Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 7

What is this chapter to be about? Come, I am inclined to be courteous! You shall choose the subject of it. What shall it be, sentiment or scandal? a love-scene or a lay sermon? You will not choose? Then we must open the note which Vivian, in the morning, found on his pillow:—

“Did you hear the horrid shriek last night? It must have disturbed every one. I think it must have been one of the South American birds which Captain Tropic gave the Marchioness. Do not they sometimes favour the world with these nocturnal shriekings? Is not there a passage in Spix apropos to this? A—— .”

“Did you hear the shriek last night, Mr. Grey?” asked the Marchioness, as Vivian entered the breakfast-room.

“Oh, yes! Mr. Grey, did you hear the shriek?” asked Miss Graves.

“Who did not?”

“What could it be?” said the Marchioness.

“What could it be?” said Miss Graves.

“What should it be; a cat in a gutter, or a sick cow, or a toad dying to be devoured, Miss Graves?”

Always snub toadeys and led captains. It is only your greenhorns who endeavour to make their way by fawning and cringing to every member of the establishment. It is a miserable mistake. No one likes his dependants to be treated with respect, for such treatment affords an unpleasant contrast to his own conduct. Besides, it makes the toadey’s blood unruly. There are three persons, mind you, to be attended to: my lord, or my lady, as the case may be (usually the latter), the pet daughter, and the pet dog. I throw out these hints en passant, for my principal objects in writing this work are to amuse myself and to instruct society. In some future hook, probably the twentieth or twenty-fifth, when the plot logins to wear threadbare, and we can afford a digression. I may give a chapter on Domestic Tactics.

“My dear Marchioness,” continued Vivian, “see there: I have kept my promise, there is your bracelet. How is Julie to-day?”

“Poor dear, I hope she is better.”

“Oh! yes, poor Julie I think she is better.”

“I do not know that, Miss Graves,” said her Ladyship, somewhat tartly, not at all approving of a toadey thinking. “I am afraid that scream last night must have disturbed her. O dear, Mr. Grey, I am afraid she will be ill again.”

Miss Graves looked mournful, and lifted up her eyes and hands to Heaven, but did not dare to speak this time.

“I thought she looked a little heavy about the eyes this morning,” said the Marchioness, apparently very agitated; “and I have heard from Eglamour this post; he is not well, too; I think everybody is ill now; he has caught a fever going to see the ruins of Paestum. I wonder why people go to see ruins!”

“I wonder, indeed,” said Miss Graves; “I never could see anything in a ruin.”

“O, Mr. Grey!” continued the Marchioness, “I really am afraid Julie is going to be very ill.”

“Let Miss Graves pull her tail and give her a little mustard seed: she will be better tomorrow.”

“Remember that, Miss Graves.”

“Oh! y-e-s, my Lady!”

“Mrs. Felix,” said the Marchioness, as that lady entered the room, “you are late to-day; I always reckon upon you as a supporter of an early breakfast at Desir.”

“I have been half round the park.”

“Did you hear the scream, Mrs. Felix?”

“Do you know what it was, Marchioness?”

“No: do you?”

“See the reward of early rising and a walk before breakfast. It was one of your new American birds, and it has half torn down your aviary.”

“One of the new Americans? O the naughty thing; and has it broken the new fancy wirework?”

Here a little odd-looking, snuffy old man, with a brown scratch wig, who had been very busily employed the whole breakfast-time with a cold game pie, the bones of which Vivian observed him most scientifically pick and polish, laid down his knife and fork, and addressed the Marchioness with an air of great interest.

“Pray, will your Ladyship have the goodness to inform me what bird this is?”

The Marchioness looked astounded at any one presuming to ask her a question; and then she drawled, “Mr. Grey, you know everything; tell this gentleman what some bird is.”

