the eagle eye of his Royal Highness, assisted as it was by his long black opera-glass, or for his fine ear, matured as it was by the most complete study, to discover there either inattention or feebleness. The house was perfectly silent; for when the Monarch directs the orchestra the world goes to the Opera to listen. Perfect silence at Reisenburg, then, was etiquette and the fashion. Between the acts of the Opera, however, the Ballet was performed; and then everybody might talk, and laugh, and remark as much as they chose.

The Grand Duke prided himself as much upon the accuracy of his scenery and dresses and decorations as upon the exquisite skill of his performers. In truth, an Opera at Reisenburg was a spectacle which could not fail to be interesting to a man of taste. When the curtain drew up the first scene presented a view of old Brabantio’s house. It was accurately copied from one of the sumptuous structures of Scamozzi, or Sansovino, or Palladio, which adorn the Grand Canal of Venice. In the distance rose the domes of St. Mark and the lofty Campanile. Vivian could not fail to be delighted with this beautiful work of art, for such indeed it should be styled. He was more surprised, however, but not less pleased, on the entrance of Othello himself. In England we are accustomed to deck this adventurous Moor in the costume of his native country; but is this correct? The Grand Duke of Reisenburg thought not. Othello was an adventurer; at an early age he entered, as many foreigners did, into the service of Venice. In that service be rose to the highest dignities, became General of her armies and of her fleets, and finally the Viceroy of her favourite kingdom. Is it natural to suppose that such a man should have retained, during his successful career, the manners and dress of his original country? Ought we not rather to admit that, had he done so his career would, in fact, not have been successful? In all probability, he imitated to affectation the manners of the country which he had adopted. It is not probable that in such or in any age the turbaned Moor would have been treated with great deference by the common Christian soldier of Venice; or, indeed, that the scandal of a heathen leading the armies of one of the most powerful of European States would have been tolerated for an instant by indignant Christendom. If Shylock even, the Jew merchant, confined to his quarter, and herding with his own sect, were bearded on the Rialto, in what spirit would the Venetians have witnessed their doge and nobles, whom they ranked above kings, holding equal converse, and loading with the most splendid honours of the Republic a follower of Mahound? Such were the sentiments of the Grand Duke of Reisenburg on this subject, a subject interesting to Englishmen; and I confess I think that they are worthy of attention. In accordance with his opinions, the actor who performed Othello appeared in the full dress of a Venetian magnifico of the middle ages; a fit companion for Cornaro, or Grimani, or Barberigo, or Foscari.

The first act of the Opera was finished. The Baroness expressed to Vivian her great delight at its being over, as she was extremely desirous of learning the story of the ballet, which she had not yet been able to acquire. His translation of yesterday had greatly interested her. Vivian shortly gave her the outline of the story of Conrad. She listened with much attention, but made no remark.

The ballet at Reisenburg was not merely a vehicle for the display of dancing. It professed by gesture and action, aided by music, to influence the minds of the spectators not less than the regular drama. Of this exhibition dancing was a casual ornament, as it is of life. It took place therefore only on fitting occasions, and grew out, in a natural manner, from some event in the history represented. For instance, suppose the story of Othello the subject of the ballet. The dancing, in all probability, would be introduced at a grand entertainment given in celebration of the Moor’s arrival at Cyprus. All this would be in character. Our feelings would not be outraged by a husband chassezing forward to murder his wife, or by seeing the pillow pressed over the innocent Desdemona by the impulse of a pirouette. In most cases, therefore, the chief performers in this species of spectacle are not even dancers. This, however, may not always be the case. If Diana be the heroine, poetical probability will not be offended by the goddess joining in the chaste dance with her huntress nymphs; and were the Baiadere of Goethe made the subject of a ballet, the Indian dancing girl would naturally be the heroine both of the drama and the poem. There are few performances more affecting than the serious pantomime of a master. In some of the most interesting situations it is in fact even more natural than the oral drama, logically it is more perfect; for the soliloquy is actually thought before us, and the magic of the representation not destroyed by the sound of the human voice at a moment when we all know man never speaks.

