Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 8

On the evening of the Opera arrived at Court part of the suite of the young Archduchess, the betrothed of the Crown Prince of Reisenburg. These consisted of an old grey-headed General, who had taught her Imperial Highness the manual exercise; and her tutor and confessor, an ancient and toothless Bishop. Their youthful mistress was to follow them in a few days; and this arrival of such a distinguished portion of her suite was the signal for the commencement of a long series of sumptuous festivities. After interchanging a number of compliments and a few snuff-boxes, the new guests were invited by his Royal Highness to attend a Review, which was to take place the next morning, of five thousand troops and fifty Generals.

The Reisenburg army was the best appointed in Europe. Never were men seen with breasts more plumply padded, mustachios better trained, or such spotless gaiters. The Grand Duke himself was a military genius, and had invented a new cut for the collars of the Cavalry. His Royal Highness was particularly desirous of astonishing the old grey-headed governor of his future daughter by the skilful evolutions and imposing appearance of his legions. The affair was to be of the most refined nature, and the whole was to be concluded by a mock battle, in which the spectators were to be treated by a display of the most exquisite evolutions and complicated movements which human beings ever yet invented to destroy others or to escape destruction. Field Marshal Count von Sohnspeer, the Commander-in-Chief of all the Forces of his Royal Highness the Grand Duke of Reisenburg, condescended, at the particular request of his Sovereign, to conduct the whole affair himself.

At first it was rather difficult to distinguish between the army and the staff; for Darius, in the Straits of Issus, was not more sumptuously and numerously attended than Count von Sohnspeer. Wherever he moved he was followed by a train of waving plumes and radiant epaulettes, and foaming chargers and shining steel. In fact, he looked like a large military comet. Had the fate of Reisenburg depended on the result of the day, the Field Marshal, and his Generals, and Aides-de-camp, and Orderlies, could not have looked more agitated and more in earnest. Von Sohnspeer had not less than four horses in the field, on every one of which he seemed to appear in the space of five minutes. Now he was dashing along the line of the Lancers on a black charger, and now round the column of the Cuirassiers on a white one. He exhorted the Tirailleurs on a chestnut, and added fresh courage to the ardour of the Artillery on a bay.

It was a splendid day. The bands of the respective regiments played triumphant tunes as each marched on the field. The gradual arrival of the troops was picturesque. Distant music was heard, and a corps of Infantry soon made its appearance. A light bugle sounded, and a body of Tirailleurs issued from the shade of a neighbouring wood. The kettle-drums and clarions heralded the presence of a troop of Cavalry; and an advanced guard of Light Horse told that the Artillery were about to follow. The arms and standards of the troops shone in the sun; military music sounded in all parts of the field; unceasing was the bellow of the martial drum and the blast of the blood-stirring trumpet. Clouds of dust ever and anon excited in the distance denoted the arrival of a regiment of Cavalry. Even now one approaches; it is the Red Lancers. How gracefully their Colonel, the young Count of Eberstein, bounds on his barb! Has Theseus turned Centaur? His spur and bridle seem rather the emblems of sovereignty than the instruments of government: he neither chastises nor directs. The rider moves without motion, and the horse judges without guidance. It would seem that the man had borrowed the beast’s body, and the beast the man’s mind. His regiment has formed upon the field, their stout lances erected like a young and leafless grove; but although now in line, it is with difficulty that they can subject the spirit of their warlike steeds. The trumpet has caught the ear of the horses; they stand with open nostrils, already breathing war ere they can see an enemy; and now dashing up one leg, and now the other, they seem to complain of Nature that she has made them of anything earthly.

The troops have all arrived; there is an unusual bustle in the field. Von Sohnspeer is again changing his horse, giving directions while he is mounting to at least a dozen Aides-de-camp. Orderlies are scampering over every part of the field. Another flag, quite new, and of large size, is unfurled by the Field–Marshal’s pavilion. A signal gun! the music in the whole field is hushed: a short silence of agitating suspense, another gun, and another! All the bands of all the regiments burst forth at the same moment into the national air: the Court dash into the field!

Madame Carolina, the Baroness, the Countess von S—— and some other ladies, wore habits of the uniform of the Royal Guards. Both Madame and the Baroness were perfect horsewomen; and the excited spirits of Mr. Beckendorff’s female relative, both during her ride and her dashing run over the field, amidst the firing of cannon and the crash of drums and trumpets, strikingly contrasted with her agitation and depression of the preceding night.

“Your Excellency loves the tented field, I think!” said Vivian, who was at her side.