Now this gentleman was Mr. Mackaw, the most celebrated ornithologist extant, and who had written a treatise on Brazilian parroquets, in three volumes folio. He had arrived late at the Château the preceding night, and, although he had the honour of presenting his letter of introduction to the Marquess, this morning was the first time he had been seen by any of the party present, who were of course profoundly ignorant of his character.

“Oh! we were talking of some South American bird given to the Marchioness by the famous Captain Tropic; you know him, perhaps; Bolivar’s brother-in-law, or aide-de-camp, or something of that kind; and which screams so dreadfully at night that the whole family is disturbed. The Chowchowtow it is called; is not it, Mrs. Lorraine?”

“The Chowchowtow!” said Mr. Mackaw; “I don’t know it by that name.”

“Do not you? I dare say we shall find an account of it in Spix, however,” said Vivian, rising, and taking a volume from the book-case; “ay! here it is; I will read it to you.”

“‘The Chowchowtow is about five feet seven inches in height from the point of the bill to the extremity of the claws. Its plumage is of a dingy, yellowish white; its form is elegant, and in its movements and action a certain pleasing and graceful dignity is observable; but its head is by no means worthy of the rest of its frame; and the expression of its eye is indicative of the cunning and treachery of its character. The habits of this bird are peculiar: occasionally most easily domesticated, it is apparently sensible of the slightest kindness; but its regard cannot be depended upon, and for the slightest inducement, or with the least irritation, it will fly at its feeder. At other times it seeks perfect solitude, and can only be captured with the utmost skill and perseverance. It generally feeds three times a day, but its appetite is not rapacious; it sleeps little, is usually on the wing at sunrise, and proves that it slumbers but little in the night by its nocturnal and thrilling shrieks’”

“What an extraordinary bird! Is that the bird you meant, Mrs. Felix Lorraine?”

Mr. Mackaw was restless the whole time that Vivian was reading this interesting passage. At last he burst forth with an immense deal of science and a great want of construction, a want which scientific men often experience, always excepting those mealy-mouthed professors who lecture “at the Royal,” and get patronised by the blues, the Lavoisiers of May Fair!

“Chowchowtow, my Lady! five feet seven inches high! Brazilian bird! When I just remind your Ladyship that the height of the tallest bird to be found in Brazil, and in mentioning this fact, I mention nothing hypothetical, the tallest bird does not stand higher than four feet nine. Chowchowtow! Dr. Spix is a name, accurate traveller, don’t remember the passage, most singular bird! Chowchowtow! don’t know it by that name. Perhaps your Ladyship is not aware; I think you called that gentleman Mr. Grey; perhaps Mr. Grey is not aware, that I am Mr. Mackaw, I arrived late here last night, whose work in three volumes folio, on Brazilian Parroquets, although I had the honour of seeing his Lordship. is, I trust, a sufficient evidence that I am not speaking at random on this subject; and consequently, from the lateness of the hour, could not have the honour of being introduced to your Ladyship.”

“Mr. Mackaw!” thought Vivian. “The deuce you are! Oh! why did I not say a Columbian cassowary, or a Peruvian penguin, or a Chilian condor, or a Guatemalan goose, or a Mexican mastard; anything but Brazilian. Oh! unfortunate Vivian Grey!”

The Marchioness, who was quite overcome with this scientific appeal, raised her large, beautiful, sleepy eyes from a delicious compound of French roll and new milk, which she was working up in a Sèvre saucer for Julie; and then, as usual, looked to Vivian for assistance.

“Mr. Grey, you know everything; tell Mr. Mackaw about a bird.”

“Is there any point on which you differ from Spix in his account of the Chowchowtow, Mr. Mackaw?”

