The prosperity of the country was so signal, while Mr. Vigo was unceasingly directing millions of our accumulated capital, and promises of still more, into the “new channel,” that it seemed beyond belief that any change of administration could even occur, at least in the experience of the existing generation. The minister to whose happy destiny it had fallen to gratify the large appetites and reckless consuming powers of a class now first known in our social hierarchy as “Navvies,” was hailed as a second Pitt. The countenance of the opposition was habitually dejected, with the exception of those members of it on whom Mr. Vigo graciously conferred shares, and Lady Montfort taunted Mr. Sidney Wilton with inquiries, why he and his friends had not made railroads, instead of inventing nonsense about cheap bread. Job Thornberry made wonderful speeches in favour of total and immediate repeal of the corn laws, and the Liberal party, while they cheered him, privately expressed their regret that such a capital speaker, who might be anything, was not a practical man. Low prices, abundant harvests, and a thriving commerce had rendered all appeals, varied even by the persuasive ingenuity of Thornberry, a wearisome irritation; and, though the League had transplanted itself from Manchester to the metropolis, and hired theatres for their rhetoric, the close of 1845 found them nearly reduced to silence.
Mr. Bertie Tremaine, who was always studying the spirit of the age, announced to the initiated that Mr. Vigo had something of the character and structure of Napoleon, and that he himself began to believe, that an insular nation, with such an enormous appetite, was not adapted to cosmopolitan principles, which were naturally of a character more spiritual and abstract. Mr. Bertie Tremaine asked Mr. Vigo to dinner, and introduced him to several distinguished youths of extreme opinions, who were dining off gold plate. Mr. Vigo was much flattered by his visit; his host made much of him; and he heard many things on the principles of government, and even of society, in the largest sense of the expression, which astonished and amused him. In the course of the evening he varied the conversation — one which became the classic library and busts of the surrounding statesmen — by promising to most of the guests allotments of shares in a new company, not yet launched, but whose securities were already at a high premium.
Endymion, in the meantime, pursued the even tenor of his way. Guided by the experience, unrivalled knowledge, and consummate tact of Lord Roehampton, he habitually made inquiries, or brought forward motions, which were evidently inconvenient or embarrassing to the ministry; and the very circumstance, that he was almost always replied to by the prime minister, elevated him in the estimation of the House as much as the pertinence of his questions, and the accurate information on which he founded his motions. He had not taken the House with a rush like Job Thornberry, but, at the end of three sessions, he was a personage universally looked upon as one who was “certain to have office.”
There was another new member who had also made way, though slowly, and that was Mr. Trenchard; he had distinguished himself on a difficult committee, on which he had guided a perplexed minister, who was chairman, through many intricacies. Mr. Trenchard watched the operations of Mr. Vigo, with a calm, cold scrutiny, and ventured one day to impart his conviction to Endymion that there were breakers ahead. “Vigo is exhausting the floating capital of the country,” he said, and he offered to give him all the necessary details, if he would call the attention of the House to the matter. Endymion declined to do this, chiefly because he wished to devote himself to foreign affairs, and thought the House would hardly brook his interference also in finance. So he strongly advised Trenchard himself to undertake the task. Trenchard was modest, and a little timid about speaking; so it was settled that he should consult the leaders on the question, and particularly the gentleman who it was supposed would be their Chancellor of the Exchequer, if ever they were again called upon to form a ministry. This right honourable individual listened to Trenchard with the impatience which became a man of great experience addressed by a novice, and concluded the interview by saying, that he thought “there was nothing in it;” at the same time, he would turn it in his mind, and consult some practical men. Accordingly the ex and future minister consulted Mr. Vigo, who assured him that he was quite right; that “there was nothing in it,” and that the floating capital of the country was inexhaustible.
In the midst of all this physical prosperity, one fine day in August, parliament having just been prorogued, an unknown dealer in potatoes wrote to the Secretary of State, and informed him that he had reason to think that a murrain had fallen over the whole of the potato crops in England, and that, if it extended to Ireland, the most serious consequences must ensue.
This mysterious but universal sickness of a single root changed the history of the world.
“There is no gambling like politics,” said Lord Roehampton, as he glanced at the “Times,” at Princedown; “four cabinets in one week; the government must be more sick than the potatoes.”
“Berengaria always says,” said Lord Montfort, “that you should see Princedown in summer. I, on the contrary, maintain it is essentially a winter residence, for, if there ever be a sunbeam in England, Princedown always catches it. Now today, one might fancy one’s self at Cannes.”
