Tancred/Chapter XIX


Lord Henry Sympathises

PASSING through a marble antechamber, Tancred was ushered into an apartment half saloon and half-library; the choicely-bound volumes, which were not too numerous, were ranged on shelves inlaid in the walls, so that they ornamented, without diminishing, the apartment. These walls were painted in encaustic, corresponding with the coved ceiling, which was richly adorned in the same fashion. A curtain of violet velvet, covering if necessary the large window, which looked upon a balcony full of flowers, and the umbrageous Park; an Axminster carpet, manufactured to harmonise both in colour and design with the rest of the chamber; a profusion of luxurious seats; a large table of ivory marquetry, bearing a carved silver bell which once belonged to a pope; a Naiad, whose golden urn served as an inkstand; some daggers that acted as paper cutters, and some French books just arrived; a group of beautiful vases recently released from an Egyptian tomb and ranged on a tripod of malachite: the portrait of a statesman, and the bust of an emperor, and a sparkling fire, were all circumstances which made the room both interesting and comfortable in which Sidonia welcomed Tancred and introduced him to a guest who had preceded him, Lord Henry Sydney.

It was a name that touched Tancred, as it has all the youth of England, significant of a career that would rescue public life from that strange union of lax principles and contracted sympathies which now form the special and degrading features of British politics. It was borne by one whose boyhood we have painted amid the fields and schools of Eton, and the springtime of whose earliest youth we traced by the sedgy waters of the Cam. We left him on the threshold of public life; and, in four years, Lord Henry had created that reputation which now made him a source of hope and solace to millions of his countrymen. But they were four years of labour which outweighed the usual exertions of public men in double that space. His regular attendance in the House of Commons alone had given him as much Parliamentary experience as fell to the lot of many of those who had been first returned in 1837, and had been, therefore, twice as long in the House. He was not only a vigilant member of public and private committees, but had succeeded in appointing and conducting several on topics which he esteemed of high importance. Add to this, that he took an habitual part in debate, and was a frequent and effective public writer; and we are furnished with an additional testimony, if that indeed were wanting, that there is no incentive to exertion like the passion for a noble renown. Nor should it be forgotten, that, in all he accomplished, he had but one final purpose, and that the highest. The debate, the committee, the article in the Journal or the Review, the public meeting, the private research, these were all means to advance that which he had proposed as the object of his public life, namely, to elevate the condition of the people.

Although there was no public man whose powers had more rapidly ripened, still it was interesting to observe that their maturity had been faithful to the healthy sympathies of his earlier years. The boy, whom we have traced intent upon the revival of the pastimes of the people, had expanded into the statesman, who, in a profound and comprehensive investigation of the elements of public wealth, had shown that a jaded population is not a source of national prosperity. What had been a picturesque emotion had now become a statistical argument. The material system that proposes the supply of constant toil to a people as the perfection of polity, had received a staggering blow from the exertions of a young patrician, who announced his belief that labour had its rights as well as its duties. What was excellent about Lord Henry was, that he was not a mere philanthropist, satisfied to rouse public attention to a great social evil, or instantly to suggest for it some crude remedy.

A scholar and a man of the world, learned in history and not inexperienced in human nature, he was sensible that we must look to the constituent principles of society for the causes and the cures of great national disorders. He therefore went deeply into the question, nor shrank from investigating how far those disorders were produced by the operation or the desuetude of ancient institutions, and how far it might be necessary to call new influences into political existence for their remedy. Richly informed, still studious, fond of labour and indefatigable, of a gentle disposition though of an ardent mind, calm yet energetic, very open to conviction, but possessing an inflexibility amounting even to obstinacy when his course was once taken, a ready and improving speaker, an apt and attractive writer, affable and sincere, and with the undesigning faculty of making friends, Lord Henry seemed to possess all the qualities of a popular leader, if we add to them the golden ones: high lineage, an engaging appearance, youth, and a temperament in which the reason had not been developed to the prejudice of the heart.

'And when do you start for the Holy Land?' said Lord Henry to Tancred, in a tone and with a countenance which proved his sympathy.

'I have clutched my staff, but the caravan lingers.'

'I envy you!'

'Why do you not go?'

Lord Henry slightly shrugged his shoulders, and said, 'It is too late. I have begun my work and I cannot leave it.'

'If a Parliamentary career could save this country,' said Tancred, 'I am sure you would be a public benefactor. I have observed what you and Mr. Con-ingsby and some of your friends have done and said, with great interest. But Parliament seems to me to be the very place which a man of action should avoid. A Parliamentary career, that old superstition of the eighteenth century, was important when there were no other sources of power and fame. An aristocracy at the head of a people whom they had plundered of their means of education, required some cultivated tribunal whose sympathy might stimulate their intelligence and satisfy their vanity. Parliament was never so great as when they debated with closed doors. The public opinion, of which they never dreamed, has superseded the rhetorical club of our great-grandfathers. They know this well enough, and try to maintain their unnecessary position by affecting the character of men of business, but amateur men of business are very costly conveniences. In this age it is not Parliament that does the real work. It does not govern Ireland, for example. If the manufacturers want to change a tariff, they form a commercial league, and they effect their purpose. It is the same with the abolition of slavery, and all our great revolutions. Parliament has become as really insignificant as for two centuries it has kept the monarch. O'Connell has taken a good share of its power; Cobden has taken another; and I am inclined to believe,' said Tancred, 'though I care little about it, that, if our order had any spirit or prescience, they would put themselves at the head of the people, and take the rest.'