“I love war! it is a diversion for kings!” was the answer. “How fine the breast-plates and helmets of those Cuirassiers glisten in the sun!” continued the lady. “Do you see von Sohnspeer? I wonder if the Crown Prince be with him!”

“I think he is.”

“Indeed! Ah! can he interest himself in anything? He seemed Apathy itself at the Opera last night. I never saw him smile, or move, and have scarcely heard his voice! but if he love war, if he be a soldier, if he be thinking of other things than a pantomime and a ball, ’tis well! very well for his country! Perhaps he is a hero?”

At this moment the Crown Prince, who was of von Sohnspeer’s staff, slowly rode up to the Royal party.

“Rudolph!” said the Grand Duke, “do you head your regiment to-day?”

“No,” was the muttered answer.

The Grand Duke moved his horse to his son, and spoke to him in a low tone, evidently with earnestness. Apparently he was expostulating with him; but the effect of the royal exhortation was only to render the Prince’s brow more gloomy, and the expression of his withered features more sullen and more sad. The Baroness watched the father and son as they were conversing with keen attention. When the Crown Prince, in violation of his father’s wishes, fell into the party, and allowed his regiment to be headed by the Lieutenant-colonel, the young lady raised her lustrous eyes to heaven with that same expression of sorrow or resignation which had so much interested Vivian on the morning that he had translated to her the moving passage in the Corsair.

But the field is nearly cleared, and the mimic war has commenced. On the right appears a large body of Cavalry, consisting of Cuirassiers and Dragoons. A vanguard of Light Cavalry and Lancers, under the command of the Count of Eberstein, is ordered out, from this body, to harass the enemy, a strong body of Infantry supposed to be advancing. Several squadrons of Light Horse immediately spring forward; they form themselves into line, they wheel into column, and endeavour, by well-directed manoeuvres, to outflank the strong wing of the advancing enemy. After succeeding in executing all that was committed to them, and after having skirmished in the van of their own army, so as to give time for all necessary dispositions of the line of battle, the vanguard suddenly retreats between the brigades of the Cavalry of the line; the prepared battery of cannon is unmasked; and a tremendous concentric fire opened on the line of the advancing foe. Taking advantage of the confusion created by this unexpected salute of his artillery, von Sohnspeer, who commands the Cavalry, gives the word to “Charge!”

The whole body of Cavalry immediately charge in masses; the extended line of the enemy is as immediately broken. But the Infantry, who are commanded by one of the royal relatives and visitors, the Prince of Pike and Powdren, dexterously form into squares, and commence a masterly retreat in square battalions. At length they take up a more favourable position than the former one. They are again galled by the Artillery, who have proportionately advanced, and again charged by the Cavalry in their huge masses. And now the squares of Infantry partially give way. They admit the Cavalry, but the exulting Horse find, to their dismay, that the enemy are not routed, but that there are yet inner squares formed at salient angles. The Cavalry for a moment retire, but it is only to give opportunity to their Artillery to rake the obstinate foes. The execution of the battery is fearful. Headed by their Commander, the whole body of Cuirassiers and Dragoons again charge with renewed energy and concentrated force. The Infantry are thrown into the greatest confusion, and commence a rout, increased and rendered irremediable by the Lancers and Hussars, the former vanguard, who now, seizing on the favourable moment, again rush forward, increasing the effect of the charge of the whole army, overtaking the fugitives with their lances, and securing the prisoners.

The victorious von Sohnspeer, followed by his staff, now galloped up to receive the congratulations of his Sovereign.

“Where are your prisoners, Field Marshal?” asked his Royal Highness, with a flattering smile.

“What is the ransom of our unfortunate guest?” asked Madame Carolina.

“I hope we shall have another affair,” said the Baroness, with a flushed face and glowing eyes.

But the Commander-in-Chief must not tarry to bandy compliments. He is again wanted in the field. The whole troops have formed in line. Some most scientific evolutions are now executed. With them we will not weary the reader, nor dilate on the comparative advantages of forming en cremaillière and en echiquier; nor upon the duties of tirailleurs, nor upon concentric fires and eccentric movements, nor upon deploying, nor upon enfilading, nor upon oblique fronts, nor upon échellons. The day finished by the whole of the troops again forming in line and passing in order before the Commander-in-Chief, to give him an opportunity of observing their discipline and inspecting their equipments.

The review being finished, Count von Sohnspeer and his staff joined the royal party; and after walking their horses round the field, they proceeded to his pavilion, where refreshments were prepared for them. The Field Marshal, flattered by the interest which, the young Baroness had taken in the business of the day, and the acquaintance which she evidently possessed of the more obvious details of military tactics, was inclined to be particularly courteous to her; but the object of his admiration did not encourage attentions by which half the ladies of the Court would have thought themselves as highly honoured as by those of the Grand Duke himself; so powerful a person was the Field Marshal, and so little inclined by temper to cultivate the graces of the fair sex!

