Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 4

The sun rose red, the air was thick and hot. Anticipating that the day would be very oppressive, Vivian and Essper were on their horses’ backs at an early hour. Already, however, many of the rustic revellers were about, and preparations were commencing for the fête champêtre, which this day was to close the wedding festivities. Many and sad were the looks which Essper George cast behind him at the old castle on the lake. “No good luck can come of it!” said he to his horse; for Vivian did not encourage conversation. “O! master of mine, when wilt thou know the meaning of good quarters! To leave such a place, and at such a time! Why, Turriparva was nothing to it! The day before marriage and the hour before death is when a man thinks least of his purse and most of his neighbour. O! man, man, what art thou, that the eye of a girl can make thee so pass all discretion that thou wilt sacrifice for the whim of a moment good cheer enough to make thee last an age!”

Vivian had intended to stop and breakfast after riding about ten miles; but he had not proceeded half that way when, from the extreme sultriness of the morning, he found it impossible to advance without refreshment. Max, also, to his rider’s surprise, was much distressed; and, on turning round to his servant, Vivian found Essper’s hack panting and puffing, and breaking out, as if, instead of commencing their day’s work, they were near reaching their point of destination.

“Why, how now, Essper? One would think that we had been riding all night. What ails the beast?”

“In truth, sir, that which ails its rider; the poor dumb brute has more sense than some who have the gift of speech. Who ever heard of a horse leaving good quarters without much regretting the indiscretion?”

“The closeness of the air is so oppressive that I do not wonder at even Max being distressed. Perhaps when the sun is higher, and has cleared away the vapours, it may be more endurable: as it is, I think we had better stop at once and breakfast here. This wood is as inviting as, I trust, are the contents of your basket!”

“St. Florian devour them!” said Essper, in a very pious voice, “if I agree not with you, sir; and as for the basket, although we have left the land of milk and honey, by the blessing of our Black Lady! I have that within it which would put courage in the heart of a caught mouse. Although we may not breakfast on bridecake and beccaficos, yet is a neat’s tongue better than a fox’s tail; and I have ever held a bottle of Rhenish to be superior to rain-water, even though the element be filtered through a gutter. Nor, by All Saints! have I forgotten a bottle of Kerchen Wasser from the Black Forest, nor a keg of Dantzic brandy, a glass of which, when travelling at night, I am ever accustomed to take after my prayers; for I have always observed that, though devotion doth sufficiently warm up the soul, the body all the time is rather the colder for stopping under a tree to tell its beads.”

The travellers accordingly led their horses a few yards into the wood, and soon met, as they had expected, with a small green glade. It was surrounded, except at the slight opening by which they had entered it, with fine Spanish chestnut trees, which now, loaded with their large brown fruit, rich and ripe, clustered in the starry foliage, afforded a retreat as beautiful to the eye as its shade was grateful to their senses. Vivian dismounted, and, stretching out his legs, leant back against the trunk of a tree: and Essper, having fastened Max and his own horse to some branches, proceeded to display his stores. Vivian was silent, thoughtful, and scarcely tasted anything: Essper George, on the contrary, was in unusual and even troublesome spirits, and had not his appetite necessarily produced a few pauses in his almost perpetual rattle, the patience of his master would have been fairly worn out. At length Essper had devoured the whole supply; and as Vivian not only did not encourage his remarks, but even in a peremptory manner had desired his silence, he was fain to amuse himself by trying to catch in his mouth a large brilliant fly which every instant was dancing before him. Two individuals more singularly contrasting in their appearance than the master and the servant could scarcely be conceived; and Vivian, lying with his back against a tree, with his legs stretched out, his arms folded, and his eyes fixed on the ground; and Essper, though seated, in perpetual motion, and shifting his posture with feverish restlessness, now looking over his shoulder for the fly, then making an unsuccessful bite at it, and then, wearied with his frequent failures, amusing himself with acting Punch with his thumbs; altogether presenting two figures, which might have been considered as not inapt personifications of the rival systems of Ideality and Materialism.

