Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 3

Vivian passed a week very agreeably at Frankfort. In the Baron and his friends he found the companions that he had need of; their conversation and pursuits diverted his mind without engaging his feelings, and allowed him no pause to brood. There were moments, indeed, when he found in the Baron a companion neither frivolous nor uninstructive. His Excellency had travelled in most countries, and had profited by his travels. His taste for the fine arts was equalled by his knowledge of them; and his acquaintance with many of the most eminent men of Europe enriched his conversation with a variety of anecdotes, to which his lively talents did ample justice. He seemed fond at times of showing Vivian that he was not a mere artificial man of the world, destitute of all feelings, and thinking only of himself: he recurred with satisfaction to moments of his life when his passions had been in full play; and, while he acknowledged the errors of his youth with candour, he excused them with grace. In short, Vivian and he became what the world calls friends; that is to say, they were men who had no objection to dine in each other’s company, provided the dinner were good; assist each other in any scrape, provided no particular personal responsibility were incurred by the assistant; and live under the same roof, provided each were master of his own time. Vivian and the Baron, indeed, did more than this; they might have been described as particular friends, for his Excellency had persuaded our hero to accompany him for the summer to the Baths of Ems, a celebrated German watering-place, situate in the duchy of Nassau, in the vicinity of the Rhine.

On the morrow they were to commence their journey. The fair of Frankfort, which had now lasted nearly a month, was at its close. A bright sunshiny afternoon was stealing into twilight, when Vivian, escaping from the principal street and the attractions of the Braunfels, or chief shops under the Exchange, directed his steps to some of the more remote and ancient streets. In crossing a little square his attention was excited by a crowd which had assembled round a conjuror, who, from the top of a small cart, which he had converted into a stage, was haranguing, in front of a green curtain, an audience with great fervency, and apparently with great effect; at least Vivian judged so from the loud applauses which constantly burst forth. The men pressed nearer, shouted, and clapped their hands; and the anxious mothers struggled to lift their brats higher in the air that they might early form a due conception of the powers of magic, and learn that the maternal threats which were sometimes extended to them at home were not mere idle boasting. Altogether, the men with their cocked hats, stiff holiday coats, and long pipes; the women with their glazed gowns of bright fancy patterns, close lace caps, or richly-chased silver headgear; and the children with their gaping mouths and long heads of hair, offered quaint studies for a German or Flemish painter. Vivian became also one of the audience, and not an uninterested one.

The appearance of the conjuror was peculiar. He was not much more than five feet high, but so slightly formed that he reminded you rather of the boy than the dwarf. The upper part of his face was even delicately moulded; his sparkling black eyes became his round forehead, which was not too much covered by his short glossy black hair; his complexion was clear, but quite olive; his nose was very small and straight, and contrasted singularly with his enormous mouth, the thin bluish lips of which were seldom closed, and consequently did not conceal his large square teeth, which, though very white, were set apart, and were so solid that they looked almost like double teeth. This enormous mouth, which was supported by large jawbones, attracted the attention of the spectator so keenly that it was some time before you observed the prodigious size of the ears, which also adorned this extraordinary countenance. The costume of this being was not less remarkable than his natural appearance. He wore a complete under dress of pliant leather, which fitted close up to his throat and down to his wrists and ankles, where it was clasped with large fastenings, either of gold or some gilt material. This, with the addition of a species of hussar jacket of green cloth, which was quite unadorned with the exception of its vivid red lining, was the sole covering of the conjuror; who, with a light cap and feather in his hand, was now haranguing the spectators. The object of his discourse was a panegyric of himself and a satire on all other conjurors. He was the only conjuror, the real one, a worthy descendant of the magicians of old.

“Were I to tell that broad-faced Herr,” continued the conjuror, “who is now gaping opposite to me, that this rod is the rod of Aaron, mayhap he would call me a liar; yet were I to tell him that he was the son of his father, he would not think it wonderful! And yet, can he prove it? My friends, if I am a liar, the whole world is a liar, and yet any one of you who’ll go and proclaim that on the Braunfels will get his skull cracked. Every truth is not to be spoken, and every lie is not to be punished. I have told you that it is better for you to spend your money in seeing my tricks than in swigging schnaps in the chimney corner; and yet, my friends, this may be a lie. I have told you that the profits of this whole night shall be given to some poor and worthy person in this town; and perhaps I shall give them to myself. What then! I shall speak the truth; and you will perhaps crack my skull. Is this a reward for truth? O generation of vipers! My friends, what is truth? who can find it in Frankfort? Suppose I call upon you, Mr. Baker, and sup with you this evening; you will receive me as a neighbourly man should, tell me to make myself at home, and do as I like. Is it not so? I see you smile, as if my visit would make you bring out one of the bottles of your best Asmanshausen!”

Here the crowd laughed out; for we are always glad when there is any talk of another’s hospitality being put to the test, although we stand no chance of sharing in the entertainment ourselves. The baker looked foolish, as all men singled out in a crowd do.

“Well, well,” continued the conjuror, “I have no doubt his wine would be as ready as your tobacco, Mr. Smith; or a wafila from your basket, my honest cake-seller;” and so saying, with a long thin wand the conjuror jerked up the basket of an itinerant and shouting pastry-cook, and immediately began to thrust the contents into his mouth with a rapidity ludicrously miraculous. The laugh now burst out again, but the honest baker joined in it this time with an easy spirit.

