A Strange Proposal
THE week of celebration was over: some few guests remained, near relatives, and not very rich, the Montacute Mountjoys, for example. They came from a considerable distance, and the duke insisted that they should remain until the duchess went to London, an event, by-the-bye, which was to occur very speedily. Lady Eleanor was rather agreeable, and the duchess a little liked her; there were four daughters, to be sure, and not very lively, but they sang in the evening.
It was a bright morning, and the duchess, with a heart prophetic of happiness, wished to disburthen it to her son; she meant to propose to him, therefore, to be her companion in her walk, and she had sent to his rooms in vain, and was inquiring after him, when she was informed that 'Lord Montacute was with his Grace.'
A smile of satisfaction flitted over her face, as she recalled the pleasant cause of the conference that was now taking place between the father and the son.
Let us see how it advanced.
The duke is in his private library, consisting chiefly of the statutes at large, Hansard, the Annual Register, Parliamentary Reports, and legal treatises on the powers and duties of justices of the peace. A portrait of his mother is over the mantel-piece: opposite it a huge map of the county. His correspondence on public business with the secretary of state, and the various authorities of the shire, is admirably arranged: for the duke was what is called an excellent man of business, that is to say, methodical, and an adept in all the small arts of routine. These papers were deposited, after having been ticketed with a date and a summary of their contents, and tied with much tape, in a large cabinet, which occupied nearly one side of the room, and on the top of which were busts in marble of Mr. Pitt, George III., and the Duke of Wellington.
The duke was leaning back in his chair, which it seemed, from his air and position, he had pushed back somewhat suddenly from his writing table, and an expression of painful surprise, it cannot be denied, dwelt on his countenance. Lord Montacute was on his legs, leaning with his left arm on the chimney-piece, very serious, and, if possible, paler than usual.
'You take me quite by surprise,' said the duke; 'I thought it was an arrangement that would have deeply gratified you.'
Lord Montacute slightly bowed his head, but said nothing. His father continued.
'Not wish to enter Parliament at present! Why, that is all very well, and if, as was once the case, we could enter Parliament when we liked, and how we liked, the wish might be very reasonable. If I could ring my bell, and return you member for Montacute with as much ease as I could send over to Bellamont to engage a special train to take us to town, you might be justified in indulging a fancy. But how and when, I should like to know, are you to enter Parliament now? This Parliament will last: it will go on to the lees. Lord Eskdale told me so not a week ago. Well then, at any rate, you lose three years: for three years you are an idler. I never thought that was your character. I have always had an impression you would turn your mind to public business, that the county might look up to you. If you have what are called higher views, you should not forget there is a great opening now in public life, which may not offer again. The Duke is resolved to give the preference, in carrying on the business of the country, to the aristocracy. He believes this is our only means of preservation. He told me so himself. If it be so, I fear we are doomed. I hope we may be of some use to our country without being ministers of state. But let that pass. As long as the Duke lives, he is omnipotent, and will have his way. If you come into Parliament now, and show any disposition for office, you may rely upon it you will not long be unemployed. I have no doubt I could arrange that you should move the address of next session. I dare say Lord Eskdale could manage this, and, if he could not, though I abhor asking a minister for anything, I should, under the circumstances, feel perfectly justified in speaking to the Duke on the subject myself, and,' added his Grace, in a lowered tone, but with an expression of great earnestness and determination, 'I flatter myself that if the Duke of Bellamont chooses to express a wish, it would not be disregarded.'
Lord Montacute cast his dark, intelligent eyes upon the floor, and seemed plunged in thought.
'Besides,' added the duke, after a moment's pause, and inferring, from the silence of his son, that he was making an impression, 'suppose Hungerford is not in the same humour this time three years which he is in now. Probably he may be; possibly he may not. Men do not like to be baulked when they think they are doing a very kind and generous and magnanimous thing. Hungerford is not a warming-pan; we must remember that; he never was originally, and if he had been, he has been member for the county too long to be so considered now. I should be placed in a most painful position, if, this time three years, I had to withdraw my support from Hungerford, in order to secure your return.'