“My dear sir, I don’t follow him at all. Dr. Spix is a most excellent man, a most accurate traveller, quite a name; but, to be sure, I’ve only read his work in our own tongue; and I fear from the passage you have just quoted, five feet seven inches high! in Brazil! it must be an imperfect version. I say, that four feet nine is the greatest height I know. I don’t speak without some foundation for my statement. The only bird I know above that height is the Paraguay cassowary; which, to be sure, is sometimes found in Brazil. But the description of your bird, Mr. Grey, does not answer that at all. I ought to know. I do not speak at random. The only living specimen of that extraordinary bird, the Paraguay cassowary, in this country, is in my possession. It was sent me by Bompland, and was given to him by the Dictator of Paraguay himself. I call it, in compliment, Doctor Francia. I arrived here so late last night, only saw his Lordship, or I would have had it on the lawn this morning.”

“Oh, then, Mr. Mackaw,” said Vivian, “that was the bird which screamed last night!”

“Oh, yes! oh, yes! Mr. Mackaw,” said Mrs. Felix Lorraine.

“Lady Carabas!” continued Vivian, “it is found out. It is Mr. Mackaw’s particular friend, his family physician, whom he always travels with, that awoke us all last night.”

“Is he a foreigner?” asked the Marchioness, looking up.

“My dear Mr. Grey, impossible! the Doctor never screams.”

“Oh! Mr. Mackaw, Mr. Mackaw!” said Vivian.

“Oh! Mr. Mackaw, Mr. Mackaw!” said Mrs. Felix Lorraine.

“I tell you he never screams,” reiterated the man of science; “I tell you he can’t scream; he’s muzzled.”

“Oh, then, it must Have been the Chowchowtow.”

“Yes, I think it must have been the Chowchowtow.”

“I should very much like to hear Spix’s description again,” said Mr. Mackaw, “only I fear it is troubling you too much, Mr. Grey.”

“Read it yourself, my dear sir,” said Vivian, putting the book into his hand, which was the third volume of Tremaine.

Mr. Mackaw looked at the volume, and turned it over, and sideways, and upside downwards: the brain of a man who has written three folios on parroquets is soon puzzled. At first, he thought the book was a novel; but then, an essay on predestination, under the title of Memoirs of a Man of Refinement, rather puzzled him; then he mistook it for an Oxford reprint of Pearson on the Creed; and then he stumbled on rather a warm scene in an old Château in the South of France.

Before Mr. Mackaw could gain the power of speech the door opened, and entered, who? Dr. Francia.

Mr. Mackaw’s travelling companion possessed the awkward accomplishment of opening doors, and now strutted in, in quest of his beloved master. Affection for Mr. Mackaw was not, however, the only cause which induced this entrance.

The household of Château Desir, unused to cassowaries, had neglected to supply Dr. Francia with his usual breakfast, which consisted of half a dozen pounds of rump steaks, a couple of bars of hard iron, some pig lead, and brown stout. The consequence was, the Dictator was sadly famished.

All the ladies screamed; and then Mrs. Felix Lorraine admired the Doctor’s violet neck, and the Marchioness looked with an anxious eye on Julie, and Miss Graves, as in duty bound, with an anxious eye on the Marchioness.

There stood the Doctor, quite still, with his large yellow eye fixed on Mr. Mackaw. At length he perceived the cold pasty, and his little black wings began to flutter on the surface of his immense body.

“Che, che, che, che!” said the ornithologist, who did not like the symptoms at all: “Che, che, che, che, don’t be frightened, ladies! you see he’s muzzled; che, che, che, che, now, my dear doctor, now, now, now, Franky, Franky, Franky, now go away, go away, that’s a dear doctor, che, che, che, che!”

But the large yellow eye grew more flaming and fiery, and the little black wings grew larger and larger; and now the left leg was dashed to and fro with a fearful agitation. Mackaw looked agonised. What a whirr! Francia is on the table! All shriek, the chairs tumble over the ottomans, the Sèvre china is in a thousand pieces, the muzzle is torn off and thrown at Miss Graves; Mackaw’s wig is dashed in the clotted cream, and devoured on the spot; and the contents of the boiling urn are poured over the beauteous and beloved Julie!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53