At length Essper became silent for the sake of variety, and imagining, from his master’s example, that there must be some sweets in meditation hitherto undiscovered by him, he imitated Vivian’s posture! So perverse is human nature, that the moment Vivian was aware that Essper was perfectly silent, he began to feel an inclination to converse with him.

“Why, Essper!” said he, looking up and smiling, “this is the first time during our acquaintance that I have ever seen thought upon your brow. What can now be puzzling your wild brain?”

“I was thinking, sir,” said Essper, with a very solemn look, “that if there were a deceased field-mouse here I would moralise on death.”

“What! turned philosopher!”

“Ay! sir, it appears to me,” said he, taking up a husk which lay on the turf, “that there is not a nutshell in Christendom which may not become matter for very grave meditation!”

“Can you expound that?”

“Verily, sir, the whole philosophy of life seems to me to consist in discovering the kernel. When you see a courtier out of favour or a merchant out of credit, when you see a soldier without pillage, a sailor without prize money, and a lawyer without paper, a bachelor with nephews, and an old maid with nieces, be assured the nut is not worth the cracking, and send it to the winds, as I do this husk at present.”

“Why, Essper!” said Vivian, laughing, “Considering that you have taken your degree so lately, you wear the Doctor’s cap with authority! Instead of being in your noviciate, one would think that you had been a philosopher long enough to have outlived your system.”

“Bless you, sir, for philosophy, I sucked it in with my mother’s milk. Nature then gave me the hint, which I have ever since acted on, and I hold that the sum of all learning consists in milking another man’s cow. So much for the recent acquisition of my philosophy! I gained it, you see, sir, with the first wink of my eye; and though I lost a great portion of it by sea-sickness in the Mediterranean, nevertheless, since I served your Lordship, I have resumed my old habits, and do opine that this vain globe is but a large football to be kicked and cuffed about by moody philosophers!”

“You must have seen a great deal in your life, Essper,” said Vivian.

“Like all great travellers.” said Essper, “I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”

“Have you any objection to go to the East again?” asked Vivian. “It would require but little persuasion to lead me there.”

“I would rather go to a place where the religion is easier; I wish, sir, you would take me to England!”

“Nay, not there with me, if with others.”

“With you, or with none.”

“I cannot conceive, Essper, what can induce you to tie up your fortunes with those of such a sad-looking personage as myself.”

“In truth, sir, there is no accounting for tastes. My grandmother loved a brindled cat!”

“Your grandmother, Essper! Nothing would amuse me more than to be introduced to your family.”

“My family, sir, are nothing more nor less than what all of us must be counted, worms of five feet long, mortal angels, the world’s epitome, heaps of atoms which Nature has kneaded with blood into solid flesh, little worlds of living clay, sparks of heaven, inches of earth, Nature’s quintessence, moving dust, the little all, smooth-faced cherubim, in whose souls the Ring of stars has drawn the image of Himself!”

“And how many years has breathed the worm of five feet long that I am now speaking to?”

“Good, my Lord, I was no head at calculating from a boy; but I do remember that I am two days older than one of the planets.”

“How is that?”

“There was one born in the sky, sir, the day I was christened with a Turkish crescent.”

“Come, Essper,” said Vivian, who was rather interested by the conversation; Essper, having, until this morning, skilfully avoided any discourse upon the subject of his birth or family, adroitly turning the conversation whenever it chanced to approach these subjects, and silencing inquiries, if commenced, by some ludicrous and evidently fictitious answer. “Come, Essper,” said Vivian, “I feel by no means in the humour to quit this shady retreat. You and I have now known each other long, and gone through much together. It is but fair that I should become better acquainted with one who, to me, is not only a faithful servant, but what is more valuable, a faithful friend, I might now almost add, my only one. What say you to whiling away a passing hour by giving me some sketch of your curious and adventurous life? If there be anything that you wish to conceal, pass it over; but no invention, nothing but the truth, if you please; the whole truth, if you like.”

“Why, sweet sir, as for this odd knot of soul and body, which none but the hand of Heaven could have twined, it was first seen, I believe, near the very spot where we are now sitting; for my mother, when I saw her first and last, lived in Bohemia. She was an Egyptian, and came herself from the Levant. I lived a week, sir, in the Seraglio when I was at Constantinople, and I saw there the brightest women of all countries, Georgians, and Circassians, and Poles; in truth, sir, nature’s masterpieces. And yet, by the Gods of all nations! there was not one of them half so lovely as the lady who gave me this tongue!” Here Essper exhibited at full length the enormous feature which had so much enraged the one-eyed sergeant at Frankfort.