'There would be no necessity, under any circumstances, for that, my dear father,' said Lord Montacute, looking up, and speaking in a voice which, though somewhat low, was of that organ that at once arrests attention; a voice that comes alike from the brain and from the heart, and seems made to convey both profound thought and deep emotion. There is no index of character so sure as the voice. There are tones, tones brilliant and gushing, which impart a quick and pathetic sensibility: there are others that, deep and yet calm, seem the just interpreters of a serene and exalted intellect. But the rarest and the most precious of all voices is that which combines passion and repose; and whose rich and restrained tones exercise, perhaps, on the human frame a stronger spell than even the fascination of the eye, or that bewitching influence of the hand, which is the privilege of the higher races of Asia.
'There would be no necessity, under any circumstances, for that, my dear father,' said Lord Montacute, 'for, to be frank, I believe I should feel as little disposed to enter Parliament three years hence as now.'
The duke looked still more surprised. 'Mr. Fox was not of age when he took his seat,' said his Grace. 'You know how old Mr. Pitt was when he was a minister. Sir Robert, too, was in harness very early. I have always heard the good judges say, Lord Esk-dale, for example, that a man might speak in Parliament too soon, but it was impossible to go in too soon.'
'If he wished to succeed in that assembly,' replied Lord Montacute, 'I can easily believe it. In all things an early initiation must be of advantage. But I have not that wish.'
'I don't like to see a man take his seat in the House of Lords who has not been in the House of Commons. He seems to me always, in a manner, unfledged.'
'It will be a long time, I hope, my dear father, before I take my seat in the House of Lords,' said Lord Montacute, 'if, indeed, I ever do.'
'In the course of nature 'tis a certainty.'
'Suppose the Duke's plan for perpetuating an aristocracy do not succeed,' said Lord Montacute, 'and our house ceases to exist?'
His father shrugged his shoulders. 'It is not our business to suppose that. I hope it never will be the business of any one, at least seriously. This is a great country, and it has become great by its aristocracy.'
'You think, then, our sovereigns did nothing for our greatness,—Queen Elizabeth, for example, of whose visit to Montacute you are so proud?'
'They performed their part.'
'And have ceased to exist. We may have performed our part, and may meet the same fate.'
'Why, you are talking liberalism!'
'Hardly that, my dear father, for I have not expressed an opinion.'
'I wish I knew what your opinions were, my dear boy, or even your wishes.'
'Well, then, to do my duty.'
'Exactly; you are a pillar of the State; support the State.'
'Ah! if any one would but tell me what the State is,' said Lord Montacute, sighing. 'It seems to me your pillars remain, but they support nothing; in that case, though the shafts may be perpendicular, and the capitals very ornate, they are no longer props, they are a ruin.'
'You would hand us over, then, to the ten-pounders?'
'They do not even pretend to be a State,' said Lord Montacute; 'they do not even profess to support anything; on the contrary, the essence of their philosophy is, that nothing is to be established, and everything is to be left to itself.'
'The common sense of this country and the fifty pound clause will carry us through,' said the duke.
'Through what?' inquired his son.
'This—this state of transition,' replied his father.
'A passage to what?'
'Ah! that is a question the wisest cannot answer.'
'But into which the weakest, among whom I class myself, have surely a right to inquire.'
'Unquestionably; and I know nothing that will tend more to assist you in your researches than acting with practical men.'
'And practising all their blunders,' said Lord Montacute. 'I can conceive an individual who has once been entrapped into their haphazard courses, continuing in the fatal confusion to which he has contributed his quota; but I am at least free, and I wish to continue so.'
'And do nothing?'
'But does it follow that a man is infirm of action because he declines fighting in the dark?'
'And how would you act, then? What are your plans? Have you any?'
'Well, that is satisfactory,' said the duke, with animation. 'Whatever they are, you know you may count upon my doing everything that is possible to forward your wishes. I know they cannot be unworthy ones, for I believe, my child, you are incapable of a thought that is not good or great.'
'I wish I knew what was good and great,' said Lord Montacute; 'I would struggle to accomplish it.'
'But you have formed some views; you have some plans. Speak to me of them, and without reserve; as to a friend, the most affectionate, the most devoted.'
