Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 9

On the day after the review a fancy-dress ball was to be given at Court. It was to be an entertainment of a peculiar nature. The lively genius of Madame Carolina, wearied of the commonplace effect generally produced by this species of amusement, in which usually a stray Turk and a wandering Pole looked sedate and singular among crowds of Spanish girls, Swiss peasants, and gentlemen in uniforms, had invented something novel. Her idea was ingenious. To use her own sublime phrase, she determined that the party should represent “an age!” Great difficulty was experienced in fixing upon the century which was to be honoured. At first a poetical idea was started of having something primeval, perhaps antediluvian; but Noah, or even Father Abraham, were thought characters hardly sufficiently romantic for a fancy-dress ball, and consequently the earliest postdiluvian ages were soon under consideration. Nimrod, or Sardanapalus, were distinguished personages, and might be well represented by the Master of the Staghounds, or the Master of the Revels; but then the want of an interesting lady-character was a great objection. Semiramis, though not without style in her own way, was not sufficiently Parisian for Madame Carolina. New ages were proposed and new objections started; and so the “Committee of Selection,” which consisted of Madame herself, the Countess von S—— and a few other dames of fashion, gradually slided through the four great empires. Athens was not aristocratic enough, and then the women were nothing. In spite of her admiration of the character of Aspasia, Madame Carolina somewhat doubted the possibility of persuading the ladies of the Court of Reisenburg to appear in the characters of [Greek: hetairai]. Rome presented great capabilities, and greater difficulties. Finding themselves, after many days’ sitting and study, still very far from coming to a decision, Madame called in the aid of the Grand Duke, who proposed “something national.” The proposition was plausible; but, according to Madame Carolina, Germany, until her own time, had been only a land of barbarism and barbarians; and therefore in such a country, in a national point of view, what could there be interesting? The middle ages, as they are usually styled, in spite of the Emperor Charlemagne, “that oasis in the desert of barbarism,” to use her own eloquent and original image, were her particular aversion. “The age of chivalry is past!” was as constant an exclamation of Madame Carolina as it was of Mr. Burke. “The age of chivalry is past; and very fortunate that it is. What resources could they have had in the age of chivalry? an age without either moral or experimental philosophy; an age in which they were equally ignorant of the doctrine of association of ideas, and of the doctrine of electricity; and when they were as devoid of a knowledge of the Incalculable powers of the human mind as of the incalculable powers of steam!” Had Madame Carolina been the consort of an Italian grand duke, selection would not be difficult; and, to inquire no farther, the court of the Medici alone would afford them everything they wanted. But Germany never had any character, and never produced nor had been the resort of illustrious men and interesting persons. What was to be done? The age of Frederick the Great was the only thing; and then that was so recent, and would offend the Austrians: it could not be thought of.

At last, when the “Committee of Selection” was almost in despair, some one proposed a period which not only would be German, not only would compliment the House of Austria, but, what was of still greater importance, would allow of every contemporary character of interest of every nation, the age of Charles the Fifth! The suggestion was received with enthusiasm, and adopted on the spot. “The Committee of Selection” was immediately dissolved, and its members as immediately formed themselves into a “Committee of Arrangement.” Lists of all the persons of any fame, distinction, or notoriety, who had lived either in the empire of Germany, the kingdoms of Spain, Portugal, France, or England, the Italian States, the Netherlands, the American, and, in short, in every country in the known world, were immediately formed. Von Chronicle, rewarded for his last historical novel by a ribbon and the title of Baron, was appointed secretary to the “Committee of Costume.” All guests who received a card invitation were desired, on or before a certain day, to send in the title of their adopted character and a sketch of their intended dress, that their plans might receive the sanction of the ladies of the “Committee of Arrangement,” and their dresses the approbation of the secretary of costume. By this method the chance and inconvenience of two persons selecting and appearing in the same character were destroyed and prevented. After exciting the usual jealousies, intrigues, dissatisfaction, and ill-blood, by the influence and imperturbable temper of Madame Carolina, everything was arranged; Emilius von Aslingen being the only person who set both the Committees of Arrangement and Costume at defiance, and treated the repeated applications of their respected secretary with contemptuous silence. The indignant Baron von Chronicle entreated the strong interference of the “Committee of Arrangement,” but Emilius von Aslingen was too powerful an individual to be treated by others as he treated them. Had the fancy-dress ball of the Sovereign been attended by all his subjects, with the exception of this Captain in his Guards, the whole affair might have been a failure; would have been dark in spite of the glare of ten thousand lamps and the glories of all the jewels of his state; would have been dull, although each guest were wittier than Pasquin himself; and very vulgar, although attended by lords of as many quarterings as the ancient shield of his own antediluvian house! All, therefore, that the ladies of the “Committee of Arrangement” could do, was to enclose to the rebellious von Aslingen a list of the expected characters, and a resolution passed in consequence of his contumacy, that no person or persons was, or were, to appear as either or any of these characters, unless he, or they, could produce a ticket, or tickets, granted by a member of the “Committee of Arrangement,” and countersigned by the secretary of the “Committee of Costume.” At the same time that these vigorous measures were resolved on, no persons spoke of Emilius von Aslingen’s rebellious conduct in terms of greater admiration than the ladies of the Committee themselves. If possible, he in consequence became even a more influential and popular personage than before, and his conduct procured him almost the adoration of persons who, had they dared to imitate him, would have been instantly crushed, and would have been banished society principally by the exertions of the very individual whom they had the presumption to mimic.