Lord Montfort was quite right, but even the most wilful and selfish of men was generally obliged to pass his Christmas at his northern castle. Montforts had passed their Christmas in that grim and mighty dwelling-place for centuries. Even he was not strong enough to contend against such tradition. Besides, every one loves power, even if they do not know what to do with it. There are such things as memberships for counties, which, if public feeling be not outraged, are hereditary, and adjacent boroughs, which, with a little management and much expense, become reasonable and loyal. If the flag were rarely to wave on the proud keep of Montfort, all these satisfactory circumstances would be greatly disturbed and baffled; and if the ancient ensign did not promise welcome and hospitality at Christmas, some of the principal uses even of Earls of Montfort might be questioned.
There was another reason, besides the distance and the clime, why Lord Montfort disliked the glorious pile which every Englishman envied him for possession. The mighty domain of Montfort was an estate in strict settlement. Its lord could do nothing but enjoy its convenience and its beauty, and expend its revenues. Nothing could be sold or bought, not the slightest alteration — according to Lord Montfort — be made, without applying to trustees for their sanction. Lord Montfort spoke of this pitiable state of affairs as if he were describing the serfdom of the Middle Ages. “If I were to pull this bell-rope, and it came down,” he would say, “I should have to apply to the trustees before it could be arranged.”
Such a humiliating state of affairs had induced his lordship, on the very first occasion, to expend half a million of accumulations, which were at his own disposal, in the purchase of Princedown, which certainly was a very different residence from Montfort Castle, alike in its clime and character.
Princedown was situate in a southern county, hardly on a southern coast, for it was ten miles from the sea, though enchanting views of the Channel were frequent and exquisite. It was a palace built in old days upon the Downs, but sheltered and screened from every hostile wind. The full warmth of the south fell upon the vast but fantastic pile of the Renaissance style, said to have been built by that gifted but mysterious individual, John of Padua. The gardens were wonderful, terrace upon terrace, and on each terrace a tall fountain. But the most peculiar feature was the park, which was undulating and extensive, but its timber entirely ilex: single trees of an age and size not common in that tree, and groups and clumps of ilex, but always ilex. Beyond the park, and extending far into the horizon, was Princedown forest, the dominion of the red deer.
The Roehamptons and Endymion were the only permanent visitors at Princedown at this moment, but every day brought guests who stayed eight-and-forty hours, and then flitted. Lady Montfort, like the manager of a theatre, took care that there should be a succession of novelties to please or to surprise the wayward audience for whom she had to cater. On the whole, Lord Montfort was, for him, in an extremely good humour; never very ill; Princedown was the only place where he never was very ill; he was a little excited, too, by the state of politics, though he did not exactly know why; “though, I suppose,” he would say to Lord Roehampton, “if you do come in again, there will be no more nonsense about O’Connell and all that sort of thing. If you are prudent on that head, and carry a moderate fixed duty, not too high, say ten shillings — that would satisfy everybody — I do not see why the thing might not go on as long as you liked.”
Mr. Waldershare came down, exuberant with endless combinations of persons and parties. He foresaw in all these changes that most providential consummation, the end of the middle class.
Mr. Waldershare had become quite a favourite with Lord Montfort, who delighted to talk with him about the Duke of Modena, and imbibe his original views of English History. “Only,” Lord Montfort would observe, “the Montforts have so much Church property, and I fancy the Duke of Modena would want us to disgorge.”
St. Barbe had been invited, and made his appearance. There had been a degree of estrangement between him and his patron. St. Barbe was very jealous; he was indeed jealous of everybody and everything, and of late there was a certain Doctor Comeley, an Oxford don of the new school, who had been introduced to Lord Montfort, and was initiating him in all the mysteries of Neology. This celebrated divine, who, in a sweet silky voice, quoted Socrates instead of St. Paul, and was opposed to all symbols and formulas as essentially unphilosophical, had become the hero of “the little dinners” at Montfort House, where St. Barbe had been so long wont to shine, and who in consequence himself had become every day more severely orthodox.
“Perhaps we may meet today,” said Endymion one morning to St. Barbe in Pall Mall as they were separating. “There is a little dinner at Montfort House.”