'Coningsby dines here to-day,' said Sidonia, who, unobserved, had watched Tancred as he spoke, with a searching glance.

'Notwithstanding what you say,' said Lord Henry, smiling, 'I wish I could induce you to remain and help us. You would be a great ally.'

'I go to a land,' said Tancred, 'that has never been blessed by that fatal drollery called a representative government, though Omniscience once deigned to trace out the polity which should rule it.'

At this moment the servant announced Lord and Lady Marney.

Political sympathy had created a close intimacy between Lord Marney and Coningsby. They were necessary to each other. They were both men entirely devoted to public affairs, and sitting in different Houses, both young, and both masters of fortunes of the first class, they were indicated as individuals who hereafter might take a lead, and, far from clashing, would co-operate with each other. Through Coningsby the Marneys had become acquainted with Sidonia, who liked them both, particularly Sybil. Although received by society with open arms, especially by the high nobility, who affected to look upon Sybil quite as one of themselves, Lady Marney, notwithstanding the homage that everywhere awaited her, had already shown a disposition to retire as much as possible within the precinct of a chosen circle.

This was her second season, and Sybil ventured to think that she had made, in the general gaieties of her first, a sufficient oblation to the genius of fashion, and the immediate requirements of her social position. Her life was faithful to its first impulse. Devoted to the improvement of the condition of the people, she was the moving spring of the charitable development of this great city. Her house, without any pedantic effort, had become the focus of a refined society, who, though obliged to show themselves for the moment in the great carnival, wear their masks, blow their trumpets, and pelt the multitude with sugarplums, were glad to find a place where they could at all times divest themselves of their mummery, and return to their accustomed garb of propriety and good taste.

Sybil, too, felt alone in the world. Without a relation, without an acquaintance of early and other days, she clung to her husband with a devotion which was peculiar as well as profound. Egremont was to her more than a husband and a lover; he was her only friend; it seemed to Sybil that he could be her only friend. The disposition of Lord Marney was not opposed to the habits of his wife. Men, when they are married, often shrink from the glare and bustle of those social multitudes which are entered by bachelors with the excitement of knights-errant in a fairy wilderness, because they are supposed to be rife with adventures, and, perhaps, fruitful of a heroine. The adventure sometimes turns out to be a catastrophe, and the heroine a copy instead of an original; but let that pass.

Lord Marney liked to be surrounded by those who sympathised with his pursuit; and his pursuit was politics, and politics on a great scale. The commonplace career of official distinction was at his command. A great peer, with abilities and ambition, a good speaker, supposed to be a Conservative, he might soon have found his way into the cabinet, and, like the rest, have assisted in registering the decrees of one too powerful individual. But Lord Marney had been taught to think at a period of life when he little dreamed of the responsibility which fortune had in store for him.

The change in his position had not altered the conclusions at which he had previously arrived. He held that the state of England, notwithstanding the superficies of a material prosperity, was one of impending doom, unless it were timely arrested by those who were in high places. A man of fine mind rather than of brilliant talents, Lord Marney found, in the more vivid and impassioned intelligence of Coningsby, the directing sympathy which he required. Tadpole looked upon his lordship as little short of insane. 'Do you see that man?' he would say as Lord Marney rode by. 'He might be Privy Seal, and he throws it all away for the nonsense of Young England!'

Mrs. Coningsby entered the room almost on the footsteps of the Marneys.

'I am in despair about Harry,' she said, as she gave a finger to Sidonia, 'but he told me not to wait for him later than eight. I suppose he is kept at the House. Do you know anything of him, Lord Henry?'

'You may make yourself quite easy about him,' said Lord Henry. 'He promised Vavasour to support a motion which he has to-day, and perhaps speak on it. I ought to be there too, but Charles Buller told me there would certainly be no division and so I ventured to pair off with him.'

'He will come with Vavasour,' said Sidonia, 'who makes up our party. They will be here before we have seated ourselves.'

The gentlemen had exchanged the usual inquiry, whether there was anything new to-day, without waiting for the answer. Sidonia introduced Tancred and Lord Marney.

'And what have you been doing to-day?' said Edith to Sybil, by whose side she had seated herself. 'Lady Bardolf did nothing last night but gronder me, because you never go to her parties. In vain I said that you looked upon her as the most odious of her sex, and her balls the pest of society. She was not in the least satisfied. And how is Gerard?'

'Why, we really have been very uneasy about him,' said Lady Marney, 'but the last bulletin,' she added, with a smile, 'announces a tooth.'

'Next year you must give him a pony, and let him ride with my Harry; I mean my little Harry, Harry of Monmouth I call him; he is so like a portrait Mr. Coningsby has of his grandfather, the same debauched look.'

'Your dinner is served, sir!'

Sidonia offered his hand to Lady Marney; Edith was attended by Tancred. A door at the end of the room opened into a marble corridor, which led to the dining-room, decorated in the same style as the library. It was a suite of apartments which Sidonia used for an intimate circle like the present.