In the gardens of the palace was a spacious amphitheatre, cut out in green seats, for the spectators of the plays which, during the summer months, were sometimes performed there by the Court. There was a stage in the same taste, with rows of trees for side-scenes, and a great number of arbours and summer-rooms, surrounded by lofty hedges of laurel, for the actors to retire and dress in. Connected with this “rural Theatre,” for such was its title, were many labyrinths, and groves, and arched walks, in the same style. More than twelve large fountains were in the immediate vicinity of this theatre. At the end of one walk a sea-horse spouted its element through its nostrils; and in another, Neptune turned an Ocean out of a vase. Seated on a rock, Arcadia’s half-goat god, the deity of silly sheep and silly poets, sent forth trickling streams through his rustic pipes; and in the centre of a green grove, an enamoured Salmacis, bathing in a pellucid basin, seemed watching for her Hermaphrodite.

It was in this rural theatre and its fanciful confines that Madame Carolina and her councillors resolved that their magic should, for a night, not only stop the course of time, but recall past centuries. It was certainly rather late in the year for choosing such a spot for the scene of their enchantment; but the season, as we have often had occasion to remark in the course of these volumes, was singularly fine; and indeed at this moment the nights were as warm, and as clear from mist and dew, as they are during an Italian midsummer.

But it is eight o’clock; we are already rather late. Is that a figure by Holbein, just started out of the canvas, that I am about to meet? Stand aside! It is a page of the Emperor Charles the Fifth! The Court is on its way to the theatre. The theatre and the gardens are brilliantly illuminated. The effect of the thousands of coloured lamps, in all parts of the foliage, is very beautiful. The moon is up, and a million stars! If it be not quite as light as day, it is just light enough for pleasure. You could not perhaps endorse a bill of exchange, or engross a parchment, by this light; but then it is just the light to read a love-letter by, and do a thousand other things besides.

All hail to the Emperor! we would give his costume, were it not rather too much in the style of the von Chronicles. Reader! you have seen a portrait of Charles by Holbein: very well; what need is there of a description? No lack was there in this gay scene of massy chains and curious collars, nor of cloth of gold, nor of cloth of silver! No lack was there of trembling plumes and costly hose! No lack was there of crimson velvet, and russet velvet, and tawny velvet, and purple velvet, and plunket velvet, and of scarlet cloth, and green taffeta, and cloth of silk embroidered! No lack was there of garments of estate, and of quaint chemews, nor of short crimson cloaks, covered with pearls and precious stones! No lack was there of party-coloured splendour, of purple velvet embroidered with white, and white satin dresses embroidered with black! No lack was there of splendid koyfes of damask, or kerchiefs of fine Cyprus; nor of points of Venice silver of ducat fineness, nor of garlands of friars’ knots, nor of coloured satins, nor of bleeding hearts embroidered on the bravery of dolorous lovers, nor of quaint sentences of wailing gallantry! But for the details, are they not to be found in those much-neglected and much-plundered persons, the old chroniclers? and will they not sufficiently appear in the most inventive portion of the next great historical novel?