“In the tent keep by my side,” said the Baroness to Vivian. “Although I am fond of heroes, von Sohnspeer is not to my taste. I know not why I flatter you so by my notice, for I suppose, like all Englishmen, you are not a soldier? I thought so. Never mind! you ride well enough for a field marshal. I really think I could give you a commission without much stickling of my conscience. No, no! I should like you nearer me. I have a good mind to make you my master of the horse; that is to say, when I am entitled to have one.”

As Vivian acknowledged the young Baroness’ compliment by becoming emotion, and vowed that an office near her person would be the consummation of all his wishes, his eye caught the lady’s: she blushed deeply, looked down upon her horse’s neck, and then turned away her head.

Von Sohnspeer’s pavilion excellently became the successful leader of the army of Reisenburg. Trophies taken from all sides decked its interior. The black eagle of Austria formed part of its roof, and the brazen eagle of Gaul supported part of the side. The grey-headed General looked rather grim when he saw a flag belonging to a troop which perhaps he had himself once commanded. He vented his indignation to the toothless Bishop, who crossed his breast with his fingers, covered with diamonds, and preached temperance and moderation in inarticulate sounds.

During the collation the conversation was principally military. Madame Carolina, who was entirely ignorant of the subject of discourse, enchanted all the officers present by appearing to be the most interested person in the tent. Nothing could exceed the elegance of her eulogium of “petit guerre.” The old grey General talked much about the “good old times,” by which he meant the thirty years of plunder, bloodshed, and destruction, which were occasioned by the French Revolution. He gloated on the recollections of horror, which he feared would never occur again. The Archduke Charles and Prince Schwartzenburg were the gods of his idolatry, and Nadasti’s hussars and Wurmser’s dragoons the inferior divinities of his bloody heaven. One evolution of the morning, a discovery made by von Sohnspeer himself, in the deploying of cavalry, created a great sensation; and it was settled that it would have been of great use to Desaix and Clairfait in the Netherlands affair of some eight-and-twenty years ago, and was not equalled even by Seidlitz’ cavalry in the affair with the Russians at Zorndorff. In short, every “affair” of any character during the late war was fought over again in the tent of Field Marshal von Sohnspeer. At length from the Archduke Charles and Prince Schwartzenburg, the old grey-headed General got to Polybius and Monsieur Folard; and the Grand Duke now thinking that the “affair” was taking too serious a turn, broke up the party. Madame Carolina and most of the ladies used their carriages on their return. They were nearly fifteen miles from the city; but the Baroness, in spite of the most earnest solicitations, would remount her charger.

They cantered home, the Baroness in unusual spirits, Vivian thinking very much of his fair companion. Her character puzzled him. That she was not the lovely simpleton that Madame Carolina believed her to be, he had little doubt. Some people have great knowledge of society and little of mankind. Madame Carolina was one of these. She viewed her species through only one medium. That the Baroness was a woman of acute feeling, Vivian could not doubt. Her conduct at the Opera, which had escaped every one’s attention, made this evident. That she had seen more of the world than her previous conversation had given him to believe, was equally clear by her conduct and conversation this morning. He determined to become more acquainted with her character. Her evident partiality to his company would not render the execution of his purpose very difficult. At any rate, if he discovered nothing, it was something to do: it would at least amuse him.

In the evening he joined a large party at the palace. He looked immediately for the Baroness. She was surrounded by the dandies. Their attentions she treated with contempt, and ridiculed their compliments without mercy. Without obtruding himself on her notice, Vivian joined her circle, and witnessed her demolition of the young Count of Eberstein with great amusement. Emilius von Aslingen was not there; for having made the interesting savage the fashion, she was no longer worthy of his attention, and consequently deserted. The young lady soon observed Vivian; and saying, without the least embarrassment, that she was delighted to sec him, she begged him to share her chaise-longue. Her envious levée witnessed the preference with dismay; and as the object of their attention did not now notice their remarks, even by her expressed contempt, one by one fell away. Vivian and the Baroness were left alone, and conversed much together. The lady displayed, on every subject, engaging ignorance, and requested information on obvious topics with artless naïveté Vivian was convinced that her ignorance was not affected, and equally sure that it could not arise from imbecility of intellect; for while she surprised him by her crude questions, and her want of acquaintance with all those topics which generally form the staple of conversation, she equally amused him with her poignant wit, and the imperious and energetic manner in which she instantly expected satisfactory information on every possible subject.

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