“When I first remember myself,” he continued, “I was playing with some other gipsy-boys in the midst of a forest. Here was our settlement! It was large and powerful. My mother, probably from her beauty, possessed great influence, particularly among the men; and yet I found not among them all a father. On the contrary, every one of my companions had a man whom he reverenced as his parent, and who taught him to steal; but I was called by the whole tribe the mother-son, and was honest from my first year out of mere wilfulness; at least, if I stole anything, it was always from our own people. Many were the quarrels I occasioned, since, presuming on my mother’s love and power, I never called mischief a scrape; but acting just as my fancy took me, I left those who suffered by my conduct to apologise for my ill-behaviour. Being thus an idle, unprofitable, impudent, and injurious member of this pure community, they determined one day to cast me out from their bosom; and in spite of my mother’s exertions and entreaties, the ungrateful vipers succeeded in their purpose. As a compliment to my parent, they allowed me to tender my resignation, instead of receiving my expulsion. My dear mother gave me a donkey, a wallet, and a ducat, a great deal of advice about my future conduct, and, what was more interesting to me, much information about my birth.

“‘Sweet child of my womb!’ said my mother, pressing me to her bosom; ‘be proud of thy white hands and straight nose! Thou gottest them not from me, and thou shalt take them from whence they came. Thy father is a Hungarian Prince; and though I would not have parted with thee, had I thought that thou wouldst ever have prospered in our life, even if he had made thee his child of the law and lord of his castle, still, as thou canst not tarry with us, haste thou to him! Give him this ring and this lock of hair; tell him none have seen them but the father, the mother, and the child! He will look on them, and remember the days that are passed; and thou shalt be unto him as a hope for his lusty years and a prop for his old age.’

“My mother gave me all necessary directions, which I well remembered, and much more advice, which I directly forgot.

“Although tempted, now that I was a free man, to follow my own fancy, I still was too curious to sec what kind of a person was my unknown father to deviate either from my route or my maternal instructions, and in a fortnight’s time I had reached my future Principality.

“The Sun sank behind the proud castle of my princely father, as, trotting slowly along upon my humble beast, with my wallet slung at my side, I approached it through his park. A guard, consisting of twenty or thirty men in magnificent uniforms, were lounging at the portal. I— but sir, sir, what is the meaning of this darkness? I always made a vow to myself that I never would tell my history. Ah! what ails me?”

A large eagle fell dead at their feet.

“Protect me, master!” screamed Essper, seizing Vivian by the shoulder; “what is coming? I cannot stand; the earth seems to tremble! Is it the wind that roars and rages? or is it ten thousand cannon blowing this globe to atoms?”

“It is, it must be the wind!” said Vivian, agitated. “We are not safe under these trees: look to the horses!”

“I will,” said Essper, “if I can stand. Out of the forest! Ah, look at Max!”

Vivian turned, and beheld his spirited horse raised on his hind legs, and dashing his fore feet against the trunk of a tree to which they had tied him. The terrified and furious creature was struggling to disengage himself, and would probably have sustained or inflicted some terrible injury, had not the wind suddenly hushed. Covered with foam, he stood panting, while Vivian patted and encouraged him. Essper’s less spirited beast had, from the first, crouched upon the earth, covered with sweat, his limbs quivering and his tongue hanging out.

“Master!” said Essper, “what shall we do? Is there any chance of getting back to the castle? I am sure our very lives are in danger. See that tremendous cloud! It looks like eternal night! Whither shall we go; what shall we do?”

“Make for the castle!” said Vivian, mounting.

They had just got into the road when another terrific gust of wind nearly took them off their horses, and blinded them with the clouds of sand which it drove out of the crevices of the mountains.