The Grand Duke looked the Emperor. Our friend the Grand Marshal was Francis the First; and Arnelm and von Neuwied figured as the Marshal of Montmorency and the Marshal Lautrec. The old toothless Bishop did justice to Clement the Seventh; and his companion, the ancient General, looked grim as Pompeo Colonna. A prince of the House of Nassau, one of the royal visitors, represented his adventurous ancestor the Prince of Orange. Von Sohnspeer was that haughty and accomplished rebel, the Constable of Bourbon. The young Baron Gernsbach was worthy of the seraglio, as he stalked along as Solyman the Magnificent, with all the family jewels belonging to his dowager mother shining in his superb turban. Our friend the Count of Eberstein personified chivalry, in the person of Bayard. The younger Bernstorff, the intimate friend of Gernsbach, attended his sumptuous sovereign as that Turkish Paul Jones, Barbarossa. An Italian Prince was Andrew Doria. The Grand Chamberlain, our francisé acquaintance, and who affected a love of literature, was the Protestant Elector of Saxony. His train consisted of the principal litterateurs of Reisenburg. The Editor of the “Attack-all Review,” who originally had been a Catholic, but who had been skilfully converted some years ago, when he thought Catholicism was on the decline, was Martin Luther, an individual whom, both in his apostasy and fierceness, he much and only resembled: on the contrary, the editor of the “Praise-all Review” appeared as the mild and meek Melanchthon. Mr. Sievers, not yet at Vienna, was Erasmus. Ariosto, Guicciardini, Ronsard, Rabelais, Machiavel, Pietro Aretino, Garcilasso de la Vega. Sannazaro, and Paracelsus, afforded names to many nameless critics. Two Generals, brothers, appeared as Cortes and Pizarro. The noble Director of the Gallery was Albert Durer, and his deputy Hans Holbein. The Court painter, a wretched mimic of the modern French School, did justice to the character of Correggio; and an indifferent sculptor looked sublime as Michel Angelo.

Von Chronicle had persuaded the Prince of Pike and Powdren, one of his warmest admirers, to appear as Henry the Eighth of England. His Highness was one of those true North German patriots who think their own country a very garden of Eden, and verily believe that original sin is to be finally put an end to in a large sandy plain between Berlin and Hanover. The Prince of Pike and Powdren passed his whole life in patriotically sighing for the concentration of all Germany into one great nation, and in secretly trusting that, if ever the consummation took place, the North would be rewarded for their condescending union by a monopoly of all the privileges of the Empire. Such a character was of course extremely desirous of figuring to-night in a style peculiarly national. The persuasions of von Chronicle, however, prevailed, and induced his Highness of Pike and Powdren to dismiss his idea of appearing as the ancient Arminius, although it was with great regret that the Prince gave up his plan of personating his favourite hero, with hair down to his middle and skins up to his chin. Nothing would content von Chronicle but that his kind patron should represent a crowned head: anything else was beneath him. The patriotism of the Prince disappeared before the flattery of the novelist, like the bloom of a plum before the breath of a boy, when he polishes the powdered fruit ere he devours it. No sooner had his Highness agreed to be changed into bluff Harry than the secret purpose of his adviser was immediately detected. No Court confessor, seduced by the vision of a red hat, ever betrayed the secrets of his sovereign with greater fervour than did von Chronicle labour for the Cardinal’s costume, which was the consequence of the Prince of Pike and Powdren undertaking the English monarch. To-night, proud as was the part of the Prince as regal Harry, his strut was a shamble compared with the imperious stalk of von Chronicle as the arrogant and ambitious Wolsey. The Cardinal in Rienzi was nothing to him; for to-night Wolsey had as many pages as the other had petticoats!