'My father,' said Lord Montacute, and moving, he drew a chair to the table, and seated himself by the duke, 'you possess and have a right to my confidence. I ought not to have said that I doubted about what was good; for I know you.'
'Sons like you make good fathers.'
'It is not always so,' said Lord Montacute; 'you have been to me more than a father, and I bear to you and to my mother a profound and fervent affection; an affection,' he added, in a faltering tone, 'that is rarer, I believe, in this age than it was in old days. I feel it at this moment more deeply,' he continued, in a firmer tone, 'because I am about to propose that we should for a time separate.'
The duke turned pale, and leant forward in his chair, but did not speak.
'You have proposed to me to-day,' continued Lord Montacute, after a momentary pause, 'to enter public life. I do not shrink from its duties. On the contrary, from the position in which I am born, still more from the impulse of my nature, I am desirous to fulfil them. I have meditated on them, I may say, even for years. But I cannot find that it is part of my duty to maintain the order of things, for I will not call it system, which at present prevails in our country. It seems to me that it cannot last, as nothing can endure, or ought to endure, that is not founded upon principle; and its principle I have not discovered. In nothing, whether it be religion, or government, or manners, sacred or political or social life, do I find faith; and if there be no faith, how can there be duty? Is there such a thing as religious truth? Is there such a thing as political right? Is there such a thing as social propriety? Are these facts, or are they mere phrases? And if they be facts, where are they likely to be found in England? Is truth in our Church? Why, then, do you support dissent? Who has the right to govern? The monarch? You have robbed him of his prerogative. The aristocracy? You confess to me that we exist by sufferance. The people? They themselves tell you that they are nullities. Every session of that Parliament in which you wish to introduce me, the method by which power is distributed is called in question, altered, patched up, and again impugned. As for our morals, tell me, is charity the supreme virtue, or the greatest of errors? Our social system ought to depend on a clear conception of this point. Our morals differ in different counties, in different towns, in different streets, even in different Acts of Parliament. What is moral in London is immoral in Montacute; what is crime among the multitude is only vice among the few.'
'You are going into first principles,' said the duke, much surprised.
'Give me then second principles,' replied his son; 'give me any.'
'We must take a general view of things to form an opinion,' said his father, mildly. 'The general condition of England is superior to that of any other country; it cannot be denied that, on the whole, there is more political freedom, more social happiness, more sound religion, and more material prosperity among us, than in any nation in the world.'
'I might question all that,' said his son; 'but they are considerations that do not affect my views. If other States are worse than we are, and I hope they are not, our condition is not mended, but the contrary, for we then need the salutary stimulus of example.'
'There is no sort of doubt,' said the duke, 'that the state of England at this moment is the most flourishing that has ever existed, certainly in modern times. What with these railroads, even the condition of the poor, which I admit was lately far from satisfactory, is infinitely improved. Every man has work who needs it, and wages are even high.'
'The railroads may have improved, in a certain sense, the condition of the working classes almost as much as that of members of Parliament. They have been a good thing for both of them. And if you think that more labour is all that is wanted by the people of England, we may be easy for a time. I see nothing in this fresh development of material industry, but fresh causes of moral deterioration. You have announced to the millions that there welfare is to be tested by the amount of their wages. Money is to be the cupel of their worth, as it is of all other classes. You propose for their conduct the least ennobling of all impulses. If you have seen an aristocracy invariably become degraded under such influence; if all the vices of a middle class may be traced to such an absorbing motive; why are we to believe that the people should be more pure, or that they should escape the catastrophe of the policy that confounds the happiness with the wealth of nations?'
The duke shook his head and then said, 'You should not forget we live in an artificial state.'
'So I often hear, sir,' replied his son; 'but where is the art? It seems to me the very quality wanting to our present condition. Art is order, method, harmonious results obtained by fine and powerful principles. I see no art in our condition. The people of this country have ceased to be a nation. They are a crowd, and only kept in some rude provisional discipline by the remains of that old system which they are daily destroying.'
'But what would you do, my dear boy?' said his Grace, looking up very distressed. 'Can you remedy the state of things in which we find ourselves?'
'I am not a teacher,' said Lord Montacute, mournfully; 'I only ask you, I supplicate you, my dear father, to save me from contributing to this quick corruption that surrounds us.'