They looked round on every side, and Hope gave way before the scene of desolation. Immense branches were shivered from the largest trees; small ones were entirely stripped of their leaves; the long grass was bowed to the earth; the waters were whirled in eddies out of the little rivulets; birds deserting their nests to shelter in the crevices of the rocks, unable to stem the driving air, flapped their wings and fell upon the earth: the frightened animals in the plain, almost suffocated by the impetuosity of the wind, sought safety, and found destruction: some of the largest trees were torn up by the roots; the sluices of the mountains were filled, and innumerable torrents rushed down before empty gulleys. The heavens now open, and lightning and thunder contend with the horrors of the wind!

In a moment all was again hushed. Dead silence succeeded the bellow of the thunder, the roar of the wind, the rush of the waters, the moaning of the beasts, the screaming of the birds! Nothing was heard save the splashing of the agitated lake as it beat up against the black rocks which girt it in.

“Master!” again said Essper, “is this the day of doom?”

“Keep by my side. Essper; keep close, make the best of this pause: let us but reach the village!”

Scarcely had Vivian spoken when greater darkness enveloped the trembling earth. Again the heavens were rent with lightning, which nothing could have quenched but the descending deluge. Cataracts poured down from the lowering firmament. In an instant the horses dashed round; beast and rider, blinded and stifled by the gushing rain, and gasping for breath. Shelter was nowhere. The quivering beasts reared, and snorted, and sank upon their knees. The horsemen were dismounted. Vivian succeeded in hoodwinking Max, who was still furious: the other horse appeared nearly exhausted. Essper, beside himself with terror, could only hang over his neck.

Another awful calm.

“Courage, Essper!” said Vivian. “We are still safe: look up, man! the storm cannot last long thus; and see! I am sure the clouds are breaking.”

The heavy mass of vapour which had seemed to threaten the earth with instant destruction suddenly parted. The red and lurid Sun was visible, but his light and heat were quenched in the still impending waters.

“Mount, Essper!” said Vivian, “this is our only chance: five minutes’ good speed will take us to the village.”

Encouraged by his master’s example, Essper once more got upon his horse, and the panting animals, relieved by the cessation of the hurricane, carried them at a fair pace towards the village, considering that their road was now impeded by the overflowing of the lake.

“Master!” said Essper, “cannot we get out of these waters?”

He had scarcely spoken before a terrific burst, a noise, they knew not what, a rush they could not understand, a vibration which shook them on their horses, made them start back and again dismount. Every terror sank before the appalling roar of the cataract. It seemed that the mighty mountain, unable to support its weight of waters, shook to the foundation. A lake had burst on its summit, and the cataract became a falling Ocean. The source of the great deep appeared to be discharging itself over the range of mountains; the great grey peak tottered on its foundations! It shook! it fell! and buried in its ruins the castle, the village, and the bridge!

Vivian with starting eyes beheld the whole washed away; instinct gave him energy to throw himself on the back of his horse: a breath, and he had leaped up the nearest hill! Essper George, in a state of distraction, was madly laughing as he climbed to the top of a high tree: his horse was carried off in the drowning waters, which had now reached the road.

“The desolation is complete!” thought Vivian. At this moment the wind again rose, the rain again descended, the heavens again opened, the lightning again flashed! An amethystine flame hung upon rocks and waters, and through the raging elements a yellow fork darted its fatal point at Essper’s resting-place. The tree fell! Vivian’s horse, with a maddened snort, dashed down the hill; his master, senseless, clung to his neck; the frantic animal was past all government; he stood upright in the air, flung his rider, and fell dead!

Here leave we Vivian! It was my wish to have detailed, in the present portion of this work, the singular adventures which befell him in one of the most delightful of modern cities, light-hearted Vienna! But his history has expanded under my pen, and I fear that I have, even now, too much presumed upon an attention which I am not entitled to command. I am, as yet, but standing without the gate of the Garden of Romance. True it is, that as I gaze through the ivory bars of its Golden Portal, I would fain believe that, following my roving fancy, I might arrive at some green retreats hitherto unexplored, and loiter among some leafy bowers where none have lingered before me. But these expectations may be as vain as those dreams of Youth over which all have mourned. The Disappointment of Manhood succeeds to the delusion of Youth: let us hope that the heritage of Old Age is not Despair.

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