But, most ungallant of scribblers! Place aux dames! Surely Madame Carolina, as the beautiful and accomplished Margaret of Navarre, might well command, even without a mandate, your homage and your admiration! The lovely Queen seemed the very goddess of smiles and repartee; young Max, as her page, carried at her side a painted volume of her own poetry. The arm of the favourite sister of Francis, who it will be remembered once fascinated even the Emperor, was linked in that of Caesar’s natural daughter, her beautiful namesake, the bright-eyed Margaret of Austria. Conversing with these royal dames, and indeed apparently in attendance upon them, was a young gallant of courtly bearing, and attired in a fantastic dress. It is Clement Marot, “the Poet of Princes and the Prince of Poets,” as he was styled by his own admiring age; he offers to the critical inspection of the nimble-witted Navarre a few lines in celebration of her beauty and the night’s festivity; one of those short Marotique poems once so celebrated; perhaps a page culled from those gay and airy psalms which, with characteristic gallantry, he dedicated “to the Dames of France!” Observe well the fashionable bard! Marot was a true poet, and in his day not merely read by queens and honoured by courtiers: observe him well; for the character is supported by our Vivian Grey. It was with great difficulty that Madame Carolina had found a character for her favourite, for the lists were all filled before his arrival at Reisenburg. She at first wished him to appear as some celebrated Englishman of the time, but no character of sufficient importance could be discovered. All our countrymen in contact or connection with the Emperor Charles were churchmen and civilians; and Sir Nicholas Carew and the other fops of the reign of Henry the Eighth, who, after the visit to Paris, were even more ridiculously francisé than the Grand Chamberlain of Reisenburg himself, were not, after mature deliberation, considered entitled to the honour of being ranked in Madame Carolina’s age of Charles the Fifth.

But who is this, surrounded by her ladies and her chamberlains and her secretaries? Four pages in dresses of cloth of gold, and each the son of a prince of the French blood, support her train; a crown encircles locks grey as much from thought as from time, but which require no show of loyalty to prove that they belong to a mother of princes; that ample forehead, aquiline nose, and the keen glance of her piercing eye denote the Queen as much as the regality of her gait and her numerous and splendid train. The young Queen of Navarre hastens to proffer her duty to the mother of Francis, the celebrated Louise of Savoy; and exquisitely did the young and lovely Countess of S—— personate the most celebrated of female diplomatists.

We have forgotten one character; the repeated commands of his father and the constant entreaties of Madame Carolina had at length prevailed upon the Crown Prince to shuffle himself into a fancy dress. No sooner had he gratified them by his hard-wrung consent than Baron von Chronicle called upon him with drawings of the costume of the Prince of Asturias, afterwards Philip the Second of Spain. If we for a moment forgot so important a personage as the future Grand Duke, it must have been because he supported his character so ably that no one for an instant believed that it was an assumed one; standing near the side scenes of the amphitheatre, with his gloomy brow, sad eye, protruding under-lip, and arms hanging straight by his sides, he looked a bigot without hope, and a tyrant without purpose.

The first hour is over, and the guests are all assembled. As yet they content themselves with promenading round the amphitheatre; for before they can think of dance or stroll, each of them must be duly acquainted with the other’s dress. It was a most splendid scene. The Queen of Navarre has now been presented to the Emperor, and, leaning on his arm, they head the promenade. The Emperor had given the hand of Margaret of Austria to his legitimate son; but the Crown Prince, though he continued in silence by the side of the young Baroness, soon resigned a hand which did not struggle to retain his. Clement Marot was about to fall back into a less conspicuous part of the procession; but the Grand Duke, witnessing the regret of his loved Consort, condescendingly said, “We cannot afford to lose our poet;” and so Vivian found himself walking behind Madame Carolina, and on the left side of the young Baroness. Louise of Savoy followed with her son, the King of France; most of the ladies of the Court, and a crowd of officers, among them Montmorency and De Lautrec, after their Majesties. The King of England moves by; his state unnoticed in the superior magnificence of Wolsey. Pompeo Colonna apologises to Pope Clement for having besieged his holiness in the Castle of St. Angelo. The Elector of Saxony and the Prince of Orange follow. Solyman the Magnificent is attended by his Admiral; and Bayard’s pure spirit almost quivers at the whispered treason of the Constable of Bourbon. Luther and Melanchthon, Erasmus and Rabelais, Cortez and Pizarro, Correggio and Michael Angelo, and a long train of dames and dons of all nations, succeed; so long that the amphitheatre cannot hold them, and the procession, that they may walk over the stage, makes a short progress through an adjoining summer-room.

Just as the Emperor and the fair Queen are in the middle of the stage, a wounded warrior with a face pale as an eclipsed moon, a helmet on which is painted the sign of his sacred order, a black mantle thrown over his left shoulder, but not concealing his armour, a sword in his right hand and an outstretched crucifix in his left, rushes on the scene. The procession suddenly halts; all recognise Emilius von Aslingen! and Madame Carolina blushes through her rouge when she perceives that so celebrated, “so interesting a character” as Ignatius Loyola, the Founder of the Jesuits, has not been included in the all-comprehensive lists of her committee.

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