'You shall be master of your own actions. I offer you counsel, I give no commands; and, as for the rest, Providence will guard us.'
'If an angel would but visit our house as he visited the house of Lot!' said Montacute, in a tone almost of anguish.
'Angels have performed their part,' said the duke. 'We have received instructions from one higher than angels. It is enough for all of us.'
'It is not enough for me,' said Lord Montacute, with a glowing cheek, and rising abruptly. 'It was not enough for the Apostles; for though they listened to the sermon on the mount, and partook of the first communion, it was still necessary that He should appear to them again, and promise them a Comforter. I require one,' he added, after a momentary pause, but in an agitated voice. 'I must seek one. Yes! my dear father, it is of this that I would speak to you; it is this which for a long time has oppressed my spirit, and filled me often with intolerable gloom. We must separate. I must leave you, I must leave that dear mother, those beloved parents, in whom are concentred all my earthly affections; but I obey an impulse that I believe comes from above. Dearest and best of men, you will not thwart me; you will forgive, you will aid me!' And he advanced and threw himself into the arms of his father.
The duke pressed Lord Montacute to his heart, and endeavoured, though himself agitated and much distressed, to penetrate the mystery of this ebullition. 'He says we must separate,' thought the duke to himself. 'Ah! he has lived too much at home, too much alone; he has read and pondered too much; he has moped. Eskdale was right two years ago. I wish I had sent him to Paris, but his mother was so alarmed; and, indeed, 'tis a precious life! The House of Commons would have been just the thing for him. He would have worked on committees and grown practical. But something must be done for him, dear child! He says we must separate; he wants to travel. And perhaps he ought to travel. But a life on which so much depends! And what will Katherine say? It will kill her. I could screw myself up to it. I would send him well attended. Brace should go with him; he understands the Continent; he was in the Peninsular war; and he should have a skilful physician. I see how it is; I must act with decision, and break it to his mother.'
These ideas passed through the duke's mind during the few seconds that he embraced his son, and endeavoured at the same time to convey consolation by the expression of his affection, and his anxiety at all times to contribute to his child's happiness.
'My dear son,' said the duke, when Lord Montacute had resumed his seat, 'I see how it is; you wish to travel?'
Lord Montacute bent his head, as if in assent.
'It will be a terrible blow to your mother; I say nothing of myself. You know what I feel for you. But neither your mother nor myself have a right to place our feelings in competition with any arrangement for your welfare. It would be in the highest degree selfish and unreasonable; and perhaps it will be well for you to travel awhile; and, as for Parliament, I am to see Hungerford this morning at Bellamont. I will try and arrange with him to postpone his resignation until the autumn, or, if possible, for some little time longer. You will then have accomplished your purpose. It will do you a great deal of good. You will have seen the world, and you can take your seat next year.'
The duke paused. Lord Montacute looked perplexed and distressed; he seemed about to reply, and then, leaning on the table, with his face concealed from his father, he maintained his silence. The duke rose, looked at his watch, said he must be at Bellamont by two o'clock, hoped that Brace would dine at the castle to-day, thought it not at all impossible Brace might, would send on to Montacute for him, perhaps might meet him at Bellamont. Brace understood the Continent, spoke several languages, Spanish among them, though it was not probable his son would have any need of that, the present state of Spain not being very inviting to the traveller.
'As for France,' said the duke, 'France is Paris, and I suppose that will be your first step; it generally is. We must see if your cousin, Henry Howard, is there. If so, he will put you in the way of everything. With the embassy and Brace, you would manage very well at Paris. Then, I suppose, you would like to go to Italy; that, I apprehend, is your great point. Your mother will not like your going to Rome. Still, at the same time, a man, they say, should see Rome before he dies. I never did. I have never crossed the sea except to go to Ireland. Your grandfather would never let me travel; I wanted to, but he never would. Not, however, for the same reasons which have kept you at home. Suppose you even winter at Rome, which I believe is the right thing, why, you might very well be back by the spring. However, we must manage your mother a little about remaining over the winter, and, on second thoughts, we will get Bernard to go with you, as well as Brace and a physician, and then she will be much more easy. I think, with Brace, Bernard, and a medical man whom we can really trust, Harry Howard at Paris, and the best letters for every other place, which we will consult Lord Eskdale about, I think the danger will not be extreme.'