The curtain again rises. Sounds of revelry and triumph are heard from the Pirate Isle. They celebrate recent success. Various groups, accurately attired in the costume of the Greek islands, are seated on the rocky foreground. On the left rises Medora’s tower, on a craggy steep; and on the right gleams the blue Aegean. A procession of women enters. It heralds the presence of Conrad and Medora; they honour the festivity of their rude subjects. The pirates and the women join in the national dance; and afterwards eight warriors, completely armed, move in a warlike measure, keeping time to the music with their bucklers and clattering sabres. Suddenly the dance ceases; a sail is in sight. The nearest pirates rush to the strand, and assist the disembarkation of their welcome comrades. The commander of the vessel comes forward with an agitated step and gloomy countenance. He kneels to Conrad and delivers him a scroll, which the chieftain reads with suppressed agitation. In a moment the faithful Juan is at his side, the contents of the scroll revealed, the dance broken up, and preparations made to sail in an hour’s time to the city of the Pacha. The stage is cleared, and Conrad and Medora are alone. The mysterious leader is wrapt in the deepest abstraction. He stands with folded arms, and eyes fixed on the yellow sand. A gentle pressure on his arm calls him back to recollection; he starts, and turns to the intruder with a gloomy brow. He sees Medora, and his frown sinks into a sad smile. “And must we part again! this hour, this very hour; it cannot be!” She clings to him with agony, and kneels to him with adoration. No hope, no hope! a quick return promised with an air of foreboding fate. His stern arm encircles her waist. He chases the heavy tear from her fair cheek, and while he bids her be glad in his absence with her handmaids peals the sad thunder of the signal gun. She throws herself upon him. The frantic quickness of her motion strikingly contrasts with the former stupor of her appearance. She will not part. Her face is buried in his breast; her long fair hair floats over his shoulders. He is almost unnerved; but at this moment the ship sails on; the crew and their afflicted wives enter; the page brings to Lord Conrad his cloak, his carbine, and his bugle. He tears himself from her embrace, and without daring to look behind him bounds over the rocks, and is in the ship. The vessel moves, the wives of the pirates continue on the beach, waving their scarfs to their desolate husbands. In the foreground Medora, motionless, stands rooted to the strand, and might have inspired Phidias with a personification of Despair.

In a hall of unparalleled splendour stern Seyd reclines on innumerable pillows, placed on a carpet of golden cloth. His bearded chiefs are ranged around. The chambers are brilliantly illuminated, and an opening at the farther end of the apartments exhibits a portion of the shining city and the glittering galleys. Gulnare, covered with a silver veil, which reaches even to her feet, is ushered into the presence of the Pacha. Even the haughty Seyd rises to honour his beautiful favourite. He draws the precious veil from her blushing features and places her on his right hand. The dancing girls now appear, and then are introduced the principal artists. Now takes place the scientific part of the ballet; and here might Bias, or Noblet, or Ronzi Vestris, or her graceful husband, or the classical Albert, or the bounding Paul, vault without stint, and attitudinise without restraint, and not in the least impair the effect of the tragic tale. The Dervise, of course, appears; the galleys, of course, are fired; and Seyd, of course, retreats. A change in the scenery gives us the blazing Harem, the rescue of its inmates, the deliverance of Gulnare, the capture of Conrad.

It is the prison scene. On a mat, covered with irons, lies the forlorn Conrad. The flitting flame of a solitary lamp hardly reveals the heavy bars of the huge grate that forms the entrance to its cell. For some minutes nothing stirs. The mind of the spectator is allowed to become fully aware of the hopeless misery of the hero. His career is ended, secure is his dungeon, trusty his guards, overpowering his chains. To-morrow he wakes to be impaled. A gentle noise, so gentle that the spectator almost deems it unintentional, is now heard. A white figure appears behind the dusky gate; is it a guard or a torturer? The gate softly opens, and a female conies forward. Gulnare was represented by a girl with the body of a Peri and the soul of a poetess. The Harem Queen advances with an agitated step; she holds in her left hand a lamp, and in the girdle of her light dress is a dagger. She reaches with a soundless step the captive. He is asleep! Ay! he sleeps, while thousands are weeping over his ravage or his ruin; and she, in restlessness, is wandering here! A thousand thoughts are seen coursing over her flushed brow; she looks to the audience, and her dark eye asks why this Corsair is so dear to her. She turns again, and raises the lamp with her long white arm, that the light may fall on the captive’s countenance. She gazes, without moving, on the sleeper, touches the dagger with a slow and tremulous hand, and starts from the contact with terror. She again touches it; it is drawn from her vest; it falls to the ground. He wakes; he stares with wonder; he sees a female not less fair than Medora. Confused, she tells him her station; she tells him that her pity is as certain as his doom. He avows his readiness to die; he appears undaunted, he thinks of Medora, he buries his face in his hands. She grows pale as he avows he loves — another. She cannot conceal her own passion. He, wondering, confesses that he supposed her love was his enemy’s, was Seyd’s. Gulnare shudders at the name; she draws herself up to her full stature, she smiles in bitterness:

My love stern Seyd’s! Oh, no, no, not my love!

The acting was perfect. The house burst into unusual shouts of admiration. Madame Carolina applauded with her little finger on her fan. The Grand Duke himself gave the signal for applause. Vivian never felt before that words were useless. His hand was suddenly pressed. He turned round; it was the Baroness. She was leaning back in her chair; and though she did her utmost to conceal her agitated countenance, a tear coursed down her cheek big as the miserable Medora’s!

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