“Be not disconcerted, my little custard-monger; if thou art honest, thou shalt prosper. Did I not say that the profits of this night were for the most poor and the most honest? If thy stock in trade were in thy basket, my raspberry-puff, verily thou art not now the richest here; and so, therefore, if thy character be a fair one, that is to say, if thou only cheat five times a day, and give a tenth of thy cheatery to the poor, thou shalt have the benefit. I ask thee again, what is truth? If I sup with the baker, and he tells me to do what I like with all that is his, and I kiss his wife, he will kick me out; yet to kiss his wife might be my pleasure, if her breath were sweet. I ask thee again, what is truth? Truth, they say, lies in a well; but perhaps this is a lie. How do we know that truth is not in one of these two boxes?” asked the conjuror, placing his cap on his head, and holding one small snuff-box to a tall, savage-looking, one-eyed Bohemian, who, with a comrade, had walked over from the Austrian garrison at Mentz.

“I see but one box,” growled the soldier.

“It is because thou hast only one eye, friend; open the other, and thou shalt see two,” said the conjuror, in a slow, malicious tone, with his neck extended, and his hand with the hateful box outstretched in it.

“Now, by our black Lady of Altoting, I’ll soon stop thy prate, chitterling!” bellowed the enraged Bohemian.

“Murder! the protection of the free city against the Emperor of Austria, the King of Bohemia, Hungary, and Lombardy!” and the knave retreated to the very extremity of the stage, and affecting agitating fear, hid himself behind the green curtain, from a side of which his head was alone visible, or rather an immense red tongue, which wagged in all shapes at the unlucky soldier, except when it retired to the interior of his mouth, to enable him to reiterate “Murder!” and invoke the privileges of the free city of Frankfort.

When the soldier was a little cooled, the conjuror again came forward, and, having moved his small magical table to a corner, and lit two tapers, one of which he placed at each side of the stage, he stripped off his hussar jacket, and began to imitate a monkey; an animal which, by the faint light, in his singular costume, he very much resembled. How amusing were his pranks! He first plundered a rice plantation, and then he cracked cocoa-nuts; then he washed his face and arranged his toilet with, his right paw; and finally he ran a race with his own tail, which humorous appendage to his body was very wittily performed for the occasion by a fragment, of an old tarred rope. His gambols were so diverting that they even extracted applause from his enemy the one-eyed serjeant; and, emboldened by the acclamations, from monkeys the conjuror began to imitate men. He first drank like a Dutchman, and having reeled round with a thousand oaths, to the manifold amusement of the crowd, he suddenly began to smoke like a Prussian. Nothing could be more admirable than the look of complacent and pompous stolidity with which he accompanied each puff of his pipe. The applause was continued; and the one-eyed Bohemian serjeant, delighted at the ridicule which was heaped on his military rival, actually threw the mimic some groschen.

“Keep thy pence, friend,” said the conjuror; “thou wilt soon owe me more; we have not yet closed accounts. My friends, I have drank like a Dutchman; I have smoked like a Prussian; and now I will eat like an Austrian!” and here the immense mouth of the actor seemed distended even a hundred degrees bigger, while with gloating eyes and extended arms he again set to at the half-emptied wafila basket of the unhappy pastry-cook.

“Now, by our black Lady of Altoting, thou art an impudent varlet!” growled the Austrian soldier.

“You are losing your temper again,” retorted the glutton, with his mouth full; “how difficult you are to please! Well, then, if the Austrians may not be touched, what say you to a Bohemian! a tall one-eyed Bohemian serjeant, with an appetite like a hog and a liver like a lizard?”

“Now, by our black Lady of Altoting, this is too much!” and the soldier sprang at the conjuror.

“Hold him!” cried Vivian Grey; for the mob, frightened at the soldier, gave way.

“There is a gentle’s voice under a dark cloak!” cried the conjuror; “but I want no assistance;” and so saying, with a dexterous spring the conjuror leaped over the heads of two or three staring children, and lighted on the nape of the serjeant’s gigantic neck; placing his forefingers behind each of the soldier’s ears, he threatened to slit them immediately if he were not quiet. The serjeant’s companion, of course, came to his rescue, but Vivian engaged him, and attempted to arrange matters. “My friends, surely a gay word at a fair is not to meet with military punishment! What is the use of living in the free city of Frankfort, or, indeed, in any other city, if jokes are to be answered with oaths, and a light laugh met with a heavy blow? Avoid bloodshed, if possible, but stand by the conjuror. His business is jibes and jests, and this is the first time that I ever saw Merry Andrew arrested. Come, my good fellows!” said he to the soldiers, “we had better be off; men so important as you and I should not be spectators of these mummeries.” The Austrians, who understood Vivian’s compliment literally, were not sorry to make a dignified retreat; particularly as the mob, encouraged by Vivian’s interference, began to show fight. Vivian also took his departure as soon as he could possibly steal off unnoticed; but not before he had been thanked by the conjuror.

“I knew there was gentle blood under that cloak. If you like to see the Mystery of the Crucifixion, with the Resurrection, and real fireworks, it begins at eight o’clock, and you shall be admitted gratis. I knew there was gentle blood under that cloak, and some day or other, when your Highness is in distress, you shall not want the aid of ESSPER GEORGE!”

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