'I have no wish to see Paris,' said Lord Montacute, evidently embarrassed, and making a great effort to relieve his mind of some burthen. 'I have no wish to see Paris.'
'I am very glad to hear that,' said his father, eagerly.
'Nor do I wish either to go to Rome,' continued his son.
'Well, well, you have taken a load off my mind, my dear boy. I would not confess it, because I wish to save you pain; but really, I believe the idea of your going to Rome would have been a serious shock to your mother. It is not so much the distance, though that is great, nor the climate, which has its dangers, but, you understand, with her peculiar views, her very strict——' The duke did not care to finish his sentence.
'Nor, my dear father,' continued Lord Montacute, 'though I did not like to interrupt you when you were speaking with so much solicitude and consideration for me, is it exactly travel, in the common acceptation of the term, that I feel the need of. I wish, indeed, to leave England; I wish to make an expedition; a progress to a particular point; without wandering, without any intervening residence. In a word, it is the Holy Land that occupies my thought, and I propose to make a pilgrimage to the sepulchre of my Saviour.'
The duke started, and sank again into his chair. 'The Holy Land! The Holy Sepulchre!' he exclaimed, and repeated to himself, staring at his son.
'Yes, sir, the Holy Sepulchre,' repeated Lord Mon-tacute, and now speaking with his accustomed repose. 'When I remember that the Creator, since light sprang out of darkness, has deigned to reveal Himself to His creature only in one land, that in that land He assumed a manly form, and met a human death, I feel persuaded that the country sanctified by such intercourse and such events must be endowed with marvellous and peculiar qualities, which man may not in all ages be competent to penetrate, but which, nevertheless, at all times exercise an irresistible influence upon his destiny. It is these qualities that many times drew Europe to Asia during the middle centuries. Our castle has before this sent forth a De Montacute to Palestine. For three days and three nights he knelt at the tomb of his Redeemer. Six centuries and more have elapsed since that great enterprise. It is time to restore and renovate our communications with the Most High. I, too, would kneel at that tomb; I, too, surrounded by the holy hills and sacred groves of Jerusalem, would relieve my spirit from the bale that bows it down; would lift up my voice to heaven, and ask, What is duty, and what is faith? What ought I to do, and what ought I to believe?'
The duchess opened the library door, where she had been informed she should find Lord Montacute
The Duke of Bellamont rose from his seat, and walked up and down the room for some minutes, in silence and in deep thought. At length, stopping and leaning against the cabinet, he said, 'What has occurred to-day between us, my beloved child, is, you may easily believe, as strange to me as it is agitating. I will think of all you have said; I will try to comprehend all you mean and wish. I will endeavour to do that which is best and wisest; placing above all things your happiness, and not our own. At this moment I am not competent to the task: I need quiet, and to be alone. Your mother, I know, wishes to walk with you this morning. She may be speaking to you of many things. Be silent upon this subject, until I have communicated with her. At present I will ride over to Bellamont. I must go; and, besides, it will do me good. I never can think very well except in the saddle. If Brace comes, make him dine here. God bless you.'
The duke left the room; his son remained in meditation. The first step was taken. He had poured into the interview of an hour the results of three years of solitary thought. A sound roused him; it was his mother. She had only learnt casually that the duke was gone; she was surprised he had not come into her room before he went; it seemed the first time since their marriage that the duke had gone out without first coming to speak to her. So she went to seek her son, to congratulate him on being a member of Parliament, on representing the county of which they were so fond, and of breaking to him a proposition which she doubted not he would find not less interesting and charming. Happy mother, with her only son, on whom she doted and of whom she was so justly proud, about to enter public life in which he was sure to distinguish himself, and to marry a woman who was sure to make him happy! With a bounding heart the duchess opened the library door, where she had been informed she should find Lord Montacute. She had her bonnet on, ready for the walk of confidence, and, her face flushed with delight, she looked even beautiful. 'Ah!' she exclaimed, 'I have been looking for you, Tancred!'