“Confound your little dinners!” exclaimed the indignant St. Barbe; “I hope never to go to another little dinner, and especially at Montfort House. I do not want to be asked to dinner to tumble and play tricks to amuse my host. I want to be amused myself. One cannot be silent at these little dinners, and the consequence is, you say all the good things which are in your next number, and when it comes out, people say they have heard them before. No, sir, if Lord Montfort, or any other lord, wishes me to dine with him, let him ask me to a banquet of his own order, and where I may hold my tongue like the rest of his aristocratic guests.”
Mr. Trenchard had come down and brought the news that the ministry had resigned, and that the Queen had sent for the leader of the opposition, who was in Scotland.
“I suppose we shall have to go to town,” said Lady Roehampton to her brother, in a room, busy and full. “It is so difficult to be alone here,” she continued in a whisper; “let us get into the gardens.” And they escaped. And then, when they were out of hearing and of sight of any one, she said, “This is a most critical time of your life, Endymion; it makes me very anxious. I look upon it as certain that you will be in office, and in all probability under my lord. He has said nothing to me about it, but I feel quite assured it will happen. It will be a great event. Poor papa began by being an under-secretary of state!” she continued in a moody tone, half speaking to herself, “and all seemed so fair then, but he had no root. What I want, Endymion, is that you should have a root. There is too much chance and favour in your lot. They will fail you some day, some day too when I may not be by you. Even this great opening, which is at hand, would never have been at your command, but for a mysterious gift on which you never could have counted.”
“It is very true, Myra, but what then?”
“Why, then, I think we should guard against such contingencies. You know what is in my mind; we have spoken of it before, and not once only. I want you to marry, and you know whom.”
“Marriage is a serious affair!” said Endymion, with a distressed look.
“The most serious. It is the principal event for good or for evil in all lives. Had I not married, and married as I did, we should not have been here — and where, I dare not think.”
“Yes; but you made a happy marriage; one of the happiest that was ever known, I think.”
“And I wish you, Endymion, to make the same. I did not marry for love, though love came, and I brought happiness to one who made me happy. But had it been otherwise, if there had been no sympathy, or prospect of sympathy, I still should have married, for it was the only chance of saving you.”
“Dearest sister! Everything I have, I owe to you.”
“It is not much,” said Myra, “but I wish to make it much. Power in every form, and in excess, is at your disposal if you be wise. There is a woman, I think with every charm, who loves you; her fortune may have no limit; she is a member of one of the most powerful families in England — a noble family I may say, for my lord told me last night that Mr. Neuchatel would be instantly raised to the peerage, and you hesitate! By all the misery of the past — which never can be forgotten — for Heaven’s sake, be wise; do not palter with such a chance.”
“If all be as you say, Myra, and I have no reason but your word to believe it is so — if, for example, of which I never saw any evidence, Mr. Neuchatel would approve, or even tolerate, this alliance — I have too deep and sincere a regard for his daughter, founded on much kindness to both of us, to mock her with the offer of a heart which she has not gained.”
“You say you have a deep and sincere regard for Adriana,” said his sister. “Why, what better basis for enduring happiness can there be? You are not a man to marry for romantic sentiment, and pass your life in writing sonnets to your wife till you find her charms and your inspiration alike exhausted; you are already wedded to the State, you have been nurtured in the thoughts of great affairs from your very childhood, and even in the darkest hour of our horrible adversity. You are a man born for power and high condition, whose name in time ought to rank with those of the great statesmen of the continent, the true lords of Europe. Power, and power alone, should be your absorbing object, and all the accidents and incidents of life should only be considered with reference to that main result.”
“Well, I am only five-and-twenty after all. There is time yet to consider this.”
“Great men should think of Opportunity, and not of Time. Time is the excuse of feeble and puzzled spirits. They make time the sleeping partner of their lives to accomplish what ought to be achieved by their own will. In this case, there certainly is no time like the present. The opportunity is unrivalled. All your friends would, without an exception, be delighted if you now were wise.”
“I hardly think my friends have given it a thought,” said Endymion, a little flushed.
“There is nothing that would please Lady Montfort more.”
He turned pale. “How do you know that?” he inquired.
“She told me so, and offered to help me in bringing about the result.”
“Very kind of her! Well, dearest Myra, you and Lord Roehampton have much to think of at this anxious moment. Let this matter drop. We have discussed it before, and we have discussed it enough. It is more than pain for me to differ from you on any point, but I cannot offer to Adriana a heart which belongs to another.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07